Epic Novels

By Allison Brennan

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?


24 thoughts on “Epic Novels

  1. Mit

    It saddens me that the trend is towards shorter and shorter stories. I know a lot of people will buy a book based on cover art, the first few pages, or the flap copy. Me? I go looking for the thick books. I want a book that will take me 2-3 weeks to read. Not just two days. I want to live with the character – and experience his/her epic life.

    I guess if I were a S/F fan it would be easier to get my hands on the "big books".

    Of course, I want a well written story within those 1000+ pages – and not an endless cast of thousands that requires a complicated genealogical tree to keep everyone’s relationship straight.

  2. Simon Larter

    When I was a child, the only books I would take on vacation were ones over 500 pages long. I didn’t want to be caught without reading material. Ever. The Lord of the Rings single paperback edition came along a lot.

    I don’t care about length at all. Just make it a good story, whether it’s The Old Man and the Sea or Barchester Towers.

  3. JD Rhoades

    I want a well written story within those 1000+ pages – and not an endless cast of thousands that requires a complicated genealogical tree to keep everyone’s relationship straight.

    The SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series has both. Love those books despite the fact that I need a wiki to follow them.

    I’ll keep my opinions of Ayn Rand to myself for the moment.

  4. PK the Bookeemonster

    I do love big books. Perhaps this comes from my early love of SFF in junior high. Side note — the only problem with big epic multi-book series is that sometimes the author dies before completing it (Robert Jordan) or loses interest/writers block/or whatevertheheck excuse now (George R.R. Martin). Diana Gabaldon can get away with it — at least in the beginning books, I haven’t read the last two or three.
    But for good storytelling I am a willing devotee to big books (there’s even a yahoo group devoted to them). Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy held me spellbound and I wanted more. Historical fiction tends to run big probably because the scope of the novel tends to be big.
    For 2009, I had a reading goal of 10 books a month — I’ll probably make that goal if I read the 7 I need to this month. I don’t have that kind of reading goal for 2010. I have the complete set of Dorothy Dunnett’s series (both) and would really like to read them without feeling the pressure of a number per month I’ve set for myself. Maybe 2010 is the year to start them while I work on the gabillion crime fiction series I’m in the middle of reading in order.
    Being a reader isn’t easy sometimes. 🙂

  5. Louise Ure

    I understand the "value for the dollar" component in the discussion, but sometimes I just yearn for a short, taut book. Maybe it has more to do with the time I have available and my shorter attention span as I grow older.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Ayn Rand’s THE FOUNTAINHEAD is one of my very favorites and I would read it again if I could find the time. I read Clifford D. Siimak’s CITY six times when I was thirteen and up. I love the shorter books because I can read one every week or two, even with a day job and a writing deadline. But I love getting lost in the great long ones and I never want them to end. FINNEGANS WAKE is one of those great long books and I absolutely love that first paragraph, which is the only part I understand.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    I love big epic books–and even big epic series, if the series is already completed when I first start reading. When I fall in love with a world, particularly a world of epic scope, I want to finish the story. If I have to wait for additional tomes to come out, by the time they do, I am generally in a different mindset, different emotional place, and don’t feel the same compulsion to dig in. Plus–and this is the biggest drawback–there’s too much to remember from previous books if their publication is spread out over the years.

    I would love to write one, though. The book I want to do after the current one is pretty large in scope, spanning a war and genocide and the research alone will probably kick my butt, but I still want to do it. I cannot imagine writing that one fast. It’s probably a crazy project, but my heart will break if I don’t write it, so there ya go.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    I love the epics by Clive Barker – IMAJICA and THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW. I made the mistake of starting the Peter F Hamilton NEUTRONIUM ALCHEMIST series before it was all published, so by the time the final 1200-page installment came out, I’d largely forgotten the details of the large cast and intricate storyline.

    I just like books that are the right length – the size they need to be in order to tell a good story without undue padding or truncation.

  9. JT Ellison

    I adore big huge books. There was a time in my pre-writer world when I’d go to the drugstore to buy a paperback, with no knowledge of who the writers were, what awards they had won, what their peers thought of them, and choose a book because the cover was cool and it looked thick. That’s how I found Tami Hoag. Diana Gabaldon does a brilliant job with the huge novel – there’s something so special about seeing an author mine down into the story to the most minute levels. As crime fiction writers we’re expected to move the story along – it’s part of the formula. I’d love the chance to actually spend some real time, REAL time, writing a long book. So count me in as a fan of the take a week to read type of story.

