On March 18, 2016, Kitty wrote, I’m writing a short story for a contest, but I’m 238 words over the 1,000 word limit, and I absolutely cannot cut any more. I’ve used most of the tricks in the book, changing everything to contractions, cutting out fluff, and even cutting out a whole scene. The story is simple enough; spurred by a radio announcement of winning a mystery prize, 16 year old Nina takes her 5 year old sister Francesca (who’s implied to be sick with an unspecified disease) to the radio station to claim the prize. The two girls have a discussion about what they would want to win, culminating with Francesca saying that she wants a pair of wings so that she can be lighter and not be a burden on her family (which a classmate has accused her of being, but Francesca, taking the word literally, as a heavy object, thinks that she just needs to be lighter, hence the need for wings) and Nina’s response. I’ve kept the description down to a minimum, but I feel like if I cut anymore description I’ll lose some of the emotional poignancy. Gahh…cutting 800 words was easy, but now that I’m down to the last 200s I’m having a really hard time. Any advice?
Lots of you had thoughts.
Christie V Powell: Do you have a beta-reader who can help? It seems like at this point you might need a fresh set of eyes.
Emma: When I was writing for my short story contest, I started out with a great idea, and went with it. It was going great, and I was loving where it was heading… until I saw the word count at the bottom of the screen. The word count was 891, and I wasn’t even close to finishing (the word limit was 1,000, by the way). It made me really mad at first, because I really wanted to use the story, but I loved the story I had created too much to change it. I knew that if I took away too much, it wouldn’t be nearly as good as I wanted it to be. So I started a new story. Now, I had about five days to a week until the deadline to send it in, which was cutting it pretty close, so I suggest that if you have less than five days to work with, don’t start over on a new story. Anyway, I wrote my new short story, which I came to love just as much as the 1st one. By the time I got to the end, I was 24 words over the limit. After editing, I finished with 988 words.
So I said all that to say that if you have time, it’s ok to start on a new short story. It may surprise you that you may even like the new story you come up with just as much. Also, since, from what it sounds like, you are very happy with your story and don’t want to strip it of all the good stuff, you may want to leave it the way it is so you can develop the story more without worrying about the word count. If starting on a completely new short story kind of scares you, don’t let it. That’s what I did, and guess what? I won 1st in the contest I entered it in. Hope all this helps, and I hope the contest goes well, whatever you decide to do!
Song4myKing: I have a similar problem with a novel. I’ve read that YA novels are generally 50,000 to 90,000 words and I realized that at 106,000 words, I needed to trim mine down. So I did, taking into consideration comments from my “beta readers” and cutting not-so-needed scenes, paragraphs, and words. I got it down to 98,000 words, but I don’t think I can cut much more and keep the same story. That might not be so bad, except that there’s a publisher that I’d really like to send it to. The publisher is one of the few with the right audience who accepts unsolicited manuscripts. But I see on their submissions page, that they expect YA fiction to be 30,000 to 60,000. Now I’m trying to decide if I should send it anyway, or skip it, or try splitting my novel into two (which would be difficult, after all this time trying to make it one cohesive whole!).
Melissa Mead: If the guidelines say 30,000-60,000, I wouldn’t send them a 98,000 word novel. Ignoring guidelines is one of the quickest ways to get cut, especially for new writers. And splitting the novel into 2 books would mean trying to sell 2 books, not just one. This may not be the right story for this market (or vice versa).
And me: This publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts? If yes, I agree with Melissa. But if you’re going to send a query and sample chapter, then I’d say, go ahead. If there’s interest, you can say then that the manuscript exceeds length expectations and ask if they’d still like to see it. In that circumstance the answer may be yes.
Now for my longer answer. I like the beta reader suggestion. We can ask a reader to note places that can be condensed, spots where her attention wandered–and to say why if she can.
Recently, I read the first chapter of my WIP to the audience at a book signing. I told them beforehand that I would know if and when they got bored. Alas, they did get bored, and I did know. The quality of the silence changed. I could also tell when they snapped back to attention. I trimmed the chapter accordingly.
You can try this, too. Assemble a few friends or family and read to them, not a whole novel, obviously, but a chunk that you’re wondering about. Or, a little over 1,000 words of a short story isn’t too much. A couple of warnings, though. You have to read loud enough for your audience to hear you effortlessly. And don’t read with a lot of expression. If you’re a talented reader, you may get them past the dull spots by the drama in your performance, and, for this purpose, you don’t want that.
