Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Bloat - a Guest Post by author Heidi Garrett

Here's a guest post from my friend and fellow writer, Heidi Garrett, on the topic of what we call "Book Bloat." You all know what Book Bloat is, right? It's those sections of a book that you just want to skim, because all they seem good for is fluffing up a novel to unwieldy proportions. Book Bloat doesn't actually contribute anything to a story. So here's Heidi's take on Book Bloat!

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When my writing partner, Camille Picott, suggested the topic of Book Bloat for a guest post, I had to smile since it is something I have come to feel very passionate about.

When I was a young reader—way back in the day when Netflix, Wii, smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter were just thoughts that no one believed could ever come true—I didn’t have strong feelings about book bloat. I read Stephen King’s The Stand (the edited version), The Lord of the Rings, and the entire eight book historical romance series, Angelique, by Sergeanne Golon without batting an eye.

Somewhere along the way, the world changed, and I changed with it.

I can pinpoint four specific events over the past five years that have contributed to my personal vow as an author to not ever publish book bloat.

What is book bloat? Are all fat books bloated books? For sure, it is a matter of taste. However, if your aesthetic preferences tend toward well-crafted minimalism and “less is more,” then you might find that book bloat is a rather common, accepted—and even revered—phenomenon.

Some readers believe: the bigger the better. The more words, the harder the author wrote. I am not convinced. Let’s face it, if you are a writer, you tend toward the verbose, and lots of words aren’t really that hard to come by. What’s really hard is choosing. What is necessary? What isn’t? What works? What doesn’t? What is self-indulgent? What is lazy?

So let’s get back to the four specific events that shaped my current book bloat worldview.

In January of 2009, I attended the San Diego State University Writer’s Conference and stumbled into a break-out session on Point of View.

Boy, was I baffled. Even though I had read many novels, tried to write several in the privacy of my home, had taken two courses on writing at two community colleges, and had the minimal English Literature credits to graduate from college with an undergraduate business degree, I had never heard of Point of View.

I pretty much felt like an idiot, because everyone else in the room seemed to know what the guy standing in the front of the room was talking about.

After the session, I sidled up to the table where they sold the writing books and searched for the one the presenter had recommended, Character & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. I went home and inhaled it. It sort of made sense. It dawned on me that the brilliant 138,000K-word novel that I’d been pitching at the conference had no clear POV. It would have been a stretch to call it omniscient, because there really is a difference between omniscient and no POV…something called intention, I believe.

I was stumped. I was mystified. I was red-faced. My great novel wasn’t really that great. And it was out-dated. Very. I began researching POV. There wasn’t tons of information on it, and it was hard for me to grasp. I stumbled upon the book Mastering Point of View by Sherri Szeman and ordered it from, where else, Amazon.

Wasn’t going to walk into the local bookstore and find that one on the shelf…

Mastering Point of View was a fascinating read, not only because it started to help me comprehend POV, but it also gave me an entirely new way to look at the novel. Appendix A: Historical Overview and Development of Point of View in Literary Fiction taught me that the novel is a living art form.

I had never looked at it that way before. As someone who dabbled in painting and music, I understood how powerful this way of looking at the novel could be. It meant that the novel—as a living art form—had changed and would continue to change forever.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, that was the first event that would shape my current book bloat view.

The second event was reading Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris. Wow. I hadn’t been reading much contemporary fantasy and boy, it had changed since the days of Tolkien, Lewis, and Rice. I loved The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lestat’s gothic vampirism, but the sheer brilliance and fun of Dead Until Dark possessed me. Reading it had been like opening a box of chocolates and eating every last one, without the stomachache. Lestat had been turned on his head, and it wasn’t because there was no coffin in sight.

I decided I wanted to do for the epic fantasy what Charlaine Harris had done for vampires everywhere. Modest, I know. I turned a cold, hard eye to my great epic fantasy, The End of the Enchantment, and began revising. I managed to rewrite the whole thing into a first person, less-epic fantasy novel, A Faerie’s Quest. Better, but I was now reading lots of contemporary fantasy novels and I knew it wasn’t quite right.

