I didn’t have time to write you a short one.

By | January 31, 2011

There is a third Rule of Writing, but it’s more a Rule of Editing: be short.

This is more than brevity being the soul of wit. Short is better than long most of the time. Paper magazines can’t publish three novellas in a row, but they can sometimes squidge things around and fit in a flash piece. Online markets, with their infinite space, still face eyestrain and limited attention spans. All markets have budgets, and given a choice between equally good four and six thousand words– which means between two hundred and three hundred dollars at low pro rates– they will pick the four-thousand-word story.

This is because ‘short’ means ‘dense’. Some stories need more room than others; a novel can’t and shouldn’t be made to fit into four thousand words. But, as with gardening, adding space doesn’t necessarily increase quality: no matter how much garden you give a snapdragon, it’s never going to become a vast and mighty oak tree. You’ll just have a flower in a barren field, and it doesn’t matter how lovely the bloom is because no one’s going to see it in the middle of an acre of dirt.

So how do you make a story shorter?

First off: know how you write. This will help you figure out what to do next. Are you the type of writer who plots and plots and plots and then takes one single subsubplot and makes a story of it? Do you write discovery drafts, the kind where you start with a blank page and noodle around until you have an idea what the story’s about and how you’re going to tell it because you’ve tried four times, all in the same sprawling draft? Do you start with one idea and then it’s a novel summarized in ten thousand words, so you write a novel?

None of these are bad things, just different ways to write. These aren’t things to fix. Be aware of them because then you can say, “Oh, this isn’t a symptom of my horrible writing. This is just my process, and it works for me.”

Then, you can make the story shorter. Here are some ideas.

Outline. Not everyone likes outlines; some are committed write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types and feel they’ve told the story already if they outline. Once that’s done, what’s the point of prose?

But this isn’t a prescriptive outline that you make before you draft. This is descriptive, like writing a novel synopsis for an agent. Don’t outline according to what you want but what you actually have. This is knowing how you write this story.

Look at the outline, in whatever form it takes. Stripped of the prose, the bones of the story might surprise you. Does the outline look like something created intentionally, or is it haphazard and weird? Is the structure consistent and sound? Are there scenes that repeat previous scenes? This is also a time to find nifty things about the structure, like parallels. Be honest with yourself and your story.

The next two suggestions can be applied to outline or prose, though I suggest you check the prose itself before cutting anything.

Start the story as late as possible. Often, this is summarized as, “Cut the first X,” with X being the first paragraph, the first page, the first scene, the first thousand words, the first ten percent. Obviously, you’ll have a different X for each story. Experiment and save each version. You can also start at the climax and see how little beginning you can get away with. I’ve written a couple stories that were actually the climaxes of unwritten novels– here’s the heroine, here’s the Dark Lord, GO! Neither was particularly good, and one was actually a cow joke, but as a writing exercise, it works.

There’s also scene-level tightening. This is often a flaw of discovery drafts; the scenes you write just to keep the words coming don’t always serve the story. “Kill someone,” and, “Blow something up,” are perfectly good for getting words on the page until you’ve uncovered the story, but remember, words are there for a reason. Make sure every scene does at least one thing, preferably more than one, and that you aren’t repeating yourself.

Conversation between hero and his mother about characters who never show up? Kill it. Long, angstful monologue from the poor downtrodden villain that doesn’t make the reader or the protagonist sympathize with her? Kill it. Scene that begins, “Meanwhile, on the other side of the jungle…”? Kill it.

Why yes, I am a bit bloodthirsty. I rather like slapping the delete key on useless scenes.

Even more satisfying to me is sentence-level tightening. It’s fussy, it’s sometimes difficult, it’s possible to stall here for ages instead of declaring the story done and sending it out… and oh, I love it so. Read your story aloud to find awkward phrases, repeated words, or sentence patterns you use too often– “I thought he seemed to be worried,” becomes, “He seemed worried.” Look for weasel words and common phrases. If your paragraphs all begin with the sentence pattern, “Turning, she looked at his hands,” “Smiling, he said…” “Carrying their friend, they turned for home,” change them to be more varied and more effective. Often, this means fewer words. Your language, like your story, should do what you want with as little wasted effort as possible.

This is where people who favor style sometimes falter. In first drafts, they often try out three ways to say something, one right after another. “The house leaned like a fallen tree, like an old man on his tottering cane, like a wool-clad girl from the door of a train.” It’s easy to pretend that all three are useful and necessary, but really, they’re not, even grouped prettily in triplets. In my own writing, I check for groups of three phrases because they often include one marvelous bit of writing, one passable, and one absolute deadweight. If I can’t make all three great, I pick the one that does its job right.

This is where the phrase, “Murder your darlings,” comes from. A darling is something you particularly like that doesn’t serve the story. It’s hard to cut scenes that show absolutely superfluous characters being awesome in ways unrelated to the plot. It’s hard to remove sentences you adore because you’ve already said what you need to more effectively.

So don’t remove them completely. Save different– and clearly numbered!– versions of the story when you do scene-level tightening. Start a second file and let all the unwanted words live there. In time, you might find that the metaphors you loved but couldn’t keep in one story will find a happy home in another. The two secondary characters you eliminated because everything they did could be done by a third might turn into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern behind your back. You don’t have to keep everything, but if you hate deleting things because they might come in handy, storage is cheap. Just stay organized and remember:

You put the words on the page. You can take them right back off.

Your assignment: the Postcard Story.
On your social network of choice, let it be known that you will send a postcard-sized story to the first five people to leave a comment and email you with an address. Once you’ve done this, buy five postcards, blank USPS or local landmarks, your choice.
Then write five very small stories.
A postcard will hold seven or eight hundred words, if you’re light on dialogue and format it right. That’s all you have to play with. Learn to judge the size of your ideas and pull out the very smallest ones. Write only the parts of the story that have to be there. Cut all the extra words so the ones you need can do their work unimpeded. See how much you can do with so little space.
Then send them. If you print them and attach them, make sure they’re well-stuck.