Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Writing — How Many Words Are Too Many? How Many Words Are Too Few?

Thomas Mann's Classic, 80 Pages
From a business marketing point of view I understand that because of production costs, brand image and customer demand most publishing companies have developed criteria for the books they publish.  Maybe they only publish mysteries. Why not?  Maybe they specialize even further and publish only noir or maybe only cozies. Makes sense to me.  Do what you know best.  Or do what you love. Most publishers have another requirement ­— word count.  Though this is most annoying to me, having a minimum word requirement isn’t arbitrary on their part.  Experience has taught them that buyers of mystery novels, at the moment, expect 60,000 to 80,000 words. According comments I’ve picked up as I sample various blogs on writing and reading, many, many readers feel cheated if there isn’t certain heft to the work.  They don’t count words, or really look at type size or leading, or the white space between chapters but they do look at the number of pages. I think they need to know how misleading that can be.  Sure, if you are a reader who likes epic novels or story that covers a group of characters over generations, a big, thick, doorstop of a book may be essential to tell the story. But generally speaking, I think readers ought to know that the satisfaction a reader receives isn’t quantitative, it’s qualitative.

I remember reading a mystery a few years ago by a best-selling, award-winning author when I came upon a passage that described a place that was very familiar to me. That description, though paraphrased, was awfully close to the description on the entity’s web site. In reality, no harm, no foul. In fact, the organization’s PR Department was probably grateful for the exposure.  On the other hand the lengthy passage did nothing to advance the plot, develop character or add color to the setting.  I’d bet my bottom dollar, as they used to say, that this bit of diverting narrative was added later to meet the publisher’s word count requirement. I can imagine the writer’s frustration.  The book was done, but damn, it was 8,000 words short.

Tolstoy's Tome, 1,296 pages

In an ideal world, we writers would prefer to tell the story with the number of words it takes to tell the story, whether that turns out to be 20,000 or 120,000. (If you are a writer who disagrees with that, I’d love to hear from you.)

Perhaps, in the future, technology (both print and electronic) will convince publishers to stop adding filler to their products. I believe asking a writer to make the work longer simply to make it longer is like telling Van Gogh to make that picture of the sunflowers a couple of inches taller.  

Meanwhile, I have really good mystery manuscript called Wake Up Little Theo that comes in 3,000 words short of the 60,000 mark just sitting round gathering dust.

1 comment:

Bill Crider said...

I'm a fan of shorter books. Maybe that's because I write shorter books. Or maybe it's because I spent so many years reading paperback originals. There was a time when I'd read long novels, really long ones, like SHOGUN or Michener's HAWAII. Not anymore, though. Could be that my attention span's shot. Anyway, I see nothing wrong with a 57K word novel.