Is Your Writing Bloated?

quillOne of the hallmarks of being a pantster is that we like to be surprised – by the plot, and our own characters. We love the sense of excitement, and adventure, that comes from not knowing what’s around the next bend.

Sadly, not all surprises are pleasant. One of the big drawbacks of being a free-wheeling, I-don’t-know-what-happens-next type of writer is that we often write ourselves into a corner, or so far off track that the original story becomes lost. Or sometimes <<shock horror>> we just end up with …bloat.

<<A bloated carcass puffs up to many times its original size, and stinks>>

The trouble with written bloat, however, is that it doesn’t always stink. In fact, it may sometimes smell of Hemingway, or at least Stephen King.

“But hang on!” you say. “How can something that smells good be bad?”

Context, my friend, context.

If I’m writing a murder mystery and suddenly start waffling on about the meaning of life, death and the universe, I’ve stopped the original story in its tracks. And that’s bad because you can’t marry the front end of a chicken to the hind end of a horse and still expect to get eggs.

In a good story, each scene should perform multiple functions. It should move the plot along, contribute to the character arc, paint a scene, set a mood, build tension, foreshadow events still to come, as well as…

-cough- etc -cough-

Any scene that doesn’t add to the story as a whole is bloat, and has to go. Cut it out and put it in a folder full of other such orphans. One day you may write a story that is all about life, death and the meaning of the universe, and then it will come in very handy. For now though, keep it away from that murder mystery!

Of course, knowing when a scene is out of context is not always easy. If what I really want to write is a hybrid story that’s equal parts philosophy and murder mystery, [like for example, Robert Wilson’s Blindman of Seville] then perhaps it’s the new scene I need to keep, and the beginning that needs to be changed. Either way, change is necessary.

Now it goes without saying that no writer likes to waste tens of thousands of words, but if you’re a pantster, and you want to write the best story possible, rethinks and rewrites are inevitable. That extra effort is the price we pay for the joy of being surprised.

Is that heady rush of creativity really worth the effort though?

I can’t speak for other pantsters, but I know I can’t write any other way. I have tried to outline a few times in the past, but the results were always dreadful. If I wrote a decent outline, I wouldn’t be able to write the story because I’d already figured it out. However if I wrote a logical, predictable outline, I’d end up bored to tears. And again, I wouldn’t be able to write the story. For me, outlining turned out to be a lose-lose technique.

These days, I’ve learned to accept that cutting great swathes of prose is a necessary part of my writing style. If I can’t come up with a darned good reason for keeping a scene, I harden my heart and bring out the digital scissors. It always hurts to see those pages wilting on the floor, but the story has to come first.

So tell me, are those scissors in your pocket, or is it just …bloat?

20 thoughts on “Is Your Writing Bloated?”

  1. Yay, fellow pantser! Fortunately, I don’t tend to have a huge amount of “big” bloat, beyond the usual tightning of prose. Instead, I tend to have a few areas of drought that need expanding LOL

    For my current WIP, by the time I’m done this revision, I’ll have added about 9-10 chapters to fill in gaps that really need filling in 😛

  2. Hi Anma, drought is the flip side of bloat and usually happens [to me] when I’m trying to get the story down so quickly that whole scenes get reduced to just a few lines. In a lot of ways I’d rather have drought than bloat. 😀 Oh and good luck.

  3. I hear you, AC, I definitely hear you, fellow pantser. I have a treasure pit (folder I call ‘Ideas, inspirations and edited gems’) where I store all my discarded (too good to be thrown away), inspiring prose. One day I will write that philosophical masterpiece.

    Excellent article, AC.

  4. It is a brave writer who keeps those special scissors sharp and in the top drawer. Words are too delicious. Sometimes I wish I’d never heard of ‘darling killing’ but I have and it’s true, the story must be served so the reader can savor its flavors. The best chefs never overwhelm their ingredients with too much sauce.

    Loved the article, AC.

  5. When I sold my second book to a NY publisher, they wanted me to cut 50 pages to get it down to their “proper” page count. It was grueling. On my first pass through, I cut paragraphs; on my second pass through, I cut sentences. On the third pass I was cutting words, but I finally got it done. As I did so, I noticed (1) that I really did have some fluff in there that I didn’t need and (2) that my book was really pretty darn lean. Leaner in the end, of course. That exercise gave me a new perspective on it, however, one I’ve never forgotten.
    Pansters rule!

  6. Hahaha, so true. I’ve always been a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer, and sometimes that led to…the bloat.
    So, I decided to put on my organized-writer-pants and do it the “right” way, by using an outline. Created a complete outline for a good story. Wrote 3,000 words of it. Lost interest (I already know everything that’s going to happen!) and haven’t typed a word of it in weeks.
    So the story I’m working on now, I’m trying to compromise. I’ve already written 5,000 words in one day with no outline, but as I write, I’m trying to make sure that what I’m writing serves the story. So… we’ll see how it goes!

    1. I really do know how that feels, Sam. May I suggest you forget the outlined MS for a while, and then go back to it using only your memory of the ‘highlights’. That way you’ll have a sense of where the story is going without feeling as if you’re in a straitjacket. Oh and good luck with the WIP!

      1. That’s a good idea! I’ve had to abandon it for a little while anyway, and now that I have this new idea, I’m going to try to do just that, focus on this one instead. 🙂

  7. Excellent article. Guess I’m a hybrid pantser. A little plot point, a little freewheeling…but sometimes I have to write a few pages to figure out what stays in. All part of the process. Then cut. 😀

    1. lol – I’ve decided I’m a hybrid of sorts too. To misquote a famous saying, ‘it isn’t how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose’. For us, the important thing is winning the battle with that story. 😀

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