Excuse me, but your book is too long (and your movie is too short)

I'm sorry I didn't finish your book. It was too long.

I’m half way through reading David Brook’s excellent book The Road to Character. I was telling a friend about it yesterday and she commented “oh, it must be good if you’re planning to finish it.”

Hmmm.

Apparently my flakiness in not being able to finish non-fiction books is becoming well known. But it made me wonder: why is it that I gobble fiction books (most recently, Christa Parrish’s Still Life—on sale on kindle til Feb 1st!—and Lianne’s Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot), but very seldom finish non-fiction works?

Is it because I lack commitment? Or intellectual rigor? That is definitely a possibility as I become lazier with age… but I think there’s more to it than that. My theory is this: I’m becoming more selective with age, and many non-fiction books are just too long. Or at least, they’re longer than they need to be to say what they have to say. There are some books that really should have just been essays—GREAT essays!—but then someone thought “oh, you should turn that into a book…” And I find, as a reader, that sometimes I’m half way through a non-fiction book and start to feel antsy. I think “hm. I think I know where they’re going with this.” Then I read a chapter more, just to see if anything new comes up, but often it’s just variations on a theme. And at that point, it gets tossed into the teetering tower of Great Books I Didn’t Finish Reading next to my bed.

I then promptly pick up a new fiction book, which keeps me going to the end because I want to know what happens next. For example, The Count of Monte Cristo, which weighs in at over 1000 pages in length, was a page turner par excellence. It was long, but EVERY PAGE mattered (after the first 130 pages, that is, which were so heartbreaking I wanted to die. But pages 130-1130 turned me into a social recluse. Just ask my family about the Christmas of 2014 when I curled into a futon for three days.)

The rare non-fiction book that I read from beginning to end usually have two properties:

  • It continues to introduce new ideas throughout the book, while maintaining its overall thematic consistency, and
  • It contains some good storytelling throughout. True fact: I like books about interesting people. Non-fiction books which are peppered with a human element (especially if they’re well told stories), will keep me reading.

Brooks’ The Road to Character meets these criteria. And so did Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love (which was a book I really, really didn’t want to read). So does Stephanie Rische’s I was blind (dating), but now I see – which read like a novel even though it was memoir mixed with devotional insight, and best of all was laugh out loud funny at times.

I have a crazy smart friend who comes up with great theories about life. He has a theory about why television series are better than movies: because a movie is too short to develop a satisfying narrative arc. In other words: it is a lot to expect two hours of cinema to develop deep characters (and have us identify with them) as well as set up a credible story in which we have context, some kind of crisis, and a satisfying resolution. Very few movies do this well. But a mini-series on TV has some time to develop its characters as well as create multiple small mini-crises to keep us watching from week to week. Think of The Office (the weekly installment of Dwight). Or Parenthood (yay Bravermans!) Or Sherlock (need I say more, BC?) But when movies try to drag the story (Hunger Games 3 and LOTR movies, I’m looking at you), I find it hard to keep paying attention. It’s not moving fast enough.

I think he’s on to something, whether it comes to stories told in literature or on the screen. The medium must be the right length for the message.

What do you think? What’s the sweet spot for you when it comes to the length of books and movies? Or am I the only one who quits books or movies because they’re just taking too much time already?

41 thoughts on “Excuse me, but your book is too long (and your movie is too short)

  1. I agree. I can’t comment on movies versus mini-series because I don’t watch much on the screen. (Not having a television accounts for that. If I want to watch a movie, it’s on our home computer.) But I prefer my non-fiction to have human elements: people, stories, plot. Not having those in my high school/college science and math classes is one major reason I disliked those classes. (I blogged about how I learned to enjoy them in middle age: http://lauradroege.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/chemistry-and-math-made-interesting/)

    On a related topic, I think that writers have a length that is natural for them; their types of messages lend themselves best to a particular medium and length. I have a writer friend who keeps urging me to write short stories. (He wants me to do a public reading next month.) But none of my ideas are short story length! The characters just want to keep living and acting and trying to resolve their conflict far past the boundaries of short-short stories, short stories, novellas–well, you get the idea. My writer friend finally decided that I could read the first part of my novel, since he says it sounds like a short-short literary suspense story, though without a resolution of the conflict. Good solution, IMO.

