Size – Does It Matter?

So shoot me for false advertising, but I have a dilemma. I shared with you last week in A Tribute to Editors that I have received my manuscript to At The Walls Of Galbrieth back from my editor with lots of cuts and corrections. As I worked my way through, accepting 90% of the changes suggested, I realized that my word count was dropping drastically.

I am about 80% through the novel, which began at 96,000 words and is now down to about 85,000.

Epic fantasy novels are thick tombs, offering the promise to get lost in a mythical world for a month or so. It is not a novel that you can finish in a weekend (unless your weekend is very empty and you are a fast reader).

Even Young Adult books make good doorstops. The Christopher Paolinis’ of this world have proved that teenagers will stick with a long story if it is compelling enough.

So my first question is: Is there a minimum length? When I was shopping the Wycaan Master series, there were publishers who stipulated a word range, often 100,00+. It might be that they expected their editors to attack it with a scalpel, much as my editor did.

My second question regards world building, something we have touched on before at elfwriter. A lot of the scenery description has been edited out. The editor, like many in the writing world, believes that you shouldn’t reveal everything: about a person, room, scenery etc., but allow the reader to create their own image.

Certainly, anyone who has read a book after watching the movie  (or the other way around) can appreciate this.

Tolkien, the master, spent pages describing the forests and the trees. Many of us loved this while others skipped these long descriptions. I wonder whether a young, undiscovered Tolkien would (and please pardon the expression) suffer the long red, sharpie lines through these sections of his work (or the Track Changes equivalent – but that’s not how I think of the old professor).

There is a middle ground. My editor has challenged me to integrate the descriptions within an action scene or as a pivot for a character’s self-reflection. This is a great point and I plan to experiment with this in the future. Do you know of any writers who do a good job of integrating description into the flow of the plot or character development, without it feeling like a ‘description-dump’?

So two questions here: Does size matter? How much description is allowed?

As always, I appreciate your feedback and guidance.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first, which reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012, is due out in January 2013 by Tourmaline Press. More on Alon Shalev at and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

15 comments on “Size – Does It Matter?

  1. For me as a reader the lenght of a book/ the amount of words does not matter. I read short stories that were more fascinating than long books (and vice versa). The only thing that matters to me is if the story told by the author is captivating no matter how many words are needed for it. I really don’t count the pages in a book before I decide if I’d buy it or not. And I’m sure Tolkien didn’t write epic descriptions of landshapes just to hit a certain word counter. I wouldn’t want to read epic fantasy if that would be a synonym for “epic long descriptions” 😉
    If your editor thinks you should shorten your story it is up to you to do so or not. It is your story after all. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s not. As far as I understood the role of editors they are supposed to help the author to make their story more interesting for the people who are supposed to buy the book which does not neccessarily (but in most cases) mean they make the story better in the eyes of the author.

    I personally wouldn’t want to read a book that is stretched artificially just because the author wanted to hit the 100.000+ mark. If the story needs to be shortened down to 80.000 words but therefore will be have more pace and tension in it – great! I want to read a story that makes me want to read it no matter how early it is in the morning and no matter how much I need to get sleep before work. It doesn’t matter if that story is 100.000, 80.000 or 50.000 words long.

    I must admit that lately I did mainly read short stories to review them in my blog. The last books I read were Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss and Night of Wolves by David Dalglish. Especially Patrick managed to capture me which I blame his wonderful and beautiful use of the englisch language for (at least for me as a german).

    I hope I could help at least a bit. I wish you good luck with your story. Trust yourself, it is your story and you alone know what should be done with it.

    • Elf Writer says:

      Thank you so much. I love the laundry list perspective. I have read Dalglish’s First Blood and enjoyed it. I will check out both authors.

      • I was afraid that I did not really answer your question. On the other hand I do not have a good answer; only something like “The correct amount of description is all that is neccessary and nothing that is not needed.”
        But there’s one quotation that I printed and put on my wall just above my laptop I use for writing: ” Perfection is not when there can be no more added. Perfection is when nothing can be cut away anymore.”

