Beverly's Works

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TOO LONG—The Wrong Fix

Because the length of a book determines its cost of production and thus its retail price, publishers are extremely reluctant to take on a debut novel that runs more than +/- 100k words. If no one has heard of the author it figures to be really hard to get them to fork out $30 for the hardcover. Agents know this better than anyone. That's why they generally refuse to read a super long ms by an unknown. Time is an agent's primary working capital, one not to be wasted. 

I've found that when I make those points in a MS Analysis  the writer frequently comes back  with the suggestion that the novel be divided at some point, creating two books. Maybe, the argument goes, the agent could look for a two book deal. Or if not, the “second” book could be shopped to other publishers.

My answer is always the same: Can't be done.

No 21st century publisher and hence no agent currently alive and breathing would consider such an arrangement. Here's the unbreakable contemporary rule: EACH BOOK IN A SERIES MUST BE ABLE TO STAND ON ITS OWN, AND TO BE READ OUT OF SEQUENCE. That's important enough to warrant all caps. Moreover, each book in the series must have an entirely satisfactory ending that ties up 99.9% of the plot lines you introduced in the beginning. It's okay—maybe even desirable—to leave a couple of subtle hints about a story yet to come involving some or all of these characters and perhaps their general locale/situation, but if you leave serious unanswered questions your project is doomed.

And yes, I know about TV series that all the time do what I'm saying you cannot do. But that's them and this is us, the folks who deal in words and bookstores (whether bricks and mortar or online). Whether we writers like it or not, readers regularly, buy/read books out of sequence. If what they're reading makes no sense they are unlikely to bother with any other book in the series. Even the first one which would make everything clear.

Given those realities, both problem and solution are obvious. You created these 200k+ words because you believed you needed them to tell your story. Your fix needs to start by examining which plot threads you are actually developing in the second half (or even two thirds) of the ms and go back and take them out. Then you have to figure out how you're going to write a thoroughly satisfying ending to the story involving the characters/situations that remain.

Later, when it's time to create another novel out of the material you eliminated from the first ms you will have to find a way to write a new beginning that feels like exactly that, not a continuation. Then you'll need to find a craftsmen-like way to feed into this second ms that material from the first (hopefully already published!) novel which readers of this new story need to know for everything to make sense. And without revealing so much you kill the sales of your first novel.  (And if I may be forgiven a bit of self-promotion: it's situations exactly like this that I address in a MS Analysis and help you to work through.)

That's the long and the short of it. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) You have to recast the too-long ms not simply divide it. But look at it this way: you've got huge chunks of the novel-writing work done for two (maybe three) new mss. The rest should be…well, not easy, but easier.


This is so basic I'm probably telling you what you already know, but I see so many examples of POV mistakes that it seems worth reiterating this fundamental technique of narrative.

When you begin a scene you are telling your story—and  this is relevant for both fiction and non-fiction—from someone's vantage point. Strictly as a hypothetical, if you start by saying: “Shelly had long considered the house inadequate. Now, speaking to John about why it could not be sold, she must make a different argument.” You have established he scene as being in Shelly's POV. You cannot then tell us what John thinks. You have instead to tell us what he says and/or what Shelly believes he thinks.

When you end that scene and you are no longer reporting that particular conversation you are perhaps free to invoke a different POV. (Unless, of course, you have set up this particular story as being in what's called limited third person. In that case you are telling the story entirely in Shelly's POV, but using third person: “Shelley had long considered.” Rather than, “I had long considered.”)

A really skilled technician can break this rule and tell a particular scene from multiple points of view, but doing so can seriously mess up your pace. Something you don't want to do.

Or you can elect a different approach and divide your story precisely according to who is doing the telling. In the opening of Gillian Flynn's runaway bestseller GONE GIRL she starts with Nick's POV and says: “When I think of my wife I always think of her head. The shape to begin with.” Later she will switch to Amy's POV and tell the same story from a very different perspective. The point is to make the reader consider which of the two major POV characters is telling the truth. Flynn thus played with what proved to be a game-changer in commercial fiction, the unreliable narrator. In my novel BRISTOL HOUSE the story is told in the alternating points of view of three main characters, one in twentieth century London and two in that same city in Tudor times.  Moreover, Flynn and I are in good company. The likes of Paul Scott and E.M. Forster have employed similar techniques.

Returning to the question of applying this principle to non-fiction—whether article or book length—the same considerations apply. In non-fiction you're more likely to have begun by immediately establishing who Shelly is and why we should care what she thinks about a particular house, whereas in a novel you might choose to let those reasons unfold as the drama moves forward. But in terms of POV it comes to the same thing.

Readers want to be—indeed almost always need to be—in the head of one person at a time.

Don't Begin at the Beginning

Nothing is harder to do than to start writing. And when you look for advice you're quite likely to be told to begin at the beginning. Personally I think the beginning is an awful place to start.

Whatever truth you're about to tell—the opening of a thriller (N.B. no good novel is ever untrue) or the first paragraph of an article for the local paper—your task is to grab the reader's attention. That's never been easy to do. Nowadays there are so many competing demands on what used to be called “reading time” it can be a monumental task.

You need to look for the heart of your story—what makes it alive—and start there. Maybe you're writing a memoir about your life singing with a blues band. Please promise me you won't start by talking about your mom and dad back in Omaha, and how the only music they cared about was produced by the church choir.

Much better to start with perhaps the first time you set foot on stage. How you came on after the guy with the harmonica had been waving you forward for what seemed like forever. And then, when you finally worked up the courage to walk on stage, you were so overwhelmed with the smoke drifting up from the audience you were sure you'd choke as soon as you opened your mouth. And how that's exactly what happened.

As for the folks back home in Omaha and how they got there, you'll get to that. And you won't forget how the family reacted when Grandma married her sixth husband. But this is a story about what happened to you, not them. So begin with something that actually still lingers deep in your gut, Do the head-parts, the stuff you know but don't necessarily feel, in flashback. (And I promise a piece on flashbacks in the not too distant future.)

Beverly's Works

Foreign Publications