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Splitting novels

dark_geisha has a thread here, and in an attempt to answer a comment, I ended up breaking the 4300 character limit. Which will of course surprise no one. So I'm answering it here.

TBH, I was thinking about your novels when I was writing up my thoughts on BANEWREAKER. About how having to cut and compress could damage a story that's meant to have an epic scale and make it seem like you're only scratching the surface, rather than sensing and seeing the layers underneath.

I haven't read the Carey, so I can't comment on it directly; I can't even say for certain that having the story split across two books is the cause for the problems you see -- I can only say that I can see how it could be.

The whole question of splitting a natural story arc is an interesting one. A friend of mine, who writes very long novels (as in, as long as mine), split one long novel, but it was written in two acts, and structured as two acts, so the split there felt completely natural, and in that case, resulted in two complete books, neither of which felt shortened or lessened or abrupt. When she was almost finished a longer book than the one she had previously split, she was asked by someone who knew us both if she had thought about splitting the book. I think I answered "No!" before she did. I was certainly louder.

Because in the first case, there was a perfectly reasonable split. In the second, given I'd read a chunk of it at that point, I knew there simply wasn't.

Writers think like writers; they have to. They think about the story, and they'll torture themselves six ways to Sunday to get at the story, to play out the resonances, to do it justice. Publishers have to think like publishers, and money and the bottom line is their domain. How they achieve this can take many forms, and it's true that if one could accurately predict just how the next bestseller was going to be made, publishers would be richer, and readers with more specialized tastes would often be poorer. The truth is, they go by instinct, but instinct can be wrong as often as it can be right. If it's almost always right, congratulations, you're Judy-Lynn del Rey.

Editors, poor sots, are caught between both ends of a very difficulty chain; they not only have to think about story, but also about bottom line, and sometimes in the balance, they have to choose one, which means they're either left with a bitterly unhappy Writer or a very unhappy boss (and did I mention that I think editorial work is the province of saints? Probably not today. But it bears repeating). When dealing in story, the vulnerabilities and insecurities are frequently Right Up There, and the words "it's a business decision" provide not even cold comfort. And the reverse -- the unspoken certainty that your job is on the line if you can't perform -- is also a pressure. And in the middle? The love of the writing. The thing that made you want to edit in the first place.

(If we all sold as well as Robert Jordan, this wouldn't be an issue, and I can think of several exceptions even as I type this generalization of a post -- but I'm speaking about the trend toward shorter novels and shorter books, and trends are always generalizations. Okay, end of that digression).

I realize, btw, that most of the people who read my LJ haven't read my books. I have no expectation that you should. I'm using them now as examples primarily because they are mine, so I can pretty much speak clearly about authorial intent when it came to their creation, and if no author is considered entirely, well, authoritative about matters of her own text, this will have to do.

The Sun Sword series is six books long, and the six comprise one over-arching story, with smaller arcs beneath it. As I've stated elsewhere, I thought it would be two books, but the addition of one plot thread & character stream changed that. I might not have said elsewhere, but will say now, that it usually takes me about 500 pages worth of book to know roughly how long that book will be. In the case of books two and three in the series, the 500 page mark also marked the point at which I realized that I wasn't actually going where I thought I was going; that the book was going to end in a different place, and at a different time; that the arc for the whole novel existed, but that I wouldn't hit the point in the series story at which I'd been aiming.

SEA, I thought I could finish the series with, and I tried this by first eliminating the chunk of the book from which the novel now derives its title. One of my favourite emails of all time regarding my work came from someone who had heard a rumour that this was going to be the last volume -- and had written to say, in all caps, DON'T DO IT!!! Sorry. It's not very often in this day and age that you have someone writing to tell you to make things longer. Digression, again.

I stalled and bogged down writing SEA for a variety of reasons, and eventually had the editor-author phone call in which I explained the difficulty. My editor said, "What are you trying to leave out?" and I told her, and she said, "That's not going to work. Why are you even trying?" And I said, "Last book?" And she said, "Just write the story. But write all of the story; if it can be cut, you can cut it later." So I put back the bits that were necessary, threw away a huge chunk of pages, and started again, secure in the knowledge that this did not, in fact, have to be the final volume.

