Sep 16 2012

Long Hike, Long Novel

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Remember those sweltering summer days as kids – sand between your toes at the beach, purpled bruises on your hips from the Slip ‘N Slide, riding you bicycle until sweat stung your eyes – and then, after playful exhaustion … that first magical lick of a soothing popsicle, its crystals cooling the fire of your overworked little body? Bliss. Life was good.

After toiling through four months of 100-plus-degree desert temperatures (plus monsoon humidity), I needed that popsicle of my youth in a bad way.

Fortunately I found my cool respite last Friday: at the top of a long, long road leading to Mount Lemmon – 9,157 feet closer to the heavens – with temperatures in the 70s. Bliss. Life was good. Again.

The forest was filled with lichen and mushrooms of all sorts. I love the way the sun illuminates the underside of this tree-growing shroom. Click to enlarge.

Enjoy my journey to a part of the earth once scorched with flames, but now regenerating, growing, and thriving under cool Arizona winds (so cool, in fact, that I had to buy a fleece):

New growth shoots up from the trees destroyed in the Aspen Fire of 2003. The flames burned for a month and consumed 84,750 acres. City of Tucson pictured in the background. Click to enlarge.

Proof of life: Indian paintbrush. Click to enlarge.

A coral reef in the desert? (No clue what it is). Click to enlarge.

I was surprised to see wildflowers still cropping up and healthy this late in the season. Richardson's geranium pictured. Click to enlarge.

This tree bark appears to have been painted by an artist. Click to enlarge.

I’ve never before seen ferns at the end of their lifecycle. I loved the rusty robe worn by the forest floor. Click to enlarge.

A hike would not be a hike without a mammal sighting. This gray-collared chipmunk showed up at the end of the journey. Click to enlarge.

To me, this image speaks of brighter days. Dead trees are sandwiched between the promise of blue skies and the proof of new life growing at their bases. Click to enlarge.

One of my favorite desert lizards made an appearance -- a baby horned lizard (also known as the horny toad, though this little guy is not an amphibian). Click to enlarge.

For Readers/Writers: As I wandered the long trails through Mount Lemmon (and hiked the long hill back to our starting point — thanks Kathy and Chelsey for a fabulous time), I started thinking about book length, something that has been on my mind over the past few years.

As a reader, I love literary novels and don’t balk at reading a 500-pager. Long novels = good in my world. The trend, however, in the traditional publishing world seems to be in support of the shorter novel. I find this disheartening because, sometimes, I think a book needs to be how long it needs to be – sometimes longer than a formulaic standard. Many books I’ve picked up in recent years have simply fallen flat for me, and I attribute that disappointment (indirectly) to length in many cases. I find myself thinking, “If she’d had another hundred pages, fifty pages, even, to develop that character, amp up the setting, add some symbolism, the story would have been so much richer.”

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.

Readers: How long is “too” long for a book? Does it matter?

Writers: You obviously have to pay attention to publishing standards (or risk falling into the slush pile if your novel exceeds the acceptable 80k-115k standards … I know, even 115K is pushing the limits), but do you ever wish you didn’t have those constraints? Could you write a better story? Or is slim-and-trim the better option for you and your reader?

Or maybe you simply don’t care and you’d just rather have a popsicle?

—-

AND MEANWHILE ON GREAT NEW BOOKS . . . A CHANCE TO WIN OCTOBER’S BOOK: SHINE SHINE SHINE

This month we’re reading Erika Robuck’s new novel, Hemingway’s Girl. And this week, if you enter a comment in our discussion, you are eligible to win a personalized autographed copy of our October book pick, Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine! Come join in the fun and discover these great books with us!”


38 Responses to “Long Hike, Long Novel”

  • avatar Linda Anselmi Says:

    You always have awesome pictures that make me homesick for AZ!

