Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

Writer Process: Making a Story Shorter

July 8th, 2013

I find that each new writing project is a challenge, as I try to figure out again the process of creating a story.

Back at the end of April I set out to write a short story in one of my preexisting story worlds. I had no characters, no plot, no theme. So I did brainstorming sessions, and I tried writing bits of story just to see what might be there. Eventually I had a complete draft. I’m never quite sure how this happens, and it doesn’t always happen, but it did this time. 9900 words. Much longer than I’d hoped, but it was the first story I’d managed to finish this year, so that was something.

I sent it off for critique, got comments back that were mostly minor and full of encouragement — and then I didn’t look at the thing for a month because… I don’t know why.

When I finally started working on it again, things went in an unexpected direction. My tendency is to underwrite first drafts, so second drafts are always longer, but this story was the opposite. One comment from the beta reader was that the opening pages could be shortened, so that’s where I started and, painlessly, just by striking out excess wordage — an excess that had become suddenly obvious — the story was 500 words shorter. So I went through the entire manuscript and did a similar prune, striking out phrases and sentences. This took it down to around 9200 words.

Next I started looking for scenes to cut. Right away I found one that was clearly unnecessary. It involved a subplot/problem that contributed to a character’s difficulties without contributing in a meaningful way to the climax of the story. So I reduced it to a sentence and got rid of a few hundred words.

I found two or three places with repeated information and consolidated those.

I found a short scene that existed just so I could convey one piece of information. That information could be easily communicated in one sentence of dialog in a different scene, so that’s what I did.

I trimmed and trimmed and trimmed, one or two words at a time, and the story didn’t suffer for it. It got better. And of course not everything involved cutting words. I added them as needed to clarify character and motives, but the net word count kept dropping.

The last one hundred words were really hard, but I finally found a two-sentence paragraph that had been made irrelevant by my revisions. When that was gone, I only needed to get rid of a few more words, and then I was done. I’d brought the story down to my goal of 8000 words.

This is the first time I can remember cutting a story this hard, which just goes to show that every story is different. I’ve got at least three more that I want to write this year, along with finishing the novel. I have no idea how I’ll manage any of it, but that’s always the case.

I guess I’ll know when I get there.

Posted on: Monday, July 8th, 2013 at 6:00 am
Categories: Writing.
Tags: ,

5 Responses to “Writer Process: Making a Story Shorter”

  1. allynh Says:

    I sent it off for critique, got comments back that were mostly minor and full of encouragement — and then I didn’t look at the thing for a month because… I don’t know why.

    I do slow cooking. I’ve been cooking different styles of beans and soups since Wednesday. I use a four quart rectangular covered pan that sits on a griddle heating unit, so that I can put things in and let them come to heat without burning. I’m making vegetable soup today.

    I put in a pound of ground hamburger and let it brown for a half hour, then crumbled the meat and seasoned it with salt and ground pepper. I put a pound of frozen mixed vegetables on top. I took a can of stewed tomatoes and pureed it; that has bell pepper, onion, celery. I like sweet pickle chips on my sandwiches, so I save the sweet pickle brine. It has mustard seed, celery seeds, etc…, so I hate to throw that away. I puree that as well to break up the mustard seeds. That all goes in the covered pan, that takes about an hour to come up to a simmer. Then I let that simmer a full hour, then simply turn off the heat and let it cool. When the pan is cool to touch I set the covered pan in the fridge to chill down over night. Tomorrow I will put the soup in one cup containers to freeze; labeled of course. Then I’ll start the next batch, this time beef gravy. HA!

    That’s the same process as how I write. Putting everything together is fast, the coming up to simmer, letting things cool to reabsorb the liquids, that takes time. It takes time between each step to make things work.

    In the case of writing, I’m not limited to one covered pan. I write one story to what seems complete, then set it aside to simmer. Then write another story, before I go back to look at the first. Writing another story gives me space from the first; it gives me time to let go of the prose so that I can look at it with fresh eyes when I come back to it.

  2. Linda Says:

    I don’t usually write that way. It’s rare that I’ll let more than a few days go by before starting a revision, so this was an unusual story for me in more ways than one.

  3. Jared N Says:

    Thanks for the post. It’s always neat to read about someone else’s process.

  4. Linda Says:

    You’re welcome. This business continues to be a process of discovery for me.

  5. allynh Says:

    Watch this video about bronze casting and you will see that this is the same process you used in writing and editing your short story. HA!

    COLORES | Shidoni Foundry | New Mexico PBS