Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

A little insight into the writer's process by Robin Hobb

I've been trying to get away from posting a blog entry that just points to another person's blog with no new content or wisdom to add, but this one bears noting.

Robin Hobb, who doesn't post enough for my taste but whose novels are always (or almost always) stellar, talks a bit about her own writing progress.

It's a good, insightful read, and I was pleasantly surprised to find I shared some of the feelings she talks about when going through my own writing.

[ Amazon Featured Short: The Inheritance by Robin Hobb ]

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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.

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?

When To Stop Reading, Part 3: Short Stories

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

This is part 3 in what's become an ongoing series on when to stop reading a book. Each post stands alone, but feel free to read part 1 and part 2 before jumping into this one.

We often think of only novels when someone poses the question,

"At one point do you give up on a book?"

Maybe the question is better phrased as:

"At one point do you give up on a story?"

Short stories, whether standalone or as part of a compilation, fall into the 'when to stop reading' conundrum just like novels. Especially those which infringe into the length territory of novelettes. The further we get, and the more our frustration grows, the more likely we're going to put (or throw) that book down.

For purposes of this discussion, I'm going to use an example: The Solaris Book of New Fantasy. TSBONF is a compilation of shorts by such notable authors as Mark Chadbourn, Janny Wurts, Jeff VanderMeer, Chris Roberson, Lucius Shepherd, Steven Erikson, and others. I just finished the book, so I'm at a good point to discuss it's highs and lows. In particular, there were stories I stopped reading simply because they were going nowhere or just weren't holding my attention.

Some people say you have thirteen lines in which to hook the reader of a short story. I found this to be more or less true as more often than not I knew just by looking at that first page whether or not the story was going to hold my attention. It's not a hard and fast rule, of course, but it's often easy to get a good feel for what the story is about and if it's your cup of tea.

In the following list I'm going to use some clever graphics to indicate whether or not I finished the story. "Thumbs up" means I finished. "Thumbs down" means I flipped through the remainder of that story and went on to the next one.

1. "Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast", by Mark Chadbourne

thumbsup

2. "Reins of Destiny", by Janny Wurts

thumbsdown

3. Tornado of Sparks, by James Maxey

thumbsup

4. Grander the the Sea, by T.A. Pratt

thumbsup

5. The Prince of End Times, by Hal Duncan

thumbsdown

6. King Tales, by Jeff VanderMeer

thumbsup

7. In Between Dreams, by Christopher Barzak

thumbsdown

8. And Such Small Deer, by Chris Roberson

thumbsup

9. The Wizard's Coming, by Juliet E. McKenna

thumbsup

10. Shell Game, by Mike Resnick

thumbsup

11. The Song Her Heart Sang, by Steven Savile

thumbsdown

12. A Man Falls, by Jay Lake

thumbsup

13. O Caritas, by Conrad Williams

thumbsdown

14. Lt. Privet's Love Song, by Scott Thomas

thumbsup

15. Chinandega, Lucius Shepherd

thumbsup

16. Quashie Trapp Blacklight, by Steven Erikson

thumbsdown

A quick tally shows that I finished ten out of the sixteen stories in TSBONF, or 62.5%. Six stories remained unfinished, or 37.5%.

I don't know what ratio indicates I didn't waste my money. I read ten stories, most of which I enjoyed. I remember a couple leaving me a little dissatisfied, but nothing like the sheer "WTF is this about?" I thought as I skipped through the six stories I did not finish.

For me, this is a lesson. Not only in what I like to read, but also what elements keep someone from putting a book down. I can only attempt to instill such elements into my own writing.

As always, I'll end with a question: What makes you put a book down?

When To Stop Reading, Part 2: The Page 99 Test Put into Practice

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

1. When To Stop Reading, Part 1: The Rules
2. When To Stop Reading, Part 2: The Page 99 Test Put into Practice
3. When To Stop Reading, Part 3: Short Stories
4. When To Stop Listening, Part 4: Audiobooks

A while back I blogged about when to stop reading a book. As the post detailed, there are many criteria, not the least of which is your own good judgement. But there's also quantitative measurements one can take, including the Page 99 Test.

The Page 99 Test is simple, and explained best by this quotation taken from the Page 99 Test web site:

"Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." --Ford Madox Ford

I decided to try the test on my own book, The Hall of the Wood, which I've offered as a free download for some time now.

For purposes of the test, I'm going to start at the first paragraph on the page, so I'm leaving out about 2-3 lines at the top.

Here's the page 99 text from The Hall of the Wood:

Murik raised a finger to his mouth and whispered, "Shh."

The man trembled as he sat up and pushed himself backward. There was nowhere for him to go, though, as he backed into the wall. Murik knew he had found Graewol, for the man looked every bit the crazed lunatic Relk had made him out to be. He wore only pants with no socks or shoes, and his hair was a greasy black and gray with no order to it. His untrimmed beard shot off in all directions.

Murik held his hands out to the man. "I mean you no harm." The sorcerer's voice soothed him as his trembling lessened. "Are you the one they call Graewol?"

The man's chin rose, then went back down. He repeated his nod over and over, stopping only when Murik spoke again.

"My name is Murik. The citizens of this town say you are a wise man who knows many secrets."

Graewol smiled. "Ah know many. Many ah do. Secrets, secrets ah know. All the secrets."

"I need to know of only one this night, my friend. Can you tell me a secret about the lands around Homewood?" Murik tread lightly, not wanting to unduly upset him.

"Secrets, secrets, ah know the secrets..."

The first thing I immediately had to resist was the desire to clean it up a bit. I've noticed as I edit my current novel (The Five Elements) I'm much more judicious, and I dare say merciless, in chopping out unnecessary words, consolidating character movement, and just being more concise overall. But none of that is the point of this post. The point of this post is to determine if my page 99 makes The Hall of the Wood a worthy read.

I'm biased, no doubt, but I like what I see there. There's a certain amount of intrigue and mystery, and hopefully a desire on the reader's part to want to know what secret Murik is after. I'd flip to page 1 and give it a try.

So, for me, The Hall of the Wood passes the Page 99 Test.

Agree or disagree, let me know.