Number 37

As I was taking an inventory and reorganising my chapters after spending several months brainstorming, drafting, and carefully inserting an entire new plot line (essential, of course) throughout my original draft, I discovered a few things about myself as an author.  Most notably, when if comes to chapters I have a strong preference for even numbers.  More, if the final chapter count ends odd I will feel twitchy and disgusting and just plain wrong until it evens out.

For want of a better term, I flipped out in the middle of the school staff room not too long ago (usually not a problem so far as embarrassment goes, but Ueda-sensei who I flipped out to/in front of has a grasp of English far surpassing that of many Japanese English teachers – I think she had a good idea what I was so upset about, and found it very funny ) on discovering for good and certain my novel’s last chapter was now number 37.  It didn’t matter than the total number of sections (37 + prologue + epilogue) was 39.  That, if possible, made matters worse.  That three and seven were a foul and evil combination, and just had to be dealt with.

It took some shuffling and renaming, but eventually that number 37 was sent back to the dark fires.  The original interlude had already been extensively altered, extended, and dubbed a full chapter, probably causing my intense problem – 36 wouldn’t have been so bad, and I think I could have even tolerated the total count being 39 in that case.  Eventually, the main thing done to rectify the issue was that the epilogue (which with the new story line had become far longer and in general less epilogue-esque) was turned in lucky chapter 38 and an entirely new epilogue was born.  The new epilogue, I think, is the best kind of epilogue – two pages long.  Had the original remained it would have been 24, and while a fine number in itself, I don’t think when someone sees the word “epilogue” they want to read another 24 pages.  While this did even my chapter count and bring the total count to wonderful, beautiful 40, this experience made me reflect on a few other novel number/length issues as well.

I could never write only one sequel.  I could never write a quartet.  The only acceptable number of books in a series in my mind is one, three, or seven.  I started planning a sci-fi quartet when I was 15 – that’s never going to happen now.  It should be squashed into a trilogy easily enough, though.

I worry about chapter lengths, too.  The longest chapter in the original draft of my first story was 90 pages of size 12 double-spaced Times New Roman.  Changing formatting helped a bit, but that chapter has since been slashed away at and divided up.  I try to go by the “Council of Elrond” rule:  if it’s longer than the Council of Elrond, it’s too bloody long.  At present chapter lengths vary between 14 and 35 pages, and that’s 1.5 spaced size 11 Times New Roman.  I like having a bit of range in length, and think I’m fairly comfortable with that, though my 11 page prologue worries me a bit – is that too long?

I haven’t met many other writers (as in those who are/aiming to become professional writers), so I don’t know how you all stand on this matter.  Are there general standards I should know about in terms of chapter lengths, and the like?  If an editor got hold of a 90 page chapter, would they immediately set out to rearrange and cut it down, even if it made sense as a single chapter and the content was essential?

Maybe to some these issues are nonexistent.  Maybe they seem utterly trivial – what does it matter, so long as the story’s written and written well?  And I know that in the grand scheme of things – the grand scheme of only writing – it is trivial.  But I honestly did for a moment feel quite ill at the thought of 37 being the last number seen at the top of a chapter.  And maybe many writers have their own number needs or superstitions that must be seen to in order for a book to feel truly right and completed.

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