Short and Sweet
In today's world of byte size data and bite-size information, have books shrunk in pages and content to deliver the same messaging?
I picked up a book recently from my bookshelves and it was a paperback that was over 500 pages. It belonged to my mum and dad and it was an American thriller novel on espionage. It was certainly a great read but it took me close to a week to finish the book with all my schoolwork and daily activities.
I wondered if in today's day and age, whether children like me, would pick up a book that is about 500 pages long to read. Certainly, if you haven't picked up a book with that amount of pages prior, it would seem intimidating and take a little getting used to. I remember when I first read a paperback, I left the paperback alone for a couple of days and I was massaging my head with the plot. But when I did that, I had to go back to the previous pages of the book to get rekindled with the plot again as after a while I need a reminder to some of the critical plays in the plot. And so it became an investment of time for me, I had to complete my paperbacks within a few days so that I can never lose sight of the story.
But having said that, there were moments where I made marks and comments on a book. I was thinking about it, whether it was a specific line in the book or choice of adjectives from the author, I wanted to spend some time to reflect on it and understand the emotions and feelings of the character, author and superimposing my thoughts and my reflections upon it. It is a deep reflection on the book and I like to do that sometimes.
Could I imagine shrinking the painful effort taken by an author to conjure a line in the book down to 250 pages and make it more palatable in my brain to consume? Would that still trigger my ability to stop, pause, think, and reflect? Would it remove the beauty of letting the story flow so naturally in an unrestrictive way i.e. in a way that I can have the clearest and most crisp picture of the scene in my head?
So I looked at a couple of novels for young readers that kept it short and sweet. My favorite ones are from Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton. And I look at my dad's favorite John Grisham collection that was longer and more elaborate, and I wanted to compare.
I wanted to compare the technicalities of the books and also the non-technicalities; my emotive response and feelings.
On the technical side of things, I wanted to compare the time taken to complete the book, the number of times I stopped to reflect on the book, the number of times I took a dictionary to check the meaning of a word in the book, the number of times I had to go back to the pages before getting a flashback of what I had read so far and the number of times I didn't want to continue on the book further because the suspense was just so amazing that I wanted it to linger on and let the plot and possible outcomes play in my head.
To ensure a fair comparison, I decided to divide the time spent on both the books by the number of pages to see if there was a significant difference. Indeed, I was amazed, there was no difference.
The number of times I took to check the dictionary on complex words was significantly higher on John Grisham's book as opposed to Roald Dahls'.
Interestingly, the number of times I took a flashback journey in the past chapters was the same for both books.
And I surprisingly took a long time to reflect on Roald Dahl's book and to conjure plots and outcomes in my head more than the John Grisham book. Maybe because I could relate to the story better at my age.
I have to be fair and say that the way John Grisham wrote his story, it was detailed and I could picture every single corner of the description but I am sure that I was taking that imagery in my head from a place I visited before or from a movie. But the point is, the imagery of the scene and the intensity of the lawyer running away from the "evil people" was superbly captured and I could feel my heart racing. That feeling and emotion were certainly not as closed to what the Roald Dahl books have given me in the past.
So here is my verdict, I do think keeping it short and sweet is essential in book writing. And I do believe that the immaculate scenes can be shortened and proses can be removed to provide that same effect in a book. I tried doing this with one chapter of the John Grisham book to see if it still was able to provide the same output. I shrunk it down by 10 pages and my dad said it felt the same.
However, what cannot be shortened, and what cannot be simplified is the style and actual writing of the author. A summary is a summary but it's not the way a book can be written. A book has an organic process that is sworn by it. You have drafts after drafts and careful but extensive intentional clarity penned down so that it captures the full experience.
I have to say that I am guilty of this. I have written a few novels (yet to be published) over the last few months and I can tell you that I was free and unrelenting in keeping in long and elaborate. So it is not a short story like a novel but I just didn't want to simplify and start cutting lines intentionally. I wanted to be immersed in it what I was writing and I wanted the writing to capture the actual scene that was in my head, and so how it translated was not literally but very overtly exaggerated.
So my take is that yes short and sweet is the winner and short and sweet will appeal to the time constraint and attention deficit audience. And that could be something that the author does after a final draft. For me, I prefer keeping it as elaborate and as wide and open as I can think it. If it so happens that it forms itself into a novel or a 500-page paperback so be it, it was my process and how I was writing the story.