Tuesday, September 14, 2021

My take on the length of novels

By Rick Blechta 

This week’s post is a riff on what Douglas wrote yesterday. You should read it.

I’ll start with no doubt the widest-selling series of all time, Harry Potter.

The first book in the saga, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, at 223 pages was a short, snappy read that was wildly successful. The next book got longer, the next longer still all the way to the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows which, while not the longest in the series, was still a whopping 607 pages.

As I made my way through the series — and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story — I got the strong feeling that because of the author’s incredible success, her editors backed off on whittling the novels down to more manageable lengths. Remember, these were supposed to be children’s books. Surely they could have been made less “imposing” for the young readers demographic.

I’ve seen the same sorts of things happen with many other successful authors. As their success increases, so does the length of their novels. One of Type M’s staunchest commenters, Anna, said that she stopped reading one series because the novels were becoming exhausting to read. Surely someone at the publishing house noticed that too and might have done something about it. (I have a pretty good idea who that particular author might be, but sadly there is no lack of candidates.)

I acknowledge as series go on there is a thirst among the loyal readers to spend more time with their favourite characters but to me there comes a tipping point. That tipping point is when the stories begin to seem overly indulgent. When unnecessary subplots litter the path forward to the conclusion of the story, I become what I might call skeptical whether it’s worth going on to the end. When I begin skimming to get to the next salient plot point, then I know the end is near for my continued interest in the series.

While Douglas’ choice of iconic authors is the worthy Ed McBain, mine is Rex Stout. Both share one commonality too often absent in modern authors: they now how to tell an utterly satisfying story with a minimum of words.

Sure, tastes change. I get that, but when a plot becomes littered with de rigueur characters and scenes, I begin to rethink whether I wish to continue with the series. Lately, I have tended to vote with my feet heading towards the door.

With less successful authors, publishers tend to build word limits into contracts and it can be a pretty big deal to get permission to breach that limit. I used to bristle at that, but lately I’ve been thinking it might not be a bad idea for all authors to be held to limits.

It just might keep novels more readable in the long run.


Donis Casey said...

I read one of Ann Rice's later books - an endless, rambling tome if ever there was one - then saw an interview with her where she said "I never allow anyone to edit my books." I said to the television right out loud, "you may wish to rethink that practice, Madam."

Rick Blechta said...

I've always said I would rather be good than right. We authors, regardless of experience and success, need outside advice. We're not always right. Sound to me like Ms Rice is a little too full of herself.

Douglas Skelton said...

Thank you, Rick. In recent months I have read two books by an author I greatly admire. I've read every one of this particular series and had thoroughly enjoyed them. However, I did notice that they were growing longer. In one of the most recent I began to skim, which is always a bad thing. Then I learned that there were complete chapters I could easily just miss out because they had no bearing on the plot. Another in the series I stopped halfway through because there was so much in it that I didn't care about. I feel terrible because I can be loyal to authors I love but I simply couldn't go on.

Thomas Kies said...

Excellent blob, as usual, Rick. I'm finding that as I write, my books actually are becoming leaner. My first clocked in at nearly 100,000 words. My next book, due out next year, finished up at about 73,000 words. I think that's due to working extensively with some outstanding editors. It's finally rubbing off on me.

Judy Penz Sheluk said...

My personal opinion is that those NYT bestselling authors need to churn out a book a year and likely get closer and closer to the deadline so when it comes to editing, there's not a lot of time to cut stuff out and revise. I could be wrong, but I have given up on more than one series by around book 5 or 6.
I miss Ed McBain! You could read an 87th Precinct or Matthew Hope novel in the course of an afternoon and keep you turning those pages as fast as you could. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks to everyone wading in on this!

Douglas, I know of what you speak and I completely agree. I've stopped reading two authors' series because it was like, "I'm not willing to wade through all the BS to discover where the story is buried. I don't read to be a treasure hunter! And yeah, it bothers me when I drop out.

Judy, I believe you could be correct about the time available for editing, but that's just an effect of what is really going on: these authors have become self-indulgent and perhaps too caught up with the lives of their characters. When crime fiction becomes character driven, you can be on a steeply downward slope. People read crime fiction because of the plots and "solving the crime." If you wish to write character driven fiction, go literary. When someone like Douglas is finding whole chapters can be skipped, something is very wrong with a story. But yeah, you need time to fix up large mistakes, and that's not easy to find with book-a-year publishing.

Tom, your latest just came in to my book store (they had to wait for the Canadian distributor. I am very interested in reading it. And congratulations for being such a good self-editor. It's not an easy thing to accomplish!

Thanks again, everyone!