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.



Fighting Your Strengths

Sometimes where writing is concerned, it’s easy to confuse skill with enthusiasm. I mean, if you have two separate pieces of prose, one that flowed siwftly from the pen (metaphorically speaking) and one where the composition of each and every word felt like an exercise in either pulling teeth or deciphering Linear-B, one might draw the obvious conclusion that the first piece was playing off of one or more of your strengths as a writer, while another, say a long narrative section, was getting done by sheer persistence since you’re fighting against a severe weakness in your craft. It ain’t, as the man said, necessarily so. Sometimes you’ve got that backwards.

I’m taking the example nearest to hand: the novel project just prior to the most recent one. I wrote a complete draft but then basically stuck it aside and never did much with the working draft for various good reasons, but now that the most recent project is at rest for the moment I’ve been going back to this one and trying to get it into shape for possible submission later. I still like it. I still think that the cosmological and theological questions I wanted to play with there made for a good story. At least, “in theory.” One problem though, and it’s sort of a big one–everybody talks too darn much.

Completely my fault. As anyone who’s read much or maybe any of my work should know, I love dialogue. I don’t pretend to know whether we’re talking about cause and effect here, but one possible reason that I love dialogue is that it’s one aspect of writing that I have always found extremely easy. Get two interesting characters with something at stake, something to potentially gain or lose, and get them talking to each other? Feh. The scene practically writes itself. Yet in this project that very strength was killing the book.

I have to fight the urge to get carried away, and clearly as I reviewed the text of this book, it was obvious that I hadn’t fought hard enough. Which brings up something I’m not, or at least didn’t use to be good at–cutting. I had to struggle to learn this, and it took years. Lots of them. But I finally turned that weakness into a skill. I am still not a fast or enthusiastic cutter. I would even say I’d have to improve to be reluctant. But I’m a precise one. Which is fortunate, since judicious cutting is all that will save this book. More than save, it may just reveal it as something that’s every bit as good as I thought it was when I wrote it.

If your strengths can kill your work, your weaknesses can save it. Reminds me of the First Law of Power (Black Kath’s Daughter): “What Power Holds, Weakness Frees.” Strengths can bind and limit, weaknesses can cut the cords. All you have to do is recognize both for what they really are.

Embracing Your Inner Butcher

Earlier this morning I killed a couple of paragraphs. Perfectly innocent little things, well written, even revealed a smidge of character in them. Not enough. They weren’t pulling their weight, the little deadbeats, and now they’re gone. In the next session, whenever that is, I have already planned which section of the story I mean to attack. There will be more carnage, more innocent words spilled. It will not, however, be murder. It will be self-defense.

Long, hectoring tirade follows. Proceed at your own risk. Continue reading