Monday, February 12, 2018

Social Contracts, The Prestige, and the Subtle Art of Mind-F*ckery


As I mentioned on Wednesday, I recently read a book that had some... let's call them issues. I'm not going to name names, but you guys will probably be able to track it down if you follow my social networks, or if you're patient enough. But if you do track the title down, keep in mind my comments can be seen as spoilers once you have the context, so choose wisely if you want to find out what book I'm talking about.

At any rate, I mostly did enjoy this book. It had an interesting voice and rapid pacing that did serve to keep me immersed in the reading.

But will I be reading this book's sequel, which is coming out soon?

No.

I could blame some of the plot issues this book had, but if those were the only ones, the book had entertained me enough to encourage me to (eventually, maybe) pick up the sequel. But no. The issue was a bit more serious.

The issue is that the writer broke her social contract with me.


Some writers seem to be completely unaware of the fact, but all works of fiction come with a reciprocal, unwritten social contract.

The reader agrees to suspend disbelief until the end of the book, trusting the writer's ability to tell a good story until the very end.

On the writer's side, there's the promise of a good story being told, and that any leap of faith taken by the reader will be either explained or rewarded in some way by the end.

I always talk about the plot and characterization in a book being its foundation. Well, taking this analogy further, this social contract of trust and reward basically stands as the reason why the foundation had been laid in the first place. The writer wants to entertain, and the reader wants to be entertained. The social contract makes it possible for both sides to both get and deliver what is needed for this transaction to occur.

My problem with this book is that I spent 90% of the book trusting the writer despite some logic issues in the story, only to be rewarded at the end with "Oh well, the conflicts, the stakes, the choices, and even the supposedly devastating sacrifices as the result of those choices never actually mattered and were all undone by the end."

While it had been foreshadowed from the start that this was the case, but nothing had prepared me for how little it all mattered in the end.

And so, at the end of it, I, being a reader, felt betrayed. So much so that I'm simply not willing to get back onto that roller-coaster again for the sequel.

So How Do Writers Deliver Their End of the Contract?

The main step, of course, is to tell a good story, which revolves around all the techniques you guys already know. 

But if you were to want to write a book that is designed to completely screw with your reader's minds, it basically comes down to one thing: 

Don't put the mind-f*ck ahead of the story. 

In other words, if you're putting so much effort into blowing the mind of the reader at every turn, you're actually harming the story, either by making it predictable, or by unraveling all the meaning you'd put into it.

Or in still other words, put the mind-blowing events into your plot, but don't make your plot about the mind-blowing events.  

This is such a difficult thing to explain without naming examples, so I will name two examples in movies. And to make the point I'm making clearer, I'll even make the main characters have the same vocation. 

I present to you: 

Image result for the prestige

and

Image result for now you see me


Before we continue: SPOILER WARNING!!!

Of the two, I think the book I'd read was trying to be The Prestige. And why wouldn't it?

In The Prestige, the pacing was tight. The conflict was no-holds-barred and take-no-prisoners. The stakes kept climbing. But here's the thing. The conflict centered around what two stage magicians were capable of doing to each other in the name of revenge. The mind-f*cks started coming when the understanding the viewer had of the events in the story took on a new meaning, once they realized what the magicians were willing to do to themselves in order to win in this revenge game. (Let me just say that those things are more horrific the more you think about them.) 

Everything in The Prestige is established, shown, and explained, peeling back layer after layer until the viewer is given clear sight of what they had been seeing all along. In other words, nothing was hidden, save for the meaning of what they had seen, and even that is revealed by the end as the huge twist. If viewers rewatch the movie, they will have a different experience, just because they understand all that's going on in context. But even knowing the context and twist, The Prestige is still a movie worth watching, simply because the characterization was excellent and the plot in itself is amazing. (Brilliant conflict. Huge and ever-increasing stakes driven by character motivation.) 

What the book ended up being was Now You See Me. This movie sets up a conflict, only to reveal it's a diversion, then sets up another thing, only to show it's fake. And another, and another, none of which is real. By the third time there's a plot twist (and I use the term loosely), the viewer's mind isn't blown, because the viewer knows that literally nothing that's happening is actually happening. So stakes? Nada. Conflict? Meh what conflict? We don't even know what the goal is yet. (If we don't know what the goal is, we don't know what is standing against the goal.) 

