The Collapsing Empire and Word Count

Been looking at the reviews (professional and otherwise) of The Collapsing Empire and I’m happy to say that by and large they’re pretty good. There are quibbles here and there, and from time to time someone bounces off it hard, but in both of those cases that’s fine, and to be expected, since no one novel works equally well for everyone.

There has been one recurring comment about the book, however, that I’ve found interesting, which is that a fair number of people seem to think that it’s short; that is, shorter than usual for a science fiction book, or maybe a book of mine.

Is it? Not really; it clocks in at about 90,000 words, which as it happens is about right in the middle for my novels (and a standard length for science fiction novels generally). The shortest novel of mine is Redshirts, which is about 55K words long (the codas add another 20K, which brings the entire book to 75k), and the longest is The Android’s Dream, which was about 115K. The Human Division, which is a collection of stories with a novel-like arc (we usually call it a novel to avoid sounding too precious about it) is my longest book of fiction, with 135k words. Most of the books in the Old Man’s War series clock in between 90k and 100k, and Fuzzy Nation and Lock In are both around 85k, if memory serves correctly. So, again, The Collapsing Empire is right around in the middle of my book lengths.

(This estimation does not count individually-published novellas like The God Engines or The Dispatcher, or my non-fiction books.)

I’m not entirely sure what makes people think The Collapsing Empire is short, but I have a couple guesses. One is that, like most books of mine, it’s heavy on dialogue and light on description, which makes it “read” faster than other books of the same length might be. The other reason may be that science fiction books, which anecdotally have tended to be shorter than fantasy books, are beginning to creep up in word count a bit. The Expanse books always strike me as pretty hefty, for example.

While I never say never, it’s nevertheless unlikely my books are going to get much heftier than the 90K-110k word range. For one thing, all my books are contracted to be in that range. Yes, there really is a contractual length for novels, and a writer is generally supposed to come with 10% of the contracted word count on either side. So when I start organizing my novels in my brain, that’s the target I’m usually aiming for. For another thing, my heavy-on-dialogue, light-on-description general style doesn’t really lend itself to hefty tomes. I could bulk up my books a bit by adding more description of what characters look like (I’m sort of notoriously skimpy on physical description) or other such stuff, but it doesn’t really interest me to do so as a writer, unless I think doing so is relevant to the plot.

(This isn’t a backhanded diss on writers who do a lot of description, by the way — some of them do it very well, and also a lot of readers really enjoy that sort of storytelling, including me from time to time. It’s just not generally the direction my brain goes, when it comes time to write.)

My only real concern with people feeling The Collapsing Empire is short is that people then feel cheated, like they didn’t get enough story out of this particular novel. The good news for me, at least in the reviews I’ve seen, is that people don’t feel cheated, they just want more, soon. Well, provided I don’t get sucked into a jet engine or have some other tragedy befall me, there will be more, I promise. Relatively soon! And probably about 90k to 100k words long.

93 Comments on “The Collapsing Empire and Word Count”

  1. For me, I think it is that I am not used to books with as obvious a plot hook for the next book from you. So the short feel was ‘wait I have to wait until the next book to find out (spoilers)?’ The other example I can think of is The Human Division, but that was blunted by reading episodically.

  2. I just downloaded it to my kindle last night and haven’t begun reading yet. Looking forward to the ride, however long it lasts.

  3. Becca Stareyes:

    Oh, sure. I think we’ve been pretty open about it being the first book in a series, so I felt okay with ending the book on a cliffhanger. But it’s true that’s not what I usually do (I did try to do a whole and complete plot arc for this book, that being Marce’s quest to get his information to the Emperox).

  4. Now that you mention it, The Collapsing Empire did feel short to me. I think it is definitely connected with the abrupt cliff-hanger ending (which, I’m sorry to say, pissed me off) which meant that the book doesn’t in my mind stand as a novel but rather a long episode. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, mind you. But now I have to wait forever and ever for the next installment.

  5. I don’t feel cheated, except by recent news events that had me having to chose between the news or listening to your book . I do think you should get back to work on the sequel…though it you could time the release so they aren’t around impeachment hearings I would appreciate it. Thanks

  6. I just finished it, total reading time, about 3 hours. I’m a quick reader. I found it compulsively readable, and very satisfying, but am now wishing that 2019 comes quickly.

  7. I stayed up WAY past my bedtime finishing the book last night/this morning; perhaps it’s a “fast read” because it is compelling storytelling that one can’t put down. I nodded smilingly and sagely at some of the allegories I thought I saw (maybe you meant ’em, maybe not, e.g. the Flow and climate?). And then there were those hat tips perhaps to Iain Banks? I loved it and will eagerly await the next chapter. Thanks, John Scalzi, and have fun on the current book tour!
    Greg Davis

  8. The POV shifts made the book feel even faster in pace than Lock In – strengthened by the clarity of the voices. Jumping in and out of Kiva’s head I could feel the whip-pan and smash-cut of the movie version.