        I have absolutely no experience in writing novels. Until now I only wrote some short stories or stuff like that for a Pen&Paper group with my friends and prepare for entering my first NaNoWriMo (curious to try it). But I guess my question for every scene and the whole story would be what I want to tell and show the reader. Only leave those sentences that serve the scene. For me there’s nothing against a good description as long as it fits the scene and keeps you curious about what is about to happen next.

      • Elf Writer says:

        Love the quote: “Perfection is not when there can be no more added. Perfection is when nothing can be cut away anymore.”
        That’s a big help right now. Thank you.

  2. I have been told by 2 agents that the word count for speculative fiction, especially fantasy, is acceptable between 100k-180k.

    My writing coach agrees, but also is of the school if integrating description throughout the action, dialog, etc. instead of a ‘laundry list.’

    My novel (paranormal/alternate plane) started out at 242k+. It’s at 189k+ now in revisions. There are things to cut, but I myself like description. I ask myself is it relavant to my story and cut or adjust it from there.

    I love description. Paolini is very good at getting the description in with the action. Tolkien, while I like the richness of his world, is more of a ‘laundry list’ guy. Still, I devoured both.

  3. I feel like the length only matters in that your point to the readers gets across. I know many readers who are intimidated by excessively long books and simply won’t attempt to read them thinking they will never get through. I am a new author myself and found myself taking a large manuscript and dividing it into a trilogy so that I wouldn’t lose those types of readers. I had some issues with the decision to do that because the first book only ended up being about 40,000 words long. However, the genre is romantic suspense, not fantasy and if I added more to it I would have only been “padding” the story that I felt already got the point across in a detailed manner. The second and third books are longer, but I didn’t feel the need to follow any rules. I hadn’t been accepted by any literary agents so I had to go it alone, I felt the right to make up my own rules! I, myself, enjoy very long descriptions when reading, but that’s just me. Most of the landscape/scenery descriptions I included in my novel were intermixed into plot scenes and character thoughts during reflection. If you feel as though everything you wanted to say will still come across to the reader than I say length doesn’t matter. It’s the point that counts, if they will still be able to properly envision what you are portraying, then I wouldn’t worry about it.

    • Elf Writer says:

      Thank you, Andrea. While I plan to go back after this round of editing, I am determined to avoid padding.
      Good luck with your novels. What is the first one called?

  4. You know, I wrote my first book with the mantra of “hey, nobody ever hurled a book across the room because the author didn’t spend enough time talking about the weather.”

    My mistake was in confusing description for world-building – all my first beta readers came back loving on the characters and the plot, but complaining a blue streak about the cardboard-cutout world. (In retrospect, it was like one of those painted backgrounds on the Looney Tunes cartoons, where you know nothing will move or happen because it’s rendered differently from the characters / relevant objects.)

    Fixing that problem took it from 85,000 words to 149,000. Then the job was economizing to the max (because telling my fellow writers that I’d written a 149k first novel was causing monocles to drop into the champagne everywhere I went.) It was a good exercise to ask “what of this does the reader really need to know?” and then “how can I get that across while also accomplishing something else?” World-building, character development, plot advancement – I made a rule that every page in the book had to do at least 2 of the 3. Cut that sucker down to 120,000 flat, and I tell you what – it is now the Sly Stallone of fantasy novels. (Not the Schwarzenegger – that’s Jordan and Martin’s domain!)

    Good luck in your own bulking up and cutting down efforts – it sounds like you fearless in wading through the red ink, and set to come out leaner, meaner, and significantly sleeker on the other side!

  5. Ed Mehen says:

    I am currently working through a proofreading / copy-editing course which doesn’t involve heavy editing like you’ve experienced here, and I was amazed at how much the editor has suggested for cuts. So thanks for that insight. Other than that, no, size does not matter with books as long as the story is properly told and characters are fleshed out. Having read a lot of Tolkien, and the Dragonlance books especially, I can see how tempting it is to take (rather like the ents) a long time to say anything but those books were written in a different time when there weren’t the same financial factors of bookselling to consider.

