Steven S. Long is a writer, game designer, and all 'round great guy. According to the secret files of the KGB, he once singlehandedly defeated the Kremlin's plot to attack America with laser-powered Godzillas.

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Doorstops And Pockets

As those of you who’ve been regular readers of this blog since its inception know, one of the issues I’ve been struggling with as I try to propel my writing career forward is the question of whether to try to get my novel published through the traditional route, or take on the brave new world of self-publishing. I’ve run into a factor that may decisively tip the balance.

That factor is manuscript length. The pre-revision length of my novel is 75,000 words. Unfortunately, these days publishers seem to prefer manuscripts in the 100,000-130,000 word range. As a friend of mine who’s an editor at a well-known publisher put it, that’s two to three times the size of many “old school” Fantasy novels.

It may seem ironic to those of you who know my reputation in RPG writing circles for routinely exceeding word counts by large margins, or who’ve seen the size of some of my RPG books, that I’m now hoist on the petard of “not long enough.” But so it is. To reach a size where traditional publishers would even consider looking at my novel, at a minimum I’d have to add 25,000 words — a third of the existing manuscript. Doing that is at best going to be difficult, and will likely require me to come up with some sort of entirely new arc within the existing story. Probably I’d have to send the characters gallivanting off into some as yet unvisited region of the setting to do something that has only tangential bearing on the main story.

I don’t particularly want to do that. I have no desire to do a lot of extra work that strikes me as essentially meaningless (if not actively detrimental), and I don’t want to distort my story (such as it is) just to satisfy a word count requirement. But it looks like my choices are (a) do that, or (b) pretty much give up any hope of getting my work published through traditional means, since it will be rejected without being read simply on the basis of length.

Well, I suppose the other option is to pad the existing story. I could easily use three words where one will do, draw every scene out to the breaking point, and explore what the characters think about Every. Little. Thing. But I really, really don’t want to do that. One of the things I enjoy about writing fiction is that each word, each sentence, has to count — it needs to have a purpose, it needs to fit the rhythm and flow of the language, it needs to carry the story along. Padding the story does the opposite of these things; it adds useless words and slows the narrative down.

Unfortunately that seems to be par for the course with so many Fantasy novels from the past 10-20 years, and I just can’t stand it. The “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan is the worst offender in this regard that I’ve encountered, taking sometimes upwards of a thousand pages to describe two or three days in the lives of the main characters. But it’s far from alone. You practically develop carpal tunnel from the strain of holding the damn things open when you try to read them. The best use I can find for most of them is as doorstops.

And it’s a shame, really. When I look over the Fantasy section of my library, so many of my favorites, many of them foundational stories of the Fantasy genre — Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, the Chronicles Of Narnia, LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy, the “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser” collections, and many, many more — come in nice and slim at around 175-250 pages. They fit perfectly into the breast pocket of a sports jacket (or the side pocket of a purse, I suppose), making them convenient to carry around all day and easy to read. Books that trend upward to 350-400 pages or so seem thick by this standard, and The Lord Of The Rings’s pre-eminent place in the Fantasy pantheon is physically demonstrated by the unusual lengthiness of each of its three books. But those days are long past. Today I’d bet that half or more of the books on the shelf at B&N are at least as long as, if not longer than, a typical edition of any book in The Trilogy.

I get that there are perfectly valid business reasons for doorstop Fantasy novels. The bigger book is more eye-catching on the shelf. It probably takes less editorial time and printing dollars than managing a “stable” of smaller books. With so many people using e-book readers instead of carrying books around, length may no longer be a restrictive factor (and at least there’s no risk of hurting your wrist!). I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are other reasons in favor of that publishing strategy that I’m unaware of. But I still think it stinks.

Maybe e-books and self-publishing are the salvation of the shorter length novel — I dunno. But I think it sucks that it’s to come to that when the Fantasy canon so amply demonstrates that the quality of a Fantasy novel and the length of the Fantasy novel aren’t directly related.

Reader Comments (10)

It is a shame that a great story cannot be told in less than 300 pages anymore.
I've returned to the fathers of the genre for much of my recreational reading.


