Lessons From a Book Hound’s (and Writer’s) Dream Outing

(1st 10 minutes of opening)

Every April local libraries host a Library Book Faire. Stretched out on dozens of twenty foot tables, eighty-to-a-hundred-thousand paperbacks and hardbacks fill the main event center. No type or genre is forgotten, most selling for $2; children’s books are $1 and some of the nicer more popular hard backs are $3 or $4–they even have “old” and autographed sections where prices stretch considerably higher.

Books arrive here both by donation and shelf overabundance (many still have the Dewey Decimal numbers along the binding), available for the ten thousand people who visit the event over the weekend.

In the Science Fiction section, a tall slender man with gray hair pulled into a full pony tail talked loudly to three people who had been caught by his “expert” tenor:

“I come here to see what’s being published. That way I know what to write. I’m a writer.”

One woman edged away, nodding with a look of panic that his eyes might meet hers.

“Of course a lot of these are crap,” he continued. “As a writer, it’s my job to find what is really popular, you know, so I can do better.”

I noticed his book bag had only one volume in it—Twilight. I chuckled and stayed far enough away so that he didn’t think I was part of his audience. By this time he had locked pale blue eyes on the woman who had been edging away, and who now stood nodding as he continued to pontificate with a soap-box preacher’s flare.

“Yep, it’s important to read the best stuff, you know. What have you got there?”

With his attention focused on the poor woman with doe-in-the-headlight eyes, his “crowd” moved away, leaving her mouthing that she’d just arrived and had only found one for her granddaughter, and that . . . .

I left the aisle, feeling sorry for the woman less than for the tall, pony-tailed writer . . . if he wrote at all, that is.

You see, he had everything wrong.

The most popular books are not necessarily the best; many “crowd” favorites are barely readable.

When a writer develops an idea seedling into a full-branched finished piece (thereby sending it to an agent or publisher), at least eighteen months will pass before the literary masterpiece finds a home on a bookshelf, first in a store, then in homes.

That is the way of traditional book publishing. Although internet publishing can take a shorter time, editing and preparation can still take several months, hence, looking at what is popular now has  little relationship with what will be the newest and greatest “wave” when you are ready to publish your own writing.

Don’t Catch the Wave, Start One

Vampires, werewolves, zombies . . . all overdone and losing their popularity. To be fair, and regardless of what you think of her abilities, when Stephanie Meyer wrote Twilight, she did two things right:

She put a new twist on the vampire and werewolf story, and
She knew her audience

That’s why the book and series worked, and it is true of others who have started the next literary wave.

Develop an idea that has not been beaten to the grave, add a twist to a concept, and write. That is not to say a vampire, werewolf, or zombie story won’t sell, only that your tale will need to be exceedingly distinct from the already oversized crowd.

Perhaps a wolf that turns into a man every full moon would be unique enough to garner attention, but do you want to spend a year writing on a topic that agents and editors have tired of, so much so that they reject most during the query or synopsis without even attempting Chapter One?

I ran into this problem when the idea for The Returning, my fantasy novel, arrived in my frontal lobe.

Stories of immortals are fairly common, so I knew I had to offer a unique approach: I began with an immortal who wants to be dead (suicide is not an option, nor is simply being killed), and the plot grew from there. More unique aspects materialized during first draft, more during subsequent rewrites, leaving me with what I view as a one-of-a-kind story only I can write.

Consider a few stories that took common genre aspects and turned them inside out: Harry Potter (a wizard school), Hunger Games (post apocalyptic society where children are sacrificed to hold together a fragile peace), Game of Thrones (medieval fantasy that crystallized the Grim-Dark sub-genre), the movies, Cowboys and Aliens (Sci-Fi meets western) and Avatar (perfect blend of Sci-Fi and Fantasy)—there are many others that succeeded based on the radical change they made to existing story types.

You need to do the same.

See you on the next page,


P.S At the Book Faire, I bought nine books: oddly enough, three were books on the writing craft, three research novels, and likewise three novels. Not bad for $18, and all but one are like new.

