The ethics of splitting up a long book

Perhaps due in part to my non-neurotypical brain wiring, I’ve never understood the modern, U.S. line of thinking that claims books must be a certain size, particularly from people who haven’t been published before. Not only am I used to being different from the others and not going along with the crowd, but I’m used to historicals and classic literature that are routinely well over 400 pages.

Books can be overwritten at any size. My most overwritten books, in need of the most serious edits, revisions, and rewrites, are all under 100,000 words, whereas I deliberately planned my doorstoppers as long, complex sagas and thus wrote and plotted them much more carefully. But once you get past a certain length, it’s generally safe to say the length is deliberate. A simple YA contemporary or cozy mystery couldn’t be 350,000 words, because those genres lend themselves to brevity. Historicals, fantasy, sci-fi, and literary fiction, however, often do lend themselves to length.

It’s easier said than done to “just” split up a deliberately long book. If you’ve never written a saga, you can’t really understand what goes into writing it, and why it wouldn’t be nearly the same story anymore if you hacked out hundreds of pages or passed it off as a pretended trilogy or series. The dramatic momentum is lost if the plot is divided up piecemeal over several books.

With my first Russian historical, the title has significance for the entire book. The last line, spoken by Serafima Lebedeva in Siberia, even includes the title. When Part I ends, most of the main characters are sailing to America, and Lyuba and Ivan are finally engaged, but so much else is still up in the air. Part II leads to Lyuba and Ivan’s marriage and their day-long courtroom showdown with Boris to strip him of his paternal rights to Tatyana. From the time I went back to working on it in the fall of ’96, at age sixteen, I carefully plotted how it would unfold. It’s not long by accident.

It also wouldn’t make sense to split it into two, since there’s a sequel (even longer) with its own plot trajectory and storylines. That too was very carefully planned, plotted, and written. I’ve actually seriously been considering publishing the third book in four volumes, but not only because of the mammoth length (probably going to end up around 700,000 words). Each Part reads like a self-sustaining story, with a focus on different characters and storylines. There are natural breaks, no real loss of momentum or chopping up the plot piecemeal. Also, I’d make it clear they’re four volumes of the same book, not four different books.

At one point, while querying Adicia’s story, I kowtowed and pretended Parts I and II were the first book of a trilogy. It just doesn’t work split up. While Part IV and the Epilogue could work as a separate book, they only make sense and flow well as the dramatic, relatively fast-paced conclusion to everything that came before. Better to have one long book than several short books that feel incomplete.

I created Jakob’s story from a long short story/piece of backstory about a longtime secondary character. My original intention was to follow the timeline of 10 October 1940-14 April 1947, from the forced suicide of Jaap’s father to the naming ceremony of his firstborn child Vera in America. But length was a big consideration, since I thought it was YA. A natural breaking point opened up at the most fitting, beautiful point, when Jaap and his mother are sailing to America in May 1946. I even found a way to tie in the significance of the title to the ending.

The rest of the material was used for a second volume, about Jakob’s first year in America, his first proper year of marriage to Rachel. This turned out to be an excellent call. The first volume concerns the War and that difficult first postwar year. The second volume is concerned with acclimating to marriage and life in America, including many culture clashes and Rachel’s search for a midwife in the era of twilight sleep. It makes sense to separate them.

The decision to split up a long book should be done on a case-to-case basis, not because someone was made to feel like books over a certain length are automatically way too long. Finding a natural break in a deliberately long book is a lot different from artificially splitting it up for no other reason than to be short and please someone else’s taste.

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2 comments on “The ethics of splitting up a long book

  1. I can think of several books that edge close to a thousand pages that no one was made to break into shorter books.

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  2. appyt0914 says:

    I love really long books

    Like

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