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Author Topic: Scene & Chapter Length  (Read 11066 times)

Offline wakarimasen

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #15 on: March 18, 2015, 03:40:57 PM »
Personally I feel like I've short changed the reader if a chapter is too short. Or perhaps that is more to do with feeling like I haven't sat down and written enough that day.
Either way I seem to end up at about 5-6 A4 pages  (let's say 3500 words). I'll frequently change to a completely different POV or scene mid chapter, which could easily qualify as a reason for a new chapter, but I guess my TV influenced mind works on a 1 Chapter = 1 Episode premise at some level.

Scene length? I wouldn't put more than three scenes in a chapter, so we'll call it ideally 1250 words.

Offline Raptori

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #16 on: March 18, 2015, 04:10:11 PM »
Thanks guys, that helps us feel a little more confident that we probably won't be massively overshooting our goals. A first draft at 120-130k sounds pretty good, cutting the usual 10% of that would mean we'd end up exactly where we want to be :)
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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #17 on: March 25, 2015, 02:26:37 PM »
Usually between 3000-7500 words for chapters. I don't really worry about scene length, as I don't picture it in scenes, I picture it by major event and character. Chapters are structured first by event, then by character, with scene breaks between character swaps.

Just to make it clear, we're not using word count as the primary means of working out what needs to go in the story. It's one thing that it makes sense to consider at this point, because we want to write a novel of roughly 90-120k words rather than a 300k doorstopper that would be completely unpublishable as a debut novel. Sure that's thinking ahead of ourselves, but why not aim for what you want to achieve right from the beginning?

Having recently finished a 350k word doorstopper as a debut novel, we have very different styles XD. I see the wisdom in this (I'm currently doing it for my WIP), and I think limitations are great for learning the more disciplined aspects of writing, but I feel like I lose a lot of the other half (voice, style, characterization), when I put limits on myself.

IMO, (Take my opinion and like it! Seriously though, do what you think is best, but I'm now going to give you advice which is really nothing more than me justifying my own choices  ;D ):

Your first book should be about experimenting with whatever nonsense you can think of. Play with tense, play with structure, with first person, third, even second if you feel like it. Rather than build your limits from the start, test them. You're going to be naturally skilled at certain aspects of writing, and fail miserably at others. You won't know which skills you've got until you try it all, and find ways to work around those you suck at. The first book should be about looking at every tool available to you, feeling their weight, and then dropping them on your toes.

Look at all the rules every want-to-be writer/editor has regurgitated on their blog over the years, and mangle them. Then see what happens when you listen to them. Find out which ones really apply, which ones have been repeated so many times over the years to have lost all the original meaning (mantras suck), discover the kernel of truth which originally inspired the advice, and then adapt it to fit in with your own style.

EDIT: I might have more to say on this as I think. (Protoss voice:) I shall return.

EDIT: As promised, I have returned. (the second person "you's" in the following statements are not directed at you specifically Raptori, they are a general you, because I am in my ranty mode, and ranty mode loves them general "you's."

I have a pet peeve with writing advice, and it kind of goes back to my self deprecating joke, and it's this: There's so much advice out there on the internet about how you should write (a lot of it, imo, just people trying to justify their own actions, hence the irony of this entire post), and a whole lot of it is, I feel like, nonsense. A lot of it is quality, but the vast amount of it, is nonsense for a simple fact: these people haven't read your work. Yes, there is general advice that works. Certain things make sense, things like, avoid redundancy, avoid things that might confuse the reader, (aka, be clear and concise), but if you set yourself up with a list of other people's rules before finding your own style and voice, you might never find it, for the simple fact you're, (in a sense) trying to be them, rather than discovering you. Another part to this, you really don't understand good writing advice, until you break the rule down enough that you see what it actually means.

