Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Matter of Size

Guest post by Eric Beetner

I’m happy with it short. In fact, I prefer it. [Insert penis joke here]

I have another novella out now, my fifth. Thirty one thousand words. That causes it to be slightly ghettoized by the publishing world. Too short to qualify for the moniker “novel”. And we all respect the novel. His little brother novella? Not so much.

But is that changing? Perhaps in this digital age of tablet reading, books on cell phones and less time to read as we go-go-go through life and its many distractions we are at a perfect crossroads for a new renaissance for the short novel.

True story: I talked to a guy at work yesterday who reads on his cell phone. I’d heard about people doing it, but hadn’t actually met anyone who did. He reads on the toilet as an escape from his twin boys. Needless to say, I sold him a book on the spot.

I’ll admit to shying away from any book over five hundred pages. Okay, if I’m really honest, that threshold is really more like four hundred. And three fifty really gives me pause.

My time is limited and I’m impatient. I grew up on TV and now I work in TV so I’m sure I’m a social scientist’s wet dream of an example on how my rotting brain can’t focus on literature anymore. So, okay, what’s the excuse in the pre-TV 1930s when The Postman Always Rings Twice came out? Or let’s go non-crime fiction with The Great Gatsby, Call of The Wild, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea. All short books. All under, some way under, the fifty thousand word mark that generally constitutes a full novel, though there is no solid number.

Beyond liking a short, punchy story that doesn’t dwell on the unimportant or stick around to wear out its welcome, I’m a fan of a book being as long as the story needs it to be. If your story is over in 150 pages, then so be it. Why slap a different label on it and treat it as somehow lesser than?

And this is not to say people shouldn’t write longer books. Go ahead. I might not read them until I retire, but I’m glad there is War and Peace for those readers looking for War and Peace.

My new one, White Hot Pistol, was a hell of a lot of fun to write. It’s the kind of short, hardboiled tale I like about an everyman who gets sucked into a vortex of bad luck, lousy options and violent confrontations. My publisher, the new ebook venture Bookxy founded by the Stark Raving Group, is going all in on novellas. That’s all they’re going to publish for now, the thinking being that in this age of new reading technology, people prefer a shorter product for their tighter reading times and smaller devices.

I hope they’re right. I have two more ideas for novellas I want to write for them, all set in the fictional town of Noirville (A cheap gag, I know, but it suited the pulp style) Bookxy is attempting to get ahead of the curve in ebooks by catering to people who read on their phones (not me) and on tablets (very rarely me). One of the first copies of White Hot Pistol I sold was purchased by someone on an airplane. Beyond it being a little creepy that they could even tell that, I think it’s great to give readers the option.

With digital reading, we could see the novella get the boost that Fifty Shades of Grey got – no one can see what you’re reading. You don’t have to try to look smart with a thousand page David Foster Wallace book. No one will know you’re slumming the pulp depths when all they see is your tablet/cell phone/next big thing.

And we all know no one wants to be seen reading anything with my name on the cover. I’d bet people took the dust jacket off Fifty Shades and used it cover some of my books.

If you’d like a taste to see if you’d be embarrassed to read it, the first chapter of White Hot Pistol can be found here

Eric Beetner is the author of The Devil Doesn't Want Me, Dig Two Graves, Stripper Pole At The End Of The World, Split Decision, A Mouth Full Of Blood and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. Award-winning short story writer, former musician, sometimes filmmaker, film noir nerd and father of two.


David Cranmer said...

The bloated novel is tired. Long live the novella.

Unknown said...

I'll agree with David on this one. I like novels, I think they're swell, read them all the time. But due to time constraints (i.e., never having any time.), sometimes I'd rather just read a piece of short fiction that has the same bite as a novel. So, yeah, long live the novella.

Zakariah Johnson said...

I've been re-reading the Richard Stark "Parker" series, and it is proof positive that you are right. If a story and characters naturally fill a 150-page arc, that's where it should end. Publishing expenses make that economically difficult for many printed books (though look at the success this fall of Craig Johnson's novella "Spirit of Steamboat"), but hopefully e-publishing will help bring back the dime-store novella, especially for crime genres.

Dana King said...

"I’m a fan of a book being as long as the story needs it to be. If your story is over in 150 pages, then so be it."

This is almost exactly what I've been saying for about five years, once e-readers passed the tipping point. Long-term this may be their greatest contribution, removing the tyranny of length from stories. A story should be as long as it is. No shorter, but, please God, certainly no longer.

Eric Beetner said...

Thanks for letting me rant, everyone. Zakariah, I've also been going through those early Parker novels and it is a great example.
Long I've the short novel!