It’s Not Length We’re Looking For

Make your jokes now, people. I’ll give you a moment.

I’m admittedly a little biased on this one. I come from the fantasy genre (which hardly needs re-stating by this point but years of English essays drilled this stuff into me, so bear with me), so my genre has a long tradition with epics. If you look up any list of fantasy novel lengths, you’ll see that, despite most other genres averaging out at 80-90 000 words, fantasy novels, especially the more ‘famous’ ones, tend to have wordcounts in the 110-130 000 word range. Per installation in a seven-book series. Then there are the big fantasy ‘giants’, your Robert Jordans and your Brandon Sandersons, your George R. R. Martins, who frequently hit the 300 000 word mark, and then do it again in the sequels.

This seeps into the marketing of books as well: it’s old wisdom (and I’m not sure how well it holds up, but this is how the thinking goes) that fantasy readers prefer to buy larger books. Publishers tweak margins and font size in order to get extra pages in a fantasy novel, to get something with a thick spine on the shelf, even if the wordcount might be a little lower than the average behemoth. Contrast this with Classics, which often get printed in tiny font on whisper-thin paper, so that a big Nabokov or Dickens doesn’t look so intimidating, for readers who might be expecting a slog through something that’s been translated, or is written in an older style of English (looking directly at you, 1700s English with your 20-clause sentences).

I’ve also written before about how I’d prefer long adaptations of things (at least, I think I have – if not, then you can probably expect that to be a topic in the future), because movie adaptations of longer-form fiction necessarily have to cut things out, whereas a longer adaptation has more freedom to work with and expand, rather than distilling. Of course, either can work, but more options is always good.

Notice that I didn’t say “a longer-form adaptation can be more faithful” – I also believe that adaption shouldn’t try to be a one-to-one process: an adaptation that expands and develops will always be more effective than one that just blindly copies.

But I’ve also spent time thinking recently about the role of short-form narratives and fiction in society today. It’s common knowledge that the short story market is absolutely not what it once was. It used to be that authors were expected to publish short stories first, before making it as a long-form novelist, but that is emphatically no longer the case. I think this is a good thing in some ways – short stories are absolutely a different beast to novels, both in form and mindset, and I feel it does them a disservice to think of them only as stepping-stones to get an author to what they really want to do, but it also means that the market for them has shrunk.

I don’t know why this is – short stories haven’t gotten worse over the years. There’s very interesting things going on in short stories. I even feel like divorcing them from authors who then go on to do something else gives them more space to explore their own form (though of course there has always been innovation in the medium; just because some authors wanted to move on to something else didn’t mean that there weren’t people just in it for the short stories, or that the authors who did want to move on didn’t care about what they were writing in the meantime). However, the more people who write short stories because they’ve chosen that medium and want to work with it, the more that we’ll see innovations from people truly invested in the form.

Poetry is going a similar direction, and even faster. I think that there’s a big perception that stems from school work, where people were forced to study short stories and poetry that they weren’t interested in, and that they found boring, and have generalised that experience to the whole genre. Certainly, I feel that there’s a sort of unconscious feeling that a short story needs to do something “more” than just be a story – it needs to Explore a Theme, or be a character piece, or have a Big Twist in order to make it viable. Which in some ways is good. I’ll never say a word against encouraging creativity within a medium. But it does mean that short stories that are there for the sake of being fun are less visible, and often people don’t even know that that’s a possibility, because of the perception that a short story like that won’t be popular with short story readers.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that people have a lot of perceptions about different lengths of stories, and that it’s easy to get trapped in the perceptions of what “should” be in a story or novella or novel of a particular length.

It’s also a roundabout way of saying that there are expectations of particular genres as well, which can trip people up.

There is no topic so discussed on writing forums as ‘how long should my story be?’. It’s a valid question – there are different markets for different types of stories. Besides, some genres, like the YA or especially the middle-grade genre, have restrictions that are based in necessity: a middle-grade reader isn’t necessarily going to have the patience to stick through a 300 000 word epic. Generally, the longer a book is, the more subplots and characters it needs to support that length, and a younger reader might not yet have the practise in reading to be able to follow them all at once. That’s not to say that there aren’t readers at middle-grade age who can’t follow longer and more complex books, but generally there are fewer of them, and books will need to take that into account.