    In the past I have avoided 500 plus page books. My experience then was they tend to have seriously saggy middles. But recently I have found myself wanting more depth in many really good books, especially series. After the first book, they tend to skimp on the detail assuming you already know and can remember. 200 -300 pages is okay for a fluff book. 300-400 my preferred length – enough room for a richly told tale. 500+ needs to be seriously polished and compelling or I find myself annoyed and frustrated at the time investment.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Despite living in AZ, I was homesick for the outdoors, too (so many days trapped inside!). My creativity (and soul) needed this trip!
    What a great point about sagging middles; I should have clarified that I’m not advocating that all books should be long. Maybe some simply need it, while others don’t? As always, though, trimming and polishing is a necessity. I like your page range preferences: 300-400 = richly told tale.

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  • avatar Donna Says:

    Beautiful pictures, Melissa!

    I agree that a great book has as many pages necessary to tell the story intended by the author to develop the characters and tell the story. I think of one of my favorite series of books – I truly hated to reach the end of every one of them even though a few had over 700 pages. But I have read smaller books that I either didn’t finish or was glad when I reached the final page. As long as the story is good, the characters are interesting, and I am reeled in, I’m a happy to have read the book.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    If only the author had control over how many pages; it seems that authors are at the mercy of publishers and their standards, especially now with the industry suffering the way it is.

    And, wow – 700 pages. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that long. Kudos to you (and curious what the series was!).

    I, too, have read those shorter books that seemed to go on forever, and I simply hoped to get it ‘over with’ so I could move on to a new book.Thanks for stopping by, Donna. Do you have a blog?

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  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    These photos are incredible — and they make me miss the southwest mountains. I love the light through the mushroom. Speaking of missing, your description of popsicles on a hot day made me wish I had a popsicle 🙂

    I agree that a book should be as long as it takes to tell the story well. As a reader, I don’t decide whether or not I’ll read a book on length (I usually don’t pay attention to length at all when picking a book). I do know that if the story is told well, I always wish there were more to read, regardless of how much I’ve already read. As a writer, my novels have hovered around the 80K word mark, so the idea of writing over 115K words absolutely intrigues me, and I would love to try to do it!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I don’t really pay attention to length when picking a book either (interestingly enough). But after I’ve read, I DO consider it – wrongly or rightly- if the book fell short for me somehow.

    Yes, that’s what we all want, isn’t it: to have a reader sad to leave our imaginary worlds but want more! I am intrigued on how to write a book at the 80K mark since I’m Miss Wordy and need to pull out the machete.

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  • avatar Lisa Ahn Says:

    Now I want a popsicle too.
    Like Julia, I don’t usually let length determine whether or not I’ll read, and if a book is really good, I always wish it was longer.
    In my own writing, I write literary and I write long. And I haven’t found an agent yet. I’m currently trimming my MS yet again, revising one more time — hopefully this will make it.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    “I write literary and I write long.” I can relate to this (though I may be more on the side of upmarket than literary … such a hard thing to define, I think).

    Your difficulty in finding an agent makes me SO sad for multiple reasons: 1) I’ve read your fabulous writing and know how good it is and 2) I think literary fiction SHOULD be given a little more leeway when it comes to word count. Because – this is just my humble opinion – a literary novel is as much about the words, their rhythms, the author’s word choice as it is about the story. I love literary fiction for that reason … the joy of rereading a passage for the sheer beauty of the language. Hence my sadness that the industry is dictating the chopping of your lovely words so that you’ll get the chance to be published … 🙁

    What happened to the days of the thick novel (I’m even thinking of popular fiction with a literary bent – like Wally Lamb, and even recently, David Wroblewski) … Do books of that size even get published anymore?

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    Lisa Ahn Reply:

    Thanks Melissa. I do love a long, lush novel. But I think the problems with my novel are, honestly, deeper than length. I’m restructuring the story as well. A major overhaul. I just don’t have it in me to stuff it in a drawer. I’m stubborn, like that.

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  • avatar Lara Schiffbauer Says:

    Beautiful pictures, as always! I have such a short attention span, I don’t mind shorter books, and definitely struggle to write longer novels. Of course, I’ve only written one! I started out writing short stories, so moving on to novel length stories was definitely an interesting experiment for me. I do know what you mean about sometimes a book feeling incomplete, but I’ve always wondered if it’s because they had to wrap it up or if the author just didn’t recognize the need for more.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Thanks, Lara, for the photo compliment! ONLY one novel … that’s a huge accomplishment! Congrats (and, see, I wouldn’t even touch a short story because I tend to write long).