  9. Excellent characters, nice plot – good allusions to our world and other writers worlds, Get writing on the sequels! (Please)
    And thanks for a fun read that had me giggling quite inappropriately at times

  10. I enjoyed The Collapsing Empire, and really like the heavy on dialog light on description style of writing. I wish more authors did it that way. Far too many novels these days feel bloated to me, taking 500 pages to tell a 250 page story. Your books always read fast, which I regard as a feature, not a bug. Glad you have no plans to change it!

  11. When I know ahead of time that books have cliff-hanger endings, I tend to wait to buy the next book along with the first one . . . so unexpected cliff-hangers irritate me a little. Perhaps a warning note on the ads: if you hate cliff-hangers, put off buying this until the next one comes out!

  12. I’m in the middle of it but now that I know there is a cliffhanger I am going to preemptively say, damn you, Scalzi, damn you.

  13. The book didn’t feel short to me at all, but it was a fast read, especially in the second half. It was pretty much exactly what I expected from one of your books. I think once I figured out that the empire would not be fully collapsed by the end of the book the pacing made more sense.

  14. It did feel, mostly, like a quick read. I’m not sure why since both the actual word count was fine and there was plenty of plot development along the way. And it wasn’t non-stop action, or cliffhanger after cliffhanger. Books like that I usually say just flow well, with no obvious stopping points.

    I thought you made it perfectly clear that it was the first book of a series, so I didn’t mind the cliffhanger part of the ending. Not like The Human Division, where I minded it a lot, where it had been sold to me as a thirteen episode story and it wasn’t.

  15. They think it’s shorter than it is? Cool, means they liked it so much they forgot about time/real life while reading it. Also means the heck with finishing what I’m reading now, Hello: ‘Collapsing Empire.’

  16. I saw this [URL deleted as I don’t want to give this fellow any more attention — JS] and thought, what a blatant rip-off. I assume your lawyers are on the case?

    [Answer: No, I’m just letting it fall into oblivion on its own — JS]

  17. Thank you for a learning moment here. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that word-count might actually be included in a contractual agreement. It makes perfect sense. Thanks for sharing that insight.

    I haven’t read EMPIRE yet but I associate your “brand,” if I may use that word, with lots of dialogue, lots of wit, just enough description, and jump-cuts from scene to scene, so this sounds like it would suit me just fine. I associate the James S.A. Corey “brand” with lots of loving description, and when I’m reading those books that suits me just fine too. One reason I still like paper books is that I get a visual and tactile “cue” about what to expect from the story from the thickness and weight.

  18. I think it might also be that it’s been called a ‘space opera’ (by you and others). I don’t know about others, but when I think space opera I think huge rambling books (Peter Hamilton’s Commonwealth novels spring to mind). It might be kind of a category error by the reviewers. That being said, I’m about 90% done and I’m disappointed it’s short if only because I want more. Now. John, get to it!

  19. I greatly enjoyed the book. But I can understand where people are coming from. Just when it felt like the story was going to get going – it ended. And as we’re all aware of your writing schedule, it’s at least two years until we find out how it gets resolved. So, on the one hand – way to go – I will be buying the next book the day it comes out because this world is awesome and I can’t wait to go back. On the other hand – I just hope we don’t have a Trump induced nuclear apocalypse in the next two years so we can find out how this ends. I greatly appreciate your writing brevity – the Hemingway school – you tell the story and let the characters to do the legwork with their dialogue.

  20. Short ??? Guess it depends on your point of view.

    In some ways, it wasn’t short enough — because I loved the main characters (especially Kira) and couldn’t wait to see how things turned out for each of them. I knew going in that this was part of a (hopefully much longer than the scheduled 2 or 3 book) series, so I wasn’t expecting any final resolution. But I was hoping for (and received) enough partial vindication coupled with a better awareness of future challenges.

    OTOH, it was way too short because I really, really want to read more NOW. This new universe is flat out *interesting*. I would love to learn more about many of the secondary characters, at least some of which we probably haven’t even met yet. In my opinion, the reason that I keep re-reading OMW is that so many interesting *people* seem to live there.

    Anyway, thanks John. 2019 can’t come soon enough.

  21. I agree with some of the other comments about it ending abruptly. I could see how you were setting up the ending with Grayland’s reflections on her ultimate fate and next steps. The [spoilers] meant that she had to [spoilers] and that would mean she would ultimately be [spoilers] and that was a story that required at least one more whole book, but it still felt like a jolt at the end.

    I have the same complaint about the Emberverse: There’s one long story, chopped at semi arbitrary points to make $20 chunks.

