Posts tagged ‘writing’

Monday Masterclass: the length of fantasy stories

Fantasy novels are renowned for being massive tomes – this week’s Monday Masterclass will look at the reasons why.

There are two different but closely related phenomena under examination here. One is the size of individual books, and one is multi-volume series – especially ones telling a single story. Other genres have their fair share of not-so-slim volumes; they also have plenty of multi-book series featuring the same character or characters. Fantasy, more than any other genre, however, puts both together in the service of a single narrative.

Tom Clancy may have written several fat Jack Ryan stories, but they are standalone tales that don’t need to be read in numerical order to be appreciated. Fantasy series do.


Although published as a trilogy, and generally thought of that way, J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was written as and intended to be read as a single novel – a thousand page novel.

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a fourteen book series (the last three books being completed by Brandon Sanderson since the author’s death), with a word count of over four million words.

Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen consists of ten volumes of between 700 and 1200 pages each, with additional related short stories by the author and novels by Ian Cameron Esslemont.

Publishing Reasons

So why do fantasy authors put out such big volumes? One could argue that the size of a novel is simply part of the fantasy idiom, that contemporary fantasists write according to the model established by The Lord of the Rings. This is not a great answer, though.

Perhaps the best answer is simply financial: big books – big series of big books – sell. There is clearly a demand for doorstop novels – not just in fantasy, but in crime, mystery, thriller, horror, science fiction and historical novels. People enjoy reading substantial volumes – especially people who read quickly, and who read lots of books. And people who read lots of books often buy lots of books.

There is also the fact that nothing succeeds like success. Both Robert Jordan and George R R Martin (author of A Song of Ice and Fire – five books so far written of a projected seven, including one so long it had to be published in two parts) originally conceived their most famous works as trilogies. The commercial success of their work gave them and their publishers the green light to expand their stories beyond three books, knowing that avid fans would buy all successive volumes.

Another factor that leads on from this is that success breeds bloat. The more successful an author is, the more power they have in the author-publisher relationship. So much so that editors of the most successful authors may be afraid to edit their work as ruthlessly as they would a début novelist. The first of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (called The Sorcerer’s Stone in America as Americans are clearly afraid of philosophers) was little more than 200 pages longs; the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was more like 800 pages long.

Writing Reasons

There is another set of reasons fantasy novels are so big, and these revolve around the technical aspects of writing fantasy, the ways in which fantasy differs from other genres.

The first and foremost of these reasons is worldbuilding. A novel set in the real world and containing no magical or supernatural elements doesn’t require as much effort to establish and explain the world as a fantasy novel does. A fantasy writer will create continents, cities, races, creatures, systems of magic, politics, society etc, etc, all of which may need to be dwelt on to some degree in order for the reader to understand fully what is going on.

Much writing advice warns against long expository sections of writing – ‘infodump’ – but I think many genre readers – whether fantasy or science fiction or thriller or what have you – actually enjoy such passages (within reason). This leads on to another reason for fantasy obesity: part of the attraction of this genre is the sense of immersiveness some stories achieve. Reading a fantasy novel can involve more than simply appreciating the interplay of characters and plot, but can be a kind of holiday to exotic lands, a lesson in hypothetical biology, physics or sociology. Skilfully done, an extended word count contributes to this.

Fantasy stories tend towards the epic – and epic pretty much means long. Epic stories have huge casts of characters – The Wheel of Time has thousands – they take place over a long period of time and occupy a large amount of space. The characters in fantasy books often have to travel long distances from nation to nation and land to land. They often fight in battles, in wars, and interact with hierarchies of soldiers, nobles, mages and so on. They also need to change drastically from their original personality – often growing wiser and darker; such character changes need time and space to portray realistically.

Reader Reasons

One reason publishers put out long series is that fans want to read them. Readers of fantasy novels get attached to the stories, characters and events they read, and eagerly await the release of the next volume. In a sense, long fantasy series are a kind of literary soap opera.

I’ve been reading The Wheel of Time since shortly after the publication of the first volume back in the early 90s, and my interest in the series has survived the decline in quality, the train wreck of a book that was Crossroads of Twilight, the death of the author and the mediocrity of the new author’s continuation. I will still read the final volume when it comes out, even though I fear I may not enjoy it that much. Why? Out of a sense of loyalty and a desire for closure.

