at the beginning of August I looked again at a piece I had started about a year before. It was a description of fishing on the Humber estuary, based an a strange experience I had when a complete stranger offered to sell me a lamp. I’ve often felt it was like the start of a modern day Aladdin story. Anyway, I added a few words and then suddenly I was writing. In a few days I had a 1650 word short story, that I thought would be perfect for the second One Hundred Voices anthology. The only problem was it was over the 1500 word limit, but I thought it was worth a shot and sent it off to Centum Press.
and then heard nothing for several weeks. Then I got an email. The story needs to be within the word limit, would I like to take a look at it. I bit back my immediate reaction (it’s perfect as it is! How dare you! Don’t you know who I am?) and replied that I would.
and I’m glad that I did. You see when I wrote it and revised it in August I thought it was perfect, with a fresh eye I could see it wasn’t. So I looked at every sentence and asked myself this question:
can I say the same thing with fewer words?
Here is the opening paragraph as an example, before and after.
It’s wild up on the estuary, when the night is falling and the tide is low. The light leaches away one colour at a time, first the pale green of the far shoreline, that narrow strip between water and cloud, then the umber and sienna of the river itself and finally the hint of purple that lines the sky, casually painted by a veiled sunset. To either side of me stretches the beach, cobbles flung against the sea wall by a wild winter storm. Soon it will be covered by the advancing tide, and I shall retreat, yard by yard until I am forced to take shelter behind the concrete bastion, but for now I stand by the waters edge and fish.
Up on the estuary, when the night is falling and the tide is low, the light leaches away one colour at a time. First the pale green of the far shoreline, then the umber and sienna of the river itself and finally the hint of purple casually painted across the sky. On either side the beach stretches away, cobbles flung against the sea wall by a wild winter storm. Soon it will be covered by the advancing tide, while I retreat, yard by yard, but for now I stand by the water’s edge and fish.
94 words, a cut of about 25%
I think it’s better. The concrete bastion has gone (too whimsical) so that’s good. I’ve lost the veiled sunset, which I like but it doesn’t fit with the tone of the story. I’ll use it again somewhere else. Getting rid of the ‘It’s wild’ at the start makes for a quicker start, and avoids the repetition of wild later in the paragraph. Plus it’s a statement that makes the rest of the description redundant. Telling not showing, a classic mistake.
anyway I went through the story in the same way and got it down to 1495 words. Most of what I cut was description, the action and dialogue were fine. Sent it back and on Monday I got an email saying it had been accepted.
- Watch out for the whimsical
- Don’t over-do the description
- Leave it a while. I think I need time for my perception to change from ‘writer’ to ‘reader’