I like long books. I finally read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (once again confirming the safe distance I maintain from the literary cutting edge). I enjoyed every blessed word. Other doorstops I have liked include: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Corrections, An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Power Broker, Wolf Hall and the list continues. That said, I am acquainted with of the hazards of nattering on. Most every day, I can witness my five-year-old tune out as I over-explain whatever gentle, educational, object-lesson- filled point I am trying to make.  Nothing like seeing the light of intellectual engagement switch off.

My enthusiasm for length, however, is finite, and pretty much stops where the query letter begins. Pitches for 150K first novels are usually non-starters, and 125K does its author no favors (200K and above is tantamount to self-immolation). Why? Lazy editors? Lazy readers? Hypocritical agents? Perhaps. But also, more often than not, unnecessary verbiage. I just looked at a collection of essays from a talented writer that were three times as long as they needed to be. My advice to him will be to lose two thirds of the material. Maybe three fourths. Or rewrite them as haiku. It’s hard not to fall in love with our own words, and many writers find the business of cutting excruciating.  One client of mine likened it to surgically removing his own tonsils. Much as he knew he did not really need them, there was still a lot of painful, mucky bloodletting along the way.

So what do you do when you suspect that something more than a judicious trim is in order? Or when you are convinced that every word is essential (also a reliable indication that you should unleash the red pen). Recruit a merciless fellow writer? Pretend to be a heartless editor/agent with zero respect for excellence and a mindless allegiance to word count? Or curse Jonathan Franzen for using up all the extra words?

6 Responses to Length

  1. josin says:

    The novel I just sent out is at 125,000, but that’s after cutting close to 15,000 words, so hopefully there’s not much filler to be found.

  2. JP says:

    I actually like books around 75,000 words long (like 300 pages, ie: Sisters Red). Long books can be awesome, too, but the plot has to be REALLY driving. Like Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments. All the books in that series have absolutely thrilling plot, and, likewise, the books are quite long.

  3. I close my eyes and think of the trees.

    Jk. Although… actually, I kind of do. I cultivate an incredibly mean, tree-protecting inner bitch that says Maril – do you really have a really good reason to tell that story in 100,000 words? Could it be better done in a blog, a tweet, an essay, a novella? Who’s your audience, what are you trying to communicate, what’s the best way to take the journey?

    And then that censor evaluates every word after.

    I’m also a fan of books that are around 75,000 words.

  4. Lisa Marie says:

    Books are a lot like movies, to my mind. Even the most compelling movie becomes tedious after a certain length of time — I walked out of the LoTR movies, because my attention span for that particular story was shot. If I have a long book, I know I’m not going to finish it.

    I zone out at right around 90,000 words. There are a few exceptions. “Gone With the Wind” was one of the most riveting books I’ve ever read, for example. Nonfiction will generally hold my interest, too. But I find it difficult to engage in a fictional world for too long, especially if the book is extremely complex and laden with scene setting. I want variety, and I can’t get that unless I have more time to spend on other books.

  5. EEV says:

    When I was around my first teen years, the Public Library was a little too far from my home and Mother didn’t like me getting out too often by myself. So, every time I was allowed to go there, I’d choose the fattest book I could find, regardless of genre and etc. I ended up reading many books that perhaps wasn’t the best choice for my age, like Crime and Punishment, The Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon, Lie Down with Lions by Ken Follet and so many others I don’t recall right now. This made me enjoy “big books”, full of details and juicy stories.
    When I ran into Lord of the Rings – rejoice! I found what I loved. I read everything in less than a week – Epic Fantasy! Later, when Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell came out, I devoured it in a couple of days (I couldn’t do it at once because I had papers from college to do). So, I guess yes, I do love big books. But nowadays I’ve been reading the normal-length ones, part because that’s what’s fresh on the market, part because, well, I have to write to the market, and consequently, I have to read from my market to get the feel of it.
    – EEV

  6. Set it aside. Let it cool, become something separate from you. “Oh that. I’d almost forgotten about it.” Come back to it, after you’d gotten sufficient sleep. Remember all the reasons (feelings, inspiration, intuition) that motivated you to write it in the first place. Then pretend you’re a sculptor, hacking away at the excess, bit by bit revealing the true shape locked within. Ponder whether this is something Michelangelo said, and get the urge to google it. Resist the urge. Resist the urge to call a friend, to check on the peony to see if the buds are any bigger (of course they are, it just rained), to work on a poem, to paint something, or to buy more $4.99 one-pint paint samples. Then get down to business, a full hour after you’d “started.” Works every time!

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