Does Novel Length Still Matter in a Digital World?

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No One Looks at Kindles Sideways

I recently read an interesting post by Joe Wikert where he talked about book length and sales in a digital world. As an author, it got me thinking about the nature of novel writing and how we deliver content to our readers.

One of Joe’s points was that every written work does not need to be a couple hundred pages long. On the surface, and perhaps in general, this makes sense. The physical bookshelf, while quaint, is becoming less of a commercial factor every day as more and more content is purchased online and/or consumed digitally. But “books” means a lot of things. Certainly, nonfiction books of every sort should not be a page longer than they need to be. Bloating a book so it takes up more shelf space has to be a thing of the past. And, in my opinion, the price should be adjusted accordingly.

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Novels, on the other hand, need to be a certain length to be considered novels. While there may be no official word count for full-length, it is hard to consider anything below 50,000 words more than a novella. I would not want to see consumers charged full novel price for a novella. Disappointment in such a purchase can undermine the whole business model. However, with so many self published books out there of various lengths, some offered for $.99 or even free, it is not possible to strictly associate price and length.

People have no length expectations for a self-help guide beyond a length long enough to give them the help they desire. However novels are an experience. While movies have averaged shorter over the decades, they are still a certain length to satisfy the purchase price. There would be no commercial success for a theater release movie of thirty minutes, likely even if price reduced. A patron making an effort to go to a theater and buy a ticket wants to enjoy the fullness of their fantasy respite. As entertaining as thirty minutes can be made to be, it probably wouldn’t justify an evening out at the movies. (That’s what TV is for.)

Joe and I agree that selling books by the chapter is a dubious option. It may work for songs, which historically have been written and enjoyed individually. Albums are a relatively recent invention after all (outside of opera), and the success of iTunes shows that their basis was not necessary.

The fundamentals of storytelling, exposition, climax and denouement have centuries of tradition.
The fundamentals of storytelling; exposition, climax and denouement have centuries of tradition.

But Joe had high hopes for tailoring works to shorter length. An okay concept for information, but storytelling follows a less flexible path. If a person is into short stories, and that number may be increasing, short is fine. But the experience of getting to know a novel’s universe, and following along on an adventure of some length is as old as Shakespeare, and may be as old as some of the earliest hero’s journey epics. Every reader has an invisible ratio graph in their head of time invested versus literary payback. It has been culturally set by hundreds of years of tradition, and it’s not going to be upended because E-readers have become popular in the last five.

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Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star is a full length adventure, one that will give you hours of fantastical enjoyment and respite beyond the distant colony world of Adams Rush. Go with Jordahk and experiences his challenges, victories, and penchant for getting into jams that may just save his planet.

Test-Reader Feedback: Find the “11th Thing”

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Not Only Sifting, But Some Baking Required

If you can spell, put two sentences together, and have enough patience, you too could write a book! But the real question is, “Is it anything anybody would want to read?” The road to that crucial answer may lead to the brave, the trusted, the select few you will choose to be test readers. Pick well, and with care, for the fate of your work may depend not on the feedback they give you, but on your interpretation of it.

This guy loves space. Now find two more test readers who don't.
This guy loves space. Now find two more test readers who don’t.

First, branch out and pick a reasonably diverse group. Diversity of opinion may not be found with three hard-core fans of the genre. Know their personalities, so that you can better expect and receive their feedback. Is one of them a nitpicker? Then don’t be surprised that they wanted a little more description of the space taxi on page 247. Is one of them very analytical? Be grateful that they brought to your attention that your space six-shooter shot seven times. Is one of them not even a fan of the genre? (Try to find one of those. They are a great asset.) Their feedback, properly enacted, may bust your book from niche to mainstream.

Say what? Yes, this paragraph is about pronunciations. Do your characters or places have any unique names? Perhaps you crafted unique spellings for conventional names. I have a whole section dedicated to this topic in my test reader feedback notes files. (You did write down and organize their feedback didn’t you?) You might be amazed how many different ways people who speak the same language pronounce a spelling you thought clear. I suggest engaging your test readers one at a time so that you can incorporate a new spelling if necessary and run it past them in succession. Some names I used took multiple passes to get just right.