For example. The "no -ly adverbs", is advice I hear all the time, but I hear it so often without the context that makes it meaningful advice, that it's actually advice that I feel is a detriment to a beginner. I can only speak for myself here, I might be entirely wrong, and it's a completely subjective thing, but on its own, the statement "don't use -ly adverbs" is just terrible advice, and unfortunately that's the way it's often portrayed. It's terrible advice, because it completely brushes over the nuance of when specifically and why specifically, -ly adverbs can be a bad thing, and entirely ignores the good uses. (You'll notice I used an overload of -ly adverbs in those last few sentence. It's because they are great 'stresser words' they're (to me), a crucial element in creating natural sounding voice for characters.) This rant is overtaking me, I don't remember what my point was.

But my point is: ( ;D) Any advice which outright forbids anything, is probably lying to you. It's probably bad advice, because there is almost always a situation in which that exact thing that is forbidden to you, is exactly the thing you need to make your work better. If you don't play with the rules and mangle the crap out of them, you'll never know what those situations are, and how to maneuver them skillfully. And going back to my actual original point (I stopped and reread what I wrote, what a novel idea), as these people giving this advice have likely not read your work, they don't know what elements your rule breaking might hamper, and which advice might help it flourish. We all have a unique style, and to say there are cardinal sins within writing, which when broken will destroy you, is kind of silly, because there's too much variance from author to author. (of course, I'm going to say clarity is a cardinal rule. Maybe the only cardinal rule for me. The other cardinal rule being: always contradict yourself. In fact my current WIP has a character who I've specifically written to confuse the crap out people).

I don't know if this rant is over. I hope so, because I'm beginning to feel like I need to restructure this whole post into a well structured essay, and that's terrifying. I might be back...
« Last Edit: March 25, 2015, 04:11:03 PM by Justan Henner »

Offline Raptori

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #18 on: March 25, 2015, 03:25:00 PM »
Having recently finished a 350k word doorstopper as a debut novel, we have very different styles XD. I see the wisdom in this (I'm currently doing it for my WIP), and I think limitations are great for learning the more disciplined aspects of writing, but I feel like I lose a lot of the other half (voice, style, characterization), when I put limits on myself.
Yeah it's interesting, a lot of people seem to think like that in all walks of life. For example, when in college (doing graphic design) the other students found it increasingly difficult when the projects were more limited, since they felt it limited their creativity. I think it's because their approach was generally the designer's equivalent of discovery writing: they created and developed their ideas in a linear fashion from start to finish.

Both my partner and I found that our best work always comes when we have strict limits. When we're allowed to do whatever the hell we want the number of possibilities is completely overwhelming, because we would generally see hundreds if not thousands of approaches to take. It's like being told to paint anything, the sheer number of things you could choose is ridiculous. When there are stricter limits, we can use those limits as a structure to which we add our creative flair - ending up with a result that fits the brief flawlessly without seeming limited at all.

That's the designer's equivalent of plotting - we first develop the underlying logic and structure of the work and only then add the creative bits. We've both always worked that way to some extent, but years of doing projects like that make it the easiest way of thinking of things. Our approach also had the advantages of taking a lot less time and giving a more polished final work (we were both top of our respective class, and my partner's grades were the highest in the history of the course).

IMO, (Take my opinion and like it! Seriously though, do what you think is best, but I'm now going to give you advice which is really nothing more than me justifying my own choices  ;D ):

Your first book should be about experimenting with whatever nonsense you can think of. Play with tense, play with structure, with first person, third, even second if you feel like it. Rather than build your limits from the start, test them. You're going to be naturally skilled at certain aspects of writing, and fail miserably at others. You won't know which skills you've got until you try it all, and find ways to work around those you suck at. The first book should be about looking at every tool available to you, feeling their weight, and then dropping them on your toes.

