Saturday, 20 March 2010

short stories - long books- does size matter? - Linda Strachan

Surely a book should be as long or as short as the story demands?

I know we as writers have to work in the commercial world of publishing if we want to see our work in print. But does this mean writing longer and longer books because there is a perception that a book needs to the thick enough to sell?

This line of thought was prompted by  an article in the Guardian yesterday .

There are some amazing books that are short, sharp and work because of their length, and others that are a delight because they are long and involved.  As a reader I know there are times I want to get lost in a long book, or even a series of lengthy novels, to live with the characters for a longer time  but there are also times when I want to dip into something that will charm and delight me because of the pared down prose.

When Spider came out it got some great reviews but the occasionally someone would mention that it was a short novel for teenagers, as if that might be a problem.  It is short, but as far as I am concerned it is the right length for the story and for the way it is told.  I could have added padding to make it a longer book, but  would that have made it a better read?  I don't think so.

My new book Dead Boy Talking will be a similar length.  Some readers have said they like that length because it was less daunting and they felt confident they would finish it.  Others just enjoyed the fast pace that might be difficult to sustain in a much longer novel.

Personally I feel that if publishers are pushing for longer books because it seems like they might sell better I think that is a dangerous road to go down, a similar avenue to the thinking behind publishing celebrity authors whether they can write or not.

The writing, the plot, characters and the story have to be what dictates length, or am I being naive in this commercial world?

Do you think length matters?

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my new book Dead Boy Talking - published June 2010- Strident Publishing


Becky said...

I think this is a really interesting discussion. As a school librarian, I can say that many children are put off by longer books. I think it really does depend on the reader but I don't mind buying shorter books if they pack a punch and sometimes books at 400 plus pages make me feel like I will never get to the end especially when they are part of a series.

farmlanebooks said...

I think length matters a lot. Everyone enjoys different lengths of books (and it can be argued that it takes more skill to create a powerful story in fewer words), but I don't enjoy short stories. If they are good then they leave me craving to know more. There is a market for them, so I don't think publishers should stop printing them, but on a personal level my favourite books are all long. The length gives room for a complex plot to develop and normally leads to a more satisfying read. I am not the typical reader though - I read a lot! Lots of people prefer shorter books, so they should have a good range of books to choose from too.

I’m off to read The Kindly Ones, at nearly 1000 pages it is one of my longer reads!

Gillian Philip said...

I think you've got it right when you say 'the right length for the story', Linda. Yes, sometimes it's lovely to wallow in a book, but there's nothing more exasperating than getting that itch in the back of your skull that says an author is padding this out.

One of the things that drew me to YA writing was that there was no messing about. Beautiful writing, exciting and involved plots, but no FAFFING. Faffing is for adults who worry they're not improving themselves if a book isn't hard work.

There's a children's series I'm deeply fond of (which shall remain nameless) and I'm longing to know the final outcome of Volume 3, but every time I pick it up and open it, I throw it back down. You can see the faffing right there on the page, and you can see the self-importance in the word count. Books 1 and 2 were almost as long, but they felt right. Book 3 feels like the author wanted the spine to look the same as the others on a shelf.

I thought Spider was a perfect length for its story, by the way.

Katherine Roberts said...

Publishers are pushing for longer books? Really? They usually complain my books are too long and want me to write them shorter... not something I find easy, being your natural epic-battles-with-a-cast-of-thousands sort of girl.

But I have been trying very hard to write shorter recently, since the 500 page length of "I am the Great Horse" caused a problem when selling translation rights - it costs more to translate a long book. Also, I believe it costs more to produce a book over a certain number of pages... it certainly takes longer to edit and proofread, etc. Perhaps there is an ideal length, fat enough to have a decent spine, and yet thin enough to be cost-effective to publish? As ever, demands of story seem to come second to economics.

As for reader preferences, I can understand shorter books being more popular with reluctant readers, but how do you explain Harry Potter?

Katherine Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda Strachan said...

Becky Yes, some longer books can seem to go on forever but the best of them have less waffle and padding. Sometimes the problem with 'adult' books is that they are more waffle-prone! If the story grips you and carries you to the end still fascinated I don't believe it matters how long it is. The problem is that far too often they sag in the middle. There's little room for that in a short book.
Jackie, I know you prefer long books and I do too, sometimes - I doubt there will ever be a call to stop publishing them but just as sometime we want a light meal rather than a banquet, so short books have their place.
Thanks Gillian! I agree that is one of the things I love about writing for the YA market.
Katherine an epic - a cast of thousands book does have to be a goodly length and would not be right as a short book but \as you said often the problem is that 'demands of story seem to come second to economics'

steeleweed said...

