Aaaah. Funny how sleep will get you back on track. Now then.
I’ve been keeping up with the various reactions to Old Man’s War, like you do if you’re a novelist (especially a first-time novelist), and one of the most surprising compliments about the book, from my perspective at least, is that it’s short; phrases like “refreshingly crisp” have popped up and over here, this fellow lists me and Cory Doctorow as part of a new trend:
Now, the trend for up-and-coming authors seems to be writing efficiently. Writers which have impressed me lately seem to be writing shorter works, but also seem to be putting a lot of thought into the fewer words they do use.
I’ll take the compliments, but I’ll also note I don’t think Old Man’s War is actually short: It comes in at over 90,000 words (91,400, to be more precise). In contrast, both of Cory’s two novels so far clock in at about 50,000 words — meaning that they are genuinely short novels — and the cutoff for the Hugo award for novels (the Hugo award being a big award in science fiction, for the various Whatever readers who aren’t actually SF geeks) is 40,000 words. Personally, I’ve always worked under the assumption that it takes 60,000 words to make a novel, although now for the life of me I can’t remember where I got that number. In any event, at 90,000 words, it’s not really a short book, it just feels like it. As does Agent to the Stars, which is often described as a “quick read,” although it’s actually longer than OMW: about 95,000 words, if I remember correctly.
I think Old Man’s War may seem shorter than it is for a couple of reasons. First, there does seem to be a perception that SF novels have had a bit of bloat in recent years. I don’t actually know whether that’s true or not; most of the SF/F novels I’ve been reading recently, from Stross, Bear, Fforde, Sagan, Zielinski, Westerfeld and Larbalestier, have been short or at least not blatheringly long. I think maybe everyone’s transfixed at the sheer heft of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which at 3,000 pages is large enough to crush an unwary kodiak bear. Compared to that, undoubtedly OMW would look compact, by the same reasoning that makes 5′ 10″ man seem short when he stands next to Yao Ming. Having said that, I do remember getting the first advance reader copy of OMW and being slightly surprised that it wasn’t longer — I thought 90,000 words would take up more space. It’s amazing the things they can do with fonts and leading these days.
Second, I think OMW seems short because there’s quite a bit of dialogue, and I think dialogue “reads” quicker than description. Part of that is perceptual: With dialogue your brain imagines people speaking the words, and that’s maybe easier than what your brain has to do when trying to construct an unfamiliar image to go along with descriptive text: i.e., reading dialogue takes fewer processing cycles than reading description. Part of that is construction: When people speak (or when I write people speaking), their sentences are shorter and there are relatively fewer unfamiliar polysyllabics — which is to say that when people speak, they’re actually trying to be understood. All of which makes for a faster read.
I am pleased that people think OMW is a short read; I’d rather have them get through the book quickly and think “that was good, I want more” than to read along and wonder to themselves when the torture of slogging through the book will end. I also don’t think that I’m a very good candidate for creating a thousand-page tome any time soon; I don’t have the patience, for one thing, and for another thing the style of my writing doesn’t lend itself to that. However, I’ll note that The Android’s Dream is longer than either Agent or OMW – the completed book (unedited by Tor) is about 112,800 words. In its construction, it’s very like OMW and Agent, though, so I’ll be curious to see if it’ll qualify as a “quick read” as well. I think it does, but then, I would.