Look at all the rules every want-to-be writer/editor has regurgitated on their blog over the years, and mangle them. Then see what happens when you listen to them. Find out which ones really apply, which ones have been repeated so many times over the years to have lost all the original meaning (mantras suck), discover the kernel of truth which originally inspired the advice, and then adapt it to fit in with your own style.
I think all of that kind of experimentation is hugely important, but it's much more efficient (and easier in our case to maintain motivation) to explore all the different possibilities by writing shorter works for that purpose. It'd bug me to try all sorts of different things within the same piece of continuous prose, and learning to be flexible while maintaining consistency within each project is also important imo.  :)

EDIT: I might have more to say on this as I think. (Protoss voice:) I shall return.
More please! Really interesting post. I'm still tempted to make a separate thread for discussion of discovery vs planning and all the different ideas and reasoning surrounding each...
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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #19 on: March 25, 2015, 03:53:00 PM »
Both my partner and I found that our best work always comes when we have strict limits. When we're allowed to do whatever the hell we want the number of possibilities is completely overwhelming, because we would generally see hundreds if not thousands of approaches to take. It's like being told to paint anything, the sheer number of things you could choose is ridiculous. When there are stricter limits, we can use those limits as a structure to which we add our creative flair - ending up with a result that fits the brief flawlessly without seeming limited at all.

Yes. This too. I know exactly what this is. It's the same reason I can only really know where the book is going, when I am in the moment writing it. That scenario has a lot to do with the limitations the previous scenes have already set, combined with the more physical/mental limitations of, this is what you're doing now, time to think.

I think all of that kind of experimentation is hugely important, but it's much more efficient (and easier in our case to maintain motivation) to explore all the different possibilities by writing shorter works for that purpose. It'd bug me to try all sorts of different things within the same piece of continuous prose, and learning to be flexible while maintaining consistency within each project is also important imo.  :)

As I mentioned (more likely alluded to) in the edits above (yes, I have edited after you posted this post), there's a lot of contradiction here, or at least what seems like contradiction, but is actually very logical (I think?). These two concepts work together. The high limitation and structure, mixed with allowing yourself anything, are both important. I'm certainly not telling you to avoid limitations, or to not work within them, but I am advising that you take some time to work without them also, to experiment. Do both.

And you're right, it is easier to experiment in shorter work, but it's also important (at least I think so) to experiment in longer work, for this reason: Part of experimenting is testing the bounds of overall structure. Things like three act structure, things like "how do I raise the tension in this chapter here, so that this chapter 45k words down the line, has the correct tone," these types of questions, this type of experimentation, is probably best done in longer works (by long, I mean novella length or more, maybe 40K+ words, as opposed to short stories), and the reason I say that, is because a large part of the learning process is figuring out how you balance tone/theme/structure within each scene vs. tone/theme/structure within the whole. How to maintain that consistency you mentioned is part of what stretching the bounds can teach you.

For example:
The happy ending. The happy ending works because it's often balanced against extreme misfortune. The majority of a happy ending story, is the bad stuff which inevitably leads to the happy ever after. The happy ever after doesn't pack the same punch if cinderalla isn't abused by her step-family.

Similar things happen when you work down on a more micro level. A certain tone within chapter 1, might set the up for the theme in chapter six, which emphasizes the resolution in the final chapter. A single character's predilection toward unusual speech and voice patterns, might set a certain mood (maybe comedy, maybe set the character up as seemingly stupid or innocent, etc.), that needs to be contrasted later. Now, a lot of these things can be planned for, but I think the experimentation phase is what teaches you how to use them appropriately. (as an example of this, I'm going to post a story in the rogues contest later this week which will hopefully illuminate what I mean. [assuming it is short enough, sometimes I write to the theme and then way overshoot the word count, in which case, I'll post it in the critique section] Right now I'm playing around with jargon and accent in the hopes it'll create a certain mood. Hopefully it'll work, but after I post it, we can talk a bit more about how it applies to this point I'm trying to make. Whether it works or not, It'll give me a place to start from, whether it be: this needs to change, it didn't work, but why not? or This worked, awesome, how can I make it better, and how can I apply this same idea in the future).

EDIT: I may edit again, because I'm still in rant mode, and as you've probably gathered by now, my lack of plotting leads to erratic jumbling of my argument which must then be restructured into a coherent whole :)
« Last Edit: March 25, 2015, 05:06:09 PM by Justan Henner »

Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #20 on: March 25, 2015, 05:01:59 PM »
Also, @Raptori, it sounds like the two of you already know what type of writers you are. I'm not trying to tell you what's going to work for you, I have no right to, nor any hope of accuracy in such a statement. But I would advise that any writer take some time to step outside their comfort zone, if only to see what happens. ;D

Also it's really invigorating when you step outside your comfort zone, fail miserably, and get to tell yourself, "See I knew it wouldn't work!"