Writing Quote:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King

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More to Say About Dialogue

My most recent post, Much to be Said About Dialogue, touched on a few common problems (and how to fix them) when contemplating dialogue in your stories. One was the use of said as the go-to attribution to identify the speaker.

But said can be overused.

“I don’t want to go to the movies,” Justin said.
“You never want to see a movie,” Josie said. “How about dinner at that little seafood place on the pier?”
“Nah, the service is terrible,” he said.
“But the food’s good,” she said.

As a reader, boredom quickly sets in and casts a pall over the conversation and the story as a whole. Can you think of a worse response?

Once the characters are established within a conversation, the attributions and beats are only necessary if the back-and-forth is prolonged, in order to keep the reader “in place.”

In the example, tension exists but is minimal—conflict does not (and cannot) be earth-shattering all the time, but should be apparent at least as an undercurrent.

Rewriting the example conversation might look like this:

“I don’t want to go to the movies,” Justin said.
Josie sighed. “You never want to see a movie. How about dinner at that little seafood place on the pier?”
“Nah, the service is terrible.”
“So what do you want to do? The pub and a plate a fries, I suppose.”
His face lit up. “That’s a great idea.”
So much for a nice quiet night, just the two of us.

One of the main purposes of using dialogue attributions is showing who is speaking—the reader must never be confused. Adding character movements, beats, or thoughts helps make clear who is speaking; the reader will know the speaker and their emotional status, which should include tension. Differences in vocabulary, emphasis, and cadence will also help differentiate the characters.

Adding an -ly adverb to describe how the character is talking (Frank said nervously) weakens the character’s words. Here’s another type of attribution that will throw off a reader and scream amateur:

“You better not be going over to that boy’s house,” he snarled.
“Billy’s a nice boy,” she replied, “and he treats me good.”
“What do you know about it? You’re only fifteen.”
“I know enough,” she exclaimed.
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady,” he said through gritted teeth.

Had enough? For one thing, people don’t snarl, dogs do; replied is redundant; if the girl in this encounter (supposedly the daughter) exclaims, let her do so, but don’t tell the reader.

Through gritted teeth. As a writer, you may be able to get away with that particular phrase once in a novel . . . maybe. Putting the action before the spoken words would be more effective:

He gritted his teeth. “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Add her reaction and you have a scene rife with tension. Or, even better, leave off the last beat and let the words speak for themselves—they show the rising emotions and tension during the exchange.

“You better not be going over to that boy’s house,” he said.
“Billy’s a nice boy, and he treats me good.”
“What do you know about it? You’re only fifteen.”
“I know enough!”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Smoother, wouldn’t you agree? Smooth transition from one character to another is the key to believable dialogue. And please, never this:

“How you doing?” Ralph asked. (asked is unnecessary because of the obvious question.)
“Great, you?”
“Fine, thanks. What did you do last night?”
“Stayed home and played video games. What’d you do?”

As a reader, do you care?

Believable and trustworthy dialogue in fiction is vital. Having your characters speak to one another accomplishes several things in relatively few words: adds depth and substance to the characters, an important aspect in the reader’s illusion that the “people” populating your stories are real and multi-dimensional; dialogue, and the white space breaking up long narrative blocks of print, allows the reader to catch a breath; people talking speeds up the prose, the action, and the plot.

The last point is invaluable. If while reading your story over and you find it’s dragging, adding dialogue moves the story into second gear.

Word of caution: don’t use dialogue to inform the reader information you deem necessary that the characters would already be aware of.

“As you know, Dobson, a person’s molecular structure changes when in space. Your experiments prove that space travel can also alter DNA, if only marginally.”

“That’s true, David, but it has only been tested while in orbit. What you are talking about is inter-planetary travel. There’s a difference.”


I enjoy writing dialogue: it’s challenging, and when done right, brings to life the characters, their conflicts, and adds a robust flare to the other story parts.

