A little while ago, I hit 80,000 words on the first draft for my first novel “The Singing Lamp of Bombay”.
80,000 Words! For those of you who haven’t read my article, Who’s to blame for the state of the Fantasy Genre?, that would be the minimum length for a fantasy novel submitted to Penguin Publishing. The focus on Penguin’s Daw series is a bit of an accident, but also a quick sideways glance into book lengths, publishers and the internet. If you did a Google search for how long your first novel should be, you will not get a straight answer. Well, sure, you’ll get a ton of opinions from writers, many whom haven’t written a first novel in years. But few publishing companies want to put a number out there for you to ballpark with. Even publishers with blogs on the internet have a tendency to get all metaphysical on the subject. This, despite the fact that, if your novel has a reason to be rejected by a publisher, then it will be rejected. Publishers have too many manuscripts to go through, and one less manuscript means hours of saved work. So, while they say “A novel is complete when you feel it is done,” what they really mean is, “If that sucker is the next ‘Atlas Shrugged’, I’m using it as packing material for my holiday shipping.”
This makes some internal logic. Publishers want authors to produce the best books that they can write; Getting involved in the creative process and telling authors what they can and can’t do can stifle a master work. Publishers also want to reduce the amount of reading they have to a reasonable number by tossing large chunks of ‘Master Works’ into the recycle bin. You’d think that a few guidelines parsed out by major publishers would help the community at large and, therefore, themselves. But no dice. Come to the marketplace with a price, and we’ll see if we’re willing to negotiate with you.
What I do know is that 80,000 appears to be a sort of magic number in Fantasy / Sci-Fi circles. Many websites point to that number as a ‘minimum’ for the genre. Worldbuilding, they say. Good science fiction and good fantasy takes place in a whole new world established by the mind of the author. It’s expected. Well, except for books that take place in other people’s intellectual properties, such as Star Trek or World of Warcraft novels. But those books are handled by contract by established authors. No, no, world building takes a good 20,000 words or so, and you’re going to have to do it.
Which is odd, because a lot of people I know aren’t particularly interested in reading about some non-scientist’s, non-anthropologist’s idea of what makes a good world. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they want to hear a crazy idea as much as you or I. The author just shouldn’t be elaborating on it. If I started talking too much about quantum mechanics, let’s say, I’d be out of my league and would sound like a quantum idiot. No amount of quick research would remedy my need to push buzzwords on you to sound vibrant. And, let’s face it, one other form of media doesn’t bother with world building. Every now and then, Firefly or Battlestar Gallactica might explain why the universe operates the way it does. But more often, these shows are telling you a good story, and, if you’re going to enjoy it, you need to have faith that the writers have an internal logic system that the show spirals on. If you stick around, you’ll pick up the pieces of that world. The warp drive uses dilithium crystals. Get over it.
But, here I am complaining when I mean to be celebrating. I’m at the top of the hill, and now it’s time for a quick run down the other side. Then, there’s the first edit and up another hill. I got a chain of small mountains to work through over here, but it’s nice to know that one of them is down.