Does Size Matter?

By Louise Ure

My husband came home from CostCo a few days ago and unloaded our usual cache of red wine, paper towels, hamburger and typing paper. I was gracious and grateful. After all, I hadn’t had to go down and brave the hordes with fifty-pound bags of rice and four steel-belted radials in their carts.


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I didn’t once mention that the cranberry juice he thought would “come in handy” was the same size container that I’ve hauled gasoline in, and the metal canister of olive oil is big enough to drape with a cloth and use as a side table.

“I asked Brian to come by and help with the rest of it,” he said.

The rest of it?

If it required Brian, our well-muscled, 28-year old, foster son-firefighter, it was gonna be big.

And it was.


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A Jolly Green Giant sized flat-screen, high-definition TV.

Did I mention that we have thirty-three stairs up from the street to our house? Brian was doing his best not to break a sweat. It wasn’t working.

And did I also mention that our den is approximately ten foot by ten foot?

The new TV fit nicely onto the existing shelves … if I took out the three rows of books above it and knocked out the west wall.

And it does look good.

Joe Biden’s smile on the Sunday talk show is as wide and bright as the dawning sun. The weather forecast looks like it’s coming from the hand of God. Giada DeLaurentis’ s head is bigger, and yes, Simon, so are her breasts.


Giada

 



My new favorite find is “Sunrise Earth,” on the HDT channel (754 on my cable channel) that shows nothing but pictures of dawn with ambient sound at 7:00 o’clock every morning. Sunrise in Patagonia. In Tahiti. In the Arctic. It’s my new meditation.

But then the Bobbleheadedness set in. I found myself craning from left to right, following the arc of a golf ball’s drive from the tee. Nausea set in when I switched to the Nascar race at Sears Point. I don’t ever want to see Bullitt on this TV.


Bullitt




“I thought it looked so small,” my husband said.

It does. If what you’re comparing it to is the screen at a drive-in.

CostCo sizing had struck again.

Is bigger automatically better? Or is bigger just what you get used to if you only shop at CostCo?

I see the same CostCo sizing in books. James Patterson has long been known for the wide margins in his books in order to increase page count, but we’ve also had a raft of really long mysteries and thrillers hitting the best seller lists of late.

Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel, Child 44, comes in at 448 pages. Katherine Neville, who awed us twenty years ago with The Eight (at 550 pages) has a new book coming out in October called The Fire. She dieted this one down to only 464 pages, but Elizabeth George’s most recent, Careless in Red, is a whopping 640 pages, and weighs two pounds.

These books are the 52” flat screens of crime fiction. They needed all those extra pages to tell the story right. In their case, bigger really does mean better.

But what about the lean, mean shorter books? Books by James Sallis (Drive, 158 pages) and Megan Abbott (Queenpin, 192 pages). Richard Aleas (Little Girl Lost, 221 pages) and Anne Argula (Homicide My Own, 219 pages).

Stripped down to the barest of bare bones words, they might well be the handheld video playback machines of the literary world. But that format fits the story they tell just fine.

I sent the big screen TV back for a smaller one.

It turns out that the big screen wasn’t important at all, it was the High Definition that mattered, and that holds for the world of crime fiction, too.

A six-hundred page thriller or a hundred and fifty page noir novel? In the hands of a great writer, it makes no difference. It’s the sharp character definition and focus on a riveting plot that counts after all.

High Definition, indeed.

Tell me, my friends, have you ever judged a book by the number of pages? (I’ll fess up early and admit that a couple of times I’ve wavered in the face of a $23.95 price tag for a very thin hard cover book. Would it last me for the weekend or the whole airplane flight, or would I be shelling out another $25 by Saturday night?)

And writers, do you have an “ideal screen size” in mind for your own work?

LU

41 thoughts on “Does Size Matter?

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Interesting question, LU.

    As a reader i find any book over 400 pages a little daunting, unless it’s Stephen King or Ayn Rand. I WILL read longer books if I know they’re good, but it’s hard to commit that much time to anything at all these days.

    But as a writer, well – I’ve heard from a number of readers by now that they wish THE PRICE were a longer book. I suppose I could take that as a compliment but when do writers every take anything as a straight compliment? 😉

    My screenwriting background means I keep things short and concentrated, but as it happens my new one is a lot longer than the first two – it just worked out that way. So maybe I’m finally relaxing into the actual freedom you have as a novelist to write longer.

    Reply
  2. Patti Abbott

    I find shorter books very seductive. I like finishing them quickly and moving on. They usually are tightly written and succinct.And I write short stories so you see how size matters.

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  3. eric

    I was told recently that agents won’t look at a manuscript(especially from an unpublished author) that isn’t around 380 pages. While that sounds ridiculous, is there any truth to this?

