Monday, June 12, 2017

How Long is a Piece of String?

Or rather, how long is the book you're writing at the moment going to be?  Do you know?

Perhaps you are the sort of writer I greatly admire, who has it all mapped out chapter by chapter to exactly the appropriate length?  Or perhaps you're like me and the book will be as long as it takes to tell the story?

I've always done it that way and in fact most of my books tend to work out around the 120,000 word mark, plus or minus. But recently I've wondered whether letting the story have its head is actually the best idea.  I found myself thinking about Winnie the Pooh writing a poem that mentioned 'pounds, shillings and ounces'; when Piglet protested that he didn't think the ounces ought to be there, he replied, 'They wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them.'

What prompted this was recently reading two or three very long books - 500, 600 pages. The story was usually very complicated; it seems to be a current fashion for having more than one timescale.  Though I always started off with great enthusiasm I found myself struggling well before the end.

The problem was that just at the point where you had got involved with the characters, the author allowed another story to butt in, not because it was essential to the plot but because it wanted to come in.  Very often the intervention went on so long that by the time you got back to the first subject you couldn't remember anything about those characters at all.

I read quickly, but even so reading a very long book can take a week or more. If you are a slow reader you must be living with some of these books for months at a time.  And I find books tend to go off with long keeping, just the way milk does, so I wonder how many doorstep books do actually get read right to the end.

For most of my life I operated the 'I've started so I'll finish' rule.  More recently I've decided that unless you're talking about something with the calibre of War and Peace, life's too short to go on with a book I'm not enjoying.

I think perhaps I'd better take a harder line with my own plots if I want to be sure that doesn't happen to mine.


5 comments:

Eileen Goudge said...

Agreed! Life is too short to finish a book you're not enjoying when there are so many others out there waiting to be read.

Sybil Johnson said...

I've become more selective in my reading as I grow older. Too many books I really want to read to waste my time with ones that are only okay.

In terms of writing, I am lucky if I get a 70,000 word first draft. My books naturally come in around 75,000 words, which seems to be my sweet spot. I don't outline everything, but I do do some minimal outlining.

Donis Casey said...

I started out writing enormously long books, but my current series started out short, then got longer, and now seem to be getting shorter. Exactly like you said, a book is exactly as long as it wants to be!

Vicki Delany said...

I have no qualms about giving up on a book if it's not achieving it's potential. No matter who much I paid for it. Life is too short to struggle through something you are not enjoying. I wonder why we sometimes feel guilty if we abandon a book?

NaRong said...

I have no qualms about giving up on a book if it's not achieving it's potential. No matter who much I paid for it. Life is too short to struggle through something you are not enjoying. I wonder why we sometimes feel guilty if we abandon a book?
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