Sorry about last week. Still juggling a few things and the ranty blog drew the short straw. It happens. Many thanks for your patience.
It’s not that I didn’t have an idea. There was a solid idea. And there was enough to fill a regular post (about three and a half pages).
Sometimes I don’t have as much, though, and that’s okay, too. There’s been more than a few times that I’ve jotted off a quick page or so and called it good. It’s not like the ranty blog has any guidelines about length.
A lot of markets do, though. Anthologies, magazines, and journals often have specific minimums and maximums in mind. Most publishers (big and small) are going to have pretty firm ideas about what counts as a novella or a novel. And what doesn’t.
The catch, of course, is that sometimes my story just doesn’t fit with a certain market. This isn’t a judgment, just a simple fact. Sometimes SUVs are too big for garages. Sometimes my car is too small for the bookshelf I’m trying to move. If I try to claim the people who make bookshelves are biased against my car… well, I’ll look pretty silly.
But you’re not here to listen to me blab about bookshelves. I’m supposed to talk about what goes on the bookshelves.
Sometimes I might really want to place a story somewhere and it just isn’t the right size. Even if it’s my choice to self publish, it’s safe to say most folks are going to feel cheated if my “book” is only 40,000 words. What I used to do in this case, and what I’ve seen a few people do recently, is to artificially inflate things.
Inflation is, no big surprise, when I try to make something bigger by adding more of the same. It’s when I come up with ways to make every ten word sentence reach fifteen or twenty words. Or when a two page conversation stretches out to a whole chapter. Or when I segue away from the main plot for a while and just kind of put it on hold until I get back.
These things aren’t happening because of poor editing. Well, okay, a bit because of poor editing. Really, they’re happening because I’m stretching to reach a goal that my story really wasn’t intended to reach. At least, not in it’s current form. So the story starts to lose its flow and spin its wheels a bit as the reader waits for… well, things to happen.
Let me give you an example…
Monday is the tenth anniversary of the premiere of LOST. Yep, on September 22, 2004, Oceanic Flight 815 broke up in the air and crashed on an uncharted island in the South Pacific. The thing is, they were only supposed to be there for three years. Four tops. But LOST was a huge show for ratings and the network didn’t want it to end. So, the story started to inflate. And inflate a little more. And a little more. And it started to flail because it was clear to even the most devoted fans of the show that a number of these third and fourth season stories were just… well, filler. And once the end was in sight it all started to tighten up again.
I used to do this a lot. It was a standard part of my storytelling, to have pointlessly long conversations or needlessly elaborate descriptions. But I eventually figured out this was all just fat on the meat of my story (sorry, vegetarian readers). Now I cut all of that, and I can’t help but notice my success rate with placing stories and books has gone quite a bit higher since I did this.
It also made me more aware of what my stories were. Some of my ideas were executed in a way that pretty solidly made them short stories. One or two of them were novellas. Many of them were novels. And there were one or two I thought were novels that, well, they were novellas at best. The number of characters and plot points, the way I’d structured the whole tale… it really didn’t work for a larger format. But I forced them into that format by inflating them rather than expanding them.
Here’s a couple of things I learned to look for that could be signs of inflation…
Repeating information—This can take many forms, and in a way I’d guess more than half the cases of inflation I’ve seen burn down to this. Sometimes it’s revisiting the same information with no variation. Sometimes it’s characters repeating a certain phrase again and again for no real reason. I just finished one book where a woman keeps reminding everyone again and again and again that “I have a schedule to keep.” Honestly, I could’ve cut two solid pages out of the book just by removing half the instances of that phrase.
There’s a writing idea I’ve mentioned before—something we don’t know is information, something we already know is noise. This method of padding means a manuscript full of noise.
Overly detailed descriptions—There’s two common versions of this. One is a massive over-description of characters or objects or locations. Two pages of irrelevant details about someone’s suitcase or the inside of a diner—no matter what some folks try to say, that’s just an attempt to stretch things out and it’s putting the plot and story on hold while I do.
The other version is when I have a very complex set of actions like baking a cake or fixing a car or performing an operation and I describe every single step. Every teaspoon, every bolt, every cut. Granted, there are times I want to describe all this because I’m trying to build tension. If I need to seal four bolts to keep the charging insurgents on the other side of this hatch, I’m going to describe every turn of the wrench and every time the threads catch. But if there isn’t a need for such immediate tension, odds are this is just filler.
Elaborate Action—This kind of ties to the above. Some folks write the most over-detailed action scenes ever. Each and every punch is described in painstaking anatomical detail. Every time my pistol fires involves a list of facts about the action, the ammunition, and the sensation of recoil in exact foot-pounds. As above, there are moments for this sort of thing. A trained NSA agent probably isn’t going to have the same thoughts about firing a weapon that a suburban house-husband does. But if it’s every moment, it’s just padding and it’s monotone.
Overuse of names–Repeating names flattens out dialogue. I’ve mentioned in the past that it’s just not natural to use someone’s name in every other response of a conversation. So this is artificially adding to the word count and ruining the dialogue at the same time.
There’s a corollary to this, too. One book I read recently had a character named Catherine, which is how she was described in all the text. Except her friends called her Cathy in dialogue. And the guy in her office always called her “system lord” for her computer skills and network access. And her boss called her “Red” (for her hair). And the semi love interest called her “surfer girl” (how they met). And every one of these characters used their own name for her in every second or third line of dialogue. So now, not only was it excess words and flat dialogue, it was also confusing as hell.
Granted, these aren’t the only signs of things going wrong, but there ones I’ve learned to watch for in my own writing.
This isn’t to say that a short story can’t be expanded into a novella or a full novel. But if I’m going to do this, I need to actually add material. Characters, plot points, story points… something. I can’t just swell my story with empty words that don’t contribute anything.
Because that’s the kind of thing that bursts apart with just the slightest prick.
Next time I’d like to talk about Clint Eastwood.
Until then, go write.