Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Perils of Novel Length in Fantasy

I sat down and really started writing my novel about a year ago. For the first time in my life, I really got bitten by the bug and soon became so obsessed with the story and characters that skipping a day of writing became almost unthinkable. One thing that helped feed and maintain my focus was the discovery of a good and supportive online fantasy writing community that consisted of many aspiring (and some published) writers who critique one each others' work and provide everything from amusing diversions to hard-bitten advice.

I've been an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction for most of my life. I have certain preferences, and it's easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that your own favorite authors are "typical fantasy writers" in most respects. For instance, I prefer traditional "other word" fantasy, set in pre-industrial sword and sorcery societies, and I prefer stories where the magic system in painstakingly developed and made as realistic as possible. I also tend to refer complicated characters with a rich inner life and for there to be an element of romance, or at least emotionally satisfying relationships, somewhere in a story.

Another thing I tend to prefer are books that are fairly long. Although few of my favorite authors wrote debut novels as long as Patrick Rothfuss's, most of the fantasy novels on my bookshelves (and for that matter, most of the books I read in other genres as well) are considerably longer than the 80,000-100,000 words that is often cited as the average length for an adult novel. Fantasy is different, I always figured.

So as I got enthusiastically into writing my budding epic-length book, my writer friends who are a bit further along than I am had to break the news gently. Fantasy is not all that different with regards to length restrictions--at least not fantasy from first-time novelists who have not won the Writers of the Future contest, received a Hugo or Nebula for a piece of short fiction or won some other prestigious honor as a budding writer. In fact, the number that comes up most often as a target length for first-time fantasy writers (even those writing in the high fantasy tradition) is 100,000 words. The upper limit most agents and editors will consider from an unknown talent is around 120,000 words. Ouch!

The reasons given for this make sense, really. Longer books take more time to edit. Longer books cost more to bind and ship and take up more room on bookstore shelves or in warehouses. It's one thing to publish a 150,000 word plus wrist-sprainer from an established writer who has a loyal fan base and a track record of at least respectable sales. It's another to risk extra money on a first timer that no one's heard of yet (and sadly, there are plenty of first time novels that just never sold all that well, in spite of being quite good).

But it's still a frustrating issue, as many fantasy readers want and expect longer books. I wonder if a short little 300 page paperback by an unknown will even draw a browser's eye if it's sitting sandwiched between two much longer novels by well known authors. Of course, length is less of a factor with books bought online, as one does not search visually in that format (but then there is the issue of how a reader finds a first-time author at all on Amazon and B&, since readers tend to search for their favorite authors there or go off the sites' often incomprehensible recommendation system).

Be that as it may, I've had to edit Umbral Heretic down by quite a bit. I'm now hovering just above the 120,000 word "upper" limit and am at the point where some of my readers' suggestions are to add things rather than take them away. Overall, shortening the story has probably improved it. I don't have any of those elaborately detailed long journeys where nothing happens except description of the world (often cited as a pet peeve about fantasy, even by fans of the genre), and I've been complemented by some readers for having "just the right amount" of description to give them a picture of my world and characters without going overboard and bogging things down. I've streamlined my dialog and have no 2-3 paragraph monologues by a single character (I mean, really, how long are any of us allowed to go on for that long without being interrupted in real life)? But there were some scenes and characters that it broke my heart to delete.

I guess in the end, I'll have to see if the length cutting was a worthwhile sacrifice. And if the novel wins big and gains representation, I am given to understand that more cuts (and possibly a few additions as well) will be in its future.


  1. You could break it in two and build each one to include more on the wonderful characters.

  2. That's what I had to do, actually. When I got to 170,000 words and was nowhere near the end, I realized I had to dial the story back and push a lot of things I'd hoped to get to in installment 1 back to an ostensible sequel (though it's tough, as I don't get to write a sequel unless book 1 sells). So the story I have now (at 124,000 words) is the result of this.

    The hardest part about splitting was finding a satisfyingly stand alone ending where the character has achieved something that feels like a victory, has changed in a meaningful way and has given something meaningful up (this last one is the hardest--because I need him to be the person he is and have the abilities he has for book 2). So I had to put another plot thread in there to raise the stakes for the first part of the story.

    But even splitting it, there is so much I can't have in there. Stories always grow to fill their available space, and something must be cut in the end.

  3. I feel your pain. My big epic fantasy novel will probably hit at 200,000 words or more. I have a cut down version but it doesn't feel right to me.

  4. Some stories need to be longer, unfortunately, which is probably a point in favor of keeping the really long epic tale in the background until you've got something else published.

    At least you have the ability to do meaningful work on more than one project at a time. I've had trouble getting bitten by any of my other novel ideas while UH still needs finishing/polishing.

    The divide in two or more option works better for some stories than others, and may involve some significant changes in the story/character arcs to make a stand-alone ending with a major goal reached and with a meaningful change/sacrifice on the part of the character.

    I do know plenty of authors who got first time stories published that were longer than the limits usually given, but there are often extenuating circumstances.