How Long is Long Enough?

MCMTuesday, January 6, 2009

Lately, I've spent a good amount of time wondering about page counts (or word counts) for the things I write. The general anxiety about the subject got worse the other day when I read this post by Charlie Stross, basically pegging SF novels at 100K+ words each, which is (I'm not ashamed to say) about 15K longer than what I'm working on now. And it got me to wondering — in the context of going the "unconventional" route — what the rules about the length of my writing should be.

To back up a bit: when I started writing RollBots, I was the newbie onboard. There's not a single word written that our story editor, Vito, didn't fix for me. I was aware of format and act breaks, but there was so much stuff in the nitty gritty of writing a script that I'd learned about, it's truly mind-blowing how dumb I used to be. Over the course of six or seven episodes, I think I got the hang of it, to the point where I'm confident I can (at the very least) craft a new 22-minute episode without too much stress or rework.

You hear the idea about 1 page of script = 1 minute of screen time (thusly a half-hour would be 22 pages). That doesn't tend to work out for an action series like RollBots, because things move fast and there's less time for it to average out. The early episodes of the series were glued to a 25-page rule, because there was a concern early on that the shows would go overlength if we expanded out beyond that. As time went on, we discovered that we could push that to closer to 28-29 pages without much trouble (makes for some crazy-intense pacing). That said, anecdotal evidence suggests 30-38 pages would also work for a series like ours (we adlibbed a lot of action with our fancy VR camera thingy).

In the end, it all depends on the director, I think. If they want 38 pages to cram into 22 minutes, you're best doing what they want, or there'll be slow parts, and nobody wants that. It's an exercise in packing, and the real challenge is in writing exciting sardines to fit in that can.

It seems to me that writing books should be somewhat similar, but isn't. I've read more than one book lately where the author seems to go off on a description tangent to explain this or that, for no other reason than to pad their word count. I mean, I'm trying to desperately to pretend that's not the case, but sometimes it's just obvious that the content being revealed in this four-page passage has already been inferred earlier in at least two places, and it's only being repeated a third time because the writer saw it was a prime location for expanding the novel a bit to hit some arbitrary mark. And it's during those long passages that I tune out, and find myself knee-deep in some major plot five pages later, because I'm psychologically averse to laziness or something.

"Laziness" is a mean word. I don't really mean it like that. I can imagine there are pressures to hit the 100K word mark for most authors these days. I've read countless comments around the web from people that say they don't like books that aren't big and fat, because anything shorter isn't worth the effort. That's got to scare publishers into insisting on longer content. And maybe it's true that people prefer longer books, but maybe it shouldn't be? Is there something to be learned from the screenwriter craft? Packing those sardines?

For my novel, I've been stumped by an issue for a few weeks now: if I'm clocking in at a bit under 90K, should I expand? If so, where? Descriptive text? I don't really want to, because the pace of the book is so tight already, anything that slows it down will probably derail the experience. Should I add another subplot? Early reader reviews say no... the story is already full enough as-is. And likewise, more twists would probably screw up the interconnected nature of the threads. So should I be worrying about inflating my word count, or should I just accept that it's an 85K-word novel, and proceed as planned? Based on a re-read yesterday, I figure this is the equivalent of a 40-page RollBots script: super-packed plots. I don't think it's TOO packed, and I'm not sure I buy into the idea of fluffing for the sake of page count.

So there you have it. A long post that ends with a question: given that I have complete freedom to control my end-product, should I give this any more thought, or should I do it the way I want? Is there any truth to the conventional wisdom that longer is better? I tend to not take conventional wisdom at face value, but sometimes it really IS right.

An open question. I will contemplate it for a few more weeks, I'm sure.

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