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.