Epic Fantasy Word Count

Ängsälvor – Nils Blommér 1850

So, last night I finished the fourth revision of The Dragonling. (*insert fanfare and confetti here*) Well, not “finished” so much as “made it to the end”. Well, okay, so I have few subplots to insert here and there, but the main plot is now flowing from beginning to end with only minor tweaks ahead for the beta. (Whew!)  So, I finished proofing the last scene and was pretty stoked, right? The next “finishing” step was to click on the entire file for my total word count.

239,856 …

And my elation and relief at being so close to done came crashing down, just like that. Why? Because the “acceptable” count for fantasy and sci-fi novels hovers around 120K to 150K. When I published the previous volume in the series, The Atheling, I was panicked the entire time about having too high of a word count. It was consistently over 200K in the drafts. By publication, I got it down to 192K. But this was a mixed blessing because on one hand, I was proud of learning how to better trim the fat. On the other hand, it made me sad that even in the most “forgiving” genre when it comes to word count, it was still too high. (This is where I guess I’m grateful for self-publishing because I honestly don’t know whether a traditional publisher would tell me to chop out characters, delete sub-plots, and remove unnecessary world building to make the word count fit into their little box.) So, I wanted to keep this next book at or below the word count of the last one. Yet each new volume in the series gets bigger. Right now I’m hoping I can hack it down to 200K, but any hope of it getting smaller than that, especially since I do still have some subplot tweaking to do, is fading.

I started looking up advice on how to drastically trim word count. Most of what I found was the usual advice. Trim the unnecessary words. Trim anything that doesn’t progress the plot. Trim away the plot itself until it meets the rules. Every article always points out that there are exceptions, but those exceptionally lengthy books are exceptional. Every article also points out that fantasy and sci-fi are more lenient because you have to build an entirely different world for your reader. But there is still no way I can cut 239K words down to 120K … or even 170K. It’s just not going to happen without losing huge chunks of story. The problem is that my plot is very complex and interwoven, so it’s not as simple as drawing a line down the middle to cut the book in half and make two volumes.

So, I was beginning to hate my overly cumbersome imagination once again, when I found this: “Word Counts of Epic Novels” (http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/fantasy-book-discussion/word-counts-of-epic-fantasy-novels/ ). I’ve seen word counts on classic novels or “great” novels in many places, and they do make me feel a little better to compare my 200K books to something like War and Peace, clocking in at over 500K!  But those are mostly old books written well before today’s modern publishing standards. And, unlike those authors, I have to work with modern rules. Everyone likes to throw out J.K. Rowling as an example of an author who broke the rules and was successful, but 1) her first Harry Potter book did follow the rules, and 2) the first book made the publishers rich, so they didn’t mind her breaking the rules thereafter. And 3) the books are exceptional quality. This word count list is different because it points to the difference between exceptions, fantasy, and epic fantasy.

I used to mistake epic fantasy for high fantasy, but they are not the same. High fantasy has a classic feel to it: knights in shining armor, slaying dragons, elven immortality and magic, etc. Epic fantasy is huge and sprawling by design and it requires several books to cover the entire length of the tale. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is both high fantasy and epic fantasy. I avoided calling my books “epic” because I wasn’t sure if they qualified as “high”; there are steampunk elements, horror elements, comedy elements, etc. And I hardly compare to the mastery of Tolkien. But now I understand that “epic” means this particular kind of fantasy is even bigger than normal fantasy. Epic fantasy is for people who expect long, detailed stories they can immerse completely in over a period of time. These are not stories designed to be finished on a train commute or while waiting for office appointments, so that the reader can quickly move on to the next book. These are stories the reader wants and expects to invest time in. Which is why this particular list of epic novel word counts is different from all the others I’ve come across. My word count is more on the level of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, of which the highest individual novel is 354K, or George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, with the highest individual novel word count at 404K. Yes, these books will be a burden for some readers who prefer quick and easy reads. But this proves there are readers out there, like myself, who enjoy being invested in epic-length stories. Suddenly, my 239K seems reasonable … even small.

I’m not looking for excuses to avoid editing word count. I guess I’m just tired of feeling like the publishing industry caters too much to people who want to read something that is 50K or less. It’s true that thin books are less expensive and more marketable. I understand that. But there is a place in the market for the giants, too. And that place is epic fantasy. Fans of epic fantasy and writers of epic fantasy know that this genre is loved because it sprawls across time and many protagonists into complex subplots. So, we’re doing these kinds of stories a great injustice if we try to squeeze them down to “normal” standards. The books still have to be professional quality and interesting. There’s no saving 200K of flotsam and jetsam. But if the story has been tightly edited, and the plot has been intricately crafted, and the characters have been well-developed, and the world building has been imaginative … why can’t we take our time and enjoy it over a longer span of time? What’s the rush?

Fans and writers of epic fantasy, take heart. There is a market for us. And we shouldn’t let the standards of other genres intimidate us into hacking up grand stories into pulp fiction.



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