Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Brevity is the soul of wit

Or at least, I hope it is. My novels are short. There are all sorts of reasons for this, and I thought I'd go into some of them. Why do this now? As with the rest of this week's theme, I'm trying to forestall criticism that I'm being naive in writing novels this short. It's a deliberate choice, and I have reasons for making it. Maybe, in this case, I'm being paranoid, but I know that NaNoWriMo is sometimes criticised for suggesting that 50,000 words constitutes a novel, and as a proud NaNoer, I don't want to give the impression that I've accepted that suggestion unquestioningly.

The simple truth, really, is that many of my favourite novels are short. I've even read novels I've greatly enjoyed that were under 50,000 words long (I'll admit that these were mostly children's novels). Some of the best examples of great short novels, in my experience, come from Arthur C. Clarke, one of my literary heroes. I've been reading Clarke's novels since a very early age, starting with the excellent YA 'Islands in the Sky', and including minor classics like 'Earthlight' and 'A Fall of Moondust' (all under 70,000 words). I don't have a copy to hand to check, but I'm also pretty sure I remember 'Rendezvous with Rama' being around the 60,000-word mark, and that's a novel I can't think of any way to improve. I love these books, and one of the things I most love about them is their efficiency in storytelling - they are all very focussed books which fit a lot into their length.

I was stunned, on recently rereading it, to discover that 'Ender's Game' is around 130,000 words long. I have always thought it read very like those earlier Clarke novels for reasons of the same efficiency, but I guess it gains length from going through several seperate and distinct scenarios over the course of a four-year (?) core plot. The best of Clarke's stories, I think, are those which focus on a single scenario - Rama, or the sunken hovercraft in 'A Fall of Moondust'. That was the effect I was aiming for with 'The Death of John Collins' - the whole story takes place in the course of a single afternoon, a single large crisis folding back on itself several times.

The situation with 'Bad Romance' is slightly different - with that book, I've used brevity to show how the lead character detaches from his 'real' (offline) life - more and more time is elided as the novel goes on and Joe retreats from the world.

There are other, more cynical reasons for writing short novels. If nothing else, I finish short novels. When I used to aspire to writing epic fantasy, I never came close to finishing anything - the end was just too far off to keep my hope of finishing alive, particularly since I'm quite easily distracted over long periods of time. I think I'm temperamentally unsuited to writing really long books - I can keep my interest up in a project for a long time, provided the actual first-drafting process doesn't take too long. I hope I'll be able to change this fact about myself eventually, but for now I'm happy to write short books.

It's tempting to crack wise about a good reason for writing short books being that I make more money per word, but also facile. The reward for writing is writing itself; I see the money as a separate (though far from insignificant) issue. The buzz of finishing a novel, which I will get more often writing four short novels a year than one long one, is a different matter, and I'm happy to work towards as much of that buzz as I can, but again, it's not the main motivating factor.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: writing short books, you have to be very mindful of the efficiency of your prose. You have to make every word pull its weight - above its weight, if possible. You have to weed out all the clunky, inefficient phrases, the excess description, the needless lists of three... (oops) Writing short books is a challenge I relish and feeds my need to complete things, but it also results in better writing and the opportunity to write more - and therefore a wider range - of books.

And, in the interests of keeping this brief, I'll stop there for now.

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