07 September 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 18 comments

I had a discussion with an author the other day that I thought the writers who follow my blog might find interesting. We were talking about his latest WIP, and what I believed could be improved.

About a third of the way through the discussion, I gave him one of my secrets for writing a compelling novel. The secret is asking a simple question: What’s the point?

If you do that before outlining, or writing each chapter, you’ll wind up with a much more interesting book. Alternatively, for you pansters, when you go back on your first editing run, you should view each chapter with skepticism, asking, “what’s the point?”

If there’s no compelling reason for a chapter to be there, if it’s just blah blah, it should be cut. Period. Doesn’t matter that you wrote it, that it’s filled with your precious prose. There has to be a point to every chapter (we can actually take that to each paragraph, as well as to the overall book theme, but you get the idea).

Now, lest you misread me, I’m not saying that every chapter has to advance a major plot element forward. It’s that you need to understand why you’re writing it. Is it to tell the reader more about a character? To put the character in jeopardy? To foreshadow something that will be relevant later? To have something happen that’s essential to the story? Do you need an action beat?

If you find yourself looking at a chapter and the answer is, to increase the word count, or because I need something between this last bit and the next, don’t write it. Figure out the reason that this next chapter cries out to be in your book, and ensure you achieved your objective by the last word of it.

If you take this approach seriously, you might find your books getting shorter. That’s okay. It’s better to have a shorter, punchier book than a fat, bloated screed filled with meaningless meandering. Think as a reader. You really want to read ten pages describing the woods next to the house the protag’s just arrived at? No. There’s no point to it. So axe it.

Don’t get me wrong. You can have an objective like, “I want a rhythmic beat here so the reader can catch his breath.” But it would be better to combine that with, “and I want to show the reader something important about the character while I do it.”

So that’s my quick craft tip for the day. Ask yourself what’s the point. That will ensure that your chapters are mission driven by a clear objective.

Believe me, your reader and your editor will be glad you did.

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Comments

  1. Sun 07th Sep 2014 at 1:55 pm

    This is a great writing tip. I’m going to start doing that before each chapter now instead of just asking that question about the whole book.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 07th Sep 2014 at 3:37 pm

      I normally hesitate to offer craft suggestions because it’s such loaded territory and so much of it is subjective, but I think everyone can agree that staying on track and making your words count isn’t bad counsel. You might find that your work is tighter once you incorporate this. I do it with every paragraph – “Why is this here?” Sometimes it will come down to knowing you’re overwriting, but want to establish a cadence, a musicality to the prose, which is also valid but should be used sparingly.

      Perhaps another way of asking the same question is, “Could I cut this or shorten it, and would it in any way matter to the story or the flow?” If the answer is yes, hack away. It’s harder to write this way at first, but it results in much tighter pacing and, I believe, an improved reading experience.

      Reply
      • Kim Cano  –  Mon 08th Sep 2014 at 10:36 am

        Don’t hesitate to offer craft suggestions. This has been one of the most helpful posts.

        Reply
  2. Jacques Antoine
    Sun 07th Sep 2014 at 2:41 pm

    This is essential, and doing it naturally is the sign of a mature talent.

    Reply
  3. Sun 07th Sep 2014 at 4:34 pm

    When I’m revising and I get bored, I delete it. Then I go back and see if I have any holes. I’m sure it’s better to do this in advance and ax it before it’s written.

    Thanks for the reminder, Russell. You’re awesome for sharing your secrets with other writers.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 07th Sep 2014 at 4:37 pm

      My hunch is that if you outline, and you do so using this rough rule, you wind up with way fewer descriptions of blah blah blah that seem to bloat one’s work. And it forces you to cut to the essence of what you’re trying to do: tell the story in the best way possible. I’d argue that non-essential or meandering tangents weaken a story unless they’re deliberate for the sake of cadence or effect. I guess the simple way to say this would be that you should do everything with a reason for it.

      Reply
  4. Mon 08th Sep 2014 at 12:05 am

    Another way to put it is, What’s the payoff? A chapter might have nothing to do with the plot, but show you something very interesting about a character. The payoff is, we know the character better and empathize with them more/hate them more/have an interesting new perspective on them/whatever.

    No payoff, then cut it or make it carry its weight.

    Reply
  5. Richard Fox
    Mon 08th Sep 2014 at 2:16 pm

    This is in the “kill your darlings” vein, and I’m glad Russell brough it up.

    There’s one sci-fi author who I won’t read anymore (name rhymes with Don Fingo) that will spill hundreds of pages of ink on crap not relevant to the story. After being more than once on his books, I now cast a jaundiced eye to anything he writes. A story about alien invasions? 40% of the book about a character’s menstraul cycle? Pass.

    Reply
    • Richard Fox  –  Mon 08th Sep 2014 at 2:19 pm

      *brought *menstrual -I hate this old browser.

      Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 08th Sep 2014 at 4:17 pm

      I find it way easier to avoid having to kill my darlings by asking what the point is before I write, rather than writing, which wastes time, only to have to go back and kill em.

      Reply
  6. Mon 08th Sep 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Hi RB.
    Very good advice. Like you, I write to a schedule, so at times I find myself trashing multiple chapters, or even an entire book because I didn’t spend enough time analyzing the “point” before writing. There is a balance somewhere…still trying to find it…
    W4$
    P.S. Almost done with the Clive book. Easy to recognize your lines. Nice tale.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 08th Sep 2014 at 4:18 pm

      Glad you’re enjoying it. A fun one, for sure…

      Reply
  7. Mon 08th Sep 2014 at 5:21 pm

    Great advice. Thanks for the reminder. That third-to-last paragraph rang a bell with me. Somewhere around book five or six, I discovered that a really good way to write tight and stay on track was to try to make every scene (or at least most of them) do more than one thing. I sometimes have a tendency to wander, and that reminder has helped me more than once.

    Please do more craft posts!

    Reply
  8. Tue 09th Sep 2014 at 9:59 am

    Great post, Russell. I found myself using your technique yesterday as I was emptying the garbage on book 5 of my Thaddeus Murfee series. With me, the irrelevant stuff usually comes earlier in the book, when I’m still feeling my way through the story, still trying to discover where it’s going. I’m a pantser, yes, but I also do this for fun and finding outlining a high-killer.

    Thanks again.

    Reply
  9. Tue 09th Sep 2014 at 11:28 am

    Great point. Hollywood’s been doing that for years. EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON…. even if the reason if just a layer of detail. Nice post.

    Reply
  10. Tue 09th Sep 2014 at 12:36 pm

    That’s what separates the great books from lesser books, the linear plot, relentlessly driving forward. There are rests after action, times for reflection or gathering information, that many new authors think is the point when you should meander through a pastoral scene. Successful books still have a point to those rests.

    I’m looking forward to more “Craft Tips”!

    Peace, Seeley

    Reply
  11. Sat 20th Sep 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Michael Connelly’s work is a great example of what Russell is talking about in this post, especially the Harry Bosch series. Connelly is absolutely relentless in this regard … you could bounce quarters off of his prose it’s so tight.

    Reply

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