Posted in Writing, Writing craft

When is a book too long?

big bookI just started reading a book that clocks in at over 900 pages.  900 pages!  Just imagine that.  Before I bought it I read the online reviews on Amazon.  The reviews were good but one issue kept cropping up: the book was too long.  In fact, this particular novelist is known for her long books, usually in the vicinity of 500-600 pages.  I’d read several before.  I haven’t read a book that long since I read Herman Wouk’s wonderful “Winds of War” which is over 1000 pages in pocket paperback size.

This got me thinking:  How long should a book really be?

If you are to believe Chuck Sambucino (whose work in Writer’s Digest I do admire), any book over 110,000 words is too long.[1]  This seems entirely too didactic to me unless we’re talking about specific genres such as children’s books.  That would mean that many very famous and well-loved masterpieces are “too long.”  Of course, any bad piece of writing is too long even at 60,000 words which he further suggests is too short.  It’s not that cut and dried.

Kurt Vonnegut reputedly gave this advice to writers: “Start as close to the end as possible,”[2] which suggests to me that there is likely a place in every story that is the best place to enter it.  Indeed, I believe that this applies equally to non-fiction and fiction.  Starting too far from the end means that you’ll include far too much extraneous material.

I really don’t believe that here is any ideal length. If a story sustains itself for a long session, then that’s probably right.  However, over the years I’ve challenged students to take their best 1000 words for example, and edit it ruthlessly down to half that length.  Then, I’ve said, you’ve got really tight writing.  You have to do it without losing the message of the piece and leave out every extraneous word.  They hate it because they want to keep every bon mot, every personal device and turn of phrase.

When William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings,” this is exactly what he meant.  (Note: This phrase has been variously attributed to Anton Chekov and Oscar Wilde, among many others. I’m going to stick with Faulkner.)

Not every word we write needs to make it to our reader.  Keeping unnecessary material suggests to me one of two things: either you are a serious narcissist who believes that every word you write is precious, or you are seriously in need of an editor.  And in that royal “you” I include myself sometimes.  We all do it.  I’ve even argued with editors about their opinions on some things to leave out. They usually win.

For beginning writers, I think that the biggest pitfall in keeping the story to the essentials is including too much backstory.  Backstory is for us – the writers – so that we can come to know and animate in our own imaginations our characters and the places they where they live and breathe.  This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction.  Knowing how to reveal and how much to reveal is the key to a tight story.  When I’m reading I can always tell when a writer wants the reader to know just how much research he or she put into a story.  And I shouldn’t be able to sense that.   Just as in our interactions with people around us, our interactions with books can have TMI: too much information.

I think that it’s wise to understand that your notebook s and the material contained in them are first and foremost for you, the writer.  Making a decision about how much of that you need to share with your readers is one of the keys to good writing.

I’ll let you know how I feel about the 900-word book – if I ever get through it!

[1] Chuck Sambucino. Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post. Writers’ Digest online.

[2] Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Basics of Creative Writing.

Posted in Book publishers, Publishing, Self-Publishing

The hunt for a new publisher begins…again

And so it has started again: I’m on the hunt for yet another publisher. Why, oh why, can I not be like other writers?  Why can’t I just publish in one genre, find myself a good old publisher who actually publishes these books, and happily continue that relationship until death do us part?  Or why can I not simply throw up my hands as so many writers have done and turn my back, once and for all, on the legacy publishers in favor of going the self-publishing route from here on in?

There is no simple answer, but I’m committed to figuring it out – even if it doesn’t solve my current problem.

There are really quite a few reasons why I can’t commit to one publisher, or even one route to publication. As I wade through the mire of my own writing/publishing mess, perhaps sorting myself out might help others who have the same issues.

Why can’t I simply commit to traditional publishing? I’ve already journeyed down this route to the very end ten times.  Ten books submitted, re-submitted, re-worked, accepted, published.  TEN TIEMES!  Surely I have the issue of approaching and procuring a publisher licked.  But here’s the thing: If you’re not a best-selling author delivering books in the same genre time after time, it can be very difficult to maintain a relationship with a single publisher since they all have their own specialities, and they rarely publish outside their guidelines.  The lesson here, of course is, don’t even try to approach a publisher with a query about a book unless it falls clearly within their publishing mandate.

This is plainly illustrated by my own experience: although I’ve been through the traditional publishing route ten times, I’ve worked with eight different publishers. Yup, that’s right.  Eight new routes to navigate and even more than eight editors to develop relationships with since at one of the publishing houses, I went through three editors enroute to publishing ne book (editors do leave mid-project for greener pastures). The bottom line truth this time around is that this new book isn’t at all like any of my previous books.  I’m a hybrid author in more ways than one!

These days the term hybrid author seems to refer to those of us who publish both via the traditional route and the indie route depending on the project. It can also refer to people like me who write in a number of genres – fiction & non-fiction and different types with those broad categories.  So that makes the traditional route difficult and time-consuming.  So, why don’t I just self-publish?  Again.

I’ve gone down the self-publishing route three times at this point, but only for fiction, and this book is non-fiction – a combination of narrative and prescriptive. The conventional wisdom holds that it is easier to have non-fiction acquired by a traditional publisher than it is fiction.  My own experience would seem to bear that out, but my personal anecdotal evidence isn’t really enough to use as a basis for such a conclusion.  I suspect that I’m a more talented non-fiction writer than a fiction writer, although I’m working to change that!

