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Does Size Matter In Epic Fantasy?

Brenda Drake (logo)This year I decided to do something crazy—compete in an online writing contest called Pitch Wars. Run by the wonderful Brenda Drake, this is where unpublished writers query a selection of ‘mentors’ (published writers, agents, editors, etc.), for the chance to get some professional help on their manuscripts one-on-one, before pitching the polished work to literary agents.

While the reward is obviously fantastic, much of the joy of the experience can be found in the pre-submission phase, where it’s all about finding a good match for your work, networking with everybody you can, and asking questions. And while it’s been an absolute blast communicating with other ‘mentees’ and mentors, and learning tons of new things, I’ve kept stumbling over the same message again and again.

IF YOUR WORD COUNT IS HIGH YOU ARE DOOMED…DOOMED!

Okay, so maybe I’m paraphrasing. But the point is that the question about size keeps being asked. And rather than receive the old, comforting response in life we’ve (I’ve) come to rely on—‘size doesn’t matter’—the literary response is almost always ‘keep it small’. With everyone suggesting that the closer you are to 100k the better. Even for epic fantasy.

Unfortunately this presents a bit of a problem for both the writer and reader in me. As I like my epic fantasy to be, well, epic.

HOW BIG IS TOO BIG?

I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie by lilacpopphotographyWhen I started writing in this genre it was pretty easy to clock up the words. You’re building entire worlds after all. I think my first draft was something like 210k—and it’s taken a fair few revisions and edits over the years to get the beast down to a solid 172k. I think that’s pretty reasonable. But I know others would deem it insane.

However, a quick check of an old Fantasy-Faction post on word counts reveals that I’m actually looking pretty trim against some classics. The average Wheel of Time book is around 300k. The last (and IMHO best) four Harry Potter books don’t dip under 169k. Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris is 200k (but apparently was queried at 250k). A Game of Thrones is 284k. Fellowship of the Ring is 187k.

Sure, if you’ve read any of the later Robert Jordan WOT books then you’ll know more than a few of those words were spent describing intricate details of clothing, but who DIDN’T want to know about Nynaeve’s dress trim or Rand’s new boots?

(Yeah, okay, maybe by the fifth book it was too much.)

SHRINK TO FIT

GIANTS - A Microminiature Book by BoPressMiniaturesThese days, literary agents and publishers are overwhelmed with submissions on a daily basis. And with fantasy being forever in vogue, I can only imagine how much they cringe when a new query lands detailing another doorstop of a manuscript.

So I completely understand the guidelines they (and others) give writers—especially new, untried writers—about word counts. With so much on their plate, agents and publishers have to consider manuscript size when taking on new authors. Longer manuscripts by new writers might take more work and aren’t guaranteed sales. Why take that risky path when they could get another two smaller books out the door in the same time?

But as both a writer AND a reader, I’m always a little disappointed to see these increasingly low word count limits thrown out into the ether. Because it means that any fantasy book I find by a new author is more likely to have been shrunk to fit (either by them or their editor). And while a 100k novel can certainly be made to feel epic in skilled writerly hands, it may still fall short of giving me the epic scope I seek.

JUST LIE BACK AND THINK OF MIDDLE EARTH

The reason I love epic fantasy is because of the idea of complete and total escape. I relish the opportunity to lose myself in another world and shoot the shit with new (imaginary) friends. And while there obviously has to be a plot to carry things forward, for me it doesn’t need to be incessant. I’m not reading a thriller. Sometimes all I want to do is hang out and chew over the scenery a little, you know? Maybe enjoy a stretch of trying out for Quidditch or drumming up the courage to ask a girl to the ball, before the next ‘He who must not be named’ plot beat.

You might have heard these little scenes called filler or padding, implying that they’re just there to give the book some weight on the shelf. But I believe the majority of those little moments—the ones that might be trimmed from any other genre—are just as important to the success of an epic fantasy novel as pace or plot. Perhaps even more so?

THE LONG AND WINDING PATH

Used well, quieter tributaries from the main quest can offer a whole new dimension of insight into the characters we come to know and love, while also giving us a more rounded view of the fictional world we’re in. They’re also great for being able to catch your breath!

