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I have a story that I am working on that is extremely long. The first volume in the series is about 120,000 words, and that is only about half of its predicted wordcount. Counting the other entries in the series puts the whole thing in the range of 500,000 words at least. I wrote this story freeform for enjoyment when I first created it and so I just wrote what seemed interesting or natural for the story than trying to constrain myself to a specific length or structure.

Since then, it has become very apparent to me that there are big problems with the story:

  • The story is way too long and its structure is poorly suited for a traditional novel. Nobody in their right mind would ever publish this, especially from a new author. However, I have no idea where to cut or revise and my beta readers have told me that it needs the long buildup to introduce the world and characters. There are also plot points that seem like filler but are key to later events in the series or produce important character development (i.e., there is a minor villain who is not associated with the main antagonist, which sets up the idea that there is corruption among the "good guy" faction and the minor villain becomes very important in later books). But the confrontation only works because it happens when the protagonist is inexperienced and vulnerable (and hence the villain is disproportionately threatening), which leads to the protag developing a personal enmity for the minor villain.
  • Many of the plot developments just don't work narratively. Because I was young and naïve when I plotted the story, I tried subverting so many genre cliches that in hindsight led to many elements feeling unsatisfying to the reader. As one example, I keep killing off all my interesting villains which after a while turns the story from an action story to a slice of life. I know I need to adjust the plot accordingly but the story has just gotten so big that trying to change things leads to cascading changes that send characters in directions I don't want.
  • Because I had the plot outlined but only wrote scenes as I was able to come up with satisfying wording for them, there are lots of areas in the story that are left as placeholders for scenes I have been unable to satisfactorily write. As the length of the story has grown the number of these scenes has grown exponentially to the point that the story is half placeholder/outline.

I can clearly identify where and what the problems are. The problem is the story has gotten so large and complicated that it's hard to figure out how to fix them without making things worse. Additionally, because it's so long it is incredibly difficult to get feedback on the story because the first volume alone is about the same length as A Game of Thrones. It's unrealistic to expect beta readers to feasibly read the entire thing, much less think about the plot in the same detail that an author would.

I've tried reading writing advice, but I've come to the conclusion that most writing advice videos or books are aimed at writers in a very early stage of writing who aren't quite sure what they want to write yet or how. I can't expect this kind of advice to help me, because my story is so complex that the solution to my problem will only be applicable to this story.

I do want to actually tell this story, rather than throwing the entire thing out and chalking it up as a failure, but I just have no idea of figuring out how to go about fixing the problems I have with the story, especially because it feels like there is something missing that I cannot put my finger on.

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The Burden of Abundance:

That's a lot of book. But you are right in that it will never get published (unless you are the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard). Editing is huge, and has been discussed elsewhere. So what can I say that isn't completely overwhelming?

  • Write crap where you have placeholders: When you can't think of what to put somewhere, I advise to write a weak, crappy scene. It won't be your final vision for the scene, but it makes the point. If you really can't get inspired by a scene, neither will the reader. Make something up, and change it later. But you want the details there until you are ready to change it. If you never come up with something better, see if there is a way to have the critical story element in a different, more meaningful way. Which leads me to my second point -

  • Allude to things that take a lot to explain: Sometimes, I've taken whole scenes and cut them. Then, I find the scene was critical. So a chapter ends with the critical element, and the next begins with the character struggling with memories of what just happened. A character is tortured, but instead of describing the torture, they sit and contemplate the horror after. Yet another gratuitous gun battle? The characters are driving away from the bank, bandaging their wounds and discussing their plans for the money (which they needed for a critical element). It's KIND of telling, but not really.

  • Showing-not-telling doesn't have to be longer: Showing-not-telling is a blurry thing sometimes. When you write, you can integrate all the facts of your story into the descriptions of various other things. A political poster can tell you about who the conservative or liberal factions in the story are. A discussion about someone's out-of-control super powers between two characters can be a little info-dumpy, but explain how super powers work in your world. You may not NEED a scene to explain a piece of information - demonstrating it a little blatantly can serve the same point.

