I bought UNDER THE DOME by Stephen King the day it came out. I had to. I’d heard a birdie tell me it was up there with THE STAND, which is still to this day my favorite book.
I can’t say that I’ve loved every story King wrote, but since he’s pleased me far more than displeased me, I am a loyal reader. It was a King book that was the first, and only, time I read a book for pleasure twice. (THE STAND.) And the first time I began but never finished a book because I just couldn’t get into it, was also a King book (INSOMNIA.)
But when I heaved the 1074 page tome titled UNDER THE DOME out of the Amazon box, I had a tingle. It felt different than the last few books of his that I’ve bought but haven’t read. I opened it up. And I swear, if I didn’t have a looming deadline and five kids to transport and feed, I would have sat down and read it straight through, rising only for potty breaks and water, because of the first three pages. It’s pretty much what I did when I discovered THE STAND in 1982. Except then I was 13, had no children, no job, and could spend fourteen hours a day reading if I wanted to.
It was the POV of the woodchuck that sold me.
I read THE STAND over Christmas break when I was 13, and I am hoping–praying–that my deadline is met, my kids are well-behaved, and I’m done reading the debut novels for the Thriller Awards. I want nothing on my plate the week between Christmas and New Years so I can read this book.
Epic novels usually mean big stories that take place over years or generations. They may be one meaty book (like GONE WITH THE WIND) or a series of books (like John Jakes American Revolution series.) But epic also means larger-than-life, or a big story that perhaps doesn’t extend to the original hero’s great-grandchildren, but details a single story so completely that you could have lived it.
Few authors–perhaps no authors outside of King–can “get away with” writing a 1074 page novel and have success. Some of the YA novels are meaty, however. Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy began at 500 pages, then 600, then the final story over 800. My YA daughter devoured all three books–1900 pages–and would have read them one right after the other if they’d all been published when she started the series. In fact, she said each book got better. I think she re-read them all as well.
800+ pages is still rare.
I’ve been thinking about this as I write book two in my Seven Deadly Sins series. There are two primary types of series. A series with the same characters but each book is written almost as a stand alone; while the characters may grow through the series, nothing pivotal happens in one book that is going to make a reader coming into the middle of the series balk. The other type is a series that builds on itself, that what happens in book one lays the foundation for book two and so on.
I’ve been trying to straddle the two types of series. SDS can’t be a series of quasi-stand alones because each book is built on the initial situation in book one, chapter one where the Seven Deadly Sins are released from Hell as incarnate demons. I’ve resolved this problem for book two in part by moving the location plausibly from my fictional town of Santa Louisa to Los Angeles, and the change of setting has definitely helped create a whole and separate story that is still closely linked to the first.
Yet, when I held UNDER THE DOME, I considered what if . . . what if I could have written my series as one epic novel? The thought had never occurred to me before because it simply isn’t done. Much. And it would have taken at least a year to write, if not longer, plus time to edit and produce a 1000+ page book. Few authors could survive more than a year or two without a book on the shelf with their career still intact. Especially not a mass market author like me. Considering that ORIGINAL SIN, the first book which checks in at a mere 464 pages, took me longer to write than any of my 12 previous novels, I don’t think the two year window would have been unrealistic.
It’s a moot point, obviously, but something that has been on my mind for a few weeks. I’ve come to the conclusion that 1) mass market commercial fiction may publish epic series, but not epic single novels; 2) some authors transcend publishing “rules”; and 3) some genres–like fantasy and YA–can support longer novels (600+ pages) which may or may not be “epic” but have a sense of being larger-than-life, meaty, worthy of a reader’s precious time.
But just like long books may lose readers because of the size, so do short books. My mother was sorely disappointed in a couple recent books by some of her favorite authors that were only around 200 pages. She felt she didn’t get enough story or depth for the money. And if I were to spend $20 on a hardcover, I’d probably be kind of ticked if I felt the story was truncated or superficial.
However, one of my all-time favorite books is a very short book. ANTHEM by Ayn Rand comes in at 68 pages. The Cliff Notes for ANTHEM are longer!
How do you feel about big books? Short books? Epic novels or epic series? Do you re-read favorite books and if so, which is your favorite re-read?