The Necessity of Chunking

I just finished line edits of the manuscript. I took four different colored highlighters and a pen and made an art project out of my book. The immense length of this process continues to confound me. I want nothing more than to share the book with you.

They say patience is a virtue. I find it to be both a necessity and a battle.

I had dinner a couple nights ago with a few writers from a workshop I ran for three years. I helped these women with their own books. One woman has a contract with her agent and prepares to finish her project. A couple others refine the material in their books.

One, though, remains stuck. “There’s too much,” she said. “It’s completely overwhelming.”

It was a casual dinner, not a workshop, so the conversation moved forward and I bit my tongue. I wanted to dive into this concept of overwhelm. It’s relatable.

An essay is one thing. A short story another. These writing projects, though tedious in their own nuanced ways, can feel more doable for a writer.

But for a woman writing the story of her life, as was the case for the writer in this group who felt stuck, breaking down the widespread into small chunks is the only way, I’ve found, to make a large-scale project feel doable.

I’m working on a 200,000-word novel, the first in a trilogy, so I’ve learned a thing or two about chunking. Chunking is something I did after writing the first draft of my book.

From there, I decided to expand in some huge ways. I took the story, tore it open, and discovered the guts and blood existed in material not yet written. What I had, with the first draft, was a ribcage. What I needed was a body.

I spent literally three months chunking. This process of writing involves little writing, but without it we could waste a lot of time in overwhelm and/or creating “lost” material.

I first created a list of chapters I needed to write. Once I had the chapters figured out, I took wrote a To-Do list with the topic of each chapter as the title of the task. The tasks were to write 5,000 words for each chapter.

After I accomplished these tasks, (17 in total for my book), I went back to chunking. I looked at each chapter, asked what objectives it served in the larger story, and created a list of scenes necessary for the chapter to fully accomplish these objectives.

Once I had the scenes I needed to write elucidated, I created another To-Do list, or actually multiple To-Do lists. Each To-Do list was titled by the chapter, and the tasks were labeled by the scene.

The process looked something like this:

  • Write a first draft of a book to figure out what you’re trying to write

  • Figure out what you need to do different to actually write the book you want to write (what works in current draft; what doesn’t; what needs to added and what needs to be eliminated)

  • Create a list of chapters that will accomplish this purpose (top to bottom) and a separate list of changes needed to be made to existing material that will stay

  • Write first drafts of each new chapter; revise existing chapters

  • Figure out what each chapter needs to accomplish in order to make the book feel whole (bottom to top)

  • Create a list of scenes missing from chapters and write scenes

After finishing this last aspect of writing, I’m not back to the chunking stage, where I’ll look at each chapter and decide how the chapter can better serve the book as a whole, (and the trilogy). I will then create a list of all the things I need to do, which will LITERALLY be around a hundred things.

In order to not feel overwhelmed, though, I’ll break those hundred thing down by chapter. That way each morning, when I sit down to work, all I’ll need to do is finish three-five things. That’s it. When I finish those three things, I’ll feel empowered.

That’s the key, I’m finding, for when things begin to feel overwhelming. Create a list. Break the list down. Break it down again, until I have something I can complete in a day or a week.

This is when the spoon in the tunnel metaphor feels fitting. I have my spoon, and if I can just carve out a softball-sized portion of earth today, and tomorrow, and the next day, I’ll eventually get from where I am now and to the finished product I aim to create.

Anne Lamott calls this Bird by Bird in her must-read book on writing. My version: chunk by chunk.