Length and depth of a novel?

Discussion in 'Publishing' started by Patrick Mahon, Apr 21, 2006.

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    Patrick Mahon

    Patrick Mahon Would-be author

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    Re: Ask your publishing questions here

    John,

    Could I ask two questions in response to this? First, I'd be really interested if you could expand on what you mean by 'depth'. Do you mean 'not superficial', or something else? And second, do you have any personal guidelines on the length of first novels? Is it something you worry about in general (i.e. if a submission seems to be unusually long or short), or do you judge a book's length purely in terms of whether it is right for the story being told?

    I ask the latter question purely because it seems to me that there's a trend towards longer fantasy novels, which is a bit depressing for those of us who are slow writers!

    Thanks very much in advance for any advice you can offer.
  2.  
    John Jarrold

    John Jarrold New Member

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    Re: Ask your publishing questions here

    Patrick

    Both SF ands fantasy are heading for longer novels - epic fantasy is obviously long, but in both genres 100,000 words is the shortest viable length, in UK terms. Many are over 120,000 words

    Yes, by depth I defiintely mean not superficial. I use George R R Martin regularly when illustrating this point, because his fantasy series, A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, has depth in terms of the setting, the interweaving plots and the characterisation. Fantasy is a more sophisticated genre than it was ten years ago - please understand that markets vary and I'm always discussing the situation in the UK - and it's all the better for it.

    Hope that helps!
  3.  
    John Jarrold

    John Jarrold New Member

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    Re: Ask your publishing questions here

    Patrick

    Sorry, I should also have said that this doesn't only apply to first novels, it is true for every novel. A fantasy novel of 75,000 words, say, is not very likely to find a home in the UK. The genre really lends itself to sweeping stories, obviously, but it is absolutely true that longer books have become the way that genre publishing has gone in recent years.
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    Wayne Blackhurst

    Wayne Blackhurst New Member

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    If a novel’s length falls slightly short of acceptable commercial viability, would it be automatically ejected out of the system, irrespective of any attractive qualities, without chance of attention from the author? If an author’s story is dynamic enough, there should be plenty of scope within its range to add or embellish scenes, without it coming across as ‘padding’. Is an author doomed by either their earlier misguided views on novel length or an underestimation of a word count?
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    argenianpoet

    argenianpoet old as time and space

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    Wayne,

    I believe that the US markets are looking more for the 75,000k - 80,000k fantasy novels; especially for first time authors, so you are not doomed in that sense, and I believe that overseas writers can cross over as much as I (being from the US) can cross over in the UK. In terms of length, my 250k novel stands a better chance with the UK Publishers than it does the US. So, someone correct me if I am wrong, I would think as a general rule: think US when its shorter than 100,000k and the UK when it's 100,000 and up (preferably, 120,000k) but I know how that goes. I never gave length a second glance until I was finished and found out that 80,000k is considered long in the US for a first time novel. Whoa! I felt like someone had pulled the rug right out from under my feet, but then I found Chronicles and all that has changed--my understanding at least. Anyway, the way I see it is novels, especially fantasy novels, should be long because it's fantasy! My new novel is already 40,000 words long and I am trying to constrain its length by giving myself limitations on chapter lengths, and so far it's working. Good luck with your situation; whatever it may be...
  6.  
    John Jarrold

    John Jarrold New Member

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    It does vary. If you look at some of the first fantasy novels published by Tor in the US, you'll definitely find them longer than 100,000 words. But basically, you won't sell a 75,000-word fantasy (or SF) novel in the UK. Crossover is great, but US publishers still tend to prefer US authors - unless the UK author has already been published over here and caused a splash. Not always ... I've mentioned Charlie Stross, Liz Williams and Ian McDonald elsewhere, but for each of them that succeeds, many UK authors will have been turned down in New York
  7.  
    John Jarrold

