Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wrting Styles



I began this, the first of McMurtry's three books of memoirs, and I was immediately put off by its 2 page chapters. It's as if he said to himself, I will write 250 words a day on this book-no more, no less. It makes the book feel choppy and simple. Doesn't he ever have more to say on a subject? Sometimes he repeats information because he feels we need reiteration. I don't know.

Does this sort of writing style bother you? I have noticed more and more that writers use very short chapters. Like a machine gun firing at me. I think it leads to writing barren of depth and complexity in many cases. But I especially found it annoying here--like an assignment for a writing class.

Camouflage or protective coloration, Kevin. As you tell me.

21 comments:

Dana King said...

Extremely short chapters can be effective in contrast to more traditionl length, but not if done to excess. Same thing with too much white space. Short chapters and white space may be good (and I agree they are), but chocolate's good, too, and too much of it will make you barf. (Technical reading term.)

I've always thought of McMurtry as a decent writer who caught lightning in a bottle with LONESOME DOVE. Considering his output, how does an authro with his level of productivity require three volumes of memoirs? Seems to me that if he was doing that much interesting stuff, he'd be too busy to write.

Unless, of course, the memoirs aren't that interesting.

Chris said...

I'm not necessarily for or against them. Don Winslow writes some very short chapters at times, and it doesn't bother me at all. But in the example you describe, Patti, I think I'd be irked too.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The memoirs seem mostly to be about his book buying and selling. I think he did it like he did to make it fun to do. I can picture him saying, I will do a chapter a night-spend maybe a half hour on it.
I am quite sure none of his very fine novels were written this way. He has written some of the best.
It would bother me less in a novel. Here is just seems lazy rather than a technique.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Sometimes short chapters can be engaging, and I think there is definitely such a thing as a chapter that is far, far too long. But I see your point; short chapters can feel a little choppy if they're done done well. I'm not sure what the "right" number of pages for a chapter is, but I know there's a balance, and I do believe that chapters do best if they ebb and flow with the story's action.

Dorte H said...

I definitely don´t like short chapters. I can´t help feeling the writer thinks I can´t get through a proper book. I do use shorter chapters in cosy mysteries than other novels, but not two pages. Six pages, perhaps.

Anne R. Allen said...

Last week a fairly authoritative publishing blogger wrote that no chapter should be longer than three pages. I couldn't believe it. So I went to the a bookstore and took a look at the bestsellers. Lots of short chapters. Especially James Patterson: more white space than text.

But like Dorte, I think they feel a bit condescending. Like we're 7 year olds. Maybe that's the point. A lot of people must like being treated like 7 year olds. (How else do you explain Fox News?)

Of course, some literary writers have used very short chapters to great effect--like Vonnegut.

But I do hope they're not going to become required of us all.

Anonymous said...

I much prefer short chapters to really long ones, to be honest. That said, yes, I found McMurtrys three volumes of memoirs choppy and often repetitive, as if he was just writing down whatever story he thought of that day and not going back to see if he'd mentioned it before.

Nevertheless I found enough of interest in the first book to enjoy it, though much less in the second and third. Incidentally, the first was about books and book selling. The third was about his Hollywood career.

If you don't like short chapters and lots of white space, you must not be a fan of Robert B. Parker.


Jeff M.

Mike Wilkerson said...

McMurtry has often talked of retiring over the last couple of years. Maybe that has something to do with it. Still, even though McMurtry is one of my favorites, he does seem to take advantage of his readers quite a bit.

As far as chapter length goes...well I don't know if it's so much about length as a proper end point. Ross MacDonald wrote shorter chapters, but they were often a direct continuation of the previous chapter. RM had shit figured out.

Having said this, a one paragraph or one page chapter often seems pointless. But if you're doing it and getting paid to do it, then who am I to argue.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Loved the early Parker, tailed off about book six or seven. Non-fiction begs a longer look at something I think.

Yvette said...

Robert Parker too, was famous for shortage. I never minded it - IF there something interesting going on. AND if it wasn't done to excess. Visually speaking, short chapters may be the writer attempting to make some sort of comment with negative space/ white space. Designers do that. Don't know about writers...

McMurty and his writing partner did a hell of a job with Annie Proulx's s/s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. A well deserved Oscar there.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

I guess it depends on the writer. The first time I picked up a Ken Bruen book I was offput by the short chapters and and abundance of white space.
On the other hand I find novels with no chapters irritating. Mostly done in literary rather than genre fiction.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think Ken pulls it off brilliantly. His characters think and act in short bursts. It suits certain writers. Overly long chapters only suit 19th century writers. It's hard getting it right.

Cap'n Bob said...

I've read books with around 150 shotr chapters and books with six or seven long ones. On the whole I prefer the short ones, if only because I don't have to keep slogging on when I feel like stopping. I hate to stop mid-chapter.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I guess varying lengths please me the best. Sometimes a scene needs to go on and sometimes a page tells it all.

Anonymous said...

Ken Bruen is great and the short chapters definitely work in his books.

Jeff M.

Ron Scheer said...

I think McMurtry is not always a great storyteller. His writing can be flat and aimless. LONESOME DOVE wastes 100 pages before it finally gets going. I'd have been happy to have them condensed down to a couple of the short chapters you're asking about. The worst for me, though, was his MOVING ON. My lord, what a yawn...

pattinase (abbott) said...

I guess I like the Last Picture Show trilogy the best but Lonesome Dove has a lot of great story-telling after the yawn.

Gary Stevens said...

It's a great point you make about non-fiction and chapter length, Patti, but in fiction, definitely anything goes. As long as each chapter can stand on its own like a little diamond, that's what I believe. Modern life, television and the internet have shortened our attention spans, but in movies, even the shortest scenes are key. Cinematic vs. traditional literary storytelling, I guess?

Richard R. said...

I don't like it. It's too much like eye-blink camera cuts in a video. Trendy, woo-woo, etc. but not real camera work, not cinematography. These two or three page chapters aren't real writing, it's all technique and no substance.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I'm not even sure it's technique. Maybe just a fleeting thought.

Kent Morgan said...

I've read all three books and agree with Jeff M. that it appears McMurtry just wrote whatever was in his head about a subject and then stopped. The length seemed to have no bearing. It almost seemed that he had a bunch of notes and pasted them into the most appropriate manuscript. As for his fiction I enjoyed Cadillac Jack very much. It's one novel that seldom is mentioned and if memory serves McMurtry felt it was one of his worst novels.