Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How Long is Your Book?

A small portion of my library - all sizes to be sure
Anne R. Allen in her blog of last weekend posted an interesting thought about the strength of shorter books and the novella and that our audience's habit's are changing. She supported her thoughts with some fairly strong remarks from others about the current state of writing and that we authors no longer exist, we are now nothing more than producers of content that is schlepped out to ebook sites, POD suppliers, and reviewers to help shill sales. Maybe.

But on the other hand Mark Twain, Dickens, and even Hammett found good markets in the serial magazines of their day – all to hump up sales. So let's put that whole pandering to our marketplace to the side. Me, I'll pander away if it will sell books and stories. After all if we don’t sell we are just like all the other writers out their pounding away at night wishing upon a star. Sales do matter.

But what I found to be intriguing in her post is the changing form of the book itself, and I think this is across all the popular genres, romance, YA, and mystery/thriller, and even science fiction. This I have found not in my own books but in the dozens I read every year. We now see books written for readers with shorter attention spans habituated by tweets, texts, and emails. I often wonder if a twenty year old with ten years of texts and emails under their belt can even complete a full sentence, let alone read a 155,000 word novel that is replete with said sentences and punctuation. Daunting to say the least.

Even when I offered my 165,000 word historical novel to a few agents I was rebuffed. "Traditional publishers won’t touch it, too long. The market is for shorter and crisper stories –cut it to maybe 85,000, then we will talk." And they may be right. Most authors, self-published or traditional, want sales and if the market is 65-85,000 words so be it (220 to 300 pages). Alan Furst's Mission to Paris goes 255 pages and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby went a scant 159 pages. I won’t argue that many books out there are long and well received, some even win awards, but considering that what the late Elmore Leonard wrote almost never was more than 250 pages who am I to argue.

In Allen's blog she points out that sale's god writer James Patterson, with more than 300 million books sold to date, now uses the physical structure of the page as his driver, more white space, more dialog, short chapters, keep them interested. And while I'm going to parallel Anne R. Allen with the following, I have to admit I use these same techniques in my own books.

Short Chapters
Drive the story forward with scene after scene standing alone as a chapter, when a chapter has three or four connected scenes, separate them – it increases the book's pace. There's a failure point to this I'm sure, but you have to admit that the late Robert Parker's scenes would barely fit on one page if you took out all the one line dialog. Short may be the new long in sales. (What this says about the reader I can only guess, but we have been brought up on eight minute scenes on everything from Law and Order to Castle – so why not?)

Start with Dialog
This used to be a no-no, never start a chapter with a character talking. While Ms. Allen takes the view this may not be customary, it is changing and now dialog moves to the start of a paragraph. My point is that its wide open, first lines of a book to chapters to paragraphs, if it works try it. Often, profanities may take the lead with an occasional question to start the chapter. A long first paragraph slows the reader from the cliffhanger you dropped at the end of the previous chapter – off-putting. Drive the story with an opening question, exclamation, shock, whatever you need to keep them reading.

Kill Long Paragraphs
Open a book and when you are faced with the first long (meaning half page or more) of a solid block of text you tend to skip it – right? I mean it, don’t you skim over it to get back to the dialog and the action. Sure we need narrative to explain why the bomb didn’t go off under the ice cream truck surrounded by kids, but try to stick to the facts. How many people passed away from boredom reading a Faulkner novel, just asking? The structure of the page – even an ebook page – is obvious to the reader; they will skip over the dense wordy stuff. Believe it or not, the open white areas of the pages are as critical to the book as the words.

Anne makes a great point in her section on "Don’t paint a picture, sketch." There are some wonderful writers out there with huge followings that absolutely ignore this viewpoint. They are proud of their research, their extraordinary detail of every scene and location, they spend days walking the moors of Scotland and the alleys of Paris, then describe every stone and bistro they pass. Good for them, but I suggest that it is a dwindling market. A good example is Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoos Calling. Ms. Rowling told an excellent detective story here with a character as hardboiled as any by Hammett or Chandler, unfortunately it has the heft of a James Michener epic. To be honest I skipped a lot of the big paragraphs, I've been to London, I didn’t need the bus schedule.

We write to entertain – period, full stop. If you fail, the book fails, reviews are terrible, sales fall (or never start), you begin to look for a job driving for UBER. Most everyone's life is boring, full of the usual boring stuff day after day. Write to excite (kinda like that), maybe that's why porn is so successful – fantasy mixed with whatever. We want our Jack Reachers and Travis McGees, we want Cara Black's Aimee Leduc, single and pregnant, to solve the case, we need to have Connelly's Harry Bosch succeed.

I mix my book lengths  - and it's the story and the characters that make it happen. My new character Tony Alfano is a detective on the 1933 Chicago police force, the books will never be longer that 62,000 words. The Sharon O'Mara Chronicles drift around at 75,000 words, and the historical novels start at 105,000. Variety is the spice of life for book readers and writers.

More Later . . . . . . . . .

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for the shout out, Gregory!

    I should clarify a couple of things. I didn't say books are too long for today's reader. I said "Novellas and short informational books are surging in popularity. That's not to say that full-length books are on their way out, but you can fill in with shorter ones. Or you can break that doorstop saga into a trilogy of shorter works."

    And I'm not telling anybody to start a chapter or a book with dialogue. Agents still don't like that. What I'm saying is to put the dialogue at the front of the paragraph, instead of describing "stage business" and then burying the dialogue in the middle of the paragraph.

    But I do advocate shorter chapters and paragraphs. My editor made me do that and they really work!

    But he himself wrote a whopping doorstop of a book. 150,000 words or something and it was a huge bestseller for the past two years. Still topping the charts in France. The main thing is to write books and stories of all lengths--mix it up!

    And remember that white space is your friend. :-)