    I wonder, too, about the “have to wrap this up” mentality, but sometimes wonder – even more – if the book actually HAD a complete ending but was edited down to fit the standard size.

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  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Ohhhhhhhhh, the photographs are outstanding! As to the length of a book, I agree with you that it should be as long as it needs to be.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I love your enthusiasm for my photos, Laurie :-).

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  • avatar Jessica Vealitzek Says:

    It’s interesting that you say the trend is in support of the shorter novel. In my limited experience, I’ve found the opposite, at least as far as agent expectations. Like Lara above, I’d written only short stories before I wrote my first novel and I’ve always like to write sparsely–say as little as you can and still get the point across. The meaning between the words and all that. So my novel is short (though longer than a novella) and I’ve been told that it simply can’t be that short. Well, the story’s been told and that’s how short it is. Now I have to find an agent who agrees with me.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Ugh. Neither end of the spectrum is easy, is it? I tend to write long and am a big fan of descriptive, poetic language in the things I read – -and lots of character internalization ;-).

    I’m not sure which is more painful: having to add to a story you feel has been told and is ‘done’ — or chopping away at entire characters/sections to shrink a book down to industry size (which we all know is driven by profit margins in the publishing world).

    As I said to Lara, I envy short story writers, because I feel it is an entirely different animal (and one that I’m afraid will bite me if I get too close).

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  • avatar Annie Neugebauer Says:

    Beautiful photos as always, Melissa. And a little squee to that chipmunk. =) I, too, have been thinking a lot about book length lately, because it seems you and I are on the exact same wavelength with our WIPs. Mine is long, needs to be cut to fit industry standards, but I feel very strongly that adding a few sections would make it better. So I don’t have the answer, just the conflict. And I imagine I’ll continue thinking about it for several months.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Such a conundrum — knowing that agents won’t even consider a manuscript if it’s over a certain number of words, but feeling in your writer’s gut that more sections would strengthen the work. An agent actually inferred that it didn’t matter if an ms was 135K or 300K – both got the same negative response (which I assumed meant “toss in the trash bin.”)

    I don’t have the answer, either, but I share the conflict WITH you. And interestingly, readers are saying that they aren’t turned off by a longer book. Maybe if we added the price tag to the equation, they would choose a less expensive book based on price??? I just really don’t think so, though.

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    Oh – you are such a wonderful writer, Melissa! The imagery, and the way you make us think of those long ago childhood summers is perfection. “that first magical lick of a soothing popsicle, its crystals cooling the fire of your overworked little body? Bliss. Life was good,” and,“the rusty robe worn by the forest floor”.

    I thought that ‘shroon’ was some kind of Iris, when I first glanced at the photo you took; it’s so pretty and, well – lemony. 🙂 I remember that fire. So sad. Has it really been almost ten years? Lovely photos. The earth regenerates and starts anew!

    I am in TOTAL agreement with you on novel length, my dear, I love a long leisurely read, and I am also disappointed by artificially abbreviated novels where it seems obvious to me the writer should have developed some aspect of the telling, which would have resulted in more emotional investment for the reader, and taken the novel from so so to greatness. Yes! Novels length should be dictated by the requirements of the story, not some external factor, like trying to crank them out quickly, or print cost.
    Fortunately historicals are not quite so constrained by word count. But yes, being a fan of long novels, I am disappointed by the shrinkage we’re currently seeing. I ask myself: Why are we in such a hurry? To finish writing, to finish reading…what’s the hurry?

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    You are so good for my soul, Cynthia. Thank you for the writing compliments (I obviously had a great time on this hike!).

    I know – can you BELIEVE that fire was 10 years ago? I’m having a hard time figuring out where the time went. (How are you feeling, by the way?)