This topic is dear to my heart. When I revise, even while writing a first draft, the thing I do most is cut. I just compared word counts between my latest draft of The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre and my first draft. The shrinkage was from 105,000 words to 71,000, more than twenty-five percent. I don’t think I’ve ever produced a final draft of a novel without cutting more than a hundred pages. (Of course, it would be nice if I didn’t have to, if I knew what I needed and didn’t need right off the bat. Sigh,)
Just saying, there are famous authors, who have enormous careers, whose work I can’t read because I’m mentally crossing out words and phrases as I go until I close the book five pages in. I like lean prose. And whether or not we’re writing for a contest or a publisher’s guidelines or just for our own project, we want our story to zip along. We should go through this trimming process for everything (except, perhaps, we can skip turning whatever we can into a contraction).
How do we get there?
On a micro level, we should question our adjectives and adverbs to see if we need them. The muscle parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs. For example, examine or scrutinize is better than look closely. I’d especially check and probably excise any uses of very. A pet peeve of mine is the word suddenly (or the phrase all of a sudden), which usually isn’t needed.
We can look at our passive constructions, as in, There were a thousand lemmings, galloping toward the cliff. Better and shorter would be A thousand lemmings galloped toward the cliff. Sometimes we need a passive sentence, but often we can rephrase. We can find these constructions by searching for the word there.
We can trim prepositions. Take my sentence above: The muscle parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs. Two prepositions, of and in. I can revise to get shorter and punchier, combining this sentence with the previous one like this: On a micro level, we should question our adjectives and adverbs to see if we need them, because nouns and verbs pack the most power. No prepositions in the last clause. To see how prepositions clog up prose, take a look at the writing that emanates from bureaucracies, like instructional manuals, mission statements, textbooks. You’ll see that much of it is stuffed with prepositions. Yawn.
Another pet peeve is could/can (depending on tense). Here’s an example: Bethany could see her pet lemming Horace join the throng heading for the cliff. If she could see Horace then she saw him. One fewer word. I notice this could/can thing often and sometimes fall into it myself.
On a macro level, we can question every secondary character. What role is this guy playing in our plot? Can another character take his mission on in addition to the other things she has to do?
Have we repeated an action? For example, in Lost Kingdom, Perry has to get away from a fix. She has an eventual destination in mind, but I added an intermediate way station, which she also has to reach, and this bogged everything down. I had my reasons, but I can’t remember them, because as soon as I made her go straight where she needed to wind up, the reasons evaporated.
We can evaluate every scene, which Kitty and Song4myKing say they’ve done, but it’s still worth mentioning. As we did with characters, can we merge two scenes if we need elements of each one?
Have we included background that we can sneak into the story as it unfolds? Do we need all of it anyway?
Same with world-building. Do we have info dumps when all action stops? Are they essential, or can the knowledge be imparted more economically and more organically? Are we failing to give our readers credit for being able to figure some things out?
Can we summarize a part where not much happens? Suppose, for example, a few years have to pass. Maybe our MC has to get a little older. Can we move from showing to telling to get us through this period, name a few highlights, and jump to the new time?
Having said all this, I agree with Emma that a particular story may need more room to be told, and that need, for the sake of literary excellence, is paramount. We serve our stories. Our next idea may be more compact and may be more suited to a shorter word count.
I also agree with Melissa Mead that we need to meet a publisher’s guidelines, but we can keep in mind that the guidelines may be stupid, even while we fulfill them. When I was still unpublished, a mentor at a conference warned me that my manuscript–Ella–had better be under 200 pages. It wasn’t, but it was close. A year or so later, the very much longer first Harry Potter book wowed the kid lit world and changed the standards for middle-grade fiction.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Below is the beginning of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” There is plenty to cut, so go at it . Put these paragraphs on a diet. I suggest trying it two ways. Try anorexic. Then approach it as an abridger might, keeping the flavor of the original, but slimmer.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot — say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance — literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.
∙ I was recently asked to write a version of “The Ugly Duckling” for a textbook publisher, which will be used with first graders at the beginning of the school year, so it will be one of their first reading experiences. My version had to be under 200 words. There were other requirements as well. The children would be learning the short i sound, so I needed as many words as possible with that sound. Most of the sentences had to be short enough to fit on a single line. Words needed to be easy. I was to include time references. The children couldn’t handle quotation marks, so no dialogue per se, although there will be sort of dialogue in cartoon word balloons when the story is illustrated. And I added another constraint. The original “Ugly Duckling” is morally challenged, in my opinion. The poor duckling isn’t acceptable until he turns out beautiful. And there’s a subtler message, too: stick with your own kind, ducks with ducks, swans with swans. So I wanted to fix all that.
I’m pleased that I managed it, including the word count, and I’ve been getting edits that will make the selection even easier. I’ve never written for this age to read to themselves, so it was an interesting challenge, which I’m passing along to you. Try another Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Princess and the Pea.” Tell it in under 200 words or as close as you can. You can include any of the other requirements I had, too, if you like.
∙ Revisit a page of a finished story or a WIP of yours and trim it using the strategies above.
Have fun, and save what you write!