How Big Should the Great American Novel Be?

Greetings and Happy Holidays,

At the risk of PSS (Public Soul Searching) I wanted to share some recent discoveries I’ve made about what aspiring novelists might want to know when it comes to successfully writing that first book.

Before we get into the meat of the topic, however, realize two things: 1) There are an enormous number of books already out there, and more being published every day.  The field is saturated, and with a lot of stuff that is arguably not very good.  2) Once you’ve processed the preceding information and have had a sixty-second moment of despair, let it go; forget it.  Good writing, like love, finds a way in the end.  Just do your best.

That being said I want to reflect a little more on what I touched on last time pertaining to book lengths.  How long should your first book (or two) be?

When I wrote Mary my first draft was 560 pages long.  Think about that for a moment.  How many books have you read that were over 500 pages in length?  How many of your favorite books are that long?  I can name one: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.  BUT, about half of the pages in that tome only contain one sentence . . . or one word.  No, I don’t have many books in my entire history of reading that I finished at over 400 pages, let alone 5-600.

I knew this, of course, after writing my first draft, and I knocked that massive pile of pages down to half in the “final” version: 319 pages.

I felt really good about that.  319 pages was a real book.  A proper, healthy novel.  I think I overestimated nearly every reader’s interest on the planet in tackling those pages, however, and I have since come to accept that I overshot my page limit by about 100 pages.  How do I know?

To begin with I had someone read the first twenty pages, someone with a good, critical eye, and in twenty pages he had a volume’s worth of issues for me to address.  What I realized after hearing his critique is that I wrote a whole bunch of pages which didn’t get around to the main story – the story of who my character is (rather than what he was not as seen through the side stories of the other characters in the book).  Because I carried a naive notion of how long a book, any book, should be I ended up doing one of the very things I despise in writing.  I wrote volumes to explain what should have been detailed in a few dense pages.  I didn’t get to the point (of character) that would make whatever else happen have the meaning it should.

The next thing I did was listen to the voices of friends who, during the writing process, advised me to keep the book at just a few hundred pages.  I did not want to accept that a book should be what I considered “short.”  It couldn’t be effective if it was short (I told myself).  So I let rip with sub-plots, detailed secondary characters, parallel plot lines, and intimate portraits of  . . . er . . . EVERYONE. When I went back later and reviewed the books in my list of favorites, guess what I found?  Yep, most of them are thin, powerful novels full of interesting prose and original characters.  Even Danielewski’s massive text is really two shorter works written in parallel narrative.  And that book is a master work of inventiveness anyway.  Here is a list of my top five favorite books:

A Catcher in the Rye (214)

The Great Gatsby (182)

A Clockwork Orange (216 – including the “lost” last chapter)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (311)

Of Mice and Men (92)

What was I thinking?  To tell the truth, I was trying to write my version of Kundera (Unbearable Lightness), but it isn’t there yet, and besides, Kundera played with story order in ways that I am really not yet prepared to do.  As you can see by the rest of the examples on my list, even the longer books barely go over 200 pages.  Of Mice and Men is arguably Steinbeck’s greatest novel, and it’s only half the size of the next smallest entry in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

If the majority of my favorite reads were barely 200 pages at best, what did I hope to achieve by adding another 30,000 words?  The truth is, I wasn’t thinking like that at all.

Still, statistics say that the average adult novel is around 100,000 words or about 300 pages.  So even at 319 pages I was, statistically, on target.  But something else occurred to me in considering the length of my manuscript and its potential non-marketability.  The length is not as important as the story, and in considering length I had to consider the editing process.

I have a habit of worrying about doing too much cutting of the prose.  For some reason I think it’s just far too easy to trim so much from the page that important details and information will be lost.  But while it certainly is possible to cut too much, it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Mindful, deliberate revision takes the bulk off of the frame of the story and leaves the best parts in.  As with sculpting the figure emerges in the trimming of the outer material.  In cooking, rendering out the fat leaves the lean succulent meat.  This is what revision is.

In  my rough drafts my characters tend to do too much with their eyes and not enough expressing their mental state in other non-verbal ways.  Being aware of this, when I revise, I am required to shave off the stares, glares, glances and looks, and replace them with more organic reactions.  In the book I am writing now I think I have a much tighter story line with a more compelling plot and better defined characters.  When I revise, I know, more or less, what to go after.  I know where the tension needs to be increased, the action made more riveting, and the emotion more sincere.  Later, when I rewriteMary, the experience I am gaining with this new book will have me prepared to take chances with my character that I did not the first time, and I will also be ready to write a leaner, more impacting story.  I think this will result in a smaller book, something that can be read and enjoyed for the tight prose and the engaging character portrayals.  Get in and get out.  That’s my new motto.

One day I hope to write a blog from the perspective of an accomplished novelist discussing how to write a bigger novel and still keep it interesting.  For now, for many of us, it seems best to keep it short.  Write for intensity rather than breadth.  Render the fat, chip away the garbage, or whatever metaphor you want to use.  And remember to write like a reader.  Give people a taste of what you can do in short works, and eventually they’ll come back for more.

That’s my theory and I’m going with it.



One comment on “How Big Should the Great American Novel Be?

  1. adm22 says:

    I have had a similar experience with my novella, American Insurgent. In the writing process, I really wanted to dig into everything, including parallel dead end plots, straw men characters, obtuse references. If you couldn’t tell, I was reading Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, which really influenced how I wanted to write plot. However, in the end, I stuck to the main story and told it the best I could.

    It was really hard for me to accept that I had written a book of 32,000 words. I expected four times that. I was worried that I hadn’t added enough of everything; that I didn’t do enough of anything. But in the end, I looked at plot as the driving force for my work – it is told via flashback by a narrator trying to save himself before imminent capture. After analyzing the plot development multiple times, I had to let go how long I thought a work should be.

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