Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Some Numbers for Friday

This post was inspired by a recent thread on Absolute Write. It’s already sunk to page 2 or 3 of the forum threads, so I won’t link it here.

Let’s throw out a few numbers, just for fun:

41       239       5.83
35       307       8.77
28       367      13.11

This ‘table’ shows the chapter count, total manuscript pages, and average pages/chapter of my first three novels I drafted to completion (i.e., story has distinctive beginning, middle and end). What got me looking at these numbers was a question on Absolute Write asking how long chapters should be. My smart-ass answer was “as long as they need to be,” because, really, that is the only answer to a question like that. A chapter needs to tell a part of the story, and when it ends, it needs to leave the reader wanting to turn the page and read the next chapter. It doesn’t matter if you accomplish this in two pages or ten, or two hundred–keep the reader interested and reading, keep the story moving forward.

The first line represents my first major effort, an untitled NaNoWriMo project begun now more years than I would care to remember. In a month’s time, this project clocked in a hair over 50,000 words and was quickly abandoned in favor of PARALLEL LIVES (which is found on line 2). Roughly a year after starting PL, I went back to this NaNo project and spent several weeks rewriting it and expanding it–and promptly dropped it when BARTON’S WOMEN* exploded in my brain (in fact, while researching this, the ‘last modified’ date for the NaNo project is the day before I wrote my first words on BW; I think that, whenever I’m stuck, I should go back and work on this thing. Twice now it has led to better things). BW’s stat line is at the bottom of the table.

I find a couple of things interesting about this. First is the fact that each successive work has increased by roughly the same amount over the previous work, about 60 manuscript pages. Second is the way the chapter counts and pages/chapter numbers fall and rise respectively. If I were handy with graphs and charts, I’d plot it out, but that would serve no real purpose other than to look spiffy, so we’ll leave it out. Third is the question of what it means to me as a writer, if anything.

When I first started writing the NaNo, I didn’t really think much about chapters. In fact, most of the organization of the chapters came after I had ‘submitted’ the novel for verification. It was written out of order, with line breaks and few chapters. For several days after NaNo ended, I was cutting and chopping and putting the story into proper order. As I read, I found natural ending points for chapters, so I stuck the word CHAPTER in between paragraphs and moved on. It was–and is–quite the mess. But I didn’t think too hard or long about it.

With PL, however, I found myself worrying a bit. Most of my chapters felt fairly short (apparently 8.77 pages), and I was fine. Once in a while, however, I’d get one that was three pages. Or one that was 12 pages. And while I knew it didn’t matter, it bothered me, so I would look for ways to fold the hot pants-length chapters in with longer ones, or try to split the really long ones up in a way that made sense. What I found was there was a reason those chapters were long or short; and splitting or combining led to more headaches. Eventually, I learned to stop worrying about it–the chapters would be as long or as short as they had to be.

When I started writing BW, I knew one thing right away: my chapters were going to be long. This was an actual, conscious decision I made very early in the process. Lots of scene breaks. BW and the NaNo have two things in common: both are written in 3rd person with multiple viewpoint characters, yet BW’s chapters are much roomier. PL, on the other hand, is told in 1st person, with only one viewpoint character, which makes it feel much more contained.

Despite making that decision, I’m not beholden to it. I have a couple of 3-page chapters in BW–and probably one that comes close to 20. Ultimately, the chapters will be as long as they need to be. I have two other novels in draft form that I’ve started since BW, but it’s too soon to tell where they will fit on the scale of things. And that brings me to that last point, what this means about me as a writer. I believe part of the upward trend, both in terms of total page count and pages/chapter, comes from me finding my stride, my voice as a writer. It will be interesting–for me, anyway–to see what the next one looks like, and the one after that, etc.

Have you looked at numbers like this? What kind of trends (if any) do you see?

*BARTON’S WOMEN is being subbed under another name. I’ll talk about that at another time. It’s still easier right now to refer to it by the old name.

Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!

6 Responses

  1. The length of chapters don't matter nearly as much as the quality of the books themselves. I haven't looked at my books in this manner but I do try to keep an eye on some drafts word count. But it's not a rule. Enjoy your weekend Jeff.

  2. When I write, I don't think about chapters. I write in scenes, though. When I'm done with the entire novel, I go back and determine where I'll make a hard chapter break. I was surprised to find I'm averaging about eight pages a chapter on this one, with a few going over and a few under. In the past I usually ended up with about twelve to twenty pages. But I find when I'm reading these days, I appreciate shorter chapters so I can feel like I can tackle one more before bed. But, yeah, I suppose it all depends on the story you're telling and how.

  3. In my first 3 novels, I just let the chapters be what they were. But I have a CP who manages to limit his chapters to 2000-2200 AND includes a great cliffhanger in every one. I'm trying very hard to do that … but alas, all my chapters remain stubbornly 3000-4000. *sigh*

  4. Every book I've written has exactly the same: 10 pages to a chapter. I'm quite strict with this because I find it helps with pacing.

  5. I actually have a hard time dealing with things anymore in terms of page numbers. Once I started manipulating my font size, etc to affect page length, I lost the ability to talk in terms of those numbers. I just need word counts.

  6. -Sheena-kay: "The length of chapters don't matter nearly as much as the quality of the books themselves." Amen to that. I, too, keep an eye on overall word count, though I really try not to obsess over it, this post notwithstanding.

    -L.G.: Interesting how we all do things differently. I don't necessarily think chapters before hand, but I have a tendency to know when I've reached the end of one. Of course, it can all go out the window in the revision process.

    -Lexa: As long as the 3-4,000 is where they're 'supposed' to be, I guess it's not a problem.

    -Donna: You are quite consistent!

    -Andrew: I guess when you're dealing with e-books, it's a different way to think. I expect we'll start seeing KB tickers replacing word count tickers on writers' blogs: "My Next Novel: 220K/410K" or something like that!

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