    And while I can see hints of how other plot lines will be resolved, I didn’t think any of the character lines were resolved, except of course for most of the dead people. I think it is as much the content (and as you suggest, dialogue) as word count that influences perceived length.

  22. I’m about halfway through Empire, and it reads pretty consistently with your other fiction, i.e. lots of fast-paced and often humorous and/or biting dialog, just enough world-building to set context, and leaving descriptions to my imagination. Yes, that makes for a fast read, but I don’t really have a problem with that when it also makes for a highly engaging and fun read. I also appreciate not having to wade through tens of thousands of words’ worth of non-essential clutter to get to the meat of the story, and I suspect it’ll also translate to other mediums more easily as a result, too.

    I am not over-fond of being left at the edge of a proverbial cliff at the end of a book, but in this case, since I know you’ve got that contract that’ll facilitate you continuing to satisfy your readers’ appetites for more of this story, I am willing to be patient. Just don’t fall off an actual cliff in the next few years, ok?

  23. The novel may seem shorter as it really is as you go through it at high speed. I do not consider it a bad sign if I entered the flow and read through 90K words in less than a day. Quite the contrary…

    The only “disappointment” is that I didn’t get to read more about “Arullos Gineos” ;-).

  24. I’m 80% through, it’s going fast and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve got the paperback and isn’t really that thick when comparing it to Iain Banks and Charles Stross books it’ll be sharing a shelf with. However I’m pretty happy that there will be more in this universe. I need more space opera in my life…

  25. I’m about 40% through it. When I looked at the bar at the bottom of my kindle to see where I was, I thought I was more like 25% through it. It feels like I’m earlier in the story arc than 40% ought to be. I’m guessing that it has to do fact that the major conflict will not be resolved in this book, but in future books.

  26. Hmmm, it did seem to be shorter than your other novels. I’m not sure why. I re-read “Funny Nation” and that seemed longer. It’s most curious. I think Fuzzy Nation is my favorite by you, but I love Little Fuzzy and Piper lived not far from my home town.

  27. I finished The Collapsing Empire on Saturday and loved it.

    It did feel a little short, but for me that seems to be a measure of how much I’ve enjoyed a book and want to read more rather than the actual length of it, I’ve had the same feeling after reading books by Stross, Pratchett, Banks and even Peter F Hamilton in the past.

    I’d much rather a and well written book regardless of length than something that has been padded out to make it look bigger than it needs to be.

    Anyway, I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of the story and will pre-order it as soon as it’s listed, so I guess that means I thought it was good value for money.

  28. I pointed out on an earlier thread that cliffhangers are what other authors do; Scalzi sets off earthquakes too big for the Richter Scale to measure, so it’s probably not a good idea to approach his work thinking that Chapter 1 in the next book will sort everything out.

    This is a feature, not a bug, and one which I greatly appreciate…

  29. I think it’s because you used more of the shorter — especially 4-letter — words in CE vs. your other books. :)

  30. Right at the halfway point of the audiobook and wondering if you hear Wil Wheaton’s voice in your head as you write

  31. At this point I’m just echoing other comments, but maybe that’s helpful: I really enjoyed it, I’m looking forward to more, but I think the abrupt ending that made it feel shorter than the page/wordcount suggests (moreso than dialogue/style).

  32. > provided I don’t get sucked into a jet engine or have some other tragedy befall me, there will be more, I promise.

    No capes!

  33. I’m in the process of bouncing off the book, but it’s definitely a ‘it’s me, not you’ situation. Collapsing Empire a tightly written book, and exactly the kind of craft and writing I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi(tm) book, and why I have a lot of them. But, as much as I enjoy a couple of the characters (that’s why we are here after all) and the there are very few, if any, unnecessary words in the book, the plot has no space to breathe. It’s tight to the point where it feels too tight for its scope and occasionally so tight that instead of [spoiler] Checkov’s gun set up in act one and used in act three, we get barely a story beat before the gun is taken down and someone is shot with it [/spoiler]. That also goes for non-gun related elements. The tightness also means that I perceive character competence and/or failure much more to be in service of the plot than due to characters’ own agency which takes me out of the story and makes me want to throw things (specifically the book — hard to do with audiobooks) at the wall.

    All that to say that I understand why people think it’s short, it isn’t particularly, it just feels that way because it’s a tightly written book, and by comparison most books working at that scope are much, much longer and more drawn out.

  34. Getting sucked into a jet engine. Unless that trainee gremlin on the wing finally gets its act together I think you’re pretty safe from that happening. (Buy Miniatures by John Scalzi to find out more about aircraft gremlins).
    And thank you for not being description heavy.
    There are authors who will write a one page description of the view of a valley as it comes into view. Contribution to the story – nil, as nothing happens in the valley. It just happens to be between A and B.

