The Art of Chunking
Whenever my brother and I do a book signing or a question and answer session about our novels one question always comes up. ‘How do you manage to write together; what process do you use’? This article explains how we go about plotting and writing our masterpieces, especially as we get to see each other so rarely. I live in London and Garry lives in Krakow, Poland’s ‘Cultural Capital’ – nearly 900 miles away as the crow flies.
The secret, I think, is in the words of a former schoolteacher of mine, who once gave me some terrific advice. Whenever there was too much homework to do or exam revision was becoming overwhelming he told me to simply break it down into chunks, pick a chunk and, crucially, forget about the rest.
‘Chunk it, Robson. Chunk it.’
As artless as this wisdom seems, one great advantage of it was that it worked. If I took a single piece of homework into my bedroom, instead of having a pile of books in front of me, then I could finish it without being overwhelmed by how much more there was to do. Before I knew it two or three chunks were complete and the world looked a better place. The approach, in essence, is how you can co-author novels across space and time. Here is the approach my brother and I take to ‘chunking’ a novel.
Chunk 1: Ideas
We start by firing ideas off. Generally, we just sit in a cafe or have a beer or two in the local and say things like ‘How about this?’ or ‘How about that?’ At this stage generating ideas is easy, we’ll come up with several; especially after a few pints. Chunk 1 does work well with a beer or two inside you. I’d say peak creative time is around two pints. After that the ideas become less cohesive and we’re unlikely to remember them anyway.
Chunk 2: The Big Picture It takes a few days of working together and a series of creative discussions (aka arguments) to take the idea and turn it into something more substantial. The broad arc of the story and the main characters and the turning points are agreed in a series of brainstorming sessions. This is the road-map and without it you we are lost. To use a travelling metaphor, I’d say it’s the start point, mid-point and end point of a car journey. Like travelling from London to Glasgow with a stop off in Birmingham. There’s a myriad of routes available and the route changes as you write but the big arc has to be kept in mind and stay consistent. This is good advice even if you are writing on your own although I think you can, as a single author, change the endpoint to, for example, to Edinburgh . As a writing team you have to remember your co-author is on his way to Glasgow, and if you don’t meet him there you’re knackered.
Chunk 3: Characters What are the backgrounds of the main characters? How and why do they react to situations in the way they do? It’s best to give them characteristics and a short biography. Where did they come from? How did they become who they are? A character’s reaction to an event derives from who they are, and without an agreed background the same characters may react differently when penned by different authors. They may, of course, be penned differently even with a detailed biography so keeping track of and editing each other’s work is vital.
Chunk 4 – Parts We start to break down the plot into parts very early on. We use the classic four part structure, with a turn of events or a significant change in the emotional state of the main character coming at the end of each part – but always bearing in mind we are on the way to Glasgow via Birmingham.
This breakdown into parts gives us something medium-sized to focus on, and trying to break things down to finer levels of detail at once is too onerous. Aiming to finish a part is so much less daunting than aiming to do the whole thing. So having broken the thing down into parts, what’s next? You guessed it: chunk some more.
Chunk 5 – Chapter Chunking So the parts are in place – the next step is to break a part into chapters. We talk through the narrative of the novel in detail and go through what happens and how characters react to events chapter by chapter.
Chunks 1 to 5 are best done when we are together, in front of a piece of paper where we can jot down ideas. They all move the key ideas for the novel forward very quickly. We don’t find a need for scrivener or any of the myriad tools available to help you keep the plot of a novel consistent. We’re old school. We simply write up the chapter summaries, allocate them to each other and, hey presto, move to chunk 6.
Chunk 6 – Write it Write some chapters. Sounds easy. Well, I’m not sure my brother would agree with me but I find that writing the chapters, having given them so much thought, is easier than plotting a story line. I think it’s because during chunks 1 to 5 you have multiple possibilities but by chunk 6 you know what you have to do.
It’s like programming a computer system, which I once did for a living. The hardest part is agreeing with the user what the system should do, how it should work. If you get that bit right the programming is easy. If you get it wrong the programming is almost impossible (no, not almost - it is impossible) as you are not exactly sure what it is you should be coding.
How do the styles stay consistent?
It’s not that difficult to agree a general approach and style – we know the characters so well there is hardly ever any difference in the way dialogue scans, and as we wrote our first book we took clues from each other and coalesced around a style. Nobody notices that two authors have been involved. Nobody can spot any obvious differences between the chapters.
Keeping track of what we are doing from different parts of the world is not easy. It can be difficult keeping track of the finer points of the plot when you’re not writing the whole thing. And if your co-author integrates a new idea or minor character to help get over a gap in the action the first thing you know about them might be when you edit. Many a time I have received an editing comment ‘When did we agree this?’
That aside I think the pros outweigh the cons – idea generation, support, only having to do half the work! Finally, when you’re writing a novel it’s easy to get obsessed by it, and there are only so many times your spouse or kids, as supportive as they are, will be willing to listen to the finer points of a character’s inner turmoil before glazing over and nodding agreement in the hope that you will stop talking.