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“PADDING IT OUT.” Word inflation in fiction.

June 27, 2015

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 novellas 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, vivid scenery descriptions, subplots, dinner table dialog, 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; the urge to write descriptive verbiage 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 can just go ahead and publish. I believe this is why padding is more prevalent today among indie writers than under the old regime.

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

   One of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Good Writing is: “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” A fine piece of advice I find. And with it in mind, I try to apply strict self-discipline. In the novel, I’m writing I had a description of how my protagonist, Mike met his Thai wife, Soraya, at the Ambassador’s Inauguration Ball in the US Embassy in Bangkok. A dramatic piece that read well, I polished it and made it better. Then, I remembered Leonard’s admonishment and reluctantly cut it out. It hurt, but as it didn’t advance the story, it was deleted. Who cares that Mike met Soraya dancing to Strauss?

   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 a 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 a 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.

   My short story, Ray, created a minor sensation when I published it on a Thailand website. I got emails suggesting I expand it into a novel. I thought seriously about it. I could do it, but it wouldn’t be Ray anymore, and so I rejected the idea. Ray is a short story, and it’s going to stay that way.

   Some writers seem destined for short stories. Jack London, always a favorite author of mine, was one. Jack, whose own life story reads like a Norse Saga, was a great writer yet he never wrote a great novel. 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 for his superb short stories, tales of the Yukon Gold Rush and the South Pacific Islands; that he is honored. His short piece: To Build a Fire has been voted the best short story of all time. But try to find his novels.

   The indie revolution that ended the injustices of the old publishing house dictatorship has no stronger champion than me. I’m grateful for the big break it gave me. But has not the pendulum swung over too far? For it too has a downside we should recognize and face up to; it’s totally undisciplined. Now anyone can publish anything. And they do.

   Meet Priscilla Anne Case, a sweet, gentle single girl, 22 years old, working on the Costco checkout line in Laramie, Wyoming. She left school at fifteen and has never traveled east of the Mississippi River. She loves the television soaps, Facebook chat, and her smartphone. 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’ll write it in six months and self-publish it, free of editorial interference, on Amazon. She may even publish each book as a four part boxed set. Go for it, girl, there’s nothing to stop you.

   An adage has it that if you take one hundred thousand chimpanzees, give each an easel, 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, hold on. I’m convinced they’re there. Look hard and you’ll find them; beautiful, superbly written books in all genres, waiting like buried treasure, hidden beneath the surface of that sad sea of bloated mediocrity that is Amazon’s slush pile.

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