How to Write a Chapter Book in Three Not-Too-Painful Steps
I usually write picture books. I’ve taken classes, joined 12x12, and found a critique group. So when I got an idea that felt too big for a picture book but smaller than a novel, it took me a while to figure out what to do with it.
When you’re writing a picture book, you often have a vision for the whole story when you begin. It’s small and focused, so you don’t really need an outline to remind you where you are going.
But a chapter book is different. It’s still small and focused compared to something like a middle-grade novel. It doesn’t have subplots, tons of characters, or complicated settings. It’s too big to picture the full arc in your mind yet not big enough to need a full outline.
1) FINDING A STRUCTURE
Enter the chapter-line. Ok, not the most clever name, but it works. To know where my chapter book was heading, I wrote one sentence or phrase for each chapter.
“Main character finds a mystery pet at a garage sale”
“Pet causes more trouble”
“Main character’s class visits the zoo”
Each chapter was usually just one scene long. It was easy to get started writing when I knew what needed to happen in the scene I was working on and where it needed to take me. No blank-screen syndrome, thank-you-very-much.
Personally, I love Scrivener for this kind of outlining—I mean—chapter-lining. When I create a new Scrivener file for my book, I can create subfolders/documents for each chapter. I can view the documents for those chapters like notecards. Sometimes, I needed to rearrange what order events happened in. I could just drag that chapter file to a different location and see how it changed the flow of my story.
If you don’t use Scrivener, pull out some real notecards. Write a phrase on each card with ideas of what might happen in your book. Scramble and rearrange until you find an order that makes sense. Then start writing.
2) BIG CHANGES
Now I had a first draft of my story. I revised it a few times, but I just wasn’t loving it. Something needed to change. I gave my main character a neighbor named Carlos. That helped. But it wasn’t enough.
Time to look closer at my main character. My original main character was a boy named Jacob (for some reason, that’s my go-to-generic-character-name). Maybe we needed a name change. I already had ideas percolating for more animal adventures. Maybe this character should have an animal-related name. Which made me think of Noah, you know, the guy with an ark full of animals from the Bible. But a boy with animal adventures named Noah seemed a little “on the nose.” What if Noah as a girl?
Everything clicked! Of course my main character should be a girl who loved animals. Hello, write-what-you-know, that was my childhood! Suddenly, my main character became a lot more believable. And that neighbor? Let’s make him a best friend. Now we’re getting somewhere.
3) TIME TO CUT
At this point, I got some feedback. I took the self-paced Chapter Book Alchemist class from Children’s Book Academy (in hindsight, I should have taken the class before I stared writing, but I’m not much for doing things in order). I also paid for a critique from the class instructor, Hillary Homzie. She gave me some great insight, including the fact that my first three chapters were backstory and didn’t fit the zany nature of the rest of my book. She told me to cut them.
Ouch! Cutting three whole chapters from a 6,000-word book is no laughing matter. Would I even have a book left? But she was right. I had started in the wrong place. I cut those chapters, did a little rewriting, and wound up with a tight 5,000-word story.
NO WRITING WASTED
But, don’t worry. No writing is wasted. I needed to write those chapters to know what Noah’s experience was before the story started.
And now that Noah Green Junior Zookeeper and the Garage Sale Pet is out, I’m getting recycle those chapters into a mini-prequel story that I can give away to newsletter subscribers. That’s what I call a win-win!
Let me sum things up. If you want to write a chapter book…
1) Map it out—use notecards. Use Scrivener. Have a plan to help you not get stuck.
2) Change it up—Don’t be afraid to try big changes. I just might be the magic that makes your story!
3) Be brave and cut—if it doesn’t add to the story, it has to go. Make it less painful by creating a “cut words” document where you can find it later if you have regrets.
And I highly recommend taking a class specifically about writing chapter books. Wait, maybe that should be number one! Well, I’ll leave that for you to decide.
About the author:
Carolyn Leiloglou lives in Texas with her husband, four kids, and one adorable mutt. Her writing has appeared in Ladybug, The School Magazine, and Clubhouse Jr. She was a finalist for the 2018 Katherine Paterson Prize. Carolyn is represented by Bibi Lewis of the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency. For more, visit Carolyn online at: www.housefullofbookworms.com and www.carolynleiloglou.com