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About Writing Right: The Blog


That's what someone asked online the other day when inquiring about the viability of a four-page chapter. I gave him my most tempered response.

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You know, enough people have given you enough good responses so that I don't feel I can add much to their replies. But, with that said, I do feel I need to remind you of something you seem to have forgotten, and the best way I can do that is to ask you a question:


Whose book is it, anyway? Yours or someone else's? Seriously. It makes a difference.


You say your longest chapter is four pages, but is it really your chapter, or did your English Lit professor write it for you and ask you to find out if short chapters are acceptable in literature today. Perhaps your teacher isn't comfortable portraying such ignorance; so, he chose, instead, to make you the foil.


Or, perhaps your mother is really the author, and you're asking on her behalf. Or possibly J. K. Rowling. Or Clyde Crashcup. Or, who knows? Maybe even the ghost of Elvis! Anyone other than you! Would you still want to ask the question as if you were actually the author of the book you claim you are if you weren't? Well, would you?


Of course not.


My point is simple. What makes you think anyone else on earth or in heaven can tell you how long you should make the chapters in your book. Do you see where I'm going with this, bunky? If it's your book, you make the decision, and if your English teacher or mother or J.K., Clyde, or the King don't approve, let them write their own damned books. And then they can decide for themselves whether or not a four-page chapter is long enough to satisfy the rest of the English-speaking world.


By asking your question, you seem to have forgotten—or possibly never even knew—that we as artists aren't required to simplify, explain, or appease. We're required to write. To create. If that means going against the norm (if there is such a thing in literature), then tough cookies. It's your book, dammit. Write it the way you want to write it, the way you think it should be written.


Far too often, I run into editor-whipped or expert-beaten or even (God forbid) mommy-intimidated writers who want to become published authors but are too afraid to make those kinds of everyday decisions without first stopping to get someone's magical imprimatur on his work. Well, here's the bad news: There is no imprimatur. There is no magic. There is no solitary authority for what's right and what's wrong in literature, although there are plenty of pretenders to the throne. They are a dime a dozen, while real, genuine, authentic creative writers are scarcer than hen's teeth.


So I ask you, what do you want to be? Part of the crowd of the cowering timidity too frightened to step out on his own without written permission from the dean? Or a cutting edge purveyor of social discord? Or even harmony, for that matter.


Writers are first and foremost artists. We create art. The two operative words in that last sentence are "create" and "art." You can't have one without the other, and you can't have either without the artist—writer, painter, sculptor, composer, pianist, actor … whomever.


So, the short answer to your question: Yes, you can have chapters as short as four pages. I once wrote a complete chapter of four words! When you've finished expressing your thoughts, and the next thing you have to say is markedly removed from the time, place, and characters of your previous chapter, start a new one. That's the short answer. The long answer is this: If you're a creator, create. Break some molds. Tell your story the way you want it told. Do whatever is necessary. But, for God's sake, don't be a social butterfly asking the moths fluttering all around you what you can and can't—or should and shouldn't—write!


Remember: It's your story! Let me repeat that. It's your story! So, don't lie quietly cowering beneath the quilt. Step out to breathe the air of creativity and shout from the rooftops: "Hey world, here I am, like it or not. And here's what I have to say about it all!"


I'm betting you'll feel a whole lot better about yourself, your art, and the world around you. And the world, in return, will be a whole lot better off for it. Meanwhile ...


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs at Substack.com weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, I do my best!)

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