Plot twists are thrown in with little to no real ground work, all to "generate interest." And in the end, it is revealed that the one thing the viewer thought was real—in other words, the heist and the conflict with the detective—was all fake and that the whole time, there had been an entire other plot that the viewer had not been allowed to see on purpose, and that gets jumped on the viewer from left field with little more than a "ta-da!" in the third act. 

This in a nutshell was exactly what had happened in the book. Literally in the third act, we're not only introduced to this whole other unseen plot, but said plot literally undoes everything in the book, including the relationship between the two leads that had been developed as the story progressed.

So what happens is that once this other plot becomes known, the plot we readers had read—the one we had known and spent time on—doesn't gain a new meaning. It gains non-meaning. As in, if I reread this book again, I'll never be able to commit to the story again, because this story literally means nothing now. Nothing I had been shown in the story actually meant anything. The story is defined by what I hadn't been shown, and in short, by how much the writer had taken my trust without giving me anything of substance in return.

And instead of being mind-blown, I'm just really upset and let down. 

So if you are working on a book that hinges on some major plot twists, please do ask yourself: 

If my readers reread this book knowing the plot twists in it, will they still be presented with a compelling plot?

Or will everything I set up fall apart because of the way I resolved the story? 

If you answer yes to the latter, you failed to hold up your part of the social contract. It really is that simple. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go rewatch The Prestige. 

Anyone else love The Prestige as much as I do? Anyone else feel as betrayed as I do when plot twists basically undo entire stories? 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Insecure Writer's Support Group: Reviewer's Dilemma

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which means it's time for another Insecure Writer's Support Group post.


This month isn't about a writing insecurity per se, but more... an insecurity surrounding being a writer online.

Recently, I changed my posting strategy both for my blog and for my YouTube Channel. I realized that my blog content was more suitable for seasoned writers, while I could use my YouTube Channel to draw in new readers by posting tips for new writers (most are readers, no?) and by talking about books I've enjoyed reading.

The latter does have the extra benefit of encouraging me to read more, but it's coming with a huge potential landmine:

What if I don't like the book? 

In all the years I've been blogging (eight this year, btw), I've consistently refused to post reviews, simply because I never know what to do in the event of having a meh reaction to a book, or worse. I can't lie and call it okay, because meh is not okay to me. Especially if I paid for said book.

Also, if people requested me to review the book, especially if we've built a relationship over the years, I could foresee that me just not being subjectively into their book would do damage to said relationship.

All in all, the issue of a writer reviewing other writers' books felt like swimming in shark infested waters, and I had always refused to wade in.

Until now.

So why did I change my mind? 


Short answer is I want to attract readers and grow my following, and my lurking for two years on YouTube and Tumblr has revealed that talking about books to readers is the way into their hearts. Also... really... I just really want to talk about the books I've read. Especially when I liked them. And since this year I have a goal of reading every day, knowing I need to whip up some content around my reading is doing a lot to act as an incentive so I don't move my reading down my priority list the way I've done lately.

And I guess I thought that it'll be okay. I read so many books that I love that I didn't really think I would bump into one I didn't enjoy.

And of course, I did just that in this first week after deciding to post my opinion on books I read.

Which means I'm firmly in chum-filled waters now. Do pretend I didn't read it? Do I acknowledge reading it with a meh, moving on attitude?

I'm kinda thinking of going with the latter. Especially for this book. It wasn't bad. It just had flaws. Explaining those flaws would make readers cry with boredom, though, so that's not an option. Writing a post about those flaws for this blog without naming names, however, is.

Thing is, I still don't know if acknowledging a book as being mediocre is a good idea. So maybe if I did a quick "what I liked, what I didn't like" segment on it...

Sigh. 

I need to stew on it. Three more weeks before I have to make a call.

