The revenge of the doorstop
I’m damned sure I’m not the only reader who has hoped there’d be just a few more pages… (if you’re a writer who doesn’t read – trust me, you’re doing wrong. Like deciding to have babies without all this DNA sharing stuff, it doesn’t really work well, unless you’re a newt. Those sort of books work well… for parthenogenetic newts.)
Of course I wanted a few more pages to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings at about 450K and to Louis L’Amour’s Flint at about 45K.
It wasn’t actually a specific length I wanted – just more of a book I had enjoyed. Now, according to some definitions anything over 40K is a novel. At one time a lot of paperbacks came in 40-60 K range. These days most Traditional Publishers of adult novels require 90-120K. Books had to be a certain number of pages – easiest to manage in multiples around this. A lot of this has historical roots and relates to book-binding, and the number of copies that could be shipped in one box etc.
Well, that was then. Last time I stuck electrons together it did not end well (what do you mean: ‘that’s not what gluons are for’?) A book is as long as a story requires, rather than a publisher requires, these days. A step in the right direction if you ask me. Last time I tried to read a publisher it was less than entertaining. It is not true that I used a steam-roller to flatten them out, and then printed on them.
What brought about this post was a comment on a post Sarah made https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/when-your-novel-dies/ where someone was talking a 400 K first book.
My reaction was: Are you Tolstoy or Tolkien? (It’s hard and not a length of book filled with popular success stories, especially for new writers. There are some of course.)
None-the-less it is something I’ve done. I did contract for a Big Fat Fantasy – back in the day when there was this delusion that it was length that mattered (it doesn’t. you just have to try harder.)
I was told that was what readers wanted. Someone else told me a different story: the fashion for big fat fantasy was a chimera anyway, born out of publishers using the rise in paper prices to justify a much larger than justifiable rise in book prices. The reader got to pay more – but at least felt they were getting more. The cost of paper was really a minor factor in the increase in price – but the reader felt they were getting something extra for the extra cost.
Needless to say: the authors got stuck with instructions: ‘Write a big fat fantasy – 200-300K….” for which you earned exactly what you earned for a 100K.
This did not always work very well, from the story point of view. Most of us have a length we’re comfortable with, that our stories fit. A lot of authors, given this instruction didn’t change what story they wrote. They just added padding, fluff or vast data-dumps.
Strangely, a lot of readers don’t love fluff much, and the fashion has largely died. Publishers are always following trends – most of which had passed by the time they contracted the book, let alone published it.
Still, there is some real demand, and indeed there are some stories that need a lot of space (especially the space travel ones). Others need a lot of words… You may be the author that writes goat-gagger novels naturally well.
I, honestly, am not. My typical natural length is 80-100. I’m quite a terse writer, if you measure action scenes over pages (yes, this is something I have done, not only for my own books. I did 90 pages into one before the only 2 characters had actually done anything but talk about their feelings…). For me it was incredibly hard. SHADOW OF LION was 275 odd K goat-gagger. So call it nearly three normal books long. For me – the effort was more like writing five books. It was tough as I actually did most of the writing, most of the real plotting, and had to go through the nightmare of integrating Misty’s re-use from another series text. (She’d been the author of some part in a sequel to a popular sf book, which was now OOP and the rights to her bit had reverted. It was about 75 K, I ended up using less than 30 which had to be heavily re-jigged to fit. A horrible job, as our styles do not mesh naturally. I’m terse, she’s expansive. She uses a lot of passive voice, and dwells a lot on the characters thoughts and feelings. I’m still not very good at that.)
Anyway… I did it. Look, your mileage may vary, but it’s one of those: “You want me to do this again? Have you got a LOT of money, and am I REALLY that desperate?” If this really is natural thing and you do it without effort – please ignore me. Hell, ignore me, if you wish to anyway. But if you’re thinking of writing something in Big Fat Fantasy realm… just considering it as a possibility, I’d like to make a few points.
- Unless we’re talking a ton of padding, description, angst, feelings and fluff and twaddle, and huge data dumps, such a book is going to take a large cast of characters (or a long sequence of actions, but those probably also require a large cast).
- Managing a large cast is an absolute cow. Trust me on this – every 4-6 characters makes a thread, and each of those threads MUST (a) intersect (b) remain clear and distinct in the reader’s head. (c) occur often enough so that even the guy taking a month to read the book remembers them. That means hopping between threads like a flea in a fit.
- Thread hopping produces the opposite problem – a lack of story continuity, which makes a book drag (no matter how active the thread scenes are, the story isn’t moving along.) If you think a normal book is a balancing act… this is going from juggling three balls to juggling eight plates of jello. Trust me on this too, watching juggling with jello is a lot more entertaining than a tangled mess of threads that never seem to get anywhere.
- Writing a long books takes a long time. Keeping continuity of style and character over what could be years… is no small ask.
- A big book inevitably means a big ‘world’ expect a lot of extra research, continuity issues, and care in not boring the reader with data dumps. Really, it’s something a lot of readers complain about.
- It’s hard keeping all of a normal length book in your head at once. As a writer I have to do that (maybe you don’t). A goatgagger is harder than three separate books adding up to the same length.
- For a few of us, this is easy. For most writers this is a lot more exhausting and demanding than their natural length. If you’re trying to make a living at this: Ask yourself the hard question – are you going to gain enough extra audience to make the money that will cover the time, stress and effort of writing that huge epic. If you will sell less than the number of books you could have written for the same time and effort… why are you doing it? (you may have a great reason, but ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’ isn’t one. I can tell you that for sure, from plenty of experience.
OK – so your turn. Have you loved any vast fantasy novels. If so, why? And what problems do you think authors need think about? What has annoyed you?