Offline wakarimasen

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #21 on: March 25, 2015, 05:36:48 PM »
Interesting stuff.
As a novice writer my first attempts have been more freeform, less constrained, and they produced some good results. My next ones have been more tightly plotted and planned, they too had their strong points.

Now the thing is, the first ones are better stories, but I learnt more as a writer from the second.

Working within constraints and using the well trodden advice is a better way to find your feet as a writer I think, before then taking those training wheels off and using them to beat the constraints to death.

Picasso could paint conventionally long before he began his adventures in cubism.

Offline Raptori

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #22 on: March 26, 2015, 03:16:45 AM »
@Justan (boo at the space in your username which breaks the tagging system) - I'll reply to your posts when I have a bit more time, loads to get through there. Please continue your rant if you have anything more to say  :P

Interesting stuff.
As a novice writer my first attempts have been more freeform, less constrained, and they produced some good results. My next ones have been more tightly plotted and planned, they too had their strong points.

Now the thing is, the first ones are better stories, but I learnt more as a writer from the second.

Working within constraints and using the well trodden advice is a better way to find your feet as a writer I think, before then taking those training wheels off and using them to beat the constraints to death.

Picasso could paint conventionally long before he began his adventures in cubism.
Yeah that's a very good point, I can't think of any skill other than writing where the general advice is often to explore and experiment first, rather than working on the basics before experimenting. I'd guess most people feel it's not comparable and that you can go about it that way around, but the fact is that that's actually the case for everything  :P
« Last Edit: March 26, 2015, 03:18:41 AM by Raptori »
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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #23 on: March 26, 2015, 05:27:12 AM »
Working within constraints and using the well trodden advice is a better way to find your feet as a writer I think, before then taking those training wheels off and using them to beat the constraints to death.

Sure, but I would argue the well trodden advice is fairly meaningless until you've experienced the opposite, be it from failure or experimentation. Not to mention the well trodden advice can be sporadic. It wasn't that long ago that the conventional wisdom was to write in third person omniscient in which the narrator could jump from head to head. Today, most fantasy authors have labeled that a major no-no.

Yeah that's a very good point, I can't think of any skill other than writing where the general advice is often to explore and experiment first, rather than working on the basics before experimenting.

I'm not sure the mantras authors pass around are the basics of writing though, that one seems pretty difficult to define. Things like three act structure and how to string sentences together, sure those probably qualify as the basics, but things like the use of -ly adverbs, or "never attribute dialogue with anything but said or asked," these things are often too vague (and too often subjective from author to author, even among professionals), for me to consider these constraints the basics, particularly when they're passed around as mantras with little to no context.

EDIT:

I had another thought. XD

Who says you can't do both at once?
« Last Edit: March 26, 2015, 05:50:49 AM by Justan Henner »

Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #24 on: March 26, 2015, 04:13:13 PM »
Sorry, I feel like I'm turning this thread into my own personal venting space, but I've thought a lot more about this since last night, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm not sure I believe my own statement that:

Sure, but I would argue the well trodden advice is fairly meaningless until you've experienced the opposite, be it from failure or experimentation.

Seems to me this understanding will come with any and all experience. What I'd like to refocus on is something that Raptori said:

Yeah that's a very good point, I can't think of any skill other than writing where the general advice is often to explore and experiment first, rather than working on the basics before experimenting. I'd guess most people feel it's not comparable and that you can go about it that way around, but the fact is that that's actually the case for everything  :P

As I said before, I think limitations are good because they better teach the more disciplined aspects of writing, but they fall short with some of the other parts. The reason I would suggest starting without is because, as most editors/authors are quick to point out, things like voice and style can't be taught. They aren't skills that are learned, they're skills that are developed. I think that's what makes this specific aspect of writing different from most skills, is that you develop your own style by trying everything. For some, those things come naturally, but they grow as you learn different tricks and stuff. That's the reason for starting without limitations, is to learn those tricks and speech patterns (I call them speech patterns, but what I mean is your natural cant, tone, word choice, and so on that make up your unique voice,) that'll form the foundation of your style.

