Bloated Writing

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Paul Whybrow

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As writers, one of the most commonly given pieces of advice is to cut excess detail, pruning the flowery passages that looked so good when we wrote them in a euphoric burst of inspiration, our fingers a blur on the keyboard. Less is More is the mantra.

As the all-encompassing rule in his ten rules of writing, Elmore Leonard cryptically claimed "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Much as I love his books, his style is as bare and parched as a sun-bleached horse skull. Colette was equally blunt, but offered more of a clue about what's needed to avoid bloat.

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My first Cornish Detective novel The Perfect Murderer was written before I learnt about recommended word limits. I may have been swayed by reading two very long novels at the time, Donna Tartt's Secret History (193,000 words) and Neal Stephenson's Reamde (322,080 words). o_O

I queried agents with that story, eventually cottoning on to what was the main problem with my manuscript when one commented that although he loved the premise and my writing, it was simply too long. I edited it down by 40,000 words to 139,000. I may return to hack away more, though I can't see how without a major rewrite, as it's such a complex plot. Also, my two readers, merciless critics both, not given to pulling punches, didn't notice the length. This had me thinking that just as a well-proportioned athlete isn't considered obese, even if they're heavy, then a well-paced story disguises its length.

Just recently, J. K. Rowling's latest Cormoran Strike crime novel has been criticised for being bloated.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, review: JK Rowling's new novel

She does have form. It's worth remembering that, while her first Harry Potter novel came in close to the recommended word count of 80,000 for a debut by an unknown author, her second story was a bit longer, but then she embraced logorrhoea in a 'too much ain't enough' way!

1) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/ Sorcerer's Stone: 76,944 words.

2) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: 85,141 words.

3) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: 107,253 words.

4) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 190,637 words.

5) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: 257,045 words.

6) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: 168,923 words.

7) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 198,227 words.

The thing is, you don't criticise the goose that's laying the golden eggs—do you?

I was living in America when Harry Potter became a publishing phenomenon, and I read the first three novels to my then wife. We got one-third of the way through Goblet of Fire before giving up, as it was flabby and self-indulgent, disappearing up its own backside! ;)

J. K Rowling isn't the first author to take flak for verbosity. J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye was widely panned when published, with critics saying, among other things, that it was "too long" and "monotonous". When confronted with the six volumes of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Duke of Cumberland remarked to the author: "Another damned, thick square book...always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?"

At 1.5 million words long, Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past is an easy target for criticism: “I rack my brains why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”

As Ambrose Bierce observed: "The covers of this book are too far apart."

Having said that, these days, thanks partly to the success of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice, adapted into the epic Game of Thrones, there's been a whole slew of mega-novels in the Fantasy genre:

Fantasy must shake off the tyranny of the mega-novel

While this might work with Fantasy, as well as Science Fiction and historical novels, I can't help thinking that for other genres, it's got to be a case of diminishing returns for an author to spend years writing extremely long stories

I've just completed my fifth Cornish Detective novel, which comes in at 90,000 words—10,000 more than the previous three—but I'm OK with that, as it signifies a sea change in my protagonist's character. The plot included two new elements with my hero falling in love and lust, only to be in a fight to the death two days later, which sees him and his opponent on life support at the end of the book.

I'm hoping that by the time my faithful readers :rolleyes: have read the story arc of my detective, that they'll not mind a slightly longer tale. After all, previously published crime writers, such as Jussi Adler Olsson, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly write series that are as much portraits of their detective characters and their family lives, as they are about the investigation they're running. Readers read on because they've bonded with the protagonist, their relatives and their cohorts.

Have you read any stories by well-known authors that you thought needed pruning?

How do you tackle bloat in your own writing?

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I LOVED A Little Life, but it meandered a bit and lost me at times (it's lengthy) and I did feel it could have been pared down a good bit; while my all time favourite I Know This Much is True is of similar size (I would imagine) and I was unable to put it down. For me, a constrictive word count can extinguish a novel as easily as an inflated one. I understand it's a barometer for publishers but I hate any kind of controlled confines outside of which you cannot work. It makes creating a joyless, formulaic experience for the creator and the audience.
 
I can't say I've ever been troubled by writing bloat. Generally the opposite.
My writing tends to be a bit on the sparse side if the truth be told. I include generally only what is required for the story and plot. I'm not great on vast wodges of description like some writers, favouring action and meaningful dialogue, with a sprinkling of important description where needed.
As a result my first drafts are usually quite slim and on rewrite I start to elaborate the setting, character descriptions and period information.
Maybe this is wrong way to go about writing a novel but it works for me.
Besides, often by the time I get to the end of the first draft I know my characters and settings so much better than at the start and so have more details to be included in the earlier sections of the novel, hence the rewrite.
 
