Combining and splitting decisions

As someone who naturally and deliberately writes my adult books at saga length, I’ve developed a very keen sense of when a book’s length is justified by the story vs. when it’s just an overwritten sprawl (coughtheinvisiblebridgecough). I’ve also developed a strong sense of when a long story needs split up into multiple books or volumes.

On the flip side, when it comes to my Atlantic City books, I’ve found several places where these short books need combined, since they lead right into one another instead of feeling like true self-contained stories within a series.

                          

As I’ve discussed many times, I still feel I made the right decision in putting out And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away and And the Lark Arose from Sullen Earth as two distinct books. The most perfect ending opened up, and I was able to turn the rest of the source material into a second book about Jakob and Rachel’s first proper year of marriage and Jakob’s first year in America. Each book truly has its own focus, and wouldn’t feel the same if it were just one long book with an uninterrupted story.

Granted, I was trying for traditional publishing at the time and was aware the first book had reached the uppermost limits for both YA and historical, at a bit over 120K. The second book also has a much more New Adult feel and a number of sex scenes, in comparison to the fade to black on the wedding night scene in the first book. But Fate obviously compelled me to make the right decision about how to present this story.

                        

I was also originally trying for traditional publication with Little Ragdoll, and was shocked to discover how frowned-upon sagas are nowadays, esp. from first-time authors and in YA. At the time, I hadn’t yet realised this is truly an adult book that just happens to feature young people in the leading roles. In other words, a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story like Great Expectations and Little Women.

Thus, I began querying it and submitting pages as a pretended trilogy, and came up with query letters and synopses for all three books (Parts I and II, Part III, Part IV and the Epilogue). However, I soon came to feel dirty and like a huge fraud for diluting my vision and intention. I always meant it as one long, continuous story, not split up three ways. And while Part IV does read the most like its own standalone book, it also only makes sense and feels right as the conclusion of everything that came before. Adicia finally has no choice but to act instead of passively being acted upon, and emerges from that ordeal a much stronger person than anyone, least of all she herself, ever saw her as.

When it came to Swan, I was always very firm about this story being one entire book. It would make no sense to put out Parts I and II as two different books when so much is still up in the air at the conclusion of Part I. The only thing resolved (for the moment) is that Lyuba and Ivan are finally engaged. I also wrote The Twelfth Time as its sequel, not the third book in the family saga.

Plus, the title has significance for the entire book, and appears in the final line.

People at Absolute Write really got on my hide about the length (330K) and tried to convince me to make it into a series or two books. They also thought it was a historical romance instead of a novel that just happens to prominently feature a love story. One person got really offended when he read a blog post I wrote explaining and defending my wordcount and genre, accusing me of being oppositional and not taking anyone’s advice.

Yeah, it’s almost like writers know their own stories far better than random Internet strangers obsessed with “the rules”! Hist-fic is also traditionally very long, with 120K being the bare minimum for a story spanning many years and with a large ensemble cast.

                         

                         

Dark Forest ended up so long, way past my initial guesstimate of 500K, I had to put it out as one book in four volumes. It perfectly worked out so each part read like its own story, with a focus on different characters and storylines. Of course they all lead into one another, but there’s no sense of ending in media res.

I’ll do the same for Dream Deferred, which also ballooned up way past my conservative guesstimate of 300K. Even after cutting aborted storylines that don’t belong there, it’ll still be extremely long. Thankfully, this book too will feel natural in four volumes instead of forcibly chopped up.

Ultimately, it comes down to gut feelings and your own creative vision. Would this work as a single very long book, one book published in several volumes, or two or more separate books? And would a few novella-length books feel stronger if they were combined into one longer volume?

IWSG—Resisting the cookie-cutter culture

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of the month. Participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears.

This month, the IWSG question is:

How has being a writer changed your experience as a reader?

I definitely want to break out the red pen so many times! I understand even the best-edited books sometimes have embarrassing typos or errors that somehow fell through the cracks, but some books have a LOT of grammar, punctuation, and language that needs cleaning up.

I also want to bang my head against the wall when I catch things like “As you know, Bob” dialogue, too many unnecessary adverbs (esp. coupled with non-standard speaking verbs), infodumps, rushed-along action, huge time gaps between chapters, lack of front and back matter that would really enhance an understanding of the story (e.g., list of characters, family tree, pronunciation guide), and making a big deal out of introducing a bunch of characters who never appear again after the first 20 pages.

One of my favorite YouTuber writers, Maya Goode, recently discussed this in a vlog. I highly recommend her channel!

I had a very surprising encounter with an older friend recently. We were discussing how I’m having a book cover revamped and will be having physical copies soon, and she was very interested in buying the book. But as soon as she asked how long it is and I gave her the guesstimated page length (700ish), her tune changed drastically.

Instantly, she began insisting she wouldn’t and couldn’t read it, and was almost hostile and yelling while telling me books “shouldn’t” be that long. She’s only read a handful of long books (Anna Karenina and Roots, and maybe some of the Harry Potter franchise). I kept trying to explain:

That’s the length I naturally write at.