However, the lines between some lengths can get pretty blurry. It’s obvious that a short story reader and a novel reader have different preferences in their books, but the novella has always had a problem fitting in. Are they more catering to short story readers who want a bit more depth but don’t have the time for, don’t want to commit to, or just don’t like reading whole novels? Or are they ‘lighter fare’ (in terms of commitment required, not content) for novel readers? Do they cater to both those things? Or is there another group of readers entirely?

And here’s where we come back to the Internet, as always, and the impact it’s had on our genres.

The Internet has done many things blowing open the doors for non-traditional publishing methods. But there’s one big difference when you go shopping for books on the Internet versus when you go to a bookstore.

It’s impossible to look at a book and see how big it is.

No reader I know actively makes the choice to read a book or not depending how big it is. However, every reader does have unconscious biases about the size of a book –whether that’s the fantasy reader’s ‘more value for money’ attitude (according to market studies, at least) or the view that a longer book is likely to be bloated (especially if it’s part of a series that just keeps getting longer and longer with each book). These biases, like all biases, aren’t 100% accurate, but they are something that we unconsciously decide when we pick up a book in a bookstore and read the cover.

The Internet eliminates this. We are still deciding things based on the cover art and style, and the blurb, and the title, all of which are just as prone to biases and snap judgements, but the particular element of length in the book is gone. Even if we were to list book lengths, in pages or words, most readers don’t have a concrete idea of how pages or words translate into length, the way that they have an idea of length based on how big the spine feels in their hand. Humans are just not that good at making judgements based on numbers that size.

But I do think this is a good thing. Because while there’s something to be said for being able to look at a book and think “this is approximately how long it’ll take for me to read, and thus how many hours of enjoyment I’ll get from this product”, I think it’s more important to break down the idea of how long a book ‘should’ be, and start focusing more on producing a story that has the right number of words to express what it needs to express.

Video games fell into this trap in the last decade, though I’m not convinced that they still do, at least, not as thoroughly. For a while there, there seemed to be a lot of advertising of games based not on the story or the mechanics, but on how long you could spend playing it before you ran out of new things to see and experience. This is useful for gamers who are short on cash, and want the most amount of content for their money (or, more importantly, for parents and relatives choosing games for their children and younger family members), but I feel like it has become less relevant. With the rise of indie games, and platforms like Steam, it became possible to spend the same amount of money on several smaller games. The choice isn’t between $60 (or $90 if you’re Australian, because imports) for a 90-hour game, or the same price for a 30- or 40-hour game. You’re now choosing between $60 for a 90-hour game, or $5 each for several 6-7 hour games. I don’t see games lauded for the amount of unique gameplay hours anymore. Instead, I see discussions of whether a particular price point was adequate for the amount of enjoyment the player got out of it. And that’s more open to nuance – for example, I might not want to spend $20 for a 15-minute experience, but I might consider it worth it if it had a particularly appealing or interesting art style, or had a unique take on its themes. It’s like a meal: I don’t like spending more than $25 on a single meal, but I will if the service is good, and the food is significantly above average in quality, and I won’t consider it a waste of time or money to do so.

I think this is the crux of the issue with the Internet opening up more non-traditional styles and routes. As a society (although we’re not there yet), we’re starting to focus more on the experience and the quality of the entertainment we’re given, rather than external factors like the length. We’re starting to look down on series that outstay their welcome, like soaps and extremely long-running sitcoms, because we feel that they stay past the point where we can derive anything significant from them. We just have so many more options nowadays; we no longer choose between three different channels with a particular show on each one, each using (or re-using) its own plots and jokes. We have thousands of options in multiple media. We have movies on demand, so there’s no waiting for the cinema to show something or missing out. We don’t have to watch a show once it gets stale, because we trust that there is always something more worth our time.

So I think this is going to lead to us doing a lot of different things with regards to length and form of stories. I think that we’re going to focus a lot more on how much we enjoy something, rather than how long we can enjoy it for (similar to quality over quantity, but without the idea that something has to meet objective standards to be enjoyable). And so there will rise a market for novels that might be shorter, but are very well written, and more options to break good, but long, works into manageable pieces, or to present them as a whole. E-books don’t have restrictions on number of pages before bindings fail, after all.

And this is something that I would like to carry forward in my work, too. I don’t want to have to concentrate on how long something “should” be (yes, I know The Ferryman’s Apprentice has a strict number of chapters per season, that’s a deliberate choice and I’ll be talking about that later). Instead I’d like to spend more time looking at the story I have and figuring out how best to present that particular story, at the length that will make it the best story possible.

More on formatting decisions later: I’ve got some big choices coming up, so I’ll be using this blog as a venting platform for that.

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