Friday, August 19, 2011

Short. Stop.

I surprised myself by writing a half-decent story that was only 6200 words long. It even has a beginning, a middle, an end, a moral and a plot. 6200 words - yay me! I'm hoping to submit it for an anthology. The problem? The 5k word limit.

So, I snipped, bickered, and sliced. The result: 5800 words. Still 800 words over. I consoled myself by thinking Maybe the editor will let me surpass the limit - if the story is great.

Then, I passed the story off to friends. Unfortunately, they each wanted me to add something - all fantastic (and critical) suggestions. So, cutting as I went, I simplified and clarified the story, adding such nuanced details as I dared. Much better.

But you know how when you go to the gym, you lose fat and yet gain weight? The story is back up to 6100 words. My problem persists, even if the story is better than ever. If a jockey goes one pound over his weight limit, it doesn't matter if he's all muscle or not; he's over his limit and out of the race.

So how do I keep the story as short as possible? Without sucking the life out of it, I mean.

I'm no big-name in publishing, I never studied this in university, and I've only gone to a handful of seminars. I'm no authority. But I am learning through reading, experimentation and feedback, and I'm happy to share what I've found.

And what have I found? You have to re-engineer the way you write and edit. There's more to shortening a story than cutting words.

1) Run, and keep your eyes on the finish line.

At work, if I assume my workload will require 3 hours of overtime, I'll work for eleven hours and get it done. But, if I assume I have no more than 8 hours to get it done, I'll get it done in 8 hours. So what's the difference? Chances are, during an 11 hour day, I assume I'll get tired if I don't take frequent mental breaks (a.k.a. pit stops to Facebook, checking personal email, going for a walk...). With an aggressive deadline, I work efficiently. Eight hours will get 'er done and it'll be ugly, but it'll function and it'll be accurate. I can gussy it up later, time allowing.

The first draft of Mummer's the Word I wrote in 10 days, because I wanted to see how fast I could write a book. Chases, dogfights, humour and romantic tension = 55k. Add suspense and character development = 65k. Even now, approaching the final draft (developing support characters, adding investigation techniques), it's under 85k - right where I want it to be.

And you know? I loved it. I loved the story, I loved the process of writing it, and I didn't have the time or opportunity to bore myself with something that detracted from the plot.

But with subsequent stories (The Man with the Silver Tongue, for example), the longer I took to write the original draft, the longer the story was. (Silver Tongue took over six months and tops 92k.) With Mummer's the Word, I had the luxury of adding detail; with Silver Tongue, the story will get even bigger before I start cutting it down to size, because I have plot holes to fill, and whole chapters to eliminate.

If I assume that it will take X number of months or words to write something, then that's what it will take to write it. If I assume I can write the story in 72-hours, I probably will - or come darned near to it. If I assume it'll take four months to edit, that's how much time I will use.

My unsolicited advice: write efficiently. Think before writing. Start with a skinny draft. Build from there. Leave pretty to last.

Secondly, make this one assumption: you will spend 300-500% more time editing than you did writing. You might not need that much time, but it helps you to focus on getting it sharp the first time (to avoid extra editing), and it lets you off the hook if you don't nail the perfect first draft.

2. Practice panniculectomy. Cut out the big fat. You need some fat. It keeps you warm and healthy, and it's what allows you to do more in a day than eat. But too much fat will strangle your arteries and you'll die; also, you'll look ugly in a Speedo. So cut out the big fat: eliminate characters, scenes, even whole chapters, if that's what it takes to chop your monster down to size.

A few years ago, I wrote a Christmas play for my church. On opening night, I was disappointed by the turnout. I asked the pastor, "Where is everybody?" He replied, "They're all on stage!" I had so many characters in the play that I had no one left in the audience! I should have limited my characters and forced myself to reassign plot contributions to players already on the stage.

Do you have two characters that have similar (if not identical) personalities? Can you stitch the two together and make one character out of them? I chose to do the latter in Mummer's the Word, and I was surprised to find I could now cut out whole blocks of unnecessary (and flat) conversation, because I no longer needed to justify the presence of one character or the other.

Try the same approach with your chapters: do you really need to have two similar scenes? Or can you put in two or three integral plot devices in a single scene?

Can something be done "off-screen" and referred to in a line or two? Sometimes, in the interest of time, Tell can be better than Show. But make sure you only do this with scenes that already feel flat and superfluous.

Eliminate any scene that contributes nothing but character development or humour. The story must abound with plot.

If you think you might change your mind about cutting a scene, save it to separate file.

Always keep old drafts, and number the versions. Currently I'm working on Mummer's the Word v 4.0, because this is the fourth round of major revisions. When I begin minor revisions (sentence structure, word choice), it'll be version 4.1.

When necessary, seek a second opinion; it may be the difference between a panniculectomy and an accidental evisceration.

3. Practice liposuction.

Kibitzing between characters brings the scene to life - it's how you show the difference between characters, and done well, it's thoroughly entertaining. I get more laughs out of a well-timed one-liner in a drama than I do in half an hour of a sitcom.