I have read all of the Game of Thrones books and found them very good. I can't say that they were bloated though. There is an awful lot happening in them.
However, the Earths Children series by Jean M Auel, which I have also read and like, does have a lot of what would be called bloat. There are long sections of descriptions of the landscape, flora, fauna, peoples and processes which are described in what some people might describe as tedious detail. Also Auel has a habit of repeating herself a lot in her books when describing certain things about her main character Ayla. Sometimes these are almost word for word copies from the last book, which can be a bit tedious to read again and again.
 
I had no issues with the Harry Potter series, including the longer books, because she kept my interest all the way through. While I realize not everyone agrees with me, it only reinforces the fact that this industry is highly subjective.

I think a debut author can have success with a book that has a higher word count than the current genre defines, if it's a fabulous voice with engaging characters. I've never had an issue with reading a long book that kept my interest. The ones that didn't, it wouldn't have mattered what the word count was. I wouldn't have read until the end anyway.

The Catcher in the Rye was mind-numbingly boring, IMHO. Was forced to read it in high school. If it had a word count of ten I still would have found it difficult to get through. LOL!

Fantasy readers have unique preferences. They want to know the details of every button on that jacket, and what color each horse is. :) This is, again, where knowing your target audience comes into play.
 
T.H. White's The Once and Future King was 287K words. As a kid, I loved the story, but it certainly was a long slog.

More recently, Alexandra Bracken's The Darkest Minds was 121K words. I thought it dragged in the middle, but it was still a best seller, became a movie, and the author went on to sign a 4 book deal with Disney a couple of years ago.

Lots of audiences demand shorter works, but there are also plenty of people who claim to feel ripped off when a book is too short, as if they don't think they got their money's worth, even if they liked the story.

Like all things, I imagine 'bloat' is to some degree in the eye of the beholder.
 
I write sparse. Doesn't mean I don't sometimes axe thousands of words at a time (they can be the wrong words without being too many), but I'm generally not guilty of bloat. I agree with @Carol Rose--if the story and the writing capture me, I'll read very long works, and if they don't, I won't read them no matter how short. The great thing is there's an audience for just about anything--sparse, bloated, and everything in between. I was at a conference a few years ago and a writer unapologetically explained that she writes purple prose, because she likes it, and she knows there are other people who like it, and popular opinion be damned. As they say, write the story you want to read.
 
I'm having a moment of cosmic twin-ship with @Carol Rose. I, too, didn't mind the length of Goblet of Fire. It could certainly benefit from more judicious editing, but it didn't put me off reading it.
Likewise, I really couldn't engage with The Catcher In The Rye. It felt too long, but only because I couldn't muster any sympathy or interest for the protagonist and his situation.
I agree with @Tim James both about Game Of Thrones (long, but gripping) and Earth's Children (too repetitive in places, with the problem getting worse as the series went on).
Donna Tartt's books could be criticised for being longer than they need to be, but again, I've enjoyed them a great deal, extraneous details and all.
It really is so subjective. If a book is good, who cares how long it is? I love getting my teeth into a good tome and would usually prefer a big read to, say, sort stories.
 
Are you sure epic fantasy has made a comeback? Or, are you sure fantasy authors stopped writing. This is very confusing information.

I believe you have to earn my attention. Therefore, unless you're god, I think a first novel over 80k is not the brightest move. If after the first novel, it turns out you're not god (or JK Rowling) then its probably not a good idea to increase your word count. If you're really that great of a writer, you can certainly break the story up.

Tim James and Carol Rose are right. Epic fantasy fans like to spend time in their worlds. Its my belief that there are less and less of these fans every year but in general, I wouldn't call the writing bloated simply because it's a high word count. They are often stories which take place on several different levels. There's often a romance, politics, adventure, supernatural magical battles... they often need the words.
 
As @Amber says, Epic Fantasy and Epic SciFi (Which also run to hundreds of thousands of words per book, look at the likes of Peter Hamilton) tend to need the high word count to create and maintain the unfamiliar worlds of their story and characters. They also as has been said have multiple main characters, plot lines and story arcs, so they need the high word count. This also tends to be expected by their readership. I know that when I buy the latest Peter Hamilton epic I'm in for a really good read for a couple of weeks.
If I pick up a crime novel, I'm expecting something a fair bit shorter but no less or more interesting.
The problem is when the verbosity and quantity of the writing doesn't fit the genre or expectations of the target readership.
 
I also agree with what has been said about debut novels. You would have to be either very sure of the excellence of your writing, or very foolish to try to push a debut novel that is longer than about 100,000 words, probably in any genre. If it's Epic fantasy you really want to write, write a very good normal length one first. If the Epic Fantasy publisher comes back saying they like it but feel it's too short for the genre then let rip and write a full length one.
 
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