    • Elf Writer says:

      Thanks, Ed. I appreciate your insight and what you are learning on the course. I have spent the weekend going through the editor’s comments and even had two copies of my manuscript side by side. I have to admit, that 90% of what she cuts makes sense. It seems less of cutting the world-building, and more of compressing it. I am very impressed with her work.

      Your reference to Tolkien and the Dragonlance series is reassuring. I think you are correct.

      Having said that – I do love those Ents!

      Take care,

  6. lisafender says:

    I have been told with Fantasy or Sci-fi it doesn’t matter. You can have it as long as you want it to be. As far a description, some people like a lot, some don’t. I think you can over do this. If your writing is tight, you should be able to describe a scene without it being a page long. You can over do blocking too, so keep that to a minimum also. With description too, make sure it’s in the characters POV and not the authors. .

  7. Tim Lewis says:

    Alon, I skimmed each person’s response, and am intentionally ignoring all of them. (This way you get my opinion, unfettered)

    The average length of a novel (worldwide) is 63,000 words. The rumor I keep getting from editors is they want to keep the length under 80,000 and beef up the pacing.

    Still, a novel’s length cannot be limited simply because you you have a target size. Good writing is still good writing, regardless of the length. Look at the Harry Potter series. I’ll bet that dozens of the rejections were based solely on the fact that the person screening the manuscript never believed teanagers would read a 1200 page book. Boy, were they wrong!

    Now, all of this aside, my “edits” have taken my 60,000 word WIP to 83,000 words. How I see that is I can probably cut whole scenes, tighten up the overall work, and possibly keep my readers riveted to their seats (my book in hand).

    Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” is technically a novella. At 50,000 words it’s still a masterpiece of literature. As to “War and Peace”, the opposite of the literary spectrum is achieved.

    Bottom line: each book is as long as it needs to be. Don’t sweat the small (or large) stuff. Being privileged to view your writing, your work is the exception to the mundane and ordinary. Keep it up. Write and edit until you are done.

    Tim Lewis

  8. kimtg says:

    I read…a LOT! If a description of scenery/background/surroundings is more than a paragraph and takes up a page or more…too much. I do skip all of it. In MY opinion, being descriptive is very important, but should not become a focal point within the pages of the story.

    Descriptive details should enhance a character; their thinking, decisions, actions. When scenery/background details explain or enhance a character’s motivations, those scenery details are important to the story…because it is part of the story. There is one book I remember where a couple in the story were on a road trip and the author proceeded to write MANY paragraphs describing the trees, fields and sky as they drove along. OMG…it was SO tedious and did nothing to add interest to the story, as a matter of fact, it greatly detracted from the story line. If a book does not “snag” me within the first chapter, I don’t waste my time on it. Sometimes describing the surrounding scenery/background should be done with broad, soft strokes. Other times you need to use the “correct” paint brush, fine point…and be as detailed as possible.

    If a book has an excellent story line, well developed characters and it has me caught up in what is going to happen next…but goes overboard on unnecessary background descriptions…I just skip over all that until it gets back to the story itself.

    I am simply a reader, not a writer or aspiring writer. My input to you is from the bottom line…your targeted audience.

    • Elf Writer says:

      This is great feedback, Kim, thank you so much. I think you represent a significant proportion of my target audience. A few people,Tolkein lovers, confessed to skimming over pages of description.

      As I continued to follow my editor’s cuts, I began to understand better what she was doing, and your comment is exactly that. I have saved this sentence that you wrote and pinned it on my noticeboard by my desk:

      “Descriptive details should enhance a character; their thinking, decisions, actions. When scenery/background details explain or enhance a character’s motivations, those scenery details are important to the story…because it is part of the story.

      Thank you,

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