What happened to the epic novel?

Last month, a friend of mine who is reading The Proviso said to me (paraphrase), “You know, a publishing house editor would have made you cut some of this.” Beat. “But I don’t know what it could have been.” At 283,000 words, it’s actually right on track for a novel that chronicles the romances of 3 couples. It’s 94,333 words per romance. (No, I don’t know which couple gets more air time, nor does it matter.)

A couple of days ago I blithely typed, “I want to be the Tom Wolfe of genre romance” and suddenly, the light came on for a few people, one of whom said so in that thread. I had never thought of my writing goals in that light until I actually said it, and that is true. (That’s just blindingly arrogant of me, isn’t it?)

Anyway, I had the feeling there were only 3 readers (including me) around Romancelandia longing for the long, involved, complex romance. But a Dear Author thread about the shrinking word counts of some of Harlequin’s lines (this isn’t unusual) disabused me of the notion. More readers came out of the woodwork to express their dissatisfaction with the snacks that are the single-title romances (and we won’t go into category aka Harlequin romance). We want feasts!

But alas. There are none.

Th. made the argument in a provocative post that series writing is a different skill from single-novel writing, and perhaps that’s where the epic novel went: to series. That must be read in the proper order to get the whole story.

I hate that. It’s inconvenient and, from a consumer’s point of view, extravagantly expensive. (And you thought MY book cost a lot of money!) By and large, I don’t stick with series, especially if they’re as intertwined as mine is, but give me an enormous novel that engages me all the way through and you got me and my money in one shot.

But, you know, it took me a long time to decide whether to split the romances out into 3 books and create a series, or create a long novel. It couldn’t be helped. The structure of the story arc just wouldn’t hold up under the weight of the extra bindings.

The one epic is more than the sum of its parts.

Now, would someone else PLEASE write something long and involved? And if you know of any, please let me know what they are.

32 thoughts on “What happened to the epic novel?

  1. Eva Gale

    I’m right there with ya.

    Try Jacquline Carey and her Kushiel’s Dart series. OHOHOH! And you would LOVE the Bronze Horseman (and the sequels) by Paulina Simmons.

  2. Th.

    .

    I shy away from very long books (almost halfway through yours!) because I value brevity and simplicity. If *I* had been your editor and you wanted help trimming wordage, I would have started by telling you to cut the lengthy descriptions. Why? Because I don’t write them myself and we all secretly believe everyone should write like us.

    But anyway, that’s a tangent for another time. On epics, it seems to me that the only place we see them these days are in fantasy. Not just high fantasy, but in, say, Stephen King as well. Which I think is interesting and probably says something significant. Just what though I don’t know.

    You’re right though that separating The Proviso into three books would have been a mistake. They are much too interrelated for that. Although made as movies, a Trois couleurs thing would be very cool. (Man, I need to see those again. And I still need to see Trilogie too.)

  3. Eugene

    In Japan, it’s common for long novels to be split into volumes of 40-60K words. The Twilight translations sell in three A6 (4″ x 6″) volumes each. In a country where practically everybody commutes by mass transit, portability is very important. eBooks formatted to display on cell phones are currently all the rage.

    I just finished translating volume 6 of a yaoi novel that’s been clocking in at 40K per A6 volume. The cover price in Japan is around $4.75. Almost twice that for the translation, but there are the licensing and translation fees to consider, and the narrower market (likewise, the Twilight volumes are about $10 each).

    Personally, I’m not an epic guy either. BTW, Red is one of my all-time favorite movies. Another example of interlocking but standalone narratives is Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests.

  4. MoJo Post author

    Eva, got those on my list.

    If *I* had been your editor and you wanted help trimming wordage, I would have started by telling you to cut the lengthy descriptions.

    I woulda done it, too. I did about 95% of what my editor wanted me to do and mostly without sassing back. :D

    After having written a screenplay or two, I just don’t think it would translate well to screen, even in that format. That could just be my novice screenwriting abilities making me say that, though.

    High fantasy, huh. Pretty much what I *don’t* read, but I’m gonna have to, ’cause Eva said so!

    I value brevity and simplicity

    To me, it all depends on the author. If I come to know Th.’s work as quick and clever, then suddenly he hits me with a 700-page novel, I’m going to be suspicious, you know?

