Thursday, January 24, 2013

Guest Post: When Longer Books Work

I'd like to welcome another Speculative Fiction Group member to Yesternight's Voyage today.
Robert Courtland writes epic fantasy tales from his home in Colorado at the foot of the majestic Rocky Mountains. His main goal in writing is to bring something new to epic fantasy. In his first novel, Counterpoint to Chaos, he created an Asian inspired setting and inserted a young woman from Pakistan as the heroine. Look for Counterpoint to Chaos at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Smashwords. Visit Robert’s website for the latest updates on what he is writing.

To continue the question of word count from last week, here we go:

Fiction comes to us in many lengths, from the flash fiction stories that are barely a page to the great epic tales that play out over multiple books and millions of words. When done right, stories are enjoyable to read at any length. But the longer the story is the easier and more likely a writer will include things in the final draft that serve no purpose and often only end up boring the reader. The structure and content of a story is very much related to its length and a story won’t work if it is built on the wrong structure.

That brings me to the dark horse of most of the publishing world, novels with high word counts. How do these authors justify such lengthy stories? They exist in many genres, but only in speculative fiction are the longer lengths books truly the norm and there is a very good reason for that. To justify having a longer story, the story needs to be grander and unable to be told with fewer words. My examples are from epic fantasy, but they apply to any successful story in the neighborhood of 150,000 words or more.

One of the first things about speculative fiction is a broad and varied world to set the story in. J.R.R. Tolkien spent years creating the world of Middle Earth from tidbits of Finish and English myths and legends and a good bit of his own imagination. He created parts of it in the trenches in WWI. Twenty years later he penned The Hobbit and then fifteen years after that he finished The Lord of the Rings. That is a bit extreme, but such thorough work meant Tolkien knew his world intimately. Writers of historical fiction do this same thing through research, but for speculative fiction writers, it requires far more imagination than research.

Another thing is a vast scope to the story. Kings and commoners, humans and elves (or aliens), good and evil, war and peace all work to add to the scope. On the surface, The Lord of the Rings is about the quest to destroy the One Ring, but doing so leads from Hobbiton to Rivendell and eventually to Mordor. It becomes a slight of hand where the battle for Minis Tirith and the attack on the gates of Mordor serve to distract the enemy from the real mission as two lone Hobbits journey into the heart of Mordor to the only place where the One Ring can be destroyed. This is not a story that can be told in fewer words. It is intricate and complex with little that could be trimmed without compromising the whole. The movie adaption really showed this in the difference between the theatrical version and the extended versions. The restored scenes add so much to the story.

Another hallmark is an intimacy with the characters. With such a length of story we spend more time with each of the characters and we get to know them even better. We journey with them through their trials and sometimes as they die. We become more emotionally invested. It serves to make these epic tales more real and personal. Carol Berg did this excellently in her debut Rai-Kirah trilogy as we follow one man, initially a slave, as he discovers his destiny. After three 170,000 word novels, he is like an old friend.

Probably the most extreme example of a truly epic tale has just come to a close with the publication of its final volume. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (posthumously completed by Brandon Sanderson) spans fourteen volumes and nearly 4.5 million words. It brings up a benefit to publishing long novels. That output in other genres would yield over forty separate books, but condensing it to just fourteen books that average 300,000 words, the author takes fewer publishing slots and the reader has to buy fewer books. It also leads to a more immersive experience.

It can all so easily go wrong. Fortunately, thanks to the publishers, we have rarely seen those blunders (though they may be more common as self-publishing takes off). A few make it to print, some by very esteemed writers, and they are a cautionary tale of how one or more of the things I’ve mentioned have gone wrong. Usually it is that the scope of the story fails or that too much extraneous material remains in the published edition.
The best way to avoid the pitfalls is to do what most writers do and that is read, and read a lot. Knowing your genre and what the premier writers in your genre do is the best class anyone could ask for. If you want to write epic fantasy, read J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Stephen R. Donaldson, George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Melanie Rawn, Carol Berg, and Brandon Sanderson. If you want to write space opera, read Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, Frank Herbert, David Brin, and Jack McDevitt. After getting to know the masters, you will know how a new writer stacks up.

1 comment:

  1. I don't write epic fantasy, but these words still ring true! Thanks, Robert.