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I am currently writing a novel and am 25,000 words into it, but only about 10% of the way in total.

My intention was to write a single novel, but as I write, it has clearly evolved into what I can only imagine will be a monster (at least 200,000-250,000 words, which is somewhere around 800-1,000(!) pages) of a book. As I didn't want to release a tome so early in my career as a writer, it naturally led me to consider the option of releasing the story as a series (perhaps a trilogy, without meaning to sound clichéd).

However, this will obviously come with its own problems, such as having to think about how to split one large story into three smaller stories which carry on from one another without wanting the readers of the first two stories to feel as if each respective installment has been ended abruptly in an attempt by me as an author to squeeze more money out of them.

I have been told by a number of published authors that my story is, and I quote, "really very good indeed" and each had expressed surprise. One author said, "Actually, this is very good stuff!" Therefore, I don't want to ruin that effect by releasing it in multiple volumes, but I also don't want to deter (or even bore) my readers with a single, enormous book.

Naturally, one the first draft is finished, I will redraft and will chop and change a lot of it, but the finished article will still be immense (hence my earlier estimate of 200,000-250,000 words), but this still leaves me with a 200,000 word book in the best case.

Any advice and/or examples of similar cases that you know of would be a wonderful help.

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Okay, the usual disclaimer first:

Everything I say is true only for the most common, average case. In publishing, everything is possible. The more it deviates from the norm, the rarer it will become. But that does not mean it is impossible.

  1. There are one volume editions of the Lord of the Rings or the Bible. This is proof that big fat books of over a thousand pages are being published, sold and (possibly even) read. But these books are expensive to produce and distribute, and publishers like to minimize possible losses when publishing first novels by unknown authors, when they don't know how the public will react to the book. It might be a total flop, despite being a great book, simply because the hype is elsewhere.

  2. Therefore, generally first authors have a hard time selling anything over 100,000 words. Publisher prefer to test the waters with a standalone book that is within the common range of word count for that genre. For a good overview, see Jennifer Laughran's Wordcount Dracula (for YA) and Colleen Lindsay's On word counts and novel length (for adult fiction), and use Google.

  3. A feasible strategy might be to finish this book and then write something else to publish first. But that does not mean that you shouldn't submit this project to agencies and/or publishers. If it is as objectively good as your professional test readers say, you might even convince a publisher. But chances are that they will recognize its valor and then reply to you that they like it but want you to write something else first. It is quite common that publishers read a manuscript and then contract the author for another book, yet to be written. That does not mean that the first book won't get published, only that publishers think it is better to not publish it as a first novel.

  4. In genre fiction, you should always expect to be asked to rewrite (part of) your novel. At this point, you won't know if the publisher sees your work as a series, a fat standalone, or would require it to be shortened to a slim one-volume. Of course there are precendents, and what has sold well will probably be easy to sell a second time, but you should always write your book and then work with the publisher to make it marketable, later. Agents say they want to read "finished" manuscripts, but in publishing it is a measure of your professionality how well you are able to let go of a version of your work and rewrite it all over again.

    [In writing-as-art (think Ulysses) the writer can and must write whatever his vision dictates, but you will deal with different kinds of publishers and probably don't expect commercial success, so I won't discuss this option.]

  5. Not all series are the same. Some are a series of standalone novels, each of which you can read on their own, but which continue the "lives" of (some) recurring characters. Others tell one long story in multiple volumes, and these come in two flavors: Those that are one book that has been split for publication. An example would be the Lord of the Rings. And those that have been planned and written as multiple volumes.

    Each volume in a series that has been planned as multiple volumes has some kind of introduction that summarizes what has happened in the previous volumes, either as a preface or interwoven in the narration or dialogue of the first chapter. All volumes also have smaller subplot archs that are completed in one volume, in addition to the arch of the master plot, that is cut so each volume ends in a cliff hanger. So they are something like "semi-standalone": a satisfying read in themselves, but hooking the reader to continue with the next volume.

    If you read examples of the first kind, such as the Lord of the Rings, you will note that these read like a long single volume book cut into parts. It does not have subplots that are begin and complete in one of the volumes only. And it does not have cliff hangers at the end of the volumes, at least not any more than it has at the end of any chapter.

To sum this up, I, personally, would write this book however it feels right for you. Then submit it, as it is, and be open to work with the editor to make it marketable.

  • Wonderful advice, just what (I now realise) I was looking for. Thank you. – M.Y. David Mar 27 '15 at 15:31
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    I particularly like your closing statement. Start with art; edit if necessary for commerce. – Lauren Ipsum Mar 27 '15 at 17:26
  • @laurenipsum, that is not how I understand myself ;-) The distinction of art vs popular fiction is one that is inherent to a work from its very conception. They are different mindsets, and fundamentally different approaches to writing. Art writing -- I use these terms only for a lack of better words -- does not concern itself with any of the rules we discuss on this site. Think of Marcel Duchamp's ready made urinal versus a beautifully painted trade paperback cover. Art has a different context than popular art, follows different rules and achieves differebt goals. – user5645 Mar 27 '15 at 17:36
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    Holy fnuk! How I dis ike typpng ona mobble phome :-S – user5645 Mar 27 '15 at 17:43
  • I think this is the best advice. The publisher will probably not want to publish it as a single volume, but let them be the ones to tell you that and to tell you how they want it divided up. – Chris Sunami Mar 27 '15 at 17:59
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  • This sounds closest to The Lord of the Rings, which is one enormous story split into three physical volumes. Each volume contains two parts which Tolkien labelled books, but Tolkien himself thought of it as one work, not three (or six).
  • GRRMartin's fourth book of A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) got so unwieldy that he split it into two, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. He chose to separate it by character and geography rather than time, which is unusual, but since he has about eleventy billion POV characters, he can get away with it.
  • David Eddings's first series, the Belgariad, was originally three books, but his publisher talked him into splitting it into five. I think the Malloreon (the sequel series) was planned as five, but then he and his wife released two more series with three books each.

So yes, it can certainly be done. I would only suggest that you try to divide your books at reasonable "act breaks" and not just end abruptly mid-scene (which is what happened to Eddings when he changed the Belgariad from three books to five).

  • It's funny you should mention TLOTR as I was reading that on the way in to work this morning - perhaps the two are linked! – M.Y. David Mar 26 '15 at 18:42

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