The actual quote from Elmore Leonard is, “Leave out the parts readers tend to skip,” but I prefer the blunter, more direct, “Leave out the boring parts.” I’ve been getting email from readers who note, with some pleasure, that The Vengeance Season is “a quick read”. If there’s such a thing as Thick Book Fatigue Syndrome out there, I have it and I think a lot of other readers do too. After all the fat Stephen King novels and the Harry Potter giants and what with Neal Stephenson apparently being paid by the word these days, I have started specifically looking for books with a thin to medium waistline.
In fact, The Vengeance Season is 60,000 words long which is, these days anyway, the minimum for a novel. It hasn’t always been like this, though. Back in the days when dinosaurs stalked primitive man through the streets of Manhattan, there were books like Rosemary’s Baby and This Perfect Day by Ira Levin. (Some critic once described Levin’s writing as ruthlessly efficient.) I remember reading I Am Legend by Richard Matheson in just a few hours one afternoon. The speed of the story and its unbroken and unrelenting narrative gave you the feeling you were watching a particularly intense movie. Which is good since, even after three tries, no one has been able to make a decent movie out of it.
I think this move toward longer books is something akin to the rise in portion sizes at restaurants over the last thirty years. They have a similar need, these restaurants and publishers, to charge you a lot of money so their percentage of profit goes up. When you plop down $40 for a hardcover, they want you to be holding something heavy, something that feels like it’s worth six times the minimum wage. Books that only run 300 pages (or 60,000 words) like Of Mice and Men and For Whom The Bell Tolls just don’t weigh enough to be good literature. And you can forget slimmer tomes such as The Black Pearl and The Goodbye Look. Authors who write a 45,000 word novel these days have to cram them into short story collections and put three of them together in a collection of novellas like King’s Different Seasons.
Most of my novels are longer than 60,000 words, some are as long as 100,000, but even with them I try to leave out the parts readers skip. Those longer stories just have more plot and characterization. On the other hand, I try to keep the Doyle stories as simple as possible. I realized from my survey of the great masterworks that there should only be two plots in a detective story. The A story, the most important story, is about the detective. The B story is the mystery he’s trying to solve. That’s it. If you restrict yourself to those two plotlines and don’t waste a lot of time stringing together beautiful paragraphs to describe what trees look like, you’re going to come in around 60,000 words and your readers aren’t going to feel like they’ve run a marathon when they close your book.
Let me backtrack a little bit before I close just to say that I love long books. I read The Cryptonomicon every couple of years. When you finish a really good, really long book you feel like you’ve been friends with the characters for years. So, it’s not that I don’t like long books, it’s that when every book you read is wide around the middle you start to run out of energy just assessing their girth.
Also, let’s face it, some stories don’t need to be that long. By the time I got to the end of Cujo, I was reading every third page and had no trouble keeping up with the story. I couldn’t make it through the last Harry Potter book. The first part was so boring I ended up reading the Cliff’s Notes just to see how the saga ended. If your reader isn’t compelled to stick with your story by a fast moving, well articulated plot, then you have some more editing to do. Well drawn characters with deep back stories are incredibly important to a good story but if all you’ve got them doing is standing around smoking cigarettes while you describe the color of the drapes your readers aren’t going to notice them. Or the drapes.