Any suggestions? Do you review the books you read? What do you do with the ones you don't enjoy?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Eef Lenaerts on Writing a Book About Traveling through Africa

One of my first freelance jobs was to do the editing, formatting, and cover design for a book about traveling through Africa from Egypt to South Africa. It was a great book for me to read, because the idea of traveling over Africa has always intrigued me. (Although I'd do it in reverse from how the writers Eef and Dries did it, seeing as I am in South Africa already.)

But because I enjoyed working on the book so much, I thought I'd invite Eef to do a guest post about what it was like for her to write it.



Hi all,

Like many of you here, we wrote a book! But we’re no writers, we’re travelers and we had absolutely had no idea how the hell to write a book, so we got some help from Misha.

The book is finally finished (thanks to Misha) and she asked us to write a guest post about the process of writing a book while traveling, so here we go!

Four years ago, we left Belgium with our car. Two years later, we reached South Africa. It was an adventure, with many ups and downs. We loved it, but at times we hated it. It was hot, it was cold, it was amazing, it was dreadful…but it was the adventure of a lifetime that no-one can take away from us.

We left as total dummies with our Toyota Landcruiser. We drove from Belgium to Turkey and took a ferry to Egypt to start our way down along the East Coast of Africa, with South Africa as our end goal.

We were total dummies. Young and eager to go, we couldn’t wait. We packed up our house, sold our belongings, and bought a 4x4 to go on the adventure of a lifetime!

We didn’t take enough preparations, so of course we ran in problems along the way, getting stuck in the dessert with a hi-lift jack, but no points to use the jack, having a spare battery for the fridge, but having a warm fridge, applying for a visa, but no USD to pay for it…

These were all small things that we could sort out, and they make some great stories now, but we could easily have avoided these issues. So after the umpteenth time of thinking “Oh really? Wish we knew this before!’ I decided to write a book for the other dummies in the world!

With a good mood, I started writing down things that were important to prepare before you leave home, ways to act in certain countries, hidden treasures along the road, etc. Gathering this information was easy, but making it into a book was way more difficult than I thought.

It took me two years to finish the book. One reason was because we were still traveling, so we had a lot going on. The other reason was simply that things change constantly in Africa! So the information about a border crossing from two years ago was absolutely out of date. This meant that apart from the actual writing, the book required A LOT of research. In the end, I had read the content so many times, I just couldn’t cope anymore.

So for me, it was a horrible experience. :P

I don’t think I’ll do it again in the near future, but the book is finished and I’m very proud of it!

So if you’re interested to have a look at what I made of it, or just need the final push to start an adventure (the big aim of this book is to give the people that push they need to get out the house and go and see the world), feel free to look it up! Part of this book’s profits will also go to the Rhino Fund Uganda, so the rhinos will thank you.

All the best,

Eef


Two years ago, Dries and Eef decided to throw caution to the wind. They packed up their house, sold their belongings and bought a 4x4 to go on the adventure of a lifetime, traveling over the African continent. It was a life-changing experience, filled with amazing sights and wonderful people, but it was also challenging because when they started, they had no idea about what they were letting themselves in for.

So to help others who want to share in this amazing adventure, Eef and Dries decided to share their experiences and advice learned the hard way, just to make things a little easier for new adventurers.

The tips range from what you should wear to what you should bring along, how to get through the borders to where you should camp and what you should do while you're there.

Which means that Into Africa is a fun read for armchair travelers, but especially useful as a guide for adventurers out to experience Africa for themselves.

A portion of proceeds from the sales of this book will go toward The Rhino Fund Uganda, an organization focused on saving rhinos from extinction.

Available on Amazon

Anyone else ever dream of traveling through Africa? 

Friday, February 2, 2018

I'm Honestly Tired of Literary Writers' Complaining

Lately, I've been reading a slew of articles featuring quite a significant amount of hand-wringing about and bemoaning of the fate of literary fiction everywhere.

The reason for this, it seems, is the fact that statistics have uncovered that fewer literary writers can make a living off their writing these days.

And sure, this is a cause for sympathy. I personally don't like that I don't make a living purely off my writing either.

But.

Every single one of the articles, featuring various literary writers, share a few commonalities between them, and these traits have been ticking me off beyond measure.