The third event happened when I got a Nook for Valentine’s Day 2010. I began reading more than ever, fell in love with my Nook, and apparently fell out of love with book bloat forever.

I am not sure what it is about the digital reading experience, but it’s something like this…if the story isn’t holding your attention, your mind wanders. And nine times out of ten, if you’re reading and you’re mind is wandering, unless you are in the midst of a personal crisis or someone is interrupting you, you’ve probably encountered book bloat.

I am not convinced it is as noticeable on the printed page…

I proceeded with the third major revision of my great epic fantasy. This time I called it Half-Faerie and workshopped it through an online critique group. Along the way, I discovered Twitter, Amanda Hocking, and the idea of self-publishing.

Something exploded inside me.

I am someone who has been hesitant in life. Kelly Clarkson’s duet with Reba McEntire, Because of You, kind of sums up my sense of personal boundaries. Caution has been the rule. But I was not getting any younger, and to say that I believed in my story was an understatement. Besides, self-publishing sounded fun.

I began seeking out works by self-published authors and found something refreshing. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I didn’t need any more convincing.

The next decision was: Who was I going to be as an author? Answering that question became the fourth event steering me away from book bloat forever.

There was no doubt I wanted to write fantasy, but how to approach a long-term career?

I decided, when readers thought of the author, Heidi Garrett, I wanted them to know they would get a well-told, well-structured story, with interesting characters, in a setting they wanted to visit. I didn’t want them to slog through pages of description, or go down the rabbit hole of convoluted plot points. If there was a deep, esoteric message buried in the story, great, but I wanted the reading to be easy and fun. So, with an eye on preventing book bloat, I decided each of my books would be limited to 70K words, with 50K to 70K as the target.

Why would I do such a thing?

Because limits in art—whether it’s a limited number of colors on a painting or a limited number of chord changes on a pop song—forces the artist to make hard choices. It requires the creative self to get down to the basics, the core…and sometimes, simple is just the best magic there is.

9 comments:

  1. I am right there with you on the issue of book bloat. I finally convinced myself to read LOTR and then promptly fell asleep during chapter 1. If a book does that to you, there is something definitely wrong. I always think about it this way: times have changed and people lead busier lives. Reading a 600+ page book isn't doable anymore. Especially one where half the words don't need to be there. Good writers should be able to tell the same story in less words.

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    1. @ Lan & Heidi -- I've always been embarassed to admit that I never cared for LOTR. I read the Hobbit, but never made it through any of the others.

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  2. Lan, I went back and tried to read LOTR last year, too:) When it took 25 pages to get from Elrond to Moria, I admit, I gave up. And I remember being ENTHRALLED by LOTR the first time I read it as a teenager! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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  3. Camille, thank you for giving me the opportunity to write a guest post for your wonderful blog. And thank you for helping me to pick out a topic that I really believe in and ended up enjoying writing about!

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  4. This is perfect! I have these exact same beliefs about book bloat. That's a very cool term, by the way. I'm so tired of books that dawdle and take forever to get to the point, or the beginning of the actual story. I lead a busy life full of fatigue and just don't need my books to add to my fatigue and take up time I don't have.

    As a writer, I too believe in getting to the point--cutting to the chase. I don't need long descriptions of things I can easily picture in my head already. A sword is a normal sword unless it's 10 feet tall and shoots flames out of its tip. Even then, that's all the more description I need of such a sword.

    This is why I write very short fiction. Because I don't NEED to write long fiction. More often than not, no author actually does.

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    1. Cathy, EXACTLY! What your wrote about the sword is such a perfect example!

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  5. I had no idea about book bloat but I totally know what you're talking about. I find my mind wandering a lot in books. I think we do live in a world where people just don't have time for pointless things in books. (sad as that may be) Interesting post! :)

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  6. Great post Heidi! I just finished my prologue to my WIP and you have me thinking about book bloat now :-\ uh oh!

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  7. Jenny and Chelemybelles, thank you for stopping by:) I am glad you enjoyed reading some thoughts about Book Bloat:)

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