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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Novel Length
August 2, 2000


The following correspondence is used with permission from Jason F. Smith. It includes a letter to Mr. Card, OSC's answer, Smith's follow-up letter and Card's follow-up answer.

Letter:

I'm writing to ask your professional opinion on the ideal fantasy novel length for a first time author. I've been told that the overall length of a novel should be between 75,000 and 100,000 words. However, it appears that most fantasy novels are larger (witness the Jordan and Goodkind novels.) Terry Goodkind's first novel (Wizard's First Rule) was huge, around 250,000 words in length. But I've been told to avoid that route. Since I'm writing a series, I have some leeway where I can end the novel.

All things being equal (assuming I have a good story with fresh ideas, characters, and conflicts) which size manuscript gives me the best chance of getting an agent or editor's attention? What are the publisher's looking for right now, what sells the best?

Personally I like to buy bigger novels. I feel like I'm getting my money's worth. But the counterpoint is that bigger novels are intimidating and fewer people will buy them. Plus of course paper costs a lot of money these days.

OSC Replies:

There are two main concerns in determining the length of a single volume of a multi-volume work. First, what does the work itself require? While there have been series books that make no attempt at closure, merely stopping the story when a certain number of pages has been reached, most series authors find that they - and their readers - are more satisfied if some major plot threads are resolved near the end of each volume. In a series, there will of course be main plot threads that are not resolved -- that may, in fact, be in something of a cliffhanger situation. But readers will be unsatisfied if there is no closure, and flat out angry if there is only a cliffhanger and no resolution of any kind.

So in determining the length of individual volumes in a fantasy series, you must keep in mind the shape of the series as a whole, and where the major climactic closure points will come. You won't necessarily write one volume per major climax -- in books as thick as fantasy novels tend to be these days, you'll probably have quite a few good solid resolutions-of-tension. But you choose one of these, an important one, to be the major climax of the volume, and shape the structure accordingly. (If a couple of other climaxes can be timed to come near the same point in the story, so much the better.) The result is that even though the reader knows this is only book two of five or one of three, the reader still closes the book saying, "Wow, that was great. I can't wait for the next one." This is so much better than when the reader closes the book saying, "That was it? I have to wait for the next book to find out anything?" Guess which reader will be telling his friends about your series, or lending it out, or checking at Borders or Amazon or B&N to find out when the next volume is due.

Once you know the closure points you're aiming at, then you have to get a sense of the pace you want to set. There's "soap opera" pace, where things happen so incrementally, with so much angst every step of the way, and with endless scenes where characters who were not present at key events have those events recounted to them by characters who WERE there, etc. Frankly, this pacing makes me want to find the author and delete his files. There's action-adventure pace, where you move lickety-split through the events, chewing up plot like a sumo wrestler going through a stack of sandwiches. And there are many paces in between. I tend to be a little more leisurely, giving a lot of the characters' personal reactions to events and their plans and ideas about what to do next. I spend a lot of time on relationships. However, I give almost no time at all to description or writerly writing, so on the whole I move through the plotline rather quickly. (This is why abridgements of my books for audio presentation almost always result in some serious incoherency -- I don't include very much that can afford to be cut.)

Which brings us to the second concern: What length will the audience bear? Note that we're not talking about making story decisions based on what the audience wants -- the myth that you can simply insert sex and violence to beef up sales. The story decisions are either already made, or won't get made until the time of writing. We're talking about pacing decisions.

When you have several novels behind you, you have the experience of writing at length and you know how the length of a book is shaping up. But on your first novel-length work, especially when it's going to be a series, you simply don't know. So on your first novel, I recommend giving no thought at all to foolish rules like "the audience doesn't want such a thick book" or "big thick fantasies are in." What's "in" are stories that readers understand, care about, and believe in -- provide that in one hundred pages and they'll buy a thin book; provide it in 10,000 pages, and your name is Robert Jordan <grin>. So, having divided the overall story into coherent volumes, write each volume according to what feels right to you at the time. After that first volume, you'll say to yourself, Oh, I guess I write 800-age tomes ... or, Hmm, apparently my volumes are going to be about 70,000 words.

Having said that, I must point out that the original advice you were given -- that a book feels like a normal novel somewhere around 100,000 words and is hard to publish at less than 75,000 -- is true. This means that if you find your first volume stacking up at about 60,000 words, you need to go back and re-pace it -- you're consuming plot way too fast. (No, you don't need to add more plot. But you might want to beef up a side-story, adding chapters that follow other characters on related adventures.)

