Oops, I Made a Monstrosity

It was a little chilling for me to read Patrick Rothfuss’ somewhat glib interview with Dragonmount today.

It was this little bit that stuck me like a cool dagger:

James:

There is a lot of information out there on things new authors should not do in the first work—no novels of over a 120,000 words for a fantasy manuscript, …

Did you encounter problems in trying to get published due to these elements?

Pat:

Yeah. Probably. It probably didn’t thrill agents when they read my query letters and it said, “200,000 word epic meta-fantasy.” 

Of course, as luck would have it, I just hit 200,000 words myself today on Draft Two of the novel. There is still a little more to be done so it will continue to get longer at this stage, not shorter.

It should be noted that when I was posting here about this time last year, making all sorts of promises of reviews to come and finishing and whatnot that I probably thought in all likelihood that the story would be wrapping up at the 100,000 marker or there abouts. I did not anticipate the ending taking quite the word count that it did. And when my readers of Draft One came back to me saying they wanted more and that some sections didn’t feel fully sketched out—characters, world building, inventions—needless to say, I was a bit surprised.

At 160,000 words, I figured I had probably said what was necessary. It was only on re-reading and beginning the revision process that I realized how desperately needed many of their suggestions were. I wondered at the time: Is it possible to write a 200k+ word book at “a blistering pace?”—this was the speed of plotting I had originally gone for. Or was I kidding myself?

Furthermore, knowing what I did about publishing, just how in the hell would I go about pitching this thing? [Enter Patrick Rothfuss, stage right, grinning behind his lovely beard and NY Times Bestseller List.]

When I started writing, I fooled myself into believing in the purity of the medium. I told myself that writers have the freedom to shape their art as they like. The novel is the most unencumbered medium. You are not at the whim of a special effects budget. Or a software suite. You do not have a timeslot requirement, no limitations on your expression except the limitations of the story itself and of your ability to say what you intend to say. I thought naively that length was a problem for scriptwriters. But it soon became clear from everything that I read on the subject of getting published that massive length, particularly from a new author, is generally frowned upon. Because publishing, just like everything else, is a business. And paper costs money (more accurately, it is the binding that is the killer.)

All of this wouldn’t be so bad except that, looking in from the outside, one gets the sense that publishing is something of a gradually eroding business as well which means a number of things: 1) Adversity to risk. 2) Need for established authors and material to generate revenue. 3) Diminishing marketing and editing budgets.

These do not strike me as particularly friendly waters for ambitious up-and-comers.

Of course, those of us hungry to be published all hear about the sweetheart deals. Hannu Rajaniemi pulled off probably the most recent one, squeezing a three-book contract out of 24 pages. As Rothfuss might say, he is the aberration, not the average. But I want to believe in the meritocracy of this achievement. Having just finished The Quantum Thief, I can say I think Gollancz made the right move, and perhaps an even more clever one by publicizing their risk as a way of generating hype for a new voice. Perhaps there is room for simply good writing to make the sale, no matter how far outside the established norm it is. No matter how unknown the author.

In Rajaniemi’s case, even this is not an entirely honest argument: he was, if I understand correctly, already somewhat more connected thanks to his involvement with the Writers’ Bloc, which features some other big names in the UK. One imagines that if someone like Charles Stross (part of the group and also the novel’s cover blurb) was vouchsafing his work prior to signing, securing a deal on the strength of a first chapter becomes somewhat less like a fairytale. I don’t mean to demean the man’s accomplishment—I feel his first book truly delivered on all the hype it’s been getting and I’m always stoked to see new, strong voices in the field.

So where exactly does this leave the relatively unconnected and ambitious? Do publishers want to expend the time to properly edit a 200,000 word manuscript anymore? No? (Please feel free to enlighten me here Mr. Rothfuss or any other who has been through the process.)

I feel I should be clear now that I don’t believe my manuscript is excessive. I am fretting only that the number without context will give that impression. But it does not meander. It does not waste time. I wrote to the bare minimum of what I thought I could get away with the first time through, and sure enough my readers thought it was too thin. So I let myself bulk up where necessary. I don’t feel, as Mr. Rothfuss seems to imply later in his interview, that perhaps a great deal of those words are not even getting to the point yet or that I’m needlessly reinventing wheels. Based on the reactions so far, all I got was the point. My readers wanted more of a build up for it. But writing a novel is a neurotic thing. I feel like the pretty girl in middleschool with a mole on her cheek—just different enough to be terrified at the thought.

Normally, we talk about uniqueness as a strength. A strong voice. A particularly unusual character. A set-up or a world unlike others that have come before. Plenty of publishers trumpet these sorts of things about their titles. But look at what’s produced. Why does so much feel recycled in SF if these qualities are supposedly strengths? I am often befuddled by what I find on the shelves in my local Barnes & Noble. Formulaic is often putting it kindly.

I sometimes wonder if maybe we give the wrong impression of SF when we congratulate it on risk-taking. As a whole, SF seems as dominated by its tropes as any other kind of fiction. In many ways, I feel that the neologistic mode it often takes shows just how much is recycled. The shorthanded style of Rajaniemi’s work, for example, I read in two ways: on the one hand, there is a definite inventiveness to his concepts, but on the other, a definite familiarity. Perhonen, the sentient ship, for example, is such a typical idea in space opera that it is afforded only the most cursory of introductions. The ship is talking from the get go. There is no time spent explaining this oddity because the audience is assumed to know it very well already. While the rest of the story certainly brims with originality, I wonder how much these touches of familiarity sealed the deal with those first 24 pages?

These are the anxieties that hound me as Draft Two winds down and the polish is applied. Is SF publishing really as daring as we think it is? Will a 200k manuscript even be entertained as a concept worth looking at? Every cyberpunk novel I’ve read has been of the short and sweet variety—are people going to recognize those elements in my story and then balk at the idea of doing them at this length? I hope not.

As anxious as this all seems, I really do believe in what I’ve written. It is the closest now to what I imagined more than three years ago and I’m proud of finishing my first novel before the age of 26. It was a difficult effort. What concerns me most are the cruel realities of the world of agents and publishers, of those who think that the formula for success precludes my novel ever going anywhere. I’m waiting for that first rejection, “Too Long.” and the inevitable rage to come with it.

Too long? The Name of the Wind was “too long” and it kicked ass and took names.

I need to find a daring agent. How does one do that?

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