This week I wrote a short story. I don’t write many short stories. I have spent this millennium writing novels. I’ve trained myself to craft stories that span 95-100,000 words. This is a bit like training myself to run marathons. I know how to pace a book — how to keep the story going over 350 pages, how to husband its revelations, how accelerate when the race demands it, how to kick for the finish and leave readers breathless.
Writing a short story is like running the 100 meters. Every fraction of a second counts. Speed, explosive power, and turnover count. Every stride, every footfall, every breath, the lean at the tape — it has to be precise, and powerful, and seamless, or it ends up a sluggish mess.
I haven’t been training to run the 100 meters.
So when I sat down to write a 1,000 word short story, I spent a few hours thinking about the idea. I jotted a page of notes. Then I set my fingers on the keyboard and wrote the rough draft of the story. All 2,250 words of it.
This was actually fine. My rough draft contained everything the story needed. It contained more than double what the story needed. I simply needed to cut it down.
I mentioned, elsewhere online, that I was going to do this. People suggested ways: Cut every other word. Or: save the extra words for a special “deleted scenes” section on my website. Or: Look for a different magazine, one that would take a 2,250 word story.
Alas, I had no scenes that could be cut. And this wasn’t a story I was writing on spec; the magazine had asked me to submit it. At 1,000 words maximum.
In the end, I came closest to cutting every other word. It was like the ending of Kill Bill, where Uma Thurman shreds Lucy Liu’s Yakuza army with her Samurai sword.
Here’s an example. The original:
The doors had already closed on the train but she had 30 seconds left and she hoisted her sports bag and hit the button. The doors opened and she jumped aboard, her hair falling in her face, her cheeks hot from the sprint. Out of breath, she tried to regain her composure and made her way through the crowded carriage, looking for a seat. A moment later somebody else jumped aboard, and the doors slid shut. She glanced back. A young man about her age was smiling, rucksack slung over his shoulder. The carriage was warm after the bitter autumn wind.
‘Nick of time,’ he said.
With a couple of other latecomers they forged their way along the aisle as the train pulled out, gently accelerating. The train was nearly full. She knew she should have booked a seat, but this had been a last-minute trip to see Nan and Granddad, and she’d booked it cheap online. Saying goodbye to them had been hard. After lugging her gear through two carriages she found a seat and slumped by the window, watching the city go by as the sun came up. Five hours to Kings Cross, then back to the office.
That’s 201 words.
She jumped aboard the train with seconds to spare. As the doors closed a rangy young man leapt aboard behind her.
Ellie swept her hair out of her face. “How ‘Mission Impossible’.”
He hoisted his backpack, smiling. The train pulled out and she found a seat. She’d hated saying goodbye to Grandad. Edinburgh slid by, gold in the morning sun. Five hours to Kings Cross, then back to her desk in the fluorescent cubicle farm.
And it’s not only quicker and more concise, but clearer and smoother too. And, I hope, more evocative. And that’s the beauty of editing.