I figured, as this does fall under the industry/business side of writing, I'd write this post to give air to my feelings.

So here the biggest sources of irritation, plus my reasons why, in no particular order.

1) Every single literary artist bemoans how "inferior writers" like E.L. James, J.K. Rowling, and other genre writers can swim in money when the real artists, i.e. literary writers, don't. 


Ahem... Not that I'm an E.L. James fan (she's just not my jam, y'all), but how exactly can one compare apples and oranges and call the apple inferior, when the apple happens to be the one that's selling more?

How inferior, exactly, is a genre writer to a literary writer, if the former is the one so beloved by the masses that they can make a living off their writing?


2) They're bemoaning the loss of the art of storytelling as if genre writers aren't continuing in the tradition of some great literary classics like Oliver Twist, The Three Musketeers, Jane Eyre, etc. 


This point they're making makes me livid. Why? Simple statistics. This whole culture of "You must read this in order to be considered worthy/smart/intelligent/well-read/whatever" and then forcing readers to follow an arcane, often arbitrary approach to "appreciating stories" has turned away readers year after year. 

In school, when readers are supposed to be created, they're being told they're not good enough when they can't or just don't appreciate literary fiction.

When there is, in fact, absolutely nothing wrong with not liking any particular thing.

Especially when the most obscure amount of nonsense is touted as the truth, man, just so students can make sense of what's going on, instead of being told that it's okay to just enjoy a story for what it is... namely a good story... or... you know... not... simply because said student isn't into that sort of thing.

What exactly is the sign of a good story anyway? Some arbitrary gate-keepers calling a story a piece of art? Or readers wanting to read books that don't have the stench of elitism attached to them?

You can't hold your genre (and I hate to break it to you, but literary fiction is a genre) up as the standard of excellence, treat people as idiots for liking something else, and then expect those same people to turn around and buy your books as a reward.

I mean, what are we even supposed to do when you bemoan readers following trends and reading "inferior" genre stories, Mr. Literary Artiste? Clap our hands? Give you a cookie? Are we supposed to be sorry for you? Because right here, I personally can't even say I like you


3) They're bemoaning diminishing returns and the threatening implosion of the publishing industry. 


Both of which can in fact be blamed not on the reader, but on the decisions made by publishing houses themselves. Instead, literary writers blame the readers for (rightfully) following their tastes away from their books.

Here are two things I've learned when it comes to being in public as a writer.


1) You don't resent readers for not liking or not wanting to read your book.  
2) You don't resent readers for not liking or not wanting to read your book.

Why? Because it hurts your business Mr. Artiste. You're literally harming your book sales by coming off as a clueless, self-aggrandizing asshole. While you're bemoaning your decreasing book sales. I'm only a lowly genre writer, so I can't be expected to understand figures of speech, but is that ironic or just stupid?

4) The entitlement. 


This right here is what probably gets to me the worst. Everyone I've encountered as a writer, ever since I started writing fiction, told me that I shouldn't expect to be a bestseller, that I shouldn't even bargain on a lowly goal like making enough to buy food every month with the money I make from writing.

So uhm... why exactly do you expect it, Mr. Artiste? Did someone who was selling you something tell you lovely tales of fluffy bunnies and unicorns? Or is it because you think that it's just not right that you literary artistes don't make a living, while us genre writers do deserve to starve?

But let's talk about just desserts for a second. I admit that I know exactly two literary fiction writers (one of which is actually a poet and my Gran). I do however, know that the genre writers in my networks are busting their backsides, often doing at least one other job while writing, always learning, always thinking about what will make a good story, and in what ways they can deliver a story that will please their audience.

And so, they increase their chances of actually finding an audience that will enjoy what they did. Some don't, though, and I find that unfair, because publishing can be harsh on us all. Even those who did everything to deserve kindness from it.

But in none of these articles I read did I once see talk about the need to innovate, to learn, to inspire readers to want to read literary stories. Nope. All I saw was some form of, "Oh woe is me. I was born in a generation where people are too stupid to read my books, so they read inferior books instead."

Of course, you don't say that outright, Mr. Artiste, but here's the thing. You might not believe me, but genre readers are incredibly good at reading subtext. And they do not like being called stupid.

