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I'm a strong believer in books/novels being as long as they need to be; if it turns out short, don't try to pad it out, and if it's long... unless there's chaff to cut out, it's long for a reason.

That being said, I'm writing a debut novel which ~3/4 of the way in is pushing about 170,000 words. No doubt part of this is that there's plenty of chaff to cut out, so for the sake of argument, let's say it can be reduced to 150,000 words on a good day.

As much as it may be 'as long as it needs to be', it's also going to be difficult as all heck to market a debut novel that's longer than the Fellowship of the Ring in its completed form. Publishers only have so much tolerance for epics written by authors that have yet to prove themselves.

Herein lies the problem: I'm considering splitting the book into a pair of books so as to increase the chances of being publishable, but this course of action has its own problems. After all, I structured a plot with a single arc, and a novel with only half an arc is either going to keep a reader on the edge of their seat and buy the next one immediately or, as is most likely due to my status as a debut author, make them dismiss the work as trash.

What answer, if any, is there to this predicament?

Edit: This book is a fantasy novel at its core, albeit one more focused on human elements. I point this out in case it affects answers.

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    You could just publish online. I've read a few online stories with more than 1 million words, the length is really not a problem when it doesn't have to fit on a bookshelf. – Benubird Aug 6 '18 at 9:19
  • I'd prefer my book to pass certain quality standards. As the answers below imply, there's plenty of other reasons why publishing houses reject overly long debut novels. I was essentially asking if separate format (two books) would help or hinder my efforts, and the overwhelming consensus seems to be 'don't split, but condense', which makes a lot of sense given I want to pass certain checks and balance. – Matthew Dave Aug 6 '18 at 9:25
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    Ouch, those poor web writers. You know Brandon Sanderson (2x Hugo Awards) published a book online, right? Not all self-published authors have low quality standards, and getting a publishers approval is far from proof of quality. – Benubird Aug 6 '18 at 10:40
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  1. If your book truly needs to be this long, then it needs to be this long. Destroying your book by cutting it etc. will only diminish its quality and make it less publishable.

  2. If your book is truly great, its length doesn't matter. Even for a newcomer.

  3. If you write in a market segment where books are mainly sold through marketing and one fad is following another (e.g. YA), length is more important than in market segments where books are sold through their literary merit and publishers expect a longer shelf life.

  4. If publishers don't want to publish a newcomer's book only because of its length, write the next book and publish that first.

    It is very rare that the first published book is the first one the author wrote. Very often the first novel(s) remain either unpublished or are published later, when the author is established and their name will sell a more "difficult" book.

  5. If the only thing "wrong" with your book is its length, then the agent or publisher you submit to will tell you. If you don't hear back from the agent/publisher ("silent rejection"), the wordcount wasn't the only problem.

  • It's not the first book I've written, but the first I intend to publish, but yeah, you raise a lot of good points. The book is a fantasy, which I should have pointed out in the question. After all, different genre publishers have different standards regarding length. – Matthew Dave Aug 5 '18 at 12:30
  • @MatthewDave Your book may not be too long for a fantasy novel. Ideal length for a first fantasy novel is around 110K words, and professional revising will usually cut about 25%, so you may be within the optimal or acceptable (90-120K) range anyway. Just finish, rough-edit (plot holes, spelling, ...), and submit. Edit: Numbers are for adult fantasy. YA fantasy wordcounts should be a bit lower. – user32282 Aug 5 '18 at 13:00
  • Thankfully, it's adult fantasy. Thank you for taking the time to answer this. – Matthew Dave Aug 5 '18 at 13:15
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    6. Consider if there are any "pause points" where the book could be split in half: The Lord of the Rings (177,227+143,436+134,462 = 455,125 words) was originally intended as a single book, and The Belgariad (104,000+128,000+122,000+149,000+116,083 = 619,083 words) was originally intended as 3 books. – Chronocidal Aug 6 '18 at 11:31
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You're fine

Word counts* for other debut fantasy novels:

Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson: 234,900 words
Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey: 270,570 words
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: 242,730 words
The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker: 155,498 words

Now, obviously I'm cherry-picking novels with high word-counts and this is not representative of the average debut novel. But all of these novels catapulted their authors into successful careers (in some cases, enormously successful careers).

Fantasy, particularly Epic Fantasy, is known for its large books. While I don't recommend trying to debut with a novel as long as Oathbringer (for which they had to shrink the margins to make it bindable), publishers are willing to give chances to longer than average books from unknown authors. If your book can stand on its own merits then a 150k wordcount will not be an obstacle.

