July 13th, 2007


The Panel That Wasn't

rosefox and I were talking about the Readercon programming--which is usually so excellent that this year I was somewhat disappointed that there were not more panels that discussed something that hasn't been flogged like a moribund equine at every other con I've been to in the last two years. For con-goers who attend one or two cons a year this is fine and good, they are worthy and interesting topics. But I go to between seven and ten cons a year, and I've been on some of these panels several times. At Capclave last year, everyone else at the Slipstream panel was sick to death of the subject and flatly refused to entertain it, while it was then my first slipstream panel. It wasn't my last. Not to mention that I've now been on YA panels at several cons running, which means I have to sit and smile while the other panelists blithely condemn all adult literature. This happens every time. Not only is it the same subject, it's the same content. When I'm on a panel I haven't done before, I am so excited my heartrate actually increases.

So we were discussing new panels, and rosefox suggested that she wanted to see one on chapters. "What?" I said, "What about chapters?"

To which she, who is oft-times much smarter than I, said that she wanted authors to discuss why chapters were the default structure for novels, why they arrange them the way that they do, why they are titled, or untitled, depending on the book, what are authors' philosophies on length, cliffhanger or non-cliffhanger chapter endings, time jumps, numeration, content, or when and how they can be changed or excised.

This got me thinking, as cab ride conversations with rosefox often do. (Hello Admiral Ackbar!) Because I've been writing The Alchemy of Winter, which I keep referring to as the Erie novel, and for the first time I was using chapters--and I had no idea why. It was just automatic, even though when I think about it I've never done a novel with chapters before. I've done cantos and calendars and alternating voices and Vishnu knows I've done tales, but not straight up chapters. Yet I sat down to write an at least nominally YA novel, where I figure I can't experiment too much with structure, and I just dumbly started splitting things into chapters.

And by chapter three, I was bored stiff.

Now, this may well be a flaw of myself-as-writer. I've never made any secret of the fact that I came to fiction late and might not actually have any idea how to write it. So my inability to pay attention to my own work past three chapters may just be because I'm not very good at novels. I'm not being modest or anything--it could quite reasonably be argued that not one of my books is properly a novel. And has been. I'm secure with that.

But really, why chapters? The easy answer is that all the books we ever read as kids had them, so some reptile-brain center figures: Lizard says make tasty chapters! Make them now! But it's a totally artificial structure, and while we keep having to have that stupid peripheral conversation about whether we're even allowed to write non-realist novels, it seems to rarely occur to the archbishops of realism that the most conventional of structures is actually radically, even obscenely, non-realistic. But would a chapterless novel, which surely exist, be any better? It's all arbitrary, literature is entirely arbitrary. Why this story and not another, why is plot B not plot A? No real reason, author's prerogative. We are such fickle, erratic gods.

But having never even considered using them before I just let the lizard divvy things up into chapters. Because...I figured it was time? I don't know--it was just lazy. YA novels which simplify for the sake of their audience drive me nuts, anyway, so what the hell was I doing? Much like having children or converting to Methodism, the choice to use chapters, or any structure, should be considered and backed with knowledge, not the barked command of the great walleyed Leftenant Kneejerk, Autopilot Extraordinaire.

So I changed the chapters to map coordinates, subtitled the thing A Hydrographical Map of Lake Erie and Her Islands, and started hunting for an old map to cut up and insert into the chapters. A small change, but significant from the backend, and it made me happy. Will I ever write a straight up chapter novel? I don't know. They don't interest me, but they are so amazingly hard-wired.

So without this appearing as an actual panel, rosefox's idle comment has made me think more than any panel all year. I want to see this panel, I want to know what other writers think, if they have this debate with themselves. Mostly I want to hear the alternatives. And I want more panels like this, panels for writers. Novel Writing 2.0. I suppose an MFA is supposed to teach this stuff, but no MFA students I know have the heft of it any better than we working writers. An MFA is hardly the place to learn to question everything. I hope they will put the chapter panel on next year, but a year is a long time.

So let's have it here. What do you question about novels as a form? Or even short stories? What are your favorite non-chapter structures? What do you think about when mapping a novel? What do you wish novelists would experiment with? I'll be your moderator and occasional panelist, but it's all you: want to sit at the long white table? Here's your chance.
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