Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Fiction: How Long Is Too Long?

1028208_man_thinking Those of you who've been following along know that I am mired in a first-pass edit of my current novel. One of the main goals of this edit is to reduce the overall word count. Currently at 123,319 words, I still have some work to do. However, considering it peaked at 135,785 words before editing had begun, I think I'm doing OK.

Why care about word count at all? Because staying within the acceptable range is one less reason to be rejected, that's why.

Still, how long is too long? At what point do you know you're in the right, saleable range?

First, it depends on stature. Established authors have more leeway; they've got a proven track record, and a publisher is more likely to lay out the cash (longer books cost more to produce) because they are considered less of a risk than a first-time author.

Second, you have your first-time authors. Publishers want minimum risk and maximum profit, so they'll likely stick to their guns on word count unless you've produced a truly stellar, standout novel.

Third, it depends on genre.

Let's take that third one and break it down based on word count information gotten from Colleen Lindsay of the swivet blog, with an understanding that there are always exceptions to these numbers. Here's the data:

micro fiction 10-300 words
flash fiction 300-1000 words
YA fiction 50K - 80K
urban/paranormal romance 80K - 90K
mysteries/crime fiction 60K - 70K
chick lit 60K - 80K
literary up to 120K
thrillers 90K - 100K
historical fiction up to 140K
novella < 50K
space opera/fantasy up to 100K
epic fantasy 120K - 130K

I write fantasy, so the last two categories are of the most interest to me. I find those numbers a bit alarming because my book is not epic fantasy. It's more non-epic. Therefore, I need to cut out another 23,000 words??? I'm all for killing my darlings, but cutting to 100,000 words is a tough one.

Rachelle Gardner, an agent with WordServe Literary, has this definition:

Full-length fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 words is by far the best range to stay within. Some pubs will look at manuscripts from 70,000 to 110,000 words, rarely outside of that.

OK, so now we're at a maximum of 110,000 words. But she doesn't mention specific genre, which we know from above is important.

JA Konrath has this to say:

First novels have a better chance of selling if they are under 90k. The reason is wholly monetary. Your publisher will probably lose money on your first book. But a 150k book will cost more to print, more to ship, and less will fit in a carton. Cost of production figures heavily into a publisher's decision whether to buy or not to buy. 

He goes on to say this (highlighting mine):

Some genres, such as fantasy and historical romance, tend to be lengthier.

But he doesn't really go on to explain in more detail. That's OK. Joe's thing is mystery thrillers, anyway, not fantasy. (Consequently, Joe has some great advice in that post; go read it.)

So where does that leave me?

I could no doubt troll the submission guideline pages of my favorite agents and publishers and acquire more information, but I think the above more or less supports what I had originally thought on this subject. One thing is clear: I need to keep cutting. There comes a point, however, where the story itself becomes compromised. I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I have a new goal: 110,000 words.

Writing Update #4

I almost had to write this report with not much progress to go over. Fortunately, my measly progress during the week last week was aided by some more serious progress over the weekend.

Here's my updated progress:

Writing Progress

You can see some definite trending upward on the dark blue (lower) portion of the bar. That's my editing progress. Of course, the lighter blue (upper) portion of the bar is gradually diminishing in size, which of course means there are fewer pages remaining to edit. It's all so scientific.

Week-to-week, total page count decreased by 1 page from 417 to 416. Current page edited went from 297 to 313, an increase of 16 pages. Not great, but not bad. That leaves 103 pages left to edit on this first pass.

Let me pop up another graph, this one of my progress in percentage terms:

% Complete

I'm currently 75.24% complete with this first pass edit.

I was really hoping to have at least 20 pages edited by this report; now I have a goal for next week.

Until next time.

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

The short of Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword: I liked it. Though I have to say I'm split.

But, first, a brief summary:

Lady Katherine Talbert goes to live with her Uncle, the Mad Duke, who has it in for Katherine's mother (the Duke's sister) and vows to leave her alone should she commit her daughter to living with him for six months. In that time, the Mad Duke completely changes her perspective on life and her place in it, having her trained as a swords(wo)man. Once she has mastered the sword, she can no longer go back to the life she would have otherwise led. It's as much a coming-of-age story as it is about the sordid politics the Mad Duke has immersed himself in. In the end, it's up to Katherine, with her Uncle's help, to save the day.

Now, on to my analysis...

On one hand, it's written exceptionally well. The writing flows naturally, the prose are very concise, never once does she launch into pages and pages of backstory or what I term 'excessive exposition', which is when a writer goes overboard dealing with a character's internal emotions or conflict. She keeps the story moving along from page-to-page, never really slowing with the exception of a page here and there where she gets a little too much into the intricacies of the lives of the young female aristocrats and their oh-so-harried social lives. The book was a delight to read, especially from the perspective of trying to learn, learn, learn everything I can so I can hopefully someday find success of my own with my own writing. Chalk this one up as a great learning experience.

