The Business Rusch: Story Demands
I am currently writing three books at once. I know, I know, some of you believe that’s not unusual for me, but it is. Usually I focus on one thing and wrestle it to the ground before moving onto something else.
These three books are one thing. They’re in one of my series, and for a few weeks, I was struggling to write the next book in that series. No, I’m not telling you which series because for all I know, these three books might end up as five or they might become two books.
What I do know is that they are not one big honkin’ novel.
It took me a while to figure that out. And if this series was still being traditionally published through a big New York publisher, I would be in a hell of a mess. I’ve seen it with others, and I’ve experienced a version of it myself.
If this next book in the series was the last book in the contract, I would have no guarantee that the publisher would want the following two or three books. In the past, I’ve had to cram too much information into a single book because there was no guarantee that there’d be another. I could try to negotiate a new contract from a position of weakness—in other words, the publisher would know that I needed room to expand, and couldn’t really bend on that or go to another publishing house, given the current climate. Or I could write all of the books and hope for the best.
In the bad old days of publishing, that last thing would have been a very bad idea for a writer who needed to make a living at her craft.
There are other problems with these three books. At least two of them feature minor characters in major roles. Elizabeth George has done this sort of thing successfully in the mystery genre, but she did get some flak from readers. Connie Willis’s latest two-book arc, Blackout and All Clear are really one honkin’ book split in half.
George R.R. Martin ran into this problem with book four in the Song of Ice and Fire series (or the Game of Thrones books, to those of you who are only watching the HBO series).
On his website in 2005, George discussed the problem that he had. The Song of Ice and Fire books are very long. The first clocked in at 1088 pages in manuscript, the second at 1184, the third at 1521, which caused all kinds of production problems.
What problems you might ask? Well, paper book bindings can only handle so many pages before they won’t hold the book together. Not to mention the cost to produce each copy at the larger size, and the fact that big honkin’ books really don’t fit well on bookstore shelves.
As George realized that the fourth book was even bigger than the third, and he wasn’t even close to done, he discussed the problem with his publisher.
…after much discussion and weighing of alternatives, have decided to split the narrative into two books (printing in microtype on onion skin paper and giving each reader a magnifying glass was not considered feasible, and I was reluctant to make the sort of deep cuts that would have been necessary to get the book down to a more publishable length, which I felt would have compromised the story).
The next idea batted about was to do what the same publisher eventually (later) did with Connie Willis’s magnum opus. They could have cut Book Four in half, at exactly the middle point, so that readers would get two books of equal length that would end up being one story.
George fought against this option as well—wisely, in my opinion. He wrote:
It was my feeling — and I pushed hard for this, so if you don’t like the solution, blame me, not my publishers — that we were better off telling all the story for half the characters, rather than half the story for all the characters. Cutting the novel in half would have produced two half-novels; our approach will produce two novels taking place simultaneously, but set hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, and involving different casts of characters (with some overlap).
And that’s what they did.
Yeah, there was some bitching about the lack of favorite characters, even in reviews. Publishers Weekly said, “This is not Act I Scene 4 but Act II Scene 1, laying groundwork more than advancing the plot, and it sorely misses its other half.”
I doubt the complaint would have been as strong if the other book had been on the schedule, but it wasn’t. Fans had to wait six years for the next book. In the case of Connie Willis, the second half of the Blackout/All Clear saga appeared about six months after the first.
It was tougher going with Elizabeth George. She excised an entire novel’s worth of material from With No One As Witness, ending on a shocking, upsetting moment, one we might have been prepared for if she had left in the other material.
That material came out one year later in a book called What Came Before He Shot Her. That book was a struggle for me, and I’m a huge fan. It was filled with unsympathetic characters who were about to do something truly horrible. Elizabeth George often writes about unsympathetic characters, but in this case, there wasn’t the mitigating factor of the characters we love, so the book became difficult to read.
If the books had been combined, the resulting book would again have been too big to read. And there was another problem, as Bookmarks Magazine noted, “There are, of course, no surprises about how the novel ends: Elizabeth George has already told that story in With No One As Witness.”
These things have been on my mind as I prepped to write the next book in my series. I knew that I had too much story for a normal-sized book—too much, really, for a honkin’ book as well. I mentally started cutting subplots—and immediately froze.
It took me weeks to remember that I no longer had to work within traditional publishing confines.
I can publish this “book” as three or maybe four stories, complete in their own right. I agree with George Martin on this: I think it’s better to tell all the story for half the characters than half the story for all the characters. I also think that readers need to be entertained by what happens—in other words, you can’t spoil the ending of one of the books by putting it in the middle of the first book.
I have a flexibility now that I didn’t have before. Even Connie’s two books, which were published relatively fast by traditional publishing standards for hardcovers, came out about six months apart. In 2009 or so, romance publishers started publishing major series books one per month as a sort of experiment. The publishers would publish three or four paperbacks with the final book in hardcover, to try to “train” readers to pick up more expensive editions.
I have no idea if it worked, but it was presented as a gimmick, and it felt that way. Things have changed since then—a lot of things, even in traditional publishing. Now publishers know that readers will buy books in a series, appropriately priced, at more than one per year. The higher the price point, the less likely the reader is to pick up the book.