    As a reader, I felt Eugene’s book could have borne another 5-10k words, but that’s me wanting more of the world he created.

    And lots of times, when I want more of a novel, it’s because I like being in the world the author created.

  5. RJ Keller

    My book is long and involved. ;)

    Seriously, I am SO with you. I miss epic novels. Something that I read last spring that’s epic-ish is The Book Thief. It’s categorized as YA, but don’t let that stop you. It’s a great read.

  6. MoJo Post author

    In Japan, it’s common for long novels to be split into volumes of 40-60K words.

    Eugene, I did think about doing that, too, but there seemed not to be a place (much less 2!) to separate it like that. It would have remained chronological and therefore would have retained the interrelated quality of the storylines, but it would have been more expensive to do that.

    I wrote it initially as 3 separate books that I *intended* to weave together, then did that. I wanted to preserve the continuity of each storyline.

    When I realized I’d never be able to sell a 280k+ novel at all, regardless the subject matter or the writing, I split the three storylines out (i.e., there would have been long gaps in action) and tried to sell it that way. That wasn’t working and I knew it never would, so I braided them back together again. Then I wavered, split them apart a second time, put them back together again. I think I might have cycled that a third time, but I can’t remember now.

    A lot of whatever editing mistakes that are probably still there are as a result of having written them separately, woven them together, then pulled them apart and put them back together again so many times.

  7. MoJo Post author

    Eugene, the two-parter is beautiful. I mean, the cover art was gorgeous, but with the Japanese on it, it really just “makes” it.

    When you brought that up earlier in the thread, I was thinking of the 3-volume set you’d posted before, which is cute.

  8. RfP

    I like a novel to have sufficient depth and length to tell a nuanced story. Length or detail alone doesn’t do it; I’ve been turned off by epic fantasy that waffles on in areas that don’t hold my interest. Even a crossover like CL Wilson’s debut fantasy romance can drive me crazy with descriptions of gorgeous raiment or lordly bearing; if there had been more politics and less clothing, I might have hung in better… or not.

    made as movies, a Trois couleurs thing would be very cool.

    Those were always intended as three films, though, right? I don’t think there was a novel first. For something that starts out intertwined, I’d be more inclined to go for a serial in which each shows all three relationships and resolves part of one.

  9. Rae Lori

    I always figured with the shorter amounts of time that people have these days that people just don’t have time for long novels anymore. Thus began the return of shorter works in e-versions and the rise of audio books for folks on the go. Although most publishers still want to justify the high hardcover prices so they’ll ask their bestsellers to pad as much as possible.

    I didn’t consider the epic novel going into series, but that’s a fab point and I can definitely see that being another way of the format evolving. I hear some readers enjoy following the progress of the characters with each book so a series is usually encouraged.

    I don’t write long novels myself and I tend to pick up shorter and average sized works because of time constraints. But I still love a good solid story no matter the length and will be willing to dive in if I can be swept away. :-)

    I do find it interesting that the more ginormous pieces are found in YA fantasy like Harry Potter and the Twilight series. Although the latter has been mentioned more for padding than exposition. I wonder if YA is the future of the epic novel?

  10. Th.

    .

    For something that starts out intertwined, I’d be more inclined to go for a serial in which each shows all three relationships and resolves part of one.

    You’re right, of course. I keep forgetting that tv has grown up and is actually good now.

  11. MoJo Post author

    I always figured with the shorter amounts of time that people have these days that people just don’t have time for long novels anymore.

    I see it kind of as a chicken-and-egg question. When I was riding the bus to work (WHICH I LOVED!!!), I’d get the biggest, fattest novels I could find and it would last a week (of course, reading at lunch, too). My bus mates weren’t shy about hauling out the doorstoppers, either, so I have to wonder if the shortening of the novel happened and people had no choice or if they just stopped reading long novels.

    I do find it interesting that the more ginormous pieces are found in YA fantasy like Harry Potter and the Twilight series.

    Perhaps that *would* be a valid time-suck argument. Kids who don’t work to pay bills have more disposable time to read and of course, parents want to encourage that behavior.

    The thing I think is FABULOUS about ebooks is that they can be as short or as long as they need to be. Like, from Samhain et al, you can buy a short story by itself (i.e., not in an anthology) for a good price. Likewise, you can get a doorstopper like mine for a good price and you aren’t going to be carrying around a humongous book and it’s there, available, whenever you want it. The ebook, IMO, should wipe out artificial novel/story lengths.

