Monday, July 3, 2017

Shooting For Paris 3.0

I lived and worked in Paris for a little while during the spring of 2015. Naturally, I wrote a book about it. I started writing it while I was in Paris and continued long after I came back to Hong Kong.

The first thing any publisher wants to know about your book is word count. They will decide if the story is marketable when they skim through it, and genre only matters if it's not something the publisher usually covers. The first thing they need to know is how long it is. If it's too short, they'll tell you to go back and rewrite it. If it's too long, they'll tell you to cut it to pieces. Word count affects the price, and every publisher wants books that are in that sweet spot of expensive enough to make a profit but not so expensive that no one will buy it.

Shooting For Paris came in at 350,000 words. With most standard formats, that would be over 1,000 pages. According to the publisher I was working with at the time, that was entirely too long. Readers want 300 pages.

So I looked up a few books. Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is over 655,000 words. War and Peace, depending on translation, is between 561,000 and 587,000 words. But would either of those sell well if they were released today? Probably not. I think most publishers would reject them outright.

What about books that might sell today? The Catcher in the Rye is 73,000 words. Nineteen Eighty-Four is 89,000. The Great Gatsby – 47,000, Fahrenheit 451 – 46,000, Lord of the Flies – 60,000. That does not bode well for me.

But those are great works of literature. What about more contemporary books? The first Harry Potter book is about 77,000 words. They gradually get longer. The first Twilight book is 119,000 words, which is actually considered pretty long for a first novel. The first Hunger Games is 99,000 words.

An obvious argument is that Shooting For Paris is not a series of books aimed at the young adult audience. But publishers see numbers. If 80,000 words = giant buckets of money while 150,000+ words = a few sales here and there, what is the average publisher going to say to 350,000 words? I was told to gut it like a fish.

On the one hand, I didn't want to. I felt that the story was as long as it needed to be and that cutting anything would hurt it. On the other hand, every publisher in the world has more experience than I do. They've seen a million books come and go, and they know that longer books are usually longer because they need some serious editing. Writers, especially novice writers, tend to ramble on and on. See this post, for example. None of us are Victor Hugo.

After cutting out more than I wanted, it was down to 290,000. What I cut out could be an entire book, but it was still too long.

Someone came up with the idea of breaking it into two volumes. Series books are popular right now, and the theory was that people would rather buy more than one book to get the complete story than buy a 1,000 page book.

I immediately hated that idea. So I went shopping around for another publisher. No one seemed very excited to publish an expensive book by no one about women who have no magical powers and are never rescued by vampires. My only options were to cut it in two or sit on it and wait around for something to change. The hardest thing you can do after spending so much time on a book is to shelve it. You want it out in the world where people can read it. So I cut it in half. I should have waited.

I went to Jerusalem for a little while during the spring of 2016. While I was there, I thought I might end up writing a book about it. But the last thing I wanted to do was write about the trip only to cut most of it out. In Jerusalem, I met someone who worked for a publisher in Europe that was looking for Israeli writers and novels about Israel. I had always intended to write the Jerusalem trip as a non-fiction travelogue, but the more I thought about it as a novel, the better it sounded. My story describes a movie that I didn't write. I didn't like the idea of talking about someone else's story with my name on the cover. If I changed the plot of the movie, I could describe anything I wanted. In non-fiction, you have to describe what happened. There is a little room to use different names and change a few things to protect the guilty, but in fiction, you can do absolutely anything.

Harmony On Spring Hill became a novel and I went with a different publisher. Ordinarily, I would have felt too much loyalty to switch houses, but gutting and dividing the Paris book left a bad taste in my mouth. When they wanted another novel almost immediately, I had nothing to give. For good or bad, I tend to write after I've taken a major trip abroad. The last trip I took was Jerusalem, and that story was taken.

I was never entirely comfortable with cutting Shooting For Paris in half, but I never found a way to shorten it either. But what if it were a novel? As a work of fiction, I could do anything with it. I had no idea how long it would take to turn an epic travelogue into a reasonable novel, but I liked the idea.

It actually took a long time, but that gave the new publisher time to buy out the old publisher. I'm the copyright holder, so I can rewrite whatever I want, but it's licensed to the publisher. They hold the exclusive rights to publish it. No company wants to publish a book that's already available from some other company.

As of right now, Shooting For Paris is only available in novel form. Other than used copies or remainders, the non-fiction version should be out of print and/or unavailable at all retailers. If you bought either volume of the non-fiction version, hold onto it. It might be worth something in a hundred years.

Personally, I like the novel version better. It tells the story I wanted to tell without too much sacrifice on my end. Ironically, it's 220,000 words shorter than the first version. The best part is, it's finished. There will never be a 4.0.

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