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.

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About Julie

I'm a writer and photographer. I always have something with me to take notes for ideas or writing projects I'm thinking about or have on the go. I also like to go around with my camera and take pictures of anything that strikes me as beautiful or evocative. I'm perpetually working on one story or another, while waiting for enough distance to judge the last one (or more). I'm always working on several projects at once, developing the next book, even as I'm editing the last. Beyond that, there's always plenty of scraps and twists of ideas rolling around in my head, eventually turning themselves into full blown stories.
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16 Responses to Meditating On Length and Brevity

  1. I’m not all the way through your post but have to comment before my kids pull me away…

    I like a story, no matter the length, if it is a GOOD story. I tend to like fantasy, because really, with magic and dragons or spaceships, things can get mundane. However, not ALL books that fit into fantasy for those reasons are brick-weight tomes.

    Also, one of the reasons I dislike Lord of the Rings (and the rest), which I know is heresy for somebody who wants to write fantasy, is there’s all these random passages of songs/poems etc. I’m a “plot person.” I like my characters to be doing things or interacting or reflecting. I don’t mind if the whole story is about relationships, but don’t stop and make me watch the character balance his checkbook!

    My stories are likely to be on the shorter side too, and that’s ok. I’m pretty sure that most of the Dragonlance books were in the 300 page range, and those are definitely fantasy.

    OK. Now I’ll read the rest of what you wrote 😉

    • Julie says:

      I have to confess, I can’t stand Lord of the Rings either, for the same reasons. I’ve made several attempts, but can’t seem to get all the way through the books. I don’t need 5 pages of crossing a field if nothing else happens. “They crossed the field” is sufficient for me then. I think that’s why i enjoyed the movies so much. I got to enjoy the plot without all the things that irritate me in the books.

  2. Ack. One more thought. The Dresden Files is a loooong series (not done yet, but I think the plan was for 20-something books). Each book is a typical “novel length,” but the WHOLE story is much bigger. Sub-plots build, characters reappear, move away, grow up, etc. The location is (usually) the same-ish (Chicago), but the time span is much longer. A given book though, maybe covers a week or two of the characters’ lives.

    • Julie says:

      Okay, maybe I’m not quite as unique as I thought. That’s oddly comforting. 🙂 Except I’m not doing 20 books in one world. No way. I don’t have the attention span for that. Besides, can you imagine the mutiny from all my other projects if I tried? O M G. They’d kill me. 😀

      • Haha! Fair enough. Have you read the Codex Alera? First book is Furies of Calderon (sp??) by Jim Butcher. Same guy as the 20+ book series, but this one was 5 books (I think). The 20+ series is more fantasy dropped into the real world whereas Codex Alera is its own universe.

        I can’t do a series – I’m having enough trouble with one book! But, my point in all this is, it takes as many books or words as it takes. Stephanie Meyer jokes on her site (don’t judge, I liked her books) about being verbose. Her stand-alone, The Host, was a tome. But shorter stories are just as good, if they’re good. 😉

        • Julie says:

          I haven’t tried that series, but I’ll look into getting a preview on my e-reader (one of my favourite features of that thing, free previews).

          I agree that the story takes as long as it takes, which is why I’m not trying to pad out my books to some artificial idea of length. As for Stephanie Meyer, I liked The Host, and I think that in time, she may grow into a great writer. I didn’t find it a tome though, and not overly verbose as I recall. But then you have to understand my scale of reference. I read George RR Martin, whose hardcovers at nearly a thousand pages long. Again, it’s a matter of scale.

          Heck, I suspect if I didn’t read books like that, I probably wouldn’t think twice about my apparent inability to crack 100k words on a book. My other favourite author, Carol Berg, tends to be shorter than Martin (but equally wonderful, sometimes more so because she doesn’t make me wait 5 years for a book). Hers are still longer than mine, but it does change the scale of reference.

          • Hmm. Did you read The Host in hardcover? No, it’s not epic in scale, but it’s sizable. I agree that it wasn’t verbose. It took that long to tell the story, as I think things that are mostly psychological DO take extra time. Making a mental leap is often harder than making a physical one (like when the characters are being chased).

            Anyway, never fear, I don’t require my books to be epic tales. I don’t think many people do (actually, I think younger readers prefer the books to be a bit shorter).

          • Julie says:

            Let me assure you, no one would mistake my books as being intended for a younger audience. Firmly adult work here. But I think, as jmmcdowell said, as we get older and busier with life, shorter can be good.

            And I think it was the hard cover version that I read for The Host. I guess it just didn’t feel that long because it was the *right* length. That’s a lesson right there, isn’t it?