    Now I think I’m going to get THE STAND and read it over Christmas.

    And Allison, ANTHEM is my all-time favorite novel too. You have such good taste!

  10. Gar Haywood

    Strictly from a writer’s perspective, I am always amazed by authors who write novel after novel that could be used for a bank vault door stop. I honestly wish I had that kind of unflagging interest in my own work, but in truth, I don’t. About 350 manuscript pages in, I’m always thinking, "God, will this book never come to an end?" Diana Gabaldon, for example, just blows me away; she’s prolific in every sense of the word. I suspect she’s very good, (I don’t have the patience to read her) and her book’s don’t feel padded, but OMG, 950+ pages each and every time out of the box? What does she write, 75 pages a day?

    The mind boggles.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I don’t think I’ve ever read every word of a book over 400 pages, even some of my favorite rereads, like THE WITCHING HOUR and IT and yes, THE STAND. I don’t do big books very well.

    Wait, that’s wrong – I have read every word of THE FOUNTAINHEAD, many, many, many times. Have read almost all of ATLAS SHRUGGED multiple times, too, but never all of Galt’s speech, you know the one.

    I am an avid multiple times reader. I would much rather read an old favorite, most of the time. There are books I’ve read hundreds of times and could probably sit down and write a fair approximation of the entire thing from beginning to end.

    In fact if I get ANY time at all this month, I might just go on a Rand marathon.

    (Hah, Dusty).

  12. Allison Brennan

    Well, I slept in this morning after writing until 3 am and was surprised at all the comments for a Sunday morning! I didn’t realize this was subject would spark any interest. I didn’t know what to blog about and my eye fell on UNDER THE DOME and I thought "big books. yeah!" LOL

    Mit–you’re absolutely right, there has to be a good story no matter the length–68 pages or 1074. It’s always about the story. Like you, Simon, I always had a book with me growing up. Not so much now, but I’m a lot busier these days than when a kid. It wasn’t the size for me, though, because I rarely (next to never) read a book twice. I just wanted a lot of different reading material. I’d check out 5 books a week at the library, every week.

    Louise, again, it’s about the story. My mom hasn’t been impressed with the last few short books she’s read.

    PK, I understand exactly what you mean! I used to read 3-4 books a week; since I’ve been writing full-time my time is limited and that saddens me. I miss reading. I made a commitment to read one book a week, but find that it only works when I’m judging contests because I HAVE to read, therefore it feels like more of a chore. So now, it’s read one book completely for pleasure a month. So far, I’ve done that (except for December, because I’m behind on my Thriller reading, but since one of the books totally blew me away I’m counting that as a pleasure read because I enjoyed it so much.) 🙂

    Hey Stephen, we have a lot in common! Books, music–but I don’t have a tat.

    Good point about being spread out, Toni, and someone mentioned when the author dies . . . yep. Not good for the series. And you should write your epic book. Maybe we all have one in us. I do–I just broke it up into 7 books. (Original Sin would have been over 500 pages if not for my brilliant editor who asked about a few scenes–"Is this really necessary to move the story forward?" But I think in the end, the trimming and cutting a couple scenes really made the story tighter and faster.)

    Enjoy, JT! 🙂

    Gar, I think every author gets to a point where they hate their book and wonder how they can finish it. For me, it’s the beginning of the second act and usually the all is lost moment. When I feel so overwhelmed about how to tie everything together that I think no one will ever like this book, I hate it, hate me, hate my characters, it sucks, my career is over, and I’m going to have to pay my advance back, except I can’t because I just paid the IRS and I have to write it or my kids will be homeless and panhandling. Then I get through it. Somehow. And find the love again 🙂

  13. Stephen D. Rogers

    Short. I find myself picking up novels from the 50s, 60s, and 70s more often than what I consider the bloated novels that started appearing in the 80s to justify the high sticker price.

    You buy hambuger by the pound. Filet mignon by the quality of the smaller piece.

  14. pari noskin taichert

    I like all kinds of books. PK mentioned the Dorothy Dunnett historical fictions and they are magnificent — huge scope with truly epic characters. I’d read those again in a heartbeat if I had the time.

    Big thick books? I love ’em if — as others have commented here — they don’t feel padded. There’s something so wonderful about starting a book and knowing you’ll get to stay with a good story for a long time. But I feel the same way about series I adore. It’s just that the individual books make me actually get up and get dressed . . . you know, the stuff of daily life.

