Length DOES Matter (When it Comes to Books)!

The entire back-breaking first draft of THE LIBERATORS, 1600 pages handwritten!

The entire back-breaking first draft of THE LIBERATORS, 1600 pages handwritten!

I’ve always been a fan of well-rendered novels that push (or even shatter) the norms of scope and length. The standard advice is that a novel should be between 80,000-120,000 words. For a printed book, that tends to fall in the range of about 250-400 pages. Good advice. Given the feverish pace at which life runs these days, a lot of readers may shudder just at the heft of a book much longer than 400 pages. But not me. I like a story that I can really sink my teeth into, with a complex and ambitious plot, an extensive cast of memorable characters, in which a detailed, full-hipped world is erected—a place you don’t want to leave any time soon. This is probably why I vastly prefer novels over short stories (for reading and writing).

So it’s no surprise that Stephen King’s The Stand (~1,053 pages) was my favorite novel from the age of 14 through well into my 20s. Another King epic topped it in length, and upended it from my top spot: 2010’s Under the Dome (~1,074 pages). I read the latter three times over the course of just 18 months in prison! And even on the second re-read, I still found it a thrilling page-turner. That’s indicative of a spectacular tale, indeed. Also in my top five is the late genius David Foster Wallace’s unequaled masterpiece Infinite Jest. That one exceeds 950 pages if you include the extensive endnotes.

Given the above, I guess it’s also no surprise that I’ve become a page-cranker myself. The third novel I wrote, Redwood Falls, was well over 600 pages in the first draft. My sixth novel, The Liberators—which I handwrote in prison because there were no accessible word processors—turned out to be a staggering 1,200-plus pages when typed. Over 360,000 words. And my current project, a fiercely unique prison memoir called Rebel Hell: Doin’ Time for Barely a Crime, is already over 500 pages. And I’m not even close to done with the first go-round.

Don’t worry; I cut a significant portion in the subsequent drafts (usually about 20-30 percent). During first drafts, it seems like I’m feeling around, writing my way to what it is I want to say. During revisions, I cut unnecessary scenes, shorten others, and sometimes eliminate entire subplots or characters. Some great writers—notably Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins—weren’t/aren’t heavy editors. They work on a page until it’s as close to perfect as they can get, so after a draft is finished there’s little editing to be done. Other juggernauts—like David Foster Wallace and John Irving (who’s said that something like 75 percent of the time spent on his novels is in the edits/rewrites)—were/are feverish first-draft-revisionists. Infinite Jest, which as noted is still a carpal-tunnel-danger, was at one point about twice its final-draft size.

One thing is certain: whether you crank out massive tomes or minute, straightforward speed-reads, length should be an important consideration both for burgeoning writers trying to break through, and for already-established scribes. We need to consider our subject(s), our intended or probable audience, costs of production, and a multitude of other factors. In any case, the adage Length Does Matter happens to be true when it comes to writing novels.

***What are some of YOUR favorite heavyweight tomes?***

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25 thoughts on “Length DOES Matter (When it Comes to Books)!

  1. Monica

    How many pages was the Tolkien trilogy? I’ve read that at least five times over, and I always think of the three books as one. The Stand was one of my favorites, too, as a youngster. Who had to type your marathon handwritten notes? How does a writer cull so much of his or her efforts to produce the final product? That would be hard, after all of that frenzied writing. So many questions. Get back to work! 😉

    Reply
    1. Jan Smitowicz Post author

      Hehe! LoR, jeez, I haven’t read it but it must be over 1500 pages? I can’t believe Stephen King’s DARK TOWER series (seven books!) slipped my mind. Most of those seven are 400-600 pages, with a couple exceeding that–the last one is over *900* pages! I wonder what the total page count is for the whole series….same thing for Harry Potter!

      Who had to type it? ME! Haha. WISH I had the money to pay someone to do it 😉 How do I cull so much of my efforts? Very, very painfully, that’s how. Heh. From that book, The Liberators, I’ve ALREADY cut 260ish pages, and I haven’t even REALLY dug my editing claws into it! That’s the length of decent-sized book that I’ve already CUT. Madness!

      Thank you for your great comment =)

      Reply
  2. Michelle Proulx

    I’m loving the Kingkiller Chronicles series by Patrick Rothfuss — massive books, but they go by so quickly because they’re just so darn engrossing 🙂 I would say the same about Game of Thrones, but … I mean, the chapters about characters I like go by really quickly, but chapters about characters I really don’t care for (*cough*TheonGreyjoy*cough*) just take FOREVER.

