Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Space A Story Takes

There is often a tension between what a writer wants to write, and what a reader wants to read. As a writer, I hate these types of questions. I want to write what is in my soul, but that doesn't always fit into a neatly bound package or on a bookshelf.

I am struggling with this currently as I have just finished my second novel (again-- yes, I am always editing) and it comes in at 49,600 words, or about 150 book pages. Technically speaking, anything under 50,000 words (and some say 70,000) is a novella. And I am torn. This is a book I am proud of. I'm not preparing for a Nobel by any stretch, but I love moments of it and think it is a story worth telling. But what to do with a book this short? There is more story in my head, but these are extra scenes that I may clutter the book.

I have never been a huge fan of books that take up more space than is called for. I love lyrical descriptions, and poetic narrative, and beautiful writing that carries you away, but have seldom appreciated extraneous pages, unnecessary back story, or unessential detail in any book. It is a skill to balance both, a skill I will likely be working on for the rest of my career, and I err on the side of simplicity over complexity. I would rather a story live in the space it is due, be it short or long, than expand it beyond its natural borders.

This is a rather nebulous concept, I imagine. Think about this:
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany may often seem that it is full of extraneous detail, but by the end you care convinced that every word and sentence is absolutely crucial. It is masterful. Many have told me I am wrong.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a book I am not actually a fan of, but I do have to appreciate the eloquence in how sparcely written it is (so sparce he all but ignores punctuation). There is not a single word in that entire book that is not crucial to the point conveyed. No one has ever disagreed with me here.
So I ask you as readers, what do you think? Do you have examples of a story that is so well constructed that not a single word is extra? Even better if those examples are short books....


  1. Le Petit Prince. Admittedly, this is often called a children's book -- which it's not, really -- so this may fall outside of your requirements. Thomas Mann's Death in Venice is also very short and very good. If you like the Russians in a stripped down form (and really, who doesn't want to not read something the length of War and Peace every single time they read the Russians?) Doestoyevsky's 'Notes from Underground' is excellent.

  2. To some extent, the Dreamcatcher trilogy by Lisa McMann. Very, very spare, and coming out at maybe 70k apiece? I think her editor told her to lengthen all three. And THE READER by Berhard Schlink, though maybe that's the translation?

    Can't wait for your new story to enter the world! =)

  3. Shauna, Mark Van Aken Williams' book, The Prophet of Sorrow is technically novella length. We looked at many of the books Mark reads by non-US authors and found many of them short by US standards. It is on the shortlist for Foreword Magazine's BOYA, historical fiction, and has been a finalist in two other awards. My personal feeling is that these "rules" of word size will eventually change, especially as ebooks become more popular and it costs little more to produce a 30,000-word novel than an 80,000 word novel.

  4. Thanks, Janice, Maggie, and Wade! All of this helps me to feel more confident in my book. I don't want to add for the sake of adding, and so I think I am on the right track... we shall see what the world says, should they ever get to read it!

  5. Hope you have an amazing day! :) Shauna from