The reason I suggest you start here, is because as these aspects are the one part of writing that can't be taught, they're potentially the one part of writing that might take you the longest to develop. Not to mention limitation could "taint" or disrupt your natural voice if you worry too much about presenting yourself 'properly' than simply saying what you want to say. By the time you start experimenting, you might've already done irreparable damage to your style, because the rules have built up imaginary hurdles you've now got to tear down to get back to what was natural for you. It's much easier to adapt the rules around a style you've already established, than it is to build a style out of the rules.

If you're already comfortable with your voice and style, this advice is irrelevant, but otherwise, start mangling the rules and see what comes of it.
« Last Edit: March 26, 2015, 04:19:00 PM by Justan Henner »

Offline Raptori

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #25 on: April 08, 2015, 01:40:23 AM »
Yikes.

Fist scene or two—the sequence was chalked up as two scenes (without a clear break) in the original plan—is 4300 words long... I think we'll write all of the sections we know have to be in the story for it to work and see where that takes us, since at this rate that might end up being 80-100k words instead of 50k. Then we can edit those down a bit and go back and fill in the gaps, knowing how much we need to condense the in-between bits down to.

It's probably not ideal, but I think it's the best approach for us right now. The bits we have planned are the initial 30%, the middle 5%, and 15% around the climax, i.e. the important bits. Hopefully it'll all work out...  :-\



p.s. I think I've looked at this thread about 30 times in the last two weeks, trying to get started on a reply to Justan...  :-[
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Offline D_Bates

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #26 on: April 10, 2015, 06:19:21 PM »
I would support the advice others have given about not worrying too much on word counts until the story is finished. And I know that's easier said than done, because I have to turn off the word counter at the bottom of the page so that it's not distracting me. When you start to worry that something is too short or too long it really takes you out of the writing.

A scene is as long as it has to be to relate what you want from it. If it comes out under 1k words, doubling it with unnecessary descriptive text or exposition will likely only lose the reader. Likewise, if you have that big moment where two or more characters/plot elements are coming to a head, cutting it to shreds to meet an imaginary length criteria is just shortchanging your audience.
I find that when I'm writing the scenes to my plot structure, I'll often come to stages where it feels like there's that little something missing joining them together. It's sort of akin to building a wall--you lay out the bricks and when you're done you stand back and see those gaps that got away. So what do you do? You mix up a little extra cement and fill them. Quite often these scenes can be as small as 3-500 words. Other times they come out as an entire 2-3000 word short story in their own right. But so long as what's in there is relevant and moving the story onwards it's all good.

I only bother with chapters at the very end. To quote the advice of a published author when I asked the same question: "At the end of the day chapters are just dressing. The story told within them is the same whether they're there or not." And that's the truth. Have you ever read a review where somebody praised how beautifully laid out the author's chapters were?
I can spend hours alone just jiggling scenes around into logical chapter groups. The climax moments for a potential chapter end aren't normally hard to spot, but I still try and limit myself to 1-3 scenes max with an average of 2000-4000 words, if only because that's how I personally like to read. I'm the sort who'll check how long a chapter is before starting it as I don't like jamming a bookmark into the middle of a scene to pick up again later. Stories that go 50-60 pages of unbroken text will nine out of ten times make me groan and lose me along the way. But I know others that find bitty chapters equally as irritating, so yea, the moral is that you'll never please everyone.

