Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bloat

Since I had a cold, I took it easy over the holidays. I didn't manage much during this time other than visiting friends, watching videos, and reading books.

Much of my time was occupied reading one book in particular, a big thick science fiction novel of recent vintage, written by an author much esteemed by me (and by many others), and I finished it just as Charlie Stross initiated a discussion on his blog concerning why SF and fantasy titles have grown so freaking huge. The book I read stands as a case in point.

The work that occupied so much of my time was big--- more than 500 pages. The book would have been enormously better if someone had cut 200 of those pages--- in fact it wouldn't just have been better, it would have been an instant classic of the field.

For 150 of those pages, the characters just went off somewhere. It's as if I were writing a detailed, interesting story taking place in, say, Los Angeles. And then I had the entire cast pick up and go to Las Vegas for a week, and then for 150 pages I described every single thing that happend to those people while they were in Vegas, and then at the end of that time I returned them all to L.A. Nothing crucial happened while they were in Vegas, and the characters were the same people at the end of the trip than they had been at the beginning. They just spent 150 pages--- an entire novel's worth of narrative--- doing nothing that advanced either the story or our knowledge of the characters. (Okay, they may have had some interesting conversations, but they didn't say anything that couldn't have been said in the parts of the book where things were happening.) All the important exposition happens elsewhere, all the important character development happens prior to the trip.

And for that matter, the pacing in the rest of the book is pretty slow, too.

What the hell is going on here? Why is this bloat allowed to infect what would otherwise have been a fascinating story that would have kept me riveted to my chair? Didn't anyone notice that there were problems?

First of all, there was the author who wrote all those extra words. I can only assume that she/he felt they were necessary. What could the author have been thinking?

I've been known to write a bit long myself. (Ahem) And when I did, it was generally because I'd got stuck somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska. In order to get from Point A to Point Zed, I felt it necessary to travel through all the points in between.

Sometimes it is in fact necessary. But sometimes you can just open the next chapter with, "After he had stepped off the bus from Nebraska . . . " And if you can, you should.

Often when you see a lot of extra words, you can often blame the fact that the author's writing too fast. Or, as Blaise Pascal put it, "The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter." There are so many extra words because you're hurling them at the page as fast as you can type, without doing any real thinking about any of them. True craft requires time and thought, and if you don't have either of these things, then you'd better hope you can carry your readers along on energy.

I don't think that's what happened in this case. I think the author was so in love with her/his creation that he/she simply couldn't let go of it until she/he had told us every damn thing he/she knew. (It's as if L. Frank Baum had put everything he knew about Oz into the first book.) In which case Faulkner's "Kill your darlings" rule applies. Or Sam. Johnson's, "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

It's the job of the editor, of course, to spot any problems in the text, and a 150-page-long problem is awfully hard to miss. So let's assume that the editor observed this problem. What happened then?

It's possible that the author simply refused to make changes. There certainly are such authors, people who insist that their words are sacred and that no one has the right to tamper with them. I've heard it said that Stephen King is such a writer, and the fact that he brought a book like The Stand back into print with all the extra bits that a judicious editor had previously made him cut makes a case for this.

I know the author of this book, though not particularly well. I suspect she/he is open to editing, but I don't actually know.

But if the final version of the book wasn't caused by the closed-mindedness of the author, how did the catastrophe come about?

Probably because editors don't seem to actually have the time to edit any longer. They've got a long list of books to publish every month, and their assistants have been fired as a cost-cutting measure and never replaced, and the book got dumped on their desk after another editor was fired, left, or got promoted. Plus they've got editorial board meetings where they throw the numbers around, and lunches with authors and agents, and meetings where they try to get the sales force pumped about the next quarter's books. (In other words, it's become the job of the editors to convince the sales force to do their job, the one they're being paid to do. Apparently if the sales folks are less than enthusiastic about the lead title, they don't try to sell it and they get paid anyway. Is there any other industry where this happens?)

Or the book was being published on a tight schedule and a major rewrite was impossible given the time frame. (When I first began writing, I was shocked to learn that nobody in publishing seemed to give a damn about deadlines. You could be late, it wasn't a big problem, they only got mad if you didn't tell them. But now, if you hand in a book a couple weeks late, you've lost your slot in the publishing schedule and you've probably lost all the promotion budget as well. When and how and why did that change happen?)

