“Bloat” is not the right term

Here’s a post at CounterCraft: Novels and Novellas and Tomes

The novel is an extremely flexible form. It can come out in countless shapes, include infinite content, and end up almost any length. Let’s call the lower limit of a novel 40,000 words. Long novels like Infinite Jest and The Stand are more than 10 times that length

Take high fantasy, a genre famous for its massive tomes ever since Tolkien. Even those tomes have grown longer as the decades have passed. The last individual volume of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has close to the same wordcount (422k) as all three volumes of Lord of the Rings combined (480k)! There’s been similar bloat in children’s fantasy. The Narnia books were all 39k to 64k in length, novellas to short novel range. Compare that to the volumes of His Dark Materials (109-168k per volume) and Harry Potter (74k-257k). …

In general, popular genre fiction—thrillers, mysteries, etc.—and commercial fiction tends to be longer than so-called literary fiction these days, although all genres of novels became more bloated in the second half of the 20th century. Then again, pre-20th century novels were often quite long. Charles Dickens novels like Great Expectations (183k) and Bleak House (360k) or Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (126k) or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (183k) and other novels of that era were frequently tomes by even today’s standards.

Okay, first, did anybody realize that any Narnia books were that short? Or that all of them were that short? I didn’t.

Second, I think it’s about time to quit defining 40,000 words as a novel. Good grief. If you’re under half the average length of a novel, let’s just re-define the categories and call that a novella. If it were up to me, hmm, I think I’d say that a novella is from 30,000 to, say, 50,000 words. Or even from 40,000 to 60,000. I know, I know, there would be lots of argument about that.

But I don’t actually care about how long novellas are at the moment. These are the phrases in the linked post that caught my eye: “similar bloat in children’s fantasy” and “all genres of novels became more bloated.”

My immediate response: It’s not bloat as long as the length works for the story. This is true no matter how long the finished work may be.

It is bloat if the story would clearly have been better if cut by 30,000 words or more. I grant that the last volume of the Harry Potter series did strike me as bloated; I thought in particular that the wandering-in-the-forest scenes could and should have been cut from a hundred pages (or whatever; they seemed absolutely interminable to me) to about three paragraphs.

Now, in contrast, let’s consider how far above its ideal length, say, Victoria Goddard’s The Hands of the Emperor might be. This is listed as 970 pp. I suspect that is Kindle-edition normalized pages. The hardcover is listed at just about 900 pages. Is it too long? How much too long? I would personally say that it could have been trimmed, but not that much; if certain aspects of the plot had been revised a trifle, it could have been trimmed farther, but would still have wound up very long. But it is not bloated. There were zero scenes I wanted to skim or skip.

I’m realizing now that this is how I define a book as bloated — not at all by length, but by whether I want to skim or skip over a significant part of the story. I mean, skim not because I don’t much care for a scene, but because I’m bored by a scene. Say, the first or second time I read it. Depending on the book, I may skip or skim a lot more when I’m re-reading a book for the ninth time. That’s different, obviously.

So, I define bloat mostly by whether I want to skim across boring transitional scenes, and also partly by whether I think the book would have been objectively improved by cutting a hundred pages or more.

Out of curiosity, did any of you find that you skimmed forward across scenes in Tarashana? I really am curious. One beta reader got the specific request: Please tell me if you find yourself skimming. She didn’t, but I wonder if anyone else did? The length of that story suits me personally, but as a rule, I prefer long novels both as a writer and as a reader. I realize not everyone feels the same way. It’s 210,000 words. I’m sure the author of the linked post would refer to it as bloated. But I did cut about 100 pages from the first finished rough draft. That’s where in my own opinion I got read of the parts that should have been cut.

I’ve also been thinking of the first book of the Tenai — Death’s Lady — trilogy as a novella. But it’s not, technically. It’s 63,000 words. That’s a little over 200 pages. Does that seem like a novella to you all? I can think of short, tight novels that are shorter than that. But this seems very short to call a novel.

The second book is 95,000 words. The third is 135,000 words. If you don’t think about length in words, then it’s easy to translate this into pages: as you go through the series, each book is just about 100 pages longer than the previous one. The whole thing put together is the longest single work I’ve ever written — 293,000 words; about 900 pages. Even if you cut off the semi-independent first book, the other two comprise a single story of 230,000 words. Again, bloated? Well, you can shortly be the judge, but obviously I don’t think so.

So — what defines “bloat” for you? Length as such? Unnecessary length? Saggy scenes that you skim over? Or something else?

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10 thoughts on ““Bloat” is not the right term”

  1. Personally, I think of ‘bloat’ much the same as you: if I find myself bored or skimming, the story’s bloated and something could have been cut.

    It doesn’t matter what length a story is as long as the length is appropriate to that story. If you’re trying to pad out what ought to be a novella into a three-volume epic, don’t. Just don’t. If you try to cut an epic down into a short story – please rethink that.

    I’m thinking of the Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson. They are each about 1,000 to 1,200 pages long – but none of them feel bloated; none of the scenes are unnecessary to the whole. Part of the reason they’re so long is that he plays with the structure by adding interludes, which are essentially very short stories, and sort of braids together two or three main narrative strands per book. Now, I admit that the sheer physical size of the book is intimidating, but once you get into the story, it’s worth a little bit of work as a reader.