    John Jarrold New Member

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    Pretty much every UK and US publisher has a website, so it's worth checking them out individually for requirements. Orbit, Voyager, Gollancz, Bantam and Tor UK over here; Del Rey, Warner Aspect, Tor, Ace, Baen and others in the US. Research the market!
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    John Jarrold

    John Jarrold New Member

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    Sorry, should have mentioned DAW Books in the US major publishers, too. They publish many long books, mostly fantasy...
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    argenianpoet

    argenianpoet old as time and space

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    John,

    So I was close to being right; it's just hard for an unknown author to cross-over. I would have never thought that considering agents and publishers are always looking for something fresh and new. See, I learn something every day...
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    John Jarrold

    John Jarrold New Member

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    This is me with commercial publishing hat on. Fresh and new but something that can also be compared to a recent commercial bestseller in the same genre!
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    Brys

    Brys New Member

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    I was wondering - are publishers more likely or less likely to accept series? There seem to be a huge amount of series being written in fantasy, particularly epic fantasy, but a lot of writing advice I've seen says don't start by writing a series. If a publisher does want a series, will they look at the quality of the first novel as a standalone, and then ask the author to write follow up novels, or will they just be willing to give a contract for more than one novel?
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    John Jarrold

    John Jarrold New Member

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    Basically, series sell much better than stand-alone novels in SF and Fantasy. So I would say having a series idea is best and writing the first novel and a full series synopsis. However, you have to be ready to start again if it doesn't achieve a publishing deal. It can be a long road to publication, and your first (and second and third) novels may well have to be dumped along the way.
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    Spiritdragon

    Spiritdragon Tiamat's Servant

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    John
    I have written and self published a SHORT novel - 32000 words.
    I did make it deliberately short, and from the 400 or so sales so far the ONLY gripe has been that it is TOO SHORT...but that is a good thing isn't it?

    So far EVERYONE has asked for book2, which I intend to make aound 75000 words. now that I know it will be well recieved!!

    The book is CHANGELINGS Book1 Dragons & Demons, just in case you wanna google it!

    Cheers

    James A McVean
  14.  
    John Jarrold

    John Jarrold New Member

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  15.  
    Green Knight

    Green Knight He hath an axe to grynde

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    Lawks.

    This is all rather depressing, no? Commissioning or rejecting novels on the basis of being 'too short' (though not solely on that basis, obviously). :rolleyes:

    100k word cut-off point? Where would that leave us, if extrapolated backwards? No Ursula Le Guin - no Earthsea books. No Diana Wynne Jones (she writes adult fantasy too in case anyone doesn't know that, all of it quite 'short' though). No Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett (unless they get a special license for being 'funny'). No T H White or George MacDonald... but why look back so far? We wouldn't have any solo Arthur C. Clarke books and precious little Isaac Asimov. Stephen King would never have published the first Dark Tower book (though I must say he's made up for it since in terms of word count). Anyone else losing the will to live at this point?

    I am put in mind of that great Little Britain sketch, where Matt Lucas's pink-clad author keeps shrilling to her amanuensis, 'How many pages?' and gets her to copy out The Bible to make up for the deficit.

    I know publishers like to appeal to what 'the market wants', but it's rather unimaginative nonetheless. It's all Tolkien's fault of course... set a trend for books so big they cause paper shortages. :)
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    *sigh* I've said it before, and I'll say it again. We've seen this all before: those triple- and quadruple-decker novels of the later 18th and early 19th centuries, the Gothics, etc., which were so popular in their day, and where public and publishers demanded such lengths that the books became more and more attenuated and stereotypical and less and less imaginative ... and when it died, it died. (And, of course, everyone blamed it on the authors and the type of book it was, not on the writers doing what people expected of them to make sales.) Took nearly two centuries to even begin to be considered a viable part of literature again -- and even that's extremely shaky. I fear that happening to fantasy, but unless someone actually starts swimming against the trend ... I do believe that's where we're headed.