  35. I’m in the process of bouncing off the book, but it’s definitely a ‘it’s me, not you’ situation. Collapsing Empire a tightly written book, and exactly the kind of craft and writing I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi(tm) book, and why I have a lot of them. But, as much as I enjoy a couple of the characters (that’s why we are here after all) and the there are very few, if any, unnecessary words in the book, the plot has no space to breathe. It’s tight to the point where it feels too tight for its scope and occasionally so tight that instead of [spoiler] Checkov’s gun set up in act one and used in act three, we get barely a story beat before the gun is taken down and someone is shot with it [/spoiler]. That also goes for non-gun related elements. The tightness also means that I perceive character competence and/or failure much more to be in service of the plot than due to characters’ own agency which takes me out of the story and makes me want to throw things (specifically the book — hard to do with audiobooks) at the wall.

    All that to say that I understand why people think it’s short, it isn’t particularly, it just feels that way because it’s a tightly written book, and by comparison most books working at that scope are much, much longer and more drawn out.

  36. I was surprised when I opened it up in my e-reader that it is about a third shorter — in terms of number of pages — than anything else I’ve read in recent memory.

    I wondered if some combination of me bumping the font size way up and you possibly using a lot of short dialogue might be presenting a skewed picture.

    And then I was swept up by the writing (as always) and stopped paying attention to the page numbers, so it was jarring when it abruptly ended just as things were getting good.

  37. John noted: “One is that, like most books of mine, it’s heavy on dialogue and light on description…”

    Don’t recall who said this, thus may be creating an invented memory, but I remember a dialogue between an author and a fan that ran along the following lines:
    Fan: I resent that all your female characters are blond and slim but curvaceous.
    Author: Huh? I never wrote that.
    Fan: But you described them all as beautiful, right?
    Author: Yes, but I didn’t provide any physical details. One man’s beautiful is another man’s whatever*.

    * The subjective esthetic descriptor, not the blog. Whatever (the blog) is, of course, objectively a thing of beauty.

    Whether or not this dialog ever existed outside my brain, I kind of like that message.

  38. It only seemed short to me because I didn’t really put it down. Other books have places where it seems to make sense to stop to eat, sleep, recover from something horrible in the last chapter, etc. This one just glided on. In a very good way.

  39. With the greatest respect and liking and appreciation, damn you, sir.

    I am at page 286, and I can see the cliff just a few steps away, and DAMN you, sir.

    It is going to be a long couple of years. And do please remain healthy, and stay away from jet engines, literal cliffs and other such circumstances in that time. Well, after it as well, of course – I don’t wish you ill simply because you’re leaving us hanging by our fingernails from a cliff of your making.

    Deep sigh. And back to the final few steps to the edge of the cliff. There to hang for the next two years.

  40. I think it might just seem short because it’s a “to be continued” sort of ending.

  41. I’ve been reading too many behemoths lately. I was quite pleased when Collapsing Empire showed up and was not a behemoth. 3 chapters in so far, very much enjoying, glad to be warned of cliffhanger ending…I can deal :)

  42. Having had a long and varied reading career (since my mom found me reading Black Beauty at age 6), I find as I get older I have less patience for long descriptive passages. Yes, I know, back in the day writers were paid by the word which encouraged lengthy descriptions but, as I said to my mom while reading Zane Gray “If I read one more purple shadow climbing a purple mountain side I’m going to scream.” Today when reading I sometimes find myself muttering, “Story, boring stuff – flip, flip, flip – Oh, look more story!” What constitutes boring varies from reader to reader. My husband and I are reading the same SF series. (Not one of Scalzi’s but, I introduced him to OMW and he loved it and went looking for more Scalzi (Score!)) I tend to skim the technical stuff and he skips over the political background stuff. We both enjoy the space battles. So I appreciate fast paced books. I work in a library and I keep saying that maybe when I retire I’ll finally have enough time to read all the books I want, but for now don’t waste my time with purple clouds. Scalzi never wastes my time.

  43. I think that one of the criticisms about the length of the book is there is the expectation that there could have been more World building.

    It definitely amuse me to no end of the obligatory World building Exposition at the beginning of the book came in the form of Marce explaining the world to a group of 2nd graders. That was a pretty amusing take on the usual approach

  44. For me, it both did and didn’t feel short, which seems to be a silly thing to say, but let me explain. On one hand, it took me 6 or so hours to read through it (I think – it was broken up over several days), so in that way, it felt about the length I expect from a novel, so not short. On the other hand, it really feels like it’s just getting rolling when you reach the end, so I was left with the feeling of just getting started, which is true in relation to the overall story arc. Additionally for most the of the characters you’re really only seeing a few days of their lives – Kiva and Marce are at End and then POP! they’re at Hub, for example. You cut out the boring parts so it all ran tighter and was more interesting. But, because it’s tighter, it also zooms by.