*Word counts are estimates sourced from this website, which bases word counts on audiobook lengths.

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First, it's important to understand why a high word count is problematic. Is it because it'll take too long to read? No. People read at something like 250 words per minute, and anyone who'd choose literature as entertainment almost a century into the TV era is probably running at about 400 wpm. So if on your back of the envelope calculation your novel ends up at 230k or so even before you trim it, and 150k once you have trimmed it, that 80k costs barely 3 hours, and that's basically a plane ride. The remaining 150k is just over 6 hours; anyone unwilling to put that into a book isn't your target audience.

The problem is something very different. Readers don't want to spend less time on your work, but they do want to spend it efficiently. You'd be amazed how much you can condense a paragraph with some work. In this answer I showed how an OP's effort to shrink their own text could be taken much further, and in this answer I cut another paragraph by over 50%. (I'm not showing off; there will be people on here with a far better track record for doing this, and with some effort with your novel you'll probably become one of them.) And if you do that to them all, you'll see a huge difference in how quickly you can tell your story, rather than it dragging. No characters, scenes or plot points removed either! Oh, sure, you should keep your original and trim a separate copy; and when you compare them, you might decide much of your newfound concision is retrograde.

But I'll be honest with you: the right thing to do is a bit of a case-by-case thing. Sometimes it's only after finishing and reading a draft you realise it has a number of problems (not the word count, real problems!) that might require a complete rewrite, or don't require it as such but would be more fun to fix that way (if more work). And if you crystallise in your mind what was meant to happen in your text and why your characters are right to make it happen, albeit perhaps with some polishing, you may find the rewrite allows you to shrink the story. Mind you, in my experience sometimes you find the work grows; you'll probably have to find out the hard way. (I've previously discussed the difficult task of estimating word count before you start.) Another possibility is you'll find one part of your novel is what the whole should have really been, but in rewriting with that newfound realisation it fleshes out to a manageable length rather than one that's too small.

  • Yeah, I alluded to 'chaff', so I agree that 'long as it needs to be' assumes that there isn't stuff that can be condensed/cut out (as I said, I think my work could lose about 20k from me alone, and who knows what a professional editor can do). What I was worried about is even after this, it would remain unmarketable, but as the other answers have shown, at that point it really becomes about the quality, not the quantity, that'll sell/put down my novel. – Matthew Dave Aug 5 '18 at 21:23
  • retrograde = "reverting to an inferior version"? So you're saying the newfound revision will be a disimprovement? – Benubird Aug 6 '18 at 9:21
  • @Benubird "when you compare them, you might decide much of your newfound concision is retrograde": in other words, decide which changes weren't worth making in the second go at it, then merge the best of each version into a third. – J.G. Aug 6 '18 at 10:35
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+1 Arcanist Lupus for doing the research I was thinking of doing!

I agree your novel is probably not too long and can get published. But I also believe it would be easier to attract agents if it were somewhat shorter. So I will add different advice than just answering the question.

Namely, go through your novel, scene by scene. A scene is an unbroken span of time, basically, any mix of prose and dialogue, even if the setting is changing as things transpire (as it might if walking or traveling). When you have a time-jump you start a new scene, even if it is in the same space. A time jump can be a prose summarization of time passage (They walked in silence for an hour, or The following day,), or when turn the camera off to let something happen, like a sex scene, or burying a body, or getting from the apartment in Oklahoma City to the hotel in Paris.

Scene by scene, justify why the scene is in there, and specifically what later part of the story would be diminished or not make sense if this scene were just deleted. Why is it there? Can its raison d'être be accomplished in fewer words? Is it already accomplished in another scene, earlier or later? If so, why must it be accomplished twice? Which one does it better?

First time authors have a tendency to want to hammer on things that if done too often becomes tiresome and repetitive. My hero is smart! Here's ten prior instances proving she's smart!
Oh my god she's SO smart.

I'm not saying you've done that, but this tendency to try and crush it by repetition is a real thing, so you want to look for that.

Another tendency of first time authors that will turn off agents and publishers is to include "soapbox" scenes that are not necessary to the story at all, and justify them as "character building" or "world building". Soapboxing is also called pulpit pounding, speechifying, etc. The soapbox scene is used to promote some moral, political, philosophical or even pseudo-science viewpoint the author wants to "get out there", thinking nobody will care if there are few pages of that. Or a few dozen of them scattered discreetly throughout the book.

Both character building and world building should be necessary to the story. Soapbox scenes bog down the story, the action and the plot, and there's a good chance you will be asked to cut them. Authors often see these as their darlings, publishers (and movie producers) see them as turn-offs and sand in the gears. These guys are there to make money entertaining people, not popping them out of their reading / viewing reverie to argue philosophy or politics or religion.

