General Writing

How Long Should a Chapter Be?

Judging from Facebook writers’ groups, chapter lengths are one of the main anxieties of new writers. Hardly a week goes by without someone obsessing about whether their chapters are too short, or too long, and craving for a scrap of certainty that, frankly doesn’t exist. I could say that I have seen chapters of two words and others of ten thousand words, or that the average length appears to be 3000-4500 words, but neither of those answers is very useful. Like most aspects of writing, chapter length is highly circumstantial.

One school of thought is that you should take pity on your readers, and keep your chapters short for the sake of those who want to finish a chapter before going to bed. Most people would also agree that chapters in a children or young adult book should be shorter than those in a book for an older audience. But these answers aren’t especially useful either. How short is shorter, or long is longer?

To get an actual length, you might start with with your structure. For example, if you are using a five act structure borrowed from Shakespearean plays, then you could plan on five scenes per act, and plan each scene as a chapter. If you plan on a 100,000 word novel, that means your chapters should average out to 4,000 words. The trouble is that Shakespeare himself rarely wrote a perfectly symmetrical play, and frequently had Acts with three or seven chapters in them. Nor are other standard structures any more useful.

Lacking a firm answer, I prefer to plan my chapter lengths by the rhythm they create. Chapters are a natural break in the narrative, and a fresh start. Just as short sentences have a different effect than longer sentences, so a short chapter has a different effect than a longer one. On the one hand, consistently short chapters are likely to create a faster pace, perhaps with more changes in point of view. If you want to go into more depth with shorter chapters, you may need more cliff-hanger endings — and, even if you don’t, the narrative will sometimes spill over into the next chapter, and is likely to break the rhythm established by earlier chapters (which may or may not be something you want to do). On the other hand, long chapters are apt to be slower, and perhaps more philosophical. Your chapters are more likely to come to definite ends.

However, who says that chapters have to be a consistent length? A single sentence chapter can be used for a number of different purposes. In her Falco series, for example, mystery writer Lindsey Davis ends on chapter with a thrown knife, and deliberately breaks the tension in the next, single-sentence chapter in which her narrator simply says that he caught it. Suspense is not the main point of the narrative at that point, so Davis refuses to milk it. More recently, in The Cruel Prince, Holly Black glosses over a lapse of a decade with the simple sentence, “In Faerie, there are no fish sticks, no ketchup, no television,” implying all that a young girl might miss growing up among elves in just eleven words. Each is brilliant in its own way, even if I suspect both writers delight in showing off their writing skills.

Similarly, a chapter longer than those around it can also be useful. Consider, for example, The Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. It follows the tense retreat of Aragorn and the four hobbits from Weathertop, racing against time so that Frodo can get the healing he requires. In fact, ever since Bree, the hobbits have been pursued by the Black Riders, with next to no relief of tension. Once they are under Elrond’s protection, the tension is broken, and the characters and the readers alike are overdue for a rest. So Tolkien gives them one, full of welcome reunions and pages of history and debate which, if sometimes ominous, seem remote when heard in such a refuge.

Tolkien also makes effective use of a long chapter in The Battle of Pelennor Fields. The chapter describes the siege of Minas Tirith by Sauron’s army, and the mood gradually becomes grimmer and more hopeless as the city fights on, waiting for the forces of Rohan to relieve it. Just as the tension has been cranked up to an unbearable pitch, a cock crows, and the long chapter ends with, “Rohan had come at last.”

As these examples show, how long your chapters should be is not a trivial question. The problem is that it has no easy answer. The only meaningful answer is: that depends on what you are trying to do.

Uncategorized

Serving Two Masters: When a Teacher Tries to Become a Writer

I’ve been a teacher for 15 years. It wasn’t my first choice of profession, no, rather, I was somewhat pushed into it by circumstance, that circumstancing being my life in China. In 2003 a foreigner in China had few options. You could study Chinese, you could sing and dance onstage, or you could teach. Since my student days were over and I was not much of a singer, I chose teaching. Initially, like many foreigners, I was an English teacher, although after some years I carved out a niche for myself teaching AP History courses and eventually I transitioned into college application counseling.

Years later, when I returned to the USA, I had acquired my teaching license and set about finding a position teaching in public schools. My reasoning was that my career was built upon education, and people do not just up and switch career paths when they’re nearing 40. Especially not if they are trying to rebuild a life in the home country after nearly two decades abroad.

