Thursday, January 17, 2013

Guest Post: What Justifies a Larger Word Count In Speculative Fiction. And What Doesn't.

 Today's Guest Blog Post comes from author, Aaron Bradford Starr, a fellow Speculative Fiction Group member. Aaron's published short stories, paintings, and interior art in Black Gate Magazine, Black Gate Online, and Stupefying Stories. Follow him on his blog, Imaginary Friend or on Twitter

I was visiting with my old friend, Joyce, one summer, when the subject of word count came up. We were sitting on the veranda of her chrysanthemum plantation, after a leisurely day of beekeeping, and I happened to mention I’d recently finished my current manuscript. After a round of congratulations, she inquired as to its length, and was horrified when I answered it was 200K, give or take. Setting down her mint lemonade with trembling hands, she composed herself.

“Surely you can whittle that down, in the next draft? Eliminating about half the book should just about do it!” It is to her credit she didn’t rub her hands together in anticipation, being, as she was at the time, in the throes of a stint with flash fiction and haiku. The opportunity to assist in editing such a work as mine had her mentally sharpening her reddest pencil in anticipation.

I shook my head. “No, I think it’s about right. A little tightening, perhaps, is called for, but it’s the right length for the story it tells.”

“But think of the trees!” she exclaimed, waving to the stately oaks that stood in the distance, across the fields. “No environmentally conscious agent would ever represent such a behemoth.”

“Ah, but the speculative fiction genres tend to run longer than others,” I reminded her.

“Poppycock!” she responded, then amended herself. “Well, some authors do. But new authors must keep under 115K, or so. At least for their first novel.”

“I suppose,” I said. “But can you not think of any legitimate reasons why a novel might be allowed to run long?”

Taking up her tea once more, she leaned back into her wicker chair, considering, and we sat awhile, the only sound the wind across the fields, carrying to us the scent of flowers. “Well,” she said at last, “the setting itself might need more visual description than in other genres.”

I nodded, thinking of my lovingly crafted vistas. “Yes, yes!” I agreed. “The setting is a primary way to invite the reader into your new world. A believable, vivid setting will go a long way toward suspending the reader’s disbelief.”

“True,” Joyce said. “And once the magic or SF-stuff gets into full gear, you can always fall back on the setting. The way the world reacts to your imaginary dangers and resolutions does make it easier to support the completely impossible, I would think.”

“So you agree, then?”

“Not so fast!” she said, fixing me with the calculating gaze that has set so many authors to flight. I swallowed, taking an unsteady sip of my tea.

“What about keeping your writing tight?” she asked. “Lean and mean?”

“You can do that,” I said, thinking furiously. “I fact, my first novel, which I’ve since split up into a trilogy due to it’s very great size, had exactly this quality. The first draft was entirely too fast, for all of its length. I actually had to add in as much as I took out, and a bit more besides, in the following drafts. Speculative fiction needs to carefully control the pace. Readers must be allowed to process the new before more is piled on, and this is most easily done by exploring a bit of the familiar in between.”

Joyce nodded, mulling this over. “Yes,” she allowed. “I suppose that’s true. Sometimes, slowing down the pace a bit is necessary.” Her eyes widened in outrage. “But not with fluff!”

“No, never,” I agreed quickly. “You can do so with exploring the character’s personalities, or the setting, as we agreed before.”

“Maybe,” she said, scowling. “But I still think that seventeen syllables should be sufficient for anyone.” As someone who wrote the definitive haiku version of Lord of the Rings, I couldn’t argue her point too directly, so I tried another tack.

“But if the reader’s interest is held, nay, embraced, by a longer work, is word count actually a problem?” I asked. “Length isn’t always bloat, as we’ve agreed. Now, multiplying these considerations with complex plots, a longer work might well be necessary.”

“True,” she said. “But that isn’t license to lollygag with literary bric-a-brac! It’s still better to err on the side of brevity.”

“If an error is necessary,” I agreed, relieved at our accord.

“An error is always necessary, in fiction,” Joyce said, sipping her tea. She waved a hand at the fields before us. “With the petals of these chrysanthemums, I make the finest red pencils in the world. And where would my fortune go, if not for the endless errors of authors?”

“Where indeed?” I asked, and we clinked glasses, settling in to watch the sun set over the distant trees.


  1. Awesome! I loved this post? Darn word counts...always getting in the way of a good story.

  2. A moral inside a post inside a story. Cute and well done.

  3. I like the approach, very humorous and yet chock full of valuable data. This is excellent, not only for what it says about high word counts, but it is also a beautiful example of an info dump woven into a story. Well done!