But, you know, embarrassment is a factor. I was convinced that I could finish the Southern War in one more book. Yes. One more longish book. When I reached about 1600 or 1700 pages, I once again had to make the editor-author phone call. But this time, given that I (optimistically, as it turned out) guessed that it would be 2,000 or 2,100 pages, there wasn't really the option of having a "longish" book. I could start cutting about 600 pages (as it turned out, about 1,000 pages), or I could find a place to split the book. (Apologies, dark_geisha, and those who read the groveling intro and already know this).

RIVEN SHIELD, as published, was 1132 manuscript pages long; by page count, 283,000 words. It is exactly the type of book that I would have to split in half (again) at a different publisher, or perhaps in the current market. To those of you who've read it; can you think of how I could split it at that point? As a single volume, I know it accomplished what I wanted it to -- but half of it would have accomplished a lot less than half; it would have been one of those slowly building things that just … ends up feeling like a slowly building thing that doesn't go anywhere. The pacing of it, the multiple viewpoints, the various threads -- they don't lend themselves to a shorter length, because their existence is predicated on a larger canvas.

If I were told I could never write a book that long again, I could, in fact, write shorter books. They would almost all be single viewpoint books, however. Things unravel quickly for me if there are multiple viewpoints. This is not true of other writers, and many of those are writers whose works I've admired greatly (case in point, papersky's Tooth and Claw.)

Single viewpoints work really well for a large number of readers. There's nothing wrong with a single viewpoint book, and some of the most powerful and personal work I've read has been composed in that fashion. Just so we're clear. Some of the best kick-butt adventure is written that way as well. Imho, however (okay, imnsho) they don't work as well for giving the sense of scope and epic sweep to a much larger universe. Or rather, I can't make them work in those confines.

SUN SWORD, as published, was 1648 manuscript pages long, or 412,000 words. But that one? I couldn't break. Nor was I asked to, fwiw.

There were two places in which I could have broken the books as published; one place -- which is the current end of RIVEN SHIELD -- and the other, some 1400ish pages in, which would have been the end of the Terafin & Jewel section of SUN SWORD. I offered both; my editor pointed out (wisely) that if I chose to end RIVEN SHIELD with the House, people would naturally assume that the book that followed would resolve that thread -- and as she and I both knew that wasn't going to happen in that novel, we chose the earlier break point.

Why am I meandering like this? Because I'm trying to point out the distinct differences in conception and execution between writing a book, even if it's part of a continuing series of books, and splitting a book that already exists. In some cases, there are ways to do it; in others, without doing serious damage to the story arc, or changing the dramatic arc of events, there aren't.

I think the rationale behind having shorter books, but more of them, is that it will benefit everyone: the readers will still get the big, sprawling epics they want, the authors will still get to write them, and the publishers will make their profit margins. In my case, it would mean that The Sun Sword would have been thirteen books long. But I'm not sure -- in my case -- that people would have picked up BROKEN CROWN volume 2, because really, it's the slowest of the starts :/. I think there's a payoff at the end of things that rewards the work of comprehending the culture -- but it comes only at the end.

So what have I been doing tonight? I've been considered the BFFs that I like, and looking at their structure. There are some that might survive a split, but not many, and not in the first volume. There is an accumulating of threads that the reader does, holding them all in place until they come together to form tapestry, and if the beginnings have tension, they also introduce a lot of characters, some hints of ancient history, etc., with a pacing that wouldn't work at half the length. Length, in these cases, are in inextricable part of the form.


ETA: I'm a total idiot. I dropped two and a half paragraphs because I forgot an html cut-tag, and only noticed it now because someone asked if I could maybe turn this into an article :/.

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
dark_geisha
Nov. 21st, 2004 06:45 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the Carey, so I can't comment on it directly; I can't even say for certain that having the story split across two books is the cause for the problems you see -- I can only say that I can see how it could be.

This is true. I'm not entirely convinced the split is the only reason. Actually I think it's more likely just a contributing factor, but as you said: Length is a part of the form. The novel felt short & I felt like just as the threads were coming together to unleash Something Big, it stopped.