The 'size matters' arguement is as meaningless in writing as in other areas we will not discuss here.
What matters is keeping the reader totally absorbed from page 1 to page xxx.
If my reading time were an issue for any reason, I might choose poetry or short stories versus a 500-page novel, but generally I read more or less continuously, often several books concurrently.

My 1st book was 47,000 words and was rejected because Told "nobody publishes novellas". This despite the fact that some of the greatest books have been novellas. (This is US, Europe may be different).

On the other hand, War and Peace would not have worked as a short story.

I just finished reading a trilogy totaling about 1800 pages and it did not feel too long.

Stroppy Author said...

Ooh, I agree that being concise and cutting out waffle is one of the pleasures (and challenges) of writing YA and children's books. I've just had this tweet from a publisher reading one of my (short) YA books: 'A nice crisp read, no mucking about'. I think he's put his finger on it - if what makes a book longer is that there's 'mucking about' then the book is too long. If it is still crisp, it needed to be that long and the length is fine.

The Teacher said...

Are you kidding me ? This kind of thinking drives me crazy . Would anyone even think of telling a composer or song writer how many notes to put in a song. When my students are writing and wondering how long it should be I tell them it needs to be " as long as it takes to tell the story ." But they also know they must edit mercilessly. ( even on their blogs, as they all have one !) And for the record , my students choose their books based on the author, the recommendations of friends or teachers, etc. I have never had a student tell me that they don't want to read a book because of how long it is .

Linda Strachan said...

Steeleweed, my point exactly, the "size matters' argument ridiculous, like someone saying, 'never mind the quality feel the width'

Congratulations, Anne, I love the idea of a book being 'a crisp read'.

The Teacher - You sound like a great teacher but I have spoken to some readers who find the act of reading itself such a difficult task that they have been put off by the thought of struggling to get through a long book. Whereas a good 'crisp' short book might give them the confidence to read to the finish. But it also has to be good enough so that they are enjoying it and need to find out what happens. The hope is that this will be the breakthrough they need to discover the joy of longer books (and the belief in themselves that they can read to the end).

Saying that of course no book should be chosen merely because it is short (or long)- that is no recommendation of quality!

michelle lovric said...

I think it is much harder to write shorter books. I personally struggle painfully with this. My drafts are always telephone directories. Thank God for editors, who are always happy to tell me where to cut, as I lack the organ of discrimination for my own work.

Speaking of organs,I confess that, for each of my newly crisp novels, I keep an 'offcuts' file of all the bits that did not survive the cull. They cannot be re-used or recycled. But nor can I make myself bury them in the nowheresphere of deletion. I guess it is like keeping your own removed appendix in formaldehyde.

Anonymous said...

I love short books!

Helena Pielichaty said...

How funny! I'm just about to post a blog about this very subject. At a book event on Saturday a mother flatly refused to buy her daughter one of my books because it wasn't long enough. 'You'll have finished it by the time we get home,' she told her sharply.

Stroppy Author said...

Helena, although I do buy my daughter short books (and I write short books!), I can sympathise with that mother. My Small Bint reads voraciously when she is on a reading binge. We used to go to Borders and spend £30 and she'd finish the books in a few days and want to go back. Longer books meant more money for food :-) I know, use the library. But she's not careful, drops them in the bath, spills tea on them - you have to own them for that.

Donna Gambale said...

I've actually heard that publishers are going for shorter books -- at least in YA, 65K-80K for contemporary, and fantasy gets a slightly longer leash (100K max, usually). It's smarter economically and supposedly more appealing to readers. There are always exceptions, though.

I agree with you --- each book has a certain length that is "right" for it. I have to act in the belief that publishers won't reject a book reasonably near these word limits if the book NEEDS to be that length.

Personally, I cut my 100K word contemporary YA to 87K words in the revision process -- but even though it's a little long by usual standards, 87K is the right length for my book, and I'm not going to starve it for the sake of conformity. But like I said, my faith in the industry tells me I won't have to.