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. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post

[2] Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Basics of Creative Writing. http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/538