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).
|There's nothing like a great epic!|
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:
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.