Now, I don’t usually weigh in on these kinds of Tweets. Why? Because Twitter is replete (read: awash/deluged/inundated/swamped/overflowing… well, you get the idea) with people asking all sorts of questions, from the sublime to the truly ridiculous (read: banal/inane/shallow/OMG/oy), questions which the cynical (read: realistic/pragmatic) part of me tends to believe, quite accurately, I think, the Tweeter isn’t really interested in people’s opinions at all, but merely wants other Tweeters to respond so it reflects favourably on the original Tweeter’s engagement statistics. I wish I was fantasizing or being facetious about this, but… you can’t make this stuff up, folks. (One of the most honest Twitter bios I’ve ever seen included the comment that the person was ‘a whore for likes.’) If you haven’t yet twigged to this, allow me to enlighten you: social media is a frequently enraged, often outraged, regularly ignorant, and generally batshit-crazy world which makes the original Bedlam insane asylum resemble a model of sensible probity and quiet sanity. Why are you on it, then? you ask. As well you may, I answer flippantly (read: damn, that’s a good question… give me a moment to think about it and I’ll get back to you).
Okay. End of rant. Despite the nearly irresistible temptation, today’s epistle isn’t really about… Deranged Social Media and How It’s Destroying The World As We Know It (make the sign of the Cross and back away slowly as you solemnly intone all that, please). No, it’s about the above Tweet, and my peculiarly inexplicable response… because… I did weigh in. Why? you ask. I’m not sure, I reply slowly. What was the moon’s phase at the time?
The breathless prose of my response was: “I just… record the story as directed by my characters. My first novel was 186k, the sequel currently sits at 178k, and a third book I’m working on at the moment is at 152k. I don’t think I’m particularly verbose…”
Please note, he said sternly: that last statement of my reply was intended as definitely puckish, not hopelessly disingenuous. I think every writer on the planet has succumbed at least once to what I call the Crane Maxim, after Dr. Frasier Crane of the eponymous television series: “If less is more, just think how much more more will be!” (Or the writer’s corollary: why use one word when six will do?) However, I deny regularly indulging it… or in Polonius’ ironically disingenuous rationalization at the top of this post. (While he says brevity is the soul of wit and he’ll be brief, what follows is his spectacularly lengthy monologue --- to the point where another character impatiently tells him to cut to the chase.) And I don’t understand most writers’ fear and loathing of editing; I actually rather enjoy it nowadays… though I’ll admit there was a time, back in my embryonic writing phase, when I didn’t. In fact, there was a point where I keenly understood Mozart’s bewildered, indignant, reaction in the film Amadeus after the Emperor tells him there are too many notes in his opera: “I don’t understand, Majesty… there are exactly as many notes as required, neither more nor less.” Yep, well, sorry, Wolfie, pretty much universally, our work can always stand a little editing. Or, for some of us, a lot. Although I don’t always subscribe to Stephen King’s dictum that your second draft is your first draft minus ten percent.
So… let me answer Tweetie’s question… promising I’ll be brief: I highly doubt it’s the norm --- especially in today’s frenetic society where much of the population seems (woefully) to possess the attention span of gnats --- but as to how it’s possible… well, you just tell the story. As succinctly but as colourfully as you can. Or, as Mr. K also famously said, one word at a time. Without succumbing to what he termed literary elephantiasis, I might add. 150k words, or 186k for that matter, does not automatically mean bloated when telling a story. (Given that each of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books routinely runs northward of 220k words, and The Lord of the Rings --- which, it’s important to note, especially in the wake of Jackson’s epic films, Tolkien originally regarded not as a trilogy, but one story --- clocks in at over 455k… well, 186k seems charmingly compact by comparison.)
I used to spell it out for my students this way: short stories generally run 2000-10,000 words; novellas from 10,000-50,000 words; and above 50,000, we’re in novel country, with an upper limit defined only by what tests the reader’s capacity (or the publisher’s, for the traditionally published) to absorb.
Ultimately, I’ve kind of discarded the lists of Story Writing Rules just about every famous author has generated, perhaps at least in part because they all violate their own rules, some more so than others --- returning to Mr. K for a third time, he’s fairly vehement against using adverbs… but peruse any of his books and yeah, you’ll find an adverb or six. QED. So I have only one writing rule, one I made myself: Write the Best Damn Story You Can. And I guess, in the wake of today’s musings, we could add, In Whatever Length You, The Creator, Deem Most Appropriate. After all, first and foremost, if you’ve any integrity whatsoever, you’re telling the story for yourself. But when you send your literary progeny out into the cold, uncaring world, you’re really hoping for the Goldilocks Verdict in content and length, aren’t you? Not only do you want readers to love your story --- with the fierce, unconditional, slightly batty love of a mother for her newborn child --- you want them to feel it’s not too long, not too short… but Just Right. That it’s not choked with detail, but neither is it a mere skeleton with no richness, no description just… a cold wind whistling mournfully through bare bones.
Yep, that’s the long and the short of it, all right.