It's not something I can put my finger on and say, "Yes, this here and that there," but it's a feeling within the narrative flow -- that momentum that builds as a reader flips the pages. Even if you're in a valley rather than a peak in the narrative arc (using the roller coaster model, let's say), you still get a sense of where you are in the novel. That ending felt like all of the major players had moved into their key positions and it was all about to go downhill from there.

Thanks for writing this.
mizkit
Nov. 21st, 2004 06:45 pm (UTC)
My only objection as a reader to Great Huge Long Books is not the inherent Great Huge Longness of them, but rather that it takes a long damned time to write them, and thus a long damned time to get the next book in a series, by which time I usually have no idea what's going on anymore. In fact, I'm not absolutely sure I ever finished Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince books because of that, and I know I didn't finish Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow & Thorn because of it.

Eventually, though, I figured out that all I needed to do was buy the books, put them on the shelf, and wait for the whole series to be finished, at which point I could read it all at once. Once I figured that out, I stopped being so grumpy about Huge Books. I've got Kate Elliot's Dog Prince books downstairs waiting for the 6th (and I think final) volume to come out, so I can do just that.

*squint* So I think my point was I'd rather see authors be able to write the books as they should be written, and temper my own reading pace, than have stories broken up in unnatural ways. :)
almeda
Feb. 23rd, 2005 07:07 pm (UTC)
I've been on a quest to read the books that were popular before I started reading heavily, but waned in popularity by the time I did -- the previous generations' 'classics', etc. The most relevant ones to what I'm about to ask/comment on for now are the golden/silver-age SF stuff: Clarke, Heinlein, Tanith Lee, AE Van Vogt, et multi alia -- the folks that people growing up in the sixties and seventies read as a matter of course because that's what, well, *SF* was then.

Why are there so MANY MANY skinny novels (and I mean, by today's standards, practically chapbooks) published then that are good, and sufficient at that length, and so damn few paperback novels less than .75-inch thick nowadays, even when it's obvious they're padded out to that length?

Note: I'm specifically excluding from discussion shorter 'old' works that 'belong' longer (Amber works much better in one or two compendium volumes, for example, and there are lots more out there similarly), and modern novels that are perfectly wonderful at 'doorstop' size. I'm just wondering why nobody seems to be writing, say, Tunnel in the Sky or Nor Crystal Tears anymore (to pick two short books I like at that length, at random).
the_numinous_1
Nov. 21st, 2004 07:31 pm (UTC)
My only problem with BFF's is that I'm writing one - and since this is my first novel (clocking in at over 240k), the chances of my ever being published are nil. (Besides, who the hell is going to sign me to a seven-volume contract right out of the gate? LOL!) I love the story enough to continue, regardless of whether it will ever reach print, but it does make it a bit frustrating. In my opinion, I think you need an audience and a proven marketability to be truly successful with multi-volume stories.
dancinghorse
Nov. 21st, 2004 10:26 pm (UTC)
My first contract was for six books.

Go for it. You never know--it could happen.
the_numinous_1
Nov. 22nd, 2004 05:38 am (UTC)
Oh, I'll go for it - but I'm not holding my breath. I'm just trying to have realistic expectations about what's possible, and it's difficult to do that when I really don't know if what I've written is good or crap!
scott_lynch
Nov. 22nd, 2004 04:15 am (UTC)
Hey, I have two two-book contracts with the ink barely dry, and my editor knew in advance that the first book would probably come in at over 800 pages in manuscript.

If your work shows verve and skill and commercial potential, it's going to have someone biting at it; length be damned. Length is negotiable through the magic of editing and splitting, as our hostess was mentioning.

For what it's worth, I don't mind BFFs. I like a meaty fantasy novel; 500-700 pages is my comfort zone, and what I think I'll be mostly aiming for in my writing. What I can't stand is lassitude, slow plot development, and wasted space within those pages-- novels that have three hundred decent pages of material padded out to twice that length with superfluous crap or languid action. I call it "corridor pacing," from the sure-fire way Doctor Who episodes used to be padded out, by having the cast prowl around or get chased through corridors for many long minutes of screen time. Ten minutes of actual plot plus fifteen minutes of corridor-pacing could yield one full 25-minute episode.