That's another basic of writing genre fiction, come to think of it.

Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience.
You might want to try it.

Instead of... you know... beating us all over our head with how little respect you really have for your potential readers, who might not have heard of you before, but who will now forever associate your name with "Ugh. No. Let me go find a writer who actually likes their readers."

In Conclusion

Look. I don't like to generalize, so I know all literary writers don't have their heads this far up their backsides. And if you are a literary writer of a different ilk, I really would love to hear your thoughts on the subject of earnings, the industry etc. same as everyone else.

But what I just can't stand is that in the past weeks and months, all the articles about literary fiction seem to focus on these arrogant prigs with zero self-awareness or even less respect for the people they were trying to address.

I don't want literary fiction to fail any more than I do the big publishers. But is treating everyone around you like they're stupid because you couldn't make them read your book the way to fix your problem?

No.

And really, the lack of logic to this approach is what irritates me the most.

Thoughts? Do you guys think that literary fiction will go extinct? If so, do you think there's any way to save it? 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Discussing Trello on the Womagwriter's Blog

I might have mentioned recently (or about a million times recently) that I switched over to Trello to keep track of my projects and tasks.

So when Patsy from the Womagwriter's Blog asked me to do a guest post on tracking projects and submissions, I decided to share some more info on how Trello works and why that works better than something like Excel. You can check it out here, if you're curious. 

Hope to see you there!

Misha

Monday, January 29, 2018

My New Content Plan and What That Means for My Blog

On Friday, I mentioned that I finally, after almost a year, figured out my content strategy for this blog. Honestly, it wasn't a minute too soon.

I'd been feeling like I just lost steam after my disastrous year in 2014, and my blog got lost with it. Sure, there are some of you die-hards (thank you!) who kept showing up and saying hi, but I definitely noticed a dip in my traffic. And to be honest, I really don't blame those of you who fell away.

Why? Because while I occasionally happened to post something that I felt was worth reading, it was mostly a reactionary, almost spontaneous process. Some things hit, some things missed. And because I was constantly behind on literally everything, I never knew what I wanted to write about most of the time.

My YouTube channel, incidentally, suffered from the same thing. I enjoyed writing for both this blog and for my channel, but often, I'd be at a loss and spending way too much time on figuring out what I wanted to write about. As a result, I more often than not ended up skipping altogether. Because let's face it. While blogging is awesome, it can't (and won't) be my priority. It will always come second to my books and job.

But.

I'm not one to give up, and when I saw this book by Meera Kothand, it seemed like my blogging muse was telling me something.

The One Hour Content Plan: The Solopreneur's Guide to a Year's Worth of Blog Post Ideas in 60 Minutes and Creating Content That Hooks and Sells by [Kothand, Meera]

The One Hour Content Plan is mostly aimed at bloggers who actually want to directly earn money from their blogging, as opposed to only partially augmenting my other earning activities. That said, I found this book invaluable simply because it put what I was trying to achieve into perspective.

And that perspective helped me realize why I had felt that my blogging last year was unfulfilling both to me and to the readers.

It basically came down to this:

I was aiming at the wrong people.

For example, I would share my YouTube posts here, and you guys would be completely unenthusiastic about it. And I didn't really get it, because the content on my channels was the exact same thing I had been writing about basically since I came to blogging in 2010.

But that's what I realized. Many of you guys have been with me since 2010 (THANK YOU!), but you, like me, are not the same people you were back then. We grew. We gained experience. We've learned lessons. We've become better at what we do.

And if I write something that's about "how to write a book," 90% of my audience here won't care, because 90% of you guys already wrote at least one book already.

So I could revamp my blog and change everything to recycle my audience and attract more new writers, but I happen to like you guys and I want you to stick around.

And so, I'm going to play to my strengths here in a way that you guys will hopefully find interesting. The best responses I get are to my goal-driven posts, posts about the industry, posts about making it as a person making a living at this writing/editing/publishing thing. The other good responses I get (and that I don't want to lose) are to my more personal posts, because I feel that blogging still is the best way for people to know me, and giving that up would basically be missing the point. And lastly, some of my most popular posts do have writing craft and technique advice, but not the basics. Instead, you guys enjoy posts that make you say, "Hmm. I haven't really thought about it this way." or, "Oh wow. I always forget this, thanks for the reminder."

