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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

New Book Update: How Potato Chip Chapters Made My Novel Leaner


potato chip writers blockIn January, I returned to working on the actual manuscript of my novel. [In previous posts, I reviewed how I added new scene cards to my novel and used a Word table to restructure the novel at the level of those scenes.]

As I added scenes featuring Kat, my new POV character, I read the existing chapters to make sure whole thing flowed. Of course, as I read, I tweaked and revised what I’d written before, always looking for words to cut. My first draft was, shall I say, a bit flabby.

A few weeks ago, a post in Shawn Coyne’s blog, StoryGrid.com, captured my attention and changed how I looked at both new and existing chapters:

“Two thousand word scene/chapters is potato chip length.

That is, if you are about to go to bed and your reading a terrific novel and the scenes/chapters come in around 2000 word bites, you’ll tell yourself that you’ll read just one more chapter. But if the narrative is really moving after you finish one of these bites, you won’t be able to help yourself reading another. If the Story is extremely well told, you’ll just keep eating the potato chip scenes all through the night.”

More Potato Chip Chapters Please

I added a column to my Word table, which already listed chapters by scene card number and includes a short description of what happens and identifies the POV character. I started counting and recording the number of words in each chapter.

I know 2,000 words is not a magic number that every chapter must adhere to. But it is a nice round number to shoot for and a specific creative constraint that pushes me in the right direction. The old goal, “Make the novel shorter,” didn’t focus my attention the way “Get this chapter to 2,000 words” does.

Losing Weight Looking for Potato Chips

The other day, I told Claudia I’d deleted an entire chapter, not just from the table, but from the manuscript.

“Who ARE you?” she asked.

Claudia and I laughed, but it’s true. I’ve changed as a novelist. My novel is getting leaner and more exciting.

perfectionism equals blockI surrendered the perfectionism that was my misguided attempt to protect myself from criticism. Some days I have to renew my surrender, but I trust myself a lot more.

I trust my readers more, too. I don’t work so hard to make sure they “get it.” I don’t have to explain everything. Twice. Or three times.

When I deleted the last chapter, I left some things unexplained. Readers will have questions. I trust those questions will keep them reading.

This particular chapter was close to 3,000 words. Definitely not a potato chip. With my 2,000-word goal inspiring me, I looked at what was truly essential. Long sections of exposition were not “potato chips.” I deleted them. Likewise summary paragraphs and back story.

Looking for the potato chip, I realized the whole chapter emphasized the gaps in the POV character’s memory. It was me off-stage whispering “See, he doesn’t remember what just happened.” I hate it when people in movie theaters whisper about what’s going to happen next. Why would I expect my readers to appreciate me doing that?

In addition to getting rid of 3,000 unnecessary words, I eliminated a scene that had to happen on a particular day, which made the novel’s timeline more flexible.

The 2,000-word creative constraint also prompted me to divide other chapters into two. This meant rearranging chapters and re-examining the structure from a non-judgmental, ‘what if?’ perspective.

Paradoxically, the greatest gift of the potato chip constraint is freedom. I keep challenging myself to step back and ask “Could I delete this?” I can still answer “No, I can’t” or “No, I really do want to keep that” – the important thing is to ask the question.

Not all chapters have to be potato chips. But I am aiming for most of them.

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