How to Write a Ten Chapter Novel
By Paul G Day
I have been wanting to write this for a while. As writers, we have our own formula for writing and each of us approach it from different angles. We have our own unique style and habits when starting a new work and these are as varied as our personalities. But for those just starting out on their publishing journey, starting can be as daunting as the process of writing itself.
The Original Idea
Everyone has a story in them to tell, but just because you can string some words together into sentences and then paragraphs and chapters, does not make you a writer. Pretty much anyone can do this. What makes you a writer is how you convey meaning, how you use dialogue and how you structure your narrative so that your reader gets where you are coming from without giving too much away too early.
When you have an idea in your head, the seed planted will grow until you start to develop the idea into a workable story. Before you even begin to write, however, you need to understand your market and decide early on whether you are writing for children, young adults or an older readership.
I always have my age group in mind first. It’s what dictates the style, the detail and the types of words I might use in the narrative. As a Teacher, I am in a unique position because every day I see children and young adults interacting. I know what they read, what inspires them, how they feel about the world, what their motivations are and what they experience on a daily basis. So, I tend to write for children and young adults, with a view that anyone old enough to read and comprehend can pick up one of my books and be engrossed from the get go.
Once I have an idea in mind, I straight away decide on a title. This might evolve depending on how the story unfolds, but generally, I go by instinct. Children like titles that begin with “The” but I don’t always use this. As a general rule, if the story is specific and focuses on a particular character or situation, I go by that. Getting the title right is crucial. It must stand out. It must be easy to understand and it must suggest what the story is going to be about.
Background and Characters
Your characters are also very important. For children, they must be able to immediately identify with any character they are presented with. They must be able to invest themselves completely in the narrative and they can only do this if they can imagine the characters are speaking to their heart. Children respond with emotion first and then get involved in the greater story second. Adults are much more forgiving, being willing to invest in the world and then allow themselves to get to know the characters as the story unfolds.
The setting for children is usually either about real life (school, family or friends) or else fantastical (fairy tales, fables, legends and myths). You need to make the decision very early, exactly which direction you will go. Paul Jennings writes books for young boys and girls which reflects their daily experience, from the comical to the ridiculous, highlighting those experiences that children love to read about, like bodily functions (Farting, being physical etc.). But his stories have a second layer about things that concern young people, such as relationships and bullying. If your story is going to be about these things, you need to remember that children see the world quite differently to adults. Things that concern them may seem trivial, but they are extremely important to them because they are immediate. Children generally cannot see beyond the immediate situation. Everything that is happening right now in their lives is important to them and your story must reflect this.
If you decide to write a fantasy tale, the characters in your story, even though they may be bizarre or completely other-worldly, still need to have at their core the same idiosyncrasies that real characters have. This is true even if they are animals, aliens, fish or any other creature. This anthropomorphic approach is what great authors have understood since the very first books were written for children.
If it is a fantasy, your world can be as bizarre, as fantastic or as far removed from the real world as you like. But your characters and the things that happen to them, should feel familiar to children.
A short outline of your entire story, though not necessary this early in your writing, might nevertheless help you decide crucial plot points and the direction you want to head. The most important thing you need to decide as early as possible is what will happen in the end. When I wrote The Black Fairy and The Dragonfly, I decided straight away who Lilly was, what was unique about her, why she was called Lilly and what she would do to overcome her difficult life. I also decided what she would ultimately become, even though I had not yet fully come to a conclusion in my mind precisely what would happen in the end (even when I was writing the final chapters of the final book). Even still, I knew that she would overcome in the end and rise to become the dominant character in her world. But in the beginning, I decided to make her the most insignificant, lowly character possible. Hence she is small, different and, in the beginning at least, an outcast. This allowed me to show growth throughout the two books right up unto the end of the sequel, Escape From The Dark Queen.
Chapter Outline and Headings
I generally write a brief chapter outline and decide on a chapter title for every chapter (including the prologue and epilogue if I include them) right at the beginning. These can change and I may add additional chapters later on. But I have found the formula of ten chapters (sometimes 9 or even 12) works very well. It keeps my writing on track and checks my progress.
My chapters for children are between three and ten pages, with my average book being around 100 pages (size 14 font) and no longer than 20,000 words. This is the rule I use, but it is flexible and again I operate on instinct with my writing. The chapter is only finished when everything I want to occur in that chapter is included.
Finishing Your Book
Never be so locked in to your story that you stick strictly to any rule. Be instinctive. If it doesn’t work, change it. If the chapter doesn’t fit, remove it. It must be necessary and it must drive the narrative in a positive direction. Children don’t like ugly surprises. They still want happy endings and without exception, each of my children’s novels end well. If you are writing for slightly older readers, you can afford the odd shock, but it must not be gratuitous or unnecessary and must ultimately lead to an uplifting conclusion, even if not all the ends are tied neatly up by the end of the book. The key to finishing is to just keep writing until it is done. You can fix problems with plot and theme later, but again, this is largely instinctive for me personally. As you grow as a writer, so will your writing and you will develop a keen understanding of how a plot unfolds and the direction your work should take.
