That bloated first novel
Okay, from the beginning then.
My first novel topped out at over 250,000 words. That's not an out-of-this-world number, but for an unknown novelist's first book, it's huge. To my knowledge, unless you're already famous, publishers want reasonable for a first book, not borderline gargantuan. The only genre I'm aware of where you can "get away" with anything that lengthy right from the git-go is Romance, particularly Historical Romance. This was not. And, not surprisingly, most of the comments I received- as flattering as they were about the quality of writing- said something like "length is a problem here." Unless you've written a sure-fire blockbuster (or at least, a publisher thinks you have) size does matter.
So that's the lesson I've learned, and I'm passing it on to you.
Now, as to what specifically pumped up the volume on that book. it all began with my own self-doubt that I could ever write something long enough to be officially classified a novel. I didn't want to write a novelette, or a novella- I wanted to write a novel. So with only a vague idea for a beginning, middle and end (which, admittedly, is more than some novelists start with) I took every opportunity that presented itself to pad the book, thinking (falsely) that I could "fix it" later, if length turned out not to be a worry.
Little did I know how difficult it is to cut scenes, sections, and entire chapters when the writing itself is pretty good. Up until then, all I had written were a few short stories, where the cuts were shallow and relatively bloodless. But with this, once I began to rewrite, I fell victim to a paralysis of sorts, a fear that the cuts would travel too deep, that I might accidentally slice into the very soul of the book, sever an artery and leave it for dead. And for the life of me, I just couldn't tell where the blubber stopped and the book's soul began. Nearly every hard-fought word seemed positively essential.
So, my answer to that was; take out only the most superficial. Instead of the liposuction the manuscript needed, all it got was a nip and tuck before I sent it on its merry way. It might have made me feel better, but the patient still had more than a few nagging problems.
Part of it was that lack of confidence that drove me to force-feed the book in the first place. And what an awful diet it was! People and places that were meant to have only brief, supporting roles were described in loving detail. Anything a character said that suggested an interesting digression by another character was followed, a tortuous road that I (somehow) managed to eventually turn back to the story at hand, but only after too many words were spoken. Whole chapters were devoted to the most minor of characters and some new sub-sub-plot they inspired on the fly. If all this had been boring or poorly done, it would have been easy to take an axe to it.
The problem was, I made it all interesting.
The problem is, interesting in itself does not automatically confer a good story.
I know there are writers with the opposite problem, who do write a novelette (or something less) when they wanted a novel. I have a few 50 page "novels" of my own, somewhere around here. What I think the problem is with these "shorties" is that the story isn't hefty enough to carry it far. Like expecting a bantamweight- no matter how good- to go the distance against a heavyweight, it just ain't gonna happen. You can usually sense that around page 40 or 45 or so. The foot speed is gone, the jabs not as crisp, and before you know it, your story's sitting in the corner, eyes glazed and out of breath, and unable to answer the bell for the next round.
It's a pretty lousy feeling, especially after getting your hopes up. And sometimes you just don't know if your story is the champion you thought you had until you start to write it.
At least those shorties don't consume years, like my first novel did.
My bloated novel, on the other hand, had a story that lent itself quite well to novel length. What I did was ruin it by not trusting or believing it. So now- knowing better, and with a few more bouts under my belt- I've tossed the novel into the gym, where I'm whipping it into a contender. Now the demarcation between book soul and mere excess is clearer to me, and the novel's looking more like a champion all the time.
Next time up: my second novel, that perfectly executed writing exercise that had all the elements of a successful novel- minus the success.