How long is too long?

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by LBSpeller, Apr 24, 2017.

  1. LBSpeller

    LBSpeller Full Member

    SF/F authors have a bit more freedom when it comes to book length but publishers are, nonetheless, keen to encourage their underpaid slaves (I mean writers) to get the word count down as much as possible. While this does of course result in tighter and often better writing, we all know it has more to do with cost concerns. I know some readers are intimidated by an excessively long book, but personally I want a story to last as long as possible. My own books come in around 170k to 200k words. So I am curious to hear your thoughts on book length. Have you ever found a novel to be too long? Have you ever refused a book simply on the basis of its size?
  2. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    I personally have no problem with a lengthy book, as long as it is worth it.
    I have encountered that some authors underestimate the readers’ ability to discern the plot, and therefore they have this urge to explain the obvious. No need for that, in particular, when some aspects of the story are neither challenging nor unpredictable. I love it when the author keeps me guessing.

    Other writers can expand moving away from the story arc, diluting the plot somehow. I find this offputting in particular when there are little relevance and future development in the story. At the end, it feels a bit untidy with too many loose ends.
    Yet, I don't want a wonderful story to end, so the lengthier the better...
    LBSpeller likes this.
  3. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Generally, I have no problem with length, whether short or long. A well-written story ends when it's necessary. When I was younger, I definitely preferred longer books, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I'd actually feel quite gleeful at having acquired some really fat paperbacks that I couldn't wait to get into. I think it was James Clavell's Asian historical novels that probably made me look forward to some really long books, because aside from one title of his, they were all so epic and I just wouldn't want to stop reading them. I guess when you're really enjoying a book, you don't want it to end.

    I think I find myself leaning towards shorter novels these days. I'm not against picking up great big books if I like the sound of the description (if I've never tried the author before), and I'll definitely pick up any size books of authors I already like. But I think I've rediscovered an appreciation for shorter novels. They're harder to write well because being lean forces the writer to stick to essentials without any self-indulgent fat, plus there's something really compelling in a short novel (150-300 pp.) that can deliver on all fronts. And if you compare SF & F books, esp. SF, from the 50's, 60's and 70's to many of those being published now, there was a certain elegance in those streamlined stories that delivered so much adventure and conceptual wonder, often within 200-300 pages.

    But at the same time I love Neal Stephenson's writing, and I specifically like him exactly for his digressions and padding, which are often brilliant.
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2017
  4. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    And there's another way to look at it which is in favour of digressions. Often the mark of a truly good writer will be found in digressions, those sections that don't further the plot or the characterisation directly, but go off on some tangents that brings meaning back to the narrative, or to the reader, or even about the writer in a roundabout way. You won't find this much in genre writing, though. This is mostly the province of the 'novel', the realists. But I think science fiction, in particular, has been edging closer to bridging the stylistic gap between 'romance', which basically what all SF & F is, and from the ghetto at that, and the 'novel'. But that's a different discussion.
    R-Hat, Diziet Sma and LBSpeller like this.
  5. kenubrion

    kenubrion Well-Known Member

    I want books to be long, hopefully really long. Just today I decided to not buy a promising generation ship book because it was only 201 pages.
    Boreas likes this.
  6. Bierschneeman

    Bierschneeman Well-Known Member

    My favorite book is Anna karenina , read it twice. It's one of the longest books.

    I have no problem with lengthy books
  7. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Some of my favourite sections in the whole book have nothing to do with the main story!
  8. LBSpeller

    LBSpeller Full Member

    Thanks for the replies guys. I'm glad to see most people are quite happy to read a longer book. When writing I tend to keep 'to the point' without any completely unnecessary detours, though often there will be a few sub plots which I will want to give the attention I feel they deserve. When I first started writing I would go back through the first draft on an exposition hunt, cutting out all those parts where I had not given the reader enough credit and had just explained far more than was needed, which did cut a fair bit of length from the next draft. Now I tend not to write those great chunks of exposition in the first place, either trusting the reader to understand elements of the setting with far less spoon feeding, or by leaving parts unclear and letting the explainations come more naturally in narrative further into the book. I think part of what keeps my writing long is my tendancy to have multiple viewpoint characters, allowing me to tell several stories which usually begin completely unrelated but which eventually converge.
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  9. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Magic Realism often resorts to these types of digression. Having said that, I’m of the opinion Magic Realism is not fantasy at all. Hence, your view about Fantasy and Science Fiction being a spin off the Romance genre makes sense.
    Noir can deal beautifully with these digressions too, but then, we are back into the field of novels.
  10. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I didn't realise that was even a debate!
  11. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    For many readers, MR simply falls into Fantasy. I guess because of the Magical connotation. As you said, it is not even up for debate...
  12. Dtyler99

