A Novel Dilemma

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How do you get published when the rules and the markets are constantly shifting? Book stores are closing, mega-publishers are adopting their smaller cousins as in-house imprints, and the internet has made the leap from fad to indispensable.

I can hardly keep up.

A friend told me recently that he’s too busy with blogs, Facebook and Twitter to dedicate any serious energy to an entire novel. He was curious about the book I’d written but wasn’t planning on reading it.

“Just tell me what it’s about.” I got two minutes of his attention span to blurt out a raggedy version of what took me years to write. I didn’t do it justice, but needn’t have bothered since he likely forgot it within the hour and won’t be waiting for the sequel.

Makes me almost resent the time I spend crafting a story. Well, not really, though I have taken the occasional vacation from pen and paper and computer. The last holiday from writing lasted nearly two years, which was a record. I made the odd note, scratched a few lines here and there but mostly focused on other projects and ignored the stack of stories already languishing on the bottom shelf of my bookcase.

But my internal story generator didn’t get the memo, and kept poking me with tantalizing tidbits of exciting adventures and new characters. When I couldn’t stand the voices any longer I picked up the pen and spilled them all out. A huge relief, sure, but what was the point of writing so many new stories if I was only going to toss them onto the already teetering pile of has-beens?

So I put them aside for a while and pulled out a half-dozen old stories for an airing. Most had done the rounds of the few magazines that I’d been soliciting twenty or so years ago. But they’d been rejected so many times I was afraid that they might have developed complexes. Lying around in a box while they were supposed to be entertaining people couldn’t have done much for their moods either.

I felt like I was starting from scratch. Even though they were still interesting, still real enough to me, my old stories seemed lame, clichéd and melodramatic. So I tore them apart – which couldn’t have done much to boost their self-esteem – and rebuilt them word by word.

I moved one story clear across country because I needed mountains in one scene. By the time I finished editing for differences in geographical and cultural details, the story had taken on a darker feel that better suited the plot.

Some of the stories needed to have their cultural references updated – give that guy a cellphone! There were too many instances where my characters were desperately looking for info that could have been found with a simple Google search. Not a big issue if it’s set in the olden pre-internet days or if the world is completely fantasized, but a lot of my stories happen in current time.

I was surprised at how young a lot of my characters sounded. Two decades will do a lot to the way you think and present yourself to the world. I didn’t necessarily need these folks to age along with me – some of them would seem out of place in their story if they were older – but I did need to kick them into shape.

The most interesting part of the whole exercise was discovering that two of the stories were unfinished, and sounded shallow and small. I puzzled over them until I realized they had more to tell. I soon had them wrangled into two passable outlines for novels. Great fun, and very satisfying, but now it has me eyeing the others again and wondering if they too could be expanded into novels.

And that’s my novel dilemma, though not such a bad spot to be in, surrounded by so much potential. I love to tell stories that engage readers. I want to give them heroes to identify with and a place they can escape to. But that takes time to build and space to spread out.

With this new age of 30-second news shorts and truncated messaging, is there still room for the epic novel or should we adapt our sagas into smaller, more manageable bites? I can give it a shot but I’m not sure I can tailor my stories to the attention-deficient.

I cannot imagine life without books any more than I can
imagine life without breathing.”

– Terry Brooks

8 COMMENTS

  1. I hope you'll someday toss those stories out there for the rest of us to enjoy! It's fascinating to hear that there are almost as many stories written that are not published as ones that are.

    You're right about all the promoting it takes just to get people to read your story, aargh! Promotion was part of the reason I took on writing this blog…to get some exposure outside of my social circle, though sometimes I long for the days when the simple act of writing the story was enough to satisfy me.

  2. Voracious readers like you give me hope that there'll always be a market for those novels that I can't seem to stop writing. And now that I've finally managed to publish one I'm motivated to edit the others and get them out there too!

    Your comment about how the internet is teaching people to read differently is an interesting one…I hope you'll be writing about that soon.

  3. I believe there's absolutely no shortage of demand for long novels. And, get this, I actually believe the demand will grow.

    I'm a very fast reader, and I like getting value for money. So page count is one of my criteria when buying novels. Give me a 700, 800 page novel and I'm entertained for a couple of days, as opposed to an hour or two.

    And the internet is teaching people to read faster. So there's only going to be more speed readers out there, wanting MORE for their $$!

    I believe the internet is also teaching people to read DIFFERENTLY. But that's a comment for another day. It might be just me, anyway.

  4. I agree with Cedar. Having grown up with the Internet, I'm used to information flying by at 1000 miles per second, but for a writer, it's complicated. What with all the Platforming and Networking and Tribe building. It definitely is enough to discourage anyone. But, we still love to write, right? If I take a break from writing, I have the same nags that you do, Monique. I have to write. Used to be I could sit on my butt, drink a beer and play Halo. Not anymore. I love to write, and I love to take the time to craft my stories. Maybe people will never see them, but they'll still be there. They'll still have been written.

  5. While I was finishing up my novel I found myself wondering if it ought to be longer. Standard length has become 100K -120K words, and my little story was only at 60K. Well, I finally decided to go ahead with it, as it is a YA, and I'm not pursuing a traditional publishing route. As far as the death of longer novels, I don't think so. Maybe it's because I hang out with a lot of readers (and writers) and work in a library, but there are still many who enjoy long form stories. I like writing shorts, but in an ebook world I wonder if it is them, my smaller children, who will get lost in the shuffle.

    • Glad to hear you resisted the urge to lengthen the story to fit the standard. What if you paired it with another similar short and published them as a diptych of sorts? It would give you the novel-length that can more easily avoid the shuffle 🙂

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