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How Do You Handle a Book That Is Too Long?

When Your Book is Too LongThis week’s question cames from young adult fantasy writer, Lorilyn Roberts:

Writing Question:

I outlined the book I’m working on now and realized it was way too long. The first 20 scenes are 33,000 words out of 80 scenes. So I decided to make it two books instead of one to avoid a 120,000 word YA book. Has this ever happened to you and how did you handle it? It forced me to have to adjust the acts and pivotal points but I think that’s better than such a long book for teens.

Answer from Janalyn:

Lorilyn, first of all, thanks for submitting a question that I am sure many authors will find relevant.

I experienced much the same thing with my Tales of Faeraven series, which actually started as a single book. I kept backing up in the story, though, searching for an ideal starting place. The back story so fascinated me that I wanted to tell it in far more detail than I could through a frame story, a tricky storytelling method modern readers don’t much like anyway. If you don’t know the term, a frame story opens at a later point in the story, then flashes back to an earlier date and works forward to the original framing scene.

DawnSinger and most of Wayfarer, the first and second books in the trilogy, started as back story. DawnKing, book three, finally tells the original tale. Tales of Faeraven seemed to take on a life of its own, expanding to epic proportions. I’m so glad I let the story unfurl, much like a flower opening, because I love the first books in their own right. It isn’t easy writing story arcs within a greater arc encompassing all three books, but that is how the plot came to me.

I liken it to colors flashing from a prism. Each rainbow comes from the same prism but also has a separate identity. This type of plot is also comparable with a three-part symphony. Each movement has a character all its own, and yet enough similarities exist that the listeners knows they are the fabric of a single piece of music.

Tidiness appeals to me. I prefer most things to be tied up at the end of the book, even in a series that goes on. This method helps me attain that and give both myself and my reader a feeling of resolution at the end of each book in the series. It also makes it easier for readers to come into the story on the second or third book.

A risk is that readers become attached to a particular heroine and hero and may not readily switch to identifying with new ones. I try to ease this by continuing each story in the next book as a subplot, with all threads resolving at the end of the final book.

My method works for Tales of Faeraven because I am really telling the story of the Kindren, a specific group of people, through an ensemble cast, if you will. This certainly isn’t the only way to craft a series, as I’m sure you are aware. Plenty of them tell a single story in segments, just as you plan to do. To break the story, you have a couple of options. One is to end on a cliffhanger of sufficient caliber to draw readers back to the story once the next book is released. Another is to appear to have resolved everything in the first book, but then to bring back a greater threat in the second. After appearing to die, the villain comes back stronger in the second book, for example.

I should balance this advice by telling you my experience with writing DawnKing. My publisher doesn’t want my books to go over 80,000 words, and I’ve almost reached that with a portion of the story untold. I could extend it into four books, but then I wouldn’t be changing main characters for the third and fourth book, and that would mess up my three-part symphony.

Also, a couple of areas that might be too edgy for my publisher. They tell us they are all right with us writing edgy stuff, just so long as we don’t fall off the edge. I had to write these scenes to get past them and push the story out, and yes, I was writing without looking at my plot. That’s something I rarely do and don’t recommend for beginning writers especially, except of course when a story comes to you that way or when you know the story like the back of your hand, as I do Tales of Faeraven.

Anyway, I’ve decided to tighten and cut scenes in DawnKing to reduce its heft. Just so long as trimming the word count strengthens the story, I’ll use that method. If I’ve cut all I can and it’s still long, I may have to write a fourth book, but I don’t think that’s likely.  After seeing the editors who work on my books point out the very scenes for revision that I intuitively questioned in the writing process, I’m learning to trust my gut reactions.

I hope my answer helps you work through some of the issues of breaking a story across several books. There’s a lot to think about, and its easy to second-guess yourself. If you can seek the advice of critique partners, you may be better off. Only, be careful who you ask because conflicting advice can confuse you. If two people tell me something needs to change, most often I will change it. I also make changes, even if only one person gave a piece of advice, when it resonates with me.

Any other thoughts on how to manage a book that goes long?

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Written by Janalyn Voigt

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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

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