Friday, February 15, 2008

Q & A 129 My books are too short.


My books always end up forty or fifty percent shorter than I'd like them to be. Do you or the minions have any suggestions for fleshing out a book to proper novel length?


I have the same problem. I've written three novels, all about 50,000 words. I console myself with the knowledge that Mission Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard is 1.2 million words, while Novel Deviations 3 is fewer than 30,000. Which would you rather read?

Here are some ideas I've considered applying to my own novels. Perhaps one or more will work for you:

1. Write an exciting 10,000-word story with the same main character as your novel. You can throw it into the story anywhere, since it's actually a dream. Have the MC wake up from this dream in a cold sweat. The dream should include symbolism that works with the real story. Bonus Tip: Don't open the book with the 10,000-word dream.


2. Make your MC a writer, and include some of her writings. (See The World According to Garp.)


3. Let's say your MC is a plumber. About five chapters into the book you add a scene where he goes to Miss Maxim's house to replace a dishwasher. This allows you to throw in some plumbing knowledge about flanges and saddle valves and gas cocks. Plus they have sex. To keep this from being a totally irrelevant scene, later in the book Miss Maxim is found dead, killed with the pipe wrench in the conservatory. As the pipe wrench is inscribed with the MC's name, he becomes the MS (main suspect). After five or six chapters involving a murder trial, a conviction, and a last-second phone call from the governor, the MS is freed and you pick up the novel where you left off.


4. Put two of your novels together into one book, and call it Dueling Novels. The odd pages are novel 1, and the even are novel 2. The challenge is to read it straight through keeping up with both, though wimps can do one at a time.


5. Describe everything with lengthy metaphors. Example:

Short version (17 words): Shapiro limped into the messy kitchen, put the grocery bag on the counter, and opened the refrigerator.

Long version (75 words): Walking like a duck-billed platypus with a high ankle sprain, Shapiro entered the kitchen, which looked like the aftermath of the Battle of the Ardennes--if it had been fought in a kitchen. He put the grocery bag on the counter like a flight attendant putting a baked chicken and penne dinner onto a dozing man's tray table, and then pulled open the refrigerator door as if it were the gateway to heaven itself.

Not only an extra 57 words, but much more descriptive.


6. Cut mercilessly until you're down to the 3000-word short story your book probably should be.


7. One word: footnotes.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Make your MC a writer, and include some of her writings. (See The World According to Garp.)

...and Setting Free the Bears and Hotel New Hampshire and...

Anonymous said...

Complicate the troubles your main character encounters. Instead driving straight to Mary's house to tell her it's over, give him a flat tire. Don't put a jack in the trunk and make him walk to the nearest gas station. Instead of having the tire go flat one block from the gas station, put him in the middle of the Navajo reservation, under a blazing July sun, 100 miles from the nearest paved road. Instead of making it one flat tire, make it 4. Then bring in a gang of faceless fiends to set his truck on fire. He runs for his life and decides to go cross-country. And tumbles down a 5000 foot cliff to the Colorado River. Where his crumpled carcass is saved by two dozen naked church women who are paddling rafts toward Paradise.

Five weeks later, when he finally gets to Las Vegas, he can take a taxi over to Mary's house to tell her it's over. But the taxi gets hijacked by a Vampire and a talking monkey...

Anonymous said...

Dialogue. People never get right to the point. Their conversations meander around. And they tell stories, oftentimes ones that don't have anything to do with the plot. Of course, it helps if they're interesting stories, not necessarily about how they got and extra 50 cents off Bounty on double coupon day.

ChristineEldin said...

hahahahaah!!!

mb said...

I'd rather read a really short book than one that's been padded. I'm just saying.

Sarah said...

Bruce Hale 'sold' the first Chet Gecko manuscript on the strength of like 9,000 words (I forget how many, but it was really short). The editor fell in love with the character and together they set about making them longer, though not long, books. Now he has, what, 19 in the series?

Not your typical story, I know, but I'd live with that kind of success in a heartbeat.

Great stuff, EE. I'm going to use some of that in my WIP, especially the footnotes.

iago said...

It's difficult to know, without seeing the writing, what the solution might be. It could simply be that you're writing a 50,000 word story; maybe that's your natural length.

It could also be that your narrative is not as deep as it could be. Maybe lacking in description. Perhaps you're writing the story as a simple sequence of events -- this happened then this happened then this happened -- and sprinting toward the finish. Writing like a TV show instead of like a novel. Find more depth in the characters or the situation.

It could be that your premise is overly simple resulting in a shallow plot that doesn't take long enough to resolve.

Simply padding is the worst thing you could do, and generally easy to spot. As they say, every word should contribute to the forward movement of the plot. The fix is more involved than throwing in a few extra chapters, although I have read published novels that look that way.

Remote diagnosis is difficult, though.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and leave the footnotes to your podiatrist.

pacatrue said...

Love number 5

pacatrue said...

By the way, I suppose you deleted the chats?