  • Make a story that's too big BIGGER to split it into pieces: I can always add stuff, but it's painful to kill whole concepts in the story. To make a story that isn't designed to be broken break, add elements to the parts of the story that make the individual parts work on their own. I had a big story, TOO big, but the buildup was critical to the later story. It NEEDED to be shorter, and I couldn't cut 30,000 words out of it. The first half simply didn't work on it's own. So I created a new, dramatic event to end the first half of the story, added elements that lead to the second half, and created scenes to give the appropriate buildup to a climax and story point to MAKE the first half stand on it's own. The goals had to be humbler, but the first book in a series doesn't have to solve all the world's problems, and it doesn't have to reveal all the secrets of the world. It just has to have a good point and make the reader want more.

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Don't give up! My philosophy is that even the worst mess can be turned into a good book (or several...)

First the bad news: You will have to make some hard choices to make the first draft into a publishable novel (you're not alone there) and you will have to rewrite, but then again, "Writing is rewriting." It's a fact of an author's life...

My suggestions go along two lines:

  1. Split the work up into several books (and write one book at a time)
  2. Cut, cut, cut (and merge...)

To make number 2 easier, you might want to create a "Darling file" where you put things you love but have to cut. You could also start a new project/document and then copy in or rewrite what you decide to keep, leaving what you have now in an old version of the file.

In fact, you should probably create a new copy of the file anyway...

Split it up in several books

One thing you might want to consider is if you can split the story up even more. E.g. chronologically or by POVs; write some POVs in one book and then "jump back in time" and write other POVs in the same timeframe in the next book. Or in some other fashion.

Worth noting about splitting up the text is that each book needs to be a full book. It needs to have a beginning (assuming the reader might not have read previous books—but if you can handle this well, for certain will) a middle, and a satisfying, resonant ending.

Taking a long text and arbitrarily dividing it into two, three, or more pieces will most likely not result in a good experience for the reader.

Write a synopsis

You have (or are far into) the first draft of a novel that seems to have come about as a combination of writing from a synopsis and writing on inspiration. It can definitely be done that way. (In fact, there are as many ways to write a book as there are finished books out there... more or less...)

Either you continue finishing the first draft (pure inspiration writing), and then you form it into a working novel. Or you push pause and try to get some structure into the thing now.

I've been where you are, but my draft was only 50 000 words.

I used the Snowflake Method of Writing to get back on track.

The Snowflake method is used to take a lot of ideas and form them into a cohesive novel. If you look at your draft as a lot of ideas, you can take this step back to the very beginning, but instead of creating a novel, you're structuring up and limiting what you have into a novel.

This method's first step is to create a storyline for your novel. I.e. one sentence, at most 25-35 words that summarise the whole thing.

Using this sentence you can then look at what you have, what supports it, and what doesn't. And start limiting your story from there.

The next step looks at plot points. You should obviously have those, they should occur at certain points in the story, and preferably all subplots should have plot points in adjacent chapters, or even better if the plot points do double duty in several subplots.

Do you have subplots that are very different from the main plot? (Yes, you should definitely decide which one of your plots is the main plot.) Maybe those subplots need to be cut?

Step 3, 5, and 7 of the snowflake deals with characters, and in this specific case, you might want to move on to step 4 and 6 that further deals with the story. (More on characters further down.)

Step 4 is about writing a one-page summary of the story. Can you limit yourself to one page, only writing about the most important plots and events?

Why did you choose these elements? Could you remove some of the ones you didn't choose?

Maybe you have important elements in subplots you want to remove. Can they be scrapped for parts and the important elements be moved to the plots you did choose?

Step 6 is a four-page summary, and again, try to keep to four pages and see what didn't make it onto those pages and if you can cut or move the important parts from those plots and scenes into the ones you've chosen as well.

If you decide to use the Snowflake method fully, I suggest you go back to step 3 and do characters and then edit step 4 and so on.

Characters

Do you have several main characters? Maybe you can split the work into several books using one main character in each book?

Decide which character is the main character of the story.

Do you have antagonists that aren't antagonistic against this character? Can they be cut?

The same goes for helpers. Are they helping the main character directly—in a scene with both? If not, can they be cut or toned down considerably? Maybe a character is helping a character that helps the main character... does this character need five chapters of their own or could their deeds and adventures be summarized into a few sentences of dialog between the main character and their main helper? (And maybe the five chapters could be expanded into a short story or its own book, but just not be in this book...)

Can you merge characters? Can you take the important/interesting functions/features of two or more characters and merge them into a single character?

Yes, maybe that group of characters (e.g. a ship crew) needs to be ten people strong, but can you pick the one, two, or three most important/interesting characters and let them do all the work and push the other ones even further into the background, maybe not even giving them any dialog, maybe even describe them as a group instead of as individuals?

