Saturday, October 9, 2010

Writing Long Fiction or The Allure of Plus-Sized Books by Jack Cavanaugh

You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.

—C. S. Lewis

My sentiments as well, only substitute coffee for tea.

Lewis and I aren’t alone. Whole herds of bookstore browsing readers are attracted to the width of a book’s spine, the larger the better. Apparently there’s still a place in this skinny-obsessed world for plus-size books.

As a writer, I prefer writing long fiction. I tend to think in stories 120,000 words long (approximately 480 pages) in a time when publishers are wanting books of 90,000 words. My American Family Portrait Series comprises nine hefty volumes, or 1,230,600 words. My Songs in the Night trilogy totals 334,500 words, or approximately 1,340 pages. Like I said, I like long stories.

So what are some of the things I've learned about writing long fiction? Three come to mind:

1. Long fiction is different than short fiction. Deep stuff, huh? But the difference is worth noting. The same disparity holds true for runners. Sprinters are built differently than marathon runners; they think and train differently. Even so, short story writers and epic novelists are dissimilar storytellers.

The difference is pace. Short fiction is a breathless dash, while long fiction—though it has its breathless moments—develops over time with leisurely scenes of intimacy and reflection. This varied pace is not an excuse for bloated detail or meandering storylines. Clean, crisp writing is just as critical in long fiction as short fiction. What attracts readers to long fiction is the accumulative rise and fall of the narrative; like a panoramic landscape, it is powerful and majestic.

So how does one learn to pace long fiction? Beginning marathon runners train with veteran marathon runners. So too, those who aspire to write long fiction must learn from those who write long fiction. Read long fiction. A lot of it. Not only read it, study it until the rise and fall of narrative action becomes second nature.

2. Not all writers can write long fiction. It takes a special talent. I learned this while reading James Michener’s autobiography. Michener is probably the quintessential long fiction writer. He pointed out that long fiction writers have certain intellectual equipment. They must be able to see the entire novel, to remember what every character said and did - and why they said and did it - over hundreds of thousands of words and months or years of writing. I had to know what my first character said in the first book on the first page when I wrote the last word on the last page of the ninth volume fifteen years later.

3. When writing long fiction it's best to have a roadmap. The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step, and the writing of 1000 pages begins with a single word. So it's important that you have a good idea where you're going when you start out. J. K Rowling said that she knew the ending to the Harry Potter series before she wrote the first book. Having that kind of target makes it easier to aim every story element of your book in the right direction. When J.R.R. Tolkien had Frodo leave the Shire, neither of them knew every adventure that would take place, but they both knew that the journey would culminate at the fires of Mordor.

The map doesn't have to be chronological. For Michener, the map resembled a quilt, its characters and storylines linked by geography. He said, "I would break my narrative into splendid panels, leaving it to the reader to bind the whole together."

Probably the greatest advantage of long fiction is not the story itself—though there is nothing like snuggling in for a good long read—but the depth of characterization. Every year tourists stand at the front counter of the Atlanta Visitors Bureau and request the location of the graves of Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler. What a wonderful testament to author Margaret Mitchell. This is long fiction at its best.

You can find out more about Jack's books on his website at
or his blog at
You will not be disappointed by the stories he creates. Brilliant, masterful, and definitely on the 'plus size' :-)


Renee Ann said...

I have a Jack Cavanaugh book in my to-be-read pile. Thanks for reminding me!

Pepper said...

Adventurous stories. Definitely some great reads, Renee.
I loved this books from the Glimpses of Truth series. And the American Family series is great too.

Cara Lynn James said...

I love to read long books, but I don't write fast enough to actually write them myself. I'd have to remember a lot more than my brain would like! I think I'll stick to 90,000 words. But I admire any writer who can go for 120,000 words and finish the book.

Casey said...

I don't think long fiction is the right one for me to write, but I do enjoy reading others that know how to do it well. Like Julie Lessman. :)

Great stuff to read though here, so thank you Jack! I think the same applies for those that read and write long fiction to those that read and write short fiction, it all has to be studied. Gives me another excuse to read right? *wink*

Julia M. Reffner said...

Thank you. I'm not sure if long fiction is right for me, either, but I read and enjoyed your WWII series. Thanks for some great advice.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the nice comments. You know how writers feed on reader's affirmation, especially when it comes from other writers.

Lori Stanley Roeleveld said...

This was so refreshing for me to read! I prefer long reads (Rutherford, Lawhead, Michener, you) and as I write, I work on being crisp and succinct but the stories I want to tell can't be reduced to a FB status. Thank you for the challenge and the encouragement. Your perspective is informative and inspiring.

Carmen said...

I love long novels. More depth and action. I have you on my TBR list, but haven't gotten to you. Your books sound great.

Anonymous said...

I write long fiction when I can. But Jack hit it on the head, most houses have those certain counts and usually want me to make my story a serial so they'll hit that cut off of words. But that isn't always how I want the story to be.

I couldn't agree with Jack more, there are those who like the sprint stories, but long stories have a lot to offer too. Don't discount them.

Tina Pinson

Pepper said...

My Alley pals, especially Sherrinda, is going to snicker here - but...
I write LOOOONG.
I'm talkin' 120K or more.
And my brain thinks in series :-)
I did try to write a stand alone, once. But I met the characters and it turned into 3-book series.
Sigh :-)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I know what you mean, Pepper. I seriously miss my characters after the stories are over. I'm always looking for a way to write Book 2 so I can go back and visit those characters again.

Pepper said...

Okay Cindy,
Now I'm SURE we're kindred spirits.
I totally 'get' that.
And I fall in love with these imaginary friends. Parting? Nah, I'll just write another book.

Elizabeth@In Pursuit of His Excellence said...

I LOVE long fiction! I love Julie Lessman too, Casey. :o)
I'm still working out what I want to write. I guess I'll start and see what happens!! I have a LOT to discover!

Laura Frantz said...

AWESOME POST! Let's hear it for big fat historicals:) My next book tops 122k. Only I think Jules has me beat! Thanks for such a wise, insightful post, Jack and Pepper. Jack's books look wonderful. I will be reading:) Bless you all.

Julie Lessman said...

I am SOOO sorry I'm late to the part, Jack and Pepper, but LOVED the blog, Jack, and am definitely intrigued by the fact that you are a "Long Fiction" writer -- incentive for me to put you on my TBR list!! Long writers definitely give you your money's worth, especially if they're good, like I've heard you are, Jack. And since my favorite novel is Gone With the Wind at a whopping 1,000 pages, I agree with Sinclair Lewis that the longer the book, the better!!


P,S, MEGA thanks for Casey and Elizabeth for the kind words/plug -- you guys ROCK!!