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January 11, 2005

Short Works

Aaaah. Funny how sleep will get you back on track. Now then.

I've been keeping up with the various reactions to Old Man's War, like you do if you're a novelist (especially a first-time novelist), and one of the most surprising compliments about the book, from my perspective at least, is that it's short; phrases like "refreshingly crisp" have popped up and over here, this fellow lists me and Cory Doctorow as part of a new trend:

Now, the trend for up-and-coming authors seems to be writing efficiently. Writers which have impressed me lately seem to be writing shorter works, but also seem to be putting a lot of thought into the fewer words they do use.

I'll take the compliments, but I'll also note I don't think Old Man's War is actually short: It comes in at over 90,000 words (91,400, to be more precise). In contrast, both of Cory's two novels so far clock in at about 50,000 words -- meaning that they are genuinely short novels -- and the cutoff for the Hugo award for novels (the Hugo award being a big award in science fiction, for the various Whatever readers who aren't actually SF geeks) is 40,000 words. Personally, I've always worked under the assumption that it takes 60,000 words to make a novel, although now for the life of me I can't remember where I got that number. In any event, at 90,000 words, it's not really a short book, it just feels like it. As does Agent to the Stars, which is often described as a "quick read," although it's actually longer than OMW: about 95,000 words, if I remember correctly.

I think Old Man's War may seem shorter than it is for a couple of reasons. First, there does seem to be a perception that SF novels have had a bit of bloat in recent years. I don't actually know whether that's true or not; most of the SF/F novels I've been reading recently, from Stross, Bear, Fforde, Sagan, Zielinski, Westerfeld and Larbalestier, have been short or at least not blatheringly long. I think maybe everyone's transfixed at the sheer heft of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which at 3,000 pages is large enough to crush an unwary kodiak bear. Compared to that, undoubtedly OMW would look compact, by the same reasoning that makes 5' 10" man seem short when he stands next to Yao Ming. Having said that, I do remember getting the first advance reader copy of OMW and being slightly surprised that it wasn't longer -- I thought 90,000 words would take up more space. It's amazing the things they can do with fonts and leading these days.

Second, I think OMW seems short because there's quite a bit of dialogue, and I think dialogue "reads" quicker than description. Part of that is perceptual: With dialogue your brain imagines people speaking the words, and that's maybe easier than what your brain has to do when trying to construct an unfamiliar image to go along with descriptive text: i.e., reading dialogue takes fewer processing cycles than reading description. Part of that is construction: When people speak (or when I write people speaking), their sentences are shorter and there are relatively fewer unfamiliar polysyllabics -- which is to say that when people speak, they're actually trying to be understood. All of which makes for a faster read.

I am pleased that people think OMW is a short read; I'd rather have them get through the book quickly and think "that was good, I want more" than to read along and wonder to themselves when the torture of slogging through the book will end. I also don't think that I'm a very good candidate for creating a thousand-page tome any time soon; I don't have the patience, for one thing, and for another thing the style of my writing doesn't lend itself to that. However, I'll note that The Android's Dream is longer than either Agent or OMW -- the completed book (unedited by Tor) is about 112,800 words. In its construction, it's very like OMW and Agent, though, so I'll be curious to see if it'll qualify as a "quick read" as well. I think it does, but then, I would.

Posted by john at January 11, 2005 04:37 AM

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Comments

Tripp | January 11, 2005 09:07 AM

A couple comments from an amateur.

I think it is more of a 'page turner' than a 'short read.' It certainly leaves me 'wanting more,' which is a VERY good thing.

elizabeth bear | January 11, 2005 09:18 AM

I think there may be a trend among the new guard to get in, get dirty, and get out (so to speak), which may be encouraged by aggressive editing. This is my strictly subjective opinion, mind you, but I know people have commented on my work that it's got a lot of plot for the volume. (Or volumn, as the case may be. ;-) )

Sometimes, this isn't a favorable comment. *g*

Which doesn't necessarily mean short--HAMMERED is 105K, and the whole trilogy (and it is an honest trilogy, one story in three books, rather than a series) comes in at a whopping 325K. And I've got another unsold novel that comes in around 290K, which I suspect will end life as a duology.

But damned if I could find much to cut in there, although they may put a gun to my head and make me, anyway. *g*

Dawn B. | January 11, 2005 01:03 PM

Agent was a quick read and felt shorter than OMW, to me. In fact, I was expecting Agent to clock in around 70k and was surprised as hell when it came around 90k instead.

I think you're reasons have a lot to do with it. Dialog, short crisp sentences and quick pacing. Description tends to lengthen a work even if you aren't doing massive amounts of it [see LotR or some of GRR Martin's fantasy work].

Anyhow, I liked them both, they kept me reading [which is part of why they felt short, been a while since I've finished a novel in a day] and kept me wanting more.

M.A. | January 11, 2005 01:20 PM

For me, a short novel is one I read in a single sitting; no matter how long it is...so, Stephenson's THE DIAMOND AGE was a short novel (although when I closed the book I was astonished at how dark it had gotten outside). (I think AGENT took me two sittings, but then I was reading it at the office.)

Mark Ensley | January 11, 2005 07:03 PM

Hey, my first reference in the blogosphere! I feel so connected... Thanks for the mention, John.

You're absolutely right, OMW is not a short novel as such things go. However, may I plead that I did say shortER, and that came right after I was talking about those cockroach killer tomes that seemed to be all the rage for a while.

I agree with the statements that books today may feel shorter because they keep the story moving and just feel more crisply told. I've also noticed the trend away from longer descriptive passages. Perhaps that's where a lot of the seeming efficiency comes from.

Since we're on the topic, what's a good way to estimate total word count of a published book?

John Scalzi | January 11, 2005 07:21 PM

"What's a good way to estimate total word count of a published book?"

Pick a page in the book with an average amount of coverage; count the words, then multiply by the number of pages. Should be in the ballpark.

Otherwise, most books have between 250 - 300 words per page. Again, multiple by pages.

Justine Larbalestier | January 11, 2005 08:04 PM

Heh, heh, hem, the name's LaRbalestier, Mr Scalsi. Watch it, mate! (Thanks for the mention!)

For the record Magic or Madness is 65 thousand words long. So yup it's short. But then it's a YA (young adult) book and that's a standard length in that genre. In fact I think my contract specifies the books come in at 55 thou.

I like how quickly I can read short books and am deeply afraid of long books (which is why I haven't read Jonathan Strange yet). Yet some of my favourite books of all time are very very very long (like the Dorothy Dunnett books). Length doesn't tell you a thing about quality.

John Scalzi | January 11, 2005 08:15 PM

Your name spelling is now fixed, Ms. Larbalestier. How's that for service? Huh? Huh? Huh?

Justine Larbalestier | January 11, 2005 08:42 PM

Actually, it's Dr Larbalestier to you, mate.

I don't know 11 minutes seems kind of slow to me . .

John Scalzi | January 11, 2005 08:45 PM

Well, I *am* on the other side of the world.

Anonymous | October 31, 2005 11:11 AM

indeed goood =)

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