Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Long Draft: Do You Have One Manuscript, or Two?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I recently finished a first draft of a young adult fantasy novel. This book has a bit of history for me, so it was a relief and gave me a sense of accomplishment to get it done.


It’s almost twice as long as my first drafts typically are—118,000 words instead of 60,000 words. While YA can certainly run higher than 60K words, I have a lot of trimming in my future. Probably in the 30-40K word range.

But as I was discussing the book with a writer pal, she joked about how my draft was two of her books. Which naturally led us to wonder…did I have two books?

It’s not an easy question. Just because I have the words for it, doesn’t mean I have the story for it. Stories need the right structure and flow to work well, so simply chopping the manuscript in two isn’t the solution. It could very likely create a book that just stops, but doesn’t end, and another that feels as if you picked it up mid-story.

I haven’t made a final determination yet, but I do think it has potential to be two books. If you ever face this dilemma, here are some things to consider:

Reasons You Might Be Able to Break Your Too-Long Book Into Two Books

1. The first half and second half have their own story arcs.

To be two books, each book needs a solid and complete plot arc, with all the things a stand alone book does. It needs to read as if you created two books, not just split one story into two (no matter what movies are doing these days).

In my case, the two arcs tie together, but they could also work as their own plot arcs. The second half is triggered by what happens in the first half, and the first half has an “ending” that resolves one of each of the two protagonists’ goals. I’d have to tweak and shift a few things around, but it’s possible to resolve two goals in book one and still give the story a direction for book two.

(Here’s more on writing with mini story arcs)

2. The two books would each have satisfying endings.

The core conflict of any novel has to be resolved in a satisfying way, and while some things can be left hanging for a series, it can’t just stop and leaving readers with no payoff. If someone doesn’t read book two, they should still have a good reading experience with book one.

In my case, this is the part that could send me chopping the novel down to 90K words or fewer. I can do endings for two books, but until I spend some more time brainstorming, I’m not 100% sure book one will be satisfying. It has a solid resolution to a problem, but it’s not, let’s say…a happy one. That’s not necessarily a deal breaker, as it does create the situation that would be the main drive and conflict for a book two, but if readers are annoyed at me for the ending of book one, they’ll never see it.

This is more critical than many writers realize.
A lot of readers judge the entire book by its ending, and even they raved about the first 75%, if your ending doesn’t wow them, the whole book can be affected.

(Here’s more on what makes a satisfying ending)

3. The stakes and consequences escalate proportionately.

There’s a delicate balance with stakes. If the stakes don’t escalate enough, the plot can feel too easy and seem like it doesn’t really matter. If they rise too high too fast, the tension has nowhere to go and it plateaus and goes flat. It’s those constant waves of tension that get bigger as the story flows that work so well to draw readers into and through the book.

In my case, they do escalate with one protagonist, but not the other—or at least, not as much as they should for two books. This is an area I’d have to tweak, but it would also deepen that character’s character arc, so it’s a win/win.

(Here’s more on where to raise the stakes)

4. There’s a new place to go with the story.

While a trilogy typically has a common storyline (save the person, stop the bad guy, find the secret, etc.), each book should bring something new to the story. If book one and book two are about basically achieving the same goal, it can feel like you’re reading the same book all over again.

In my case, the novel has core goal and conflict that runs under everything the characters do. But it also has a prominent goal that drives it for the first half (call it Plot A), with a secondary goal as a subplot (call it Plot B). But after the midpoint, those goals reverse, and the secondary goal becomes the main focus, which ties it back into the core conflict goal.

For example, let’s says the core goal is to keep Mom and Dad from getting a divorce. That’s the point of the book—to keep these two together. Plot A is about an issue with Mom that would end with her taking a job in another state. Plot B is about proving to Dad Mom is serious and not just angry about a fight. The protagonists’ work to keep Mom from accepting the job, but she does anyway, so now they need to deal with Dad and get him to step up and keep Mom from leaving. There’s still story goals with Mom and her new job, but the true problem was with Dad all along, and that doesn’t surface until the middle of the story.

(Here’s more on 4 steps to a stronger plot)

5. Both books would be satisfying reads.

A good ending is only the beginning. To turn one book into two, both books would need to stand on their own (baring normal trilogy or duology loose ends), and be as rich and well-rounded as a stand-alone book. Having solid story arcs, escalating stakes, and good endings is key, but the rest of the book also has to engage readers. You want them to feel as though they got their money’s worth, not just had to pay twice as much for one story.

In my case, the jury is still out on this one. I think it could be two good reads, but my beta readers are also saying they really enjoyed the book as is, even though it’s long. Pacing matters more than word count, and if the novel is well paced at 100+K words, it could be fine as one book.

Bonus Reason: You could further develop things you didn’t have room for in one book.

If the book runs long, it might be because it was two books the whole time. Especially if there are areas you wish you cold have developed more, and your beta readers are saying they loved those parts and wanted more, or feedback says the areas you cut back on felt too cut back or shallow.

In my case, having another 10-15K words per half to flesh out some areas I either didn’t do, or skimmed over, would be fun and add more to the overall story. Beta reads have asked for more in those areas as well. Two 75K-word novels is a good size for the market as well. And since I have an idea for a third book, well, then I’m two thirds of the way through my trilogy already.

I’m waiting to hear back from my agent before I make a final call on this book, and I’m happy to go in either direction. It would be nice to have my next two books done and give her more to submit, but I’d always planned on one book with this story, so I won’t feel bad if that’s the case. It’ll be interesting to hear what she says.

It’s always tough when a manuscript falls outside the general range of the genre or market you’re writing for. Not every book has to fall within those ranges, and there are plenty of novels that don’t that has done well. But they’ve well in spite of it more often than because of it. But sometimes, a story grabs us and we keep writing, unaware that we’re writing the whole series at once.

Have you ever broken a long book into two? What was your result? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
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  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is very timely for me, as my beta readers had similar feedback on my fledgling fantasy series. In my case, however, I was trying to shove a five-book series into a trilogy, which ended up a complete mess. (I’d already excised every subplot I could conceivably cut, and the draft for the first book was still well over 140,000 words. Yikes!) While for me the decision has already been made out of necessity, this post will definitely help me with deciding where to chop the books apart. So many thanks for writing this, Janice!

    1. Glad I could help. I can't even imagine trying to get five into three! You must have been going nuts.

  2. Yeah, I split a book a while back. Mostly because of (1) but the rest were true too. I found I was compressing the story too much to contain the word count, when what I really needed was a fully realized story in two parts.

    1. The more I look at mine, the more I'm leaning toward two for those very reasons.

  3. I've seen "average" book word counts that are all over the place. Some publishers give 30-50K words as average, I've seen as high as 80-100K as acceptable. (It does seem like over 100K is getting into "big book" territory). Do you have a good sense of the numbers?

    My current manuscript is over 100K (and needs a lot of trimming) but isn't going to come in much under that, I think, once all the plot holes are filled and transitions smoothed.

    1. It depends on genre and market. Middle grade typically us in the 30-50K range, but can be higher. Young adult is in the 60-80K range, but again, can run higher. Fantasy and historical fiction often runs in the 80-125K range. Cozy mysteries run shorter and are typically around 60K.

      The "average book" is 80-100K, so 100K will likely work for most genres, though not all, such as cozy mysteries or kid lit.

      I'd suggest looking at other books in your genre and/or market and seeing what the average is.

      I wrote about word counts and the various ranges a while back, so you constant there. It links a good post agent Rachelle Gardener wrote on it as well.