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  4. eric

    Thank you, Alex. My first draft is sitting around 325. I feel comfortable with the pacing of the novel and hate the idea of stretching it out just to fit into a quota.

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  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Louise,I’m trying to imagine that thing in your den. It’s a difficult and uncomfortable image.

    I like my science fiction/fantasy to be long if it’s an epic story. With mysteries, I don’t pay much attention to length.

    My own books? They’ve been growing a little, but they still hover around 360-380 manuscript pages.

    Eric,I’ll chime in and say that my agent works with many sci-fi and fantasy authors — they traditionally have very long manuscripts — and my first with him was about 320 and he didn’t comment at all.

    It depends on the story.

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  6. R.J. Mangahas

    As a reader, if a book runs over 400 hundred pages, I tend to go for the shorter book, certain authors being the exception. One reason being cost. Second, sometimes a lot of those extra pages has stuff that could slow a book down a bit. Although, I also go by the back or jacket copy. If I see a paperback from an author I’ve never read before, I always look at the back copy. But if looks long and there’s no description of the story, I tend to pass it by. I just finished reading THE RABBIT FACTORY by Marshal Karp. This hefty tome weighs in at approximately 630 pages. I picked it up just because it sounded interesting. (It was a mystery with a bit of humor mixed in. Not a bad book overall)

    As a writer, I try to keep it a little on the shorter side just because that’s what I like to read. (Which is probably why I do more short stories)

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  7. Wilfred Bereswill

    Thanks, Louise, I had a bit of trouble getting past that 3rd picture.

    I like my TV’s big. My books? Not too long, not too short. Trouble is, the dimensions of books vary so much (words per page) its hard to tell.

    My 100,000 word manuscript was about 400 manuscript pages, but in trade paperback, it’s about 265 pages.

    I’m not sure I would pick up a 600 page Thriller anymore, but give me 300 to 450 pages and I’m set. Of course there are always exceptions.

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  8. Louise Ure

    Pari and Alex, thanks for jumping back in while I slept in this morning.

    Alex, I had one reader of my first book say the same thing. “I want more.” I took it to mean he wanted it longer. He corrected me, saying he wanted more books!

    And yes, Pari, that evil vision you have of the giant TV in that little room is absolutely accurate. It was a crime against architecture.

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  9. Louise Ure

    Morning, Patti. Nice to see you here. Short stories are perfect examples of how economical good storytelling can be. And I’m delighted to see the rise of the novella in recent years.

    R.J., I’m glad you mentioned THE RABBIT FACTORY. I’ve heard good things about that book. Interesting though, that you lean toward shorter work as a reader.

    And Eric, don’t worry about that “new writer 380 page” rule. Some books, especially thrillers, are expected to be longer. And I think editors want books that tell the story well, not just those that fit into a certain size limit.

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  10. R.J. Mangahas

    Louise — I think part of it is that unless I really get hooked into a story, I can sometimes lose focus if it’s too long. But as I say, I’ll always make an exception or two to the rule. I try not to let the longer works seem too much.

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  11. Karen Olson

    This is sort of like movies; I can’t abide a movie that’s longer than two hours, because usually it’s not that much better and I end up feeling like half an hour could’ve been cut anyway and it wouldn’t lose anything.

    I also take the bus to work, so I need something that will fit nicely in my bag. I did read CHILD 44 and bore the brunt of the weight because the book was very good, but I don’t usually pick up a book that’s much longer.

    I’m working on a book now, and I keep looking at word count vs. page count and I feel that I’ll hit 300 pages but my word count will be low. Fortunately my editor said that’s fine, it’s content that matters.

    I ascribe to the Elmore Leonard school of writing: if it sounds like writing, take it out. It’s not too hard to see when a writer doesn’t want to “kill his babies” and likes the sound of his own words. And padding is noticeable.

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  12. Louise Ure

    R.J., losing focus (or losing the plot) in a book has been my recent downfall. If I’m only reading in bed at night, that means maybe three to five pages before I fall asleep. A month’s worth of that and I won’t remember who any of the characters are!

    Karen, I like your movie analogy although I don’t seem to gulp books in one sitting anymore. (I don’t have that single block of time.) You’re dead right about the Elmore Leonard advice, but I see a Kindle in your future for your commute, my dear. It would make life so much easier!

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  13. JT Ellison

    I still do my stuff by word count, and shoot for 100K per book. My manuscripts run in the 330 page range. That ends up being a 416 page paperback, pretty thick. In my own buying habits, there was a time that if the book wasn’t a good thick one, I assumed it was lacking the meatiness I so enjoy and passed on it. Now I recognize that it really isn’t the size of the ship, it’s the motion in the ocean — to mix a terrible metaphor. I do think DRIVE was the first small book I read — and it was the perfect indicator that small doesn’t equal weak.

