Less is More

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.

18 Replies to “Less is More”

  1. Are you kidding? I love that the Harry Potter books are so long. I just love that world and never wanted for them to end. 🙂

    I don’t mind long books as long as they’re good. Btw what is that image that you used on this post? Where is it from?

    1. I loved it too… but some of it was bloat and didn’t need to be there. Sorry, that’s just the full-time editor in me talking.

      The gif is from the miniseries Hogfather, based on my favorite Terry Pratchett book.

  2. I just laughed so hard! I do agree with you that writing a long book requires a lot of skill. Following your example, I think HP could have benefitted a lot by cutting out most of the running away and focusing more on the real story at hand… just a thought. Writing a big novel is, after all, a huge challence, since it has to be memorable and long for over 800 pages… and keeping the attention is not that easy!
    Great post!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! 😉

      Regarding long books, I always find myself asking, “Did this book need to be this long, or could some of the book have been another character’s story?” Could Anna Karenina have been two books? One about Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin, and the other about Kitty and Levin? I think so! Ditto with some of Dickens’ stuff.

      I love Harry Potter, but even I have to admit, there was stuff in there she didn’t need. Like liberating house elves, and taking care of a giant, and camping out for months on end while doing nothing but fretting, arguing, and listening to the radio.

      Give me a break, authors — write shorter books!

  3. *laughs* I love your PJ comment at the end. I swear he’s the only director who could ever get away with doing 3 movies out of 1 book and a rather smallish book at that.

    I’m afraid I don’t remember much about the last 4 Harry Potter books. They were just . . . too long. But I still love reading classics. I don’t get it.

    Bravo in altering your style and teaching me to do the same thing. Knowing I need to get to the action a quickly as possible will get me a much better book in the long run. Figuring out how much to cut, though. Now that’s hard.

    But we persevere!

    1. Yup. He does it, we love it. We’re… either awesome or pathetic. I’m going with awesome.

      Rowling’s last four books were indeed too long. Book five did not need Grawp, or Garwp, or however it’s spelled. One of them (was it book five again?) didn’t need Hermione wanting to liberate the House Elves. Book six was… awesome, though. But still too long. And book seven had about 100 pages of them doing NOTHING that could have come out.

      Sometimes, classics are awesome. Sometimes, though, I read one and go “Dickens, OH MY GOSH DO YOU NEED ANOTHER CHARACTER?” He could have written twenty more books if he’d just left all the fourth, fifth, and sixth-econdary characters out of his novels. Give them their own books!

      It’s hard. But once you start doing it, you can’t stop. Everything that can be shorter is shorter. I think the hardest thing, though, is elimating characters you love — because they aren’t going anywhere in your story. I’ll just save ’em for another book!

      1. Well, Dickens is an obvious exception to the rule. The man loved his prose. At least with the Bronte sisters, except maybe for “Wuthering Heights,” their books might be long but they feel concise. As if the information, at least most of it, is necessary. What I love is reading Narnia. So simple and to the point and so utterly profound. He didn’t need longer words to get his message across. He used just enough.

        I have moments where I consider re-reading Rowling. Then I remember how long her books were towards the end and I just can’t do it. Maybe once I’ve finished my degree I’ll make the time. I do wonder what they would be like chopped in half. I’d probably remember them.

        1. Narnia is indeed ingenious. You don’t realize all that he DOESN’T say until you’re not reading it! Then you realize as a child, your imagination made up the rest! Ahh, love Lewis. He was a wonderful man.

          Rowling is pretty much the only wordy writer I will sit down and read in a short amount of time. It takes me awhile, but no matter how she wanders, I’m always eager to go along for the ride. She’s just such a good storyteller, I can’t help enjoying every minute — even the ones that aren’t important.

  4. I’m right with you on The Deathly Hallows. I barely remember anything about it excpet that they walked and didn’t know what to do, and walked and didn’t know what to do, and walked… and then there was a short fight where JK killed off most of my favourite characters.

    On the flip side I re-read The Hobbit last month (prep for November) and was surprised by how sparse the writing was, far more so than I remembered. Almost all the scenes I remembered in detail had those details completely imagined by me! But still such a great book for that very reason.

    1. … and then there was a short fight where JK killed off most of my favourite characters.

      … yup, pretty much. It was also a bit anti-climactic between Voldemort and Harry, in my opinion. This is one case where the movie was a little better in that regard.

      It shocked me to reread The Hobbit and realize not only was it a children’s story, it was very sparse at times! But you’re right, it’s lovely for that reason.

  5. Well said.

    That has become my “catch phrase” in the last two or three years with a lot of other things in life and I am just now applying it to writing. It so much better!

  6. Oh my goodness, I used to meander aimlessly myself! (Who am I kidding, I still do!) I really do need to add more description, though. I’ve always been awful at describing a setting.

    1. Just make sure you don’t add too much description! I used to do that all the time, but now realize that when reading books, if I run into a huge chunk of description, I skip down to where STUFF HAPPENS again.

      I recently read that the very best in fiction gives you just enough description that you have a vague concept of how something looks, but your imagination fills in the rest. Think about Rowling and Professor Lupin. Did she ever say what he looked like? Not really, just that his coats were ragged! So I made up the character in my head! Say, “so-and-so” has green eyes or red hair or whatever, but let your reader build everything in-between. They like that. =)

      1. Yes, that’s one of my pet peeves when the author goes on and on and on about how a plac or a person looks (or references the character’s steel-grey eyes 70 times in as many pages–kill me now!). I think in an effort not to do it, I’ve gone too far in the other direction.

        1. … um… less is more?

          HAHAHAHAHA.

          On a more serious note, when I was young, I liked descriptions a lot more. I enjoyed reading about Gwendolyn Harleth’s watered silk gowns. Now that I’m an adult (and have been spoiled by some great YA fiction) I think, “Uh huh… back to the story now? K, great, thanx, bye!”

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