The Allure of Plus-size Novels
You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.
—C. S. Lewis
My sentiments as well, only substitute coffee for tea.
Lewis and I aren’t alone. Whole herds of bookstore browsing readers are attracted to the width of a book’s spine, the larger the better. Apparently there’s still a place in this skinny-obsessed world for plus-size books.
As a writer, I prefer writing long fiction. I tend to think in stories 120,000 words long (approximately 480 pages) in a time when publishers are wanting books of 90,000 words. My American Family Portrait Series comprises nine hefty volumes, or 1,230,600 words. My Songs in the Night trilogy totals 334,500 words, or approximately 1,340 pages. Like I said, I like long stories.
So what are some of the things I've learned about writing long fiction?
Three come to mind:
Long fiction is different than short fiction. Deep stuff, huh? But the difference is worth noting. The same disparity holds true for runners. Sprinters are built differently than marathon runners; they think and train differently. Even so, short story writers and epic novelists are dissimilar storytellers.
The difference is pace. Short fiction is a breathless dash, while long fiction—though it has its breathless moments—develops over time with leisurely scenes of intimacy and reflection. This varied pace is not an excuse for bloated detail or meandering storylines. Clean, crisp writing is just as critical in long fiction as short fiction. What attracts readers to long fiction is the accumulative rise and fall of the narrative; like a panoramic landscape, it is powerful and majestic.
So how does one learn to pace long fiction? Beginning marathon runners train with veteran marathon runners. So too, those who aspire to write long fiction must learn from those who write long fiction. Read long fiction. A lot of it. Not only read it, study it until the rise and fall of narrative action becomes second nature.
Not all writers can write long fiction. It takes a special talent. I learned this while reading James Michener’s autobiography. Michener is probably the quintessential long fiction writer. He pointed out that long fiction writers have certain intellectual equipment. They must be able to see the entire novel, to remember what every character said and did - and why they said and did it - over hundreds of thousands of words and months or years of writing. I had to know what my first character said in the first book on the first page when I wrote the last word on the last page of the ninth volume fifteen years later.
When writing long fiction it's best to have a roadmap. The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step, and the writing of 1000 pages begins with a single word. So it's important that you have a good idea where you're going when you start out. J. K Rowling said that she knew the ending to the Harry Potter series before she wrote the first book. Having that kind of target makes it easier to aim every story element of your book in the right direction. When J.R.R. Tolkien had Frodo leave the Shire, neither of them knew every adventure that would take place, but they both knew that the journey would culminate at the fires of Mordor.
The map doesn't have to be chronological. For Michener, the map resembled a quilt, its characters and storylines linked by geography. He said, "I would break my narrative into splendid panels, leaving it to the reader to bind the whole together."
Probably the greatest advantage of long fiction is not the story itself—though there is nothing like snuggling in for a good long read—but the depth of characterization. Every year tourists stand at the front counter of the Atlanta Visitors Bureau and request the location of the graves of Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler. What a wonderful testament to author Margaret Mitchell. This is long fiction at its best.
This blog originally appeared at The Writers Alley