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.
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.
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).
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.
J. K. Rowling’s latest Cormoran Strike crime novel Lethal White has been criticised for being bloated. 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 loggorrhoea 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?”
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.
While this might work in 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.
In the winter of 2018, I 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 (?) 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 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 that you thought needed pruning?
How do you tackle bloat in your own writing?