Good news! I finished the first draft of CONDOLENCE, my entry for the zombie short story competition being run by SFX magazine.
Bad news! It was 388 words too long. I had some editing to do.
This was different to normal editing though. I wasn’t looking to build up character arcs and dialogue. I didn’t want to find where I could expand on description or subplot.
No, this was all hacking. Like Edward Scissorhands I needed to trim off all the excess until what I wanted to show revealed itself.
So the limit was 1500 and I wrote 1888.
The first thing I did was look for over descriptive sentences or sections. There were a lot. The first page had most of the flab. I guessed this was because I was setting out on the story, building the characters and the scene. The more I wrote the more action took over from description and I became more and more conscious of the word count each time I started a new page. I guess my brain was trimming before I knew I needed to. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough.
To begin with the first line.
“Finally I could see the house. I grinned, fist pumped the air and turned to my friend Edgar.”
I kept the first five words. These are important. They let you know that the characters have arrived at their destination and that it’s probably been a long journey as we’ve opened with “Finally”. I also kept the end of the line where the narrator turns to Edgar as this helps to introduce the companion quickly.
But do you need to know that he grinned and fist bumped the air? Maybe if you had the luxury of no word limit then it would tell you a few things about his character straight away. It shows that despite the long journey, our main character isn’t down about his situation and still has a playful side.
Here though it’s too much for this short story and, as such, it had to go.
A few paragraphs later and the main character takes a moment to enjoy the peace and quiet of the suburbs, so much nicer than the inner city where he currently resides. This is then followed by him reminiscing over a memory from his childhood.
Gone and gone.
I also looked for the little over descriptions. For example when George, the main character, says “Edgar muttered something to me again” it’s at a point where there are only two characters so “to me” was cut.
As I moved through the story it was less about chunks and more about little snippets. “I quickly grabbed” became “I grabbed”. “I headed off to the kitchen” became “I headed to the kitchen”. My wife even joined in and suggested I change “passed out” to “fainted”. That was another word saved.
Each time I read through I felt like a racing driver; lap after lap, chipping away at the record time. I was reading, removing, reading more and removing more.
The story of CONDOLENCE is made up of three scenes. The first is where the characters return home. Next we have a flashback to before George and Edgar started their journey and what made them leave the city. Finally we return to the original scene and carry on to find out why they returned home.
As of the weekend just passed I had 134 words to lose to make the word count.
A couple of days ago one of my beta readers gave me her critique. She made some good points and I welcomed her direct honesty (if you’re reading this then you know who you are. Thank you for that honesty). As she finished her review she asked me if the story had to be 1500 words.
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I thought about it and realised the mistake I’d made.
You see the original version of CONDOLENCE that I’d planned had no flashback in the middle. I’d only put it in because I felt that the story was too short and needed filling out. But the filling was too big as it turned out. Perhaps it didn’t belong.
They said it couldn’t be more than 1500 but they didn’t say it couldn’t be less.
And sometimes less is more. So I went back to the drawing board and, on my lunch break today, I finished a new draft that I really like. Now I just have to find some time to type it up (made difficult that I move house tomorrow). Fingers crossed it’s less than 1500.
Wish me luck
See you in seven.