Sunday, October 10, 2010

Analyzing Harry Harrison's "The Stainless Steel Rat" - Part 1

Michael Salsbury
One of my favorite science-fiction books is Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat. It tells the story of James Bolivar "Slippery Jim" DiGriz, an interstellar criminal. DiGriz eludes the police after a successful caper, only to be captured on his next venture by an elite police unit called "The Special Corps". The Special Corps recruits him to help them catch other, more dangerous criminals. On his first assignment, he encounters a lovely but homicidal woman named Angelina. He spends most of the novel chasing her down, eventually falling in love with her. This makes turning her in a tough proposition, especially when she admits to caring for him.

In various writing books and seminars, it has been suggested that fledgling novelists take the time to examine the works of their favorite authors to study their craft and learn from it. Last night, I re-read Harrison's book with an eye toward learning what I could from it. I'm going to share my analysis of the book here.  It may help other novelists improve their craft as well.

Statistical Breakdown

Author Michael A. Stackpole suggested that novelists become familiar with several writing statistics to help ensure that their novels are publishable, accessible to readers, and hard to put down. Among the suggestions he offered:

  • Novels should be between 80,000 and 100,000 words long. Longer novels have been published, but usually by established, best-selling authors like Stephen King.

  • Sentences should average 12 words in length across the novel.  Naturally, sentence length should vary, but it should average around 12 words.  Longer sentences will tend to lose readers.

  • Chapters should be approximately 2,500 words long on average.

  • Readability scores like the Gunning-Fog index, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, and the like should place your novel in the 8th grade reading level and as "easy to read" as is appropriate for the material.

I want to point out that Stackpole did NOT suggest that these were hard and inflexible rules. They are merely guidelines to help you identify possible problems.  For example, in "The Rules of Writing", Stackpole says:

The point of this rule is not to drive you insane by having you count words and agonize over word selection.  It's more of a diagnostic.  If you find a scene lagging, or a character not reading true, then you should go in and look at your sentence structures, lengths, word choices and the like. A little tinkering there can solve a plethora of problems, and set you up for avoiding them in the future.

Given Stackpole's suggested guidelines, I decided to analyze Harrison's novel using an electronic copy of the text and software that computes various readability measures. Here's what I learned about The Stainless Steel Rat:

  • The novel is approximately 52,000 words long. This makes it quite a bit shorter than Stackpole's recommended length, but Harrison's novel was first published in 1961. Its size is fairly typical for science-fiction novels of its day.

  • It consists of 19 chapters with an average length of 2,744 words. That's only about 10% higher than Stackpole's recommendation but not far out of line.

  • The average sentence length is 14 words. This is two words longer than the recommended length, but again not far out of line.  The main character in The Stainless Steel Rat is a bit full of himself and is intended to be seen as quite intelligent, so the longer sentences make some sense.

  • Its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level rating is 6.94. This means that a seventh grade student should be able to understand the story.

  • Its Gunning-Fog Index is 9.75 (where 6 is "easy to read" and 20 is "hard to read"). This means the story is relatively easy to read by this measure.

  • Its Flesch-Kincaid Readability index is 73.04. A story in the 60-70 range is accessible to most students aged 15-16.

  • Its SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) index is 9.81 (which means anyone with a ninth grade education should be able to understand it)

  • Its Coleman-Liau Readability Index is 7.97. This implies that someone with an eigth grade education should be able to read it.

These results validate what Stackpole suggests in his seminars.  Harrison's writing certainly comes very close to Stackpole's suggested guidelines.

Below is a graph of the length of each chapter in the novel. The vertical axis represents the number of words in the chapter, and the horizontal axis represents each individual chapter in the book. As you can see, Harrison does a good job of varying the chapter length, while keeping the overall average at 2744.

Of course, all this statistical analysis is only a high-level look at the novel. Just stringing together sentences and paragraphs that generate the same statistics isn't going to get you a published novel. Of much greater importance is the craft with which the story is told.

Coming Up in Part 2

In Part 2, I plan to examine the "hooks" that Harrison used at the beginning and end of the chapters in his book. I'm curious to see how he made The Stainless Steel Rat such a page-turner for me. I also hope to look at how he used the often-discussed "showing versus telling" technique to enhance his novel.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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