Michael Haskins

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bob Morris & the USA Today Syndrome

My friend and fellow mystery writer Bob Morris – www.bobmorris.net - taught me something about myself recently when he was at Murder on the Beach Bookstore – www.murderonthebeach.com - in Delray Beach to sign his new Zack Chasteen novel, “A Deadly Silver Sea.”

Bob read a printout version of my novel, “Chasin’ the Wind,” and gave me a nice blurb for the cover, long before we had actually met. He did it because he’s a nice guy and, like most mystery writers, remembers what it was like to get that first novel out. That and the fact that I really enjoyed his other Zack Chasteen novels, “Bahamarama,” “Jamaica Me Dead,” and “Bermuda Schwartz,” made my driving almost 200 miles to the bookstore an enjoyable trip. Of course, the fact that Bob also is known for serving a sampling of his famous rum mojitos at his signing was also another reason for the drive.

By 7 p.m., the bookstore was standing room only and I got to see Deb Sharp – www.deborahsharp.com – and talk about first publications and got to discuss my book with some of the guests while we sipped mojitos and waited for Bob to talk.

Bob stood up in front of the crowd, ignoring the overstuffed chair, and began to explain how in the new book he had to go into different voices to make it work. Not to give the plot away, but the story takes place on a luxury cruise ship and the action is nonstop.

One of the things Bob said to me, after reading, “Chasin’ the Wind” was that he liked that my chapters were short and ended with him wanting to turn to the next chapter so he could answer the question or see the solution to the dilemma that ended the previous chapter.

Bob explained the difficulty of writing a book that took place on a cruise ship and how he came about deciding to use different voices in telling the story. Then he talked about why his chapters were short. He explained that he saw his chapters as scenes in a TV show or a movie and went into a little of his background in advertising and entertainment.

I sat there and realized how right he was about chapters being scenes. I had spent most of my wayward youth in Los Angeles working on TV shows and thought maybe that explained why I also wrote short chapters.

Of course, I began with short chapters because of what I call the “U.S.A. Today syndrome.” People are busy today and want to see everything capsulized as U.S.A Today does to the news and as televised news does in its broadcasts.

I don’t really outline my story, but I do make notes on things that should happen and begin giving them chapter numbers. Usually, that goes away because the story begins to write itself and some ideas are tossed aside and others move further up in the storyline and, on occasion I even have to go back and insert something I thought would work further in the story back to an earlier chapter.

I was interviewed on Sun Radio, 95.5 FM, here in Key West, by morning DJ Bill Hoebee and one of the nice things Bill said about my books was that he began it, got hooked on the short chapters and kept wanting to put the book down but needed to know the answer/solution to how the last chapter ended. He said, on air, that by midnight he had to stop reading because he had to be up at 3 a.m. to get to the station. He also mentioned that it was the first novel he’d read since leaving college, because it was an easy read that hooked him. From Hoebee’s lips to readers’ ears!

Not all chapters are short, but most are within the three-to-five page range. I read a lot of news magazines and newspapers and have noticed I usually avoid the “in-depth” pieces unless it’s a subject that really interests me, but I will read many of the shorter pieces. I do this, of course, looking for idea germs and maybe a little something that I can use in background for my novels and short stories.

Short chapters don’t work for everyone, but they seem to work for me, so I have kept it up and am working on my third book, “Car Wash Blues.” I am more aware of chapter length and reread them a little more often than I used to do, because I want to make sure the chapter works, and that I am not just trying to cut them to the bone and leave the reader missing the meat.

Do short chapters work for you? If they do, or don’t, let me know the reason, please.


1 comment:

Terry Odell said...

I think it was Barbara Parker who mentioned approaching a (stereotypical) blonde woman poolside at her apartment complex and asked her if she was enjoying the book she was reading. The reply, "Well, the chapters are short" gave Barbara pause, but she thought about it.

Chapter and scene endings are normal "I can stop reading and go to sleep" points for many readers. (As a matter of fact, since I AM a bed-reader, I learned to make a point of stopping mid-page because otherwise I'd never get to sleep. I know authors love the 'can't put it down' praise, but Life does intervene). At any rate, if a reader comes to the end of a chapter, and it's well-written so there's a page-turning ending, and can see that the next chapter is only a few pages away, they'll read on. And on.

Me? I don't care. My chapters tend to be two POV scenes most of the time, because I follow the expectations of my genre, with dual protagonists. Each scene is probably 4-5 manuscript pages. But I don't do that intentionally. I write chapters as long as they need to be. If an editor said, 'cut them for length', I'd just break each scene into it's own chapter.

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