David Farland’s Writing Tips—Writing the “Big” Book

David Farland’s Writing Tips—Writing the “Big” Book

When you look at novels carefully, you will notice that the bestselling books of all time are usually big “doorstoppers.” In each genre, we see this pattern. 

When the novel Dune was published, it was rejected by every publisher in the business until a company that sold engine books illustrating engine parts (so that you could easily order parts for repairs) decided to publish the novel. It became the bestselling science fiction novel of all time.

A Tale of Two Cities was rejected by so many publishers, the author finally published it himself with the help of an investor—and it became the bestselling mainstream book in English for the next 150 years.

With Harry Potter, the twelve largest publishers in the world rejected it because it was “too big” for Middle Grade readers. It has since gone on to sell 500 million copies and become the bestselling Middle Grade novel of all time.

Yet as authors, we are told over and over again to write skinnier novels. My editor at Tor used to try to cut every novel down to under 130,000 words. I like to write them a bit closer to 200,000.

I’ve heard several reasons why we should write skinny novels. 

  1. Publishers complain that paper costs are usually steep enough so that if you have too many pages, it’s hard to get customers to pay the higher price required for a big book. I recall one publisher complaining of a bestselling novel by Robert Jordan—“We’re selling millions of them, but we are wondering if we’re losing money on every book we sell, with today’s paper prices being so high.”
  2. One editor pointed out that with fat books, there are only a couple of binderies in the US that can handle a book that holds over 400 pages, so they are tougher to make. Indeed, with mass-market paperbacks, we didn’t have glue that would bind 600-page books together until the mid-1980s.
  3. Booksellers like Barnes & Noble often complained to publishers that fat books were unprofitable because they took up so much space on the racks. In fact, the US’s largest bookseller warned publishers that they would refuse to take fat books if the publishers kept printing them.

Yet people keep reading fat books. Indeed, I remember as a teen browsing through bookshelves at store, checking the spines, and rejecting many a highly lauded book just because they looked too darned thin for my tastes. 

When I read, I used to think, I wanted to feast on a big book, and thin books left me feeling unsatisfied.

I used to suspect that the reason we like fat books had to do with their power to transport us. The most popular books tend to transport us to another time and another place. Writing about settings well takes a lot of space.

But creating vivid settings is only part of goal. We as readers want powerful stories told within those vivid settings. In other words, there was something about the plot of the story that made the longer books appealing to me.

Now I recognize that there are storytelling techniques that I like that require multiple storylines to be woven together at the same time. By keeping three or four storylines in play, an author can drive the reader into a deep state of hypnosis (the Theta state), where stories come to life more vividly than a lighter tale allows. 

So, as writers we have a quandary. Do we write the huge fat books that readers love, or do we write the thin books that publishers and distributors want to stack deep on the shelves?

Or, is there a middle ground? When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, he intentionally wrote a “long book.” I believe that he understood the effect that he was trying to achieve. In the 1950s, he taught a class at Oxford where he discussed the importance of telling stories from multiple narrators so that an author could create a “dreamlike state” as quickly as possible.

So when he wrote LOTR, he imagined it as one huge novel. He typed it up and sent it to his publisher in an orange crate because, back then, orange crates were made of wood and were sturdy enough to hold his 2000-page manuscript.

The publisher looked at it and declared it an “act of genius,” but worried that they’d lose money on it.

So they broke it into three pieces and sold it as a “trilogy”. Suddenly, authors could write longer narratives so long as we kept them in a series.

That means that you can write a sprawling story, but you almost need to devise breaking points in the story every 130,000 words to make it easy and profitable for publishers.

Or, you can just plan to publish an e-book, where printing and binding don’t matter. A survey on Amazon a couple of years ago found that in the long run, even in e-books, it’s the long books that tend to sell the best.

318R Workshop

From 1999 to 2002, David Farland taught a popular science fiction and fantasy writing class at Brigham Young University. Some of his students from those classes went on and made millions. Brandon Sanderson took it twice, and has become one of the bestselling writers of our time. Dan Wells also took it, and became one of the bestselling writes of dark fantasy of the past three decades. Stephenie Meyer took it, and has sold over 100 million copies of her Twilight trilogy.

Now, just for the fun of it, Dave is going to teach the class online. His new workshop, “318R” will feature much of the same content, only it will be better, because as Dave put is, “I’ve learned a lot.”

It will also have the same assignments that Dave used. Each participant will be asked to write either three short stories or three chapters to a novel for critique.

The class will be limited to 20 people, and will be taught live on Saturday mornings from 10:00 to 11:00 AM MST. We’ll have a total of 30 classes. They’ll be taped, so if you miss one, you can watch the tape, even repeat it if you like. Seriously, this will take seven months.

But wait, there is more! In the classes at BYU, many students came to “audit” the class. They weren’t required to take the tests or turn in assignments, but were encouraged to participate in the classes, and since their work wasn’t critiqued, they only paid half price. So, we’ll have twenty students who will get the whole “318R experience,” but others will be allowed to sit in, ask questions, learn, and have fun. We’ll begin on Jan 2, just in time for the New Year, and we will finish up in August.

The price for taking the class will be $997. The price for auditing will be $597.

If you’re interested in attending, please send an email to davidfarland1@gmail.com with the word 318R in the subject header.

Helpful Links:

Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland

Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing by David Farland

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