    I often wonder, with many of today’s published novels, if the author DID develop the story more, but the editors chopped away to get the book to meet the “bottom line” size for corporate profitability. I could be way off base and would love for an editor/agent to chime in! But your’e right … good fiction = emotional investment by the reader. And for the writer to achieve that, I think she needs the space to tell the story. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    I’d rather just have the popsicle! 😉

    I have to admit that the longer books I’ve read (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, for example) were wonderful, lyrical and some of my favorites in a LONG time, but I still felt that they could’ve used a little editing to heighten the tension. The part where Edgar’s hiking in the forest for weeks on end with his dogs? That seemed a little long for me. 90K seems to be my favorite length for now.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Yes, I loved Edgar Sawtelle but can see your feelings about his foray into the forest being a bit long. If I recall, I might have skimmed some of those sections as well. Definitely one of my favorite books of all time – and, yes, lyrical.

    I love that you have an actual word count preference. So, what does 90K translate to in book pages? 350? I don’t know… just guessing.

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  • avatar Donna Says:

    The series is the Harry Potter series. My oldest son wanted me to read them after he finished each one, and I got hooked. I always hated to read that last page because I knew I had to wait a while before the next book was published. 🙂

    As far as a blog – I think I wrote about 2 posts a couple of years ago….and I wondered what in the world I would talk about that anyone would care to read! So I have not attempted to write any more posts. However I love reading blogs by other people! 🙂

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  • avatar shary Says:

    “a book needs to be how long it needs to be”

    I agree 100%. It never matters to me how long a book is as long as the story is full. I guess that’s a plus of e-publishing. Readers are less likely to be intimidated by big books (or scornful of little ones).

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    Melissa Reply:

    Good point about e-publishing … books aren’t as threatening when they’re in the same-sized device each time (though I think publishers still try to keep the numbers down since most books are at least printed in a trade paperback — or hardcover — first).

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  • avatar Girl Parker Says:

    I’m with you. I lovva lovva a good thick book and there’s nothing more disappointing than feeling the ending was rushed, making you feel you wasted your time reading it in the first place. One of the things I loved about THE HELP and THE WEIRD SISTERS… lots of space to breathe in their worlds.

    I’ve hiked on Mt. Lemmon!!! Blissful sigh. Gorgeous snappies, my friend.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oh, yes, I don’t like that either: the rushed ending. You DO feel cheated. As much as I loved ROOM, I felt that very way about the ending — wrapped up WAY too quickly. I’d have read another 100 pages of that book, it was so astoundingly good. Agree about both The Help and The Weird Sisters as well!

    I wish you were back here in AZ; we could hike Lemmon together! What fun we’d have with our cameras in tow. “Snappies” — I like that!

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    Melissa, great questions here. I don’t know if it’s the blog reader in me, but over 350 pages and I start to get itchy. I have heard myself say about some books, “It was good, but could have been 50 pages shorter.”

    Oy! I don’t like what that says about me and my abilities of focus and concentration. I also feel a lot of pressure to read as much as possible (for author friends, for our online book club, my in-person book club, etc.)

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Well, I can agree that social media and blogging has definitely screwed up my attention span, focus, and concentration, too. I swear I have ADHD now — and that I didn’t before Twitter and blogging!

    And, yes, you read like a mad woman, so I can see where a larger book would make you itch all over! But if you had more time … I wonder?

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  • avatar Lura Slowinski Says:

    Hi Melissa! Nina Badzin tweeted a link to this post, and given that I’m 230 pages into Anna Karenina (700 to go…) I couldn’t not read a post about long books. I love long books, as long as they’re well written — and there’s the catch. I’m less forgiving of weaknesses and annoying quirks in long novels than in short ones. But when every word is there for a reason, when the characters are compelling and fascinating and full of realistic contradictions, there’s really no comparison. Long novels can become their own little worlds, and I love to get lost in them.

    So, naturally, I write on the longer side as well. I’m unpublished and not yet seeking an agent, but when I finish this draft I’ll have a lot of cutting to do, unfortunately. Still, even if all of those character development scenes don’t make it into the final draft, at least they’ll be useful to me as the writer. Silver lining?