Practice writing dialogue. Here’s a little exercise to open a well-spring of ideas:

“I know you love me, honey. I’m just not sure if you like me.”

See how many different paths a conversation begun this way might travel. A husband and wife? Lovers? Remove “honey” and have the conversation take place between a father and son, mother and daughter, or siblings—tension is inherent in these few words regardless of the cast of characters.

See you on the next page,


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Writing Quote:

Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” ~Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction, 1991

Writing Links: Free stories and places to send your fiction:

Short Stories
Daily Science Fiction


Much To Be Said About Dialogue

In a previous post, The Making of a Hero, Part 2, I wrote that a character comes alive to the reader through four processes: their actions, descriptions (least preferable most times), their thoughts, and what they say (and to a degree how they speak).

He Said it Best

Dialogue gives readers insight to your character’s purposes, desires, and motivations, and thereby speaks volumes about who they are—Let them speak.

And use said most often. Said is an innocuous word passed over like the or a, connectors allowing the reader to focus on what’s really important in the sentence. In the case of dialogue, said gives the clarity of who is speaking each time. That’s its purpose.

The trouble looms—and foolishness follows—when the writer decides to add adverbs to explain what Frank said, or how.

“I didn’t know he’d come,” Frank said foolishly.

Who says Frank is being foolish? Is Frank the viewpoint character, or is it someone else, and why would either think his words are foolish?

The problem, you may realize, is that the writer of that sentence is telling the reader how to feel about Frank. When you use -ly adverbs to tell the how something is being said, you are in essence telling the reader that the character’s words do not accurately or wholly describe what you want them to feel.

Writing such a sentence is laziness. Although it may be fine as a “reminder” in the first draft of what you really want to say, that’s all it’s good for—Rewrite the sentence.

One way is to add an action beat or a thought.

“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, feeling foolish.

Better yet, use sensory description to indicate Frank’s state of mind.

“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, and felt his face flush.

Frank could lower his eyes, glance away, or any number of reactions that shows how he feels. Consider, though, that what you show may not be absolutely clear to the reader unless they have a good idea of Frank’s personality beforehand. Lowering his eyes, glancing away, even his face flushing could indicate Frank is shy rather than embarrassed or feeling foolish.

Said followed by an adverb, though grammatically correct, removes the power of the words spoken.

He said feverishly; she said poetically; they intoned simultaneously all say little. How do you say something feverishly? Are the words fast and furious, or is the character sweating? If your character is going to say something poetically, wouldn’t it be just that, a poem? Intoned simultaneously—you probably lost the reader here.

No Tension, No Reason

Dialogue has one of two functions that are always entwined: characterization and forward plot movement. Adding tension is critical to up the ante for your characters.

Gloria Kempton, in her book, Dialogue, from Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series, states the value of tension within dialogue this way:

“Dialogue’s purpose, and there is no exception to this, is to create tension in the present and build suspense for what’s to come.”

Can’t get any clearer about dialogue’s importance than that.

“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, looking away.
What a fool. “Of course you knew he’d follow you.”

In this example, the viewpoint character is not Frank, and the VP’s reaction (their words and internal thoughts) speak to Frank’s character as well as their own while adding tension between the two. It’s always nice to have multiple layers within dialogue.

Character movements can often add to the words and a scene’s tone.

Dana adjusted the flowers in the vase, and glanced over her shoulder at Francis. “Ben must have gone to the cabin in the middle of a work week for a reason.”

Depending on your story (has Ben gone missing, was he found murdered at the cabin, or caught in an affair?), Dana’s words hint at a tension, asking the question why Ben was at the cabin when he should have been at work.

Dana stared the bay window, focused on nothing but the one question that kept rattling through her head. “Why did Ben go to the cabin when he had an important appointment scheduled at 2 PM?”

This example shows distraction and concern: again, tension underscores her speech.

