Good housekeeping

If you are a writer and you own a whiteboard, at some point you inevitably end up with something like this:

White board nonsense
If you want to find out some secret details about Project Snails, feel free to do some CSI-style image enhancement on the blurred out areas here!

This is a diagram to help me rethink one particularly troublesome chapter in part two of my novel. I’m finding that the most troublesome chapters are the ones without a central nucleus to hold them together. If something major happens in a chapter, it’s fairly easy to structure. You know where the meat of your chapter is, and arranging the more minor points around the edges isn’t too much of a challenge.

But then there are “housekeeping chapters”, where all you have is a bunch of small but essential things you need to get done. For example, you need to build up the relationship between two characters, you need to describe the place they are passing through, you need to reveal a bit of someone’s backstory, and you need to get a certain object into someone’s possession. How can you make these things flow into each other and feel like a coherent whole? What should come first? How can you best end the chapter in a way that fools the reader into thinking something meaningful has happened?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneOne of the ingenious things about Harry Potter (and there are many) is that there are very few housekeeping chapters, at least in the early books. If you go back and flick through Philosopher’s Stone (I know you have it, don’t lie to me) and look at the chapter names, I guarantee you’ll audibly go “Wow, this is a veritable treasure trove of stuff!” Pretty much every chapter has a strong central concept – some major event or new element of the wizarding world that we’re being introduced to. Maybe it’s just because everything has become so iconic now, but for flip’s sake: we go from meeting Hagrid to visiting Diagon Alley to travelling on the Hogwarts Express to being sorted by the Sorting Hat to meeting Snape … I say we because that’s who it feels as if it’s all happening to, and I don’t have a bloody clue how she does that … oh god, I so want to go and reread Harry Potter now.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yeah. Housekeeping chapters. Ultimately I should probably try to purge them from my book, or at least make them feel less like housekeeping chapters, but for now I’m struggling just to give them a coherent structure. There’s a lot of “Well, this needs to happen before this, but a bit of time needs to pass between that and that, and if that happens before this then I’ll have to cut that bit out, unless I move this other thing to an earlier chapter… aaargh! Okay, that’s it, I’m getting out my whiteboard!” It becomes like one of these logic puzzles:

Houses from left to right: green, red, blue, yellow, purple
This is Puzzle Street. For some reason only one person lives in each house, except for one of the houses which has been empty since its owner was killed in a tragic cryptic crossword accident. Some facts about the street’s current occupants: Bob got sick of all the stupid puns about him living in a green house (example: “What’s it like living in a green house, Bob? It must get hot in there during the summer!”), so he swapped houses with Alison, who lived at the opposite end of the street. Todd likes to spy on Alison in the shower, but she lives two doors away, so he has to borrow binoculars from Jane who lives next door to him. Sometimes Jane’s other next door neighbour sees Todd borrowing the binoculars, but she’s too busy wondering where her next fix is going to come from to think anything of it. Which is the empty house? Have fun! (Clue: IT’S THE YELLOW ONE.)

And this doesn’t just happen within individual chapters. You can end up shuffling the order of chapters around, and that gets even messier – especially if, like me, you switch between viewpoints and the idea of putting two chapters told by the same character next to each other makes your toes curl in abject disgust. That’s when you find yourself walking past stationery shops and thinking “Hmm, maybe I should get some Post-it notes, they’d make this whole process less painful”. And before you know it, you’re waking up in the stock room of W H Smith, high on highlighter fumes and covered in Pukka Pads filled with scribbled plot points and character arcs.

And after all this is sorted out, you discover that while you’ve been focusing all your attention on how to logically progress your story from point A to point B, your characters have turned to cardboard and your style now consists exclusively of sentences like “the man walked through the door”. Time for another rewrite, and time to uncover another set of deep structural problems with your story! Yay! Writing is such a joyful cycle.

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