Anyway, it's sad. Because it's not just this book that has a problem with bloat and lack of focus, it's practically every other book I read in this field. Major writers--- major talents--- seem to have lost all skills when it comes to plotting and pacing.

And the books have far too many point-of-view characters, too.

I got so cheesed off at this kind of thing that I went and started the Taos Toolbox workshop in order to teach people how to plot. (You'd think that this post is a commercial for Toolbox, but it isn't, because I'm not doing one this year, I've got too much work.)

There are some days when I really want a job as an editor. I wouldn't just red-pencil stuff, I'd get a big paintbrush and paint whole chapters red. If the authors objected I'd paint them red. I'd axe characters, I'd demand that writers actually put endings on their books. I'd make them resolve the plot. I'd make them finish the story they started in the first place instead of starting a whole new novel halfway through. I'd chop all the scenes where the characters are wandering around Kansas or Nebraska.

And the main thing is, I'd cut about 200 pages from the middle of most of the books. Because those pages don't actually do anything except kill the trees they're printed on, they have no business being there because it's all one long stall until the end.

When you run out of story, end the book. Don't write another 200 pages, just end the freaking book! How hard can that be, people?

I almost dread reading SF now, because I know it's going to be such a hard slog. And I love SF, or at least I used to. I'm an SF person. I think like an SF person, I live like an SF person, I write SF for a living.

But I don't read it much anymore. Because, y'know, life is too damn short to spend it slogging through the bloat.





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24 Comments:

Blogger Phiala said...

I just read the same book, I think. Although "too many viewpoint characters" doesn't apply to the version I read.

Although, really, this volume instilled more thoughts of "this is really long, but so much more cohesive than previous REALLY REALLY long with lots of viewpoints volumes that I enjoyed but couldn't finish".

I've wondered about editing in the larger sense lately, though. The author I'm referring to can write and think, which helps to hide the need for editing from the reader. But others can't (as well) and are published anyway, with books that would be really pretty good with some competent outside help.

Is there no more time to for competent outside help? I think that step is essential, because writers get attached to their works (or at least I certainly do), and simultaneously too sick of them to open another page, and thus are the wrong people to do a lot of broad editing.

4:29 AM  
Blogger Oz said...

I have no clue what book you're referring to, but there you go again, slamming Kansas and Nebraska!

Told you to read short stories instead.

Oz

4:41 AM  
Blogger Dave Bishop said...

As a reader I have to agree with everything you say!

I read a 'Space Opera' recently in which several characters and plot threads disappeared about half-way through - never to re-appear. The whole thing got bogged down in what was a minor, and not very interesting, plot thread and sort of tailed off (at great length) to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion. My impression was that the author was very ambitious but didn't really have the skill and/or talent to fulfill his ambitions.

4:50 AM  
OpenID mindseas said...

I recently had a similar experience with a book from an author I used to love. I stopped reading halfway through.

No Taos Toolbox this year? That's too bad, but good that you're busy.

Bonnie

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Lawrence M. Schoen said...

I'm disheartened to read that you won't be offering the Toolbox this year. After our conversation at Balticon last May, I was very much looking forward to applying. Bother.

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Rebecca S. said...

I've had similar reactions to things I've read lately. Most recent was a looong space opera that's part of a series--it suffered from bloat, too many POVs, and a bunch of small but irritating errors that should have been caught in copyediting: misuse of words ("adverse" for "averse") and the like. It was a compelling story that was unreasonably hard to follow, and that failed to hold my interest, largely because it was unnecessarily decked out with a lot of digressions, subplots, and extras. I kept thinking, "This is the kind of book I love. Why am I not enjoying it?" And then, "Why am I still reading it?"

There are a lot of good editors in the world, although their ability to do their job is increasingly vitiated by the factors you cite. But many of those who are moving up in the profession these days (to the extent that anyone is moving in the profession) don't really see improving books as part of their jobs. In some cases they lack both the skills and the inclination; they are focused on getting product on shelves. Too bad.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Oz said...

I forgot to say that the bloat you're speaking of is one of the reasons Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet by Greg Frost stand out this past year. These are novels that were kept lean and mean instead of spreading every which way as a typical fantasy tome does. The world is incredibly rich and Greg has told me that it was difficult to maintain a tight focus (in spite of the embedded fairy tales). He did the work of keeping the draft lean. And yes, it took him longer to do that.

Oz

7:59 AM  
OpenID idiotgrrl said...

If this is the book I'm thinking of, the road trip was less Kansas-Nebraska than it was Alaska-Siberia, which is a tad more interesting; and the author is famous (or infamous) for bloat and including all his darlings and cleverness and the rest. Remember that trilogy subtitled "More about the 17th Century than anyone ever wanted to know?"

Pat

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Urban said...

I actually know people who, incredibly enough, like buying thick books "because it's better value for money".

Me, I'm less likely to take a chance on a book if it looks bloated if I'm not familiar with the author.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Ian McDowell said...

Would you say this happens in other genres as well, or is it mostly an SF/fantasy thing?

Clearly, it's a problem with Stephen King, no matter what kind of book he's writing, but I didn't particularly notice it in two of the only three horror novels I've read this decade, Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box and Max Brooks' World War Z. The third, John Ajvide Lindqvist's bestselling (in Europe) Let Me In/Let the Right One In (the originally mistranslated title was changed back to the Morrissey quote for the paperback movie tie-in), might have been improved from a bit of cutting (the superior film adaptation, easily the best movie I saw in 2008, benefits from a tighter focus), but the bloat wasn't of Stephen King proportions and my interest didn't flag.

Judging from Appaloosa and its sequel, Robert Parker has stayed lean and mean -- indeed, I got bored with his Spenser series many years ago, but my father has been complaining about his recent ones being "too short." More serious modern crime writers like Lehane and Pellicanos doesn't seem to suffer from extraneous fatty tissue, nor does Richard Price, whose Clockers remains the classic modern literary policier (bits of it were borrowed for various Wire episodes, notably Kima's "Goodnight, hoppers" speech).

I don't think it's any accident that Neil Gaiman's best prose novels, Coraline and The Graveyard Book, were both Juveniles, a marketing category that's still expected to be concise. Bloat does seem to be creeping into Young Adult fantasies.

(I'm not posting from my blogger account because the goddam router is refusing to connect to Google, which means I had to access Walter's blog via his webpage and that I can't log into my own)

11:21 AM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

Mostly latter day writers are clueless that writing a book means drafting, rewriting, revising, editing, cutting, and polishing.

We cut 65,000 words out of the latest ms, and rewrote, revised, polished all the way along. It reads tight, it reads easy, it reads solid, it reads fun, and it is not fiction either.

As for the sales force: if they can't sell books they DO loose their jobs. It's really hard to sell books these days, now that the chains are going under -- and the chains have been demanding payola for so long from the publishers to endcap titles or even carry some of them.

Publishing and bookselling, other than amazon and the internet used book sites, seem still to be in the 19th century.

Love, c.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

I can even think of an entire novel in a beloved series that was entirely going here there and back again, and the consequences were nada. An entire novel! Of a series that is already overlong. When that happens I quit reading that writer.

It's happened far more often than me continuing to read a writers in these decadent latter daze.

YA is bloating hugely. I have in mine hands for instance a title from the Young Readers Imprint of Very Large and Venerable trade publisher that is the second installment of a series that is over 700 pp, including appendices. Not just an appendix, but appendices.

Love, C.

4:13 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Ian, I don't see bloat as a problem confined to SF and fantasy. Romance novels used to be tidy little 60,000-word morsels, and now they are Vast. Those hot 80-page sex scenes take up a lot of room!

Mysteries have generally kept to a reasonable length--- the strictures of the form have kept the books from expanding too much--- but mainstream thrillers of the Richard North Patterson and Jeffrey Archer type are very very large, especially as compared with old-style thrillers like those written by Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley.

The book I read did not have too many viewpoint characters, but it's a problem I often see elsewhere.