February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan

I think great stories can still be told in under 300 pages... but publishers won't publish 'em.

I wonder if there are any figures available on the average page length of e-books that aren't published in print form? That might tell us if the shorter novels are taking up a position in that part of the publishing frontier. ;)

February 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

I think this is actually a function of our commercial 'I must get a good deal' mindset in society; I've been in a bookstore and heard people remark that they weren't going to bother buying a given book because it was "too short" and so they thought they'd be "ripped off" by getting less story. It boggles the mind; not everyone has to be George R.R. Martin.

I don't think the shorter form of fiction has died, however. What seems to happen is that shorter tales get squished together into one volume. Think of all the themed short story anthologies where you might have a Jim Butcher story, a C.E. Murphy story, etc., all packed into one book. Or for novella-length stories, when was the last time you saw the story individually? I've not seen Elizabeth Moon's 'Deed of Paksenarrion' in anything but omnibus format containing all the books for a very long time, nor any of 'The Tales of Master Li and Number Ten Ox.'

Some authors do publish standalone shorter tie-in stories, however. Subterranean Press makes lovely limited-edition hardcover editions of novellas, like 'Clementine' (a novella in Cherie Priest's 'Clockwork Century' setting) or 'The Curse of Four' (a novella in Caitlin Kittredge's 'Black London' series). Some authors will self-publish little tie-in novellas to Kindle or Nook eBook form, a little bonus for fans to pick up (and where they get all the money directly).

One thing I find interesting is that superhero novels seem to be a growing genre that hasn't yet been really found by the publishers. So while there's a lot of surprisingly good superhero stories out there, a lot is self-published. (Including by people like Michael Moorcock!) As a result, it's a genre where you see a lot of interesting experiments with length or distribution. Blake Petit has been experimenting with shorter fiction lately in his 'Heroes of Siegel City' series. Marion Harmon is currently releasing the sequel to 'Wearing the Cape' as a serial; the next bit of the story pops up every month or two on the Kindle, for $0.99.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Blackman

Interesting points, Rachel!

I haven't read too much of the recent wave of superhero fiction. I've read a few such books over the years, but by and large superheroes is a very "visual" medium for me. Purely literary treatments of the genre so far haven't quite "worked" for me.

February 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

I actually enjoy shorter stories, as well as short stories. Some ideas work best in 30 page spurts, and not so much if drawn out over 500. It's like an SNL sketch that fails on the big screen. So, this is why I jump all over a Stephen King short story collection, and shy away from some of his larger stuff. There's only so many ITs and Stands that I can devote that much time and effort into.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Becerra

Honestly, until recently, I hadn't found any superhero novels that really worked for me, because -- as you say -- it's often such a visual medium. But there've been some standouts I really loved in the past few years, and there seem to be an increasing number. A few have been published by mainstream press -- the Icarus Project books, Devil's Cape, Trance, etc. -- but a lot have been either small-press or self-published, too.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Blackman

Brad -- I often agree, particularly with regard to Science Fiction. I have a lot of SF short story collections, but comparatively few novels. I'm more likely to enjoy a Fantasy novel, but I still keep an eye open for good Fantasy anthologies. For example, right now I'm really looking forward to the release of David Hartwell's SWORD AND SORCERY anthology (since his anthology of Hard SF, THE ASCENT OF WONDER, is superbly done).

February 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

Rachel -- thanx for the recommendations!

Another friend of mine also recommended in the superhero genre Mur Lafferty's PLAYING FOR KEEPS, which he says has "one of the best supervillain names ever." ;)

February 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

"Every Book I Read Needs to be at Least 50 Pages Shorter," Kit Steinkellner, BookRiot. She even includes Anna Karenina in that group, which, you know, jeez.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllen Varney

"Playing for Keeps" is definitely awesome.

If you want to try something a bit different in the superhero milieu, check out 'Heroes R Us.' Despite the name (which honestly seems to have nothing to do with the storyline), it's a very serious take on superheroics against the backdrop of modern Delhi and an atmosphere of endemic civic corruption.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Blackman

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