Making Speech True

Another point: watch to make sure your characters speak according to their environment and time period. Today few people say “groovy” although it was quite popular among the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s, and in the same way someone from the JFK period would not refer to “virtual reality.”

And, for your reader’s sake, do not give a character warped speech (even if it’s what you want to imply) by having them say, “Took me youngins down fir to the wat’rin hole cuzin’ they’s be wantin’ ta swim.” This becomes tedious quickly.

Instead, use only one or two “triggers” to indicate dialect: “Took me youngins to the watering hole ’cause they wanted be swimmin’ ” does a much better job, and doesn’t force the reader to work so hard.

And sometimes a zinger is the perfect fit.

“You could have said it different.”
“What, like gentle?”
“At least a little softer.”
“To save her feelings?” She nodded. “Sure, I could have sympathized, told her I understood it’s hard to leave, but that’s just another person giving her a reason to stay. I told her the truth, tomorrow she could be wheeled out under a pressed white sheet.”

Most of all, have fun writing dialogue. Think of the back-and-forth of a conversation, one character needling for answers while another is trying to save face or protect something or someone.

For a deeper study of dialogue, I recommend Gloria Kempton’s book mentioned and Character, Emotions, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress (also within the Write Great Fiction series).

See you on the next page,


Writer’s Quote:
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” ~Joseph Heller

Writing Links:
Writer Beware from SFWAGood information for writers looking for agents or publishers.

Some of the best Sword and Sorcery books.


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Reflecting on the Past to Improve the Future

Before computers and the internet, a writer’s life differed greatly: we typed our stories on a typewriter, made the necessary “editorial/proofreading” marks to correct mistakes and typos on the manuscript, and once satisfied the document was properly formatted—on 8 ½  x 11″ 20 lb. non-glossy paper, doubled spaced—packaged it in an envelope addressed to the correct editor for the specific publication.

If you wanted a response (who wouldn’t?) you included an S.A.S.E (self-addressed-stamped-envelope), usually a #10 envelope where the editor inserted the rejection or acceptance of your story—the manuscript itself was a throw-away if rejected. Neat and tidy.

Back then, sending a manuscript to an editor cost something: time to create, money for the typewriter ribbon and paper, the oversized envelope (or box if a novel), the postage, and a great deal of patience waiting for a response. Although it was not yet referred to as “snail mail,” the process was nonetheless the same, and just as slow. We writers accepted that, because after all, being a writer takes an investment, and we were willing to abide.

Editors understood the investment (which weeded out the dreamers), and we would often receive helpful notes about how and why they felt our stories failed. There were form letters of rejection (like bad mimeographs), and you took those in stride, but when a personal note came back with the rejection (maybe red-marked like high school English class), there was something special about it—an editor took the time to respond, and usually when that happened, an invitation to send future writing.

Those times were glorious. Writers and editors respected each other, not only as fellow creatives, but as people.

Ah, an old man’s memories and imaginings of a better world polished by time through a foggy rose-colored lens.

Look at things now, how easy to publish your work, what with personal blogs, venues like Google and Medium, self-publishing, Amazon and others, and no worry about literature’s gatekeepers . . . dinosaurs buried in the past, and good riddance.


It is true that the opportunities for writers have never been so great with the ability to conjure an audience and feed them your talents. Therein lies the problem.

The simplicity of publishing has homogenized the skill level of “published” works: there’s a greater degree of poor writing, stories and novels that may have been good if they were polished and not rushed off at the whim of a writer striving to satisfy self value.

The Gatekeepers–agents and editors—have a valuable purpose (forced to wade through increased valleys of drivel and rivers of muddy language) and that is to dissect and assimilate what writing is skillful enough to be published. And what is likely to make a profit. There are mistakes; ask the publishers who rejected J.K. Rowling.

Digital slush piles grow to towering heights. Writers work through a couple drafts, hit the submit button, and wonder why a “form” rejection comes back within a week. The reason, my friend, is you did not polish the work, you did not take the time to fine-tune your writing . . . at this point your story is only vanity.

