Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Road Goes Ever On

It's a dangerous business, going out your door!
How long is too long for a book?

That’s going to depend on a lot of factors, but before we go citing famous books that are lengthy, let’s keep in mind that they’re often famous for a reason.  If you’re an author who isn’t published, or (like me) isn’t known, then your ability to vary outside certain guidelines is somewhat limited.

Does that mean you should compromise your art?  Not at all.

It means you have choices that you need to keep in mind.

For example, let’s take the grandmaster of fantasy himself, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien’s seminal, epic work The Lord of the Rings is a massive tome at just over 455,000 words.  But we need to keep in mind that it wasn’t meant to be a standalone story.  Tolkien had one out of the park in 1937 with The Hobbit (just over 95k).  The good professor was widely acclaimed for the story, was awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction and nominated for a Carnegie Medal.

Naturally, with all that, the publisher wanted a sequel, and that’s exactly how The Lord of the Rings began.  Tolkien originally intended for it to be one volume of a two-volume set to include The Silmarillion.  Can you even imagine the shelf-space such a tome would take up?  Well, of course you can, because single volumes now exist just as Tolkien intended.  At the time the publisher balked completely at the idea and for other economic reasons, the single book was broken into three more manageable (but still massive) parts:

The Fellowship of the Ring—over 180,000 words
The Two Towers—over 156,000 words
Return of the King—over 137,000 words

My god, it's full of elf-stars!
So yeah, longer works can definitely make the grade, but it helps if you have a hit already and your publisher is willing to give you some leeway!

Also, the science fiction/fantasy genre is far more forgiving about story length than some other genres, where average book length will vary.  Remember, these are averages for informational purposes only:

Contemporary Fiction—80k to 90k
Westerns—50k to 80k
Memoirs—70k to 90k
Young Adult—70k to 90k
Middle Grade—40k to 55k
Scifi/Fantasy—90k to 125k

As you can see, the averages provide quite a bit of range.  Safe bets start around 85,000 words for novels and around 35,000 words for novellas.  If you start to stray too far outside of those figures, you may find that instead of one book, you actually have two or three in a complete series—just like Tolkien!

By far, though, the best advice is to write the story until it’s complete.  Word count is a thing that publishers and agents look at for sound economic reasons, so they’re a thing that writers need to be aware of as well.  But if you’ve got a good story and it’s well-told the rest will follow.

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