Dear gang --
Okay, let’s jump right in with a subject that’s weighed heavily on my mind for years: one of the main reasons, in fact, why this year I’ve officially made the leap from full-time novelist to full-time editor.
So let me spell out my arguments, in easy-to-manage bite-sized chunks. They’ll be easier to talk about that way!
1) I think most genre novels are too long by half. And that it’s a serious problem. One that – if properly addressed – could help excite tons of new readers. And seriously improve the quality of most books, as well.
But unaddressed – as it is now – it keeps much of the genres marginalized, by knocking the overall quality way down.
2) I think, in most cases, their length is artificially inflated to meet a marketplace expectation that books should be 300-some pages long.
The problem is, most of them don’t have 300 great pages in ‘em. And so they’re forced to pad themselves out with all kinds of narrative and linguistic filler. (More on these in a moment.)
3) In my opinion, the tighter a book is, the better it’s likely to be. And I’m not just talking word-count here. I’m talking quality of word choice and idea.
As my friend Cody Goodfellow – one of the finest writers I know – has said, “Every word that makes it to the page needs to kill and drink the blood of every other weaker word.”
I know that’s hilariously Darwinian and ruthless. But that’s what great communication is all about.
And it’s sure as shit the soul of editing.
Let the best word win. The most apt phraseology. The thing that gets to the point, nails it hardest, and then moves on.
4) I’m not saying that all books need be sleek velocity rockets, stripped down to their most action-packed and exciting moments, relentlessly propelling the reader just as fast as their eyes and minds can go. Though that has a certain allure, and might make me want to buy it.
I am all in favor of such rocket-powered books – particularly if they’re aimed at something thoughtfully amazing – but not all writers and stories are built that way.
Nor should they be.
Some books need to take their time. Seem to meander, picking up stray details that pay off poetically in the prose, or add up in the macro-gestalt of the story. In other words, pay off.
Which is to say, they may seem to meander. But they’re just weaving a web, into which you will step, helplessly entangled before you even know what happened. That’s another great approach, requiring another remarkable skill set.
Point being: whether your story moves fast or slow – or best of all, cagily and seamlessly bounces between ‘em – you still need to maintain a gripping forward momentum.
Otherwise, why bother making it all the way to the end?
Which brings us to padding, filler, and useless fat: the psychic speed bumps that completely interrupt velocity, before we even get to the rocket.
5) So let me quickly spell out these sworn enemies of concision, which fuck up every book they touch. And – as the industry standard – routinely and daily fuck up tons of potentially far better books.
REDUNDANCY. In other words, telling us shit we already know, over and over, as if our attention span is so fruitfly-short that we won’t remember what happened three chapters ago if you don’t spell it all out again.
This is a form of velocity-killing flab I find so frequently that it qualifies as the Number One Killer of stories that might otherwise be good. The second it happens, I start to skim. Which is the death of the book, for me.
When I start skimming, I’m no longer reading. I am no longer gripped, from word to word. I feel like somebody is wasting my time, dragging it out instead of simply delivering.
That’s precisely where I put down the book. And move on to something else.
THE AIRHOSE UP THE ASS. That’s when you take a neat, simple, resonant premise – something that, stripped down to its essential ingredients and moving parts, could thrill you from beginning to end – and fluff it up with convoluted side-plots, red herrings, and characters that spend more time filling up space than actually propelling the story.
This is not an argument against layered storytelling. Layered storytelling is the best. I want a story to hit me from several directions at once, most of them unexpected. In fact, I demand it.
What I don’t want is a bunch of extraneous shit between me and the story you’re actually trying to tell.
Which is to say: the story you’re actually trying to tell is the only one I’m interested in. Side-tracking narrative threads might be interesting in their own right. But if they’re that interesting, maybe they should be their own stories.
And if they’re not, they don’t belong in any story. They’re like the personal asides a rambling, babbling drunk spills at a bar, which you put up with as long as you can stand, but ultimately either walk away from or flat-out tell him to cut to the chase.
It’s hugely important to know the difference between something that actually adds to the story, and something that digresses so mightily that you can’t even remember what the fucking story was.
Which might help explain – in combination – why so many authors need to remind you of the same shit, over and over.
Are we seeing a pattern here? I KNOW I AM!
More in my next installment, where I suggest some alternatives to these problems. And suggest why these alternatives might possibly work.
Until then, I look forward to your thoughts. And hope I have good answers at the ready.
Again: THANKS FOR STOPPING BY!
Yer pal in the literary trenches,