Tuesday, July 28, 2009

how long is it

One question that comes up again and again when I speak with young writers is how long something should be -- things like books and chapters, I mean.

About this long (holds up gapped fingers).

My usual method is that when I write, I do not separate out any chapters until after I get 40 or so pages finished. Then I'll go back and find the gaps in the narrative that make sense as far as dividing them out into chapters. A book should definitely have its rhythm established by that point, and from then on the chapter breaks become apparent to me.

But for me (and going back to yesterday's musically-themed post), it's all about the rhythm and "sound" of the narrative, and has little to do with word- or page-count.

And I prefer books, like pieces of music, that can maintain a general rhythmic and tonal flow, but then also will take the risk of breaking the predictable pattern and melody from time to time. This creates tension and excitement within the medium of delivery itself, as opposed to confining those elements exclusively in the content (story). I mention this because I am currently reading a book whose rhythm, cadence, melody -- if you will -- plod along incessantly at the exact same metronomic beat. While the story is compelling, the presentation makes me want to skip passages so I can avoid falling asleep at the wheel.

And I keep looking at how many more pages I have to go -- and how all those pages look exactly the same.

Call me weird, but I am a big fan of white space and pages that just "look" different when you thumb-flip through a book. If you do thumb-flip through a 400-page book, and it looks like the page isn't moving, I know I'm in for a snoozer of a delivery, even though the story may be interesting.

Now, of course, this method of writing and finding the rhythm of the chapters couldn't be applied to in the path of falling objects, if nothing else due to the fact that the novel has these jarring voice and POV changes. As a result, there are chapters that can run somewhat long, and there is one chapter, I believe, that only has 13 words in it (and those are three complete sentences, too).

That'll wake you up.

Well, at least that caffeinated delivery happens to work for me.

Now, as far as the length of a book is concerned -- and please do chime in on comments if you're a writer, because so many writers get really "edgy" about this -- I personally wouldn't buy a book that's less than 80,000 words in length. And, yes, I am talking about YA. I know there are LOTS of hugely successful YA authors out there whose books run (to me) short -- at around 50 - 60 K in word count.

But that's not enough for my money. The book I have coming out in 2010 came in at 93,000 words. We'll see if any of that gets trimmed in the next few months (or lengthened -- I'll keep you posted). And, because of the rhythm of the book, it's a very fast read, too. I kind of almost wish it was a bit longer.

But, for me, about 90,000 words is the perfect length for a book -- as long as it doesn't plod musically.