    • What an interesting thought – that writers have a length that is natural for them (For Alice Munro – the short story? for Dumas – 1000 pages? For Anne Lamott, the 1000 word Facebook post?) I, for one, am looking forward to seeing your novel come to life.

    • Ha! So many! We should really drink tea since you’re back in NorCal again! Also, I’ve just started listening to Anne Bogel’s “What Should I Read Next” podcast… it is FULL of great book suggestions!

  2. Well, I’m glad that I read this blog post. I have been thinking of righting a book and I have recently gotten caught up with the idea that it won’t be worth anything if it’s not long enough.

    You made good points in here. Although I will watch LOTR more than once, I do see where you are coming from. It is tough to find that right balance.

    • I think the input of trusted friends and experienced editors is probably invaluable in making this call, Jerome. All the best as you keep writing!

  3. I read a LOT of nonfiction — 2x as much nonfiction as fiction, as my “what I read in 2015” blog post will attest. I think nonfiction has to have some of the best qualities of good fiction: unique voice, interesting stories/examples, creative way of organizing ideas. If it’s too abstract and technical, it can be so tedious. But I find that most nonfiction books I read are much shorter in the first place than most fiction books I read, so I don’t usually have a problem finishing them. I have a hunch that it is harder to get bad nonfiction published than bad fiction, so when I see a nonfiction book put out by a major publisher I’m expecting it to be pretty good.

  4. I have done the same even with magazine articles, Bron. If they lose me after a couple paragraphs I don’t bother sticking around in case there’s a gem at the end.

    • And here I thought you had read (most everything) on the internet, Tim 😉 One thing I appreciate about your writing is that you are engaging from the first paragraph!

  5. Spot on! I too have a hard time finishing non-fiction and your reasoning makes a lot more sense than my lack of intellect or patience! 🙂

  6. Well, I rarely don’t finish a non-fiction book and I mostly read non-fiction. But I know I am a minority, as from stats I’ve seen, failing to finish a book is very common. I also buy many used books, and can often tell the book was never finished – because the first couple chapters have highlighting/underlining, and the rest nothing at all.

    My recently published book does meet your property of introducing new ideas throughout. : ) However, It does not meet the the second for storytelling. I think I am different from many women in this regard – learning through stories. I prefer facts, and thoughtful interaction with facts. Of course, some personal illustrations are needed though!

    Knowing ahead of time that many people fail to finish reading books, I was determined to limit my book’s length. I was aiming for around 100 pages, but it ended up about 125. But it could have been much longer. I tried to keep the chapters a reasonable length, and I have an “intermission” in the book – it is about 3 pages where I clarify issues that might be concerning people – and hope to get them to keep reading.

    Anyways, thank for letting a new author ramble!

    • As a reader, I REALLY respect and appreciate your intentionality as a writer in this. Well done, and thank you Laura! (although I don’t find I have any difficulty engaging with your writing!! I liked your blog from the first paragraph I ever read.)

  7. Count me along with those who put a book (magazine article, blog post, essay) down if it doesn’t engage me. Two decades ago, I had a three chapter rule, as in, “I’ll give it 3 chapters and not a word more!” I’ve since decided that my time is too valuable and an author’s voice comes through loud and clear (or soft and muddled) from the get-go.

    One non-fiction book that I recently read and found engrossing was called The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz. Initially, I thought the subject matter (a psychoanalyst’s view of losing and finding ourselves) wouldn’t appeal, it thoroughly did – and simply because the author told a series of stories about patients that touched about every emotion a human could possibly feel. It was engrossing from the first 3 sentences!

    And, I like what another commenter mentioned above about each author having a natural length for material. (Although, I do believe that Donna Tartt of The Goldfinch could have told that story in half the pages!)

    Great topic, Bronwyn! And, I especially think it should be on every writer’s radar as we seek our unique audience and their pages turned tolerance.

