Words on a diet

I just spent the weekend revising a short story and submitting it. I spent the previous weekend duct taped to my chair FINISHING the piece, which I had avoided doing until it was in burning crisis mode.

Burning crisis mode is (unlike burning bush mode) the state of having no idea what to write and actually needing divine intervention. My muse, being a joker, sent enough inspiration during those 48 hours that I not only finished, but finished at about 3,500 words over length. When it’s a 13,000 word piece, that’s a problem. Furthermore, the story was sufficiently complicated that I couldn’t just hack out a few scenes and call it a day. But I made it, ending up just a hundred or so words extra.

I almost always write too long, so I’ve had plenty of practice doing liposuction on my prose. It has been said that 10% of any draft can be safely removed. With me, it’s about 20%. Look at all the silly things I do:

YA short story opening, take 1:

Broad daylight was safe. Safer, anyway. Maybe even kind of dull.

Two o’clock on a September Saturday afternoon meant that the streets were drenched in a warm liquid gold even though the shadows chilled Dori’s back. Autumn was creeping closer, but the summer still held sway for a little time yet—as did the light.

Dori didn’t know the city all that well, much less this part of the downtown. It was the kind of place some called funky and others desperately derelict, but exploring such areas could pay off. In her old home town, she’d found an edgy boutique with stuff no mall would carry. Other times, well, she’d discovered just how fast she could run.

Maybe cutting through an alleyway to reach the next cluster of stores wasn’t the best idea, but she was too lazy to walk to the street corner. Besides, the alley was just a space between two old buildings. Crumbling pavement heaved and split and the graffiti-squiggled walls smelled of old, spilled beer and worse. Not much adventure here.

1. I think I’m trying for a folksy opening, but I end up doing a prose mumble. Three sentence fragments robs the first paragraph of punch. The middle one has to go.
2. Passive verbs (such as “were drenched”) usually indicate a convoluted structure. So do things like “meant that,” “It was/wasn’t the …”. Turning the sentences around to cut out those phrases strengthens the action.
3. The sentence about the alley being a space between buildings seemed kind of redundant. Where else would an alley be? On the roof?

YA short story opening, take 2:

Broad daylight was safe. Maybe even kind of dull.

At two o’clock on a September Saturday, golden warmth drenched the streets even though the shadows chilled Dori’s back. Autumn was creeping closer, but bright summer held sway for a little time yet.

Dori didn’t know the city well, much less this part of the downtown. Some called the district funky and others said it was desperately derelict, but exploring such areas could pay off. In her old home town, she’d found an edgy boutique with stuff no mall would carry. Other times, well, she’d discovered just how fast she could run.

Maybe cutting through an alleyway to reach the next street wasn’t the best idea, but she was too lazy to walk to the corner. So, she headed down the narrow strip of crumbling pavement. The graffiti-squiggled walls smelled of old, spilled beer and worse.

I’ve cut 30 words out of this opening, and don’t really miss them. The meaning is all still there and what’s left is crisper writing.

If you feel like driving yourself crazy some afternoon, sit down with ten pages of your writing and challenge yourself to cut out 30 words from each page. I guarantee by page 5 you’ll have a better sense of your bad habits than you could learn in months of formal classes. What’s more, you start to spot junk words from a mile away.

The one cautionary note is that the exercise is a bit like pruning bushes – it’s easy to get carried away. Don’t do more than about 5 pages at a sitting, or you’ll end up with a telegram by the end.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Russian. French. Dead. Depressed. The End.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *