Boy! He sure has a lot to say, doesn’t he?

One of the recent pieces of news in the publishing industry this week is the bidding over ‘City on Fire‘, the 900 page debut novel from author Garth Risk Hallberg. The winner: Knopf for $2 million.

Hallberg (who has a great middle name by the way) is described as a “little known” author who has published a couple of short stories and a short novella, before unleashing this tome which took him six years to write.

I’d love to know a word count but I’m guessing it’s at least in the 400K range, or put another way, five Surreality’s.

Suffice it say, I doubt the lesson self-published or aspiring authors should take away from this is that more is better. For arbitrary reasons (somewhat informed by advice) I think an author’s first couple of books should fall in the 70K-125K range. Surreality’s current draft is 76K (down from a first draft of 98K) and I’m expecting this final draft to stay around that number but possibly go as high as 80K.

DM* on the other hand has a rough draft of 200K+. My first completed novel draft, Atlantia, clocks in at about the same length 193K. Around the time I was finishing Atlantia I read Dune which is about 185K words long. It’s certainly not the longest sci-fi book, not even the longest book I’ve personally read, but for some reason Dune has become my unit of measure for book length. I think it’s not a bad measure because it’s not so big that everything would be measured in decimal fractions of Dune but not so small that a book will have a higher number than can be comprehended.

Here now is a list of books converted into Dunes (185,723 words):

War and Peace = 560,000 words = 3.0152 Dunes

Infinite Jest = 575,000 words = 3.0960 Dunes

Ender’s Game = 100,609 words = 0.5417 Dunes

Atlas Shrugged = 645,000 words = 3.4729

John Galt’s speech toward the end of the Atlas Shrugged = 33,000 words = 0.1777 Dunes = 0.7174 Fahrenheit 451’s

(Sources: and

So I’m guessing Hallberg’s book is a least two Dunes.

Here’s a few reasons I think self-published or aspiring authors should probably ignore this outlier:

1) It’s not the first thing he’s ever published. Literary magazines can be tough to sell to, and a novella’s not a bad way of indicating you can write a novel.

2) Self-publishing especially means self-editing, or at least editing by non-professionals. The more words, the more work and the more you have to keep straight. This is why I suspect a lot of self-published authors write trilogies. It’s one book in their head, but it’ll sell better as three, and be easier to manage.

3) Long novels can ramble or have dry spells. Hallberg’s book is notable in that it does not apparently suffer from this problem, but probably not for all readers.

4) Six years is a long time to work on a single project, and you’ve gotta figure there’s at least another year or two until this book actually is published. It might be better to do a number of smaller projects to get feedback rather than to throw your eggs all in one basket.

5) For a new author, or even an experienced one, they get better as a writer from the first word to the 500,000th, meaning the earlier passages will have to be brought up to the level of the later ones. This is somewhat true for all books, but is magnified in longer works.

This by the way is not a comment on reading. I love reading a long book, or a long series of books set in the same world. If you can write 500,000 words and keep me interested, more power to you. But I suspect most of us need a few books under our belts before this is a good idea.

What do you guys think?

*This is an abbreviation of the working title of this book by the way, it will likely change by the time it becomes more publicized here.


Filed under Books + Publishing, Writing

4 responses to “Boy! He sure has a lot to say, doesn’t he?

  1. “[T]hey get better as a writer from the first word to the 500,000th….” Isn’t that the truth?! That’s why the revising process takes so long. Every time you get to the end of another revision, the beginning is no longer up to the standard you’ve been able to achieve by the end.

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  4. Holy crap, Infinite Jest is longer than War and Peace?! No wonder my bookshelf is sagging…

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