The Long (and Too Long) of It
Ask any agent or publisher, and they’ll tell you 120,001 words is too long. Or maybe 100,001 words. For certain genres, it’s even less. But as a self-publisher, I’m less and less interested in ROI- and risk-based word totals. I’m curious what the reader thinks. How long is too long?
Pick up one of the classics—Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo or Hugo’s Les Misérables or anything by Dickens—and you’ll quickly realize you’re in for more than 120,000 words. WAY more. Search the library or bookstore for modern best-sellers by Clancy, Cussler, Grisham, or King. Many of their works are much longer than the industry standard. But again, I’m appealing to readers. How long is too long?
Think of a fun-filled vacation, a thrilling sporting event, a blockbuster movie. Have you ever thought, “Wow, this is great . . . I just wish it was shorter.” Can’t say I have. I never want to come back from vacation. I wish those back-and-forth bowl games lasted five quarters. I want Ethan Hunt to keep outwitting bad guys all night long. Similarly, when I’m immersed in a good book, I don’t want the story to wrap—I want to keep reading and reading and reading. You too?
I’m guessing the issue is not so much one of quantity as quality. If the plot is compelling, if the characters ring true, if it is indeed a “page-turner,” then of course, you’ll keep reading. Whereas if the plot is shallow, the characters are stale, and the chapter ending screams “put me down and exercise,” you’ll be counting the pages as you turn them. Or am I wrong? Have you ever put down a captivating novel halfway through because it was just too long? Do you skip to the end because you’re tired of reading and wish the author had cut to the chase?
What about before you read? Are you going to leave a book on the shelf if its spine is as thick as a dictionary? When you see smallish print and a lot of pages, do you pass, even if the story is compelling? How long is too long?
I ask because I’m currently rewriting the third novel in my series about a private investigator. Book one was 87,000 words, the perfect length for a debut novel. Book two hit 130,000 words, too long for traditional publishers, but well short of a good Dirk Pitt adventure or Jack Ryan thriller. The first draft of book three was 165,000 words, and as I began rewriting it primarily for the purpose of plot revision, I also had in mind to shorten it. Well, I’ve still got a ways to go and 165K is coming at me like a semi on the highway. Two hundred grand is on the table. Is that too long? Will you leave it on the shelf (physical or virtual) because it’s just too big? Does it represent too much of a time commitment. Too heavy or will take up too much space on your tablet? Or would you read the Encyclopedia if it could hold your interest?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment below, or better yet, shoot me a message on Twitter @atruebluehusker. That is, if this post wasn’t so long that you quit reading a few paragraphs ago.