          • Definitely a lesson there. Also, I wasn’t being clear (doing too many things at once). By “younger” I was thinking 18-22ish (as in younger adult). Readers tend to be in college and thus, their reading time is already crammed full of stuff. BTW, I was going to put young adult, but that means something entirely different (you’d THINK people in the business of words could use them correctly!).

          • Julie says:

            Unlikely. Besides, I’m not sure it’s about correctness We writers (should) know that in different contexts, the same word can have a multitude of meanings. In fact, that’s why I wanted to clarify, because I knew there were multiple interpretations possible. 🙂

  3. 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.

    I enjoyed reading this entire post, but this is the part that resonated most with me. I share this hope for my own works, and am excited to be seeing that hope realized. I don’t need an audience of thousands or even hundreds. Seeing that something I wrote moved a single person was a gift, and every time I read something similar, it’s another gift.

    I also want to note that I, too, dislike excessive detail in description. I like just enough so that blends in with the story, versus pulling me out of it.

    • Julie says:

      I think that most writers will feel that point. I’m certain that it isn’t just you and I. We all want an audience, we all want to share these stories. I mean, if we didn’t, we’d just think of them, not write them down and certainly not try to publish them.

      Thanks for the comment, and I wish you the best of luck in your own writing ventures. 🙂

  4. quix689 says:

    First off, let me say that it comforts me to know that I’m not the only person who hates description just for the sake of description. I also tend to have a relatively small cast of characters in my novels. Generally the MC and her family/close friends. I attribute this to the fact that I’m very awkward in social situations and thus don’t have a ton of friends, so my characters generally don’t either, so I can sort of relate to you on that.

    I will say, though, that this post just made me want to read your works even more. Sometimes it’s daunting to read a huge novel with a million characters. That’s why I’m still on book 3 of The Wheel of Time – there’s just so much going on, and it really is a huge commitment. It would be nice to see fantasy novels that were a bit shorter. 🙂

    • Julie says:

      With regard to the Wheel of Time series, take heart. The final book is almost done (I’ve lost track of what number we’re on), but I totally hear you on there being a lot going on. I’ve reread most of my major series several times just so I can glean everything from them and feel like I’m not missing stuff. I really can’t imagine writing something like that and keeping it all straight. I don’t take good enough notes when I’m writing for that.

      Thank you for the compliment though. It’s always nice to be told that someone wants to read your work. I guess I really need to get that cover done at some point really soon, especially if I’m going to have a hope of managing my original very vague plan of end of the summer. 🙂

  5. jmmcdowell says:

    I’ve always enjoyed fantasy and science fiction, and when I was younger, I didn’t mind the lengthy word counts. As an adult with a job and husband, I don’t have the same free time I used to. So I’m more likely to pick up a fantasy or sci-fi book that isn’t going to give me shoulder strain. 🙂

    These days, I’m more a fan of use however many words are needed to tell the story well. Some writers need to learn not to get bogged down using “more” words because “that’s the genre standard.”

    I read one opening chapter to a fantasy book on a nameless blog somewhere. It opened with the main character “rushing” to his potentially dying father across a room. Written in first person, the main character proceeded to describe everyone and everything in the room in excruciating detail — what kind of clothes they were wearing, what the symbolism meant on their clothes, what their jobs were…. These would not be my thoughts if I was in his position!

    Description has its place. But it shouldn’t drag the story to a halt.

    My sci-fi novel won’t be overly long either, maybe in the 75,000 to 80,000 word range. But if that’s enough to do the job, then that’s fine by me. 🙂

    Long story short? I don’t think you need to worry about the length. Publishing is undergoing so many changes, and I think a lot of the old rules/guidelines about length are subject to revision.

    • Julie says:

      oh my. That opening chapter might have actually put me off of reading any further. One of my big things when I’m doing description is to ask if the character would really notice that. Sometimes it’s the kind of situation you’re talking about, where they’re in a rush. Sometimes it’s that their back is to the person/object being described. I used to have a real problem with doing that, so much so that I have a phrase for it, “author getting cute”. If the character can’t see it or isn’t paying attention, it shouldn’t be part of the description. Period. I don’t care how much you want to tell me the loveliness of the woman in question. If the character just got stabbed by a sword, believe me, he doesn’t care. He’s busy dying.

      I definitely agree though. Let the story be only so long as it needs to, with the words all contributing to the movement of the story, not there just to be there. As for industry standards, I’m not sure they even really exist anymore. In fact, sometimes I think it was always more of a case where anything worked, so long as it was a good, strong story.

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