Pat, I think we're thinking of different books. I have been avoiding your guy for a while now.

Now shall we all share a sigh for the final Harry Potter book? All of that, and it led up to . . . =this.=

4:35 PM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

Walter, yeah, I was vaguely aware of the bloat in Romance, although it's not a genre I read. And Techno Thrillers certainly seem bloated, from the look of them on the stands, although it's been years since I read one. The stuff I think of as Upscale Men's Action, such as Robert Parker and Stephen Hunter, has stayed lean and mean, and that's also true of more ambitious Modern Noir guys like Price, Pelicanos and Lehane (whom I think of as The Wire Triumverate, since they all wrote for the show). I haven't read James Patterson or Harlan Coben (although I loved the recent French film of TELL NO ONE), so I can't comment on them.

Parker's APPALOOSA and its sequel REDEMPTION are nicely terse Westerns, but I don't know if such concision holds true for the rest of the genre. Besides, is anyone other than Parker even writing commercially successful Westerns these days?

I'd guess that Dan Brown's books are pretty damn bloated, but I also suspect I'd find them Too Damn Long even if they were the length of a 50s John D. MacDonald paperback original.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Hildo said...

I read the same book and felt it was 400 pages of story in 900 pages of book - with the rest being extraneous dialogue. I assumed the editors felt that a bigger book would sell equally well and that cutting it down wasn't worth their time - thus wasting the time of the many readers.

6:39 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

I absolutely love a long, epic book when it's done well. The problem is, it's extremely difficult to do well. George R.R. Martin (I'm naming names, but only because I'm handing out compliments) does it very well in A Song of Ice and Fire, I think, and Ian McDonald's River of Gods was a masterpiece that would easily have been absolute crap in the hands of a lesser writer.

(Though I suppose that's true of all the masterpieces.)

6:55 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

I should point out that the book that started this rant was full of Cool Stuff, really super-gnarly ideas that just crackled with chocolaty excitement. Cool Stuff is pretty much what I read for, and when I started the book I was totally stoked.

If it hadn't been for the Cool Stuff, I never would have got to the end. But when I got there, the Cool Stuff just didn't seem enough, somehow.

7:32 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Constance, all I know about the sales staff is that they're always rejecting my best ideas. The editor tells me, "The sales staff will never understand this," and that's that, another fine novel that will never see the light of day.

7:35 PM  
Blogger halojones-fan said...

Blame Robert Jordan. Each successive book that he wrote was longer, and each successive book was more popular than the last. Therefore, in the minds of the moneyed idiots who run the media business, length is equal to popularity.

As for the sales staff: The Internet, you're soaking in it. Be YOUR OWN sales staff.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Perry said...

I'm pretty sure I read the book you're talking about but I interpenetrated the extraneous 150 pages tied on to the otherwise phenomenal tale as some kind of allegory for my own story... vital energy sapped on a tangent.

Editors dropping the ball is par for the course, just look at the Bible.

12:40 AM  
Anonymous Melinda Snodgrass said...

What a great rant, Walter, and so true -- so very true. Coming from screenwriting I really appreciate brevity. Tell me the story, find an iconic scene to exemplify what the character is experiencing -- don't tell me over and over what they're experiencing. Say the words, don't play hide the football. And _entertain me because that's your job as an author_.

Or as I've said a few times in the middle of a book -- "I sure wish the author would blow some sh** up because I'm really bored now."

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just recently re-read Jack Vance Planet of Adventure series. I was astounded by the amount of storytelling that can be done in 150 - 200 pages.

5:32 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Y'know, there's a little ghetto-within-the-ghetto set of shelves in the sf/fantasy section of most bookstores that's stocked with mmpb originals in the 60K-90K range. They're tightly edited, plot-driven, and generally have distinct beginnings, middles, and ends. I'm talking about media tie-ins, of course, and while there's a whole set of conversations to be had about them, most of them can't be abused of bloat.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

The real problem with the size of these books is they can do actual damage to household items when I fling them across the room in frustration. 14 pages for a guy to ride a bike and see a blimp. 10 pages of a math thereem. Even academics write more tersely than that.

2:13 PM  

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