Tips on Writing: Chunking It Down



Odds are good that since you are reading this blog, you might want to write book.

But how, exactly, do you write a book?

How do you take an idea and make it into a book?

One word at a time.

And once you've got the word, you turn it into a sentence.  You take the sentence and turn it into a paragraph. Paragraph into a chapters.  And so on and so forth.

Back in the day when I was an MFA student, the novelist Sena Jeter Naslund told a group of students how she motivated herself to write.  She wrote one word, and then a sentence.  And then she'd tell herself, that's great, sweetie, now all you have to do is write another sentence.  And word by word, sentence by sentence, she would produce a book.  (And she is known for writing loooong books.  Also, that "sweetie" in the above sentence was mine.  I'm pretty sure Sena, being the gracious southern woman that she is, has never called a person "sweetie" in her life.)

Word by word, sentence by sentence, is how we get books written.

But each word and sentence will come a bit easier if you have some kind of guideline.  It can be an outline if that word doesn't freak you out.  (Some people love it, others hate it.)  I sometimes work off a scrawled list of where I think I'm going.

Once you have a list or outline or guideline, whatever you want to call it, here's what you do:

1.  Take an item from your list.

2.  Chunk that one item down into sub-topics.

3.  Take that small, tiny little sub-topic and write every damn thing you know about it.  Do this as a free write if you like (set the timer for 15-20 minutes and write without stopping). 

4.  If you have more to say, use a sentence from your free write as a new prompt and have at it.

5.  Now take another small, tiny little item from your list and write like the wind.

6.  Rinse and repeat until you've gone through your entire list.

7.  Rewrite your free writes.

8.  String your free writes together into a scene or chapter.

9.  String your scenes together into a book.

10.  Voila! You have written a book.  (And no doubt you'll need to rewrite it again.  And again.  And again.  But now you have a rough draft.)

See how easy it is.  (That hysterical laughter you hear in the background is my alter ego, my inner critic, Patrick.) And by the way, this technique words for any kind of writing project.

What do you think?  Have you used this technique or a similar one to write a book?  Please leave a comment.  And if you like this post, feel free to tell your writing friends.  You might also want to subscribe to my newsletter in the form to the right to stay in touch.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Consider your current writing project.  Make a list and try following the above routine to make your writing easier.


Photo by CathyK.



15 Responses to Tips on Writing: Chunking It Down

  1. Zan Marie 01/30/2012 at 15:57 #

    Good list, Charlotte! I enjoyed the Vision Board book for the open mind section, too. Not being very visual, I might never create a board, but the open mind part kicked off a 1500+ word session today…set in a karaoke bar. ; )

  2. Charlotte Dixon 01/30/2012 at 16:02 #

    Oh my goodness, Zan Marie, a scene set in a karaoke bar sounds wonderful! I’m so glad the book was helpful.

  3. Patrick Ross 01/31/2012 at 04:51 #

    Ah, now with that link I’ve been able to “see” Patrick. Not a very intimidating dude!

    You kinda opened a door there with the outline/guideline discussion. I’m always curious to what extent people map out their books beforehand, and to what extent those who do find themselves deviating once they start writing.

  4. J.D. 01/31/2012 at 05:15 #

    This is excellent, Charlotte. I have never outlined but I will for my next effort. I like coupling this post with your post on chronology. I see two lists side by side, one of plot and the other a description of each character and what they want. The dialogue and development of the characters will drive the actions in the plot. I’m thinking this will place the focus of my writing on what each characters wants and thinks and how those desires conflict. My previous books sometimes follow the protagonist’s “walk” through a scene and through the world, a forced march through even the most mundane of actions. When I read my work I find the good in it, but I can also see that reading it might be as much fun as pushing toothpicks under your nails.

  5. J.D. 01/31/2012 at 05:19 #

    Oh! And Charlotte, Sara Jeter has been on my reading list for ages–I just haven’t got there. This is a good time. She is so well regarded.

  6. Charlotte Dixon 01/31/2012 at 07:46 #

    The other Patrick is kinda cute, wouldn’t you say? He may not look intimidating, but believe me, he can create havoc when he’s leaping about, much like a small child having a tantrum. I agree–I think its fascinating how writers approach their work. Some are dedicated outliners (somebody tweeted that she was at that moment hugging hers, she loved it so much) and others wouldn’t touch one to save their lives. I like to think I fall somewhere in between.

  7. Charlotte Dixon 01/31/2012 at 07:48 #

    I’m so glad these posts have been helpful, J.D. and that they may be opening you up to try a new approach. Not that you need to, necessarily, but I know I get sort of stuck in my ways. This new novel I’m working on is kicking my butt and forcing me to look at things differently–which, after all is one of the reasons we create!

  8. Charlotte Dixon 01/31/2012 at 07:49 #

    Let me know how you like her. She’s wordy, but writes some great stuff.

  9. Jessica Baverstock 01/31/2012 at 15:57 #

    (I submitted this comment yesterday but it didn’t get through. Shall try again. :) )

    I always work on this principle!

    In the e-book I’m currently writing about stress in the writing life I keep coming back to the phrase ‘anything can be accomplished in small chunks.’

    This seems to ring true no matter whether you’re trying to write a book, publish a book, set up your platform or clean your house.

    If the task ahead looks too big, break it down into smaller and smaller chunks until you find a size that you feel is doable, then do one at a time.

  10. Charlotte Dixon 01/31/2012 at 16:31 #

    Ah, the joys of the internet. Thanks for trying again, Jessica. You are wise to expand this concept of chunking down to anything we’re trying to accomplish. I’m applying it to cleaning my office–if I have 5 minutes, I’ll spend it going through papers. And sometimes when I do dishes, I’ll tell myself to just unload the top rack of the dishwasher. Half the time I just keep going until the job is done, so it really works!

  11. Jamie 02/02/2012 at 03:01 #

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  12. Suzanne Lilly, the TeacherWriter 02/02/2012 at 05:51 #

    Thanks for this post. The tips are wonderful. Once I finally mastered this concept, I was able to move forward with my writing. I try for one scene at a time, and if that’s even too much, I try for 1/2 a scene. It works!

  13. Charlotte Dixon 02/02/2012 at 07:29 #

    Jamie, Thanks for letting me and my readers know, I’ll check you guys out and report back. I have a lot of readers who want to make money from their writing.

  14. Charlotte Dixon 02/02/2012 at 07:34 #

    Thanks for chiming in and telling us how this technique has helped you, Suzanne. And thanks for stopping by.

  15. Charlotte Dixon 02/02/2012 at 07:36 #

    Typepad’s comment system foiled me again! I thought I was replying directly to Jamie’s post with my comment and instead its an orphan, sigh. Buy you guys are smart and will figure it out. Unlike me, who can’t figure out my own commenting system.

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