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Next Thrillerfest we’re gonna hold you down and slap a tat on ya. Question…do you want the tat to say, "I love Stephen" or "I love Boulevard"? And, just as important, where do you want us to put it?

  16. Allison Brennan

    I’d have to be REALLY drunk, Stephen, and I don’t get that drunk anymore . . . LOL. Besides, if I got a tat it would be a Celtic Cross. There are some exquisite ones out there. I’d once said if I lost 40 pounds I’d do it now that I’m old enough to know better and not care. Bawahaha.

    Alex, great idea on the marathon! But . . . I don’t re-read. Okay, I take that back. I did re-read FAHRENHEIT 451 by Bradbury this summer with my daughter because she was reading it for school and I needed a refresher so I could proof her essay and remember the salient points. I also re-read Tom Sawyer with her two years ago, and most of THE GIVER this year. Hmm, all short reads . . .

    Stephen D . . . I like short too. I think that maybe epic novels are rare because most of us only read one or two huge books a year, but dozens of the shorter books.

  17. Rae

    Some really well known writer who’s always being quoted said something to the effect of "Books should be as many pages long as it takes to tell the story". Some stories require more pages – I still think Lord of the Rings is too short. Some require fewer pages – Hemingway is a good example. What I hate is novels that either feel like they were truncated so that the writer could meet their deadline, or are so long that you wonder what happened to the editor, e.g. Proust (how that guy ever got published is beyond me 😉

  18. TerriMolina

    Ooh, weird. I just bought Under the Dome for my son for Christmas (along with a few other books I thought he might like). As far as I know he’s only read one King book, The Cell, and he wasn’t impressed. I’m not really a fan of Stephen King but when I saw his book in the store I was drawn to it too. Like I said, weird.

    Since I very rarely read outside of my list of favorite authors I don’t read books much thicker than 400 pages. I have to agree about short books not having enough meat in them…and ironically my first published book is only 65 oages. hah go figure.

    This past week I’ve been re-reading some of the books from my Nora Roberts collection….I love her trilogies because she really giives you characters to care about and you just can’t help continuing the series to catch a glimpse of their new lives. Plus, she really kickstarts my muse.

  19. Jill James

    I love big, fat books. If I’m going to take the time to sit down and read I want to read for hours. I want to so be ‘in the story’ that I forget I’m reading a book, to be so in love with the characters that I think I live with them. I love to reread books. Jennifer Blake, Jude Devereux, Beatrice Small, Allison Brennan.

    Once a year I dig out Bertrice Small’s Skye O’Malley series and Jean Auel’s Earth Children series and just read one after another and sigh and wish I wrote like that. LOL

  20. Allison Brennan

    LOL Terri. The opening is fantastic. Classic–reminds me of all the reasons I loved Stephen King for years. I wasn’t impressed with CELL either–it was fine, but not among my favorite. One of my favorite King books is NEEDFUL THINGS. It’s second only to THE STAND. You might try that one. Or THE TALISMAN which has a pre-teen boy protagonist that King wrote with Peter Straub, another of my favorites. It’s very complex because it deals with multiple worlds but I will never forget the dog in that book (sort of like Einstein in WATCHERS by Koontz.) It’s a rare author who can go into an animal’s POV and do it so well you totally buy it, but King and Koontz definitely do it masterfully.

    Jill, I’ve never read the Skye O’Malley series though I’ve heard a lot about it. Thank you for putting me in such great company! I did read Auel’s series when i was in high school, but I wouldn’t re-read it though I enjoyed it.

    And Rae . . . you are absolutely right. A book should be as long as it needs to be. Well said!

  21. Jen B

    I just posted about this. I enjoy shorter books, because they aren’t going off into one side-track or another trying to gain word count, occasionally at the expense of good writing. That isn’t to say that all long books are badly written (one of my favourites is "It" by Stephen King… not exactly brief) but I don’t understand the idea that a short book is somehow a rip-off. We don’t pay by the page, we pay for the story, and the experience reading. The writing is the important part, not the length!

    I won’t click the "My response is on my own website" thing but this is the post I wrote a week ago: http://jbrubacher.blogspot.com/2009/11/novel-in-brief.html

  22. Kaye Barley

    Big. Fat. Books.
    I love ’em!
    The bigger, the fatter, the better.
    Right now I’m reading Rutherfurd’s NEW YORK and loving every word. Can’t wait to read UNDER THE DOME!
    Great Post, Allison!

  23. Tammee

    Love big fat books which is why I spent close to a week reading Under the Dome. That’s a week I want back, as that book was about 375 pages too long 🙁


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