    • That’s interesting about The Goldfinch: I nearly picked it up to read while we were traveling through the Grand Tetons, but I landed up reading All the Light We Cannot See instead… what a fabulous book!

  8. Honestly,I think I tend to not finish articles or blog posts that are too long more so than a book. I easily tire of multiple photos sandwiched between the actual writing and will be put off by that.. If there is good content, I’m not as distracted but it seems that much like John Q public, my attention span is much shorter these days amidst the wealth of available material.

    With a book, I have some degree of a commitment because its either in my hand or on a Kindle screen in front of me, having been purchased or borrowed.The investment in it alone spurs me on to finish it. But I’m also very picky about what I read so that in itself is a limiting factor.

    And yes, I am also one of those that prefer nonfiction reading most of the time. Though I do love good fiction that has been recommended by a reader I trust.

    I started a book club with a few friends several months ago and that has been an impetus to reading things I would not normally choose. The challenge has been good for me! And it helps to push me through to completion.

    • Book clubs are so good for stretching me in this area. I joined a classic book club when I realized I’d read so few of the classics, but needed some social encouragement (pressure??) to enjoy them. It’s been a wonderful investment!

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  10. I think of my non-fiction reading in terms of “Yield rate” – Insights per hour. Reading time is one of my most limited and valuable resources, so I refuse to let authors waste my time. Once we hit a point of diminishing returns, where a new book by a new author is likely to yield more insight I switch.

    One exception to the yield rate principle is book club books. When you discuss a book with an insightful group, the yield rate isn’t just from the author but the interpretive community, so it is almost always worth the pages.

  11. I think 10 hours for a film/tv and 10,000 words for fiction and non-fiction writing are often optimal.

    10 hours gives you time to develop characters and natural obstacles, without having to undo the story (e.g. coupling or resolutions) in order to generate new plot to hit the 4 season holy grail of syndication.

    The 10,000 word thing is weird because there isn’t really a venue for it. At 50,000 for books, the pre-fab ‘products’ are not designed to the optimal. It usually takes me 10,000 words to build an actual, nuanced, complete argument, but after that I’m usually done. Also it takes me ~2 hrs minutes to speak 10,000 words, which doesn’t align with almost any venue.

    Also, thanks for the kind words.

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  13. Interesting to see you put The Road to Character into your “great book” category. I actually fit it firmly into the “this should have been an essay”. Maybe four quality essays. Then some chapters were just awful stretches of trying to create content to finish the book. Fiction often feels the same way. Like the fact that they stopped editing J.K. Rowling down in length after the first three books. Same thing happened to Tom Clancy. Page explosion.

    • Oh dear… You see I wrote this post too soon. I was 40% of the way through the book, and now I’m 60% and slowing down quickly. I think you might be right… I need to revise my statement to say “the first four chapters are EXCELLENT”, and then read the cliff notes of the rest 🙂

  14. I found the most interesting non-fiction that opened my eyes to so much. An amazing book. “Truman” by David McCullough! Try it! It makes me want to read more non-fiction

  15. I just finished a non-fiction book that felt long and slow (even though it was barely 200 pages), but I couldn’t put my finger on why it felt that way. Thank you for giving words (and a great post) to that feeling!

    • Thanks Hannah! Amazing how 200 words can feel like wading through treacle if the content isn’t captivating, isn’t it?

  16. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO IS MY FAVORITE BOOK. I’m so glad you feel the same. I have friends that have complained about the length, and usually, I am right there with them. If a book is too long, I don’t finish it. But The Count of Monte Cristo is completely worth it. Ahhhhhh, this is my first time on your blog, but I am sticking around! Love your thoughts. 🙂

    • Thanks Julia! And welcome! So, since you obviously have great tastes in books… What’s your second favorite book? Because if I haven’t read it yet, I want to!

  17. Phew! It’s been scaring me for the last decade or so to think that I have become a lazy reader but now, reading your words, I think I’ve just become more selective. A few authors today seem to place more priority on page count than reading value and that just turns my switch off. I used to boast that I never dropped a book until I finished it. Not any more.

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