The Reader by rosiehardyOther genres might be out simply to tell the story. They want to hook you in and drag you through until you find out what happens at the end. But I’ve always thought of fantasy, especially the epic kind, as being about crafting a fictional world or universe that for a time you actually live in, without necessarily being in a rush to get the magical chalice or face down the scary bad guy.

In the real world it’s not all plot. There are peaks and troughs and plenty of going off the beaten track from your everyday quest (thanks, Twitter). And so I think it must be with fantasy. If you sit down to play Skyrim (or any RPG), do you dive straight into the quest and keep on until the end without any deviation? Or do you go off track as often as possible to explore the world they’ve created, chat with locals and generally kick back and enjoy a bit of fun before the next bit of the adventure begins?

The point being that those padded moments often help make the fantasy real. And though they require added words, I’d like to think we should allow for that as much as we can in order to keep the epics epic, and not sell the genre short.

HOW WAS IT FOR YOU?

This might all sound like the long-winded plea of the long-winded writer not to discount his work on the basis of a number. Okay, it IS that, but I’m also curious! Am I alone in loving a bit of length in my fantasy? What do you think about word counts? Are you a writer who won’t submit until you get it under a certain limit? Are you an agent who has tried to take on the epics but it simply wasn’t possible? Does size scare you off altogether?

Sound off in the comments. I will try to join in if I can find the time—I’ve got a manuscript to edit down.

Title image by kimberlyblok.

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28 Comments

  1. Avatar Dan says:

    Hi Dan,

    I personally don’t mind either way. I like short fantasy and I like long fantasy. I just want more fantasy (don’t we all)!

    On my top 10 list I have A Wizard of Earthsea which is only 10 chapters long, but I also have The Name of the Wind. I think it all depends on the story. I consider Earthsea an “epic” in terms of the scope and feel of the story, but obviously not in length. But I also love stories where the world is so rich and full that it makes you sit back and wonder about it. There are times during the day where I will randomly remember the feel of a fantasy world and it makes me want to read the book all over again just to get that feeling and be in that space.

    I do have an expectation that a bigger book means more depth. That is an unspoken agreement between readers of epic fantasy and the authors. If I’m going to sit down and spend days and even weeks reading this book then I better be deep in the character’s head and emotions, and deep in the world, and that world better have something to offer me. The world building in larger epics needs to lend itself to the story. It can’t be big just for the sake of being big. I think info dumps are okay later in the book. I want the author to tease me so that I have an opportunity to ponder the world and then I want them to reward me for getting so far into the book. Same with spending down time with the characters. I think some of the best moments in Harry Potter are when he’s just thrilled to be hanging out with his friends. His life is so crazy, all we want for him is to catch a break. In those moments it’s actually a payoff for the reader, and a breather.

    As far as word counts and the limits put on new authors, I’m all for it. Studies show that we tend to work better under constraints versus a blank slate with no parameters. I know for myself that limits have made me a stronger writer. As I limit myself to a set of guidelines it helps me hone the story down to what is essential for the reader. And at the end of the day, getting your novel on a shelf (be it physical or virtual) is a business. You have to play by the rules. Later you get to break them when people trust you. That’s what Sanderson did with The Way of Kings.

    So all in all does size matter. No. Not at all. As long as a good story is told, I’m there for the ride.

    Thanks,
    Other Dan

    • Avatar Dan Hanks says:

      I love this comment. I think you’ve nailed what I was trying to say about those moments in Harry Potter better than I did or could.

      And yes, your point about constraints making us better writers/storytellers is totally valid and I wish I’d been smart enough to discuss that in the article – although that’s probably a whole other piece in itself and I was trying to keep the word count down in this one. 😉

    • Avatar RLBeers says:

      As an author of several fantasy books both epic and urban, my experience with literary agency has set an indelible opinion that a literary agent who is not a lazy fool is a jewel to be cherished. Most are seeking the next number 1 best seller all the while rejecting Harry Potter. They simply do not know what sells, only what they think should sell. You keep writing to please you, not them.