    Nothing wrong with tremendously long novels, or even a series of such. But to make that any sort of criteria for accepting a novel seems to me very much to be circumscribing the literary gene pool to the point of endogamous extinction....
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    Green Knight

    Green Knight He hath an axe to grynde

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    What a wonderful phrase that is... :cool:

    High horse time. When literature or another art form (like music) becomes 'product', then warning bells should start ringing among the readers. I don't blame the publishers really - they have a living to make. Until recently I worked in book marketing myself, and if I had to hype something I thought was mediocre or downright dull, I hyped away to the best of my ability, because that was what they were paying the copywriter for.

    But the readers, now, the readers need to take care, because ultimately we drive the market. We mustn't buy a book just because it has a dragon on the sleeve, or a front and back cover in different time zones. We mustn't even buy it because it's by a favourite author. We need to sift mercilessly, just liek the publishers surely do.

    Aside: just one more rant from my book marketing days. I once had to write sales copy for 'His Dark Materials' by Philip Pullman (and fantasy gets no better than that). But rather than let me sell it on its own merits, the marketing team insisted that I use the phrase, 'If you like Harry Potter, you'll LOVE this!!'

    Apart from being far from necessarily true, I thought this was feeble-minded in the extreme. dot slash end rant.
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    SJAB

    SJAB Active Member

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    I don't think it is. It's just a trend at present.

    John put it rather well in this thread;

    http://www.chronicles-network.com/forum/11336-querying-sf-novel-with-only-four-chapters.html


    And I quote;

    "Sophistication of writing and being in an area of the market that agents and publishers can sell come first, as well as all the often-enumerated parts: great characters, wonderful story, outstanding dialogue, narrative sweep and super-duper writing. But as I've said before many times, it's subjective - not a chemical formula. I spoke to one of the major SFF editors in London a couple of weeks ago - when asked what they were looking for, the answer was: 'I'll know it when I see it.' "

    Since I read this, I have had quite a few troubled nights of little sleep and strange nightmares. How can I, of all people, come up with a novel that even comes half way to that???
  19.  
    Green Knight

    Green Knight He hath an axe to grynde

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    This is either a very profound statement by the editor or the ultimate cop-out. :p A bit like a quote once supplied to me by a Puffin editor. 'We chose these books because they were great stories, beautifully told, and in line with our current publishing strategy.' Whoah, slow down, too exciting. In the end I had to make something up and get her to sign it off.

    It is worth bearing in mind that the first Harry Potter book was rejected by nearly every publisher. Why? Mainly, because it was 'far too long'. This is the FIRST one we are talking about, mind. You know, the short one. When I put this argument to someone in the industry, they said, 'Ah, but Harry Potter is the exception.' No - he wasn't at the time. Hindsight is great, isn't it?

    There is a moral to all this, I think. There is no magic insight that people in the industry have about what is going to sell well. They have a little more knowledge, based on experience, but no crystal ball. So all that a writer can do is write what they want, the story that they deeply wish to read, and hope that others share their visions and tastes. That is the only 'formula for success' (it is also a formula for failure, of course). I mentioned earlier the trilogy by Philip Pullman. That wouldn't have had a hope of commercial success but for riding the wave of Harry Potter - even though Pullman's work is artistically superior. He had vision, talent, artistry... and luck.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Just to piggyback (again). Writing for money (pace Dr. Johnson) is not the ultimate goal if you want to have a successful book. Everyone who writes would love to have a bestseller and make oodles and oodles of money. But if you write what you love, and do your level best, knowing that you must always improve, and learn, and grow, and give your story room to breathe (but not be layered in fat), then chances are, if you have talent, if you can get it published, it will find an audience much better than something written just to spec. Those who walk that tightrope between the two are taking a very difficult road, and the talented and worthwhile writers who pull it off are to be commended. But tastes change. Writing for the market without doing what you love (though it is immensely hard and often frustrating work) is almost bound to end up with your producing either dreck or feeling a little of yourself die each time you let some of that dream of what you want to say go.

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