I have often said that a well crafted short story is a joy to behold, but I know that many people might disagree with me. So I was wondering…
Does the length of a book or piece of creative writing become an important factor in your decision to read something?
These are my personal opinions. I do not expect anyone to agree with anything here, and in fact, I’m certain that many will disagree and/or even hate many of the things I’ve written below. Sorry about that, but you are always welcome to express your own opinions – be they contrary or comparable – in the comments section. So, with that out of the way…
I think most of my readers know that I once wrote poetry. In fact, in my youth I even published several of them, and won a prize for one of them. I actually naïvely thought that becoming a poet was my destiny. Of course, maturity and the need to ensure I had food, clothing and shelter, put a kibosh on that dream, and I stopped writing poetry several years ago (despite my dabbling with a haiku or limerick from time to time, or to write new lyrics to an old song as satire). You see, writing poetry is hard. It is emotionally draining, and the precision needed to write a really good poem takes both time and energy, not to mention talent. Furthermore, because I never studied poetry with any intensity, I don’t believe that I’m a good judge of it, and therefore I don’t review poetry.
And to be honest, I haven’t read much poetry either – relatively speaking. Sure, I own some books of poetry, like this one by my favorite poet, but I don’t go searching for books of poetry to read. This is probably because I’m very picky about what type of poetry I like, and if it is overly sweet or sentimental, I won’t like it much. I also don’t care for poems that try too hard to be avant-garde, or shocking – if the emotion is honest, it comes through without fake or forced conceit. Finally, if it rhymes, it had damned well better scan as well. After several years learning about formalist poetry on an internet forum, and trying my hand at metrical verse, I can no longer stand poems that rhyme without having some kind of matching, regular rhythm. If you can’t do both, and do it properly, stick to writing free verse.
Obviously, not every author can write poetry, or lyrics for that matter. Case in point – I loved the novel “Daisy Jones and The Six” but I found that the lyrics to the songs at the end of the book were… mediocre at best. On the other hand, although not quite as compelling as her prose, the poems included in the novel “My Counterfeit Self” by Jane Davis were very good. In her author’s note she admits she’s not a poet, and that it was not easy writing them, and she even tried to get a real poet to give her poems for the book. Well, brava to her for writing them herself! On the other hand, Ondaatje, who started out as a poet, when he writes prose, it is almost like reading a very long poem.
As I noted in my opening, I truly adore a really good short story. I believe that there is a real art in writing one that encapsulates everything the author is trying to express, in so few words. The best short stories for me are those that make you think – they don’t tell you everything, and often they leave you hanging and having to “get” the point. When it comes to short stories, I often prefer them all to be from a single author, but I’ve read collections and anthologies that have also been enjoyable. Mind you, the latter have a tendency to be less consistent than the former, mostly because different authors have different styles that appeal to different people.
Novelettes and novellas give the author a bit more leeway for including everything they want to say or describe. If well written, they can be just like short stories on their satisfaction levels for me, and again, I prefer those that don’t tie everything up into a nice neat bow at the end. Of course, sometimes a story just doesn’t need to be novel length; this happens when the author has said everything that they’ve wanted to say, and what they’ve written simply isn’t a full-length novel. Anne Tyler’s latest book “Redhead by the Side of the Road” is exactly that kind of book.
I’m going to call these full-length, stand-alone novels. Obviously, most people read these length books, which average in the 200-400-page length. This format gives authors plenty of space for backstories and detailed descriptions of scenery, and the like. With the ability to spread things out, we also have the opportunity to get to know characters better, as well. I’m believe that most first-time and newer authors write for this size of a book, and probably include more prose in their first drafts than what ends up in the finished product. By that I mean that I’m betting that a writer who bangs out what could be a 400+ page first draft, will probably pare it down quite a bit before the final version is published. I also read mostly this length of stand-alone novels, partially because the genres I prefer to read mostly seem to come in this size and format.
Mind you, there are many authors – both famous and newbies – who need better editors, and many a time I’ve read a full-length novel and thought it had too much “filler” that could have easily been cut to make the writing tighter. This is what makes me wary of books that are well over the 500 page mark. I’m always fearful that I’ll get annoyed that they aren’t as tightly written as they could be. Admittedly, while I can enjoy these longer works, I’ve noticed that after I’ve read a particularly long novel or two, I often find myself looking to see if I have a novella or some short stories on my TBR, just for variety and the ability to concentrate on something shorter.
By the way, I also put sequels into this category, since often they aren’t written in succession. For example, between “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” and the companion novel “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy” Rachel Joyce published her novel “Perfect.” Also, sequels don’t always stick to the confines of the original novel’s story arc, or build off of one character or story line. For example, Backman’s “Britt-Marie Was Here” takes a minor character from his previous novel and turns her into the main protagonist of this book. I have to admit that there have been several novels I’ve read that I’ve loved so much, that I still continue to hope that the author will be inspired to write a sequel or a spin-off novel. (I’m talking to you, Kate Quinn – I still want a novel just focusing on Nina from “The Huntress.”)
What I mean by this are the series; stories that are published in at least two volumes. Now, I’ve read a few series in my life – such as the Masters of Rome books by Colleen McCullough, the Earth’s Children books by Jean Auel. Granted, I never got around to the last books of both these series, nor did I ever finish reading the Harry Potter books. I’ve also read dozens of books by Agathe Christie; a few of the Poirot books, many of the Miss Marple books, and I believe all of the Tommy and Tuppence books. One thing about series is that, for the most part, you really need to start reading from the first one. Yes, some series can be read out of order. For example, most the Christie books are essentially stand-alone, as they just have recurring characters. But many series are such that you would probably get lost if you read the third book of a five-part series, before you’ve read books one and two. This is because the author intends for the story arc to only come to completion at the end of the series, and all the characters, backgrounds, and plot setups will appear in the earlier books.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with series of books, and I see book bloggers out there challenging themselves to read every book in them. Personally, and especially these days, I feel as I’m no longer on the lookout for them, since I don’t think I’m willing to commit to reading all of the books in a series. Yes, I know I could stop if I get bored (like I did with the Harry Potter books), but it seems to me that I’m doing myself and the books a disservice if I don’t even have the intention to read them all. Also, if there are lots of characters, I’m not sure I could keep them all straight in my head from book to book. This could be just an age thing, or it could be that I want more variety in my reading. So for me, the occasional sequel, yes, but a series, probably not (although I do want to read the next Billie Walker book by Tara Moss).
So… what about you?
Do you prefer to read sweeping sagas and unending series? Or do you like to read shorter works, like stand-alone novels, novellas, or short story collections?
Does the length of a piece of creative writing (or its brevity) entice you or put you off?
This post is my 14th entry in the 2020 Discussion Challenge, hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!