The most underused word in a sentence is the verb. Adverbs are a poor substitute and clutter a story. – Jade
Developing writers tend to think of a short story as action and resolution. These elements are important, but acquiring editors have a more detailed expectation. Aside from the obvious—clean copy with good formatting and no spelling errors—they look for strong characters, an established setting, conflict or crises and resolution. Without these components, stories aren’t stories; they’re character sketches or scenes. If your work contains all these elements and you’re still unsuccessfully shopping it around, the problem may be another common problem: verbosity. Stories—even real stories—weighed down by unnecessary words don’t usually get fixed by a helpful editor. They get rejected.
So what is a writer to do? Well, we can pay for professional editing, but be forewarned—that costs between three and five cents a word, and we may not earn that kind of money if our work does get published. So how do we turn our writing into a paying proposition? The practical solution is self-editing. Oh yes, I know. It’s a brutal task appealing to no one but a masochist. It’s counterintuitive to prune away the leaves we coaxed from imagination’s stems while crafting our first draft. Yet, like suckers on a prized rosebush, unnecessary words have to go if the story is to blossom.
Practice makes us better at performing verbal surgery, but where do we begin? Do we cut out sentences, whole paragraphs, or what?
That may ultimately happen, but it’s best to start small. Begin by looking at the verbs. Are they strong? Do they paint a precise picture of the action? Or are they dependent upon a string of adverbs to fill in the blanks?
Let’s look at an all too typical first paragraph:
“He walked heavily towards the gate. Paul opened the red mailbox at the end of the path, and pulled out a handful of flyers and the usual bills he expected every month. He was surprised when he saw the letter with his name written in the handwriting he’d never forgotten.”
As written, this paragraph is fifty words long. The edited version below is a mere twenty-two, yet it depicts the same scene without exhausting the reader.
“Paul lumbered toward the mailbox. Expecting the usual monthly bills, his heart lurched as he recognized the familiar handwriting on the envelope.”
How does a writer learn to pare down his work to this extent? One way is not to overwrite. That takes practice, and a fun way to practice is to write very short stories or flash fiction.
Flash fiction is a writing format which demands that every word work. This genre has the same requirements of scene, character, conflict, crises and resolution, but it imposes a cap on the number of words the author can use. Though definitions vary and the length may be between one-hundred and one thousand words, most editors will agree that what separates a short story from flash fiction is an extreme economy of words and the twist, or surprise ending.
A flash fiction writer purposely misleads or obscures the surprise ending, but leaves clues that, when revisited by the reader, inevitably reveal they have jumped to an unwarranted conclusion finally corrected by the twist.
Next month, Page and Spine will launch a flash fiction contest. Watch for the announcement, but in the meantime, start butchering. Sharpen your pencils and carve away the waste and window dressing. Be brutal.
♦ Essayist, commercial copywriter and published short story writer Jade regularly demonstrates her ability to accurately assess writing talent as Page & Spine's Senior Story Editor. Her compassion for new writers is counterbalanced by her direct, often cryptic responses to submissions she does not favor.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.