Bigger = Better?

Time for a post that isn’t a resurrected nearly-forgotten draft.

I remember – well, I’m trying to remember – when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire first came out. (The book, mind you. The less said about that film the better.) I was so excited at the prospect of all the story I was about to ingest in one sitting; I’d recently come away from Prisoner of Azkaban very pleased, except for the despairing premonition that my favourite character, Lupin, would probably never show up again (which made me resent Sirius more than I might have otherwise, as it was clear to me that this was the character I as a reader was meant to care about but fuck that shit I’m hungry like the wolf all day erry day anyway what), and if that book was mind-blowing awesome and was only about 300 pages, then how amazingly awesome would this book be, clocking in at over twice the length?

Well, not only was I wrong about the length, but although the first time reading through was pretty great, just because the longer word-count meant I got an extended trip to the witching and wizarding world (I know it’s just the wizarding world but that shit be sexist) (yes I also know the term “wizard” can apply to men and women but that’s not how it works in the Potterverse so nope still sexist) (also what about non-binary magical folk wait this is fantasy what am I thinking), subsequent readings started to expose some … flaws, shall we say.

Namely that a lot of what happened just wasn’t that important. Or interesting.

Who the fuck is Ludo Bagman?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was my favourite book, period, for quite some time after it came out. It was better put-together than Goblet of Fire, it had higher stakes, and most importantly it was angsty as fuck, as was I at the time, being 16 years old and having zero things about myself that I liked, other than a best friend who everybody seemed to like. So I very much related to Harry’s uncontrollable, seemingly baseless fury, and the dark thoughts that came along with it – whether it meant that something was wrong with me and I was just stuck that way, whether I’d turn out to be a bad person, etc. Fun times.

And then the next two came out and I’d grown up a little bit – key word being “little” – and the delicious angst wasn’t quite as hooky for me. But the length of the books most certainly was. I lapped that shit up. If Deathly Hallows had been 1k pages long I would still have read it in one sitting; the length was like a gift, a prolonged vacation. And because of these goddamn books, it was a rule of thumb for me that if a book was large, it was probably better than a smaller book.

But more specifically, and the reason I’m posting this at all: my books had to be large, so that they could have more excitement and more adventure and more intrigue and suspense and romance and comedy (well, not so much the comedy in the twilight of my teen years actually) and just more everything in general.

There are a number of artistic influences that I have that I would say are “bad”. One of those is Dragon Ball Z, and the reason I call that a bad artistic influence is because DBZ is, in many ways, the most imaginatively bankrupt media I have ever come across. I mean yes, there is far worse out there than DBZ and to this day I remain a distant fan, but also to this day I cannot disentangle myself from the horrible fight choreography, combatants standing around for a thousand years while their opponent screams in constipation while preparing some universe-collapsing ki attack and not doing anything to stop them, and worst of all, this is the education that I had in thinking up fight choreography for my stories. Worst of all: this even crept into my magic systems, whereby somehow, some way, the main character magic-user would have some kind of Kamehameha equivalent. Because laser beams just scream “magic”.

Ugh.

Another one would have to be The Matrix – the trilogy, not the amazing first film. That trilogy got me started on my “try really hard to be deep” phase, mixed with my DBZ adrenalin-junkie habits and produced a truly awful cocktail of Nietzschean postmodern rambling set to a soundtrack by Linkin Park.

Another one was Final Fantasy X, which I still love, but it was also my introduction to the more mind-bendingly strange aspects of Japanese storytelling conventions and … well, it was a far fucking cry from the “my strength is stronger” narrative of DBZ, and did absolutely nothing to change my ideas about how fighting should work, except that now people were using oversized weapons. (I’ll actually add the Dynasty Warriors franchise to my list of bad influences on understanding combat.) And anime in general was just not good for my artistic development; Cowboy Bebop became a good influence, but only recently when I was old enough to realise that it’s not as deep and sophisticated as I thought I was too stupid to comprehend when I was a teenager, but still very cool.

Big Books Are Better may be the worst one though. All the rest of that stuff is about content; this is about delivery. My attitude towards storytelling was to measure a story in “number of books in the series”, and it got to the point where I would plan out the number of books and their approximate length before I’d even come up with a basic plot – I would imagine empty books into being and then try to fill them with something. There’s putting the horse before the cart, and then there’s just pushing the cart downhill and running to try and hop into it before it crashes into the valley floor, and then there’s what I tried to do between the ages of 17-20.

Thankfully, once I hit 20-ish and came out of my D&D phase with the actually-useful storytelling and narrative structuring skills I developed through learning role-playing mechanics and how to design an adventure for players, my attitude towards storytelling had changed once more; now it was all about how many individual moving parts I could work into an overarching narrative, how many sub-objectives the main quest of the characters consisted of, and how to make it tell a story all the way through, how to get each mini-objective to add something to the final objective, so that by the time the characters got there they had done more than just complete a bunch of quests for xp, and the final objective was far more than the sum of its parts. I cannot stress enough how fucking useful role-playing games are for storytelling; I think it was good that I kicked the habit and went back to storytelling, but getting used to applying role-playing mechanics is fantastic conceptual and practical training for creating coherent and engaging narratives.

But the size fetish never went away. Because I now knew how to drag things out, in that I was confident in my ability to get creative with how I could organise a story around a specific objective and then break that objective down into multiple mini-objectives, perhaps infinitely, if anything the size fetish got even … fetishy?