And so I became a teacher. In China, teaching was not a particularly taxing profession. For one, we were generally limited to 20 or so contact hours per week, with the rest of the time spent planning and grading. For another, teachers were well compensated, and college counselors even moreso. I left China with fifteen years in the educational sector, and that experience had granted me a comfortably lifestyle. I was able to balance teaching with my other hobbies, passions, and pursuits relatively easily. And while I never got serious about writing a novel while I was in China, I dabbled in creative writing all throughout my time there, with shorter pieces and novel fragments. I never felt like teaching impacted my ability to creative, to give my all to my craft.

Teaching in America has been something else entirely. Just at the time I was starting to get serious about finishing my novel and pursuing publication, I started working at a Texas public school district. My workload increased — I was usually teaching, or in contact with students, for at least 35 hours a week. While in China I had mostly worked with elite children who, while they had their issues, came from stable loving upper middle class homes. They were not coming to school hungry, or sore from beatings, nor were they working multiple jobs to provide for younger siblings. I never once, in China, dealt with a teen pregnancy. And while in China, the biggest behavioral issue I dealt with was perhaps an errant cell phone in class, in Texas I dealt with students snorting cocaine of the desks in the library. Teaching in the United States requires an almost unlimited capacity for empathy and creative problem solving, which, unfortunately, precisely what is required of a writer.

Are writing and teaching entirely incompatible? I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve managed to accomplish a lot on my school holidays, and I can be productive on the weekends when I’m not too burned out. Towards the end of a semester, though, writing gets hard. When I’ve already exhausted my emotional capacity during the day, I barely have enough of me left to give my actual children, much less the fictional children that inhabit my pages. Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I probably edited over 20,000 words of my first draft, but this work-week, I’ll be lucky if I can edit one fifth of that.

The parts of your brain that come into use when teaching and writing are frankly, too similar. While there are plenty of career teachers who have gone on to become successful writers, I think that most of us, at some point, are faced with a difficult choice: keep teaching, and allow our manuscripts to stagnate, taking years to finish what could be accomplished in months, or give up teaching, give up a lifelong career doing something important and meaningful, a career that is a source of stable income and personal satisfaction, in order to pursue writing more seriously.

Perhaps this is my end of semester burnout speaking, but recently I feel the pull towards my words more strongly than I feel the pull towards the classroom. Children deserve teachers whose heart is always there in that classroom, not teachers who are trying desperately to hold a tiny bit back for themselves, for their own creations. I feel immense guilt at my inability to be the kind of teacher that gives and gives and gives, but the truth is, I’ve given for a long time now. My words, perhaps, can be a gift as well, a different kind of giving.

Fiction, Uncategorized

Michael in the Forest

He will do it. I have come to stop him. Everything is that simple.

Michael moves a chess piece of red clay. He is folded up on himself, his shoulders shrunk. I see my own age in him. I see that I do not tell the whole truth to myself, that I would have come back to his house for some reason before I died. The stones, seeming dank in the firs’ shade, the caverns carved by shadow where my heartbeats throw footsteps down the trails ahead: these I understand. The city is what I do not understand. Had I died before seeing the house a last time, I would have become a ghost and lingered by the lanes and bus-stops where the dogs sniff each other in the early morning. I have always envied Michael the place where he lives.

His move has checkmated me, and he smiles as he reaches for my wine. My tastebuds have gone before I have, and it seemed dusty to me. But Michael gulped his an hour ago, and now his lips edge towards a smile as his tongue slips over the wine in my glass.

I am lulled, after our years of office-sharing, the way I was by the habits of my wife. For three years after I retired, I trailed in my dressing gown after her as she did her housework. Only after she died did I compare myself to the undergraduates who lingered in the cafeteria in the hopes of spotting Michael.

I shake my head. How tiresome, that I am still able to lie to myself. The years have simply made my lies more subtle. I see now that I came for another brawl with words, because he always acts without asking – beause, in fact, he asked me by letter. Now that I think, I doubt that I will be able to stop him when he tries to die.

Michael says, “It has always stood on the edge of the clearing for members of my family. It waits for me. It will call me, soon.”

“How could it have always been here?” I say. “The house and the clearing are a hundred years old, no more.”

He smiles. “Do you think it could be Tsonoqua? The tribes’ Cannibal Woman?”