  2. Avatar Soizic says:

    My favourite fantasy author is Robin Hobb, and her books are biiiiiiiiiig. Especially if you add up the word count of the series (since her books are not stand alones). I completely agree with you on the need to immerse yourself in the details of the world. I think it’s what makes those books so good.

  3. Avatar Justin says:

    Personally, I hate fillers. Most of the time, they’re simply boring, especially if they don’t further the plot or character development whatsoever. I’m not saying that books shouldn’t have breather moments. In Harry Potter, even when he was hanging out with his friends, it all went towards character development. It gave you more of a look of how far they’ve come since the previous book or moment.
    In The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson doesn’t have any major filler moments. I’m sure there are some, but I can’t think of any in particular that annoy me. All of them pushed the storyline forward.
    So, should epic fantasy be smaller? No. However, I feel that the majority of aspiring authors struggle with avoiding fillers, and keeping the book down to things that help it. After a while of writing, that’s when you have the write to play. But until then, it’s a good idea for publisher’s to limit writers.

    • Avatar Dan Hanks says:

      I agree that they can definitely be boring if there is absolutely no reason for them. But I’d throw world-building in there along with plot and character development. So long as it’s not overblown, a nice little sidetrack where we discover more about the world can be fun – at least for me.

  4. You are not at all alone. I like my fantasy epic, and I like it big. Give me a massive doorstopper that’s going to give me a sore back lugging it around, and I’m as happy as can be. I want to get lost in a world, get immersed in a story, and don’t want to surface too soon.

    Congrats on Pitch Wars! I seriously considered it, but only found 2 mentors who sounded as if they’d be open to my story, and the overwhelming YA/NA emphasis made me wonder if there was any chance I’d make it through.

    • Avatar Dan Hanks says:

      Amen to that. And thanks, yes Pitch Wars has been brilliant so far!

      Have to be honest and say that I thought the same as you, but decided to go for it anyway and haven’t looked back. Even if I don’t get picked, I’ve met a ton of great writers all in the same boat, and I’ve learned a lot about the submission process – which I wasn’t exactly a novice at in the first place (although my success rate is still, obviously, not great).

      I’d say next time, even if you can only find one mentor you think might be interested, just dive in and enjoy it as far as you can – you’ll come out stronger for the experience.

  5. Avatar S. Baker says:

    Eh, I have to disagree with the idea that word count=epic. I’ve read short stories that nailed the style of epic fantasy better than some of those 300K tomes. Epic fantasy is a style of writing, with it’s own rhetorical tropes that don’t really have anything to do with word count.

    If the story needs 300K words to be done and complete, then that’s fine. If it only needs 100K, that’s fine too.

    • Avatar Dan Hanks says:

      I probably should have elaborated on that point in the article, but I agree with you. It’s just that, for me, an epic fantasy should not only feel epic, but should also last as long as possible. I want my window into that new world to be panoramic!

      For instance, I read Chuck Wendig’s ‘Under the Empyrean Sky’ a few weeks back and I think I mentioned in my review that it created an epic story in the least amount of pages possible. It was actually quite a feat! And yet… I was left wanting more. I could’ve hung about in that world for months. Whereas with one of the later Harry Potters I would always come out and feel like I’d been away on holiday. (Maybe not a very relaxing holiday though.)

  6. Avatar Moo says:

    The only thing that scares me off is fantasy-series that has been and still are in progress after 10-20 years. I do like ’em endings even if there are a lot of pages and books before I get there. As long as there is a proper ending somewhere along the way I don’t mind the page-count or count of books in the series.

    Luckily most authors that I follow and read do finish their series and start new ones on regular basis.

    And I like shorter oneshot-works too. Actually I’m more prone to starting new fantasy-books if they’re oneshots, because then I know I’ll get the full satisfaction of story plus ending in one reading, while series are something to look forward to and be impatient/frustrated about (in a good way).

    Basically, I read and enjoy both long and short fantasy and oneshots and series 🙂

    • Avatar Dan Hanks says:

      Maybe I’m weird, but I LOVE finding a series that’s been going for years and isn’t finished yet – so I can jump into the first book knowing there’s a big adventure ahead and yet still nobody knows how it ends!

