Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Size Matters?

K D Fortune asked:

How long should a book be? Well, how long should a dog's legs be? One answer is "long enough to touch the ground." Or in other words, it depends on the kind of dog. Or the kind of book.

Kaye George commented:

Hm, I'm trying to picture legs on a book. But a great question to ask.

K D:

We aspiring mystery writers are often told to size our mysteries at about 70,000 words, while thrillers should come in at 90,000 to 100,000 words. Why these numbers? Is it intrinsic to the type of book or is it customary or...is it even the case? Are actual mysteries really short and thrillers longer?

I pulled a couple of paperbacks out of my library, and sat down to count the words. Luckily, all the paperbacks had about the same number of words per page, so I just counted the pages and multiplied.

The two thrillers were longer:

Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle, 105K words

Lee Child, Persuader, 133K words

But the mysteries weren't all short:

Cleo Coyle, French Pressed, 75K words

Louise Penny, A Rule Against Murder, 105K words

Kaye replied:

But those books aren't first novels. They're by established authors. Once you've gotten a few books under your belt (or on the shelf), you're given more leeway.

Could it be that the limits/guidelines are meant for first-time authors? Even though the lengths of some thrillers and mysteries don't fall within the guidelines, I think it's still a good idea for unpublished authors to stick pretty close to them.

K. D. answered, still doing calculations:

The mysteries tend to run shorter than the thrillers, but some mysteries are as long as thrillers, and some thrillers are seriously long. What is going on?

Maybe having several viewpoint characters adds to the length? Most thrillers have several viewpoint characters. Ken Follett and Louise Penny have many viewpoint characters in books of 105K words (though Louise Penny's book is a mystery). But Lee Child sticks to first person throughout the book, and comes in with the biggest word count, while Cleo Coyle sticks close to first person and has the shortest book.


OK, but I think there's more to it than the number of viewpoint characters. Thrillers often flit around in exotic locales and mysteries, especially at the cozy end, take place in little towns with a limited cast of characters. Even though thrillers contain a lot of action, well maybe mostly action sometimes, they need to give the reader a sense of a place they've never been. Mysteries are meant to evoke a comfortable setting, one the reader is perhaps very familiar with. Thrillers can get global and involve shadowy organizations, corrupt governments, secret societies, casts of many.

K D commented:

You are at least partially right here. A thriller rarely takes place next door. Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle visits a huge number of places, all over the map during WWII. Each scene requires a descriptive passage. He describes a lonely Scottish island. Then he's right there with Rommel in the desert. Next, we stop in at British High Command. All that description makes a book longer.

But Lee Child and Louise Penny stick mostly to one location, and have long books. Cleo Coyle has her protagonists dashing around to all sorts of places in New York City, and has the shortest book of all. I don't think scene-setting is the complete explanation for the length of the books.

Kaye commented:

Maybe it's something else about the books they wrote? Something you can't count?

K D answered:

What a concept! Something you can't count? Not possible!

Kaye replied:

Think about it, okay?

Kaye and K D finally agree:

Unpublished authors should probably stick to the guidelines, to make life easier for themselves and their agents.

For published authors, since all the books are enjoyable, does size matter?

1 comment:

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