Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned: If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Novel

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-09-04 23:00:00 No comments

Of all the things that have bugged me about Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, one of them is its projected length. The book is, as best I can tell, going to run at least 200,000 words. (230K is my current projected estimate.)

You know why this bothers me? Because one of my very own pet peeves is doorstopper novels that barely seem to be able to justify half or even a third of their length. I suffered through the first cinderblock volume of A Game Of Throning Dragon Crow Swords — easily the most joyless cultural artifact to achieve anything like mainstream success — and the idea of having to slog through five (it's now six) more books in that vein suddenly made cleaning the grout in the bathroom seem inordinately absorbing.

Some of this is me saying to myself, "What right do I have to ask people to sit through however many hundred thousand words of my own drivel?" I've already done it once (with Flight Of The Vajra), and I feel downright uneasy asking people to do it all over again.

So I asked some friends what they thought. And wisdom ensued!

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The first thing I have to remember is, a book justifies its length, no matter what that length is. There are books that run to near a thousand pages that feel uncommonly fleet-footed (The Count Of Monte Cristo comes to mind), and there are books of barely a hundred and fifty pages that make the act of going from one paragraph to the next feel like wading through Superfund cleanup muck.

If someone is presented with the prospect of reading 500+ pages, but they also feel like there's going to be something genuinely interesting or exciting waiting for them on every single one of those pages, they're not going to feel burdened. They're going to be thrilled at the value they got for their money.

Minor diversion. The cost of your average book is worth taking into account here. Editing, advertising, production, and fulfillment (even digital fulfillment!) take effort and cost money, so the cost of a professional piece of litr'choor is never going to be below a certain dollar threshold. So if someone pays $12 for a 300-page book, and $17 for a 750-page book, you can see why the second one is going to seem like a comparative bargain.

The other thing I have to keep in mind is it's easy to feel like your own work is either the most interesting thing in the world or the most boring thing in the world. I have what I guess could be called a low threshold of contemptuous familiarity with my own work. After a certain point, I don't really want to hang around it anymore; I want to finish it and give it to the world and move on. That doesn't mean I don't love it any the less, but my love for such things doesn't manifest by wanting to cling to them perpetually.

Point being, I have a tendency to overestimate how quickly people might get fed up with something. That's complicated in part by how my own sense of what's interesting and what's not interesting are really outta skew with other peoples'. The things that have been marketed to most people as being interesting, I find appallingly dull: Game Of Thrones, I mentioned already; ditto, The Walking Dead. (End Times Porn.) So I have a tendency to assume the things that really fascinate me are going to be impenetrable to other people.

Maybe they are. But the trick, I guess, is to package them up and offer them in a way that other people can pick up on, in their own way, what the interesting things are. Anime and manga have whole subgenres that revolve around the mastery of a skill (a sport, a game) or the deep investigation of a mundane everyday occupation. They take something that to an outsider would be meaningless and they invest it with the urgency of The Great Work Of Life And Death. It makes a striking contrast to stories that involve casts of thousands and the fate of nations but evoke little more than a gurgling snore.

So, maybe the big stumbling block for people isn't going to be "Oh, geez, this is 200,000 words / 500+ pages." It's "When is something going to happen in this goddamn story that I care about?"

I think I have that problem licked. I hope.

Tags: editing writers writing