Another way to limit the story is to limit the number of characters that have arcs. In a novel with a main character with a positive change arc, it's not uncommon to have no other arcing characters. In fact, the only character arc that requires other characters to also change is the flat/testing arc. In all other arcs it's ok, sometimes preferable to have fewer arcing characters rather than more.

To do non-arcing characters you need to make sure you're not setting up a journey for them, not giving them emotional or internal limitations, or at least don't show these in an illustrating incident. Instead, make the character feel larger than life and give them qualities and weaknesses the reader can identify with. With these characters, focus on the external plot rather than the internal development. Think old-school James Bond (before Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones.

Show and Tell and use Sequels

If you're showing everything in your novel, it will become huge and unreadable. "Show, don't tell," is in fact a bit of a lie. You also need to know when to tell. A favorite example of mine:

"I wonder how Spain is this time of the year?" Said and done. The airport in Madrid...

You don't need to show everything, but when you do tell, make sure to keep it short and brilliant.

Dwight Swain introduced something called the "Sequel" in his "Techniques of the Selling Writer."

In essence, the Scene-Sequel division of writing allows for showing in scenes and telling in Sequels, and the Sequels should be short, at most one or two pages.

The Sequel is used to transport the reader as quickly as possible from one scene to the other. Sometimes it's not needed. Sometimes it's just an "At the same time in John's apartment."

The Sequel can contain an emotional reaction to a previous disaster/setback (part of Swain's Scene ending). It can also contain dealing with the dilemma of that setback and a decision to move on (setting up new goals for the next scene).

However, the Sequel can also contain "incidents" and "gatherings". These are scenes where nothing dramatic happens. "They went on a date and he stayed over the night," or "The gang decided to go to Germany." No drama, no long-winded scenes.

Swain also suggests putting flashbacks in Sequels.

Since all this is supposed to fit on a single page, at most two, things are kept very short in Sequels.

Maybe you can turn some of your scenes into sequels? You just need to distill out the vital parts of the scene and summarize them in a sentence or two.

You might want to do this even when the scene is dramatic but it's not about the core of the story (the one-sentence summary of the Snowflake's first step.)

Merging scenes

You might also want to look at merging scenes just as with characters above. Can you pick the most important/interesting parts of several scenes and merge them into one scene?

Scenes have several purposes, here's a sampling from a handful of Google first hits:

  • Introducing characters
  • Showing character development and change
  • Introducing conflicts
  • Intensifying conflicts
  • Building suspense
  • Establishing mood
  • Establishing setting
  • Worldbuilding
  • Establishing theme and message
  • Providing valuable information
  • Create an emotional connection between the character(s) and reader
  • Provide resolution
  • Otherwise moving the story forward

Do you have scenes that only do one or two of these? Can they be merged with other scenes to create new scenes that do several of these things in the same scene?

The same goes for sequences of scenes. Can you tell parts of the sequence in Sequels and concentrate all the dramatic goodies in one, two, or three scenes instead of several?

The Snowflake method for several books

If you've decided to split the text into several books you can use the Snowflake method to create several snowflakes, one for each book. Maybe you decide to take it to step 3, or 4, or 5 before you go back and finish the first book all the way.

The Snowflake method is nice in that it starts very small (a one-sentence summary) and then expands.

Having several partially finished snowflakes for several books will make it possible for you to get an overview of the whole set of books and, even more importantly, convince yourself that just because you're choosing to focus on one book, you're not throwing the others away.

Making promises you can't keep

If you plan several books it's going to be very attempting to introduce characters or other elements you know will be important in the future (I understand you're already doing this?)

You can do this, of course, but the trick is to not do them as foreshadowings. Or as Chekhov has said:

"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."

Your characters and other story elements need to be toned back so far they seem as mere additions to the tone/the setting, etc. or they must fill some function in the current book.

If not, you might be better off starting the book where these elements become prominent by jumping back into the time period of the previous books, use flashbacks, or in other ways describe what is important about this character's past.

E.g. book two takes place twenty years after book one. In book two a childhood emotional wound of character X will be the basis of their belief in the lie and will be the main problem they will deal with in this book. However, character X is not present, or very minor in book one, where this wounding event would have logically taken place. So it's better to flashback or otherwise show this wound in book two instead of showing it in book one... since the payoff won't come in book one but in book two anyway. Showing the event in book one will likely translate into a promise that will not be kept within the covers of that book...

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