I posted the other day about the way authors can write quickly and well – it boils down to having good concepts for content, then being able to translate that content into a linear thread. But that isn’t the only issue authors have to tackle when it comes to speed.
The other one is pace. A story – or, for that matter, an article or piece of non-fiction – can be brilliantly conceived and well written, but still run too slowly to keep reader interest. The example that always springs to mind when I think of this problem is Harry Turtledove’s ‘World War’ series, an alternate history saga in which lizard-like aliens crash the Second World War and force both Allies and Axis to co-operate.
I chugged my way through the first of these but didn’t bother with the rest. Why? Turtledove is an excellent writer; there’s nothing wrong with his ideas, characterisation or anything else. But the pace was glacial. There was a mis-match, to my mind, between the drama of the story concept and the speed at which that drama was laid out. The peaks – the elements that hold reader interest – were too far-spread.
It would have worked, I think, as a book about a quarter of the length – and maybe the whole ‘World War’ saga could have been reduced to a couple of modest volumes on that basis.
The inverse problem is when the book is too thin for the subject – when it charges, helter-skelter, into the concept it’s conveying without pause for breath. I always thought Dan Brown’s The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) veered into that territory – though, for all the faults I can find with Brown, there’s little doubt about his mastery of pace.
That also happens in non-fiction; I’ve chopped my way through history books where the author has clearly got rather carried away with their research and subject matter, and where the publisher hasn’t felt able to deal with the problem.
Though sometimes they do – I recall, years ago, a historian complaining to me that the publisher had required them to cut out about a third of their book. On my own experience, I know that publishers don’t do that gratuitously.
It’s a bit like the effects of Tolkien’s ring: The Ring didn’t give extra life – it stretched out the life its bearer had. ‘Thin and stretched,’ Bilbo explained to Gandalf at one point. And that, it seems to me, is true of writing too. The length has to fit the concept.
So what’s the answer? There’s no single ‘ideal’ length; different concepts will have different natural paces to them. The trick is finding them. One rule of thumb, though, is not to try to write to an ambitious word length – too often, authors go for ‘scale’ and the bragging rights of being able to say they just published a 1000 page book, when the content doesn’t match up.
Symptoms of the problem in fiction include stalling – dredging for what comes next, or including scenes that don’t advance the character arc and plot. Or, in non-fiction, it can include sections that don’t strictly relate to the main subject matter.
All these things have to be watched for. And don’t forget – word-count isn’t a goal; it’s a tool for measuring.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015