Tar the Padders But Pity the Marners---by Reb MacRath


A quick tour--even a virtual one--of any bookstore's fiction shelves will be enough to convince you of this: the fight to survive under ironclad rules governing minimum word count has led too many writers to pad for dear life. Check out the opening pages of book after book if you want shocking proof that writers at large are becoming a tribe of Word Accountants.

And as you read, you'll hear the clicking of their calculators' keys and picture the poor bastards working it out:  'OMG, I'm 10K words under...so I need to add--let me see...at least 30 (or 40 or 50) words to every page. What if I add 15  adjectives or adverbs per page plus 20 to 30 extra words of dialogue or description? How about 2000 words of research here and, say, 1500 there?"

They should be tarred on Live TV.  But you know what they say about horses.


The Padders aren't the worst offenders. They're easily spotted, at least, and they can be ignored. Their counterparts--the Marners--really deserve more attention. Why's that? At their worst, these misers write books that are just skin and bones; but at their best, they break our hearts with ruined books that would have been better if they'd been less anorexic. While More is less with Padders' books, Less is painfully less with the Marners' who flood the shelves with books that read like extended outlines or screen treatments.

Some are born to Marnerhood. Some have it thrust upon them by financial or family pressures and deadlines they must meet. But why in the world would anyone choose to become such a skinflint?

1) Fear of ridicule by the cult of Ancient Marners selling the hardboiled minimalist style.  

2) Confusion about the key difference between script or screenplays and novels. The former are blueprints for producers, directors, and actors. They're not meant to be published or studied as lit: they're meant to be transmuted into productions that bring the works to life. So Shakespeare can jot down what are, essentially, memos to himself in his stage directions: "a strange, hollow and confused noise"..."Solemn music"..."Enter Ariel, invisible"... Thousands of years later, our screenwriters do much the same: "Bonnie gives Clyde the eye"..."John McClane grins at Hans Gruber"..."Gruber whistles Ode to Joy"...Or, as Shakespeare put it: "Enter divers spirits in shapes of dogs and hounds."  Great writing, no? But when these prompts are transmuted by the right teams, you know that we're gonna get magic.

That said, there's good news for Accidental Marners who've ended up with blueprints for what they know can be powerful books.                            

My modest proposal: a checklist for each page as you revise. The primary goal isn't to ramp up the word count but to amp up word precision. With the growth in clarity and effectiveness, the words are sure to follow. Here's partial list of the questions I've come to ask as I graduate from 40K word novels to 65. Adding without padding. Or more simply: AWP.

1) Setting: It should be important...or why hasn't the scene been somewhere else? Could it be important because it is bland or it reminds the hero of a hundred other rooms he's had the misfortune to be in? If so say so.

2) Details: Why kind of chair or carpet? You don't have to name or describe everything in a room, but one or two details can sum up a place and fix its mood in readers' minds--while at the same raising your word count.

3) Adjective and adverbs: of course, they mustn't be overdone. Everybody knows that, thanks to the Ancient Marners. But who says you need to abstain completely? Why should you if an adjective or adverb can simplify a reader's job by clarifying the tone, for instance--or take them by surprise. It's one thing to have a villain kick a rival in the head. It can be still more dramatic if he mutters, 'Merry Christmas.' But if the villain kicks him and cries 'Merry Christmas!' cheerfully? That brings the scene to life. So, let verbs and strong writing do most of the work...but don't throw out all other weapons and tools.

4) Dramatic clarity: Can you do anything on this page to bring home more clearly to readers what your character thinks/how he feels about what's being said or going on? Sure, this can be done through dialog--but need it be done that way all of the time? And isn't dialog at least occasionally a poor substitute a line or two of 'indirect exposition.' (Why couldn't people be more honest? Wasn't the one thing they had to know why he needed Museli top with precisely 7 slices of banana at exactly 8 a.m.?  I'll take that any day over this: John, I know how important and how sincerely you wish that everyone could be straightforward. But the thing of it is, old bean, your blinking Muesli freaks us out!)

5) Segue Pow: Are the transitions as smooth as they could be or will readers feel jerked to and fro?

6) Character consistency: Does your genius villain fall too simply for a sting? Or does your brainy hero miss some major clues? If so, you can either fix the flaw or probe these characters more thoroughly-and either find or invent reasons for s/he's fallen so quickly or missed those clues. Most of us do in real life...so why not your characters?

7) Research: Can a little more of your research bring this page to life? If your story features a famous old train and this train is one key to your story, you Marner at your peril if you fail to anchor in your readers' minds with the most essential details. It's your job to put them on the train and not be such a skinflint.

Well, this checklist is already long enough. Other questions suggest themselves when you look at each page with a novelist's and not a screenwriter's eye. At all costs, remember this:

Savor now and then a sweet adjective or adverb--and be sure to chew contentedly. And be sure to say Hi if you should see any real Ancient Mariners. But tell them to keep their damned birds to themselves. You're up to your eyeballs already in dealing with the Marners.

This is my report.


Welcome to MacRathWorld, if you like premium blends of mystery, action, and suspense. From Caesar's Rome to Seattle today, the twists fly at the speed of night. If you're unfamiliar with my work, I recommend starting with the new Seattle BOP mysteries. Here's the link to my AuthorPage on Amazon for a detailed look at the variety of 'rides' in my amusement park.



Eden Baylee said…
Hi Reb, thanks for the comprehensive list.

I'm definitely not a padder, as most of my work tends toward short stories anyway. I agree that giving more detail to some of my writing would help improve the story.

Thanks for posting! :D
Wendy H. Jones said…
Brilliant post, Reb. I’ve come across ladders but the markets are even worse. Reading one levels the reader with a sense of unfulfillment. Thank you.
Griselda Heppel said…
I needed to read this! I had the 'every word must count' 'start your scenes in the middle' 'cut your first 2 chapters to get straight to the action' mantras so drummed into me that the first draft of one of my books was much too spare and needed proper fleshing out. Gone are the days when a writer was allowed to set a scene at leisure - but as you point out, details of where the characters are and what's going on in their minds are vital for the reader to enter fully into the narrative. And too much dialogue can just tire the reader out.

Thank you for your championing of adverbs and adjectives. Again, one of those strict rules. A carefully chosen, judiciously used adverb can delightfully enhance the most economically constructed sentence. So there.
Reb MacRath said…
Thanks to Eden, Wendy, and Griselda for your comments. This post came from the heart and it's good to know that it struck home for you too. My WIP has given me a wonderful chance to test my principles. After establishing my main characters carefully, I upset the applecart by placing them all in a sting operation where they're not only disguised but go by different names. A lot of hard thought went into the best way to keep who they really are clear in reader's minds!

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