    All that being said, when’s the date for the next one? Next month? Tomorrow would be good. Here, just shut up and take my money.

  45. A Prologue? Unashamedly labelled as a Prologue? Undisguised infodumps? Unattributed duologues like a movie script? Asides to the reader with swear words? You’re a very naughty boy, but it all hangs together and works! And you acquitted yourself well in the long and interesting comments thread on the TOR site.

    As for cliffhangers, it is THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE, not THE COLLAPSED EMPIRE.

  46. It felt a little short to me as well, but I think that was just pacing- -and (character). Many books, a point of view character describes everything around them in order to figure out what is happening and then spend a lot of words on determining the next best step. (Character) just does it. I am already waiting for the next episode.

  47. The book was great. I’m a bit bummed about the cliffhangery thing with 2019! as the next release. That just means I’ll have to reread this to get ready for the next one. It’s a good enough book (and fast enough read) that I won’t mind.

  48. I didn’t so much feel cheated, but it absolutely felt short. I think it’s mostly because I’ve been trained to think that epic sci-fi stories should clock in around 500 pages (i.e. the length of an Expanse novel), as opposed to the 334 that The Collapsing Empire came in at. It’s purely a side effect of the sort of thing I’ve been reading lately, and based on your previous work it’s totally not justified, I mean you’re pretty consistently Not That Long, but justified or not it’s still a thing.

  49. I wonder if you can elaborate a little on how you organize your books in your head, when you have time? Is it something you’ve always been able to do or did you get better as you did it more? How much do you have worked out before you start hammering away at the keyboard?
    A curious monkey would like to know.

  50. I’m happy when authors leave to me to decide how a character looks, besides general stuff like height, sex and general build, I like building my own image of a character.

  51. I wish publishers would be better about labeling book covers with something like “First book in the Collapsing Empire series” so that readers can be forewarned that the book may end on a cliff-hanger – but don’t despair, there will be more! It makes a big difference in the emotional reaction if you know beforehand that it’s not a stand-alone book.

  52. I finished the book last night. Outstanding! I never noticed it before, but it is true that plot and dialogue driven books without pages of description do move along. I am much less likely to wander away from a book in progress when written in your style. I didn’t really see the ending as a cliffhanger. There is, basically, no way to write a novel and intended to have sequels if you wrap everything up in the first installment. And I do agree with you that you did complete a story arc and ended at a logical place for your readers to wait for the next novel. But 2019? Seriously? Maybe you could surprise your agent, your publishers, and not to mention your readers by squeezing it in before Christmas 2017. I mean 2018.

    BTW, who benefits from the contractual agreement that only your prior books published by TOR appear in the “other books” section? This seems to be standard, and may have made sense in the middle of the last century. But when your bibliography is available in a Google search…

  53. I liked it. Heard once that a good book leaves you thinking “And then what?”. This certainly does that. It flows so easily, it was midnight before I thought Hey, I really should get some sleep. Some nice surprises along the way, one or two that made me say Ah…crap, when something happened that I didn’t like. I thought periodically of Hari Seldon, for some reason. Was that intentional?

  54. Hi John,
    first of all.. thank you: your book came out the day of my birthday so it was my present to myself. Second I think that the “problem” with the book is not that is short but it felt cut in half. I try to be clear: there are some of your best characters ever (lady Kiva and her mother on top), and it’s surely fast paced but… it ends abruptly. The only other examples in your work I have is the first season of The Human Division, but that book was structured as a tv series with each chapter being a satisfying and self contained short story connected by an overarching plot. It felt good, this book… not so much. It has an ending but there are a lot of unanswered question that I and other reader are not used to with your books (for example in all the others books in the Old Man universe the story is self contained, same with the universe of Lock In, I don’t need another Fuzzy Nation because I cried enough, and the Android’s Dream universe doesn’t need any expansion, same for Red Shirt or Agent for the Stars).

    This book feel short cause all the consequences of the collapse of the flow and the wrong interpretation of the data are left unsolved for the next book (that I’ll buy and read because I’ve really liked this book), another small nitpick is that the suicide note in the end felt a bit like a deus ex machina (compared to the suicide in lock in that was an integral part of the story that drives the entire plot).
    TL;DR: loved the characters, loved the writing, feel short only because the main plot seems to be split in two books


  55. LOVED the book! It did, I agree, feel short even though it wasn’t, and it was a fast read … but I didn’t feel in any way whatsoever cheated. Just regretful that I hadn’t waited to read it until closer to when the next one comes out — I’m chomping desperately at the bit for more!

    Love the characters, and the story arc is wickedly compelling. Couldn’t stop reading! Thanks for sharing this exciting new universe with us.