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    How fun to meet you (I’ll have to thank Nina for sending you my way). We’re kindred spirits, I think, when it comes to the hefty books and our admiration of them. Though I have to say, I have NOT read a 1000-page book like you are. Will be interested to know what you think when you’re done with the Anna Karenina tome.

    Those are the keys to any good book regardless of size, aren’t they – “every word is there for a reason; characters are compelling and fascinating and full of realistic contradiction”. Yummy! And well put.

    Yes, I am probably going to start hacking away at my ms any day… Sniffle. Sniffle. I like your silver lining approach, though (and agree – I told myself that if I have to cut an entire character, it was a necessity to have at least explored her to see if she were viable. And who knows – she could be a character in a future work!)

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  • avatar Beth Hoffman Says:

    I believe the plot and the characters will ultimately decide a novel’s length. While there are industry guidelines, some stories need more words and some less. I think the most important thing is to find the stride and balance, then edit the chaff and let the book be what it wants to be.

    Terrific post and accompanying photos, Melissa!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Such an organic way to look at it – and I agree wholeheartedly! I wonder how you get a foot in the door if you’re outside the industry guidelines that seem to dictate whether you even get a shot?

    Edit and chaff. Yep. That’s what I’ll be doing. Thanks for stopping by, Beth. So happy your next baby is launching off into the printing world! Can’t wait to read.

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  • avatar Jennifer King Says:

    I love your Arizona photos, Melissa! It’s so interesting to get to see another part of the diverse world. Certainly doesn’t look like that in Prague…

    As far as word counts and books, I love a book that fits nicely into my hand. Too big = too wordy in my mind, and I think too much fluff or other scenes that could be cut. One exclusion: any book by Kate Morton. I love her books, and they’re all long. When I write, I shoot for 80k. Usually, whether I’m watching or not, the count ends up pretty close. What is your ideal word count?

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ideal word count for what I read — runs the gamut. I like a thick book and don’t view it as too much fluff, but rather more of a challenge. My own writing runs long always. First WIP 115K, second WIP … well I’m not even going to tell you how LONG that one is. Can you hear that chopping sound????

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  • avatar Millivers Travels Says:

    Loved the photos from your long, long hike, both the micro and the macro. If I was forced to choose a favorite (which is very hard when you love everything), it would have to be the “painting” (or tattoo?) on the exposed skin of the tree.

    This is the third story within a week I’ve been connected to about regenerating after a fire (the other two were both submissions on my travel blog – one about a forest fire in Texas and one in Spain). Maybe there’s some kind of message for me in this. I’m going to make a note to journal about that and explore why it might be.

    To answer your excellent questions: My favorite novel (I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb) is 900 pages. ‘Nuff said on that one!

    As for length of my own manuscripts: I’m kind of turning out to be more of a screenwriter than a novelist. Movie scripts are supposed to be 110 pages or less. With that I have no issue: I love the way screenwriting pares me down from an over-writer into a lover of white space.

    But for my next book (non-fiction) I’m going to write it to be whatever length I feel I need because I will mostly probably self-publish. I self-pubbed with my first book. Although that’s not a process I want to do much more often than once every decade or so (it’s been 12 years for Fear of Writing), I’d rather self-publish than conform to the publishing industry.

    (Spoken like a true triple Aquarian :~)

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    Melissa Reply:

    I loved that tree bark tattoo, too! So – any revelations about regeneration after fire, Milli, based on your journaling?

    i LOVED that Wally Lamb book. I did not like his most recent, though: The Hour I First Believed. Was IKTMIS really 900 pages? I devoured it! So interesting that you’re turning out to be a screenwriter!

    Ha – I guess that’s what I am: “an over-writer” for sure :-). I will never be a lover of white space. hee hee. So interesting your thoughts on self-publishing. “I’d rather self-pub than conform.” Ballsy. I love it!

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  • avatar Leah Says:

    Beautiful pictures, as always! Book length is an interesting topic. I think you’re right that if the book is good, then the length isn’t an issue. But I do get intimidated if a book is over 500 pages. Heading over to Great New Books as I’m dying to read Hemingway’s Girl.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Leah. Have you started Hemingway’s Girl?

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