How Long Should Your Book Be?

I’m not much for maths. (That would make a great blog title though—please don’t steal it. My trademark and intellectual property lawyers are better than yours.) But I must admire the lack of debate about the basics. How long is a foot? How much does a pound weigh? And, yes, you could debate it further, but at the end of the day, one-hundred centimeters make a centometer. Or something. I’m not much for maths.

Try asking “How long is a novel?” Math folks: you are right to mock us.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Dear Writing All Wrong:

Dumb question, but how long should my book be?

—Nancy Mears, Cranston, R.I

You know how people always say, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question?” People say that.

Nancy, I don’t know. Depending on genre, audience, writing style, whether you want to publish, your book could and should be many lengths.

Let’s run a few tests and see if it’s “too long,” “too short,” or “just right.”

You wrote a 50,000-word magnum opus for NaNoWriMo: TOO SHORT

Your book contains Volume (any number here) in the title: TOO LONG 

You’re writing science fiction: TOO LONG

Backstory is essential to you: TOO LONG

You can read your book in one sitting: TOO SHORT

You can read your book in one sitting on the toilet: WAY TOO SHORT 

Makes for a great read on a cross-country road trip: TOO SHORT

Makes for a great read while driving that cross-country road trip: WAY TOO SHORT

Easy read during hard work: TOO SHORT

Hard read during easy work: TOO LONG

Can’t finish it during one of your numerous month-long vacations: TOO LONG

Would make Tolstoy look like a lightweight: TOO LONG

Would make Borges look like a heavyweight: TOO SHORT

A page-turner: TOO SHORT 

Your bookmark disintegrates before you finish: TOO LONG

Your book disintegrates before you finish: WAY TOO LONG

You read it to sleep: TOO LONG

You read it to wake up: WAIT, WHAT?

It’s something you skim during your skateboard routine: HUH?

Built a house with its pages: NOT UP TO CODE

Makes an emergency meal: YUMMY

Makes an great bonfire: PUT IT OUT AT NIGHT

Emergency floatation device: DON’T PANIC

Kills houseflies: LIFESPAN OF THIRTY DAYS

Kills house intruders: MAKE MY DAY

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

Why I’m Not Reading Your Book

I dabble with the idea of having a Reading All Right week here, but I can’t quite make the stab. This post gets close.

Speaking of close, that reminds me: I tried reading a book the other day. Couldn’t do it. It was as if the writer beckoned me not to take him seriously, such was his degree of fail. And I’m not the only one. People won’t read what pains them to read right away.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I want people to read my book. What should I do?

—Brandt Bassett, Cadillac, Mich. 

Sorry BranBass, the path to self-discovery is not given by one who is not oneself. While I won’t go into what keeps people reading your book, I’ll do you one better.

Here’s what’s going to close the door on people trying to read your book. Do these things in the first few pages, and you’re done. Book closed, back on the shelf.

Clichés

“Avoid clichés like the plague.” Truer words may have been spoken, but the truth of that little cliché doesn’t ring as loud as it should. They stick out of your first pages like cankers, cold sores, and zits. Kill them all.

Pet words and phrases

If you like an uncommon word or phrase, and you brandy it about like it’s a word of common use, your reader will notice. A discerning reader will notice long enough to slam shut the book and whip their wallets and time at the more deserving. Found a great word plaything? Good for you! Stop using it over and over again right up front. Specificity. Vis-a-vis. All but [whatever]. Sinecure. Shut up.

Mirrors

If you describe your character by having him/her/it looking into a mirror, I will not read your book. You can do better than that. If you settle for the gimmick, I will settle for another work besides yours.

Weather

If I wanted a weather report, I would watch the Weather Channel. Unless your novel is about a meteorologist or weather conspiracies, then there’s no use for elaborating on the weather, unless you want to show off your lack of skills in opening a novel.

Waking up

If you begin with your character waking up, he’d better be an insect, and you’d better be Franz Frickin’ Kafka. If “no” to both of the above, please rethink your tactic.

Stage setting

Yes, you must set some sort of stage eventually. But if I’m reading a story, and there’s no story—only a stage—then I’ll read something that is a story instead. Thank you.

Opening the opening

You know it when you see it. “Our story begins with a herped derp…” “This tale begins with some dumb something…” “Our narrative unfolds in a classic fairytale princess castle…” If you’re stating the obvious, I’m shutting the book, turning off the Kindle, or deleting the iBook then and there. Insult your reader’s ability at your own peril.

Please tell me you aren’t making these mistakes. If you’re going to make them, make them later on.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).