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Discussion questions: See the bottom of the post for a fun competition where you’re going to cut to 50 words a 91-word passage from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” For a more personal exercise, take something short you’re working on — a story, a chapter, an essay — and cut it in half. Let us know the results. How difficult was it on a 1-10 scale? In what ways does the piece benefit and in what ways does it suffer? Describe for us your typical editorial approach.
So I learned the other day that one of my favorite writers is guest judge for a flash fiction contest. I’ve never really written flash fiction. The contest’s word count limit is 1,000, and I don’t think I’ve written anything below 2,000.
Except for one piece that comes in at 1,937 words.
Actually, the rough draft is 1,937 words. The second draft is 2,683. The third and most recent is just under 2,932. If I keep writing drafts I’ll eventually have a novel.
But I really want to enter this contest. And I thought, Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if I tried to cut the 1,937-word version of the story to 1,000?
Spoiler alert: It was not fun. I had to lose more than a few of my favorite lines, and I had to chop in half my favorite scenes.
But you know what? There were other passages and scenes that greatly benefited from being tightened. And the story didn’t lose all that much of the effect I was going for. I may even use it for the contest. The worst-case scenario is that I’ll use some of the stuff from the 1,000-word to tighten the extended version of the story.
In other words, it was a good exercise in editing and concision.
Care to try the same? Take something short you’re working on — a story, a chapter, an essay, etc. — and cut it in half. Or if you don’t want to do the whole thing, cut in half an extended passage.
Can you find spots where one word can do the work of the six words you’ve written? Where two sentences are enough to convey what it took ten lines to convey in the original? Where you can kill some of your darlings for the life of the greater good?
Afterwards, in the comments below let me know how it went. Scale of 1-10, how difficult was it? In what ways did the piece benefit, and in what ways did it suffer? In what ways did you benefit and in what ways did you suffer? Will you use anything from the halved version to make the original tighter and stronger? Did your approach here differ from your standard editorial approach?
Let’s have some communal practice and friendly competition.
Yesterday someone mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” It’s such an excellent story. How could one possibly improve on it?
Well, we won’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. I’ve taken a 91-word selection from the opening graf. Your task is to turn it into 50 words or fewer.
Accomplish this however you wish! You can simply (lol) cut 41 or more of O’Connor’s words. You can rewrite the passage entirely in your own words. Or you can do anything in between.
Write or paste your passage into the comments below. And if you want, tell us why you did what you did.
Read through some of the others, while you’re here, and give a thumbs-up to any you like.
Here’s the passage:
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head.
WriteByNight writing coach and co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.