On Cutting the Puppy in Half & Taking the Leap

In 2004, I wrote a book. It was a pretty long book, even then. Over 100k words, if memory serves. I thought, in my Junior-in-college naivete, that it was pretty good. Over the course of the next nine years, I kept returning to it. I revised. And revised. And revised. I started from the ground up at least three times, completely rewriting it. Changing the plot. Removing characters. Adding characters. You name it. And then… finally… I felt like I had something truly special. Five years ago, after nine years of (admittedly sporadic) work, of editing and polishing and worldbuilding and tweaking of characters, I decided that I was going to try to make my dream a reality and actually be an Author. I was going to write every day! I was going to go to conventions and listen to writing podcasts! BY GOD, I WAS GOING TO GET PUBLISHED. And I had this novel already finished! And it was good!

There was just one problem. It was 350k words.

To put that into context for you, if you’re not steeped in the writing field:

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 198k words.
  • A Game of Thrones: 292k words.
  • The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy: 454k words.
  • Brandon Sanderson’s latest foray into Roshar, Oathbringer: 460k words.

“So?” you might be thinking. “Those other authors did it, so can you!”

Yeah. No. Here’s the thing. No one’s willing to risk taking on a project that large as a debut novel. Most of the time, when an author approaches a publisher with a book this long, they’re already established in the field. There’s a good writeup about word counts and what publishers are looking for here, if you’re interested in reading more about it. Basically, for fantasy sci-fi, they’re looking for 90k to 125k. I have literally been laughed at by people at conventions when I mention my wordcount.

“So cut it in half,” you say. “Seems simple enough.”

I once emailed Patrick Rothfuss about this, asking for his advice on the subject, as I’d heard that some overseas publishers had tried to cut his book into parts. “Cutting a book in half isn’t like cutting a pie,” he told me. “It’s more like cutting a puppy in half. You can never expect it to work the same way after.”

I took this to heart for a long time. The character arcs wouldn’t be complete if I split the novel in two. The plot would be incomplete. It wouldn’t be Right. I couldn’t cut my puppy in half! I loved it too much! So I decided that my best course of action would be to start another book, a spin-off in the same world that I hoped would be shorter and more marketable. “And,” I thought to myself, “if this trilogy does well, I’ll have a fan-base already built for the other novel! They’ll be excited to dive back into the same world, and surely that will make it more appealing to a publisher.”

So I started working on Greencloak, then titled “Prayers to the Wind.” My concept for it was a crime drama with elements of comedy and romance set in a high fantasy world; a buddy-cop comedy in which the protagonists slowly come to realize (in between the snarky banter) that they have feelings for one another. I’ve been submitting Greencloak to agents and the occasional editor for the last three years, with little glimmerings of hope which are always quickly extinguished. Some agents have requested the first three chapters, which I know is better than most people get. One requested the entire book once. I got a letter back from an editor at a major publishing house saying they enjoyed it but they had too many similar novels right now. Meanwhile, my beta readers were building me back up from each rejection, reminding me that the book was good. Very good. Better than some published stuff they’d read. Some of these beta readers were folks in the industry, so I felt buoyed, validated that this book actually WAS good, that I wasn’t just over-inflating my own ego, thinking too highly of myself. I kept submitting. And getting rejected.

The usual advice in a situation like this is to trunk the novel and move on to another. And I HAVE been working on other things (more on this later). But I know this book is good. And, more than that, I want this book to get into the readers’ hands because I’m doing something with it that I don’t see terribly often in mainstream fantasy novels regarding LGBTQIA representation, and I think that’s a damn shame. No one’s giving it a shot. I have one last hope before I go the self-publishing route – but that shot is a long one.

It’s TOR.

I never submitted to TOR, even though they’re my dream publisher and I’ve been writing non-fiction for them for a few months now. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been reading novels with that little mountain on the spine. My dad loved fantasy and sci-fi and almost all of the books in his office were TOR novels, back in the early 90s. I cut my teeth on this stuff, and to have a novel with them would be more than a dream come true. It would be THE dream, what I’ve always wanted, what I’ve been working towards since I started writing fantasy in middle school.

So I didn’t submit. Because I was terrified to. I was so scared that they’d reject me, and then the dream would be dead.

But lately, I’ve been thinking long and hard about my writing career. I’ve been writing seriously for about five years now. (By seriously I mean working on something every day, rather than tinkering with something for a couple months then leaving it by the wayside for a year.) And what do I have to show for it? One novella which was a semi-finalist in Writers of the Future and I went on to self-publish, and five unpublished novels (one of which is, as stated above, unpublishable due to length).

I need to get my ass moving on this, and take a chance. I need to submit to TOR, if only so I finally know one way or another and can move on. It’s my own personal Schrödinger’s cat, and by god I’m going to finally open this box.

So next week, I’m printing out the first three chapters and submitting it. Finally. If it doesn’t make it, I do have a plan to self-publish, because I truly believe that there IS a market for this novel and by god if the agents and editors can’t find it, I will. But maybe they’ll see the worth in this little novel of mine, and give it a shot. I can only hope for the best.

But I’m also working on something else, something that I should have put more thought into a long time ago. Something that I held back on out of fear, and that I now see that I need to just do. I’m cutting the puppy in half. My writing group just reached the end of what used to be Part Two of The Forgotten Soldier, what I am now considering the end of the book. They seem to think that it worked well as an ending – definitely an “Empire Strikes Back” sort of downer ending, but one which leaves the reader somewhat satisfied and on the hook for the next installment. And hey – if I CAN sell this, I’ll have the sequel already done, which has to be a huge boon in this age of long waits between installments in a series. Book One now ends up at 216k words. This still isn’t ideal for a debut, but it’s not completely out of the ballpark, either. Sanderson’s debut, Elantris, was 200k.

Once I run this draft by a group of beta readers, I’ll be querying it out to agents, starting with the lovely woman who read all of Greencloak way back when it was in its second draft and gave me such wonderful critique on it. She’d invited me to query her again if I had something different, and I fully plan to. So here’s hoping that the beta reader feedback is as good as that of my writing group!

Speaking of long word counts, this is coming in at over 1k now so I’ll stop rambling. I don’t post often, but when I do, I guess I make up for it with long posts.

The Oathbringer reread starts up tomorrow at 9am on TOR, so follow along on Alice and my adventures there if you’ve already read the book. Until then, happy reading, fellow travelers.

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