“Not my specialty.” I mean that I do not remember the mythology. I have not been at the faculty club, even, for two years.

His faculty was English, the same as mine. All the same, he frees a small Henry Hunt print from the wall. He props it against the chess board, facing me. The puzzle-piece blocks of red and black fit into a person holding a basket. I do not know West Coast art, so I cannot say that I see a woman.

“There you go,” he says, “Cannibal Woman.”

His talk is like his tarot cards, like the witchy books whose pages he never turns. I use two fingers as tweezers, and toss the print aside.

“Your father moved here after the war,” I insist. “How could anything have been awaiting your family?”

“A father and an aunt. Two great uncles.” He counts on his fingers. “My grandfather on a visit. He was as old as I am now.”

“How can you believe?” I glared at him and go to lean on the mantlepiece.

He keeps silent.

“You can’t start to argue and then stop, Michael. I know too well that you’ll try to.”

Still, he does not answer. I stare furiously into the fire.

After a moment, he takes pity. “I doubt it will come tonight, Jonathan. Why don’t you sleep?”

He lets some wine lurch from the bottle into his glass. I do not say what I wanted to when I saw the label. I was young, when Okanagan wines were malt vinegar. I take my lacquered walking stick and start to the stairs. The further I move from the fire, the more the cold off the stones seems to slip inside me.

At the stair’s bottom, I turn. He is going to be awake all night. He will be sleepless, steady and sober, and he is six years older than me.

“You’ll be all right?” I say.

“I hope so,” he says. My neck hardens as I understand that we have different meanings.

“I wish I could hear the sea.” I climb two stairs and turn again. “Here in the trees, you forget there is a sea.”

“I could take you to the saltchuck tomorrow.” He opens last week’s paper to the chess problem. “Good night, Jonathan.”

“Good night, Michael.” I sway up to the landing. When my breath is not so tight about my breastbone, I walk in the darkness to my room.

Two, three times, I grope out, sleep-slowed, for my bladder’s sake. From the landing, I look down each time. I know Michael and I do not want to wake in the house alone.

On my last stare, his bald spot slides away to make room for his face. “I told you it probably wouldn’t come, Jonathan.”

I trudge back to gape up into the dark. I tell myself that he is drunk on words, that his family has been proud and chosen their deaths in lonely places, the way that cats are supposed to. But I sleep in a fever of doubt. Through jagged dreams, I watch as a stooped Cannibal Woman plucks men and women from the ground. Among her harvest is Michael, his tweeds thick with needles and loose with the damp. Dew dribbles down the branches on to his head.

When I fall out of sleep, I say, “This is it.” I would use the same tone for the long-awaited holocaust-by-button. I know, not knowing how I know, and I lash the sash around my dressing gown as I walk. In the dark before the stairs, I push my glasses up along my nose.

Michael is straightening a toque about his head. A black ski jacket coats his body.

I place myself in front of him. “It’s cancer, isn’t it? That, or something worse.”

I am sure that I will be faced with silence, his smugness so much worse than a curse. Instead, he smiles. “No, Jonathan. Just time.”

I move between him and the door. I was strong, when young. My arms were veined with strength. Now, I strain and grunt, and still I am pushed aside and into a chair.

How can these crying sounds creep out of me? My eyes itch with dryness.

I hear the lock open. My cheek is brushed by the rush of air.

“Good night, Jonathan.”

After a moment, I can hear him outside, walking with slow purpose, as if he is early for an appointment and looking for the address.

Twisting in the chair, I seem him easing into the dark.

Overhead, the wind ruffles the branches. It seems to dance through the dark as I stagger to the door.

By my car, across the clearing, Michael twists sideways into the bush. I see him, one hand raised to move a branch from his path. The hand straightens and rises a little as he sees me. He

does not wave.

Part of the dark seems to slip from the rest. It clings to him like a lover. There is a laugh like Michael’s—no.

There is only the twitching branch.

The trees seem to stoop after me. I have gone senile and want to giggle, but the beginnings of sweat are breaking out over my face. I have thought death thin, and bleak. Yet the night outside flows about me, as warm as bathwater. I want to close my eyes to remember. I want to invite the night in through the door. Instead, I leap to close it and I hurry away, faster than my heart would like.

Upstairs, I tug my dressing gown off. I lean over the bed, lowering myself face-first.

Mouth at the pillow, I speak to the dark. “They’ll have to solder my coffin lid down.”

