Short stories: the Kill Bill edit

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.

The revision:

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.

That’s 75.

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.

10 responses to “Short stories: the Kill Bill edit

  1. The first draft is a fine piece of writing, Meg. It has room to breath, to be leisurely about its storytelling. The second draft, well, it’s the kind of sleek, pared-down prose I aspire to in my own occasional blogging these days.

    Writer’s block is a stone-code bitch, which is why I’ve only produced two posts in the last five months.

    On the other hand, I find that I am challenging myself much more in how I tell my stories, and editing is where I do my real heavy lifting.

    It’s simply a good thing that I write as a hobby, not for a living.

  2. That’s sharp and excellent, Meg

  3. Nice pruning! That’s the sort of challenge I face every day as an editor, as I read 900,000 word manuscripts that “simply can’t be cut any more” from new writers. I’ll use your piece as an example for them, if I may. Yes, you may have fine-tuned every sentence, but that doesn’t mean that every sentence must be included! Nicely done. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Thanks, guys. Here’s a point that probably deserves its own post: If I’d been writing this scene for a novel, I might have given it “room to breathe,” as Eddie noted. If an entire chapter took place on the train, I would have left in more of the atmosphere. But for a 1,000 word story, I had to pare it down to a few essentials: train, guy, gal, last second dash, a touch of humor that shows her personality. I trust that readers will fill in the rest of the mental picture.

  5. My favorite English professor in college tolerated no extraneous words. To this day, I remain terse (which is a handicap when writing grant proposals)

  6. I should have asked earlier, so when you say you haven’t written many short stories, where we we, your devoted minions, find these stories?

  7. OOPS! That should have read “where may we…find these stories?

  8. Pingback: Something new: my short story “Strange Waters” | lying for a living

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