Back in the day, Vanity Press was something most writers scoffed at, whispered about when someone showed up at a writer’s conference with their book published by Broad Moon Press, Momma’s Closet, or some-such.

Vanity Press, then like now, was for the most part substandard. There are always exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of self-published books languish despite the “book launch” mentality and the courses mediocre writers sell you to guarantee your book reaches your sales quota; they probably won’t, by-the-way.

If you wish to bypass the gatekeepers and publish your own book, I applaud your courage and your confidence as well as your positive outlook. Just like in the old days, there will be costs involved, much greater than the packaging and shipping charges before computers. There is also the potential for a greater income, though in all fairness, most do not break even. As someone who has owned and operated several businesses, that to me is a major sway . . .  is the satisfaction of ego to see my book published great enough to accept an economic loss?

Before you hit that submit or publish button, go through your writing several times. Twice is not enough. It’s called revision, and there’s a thousand times a thousand ways to edit your work. Here are a few of my recommendations.

Make your stories the best you can. If possible, have others read your work, and then with confidence send the manuscript on the wings of hope, knowing you have done the best you can at this point in your career.

See you on the next page,


Writing Quote:

“Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.” ~Author Unknown

Links: Books on Editing

Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King
How to Write and Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier with Frances Spatz Leighton


The Day I Stopped Writing, And How I Started Again

It happened one Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday to be exact. The day coincided with my mom’s birthday: she passed in 1999.

Sunday is the day I post my blogs—I had nothing. A few seemingly viable ideas, but they were all kindling lacking a spark. I paced, drank a couple extra cups of coffee, talked with my wife. Nothing worked.

I went to the park, a place of solitude that usually calms me and opens the word wellspring. A raucous family interrupted the peace I yearned for, and scowling, I left. I drove through winding tree-lined country roads, got out a couple times and stood listening to song birds and the river gurgling its way to the sea. At least I still appreciated the simple and beautiful things the world offered.

I had nothing to say. A vague idea for a new story crept into my thoughts: a character, a setting, and a problem. I didn’t write it down, and strangely, found not writing too easy.

I preach writing every day; usually I’m at my keyboard at least a couple hours, seven days a week. For some reason, writing did not interest me, a lack of will perhaps.

I justified my dull head with the acknowledgment that I was simply on vacation. Everybody takes vacations, right? I knew the problem wasn’t the dreaded and mythical Writer’s Block—ideas did not wane—but I just didn’t care enough to write them down.

I interviewed myself, much like I question my characters during development. I thought I might find the self-loathing all writers face—I’m not good enough, the writing sucks, who cares what I have to say—but that wasn’t it. I’m a realist, and although I’m no Dickens, Twain, or Rowling, I’m a competent writer (I glanced at my short story and the copy of the check hanging on the wall to prove it), so it wasn’t the Black Funk I’ve written about in the past.

I answered the interview questions honestly (I’m not self-delusional, you see), and I realized something: I was the recipient of too much information, input overload from the outside world.

News, direction, instruction, suggestions, offerings, warnings, hyperbole, and a litany of other bombardments accosted me a hundred, a thousand times a day.

Yes, I needed a vacation, but not from writing—I needed to stop the incessant negativity the “news” and world of “celebrity” provided. I do not search this information, but it’s there every time I open my browser, my email, talk to people at the store or pub or while on a walk.

I’m normally pretty good at ignoring the chaos, but there must have been a nick in my armor, and like a mosquito or tick that attaches to the only skin available, I was bit.

I thanked myself for the honest conversation and made a decision: no media for a week.

No TV is easy since we don’t have any form of cable, check. My phone is a flip, so no fear of going online there, check. Fulfillment of the next choice, the internet, proved not so easy: the Twit continued to blame everybody else, mayhem in the streets, no-talents making a fortune pushing their own brand of self-love, all the horrors that may happen, on and on.

