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What it’s like to write an epic fantasy as your debut novel

More specifically, an epic historical military fantasy that's almost a quarter of a million words long

Now that The Empire’s Lion is out in the wild, I thought I might as well procrastinate from writing the sequel.

Er, I mean—engage in some reflection on the work that has brought me to the point. Mm, yes.

Drafting a doorstopper

I didn’t set out intending to write a 220,000 word book. In fact, I most certainly did not want to write a 220,000 word book. When I started writing TEL, I set my Scrivener project goal at 100,000 words, knowing I would probably overshoot it since I always end up writing more than planned.

But I thought, you know, maybe 125K, or 150K. But as I moved through my outline, writing scene after scene, the total word count just kept going up.

When I finished the first draft, it was somewhere around 190K. I immediately cut 30K from that, because I had gotten a false start. The beginning of the published version of the book is probably the third or fourth attempt, and it’s actually one of the last parts of the book to get written. It was by far the section I struggled with the most, since I knew it had to engage the reader right away while also establishing the tone, introducing Reiva and the world, and setting up plot threads.

And of course, once I had written a beginning i was happy with (I also added the chapter epigraphs at this point) I had blown past that earlier word count and gotten to around 215K. That was the beta version—the one I sent out to some trusted eyes so they could tell me everything that worked and didn’t work.

I wrote Adept Initiate largely while awaiting that feedback, which was actually pretty refreshing. There is one point of view throughout the whole book (with the exception of the epilogue), far fewer subplots and locations, a much tighter cast of characters…it was almost like doing a warm down after exercising.

And yet, I over-wrote even worse with Adept Initiate because I had been aiming to write a novella. I figured 30, maybe 40,000 words, at the absolute outside.

Well, the beta version of Adept Initiate was 90,000 words, which went up to ~95K after receiving some feedback on fleshing out some side characters (which I think made the story much stronger).

Then I was back with TEL, excellent reader notes in hand.

And I realized I needed to add some more to the book. Not too much—only about 5,000 more words it turned out. Most of those words went to two scenes in particular—Domi in Caroshai and the rat scene. The rat scene, by the way, was one of the most fun to write. I can’t believe it took me until draft three to come up with it.

The words that didn’t go into those scenes were small additions—mostly throwing in some more foreshadowing, reworking some of the epigraphs, and slipping in references to characters and events from the prequel.

Which brings us to ~220,000 words.

Would I recommend it to someone else for their debut novel?

It depends.

I know, I know–hear me out.

If you’re going into it thinking “I want my book to be a quarter of a million words!” then you might want to pump the brakes.

I’m going to steal something Michael McClellan, author of The Sand Sea, put forth when we talked about this subject: “The best way to write a long book is by not trying to write a long book” (or something like that; it’s been a few months since that conversation).

Michael was absolutely right—and his debut is several tens of thousands of words longer than mine.

The story itself should dictate how long the book is.*

Leaving aside the fact that if I had gone into TEL planning to write 200,000 words, I probably would have inadvertently written 400,000 words, there’s a dangerous sort of attitude that can creep in. With so many words to play with, it can be tempting to indulge. Add an extra intrigue subplot. Expand the romance between those characters. Spend a few paragraphs describing every last dish at the banquet (complete with the tragic backstory of the pig who would become that delectable roast pork).

Nothing’s wrong with intrigue subplots, romances, or descriptions of food (I have all of them in TEL to varying degrees). But I had to be strict with myself. You might not believe that I was strict with myself given the length I ended up at, but trust me, there could have been much more.

The biggest example of that would be the entirety of Adept Initiate.

For a while, I was toying with whether The Empire’s Lion should start with Reiva’s childhood and the story of how she left Talynis and became an Adept before being forced to go back as part of a military campaign. From a structural perspective, that actually has some really nice stuff going for it—most notably that we would have her leaving and returning to her homeland all in one book. It also would have let me play a bit more with certain characters’ arcs and their experiences across AI and TEL—being vague to avoid spoilers.

But that would have been a monstrous book. I would have to cram seven years’ worth of Sanctum training into the first half, then suddenly the back half would be far more intricate and drawn out. There would be the difficulty of what other plot lines to mix into the Sanctum arc. Do we cover Avi’s childhood? How many scenes does he get? When do we start introducing Alyat POVs? Do we need to see Yaros early on so it’s not jarring when he suddenly walks on stage post-Hyrgallia?

And you could say, perhaps fairly, that it could have worked. There’s likely an alternate version of The Empire’s Lion starting with Reiva’s childhood that is effectively told (other fantasy books have done that sort of thing well). But it would be incredibly different, and to be honest, I think it would have a far weaker ending. I came up with the climax of TEL early on, and then I built everything else around that. Instead of the (if I may say so) awesome payoff and resolution, I probably would have had to end things far earlier—maybe with the aftermath of the Bazaar fight if I really stretched my words. It could be climactic enough to be thrilling, but it would leave a horrendous amount of plot threads dangling, so there’s not much of a payoff.

I go into all that messiness to reiterate my point—I did have a point, right?—that the story has the length it needs to be. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. They’re not just events strung together; they have unifying themes and ideas.

So you need to write the story according to what it requires. I thought The Empire’s Lion would be in the range of 100-150,000 words, but it had to be 220,000. I thought Adept Initiate had to be 30-40,000 words, but it had to be 95,000.

Does your debut need to be as long? Who knows—you might not even know. Write it and find out.

Thanks for reading,

Nathan

 

*A bit of a tangent (because as we’ve established, I can’t help but over-write). I’ve heard lots of anecdotes about authors who go the traditional publishing route being forced to cut out huge chunks of their books for publication. I don’t champion writing your story to the length it needs to be as some sort of cover disparagement of authors who’ve cut their books down to comply with editorial order.

For one, there is absolutely bloat, especially in epic fantasy, that detracts from the reader experience. Much as I worked to trim the fat from TEL, I’m sure some has remained.

For two, longer books (especially in print) are a tougher sell. I think one of the great things about indie publishing is the choice to publish a book as long as you choose—I probably could never have sold TEL to a trad house because it’s just too big a risk to take on a new author (“220K debut that opens a trilogy? Yeah no, we’ll take the pitch for a 125K that can work as a standalone”). It happens, of course, but it’s a complicating factor in an already strained publishing model.

So I have a bias here. Any time I hear that an author had to cut out 50K words, I can’t help but wince and think about what great subplots or character interactions got ripped out. But when authors say cutting out those words ended up leaving the book far stronger, I take them at their word for it—after all, they wrote the thing in the first place.

…I now have an urge to write about whether authors really know their own stories the best, but I think I’ll leave that for another day.

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