word craft


Story Behind the Story #31: Beyond the Western Sea

Escape from HomeI had been vis­it­ing schools that year, impor­tant­ly, long before the lengthy Har­ry Pot­ter books were so pop­u­lar. I had begun ask­ing stu­dents what they were read­ing. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of them were telling me they were read­ing nov­els by Stephen King. The sur­prise— (to me and to their teachers)—was that these kids were read­ing tru­ly long books. More­over, they were read­ing them very much on their own. The les­son? If they liked the sto­ries, kids would read long books.

Hav­ing already pub­lished books that had become popular—for instance, The True Con­fes­sions of Char­lotte Doyle—I had become used to the ques­tion, “Are you going to do a sequel?” Oth­er books of mine had elicit­ed that same question.

Into the SeaKnow­ing that my read­ers could read long books, I asked myself if I could write a nov­el that was suf­fi­cient­ly long so that no one would ask for a sequel.

My mod­el would be the kind of long Vic­to­ri­an nov­els I enjoyed read­ing so much: Dick­ens, Collins, etc. I also knew that they were long because so many of these books had been serialized.

So, when I set out to write Beyond the West­ern Sea, it was the seri­al­ized nov­el that was my mod­el. To this end I wrote short chap­ters, with many, many cliff-hang­ing end­ings. The metaphor was that I was set­ting out bowls of salt­ed peanuts. You just take one more … and more and more.

The book was writ­ten and it was long. More than 700 pages. But now the pub­lish­er wor­ried that it was too long. They decid­ed to pub­lish it as two books. [Let it be admit­ted that I, albeit reluc­tant­ly, went along with their deci­sion.] Thus, the book was pub­lished in two vol­umes, (and two titles) and in sub­se­quent paper­back print­ings that became the norm—though I tried to get it issued oth­er­wise. But, as far as I’m con­cerned it is one book and should be read that way.

Then a curi­ous thing hap­pened: Read­ers, used to trilo­gies, assumed a third book would be forth­com­ing. It nev­er happened.

Fur­ther­more, hav­ing writ­ten a book which was meant to mute requests for sequels, Beyond the West­ern Sea is the book that gets the most requests for sequels.

The great­est com­pli­ment read­ers can give a writer when they like a book, is that they always want more.

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