Also, I suspect the average age of a fantasy reader is younger than for pretty much any other genre. Children, teenagers, young adults have more free time to read these massive stories. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have children to look after. Time itself seems to pass more slowly for younger people. A story that can be happily read for hours and days on end has great appeal if you have the time to dedicate to it.


There are many reasons why fantasy books and stories are so big – and many of these reasons are closely interdependent – supply and demand fuel each other. A long book can be a double-edged sword: if you love the book, you don’t want it to end; if it’s rubbish, on the other hand, finishing it can be a punishing slog.

Ultimately, I think fantasy writers enjoy having a large palette upon which to paint the world they’ve created and all the characters and the epic stuggle that constitutes the plot. And fantasy readers appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating a living, breathing secondary world. And publishers, of course, like selling book after book of the same story, knowing there is a ready-made audience for each new one.

What are your thoughts on the length of fantasy stories? And what are your favourite fantasy doorstoppers? Share your brains with the world.

Writing Diary

I’ve not been working on my novel recently. My brain has been piling up problems inside my head – to the point where I have difficulty having any confidence in the project. I know that writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, and anyone who can be discouraged from writing, should be, and writing is the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and all that, and I haven’t officially abandoned it, but it’s definitely on hiatus.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on short stories. I’ve written one recently, and today I started work on another. I’ve also incorporated all the comments I got from reviewers on into an fresh rewrite of my story, ‘The Green Marble’. A couple of days ago I submitted it to Fantasy Magazine. I had some problems with their on-line submissions form – the web page didn’t work at all for me – but the staff responded very quickly to my messages and allowed me to e-mail them the story. They almost as quickly rejected it, too. Now, I’ve just submitted it to Weird Tales.

Writing diary

Yesterday, after weeks of slow preparation – preparation which is by no means complete … not by a long chalk – I started work on the actual text of my novel. Version two of my novel, in fact (the first version was started in November for National Novel Writing Month – I got 16,000 done before I realised I wasn’t accomplishing what I wanted to and needed much more planning).

I wrote a couple of hundred words yesterday and a couple of thousand today. Seems to be going well. I have a better understanding of structure, now, and a good idea of what this story is supposed to achieve, both in terms of plot and theme.

Look forward to more updates in the future.

Friday Fun: The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam

The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam is a list of 75 questions compiled by David J Parker to test whether your fantasy novel is a load of derivative rubbish. If you answer yes to any of the questions then it’s bad news for you. It begins:

  1. Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?
  2. Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
  3. Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?
  4. Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
  5. Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?
  6. How about one that will destroy it?
  7. Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?
  8. Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?
  9. Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise?
  10. Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
Much as I love The Wheel of Time, question 33 is hilarious: ‘Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?’
Read the full list here.

My future income

Science fiction author Tobias S Buckell has conducted a survey to find out what advance sf and fantasy authors receive for their first novel. Result: $5,000 – $6000 on average.

Anyone who, like me, wants to one day make a living in this field had better be sure they’re doing it for love and not money.

The figures remind me of when I did a work placement at a publishing company in London as part of my creative writing degree. I won’t name names, but I had the opportunity to look through files of contracts, and an established fantasy writer whose work I like and respect, and who has now sadly died, received – if I remember rightly – £10,000 split into two £5,000 payments for his latest novel. A world-famous musician who was publishing his autobiography, on the other hand, got £1 million, divided into three equal payments.

Writing diary

Honestly, I haven’t been doing too much writing recently, what with illness and rearranging my blogs. That is all nearly over with now, so I just have to press on with each my projects.

These projects now include this blog – an exploration of fantasy themes. today I’ve been working on an essay about dragons that will be posted on Monday for the Monday Masterclass. I’ve got three other blogs on the go, as well. One of those is for my roleplaying game system and campaign – and that’s a whole load of other work. Then there’s the novel – still in the planning phase, still utterly intimidating in scale. Finally, there are my short stories.

On this latter front, I just got through reading comments from reviewers on Critters about my story ‘Jump’. I got twelve critiques back, mostly useful and positive in tone. I’m pretty behind on doing critiques for Critters, so I need to catch up on that in the next few days. Rewriting ‘Jump’ is also on the cards for the near future.

Ugh – so much work, so little time.