Monday, January 14, 2008

Hors D'oeuvre versus Feast

How many words are too many? How many pages make a book too long?

And who sets the rules?

We all know the books about a certain boy wizard became thicker and thicker as the series progressed, and they still sold like hotcakes, even when the price for a hardcover was about $35.

The hardcover edition of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is 642 pages, price $25.95 (2005). (This is Kostova's first published novel.)

A nonfiction work of history, Empire by Default by Ivan Musicant, is 658 pages in length (excluding bibliography, notes, and index), $35 (1998).

The hardcover edition of The Once & Future King by T.H. White (copyright 1958, published some time after White's death in 1963) runs 631 pages, and lists the original price at $26.95. (I picked it a nearly pristine copy for $3 secondhand several years ago, and the colors on the cover are different--same design, though--and the copyright page is different. There is no price listed on the flap, so I can't compare that.)

I understand that a shorter book means less materials, less labor, and thus less expense, allowing the publisher to set a price that the reading public can afford. However, as a reader, I prefer fat novels that allow me to submerge into their worlds. Can't really happen with a skinny paperback that's more snack than feast.

In the past few days, I've corresponded via e-mail with a fellow writer who is also an editor, consultant, and more, and asked a few nuts-and-bolts questions about my long manuscripts, and in one message, he asked the following question: "I'd say the issue isn't where to break the massive story, but how to pull out a publishable story to get into print first, that could excite readers to want to read lots more."

In other words, toss out an hors d'oeuvre--a snack--and see if the readers will sit down for the feast.

There is the risk, of course, that in their search for a feast, they will overlook the cheese-and-cracker tray and miss my work entirely.

And God forbid that the book is printed with one of those lurid, cheesy (no pun intended) covers that are all florid color and impossible human bodies, like juvenile comic-book rejects.

However, I'm considering the snack. Although I cannot pull out any pieces from the current manuscripts and let them stand alone, there are more stories set in this world I've imagined. Two of them are already outlined and heavy with notes--one set generations into the future, the other generations into the past--but I don't know which of two I will choose.

Lunch time. Can't think. Too hungry. All this talk of snacks and feasts....


Eaglewing said...

Long or short isn't as important to me as pacing. As long as the story is moving forward and I don't feel like I'm reading page filler, then the longer the better. More bang for the reading buck.


Amen, amen, amen. I am not afraid to skip paragraphs and entire pages if I'm going to be subjected to chunks of involved description--the clothes, the scenery, whatever--or long dialogues that reveal no new information about the characters or the plot, or long meanders inside a character's head because the writer thinks it elevates his work into the literary realm. There is a place, of course, for all of the above, but gimme a break! Small doses, please!