You get the picture; I was drunk with power, and somewhere around that time I finally found my voice, started coming up with stories that really felt like my stories, rather than sad, transparent attempts to compete with my at-the-time-best-friend Joey. The most invigorating of these stories was the last thing I tried in earnest to write before Tallulah, a dark fairytale thing called Mark and Jessie’s Christmas that I have mentioned a couple of times over the course of this blog, and which I still really want to write. This book was the catalyst for a paradigm-shift not just in how I told stories, but in how I valued myself as a person. Perhaps not totally coincidentally, it would not be long after that point that Joey and I would go our separate ways, and I would be filled with a euphoric, adventurous, I-finally-remember-who-I-am relief that would last for a good six months if you include the way I desperately tried to cling to that feeling and force it to last longer than it was supposed to – but that’s a story for another time.

My point in bringing up Mark and Jessie as this huge paradigm-shifting catalytic event in my life is that despite all of that, despite how drastically different it was to any story I’d ever come up with before – and at the same time much more similar to the stories I’d come up with in my adolescence, at least in terms of the philosophy of “follow your bliss” or whatever – a big part of the appeal to me was thinking about how big I could make it, how much stuff I could cram into it – how long I could make it last.

At that point in my life, the extended vacation bliss of the Potterverse had somewhat waned in and of itself, but the general longing for a place that I could be transported to for as long as it took to become totally immersed in it, and then some, was perhaps stronger than it’s ever been; thinking back on it now it makes a lot of sense, seeing as I’d just platonically broken up with somebody I’d had in my life for almost a decade, certainly all throughout what are conventionally deemed the “formative years”. I needed an emotional crutch to fill the void, and as relieved as I was to be back to my “old self”, or as close to as I’d been in almost a decade, the sense of loss was – while immensely, almost unbearably relieving – still a loss that needed to be recognised and accommodated. So Mark and Jessie’s Christmas became that crutch, the home of my romantic childhood nostalgia, the interface through which I accessed my past self and tried to bridge the gap of almost-a-decade between past and present, cutting out the middleman of my entire teenage experience and replacing it with something that didn’t make me want to sink into a hole and rot into oblivion.

The first draft clocked in at 169,474 words. That’s almost as long as The Fellowship of the Ring, and about 500 words longer than Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Book-size still very much mattered to me, because it was the best way I knew to have power over space and time – namely, how I could directly turn space into time. The longer the book, the more time I’d get to spend with the story inside, and Mark and Jessie had become my vital playground, the life-support I didn’t realise I was relying on. Or at least not as much as it’s apparent to me now, looking back.

Tallulah‘s first draft weighs in at 124,586 words, and that was bloated enough. I wonder what I’ll discover upon going back to Mark and Jessie – I did read it once, and I think I was rather impressed by how much actually happened, though how much of it actually contributes to the telling of a coherent story is something I’ll have to gauge when I finally have time to revisit it.

Currently Tallulah is 86,001 words long. That’s including the 20-something-thousand new words I wrote, so ultimately I pretty much cut it in half, and it’s still messy and has too much filler. I’m fairly happy with the length. And I tried to get it to 80k semi-intentionally when I revised it; after I had finished the revision and saw the word-count I gave in and decided that it was going to be YA, just because it fit pretty well without even trying. I think I did a fairly decent job for a first revision, and I can definitely trim it even more to make it fit the standard. That’s what I’m after now.

Or I was, until I started reading it again. Until I started remembering all the possibilities hinted at throughout the first half that get completely shut down in the second as I wait and wait but never see any of them expanded upon. Until I started remembering how attached I was to all of the side-characters, and all the ways I’d thought up in which they could actually contribute to the story, if only it were a little longer …

And now it’s coming back, but this time it could – could – be a good thing. Because writing to a word-count, while fantastic for a writing exercise and mandatory for academic pieces, is so … clinical. I am not trying to dis anybody who writes to word-counts, because that’s how the industry works and it would be nice if we could get paid for doing all of this fucking work after all. I’m still thinking of a word-count – I’m just thinking of a higher one, the 100-120k of Fantasy rather than the 60-80k of YA.

Because this story works best, to my mind, if told in one fell swoop, rather than being stretched out over a series. I do have ideas for a series, but I don’t want to have to use them. They feel kind of forced, and the last thing I want is to go back to putting the cart before the horse and push it off a cliff after setting it on fire and filling it with TNT. I want this to be a single story. It’s definitely Urban Fantasy if it counts as Fantasy at all, but maybe that’s enough. Or maybe I’m just such a boss-ass writer that my stunning prose will have publishers begging me for the privilege of publishing my 175k-word debut opus.

But unlike my sordid history of fetishizing book-length, this time I’m thinking of making it longer because I have more story to tell rather than the other way around. I’m not saying I definitely have 100k words’ worth of story here; I can’t measure that until it’s written. Not to mention all of the filler I have yet to scoop out and replace with actual story. But I do think it’s longer than what I’ve currently got. And yes, I’m totally excited at the prospect of having a chance to give those beloved sub-plots and supporting characters a place in the flowerbed, as it were. You can learn a lot of things from the flowers.

It’s not June anymore though, so maybe it doesn’t count.

Ultimately: bigger is not, in and of itself, better. I’ve had a lot of fun reading shorter stories recently, and just for the sake of discipline I think I could stand to benefit from creating narratives within a narrower space than I’m used to.

Bigger isn’t automatically better.

But when it’s better, it’s a lot better. There is nothing quite like getting completely lost in a good book, and knowing that you don’t have to leave, not yet. There is nothing quite like knowing that there’s room for a little more.

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