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.