Here's the thing, though, those kinds of posts are not the ones that are popular on my YouTube channel. So I'm going to split the two. My blog will be bringing you the content I think will be the most relevant to you guys, and my YouTube Channel will be aimed at readers and new writers looking for advice from an old veteran.

To sum up, this is what I have planned for this blog for at least the next year:

  • Survival Tips and Craft Advice
  • Advice on Goal Setting, Time Management, etc.
  • Lessons and thoughts I have regarding writing, editing, the industry, etc.
  • Advice and opinions on the business end of being a writer.
  • And then, because I enjoy doing it and would like to do more of it, I would like to regularly share some more graphic-design-y things I've been doing. 
I really hope that you guys will be as excited by these changes as I am about making them. If you have any thoughts, comments, or blog topic suggestions, please do leave them in the comments section below! I will definitely take a look. 

So what would you like for me to write about? Yes, I do have a plan, but the plan is flexible, so I'm always game to address something if you want me to. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Update Day: So Far So Good

It's the last Friday of the month, which means it's time to update everyone on my goals as part of the Got Goals? Bloghop. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, JEN Garrett and I host a monthly bloghop where we set crazy or just crazy important goals, and then post regular updates on our progress on the last Friday of every month. You're welcome to join. Just click here and follow the instructions.


I have to say, for someone who didn't set any official goals for the month, I actually did great. Despite the fact that there were some bad stuff that happened to rock the boat, I still managed to float enough to get some of my goals done, including some of the big year-goals I set for 2018.

To list my progress:

Five-Year Goal: Making a Living Off My Writing

The major headline is that I had a record month in January, making more than $200 more than I did in December. 

I didn't quite make it to the number I'd hoped for, as things just fell quiet towards the middle of the month. But that was also good in its own way, as I could then devote more time to Book 3, which I really do need to publish if I'm to achieve my goal of making more money from my own writing. 

Writing and Publishing Goals

Although it was impossible for me to spend time on my work on some days, I did manage to catch up on the days where I could work on my own stuff to the point where I spent an average of 38 minutes every day on it. 

This means that I got through 20 chapters (out of 85) of my revision to Book 3 and I managed to write a poem as well. 

Marketing Goals

The major bit of news here is that I figured out my content strategy, both for my blog and for my YouTube Channel. I'll write more about this on Monday, since I don't want to make this post too long, but suffice it to say, I basically have an entire year's content (and back-up content) planned out for both. 

I'm hoping that not having to sit down and figure out what I need to write about will help me make more efficient use of my time, and to be more active overall. 

Life Goals

I can't really say I achieved anything here, but I can officially say that I'm actively working on my health now. 

The major change I made is to get more serious about my water consumption. It's seriously hot here at the moment, and even the slightest dehydration can have bad effects not only on my health, but on my writing as well. 

For example, if I get a headache because I'm thirsty, it doesn't take much for that to turn into a migraine that puts me out of commission for at least a day or two. 

The nice side-effect is that drinking more water has made me less hungry, which means I've been able to improve my food choices and portions. It's also given me a bit more energy, which means it became an almost natural progression for me to start exercising. 

Which is important when you'd otherwise spend your whole life in a chair, y'all. 

Finally, I did manage to read for an average of 15 minutes every day. (I would have liked to spend that time every day in a literal sense, but on some days that was simply impossible.)

What Do I Want to Achieve in February? 

To keep things simple, I'm going to pick five goals that are important to me, so I can prioritize them over the other things I want to do. 

1) I want to finish this revision round of Book 3 by month end, if I can. 
2) I want to make a final decision with regards to whether I'm going to use my old system of CPs for each round of edits after this point, or hire an editor. 
3) I want to post regular updates to my blog and vlog, and also update the content that goes to my other networks. (The two are related.) 
4) Maintain and further improve the healthy habits I've started to establish in January. 
5) Read for an average of 15 minutes per day. 