This is what I decided to salvage my sanity: check email once a day, no earlier than the afternoon after writing during the morning, that’s it. Today I had to go online to post this blog, but that’s okay. I may have to disconnect my modem to assure that I don’t search for information I need for a project, but that’s easy enough.

The world is a rush of noise, which for the most part should not affect me and usually does not. I have discovered that I am vulnerable, however, and that knowledge gives me the ability to make decisions to offset the impact.

This week I will write and read a great deal, and those are two of my favorite things to do.

If you feel inundated and overwhelmed by the maelstrom (whether real or not, mostly not), take a break. Shut down the “little brother” that deceives and manipulates the human psyche, the circus barker or potion salesmen that offers happiness out of a bottle, tube, screen, or monitor.

It’ll be like a vacation.

See you on the next page,





Writing Quote:

“There are many more people who do not write yet feel perfectly at ease sniping at those who do. When such a snipe comes your way, remind yourself that you are the one putting yourself on the line, opening a vein, walking the tightrope, singing a solo under hot lights. You are part of a courageous bunch who are all about doing.” — James Scott Bell

Links: Free Books

Gutenberg: Thousands of Free books, many of the classics: Dickens, Twain, Stevenson, Longfellow, Austen, Melville, and hundreds more. For Speculative readers, Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, Poe, Verne, and a host of others. Most available in Kindle format, EPUB, HTML, PDF.

Tor: Free Monthly novel download—sign up to get next offering in March.

Amazon: Free books to download in wide range of topics and genres.

What Would Mike Say?

Books play an important role in our house: each room except the kitchen and bathrooms accommodate crowded bookshelves—there is no bookshelf or magazine rack next to the commode. Why sit on a cold, uncomfortable seat, pants dropped around your ankles, and read? I’d choose a nice easy chair, a cup of coffee nearby, thank you very much.

My wife is a voracious reader. Linda can read a book a day if she can find time between taking care of the animals–2 dogs, 3 cats, and me–cooking, cleaning, gardening, shopping, and a host of other tasks that catches her interest (she calls them projects, and each have babies).

Even after a twelve hour day, she’ll sit on the couch–dogs snoring and twitching at her feet, me the same thing in bed–and read. 1AM and she’ll doze, head drooping and hands dropping; 1:15AM, eyes bounce open, hands lift, and she’s reading. She can devour a book like I can devour a carrot cake.

I bought my wife a book, One More Time, by Mike Royco for her birthday last year; she’s read it twice. More than once I’ve had to squeeze in ear-plugs to drown out her laughter from the living room at midnight (maybe it was 2AM; I was kinda groggy).

Mike Royco was a Chicago newspaper columnist from 1963 until 1997. He started out writing a column for the The Daily News, then other Chicago papers, and finally he was syndicated throughout the country.

I had never read his columns, or if I had, it was by accident and only a time or two. But I wanted to after hearing my wife having such a good time.

For Christmas I gave Linda Mike’s second book (also a collection of his columns), For The Love of Mike. I confiscated One More Time and started to read.

Mike Royko is funny, irreverent, crass, poignant, insightful (did I mention funny?), will lambast police chiefs and politicians—Mayor Daley was a favorite—and offend anybody and everybody at least once.

He’ll make you angry, he’ll make you chortle and even guffaw once in a while. His words are cutting, biting, as sharp as a butcher’s knife and as soft as butter in July.

He’ll poke fun at you, himself, your neighbor, your father and mother, and your sister. He’ll banter with the Irish about drinking beer, the Scots about their taste for Haggis, and anyone and anything that suited his fancy on a given day.

He’s from Chicago: he loves the Cubs, he hates the Cubs, and by-the-way, stop razing all the quaint old buildings downtown to put in high-rise “projects,” thank you very much.

He’s for the little guy, you and me, and against dishonest money-hungry big business and politicos with their right hand in your pocket while waving to PTA members with their left.

He aims at the perpetrators, and fires off witty and to-the-bone truths about hatred and injustice. He finds it everywhere, and not only in Chicago. His camera is our lens, and we are his target.

