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?

Choosing the starting age of characters in a series or Bildungsroman

While writers are discouraged from creating a series before they’ve even sold the first book, not everyone naturally gravitates towards standalones, duologies, and trilogies. I was also strongly influenced by the popularity of juvenile series in my formative years. Why wouldn’t I copy the example I saw modelled so often?

Many series or Bildungsromans spanning many years run until high school or college graduation, but when exactly should they begin?

It’s generally not a wise idea to start too young, unless this is an adult novel which just happens to have very young characters, or each book becomes successively more mature and detailed. E.g., the Little House series starts when Laura is four and ends when she’s twenty-two (though her real-life age doesn’t match her fictional age till The Long Winter, set from 1880–81).

At a certain point, a series will shift from MG to YA. Thus, the themes, language, subject matter, and writing style used in the later books will necessarily differ from those of the earlier books. It feels very off when a book with YA-aged characters is written in a very MG fashion, and vice versa.

Your audience will naturally grow up along with the characters. There’s no need to make the entire series MG just because that’s how old the characters were when it started. (That was one of many issues I had with Sydney Taylor’s Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, which I’ll review in a future post.)

If it’s popular and written well, readers will look forward to being old enough for the mature final books. Graduating to more grownup books is a literary rite of passage. How many 18-year-olds want to read books with a writing style suit for sixth graders, even if the protagonists are their age?

Likewise, it’s a bad idea to make the entire series YA-level. It’s one thing to straddle the fence between upper MG and lower YA, but most high schoolers have no interest in the adventures of preteens. You need to choose one age-based audience at a time and consistently stick with it.

If it’s a single book spanning at least a few years, or if the first book in a series spans several years, make sure there’s an obvious progression in maturity, themes, language, writing style, etc., as the characters age.

Anne C. Voorhoeve’s My Family for the War ages her protagonist from ten to seventeen, with a short Epilogue when Frances (née Franziska) is in her early twenties. Had this book been published in the U.S. first, I highly doubt it would’ve been YA! It’s almost unheard-of these days to feature a character that young, even if she eventually becomes a teen.

Unfortunately, as much as I loved the book, it falls victim to a rushed second half. So many novels and memoirs do this, spending so much time developing and detailing the earlier years and then hurrying through the rest. As a result, 17-year-old Frances doesn’t seem markedly more mature than 10-year-old Ziska, even when she’s starting a romance with 21-year-old Walter.

Original cover and title. The U.S. cover sucks, thanks to the stupid headless character trend.

Anne of Green Gables ages Anne from 11–16, though it’s often classified as MG nowadays. A lot of older books with protagonists in this age range are like that. In general, preteens had much larger vocabularies in the old days, and weren’t deemed incapable of reading longer books with more mature writing styles.

There’s also the option of writing it for all ages, à la A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. An adult can enjoy it as much as a teen or mature preteen, for different reasons. It’s one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read, though, like My Family for the War, kind of speeds through the final years.

I can’t think of any series which started as chapter books or lower MG before segueing into upper MG and YA. Ten or eleven seems a good minimum starting age, since it lets your characters go through upper elementary school, junior high, high school, and university (or their first few years in the working world, if they don’t go to uni).

Only you can decide how long each book should last. Some books in a series are best when they only span a few months, while others beg to last a full year. It’s all down to the type of storyline.

I also strongly caution against a floating timeline, unless your characters are cartoons. That leads to quantity over quality and creates continuity confusion. SORASing characters is also a no-no. As I’ve come to painfully realize, that includes mental SORASing to justify quite young characters acting like they’re a fair bit older!

IWSG—October odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group meets the first Wednesday of each month. Participants share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?

I wasn’t able to do much of any writing after my car accident in 2003. It killed my momentum, and when I got back to it, the writing wasn’t as natural and passionate as what went immediately before. Something very similar happened during my depressing junior year of high school.

Writing the chapter “Halloween Wedding Gone Awry” in my hiatused WIP Justine Grown Up helped me to realise I needed to end my relationship with Sergey. If my fictional Doppelgänger Emeline could find the strength and guts to walk away, I could too.

Last month, I went through the grueling final edit/polishing of Journey Through a Dark Forest, the third book with my Russian characters. The first draft was 891K; the second draft was 877K; and the final product is 861K.

I thought very long and hard about how to deal with its release—one massive volume; four separate volumes; two volumes; four individual volumes plus a master; two volumes plus a master. For a long time, I’ve seriously considered doing four volumes, since it miraculously worked out so each Part reads much like its own self-contained story.

Part I is now 146K; Part II is 267K; Part III is 215K; and Part IV plus the Epilogue is 233K. You can see from the Wordles how different characters predominate. The one for Part I includes the front matter, which explains the inclusion of “Chapter.”

And just for fun, a Wordle for the front and back matter:

The final product, not counting front and back matter, is 2,081 pages in 6×9 trim, with 1-point leading and normal margins. Even if I shrunk the leading, kerning, and margins as much as legibly possible, it’d never fit in one massive volume. 7×10 trim would only remove a few hundred pages.

One book in four volumes it’ll have to be, which means four covers and ISBNs. I chose 11 December as the release date because that’s Lyuba’s birthday, and would’ve been the 100th birthday of my favourite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. Words can’t do justice to what a massive influence he’s had on me. One of my greatest regrets is not writing him a letter in all the years our lifetimes overlapped.

Due to changing my double-spacing to single (to remove the unexpectedly huge gaps that often created), all these books shrunk. If the page count differs from the original by more than four, the spine and thus the entire cover file needs redone.

For Lark, I added a glossary and “The Story Behind the Story,” which added back the same number of pages. For Fiend, I added the same SBTS (with a few tweaks to avoid spoilers). For LR, I added a colophon (a.k.a. “A Note About the Type”) and one of the appendices I deleted. For AAL, I added back the colophon and everyone I’d deleted from “The Real People in This Story.”

I’m once again making great progress on A Dream Deferred, though it’s become obvious it’ll need to be released in two volumes. I predict the first draft of Part I will be around 430K. During NaNo, I’ll start Part II.

I still haven’t decided on the titles for Parts I and II—Fission and Fallout, Hypocenter and Epicenter, Bright Light and Black Rain, or Pika (Flash) and Don (Boom). The Epilogue is “Red Canna Flowers,” after the miraculous flowers which started blooming ten days after Hiroshima was destroyed. They represented hope and courage to the survivors, and helped them to heal and rebuild their lives.

Copyright Rexness from Melbourne, Australia; Source Cannas

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.

**********************

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!

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