So if you only want to be published in hardcover, the thinking goes, then you should publish at most twice per year. That’s why you see two Nora Roberts hardcovers every year, and the rest of her Roberts books get published in mass market paperback.
Some big writers, like James Patterson, have enough clout to force their publishers to break that rule for them. But you’ll note that the really big names, with few exceptions, rarely publish more than two books per year.
As I had been worrying about what to do with this next book, I’d been mulling all of this. You’ll see me groping in some of my blog posts. I had a realization earlier in the summer after a writer friend of mine posted on her Facebook page that she now knew her writing schedule for the next three years.
She’s still traditionally published and is running several series. She had just sold several books in each series, and those books had come with set deadlines. In order to meet those deadlines, she had to have a strict writing schedule. She had to have Book 5 of Series 2 done in December, Book 7 of Series 1 done in March, Book 3 of Series 4 done in June, and so on.
I remember that. About ten years ago, I had a May in which I had exactly one day between novels—and I was going from a dark, dark, dark Kris Nelscott to a light Kristine Grayson. I’m not even sure my moods could switch that fast. Plus, I had promised some palate-clearing short stories, and I had to cram them in before the Grayson novel. I started that novel late, then wrote fast to get to the pace I needed to hit my deadline.
I loved the fact that publishers and readers wanted the books, but I hated the stress. My memories of that May include writing in my office while friends and family visited. The only time I had to spend with them was at meals, and even then I was only half present. I was thinking about the next chapter, the next page, the next few paragraphs.
I’m happier now. I’m actually writing more rather than less.
When I saw that post, though, I realized that I no longer had that kind of schedule, and I didn’t have a publisher waiting on my deadline. I didn’t have to worry that I would screw up book placement by being late, nor did I have to edit a story myself so that it would fit into a contractually agreed-upon length.
Even then, it took me a few more weeks to realize I could write as many books as I wanted to finish this story. My readers would forgive me if I told them how many books I would use to finish the story and if I gave them those books in a timely fashion.
I didn’t consult with readers, though. Instead, I looked at George and Elizabeth George, and Connie, and consulted with my own inner reader. When I finish a book that’s part of a bigger story, I want the next book now. I’m willing to wait a few weeks, but I get unhappier the longer I have to wait. I loved getting some of those romance novels one per month. I had the time to read other books in between, but I didn’t feel like I had lost the thread of the story.
So, I told myself, I would write the end of this story—however many books it took—and not turn the whole shebang into WMG until I was done. My agreement with WMG is simple: they can’t put anything on their schedule until I’ve finished, so I’m not racing to meet a deadline.
I can be flexible.
I did warn the publisher, though, that the next series book would probably be three or more, and she needed to think about how we could best market those books when the time came. She promised to investigate other methods—because I am all about input once the project is done—and then when I’m done, or really close to done (everything at first readers), we would figure out the whole publishing side to things.
That freed me up to write.
I’m now about 56,000 words into the first book. I say about because I write out of order and I have some chapters that aren’t in their proper places yet. The first book is about characters we’ve never seen in this series before and I can tell you that had I not written this book, I wouldn’t have known the deep dark details of the world I’m writing in. I think the story will be better because it has room to grow to its proper length, whatever that is.
Every day now, I find myself exclaiming out loud about some future plot twist I wouldn’t have considered at a shorter length. I’m startling cats, but I’m much happier with this story now than I was in July.
George paraphrased Tolkien by saying that the story makes its own demands. Both men are right: the story is the story, and it’s best for the storytellers to tell the story as it wants to be, not as publishing lengths and artificial deadlines demand it should be.
Yes, we writers could make those decisions in the past, but often we got screwed up by contracts and the sales force and the fear that we might not have a contract for the final book in the story. Now, though, we can control what we write and how we write it.
I’ve been talking about freedom in this blog for some time, but I don’t think that freedom has actually had an impact on my storytelling until now. I knew when publishing changed and indie publishing became possible that I could finally write the next book in a bunch of my series, and finish novels that traditional publishers thought were not commercial.
But I don’t think I ever felt the impact of the storytelling opportunities before. If I had this series under contract with a big traditional New York publisher, I’d be doing what George did, consulting with my editor, talking to the sales force, figuring out if I should cut or divide or get a new contract or somehow compress the story.
Now, I can stretch to the proper length.
It feels fantastic.
And I’m going to stop typing on this blog now so I can get to the next chapter of the series book. Because I have a lot of ground to cover and I’d like to do so by the end of the year—not because I have a publishing deadline, but because I know myself. By then, I’ll want to be thinking about a different series or a short story or a new book.
So, I’m writing as fast as I can, and enjoying the heck out of it. And, honestly, I’m pretty stunned that I have this opportunity.
I would have had such problems with this storyline as little as five years ago. And I’m free now to be the writer I want to be—without angering either my publisher or my all-important readers.
I am aware that I have a weekly blog obligation as well. I’ve outlined several blogs ahead and I’ve actually finished a few, but I’m vetting them before I publish them. (Sometimes the fact blogs are harder than blogs like this one.)
I appreciate all the good comments, emails and support I’ve received from readers, particularly over the summer. You all have been great. Thank you!
And remember, this blog costs me about two novels per year, so please, help me fund the weekly nonfiction piece. If you like what you read here or if you’ve learned something, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: Story Demands” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.