  7. Avatar Marc says:

    I think that fantasy done well transcends word counts. I’ve read really long books that felt like short books and short books that I didn’t finish reading because they were not particularly interesting. I think it all depends on how you build the story and the world, having a high word count does not necessarily mean that it will be worse. Although I do see the point editors make about how big books are not efficient, and there are books that with a little of cutting would shine (I’m looking at you Wheel of Time, who cares about dresses that much?!?!). The only time when I look at a books length and feel put off is when it’s a long series.

    About the “fillers” again they can be the bane of the book or one of the best parts. In “The Name of the Wind” the fillers are really amazing. They’re interesting, suspenseful and even funny. They are definitely something that’s worth the read times a hundred. But then again you see books like the Wheel of Time. Where sometimes there’s too much of the fillers and not enough of the actual plot. All the times Nynavea talked about her dresses were incredibly dull, that was something I would’ve gladly skipped where it not for the fact that Robert Jordan liked to add major plot developments right after traveling, or dresses.

    BTW I’m jealous you could write that much even if you had to cut it. I tried writing a epic fantasy and I didn’t realize what a daunting task it is.

    • Avatar Dan Hanks says:

      Ha, don’t be too jealous – this beast has taken up a large portion of my life to write and rewrite and rewrite more, and it’s still not found a home! 🙂 But I’ve loved nearly every minute of working on it, so that’s the main thing.

      I totally understand how daunting you found it. Have you put it aside then or are still struggling on? I think the trick – at least for me – was having the ending written in my head. So no matter where I was in the book, I knew where I had to get to and could never get lost. (Although I certainly loved taking detours along the way.)

  8. Avatar Stephanie says:

    I’ve been querying an epic fantasy at 140K and even when I pitched live to an agent and an editor last month, no one has batted an eye at the word count. There’s a sub-plot I haven’t quite nailed, but I haven’t yet had someone tell me the word count was the deal breaker.

    • Avatar Dan Hanks says:

      That’s good to know! To be honest I haven’t met too much direct resistance to my word count when I’ve queried it – but then again without feedback it’s hard to tell for sure. All I know is that there is a lot of advice out there for new writers to keep it as close to 100k as possible. And while that might work for most genres, I’d like to think we can stretch that with epic fantasy?

      Hopefully you’ll find 140k is the sweet spot for selling epic fantasy – good luck!!

  9. Avatar Overlord says:

    I recently enjoyed Smiler’s Fair, which was very short for an Epic Fantasy… probably about 300 pages (maybe a bit more). What surprised me was that there seemed just as much wordlbuilding and plot as the longer Epic novels – along with a large character cast too. It felt like a TV show version of Game of Thrones vs the novel version and it really worked. That said, I did notice the sequel on my shelf (I’m still to read) seems to have found itself closer to the page count of George R.R. Martin’s novels… so I’m not sure it proved this is sustainable!

  10. The project I’m editing now was a monster of a tale. I finished it 2004 with just over 284k words. I didn’t want to believe that it was too long and filled with unnecessary history lessons about my fantastic world. I dreaded editing it, but now I’ve decided it’s time.

    After letting it sit for eleven years, it’s easier to wade through and cut the fluff. I also see so much more potential in making it shorter so that I can generate more stories from the world, rather than drowning my readers in facts and trivia. I also believe it shows how I’ve grown as a writer because I can now identify the story through the creative fabric, instead of lumping it all together into one giant encyclopedia.

  11. Avatar Dee says:

    Wordcount is a sticky point for fantasy, for sure. But part of that, I think, is different markets. When I was querying my first novel in my home territory (Australia), I was explicitly told by an agent that its length (180k words) was in the good range. Of course, when I took that same novel to the US market, I got endless rejections and one note that the length needed to be trimmed by at least a third. At the same time, I had no quibbles about length from UK agents. (I eventually trimmed the novel down to 130k; it was much stronger for it, and I got a few requests, but I can’t say I was flooded with interest.)

