When is enough not enough?

Such a wonderfully cryptic title for a post isn’t it?  I’d like to think so.  This is going to be another one of my posts where I ramble on about a topic related to books.  I’ve had a few of these posts in the past, including posts where I ramble on about Uniqueness and Originality, Learning Curve, Romance in Books, and a couple other things from in my blog.  Well, this post is brought on by two recent experiences.  The first of these is from watching an online lecture about writing by Eric James Stone, an author of numerous short stories and recent Nebula award winner for his novelette “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made.”

Anyway, the lecture that he gives came from when he was filling in for a class that Brandon Sanderson teaches at BYU.  This past year, Sanderson had the entire class recorded and it is in the process of being posted online.  The website for the series of lectures can be found here, while the lecture by Stone that I’m referring to can be found here.  The lectures are all very interesting and cover a wide variety of topics related to creative writing, including several lectures where Sanderson discusses the business side of writing, which was interesting to listen to.

During Stone’s lecture, he focuses primarily on the process of writing short stories, at which he excels (I have to admit that I haven’t read much of his stuff, but one of his stories that I’m familiar with is Rejiggering the Thingamajig, a very interesting story that can be found on the Escape Pod podcast here.) Anyway, he discusses the idea of moving from publishing short stories to publishing novels.  A concept that he brings up that I find very strange is that when he finished a novel and sent it out to editors, he was told that it was too short.  Without listening to the entire lecture again I think he says that his novel ended up being something like 65k-70k words.

So that’s half of the origin for this post, and the other half comes from some books that I’ve read in the past few months.  Several of the books that I’ve read recently I’ve put down thinking that the book was entirely too long.  One of the recent books I’ve read that works as an example of this was Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch.  I enjoyed the book – particularly the second half – but I thought that it was a couple hundred pages too long.  The first 300 pages of the book could have been cut down to about 50 pages, which would have streamlined the book and made it a quicker and more enjoyable read.

While the Lynch book works largely as a stand alone, there are plenty of books in series that have the same problem.  One of the biggest breakout Fantasy authors of the past decade it Pat Rothfuss, who is known primarily for his Kingkiller Chronicles (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear).  These books are huge, Amazon lists The Name of the Wind at 672 pages, and The Wise Man’s Fear clocks in at a whopping 1008 pages.  I really enjoyed both of those books, but I had a problem with the beginning of The Wise Man’s Fear.  The first 1/3 of the book was pretty much the same story as the last part of The Name of the Wind, in which Kvothe is struggling to make enough money to stay at the University while managing to piss off half of his teachers and several of his classmates.  Kvothe’s story is really interesting, but while reading the second book I kept wishing that he would get on with his adventures away from the University.  At the end of the second book, Kvothe is back at the University.  I’m going to buy the third book shortly after it comes out, and I’m really hopeful that Rothfuss gets Kvothe away from the University a lot quicker in the third book then he did in the second.

Especially in Science Fiction and Fantasy, huge books are the norm these days.  And along with huge individual books, most Fantasy novels tend to be parts of larger series.  While the trilogy is very common, it’s not uncommon to see 7 book series (Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire), 5 book series (The Belgariad, The Malloreon), or even as many as 14 books (The Wheel of Time).  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lot of these series, but there comes a point when enough is enough.  At any given time, I’m in the middle of several different Fantasy series, in many cases because the series aren’t finished yet.  For example, here are some of the book series that I’ve started reading that aren’t complete yet: The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan), A Song of Ice and Fire (George RR Martin), The Runelords (David Farland), The Kingkiller Chronicles (Patrick Rothfuss), The Demon Cycle (Peter V. Brett), Monster Hunter International (Larry Correia), The Stormlight Archive (Brandon Sanderson), Variant (Robison Wells), Partials (Dan Wells), and probably a couple of others that I can’t think of offhand.  Adding up each of the planned books in these series, we come to a total of 60 books, which ends up being an average of almost 7 books per series.

I think I understand part of the reasoning for this.  Part of the mindset of the reader is that if you’re going to pay for a book, you might as well get your money’s worth.  And for most people, that means a longer book with a deeper story.  However, there comes a point where it’s just too much.  I enjoy long series of books, and I’m most likely going to end up buying the final books of each of the series that I mentioned above.  But I’m getting to the point where I almost don’t want to start a new fantasy series unless it’s been completed already because I don’t want to wait several years for the next book to come out.

