Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Long and Short of Reading -- And Writing

This past week several of us had a discussion on trends in reading and therefore, writing. Like many of us I’m a life long reader. How many of us were the ones back even in grammar school who preferred sitting with a good book than hanging around people? I was one. I was happiest sitting in my room, reading. The weekly trip to the library, as I recall on Wednesday nights when they were open late, were the high point of my week. More than once the librarian would speak with my mother about the kinds of books I wanted to check out because, in her opinion, they were beyond your average grammar school kid’s reading level. Talk about annoying! More nights than you can count were spent huddling under the covers with a flashlight and my latest read. My dad had a collection of the world’s greatest literature as well as the complete collection of Charles Dickens, in leather-bound volumes, which I still have.

Fast forward to my first job after college. Well, actually it was my second job—my first one wasn’t too far from where I lived and I drove to work. This job was just outside New York City and I took the Long Island Railroad to work. There I was, twenty-one to twenty-two years old and feeling like such an adult taking the train to work. At night I’d sit in the bar car and have a cocktail like all the other business-type people and even though I didn't care much for the drinks, feeling like a major grown up was fun. In retrospect, I must have looked utterly dumb.

But, each way, I read and my favorite books were the long ones. Books like The Ladies of the Club and The Far Pavilions were favorites because they took me more than a day to read and the characters became as familiar to me as the regulars on the train. The first romances I read, as I’ve said before, were Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss. Ms. Rogers Steve and Ginny books are in the range of 600 pages and many of Ms. Woodiwiss’ such as Shana and Ashes in the Wind are in that neighborhood. My paradigm is that romances are long reads where you become immersed in the characters’ lives and see them through more than one adventure.

Consider Ginny Brandon-Morgan in Sweet Savage Love. We see her as a teen anticipating her first ball, she comes to America and travels west, finds herself in the middle of the Mexican Revolution, sees the beginning of the end and has a series of adventures in between. Alana in Ashes in the Wind is no slouch in the events setting the course of her life – she is accused of murder, poses as a young boy, witnesses events of the American Civil War and it’s aftermath and finds herself in Minnesota with a husband I think most of us are a little in love with. But before she can come to terms with her feelings about him her life is put in danger.

The earlier romances, no, not the Barbara Cartlands’ you can read in two hours, but the other icons of our genre, were all longer books. Stories took place not over a few days, but months; sometimes years. Even with the longer books, if I got down to the last 100 pages I always had the next book in hand because I couldn’t imagine commuting without reading.

This week I saw some stats about how shorter books are not more popular than longer ones. It gave me pause and then some things to think about.

I first “discovered” ebooks in 2001 and with my Franklin Ebookman in hand I didn't have to concern myself with carrying a second book with me just in case I finished the first. No, with my Franklin I could have 200 books all set and ready to go. Having a longer book on hand became less of a concern. And convenient? A few ounces weighing less than a 300 page paperback. The Franklin, and later my Palm, were the perfect platforms for smaller books and I bought my fair share of novellas.

But with those novellas I often felt like something was missing. While the stories can evoke an emotional response, I don’t feel like I really get to know the characters. They have one, maybe two, incidents, fall in love in a day, maybe two and ride into the sunset together. I’d read the blurbs for some of them and anticipate an action packed read only to find it over before it began. Story lines seem thin with little time for the reader to connect to the characters.

I tend to write longer books. Yes, I have 3 novellas out with a fourth on the way to round out my Four Cups series but in actuality, they could be combined into one book. Each story is about 100 pages and picks up where the other ended. The series is about four women looking at breaking out of one career and moving into another and the how the men in their lives stand by them. So while each part is short, the end result is a full length novel.

I recently had an editor ask me to cut down my paragraphs into four, maybe five sentences. To find a break point in ones that were longer and limit the number of sentences. The reason – they play better on an e-reader. The size of the screens is conducive to shorter paragraphs rather than longer ones. So instead of describing a room in terms of sight, sound and smells, I needed a separate paragraph for each. It made sense in that context but it made for a change in my writing style.

In light of the discussion this week I thought more about the books I’ve been reading lately. Even in the longer ones which now run from 280-310 pages, the hero and heroine more or less have one incident that brings them together, they fall in love in a week or two at the most, have their dark moment and then their happy ever after. Okay, that’s a general summation. But it’s a summation of what I have seen lately.

Initially I thought the higher novella sellers were primarily eroticas, but another author said no, her mainstream less steamy novellas sold as well as her eroticas did. So that led me to think it is more a sign of our times.

When is the last time you sat down and wrote a letter? For me it was 2004 when my uncle died. I began to correspond with one of his fellow priests who wasn’t much into computers so we wrote letters. Since then, for the most part, I correspond by email. Even my aunt, who is in her mid-80’s, communicates not just via email, but she’s a huge presence on Facebook.

We live in a cut-to-the chase world of 140 characters so it stands to reason we aren’t inclined to sit down and spend hours reading a book. Or are we?

My favorite days are those that are slightly cool, sitting under an afghan, the cats curled against me with a book. It doesn’t matter if it’s a print book or an ebook, but it has to be a book – a full length story where I get to know the characters, see what they are seeing and maybe miss them a bit when the story ends.

What is your preference?

Print of e?

Long or short?

And why?

Do you feel a connection to the characters if you have 50-90 pages to get to know them?

Do you prefer stand alone books or series?


Maggi Andersen said...

Maybe it's to do with personalities, Regan. I love to write novellas and I can't abide wading through a very long book. Books of about 70-90,000 words are great. There's room for character development and a decent plot. But F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was a novella, and I loved that!

AnneMarie Brear said...

I do like short stories. but I love long meaty books I must admit. I like the time moving on, the characters changing as they go on their journeys.
And when I finish them I'm always sad it's come to an end.
I hope we never see the day when long books are no longer published.