BFFs without any wasted pages are a treat. Off the top of my head, I'd name the Feist/Wurts Empire trilogy and Matt Stover's Caine novels as examples. The plot hits the ground running in all of them, and there's barely a wasted page to be found.

the_numinous_1
Nov. 22nd, 2004 05:41 am (UTC)
Well, like I said in my comments to someone above, I can't really tell at this point if what I've written is the "good, nothing wasted" BFF or if it's the "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" BFF. And I won't know that for certain until I start submitting it and get some professional feedback. So I'm trying not to assume it's as great as I think it is - my opinion is shockingly biased!
oyceter
Nov. 21st, 2004 07:42 pm (UTC)
One of my main problems with BFFs is that I am supremely lazy, and I don't want to have to wade through a ton of pages before the story gets good. Some BFFs are good and manage to entrance me by the first chapters, and others I've had friends standing over me and telling me, no worries! It gets good by the second book! which isn't quite as encouraging as one would hope. Also, I hate waiting, and I always manage to forget what's happened in the previous books by the time the next one comes out. And after a while, there is a point in which I will not reread six books to get to the new one.

But then again, George R. R. Martin's BFF has still managed to suck me in ^_^.

I think it is hard to compare to a BFF sometimes though. Dunnett's Lymond chronicles aren't really a BFF, but the sheer amount of pages and the time that it takes me to get through them means that I have lived in that world a much longer time than in the worlds of shorter books. And there is that much more room for character development and background history, if the writer is a good one. I think I may have higher expecations of BFFs -- I don't want to read one unless it's really good, because of the time investment, but the really good ones are so very worth it.
domynoe
Nov. 21st, 2004 10:04 pm (UTC)
I am working on my first trilogy and had to come to a decision on the last two books. The rough draft of book 2 is 30k shorter than the rough draft of book 1. While that may not mean much at this stage, it was pretty damn hard to bring book 1 up to the average word count of a first time fantasy novel, so I'm not looking forward to the struggle with book 2. I did consider combining books 2 and 3, but that would have made book 2 in the duology incredibly long, and a Michelle West or J.K. Rowling I am not. I decided to stick with the split, although I may drag a chunk of book 3 into book 2 because book 2's ending may drive readers nuts (assuming any of the monsters get into publication).

When I first conceived of the story, it was just that - a story. Now that I've been writing awhile, I'm realizing how much "non-creative" stuff I have to think about, including things like where to split longer stuff to make them even remotely publishable.

I'm trying not to think about the editor part of the process yet, but sometimes I think it sneaks in there anyway. Why else worry about a book being "too short" or "too long" or "split in the right place"?
twiegand
Nov. 22nd, 2004 05:40 am (UTC)
I realize I sound like a fawning idiot but anything you write seems to end up at the right (though longer than intended) length. I believe this is because of a certain amount of talent. Yes, I tend to pester you about your progress but that is only because your stories have a moment in them that reaches into me to elicit a response that is both emotional and intellectual. I look at other writers, including my efforts, and wonder how can they or, or more importantly I, achieve that same effect.

I have heard repeatedly, at the store, your struggles to achieve proper length for your stories. I know it is not easy for you and that you are graced with editors that understand the quality of the story may supercede the length goal. Be assured that when you have finished a story, long or short, that at least one reader is always glad to see it.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 22nd, 2004 02:56 pm (UTC)
Long novels are, by far, the only ones I like to read. If a split is required, as is often the case, that is acceptable. I will wait, not patiently-for that is not within my nature-but I will wait. However, the split must be natural and understandable to the reader, and not the "slap in the face" that can often happen. If there is no rhyme or reason to it, I will, in all likelyhood, give up and try someone else.

That being said, as many books as the story requires is what we expect. Sacrificing the story for shorter books is not to anyones advantage, be they author, publisher or reader. So far, you have done an excellent time balancing everyones concerns... but I suppose I'm biased, as I've read the whole series, including the Hunter books, three or four times, and am working on it again.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )