YER PAL, SKIPP!

Making Wild Books, Movies, and Waves In the New Frontier


Previous Entry Share Next Entry
DUDE, YOUR BOOK LOOKS FAT! (ON THE MORBID OBESITY OF GENRE FICTION, PART I)
johnskipp

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.

Here’s why:

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,

Skipp


Really enjoyed your thoughts and this is a great reminder to keep a tight focus on the story being told. I have caught myself repeating sometimes when I go through an edit and think, "Idiot!" So thanks for the reminder!

as a reader: DEAR LORD, PLEASE BLESS MR. SKIPP, ABUNDANTLY AND FREQUENTLY, WITH LISTENERS OF THIS GOSPEL!

It's true. Sometimes people say that the writing of an excellent 50,000-word novel is a lost art. I think there are plenty of people out there writing great 50,000-word novels. They're just enmeshed with another 50,000-word novel that's all about the same characters raising their eyebrows and sipping their drinks and opening and closing doors and dreaming and having sex.

Masterton's "The Devils of D-Day" -243pgs. Herbert's "The Survivor" -207pgs. Probably not considered literary masterpieces, but they are tight, damned entertaining reads. I believe that in today's world of short attention spans and sound byte mentalities, an author has one strike against them putting a behemoth on the shelf. Very few people want to bunker down with a monster-huge book these days. It's lazy reading, but there you go.

Couldn't agree with you more, Skip. Excellent post. Fat books have been a particular annoyance for me for many years. I think some of it is due to the decline of the editor in genre fiction. So many of them simply do not edit effectively as in year's past. One area of publishing that does have effective editing is young adult fiction. Compare the general length of most young adult books to any historical/fantasy/sf books and you'll see what I mean. I've read more young adult books in the past two years than I have in the past two decades.

Dear Kelly -- Good! KEEP REMEMBERING!

Dear Sam -- THANKS! This is a prayer of which I approve!

Dear Nick -- Perfectly said. It's like there's this great novel, completely smothered in this endlessly blithering novel, and they've been horribly grafted together like a botched surgery, a gene-splice experiment gone tediously wrong.

Dear D -- It's not lazy reading. It's lazy writing and editing.

Dear Ricky -- Yes, yes, and yes. YA books often seem like the only books being edited at all. It's part of why they sell so well. More on this and other matters, quite possibly tonight!

Good post. This is why I stopped buying fantasy books several years ago. Now I borrow them from the library and if it is something that I will want to read again, then I go to the bookstore and buy it. Unfortunately, it is rare that this happens with anything I have checked out from the SciFi and Fantasy bookshelf. :(

@dillett, I would be absolutely delighted to hunker down with a monster thick book if it held my attention and wasn't filled with a lot of blahblahblah. Other genres of fiction publish thick books and they aren't filled with a lot of blahblahblah.

Excellent points all around. I find myself to be a fairly easy to please reader, but filler is the one thing that always stood out for me as a turn-off.

A big part of it's not just boredom, but because I know that the extraneous bits are there to reach a word-count. Once I start thinking about a word-count and--by extension--the writer (or publisher), I'm not thinking about their plot or characters.

Just to clarify, I wasn't disagreeing here, I was merely trying to offer an additional thought on why it might not be a good idea to go with a big book. Maybe I didn't think it through well enough, or express myself very well. My apologies if I've offended anyone with this opinion.

Locals looking for you Go Here welcomemyhomecat.blogspot.com

You are viewing johnskipp