    But I still love it when an author can engage me for the entire 600 pages. Diana Gabaldon’s books are always huge, and I still want more when I’m nearing the finish line.

    Louise, we’re in the market for a monstrosity ourselves. It’s funny, every time the topic comes up, the screen inches magically get larger. I think we’re up to a 46″ now. But it goes in a big space, so it should be okay.

    Reply
  14. Louise Ure

    JT, I love the metaphor of “the size of the boat and the motion of the ocean!”

    I still struggle to turn in a draft at 80,000 words. Something about that damn middle of the story that starts feeling flabby at any longer length than that in my stories.

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  15. Rob

    I like short books that read fast, but I’m not opposed to long books as long as they read fast too. I think that’s the ultimate test for me. An interesting thing I noticed recently is that Lee Child’s books are pretty huge. But they read like short books. I’m not sure how he does that. He’s just that good, I guess.

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  16. Rae

    Louise, love your TV adventure. Bigger is definitely not always better, in my opinion. 😉

    And I think that books need to be exactly long enough to tell the story properly.

    For example, Don Winslow’s Power of the Dog is 560 pages, which meant that it took me awhile to work up the energy to read it. But it read like a 50 page novella – it was that tightly written. There wasn’t an ounce of fat anywhere to be found.

    On the other hand, Ken Bruen’s The Hackman Blues, which happens to be my very favorite of his, is 152 pages – he didn’t need any more words to tell the story.

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  17. Louise Ure

    Rob and Rae, you’ve both got great examples there. Lee Child is a master of plotting and action … his work never feels padded. And Don Winslow and Ken Bruen as opposite ways to reach the same goal: get us totally immersed in the story and the writing. Truly, size does not seem to matter.

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  18. Kaye Barley

    I admit being one of those people who just loves crawling into a big book. Remember those long family sagas Susan Howatch used to write? I loved those, and still reread them. I think its because I can become so wrapped up in a book, or in the family, in the case of S. Howatch and writers like her, that I just hate it when the story comes to an end. Is this something I need professional help with, you think??!

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  19. Louise Ure

    Yes, Kaye, you need professional help … to find more books like that!

    I used to love getting stuck into a whole new world in a book and having 600 pages before I had to return. But I don’t have that much time for reading now, and find that the big books are too daunting for me to even start.

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  20. Dana King

    I’m most interested in the perspective that a “thriller” should be long, and a “mystery” shorter. Commom sense seems to indicate the opposite. It’s hard to sustain the thrills for 600 pages without padding; mysteries may take a while to unwind. On the other hand, what I think of as a thriller may be outdated; the definition seems to have expanded over time.

    At the risk of being a buzz kill, I reviewed THE RABBIT FACTORY and could have lived without it. The “humorous” descriptions of the pedophile working as a park mascot soured me early, and the fortuitous coincidences got to be a bit much after a while. Just my opinion.

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  21. Louise Ure

    Dana, logic suggests that your opinion should be right. But I’ve seen different advice at both writers’ conferences and publishing houses. In both cases, “thrillers” were expected to be about 100,000 words. Mystery/suspense someplace around 80,000. And more traditional/cozies about 70,000.

    But the exceptions are numerous, thank God!

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  22. Elaine Flinn

    I love big books…but not those whose ‘padding’ becomes tedious. After wading through CHILD 44 and being constantly reminded (page after page) how dastardly the Soviet regime was -and the many times the author intruded with a couple of dozen ‘in short’ pronouncements -I damn near gave up. GORKY PARK this ain’t.

    I’m reading CARELESS IN RED now,and here’s another example of page fillers – I now feel I’ve become an expert in the flora and fauna of England, but it’s the uninteresting minutia of every character (and there are many!)that’s turning my night light off after three or four pages. Not enough Linley or Havers for my money either.

    Will I continue to buy ‘big books’? Yes, but not by these two authors.

    Enjoy the big screen TV, Louise! We succumbed last year and bought a 52″ (at Costco!!)and now I can at least see what the hell’s going when we watch football. 🙂

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  23. JDRhoades

    I was struggling with this when my latest WIP topped out at about 70,000 words. I was aiming for 85K…but everything I added seemed like it slowed the story down and robbed it of what one of my first readers called its “relentless” quality, so I left it as is.

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  24. Louise Ure

    Yes, Simon, that picture was just for you!

    And Elaine, you’ve caught me out talking about books I haven’t read. Yours is an interesting take on both Child 44 and Careless in Red. Now I’ll have to go read both for myself instead of taking reviewers’ words for it.

    JD, congratulations on sticking with the marrow bone of the story when you saw it. Lesser authors would have kept writing. Good on you.