If you knew how much work I’ve already done on the marketing for this as-yet-unpublished book you’d think that I was planning to publish independently. I’ve written marketing copy; I’ve had a cover designed; I’ve created an unpublished web site for it; I’ve even begun to develop a series of podcasts.  I’m also story-boarding a book trailer.  The truth is that you almost need to do this in advance of being taken on by a traditional publisher these days anyway.

I’m still a traditionalist at heart, believing in the value of the third-party advocacy provided by legacy publishers. I’m not willing, however, to spend another year searching for that publisher. I’m aghast at the notion of submission-rejection-submission etc. once again on the route to acceptance.  So, maybe my loyal blog readers could help me decide.

What should I do with the following book! (Let me know what you think – and ask your fellow writers what they think if you like.)


Who Will Read Your Book?

The Unknown Writer’s Guide to the Realities of Writing & Publishing

WWRYB CoverThere are lots of books about how to write a book. This isn’t one of them.  This book is about how to navigate the increasingly confusing world of twenty-first century book publishing.  Whether you are an academic with a dissertation you’d like to turn into a book, a mom with a memoir or a newbie with a novel, if you want to get it published there is probably a lot you don’t know about what you don’t know. Who Will Read Your Book? The Unknown Writer’s Guide to the Realities of Writing & Publishing starts with this seminal question then moves in to fill in the gaps.

Patricia Parsons knows a thing or two about the wild world of publishing. A communication professor with numerous professional books placed with traditional publishers, she is a closet fiction writer, has vanity published, self-published, sold a self-published book to a traditional publisher, and has scads of finished and half-finished manuscripts on her computer. 

A few of my past publisher adventures…

Posted in Memoir, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing

A writer’s early roots: What we read & what we write

A young Daphne DuMaurier (Source; Wikipedia)
A young Daphne DuMaurier
(Source; Wikipedia)

This morning I had a very odd experience.  I had the privilege of peering in to the mind of a 16-year-old girl – or should I say a 16-year-old writer.  And the most peculiar thing of all is that it was me.

A bit of backstory: when I was in high school (lo these many years ago) I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist – but I also had a very practical side and that practical side won out in the university program selection process.  I had my very best marks in biology, chemistry and analytical trigonometry in my senior year, and you can guess what I studied in university.  And to tell you the truth, that health science degree and the Master of Science have stood me in good stead in my career evolution from health communication, to health & business writer, to creative non-fiction writer, and now into fiction.

But in high school, my English marks weren’t far behind my math and science.  In fact, when given the opportunity in my junior year to complete what was then referred to as a “distinction” project” I didn’t choose to do it in science, rather I chose English.  To be more specific I chose the short story.  This morning I took three magazine boxes off the highest shelf in my office to begin the laborious process of digitalizing all of my publications to rid myself of the glut of paper that threatens to overtake most writers from time to time.  What do you suppose was the first document that I pulled out?  Much to my surprise, it was my Grade 11 “distinction project.”

The framework for the project was aspects of the short story (very apropos since lately I’ve been thinking that I really ought to read some Alice Munro given that she won the Nobel prize for literature recently based on a career writing short stories – and I’ve never read a single sentence she’s written).  The project, painstakingly typed on an old typewriter (with only one or two whited-out typos) was an analysis of the components of the short story.  For each of the traditional components – character, setting, plot etc. – I had written a short story that supposedly showcasing each.  One story’s character took center stage; in the next one setting was the most important part etc.   But it was the themes of each of the stories that told the story of that 15-year-old writer.

The theme that came through again and again, regardless of the actual characters or plot of the story was this: Know who you are, and be true to yourself.

First-edition cover of Rebecca (Source: Wikipedia)
First-edition cover of Rebecca
(Source: Wikipedia)

When I think back through my day-job career, and my writing by moonlight, I think that I have truly tried to do this – but I didn’t realize that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche.  This was kind of a light bulb moment, because I just finished re-reading what I have long considered to be my very favorite novel: Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.

I first read the book when I was in high school, right around the time that I wrote those short stories.  I had seen the various iterations of the movies based on it in the interim, but it was eye-opening for me to read this book so many decades later to try to see what it was that captivated me and to figure out if the book had, in fact, had any influence on my writing.

This time around, I found myself impatient with the narrator.  A twenty-something woman of the 1930’s, the unnamed protagonist met and married a much older, and much more worldly man who took her back to England to his estate, Manderley.  Haunted by the ghost of his first wife, the young woman concocts in her mind all manner of scenarios, most of which have absolutely no basis in reality – indeed, the reality is much more sinister.  I kept wanting her to get over it, to move on, to ask the question to clear up the uncertainties.  I don’t remember being so impatient with her at the time.  So, I do think I’ve evolved as a woman.  But what about as a writer?

Grace Note Cover PaperbackWritten in 1938, Rebecca was not an historical novel, the genre I found myself drawn to both as a reader and as a writer in the last few decades.  However, I read it near the beginning of the 1970’s, so for me, as a young woman, it was historical indeed, and I remember always thinking about it that way.  Daphne DuMaurier did not need to create the world of the 1930’s: she lived in it.  But for me, the detail was now of historical significance, and I do believe that this influenced my choice of genres.

I enjoyed the book the second time around and hope that some of my own work will stand the test of time as did this ne.  Perhaps in the future some young woman will pick up Grace Note and think about the strength of the Lysanor, the heroine, and recognize that she, too, spent her life trying to be true to herself.