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Monday, July 2, 2012

The Old Goat Learns a New Writing Trick

As many of you know, for the last five weeks I've been working on my serialized novel at the Cliffhanger 250 (stop by and check it out, if you haven't already).  Chapter 16 went up today and is going to be used as an example for my new writing trick.  And it's not just any trick, either.  My new trick is the most important trick a writer can learn.

What is this amazing, new writing trick?  It is the trick every editor in the business wishes every writer in the business would learn.  It is the trick of making my prose leaner so every word serves to advance the story.  It is the trick of cutting words from my story.  Lots of words.

The idea of the Cliffhanger 250 was to force me to write and publish short, 250 word installments of the story.  The short length (equal to approximately one typed page of manuscript back in the days of typewriters and snail mail submissions) was to keep each installment from feeling daunting to me (a guy who's never written any single story longer than 5000 words) and to use cliffhangers at the end of each chapter so I would have a goal for each installment I wrote.  While writing those chapters, I found the first drafts of chapters had anywhere from 300 to 400 words; well above my targeted word count.  I didn't want to change the title of site -- the "Cliffhanger 300 to 400" doesn't have quite the same punch -- so I really only had one choice.

I had to cut words from my chapters.  Ruthlessly.  Even if you consider that each chapter tends to be 270 to 280 words in length, I found myself faced with cutting 10% to 30% of the words from my first draft.  When you have so few words to work with in the first place, that should be really hard.  It would be really hard, too, if I didn't have that target word count.  By making the number of words more important than the specific words in the first draft, I found it much easier to do what needed to be done.  I cut words, phrases, even entire sentences from the story and deleted them with ruthless abandon.  Along the way, I found better, shorter ways to say what needed to be said.

Want an example?  Preparing for this column, I marked up my changes to show what I deleted and rewrote for Chapter 16 of Scout's Honor.  Just for the record, the first draft was 353 words in length.  The published version, not counting the italicized lead-in and wrap-up lines, is 269 words in length.  Eighty-four words -- twenty-three percent of the word count -- gone in less than half an hour.  Here's the example.  Highlighted words were added, struck out words removed.

          Scouts receive extensive training for handling all sorts of situations we may face.  Our implants are loaded with further data covering virtually everything else.  Somehow, the experts who designed the training never considered my current situation.  That's why, When the princess's lips locked on mine, training fled and instinct took over.  I pulled her close and returned the kissed her back.  Enthusiastically.
            We jumped apart, brought to our senses by Rob's interruption.  We cast our eyes downward like two scolded children eyes downcast, unable to meet Rob's stern gaze.
            "Highness, go to the stern of the airship," Rob ordered.
            The princess bristled at his tone, "Rob, you will not-"
            "Callan, do as I say."
            Chastised, she stalked aft.
            Trying to forestall what was to come Hoping to avoid a rebuke, I said, "Rob, I promise-"
            "Silence, boy!" hissed Rob.  "You just took an oath this morning to protect the princess with your life.  That includes protecting her from herself, from her flights of fancy and her infatuations.  That includes protecting her from your base instincts.  Do you understand?"
            "Yes, sir!"
            His gaze bored into minee stared intently into my eyesApparently Satisfied by what he saw, he relaxed slightly.  "Many guards develop strong feelings for those they guard, David.  Burying those feelings, especially if they are returned, is your duty"
            "It will not happen again, sir."
            "Good," He nodded, dismissing the matter.  "Now, can that...thing...in your head teach you how to fly this airship?"
            My implant was feeding me informationIt could.  As Rob marched aft, toward the princess, I concentrated on the airship controls, trying to ignore ignoring the heated discussion at the stern.  We needed altitude to reach the prevailing winds and forward speed to generate the little bit of lift required for the airship to rise to gain altitude.  A clever steam engine mechanism provided power for propulsion and also vented exhaust into the gas bags for lift.
            Looking up from the controls, I saw spotted a dark smudge on the horizon.  Happy Rob has brought my Grabbing the survival pack Rob brought aboard, I grabbed took out the binoculars and trained them on the smudge.  Ice lanced my gut as the smudge came into focus.
            A sandstorm stretched across the distant horizon, and it was coming straight for bearing down on us!

Is this perfect?  No.  Is it better than the first draft?  Definitely.

The point to remember is that the words are there to serve you.  Words don't get to stay on the page simply because you put them there sometime in the past.  Words have to earn the right to stay on the page.  They do that by serving the story, propelling it forward.  Any word which doesn't do that is not serving the story and deserves its fate.  Delete and don't look back.

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