    I’m currently querying a second novel, which I worked hard to keep at 125k in length. But I’ve had one US agent reject with a note that her hard limit on debut manuscripts is 110k, and she prefers to keep them to 100k. Other agents have requested, though they may still have reservations about wordcount (and are waiting to see whether the length is warranted by my story and prose). No word from the UK market yet.

    My overall thought is that market matters when it comes to fantasy wordcount. I suspect, though I have no data to support my suspicion, that smaller print publishers may prefer smaller books (which are cheaper to produce in hard copy) and thus agents who would be targeting your work towards those boutique houses will echo their concerns (whereas obviously electronic-only or POD probably don’t have that pain point, and bigger houses have the wherewithal to make exceptions if they think the work is worthy). It’s probably an easier sell to a wider range of options if the wordcount is in that sweet range (for the US market, at least).

    My personal experience is that strong work will still get requests at higher wordcounts for epic fantasy, but you are limiting the range of people who’ll consider your work. This business is so subjective that I would have to recommend trimming down if you feel like it’s feasible, just in case the one agent who will connect passionately with your work is one with a hard wordcount limit.

    • Avatar Louise Stanley says:

      Just a word about POD: as a self-pub who is printing work for conventions, POD is *not* a good medium for long books. A 150K word book that I originally worked up cost £10 per copy for me to print. The 30-50K word novellas I currently write are a more sensible price to print for a bit of exposure and a pound or so profit. Those numbers change if you print more copies – and I only take a few to the conventions because they’re relatively small – but even so I’d say if you’re reliant on POD for your hard copies you need to keep the books short. (The whole point with POD though is that it’s selling your book so you don’t have to do a huge print-run – but that means each copy is way more expensive than books which have gone through a traditional method of printing.)

      Electronic only is fine, obviously.

  12. Avatar Bibliotropic says:

    Sometimes a good long epic fantasy is exactly what I’m in the mood for. Something I can read at my usual pace but that doesn’t end as quickly as most novels would. So I can completely appreciate loving the big doorstopper novels.

    That being said, I know I’m kind of weird that way, and that even so, I still find myself gravitating to shorter books sometimes, especially if I’ve given myself a goal of reading a certain number of books by a certain time (as I often do). Too many doorstoppers and I find myself craving something new, a lot of new, and I’m more inclined to read a few shorter books to make up for the time I spent reading the longer one.

    But it really depends. I’ve read books that really ought to have been trimmed, because as much as great detail can be nice, sometimes it bogs the reader down in too much pointless detail. I’ve read books that also would have done well to be expanded, or so I think.

  13. Avatar Erica says:

    If I love the characters, world and story, a huge book will feel too short. If I’m sort of “meh,” even a relatively short one will feel long. I’ve abandoned many a fantasy novel, some longer and some shorter.

    But the word count limits are not really based on what readers like. It’s that longer books cost publishers more money to print, distribute, and edit etc., and they can’t charge proportionally more for them in today’s market. Even so, some imprints (Tor and some others) take big, fat epics. From a US agent’s standpoint, though, the number of places they can sub a fantasy novel will be limited if it’s much longer than 110-120k words. Of course, authors who are already proven sellers get a pass. So Sanderson can write a New-York-phone-book length novel.

    The frustrating thing are those debut authors who wrote very fat epics and did well: Sanderson, Rothfuss, Abercrombie, McClellan, Wexler and so on. A few things about these guys, though. If you look at their stories, many had a hard time getting agents initially, or they got a stroke of luck by winning a contest, or they got into Clarion and connected with a famous mentor, or they had a history of writing successfully in another genre first.

    I’ve also heard (can’t confirm) that the British agents and publishers are a bit more forgiving of fat novels, and the average-length of a debut fantasy novel is longer in the UK. Not sure if this is because British publishing operates on a different margin, or if it’s because the subgenres of fantasy that are most popular in the UK are ones that require longer novels.

    Also, on another note, all the debut blockbuster epic secondary world fantasies in recent years seem to be male, which is very, very troubling to me as a female who wants to write that kind of stuff. In light of this (current epic fantasy readers being more lukewarm towards unknown female EF authors), it may be harder to get someone to look at a fat debut manuscript if you’re female.

