The Fear of Long Books

This is something I’ve noticed lately in my time spent in various author places online. There is an almost pathological fear of long books.

I see post after post from people worrying about their word count, that their book is “too long.” I see post after post of people saying “Keep your book short because all long books are unedited pieces of crap and you don’t want to bore your reader!” (Paraphrased.) Many of these posts I see are referring to books in my genre — SFF.

The word counts I’m seeing this about? 150K. 130K. 100K.

*looks at 250K first novel that was extensively edited and also pretty well-received*

It’s really weird to claim that all long books are “unedited”. It’s like there’s this assumption that you can’t POSSIBLY need that many words to tell a story; that if it’s that long, it means you couldn’t cut what was unnecessary.

Sure, there ARE longer works that haven’t been cut down as much as they should have (though to be honest, this usually happens a bit into a trad-pubbed series, when no one dares tell a popular author “No” anymore — see: George Lucas & the prequels). I’m not saying that it never happens; I just think it’s weird to assume it’s ALL that ever happens.


I understand the desire for shorter works — even I have that somewhat these days. I used to love longer books, but I’m so busy and brain-fried nowadays that shorter works are often what I’m able to actually finish.

That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped reading long books, or that I no longer like them. Just means it takes me longer.

I cut my reading teeth on science-fiction and fantasy, so I’m used to big books. I used to sit and reread the entire Black Jewels Trilogy on a regular basis, and that was over 1,000 pages of story. I did it in three days, and it only took that long because I had school and rehearsal to go to.

Other genres might be different, but science fiction and fantasy are no stranger to mighty tomes of storytelling.

So why this incredible fear? This belief that long books are boring and unedited without exception?

I’m honestly starting to wonder if this isn’t just yet another way that people can poo-poo and look down on SFF. It’s popular now, so new ways of denigrating it need to be found.

First it was “people who read that are nerds with no social skills.” (Well so what if I am?) Now it’s “writers of SFF don’t know how to edit or cut down their work,” or “readers of SFF will get bored with longer books.”

No. Readers of SFF will get bored with a boring story. The length of the story doesn’t necessarily correlate with that. (Though I’ll grant you, Tolkein’s description-porn bores me to tears. Still, I did manage to read the first two books and a good chunk of the third, so.)

Honestly, it’s insulting. It’s like saying that because I’m a reader of SFF I lack the ability to enjoy a longer work, that all I want is shorter work because it’s all I can handle. I’ve already heard that enough regarding my learning disabilities, thanks.

It also completely fails to understand what the average reader of SFF is actually like.

Sure, lots of SFF readers enjoy short stories, or even shorter novels. There are definitely subgenres within SFF that have smaller word count conventions. But generally? SFF readers enjoy long books (often in addition to enjoying shorter stuff, not in lieu of). If they didn’t, then so many books in the genre wouldn’t be as successful as they are.

Stop telling me my epic fantasy of a quarter million words is “too long” and that my readers will “get bored”. It’s insulting, both to me and them.

Personally, I share my husband’s opinion about books: “If it’s good, I don’t want it to end that soon. I want more.

(He hates short stories and refuses to read them, which is where we differ; I do enjoy a good short story. He considers anything shorter than 100K words a small book; when I told him that 50K was considered novel-length he looked at me in horror and said “That’s a short story“. He’s also an avid SFF reader who goes through a book a day.)

Obviously, exceptions exist to that. But by and large, we like big books and we cannot lie. As far as readers in our genre go, we’re not alone.

~

Please note, this is not an attempt on my part to denigrate people who prefer shorter works, or to say that all shorter works are simpler and easier to handle. I’ve read many short stories that have taken a while for me to wrap my brain around them.

But I do think it’s part of the assumption, at least the way I see these posts written: longer = more complicated, and readers don’t like complicated because it’s boring or confusing. These assumptions are wrong. Longer doesn’t necessarily mean complicated and complicated doesn’t necessarily mean confusing.

As a writer, I just try to make my story the best it can be. I edit it ruthlessly, I send it off to an even more ruthless editor, and by the time it’s done, all I can do is trust in my readers. I don’t try to cut it down, or remove subplots or characters, or hurt the story in an effort to make it a smaller word count. I tend to be verbose (just look at my blogging), but that doesn’t mean my stories aren’t edited, or are boring.

This advice — that long books are bad — I took to heart once, and I regret it. I tried to make the sequel to Bellica, The Jade Star of Athering, shorter. I succeeded; Jade Star is half the size of Bellica. But to be completely honest, I think the story suffered. It’s not my best work and I was never truly happy with it.

So I’m not doing that again. I’m going to let book 3, Anala, be as long as it needs to be — which might mean it ends up the same size as Bellica.

In the end, I have no problems with that. (With the exception that putting out a paperback that size is pretty much prohibitively expensive.) What matters to me is the story, above all else. And I’m never letting this pathological fear of long books infect me again.

Anyway, if the market right now is getting flooded with shorter novels, then there’s a need for stuff as huge as what I put out. Variety is a good thing.

~Katje

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Katje

Author. Poet. Menace to society. I live in BC with my husband and our collection of books, DVDs, and video games. Hobbies include knitting, baking, and pixel homicide.

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