The 11th thing. If you had 10 test readers, they would all give you different feedback. But your job is to figure out what they’re all trying to tell you in their own way. One may want to know the background of a certain character, another may want more information about that same character’s associations. Sure, address those details, but what are they both really trying to say? Is more clarity needed on that character’s whole side plot? What about that passage you were never able to get just right? Is the answer to fixing it eluding you? Surreptitiously solicit advice about it. Don’t let the cat out of the bag that you think it needs help. You want fresh, unbiased insights. Put together the puzzle pieces offered to you. Your test readers may have the missing key, with no idea of its value to your work.

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“Houston, I’ve found a key.”

Finally, remember, putting your work out there for others to to critique can be hard. Take heart, there is the positive side. Chances are there was a scene you were a little unsure about. “Will my readers get it?” Perhaps there was a scene you never thought exceptional. Your test readers may surprise you with their praise. They may even put the pieces together in ways you never expected. That scene you labored upon, that you rewrote multiple times in a vacuum, may get unexpected, but thoroughly delightful validation. I know that was the case for me, and I hope it is for you too.

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Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star is a fun adventure, and one upon which you do not have to provide me with any feedback (but if you want to it would be nice). Go on your own test journey with these characters and experience with them challenges, victories, and an occasional dose of wisecracking humor. Read it for yourself and see which characters resonate with you.

Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star Print Edition Now on Sale!

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Don’t have an e-reader? Like the feel of paper? Want the classic reading experience? Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star has been released in paperback.

Buy it on Amazon, or preferably directly from the publisher to get a 15% discount. Enjoy!

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The Catastrophe of Overly Curtailed Commas

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Flowery Words: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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William Shakespeare is firmly ensconced in literary history, but his style of writing, while eloquent, is no longer common parlance. This is nothing against the master. But I think if Shakespeare returned to write tomorrow, he would have to adopt modern styles to be mass-market popular. In the same way we need to scrutinize our own writing.

It is very easy to get caught up in grandiloquent, overly ornamental descriptions. Ones which rely on the thesaurus (see previous sentence). Just because someone is bleeding, does not give us license to portray “the crimson flow…” While description is necessary, overly florid prose can call attention to itself and pluck a reader right out of the narrative. Just because you can write something classically pretty, does not mean you should. It can be hard at times to delete grand turns of phrase, but think of your novel’s greater good (and write poetry in your spare time).

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What about use of punctuation? No, I’m not talking about how to use it (there are some online who feel quite strongly about that). Rather I am talking about the amount of punctuation. My research showed that punctuation is often overused by less polished writers. I edited on the fly Tethered Worlds to minimize extraneous ellipses, exclamation points, commas, hyphens, and dashes. The result was delicious soup– that needed a trifle more spice. I had over-done it. I spent another editing pass putting justified commas back in. It was amazing how the structure of many sentences became more clear just by knowing where to pause.

Ellipses, dashes, all the rest. There is a place for them. Though unseasoned authors can err with too much, freedom acted upon to use too little punctuation is also a mistake. It is said that popular authors can write any way they want. Certainly they have more leeway, but they also set the reading-culture tone with their lack of, or common use… of… ellipses. I put some of those back in as well, just because nothing else worked the same way.

The bottom line is that you must police yourself as an author. Take a good look at your prose, and if sonnets come to mind, consider taking it back a casual notch. Try to be objective when reading your paragraphs. If sentences mush together so that your mind cannot even take a breath, consider some punctuation. After all, as strong as bricks are, they find their strength and shared shape through the little bits of connecting concrete. Follow enough convention for clarity, and do not be afraid to find your own style with prose and punctuation.

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Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star depicts a universe where real people, contending with their own flaws, do not speak in sonnets. I assure you that you have much more in common with them than that. Read it for yourself and see which characters resonate with you.

Yoda says, “Always in motion is the future.”

