Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Inverse Ratio Reading Effect

As I approach the very end of the new book I've been working on for a few years, I see that it's going to be yet another book I've done in the 45,000-word range. When it comes to anything longer than short stories, I don't seem to be able to do anything else.  I highly doubt I'll ever write anything as long as 300 pages, and if I do, it will take me forever.  Regardless, this new one will be as tight and compact as I can make it, though there has to come a point where you stop editing because you start to wonder whether you're doing more damage to the book than good.  With that new edit, those additional changes, are you squeezing the lifeblood out of your story?  I always have to remind myself that at a certain point, editing may be bringing diminishing returns.  You notice those things that perhaps could be improved on that no reader is going to notice.  Still, every change I make, I have to say, does seem for the better.

I was wondering what it is about this length book that I like so much, I mean apart from the fact that it just seems to be the length that feels workable to me. Word count, at the end of a writing day, seems almost irrelevant.  If I start going too fast, producing too many words (which for me would be like 750 readable words in a day), I start to worry.  Is this book going to be too long and is it going to drag for the reader? Without question, whatever was said here can be said more effectively in half or maybe a quarter of the words, and the reader will get the same impact or the description they need but get through the passage faster.  

Several posts back, I talked about the 2014 Argentinian novel Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin.  As I said then, it is for my money a just about perfect book at 183 absolutely riveting pages -- part ecological horror story, part parental nightmare, a psychological thriller.  I love it.  And because Schweblin has a new novel out called Little Eyes (which I haven't read yet), she's done some interviews recently.  In one of them, which I just came across, the interviewer asks her, "Do you tend to gravitate towards a particular type of book?"  And her answer summed up exactly what I've long been thinking, although not as clearly as Schweblin put it, about why I keep producing books the short length they are.

Schweblin says, "I'm a big fan of the novella: they are so intense and accurate and precise.  I have the feeling that if you write a novella, your main wish is that the reader is going to read it in the two or three hours it would take, without even going to the kitchen to get a glass of water.”

I did not get up for a glass of water, or anything else, when I read Fever Dream; I actually did read that book in one three-hour sitting.  And everything she lays out here about what makes the novella so compelling is dead-on accurate, as I see it. You can shoot for a compression and a precision and an intensity perhaps not possible in a work that runs longer and has a wider scope.  And you do, ideally, want to hold the reader in your grip from first page to last without pause, something not likely to happen with a book 250 plus pages. You might say you're shooting for the inverse ratio reading effect: the longer you spent writing the book, the less time you want the reader to spend with it.  It took 2 years to write and the reader read it in one two-hour sitting. That is perfect!

That it may take just as long to write something so short as it does to write a novel that's long is a little depressing, but what can you do?  I guess you can look at the rare creatures who stick to writing short stories and see that for many of them it takes the same amount of time to do what they do and complete a collection as it does for some novelists to churn out a brick.  Every day you write, you find yourself in the zone delimited between your ambitions and your limitations.


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