How did January go for you guys? Any progress on your goals? 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Bangs and Drilling Sounds

Hey all!

I've finally managed to sit down and evaluate what I'm doing with my social networking, but steering everything in the right direction is taking a bit longer than I would have liked, so I will be quiet until Friday, when it'll be time for another Update Day.

Have a great week!

Misha

Friday, January 19, 2018

How to Use Framing to Strengthen Your Story


This week, I've been thinking a lot about framing. A lot of us take framing for granted, but it's actually such a vital part of our writing. So I thought I'd talk about it today.

We often think of framing in terms of the plot frame. As in how a plot forms the backbone or frame over which the whole story goes. This is true, and as important, but what I'm thinking of is framing, almost in a photographic sense. 

Framing has a lot of different meanings in photography too, but what I'm talking about here is aiming your camera so that the contents of your frame (i.e. what will be in the picture) results in a pleasant image. Like so: 


When we write, we should be framing the chapters in the same way. See, a chapter isn't just a number with text after it. It's actually a snapshot out of your story, and like a photo, the best chapters are framed properly, so the contents do the best work possible toward progressing the plot. 

Since I've started freelance editing, I've been noticing quite often that writers seem to think that chapters should just begin and end, maybe at a set number of pages.

Many writers seem to think that, as long as the story gets told, it doesn't matter where the chapters start and finish. 

In a way, they're not wrong. Beautifully framed chapters won't do anything if the story is weak, but then, I don't really think you can beautifully frame chapters if you didn't sort your story out first. 

The thing is, the framing of one's chapters can be the difference between a good book and an excellent one. Or even an okay book and a good one. 

It all comes back to reader immersion.

See, readers have been trained to "read" certain things in a certain way. For example, a comma makes them pause. Periods make them pause longer. Line breaks mean there has been a change of some sort from one paragraph to the next, whether it's in location, time, or point of view character. The readers might not yet know what changed, but that line break signals them to be prepared for it, so when the change does become apparent, they're not pulled out of the story. 

Just so, readers are trained to read something into a chapter as well. A chapter is a unit, which follows after the previous one and goes in before the next. The end of the chapter means that the main content of said chapter has been dealt with. Even chapters with cliffhangers. There is obviously still something unresolved in that chapter, but something still happened, and progress of some sort has been made. 

When chapters don't work in this expected way, readers get this vague feeling that something about what they're reading feels "off." 

They probably won't even be able to lay their finger on the reason, but more often than not, that sense of writing being off comes either from pacing or framing problems. (And pacing could be a framing problem in itself.)  If chapters aren't framed nicely, your job of lulling the reader into staying immersed in a story becomes that much harder. 

So what are the signs of bad chapter framing? 


There are quite a few diverse things I can think of:

The chapter doesn't lead in. 
By this, I mean that writers open chapters in the middle of nowhere, giving readers no sense of where the characters are, what's going on, who's involved, or even who's there (which especially becomes an issue when we're dealing with larger casts).

Unless the chapter follows directly on the previous one (but not too directly, more on this later), make sure your reader can paint a picture in their mind's eye of what's going on before anything important happens. You don't want your scenes to look like they're happening in white mist. You don't want talking heads. And you don't want the reader to exclaim "where the heck did he/she/it come from just now?!" Because all these will pull your readers out of the story.

Nothing happens in the chapter. 
This is a common one with writers using flashbacks. Usually, your main plot is the one taking place in the present. That's the plot you want to progress. If you only have a paragraph of two of a character starting to reminisce, followed by the flashback scene and nothing else, nothing has happened in your chapter. Because even if the memory is fully action packed, your character did nothing in the now while they were remembering the past.

This isn't to say that there has to be action in the present all the time, but something does need to happen before the chapter plays out. So does the flashback cause a reaction? Does it cause an emotional response? Does it trigger a major decision? Put those responses in the same chapter as the flashback, because in that way, the flashback adds to the main plot in a direct, immediate, meaningful way.

A chapter ends abruptly.
Often, this goes hand in hand with the previous point, but whereas nothing happens in that example, this one is more a case of a chapter ending just as something interesting starts to happen. I'm not talking about cliffhangers here. This is something entirely different.

