On October 15, I finally finished a short story that had been plaguing me for months. I started the story on July 10 after some research. I don’t think I’ve ever taken that long to write a short story without interruption/jumping to another. The story– which I’m being vague about until there is an official announcement– takes real historical people but changes an event in history.
I loved the concept when asked and immediately knew what I wanted to write, but since I was twisting history that happened in the last twenty years with a decent amount of controversy, I did a lot of research first. I got deep into the weeds bogging down in several areas including government officials and documented “bad guys.” The word count was supposed to be between 5-7k words. It had ballooned to over 13k words in early October. By October 12 I whittled away a lot of obvious excess and got the story down to 10k that had everything I wanted to tell.
I asked the editor if I could sneak the story in at that word count and to his credit he said no. So I had a lot of cutting to do. Which leads me to this tangent:
Within the short story writing community, it's a common theory that stories should only have four or five characters, that there should be a few scenes so that you don’t confuse the reader and the story doesn’t get watered down. Fundamentally, the reasoning is solid, but I also like to think of the short story as an experimental medium should have limited rules. I would argue that the first and main rule of writing short fiction is to engage and entertain/move the reader. How to do that is up to the writer, not rules.
As a lover of flash fiction, it seems many stories in the noir world often have 2 or 3 characters, a bar or basement (or some vice-infested locale), a confrontation, and a resolution ending with an act of violence. The format is not bad for a story written in a 1000 words or less, and I’ve written a few this way myself. My hope as a short story writer is not to write just a scene, but a complete story with a middle, beginning and end. Often I try to have multiple scenes with separation of days, hours or flashbacks within a scene to build the suspense/anxiety and create a well-rounded story within a limited amount of words. Sometimes I have a few character and other times I have than what is recommended. I bristle at the idea that short story writers can’t have multiple characters/scenes/periods of time, but high quality investigative reporters with limited word count write engaging stories based on facts. It can be done if it is done right.
Okay, tangent over. This brings me back to my October 12 problem. I have to cut out 30% of my story in three days (while working a full time job.)
Here are some things that I did to pare the story down (in no particular order):
Most people use contractions when speaking. “I don’t want it” instead of “I do not want it.” Every know and then people will make declarative statements like “This outrage will not be tolerated!” So keep it in those instances, and the declarative moments will stand out more. Also, I’d say most people think in contractions as well so combine internal thoughts and possibly the narrative voice if it makes sense. The combinations can cut down dozens to a few hundred words.
Take 2 -4 words out of every paragraph. If you have Microsoft Word (or perhaps another word processor) you can see how many paragraphs and lines you have. Go to each paragraph and look at ways you can compress a sentence. Instead of “He walked up the creaky steps and rang the doorbell.” Perhaps "He rang the doorbell" will suffice. Years ago I wrote an article about how 10 authors had their characters enter through doors. https://writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/ten-authors-walk-through-a-door/ One example I use is the following scene from James Elroy’s LA Confidential.
“Bud went in the back way — through the alley, a fence vault. On the rear porch: a screen door, inside hook and eye. He lipped the catch with his penknife, walked in on tiptoes.”
The screenplay uses more words than Elroy's prose. That is quite an achievement.
Combine scenes and summarize
I had written a few bureaucratic meetings to show the inefficiency of siloed government agencies in a time of crisis. While showing is better than telling, I used one meeting to show and explained that several other meetings had been like this and cut two scenes out.
The darlings are the precious scenes that writer loves and does not want to get rid in spite of the scene having no value to the plot. Although killed several scenes that I labored over and enjoyed I managed to keep on less-than-plot-oriented discussion about ice cream and religion. The rest of the darlings, however, were massacred.
Have another set of eyes
I've been fortunate to have a writer’s group over these past several years. Sarah M. Chen and Stephen Buehler were on standby to look at the story and offer suggestion for vicious cuts. Since they were not as emotionally attached to the story as I was, their advice bolstered my resolve to kill darlings that I might have internally fought to keep.
Start late and end early
Anton Chekhov once told a fellow writer, “It seems to me that when you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter, to make it as short as possible.” I think Chekhov was advocating for a quick entry and exit to the story so that an excessive, bloated opening and ending wouldn't weight down a story. I had the bloat on both ends of my story.
While I’m not a fan of literary fiction that builds to a moment, but does not offer an ending– which I consider an act of cowardice– there is something to be said about starting in the middle of action/scene without a slow build up and to end at the moment of resolution and not to dwell much on it. My beginning scene got whittled down to 2 sentences and the beloved end scene was chopped off completely. (Another nod to killing darling and motivation from Stephen to take out the 200+ word ending that was fun, but unnecessary.
In the end I whittled the story down to exactly 7,000 words at around 9:10pm on the 15th (aka 12:10a.m. East Coast Time.) Whew! And in the end I think the story is much better for it.
Have you had to do drastic cuts on your project?
Travis Richardson is originally from Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He has been a finalist and nominee for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. He has two novellas and his short story collection, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED, came out in late 2018. He reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories in the public domain at www.chekhovshorts.com. Find more at www.tsrichardson.com