Saturday, May 05, 2018

Guest Blogger Christine Poulson

Aline here. Today I'm happy to introduce you to Chrissie Poulson, whose new book, Cold, Cold Heart, has the intriguing setting of a remote Antarctic plateau during the long Antarctic winter from the time the last plane leaves at the end of February to the time the next plane arrives in late October. Sends the shivers down my spine even thinking of it!

The Long and the Short of It

'For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.' This is supposedly what Hemingway came up with when he was challenged to write a six word story. I thought of that recently when I downloaded the audiobook of War and Peace, all sixty hours of it. According to the Guinness Book of Records that is not even the longest novel ever written: the prize goes to A la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust, which contains an estimated 9,609,000 characters.

Hemingway tended to be terse, Proust just the opposite. Do writers have a default length, I wonder? And if so, how does this apply to crime writers? To an extent, book lengths are determined by publishers and perhaps that is particularly the case with genre fiction.

Even so, I feel confident in saying that Simenon wrote short. The Maigret novels are scarcely more than novellas. Agatha Christie didn't waste her words either. You can comfortably read one of her novels in an evening. Dorothy L. Sayers on the other hand tended to write long, especially in her later books. But the Golden Age writers were not usually verbose and there is a good reason for that. If you are writing a traditional fair play detective novel, you don't want your readers to have forgotten the clues at the beginning before they get to the end. The short novel can work well with noir too in sustaining atmosphere and narrative drive: think James Cain's Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

There have of course been long crime novels that have been bestsellers. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose springs to mind and so does Ian Pears' An Instance of the Finger Post. Both of these are historical novels and perhaps length is more acceptable there. More recently CJ Sansom's Matthew Shardlake novels, set in Tudor England, are also fairly hefty and the accumulation of details certainly adds to one's sense of being immersed in a period.

Does this tendency to write long or short translate into the actual process of writing a novel? Jane Harper had a well-deserved success last year with her debut novel, The Dry, which at 90,000 words is by no means short. But I was interested to read in an interview with her that she writes a much shorter first draft, preferring to get the plot in place before she fleshes it out in later drafts. There are other writer – Stephen King is one of them – who write long first drafts and then cut back in later drafts, though in King's case he is still one of the longest writers around!

As a reader I do like short, especially with crime fiction. I love to be able to settle down and read a novel in an evening. I feel with long books, as with long films, that the writer has to work a lot harder to justify taking up so much of my time and I am more likely to set the book aside and not get round to picking it up again. On the other hand, if a novel is really good...

As a writer, too, I am definitely on the short side. I usually worry that I am going to be too short, yet strangely, almost magically it seems, my novels invariably come out at almost exactly 75,000 words. True, that is the length required by my publishers, but it is also the perfect length for me.

So, readers – and writers – what do you think? Long or short? Do good things come in little parcels? Or do you prefer more bang for your buck?


Sybil Johnson said...

As a reader I don't care about length as long as the story moves along. As a writer I tend to write short as well. I'm always worried about getting 75000 words. But in the end I usually end up in that range naturally. It seems to be my sweet spot.

Anonymous said...

Delighted to see Christine here! And I tend to agree about the most appropriate length for a crime novel. Certainly there are plenty of crime novels that are on the long side, and are excellent. But my experience suggests that shorter novels allow for the sort of 'punch' that can make crime fiction work so well.

TracyK said...

I prefer novels on the short side. Of course there are exceptions, but when I have a long book on the shelf it takes longer for me to decide to pick it up and devote time to it. And I think that is why I like vintage mysteries so much. And the two books I have read by Christine are a perfect length.

Christine said...

So interested to read these comments. Short and sweet seems to be the consensus. And Tracy, thank you, I am flattered!

Clothes In Books said...

Such an interesting topic. For me, a long book has to justify its place in my reading, where a short book doesn't, which I think is what you are saying! And always more likely to pick up a short book, try a new author, if I think it won't block out the next week.

With long books I have before now found myself challenging the author (in my head) 'How dare you assume I want to read all this! How dare you write such long-winded prose!'
but then... I love Proust, and Dickens, and Trollope. And I finished Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, 1500 pages, thinking 'Oh NO! don't want it to end, wish there was an equally long sequel'. Mind you that is very unusual...

Christine said...

Yes, a long book has to earn its keep. Though like you, I love Trollope and Dickens and Tolstoy . . . . They don't outstay their welcome.