Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Too Many Words (Or Not a Lot)

By Sarah R. Shaber

Are you familiar with this anecdote about Mozart and Emperor Joseph II of Austria? Apparently the monarch thought the young composer’s newest work was a bit complex and lengthy. Mozart was devastated by his criticism. Joseph II consoled him. “My dear young man, “ he said, “don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” And Mozart replied, “which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

Length is a perennial topic for writers. You’ve heard all the cliches. No one will publish a first novel over 350 pages in manuscript. Best sellers are always 100,000 words or more. Genre novels should never be more than 60,000 words. Christmas books must be novellas, no more than 40,000 words. What, people are too wiped out from eating and gifting to read a regular book? Oh, and computers have made it too easy to write very long books, tormenting editors and readers alike. Come on, folks, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace—the English translation is over 560,000 words—in longhand!

I have writing buddies—you know who you are—who hemorrhage words. They don’t just open veins, as sportswriter Red Smith recommended, they slice their arteries to shreds. Every day they churn out pages and pages, not just of their works in progress, but daily blogs, journals, pages of notes, fifty page synopses, character studies, even family genealogies. I have one friend— you know who you are—who writes letters her characters might have sent each other so she can better understand them! Lord have mercy! I’d never finish a book if I did that.

It’s not uncommon to hear one of my forty-words-per-minute friends say something along the line of: “My manuscript is way too long (insert heavy sigh here), 500 pages, I need to cut 100.” Or my favorite “I’ve only written 20 pages today. Must pick up the pace. I’m writing two books this year.” OMG!

I am a woman of few words. I write with pith, as one of my college professors said to me. I never use three words when two will do. And when I go back and revise I cut one of them! I appear to have the capacity to write, oh, on a really good day, five pages and not one more. Why do you think I blog only once every six weeks? Can’t afford the words!

Recently one of my writers-in-arms and I faced the same short story deadline. Stories were required to be no less than 3,500 words and no more than 6,000 words. I sweated making 3500—that’s 18 pages, for goodness’ sake! That’s long! An entire book chapter! Might take me two weeks!

My friend fretted that she couldn’t write anything with only 6,000 words. I suggested she lend me some of hers.

Why do I care? Because I haven’t managed to write a book in less than eighteen months yet, not a good trait for a mystery writer. Most publishers want a book a year from a genre author. It’s much easier to cut than to add material. It’s an advantage to be able to produce many pages in a short amount of time. I know several writers who have day jobs and can still finish a book a year. And it’s embarrassing to go on retreat with my writing buddies who are keyboarding at the speed of light while I peck and pause and peck and delete and pause again.

Writing short books has its advantages, however. Publishers love short books. They fit more copies of a short book into a standard shipping box. Something to do with cost per unit? Short books are priced accordingly—readers are more likely to buy a hardback that costs $22.95 than one that costs $26.95. Editing and copyediting costs are less. Yes, all this is important.

I’m in some good company, too. Tony Hillerman’s last book was less than 200 printed pages long. Which reminds me of something my longtime editor, the legendary Ruth Cavin, once said to me. I griped in an email that my manuscript was only 325 pages, didn’t it need to be longer? And she answered me (I paraphrase), “a book is as long as it is.” Another time I sat in her office and noticed that my manuscript was half the size of another that sat next to mine on her shelf. Self-conscious, I mentioned it. She answered, and I paraphrase again, “of all my authors you know best what to leave out.”

I’ll get back to work tomorrow, where I will slowly, agonizingly, drip a few words onto an empty white page.


Karin Gillespie said...

I write short too. I always seem to write novels that are right at 75,000 words. (Maybe because my writing tends to be humorous, and humorous books tend to be on the short side.)

But I am always a little self-conscious about it too so I totally indentified with this post.

John Jeter said...

Ruth's your editor, too? I don't know how anyone could be more blessed to have anyone else ... As for short, well, I just finished Roberto Bolano's 893-page "2666," and I told my wife I want to write one of those, and she said, "You couldn't." We laughed.