Monday, November 19, 2007

Big, fat, and juicy

On Monday, you indulged me and divulged (or tried to) three of the books that have been tops for you at some time in your life. I went over the lists of those books, and the "why" behind them and was struck by a mundane fact about them: for the most part, they're really fat books. How's that for a profound conclusion, lol? Even if I add up the smaller books plus the ones whose size I don't know, the number of Really Fat Books outnumbers them.

It's no wonder they're fat: their authors needed room and space for stories jam-packed with action and characters, plots and sub-plots. Quests were big in our books, as were secrets, and magic, and exceptionally strong characters, whether it was Stephanie Plum or King Arthur. Rebels and/or misfits were popular. Humor factored in. (Though that was mentioned specifically by only a few of you, I detected its presence in many of the other choices, too.) Entire new worlds were invented by the authors of many of "our" books, and even if the world wasn't new, the perception of it was. These were not books that were easy to write, that came quickly, that the authors just slid out of their pens in their spare time.

You picked books whose authors weren't afraid to make their characters love big, risk much, and suffer along the way. It could even be argued--with a smile--that P.G. Wodehouse made Bertie Wooster (and those around him) suffer as much as possible for maximum comic effect. Certainly nobody could deny that Jeeves was "long-suffering," lol.

The irony of the fact that so many of us adore big fat delicious novels is that publishing isn't all that encouraging of big fat juicy books. (Which are not the same as overstuffed, "padded" novels.) In the genres, publishers want a book per year, or--if you're a category romance author--more. Big fat books still do get published--think J.K. Rowling, John Irving, Diana Gabaldon, or Stephen King--but they take determined authors who are willing to make sacrifices in order to take the time they need to finish a book of that size, scope, and wonderfulness. And by "sacrifice," I mean they make whatever sacrifices they must make in their own lives, rather than sacrifice the book they're writing.

But it isn't just the authors of fat books who suffer from the time and money crunch--it's also hard for authors of skinnier books to grab enough time from the publishing schedule to raise the quality of their books as the years go by. I remember the editor who admitted to me a few years ago that the latest book by one of her best-selling authors wasn't very good. "I pushed her to get it in before it was ready," the editor told me. Having read the novel in question, I could only think, "Yeah, no shit." Much less successful writers also feel the whip of publishing schedules that have no connection to the writer's creative ebb and flow. (I'm not talking about myself. I have a patient editor.) I don't expect anybody to pity these writers, but I do think their dilemma illustrates that the words "publishing" and "sanity" don't belong in the same sentence.

When it does happen--when the publishing devils shut their yappy mouths and sit on their hyperactive hands and let great writers take the time they need to write great books, and maybe even pay them while they're doing it-- then there's rejoicing in Reader Heaven. And that's where all of us were, during the magical days and nights when we devoured those books we listed yesterday.

Thanks to those authors for big fat unforgettable books, or for short skinny memorable ones, and thanks to you guys for humoring me!


Nancy P said...

Good morning! I won't be around much during the day, but I'll catch up with everybody tonight.

I hope Family Man feels well enough to make the coffee this morning. Is everybody else healthy today?

Off to bed with my sleepy head. Which is better than off with my head.

AndiF said...

None of my books were big ones. Of course, they were kids books but they weren't particularly big for kids books either. And I do prefer tightly constructed, tightly written fiction -- I like my fiction to have an almost poetic economy.

So just to add to your list, here are three small-in-page-count-only books that I'll happily put up against those big books:
. Afterimage by Helen Humphreys
. Some Things That Stay by Sarah Willis
. Nice by Jen Sacks

katiebird said...

How funny, I love a big-fat-well-written book (like Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo) -- I wonder why I left those off?

Once I go to work, I'll be mostly gone until this evening. But then -- Oh, then! I don't have to go back to work until Monday!

Beth said...

I wish I was well, but I'm not. Fighting a cold, which might make me cancel my Tgiving trip to Chez Fetched, and I'm irritated about that. Doing everything I can today to feel better, so I can still go.

I usually go for the fattest book on the shelf. If I buy a thinner one, it's because it was recommended to me, or I like the author, or it's by a friend. :-) I love getting lost in a world for days and days (I'm a really fast reader), so the thicker the better. But I know they're harder to get published.

