Writing Like a Noxious Gas

Like a balloon... and something bad happens!

I have a problem with brevity. Some writers struggle with generating enough words. I struggle with not generating too many. Years ago, my friend Craig cracked a joke about Windows memory management “expanding to fill all available space, like a gas.” Sometimes that’s how I feel about my writing, except the “available space” is infinite.

Take, for example, my current novel. It’s in its second draft right now, and is sitting at 160,000 words. That’s not an unreasonable length for a fantasy novel. The length only becomes funny1 when you find out it was originally supposed to be a very straightforward short story. A short story born of a writing prompt, no less. A few months after that, it became a full-length book, and not long after, I realized I’d need three books to tell the story I wanted to tell. Suddenly, Yet Another Fantasy Trilogy is in the making.

This tendency carries over to my tabletop roleplaying hobby as well. It’s become something of a running joke. I’ll start a new campaign with the stern assurance that this will be a picaresque, episodic campaign of narrow scope and reasonable scale. Next thing you know, the protagonists are slaying gods and the world has cracked in half to release a tidal wave of magma. And that’s just the teaser opening.

My editorial process often suffers the same fate. In On Writing, Stephen King talks about how many editors are “taker-outers,” and he’s something of a “putter-inner2“), constantly adding new material to his work. I definitely fall into this latter camp. The scale and scope of my book has grown by an order of magnitude with each revision. It’s like the end of Akira in there.

I sometimes worry that I might be incapable of telling small, personal stories, and that I will fall into some sort of self-parody where I start a short story about a guy who’s pretty bummed about dropping his snow cone and later that year it’s a ten-book cycle encompassing the history of an entire civilization. Ever watch Adaptation, and the sequence where Charlie Kaufman manages to turn a book about flowers into a bloated treatise on evolution? Kind of like that. Or the anecdote about Harlan Ellison pitching a Star Trek plot to Paramount in which the crew of the Enterprise confronted God Himself (this was long before the risible Trek V) and the Paramount exec reportedly shot back with “What? Didn’t I tell you to think really big?”

This tendency toward bloat, coupled with my attitude toward storytelling in general, occasionally leads me into the land of blithe hypocrisy. I’m terribly picky when it comes to stories that don’t go anywhere, TV episodes that are clearly just filler or buying time, and authors who jam-pack a hundred pages’ worth of story into six volumes. One or two scenes in which nothing of note happens is frequently all I need to write off an entire book. I’m a big fan of introducing limitations to writing to encourage creativity. And yet introducing these limitations is a constant struggle and something I have to keep in front of me, lest my writing expand to fill infinite space, like a noxious gas. Writing bloat is like my own personal Hulk.

Still, it clearly worked for Robert Jordan…

1. That’s what she said.
2. That’s what she said.

12 Replies to “Writing Like a Noxious Gas”

  1. I have problems with brevity too (shush from the peanut gallery, academic advisers!) I would write these long-and-longer pieces on very small concerns. I’m still jazzed to write a book on dream allegory and Christopher Nolan’s cinematic narrative techniques, even though a couple of meaty paragraphs would really say all that anyone should care to know.
    Yet where I’ve spent the greater part of my writing life, brevity isn’t cherished, and we pass that message along like bacteria in the water. It infects everyone, eventually.

    Oh, but when you get into the muck of creative writing, choosing the right word or sentence at a critical moment is far more effective than writing scene after scene of dialog. Great.

    For me the answer to my own bullshit was paying more attention to concise writers, like William Maxwell and Elizabeth Bowen. Even if you aren’t writing literary fiction, it pays to examine the craft of people who can evoke emotion with less material than your average trilogy writer.

    1. You make a good point — although I will say that there are lots of fantasy / sci-fi writers who are very concise, like Zelazny and Robert Sheckley and a few others. A lot of them predate the swelling mutation of the fantasy series into an avalanche of hardcover doorstops, though. See, now I’m talking like Schneider over there.

  2. One of my favorite axioms is, “I hate inconsistency, because I’m the most inconsistent person I know.” The attributes I seem to value most in other artists are frequently the attributes I perceive myself to be lacking. It’s a good mental exercise to remind myself that virtually all forms of style can be used well. Rather than censor/censure myself for having certain tendencies, I should be focused on turning those tendencies to my advantage; honing them into skills, as opposed to letting my unfettered instincts trample a path of wanton destruction through the underbrush of my fallow imagination.

    In other words, I wouldn’t worry too much about having birthed Yet Another Fantasy Trilogy out of a writing prompt. You have both the talent and skill to make it work. Besides that, I know that you can do and have done brief creative pieces of uncommon brilliance. And even if the unlikely event occurred that you were rendered incapable of telling small, personal stories, so what? Maybe Oscar Wilde was incapable of writing King Lear, but that doesn’t mitigate the genius of The Importance of Being Earnest. Who died and made Raymond Carver the crowned literary king of all that is and ever shall be?

    I completely empathize with everything you said, since I am an ardent (if unwilling) devotee to the muse of bloviation. I just wanted to point out that, as often as you may sojourn through the land of blithe hypocrisy, what you don’t like about lengthy works by others may have more to do with their (lack of) wit, intelligence, structural integrity, and general competence as narrative art as much as it has to do with raw length. In which case, you are not wandering through the land of blithe hypocrisy, but crusading across the realm of righteous indignation. Metaphorically speaking. (I hope.)

    1. As always, reading one of your comments (or anything else you write) is like sitting down to a sumptuous but slightly intimidating buffet. And that’s not just because you’re buttering me up. I am on a roll with these food analogies, although we’ve probably all had our fill right now and it would be just desserts if someone creamed me for overstuffing this comment like I am.

      Seriously, though, thanks. Interested in writing a guest post for me sometime? 🙂

          1. I will accept cupcakes, coffee cake, pancakes, devil food cake, angel food cake, beefcake, cheesecake, stripper cake, wedding cake, and albums by Cake.

        1. If I had known Schneider would work for cake, I would have started up a home bakery concern years ago!

  3. You’re nuts. 😀 Though I must admit I have the same problem. Had it in high school too: others would struggle to produce enough words for the essays, I’d struggle to stay below the maximum required. However, I appreciate a good cutting out the rotten limbs technique in writing, so I never add too much during edits. I’ve recently started to try to be concise. It’s not going to fit with NaNo really, but maybe it will, who knows. But I do understand where you’re coming from and I must say you must be a pretty bad-ass wrod-slinger to write a 160K book! Seriously. My hat’s off.

    1. Admittedly, I am nuts. There’s no sense denying it. And yeah, I had the same problem in grade school when we had to write a 1-page creative writing story and I’d write 20 pages. And thanks for the salute — I just hope they’re 160K -good- words. 🙂

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