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?***