MAKING A LONG STORY SHORT

I’m often asked how long a novel should be and I always try to weasel out of answering by saying something like: “It should be as long as it needs to be.”

I’m trying to avoid saying what I personally feel, which is that a novel should be as short as possible. But professionally, I think that’s a safe answer. If you’ve gotten to the end of the story, everybody who’s read it likes it, including you, and you just can’t think of a single thing more to say, then that story is done. If you get there in, say, 25,000 words, congratulations on your novella. If it came out to be 200,000 words, congratulations on your . . . no, well. Hold on a minute.

Marcel Proust, record holder at 1.2 million words... Take that George R.R. Martin!

Marcel Proust, record holder at 1.2 million words… Take that George R.R. Martin!

There have been massive uber-tomes that have risen to the top of the fantasy genre. For this, I blame Mr. Tolkien. But does that mean fantasy = impossibly long? I’m happy to admit my personal bias in favor of shorter novels (50,000-80,000 words), but please don’t think this post is some sort of admonishment that if you like really really long fantasy novels you’re wrong or bad or stupid—if you’re reading my blog you couldn’t possibly be any of those things!

I tend not to like really long books. Especially as I ease into my Golden Years. I missed the Wheel of Time series. I can’t start reading that now. I’ll never live to see the end of it.

So yes, I like shorter books, by and large, more than longer books, but can we find some kind of common ground here? Some kind of upper limit?

E-books have made word count largely irrelevant, but a really long book printed on paper is going to be more expensive than a shorter book, and that goes beyond even the cost of paper, printing, and binding but to typesetting, edits, case pack weight (shipping), retail shelf space, and so on.

Set all that aside, though, and let’s get back to what makes a book “better,” from the standpoint of the reader. In a post at AutoCrit Nicholas Sparks wrote:

 Books that are too long are the sign of laziness by the writer and also imply an arrogance of sorts, one that essentially says to the reader, “I’m the author here and I know what I’m doing, and if you don’t like it, then that says more about you than me, and we both know which one of us is smarter.” Not so. […] Why are so many books too long these days? Because being efficient is difficult and often time-consuming. It’s a lot harder to capture a character’s personality fully in one, original paragraph, than it is to take a page to do so. But efficiency is one of the characteristics of quality writing. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is a much stronger opening than taking a paragraph or two to say exactly the same thing.

Oh boy is he right!

When I first started at TSR I was surprised by how regimented they were in terms of word count. With a very few (mostly Weis & Hickman-authored) exceptions, TSR novels were 90,000 words long to fit into a 320-page mass market paperback. If a manuscript went to 100,000 words it was as if the world was coming to an end. A series of meetings would take place as to whether or not we could increase the page count of the finished book from 320 pages to 352 pages and more often than not the answer was no. I once cut 20,000 words out of a novel a few words here, a sentence there, and the author couldn’t tell what I’d cut. But then, y’know, my kung fu is the best.

This kind of surgical edit is what Nicholas Sparks is, I think, advocating. It’s not a question of which subplot to do away with, though think about this: If I ask, “Which subplot can you lose?” and you can answer in less than thirty seconds, cut out that subplot. Sometimes it’s not the writing that’s too complicated but the plot.

The overwhelming length of novels, especially by less experienced authors, almost always—and yes, almost always—comes not from the epic nature of the fantasy but from plain old fashioned over-writing. If you do things like:

“Yes,” he said, and nodded.

. . . which is five words that could be replaced by two:

 He nodded.

. . . that’s almost always why your book is 180,000 words long.

I understand that not everyone wants to be Ernest Hemingway, and not every author should be known for a super-lean, just-the-facts-ma’am style of writing. And sometimes books really do tell a long, complex story. Some of may favorite books (Dune and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to name just two) are longer than the average of about 80,000-90,000 words.

Nicholas Sparks said “being efficient is difficult and often time-consuming” and he’s right. But beyond that, writing is always difficult and time-consuming. You need to think about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. But it’s not always that we aren’t thinking of the reader, or being arrogant in our demands on our readers’ time. Sometimes, just the opposite is true. Sometimes, we don’t give our readers enough credit. We’re worried that if we don’t explain this plot point or that aspect of the setting one more time we’ll lose people.

Sometimes I make lists of important story elements so I can actually remind myself that by this point in the book the reader should know that . . . whatever it is: the captain is really a werewolf, the crystal has lost its magical properties, and so on. Then make sure that that’s been made reasonably clear once.

If you can do that, you might find you’ve trimmed 10% out of your manuscript. If you learn to write in a more direct, less cluttered style, you’ll lose . . . who knows how many extraneous words? And who cares? Again, it’s not about driving to a set word count, it’s about writing just the story you want to tell, not the story you want to tell wrapped in some kind of protective outer covering.

Oh, and you are more likely to get it published if it’s closer to 90,000 words than to 150,000 words.

You just are.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to MAKING A LONG STORY SHORT

  1. But it’s hard! It hurts! Thanks for the encouragement and advice, though. I will work on taking it to heart.

  2. Tharcion says:

    > that’s almost always why your book is 180,000 words long.

    I shall disagree with you on this point. I had this revelation one day about longer books, and no matter how I try I can’t get myself to utilise this so my longest book is a resolute 110,000 words, and the average is probably closer to 90k.

    Here is the revelation: writers of long books do not overwrite, they over-complicate. It hit my while reading one of a series which I had previously seen as quite tight and this episode was getting a bit hard to go on with, and then I saw it. Every possible tiny little thing that could go wrong was going wrong. Drama lay in the most innocent of actions. The woman was attacked by werewolves while shopping for food! Did much of this add to the story? No, but it did bulk out the book.

    So five words where two will do is nothing when they can have 1200 words where twenty will do.

    (I’m with you. Shorter books are good.)

  3. Good stuff, Philip. For my two cents, I would say that it all depends. Middle grade fiction is one thing. THE STAND is something else. Most books are in between.

    But you’re correct: most writers are so in love with their story, and especially their prose, that they are unable to prune it. At what point did Michelangelo get down from his ladder, look up at the 17-foot-tall David and say, “Okay. That’s good.”

    Similarly, Stephen King himself has confessed to being stricken with “diarrhea of the word processor.” Hasn’t hurt his sales too badly.

    And even Orson Welles couldn’t get Warner Bros not to monkey around with Citizen Kane.

    When James Cameron made Titanic, everyone freaked out because it was three hours long, which meant theaters would have fewer showtimes each day and thus less revenue. Yet it’s one of the most successful films of all time.

    Isaac Asimov said, “It is your story, not your games with language, that will leave an impression in the reader’s mind.” (Or something to that effect.)

    Like you said, tell the story, efficiently but completely, and let it be as long (or short) as it needs to be.

    • It is fair to note that when The Stand was first released, it was trimmed rather considerably (about 150,000 words) and was not re-released in its entirety (with updates) until King became more established and that was more than 10 years after the original release.

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