On the other hand, there's not enough story there for my tastes. Kushner throws in a few smaller plotlines, one of which ties into Katherine's expertise with the sword, but the main plot didn't give me enough to sink my teeth into. I understand there are two other books which came out before The Privilege of the Sword (Swordspoint, The Fall of The Kings), but neither is necessary to understand this one (I haven't read either). So, what we have is Katherine learning the sword, her using her expertise to avenge a friend's honor, and the Duke playing a sort of chess game against one of his main rivals in the city. I'm afraid even that might be pushing it as the third point only comes into play towards the end.

In summary, The Privilege of the Sword is very well written but just didn't give me enough to truly enjoy it.

Writing Update #3

It's Monday, so time for a writing progress update. As I indicated in my first writing progress update, I'm putting these out each week to hold myself accountable for editing progress on my current novel-in-progress.

Here's the chart of where I've been since I started these updates as well as where I'm at currently:

Current total page count dropped 2 pages from last week to 417 pages. I've edited 297 pages, up from 279 the previous week. That gets me to a completion percentage of 71.22% compared with last week's 66.59%. Can you tell I'm an engineer yet?

Bottom line is I think I'm making good progress. Not as well as I would like, but it's a constant battle against distraction, how much time to spend on blog posts, and actually having a little down-time every once in a while.

I think I see light at the end of the tunnel, at least on this first pass edit. More progress next week.

When To Stop Listening, Part 4: Audiobooks

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A multi-part series where I address the question, When to stop reading?

So far in this series I've looked at various rules and quantifiable methods one can use to determine when it's time to give up on a book. I applied the 99 Page Test to my own novel. Finally, and most recently, I looked at when to give up on a short story. This time I'm going to break away from the printed word and take a look at audiobooks.

Audiobooks are not without their controversy. The debate of audio vs print is older than the digital age (think cassette or even 8-track tapes). Yet we often hear about how people are reading less and less and how the digital era spells the doom of the printed book, so maybe audiobooks through their inherent convenience might become a lifeline for some people who might otherwise never experience great literature again. Nevertheless, audiobooks are not so different from their printed counterparts when it comes to the question of sticking with it or stopping.

So, at what point do you quit listening to an audiobook? What are the rules (other than just your gut feeling, of course)? Tests like the Page 99 Test aren't going to work for obvious reasons. Neither is the Rule of 50 or the similar 100 Page Rule going to cut it. The 33% Rule, perhaps. You just need to count the number of discs (or tapes) or look at the total running time and divide by 3. If you hit that threshold and the audiobook ain't doing it for you, time to hit 'eject' or 'stop' or even 'delete' if you're that disgusted with it.

To answer the question, I'm going to do something different. I'm going to turn it around and instead ask what keeps you listening to an audiobook.

First and foremost, it's the narrator. The "right" narrator should satisfy the following criteria (as determined by Darren Barefoot):

  • They have distinctive voices.
  • They care about pronunciation.
  • They understand cadence, and adjust the pacing of their reading to reflect the story’s inertia.
  • If they do voice work, they do it well.
  • […] they sound like they care about and are invested in the work.

I couldn't agree more. The very first audiobook I ever listened to was Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, narrated by Lenny Henry. Henry did an excellent job. The best thing about his narration was his use of voices. When reading dialog, there was no question as to which character was speaking. Not only that, but the voice which Henry chose to use for each character is in itself a storytelling device because each illuminated my perception of that character. It's something you just don't get when reading a story yourself.

Yet this can have the opposite effect, too. I recently listened to Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, narrated by Sandra Burr. This one almost lost me when she started in with the raspy voice of the draconians. It sounded forced and I found it borderline annoying. Fortunately it was a small part in the beginning, and since I'd bought the audiobook from Half-Priced Books I only had a few dollars invested. I kept listening and (quite to my surprise b/c I loathe Weis and Hickman's writing style) I enjoyed the story.

There's also the quality of the recording. Though I have yet to listen to an audiobook that did not have "professional" level quality, with more and more amateurs recording their own audiobooks and making them available as quick downloads this may play a bigger role moving forward.

Of course, there are the usual factors, too: the quality of the storytelling (as written by the author), the choice of dialog, the characters, setting. These will always be amongst the best qualities of great storytelling regardless of the medium.

With that, I'm curious what others think. What qualities keep you listening to an audiobook? Or do you not listen at all?