    But something else happens when you write and edit your own work down as much as possible. You begin to see the fat in some other writers’ work. I’m reading a thick epic by a well-established writer right now (one of my favorites), and I can’t help noticing the little things that could have bee skipped or expedited, and the fact that the first 1/3-1/2 of the book is all set up that could have been streamlined. I still like the writing, world, and story, but would it be any less enjoyable if it were a bit shorter?

  14. Avatar Jen says:

    The size of a book does not matter to me. What matters is, pacing. How well placed are the highs and lows, and what do the lulls provide? Personally, I love filler and fluff – as long as it furthers either the story, or the characters I have been hanging out with and journeying alongside. This could be because I am, very much, a character-driven writer. My characters (at least I hope they do) tell the story and take my reader(s) on the adventure. The path to get from Point A to Point B is usually long, and winding, and loop-the-loop, but my characters do, eventually, get us there.

    I guess I should also mention, I am writing an epic fantasy myself. The idea started out small and then quickly snowballed into something much bigger than itself, and as it started to come together, I realized there was too much to put into one book. So, it became a trilogy. I’m still working on the first book, but am 99.5k into it… and it’s nowhere near finished.

    I recently trimmed about 2-3k from it during a recent edit for a consultation I had with an editor back in May. (I won the opportunity during a NaNoWriMo write-in session hosted by Simon & Schuster, but that’s besides the point.) I was given many tips from the editor, and told it was a good mix of fantasy lit., and commercial writing. I was also told it had good pacing, and I sent in the first 50k. That meeting made me feel very good about my writing and very competent.

    Boy, this is long-winded, heehee. So, in my own, personal, experience, there is a place for epic fantasy that is longer than 100k (the first book of my trilogy will definitely push those boundaries). It’s just important that the action sequences and the scenes in which the characters are just hanging out and shooting the shit be well-placed. As you said, the readers need breathers just as much as the characters (and the writers) do. Breathers are just as important as the action, as that is when we truly get to learn who our new friends are. Sure, their actions in battle, or during the action, are very good indicators of who they are, but, just like in real life, we learn the most about them by simply hanging out with them.

  15. Thank you, Dan. You just gave me hope that there are readers out there for my work because it would seem as if everyone wants a quick fix these days. the publishers as well as the readership.

  16. Avatar Shadyia says:

    Isn’t it better in this world of electronic publishing, amazon algorithms and all to slice a long novel into episodes?

  17. Avatar Nigel Gleeson says:

    Love this article and love the comments. I have a strong dislike of the power money has to control everything it touches, diluting it down to a common factor that rarely reflects the original goal or purpose intended. That of course only touches on the marketing side of writing and the profit drive. As for other reasons such as a golden section or optimal word size like some secret formula that produces the best work I guess it depends on what you are writing and what end result you aim for. Do you want the greatest number of readers, to impart some particular message or philosophy, to fulfill a need to share some idea or creation, or some other reason? I personally have a philosophical touch to my writing and enjoy sharing my creations. I would prefer to touch a small number of readers deeply than a large number with a cut down marketable mass production short distraction. Not being bitter here for any reason, just hoping the artistic and creative side of writing won’t fall to market controls. I think we should be expanding our art rather than restricting it.
    I used to write poetry and got great responses to it, however after helping a friend with their novel I was encouraged to write my own and am now 130,000 words in on my first draft with more to come at the request of my betta readers. I love writing and love sharing my creations, that is my main goal.
    As far as word count is concerned I remember feeling disappointed when the last pages of Lord of The Rings drew near, I didn’t want it to stop. There are plenty of readers out there who want more than a story, they want a world into which they can escape, somewhere to take them away from the repetition of life where they can be a part of something different, something exciting. For these readers, there is no such thing as too much, provided the writer is capable of creating it. I read most books of any size and enjoy larger books that I can escape into so long as they are well done and don’t have too many POVs.
    Background scenes and character building in these books are just as important as the action and just as enjoyable.
    In saying this I still read and listen to all sides of the issues regarding writing and the art of creative literature.
    Write on, count your words not in numbers but in emotions.

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