    Dtyler99 Well-Known Member

    The challenge, really, is the publishing industry (excluding self-publish) and is particularly hard on first-time novelists trying to break in. I was at a writer's conference last year and a literary agent said she won't touch a first novel with more than 90 K words. When I went over my pitch, she asked me how long my ms. was and I said, "Why, 90 K words...of course). BTW, she didn't believe me and for good reason. But it does come in at 114 K words. Originally, the book was 180 K words which means the odds of getting a first time book that long published in the traditional publishing manner are a little longer than winning the Powerball jackpot. Yes, it has been done, but are you willing to chance that a good book split into two volumes isn't a better way to go? I think this is a reason--certainly not the only reason--we see so many series in bookstores.

    I know this is TMI for most readers, but the point is that new novelists MUST have short volumes. If sales prove their brand, longer books (trust on the part of the publisher) follows. Neal Stephenson didn't start out publishing hernia-inducing volumes. The downside of this is being able to write and publish long books is losing narrative direction AND be popular enough to intimidate your editor -- Stephen King is the poster child for this syndrome (and, unfortunately, Connie Willis recently joined the club). Did anyone ever read the unabridged edition of The Stand? Oy!

    Hemingway--I believe--was once asked how long a book should be and he replied, "Long enough to tell the story." How a reader responds to that is why we have forums like this--celebrate it!
    Diziet Sma likes this.
  13. R-Hat

    R-Hat Well-Known Member

    I've never seen that shortness would make a book good, not in fiction. But I think 500 pages or more requires that the book better be pretty damn good. This of course is easily surpassed if this is a series of books of the same author. I remember reading all of the Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley (20 MB of pure text, or so) and enjoying it a great deal. MZB has this favorite theme of medieval but less or more psionic native humans, interacting with high-tech humans, which built a spaceport on the long-lost colony. That theme certainly deserves all the books that it got.
    A theme is one thing, a story another. In principle, a single story should have a length limit where it becomes meaningless or just inefficient. There is pacing and dynamics to a drama.
  14. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Well-Known Member

    Ah, sorry ... there's always one. I put MR in fantasy. A subgenre of fantasy but still fantasy. Cos... magic :D
  15. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    What a boring forum would this be without some disagreement…? ;)
    The way I view Magic Realism is a genre that refers to the inclusion and respect for myths within a context of realism. MR shows us in its narrative a realism with some fantastic and mythical elements. The purpose of this is not to reconcile them but to exaggerate and underline the crude and harsh nature of its realistic setting, in which suddenly something implausible happens.
    Besides, the main purpose of MR is a search for the truth, to stir up philosophical theories such as the meaning of life, concept of time etc. During this quest, some supernatural elements might appear in the narrative because, according to MR, superstition, dreams and fantasy are part of our reality and they enrich the tedious routine of our lives by adding transcendental value.
    Very far removed from Fantasy in my opinion...
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  16. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Well-Known Member

    But is it not a part of every genre to search for the truth and stir up theories that make us reflect on life? Once a fantastical reality gets presented we move to a fantasy world.....
  17. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Absolutely! But the focus on this search might vary greatly from genre to genre. MR characterizes itself for exploring metaphysical topics. MR has been labeled the labyrinth of realism and a new objectivity amongst other definitions, always intimately linked to realism.
    I'm thinking of the books I have read by García Márquez, J L Borges, Juan Rulfo, Milan Kundera, Varga Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and I could not honestly place them in a fantasy shelf.
    I guess your experience in reading MR has been rather different to mine.;)
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2017

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