I love big series of books, but I think in many cases books are being stretched out much longer than they need to be simply to fit in with what is expected of books today.  I read a lot of books, and there are very few books that I’ve put down and said “Wow, I wish that book was longer.”  By comparison, there are quite a few books that I’ve put down thinking “That would have been a much stronger book if it was 200 pages shorter.”

However, there are some books that are very long that don’t feel like they have a lot of filler.  My example for this is going to be The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  This book is enormous, with the hardcover coming in at 1008 pages and the paperback big enough to scare many readers away at 1280 pages.  But when you’re reading it, everything is interesting, works within the story, and is simply fun to read about.  So while that book is easily the most massive book I own, it’s also one of the quickest reads you’ll ever find because it’s written so well.  If I remember correctly, I read The Way of Kings in 3 days.  by comparison, I’m currently reading The Malloreon by David Eddings.  It’s an interesting story, but It’s taken me about 10 days to read the first 4 books, which ends up being about the same page count as The Way of Kings.

In many ways, I think this is part of why I enjoy many YA books.  The stories and themes aren’t any simpler than in adults books, but in YA books the standard seems to more like 300-350 pages as opposed to adult books where nearly every Fantasy book seems to clear 500 pages and quite a few books fall into the 650-700 page range.

While there are authors who are doing an excellent job of writing long books, I’d say that it’s far more common for a book to go longer than it should.  So there’s my rant for the day, what do you think?  Do you agree that many books, or series, are longer than they need to be?  Or do you prefer to get more words for your buck?  And also, do you have any examples of books that are too short?  Because I really can’t think of many.

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4 Comments

  1. Carl V.

     /  June 18, 2012

    I think just from a common sense standpoint it stands to reason that when a book is enormous (I’ll define that as 600 pages plus) then there will be some filler to it that could be cut out. There are exceptions to this rule, and I would agree with you that The Way of Kings is one of those, or was for me, but by and large I think books can get too long-winded nowadays. And I’m one who does not like enormous books. I am much more apt to go into a book with unbridled excitement when it is 400 pages or less. I know that I’ll be able to get through the book without taking weeks to read it and I think really skilled authors can tell a bang-up story in those “few” pages.

    That being said, if an author can tell a longer story that feels somewhat stand alone at the end, even if it is part of a series, then I am willing to forgive a lot. Also if an author can make me care deeply about a character within the first 25-50 pages then I am much more forgiving of a longer story as it gives me more time to spend with that character.

    This conversation has been had it one form or another for awhile now because the trend for longer books does not appear to be going anywhere. And what frequently comes up is what role do editors play? I for one would LOVE to read some interviews with editors from the bigger SFF houses to get their thoughts on editing authors like Sanderson, Rothfuss, and others who writes Tomes, rather than Books.

    Reply
    • I think it would be really interesting to hear from the editors what they think about the process. On Amazon.com there’s a section where Rothfuss and Sanderson interview each other, going back and forth asking different questions, and they both discuss part of their editing process. (They also mention word counts for The Way of Kings and The Wise Man’s Fear, and both are right around 400,000 words.)

      I have an appreciation for longer books, but in large part I think that comes from some of the authors who were writing the long books that I was reading. When your first really long Epic Fantasy books are The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, pretty much everything else is going to fall a little flat in comparison.

      In Eric James Stone’s lecture he mentions one of the agents he was dealing with, but I don’t think he ever mentions what editors told him that his manuscript was too short.

      Reply
  2. On another blog, I just saw this quote from Stephen King. He writes long books, but they don’t tend to drag (though sometimes the endings disappoint). King said:

    “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revis­ing a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”

    Reply
    • That’s probably one of the hardest things for an author to do, to cut down the story to the bare essentials, but it really is vital to a book being successful.

      I’ve still never read any King, although I have a collection of his novellas, and a couple of the guys that I bowl with have told me that I need to read his Dark Tower series, so I’m sure I’ll remedy that in the future.

      Reply

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