Proofing your work is a three step process. Firstly there is proofing as you write. Go over the last chapter you wrote and make sure the writing is succinct, logical and ordered. Make sure that one idea in one paragraph follows on logically from the previous paragraph and leads neatly into the next. The second stage is to read your story out loud and listen for irregularities, repetition, excessive use of “But” or “And” (an issue I have had to correct), too many difficult words that children may struggle with (you can afford the odd challenging word, but not too many). Your paragraphs should have some longer sentences, punctuated with lots of shorter ones as a rule. Thirdly, a final read through and check for misspelling, improper grammar and contextual problems that detract from the plot.
After all that, you will need a trusted friend, expert or editor to cast a fresh eye over your work. They will see the things you either can’t or won’t change and challenge you to change your approach. They will also spot the mistakes that for whatever reason you missed.
Remember this, your book will never be perfect. Even seasoned, published authors have errors and inconsistencies in their books. You need to decide at some point to risk publishing your work. The beauty of self-publishing is that you can always upload a new revision. Some of my books have been revised a dozen times and even still I spot something I missed with another read.
One very effective tool I use is a program called Ivona. By converting your text to realistic speech and playing it back to yourself, you will spot problems you cannot spot by reading it yourself.
Recently, research was undertaken ( I cannot remember the source) that suggests that people really do judge a book by its cover. If your cover looks like a cover someone did themselves, you need to do something about it. Illustrations that look like a child drew them (unless that is the point), bland or uninteresting fonts, unimaginative images, books that are far too dark or with blurred images, covers out of step with your story or which are uninspired, or just plain wrong, will only serve to put potential readers off.
Of course, getting a professional to design your cover for you is expensive. But, if you are clever and understand the structure of a good cover, there is nothing to stop you having a go. Upload your cover to competitions like that on Authors Database and get feedback on it. Nobody will tell you if your cover is ugly. They will simply avoid your book. They may indeed be missing out on a great read, but this is not necessarily their fault. Your cover needs to reflect the genre, theme and intended readership age group.
You don’t need an expensive program, you only need PowerPoint and a simple image manipulation program (like those already on your operating system). Experiment with several designs and always be willing to change them. If you are unsure, put your cover up on FB or Word Press and ask your readers and friends for honest feedback (before you publish preferably). Some of my covers have undergone several incarnations until I was happy with the result.
To see how to use PowerPoint to produce a book cover, watch our very own video tutorials online (see end of this article).
Believe it or not, writing your book is the easy part. It’s marketing your book that will test your patience and resilience as an author. Be prepared for many setbacks. Be prepared for next to zero sales. Be prepared for the odd poor review. Be prepared for apathy, disinterest and criticism. But understand this, the writing journey is a journey of growth. I am not the same person who published his first book way back at the beginning of 2012. Now, almost three years later, I can honestly say I am a far better writer. I have tested the waters, I was brave enough to put myself out there. But nothing can prepare you for the genuine feedback from the least expected source, such as what happened recently when a local man I did not know stopped me in the street and told me he had read Kipp The Copper Coast Kid and loved it. This, for me, was worth every bitter disappointment or self doubt I have ever had. It has kept me going.
The status quo is to put yourself on social media, to market yourself online through blogging, web sites, forums, social networks and the like. But my honest opinion about this is that whilst it is a necessary evil, people are becoming gradually reticent to check out people’s profiles and see what they are all about. There is a simple explanation for this. There are so-called authors everywhere. The Internet is flooded with millions and millions of authors, all constantly harassing (for want of a better word) the public about their books. So, the public have turned cynical, so that now even reviews don’t count for much anymore. However, this is the approach I now take. My goal is to make sure my name and brand appear on the first page of searches on google. I don’t worry anymore about who is checking me out and whether they buy my books. I am out there. I now appear regularly on searches. To that end I have achieved a goal. I cannot force people to buy my books. I can only hope they do.
If an author is serious about self promotion, he or she must be willing to not only put themselves out there, but actively contribute to the ongoing conversation about publishing (Hence one of the reasons for PiA). Make a solid contribution to this conversation and people will listen. In the end though, being successful still comes down to luck. You can have the best book in the world, but if it has not yet been discovered by the “right” people, you will struggle.
If you haven’t already done so, nothing can replace good old fashioned local marketing. Public libraries will buy or receive your books. They are usually happy to do so. Set yourself up at local markets and take pride in your books. Never call yourself self-published unless someone asks. Always assume that when people see your fresh new books, that in their minds they see you as an author. Not an indie author selling home-made books, not an “aspiring” author, but an “actual” author.
Lastly, enjoy the journey of exploring publishing. Take pride in your books. Give them to family and friends. They will get a kick out of boasting that they are related to, or friends with an author. Keep positive (not always easy I admit) and stay focused. Do not be tempted to write fiction for the mass market that you “think” they want. Write what “you” want. Write from the heart. Write stories you would want to read. Write stories like those that stood out in your mind when you were young. Be inventive, but don’t be distracted and you will achieve a measure of success.