On a final note, I'm more severe on myself when a scene runs long rather than short. That's when I start to question how much I've written is really necessary. My first effort where I went in blind--because how hard is it to write a book?--came out at 180k words. Since then I've finished another two that were 83k and 99k, and am two-thirds of the way through a third that's currently sitting on ~60k. In all those later cases I feel the works have equal if not more content than the original 180k beast--despite being half the wordcount--simply because they're focused on the important events and not a bunch of irrelevant journey chapters that were only there to get from point A to B. Oddly enough, a lot of my chapters in that first attempt came out at 5-7k words where I'd be pulling quite a large sadface in real life at any landing on 4k and under. These days the moment I break 3k I'm starting to wonder if there's anything I can do to shorten it. In both cases I shouldn't be looking at the word count at all :p.
« Last Edit: April 10, 2015, 10:33:44 PM by D_Bates »
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #27 on: April 11, 2015, 12:27:47 AM »
I would support the advice others have given about not worrying too much on word counts until the story is finished. And I know that's easier said than done, because I have to turn off the word counter at the bottom of the page so that it's not distracting me. When you start to worry that something is too short or too long it really takes you out of the writing.

A scene is as long as it has to be to relate what you want from it. If it comes out under 1k words, doubling it with unnecessary descriptive text or exposition will likely only lose the reader. Likewise, if you have that big moment where two or more characters/plot elements are coming to a head, cutting it to shreds to meet an imaginary length criteria is just shortchanging your audience.
I find that when I'm writing the scenes to my plot structure, I'll often come to stages where it feels like there's that little something missing joining them together. It's sort of akin to building a wall--you lay out the bricks and when you're done you stand back and see those gaps that got away. So what do you do? You mix up a little extra cement and fill them. Quite often these scenes can be as small as 3-500 words. Other times they come out as an entire 2-3000 word short story in their own right. But so long as what's in there is relevant and moving the story onwards it's all good.

I only bother with chapters at the very end. To quote the advice of a published author when I asked the same question: "At the end of the day chapters are just dressing. The story told within them is the same whether they're there or not." And that's the truth. Have you ever read a review where somebody praised how beautifully laid out the author's chapters were?
I can spend hours alone just jiggling scenes around into logical chapter groups. The climax moments for a potential chapter end aren't normally hard to spot, but I still try and limit myself to 1-3 scenes max with an average of 2000-4000 words, if only because that's how I personally like to read. I'm the sort who'll check how long a chapter is before starting it as I don't like jamming a bookmark into the middle of a scene to pick up again later. Stories that go 50-60 pages of unbroken text will nine out of ten times make me groan and lose me along the way. But I know others that find bitty chapters equally as irritating, so yea, the moral is that you'll never please everyone.

On a final note, I'm more severe on myself when a scene runs long rather than short. That's when I start to question how much I've written is really necessary. My first effort where I went in blind--because how hard is it to write a book?--came out at 180k words. Since then I've finished another two that were 83k and 99k, and am two-thirds of the way through a third that's currently sitting on ~60k. In all those later cases I feel the works have equal if not more content than the original 180k beast--despite being half the wordcount--simply because they're focused on the important events and not a bunch of irrelevant journey chapters that were only there to get from point A to B. Oddly enough, a lot of my chapters in that first attempt came out at 5-7k words where I'd be pulling quite a large sadface in real life at any landing on 4k and under. These days the moment I break 3k I'm starting to wonder if there's anything I can do to shorten it. In both cases I shouldn't be looking at the word count at all :p.
It's funny how so many of those mistakes are ones that a lot of beginning writers seem to make, particularly because there's so much writing advice out there telling you not to do them. Hopefully there's little chance of that happening to us!  :P

Tempted to post our first chapter or two in the critique section, though we were planning to save it for the writing group...  :-\
I wish the world was flat like the old days, then I could travel just by folding a map.

Offline JMack

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #28 on: April 11, 2015, 12:30:02 AM »
Do it, @Raptori!
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Scene & Chapter Length
« Reply #29 on: April 11, 2015, 12:33:32 AM »
Do it, @Raptori!


Not sure if it's ready really, could probably do with a bit more editing...  :-[
« Last Edit: April 11, 2015, 12:35:42 AM by Raptori »
I wish the world was flat like the old days, then I could travel just by folding a map.