Cliffhangers: Or, What Do You Do If the Book’s Too Long ?>

Cliffhangers: Or, What Do You Do If the Book’s Too Long

For a very long time, I’ve kept my mouth (or my laptop!) shut about some of the reviews for Dark. Before I go any further, let me say first that I’m eminently grateful for the time people take to write such things, because when they’re well-reasoned and clearly put they can be an enormous help in working out what it is that people want. My own reading habits are somewhat unusual in the modern day; it’s easy for me to forget that my readers might operate very differently.

I’ve never responded to a review on the internet before now, and I’ve never really talked about them in blogs; there’s a perception in today’s social-network-oriented society that authors should take any feedback they get without a peep if they don’t want to be dubbed as an “author behaving badly”. Some authors do behave badly, I can’t deny it. But I don’t think it’s right that we should be scared to talk about this side of the business, and sometimes it’s really not the authors behaving badly. Sometimes it’s the reviewers, but more often it’s simply a breakdown in communication. Let me explain:

One prevailing idea that has run through nearly, though not all, of the negative feedback I’ve received has been to do with its ending on a cliffhanger. I’ve had people complain that things haven’t been explained properly, or that they don’t think they can wait (which I’ve felt myself, a number of times, so I understand) or that it’s not what a “normal book” does. This one in particular made me raise an eyebrow because throughout history many “normal” books have done just that. I don’t recall anyone complaining at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring because Frodo hadn’t reached Mount Doom yet; I don’t recall any objections to The Dark Tower series ending, often, on cliffhangers and with the ka-tet still miles from the tower itself. Dickens published almost exclusively in serial form, and Stephen King’s Green Mile was hardly a flop. So I guess what I want to know is, why is it suddenly a problem now?

It probably won’t surprise anyone to know that the story I originally envisioned as “Book1” went far beyond that cliffhanger ending. In fact, the original plan for Book 1 will now stretch, not into Book 2 or 3, but into Book 4. Yup, it turned out to be far longer in practise than I thought it would, and the simple truth is: it was getting too long. It was a painful decision to split the thing where I did, as it will be in the next three books, but I had no choice when the damn thing hit 160,000 words with no signs of stopping. I’m sorry if people don’t like being left on the end that they have, I really am, but I couldn’t do anything else. Not only would it have meant at least another year, if not two, with nothing published at all (and for reasons concerning my disability benefits etc I had to put something out when I did), but there are also things like paperback editions to consider. As it is, the first volume is pretty pricey; I’m hamstrung by the manufacturing costs and by CreateSpace’s minimum price, which they set and which I can’t sell below. Imagine what it would have been if I’d joined them all together as I originally planned!

(Side Note: The Lord of the Rings was originally presented by Tolkien as one volume: the publishers insisted on splitting it into three to keep print costs reasonable.)

I think the reason I had to come out and say this is because, well, I’m being slammed for something that is completely beyond my control. Of course nothing is fully explained yet; it’s a series, and I need to keep material back for the other books! And the cliffhanger was, as I hope I’ve been able to explain, completely unavoidable. Unfortunately reviewers often don’t consider the bigger picture, and especially things of a practical nature, when they leave these comments. As one of my personal inspirations said recently, they forget there’s a real person on the other side of the computer screen, producing all this work. And they sometimes expect independent author/publishers to offer the same level of service as a multi-national company. One ill-reasoned comment can destroy a new writer’s career, just as a well-reasoned one can help to build it. Valid criticism is a great thing because it helps us choose where to go from here – but careless comments cost livelihoods, and a lot of sleepless nights.

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