Flash Fiction: An exercise in editing

This post is approximately 750 words, about as long as a typical flash fiction piece.

I discovered flash fiction a few summers ago. Seemed like the perfect way to churn out quick little stories that I didn’t want to flesh out further. I’m fan of O. Henry and fairy tales, both of which are often very short. For me, sometimes there wasn’t much story to tell, and that was fine. And with a word count of 500 to 1,000 words, it should be no problem cranking something out in less than an hour, especially for someone who’s been typing for more than half his life and finds himself bursting with ideas.

flash-fiction.jpg

So, oh yes, it was very easy to type quick stories: 1,200 words, 2,500 words, 5,000 words! How in the hashtag was I going to edit down stories of those lengths? Well, for the longer ones, I couldn’t. They would sit, untouched, until I had the time to flesh them out into longer short stories (the 5,000-word one has since doubled in length).

But the 1,200-worder posed a delightful challenge. I just needed to trim my story by 17% (yes, I’m an English major who likes math). That’s probably about what I should be looking to do with my writing anyways. In a story of this length, that was about two paragraphs. I reread the story, looking for a section to cut. And read it again. And again.

I was stuck.

Every paragraph seemed to drive the narrative forward. Every detail seemed critical. After all, why would I put in anything that wasn’t essential, especially when word count was a key consideration? I felt like I had laid a path with paving stones and was now trying to determine which ones to remove. At first glance, it seemed my smooth story would soon be filled with potholes.

All right. I’ll nickel and dime the heck out of it and see what that gets me.

throw away words.jpg

I searched for “was”, which really helped eliminate some of that pesky passive voice. I’m generally hyper-aware of passivity in my fiction, but I was still able to rewrite about six instances (I’m aware I just used “was” here!).

Hearkening back to one of my English teachers, I removed “that” when it made sense. Another five or six words.

I eliminated my character’s last name. An unimportant detail in such a short piece, right? Three words.

Did I need to describe trees as “green” or old clothing as both “threadbare” and “tattered” or other rich adjectivenessness? Another dozen words.

I did more math. After one pass, I’d only cut about 50 words. Hoo boy. I did another pass, looking for additional unnecessary adjectives (I like multiple descriptions: the shirt was bloodstained and torn; the sword was sharp, long, and cold; and other better examples). After all, this was a piece that needed to move quickly and lots of description would slow it down. Another 40 or so words. Edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite. Another 50-some.

Then I still had 54 words to go. I thought I was going to have to remove one of my paving stones. There was just no way to force out any more words. I was starting to wonder if I was wasting my time: I’d spent more time editing this thing than I’d spent writing it. Maybe I should just replace the words I’d removed and add more detail to make it a short story.

But I realized something interesting. Stepping away from the story, even for just a day, gave me back some objectivity. Suddenly, unnecessary words leapt from the page like they were printed in the Comic Sans font. I rewrote a little more: 40 words remaining, then 34, then 11.

Suddenly, I was at exactly 1000 words. Done.

I submitted it to a few online contests and, surprisingly, won a judge’s award. Maybe I’ll dig it up and post it again some day.

More importantly, this work had really given me a chance to work on my editing skills. Sure, in longer stories I had more flexibility in terms of word count, but…just because I have the space, it doesn’t mean I have to use it. Sometimes – oftentimes – less is more.

So, perhaps I will return to flash fiction, not only because I enjoy it, but because it is a useful exercise to help me tighten up my writing. Another tool in the toolbox, so to speak.

–Michael

Enjoy what you just read? Leave a comment or like the post and we’ll ensure that you see more like this from Michael!

© Michael Wallevand, August 2016

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