However, there is a weird story-dilation effect that I've noticed. At about 25,000 words, I start thinking this novel will never end -- I'm barely started and I've got all these pages! That feeling persists up to 50,000 words. But then, along about 75,000 words, I start getting a real anxiety that I'm suddenly moving so quickly that this novel won't get even to 90,000. Then, at about 100,000 words, I realize that I'm not done yet so I have nothing to worry about. And at 108,000 or 112,000, I'm done. Sometimes, of course, it doesn't happen that way -- Seventh Son was shorter, Saints was longer, Xenocide was longer. But generally speaking, at the pace I tend to use, and with the sense I have developed of how much story makes a book, my novels hover between 100,000 and 110,000 words. But that's me -- it's what I'm comfortable with. If you find that to tell the story in a way that feels comfortable and natural to you, you tend to clock 180,000 or 250,000 words, then that's the way it is -- that's the length you'll submit to the publisher. If the story is good, they won't balk at that length. Too many thick books have sold too well for a publisher to say something dumb like "thick fantasy series novels don't sell."

I guess what it boils down to is: Until you've written some novels, you don't know what it feels like to write novels, so you can't make decisions about length. Nor can you trust your feelings along the way, since at times it will feel as if the book will never end and other times as if you'll never be able to stretch it out long enough to make a book out of it. And length does not really depend on the plotting. It depends on the pacing.

Follow-up Letter:

Okay, your last response on Novel Length opened the door on a new question.

I'm writing to ask you about pacing, with specific examples in mind. You suggest to lengthen a book you should lengthen your pacing, not your plot.

1. The specific problem I have had is when a writer sets up a quest, and then enters into a series of try fail cycles. The quest is linear. There are no left or right. No 'turn's in the story. Just more and more problems. This kind of pacing bogs me down, because what I really want to know is whether he gets the quest or not. It's not the journey that becomes important to me, but the achieving the aim. The journey is just boring, because I know he's going to get there eventually. I just want to know what happens when he does.

2. I have a character who is on a boat heading to the site of the major conflict. In my mind, the reader wants him to get there. Any kind of problem along the way is going to bore them, because what they really want to see is him getting there and entering the confrontation. But.... The ship trip is 2 months like, and meanwhile all the other characters are doing things. He's got nothing to do. Do I drop him and wait till he gets there (a long piece in the manuscript) or do I start creating artificial problems for him.

I know part of your answer has to be that if you make your character interesting and real enough, reader's will want to be with him on the journey. Is that the final answer? I can live with that. That's a challenge to do but I can try. Or is there another answer in addition to it?

3. The concept of picking up the pace is heavily addressed in a lot of books. But what about slowing it down . . . while making it interesting. For instance I read that Mario Puzo in The Godfather put in the whole part about Johnny Fontane and the girl Lucy, just to slow the pace down from the frenetic happenings in the Corleone family. That's fine, I'll do that too, but the key is to make that side portion interesting, without giving the reader the idea that you are just delaying by creating an artificial tension.

Thanks again. For reference the two places I felt there incredible artificial tension were the books The One Tree by Stephen R. Donaldson (talk about a crappy ending that pissed me off) and the third book of Robin Hobb's Assassin Series (Assassin's Quest). She had a first person account from the point of view of the Hero. He had to find his lost King Verity in the mountains to help him solve the mystery of the statue dragons. Well . . . the whole book was his quest to get there. I was bored out of my skull. Not that he didn't have good challenges, or problems, it's just that I wanted to know the answer of the mystery, and I knew ht got there, because she framed the story as a history told by the character in first person. Meaning that he survived, etc.

So . . . how do you lengthen pace without giving the read the feeling you're just messing with him or her?

OSC Replies:

The problem you're facing is the direct-line problem. The try-fail cycle you talk about not only is boring, it isn't used very much in epics that work. Rather you have the conflicting objectives cycle. Things that are worth doing, that need doing, which sidetrack the characters and distract them from their quest. Then there's the This Can't Happen trick (Gandalf dies?) that "changes everything" and causes the group to reconfigure (again, some of them being distracted as they go off on sub-quests).

Also, you need characters who are not equally committed to the main quest (think Boromir) or who have other quests that only they can perform (think Aragorn).

Then you have the protagonist's conflicting feelings about having undertaken the quest in the first place, and about putting other people's lives at risk. (I'll go off by myself, says Frodo, because this way I'm only bringing destruction down on my friends. [Actually, this was deeply stupid, since the friends were his main hope of avoiding being killed by the ring-wraiths; but Tolkien made it all come out anyway <grin>].)

But sometimes the sidetracks don't work -- think of Tom Bombadil and the whole barrow-wight sequence in the first volume of LOTR. All very lovely, but it does nothing to advance the story (i.e., to make us care more or worry more about the characters; nothing arises out of who they are, and no one is transformed).

