Saturday, April 14, 2012

Door Jam Novels in Fantasy/Sci-fi

In a recent email conversation with fellow author David Drazul, I mentioned that I'd grown tired of large fantasy/sci-fi "door jam" novels (books so big they could prop open a heavy door) due mainly to their emphasis on minutiae world-building over fast pacing.

When I think back to what I've read over the last year, books three and four of Steven Erikson's Malazan series are the only door jam novels I finished. Erikson is a brilliant writer, but by the time I reached the middle of each book, even his work had me antsy for the end.

I'd love to read Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings, as I've heard good things about it, but at a thousand freakin' pages, I can't help but think of all the slimmer books I could read in the time it would take to finish that one.

The only door jam fantasy I want to read is the last Wheel of Time book. I started the series back in the '90s because I heard it would be three books. Then three turned into six, which turned into nine, then twelve...until it's now at the fifteenth and final(!) book due for release in January. I'm invested at this point. But I'd never start the series right now considering its length.

I gave up on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series because it felt like he was heading into Wheel of Time territory (and partly because I have the luxury of watching the DVDs).

It took my discovery of Glen Cook's Dread Empire series for me to see that a fantasy/sci-fi novel doesn't need to be a door jam to have quality world-building. Colin McComb's debut Oathbreaker, Book 1: The Knight's Tale (which I reviewed) is another example. Both Cook and McComb present their complex worlds and characters with visceral, compact prose that keeps their books under 250 pages without making them feel "thin."

What are your favorite fantasy/sci-fi novels, with quality world-building, that are relatively short (e.g., under 300 pages)?

Or do you love the door jam novel? If so, why?

Originally posted at Quarkfolio.


DED said...

I used to be open to reading the mammoth tomes but over the last few years, I've tended to shy away from them. It really depends on the author though.

I was an avid Stephen King fan and didn't think anything of reading his mammoth tomes, but not anymore. Dreamcatcher was 879 pages (mass market paperback) and I was so pissed off at the ending he wrote that I think I'm done with him. It's been four years since I read anything by him and I'm not sure that I'm going to finish reading the Dark Tower series because I'm worried that the ending is going to suck too. And those book are definitely doorstoppers. Why invest all that time only to be disappointed?

As for all those ginormous fantasy series, I never got into them. After reading LOTR, I didn't think anyone else could come close. Maybe it's because Tolkien was smart enough to keep his books manageable. The largest was Fellowship at 526 pages mm pb.

But I've let some authors take me on long trips. Alistair Reynolds Revelation Space series has books that run 600 - 700 pages. While I'm only on the third book in the series, so far he hasn't let me down. David Brin and Dan Simmons have similar length works and they've worked for me in the past.

These days, I typically like to read a short story by the author before I consider one of their novels. That was how I got hooked on Reynolds. I'd read "Minla's Flowers" in Volume 1 of The New Space Opera and loved it. But even then I'll be hesitant if the work is over 500 pages.

As for indie books, I've been burned by books that have come in through this blog. I hate investing that much time in a long book only for it to blow in the end, or even the middle. If I see a submission that's more than 350 pages, I'm really reluctant to try it. Those first three chapters better be great.

Quality world building under 300 pages? That's tough. Scalzi did a great job with Old Man's War (310 pages) and Niven's Ringworld series had reasonable lengths (the 1st book was 313 pages). Charles Stross went over with Accelerando but it was a manageable 415 pages. His The Atrocity Archives were actually two books in one and that came to 368 pages. So yeah, it can be done.

But I think the bigger question is why aren't there more sci-fi/fantasy books in this range? I was looking through my bookshelf and so many books were in the 600+ range. Did all of these stories need to be told in such large volumes? Or was someone pushing the authors to be a bit more verbose? After all, publishers get to charge more money for the bigger books. Perhaps there's some pressure there. Back when I was submitting my novel to agents, many of them had minimum size requirements. Many wanted 100k or more. My 65,000 word story turned into 250 pages so I'm guessing that would be around 385 pages or more.

Ok, I've taken up enough space here. It's someone else's turn. =)

Rob Steiner said...

I remember an interview King did a while back responding to critics of the size of his books, and Dreamcatchers in particular. He basically said, "You're right, they're bloated." He laid most of the blame on his editors, who would publish his books with virtually no editing because, hey, he's Stephen King! He admitted he was a "bloat" writer and that he needed the editing to trim his books (he said his earlier books were heavily edited).

I can sympathize with this. All writers have "blind spots" when it comes to their work. I can read and re-read my own work a dozen times, but a second-reader will immediately catch errors/bloat I never saw. It's why all writers need editors, even Stephen King. :)

Scalzi's Old Man's War series is a great example of quality world-building in @300 pages. I've read the first three books (haven't read Zoey's Tale). Can't believe I forgot about him!

And I think you're right regarding publishers preferring large books so they can charge more. While submitting my own novels, I found that every publisher I researched wouldn't even look at a sci-fi/fantasy book under 100k words. But I've noticed recently a lot of successful indie sci-fi/fantasy books coming in under 80k, so maybe that will put some downward pressure on publisher guidelines.