Dividing an Epic into Single Books

Some people have writer's block. Other people have the opposite problem. They create epic stories that need to then be organized and segmented into discrete chunks. How can a writer take a massive tome and create discrete segments out of that volume of data?

First, it's good to give yourself kudos for even having this problem. With so many seminars, retreats, and books devoted to the issue of writer's block, you have tapped into your creative muse. You have let the words flow. That is wonderful! Now you have a wealth of material to work with.

The next step, though, is to organize your content into a set of books which users can read. There's a reason that books exist, and that chapters within a book exist. There's even a reason that pages within a chapter exist, and paragraphs within a chapter. All of these help a reader draw information into their brain at a rate that their brain can sort and manage.

It would be like watching a marathon of a series that went on non-stop 24 hours a day for 2 months straight. As much as the user might adore that series, they need a break for their brain to digest, organize, and absorb the information. Otherwise they cannot then process the new information that is presented.

Books help organize that information for the reader. By having content presented in books, they can read, take in, and ponder a set of information. Once they have digested that set, they are then ready and capable of understanding the next set of information in context.

Epics in Literature

There are of course many famous examples of epics in literature. The Harry Potter series is one of the most well known in modern times. Spanning seven separate novels, there are a total of 4,182 pages total. Book five, Order of the Phoenix, weighed in at a massive 896 pages.

Robert Jordan's opus creation of The Wheel of Time ran to 14 books and also had books almost 800 pages long. In the movie world, the Star Wars saga originally spanned six movies. Then there are the many "serial creations" such as the James Bond series of novels and movies, the Hercule Poirot series of novels and movies, and so on. The world of Dune spanned six novels, plus others added on by other authors.

Segmenting Your Epic

While some authors envision releasing one gigantic book, it's really best to look at the wisdom of other authors and break your content into chunks that your readers can digest. They can and will come back for the subsequent parts! By presenting it in pieces, you help the reader absorb what they have and take that breath to prepare for the next segment. It's like serving a dinner in courses. That lets you digest the appetizer before you dive into the main dish.

So then the next question is, how to you decide where to create your chunks? There are many ways to tackle this project. Here are the two most popular.

Start from the Beginning
With the Harry Potter series, absolutely it made sense to start at the beginning. We could watch little Harry and understand his roots. We saw where he came from. As he learned, and grew, and brought in knowledge about his new world, we were right there alongside him. His joy at discovering magic was ours. His building on previous knowledge was ours as well. We didn't have to be told in book 2 or book 3 who Hermione was or why she was important to Harry. We knew that history because we had been there with him. This "shared built knowledge" is very powerful in any story.

Start with the Exciting as a Hook
George Lucas mapped out a nine stage plot for his Star Wars epic, but he deliberately began right in the middle. His theory was that the middle of a story is often the most exciting part and the most likely to grab a viewer's attention. While this is true, it also means that a lot of the back-story is missing. Readers just have to leap in and feel a bit lost. This works well with action stories, but less well with relationship oriented stories.

Author's Writing Experience

It's fairly universally true that a writer tends to have less experience when they begin writing, and more experience the longer they write :). That is the way life works in every area. So that being said, some authors might want to release their later parts first, because those are the ones they wrote when they were the most skilled. Those were their "best works".

However, it is also fair to say that an author would never want to put out "poor work" in her name. That work will impact her legacy for the rest of her life! So even if an author has been writing content for twenty years, she would not want to release any of her work without bringing it up to her current level of quality. If she were to release something she first began twenty years ago, she would still want to repolish it to match her current level of skill. After all, it is going out in the current year, and under her name.

My Example

Here is a real life example. From about 1984 to 2012 I wrote ten medieval novels, all stand-alone stories. My first novels were understandably rough. I had not learned much about writing in the early days. The later novels were much better crafted. So when it came time to plan on self publishing them, I had to consider what order I wanted to publish them in.

My publishing order absolutely could NOT have anything to do with the order in which they were written. Readers would not care at all what chronological birth date they had. All they cared about was the content of each story.

In my case, I was fortunate in that the novels did not connect to each other in any way. So I had no concern about "character growth" vs "exciting stage of the story" to ponder. All I had to think about is what would make sense in terms of building an audience.

What I ended up doing is going with the "sexiest" one first, because I had continually been told that sexy stories attracted readers. I wanted to do my best to build an audience base up front. Then I went with a playful novel, to bring in that range of audience. Third came one of my more serious novels. In that way I strove to build a wide range of audience base to then buy my subsequent novels.

My sixth novel in the set was the very first novel I ever wrote. It was the one in the most rough shape. Does that mean I released it in the form I had written back in 1984? Not at all! That would reflect poorly on me as a current author. I took that novel and polished it over and over again until it matched my current level of talent. That way, when it was released, it held its own against the other novels and furthered my overall desire to reach readers with my message.

Just to add another twist to the medieval story saga, there came a point where I *did* want to connect them together to make them more coherent as a series. Once I added the sword-passing element to the series, I had to again re-order them so they fell in proper timeline sequence.

Summary

In the end, readers will judge you based on the words they read. They will expect that the story is well written, is understandable, and is organized in a way that they can digest and absorb. They are thrilled to know there are subsequent books! That makes them very happy. But each book they read should stand on its own, be something they enjoy reading, and something that leaves them with a positive impression of you as the author. That helps ensure your message gets through to them, and that they are open to hearing more of your messages in the future.

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