  12. RfP

    I see it kind of as a chicken-and-egg question. When I was riding the bus to work (WHICH I LOVED!!!), I’d get the biggest, fattest novels I could find

    I love a bus or train commute. When I walk, I like the exercise but miss the reading. Sometimes I enjoy audiobooks, but it’s not quite the same.

    Kids who don’t work to pay bills have more disposable time to read and of course, parents want to encourage that behavior.

    That sounds like what the Nat’l Endowment for the Arts and other surveys have found. Getting kids to read isn’t a problem; it’s young adults who stop reading. At the bottom of my piece, How much do we read?, I discuss surveys finding that teenagers enjoy reading, but reading drops off with adults:

    “Research has repeatedly shown that motivation to read decreases with age (McKenna, Ellsworth & Kear, 1995).” Which may fit the 2001 U.S. census finding that only 43% of adults read for pleasure.

  13. MoJo Post author

    Oh, that sooo makes sense. The minute I hit college, I stopped reading for pleasure (I guess 18 is considered young adult for the purposes of this discussion?). I didn’t really pick it up again until my mid- to late 20s.

    So I guess my question is, when adults (who have bills to pay and other time sucks) read for pleasure, do they go for the quick read by default because they think they need to finish something, or are they willing to pick up a big book and read in increments?

  14. Th.

    .

    Oh, it’s not that hard to read and walk at the same time. I walk to work but my commute is still when I do most of my reading.

  15. Rae Lori

    Oh that’s true Mojo! I didn’t think of that. It probably helped to pass the time a lot and I wonder if longer ebooks are now doing the same for long commutes and vacations.

    I also love that mention about ebooks. I wouldn’t mind seeing the word counts disappear with them. Or even the rise of serials if people want to read them little by little at a time.

    Going to check your post RfP because I’ve been curious about what the numbers are for reading in the youth’s section nowadays.

  16. RfP

    I’ve been curious about what the numbers are for reading in the youth’s section nowadays.

    It’s a hot topic, but from what I’ve seen it’s difficult to measure. The “young readers” numbers get distorted by big events like the Harry Potter phenomenon. I think there’s consensus that kids still read but less than they used to, and Harry Potter didn’t change that single-handedly.

    I linked to a NY Times article here: Harry Potter not a reading hero? It’s pessimistic, but it does provide some food for thought on how one teaches enjoyment. Also, down in the comments, I mentioned two studies finding that teaching reading as a “skill” isn’t as productive educationally as focusing on reading for enjoyment. That makes me happy because it supports my “reading = good” belief, but it’s also a bit troubling because teaching enjoyment isn’t as easy as teaching testable skills.

  17. MoJo Post author

    Probably a stupid question (because I haven’t hit those links yet—supposed to be working!), but how does one go about teaching the ENJOYMENT of reading as opposed to the skill?

  18. RfP

    That’s the $bignumber question. From the studies I’ve read (and it’s not my professional field, BTW), adult participation and enthusiasm is key. Which may be part of the problem: if adults are reading less, kids don’t see reading modeled as something enjoyable and the adults aren’t engaged enough to know what books to recommend. The National Literacy Trust (UK) has compiled a list of studies showing that if parents don’t enjoy reading, their kids are unlikely to.

    There’s a fair amount of research on the opposite approach, though. Teachers can kill a student’s enjoyment by teaching reading as strictly a skill-building chore. So there are ways to teach anti-enjoyment….

  19. Eva Gale

    My daughter (13-an old 13) HATED reading. H.A.T.E.D. it. ut I made her read classics (I homeschool) and I had read most of the Twilight series and encouraged her to pick it up. She foofooed me until it became popular and then she asked me for them becuase I told her she couldn;t see the movie until she read them.

    She POURED through them in one week, and then went on to glom all of PC Cast’s HOUSE OF NIGHT series.

    Let them read what they want, while you make them read what they have to. I tellher all the time. Dh doesn’t LIKE reading FDA journals, but he HAS to. It’s a part of life. I can’t wait to start her on romances.

  20. MoJo Post author

    Let them read what they want, while you make them read what they have to.

    That’s not a bad idea (says the lady who has to reformat Shakespeare into narrative to have a glimmer of a hope of understanding it).

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