Gimme a Dollar’s Worth – The Fluff and Shite Episode
“I’d rather get on with the plot than fluff out half a book with shite just to make the 90,000 words that agents are looking for.” – Stevie Turner
Amen. I mentioned in my last Writerly Concerns about generic advice, real skillsets and understanding how to apply them and telling our stories our way as best as we can. How to identify what makes the story flow, haul ass or slow down and fit into itself not some bullshit factology numbers and hack formulas.
Check this out. Someone once asked Eddie Van Halen how he tuned his guitars. Ed said, “I tune them to themselves.”
Give that a minute to gain the weight it deserves.
The second bit of Stevie’s quote is very telling of the bullshit factology we’re presented with every day. “90,000 words that agents are looking for.” I can’t find an explanation. But I do have some data. Data is boring, but this is simple, average word count comparisons from authors who sold/sell a lot of books. Do not use this data as bullshit factology, but reference. Remember what EVH said? We should tune our books the same way.
First, and this one is blatant. John D. MacDonald’s “A Deadly Shade of Gold.” I say that because emblazoned on the cover is “A double-length adventure in the brilliant new series…” It clocks in with a 110k word count from an author/series that averages 59k. How did he do it? Is there more brilliant adventure? No, instead of a typical ‘I stopped and ate lunch in the hotel lobby before going up to the room’ as we’d find in something like “The Quick Red Fox” we get lunch with Travis McGee. For a page and a half. Complete with phonetic dialect from the waiter. Trav tells us about the quality of his sleep. He describes not a ‘rag tag assemblage’ of fishing boats, but every one of them. Not ‘California beach bunnies’ but down to their sprayed on wet suits and ‘unblemished by character’ complexions. How many books are on a shelf, what they are. The ‘double-length adventure’ is the same Travis McGee adventure with descriptions of the wallpaper and extended moralizing.
Modern authors, I’ll pick on Balducci and Burke, who average in the 127 to 135k range. I would like to read Burke but I don’t want to keep a botany text handy for his descriptions of Louisiana. Somehow, even with too much “silvery moonlight” and Nancy Drew adverbs Faulkner’s “Mosquitos” makes you sweat and feel and be New Orleans and the swamp without the proper names for all the subtropical greenery. I almost bought a recent Baldacci hardback off the Twofer $10 table at Barnes and Noble. The raw materials are worth more than $5. Number One New York Times Bestseller. $5. I popped it open and the dialog was so stilted it would have embarrassed a Hallmark Channel scriptwriter. I put it back. 127k of call and response dialog and fashion/objects description fattening up what one reviewer called “familiar ground.” 127k that, like Burke, felt slow and obese.
I almost picked up his “How to” on writing mystery and suspense, but his latest sitting like a beautiful red turd in the punchbowl at $5? No thanks. We have the internet and the plethora of Dan Alatorre’s and his clones to charge money to teach us hack formula. (personal opinion only)
Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” was a best seller at 130k and save for the extra pages, often inserted in moments of character rumination, devoted to descriptions of England’s Pastoral Green and Pleasant Land it never felt “thick.” She painted the story and its myriad cultural clashes with thoughtful care and very little preaching or flagrant agenda.
Jennifer Egan. The female David Foster Wallace. Love or hate her work, “The Keep” hits 76k. We get the castle experienced, not narrated. The entire book is full of experience through the characters, how things feel. Never does she say “the castle, imposing and mysterious” to get it out of the way and tell us where we are. An amazing book, even if you don’t like it or the characters. Liking it’s not the point, it’s an exercise in literary immersion that most of the franchise 130k crowd couldn’t hit in a million of their words describing the interior of a BMW where a boring conversation takes place.
Lets get to some people who sold books, movie rights, tv-series and won awards from their peers. Even some of the old-timers big shot authors point to.
Dashiell Hammett. “The Thin Man” 59k. Most of his average right in there. The same with Chandler. Sounds like MacDonald.
Elmore Leonard. “The Switch,” “Tishomingo Blues,” “Maximum Bob,” “Get Shorty.” 75k to 78k. “T Blues” felt a little heavy at 78k down to the Civil War reenactment and history lessons. But still, EL was a mid 70k author.
Robert B Parker. Like Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald, “Painted Ladies” hits 59k. Right in the pocket with the rest of his hard-boiled detective novels. He stretches it by 7 to 10k in some of the non-Spenser works.
Tony Hillerman. I have no bias because as a kid I went with my father on Saturdays to Tony’s father’s photo studio in Oklahoma City. Tony wrote like watercolor on glass and will put you in New Mexico talking to Navajos like you’re there with zero effort. “Coyote Waits” is representative of his award-winning work at 73k.
Let’s not forget the serial ladies.
Patricia Cornwell. Mid Scarpetta series hits that 130k mark. Franchise author land.
Mary Higgins Clark, like PD James. Runs from 83 to 135k, depending.
I won’t go into King, because it took me a year one week to read “The Stand.” He can write what he wants. And the Brits in the Colin Dexter line? Sheesh.
My point? Where the hell is that 90k number coming from?
Narfling another Garthok – I had one, first of a series I’d thought about. The series could have run a million words. The first one, the edited (and I thought whacked down) draft went out to beta readers and editors. It weighed in at 110k. Everyone and I mean everyone, quit about 75k and said “that’s enough of that. Wrap it up. We get it.”
Which is exactly how I feel. Mid-seventies is perfect. Plenty to get it told, to get ahold of, but not too much time on the wallpaper or beating the characters to death. To me, 130k is like all you can eat for two dollars. And a dollar’s worth is all you need. Or, in some cases, can stand.