Thanks for your opinions on the subject, Nancy - it's interesting to hear from someone who plays in that world regularly. said...

I didn't realize Nobody's Fool was a novel. Thanks for mentioning this, Katibird. I do so love the movie.

Beth, be well.

I like what you've done by offering the quick survey, Nancy. Thank you for reminding me that I do like to read.

"The irony of the fact that so many of us adore big fat delicious novels is that publishing isn't all that encouraging of big fat juicy books. (Which are not the same as overstuffed, "padded" novels.)"

Yeah, when publishers moved their mystery list to the larger format hardcover (did Pocket start that?) a few authors ended up padding out their normal genre-size series mysteries to match the format --without enlarging the story, characters, etc. I can't make myself read them.

Here's a different one. What book would you take with you when stranded for the rest of your life on a deserted island?

Favorite books are one thing. I found, when asked the above question, that living your life with one book was a different consideration altogether that what books you like best.

Something with lots and lots of pages, because I'll end up eating them. said...


I would much prefer a desserted island.

katiebird said...

(delurking, because I HAVE to)

Ghostfolk -- If you liked the film, Nobody's Fool -- I'm sure you will like the novel even more. Richard Russo is a wonderful writer.

And (I'm remembering) mister and I first liked each other (partly) because we both liked Mohawk & The Risk Pool so much. AND (back to humor) Straight Man was pretty funny.

This is one of those, I-envy-you-for-being-able-to-read-Richard-Russo-for -the-first-time moments.

Ah, the old Deserted (Desserted) Island question.....

I'm torn between bringing the book I can't live without re-reading or the book that will give me something fresh to read forever.

I guess it would be the complete works of Shakespeare. Not only would it give me lots to read. But, building the sets for the plays would give me projects forever. said...

But, building the sets for the plays would give me projects forever.


Beth said...

The Complete Works of Shakespeare WOULD keep you busy for years and years, but I still have to fall back on Lord of the Rings. I can get lost in that world forever.

Then again, maybe a book on how to survive on a des(s)ert island would be more useful? :-)

FARfetched said...

I like the idea of a desserted island, too! Actually, if I were stuck somewhere like that, I'd rather have a box of large spiral-bound notebooks & another box of Space Pens. Might as well do something creative.

Good point, Nancy, about the immersion factor. One thing I always thought that e-books would give us (as readers) was the ability to take sidetracks, follow the story from different POVs, or even step outside the story and listen to interesting characters natter about whatever they please. Of course, it would require a while new way of writing & producing the material… like modern video game design, it could well require a large team of people to produce a work.

Much less successful writers also feel the whip of publishing schedules that have no connection to the writer's creative ebb and flow.... I don't expect anybody to pity these writers

I do, because that sounds like my day job. I'm supposed to do a master project plan, showing the schedules for all my projects, but I could spend a day a week adjusting for all the schedule changes. Then there are the hardware people who mention something in passing, then do the freak-out dance three weeks later when they "NEED" it and I haven't even started (and three weeks ain't enough time anyway). Mrf.

Rick Bylina said...

I wonder what percent of books were big books (90K+ words) from years agao as opposed to small books? I wonder how that compares to today?

The publishing business is more business now than a caterer of an art form, but has the percentage really changed? Or, has the business side recognized that there really is a lot of fat in those 90,000, 100,000, or 150,000 word novels that writers create?

I know of numerous authors with BIG books who had them cut down to size before publishing. Richard Lewis's "The Flame Tree" was almost 200,000 words when "completed" and by the time it was published was under 80,000 words and better.

Part of me believes that only sf/f writers seem to get away with really BIG books because of all the world-building they have to do. That the vast majoirty of writers today (not to mention the business) don't have the stamina to create a non-sf/f book of 150K words (800 pages or more) without it feeling bloated. That is not to say there aren't exceptions, but as a general rule, picking up an 800 page mystery would make me suspicious of its content.

Hmmm. Sounds like an interesting challenge -- "The Case of the Big Case".

Anyway, have a great Thanksgiving. The two 20 pound birds are in slow defrost mode, and I've gotta go (big sigh) get ready for a tech writing job interview with Cisco. Now, where are my pants?

Kelly McCullough said...

