Long Novels Are Painful

I have a confession: I hate long books, particularly long novels.

When I was in college, if you couldn’t stomach a long novel then you weren’t a true Literature student. Long live Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy! And some of those masterpieces (particularly Dostoyevsky’s) were compelling enough to keep my attention.

Most of them put me to sleep, though.

A quality novel can be defined as a good and complete story, rather than some 19th century concept of word count. When a long novel is a good story, it captivates you with a compelling plot and storyline. You don’t really care about how long it is, you just want to devour it! But before that ideal state of reading pleasure, a tome is prohibitive because of assumed time demands.

Sometimes a long book is necessary. I’m a big fan of breaking up lengthy works. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings was actually one novel that the publisher divided into a trilogy. That didn’t turn out too bad!

3133167924_7e98a98595_z

Long Novels in a Digital World

Things haven’t changed in the publishing business even though media has evolved. Publishers frequently push long novels.

I cannot help but turn my nose up at these wares. Unless a long book has fantastic word of mouth, I am not reading it. A good story is a brisk one, at least to my tastes. I find most of today’s writers embellish their novels with back story and details that leave me bored and disenchanted.

I remember how good Neal Stephenson used to be before 1000 pages became his average. How I long for the Diamond Age.

Currently, I am reading Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. Great prose, fantastic start, fluid and easy to read, but pages 50-120 were slow. In my mind, they could have been 20 pages instead of 70. I began wondering if the remaining 400+ pages would be worth it. And the book didn’t strike me as long. You get my point. Fortunately, things seem to be moving along again in Doctor Sleep.

In this digital age with so many other entertainment options besides reading, will people keep tolerating books greater than 100,000 words in length? Personally, the Kindle and other eReaders makes the experience of a long book more difficult.

Frankly, I think 50-75,000 is the ideal amount. Some call the shorter side of that a novella, I call it a reasonable risk.

One more thing about shorter lengths: Great writers deliver impact with each sentence. They focus on quality, and reveal their story in a meaningful captivating fashion. When I read Philip Roth, who often (but not always) clocks in under 300 pages, I am certain that every chapter will be great. He respects the reader with a tight well written novel (or novella) everytime.

What do you think?

Featured image via Devon Fredericksen. Lord of the Rings image by Abdulla Al Muhairi.

Writing with Negative Space

In graphic design and visual arts, artists use negative space to emphasize their subject. The same could be said of words, in particular stories where you leave enough to the reader’s imagination so they can enjoy the novel, essay, short story, or whatever it might be.

I received this nugget of knowledge at WorldCon last August. Stina Leicht mentioned applying the negative space principle to words during a panel on how to write yourself out of a corner.

Some writers will be quick to say negative space represents the show, don’t tell meme that is driven into every writer’s head who ever attends any sort of workshop. I’m not so sure I agree, though.

While no one wants to read a ton of drivel and boring details from the writer’s perspective, I’ve seen enough authors tell and get away with it. Great writers, in fact, like Philip Roth, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Some go as far as to say the show, don’t tell rule is the great lie of writing workshops.

In reality, “show, don’t tell” seeks to eliminate weak writing. Telling often fails to captivate, and leaves nothing to the imagination. “She was pretty,” for example.

Instead, we show. “Johnna’s brown eyes held my gaze gently. Her full lips curled into a small smile as auburn locks moved slowly backward toward her ears. I tried, but could not stop looking at her.”

However, note the absence of detail there. I did not show you what color or style her clothes were, what her body looked like, what her hands were doing, etc., etc. No, that is the reader’s purview. You assume she is pretty because of the narrator’s reaction, but she may not be.

Over-showing, in my opinion, does as much damage as flat-out telling. Like the straight forward tell, it robs the reader of negative space to imagine.

In considering tellers, the celebrated ones unveiled their stories in straight forward terms. I am stuck by their uncanny ability to do so in an interesting manner. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson gives us whole chapters dictating the scientific laws of the 2312 world through how-to manuals. It’s insane, but delicious, tickling your mind! When you finally understand who is narrating those chapters, your mouth drops open.

Robinson succeeds because he fuels the imagination with negative space instead of robbing the reader of an imaginary journey. It’s the art of grabbing enough to draw, while hiding details so the reader can fill them in with their own opinions, hopes, views and beliefs. A story that grabs the reader engages them in a form of mental interaction, even if they are observing through straight-forward telling.

That is the power of negative space in conjunction with a well-delivered written image.

Personally, I can develop my own expository style further, continuing to move away from tell to show. However, I don’t think a complete yield is the full answer, rather a commitment to tickle the reader’s imagination.

What do you think?

Crazy Characters Work Better

So I thought it might be talk about creating fictional characters as we head into the weekend. On that note, when writing about folks I prefer boiling unpredictability into characters, or a little bit of crazy.

When reading or watching stories, I prefer main characters who screw up, make bad decisions, flip flop, and do other things that generally drive people a bit crazy. They are human, and we can identify with or simply doubt them.

Developing a character or screenplay in a novel requires tension and conflict. And there is no greater conflict than the one that lies within. We think we know how folks will respond, but then they do things contrary to expectations. This is true character development to me, reflecting what we experience in reality.

Tensions exists because we lack certainty about how protagonists will act. It’s the quintessential trust issue. Perhaps that is more a reflection of my own expereinces with people.

Invariably, man or woman, people will always let you down at some moment. This is the human condition. But principles never do, and that creates tension between doing right and wrong.

Favorite Crazy Characters

frodo

This crazy factor is why Cervantes’ Don Quixote is perhaps the most brilliant of early novels. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are maddeningly nuts (chase that windmill!). They don’t make characters like that anymore!

In the modern tough guy vein, Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs evolves and matures over time. Morgan’s work created a series that I could not put down, and desperately hoped would continue. Like so many characters though he does seem to fit into a stereotype, the anti-hero tough guy that survives and eventually conquers, albeit in a never-clean fashion. You kind of always know how Kovacs is going to respond to things.

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is a sweet young man who faces terrible challenges. His character is pretty straight forward, and in that oh so English way, he continues because he must. Frodo does succeed, but the journey bludgeons him, killing his spirit. In the end as he sails off to Valinor in an effort to find peace.

While I loved Kovacs and Frodo, I’m not sure they’re really human. Because both protagonists are heroes, they rise above the normal foibles we all seem to muddle through.

A better tough guy is the comic character Batman, who is just nuts, as all of us familiar with the movies know. The underlying gritty subversiveness of the Bruce Wayne/Batman character reminds me of the duality of ideal versus humanity.

This same character tension was played out subtly and brilliantly in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Through narrator Nathan Zuckerman’s recreation of the Swede we saw how really crazy and subversive people are regardless of their outward presentation.

Exodus features an anti-hero character, Jason. I actually named him after Jason of the Argonauts, because that Jason seemed too perfect to me. I thought a little more perspective on a young “hero” was needed. Several of the characters are named after Greek legends, an intentional ode and post modern riff on epic tales.

In Jason’s case, the fundamentalist threat alluded to in the novel’s teaser text provides external conflict, which in turn forces his internal crisis by thrusting a great responsibility on his shoulders. This is a classic character development technique.

Most novels make you wonder how the hero will succeed. Me, I wonder if Jason can handle it or if he’ll go nuts. His process is very much what I think happens in real life as opposed to the archetype of yeah, we know he’s going to make it, it’s just a question of how and when.

What do you like about your favorite characters?

[Tweet “I like a little crazy in my fictional characters. How about you?”]