Sometimes you get a sense of how long a piece should be. I’ve had short stories turn into novellas, or in the case of The Guardian, I delayed writing a short story so long that it turned into a novel.
Over the holiday, I finally wrote a story I planned two years ago. I’d read about a contest, played with an idea in my head, but then I never wanted to write it. I couldn’t figure out how to end the thing, and I felt quite a bit of resistance from the story. Usually that means I’m not ready to write it.
I filed it away in the back of my head, along with five hundred unwritten other stories.
(In case you’re wondering, a lot of times when I do that, it’s because my subconscious knows the story stinks. I recently came across a notebook where in 1996 I’d outlined ten fanfic ideas I hadn’t written yet. And if you read fanfic, you are glad I didn’t write them. Trust me.)
At any rate, this one popped back, and I had a better sense of how to write it. Virtually all the details were unchanged, and the two key scenes were intact in my head. I figured I’d work out the ending when I got there.
The full draft was 4000 words, and honestly, I can’t figure out why. It’s not four thousand words worth of story. Imagine the equivalent of standing at a cash register wondering why you got charged ten bucks for a can of Sprite.
Begin the unwriting. I decided the story really should have been three thousand words, and out came my wrench, my hacksaw, my flame thrower, and my rolling pin. The wrench for tightening, the flame thrower for eliminating things that didn’t need to be there, the rolling pin to flatten the places it was inflated, and the hacksaw to remind myself not to be a hack writer. 🙂
I’m down to 3195 words now, and here’s the chief places I cut. When you’re editing your own work, look for these wastes of space:
- Unnecessary stage directions. “He went around the truck, opened the door, and sat in the driver’s seat.” Unless you’re trying to slow things down, try, “He got behind the wheel.”
- Repetitive directionals. He fell down. Uh, Jane? Where else is he going to fall?
- Saying the same thing twice, once pretty and once because you’re afraid the reader is too dense to get it. Just say it for you — demand the reader pay attention.
- Filler conversations. Filler narration. If you ever find yourself writing, “And then something happened,” cut it out.
- Doing the same thing three times. Even if they tried four times to jump start the car, it’s enough to show it only once.
- Unnecessarily specifying: “He climbed into the front seat of the truck” means the same as “He climbed into the front seat.” If you’ve established he’s going to drive the truck, and in the next sentence he’s driving, we know he’s in the front seat of the truck.
- Disjointed ideas: combine them. “He got into the truck. From the street behind him, he could hear shouts” can turn into “While getting into the truck, he could hear shouts from behind him.”
At any rate, I managed to cut 15% of the story without affecting the content of the story at all. I have two hundred words to unwrite in order to reach my goal, and to achieve it, the story’s going to have to bleed a little. Or a lot. But what remains is taut and deserves to be there.