Meditating On Length and Brevity
One of the more interesting things for me, as a writer of fantasy novels, is the question of length. It’s a genre that’s usually home to the giant door-stop books, series that often seem to go on forever and everything I read seems to be on an epic scale. It’s battles for the fate of the world, struggles against ancient evils, stories where empires collide, and usually just a few men and women stand at the centre of changing the lives of everyone in their world. As a reader, I love this. As a writer, I don’t seem to do any of this, not to the same level at least. It’s a dichotomy that sometimes leads to difficulty sleeping at night for me.
As much as I love all of the above in my natural genre, it’s not where my storytelling brain seems at home. That doesn’t mean I don’t have any of those things, but I never seem to have them all and I definitely don’t have that kind of scale. I’m really not sure why, except to say that it doesn’t seem to come naturally to me.
Usually when I’m developing a story, it seems to top out around a trilogy, except for one truly ambitious project that I’ll do one day. I know generally what goes into each book, usually at the beginning of writing the first volume, or at least by partway through that book. I also tend to keep the story very much about the characters and their relationship, their interactions. I always have a relatively small cast, except for bit-part people of course. Even on a time scale, my novels happen in short time frames, often measured in days rather than years. It’s good for immediacy, all of these things, not so good for length it seems.
So far, all of my books have hovered in the 80-95,000 word range. Trust me, if you aren’t a reader of fantasy, that’s incredibly short. I hear people talk about 150k, 200k or higher books and think, “Well, if you put my whole trilogy together in an omnibus edition I can get there…” It seems odd to me that someone who loves her door-stop novels, where the longevity of the binding is in doubt due to strain from the sheer number of pages it’s trying to hold together, produces such small books. And it isn’t that there isn’t enough story. There are even sub-plots, honest. I’m trying to figure out why I work in such small spaces and whether it’s a problem. I’m leaning toward not a problem though.
One of the reasons I tend to write such short books is that I loath over-description. I’ve run into any number of books that drive me crazy that way. They want to describe every little detail, including things I honestly don’t care about. In my own work, I’m constantly asking whether something adds to either the story or the characterization. If it doesn’t add to one of those, it’s almost certainly going to get fired from the book, however good or cute it might be. Novels aren’t life, where the trivial things, the meaningless, outnumber the important ones. Novels, in my opinion, should be more focused, and everything in them should matter. Just because I could go on for pages about the exact shade of the bricks at the palace or the way the stitching looked on her dress doesn’t mean I should. Yes, I really have read books where I think an editor should have told the writer, “I know that detail is important to you, but trust me, it doesn’t matter to the story. Cut those 5 pages out.” I refuse to let myself do that kind of thing in the first place.
Also, as I mentioned, I tend to have a small cast. My main characters are most of the show, with the few others I need making their appearances as necessary. Perhaps that’s a result of who I am, as I’m the kind of person who’s happy with a few really close friends and acquaintances who come and go as appropriate for the flow of my life. It wouldn’t surprise me if the two were related, but whatever the reason, it means that the story tends to be tightly focused around those main characters, so I don’t have a lot of extra to write into the book. The interesting thing I’ve noticed is that it tends to make my work feel very personal. Not personal to me as a writer, but to my characters. At least, that’s what I’ve noticed as I go through editing my work.
The final thing I’ve noticed that keeps my work relatively short is that whole scale thing. I don’t really do the broader-world thing. There are usually a few main locations and mostly I work within those. I suppose that, if anyone ever decides to make a movie of any of my books, they’ll appreciate that, as there won’t be as many sets or locations needed (yeah, right, because that’s so likely to happen, hahahaha). I also usually have a set, shorter arc for the overall story, but again, it seems to be a scale thing. Maybe I just don’t think on such broad, sweeping levels as some other fantasy writers. I don’t know. I’m probably not the best one to judge these kinds of things, as I often assume the worst of myself. The size of cast thing I mentioned is also part of the scale, I guess, but it’s really just that I tend to tell smaller scale stories I guess, compared to what I usually read. I’m not a writer of Epic Fantasy, it seems.
Now, any of the above might change in time. I’m still very early into what I deeply hope will be a long career, so I’m still developing as a writer, but many of these elements don’t seem to change from one idea to the next. Yes, I don’t have a large sample yet, one trilogy completed (not yet published though), another begun and outlines in various states for about 3 other books. Oh, and more notes on different project ideas than you can shake a stick at. So it’s maybe not fair to draw conclusions yet.
The really funny part, to me at least, is that I’m relatively happy with the length of my stories, this post notwithstanding. I don’t mean this to sound like I’m complaining, as I’m not. I think there’s a place for my shorter works, you see. Once upon a time, I worked at a large bookstore (how cliche, I know), and one of the most common things I heard from people who didn’t read fantasy but found the story descriptions interesting was that they were frightened away by the sheer size of the books and/or series. And I can understand that. Those thousand-page books I read are no small time commitment, and it’s even more so when you’re talking about long series. Then there’s also the worry about whether the writer will actually finish such a long series, whether they’re good enough to hold you through such a long story, both in the individual volumes and the whole series. And sometimes people are just looking for something smaller because that’s their taste. Certainly I’ve seen it in other genres, and general fiction seems to trend on the shorter end too. Very few door-stops there. So maybe there’s a market for me out there, people who are looking for that fantasy story that won’t involve years of waiting and months of reading for a single book, where there’s magic and struggle and hope that can transport them into another world for a little while.
I hope so. I sincerely hope that, when I finally send Bound out into the world, not to mention all the other novels I have written or will write, there will be people out there who say, “This is just what I was looking for all these years.” It doesn’t have to be a lot of people, but I’d like to touch people like that with my work one day. A small scale writer’s dream.