Why did I create DamnYankee Publishing Company (DamnYankee.com) in 1999? My experience with the novel Cold Morning Shadow serves to answer that. I wrote the book between January and September 2019, all 300,000 words of it — (299,468 to be exact, not counting introductory material that is outside the story itself).
I next trolled my sample chapters in front of a couple dozen literary agents starting in September 2019, crafting each query to the agent’s (or agency’s) format for submissions. To a person, literary agents make clear that a novel, other than one intended for children or one coming from an “established” author such as Stephen King or Jean Auel, should run between 90,000 and 110,000 words, up to about 250 pages at most. Studying agency web sites, reading agents’ profiles, and tailoring each letter to the target agent consumed the four months from October 2019 through January 2020. Submission guidelines are consistent in asking for your manuscript’s word count, a detail that any word processor provides. Without a doubt, when an agent’s secretary saw my word count, three times the acceptable length, my query went into the trash.
What Agents Do
I realize that agents are the modern-day gatekeepers for the four or five conglomerates now publishing books under scores of traditional trademarks (HarcourtCollins, W.W. Norton, Houghton Mifflin, Random House, Penguin, and so forth). If the publishers won’t print a book larger than 110,000 words by an author they’ve never heard of, then of course the agents must meet the publishers’ demands or find another line of work.
Publishers have noticed, one would guess, that adults who read don’t buy books longer than 250 pages. Sales of longer books must be dismal. Or is that true? What agent, after all, with limited time to sit back and read manuscripts, wants to plow through only half as many submissions that are twice as long and collect half as many commissions as their colleagues?
I came close to splitting my novel into two separate volumes for this reason — a series of two, a duology. Some authors do that and just keep adding to the series. I couldn’t foresee a third book in the series because I had a story to tell and it concludes at the 300,000-word mark. And so I did suggest to a few agents that I had written a two-book story arc. (That’s the industry phrase that they understand.) Still, 150,000 words was too long for one volume. Generally, too, each volume should stand alone as a complete novel unto itself.
I had already internally divided it into “Book One” and “Book Two,” so I looked at paring back 40,000 words in each volume and simultaneously bringing Book One to a conclusive end, so a reader wouldn’t need to pick up the sequel. The sequel, though, in order to stand alone, would need to recreate the same characters for any reader who hadn’t read Book One. Book Two, therefore, would have to lose 40,000 words and simultaneously let the characters introduce themselves all over again — a redundancy that those who had already read Book One wouldn’t tolerate. Scratch the series.
Of all the literary agents I wrote to, three responded. (By email — that’s the method now.) Only one of them replied in such a manner that it was plain she had read my query. None of the rest did. With DamnYankee Publishing re-awakened, I formatted the book for print and for Kindle, created the cover, proofread it again and again, edited continuously, and finally uploaded it all to Amazon in the spring of 2020.
A Natural Divide
Cold Morning Shadow however, does neatly reach a stopping point, as opposed to an ending, precisely halfway through — so precisely, in fact, that, in the print edition, Book One, Lucky Diamond and This Guy, ends on page 346, and Book Two, Half-soul in Tatters, ends on page 695. Take out the three blank pages between the two halves and they’re truly equal in page count.
Book Two picks up right where Book One leaves off and does not re-introduce the characters. However, there is a different framework and a different tone to the story from that point onward. Where Book One took place all in one setting, Book Two literally goes around the world. The second volume returns to the setting of Book One again and again as some characters have remained in that location while others have begun traveling.
The Characters Drove It
As I was writing Cold Morning Shadow I gave no heed to its length. I just wrote until it was finished. No doubt there is some fluff. Not every sentence is as succinct as a proverb in the King James Bible. I began with a two-dimensional image of each of four characters. I introduced them to each other. I let them develop themselves. And they did indeed develop themselves. Within a few pages I became a reporter barely able to keep up with all that they were doing.
But I was prescient, even God-like. As I was learning about them, they were making choices and, as the publicity blurb for the book says, they were laying the cornerstones for lasting friendships. That doesn’t happen in a page and a half. I’m not O. Henry, and there’s more at stake here than who’s kidding whom. Because their future was foretold, though, I mostly needed to nudge each one, page by page, so that they would make the next necessary decision among many possible choices in order to move the story toward its foregone conclusion.
