How long should epic fantasy be?

As part of outlining a novel, I always have to plan how long it needs to be. Sometimes they make it. Sometimes they fall well short. One thing I don’t do is try to pad up my word count with unnecessary scenes. Sometimes a book needs fleshed out a little more, which is fine, but I don’t add words just to add them. If it doesn’t add value, it’s not added at all.

As I get better at weaving things together and creating nuance and layers in my stories, I find I need fewer words to get there. But epic fantasy is a weird genre, where more words seem to be prized, even when they’re useless. So how long does this new series actually need to be?

I’ve already determined that for the best story flow, the series needs to be six books, all of which now have titles. The middle four books will have a naming convention that doesn’t quite make sense when compared to the first book, but the sixth book crowning the series helps make sense of that.  There’s certainly enough story for that many books, but how long of books?

While most of the books I think of when I think epic fantasy are huge books that make great paperweights and excellent doorstops, I don’t really think that’s necessary. I always wanted to write big books, so I wrote a big fantasy series without a lot of filler. It never went anywhere (I’m sorry, Snakesblood Saga. You’re still my favorite, don’t worry) and one consistent piece of advice I got back from agents was make it shorter. Kind of counter-intuitive when all the fantasy books I see are massive, and at 182k, the first book in the series was comparable in length to The Fellowship of the Ring. But I heard the same thing from a lot of them: Most fantasy novels that get published are closer to 95,000 words.

I found that hard to believe, so I took it upon myself to do some more research. How long is the average fantasy book? And how long would Spectrum Blade be?

There’s a great thread on the subject of word counts in the Fantasy Faction forums. It shows a definite trend of very fat epic fantasies, but my eyes kept going to the top of the list, where Tolkien’s word counts seemed oddly small. Considering the trilogy was originally six books, the total word count divided by six gives an average length of 78,000 words. And yet those words are enough to create a massive world that has enchanted readers for the better part of a century.

A second search took me to an interesting comparison by Thoughts on Fantasy. Part of what made the list intriguing to me was that it expanded the horizons of fantasy a bit to include the Dragonriders of Pern books, which are typically categorized as science fiction, but definitely lend themselves to the fantasy genre as well. It also brought my attention to the YA list, which was something I hadn’t previously considered. While I don’t think of Spectrum Blade as YA (it’s more in line with the conventions of typical adult-oriented epic high fantasy) it may be taken that way by some, since it has a young protagonist. YA books tend to have voracious readerships, yet they’re more consistent in length, hovering closer to the word counts I was quoted by the agents I queried.

Even still, there are a few odd outliers. Earthsea began as a story only 56,000 words long; ten years ago, I barely would have considered that a novel instead of a novella.

But I had to expand to other considerations, too. For example, the longer the book, the less likely a paperback will survive multiple readings. I want my stories to last, especially if I end up taking Spectrum Blade on a self-published path. That seems pretty likely, considering I want to write a story that embodies everything I loved about fantasy books in my youth, which means relying on a lot of worn story themes that traditional publishers have come to despise. But traditional publishing also helps shape genre expectations, and it’s important to note the submission lengths encouraged by the publishers of most epic fantasy. While you have your outlier Brandon Sandersons, most publishers seem to prefer exactly what agents told me: Books between 95,000 words and 150,000 words, with most only specifying the lower number.

That said, I don’t know if the books that come after Spectrum Blade will be that long. I tend to run long in the first book, and then the subsequent titles are a bit shorter, since the initial world building is already done.

So for now, I’m setting that as my guideline: Ideally, Spectrum Blade will be 95,000 words long. We’ll see how close to that number I land in the end, but if it ends up being longer or shorter, so be it. I’d rather have shorter stories that are fast-paced and fluff-free than a bulky word count full of frivolity. For that reason, I’m planning the rest to be a bit shorter. Spectrum Blade might end up around 95k, but for books 2 through 6 (which have names I’ll be sharing soonish) I’ll aim for 85k-90k each.

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