  56. It did not feel short to me.

    But I too find myself wishing for the movie version.

    Have a great time on your tour! Pace yourself! Happy writing!!!!!

  57. I liked it, too short, maybe, but I got the feeling you couldn’t really get into any more plot detail without spilling it over into its sequel too much. I have read enough of your material in the past that I got a feel for how it was going to end/not end, then I got hit by the epilogue. I must say that did take me by surprise, that and you had a character that could win an award for the most gratuitous use of the word F***.

    I look forward to the next book.

  58. BTW, I think the reason the book feels short to some people is because the story arc doesn’t flow with the timing one would expect, because of this being the start of a series rather than a self-contained book with a resolved ending.I’m more than 3/4 of the way through the book but it feels more like 1/2-way, in terms of where it is in the position of a story arc. I think that throws off one’s sense of timing.

  59. John, John, John….
    Everyone knows that great science fiction is measured by page count. A truly great novel must be at least 600 pages, 800 is better and >1,000 is preferable. Consider these 600-1200 page masterpieces:
    Gaiman: American Gods
    Willis: Doomsday Book
    Herbert: Dune
    Delany: Dahlgren
    King: The Stand (the unabridged version)

    Your pitiful little 300-ish page “novel” is down there with such failures as:
    Heinlein: Have Spacesuit Will Travel
    Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama
    Haldeman: The Forever War
    Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five

  60. Short? Not really, just an engaging read that I was therefore highly motivated to read as quickly as possible, and leave me wanting more (2019 is sooo far away). It is very fast paced.
    I’ll be reading it again in 2019 before the next one comes out, and then both before the third one comes out etc.

  61. I grew up reading Poul Anderson, so by comparison almost every other writer is skimpy on the descriptive. Like being able to imagine for myself, but like clues to the alien-ness of time and place and, well, aliens.

  62. I didn’t find it short. Although I agree with the first commenter, Becca, that we’re not used to seeing you write a series as anything other than books that can stand alone vs. cliffhangers. It’s not a bad thing, I read plenty of authors that do tend to end books with cliff hangers, it’s just not something we are used to with you.

    For what it’s worth I like your (sometimes deliberately) sparse descriptiveness. As you mention, some authors do that and do it well, but dialog is more your thing and you do that well enough that frankly that’s what I’d rather read when I read your stuff.

  63. I am of the opinion of Ian McEwan who wrote in an essay that writers often write too long and that he mentally finds himself wanting to take a red pencil to the books he reads. He also notes that writers need to ‘earn their length ‘ I find that to be true. Certainly in my opinion you have long since done that, but when I see a first novel and it runs 700+ pages, I find myself thinking that this author has not earned that time commitment from me. There is a lot to read and not enough lifetime to do it. It takes more than hype to get me to commit to something new. I have not yet finished your new book, but I am a little over half done and expect to finish today or tomorrow. Feels about the right length – especially considering it is the start of a series. As for cliffhangers – I have no problem with it because it was clear up front that this is the start of something that could run to 10 books. Clearly everything isn’t going to be resolved in book one.

  64. I grew up when almost all SF was in the 120 page/read in a couple hours length. I can’t think of anything of H Beam Piper’s that’s longer than that. Most SF books were, well, pocket books. Dune was unusual for it’s size (among other things) and a novel like Lord of the Rings was longer than anything else out there. More beautifully written than anything else out there, too. I’m doing one of my occasional rereads of it now and the hardcover of The Collapsing Empire is thinner than The Fellowship of the Ring.

  65. My copy of The Collapsing Empire is still on it’s way through the post. I’m grateful to hear about the cliffhanger ending in advance- it makes a big difference when you’re prepared for it ( and know the sequel is in the pipeline )

  66. The real reason it seems short is that 23% of it had been posted as a sample on the web already.</tongueincheek>

  67. I finished listening to the audiobook (Thank you, Wil!) in two days. The cliffhanger was a surprise, since most if not all of the previous “series” books did well as standalones. To me, the abrupt ending felt like the serialized novels in Analog. The parts often have the same “mid-conversation” stop. I didn’t feel that the book was short, but the analogy to the serials may be why others do.

  68. You and Neal Stephenson are my two favorite authors. If you were to happen to collaborate to produce a Scalzi-fast, Stephenson-big novel, I’d be in heaven.

  69. Hi John, bookseller here. I haven’t had a chance to read The Collapsing Empire yet, but my two customers who have bought it so far seemed very happy. I do remember thinking, as I shelved it, “huh, this feels like a small book, especially for SF.” I wondered, briefly, if Tor made a manufacturing choice, but then didn’t give the matter another thought until I saw this post.

