Cutting to the Chase, or Chasing Cuts

Yesterday I wrote a short fairy tale, because I had a deadline and I like fairy tales. Either is reason enough on their own, but together? Kind of compelling. The story is about a girl and a magic fife, or rather it concerns those two; what it’s really about is a separate matter. It’s kind of like most stories that way.

See what I did there? I rambled a bit. Went off on a rather wordy tangent. Drifted from the point somewhat. Repeated myself, and then got redundant. All perfectly acceptable things to do, I might add, in a rough draft of a story. Because, as I’ve pointed out before, the job of a rough draft is not to be good. The job of a rough draft is to be done. “Good” is what the rewrite is about, and aside from continuity, structure, and thousands of other fiddly bits, one of the most important skills when approaching “good” is knowing when you’ve repeated yourself, gotten wordy, gone off on tangents, etc., and cutting it out mercilessly.

Lest you think I’m lecturing you, I will hasten to point out that I’m simply reminding myself of something I need reminding about every so often. See, when I wrote the story yesterday it only went about 700 words. Too short, right? Nope. The problem was it was too long. The strict length requirement was 500 words, and I had 200 more words than I could use. And it wasn’t a “simple” matter of cutting out 200 words; we also have to take into account the fact that any story is likely to need more words in certain spots, such as where a reasoning must be clarified, or a connection needs to be made explicit. Suddenly that 200 words is starting to look more like 300, to make room for words that are needed, or over 42% of the entire draft.

Here’s the first paragraph as I originally wrote it:

“Once upon a time there was a girl named Callie who played the fife. It was an old fife, a bit battered yet still capable of sweet music in the right hands. It had belonged to her grandfather. He taught her to play, and when he felt his time approaching, passed the instrument down on the condition that she care for it until her time came, when she was to pass it along as he had done. Cassie loved her grandfather and she loved playing the fife, so she agreed to everything he said.”

A bit wordy but not terrible. But I had to get those words from somewhere, and Callie’s relationship—and agreement—with her grandfather is already both implied and made explicit at other points in the story, where they serve better. So….

“Once upon a time there was a girl named Callie who played an old fife she had from her grandfather. She played for local dances and gatherings, and the people swore they had never heard sweeter music.”

Ninety-four words down to thirty-seven. The kick is that the first paragraph actually got longer than what you see here, because I combined the original first three paragraphs into one no longer than the original first. Which had the double virtue of removing excess words and getting to the story’s main conflict a lot sooner(kind of important in a 500 word story). For anyone who preferred the first paragraph the way it was, I’ll just point out that a piece of fiction, just like a sonnet, has to fit the parameters. When something has to go, it’s the writer’s sole judgment call as to what works and what doesn’t, and right or wrong doesn’t enter into it.

Only the reader gets to decide that part.