How long should a book be? (A meandering rant about the book I just read)

One of the problems with becoming a writer is that you start to judge what other people have written.  So, where I might have previously read a book and taken it at face value, now I think about what scenes the author chose to flesh out and which the author chose to skip, which characters they chose to focus on as viewpoint characters, how they chose to pace their story, etc., etc.

I finished the almost 800 page book I was reading last week.  It’s by an author I’ve previously liked.  Not loved, but someone who tells interesting stories, so I’ve been willing to overlook a few of their quirks.  And I’ve always liked this author enough to seek out their next book.  This is the eighth book I’ve read by them.

This time I think the author got the book length completely wrong.  This should not have been one book.  It could’ve easily been three books and possibly split into two two or three book series.

So, why do I think this?  As a reader/writer/author wannabe?

First, there’s a substantial break between the beginning portion of the story and the end portion of the story.  You meet the main characters, lots of action happens, they come to a final confrontation, and then you get five pages of summary where months pass, lots of characters die, they struggle and fight their way to a new location, and then the action picks up again.

Second, when the action does pick up again, the story is rushed and hurried.  There’s a new viewpoint character who isn’t strongly fleshed out and the main characters you’ve been following for six hundred some pages are given pretty short shrift for the rest of the book.  It’s like the author needed to tell the whole story in this one book, so just summarized these major events at the end even though there were some scenes involved.

Some of the key characters died at the end.  They sacrificed themselves.  After 700+ pages, I should’ve been moved.  But, because the ending was so compact, I wasn’t.

Third, there were some character relationships that weren’t given time to develop on the page.  I was reading Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card on the way home and at one point he says, “In reading fiction, we’re always looking for romantic opportunities…”  He’s right.  I saw this with my novel.  I had a man in his late thirties and a girl in her teens, but because the ages weren’t clear right when they met, one of my betas thought they were going to get together and was then surprised that the girl was in her teens.

This book showed two characters meeting and really hitting it off and there was some reference to the fact that the male character was filling the voide left when the female character’s husband died.  But, skip forwards months later, and suddenly the relationship is described as a mother/son type dynamic.  Since that happened off page, it threw me for a loop.

So, how to generalize the lessons I pulled from reading this book:

-You don’t have to tell the full story in one book.  As a newbie I think this is a particular temptation.  You think, “Maybe this is the only chance I’ll get, so I have to tell the whole story.”  No.  Tell a good story, tell a complete story, but don’t worry about telling the whole story.  Tell the first story well enough and someone somewhere will want to hear the rest of it.

-I don’t know quite why the author wrote this book, but it is a prequel.  Perhaps the author was pressured into writing a story they didn’t particularly want to write, so they shoved it all into one book to get it over with.  Don’t do that.  Don’t force yourself to write a book when you’re not invested in telling the story.  It shows.

I’ll give you a random, poorly thought out analogy.  Sometimes when I go to my Grandma’s I really don’t want to tell her everything that’s going on in my life.  So, when she asks me about work or travel or what-have-you, I rush through the story.  I don’t provide details, I skip as much as I can.  It’s a very different story to the one I tell my friends over a few beers.

If you’re writing a novel and it feels like you’re telling your Grandma about your day, stop and regroup.  If you don’t want to tell the story, people aren’t going to want to read it.  (And, if you’re already published and do have fans, keep in mind that people will actually read this book.  But they might never read another book by you again.  You aren’t going to see their loss of faith/disillusionment in the sales for the book that caused them to stop liking you.  I read this book, but I’ll think long and hard before I read the next book by this author.)

Anyway.  My thoughts for the day.  That day job thingy is screaming for my attention, so better get to it…


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to How long should a book be? (A meandering rant about the book I just read)

  1. Keri Peardon says:

    Funny how he could not get well-developed characters and relationships in 800 pages!

    I’m really surprised their publisher let it through because, from a money standpoint, it’s better to have two or three books (if the author had not rushed and had stayed in scene more, then three books probably could have come out of that easily, provided the story line broke logically) than just one. That’s something people in self-publishing are preaching: yes, makes your book a decent length, but if there’s any question of whether something should be in the book or its own separate book, always choose the separate book.

    I read somewhere that an author needs to publish 20 pieces before they’ll really hit that breaking point where they will be really successful and people buy their books on name recognition alone.

    I think that number was made up, but people do better when they have numerical goals to shoot for, so I figure it’s as good a number as any. And it does reinforce the point that more books (or novellas or short stories) are better.

    • mhleewriter says:

      Interesting. I wonder if that number is self-publishing related? But even then, I think Michael J. Sullivan (who self-published and did very well) only published five books in his series before he was doing well enough to go traditional publishing?

      I’d say it really depends on how good a writer is, how quickly they publish, and how well the books are marketed.

      Just from personal book buying experience I’d put that number in the five to ten range. Then again, I still only buy traditionally published books. But, generally, I pick up a new author probably after their first series is out. I read the series, I like it, I keep an eye out for other books by them. It’s rare for me to pick up a stand alone book unless I’ve heard great things about it.

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