  70. Haar: “Scalzi-fast, Stephenson-big novel”: careful what you wish for. That’d be tantamount to collision of matter and anti-matter, methinks (not specifying which is which….).

  71. It seemed short to me. I think part of the reason is that I started on chapter four, having read three chapters and a prologue before I even purchased the book.

    I may have skipped a chapter in the middle. I usually go to sleep listening to my phone reading to me via TTS, which often means I read some parts more than once. In this case when I scrolled back to something that looked familiar, I might not have gone back far enough. There were events referred to that I didn’t recall, but I wasn’t totally lost so I kept going

  72. John – I bought it after moving during the time period when we don’t have internet. As such, I read it FAST. Like, a day or two.

    It felt quick to me. I think I prefer a longer experience to consume a novel, and yours I normally consume in two or three days. I’d rather they took longer to read, either by being more words or by those words taking me longer to read.

    This is the probably the nicest form of criticism. I wish I had more of your words to read.

  73. Good books come in all sorts of lengths and all sorts of speeds. Simenon’s classic Maigret novels are both fast and short — and he wrote them in about a week apiece! Elmore Leonard’s novels are dialogue-heavy and description-light; they work beautifully because of his [tongue-in-cheek] practice of omitting all the stuff readers skip over.

    I wasn’t disappointed by the cliff-hanger because I knew this was the first in a series. I was disappointed by the cliffhanger in Ada Palmer’s much longer Too Like the Lightning, an otherwise wonderful book, because I had no idea that it was the first part of a tetralogy. I knew what I was in for before I began on Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, so I wasn’t fazed by embarking on a 2700-page epic. And I’m eagerly awaiting the sixth and final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s near-autobiographical My Struggle, which weighs in at about 3600 pages.

    I’m curious about whether your store of fucks has been depleted. Please save some for Whatever.

  74. (I do read very fast, and having already read the Prologue and the first two chapters at meant it took me less than two hours to read the book itself, so it felt even faster than usual.)

  75. I havent read Empire yet, but the prose in your other books tends to be straightforward, easy to read, and may give the feeling of being shorter than it actually is. You generally focus the words on moving the story forward. Compare that to, say, Moby Dick where we stop for a chapter as we have to read about how a whale is rended down into oil, which is completely irrelevant to the story.

    Your sentence structure is usually straightforward, which also makes for easy/fast reading. Compare that to authors who write to show the reader how clever they are, or cant sort out what they are trying to say, so you get a sentence that is an entire paragraph, the subject and verb are fifty words apart, and are separated by asides about some other thought. Some authors force me to stop, read their sentence again, parse it, extract the point, before I can move on. So, that, to me, is a good thing. Stories should be meant to he read, not meant to impress the reader that the novel he is reading actually contains the clues and solutions to last months new york times crossword puzzle.

    Sometimes it feels like your story misses out on something it could dwell on longer. One time that really stood out for me was the first book of yours I read, Old Mans War. You generally keep the action moving forward and tend not to have characters face internal crisises for long. In OMW, when John faced an existential crisis about the fact that he was stomping actual living sentient beings, he was through his personal crisis in a way that felt way too quick for me. It occurred like “my god, what have I done. Oh look, butterfly”. You werent writing The Heart of Darkness so we dont need monologues about snails crawling along the edge of a razor, hacking arms off of children, murder, etc, but at the same time, if you have a character touch on an existential crisis, they should dwell on it, wallow in it, before moving them on. So, that piece felt a little too short.

    Your stories feel more like Han Solo stories (shoot first, dont ask questions) than Luke on degobah struggling with his fear of vader and then struggling with killing his father seemingly being the only way to save the galaxy. Or more like Aliens with the colonial marines shoot em up instead of Alien and the terror and body horror of some thing hiding in the shadows. Personally, I loved Aliens and I cant wait till the Han Solo movie comes out. But maybe the folks saying “too short” wanted more internal stuff, characters dwelling, or paragraphs that look like crossword puzzles.

  76. Compare that to, say, Moby Dick where we stop for a chapter as we have to read about how a whale is rended down into oil, which is completely irrelevant to the story.

    Irrelevant? Essential.

  77. I read the book fast, and it felt a bit short, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. I’m a bit bored with books which seem to go on and on, and there was a clear story going on here. It’s obviously the first of a series – there was quite a lot of infodump and setting. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing either – I do like infodumps often, and for the first book of a series it is kind of mandatory.

    I also like your way of not describing that much. Especially the lack of character descriptions was fun, because then the names from apparently multiple sources make me think about what the characters are like.

  78. As to the book seeming short? In my case it is entirely a positive and strictly a matter of my being very eager for the next book. Great job. Awesome dialog.

  79. Yeah, I would have liked a little bit more physical description of Lock-In’s main character (just kidding). I am totally looking forward to that sequel, but I think I’ll tide myself over with Collapsing Empire and Old Man’s War in the meantime.