His topics are as crystallized and appropriate today as they were when originally written—you see, his hand monitored the pulse of humanity, society, and not time.

He was just a regular guy, and funny. He’s worth reading for a study in style, humor, audacity, humility, and longevity. And just ’cause it’s fun.

In the current political and social climate, I wonder what Mike would say?

See you on the next page,


Writing Links: This week’s links are all about Mike
Mike Royko’s Books
Mike’s Quotes

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Chapter Length: How Long?

The question of chapter length comes up often in writing discussions and forums.

There exists no single correct answer, of course, other than “it depends” or “as long as it takes.” Not much help even though accurate.

Here are a couple things to consider about chapter length when writing and revising:

Reader Comfort

As a reader, my comfort level is greater when chapters are shorter, or at least broken up (indicated by the pound sign centered between paragraphs on the manuscript itself). I think many people feel the same way.

People have short blocks of time to read, while commuting, waiting for their kids to be released from school, or between other tasks that need attention—short sections give the book a faster, sprint-like pace while offering a “break spot” when a distraction interrupts them.

When that happens, the reader needs to be able to say, “Just a minute,” to get to the next section. People cringe and get all squirmy when disrupted in the middle of a sentence or paragraph—how do I bookmark that spot?

Shorter Keeps the Story Moving

Novel pacing wreaks havoc on many otherwise magical tales. Within the fantasy genre especially, long block-filled pages can drone on and on into 20,000-word chapters, the reader lost in a maze of unpronounceable names and moment-to-moment expression changes.

Writing shorter chapters—and sections within chapters which may act as transition or a new viewpoint character—speeds up the protagonist’s chase to their goal, propelling the reader forward so that, if not disturbed, they lose sleep cuddled up with a page-turner.

Those reasons alone are not a convincing case for shorter chapters, though.

Each chapter ideally should incorporate a character goal, tension, and action embraced by both. The action can be as simple as a conversation, which shouldn’t be simple at all.

The average chapter length reflects the short story norm, 2,500-5,000 words, an appropriate number of words to introduce a character, their goal, conflicts, and resolution . . . just like in a story.

Rather than thinking about the length of a chapter by number of words, consider what should happen within each chapter.

A chapter opens with the hero needing information (chapter goal); what follows are actions taken (and the obstacles faced) to get the needed information, but it doesn’t work out as they had hoped (tension). That is a good place to end a chapter.

The purpose of a chapter is to push the character into the next where more problems await.

Each chapter plunges the character forward in their ultimate quest (story goal) to save the damsel, find the one responsible for the murder, or learn to be a better person. But within each story goal are smaller, more immediate goals that must be met, and that’s the purpose of chapters.

Think of chapters as mini-stories.

Consider an hour long TV drama. Within that hour (maybe 45 minutes considering commercials) there are breaks, at minimum, between Act I and Act II, and Act II and Act III, and often Act III has a break between the climax and the credits.

What happens in those acts on a TV show? Characters are introduced, pressing problems arise, roadblocks inhibit forward movement, and a disaster . . . and now a word from our sponsors. That’s a chapter.

Not all chapters have to end in disaster (commonly called a cliff-hanger) and definitely shouldn’t or it gives the reader a “cry wolf” attitude, thereby reducing the impact of a true surprise moment. Use sparingly and save for those special plot instances.

Every chapter should incorporate at least one “reveal” moment, that is, something new about the character, their problem, or the plot. As with all fiction, words not relating to one of these topics need to be cut to move the story forward in some way.

There is no best answer for how many words a chapter should be, as long as you successfully introduce a character with a goal hurdling problems to reach a point where they start over again in the next chapter.

See you on the next page,


Writing Quote:

“I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.” ~Norman Mailer

Writing Links

James Scott Bell, a favorite writing instructor
The Kill Zone–Thriller blog; James Scott Bell writes one a week, as do other authors.
How to develop a Writing Plan

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