How long is too short?
There’e2’80’99s an interesting discussion over at a blog called Crime Fiction Dossier that is somewhat related to the last post here, and in fact, I was a little surprised that no one brought its topic up in a comment. Maybe my readers all think I’e2’80’99m so perfect that they don’e2’80’99t even think of me in terms of writing to command? Yeah, right.
Anyway, the question I had rather expected to see was, Who says the book needs to be longer?
And it’e2’80’99s true, most contracts now specify the word count, and the trend is for super-sized books. I had to laugh at the last Parker novel, which is, if you look at it closely, maybe 45,000 words, but it’e2’80’99s got large type, huge margins, and it’e2’80’99s printed on really, really thick paper. It looks like a grown-up book, but if Parker didn’e2’80’99t have a name already, he’e2’80’99d be lucky to find someone willing to print it as a novella. Maigret-sized books just don’t cut it in today’s market.
And it’e2’80’99s also true that many of the big books are just bloated with filler, and when you get to the end you really wish some editor had been allowed her scalpel, or machete.
In this discussion of size-versus-quality, there is an inevitable comparison between today’e2’80’99s behemoths and the slim classics of the Golden Age. Even Sayers’e2’80’99 later novels are short by today’e2’80’99s standards. However, if you look at those classics, many of them are not exactly complex. Thrillers aside, the traditional mystery almost never expanded to include personal considerations; now, the characters’e2’80’99 lives outside the mystery are generally used to enrich the story, interweaving with the investigation and being affected by it in turn.
I have never been told that I have to meet my word count. I suppose that if my publishers were looking for a reason to get rid of me, they could zero in on that and use the fine print to give me the boot, but practically speaking, word count is used to indicate the size of the story, not the size of the book. A 100,000 word novel is apt to have a wider scope, a complexity that a 60,000 word book does not; the bigger number allows the writer to take the time to explore’e2’80’94the characters, the case, the world in which the book is set. A bigger book has the potential to be substantial in a way a slim book does not.
Which is not, repeat NOT, to say that a big book is automatically more substantial, or even better. The difference in Stephen King’e2’80’99s THE STAND between its originally published form (the size of two books) and in its truly huge 450-pages-restored form (the size of three) is not one of complexity, just of size. And to compare that book with, say, any of Josephine Tey’e2’80’99s little masterpieces is to put one of those bizarre, hand-sized giant-oyster pearls next to a cut and polished diamond.
Maybe Sandra’e2’80’99s current book needs to be a tight, slim, ripped little volume, or maybe it needs to relax and spread just a little: I don’e2’80’99t know. My own writing tends to be too tight for comfort on the first go-round, my first drafts being a sort of guide rather than an actual book. If I followed the traditional Hemingwayesque dictum of cutting one word in three (instead of adding one in three, which my rewrites generally do) I’e2’80’99d have a nice, clean, unreadable synopsis. My own current project needs additions, needs the sort of enrichment that comes with pages.
Not a lot of pages, and I like to believe that if I had a book whose nature resisted expansion, Bantam would publish it regardless of size. It is enormously reassuring to know without a doubt that, at the very least, my editor would fight for the book’e2’80’99s right to be small.
But she might lose. It’e2’80’99s a commercial business with a not very large profit margin, and (as the Parker books show) what it boils down to is that people hesitate at shelling out $25 for a novella. And since a book costs about the same to put on the shelf no matter the number of pages, cutting it to $18 can mean losing money.
None of us much want to be the cause of our publishers losing money.