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.