Evil Editor said...

I saved the chats as drafts. Chats tend to be not so interesting to read unless you were involved, what with all the Hi, Joe. Hi Joe. Hi Joe. Hi all. If there's something of particular interest I can consult for you or repost temporarily.

Obviously if I left them up the chats would have gone on and on.

Evil Editor said...

Possibly future chats, if they're on the blog rather than in a chat room, should have a set topic and time limit. For instance, a chat about a book once a month. EE gives a month or more warning of what book will be discussed, and those who wish can get a copy and read it for the discussion, which lasts one hour.

Regina said...

I agree with Iago completely. You would have to give us both a plot synopsis and a writing sample in order for us to make a more accurate determination of what might be done in your case specifically. Have you submitted any work to the blog that we might be able to refer back to?

In my case, I find that character is a veritably unplumbable depth and that it is more often than not given short shrift. Characterisation, more so than even plot, is what sets one work apart from the next, so you shouldn't be afraid to squeeze your characters for every detail, history and mannerism.

Whether the entire sordid truth of each character's life makes it to the page is more a question of your narrative style than anything else, but you should have those truths well on hand, to draw from at will. You might be surprised by how many moments for additional storytelling can be found just in the natural interaction of your characters' fully fleshed out and complex selves with the environment you've given them to inhabit.

Examine each of your major plot points and ask yourself if you fully understand each character's motivations, desires, doubts and intentions. Then ask yourself if the work is written in such a way as to make these shifting lines apparent to the reader or, if they are to remain hidden, plausibly latent. More often than not, I guarantee you'll find room for expansion.

Remember too, as Iago points out, that, while there are "preferred" lengths for novels, there are also exceptions. If the only discernable difficulty you can spot in your writing is that it doesn't match up to your idea of proper length, then it's time to start handing manuscripts round to trusted readers for either the warmth of affirmation (it's perfect! nothing's missing!) or the brisk smack of a reality check.

Anonymous said...

It seems there's a web based version of Yahoo messenger that doesn't require downloading or installing anything. Just need a browser with Flash installed (pretty much anyone has that already), and a Yahoo ID...

Whirlochre said...

Assuming your story is intrinsically of interest prior to any concern about the number of words that will be required to tell it, point 5 highlights the extremes of option available. Either you can be sparse with your descriptions, or liberal - and the quoted example highlights the perils of both. The 17 word variation is snappy and to the point , but an entire novel written in this style, for me at least, would grind the synapses to cardboard. In contrast, the 57 word offering meanders off at too many tangents, and in doing so, potentially constitutes a class A drug if printed out on A4 and smoked. But - this is only an example, and any fluid narrative demands a little of both aspects. In finding the balance, you define your style and generate your potential audience - or lack of it. Whatever you decide, the flesh had better be flesh - alive and vibrant and dynamic; relevant to its anatomical location within the piece you're writing. If not, you'll end up with dandruff.

Anonymous said...

This is hilarious! I wonder how many people will take it seriously? :)

BuffySquirrel said...

Obviously I missed a chat of some kind. Bah. EE, any chance of emailing me the drafts so I can join in retrospectively, as t'were?

I love the Dueling Novels. That would drive people nuts.

Iago makes excellent points. Me, I have no difficulty writing novels that run to 100k, 200k, 500k...what I need help with is getting rid of stuff. But perhaps you could introduce subplots that deal with the central conflict of your story, but with a different outcome, so you're exploring the conflict from different angles.

So, for example, if the central conflict is between a son and his father, you have a friend/antagonist/sidekick of the protag who also has a conflict with a parent. Maybe.

bookfraud said...

"Walking like a duck-billed platypus with a high ankle sprain..." now, that's comedy.

you forgot my favorite padding device: lengthy and pointless descriptions of toejam.

size matters indeed.

great site, by the way.

Precie said...

Oh, goodness! This should have come with a beverage spewage alert!

The Anti-Wife said...

#5!

Phoenix said...

Oh, a book club! And I have the perfect manuscript to start with. It's an historical romance -- or maybe historical women's fiction -- with compelling world-building and subtle sex. And I can deliver a nice crisp e-copy to all minions for a bargain $4.99 U.S. funds.

Um, how many minions did you say you have, EE? I just read on PW that 3.2 million copies of A Good Earth are being printed to coincide with Oprah's club read. I don't expect quite that response here, but if you can promise, say, 5000 readers, I'm sure I can fill that order.

Robin S. said...

I definitely vote for the book club chat, please.

Oh, and by the way, paca has just provided me with incontrivertible proof (for proof of his proof , see his latest blog post) that tasty can indeed be used t o describe a human being. More specifically, a male human being,
And he's done it with a song.

Have I mentioned that I'm very fond of that kid?

pacatrue said...

Doh. It's tasty? I thought it was delish. I think EE just found a loophole.

Robin S. said...

Hey, paca. Tasty, delish, it's all the same, sweetie.