There are lots of people who enjoy long books more than short ones.

All the great long books there are.

My short books (under 100K) are actually the ones that need the most editing, since I didn’t plot, plan, and write them as carefully as the ones I deliberately planned at saga-length.

I do have some shorter books, but that’s the length that works and naturally unfolds for them.

I’m not cutting out hundreds of pages for no other reason than making a book shorter to please other people’s tastes.

I don’t write for people with short attention spans! Why should I contribute to the perpetuation of a culture that refuses to write anything by hand or think outside of 140-character Tweets?

Long, saga-length books are kind of the traditional standard for historicals, particularly considering they often take place over many years and have large ensemble casts. Look at Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, James Michener.

I don’t force myself to write at a certain length.

Many people have said they’d love to see more longer books, and can’t understand why so many modern-day agents refuse to look at anything above a certain length, sight unseen. If these agents don’t read any of it, how will they know if the length is merited or a result of genuine overwriting?

People who love reading make the time to read long books. No one says you have to spend your entire day reading!

One of the reasons I went indie was because of these modern-day wordcount policies in traditional publishing.

I’m not going to rush along a story just to keep it short. That length actually IS the core story, carefully planned and plotted at that length. With many short books, there’s no room for detailed character development and worldbuilding.

Long books weren’t considered automatically overwritten and “too long” as recently as 20–30 years ago. That was more the norm in certain genres.

Many of us prefer to climb into a long book we can live in for a few weeks, as opposed to something so short we can breeze through it in a few hours.

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I understand genre fiction tends to be shorter (e.g., police procedural, YA contemporary, romance, thriller, horror). I’d wonder about a genre book that’s over 400 pages. However, I write historical sagas, which come from a very long tradition of being at least 400 pages, if not 700 or more. My Atlantic City books are only so short because they typically take place over much shorter timespans. Were I to combine the ones that lead right into one another, they’d be much longer!

I also know many people nowadays have much shorter attention spans than they did 50+ years ago. But I don’t consider that a good thing. Times change, but good stories remain the same.

2016 in review

Writing and editing:

I didn’t complete any books this year, though I got a lot of work done on The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees and A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at UniversityBranches was 61K when I took it out of hiatus and began expanding it into an actual narrative story, and it’s now up to 333K. This book really wanted to be one of my sprawling sagas!

Dream Deferred was 80K when I went back to work on it shortly before NaNo, and it’s now up to 170K. My conservative guesstimate is 300–400K, since it only covers four years, and has relatively quieter storylines than the massive Journey Through a Dark Forest.

I did one full round of edits on Dark Forest, and have done little tweaks as I’ve looked through the four combined files. The first draft was 891K, and it’s currently down to:

149K in Part I
272K in Part II
219K in Part III
237K in Part IV and the Epilogue
877K total

I expect a bit more to be shorn off during subsequent full rounds of edits.

I also did some work on my alternative history in January and February. It’s now up to 185K. I also did a bit of work on the book formerly known as The Very Last.

Films:

After finally reaching my long-awaited goal of 1,000 silents on New Year’s Eve 2015 (The Phantom Carriage), I turned my focus to early sound films that aren’t comedies. I knew that was a most dire gap which needed filling.

Most of the silents I saw this year were avant-garde and experimental films, including many made after the silent era officially added. I count them as silents because they were deliberately made without dialogue (or extremely sparse dialogue in otherwise silent scenarios).

I saw 125 new silents this year, my favorite features being L’Inferno (1911), The Bat (1926), and Labyrinth of Horror (Labyrinth des Grauens) (1921).

Favorite new-to-me sound films I saw this year were, in no special order, Frankenstein (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936), Little Caesar (1930), The Roaring Twenties (1938), Scarlet Street (1945), Meet John Doe (1942), Charade (1963), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and White Heat (1949).

Books:

pornland-cover

The most important book I read this year had to have been Gail Dines’s excellent Pornland, which was highly recommended on one of my favorite radfem blogs. Over this year, I came to the stronger and stronger, more and more obvious realization I’ve been a lifelong radfem (though I don’t 100% agree on every single issue). Unpacking my feelings towards porn was my final step.

All these revelations about the true nature of the porn industry were so nauseating, heartbreaking, and shocking. Even if it’s possible there are some small indie companies doing things radically differently, that doesn’t change the nature of the vast majority of porn. A few powerful women like Nina Hartley in the industry also don’t cancel out the sickeningly overwhelming numbers of women trafficked into this exploitative business and not given any free agency.

This book also helped me to realize how very, very pornsick my ex is, and how porn deeply affected our relationship in many ways I wasn’t aware of.

Life:

As abovementioned, this year I realized I’ve always been a radfem. I may have a future post explaining exactly what radical feminism is and isn’t, and how it’s not at all what many folks falsely assume it to be. I know I definitely had the completely wrong ideas about it until finally getting to know actual radfems and reading so many wonderful radfem blogs and news stories.