    Reply
    1. Jan Smitowicz Post author

      I’m not into fantasy, but I figured somebody would bring up books from the genre–they very much tend to be slayers of printer-ink cartridges! 😉 Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  3. dweezer19

    My novel is currently over 1000 pages, but I am attempting to edit more frugally as I am publishing it in bits on my blog. I, too, am a Stephen King fan, big fave is The Dark Tower. Good luck with yours and can’t wait to read it!

    Reply
    1. Jan Smitowicz Post author

      Thank you! My revenge-on-Monsanto novel ORANGE RAIN is available through Amazon now, there’s a link at the top of my page =)

      I *LOVE* the Dark Tower series. Utter masterpiece. My favorite single book of his is Under the Dome, but if you take The Dark Tower as one long work split into seven books, I think that’s his magnum opus.

      How is it going with publishing your novel a little at a time on your blog? I’m tentatively planning to do something similar with another one of my novels, the book I wrote before “Orange Rain”; it’s called REDWOOD FALLS. Only difference is, first I’m going to e-publish the whole thing on Kindle. Then I’ll post maybe 15-20 page chunks, one a week, on my blog to try and get people into it; each free installment will include something like, “If you don’t want to wait, you can download the entire novel through Amazon HERE.” That kind of thing. What do you think? I’m very curious to hear how it’s going with your novel-in-installments! I’ll definitely check it out, too.

      Thank you for your comment! ❤
      Jan

      Reply
      1. dweezer19

        I think your idea is awesome. I want to publish on ebook but feel I really need to thin it. With mine, I am having a problem getting enough feedback. People will hit the like button but no comments which is disheartening, although my friend who read it lived it. Problem is it is more of a cerebral work in the first half. I mean. it is a mythological creation story..but it really heats up in the last half. It was really written to set up the second book. I need to get it all organized on its own page rather than in chunks, mixed in with my other stuff. I actually have Orange Rain downloaded and am about to dig in. Ill let you know! I know how difficult it is when one is a writer to spend a lot of time reading other authors’ work. If you have time, pop over and at least give the first chapter a read. Its not too long. You can find it in the Search bar under Forever never/ The Traveler The Question. I think it was a sneak preview thing. Good luck with the new project! Yes, I still think Dark Tower is the one that needs a film rendition. I also loved The Stand. King is a true visionary as far as Im concerned.

        Reply
        1. Jan Smitowicz Post author

          Oh, had you not heard?! Ron Howard has the right’s to a Dark Tower project; I think he’s planning a trilogy with some kind of tie-in to a TV show. The fact that he’s at the helm makes me….less worried, haha. Also sounds like Howard wants Aaron Paul (Jesse from Breaking Bad) to play Eddie Dean, which would be AMAZING.

          Trust me, I feel you–the difficulty of finding support and readers, EVEN FROM family and friends, is VERY disheartening. In fact, I find it to be one of the most difficult parts about being a struggling writer trying to make it. Writing a 600-page book is goddamn EASY compared to trying to get readers!! “/

          Thanks for your comment, keep at it ❤

          Jan

          Reply
          1. dweezer19

            Oh yes I HAD heard about the Ron Howard project. My son is in the film industry and was talking about it. I agree about Ron Howard. They might actually bring one of his novrls to life with character accuracy and depth. I thought Daniel Craig might make a good adult Roland. He does somber pretty well, although maybe too handsome. Thanks for the encouragement and right back atcha. I think Ill go start Orange Rain before I turn in. Take care.

            Reply
            1. Jan Smitowicz Post author

              OH WOW, Daniel Craig–brilliant!! I love that idea, I’d NEVER considered or even heard anyone else make that suggestion, and I think he’s the best choice now that Clint Eastwood is too old. Craig’s handsome, but if he has a beard and they rough ‘im up a little, I think it’ll be just fine. Ron Howard at the helm: perfect. Aaron Paul as Eddie: perfect. Daniel Craig: perfect. What do you think about Viola Davis (the main black charactor in “The Help”) as Susannah? She’s not that much older than Paul–in fact I think she’s the perfect amount older, since Suze is older than Eddie.

              Reply
              1. dweezer19

                I think she’s got the look and build for it. Susannah can be rough though. Yeah…I think she could pull it off. What about Jake? Probably an unknown. I get so pumped thinking about the possibility. Hey what did you think of the tv production of Under the Dome, since you liked the book? My husband loved the book but just couldn’t connect with the series. Too many commercials for one thing.

