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The lengths some writers go…

I am currently reading The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s the sequel to his sublime debut, The Name of the Wind and at 1000 pages, it’s a whopper. I keep flicking to the end to remind myself of how many pages I’ve got to go. Fantasy is a genre that lends itself to long books – think of any of the Game of Thrones volumes, the Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. While I’ve never got around to reading GOT, I lapped up the others during my youth.

By contrast, I recently picked up second-hand copies of On Chesil Beach by Ian MacEwan and The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes. Both barely make it past 150 pages. The same goes for the more recent Sarah Winman’s award-winning Tin Man. Literary novels tend to be much shorter than other genres and the contrast with fantasy is particularly stark.

But The Wise Man’s Fear got me thinking about whether writers tend to fall into two camps on this topic. You’ll probably have heard of the division between plotters and pantsers – those writers who prefer to carefully plot out their novels before starting versus those who let an initial premise or character lead them by the nose. I wonder if it’s the same with page count? I know some writers whose first drafts are very long and their editing process focuses on cutting out all the unnecessary bits that slows down the story.

But my first drafts tend to come up a bit short even though I write thrillers, which is a genre at the longer end of the spectrum. My Gaia Trilogy (published by Urbane Publications) barely makes it past 1000 pages in total, let alone for one volume. I guess it traces back to my work in the city where traders would receive hundreds of e-mails every day. If I didn’t get my point across clearly and succinctly within a few sentences, my e-mailed analysis would get deleted without being read. Brevity has been my default ever since.

The publishing world also plays its part in deciding whether authors can get away with unusual length for their books. You have to be pretty famous, and preferably award winning, to get away with very short novels. The reader wants to know they are getting some value from their purchase if it’s half the length of a normal book. So every word has to count! And the tome itself will be easy to miss on the shelf of a bookshop if there’s a thin, meagre spine on display amongst the fatter morsels on offer.

Very long books reveal, to me, a certain amount of leniency from the publisher towards the author. While there were plot reasons for the Harry Potter books to get longer with every volume, I’m pretty sure that the publishers were using their editing scalpel less keenly towards the end of the series as the mega-bucks rolled their way. It feels like that with The Wise Man’s Fear too. I loved The Name of the Wind, but this second book seems indulgent. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is wonderful, the characters crackle and the setting sparkles. But 300 pages in and all that’s really happened is a series of vignettes, almost like we’re in a soap opera. I’m pretty sure a 1000-page submission has never got through an agent’s slush pile!

So, my advice for all writers out there: if you want to write a really short novel, or a really long one, make sure you’re already famous and successful. And with that cutting-edge insight, may I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.