Short story surgery

Probably one of the most difficult aspects about writing is revision. I’m currently struggling with a short story I’d like to have ready to submit for publication. Most publications have word limits, and even those who don’t I suspect would still prefer you keep it short. Thus begins the give-and-take between telling the story completely and telling it with as few words as possible. In sci-fi/fantasy this can be especially difficult because you have to spend more time developing your setting than most literary stories set in modern, known settings do.

I’ve managed to cut close to 10% of my story now, and I’ve been brutal. I had a goal to get it under 7000 words, and it’s currently at 6980. But there are still some sections that need to be expanded, so a 20-word margin is not much to play with. Imagine my relief to find the publication I want to submit to actually has the limit at 7500. I might just make it.

Unfortunately, I’m quickly reaching the limit of my “Objectivity Zone”. By the time I fix the last part that I hope to fix I’ll have been working on it too long to remain objective. I’ll need to set it aside again for awhile, and perhaps impose on my alpha readers for another round.

It’s been a good exercise, though. I’ve tightened up my prose in spots, eliminated needless redundancies, dropped unimportant information, clarified sentences, and generally looked for ways to say the same things with fewer words. Some of the cuts have really, really hurt. Some of my best sentences had to be altered or removed outright.

It’s work. Don’t let anyone ever convince you that writing is all pajamas and bon-bons while waxing literary at a typewriter, creating perfect  prose in a single pass, in a large, airy study surrounded by shelves and shelves of books. For one thing, most of my writing happens either at my desk at work during my lunch break, shoveling down my lunch while trying to crank out just a few more words, or on the couch at home after wrestling the kids to bed, trying to get in a few more words before my eyelids start slamming shut.

Perfect prose in a single pass? Hah! I’d settle for passable prose with a perfunctory plot.

I suspect that those promo photos of the author in the backs of books were taken the day they got their check to help hide their usual haggard and harried expressions, and even then they probably required significant make-up to hide the wrinkles, sags, dark circles, and even scars they normally wear.

Ah, who am I kidding? I love it! I must, because I keep doing it! Revision is hard work, but there is satisfaction to be found in finding you are capable of better writing, no matter how slowly and painfully it emerges. And I suspect that if I ever get to where I’ll need a promo photo I’ll be thrilled enough to look ten years younger.

Just remember that writing is work, and it requires the ability to “kill your darlings”, as they say. It’s a continual balance between your “artistic integrity” and giving the reader what they want. Most of all, it’s constant battle with your inner slacker. But it’s a battle you can win.

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