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Stop Trying to Predict Tomorrow and Write Your Novel.

You’re sitting at your keyboard, staring at a blank document file. Time ticks by, and the keys remain unpressed. Writer’s block? No. Rather you are too focused on precisely determining the events of tomorrow, and every day something else happens that changes that outlook. The future cannot be pinned down, it is a free-wheeling mistress that cannot be tamed. Tomorrow, something completely unexpected may be invented that changes everything.

Undoubtedly you have seen “futuristic” movies from the past. Their retro-futures can be outrageously off. I am fond of an episode of The Flash TV series from the 1990s called, “Ghost in the Machine.” In it, a TV and technology obsessed 1955 villain freezes himself into the year 1990. Needless to say, when he saw TV progressed little farther than arcade machines, and everything else less advanced than expected, he was disappointed.

“I expected more… The monorails, undersea cities, the moon colony. Where’s my future!”

But I take heart in stepping back and realizing that my job is not to unerringly predict the future, but rather to write an interesting and fun novel that takes place in it. If you are a writer, do not be paralyzed, you must step out. A good story can transcend setting, and memorable characters will stand the test of time. Do your research and take your best shot at a period. Form it in a way that enhances YOUR characters and plot.

I have heard it said that fiction written about the past or the future is still about “today.” The human condition; pride and love, freedom and oppression, good and evil are timeless. Those real situations will communicate in any era to any era. Yoda was right. None of us knows what tomorrow holds. Fortunately, we do not have to.

Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star is a novel set in the future, but populated by real people who struggle with flaws, yet strive for nobility. In it, I hope you will find characters that resonate with your life.

Sunspots?

Expect the unexpected.

An author who takes on the challenge of writing a novel must be prepared to perform the rigors such a task requires. And believe me, it does require them. Sure, many days scene gems might tumble out from one’s brain in a mystic way that defies description. But sometimes a particular scene, book universe technology, or series-arc consideration slows the pace. On those days, just hitting your word goal calls upon discipline and perseverance.

Editing and proceeding drafts call upon a different subset of skills, but still fall under the umbrella of what an author should expect. Marketing and websites are something many authors do not expect, but that is a subject for another post. However, what of the truly unexpected?

I recently experienced a computer problem which I will attribute to sunspots. I lost some precious workdays right in the homestretch of Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star. It is unwise to let your emotions fly, even after years of hard work. It is easy to rail against the world and its injustice. What we should do is get over ourselves, and as soon as possible. A clear head will almost certainly make better decisions on how to move forward, right from where you find yourself.

Things will break in this world, but we do not have to be broken by them. Get into the habit of correcting your course every day, so when sunspots strike, getting back into your orbit will the the first choice. Maybe even the natural one.

Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star has not been derailed. It is receiving its final polish and about to be formatted for publication. See it first for the Kindle on Amazon, but available in many other ways soon thereafter.

Space is Big!

A Big Adventure for a Big Universe

I am talking about Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star, the first in the Tethered Worlds mystic science fiction series. The final course is set to land the work on Amazon.com shelves in September. The print edition and the Barnes & Noble version soon to follow. Test readers are already giving Unwelcome Star a big thumbs up, and I am excited to release it to the public.

Writing a book is daunting in its own right, but bringing a manuscript to market includes tasks beyond the words and the editing passes. I am running those down even now, and soon the planets will align. We are getting the websites in order for author and book, along with other web presences like Facebook. I hope to bring you insight into the process here along with a chance to interact with the author.

The artwork for the cover should wrap up in August. At the Tethered Worlds site I will be sharing it and other artwork and content from the book universe.

Authors out there know of this home stretch. Others of you may aspire to be an author. Do not give up. The Tethered Worlds series has been years in the making. I am pleased with the result, but just as important I can say that the journey was an enjoyable one, though of course not without its challenges. I would encourage you to enjoy the journey in whatever task your hand is about today.

With the foundation nearly settled, and the book universe set, the next installment of  Tethered Worlds is on deck. The outline is written and the writing ready to begin as these final arrangements come together.