I started writing this as a comment to my last post, in response to some of the very thoughtful and insightful comments some of you made. But I thought it made sense to bump this to the front page.
People are discussing how optimistic or pessimistic they feel in this economic environment. Is the glass half full or half empty? There are some in publishing right now who are happy to have a glass at all, never mind how full it is. (Nota bene to any of my writers who might be reading this: Don't worry. I've studied the crap out of every number I can find, and we're in good shape relative to the market.)
Books are still going to be purchased, though perhaps not in the same quantities. One thing we've got going for us -- and this is really a strong factor -- is that a mass market paperback still costs less than ten bucks. That's cheaper than a DVD, CD, video game, dinner out, movie with your spouse, and so on.
Consumers may have fewer extra ten dollar bills laying around for impulse or entertainment purchases, but a book is still a good entertainment value at that price point. Think about it. How long does it take you to read an eight dollar book? Six hours? Ten? You're looking at an average cost of a buck an hour, give or take a couple dimes. Not bad at all, really. What I think we'll be doing now is focusing on ways to inject extra value into the product by making the stories as big as possible, so that the six to ten hours are really exciting experiences.
So, what is big? It's a tricky concept to define. It's not about word count or the number of point of view characters, though big books sometimes have more of each. It's not about setting, though unusual settings can make a book feel bigger if those settings are interesting and entertaining and are thoroughly utilized in the plot. Any story or narrative element, properly leveraged, can enhance the bigness of a book.
But I think of big mostly as having to do with plot and character. Shopworn plots and stock characters will probably never feel big, no matter how much you exaggerate their emotions on the page. But legitimately big characters do unexpected things, and the other characters around them react accordingly. The plots reflect that willingness in the big characters -- they reach for things that lesser characters around them would never do. And always, those actions are solidly motivated.
Think of Don Corleone killing the horse. You know the old saw, never kill the cat? This is because heroic characters, protagonists, are supposed to protect the weak. And also because people get legitimately upset over things like animal cruelty, even when committed by a villain. Authors receive letters of complaint over that sort of thing. So why did Mario Puzo have his character kill a prize racehorse in a disgusting and gruesome way?
Because it was big. Because it demonstrated Don Corleone's power, and his ruthlessness in pursuit of a goal. Because his love for his godson is so deep and profound that it compelled him to commit this unspeakable act -- and because that love rendered the act understandable, even, in a perverted way, noble.
The act was shocking, properly motivated, evocative of character -- BIG.