Monday, July 15, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: In Praise of Length

Warning: this post will be long.  If you do not like length, the exits are to the left and right.

I have begun shopping my book around.  I typed "best query letters" into Google and came up with this page.  I followed its advice to the letter, and the advice of other "best query" sites, and sent out about 20 queries.  I have since learned that the advice on the pages is outdated.  I also learned something else uncomfortable: according to conventional wisdom, my novel is too long.

How long?  A debut novel should be 80,000 words.  Who says?  Everyone.  Who is "everyone"?  I don't know.

But everyone says that a debut novel should be between 80,000 and 100,000 words, and mine is well over that.  I can (and likely will) edit it down further, but it will always be a big book.  According to everyone, big books don't sell.  I can point to exceptions, but apparently I will never be one.

I could protest, but everyone is probably right.  The modus operandi in today's world is to cut, cut, cut.  Stories, articles, scripts -- they can always be shorter, and they will always be better for it.  Or so everyone says.  But what if everyone is wrong?

What if big is better?  What if the story can't be told in less than 150,000 words?  Why assume that nothing will be lost and everything gained from cutting?

How often have we seen exactly the opposite?  I can think of at least half a dozen movies that were panned for fuzziness and confusion -- only to come across much better when minutes were added.

What if Tolkien never published the appendices to Lord of the Rings?  "But he's Tolkien!" you exclaim.  Not if he never published the appendices!

In fact, many people would not be "Big-Named Person!" without length.  Length deepened the worlds they created, the stories they told.  Tolstoy, Hugo, Jean Auel, George RR Martin.  The list goes on and on.  Did every word have to be there?  No.  Would they have suffered if confined to 100,000 words?  Yes.

"But it won't sell!"  "But that was 150 years ago!"  "But that's fantasy!"  So what?  No one wants to read long books anymore?  Long books aren't good unless they conform to a specific genre?  If anything, I read more lengthy books now thanks to the Kindle and other e-readers.

I realize that publishing is a complicated business and that many think that long books are detrimental.  But given the gravitation toward e-reading, I see it as nothing to fear.

It sells readers short to assume they lack the attention span for a good long read.  That may apply to some, but not to all.  Why this perpetual urge to dumb things down?

So let's say I do cut 50,000 words from my manuscript.  Who says that it will sell any better?

A bit of a tangent (you know how we long writers are): as I mentioned in my Girls post, my last major effort to sell my work was in the television industry.  My first spec scripts were half-hour comedies:  40 pages apiece with bright-colored covers.  I entered them in a prestigious studio competition and never heard back.  Only later did I learn that half hours were 30 script pages or less, and white covers only.  Next time, I wrote lean, taut scripts that conformed to all of the parameters.  I entered the same competition again, brimming with confidence...

... and never heard back.  And never heard back.  And never heard back.  I entered four years in a row, and never made the second cut.

I entered a Gilmore Girls script in another well-regarded competition.  Having worked at Warner Brothers, I knew the average Gilmore script was about 80 pages.  Mine was 72.  Only later did I learn that drama spec scripts should never exceed 60 pages.

I made the finals.

Would I have won with a shorter script?  Maybe.  But it's also possible that the script's best moments would be lost.  In any event, it shows that even when you break the "rules," you can still come out ahead if your product is good.

So much of selling writing is about random shit.  For instance, I entered a pilot script in one competition and didn't place.  At all.  I was discouraged, but decided to reenter it, thinking it could have been lost in the pile.  The only thing I did differently was tighten the synopsis that came with it.

I won first place.

Maybe I will cut my novel down further, and maybe I won't.  Either choice does not guarantee success or failure.  My novel will not automatically be better because it has been cut by a third.  Rather, it could become a shell of itself.  And given the time I will devote to shopping it around, shouldn't my opinion hold some weight?  

The above image comes from Stock Xchng and is used with permission.


  1. You have probably thought of this, but could you make it two novels?

    1. I have. I think it would wreck it, unfortunately.

    2. One thing I've considered is writing the sequel, as that might make it easier to see what could be cut from the first one (as in, what doesn't need to be foreshadowed). But still, don't like the thought of hacking it up at all.

      Two published people (and one who teaches writing) told me not to worry about length. Another person I know who is head of a publishing division for a well-known company didn't place much emphasis on word count. But still, it depresses me when others claim my manuscript is DOA.