But if that's all your characters do, you lose the plot - and the reader.

Recently, I read a short story about a haunted apartment; the premise itself was funny, but the story was not. If you cut out the fart jokes, the references to games and gaming systems, the insults, the swearing and the gratuitous commentary on the quantity and perfume of one character's feces, then the story itself might have been three paragraphs long. I hated that story, and I don't care to read anything else by the author - or by the editor, either, who had the bad taste of putting it into the anthology.

Also, watch out for fatty globules of unnecessary text, like "a little bit" or "over and over again". Every writer has them. In one manuscript, I found I could eliminate 1500 words by removing "just", "back" and "turned." Unless you identify and drain your fatty words, your narrative style will be greasy and clotted.

Beware: these words evolve as your style develops. I've acquired a healthy flinch reflex when I use the word "just", but now the word "even" proliferates my style (with thanks to Michael Lorenson for pointing that out).

And don't dawdle; punch! "If I start with the assumption that..." can become "If I assume that..." Likewise, "I wonder if he thinks too much" can become "He thinks too much," or "Dude, you think too much." Or, "is going to take" becomes "will take." Short, direct, means the same thing.

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug" - Mark Twain. Why say "The sound of his fist hitting the counter was as loud as thunder and as abrupt as lightning" when you can say "He struck the counter with his fist"? Rule of thumb: simile = fun, metaphor = short. (If you forget the difference, click here.)

Remember: Spare words build the story; but swarms of words kill it.

"He might have fallen over the edge, if he hadn't leaned a little more to the right or if the wind hadn't chosen that moment just then to save its wrath against him for another time and place." If I read something like this, I'd want to bleach my eyes.

Don't just cut words. Re-engineer the whole sentence! "If not for panicked reflexes, a calm wind and dumb luck, he would have fallen over the edge."

And don't hedge: "He'd almost felt the near-mortifying pain of losing his best friend." Die, Almost, die! And you too, Nearly.

If you're hedging, you're probably Telling, and not Showing. Try something like: "Oh good lord, George, I thought you were dead! And it would have been my fault!"

4. Stop repeating yourself. You're being redundant. Simple to say, hard to practice.

Ever have a conversation that ends with "I'm just saying that...", followed by a summary of everything that was just said? Or ever been a phone call and the other party has to recap the conversation before they can hang up?

Ha - did you catch it? I made a redundancy there. I need to pick one of those two sentences, or blend them together. Better yet...

"I know, I just wanted to call you and say that Jimmy was asking after your sister and that he wanted to know how she was doing!" "Mom, you said that like four times now - I've gotta go!"

Watch for repeats in conversations, especially. We naturally echo and reword each other's speech. Following that pattern is an accurate way of capturing the flow of dialogue; but if you're in a crunch for space, it's gotta go.

But redundancies come in large packets and small. The small ones are sneaky.

"He awoke to the irritatingly piercing racket of that annoying alarm clock of his." 14 words, and aren't irritating and annoying the same thing?

"He awoke to the irritating racket of his alarm clock." 10 words.

We can push beyond the striking-out of words, and re-engineer the sentence. "He awoke to his riotous alarm clock." 7 words. Better. Or, alternatively...

"The irritable alarm clock woke him." 6 words. And, in this version, I see a cartoon alarm clock jumping off the night stand and whacking our hero on the face. It's like the alarm clock is getting revenge on the hero for all those times he's slammed the snooze button! Implied, but not said. I have magic invisible words!

Which brings me to my next and final point.

5. Top secret: readers have imaginations, too.

In On Writing, Stephen King gives an example of a rabbit in a cage, with a number painted on its fur. You imagine a cage; but the cage you see may be different than what I see. You may see a simple wire crate, like you'd find in a lab or an SPCA shelter. I see a chinchilla cage like the ones in my grandfather's basement, low and long. Does he have to specify what kind of cage he means? Naw, because the shape and size of the cage doesn't contribute to the plot.

Similarly: imagine a skinny guy with a jaundiced face and an Adam's apple like a fist in a turkey's throat. I have such a character in Mummer's the Word.

Do I also have to describe his ratty clothes, his comb-over, his crooked teeth, beady eyes and bad breath? Or did you see that even before I said it?

You live in an age of movies and TV; but as a writer, you don't have to go to that depth of detail. In Hollywood, they have teams comprised of professional set-designers, costumers, sound and lighting technicians, cameramen, make-up artists and casting directors. They know how to make a highly-detailed world, because they have to. You can tell a good movie from a bad one by its texture, as much as by its story.

But you don't have a team of professionals writing with you, each dedicated to one facet or layer of your story. You do have the advantage of the reader's imagination. Make use of it. Let the reader participate, and they will enjoy the story more. Inspire their imaginations.

Some say "Less is more." I say, "No matter how many of them you need, make every word count." trim 1100 words off that short story...

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