Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Considering Lao American Manuscripts: How big should they be?

How big does my book need to be?

That was one of the questions that I got asked by several different people throughout the 3rd National Lao American Writers Summit in San Diego. How long do your books and stories needed to be to get published. So, here are a few of my thoughts to start with.

There’s no hard and fast official rule about what constitutes the “correct” length of a story or a book of poetry. A good story should be written long enough to say what it needs to say, not one word more, not one word less. Though, obviously, many of us violate this principle regularly.

There's a particular question for us that emerges as Lao American readers and Lao American writers that should recognize that this is uncharted territory, with some challenges ahead. The standards we establish for ourselves for our preferred style of books and poems may well not be the ones that become popular for our communities in France, Australia, Canada, London, Bangkok, etc. I don't think that will make us less Lao for it, but we'll see who history agrees with in the end.

Thus far, I would say that short fiction, verging on micro-fiction, is the more popular form among Lao writers judging from the work of the late Outhine Bounyavong and his classic Phaeng Mae, Mother's Beloved. Phone-book sized memoirs or folktale collections, not so much. Which I do find interesting, given the Lao literary tradition for a love of epics such as Sinxay or Manola & Sithong, Keo Na Ma or Phra Lak Phra Lam. But then again, look at many of the popular songs in Lao culture, and one would think we've come to a point where we can say a lot in three to five minutes.

In the rest of the literary world, however, here are some possibilities to consider:

Novels: 40,000-50,000 words is usually considered the minimum qualifying threshold. (160 pages). Of course a lot of people get intimidated by the trend of authors to crank out miniature phone-books.

Novellas: 17,500 to 40,000 words, or about 70 to 160 pages.

Novelettes: 7,500 to 17,500 words, or 30 to 70 pages.

Short Stories:
Under 7,500 words. Special categories include drabbles at 100 words, and flash fiction is usually considered under 300 words. A dribble is considered 50 words or less.

A comic book, on the other hand, is typically 32 pages, with about 28 pages of art and story and the rest featuring ads, letters to the editor, and other things the publisher needs to include. Sometimes it includes alternate art, and so on. But that's a conversation that deserves a separate blog post in the future.

When it comes to poetry, I prefer to go by the standards in the US roughly set by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Science Fiction Poetry Association because there are several awards and fellowships that are available to texts that meet these guidelines:

Full-length Poetry Book: 48 pages minimum by the US NEA standard.

Chapbook of Poetry:
10-39 pages.

Long Poem: 50+ lines and/or 500+ words.

Short Poem: Under 50 lines and/or 500+ words.

Children’s book lengths can vary considerably depending on the age group you’re looking at, but roughly speaking, most of the ones our readers are familiar with are well under 32 pages and usually under 400 words. This will change depending on the subject and the author.

Werner Herzog recently reminded me why I dread people who tell me they've written thousands and thousands of pages for their novels and memoirs. Roughly paraphrasing him: "We're not garbage collectors."

Our task is to capture the most stirring and essential imagery and feelings of our imagination and experience and commit them to paper, to film, whatever medium we are working in. We should all loathe the overwritten. A big rookie mistake is thinking you have to kitchen sink your experience, distill it into one book as of it will be your last. If you write like that, it often will be.

But let’s get this conversation going. What are some of your other questions you have about the books you’re thinking of writing, and the types of books you’d like to see?

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