Two Tales Tell a Better Story

qthomasbower on flickr
qthomasbower on flickr

“You’ve got two books here.”

At 544 pages, my writing teacher and editor, Barbara Esstman, a twice published novelist, told me my novel was too long – way too long. She even shared where she thought a natural division of the story would work. I heard what she said, but I didn’t comprehend what she was saying. I saw that the novel could be divided into two books but emotionally, I wasn’t buying it. I’d worked too hard on this book for far too long – six years at that point – to now pull it apart and basically start over. When you’ve typed “The End,” the last thing you want to do is upend your book – again.

About the same time I got the news that my novel was too long, I started a revision workshop at the Bethesda Writers Center. Our first assignment for the 8-week class was to write a précis, or summary, of our novel that could not exceed ten pages. It was this exercise that laid bare the truth. Trying to wedge the waddling expanse that was my book into that tiny précis confirmed what Barbara told me, I was trying to tell the story of two main characters in one book that was too long, and still not long enough.

I reread all 22 chapters, and with additional consultation, confirmation and inspiration from my writing group, I dove into the daunting task of rewriting one novel into two, though I still felt a nagging resistance in my gut. Would my characters blossomed in the bifurcation? If I lose major characters would minor characters be able to take on stronger roles in the halved story arc? The plot seemed to thin out in some places and thickened in others. Some actions and incidents gained clarity, others seemed to lose their purpose. I felt the dramatic arc was too flat when it focused on one character and the veracity and tension of the “whole” novel had gotten lost in the gulf between the two books. I stopped writing, not sure how to proceed.

Whenever I get stuck like this, I read. I chose The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt  because it had similar themes – a tragic incident causes the protagonist world to change dramatically and, the visual arts served as the backdrop for the story. Also, at 784 pages, I was hoping to justify the length of my book.

The Goldfinch, was indulgent, almost extravagant, narrative. For the most part, Tartt gave readers a full experience with her characters, though sometimes it was too rich. There is only so much I need or want to know about the unsupervised drinking, smoking, cursing and boredom of 13- and 14-year old boys in the Las Vegas desert. Though as long as The Goldfinch was, it kept the reader focused on the protagonist and his journey. My novel had not achieved that.

In contrasting the size and scope of the two novels, and with time away from my manuscript, I could now see clearly that the advice I’d gotten to create two tales from one was not about page length – it was about the wandering journey I was taking readers on. I had two casts of characters with two fully formed stories. These tales are worth telling – just not together. The goal is to focus on the protagonist’s story and give readers a full experience; don’t wander off with another character’s story when there’s one to be told right in front of you. I realized that several different characters could hold their own in a sequel – not a Harry Potter-esque series (if only), but what I have is a good multigenerational saga that could find an audience over several books.

I now understood that the goal is to create a fully formed, focused story in as many pages as needed to tell one story. So back to work, two books it is!

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