Stuck in the middle with 2

I can’t prove it, but my hunch is most people who write a novel series start with book #1, then progress to book #2, book#3, etc. This seems like a sensible way to manage such a project. As I gaze longingly at this sensible method from afar, I can only blame myself for coming at this task ass-backward.

As I mentioned here, I had a long novel I decided to split into two. Here, I documented how the two books propagated themselves into three books. So what now? Four? No. I hope not – not yet anyway.

The good news is that drafts of books #1 and #3 are complete. This took a lot of rewriting, a good deal of new writing, and much careful rearranging. It is an accomplishment and I feel good about it.

Having stretched #1 to the left and #3 to the right, I turned to the middle to see what material was left to form the core of #2. I was shocked to find a total of 30 pages left to work with.

A 30-page manuscript is not a large base to build a novel upon, but that’s not even the daunting part. The paucity of pages is merely a symbol of the bigger issue. I’ve got a miles and miles of ground to cover between #1 and #3. Chronologically, I’ve got a couple of decades to pass. That’s a chore, but not the most difficult one. The task that makes me suck in deep breaths is the chasm I need to bridge in character development. There’s a long road of change between book #1 and book #3.

“See that little gap over there? I’d like you to fit book #2 in there nice and snug.”

Since books #1 and #3 already exist, book #2 is both a sequel and a prequel. It seems to me there are more constraints to writing a prequel than to writing a sequel. You can’t just take the story threads and run with them. They have to come out lined up with a future already in existence. When a story is both prequel and sequel, the threads have to line up at both ends.

Let’s say my characters need to begin book#3 at point Z. If #2 were a simple prequel, I could start them out at the most convenient point Y. But because #2 is also a sequel, I have to start them where they left book#1, point X. I have to show how the characters got from X to Y before they can embark for Z.

They have the better part of 20 years to make the legs of this journey which is more than enough time. The true question is how many scenes it will take. Every new scene eats up more pages, and the whole impetus of this operation was to avoid producing books that suffocate under their own weight.

Which leads us back to the obvious solution: a fourth book. That just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it will seem more right later on, but for now I’m set on wrestling with book#2 as a single entity. Is that daunting? Yes. Is it impossible? No. Will I pull it off? Stay tuned . . .

The novel series I didn’t know I was writing

Last time, I wrote about dividing my long novel into two novels. Part of the reason that last post was nearly three months ago is because I’ve pushed blogging to the back burner to work on splitting the baby. I’ve been writing new scenes and thinking about future scenes I think would add to the plot. A few months of this has led me to a revelation:

Two books are not enough.

This thing is going to take three.

More books, more paper

“We’re gonna need more paper!”

The story covers the span of several decades. Originally, it was heavy on the latter end of the timeline, so I’ve been adding material to the beginning of the timeline to balance it. I think these are interesting scenes that add to the development of the characters, but beefing up the beginning to match the end has begun to show how lean the middle years are.

It’s not unheard of to skip over a number of years from the ending of a book to the beginning of its sequel. I could do that, and I might be able to get away with it. There are a few reasons why I don’t want to try that.

Continuity of Character

By the end of the saga, one of the major characters develops into someone quite different from the person he was at the beginning. The scenes I’ve added to the early years make this change less subtle than it used to be. There needs to be more middle to show how this change came about. I could tell it as back story at the start of the sequel, but that doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. The change needs to be shown in its pieces, rather than explained in a few pages.

Fertile Ground

My research, as well as the detail I’ve already added to the early timeline, has given me lots of ideas about interesting events I think would be entertaining to readers in showing the means of transition from the early to later years. There’s a lot of good story in the history of the era to be told. If I am equal to telling it, it would become more than a necessary transition; it would be a compelling story in its own right.

Bonus book

Two is an awkward number for a series. Is it really a series or merely a sequel? Having a third book would make me more comfortable talking about a series. I could begin imagining series titles without worrying about being a fraud, and I would worry about that; it’s the kind of thing I do. Besides, what author wouldn’t want an extra book to their credit?

housebreaking fun

Splitting books is a lot like splitting houses: if you go crazy with your bulldozer, they just might fall to pieces.

You may wonder if I will come back in three months talking about a fourth book, and so do I. I truly hope that does not happen. At some point, fiction has to stop multiplying conceptually and begin the process that results in actual books.

Number four may come after all this, but now I’ve got to limit the number of books I’m writing inside the book I’ve already written.

My novel outgrew its stretchy pants

Having written a novel too long for its own good is a situation relatable to many writers. The following is not intended as a “how to” essay. It is my plan to solve my own long book problem. I offer it as inspiration to keep chipping away at the good story within.