So look for those; as you go through your scenes if you justify the scene as "character building" or "world building", ask yourself if those character or setting details really have any significant consequences later in the book. If they do not, and you love them anyway, you are probably soapboxing. If they do, and you could convey them in a third of the word count, you are probably also soapboxing a bit.

  • Yeah, this kind of stuff is what I was alluding to with 'chaff'. As I said, I can easily see chopping off a good 20k words with careful condensation, and likely more with the help of a professional editor. Thank you for the in-depth answer. – Matthew Dave Aug 5 '18 at 21:18
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Several of my favourite authors have told me the same thing about writing for publication, don't their advice is to "write yourself the story you want to write, the way you want to write it". If it's good enough to get the attention of a publisher you can fight over final styling and other compromises when that time comes. So your publishing editor may well ask you to break the book down into sections, if they feel it needs it, then and only then do you need to work out how to do that smoothly. Until that happens you should put it together the way you want it, it will be a better piece for not mucking around with it before then.

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This might sound stupid, but... usually, if you think it's "as long as it needs to be", it's too long. You need an outside pressure to get you to the point where you're going to be tearing out your hair in desperation, not knowing what else to cut. And in this state, you need to do a bit more cutting. And then it's going to be "as long as it needs to be".

This is even more likely, if it's your first book.

Creators, in any area, tend to overindulge, in their grand vision, wanting to include all of the bells and whistles and nuances and stuff. Some outside pressure to trim is usually needed. Even if you think you are the next Tolstoy, and even if you were right, don't forget how many people there are who know his books are good and valuable, and actively tried to read them, tried for several times, and are sad that they weren't able to get through them, but... they just weren't able to get through them because of how lengthy and slow-moving they were.

I am in this cathegory. And the same thing almost happened to me with Lord of the Rings. Getting through the first 100 or so pages of the first book was boring and painful and the only reason I did it was that I needed something to waste time then, so I got through it. And I'm glad that I did, but at the same time, if I were Tolkien's editor, I'd tell him to shove all the lineage expositions up his... Silmarillion.

While I'm sure he would argue to death how important it all is for the story.

The thing is - there's two ways to look at "it's as long as it needs to be".

One, which is probably how you mean it, is "it contains all the meaning it needs to contain". And with this, I have no problem agreeing.

The second one, though, is actual word-count length - how much space does it take you to include all of the meaning that needs to be included?

And this is what good trimming is about - not removing meaning, but condensing its expression. I very much recommend studying up on how to create multipurpose scenes - keeping all of the meaning and points, but reducing the length by conveying multiple of those essential meanings and points at the same time.

It's not about selecting and deleting paragraphs and scenes. It's about merging their meaning. I'm sure there's multiple places where you convey one essential thing per scene, where you can and should merge several scenes into one which conveys all of those meanings and points at the same time. Trimming by condensing, not cutting.

Removing purely expositional/worldbuilding stuff by incorporating it into actual story-conveying parts, for example. Incorporating character and place descriptions into scenes that actually move the plot forward. Etc etc.

Again, don't cut stuff. Shorten by merging stuff.

Take this comment of mine as a good anti-example. I'm dancing around one point from several sides, repeating myself, etc. It might be nice to read as in "it flows and sounds nicely", but having a whole book written like this would be incredibly boring, because it's... sparse, thin.

If I was a better writer, and/or if I gave this comment several revisions, ideally, I'd arrive to a point where it would be a one paragraph which you would feel the need to read several times, each time focusing on a different aspect, thus kind of "expanding" it to this sparse form in your mind. And that would be what's called "dense, meaning-packed writing". And that's what you want to achieve. You want, to a larger or smaller degree, your text to be a "maze/zip file of meaning which the reader wants and has to unravel across several readings", not a sponge he's trying to swim through quickly so he can do the opposite - condense it into the points.

Also, publishers are usually jaded assholes, so better to have it proof-read by several people who are good examples of your target audience, and edit it based on their feedback, until their reactions are what you want them to be.

Then go to publisher, armed with this as a base of your reasoning as to why, right now, it's precisely the length and density you want and intend it to be, the size and density it needs to be.

  • Yeah, condensation is closer to what I meant by 'cutting out the chaff'. Omitting what is truly unnecessary and working in what important parts may be lost into the final product in a more efficient manner. As I said, I think I alone could condense out ~20k words, and a professional editor would likely add to that. – Matthew Dave Aug 5 '18 at 21:21

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