Everyone has heard the term “less is more” but it’s only really sunk into me in the last few years. I used to write big books. And by “big books,” I meant 300,000 word manuscripts. In those days, I admired Dickens and modeled my style on his. Lots of characters. Lots of complex plots. Epic stories. On the rare occasion I stopped procrastinating long enough to write a query letter and send them out I’d wonder why agents would ask for pages and then reject them.
Easy—too many words. No first time author is going to sell a book that big. (Or shouldn’t, anyway. If you’re a hundred and some pages in and skipping every other paragraph because it’s “bloat” and not “plot,” that’s not a good sign.) Once I figured that out, I realized you need to write a first draft, then skin it until it’s a skeleton and all that remains is THE PLOT. Polish that up and hopefully sell that sucker.
But… if first time writers must go through that process, how come established authors don’t? Why do we have to produce something good, while they can just pound out a first draft and sell it to a publisher, so we can buy it and sit there thinking, “HOW LONG IS THIS THING?”
Length doesn’t always mean good. It sometimes means “This author can’t edit.” Sadly, apparently no one at the publishing house can either. (I realize people will still buy J.K. Rowling’s books when they are 5,000 pages long, but you can’t tell me some of that DOING NOTHING couldn’t have been cut out of Deathly Hallows.)
I used to think length didn’t matter in a book, that I could meander around in my plot and use flowery prose all I liked. But I rarely read big books. I look at them and sigh. If I have two books to read, and one is 250 pages and the other is five inches thick, I’ll read the shorter book every time. Why? I know I’ll finish it faster. It’ll be an easier read. It took me six months to read Gone With the Wind. I think the movie boiled it down to the basics and is therefore superior. The movie is what Margaret Mitchell should have done with her book—keep it about Rhett and Scarlett.
It’s not just books. Most other things are too long too. That’s why people skim-read. Less is more. If you can say it in 150 words, why do it in 1,500 words? To sell more books? To look more important as a journalist or writer?
One know-it-all book reviewer said The Hunger Games is the future of fiction: it’s fairly short, is written in a fast-paced, plot-driven style, and is easy to read. I think the reviewer is right. Our world is fast-paced. Instead of blogging, we tweet. Everything must learn to take up less time.
I could mourn that this means the loss of truly great fiction… but truly great fiction is based on plot, not a particular style. If books will have to be streamlined to hold our attention as modern audiences, it may mean what might have once been a mediocre book can now be a great book.
Editing is something we should all learn, even if we’re not writers. Edit our schedule to make more time for important things. Edit our responsibilities so we’re not as overwhelmed. Edit relationships to make them better. Edit government to make it smaller. Edit! Edit! Edit! Less is more.