After a second: “They’ll have to pin my heart down, and plant me in a place where two freeways meet.”

“I’ve always liked garlic. They’ll give me garlic for chewing tobacco.”

I carry a poor tune in the dark. I lunge at the light. “Me,” I whisper as I pick up the phone. “It should have been me.”

The silence that replies seems Michael’s, and, already, loneliness aches like a rib-bruise.

Tomorrow I will look for Michael in the forest.

Uncategorized

The Thief

The crowd at the bar had started out as a pulsating mass of  bodies, crammed onto the small dance floor, jumping up and down in time to the dance-hall reggae mixed by a skinny white boy in a backwards baseball cap. But it was well past midnight, and the crowd had now thinned to a smattering of die-hard drinkers, clustered around a few tables, talking in hushed tones occasionally punctuated by a laugh or a yell or the slam of a shot glass on the bar as a final round was ordered. The music calmed by degree, the dance hall giving way to Toots and the Maytals, giving way finally to Chinese folk rock by the Wild Children.

I sat with my boyfriend, Jun and the barkeep, Old Liu, and with another foreigner, an Australian named Blake. Jun was slumped drunkenly on the table, head resting on his forearms, while Blake and Old Liu talked quietly about what seemed to be a grave situation. I placed my hand gently on Jun’s back, and his eyes fluttered open.

“Let’s go,” I said, and he nodded.

I turned and took my bag from the back of my chair, and fumbled for my wallet so that I could settle up at the bar. I found my wallet, but noticed with a start that my cell-phone was gone. It was small Sony-Ericsson, cheap and functional, but precious nonetheless as my only means of communication in this country where cell-phones had replaced land-lines a good decade before they would do so back home. “My phone’s gone,” I said, panic entering my voice. Old Liu and Blake halted their conversation.

“When did you last see it?” Old Liu asked.

“I checked the time maybe a half an hour ago,” I said, frowning.

“The thief must still be here,” Old Liu declared. “No-one has left since then.” He looked around the room and narrowed his eyes at one table. Standing up he wasn’t much taller than me, but authority filled every inch of him as he swaggered over, pointing his finger at one man in particular. I recognized the man. He was an oddball sort who had been hanging around various tables all evening, latching on to foreigners to practice his English, but who didn’t seem to actually know anyone in the room.

“You,” he said, pointing aggressively at the man. “Empty your pockets.”

The man, intimidated, backed up, and the people at his table dispersed, disavowing him immediately, as if to say ‘we’ve nothing to do with this guy.’ “I didn’t do anything,” the man protested.

“Like hell,” Old Liu said. “I’m calling the police — you’re a thief.”

I shook Jun, who had fallen asleep again. “Jun,” I said. “Wake up. My phone is missing and Old Liu is picking a fight with that weird loner from earlier.”

Shenme shiqing? What’s going on?” He rubbed his eyes and sat up.

“Look,” I said. Old Liu now had the man in a hold and was marching him over to the bar, where the bartenders were darting their eyes back and forth at each other.

“Call the police,” Old Liu barked at them, and then to me, he added “Gen, come over here. I’ve got your phone thief.”

I pulled Jun up out of his chair and towards the bar with me. “Are you sure this is him?” I looked skeptically at Old Liu, who was holding the man’s arms behind his back. For his part, the man, a scrawny thing with thick glasses, shaggy hair, and an ill fitting blazer, looked terrified.

“I’m telling you, I didn’t take it,” he said.

“Where is the phone?” I asked, to no one in particular.

“He handed it off already,” Old Liu said, and spat on the floor. “But he’ll tell us where it is, don’t worry. The cops are on the way.”

“How do you know it is him?”

Old Liu fixed me with a frustrated look, and turned to Jun as if he could somehow explain this to me in a way I would understand. “This guy doesn’t know anyone, but he’s been hanging around all night long. If he’s not a thief, what the hell is he doing here?”

“I was just wanting to make some foreign friends,” the man’s voice rose an octave, in a panic. “I’m not a thief!”

“Shut up, thief,” said Old Liu. “Jun, want to give me a hand here?”

I don’t think Jun even heard Old Liu, as he was leaning heavily on my shoulder. “Tou hao yun,” he said. “My head is spinning. Can we get out of here?”

Old Liu sighed and rolled his eyes towards the heavens. “Unbelievable,” he said.