                Reply
            2. Jan Smitowicz Post author

              This just occurred to me: Carl from The Walking Dead (the sheriff Frank’s son, kid who wears the black hat his dad gave him) as Jake. He’d be PERFECT. Just the right age, great young actor…

              Reply
  4. dweezer19

    Hey, you should feel honored. I bought my husband Dr. Sleep for Christmas and he hasn’t cracked it open yet so I keep threatening to read it first. Then I decided to read yours first! Your very first top billing-and in front of a great. 😉 Yeah, I’m not a die hard fan of WD but watch it with my son so I know the actor you are talking about. Yes, if they do it soon. I used to think Leo DiCaprio would make a wonderful young Roland or Cuthbert but now he’s too old. And that kid in Cowboys and Aliens would be okay for Jake but he borders on too old now.

    Reply
    1. Jan Smitowicz Post author

      VERY honored!! 🙂

      Under the Dome is my favorite single King book, I read it THREE times in just 18 months in prison, and even the third time it was a page-turner! Basically, I didn’t want to impede on potential future enjoyment of re-reading the book, so I intentionally *did not* watch the TV series. Plus I’m generally not a fan of books-into-TV-miniseries.

      Reply
      1. dweezer19

        Yeah, neither me. They always botch his stuff anyway. BUT, that being said, The Stand was an awesome adaptation. And It was pretty good, except you never have time to get inside their heads the way his books do. The whole dark humor is lost if you don’t know their history. Otherwise it just comes off as smarmy or macabre. oh but The Dark Half was SO good. I LOVE that book. His villains are just so….villainous. lol

        Reply
        1. Jan Smitowicz Post author

          Wow…let’s just say we have VERY different taste in King books 😉 Which is only natural, he’s so diverse and different books display myriad facets of his storytelling wizardry! That’s why he’s the best….the only King movies I really, really like off the top of my head are The Shining (although I couldn’t/wouldn’t watch it frequently), Dreamcatcher (I know, believe it or not), Hearts in Atlantis, and Misery..

          Reply
          1. dweezer19

            Well…I AM a girl. lol. That’s going to make me a bit sentimental. Let’s just say I hated Pet Semetary. When I read it my oldest son was only two. Misery, I loved, although I wanted him to bash her head in pronto. In fact I have a tricky little short story idea that came to me during the early morning hours not long ago that has a similar twist. We all loved Stand By Me. And my husband’s favorite by far is Shawshank Redemption as far as a movie goes. My son is in film so he loves Stanley Kubric and The Shining is at the top of his list. I can’t watch it much though, either. I did actually like the Tommyknockers mini series but didn’t like the one with everyone on the airplane lost in limbo. I can’t even remember the name. Oh Lord I almost forgot about Needful Things. LOVED that one. Wicked. That little necklace she wore around her neck with something inside it….

            Reply
            1. Jan Smitowicz Post author

              HAHA! I just plain KNEW I’d forget at least two of the movies I LOVED. Always happens when I list favorite, hehe. Shawshank is actually probably my FAVORITE King-piece-turned-movie of them all! And Stand By Me is up there, as well. Damn scatterbrained, forgetful memory! =p

              Reply
              1. dweezer19

                Yes! It was so dull. You should see Needful Things if you get a chance. Did you read that book? No matter how often Shawshank plays we always stop and watch it. Best thing Tim Robbins ever did.

                Reply
                1. Jan Smitowicz Post author

                  Agreed. Haven’t gotten around to reading Needful Things, and I’m not sure if I ever will. I no longer feel the need to read EVERY King book just to be able to say that I have; I know he wrote some clunkers (like everyone, of course), and I kind of got the impression Needful Things was one of them (I’m not a fan of that 10-ish-year King era, from around ’84-’94 or thereabouts). I’m 99% positive I’ll never read Cujo or Pet Semetary or Skeleton Crew, for example. But I’m guessing you liked Needful Things?

                  Reply
                  1. dweezer19

                    Yes because it was a bit different from what hed been doing and was the lead in for his new style of sort pitting a community of people against one another, drawing out all the nasty hidden animosities. This guy comes to town and opens a pawn shop but knows what each person desires more than anything else. He gives them things which make their secret desires reality, but then uses this power to wreak havoc int the town. He is not what he appears of course. The descriptives and dark humor are what make it good-and the ending of course. I feel as you do about most of what he wrote after The Dark Tower series. I just hated to see it end. I did read Wind Through The Keyhole though.

                    Reply
    1. dweezer19

      Yeah, I’ve been told I need to hack my novel down. It’s over 1000 pages right now and they said if I didn’t rewrite the Bible I should give up. Talk about discouraging…

      Reply

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