Essay–A Book’s Construction

We are working hard on getting “The Street” ready for layout. The obvious chores are editing, editing, and editing, followed by more editing. The not so obvious? What’s the layout going to look like?

Publishers have a lot of leeway in how a book is put together. If the story is a novel, the chapters are usually numbered. Back in the day when people didn’t have e-readers that automatically stored a reader’s progress in the book, remembering what chapter you were on was king. Especially if you didn’t have a bookmark handy.

From what I’ve noticed in modern books, numbering chapters is still the most popular. However, there are several instances where the publisher (or author) decided to not only use a number, but also name the chapters. The psychology behind this is interesting if you think about it.

By naming a chapter, the publisher put can put a bit of foreshadowing in its title. I think the idea is to whet the reader’s appetite so they feel as though they need to finish that next chapter to find out what happens. However, a little information can go too far; it’s also possible to ruin the suspense or pacing if you let the reader in on what happens next.

It’s a fine line to walk. In other books, like Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, the chapters are named for the character telling that part of the tale. In first person, multiple view-point books, it can be the best way to prepare the reader for the narrator switch. Without it, the reader may become lost as to which character is actually telling the story. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

The Street offers its own set of challenges. Short story collections are usually an easy book to put together once you’ve decided the order–the “chapters” are merely the names of the stories. But for a collection that includes shorts as well as novelettes and novellas, the possibilities once again rear their ugly heads.

A chapter of a story doesn’t have to end with anything more than a marker. Something like “***” to indicate the end of a scene, rather than the chapter itself. But why do that when you can just start another chapter and a new page? Simple: space.

Every page of a book costs money to print. Empty or unused pages can quickly spike the price per unit. It’s best to avoid that for obvious reasons. If you have a short scene, say somewhere between 100-400 words, you may barely fill a  page before an empty follows it. Alternatively, you could just drop down a few lines and start the new chapter. But it looks…wrong. At least to me.

Earlier in my career, I wrote very short chapters. For the Fiends collection, that meant a lot of wasted space. In the book’s original layout, it increased the number of total pages by over 50. Ridiculous, isn’t it? We chose to eliminate as many page breaks as possible. It helped decrease the price per unit, but it looked amateurish. And over time, I’ve come to hate it.

So what’s the answer? Using a page break indicator to tie scenes together? Longer chapters that collect a series of scenes in some logical way? Or eliminate chapters altogether and break a longer work into “parts” or “books”?

“Baked Bird” is The Street‘s longest story. However, I wrote it as four individual chapters with scenes separated by the old asterisk trick. But, is that going to look right? Each chapter is 5k or more. I haven’t counted the number of scenes per chapter, but I’m going to have to do that once the editing is all done and before I send the manuscript to my designer. We have to make these choices.

Independent publishers mostly agonize about the cover, spine, and back matter of a book. But the layout of the actual words is important too. If someone picks that book up at a bookstore or con because the cover is interesting and then proceeds to open it up, they better not be turned off or else the sell will never happen. I’d like to think readers are more interested in the actual words on the page, but we all know how humans are; what we first see colors our impressions of anything.

I don’t know how we’re going to do this yet. I’ll need to confer with my designer and manager before I make a decision. If you’re an independent publisher, these are the kinds of things you have to consider. It’s not simply enough to put out a book with a cool cover. You have to be a pro and address all these issues. If you don’t, you may end up hurting your marketability, and that becomes damned expensive indeed.

2 thoughts on “Essay–A Book’s Construction”

  1. For me, every print work has to be treated on its own (I won’t even go into eBook publishing because I think you can get away with looser standards in formatting). In general, though, for longer works, I’m a big fan of naming the sections, chapters, and “books” that make up the longer work. But it cannot give away the story. I like the naming that sets the mood or that runs a parallel allegory to the story itself (symbolism and compare and contrast work well here). For impressively long works, I like seeing the story broken down into “books” or acts, with a simple name. Within each act, I like the use of sections or major chapters having the naming. For me, numbering also can work and can either be used in conjunction with the word “chapter” or without… it depends how traditional the book feels. For anthology or short story collection, each contained story should have its own name. Within each story, if it is a longer story, I would normally go with plain numbering to separate each section or chapter… If it’s a shorter story, a section break is good.

  2. I’ve found that you need to write for whatever you are doing, if you want it to make sense. If the story continues to flow, no breaks. Use breaks if you need to indicate the passage of time, or spike up the revelation at the end of the previous chapter. I can’t see how some asterisks – with an appropriate amount of spacing, of course – would look unprofessional. If you do go with chapter titling, I have seen it effectively used in the middle of a page, but I can’t remember where.
    Personally, I liked the titling as it was in Percy Jackson. The titles were really bad and irreverent puns about the action in the chapter. Although they were foreshadowing, they were clever enough that their meaning was generally only clear after you’d read the chapter.

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