Luckily, or unluckily for the accused thief, the police appeared, and Old Liu explained the situation to them, while they wrote things in their little notepads. Jun slumped against me, barely awake.

“Gen, we need to go to the station and give them a statement,” Old Liu said.

“It’s fine,” I protested. “Really, I’ll get a new phone. It isn’t a big deal.”

Wrong answer. Old Liu glowered at me. “I caught your thief, now we have to make sure he is punished.”

“Look at him though,” I said, gesturing to Jun. “He’s barely conscious.”

“Put him in a taxi and send him home! He’s not your responsibility.”

“He’s my boyfriend,” I said, and Old Liu scoffed.

I narrowed my eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, nothing. Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Knowing I was beat, I shook Jun off of my shoulder once again. “We need to go to the police,” I said. “I’ll meet you back at home, ok?” I turned to Blake, who was still standing by, watching the entire scene play out, looking equal parts amused and alarmed. “Help me get him home,” I said. “You know where I live.”

“Of course Gen,” said Blake. “You go deal with this thief, your boy will be fine, I’ll tuck him in for you safe and sound.”

I frowned, not sure if Blake was mocking me or not, but too tired and annoyed with the entire situation to care. “Let’s go,” I said to Old Liu.

We followed the police around the corner, walking to the station, which was perhaps a block or two away, not far. This was one thing I loved about our city in those days. It was imminently walkable. We passed a late night barbecue stand, and my stomach grumbled at the smell of roast mutton. Maybe I’d get a few meat sticks on the way back, I thought.

When we arrived at the police station, the police had me fill out a report, which I only managed with the help of Old Liu filling in the characters I couldn’t remember. Then, one policeman, an older man, perhaps fifty, with greying hair and a potbelly, took Old Liu aside and said something to him quietly, gesturing down the hall, and then gesturing towards me. I couldn’t hear the details of their exchange, but it made me nervous nonetheless. Old Liu walked over and placed a hand on my shoulder. “We should interrogate the suspect now,” he said.

“We?” I said, confused. “You mean the police?”

“No, not the police. Me. You.”

“I don’t want to interrogate anyone,” I said, panicking now. “I don’t know how to do that.”

“We don’t interrogate with words, Gen,” he said. His manner was patient, but I felt the fool anyhow, unable to grasp this seemingly simple situation. He sighed. “I can do it, you watch.”

It dawned on me what Old Liu meant, and I shook my head. “I don’t want to watch.”

Old Liu nodded, as if my frailty in this regard was altogether expected, and he was simply waiting for the confirmation he needed. “Then you wait out here, I will do it.”

I didn’t answer him, not wanting to appear as if I condoned this turn of events. I felt, at once, deeply uncomfortably with what was likely taking place, and the gin I’d drank early churned in my stomach. I didn’t quite understand why Old Liu was so intent on punishing this maybe-thief, and I was even less clear as to why the police were allowing him to interrogate, as he put it, the man himself. I paced the hallway, wondering if perhaps I should just go home, when finally he emerged, knuckles clenched and reddened, and nodded at the police officer who stood at the doorway. “He’s yours now,” Old Liu said. “I’m done.”

“Is that it? Did he confess?” I tried to peer through the doorway, but the officer was blocking my view.

Old Liu shook his head. “Stubborn goat,” he said. “Ready?”

“Yes,” I said, eager to leave this place. The fluorescent lights were too bright, the walls too white, and I had a strong sense of wrongness, of being somewhere I was not meant to be, seeing things not meant for my eyes. With a nod to the police officers, Old Liu and I went out into the cool night air, leaving the thief behind us.

I passed by the barbecue stand again on the way back, but I turned away, now the opposite of hungry, and hurried down the street. At the corner, I bade Old Liu goodbye, and thanked him for his help.

Yinggai de,” he said, and belatedly, I understood. He’d done his duty, shown me his loyalty. I was a friend, and for me, he would do what needed to be done. The thief himself was inconsequential.

When I returned to my apartment, I found Jun sprawled facedown on my bed, still in his clothes and shoes. I quietly untied the laces and pulled them off, and then, kicking my own shoes and jeans off, I curled up next to him. He stirred slightly beside me and turned around, pulling me tight into his arms. I buried my head in Jun’s chest, breathing in the cigarette smoke and whiskey scent of him, and tried to forget the frightened eyes of the thief.