Writing and Publishing: A Lament For The Music

June 24, 2011

I’m a published author, of sorts. That is to say, I have been published somewhere, in a reputable medium, and I’ve been paid for it. No, I don’t have a novel out there. Just a magazine article or two, and tons of newspaper stories yellowing away in some archives. But still, it’s a nice thing to see your name in print.

That was years ago, though. And through my recent loss of job and subsequent reliance on disability, I rediscovered my love for the craft. I doggedly pursued my dream of writing a novel. And doggone it, I did it!

Yay, me.

That’s nothing extraordinary. Plenty of folks have done it. I’m just another wanna-be author. And I might always be a wanna-be. That doesn’t bother me. Getting published is a matter of luck just as much as it is talent.

But in the time I began my manuscript a few years ago (which was lost to an early computer crash) and my beginning all over again and writing the thing to its completion, the entire industry changed. My novel doesn’t stand a chance.

I could write about all the crazy things that have happened in the industry in the past few years, but in truth, I don’t even know them all. One thing did send me for a loop not long ago. Two little words: word count.

Yes, word count. You see, it costs money to publish a book. Probably more than I want to know. Editing, proofing, printing, binding, distribution, artwork, sales, marketing, and so on. That’s a lot of people to pay. And if a publisher doesn’t make money, that’s bad news.

To cut costs, in the past few years, a new standard has arisen: the maximum word count normally allowed for first-time authors is roughly 100,000 words.  That’s all.  Just a measly 100K.  That’s not a very long book. In my view, that’s closer to a novella. But no one successfully queries an agent without following the guidelines.

From discussions I’ve had there are two main reasons. First is the aforementioned budget concerns. I get that, I really do. But honestly, I don’t like to plunk down twenty-five bucks on a book I can read in one night. I like John D. MacDonald’s most excellent introduction to Stephen King’s Night Shift, where he gave some sage advice to budding writers.   “You have to read millions of words by other authors. You have to roll in them…”

Oh yes, word lust, as he goes on to describe it. You find treasures in books, phrases so aptly descriptive you marvel at the writer’s ingenuity and sheer brilliance. You also find yourself totally immersed in–understand this, please–the sound of story. Novels have a flow, a rhythm, a cadence. There is a language here, and it is a clear water stream running through a forest. You hear this stream, it gurgles and splashes its way along. You want to follow the creek.

No one follows a cement pond.

The writer who understands the craft doesn’t hold back, he or she releases and lets the words flow. The stream goes from a creek to a roaring river. The words carry a sound, a voice and style all their own. It’s a flavor, it’s a color. And it moves, oh my God, yes, it moves. It sings.

How the hell do you do that in 100,000 words? Yes, some novels are way too long. That’s a given. But very rare today. Today, most debut novels are just slim little things on a shelf. I know two things already. Either this isn’t much of a story, or it is going to have some choppy writing. Very rarely, a book can can attain both, story and eloquence, in a small volume. For the most part, though, it takes time and words to flesh out your characters, to make them live and breathe. Backstory is important. Even more than just a bit more space for adequate backstory, a really good novel has prose that puts a gun to the reader’s head and says, “You will read this!” You don’t dare put it down.

Sadly, my very best writing on Abandoned Bodies had to be cut out. It didn’t add to the plot or story, but in my view, it was the stuff that flavored the whole thing, and gave it its personality. That makes me sad.

The second reason for the shrinking novel is shrinking attention spans. It has gotten shorter. Or, at least, that’s the excuse they give us. I’ll buy that, to an extent. But novel readers as a group generally do not  suffer from this malady. You either like to read, or you don’t.

Please, let’s not dumb the books down. It makes for boring reading; worse, it makes for boring writing!

I started my novel with a stated objective, to keep it below 130,000 words, which at the time was the industry standard, maximum. I did not succeed, but that is what the editing stage is for. In just a few short years, it became 100,000. Try taking 30,000 words out of a novel. That’s like eating a hamburger with only half a bun.

So, I’m at a crossroads. My novel has been surgically altered in a bad way already. I’ve removed one major character and her story line, and removed two minor characters. I have many more cuts to do. Another 4,000 and I’ll be there.

But the cost? Well–to me, anyway–a story once told with flavor and nuance and character now reads as though Ben Stein is reciting it in an episode of The Wonder Years. 



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