Dear Self-Published Novelists: Please tell the whole story

Barbara Nicolosi, founder of Act One, a Christian screenwriting school, often complains that her students just don't seem to understand what makes a story. My adventures in reading self-published novels on Kindle has shown me that even writers of novels seem to have trouble grasping this concept. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many self-published novelists seem to think they can get by without editors, who would be able to point out when a story is not really a story. I used to laugh at the fact that Aristotle, supposedly so wise, said something as obvious as “Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Now I see that this is apparently not obvious to everyone.

The Perils of Plotting

Last week I had one of those head colds that knock me out for about three days. My oxygen-starved brain was having trouble just trying to remain conscious, so writing anything was definitely out. So I turned to a freebie Kindle book I had downloaded recently, for something fairly mindless to read in my few, brief moments of wakefulness. I was quite enjoying it -- interesting premise (some sort of alternate or prehistory history earth?), promising characters, a developing mystery, an ancient monotheistic religion about to make a comeback.

Snoopy typing Not the endBy the time I reached midway point of this book, my breathing was starting to improve and my minds was regaining acuity, so I began to notice that, with only a hundred pages or so until the end, there were at least four different character plot lines wandering off in different directions, like a braided cord unraveling. I also noticed that the young boy being trained to become a secret warrior-priest of the mysterious religion about to make a comeback was being taught plenty about being a warrior and nothing about being a priest (he wasn’t even being taught the religion). And then I got to the end of the book, which was – I’m not making this up! – literally a cliffhanger. The last scene has the young warrior-priest jumping off a high cliff to escape the man pursuing him (his mentor, who has become somehow also his would-be assassin). The End. Not.

Turn the page and there is a notice that Book Two of this series can be purchased from Amazon. Perhaps you heard my response to that, dear reader, from whatever far-flung corner of the globe you inhabit – did you hear a distant roar of outrage and disgust coming from the direction of Texas? If I’d been reading a physical book, rather than my Kindle, you would also have heard a thump as the book hit the wall, followed by more thumps and growls as I jumped up and down on it. I had, once again, been duped into thinking that my freebie “book” was actually a novel, a story with a beginning, middle, and end, when it was actually just a fragment.

It's a good thing I don't practice voodoo,
or this might have been the fate
of a certain writer!

This writer (whom I will leave in anonymity; die in darkness, you dog!) evidently thinks that novels of a certain kind should be written – and sold – in three volumes. However, the word “trilogy” means “three stories” that are intimately connected, not “one story in three parts.” The writer, undaunted by the actual meaning of words, might further himself by saying, “But it’s my homage to J.R.R. Tolkien. He did the same thing! He created a group of characters, then sent them off in different directions, and he published his Ring trilogy as three separate volumes! He set the precedent, and it turned out to be one of the best-selling stories of all time, so don’t blame me for following his example!” To which I reply, “(GRRRR) Listen, twit, learn history before you mine it for precedents.” (Sorry, head colds make me irritable.)

Learn from the Master

The fact is, sixty years ago, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien completed an enormously long romance he entitled The Lord of the Rings. His publisher insisted that such a lengthy tome could not be contained in a single volume; with the scarcity of paper in post-war Britain, a single huge volume would have been prohibitively expensive. (No doubt the publisher was also dubious that many people would want to read such a long story and didn’t want to invest too heavily in something that might not pan out.) At any rate, the publisher agreed to publish the story only if it were broken into three volumes – not an unprecedented practice, as many early novels were published in two or three volumes, for similar practical reasons. Tolkien was not happy with this arrangement, but he went along with the publisher's requirements. If you read Lord of the Rings, you can see that none of the volumes even tries to be more or less complete in itself; the first two volumes just sort of break off, but that’s okay because the reader knows that the physical end is arbitrary and the story itself goes on until Sam Gamgee returns to his home in Bywater after waving Frodo off on his voyage into the West, sits down by the family hearth, plops his infant on his knee, and says “Well, I’m back.”

Lord of the Rings in a single volume
makes for a hefty and expensive tome.
Tolkien’s publisher wound up publishing all three volumes because that was the whole story, as the author had intended it, and because the readers wanted the whole story, not just part of it. There may be readers who have quit reading after the first volume because they just did not care what happened next, but there certainly have been no readers who quit reading after the first volume because they thought that was the whole story.

The practical considerations that, in the past, led publishers to bring out lengthy novels in multi-volume editions simply do not apply to novels written today. There are plenty of monster tomes, such as the lengthy novels of Edward Rutherford, that attest to the fact that modern printing technology can easily produce very long books in single volumes, even in economical paperback formats. With digital books, there really is no limit to the length of a single e-book file.

Now, I understand that there is some market pressure for writers who wish to attract readers to produce novel series (new novelists are often advised not to publish a novel until they have already written its sequel), but there is a big difference between writing a series of stories (with overlapping casts of characters, settings, and even plots) and writing a single story stretched out over the length of several titles. The former practice is acceptable, even venerable, but the latter is deceptive and crass, and no self-respecting novelist should engage in such trickery. At the very least, writers who do so should warn the prospective reader that a given volume contains only a fraction of the story, and that the reader will have to purchase several titles in order to get the whole story. Failure to do so is a dirty trick.

What this writer (I can’t call him a novelist) may not realize is that he has lost one reader forever, because he evidently doesn’t know what a story is. Too bad. He had some good fragments. If only he'd had a good editor, too.


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