Huh. With the exception of Lord of the Rings I picked five slender books. I suspect it says something about my sense of pacing.

Beth, get well soon enough.

I'm with Ghost on the desserted island thing.

As for picking one book. I can't do it. There's a recommended reading list on my website that came out of the first time I tried the exercise. I couldn't get it below ten and the ten kept shifting from day to day.

Kelly McCullough said...

Rick, at this point it's even tough in F&SF to get much over 100,000k. I know a number of agents who tell authors to shoot for 100,000 or less if they want to break into the field, because every 1,000 words over that knocks a few more percentage points off the chance of selling the book.

Beth said...

Thanks for the well wishes, everyone! I think I'll be fine. I'm laying low...just being off airplanes is a benefit.

Now I just need to find a big, fat book to read... :-)

Actually, I think I'm going to start Ghost's ghost dogs book...I've been saving it!

Kimberly Frost said...

I have to say that there are some big books that I love, but then there are some books that come out where the author just didn't seem to properly prune and I wished they'd turned out a shorter book after some cuts.

I'll confess that this whole topic is one that plagues me. How does one turn out multiple books quickly to build/keep a readership? And how does one keep the quality high if turning out more than one book per year or even that?

Ultimately, publishing is a very challenging business. Art + commerce is inevitably tricky.

Kelly McCullough said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kelly McCullough said...


I think a lot of it has to do with the writer's natural pace. My natural pace is something between two and four books a year, and in general the slower I write the worse the result because I start to overwrite. I have friends who don't write nearly as well when they have to put out a book more than once every two or three years or that write a book every two months without breaking a sweat. The problem comes because publishers and marketers schedules aren't tuned to writers, they are tuned to readers and booksellers.

FARfetched said...

Hey Rick, if you get that CIsco job let me know. I do tech writing for a competitor, and I love to joke about being one guy facing down Cisco's army of writers. We'll be able to trade good-natured barbs. ;-)

Kelly McCullough said...


Touching back, to an earlier post of your. Zelazney is a huge influence for me. The first 5 Amber books, Lord of Light, Madwand, Dilvish, and most recently a book I'd have for years but hadn't read, A Night in the Lonesome October. Great stuff.

FARfetched said...

So much sci-fi, so little time. :-) Hey, at least I can kind of support the ones who have actually talked to me! said...

Just curious.

Is anyone here up on amazon Kindle?

Beth said...

Publishers Lunch did a big piece on it yesterday in their free daily newsletter, but of course I just skimmed it. I'd never heard of it before that.

FARfetched said...

The Register panned Kindle, big-time.

I've written about this before: e-book readers will not get popular until they're disposable and priced that way: $20 in the supermarket check-out lines.

Nancy P said...

katiebird, the Shakespeare suggestion is a great one. I had been thinking, some big fat spiritual tome, but Shakespeare's got everything.

Kelly, I'm astonished about the page count for science fiction. I thought for sure BFJ (big, fat, juicy) still had a home there.

I wonder. . .did they name it Kindle because when you burn books you add kindling to the fire?

Nancy P said...

Over at Rick's blog today, he's asking for picks for scariest characters. I thought of the bad guy in John D. MacDonald's novel, The Executioners.

Kelly McCullough said...

Nancy, there are still BFFs (Big Fat Fantasies) and the occasional BFSF, but they're getting fewer and further between and the publishers are _much_ more reluctant to let new authors try them than they used to be.

Nancy P said...

more reluctant to let new authors try them

Ah, yes, it's the newbies--and the oldies who want to try something new in their career--who get screwed with this kind of thing.

Conda said...

Late to the party again, but wanted to mention how Donald Maass talks about BIG Scenes and BIG Character and BIG Emotions--and I think all those were in all the books everyone mentioned.

Kelly McCullough said...

Yep, and isn't that always the way of it?

Nancy P said...

Yep, it is.

Hi, Conda.

Tomorrow's front page post has a BIG theme, too.

boran2 said...

Hi all. Temporary mind numbness (TMN) allowed me to think of only books yesterday, but both were big books. Sometimes it gets too big. I couldn't bring myself to finish the Otherland series of 4 books. I bailed out in the middle of book 3 having had enough. Maybe I'll pick it up again sometime.