So you need to make sure that the conflicting desires of the characters make sense -- that each of the characters matters to us, positively or negatively, in his own right. Then the whole try-fail cycle disappears. That's a videogame, not a novel <grin>.

Follow-up Letter #2:

Your advice has caused an explosion in me. It started with the novel length question, which you answered in terms of pacing, which led me to ask about the try fail cycle, which you rejected and threw me into a chaos of panic. But you came back in mentioned that the 'real story' comes from the conflict within the character. That triggered my memory of Ben Bova's Emotion vs. Emotion advice, which in turn triggered my memory of my brief study of Danielle Steel (410 million copies sold) where every single one of her characters has a duel desire (Betty loves both Fred and Parker). Then Friday night I read in Elia Kazan's A Life autobiography that the secret of all stories is to have a character in conflict with himself. Back to Bova, I read the next morning that you start with the character, creating the conflicting emotion, and then give him a problem that directly impacts that conflict.

And just like that I finally understood what you meant when you said Try Fail vs. Real Story. I mean, it hit me like a ton of bricks! I applied it immediately to three of my characters and I can't tell you how excited I am. I was jumping on the bed causing my wife to growl. I couldn't stop talking. You connected with me, you led me where I needed to go? Why? The Proof: For the first time in my life, my characters are alive to me! I felt sadness and regret for them, and worry. That mysterious connection I've always missed.

And you are right, I'm going to have to rewrite the entire thing. Not that the plot has to change much, but you are totally right! I need to rewrite it! And it wasn't a waste, because it got me to this point!!!

Then, another piece of the puzzle came this morning: I'm driving to work and I remember Abraham and Issac. And I think: Obedience to God Vs. Love for his Child. But it was even worse than that. Abraham wanted kids his whole life. No kids. He prayed, and no answer, and then it was too late. But a miracle happened, and he got a kid when he was old! Not only that, he was promised generations and generations, a very important thing to the old Jewish Culture. He was thrilled. And then God asked him to kill his son.

Wow! Not only is there conflicting desires in Abraham, but his problem is the worst possible thing it could be. Hugh Nibley teaches in his collection of Essays Volume 12 Temple and Cosmos, that every single person will have to be faced with their Issacc. Whatever it is, God will come, and ask you for it, and see if you aren't willing to give it. It's the test of this life.

And I applied that to my characters, and it's haunting. It's terrible. It's sad. I think of Ender, and his duel desire for love and belonging vs. helping the world. And I felt so bad for him, because he couldn't have both. Ah!!!!!

Do you see how this is impacting me?

I've written about 10 pages of material asking your questions, but I've distilled it all to this exciting letter. I have three things to end with:

1. Thanks so much for helping me. I don't know if you realize the impact and the energy you provided me. Amazing. I am so grateful you were finally able to make the connection to me. Thank you.

2. I want to ask you to do something, and I offer to participate. You need to bring this inner conflict concept to your readers on the web. This is what you were talking about all this time, with the Maguffin and everything, and you have to put it on there! Writer's need to understand this. This is the key to it all! Some kind of lesson with questions and answers needs to be done. I really believe this and want to share it with others.

3. How do we do this. I'm talking craft questions, nuts and bolts. Scenes, narrative summary, dialogue, inner dialogue. We need the Tools, bags of tricks, how to, stuff on this.

Thanks so much again!!!! This is an exciting time to write!

OSC Replies:

I'm delighted to know that you've made this breakthrough -- I know how it feels when you suddenly realize what your story needs.

But don't make the mistake of thinking that the things you're so excited about came from me. As your own letter indicates, these concepts were always there waiting for you. What happened was not that I gave you a key, but rather that you finally found the lock for a key you'd had for a long time, or rather you finally realized that this key went with this lock. I'm glad to have been part of that moment for you -- but it is the writer's readiness that determines when the lesson will be learned.

When I teach writing workshops, some of my students get most of it, most get a lot of it, and all get at least some of it. But I can always see that only a handful are really ready to put what they've learned to work. Some of them don't reach that point till years later -- then they finally understand things they thought they understood all along. It's that connection between knowing and doing that's always so hard to predict or produce in someone else.

So, while I'm happy to know that my name is linked in your mind with such an important breakthrough, I can assure you that the credit for the improvement in your work and the greater joy you will now take in writing belongs to you. You got yourself to this point, and you will move forward from here -- and would have done so without me. This is not false modesty -- this is an important point. Because when you need your next breakthrough, you shouldn't look to me or any other writing teacher. You should look (as writers should always look) at everything around you, because you never know what the trigger will be; and you should never look to anyone as a mentor, because the person who helped you once will probably never have what you need at the right time again. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy -- I am no more than a pair of lucky socks. <grin>


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