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  25. simon

    Lulu,

    To answer your non-Giada question, I liked books that are 300pages or less. That said, my own are longer. All my novels push 100,000 words and I am making an effort to writer shorter ones in future.

    SimonPS: Thanks for the picture of Steve in his ‘stang.PPS: You’ve really got to stop picking on Giada. She’s so lovely and I hear she says good things about you.

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  26. Louise Ure

    Simon, your desire to write shorter novels reminds me of a friend’s comment before I was married. This guy was an incredible clotheshorse. I asked him if he’d tell me the style of slacks and shirts he was wearing so that I could get Bruce to wear some. His reply, “Why would you want him to do something he doesn’t want to do?”

    Stay with your 100K+ novels. They’re clearly dressing the way they want to.

    And so is Giada.

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  27. PK the Bookeemonster

    Apparently when we were shopping for a house six years ago, my husband was really shopping for a wall to a have new big screen tv (65″). I actually like it now — it’s like having my own movie theatre and yes, we have surround sound too.For books, I came to mysteries in high school after a fling with SFF in which books are epic and trilogy are really trilogies of trilogies. I don’t mind big books until the end of the year when my total number of reads is less than the previous year.PK the Bookeemonster

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  28. Jake Nantz

    I normally don’t pay attention to the book’s size so much as the story line from the jacket copy. I love Jefferey Deaver’s plots, and they are usually pretty long books. On the other hand, I’m a huge Michael Connelly fan, and his Bosch novels rarely slow down at all (and when they do it’s to add VITAL character detail, and then they’re off again!). I just like it to read fast, whether it’s long or not.

    And we love our 42″ HDTV, especially when the Dodgers (or her Braves) are on ESPN HD. Also, anything on Discovery, NGC, or History Int’l will look fantastic in HD.

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  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise – great blog. Your NASCAR comment rang a lot of bells. We called to see a friend who’d recently put in a 12ft projector screen in his den (it’s a pretty big den) and when he switched it on, we noticed that he’d dropped the picture down to 8ft in the centre of the screen. He sheepishly admitted that when he watched something fast-moving, like Formula One, it made him feel sick!

    As for book length, I try to keep mine down to 100k +/- 10%. It’s always +10%, though. The initial draft of Third Strike came in at 123k, so I went through it line by line, being ruthless, and got rid of around 10k.

    Basically, I just keep writing to the end of the story, although I was asked by my editor, “Do you think if you wrote them shorter, we could have them more often?”

    Reply
  30. louise ure

    PK and Zoe, 65″ and 12 foot screens? Yikes! I’d be selling tickets at the door if I had had those.

    And it sounds like you both agree with Jake: if it’s a fast read and the story needs it, bigger is fine.

    But every now and again, I sure do like those little 60,000 word gems.

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  31. Zoë Sharp

    Louise – I *dream* of a 60,000 word gem … ;-]

    And the last time I went to see a home cinema system demo’d, I jumped so far in the air when the goat landed on the roof of the Land Rover in the T-Rex attack scene in ‘Jurassic Park’ that I threw a cup of tea all over the guy who owned the store.

    That wasn’t embarrassing at all …

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  32. Allison Brennan

    My mom won’t buy a hardcover if it looks too thin–she’ll get it from the library. My mom has over 3,000 hardcover books in her library. She feels that it’s cheating the reader to have a thin book. But she also reads very fast, so maybe she doesn’t feel satisfied with a shorter story. She also doesn’t particularly enjoy short stories or anthologies.

    I’ll buy a shorter book if I love the author; I won’t buy a shorter book if I’ve never read the author (or I wait for the mm if it’s something I might like.) It’s hard to fork over $20-25 on a book in the first place.

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  33. Rob Gregory Browne

    Sent back the big screen TV for a smaller one? I’m sorry, are you crazy?

    I have a projector in my living room. the image covers a wall and every time I watch a movie, I expect to hear the rustling of popcorn bags and the annoying whisper of voices around me. But then I remember the bliss of being at home and watching the GIANT screen. When it comes to movie viewing, bigger is definitely better.

    As for books, I’ve never been a big book kind of guy, although I did just read Duma Key. But I’ve always leaned toward Parker novels and the like, which are short and sweet.

    My own books come in at about 100,000 words. I’m not sure if that’s considered short, but it’s a length that seems to work for me.

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  34. Louise Ure

    Allison, you mother is a woman after my own heart.

    And Simon and Rob: your obsession is showing.

    Rob, you already write big books; you just don’t know it!

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  35. Does Size Matter?

    I worked for Random House for a number of years in the 90’s. What I noticed was that a large amount of manuscripts by first time authors came in that were larger than they should have been.

    Whether or not yours should be long or short isn’t the question. The question that should be asked is if you could have done more with less words. Ask yourself that question before an editor comes in and answers it for you.

    Reply

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