  2. You’re making me think of Peter Jackson forcing The Hobbit into a three-movie form.

    Ugh, did that fail or what.

    I haven’t read the Stormlight Archives, but the structure sounds appealing.

  3. Your question made me think hard about how I read, and how that has changed over the years. In my youth I would read a novel very carefully, reading each word. Today, I am generally very stretched for time, and the great majority of novels I read I perform a mix of skimming and closer reading. It’s a rare novel that I read every word. However, Emperor’s Hands was one of those novels. I did, in fact, read the whole thing very closely, in spite of its length. So I would agree I did not find it bloated. I mostly skim across descriptions. For example, I’m reading Inda right now. Good book. Read a scene this morning during a storm on a ship. Half page on the storm. I pretty much just blew by that – “bad storm, unpleasant to be sitting up in the rigging, got it”. I’m sure it was artfully described and very evocative, but I just didn’t care, and my reading enjoyment did not suffer from blasting past that half page and getting to Inda’s conversation with the other person up in the rigging. I wouldn’t recommend to Sherwood Smith to cut that half-page, though, because I got the gist of it at a glance, and I expect other readers would get more out of it. But that’s not what I was looking for in this particular novel. I’m really onboard for the character interactions. Those are great, and I enjoy the book most by fast forwarding to them, while recognizing that YMMV. By contrast, Emperor’s Hands was all about soaking in the world and learning the history of things in bits and snippets, and that called for a different reading style – a close reading – to benefit from that book’s strengths.

  4. Incidentally, I think bloat is a serious problem in computer games as well as in movies and television. There is often a feeling in games, for example, that if you don’t have to spend 40 hours finishing it, you’re not getting your money’s worth. I hate that. It should be whatever length fits the story. If it takes me five hours, and it’s a great five hours, I’m happy to pay for that. If I get five great hours out of a forty hour game, I’m not so happy about that, especially if I can’t fast forward past the other 35 hours. And in television, I like the streaming era in that people are no longer bound by the one hour time slots. If your episode’s story takes 30 minutes, fine. If the next episodes takes 59 minutes, also fine. But that does raise the danger of a poorly edited take that bloats (ahem, Hobbit, ahem – especially the director’s cuts, oh my gosh).

  5. Although I loved Hands of the Emperor (and just read it yet again) I did think there were some repetitive elements in it. It made me feel as though she wrote three novellas and made them into one book, each with the same essential idea- Cliopher is undervalued by his family: they discover otherwise. Then reprise.
    No, I didn’t skim anything in Tarashana. If anything, I slowed down to read certain parts over again: Ryo coming to understand Tano; Darra and Ryo; Ryo and his father.
    I tried to read Paksennarion again recently and could not. What I once found immersive I would now consider not so much- perhaps bloat.

  6. I’m with everyone else, ‘bloat’ is the stuff I skim. I stopped reading Robin Hobb when I skipped over one hundred & fifty pages and picked up the story with no bobbles or confusion – THAT was bloat. If I skim or skip and have to go back to see what I missed that isn’t bloat. Maybe bad writingbecause it didn’t hold my interest, but not bloat.

    I did know Narnia books were very short by today’s standards.

    I don’t think I skimmed anything in Tarashana, on first read or second. Everything counted. Third readI followed the Tano thread and skimmed the other parts.

  7. I agree that bloat is defined not by the number of words but by how engaged the reader is with the story and its characters. Not all readers are engaged to the same extent by the same book. Good example is Brandon Sanderson’s latest book. I was engaged with the earlier volumes but on this one I was pretty meh. I read through to about halfway, enough to see where the plot was going, then skipped to the end and read backwards a few chapters until I got the outcomes for the characters I cared about. At the end my reaction was “another book? When will it end?” Otoh, Martha Wells can make Murderbot stories as long as she wants, I will read and reread each one, for starters, she is not a verbose writer so every word is necessary for the plot. Oh, and I didn’t skip a word in “House of Shadows” and “Door into Light”. Ditto for “Tuyo”. I still need to be in the right space to read “Nikoles” just because I know what happened to him. Might go to “Copper Mountain” first, I love Miguel’s character.

  8. Harry Potter is definitely bloated. I slogged thru one volume and cringed at the notion of a while series of them. So are a number of Dickens novels–the guy was paid by the word, and it shows. And at 1 kilopage, GWTW is definitely bloated–it’s the only HS required reading book that I couldn’t bring myself to finish.

  9. Very interesting, Allan. With some books I definitely don’t skim — I enjoy the sentences and the details. I’m thinking of Lois McMaster Bujold, say. And yes, Murderbot, definitely!

    And I did read all of A Stranger to Command. Other books I skim much more, but I’m not sure where Inda would fall on that spectrum if I reread it now.

    Yes, Alison, though at this length it’s more like three full novels. I think some significant differences in the plot arc each time would
    have significantly improved the story, BUT I did love it to pieces anyway.

    Thank you all for commenting about Tarashana (and others!) I’m glad to know you all found all the scenes worth reading and lingering over.

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