I’d considered myself a Marxist–Socialist feminist since age 15, never a libfem (a.k.a. a funfem). There are huge differences between radical, Second Wave feminism and liberal, Third Wave feminism. Even as a teen who read too much and understood too little, I knew liberal feminism was milquetoast and didn’t go nearly far enough.

not-right

I’m still grieving and in shock over what happened on 8 November. That was not an outcome I nor any of my friends were expecting or wanting. It was the first time I and many of my friends ever cried at the results of a presidential election, instead of just feeling upset and disappointed. I actually thought i was going to throw up that night.

We’re all extremely scared about what’s going to happen to us after 21 January, particularly those of us who are women, Jewish, African–American, Hispanic, Muslim, gay or lesbian, and disabled.

afraid

On 11 August, I sadly had to retire my beautiful navel piercing. It had been red for awhile, and not only wasn’t getting better, but had reached an obvious, advanced state of rejection. I was able to screw off the top opal and remove it myself. My wonderful piercer, who’s no longer local, only uses internally threaded jewelry, which prevents microdermabrasions and the subsequent risk of infections.

This is what it looked like the day it was done, 24 November 2015:

navel-closeup

I will be having it redone eventually. For now, I’m glad it’s out, since it just didn’t want to heal, and I don’t have to worry about it catching on my clothes or getting knocked. I’m also really superstitious about auspicious vs. inauspicious dates and numbers, which wasn’t helped when I discovered I’d had it pierced on Freddie Mercury’s Jahrzeit.

For now, I’m down to 10 piercings, my nostril plus nine in my ears (four right, five left). If only the nearest APP studios weren’t 64 miles away in either direction!

My thoughts on NaNo overachieving

I naturally write very prolifically, very quickly, particularly when I’m inspired. Some books have written me more than I’ve written them, judging by first draft wordcounts like 397K in three months and 406K in five months. When I’ve had that particular story memorized backwards and forwards in my head for years, the words flow even faster, as they’re finally given an outlet.

Every year I’ve officially participated in NaNo, I’ve gone over 50K. Two of the three years I unofficially did NaNo, I also went over 50K. The only reason I didn’t go over 50K the first year, 2010, was because I didn’t start till 18 November. I certainly did write at least 100K each month I was writing that book. As of the end of Tuesday, my NaNo wordcount for this month stood at 42K, so I’m well on track to overachieve yet again.

nano-2016-day-22

However, there’s a big difference between naturally coming by a high wordcount in a short span of time and forcing yourself to crank out hundreds of thousands of words within a mere month. At absolute most, I might be able to do about 250K in a month if I were really well-prepared, motivated, and inspired, and had the luxury of enough time each day. That said, that’s still not something I’d ever deliberately shoot for.

Some people try to write the first 50K on the first day. This year, I even saw someone humble-bragging about finishing within the first twelve HOURS. It’s called National Novel-Writing Month, not National Novel-Writing Day. What do you honestly get out of forcing yourself to sit at the keyboard for almost an entire day at a stretch, pounding out so many words? This isn’t a contest.

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While I do feel disappointed in myself for not keeping to my normal daily averages more days this month, my typical output is still only several thousand words, NOT at least 35K each day. I’m truly curious as to what kinds of projects these extreme overachievers are working on. My conservative guesstimate for my book is 300–400K, but it’s a historical/family saga. I doubt all these people trying for 250K, 300K, 500K, 700K, a million words, are also writing deliberate sagas with huge ensemble casts, spanning many years.

Are these collections of stories? Several different projects counted together? Really long fanfictions? Just unfocused rambling that could easily be cut down to 100K or less without losing anything? Even I’m not crazy and prolific enough to think every book needs to be a doorstopper, nor that a length of several million words for one book is normal. I was stunned enough when the first draft of Journey Through a Dark Forest ended up 891K, though at least each of the four Parts reads like its own story, with a focus on different characters and storylines.

nano-2016-day-six

Someone who’s, e.g., struggling to meet the daily minimum every single day, or who’s fallen sharply behind due to unforeseen circumstances, doesn’t need to see someone humble-bragging, “Ooh, I was so lazy yesterday and only wrote 30K!” or “I totally failed NaNo because I only wrote 750K instead of a million like usual.”

I’m going to call the majority of this as crap writing. How can there be any quality when you’re forcing out that many words so swiftly? Quality matters more than quantity. I like getting to know my characters and going on the journey through life with them, not plowing through their stories within one day. It’s also ridiculous to plan any story at a million words. What are you writing that absolutely needs to be a million damn words?!

Crafting a quality story, no matter its length or brevity, takes time. Quality can never come when you’re pounding away at the keyboard for almost every waking hour, forcing out at least 25,000 words each day. Some of these people even give tips on how to pad out wordcount, like lots of dream sequences, explaining basic things over and over again, infodumps, complete song lyrics, many quotes, not using contractions, writing out common abbreviations like DVD and ATM, and characters constantly recapping scenes that just happened.

I’d rather stick to my realistic, natural type of overachieving than vomit forth a profusion of words just for wordiness’s sake.

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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