Diagnosis: Book Obesity

About a decade ago I finished writing a historical novel I thought had potential. Having potential is a characteristic of things that are not yet ready. As much as I liked the book, it was not what I wanted it to be. Something stood in the way of the potential I saw on the horizon, but I couldn’t tell what it was.

I put the book away and moved on to other projects.

A year ago, I got it out again and read through it. Maybe it’s a sign of me getting closer to reaching my potential, or maybe I’d just acquired the necessary distance, but a big problem jumped right out: the book was too long. In short, there were too many words.

A Surfeit of Words

Some books are too long because the plot can’t sustain the length, and some books are just too wordy. My book was an example of the latter.

I still liked the story, so I decided to do some work on it. I cut out unnecessary words, of which there were plenty, and rewrote scenes to streamline them. Instead of over-explaining the history, I let the characters reveal period points through their dialogue and actions.

I cut out about 10% of the words, improving the pacing, and smoothing the flow. Still, at nearly 500 pages, it remained a long book. The modern world does not embrace such behemoths. Some readers won’t touch them and even the publishing process is slanted against them.

Considering the length limitations of POD paperbacks, and the conflict between keeping the finished product’s price attractive to readers and still reaping some sort of royalty on sales, long books can spell trouble for Indie authors.

tree measuring

Measuring a likely tree to determine if it will yield enough paper for the proof copy.

Make a Long Story Longer?

Having rewritten huge portions, I struggled finding ideas to make the book shorter still. At the height of this struggle I was struck by inspiration: why not make the story longer? By making the story longer, I could turn one overweight book into two manageable books.

I realize this is not the answer for every long book, but my novel covers a span of years so it would be easier to divide it in two. This would allow me to turn my lemon of a long book into the lemonade everybody loves these days: a series.

Prognosis: The Surgeon is Cautiously Optimistic

Two books do not make an epic series, but it is a series. I’ve never written a series of any sort, so the prospect is exciting.

Of course, every solution brings its own problems. Now I have to tease this book apart without leaving wrong scenes in wrong books, while making both offspring self-sustaining. I also have to write some new scenes to balance the ends and ease the transition between books.

These issues are daunting. I may fail miserably. If I succeed, I’ll have a sequel ready when I publish the first book, and that seems like a nice position to be in. I’m going to give it a try. Wish me luck.

 

If a novel had a baby would it be a short story?

A reader once asked me if I thought short stories were smaller versions of novels with fewer plot turns. It is a good question for writers to consider before transitioning from one form to the other. It’s helpful to remember the form you are writing and what its purpose is.

A short story is as much a mini novel as a chipmunk is a baby squirrel. They are completely different beasts, put on earth for different purposes. When a chipmunk grows into a squirrel, I’ll start writing short stories that are condensed novels.

I define a novel as a set of conflicts, illustrated through a series of plot turns, resolved in such a way as to leave the reader satisfied that some Wisdom was served by the narrative. This Wisdom may be love, justice, retribution, fate, or any other force in human experience that will lay the characters of the story down peaceably to rest.

This is a chipmunk. With any luck, it will grow into a bigger chipmunk and nothing else.

A short story should have one resounding point that will stick with the reader after the story is over. That point is revealed at the end of the story. Everything preceding builds the effect of that revelation.

Since the crux of a short story comes at the end, I often construct them backward. The ending is the kernel of the story, and everything leading up to that is set into place afterward, trailing back to the most natural starting point. Only what is necessary to bring forth the point is built into the story.

Novels demand to be conceived going forward. Even with a general idea of the ending, there will be too many shifting sands there for it to be the foundation. The characters have more say in the direction of a novel. They create the resolution as they travel the narrative, perhaps making the ending quite different than first imagined. Building a novel backward prevents the characters from developing into the people they should grow to be.

Short stories and novels demand different skills. Novels require more devotion to the characters, but they are more forgiving than short stories. A novel can survive a small lull in the narrative; a short story cannot. Each word carries more weight in a short story. A few ill-chosen words, or a few too many words, can quickly derail the narrative.

A squirrel, properly crafted and distinctly its own art form.

Short stories were once more popular than they are now. Their fall might be linked to the decline of literary magazines, but it may also have something to do with writers not appreciating how different the craft is from the art of writing novels.

Some short stories appear to have been aborted novels. Have you read stories that seem to come to a crashing halt, leaving you to wonder, “What was the point of that?” When I encounter one of these stories, I question if the writer set out to write a short novel, waiting to see where the story would take him. It took him nowhere, and he ran out of words.

Storytelling is about coming to a resolution or making a lasting point. The story written as a baby novel does neither. Infant novels labeled short stories are a turnoff. A chipmunk is bound to be a disappointment to his parents if his parents are squirrels.

Do you agree or disagree? Comments are open.