Chapters, like most plots, have a beginning, middle, and end. Something is introduced, something happens, and there's a resolution. I find, sometimes, that something will be introduced.

Yeah. Did you just get the feeling that I just left you hanging out to dry with that sentence? That's exactly what an abruptly ended chapter feels like. The reader knows there should be something coming after, but it's just not there. The blank space where the chapter ended becomes a gaping vacuum in your story.

A good example of this is a big revelation or admission by a character, and having that revelation be the chapter's end. This could work as a cliffhanger, but nothing else has happened in the chapter yet. This is bad enough, but when I turn the page, I find that the new chapter doesn't continue where the last one left off. So... what? Did the writer forget to finish it? Did he/she just not feel like writing that day....?

Takeaway here... write out your scenes, people. Its not the readers' job to fill in the blanks for you. 

Which brings me to my next point.

Glossing over major events.
Ooh... this is a subtle one. I make this mistake most often. It's too easy. See, we're taught as writers that we need to skip the boring parts and stick to the important bits. If we don't, the story becomes boring. So what we do is spend maybe a paragraph to tell the readers something along the lines of "nothing major has happened. X did this the whole time... it's about a week since you saw him last..."

And then we ease them into the chapter proper, where things are happening. The problem is that we sometimes overdo it. We gloss over too much, and important parts of the story as a whole get lost.

It's not cool to tell me a character became friends with another one without showing us as it happens. Sure, it's cool to save the reader from the boring parts, but some things, like growing relationships, discoveries that have bearing on the scene now... those sorts of things... we want to see. If you have to say "so this cool/interesting/important thing happened off-screen," it really means you're excluding the readers from your story, which means they'll no longer want to stay as immersed as they have been. 

The chapter ends for no reason.
As I mentioned before, a chapter has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and if you split the chapter in two for no reason, it just ends the one chapter abruptly, and starts the next in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, cliffhangers are the exception, but the reason why they exist is to create tension. That said, there are so many ways in which cliffhangers can be done wrong. 

Let me count the ways. 

Cliffhangers done wrong.
Honestly, I'm not a particular fan of the cliffhanger chapter ending. I don't hate it. I mean, it's still as good a writing tool as any. But more often than not, writers use them wrong, in some groan-inducing ways.

Prime examples:

Cliffhangers followed by cop-outs. (Gasp! He has a gun! Oh... It's a water pistol. *eye roll*)

Cliffhangers followed by glossing over to explain them away. (Oh, you were worried about the bad guy's bomb going off? Well, while I purposefully weren't allowing you to look, my genius investigator figured out not only how to magically find said bomb, but he also disarmed it with a toothpick and some bubblegum. Phew!)

Cliffhangers being the entire point of the chapter. If your whole point is to get from the beginning of a chapter to the cliffhanger, and nothing else happened on the way there, you're probably doing it wrong. And finally...

Cliffhangers. 
Happening. 
Every.
Bloody. 
Freaking. 
For heaven's sake. 
Please make it end. 
Chapter. 

One more thought. If you're writing a book with multiple points of view, it's probably not a good idea to use a cliffhanger chapter ending if it's going to tempt the reader even a little to skim over, or entirely skip, the other characters' points of view until the cliffhanger's resolved. 

Chapters are too long or too short.
This is where pacing comes in. As I mentioned before, readers read chapters as units of a story. But further than that, the speed at which a reader gets through those units influences their concept of the book's pacing. Shorter chapters=faster pacing, longer chapters=slower pacing.

So what happens if you have a whole bunch of long chapters with one thing happening after the other in quick succession? It feels wrong, because the chapter rate clashes with the story's actual pacing. Just so, too many short chapters will jar if your overall story unfolds at a slower rate. In such a case, it might be a good idea to look for this specifically, and combine or split chapters accordingly.

Framing your chapters is a subtle art. So subtle, in fact, that most people completely forget to do it, but most framing issues are simply solved. All it takes is adjusting the aim and focus of your chapter ever-so-slightly. 

Can you think of any other ways for chapters to be framed wrong? Any of my examples a pet peeve of yours?