Looking on my book shelves at some of the science fiction that first inspired me I see books that at most are 250 pages. My copy of Asimov’s Foundation and Empire is less than 200 pages (172 to be precise). Alright, it’s small type and there are more words per page than later books (was there some sort of paper shortage in the 1950s?), but even so by recent sci-fi standards they were short. I’m not sure when it seemed to be the norm for sci-fi (and fantasy) novels to be great tomes, perhaps sometime in the 1970’s? As if length somehow equates to quality, or value. I know my own books are 110,000 / 120,000 words, not that long by sci-fi standards but certainly long compared to what is considered the norm for other novels, which if my research is right is about 70,000 – 90,000 words.
Now some ‘tomes’ I’ve still raced through and wished there was more, Raymond Feists ‘The Magician’ springs to mind and he duly obliged by writing many more in the series. However, I certainly think some books I’ve read have been over long and drawn out and I’ve ‘trudged’ my way though them. Now I’m all for a bit of scene setting and ‘asides’ in books, as witnessed by my last blog “‘If it doesn’t move the story along, take it out,’ good advice or not?”. However, I do wonder if as writers and readers of the genre we went too far in what was seen as the normal length for a book. And in many cases the story is padded and extended to make it more attractive on the commercial book shelf.
The good news from my point of view is that e-publishing and Kindles etc. seem to be changing this for the better. With these we can’t compare books on weight of paper or how many millimetres they take up on the book shop shelf and then buy on the grounds that ‘its enormous, it must be good’. We either buy because we like the author, someone recommends it, or we’re intrigued by the blurb etc. etc. I recently read Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’. I don’t have a word count, or a number of pages (thanks to the kindle) but it felt a relatively short book by modern standards. Did I feel cheated somehow? that I hadn’t had value for money? no. The story was the length it needed to be. It was a good story and I enjoyed it. I’ve also read other books that also that felt shorter than in the days when I was buying hard copies.
I like this trend. A story should be length it needs to be, not made to conform to some idea of the ‘norm’ for the genre. I get frustrated sometimes ploughing through pages and pages, on my Kindle, of slow paced action, to realise I’ve only moved forward by 2%. It feels like its stopping me getting to the next book I want to read. I’d much rather race through a shorter book, think wow!, that was good and move on to the next.
So, my plea to writers is: make your story the length it needs to be, not some artificial measure of the length you think it should be. As for readers: Judge the story on how good it is and not on how much damage it might do if you threw it at someone.
As always your thoughts are welcome.