  80. Theophylact,if we took the “how to rend a whale” scene and put it into the Wrath of Khan movie, they would have to add half an hour showing Khan and his people dealing with the mundane requirements of surviving on Ceti Alpha 5. And it would be one of the worst star trek movies instead of one of the best.

  81. Confession: I preordered and then kept checking and fretting that it wasn’t out yet because I knew your book would be a great relief to the stress of the national pit we are in now ( my opinion obviously).
    And it was!
    But then it was over and I was cast back into my daily planning for a retirement that may or may not be possible given said national pit, and trying to make the most positive differences, which are not germaine to the discussion here.

    Maybe some of your readers were in the same space.

    Also the depth and complexity of backstory for the Old Man’s War series was a foundational richness worked into the new books so each one was more than the word count present. I expect tye same will be so of Collapsing Empire.

    In contrast I was waiting for your newest and reading the last Expanse novel. Just cannot get into it though I have read all the others with pleasure. :( And the big hit New York 2140 with it’s great premise and landscape as a character made no dent. the characters did not hold me. No detail and no snappy dialogue.

    It’s fine for Robinson to not describe a character in detail…because dialogue and how others react to characters is a description of sorts.. but those NY 2140 characters just seemed flat. I will give it another chance, of course, bcause it may be my state and the state of the state.

    But please enjoy writing and a lot of it ….for sanity’s sake.

  82. In my defense, i had 5 hours sleep last night. 6 hours the night before that. I’m baleen out of work and getting some sleep.

    (Insert whale oil pun here)

  83. My 2 cents:

    As usual, I loved your writing style, but I was, as others, struck by the abrupt ending. And I don’t just mean the cliff-hanger aspect of it. Rather, in approaching the ending, the writing seemed to contract, and several critical events were simply left to the reader’s imagination rather than being written out. So the book, which had been moving fairly quickly, but also luxuriously, through politics and intrigue and oddball relationships, suddenly started skipping critical events and conversations, as a certain rescue, or between a certain crude, lusty noble, and the someone who could move things along; or between the Emperox and her recent hire as they pooled their knowledge. Thus, not only was there was almost no separation between climax and denouement… but the climax itself was barely a sliver before the end. It felt rushed. And thus, yes, it felt short in the home stretch. Not just word-count short, but short as in attention span. And of course the feeling we are left with at the end of the book is going to color our feeling of the rest of it, too…

  84. “My only real concern with people feeling The Collapsing Empire is short is that people then feel cheated, like they didn’t get enough story out of this particular novel.”

    Pretty much. I paid a pretty heft premium for the book, and it’s just not that good of a value for the entertainment. It’s a quick read as you mention, a nice lazy afternoon read, and then it’s over.

    At $3.99 or $4.99 it’s a steal. At $5.99 or $6.99 it’s fair. At $9.99 or more, it’s just not a good value. For $10, I can see a 2.5 hr movie production costing $100 million to produce and deliver.

    I am not sure why I didn’t feel this way about Redshirts.

  85. Johns books are shorter than most books I read. In general I think SFF has gotten longer over time. Johns entire Old Mans War series can fit inside one Peter F Hamilton. Longer books often have more of an epic feel ( if they are good). I see Johns books as light quick popcorn reads. I think John is going for quick easy reads.

    I think the expectation from many SFF fans are for longer and longer books. I do like longer epic reads. I really like thick epic fantasy series.

  86. Longer books often have more of an epic feel ( if they are good). I see Johns books as light quick popcorn reads. I think John is going for quick easy reads.

    I won’t presume to speak for our host, but I remember reading an interview with Alice Munro where she was asked why she’d never written a “proper” novel. Her answer boiled down to, “I never felt the stories I wanted to tell, the stories I could tell, were novels.” I just don’t think there’s any relationship (positive or negative) between length and substance.

  87. Even simple sentence structure changes can alter how the text is perceived. If you want the reader to experience a character who just saw someone across a crowded room and is suddenly feeling love at first sight, you might break your sentences up as the protagonist approaches their vision:.

    A beautiful smile. Sholders relaxed but confident. An easy laugh. Head turns and they make eye contact. A mischievious wink. Hearts soar.

    The words are describing something in the story, but the word structure forces the reader to slow down. Periods make for pause. It gives the reader the feeling of time slowing down or stopping for the protagonist. Its also hard to get it right.

    Just dropping “of the” prepositional pbrases can change the vibe of a chunk of text, how a reader perceives it.

  88. Yes, I was disappointed when the story ended so abruptly. But I had so much fun along the way it was worth it. I think much of the “word creep” in current SF is thanks to Kindle Unlimited where writers DO get paid by the page. So padding.

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