Long Books Don’t Sell, or Do They?
If long books don’t sell, it baffles me how the books in the list below made it past the industry’s gatekeepers during the era in which each one was published. All but the Clancy and Clavell books on the list sit on the shelves of my home library. (Debt of Honor and Shōgun, then, must each include about 20 pages of extra material, comparable to the differences between story page count and total page count for my own book, but I’ve listed them according to their page counts found at Amazon.) The rest of the books below are arranged according to the page count on the last page of each story. That I know because I pulled each one from the shelf and checked. I can’t vouch for the word count of any but my own. Roots, as you see, comes closest to my own page count.
page count – title – author
688 Roots (Alex Haley)
695 Cold Morning Shadow (David A. Woodbury)
709 Northwest Passage (Kenneth Roberts)
727 The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
756 The Sotweed Factor (John Barth)
836 Oliver Wiswell (Kenneth Roberts)
866 Come Spring (Ben Ames Williams)
868 Alaska (James A. Michener)
870 Rabble in Arms (Kenneth Roberts)
874 Bleak House (Charles Dickens)
909 The Source (James A. Michener)
912 Debt of Honor (Tom Clancy)
937 Hawaii (James A. Michener)
969 The Covenant in 2 volumes (James A. Michener)
973 The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
979 The Fiery Cross (Diana Gabaldon)
985 Fall of Giants (Ken Follett)
1152 The Stand (Stephen King)
1312 Shōgun (James Clavell)
1514 House Divided (Ben Ames Williams)
Never mind War and Peace. My copy of that one, in Russian, spans two volumes. Never mind Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at 766 pages. Don’t mention Don Quixote at 344,665 words (in English) and 992 pages in one currently-available edition. I’ve seen a copy of Ulysses at 768 pages and The Brothers Karamazov at 776. I read the latter book recently and it didn’t drag. I wasn’t asking myself: Will this ever end? Other books by authors mentioned in the above list, and innumerable additional books by other well-known authors, have reached wide audiences even though they exceeded 700 pages.
Amazon’s page count for my book is 719, which includes pages for the title, copyright notice, dedication, acknowledgments, table of contents, and the About the Author pages at the end. The story itself, as most books do, begins the page count at the start of Chapter One and ends at page 695.
My paperback copy of Fall of Giants, by the way, although 290 pages longer than Cold Morning Shadow, is the same dimensions as my book: 6 x 9 x 1¾ . Both seem massive compared with the old Dell paperbacks that you used to be able to buy new for 75¢ — Remember Clan of the Cave Bear? Follett’s big tome fits those dimensions because it is printed on lighter paper than mine.
Why So Long?
You can google longest novels, longest American novels, and so on. It is clear that not every good story can be told in 250 pages. An author has the freedom (in some countries) to tell any story in any number of words that it takes. It’s true that a traditional American publisher has the freedom to pass it over. It is true that anyone in the U.S. can launch a publishing company and begin publishing any content whatsoever. No law (yet) requires a publishing company to turn away manuscripts that fail to meet regulatory guidelines. You will not find a License to Publish on the wall of any newspaper office or publishing house in the country. The First Amendment is the Constitutional license to publish. One must, of course, avoid libel and plagiarism but not much else.
The Second Amendment is the Constitutional license to carry a weapon, but now that that has been successfully infringed in many states thanks to a complicit Supreme Court, the First Amendment is vulnerable too; but that’s a separate matter.
I don’t compare my writing to that of any author in the list. Perhaps it is as good as some. Perhaps my story is as interesting. So is my book worth the time? For me it was. It has been on the market barely two weeks — just long enough for someone to read it if they have done nothing else in that time. My beta readers praised it, so that’s all I have for information so far.
If you want a fast book, treat yourself to a snappy short novel but don’t expect to get well acquainted with more than one character. I can suggest my juvenile novella, The Clover Street News. At 21,000 words it’s hardly more than a short story. Or try my short-story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind. Or pick up a volume of O. Henry — a short-story writer whose gift I envy but who left us no example of what he might have done if he had a big story to tell.
As for a book that follows four people (and a few others) through a crucial period in their lives and loves — a saga, it can take a lot longer to tell. Cold Morning Shadow follows the examples set by the authors above — Go big or go home.