“Padding It Out” – Over Writing in Fiction


Ever picked up a novel, read it and come to the conclusion that it was not much of a deal, far too long, overblown and containing little meat? I’ve done it often and no doubt will endure it again. I’ve read more than a few short stories that have been padded out and published as novella’s or even full house, novels. Maybe I possess what Hemingway called a “built in shit detector” as I can sense this padding instinctively. It’s become a quirk that irritates me.

I recently read, on Kindle, a novella in the crime-thriller genre. Though competently written, it was packed with unnecessary scenes, sub-plots, dinner table dialogue, descriptions and comments on the dishes being served. A good, serious, editor would have cut this excess baggage out and reduced it to the short story that it truly was.

Is this inflation done by accident or design? I’d say both, but most often by accident. I’m sure many writers simply get carried away by their brilliance and feel they just have to put all this stuff in; they love it so why won’t the reader? I feel it in myself, writing descriptive stuff that reads great, but doesn’t advance the story one jot and even clogs things up. It’s a content editor’s job to bring us back down to earth. But what if we like it up there and don’t want to come down? In this time of digital self publishing this is a problem, right? We just go ahead and publish.

Many writers in this age of Kindle, reject editors seeing them as intruders intent on destroying the purity of their ideas and narrative flow. Why pay someone to cut your work to ribbons and transform your story into theirs? And today such writers are free to refuse all editorial restraint, and publish. A publishing house would exercise control over this foolishness and employ their in-house editors.

On the other hand, I’ve heard of editors encouraging writers to “bulk up” their work in the order off: “It’s good, but it’s a little lean. Can’t you fill it out a bit. Add some scenes, more characters.” It’s wrong I believe.

One of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Tips for writers is: “Always leave out the parts people tend to skip and don’t read.” A fine piece of advice I find. And with it in mind, I try to apply strict self-discipline.

It’s important for writers to recognize who they are and what they are capable of. And a writer who knows his limitations holds a powerful asset. Few writers could seriously take on a War and Peace. It took genius to produce David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol; but, like Tolstoy, Dickens was a genius. Such writers are thin on the ground.

Apart from the ability to write well and tell a story, a fiction writer should have good imagination. He should be able to weigh a story idea for what it’s worth. What might make a terrific short story may turn out a poor novel that requires padding to make the weight. But it won’t punch its weight.

A recent short story of mine created a minor sensation when I published it on a Thailand website. I got emails suggesting I turn it into a novel. I thought seriously about it. I could do it, but it wouldn’t be the same story anymore and so I rejected the idea. It’s a short story and it’s going to stay that way.

Some writers are destined for short stories. Jack London, always a favorite author of mine, was one. Jack was a great writer, but he never wrote a great novel. However, he did write a great novella: The Call of the Wild, a literary triumph that’s never out of print and been filmed many times. However, it’s his superb short stories, tales of the Yukon Gold Rush and the Isles of the South Pacific, he will be remembered for. His short piece: To Build a Fire has been voted the best short story of all time. But try to find his novels.

The Kindle led, indie revolution that ended the injustices of the old publishing house dictatorship has no stronger supporter than me. But has not the pendulum swung over too far? For it too has its downside; it’s totally undisciplined. Now anyone can publish anything. And they do.

Meet Priscilla Anne Case, 22 years old, working on the Costco checkout line in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She’s never written anything above an email, but she’s about to write a romantic, paranormal saga, replete with vampires and neo-Nazi white supremacists, in the form of a two thousand word, bodice ripping, trilogy. She may even publish each book as a four part boxed set. Go for it, girl, there’s nothing to stop you.

An old adage has it that if you take one hundred thousand chimpanzees, give each an easel, a canvas and a pallet of paints, in a year you’ll get a Rembrandt. In the indie world it seems we’re still waiting for our literary Rembrandts. But wait. Maybe they’re there; beautiful, superbly written books in all genres, just waiting to be found, hidden beneath the surface of that sad sea of bloated mediocrity that is Amazon’s slush pile.

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