Monday, August 15, 2011

Long Live the Epic! - A Song of Ice and Fire

This summer has been huge for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.  First, HBO made Martin’s premiere novel in the series, A Games of Thrones, into a ten episode television series that concluded this past June and has been nominated for 13 Emmy Awards.  HBO has renewed the series for another season, which will focus on the events of Martin’s second novel, A Clash of Kings.  Then, a few weeks ago, Martin’s publisher released A Dance with Dragons, the long awaited fifth novel in the series, which is currently No. 8 on the New York Times Best Seller List (A Game of Thrones ranks 6 on the list, even though it was originally published in 1996).

The HBO series, for those who didn’t see it, is amazing and very true to the novel.  As for the books, A Song of Ice and Fire has risen into the pantheon of great fantasy works, right alongside J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Martin’s characters are richly drawn, making the reader truly care for them, so when tragedy strikes one of the most endearing characters in A Game of Thrones, the impact is profound.  Martin’s world building also places him at the top of his craft.  One of the ways he achieves both of these is through the novel’s length and its multiple viewpoint characters.  But few, if any, new authors today could ever get away with this.  Just imagine how most agents would react to the following line in a query letter:

Dear agent,

I am seeking representation for my fantasy epic, A Game of Thrones, a story of intrigue, murder, and war told through the viewpoint of eight different characters, complete at  298,000 words.
How fast can you say “form rejection”?  I suspect many agents and their assistants would reject this query on word count alone.  In fact, if you read industry blogs, the desired word count for a novel these days is barely 100,000 words, although fantasy manuscripts may survive if they’re in the 115,000 to 124,000 range – at least according to the Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog before it moved to its current location.  But whether it’s 100,000 or 124,000 words, this is far, far short of an epic like A Game of Thrones. 

Other famous fantasy and historical epics well exceed the current “standard” for word count.  According to one Internet resource, Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring is 187,000 words long.  Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World weighs in at 305,000 words.  And Stephen King’s The Dark Tower totals around 288,000 words.  Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth has to be of a similar length, and while I haven’t seen a word count for the novel, my copy is 973 pages long.  Clearly these are all famous authors, but they were writing epic fiction, and sometimes – to be done well – epics have to be long.

I’m not suggesting that every novel should be as large as a phone book, but I wonder if the publishing industry hasn’t gone overboard with its restrictive view towards word count.  Once upon a time, a longer novel meant higher printing costs, but surely in the age of e-books that’s not the case.  Maybe that’s where things are heading.  Authors of epic fiction may have to go the indie publishing route, where word count won’t really matter.  Maybe that’s the only way to get past the “form rejection” when writing an epic these days.  Thankfully, George R.R. Martin didn’t have to deal with this hurdle, or we may have never had the masterpiece that is A Game of Thrones.

There's nothing like a good epic!


Richard Campbell said...


The flip side is that the minimum size of at least a science fiction novel has grown tremendously over time. From Charlie Stross:

back in the 1960s a typical SF novel ran to 60,000 words (130-150 pages); one that topped 80,000 words was considered lengthy. But today, I'm more or less required by contract to hand in 100,000 word novels; and some of them are considerably longer. (At 145,000 words, "Accelerando" would have been considered a whopper back in the 1970s.)

Joseph Finley said...

I think the same was true with fantasy back in the 60s and 70s. My original copy of Elric of Melnibone is 160 pages long. Of course, Tolkien published the Fellowship of the Ring in 1954,so maybe he started the trend after that novel became so popular.

Tina said...

Hopefully my comment will post this time.

Your timing writing about the George R. R. Martin books is funny since I just downloaded these to re-read. Personally I love the epics. When did they come up with the current word count guidelines? I went back to check a few of my favorites and Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind is reported to be 305,000 words and I can't find a word count on the second book, but it was 992 pages. The Farseer books by Robin Hobb started at 159,000 and by the third book was up to 341,000 words.

Your comment about them being large as a phone book really hits home. I remember people making tons of comments about the size of those books. I am certainly thankful for my Kindle because now I don't have to carry 10 pounds worth of books around.