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.

 

The publishing process made me a better storyteller

Maybe I should have kept up my vigorous regimen of procrastination.

Fortunately, I hadn’t given up procrastination cold turkey, I was gradually easing off it as part of a 112 step program.

While I am waiting for my initial beta reader (wife) to list all the things wrong with the first draft of my latest book, I decided to twiddle my thumbs for a good long while before reworking one of the several unpublished novels I keep tucked away for later.

Incidentally, there are a many things wrong with the first draft of the latest book, so it may take her some time to compile them.

Thanks to the fascinating qualities of my twirling thumbs, combined with confluence of youth spring soccer and baseball seasons, and a big project at work, I have rewritten all of 12 pages in the last two months. The manuscript is more than 400 pages, so those dozen pages seem somewhat measly.

Yet, I am a man who can occasionally find sunshine in little things. (My initial beta reader may disagree with this, but she doesn’t always appreciate the subtlety of my understated sunshine.) I am pleased with what I have accomplished.

There’s a lot in those 12 pages. Mostly, there’s a much more engaging beginning to a story than there used to be.

I finished the draft of this novel about 10 years ago. I didn’t publish it because, though I believed it a good story, it wasn’t everything I wanted it to be and I didn’t know why.

Ten years later, I might have figured out why.

My presentation of the story did not measure up to the story itself.

In those 10 years, I could have written 10 novels and still not learned enough about storytelling. As it happens, in those 10 years, I spawned three children, so I may have changed 10,000 diapers but I didn’t write anything near 10 novels.

"How many diapers?"

“How many diapers?”

But it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d written 20. The thing that made me learn most about storytelling was publishing three books.

Publishing wasn’t a financial windfall by any means, but it was a learning experience, and a valuable one. Knowing I would put these stories before the public made me consider them from angles I’d never had to before. It made me focus on readers: how I took hold of them, how I held onto them, and where I led them. It forced me to act like a professional: to analyze my own work and that of competing writers with new attention to detail. It didn’t mean I was going to attempt to copy the successful ones, but it did make me think about the elements that made them a success.

The act of publishing made me more aware of many things about my books, but more than anything else, it made me constantly reevaluate how I present a story. There’s more to learn, but I’m better than I used to be.

If I can keep up this breakneck pace of rewriting, I may actually turn this old novel into a well-presented story to share in about five years or so.

You don’t have to rewrite the good parts

My wife is my initial beta reader. Like me, and in a strange coincidence, she also has three young children. Together with her many jobs and responsibilities, these children make it as difficult for her to find time to read as they make it for me to find time to write – probably more so. Consequently, I must be patient and find something else to work on while awaiting the initial feedback on the latest work.

Lacking a suitable idea for a new project, I am left with the daunting notion of revisiting some old projects. I have four unpublished novels in completed draft form. That is to say there are four that come to mind; there may be others my subconscious finds too painful to contemplate.

Of the four, one can probably be fixed to meet my standards for publication. Another might have potential, but needs serious structural work. The other two are long shots. All four need lots of attention.

It’s difficult to get motivated to do the amount of rewriting that even the best of them would require. Rewriting doesn’t touch the good and the fun parts very much. The peaks are fine; it’s the dark, grimy, stinky valleys that beg rewrites. Your brain gets dirty and sweaty at the very bottom of the pit.

I know I eventually have to put on my overalls and get down into the dirt of the salvageable novel, but I’ll still find excuses to put it off. As for the others, I may just save those for when I’m famous, and also dead.

The After I’m Dead (AID) novels will be my last embarrassing legacy. My money-grubbing great-grandchildren will bring them to light for a quick payday. People will shake their heads at the poor quality, but do so quietly out of respect for the departed. Since I will be famous (play along with me) and also dead (couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy), morbid curiosity will turn these into my best-selling books.

-"And now, sweet grandchildren, you must promise that you will never bring this sub-par manuscript to light." -"We won't. We swear on our grandfather's grave."

-“And now, sweet grandchildren, you must promise that you will never bring this sub-par manuscript to light.”
-“We won’t. We swear on our grandfather’s grave.”

My great-grandchildren will buy 10,000 square-foot homes in Malibu and I’ll roll over in my 12 square-foot grave.

Perhaps I should really get to work on rewriting the AID novels after all. I like to keep still when I’m sleeping.

I guess I should start with the salvageable novel first, because nobody gets to live in Malibu if I don’t get famous before I croak. On the other hand, I don’t want to live in Malibu and, at this rate, my great-grandchildren don’t deserve to.

So maybe I’ll just keep procrastinating. Maybe I’ll even write some more meandering blog posts as an excuse to avoid the hard work waiting for me.

Maybe I’ll spend the time with my kids, teaching them lessens they can pass on to their children and grandchildren about how not to be mooching, greedy bastards.

Who knows what I’ll do. At any rate, I most likely won’t become famous.

That’ll teach ‘em.

It depends on your definition of Horror

I haven’t written about my Work In Progress in a while. And since I’ve got some time to kill while I wait for my last book to become a Best Seller, this might be a good time for an update.

My WIP is a collection of three novellas. It’s probably more accurate to call them two novelettes and a novella, but that takes more words to say, and who’s counting anyway? The genre is horror, kind of. It’s more psychological horror than anything revolving around chain saws and slack-jawed yokels. There’s really not much bloodshed in it at all, which is why I put the “kind of” after horror. I might call the novellas psychological thrillers, except I always think of spies or mobsters when I think psychological thriller, and there are neither of those, so I’m back to horror, kind of.

Poe. Not really his style of horror story.

Not really Poe’s style of horror story.

Then again, genre confusion is nothing new for me.

Whatever they are, I’ve finished the first drafts of all of them.

Yay!

Okay, party’s over; let’s get serious.

I had my first chance to read through them.

The two shorter pieces are entertaining, I think. They are not earth-shattering additions to the genre, whichever genre they happen to be, but I can see readers enjoying them as quick reads.

Definitely not Lovecraft's kind of horror.

Definitely not Lovecraft’s kind of horror story.

When it comes to the longer story, the feature presentation, if you will, I feel as if I’ve provided myself with good news and bad news. The good news is there are parts I think are quite good. The bad news is good parts are not enough to make a good story.

It’s not that the story is bad. It’s not, but as is, it’s not good enough.

What’s wrong with it? Well, for one thing, it’s probably too confusing. Confusing your readers is never good, unless you are an established post-modernist or something like that. In that case, confusing everyone just makes you a greater genius.

But I am neither a post-modernist nor a genius. At best, I am an adventuresome writer, playing with supernatural subject matter for the first time, and I may have gotten the Play-Doh colors all mixed up.

More in line with du Maurier's type of horror . . . but not really.

More in line with du Maurier’s type of horror story . . . but not really.

The fun thing in writing about unknown forces is that you get to make your own rules for what’s possible. Nothing is bound by the laws of physics we know. The trouble can be in remembering your new rules and applying them consistently. Plus, you’ve got to let the reader know the rules; they can be difficult to convey, without explicitly explaining them, when they are counter-intuitive to commonly known laws of nature.

Can this book be saved? I don’t know. I may be going too hard on myself, or too easy. I’ll have to get a second opinion, and then a few more after that.

All I know for sure is that I won’t even consider publishing it until I’m confident it’s a good quality, entertaining book, all the way through. How I get there from here will be my own horror story.