5:55 is a free short story I offer on this page for all of my readers. Here is a quick preview in case you haven’t read it yet. It was the first thing I wrote for my very first creative writing class in college. The assignment was to write a ten-page story. I was a sophomore at the time, and I hadn’t written anything in three years, except fanfiction. On top of that, I had never written a short story; in fact, I hated them. I am a wordy person and I love complex plots. Short stories were not conducive to the epic ideas I had, and it took me weeks to come up anything with which I was even halfway satisfied.
I was so proud of myself when I finally typed that last sentence and just managed to keep it within the requested page count. I couldn’t wait to show it to my class… Until I realized I had written ten single-spaced pages, and the teacher wanted ten double-spaced pages to allow space for feedback from the rest of the class.
Today’s post is going to be all about my three tips to take that epically long, lovely manuscript of yours, and chop out the access words without losing the essence of what makes the story great. You ready? Let’s go.
Tip #1: Showing is not always better than telling: I’ve touched on the concept of Showing vs. Telling here and here, but one really important detail that I forgot to share was the difference between showing for expansion and showing for the sake of understanding a plot. In my original draft of 5:55 I had an extremely long flashback (like four pages worth) that concerned one of the main elements of the story. One of the first things my teacher told me to do to get the story to the required page count? Cut it. Completely.
Now, as an over writer who thrives on stories that focus on character development, that was the last thing I wanted to do. But as I looked over the draft, I realized that all of the critical information explained in the flashback had already been addressed through more succinct dialogue. The flashback added more nuances to the main character but was not necessary to propel the plot forward. It now stands alone on my blog as a flash fiction entitled “Family Matters.”
Tip #2: Ditch the descriptions: Even without the flashback, I was still five pages over the limit, so the next thing my teacher told me to do was trim my descriptions. I didn’t want to lose the atmosphere completely, and at first, I really struggled to find anything that could be cut. Gradually though, I realized that my readers didn’t need to know every single detail of the character’s actions for the message to resonate. For example, one of the paragraphs in my first draft read:
Swallowing a laugh at her over dramatics, he snatched the tool so her fingers closed only around air and she tumbled toward the mulch.
“Whoa…” Before she could face plant into the dirt and risk breaking her jaw on the split wood of the rotting porch, she threw her hands down and planted them firmly in the fresh soil.
She righted herself and glared at Jayce while shifting to sit on her haunches and wiping her muddy palms on her already grass stained jeans. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his lips pucker in amusement as he tossed back his head to remove the shaggy crop of jet black hair from his face. His electric blue eyes sparkled with mirth, but Cassie only scowled.
“That wasn’t funny, you ass,” she huffed. “I could’ve split my face! Do you not see how old this place is?”
It now reads:
Swallowing a laugh, he snatched the spade away. Cassie tumbled toward the mulch when she lunged for it. She threw her hands down into the fresh soil, righting herself and glaring at him.
His lips puckered as he tossed back his head to push the crop of jet-black hair from his face, though his gaze never left hers. “Oops. Sorry.” He shrugged in that annoying, sly way of his.
Cassie scowled. “That wasn’t funny, you ass. I could’ve split my face! Do you not see how old this place is?”
As you can see, the second one is much shorter and we lost a little bit of Jayce’s physical appearance, but they both communicate the same thing: Cassie got thrown off balance, she is annoyed, and Jayce is trying to kid with her about it.
Tip #3 Axe the adverbs and tighten your sentences: In my first draft, there were a ton of adverb and lots of winding sentences. These were the last things to go; and most often, the adverbs could be replaced with a stronger verb. This was one of the biggest lessons I learned from the class. Instead of saying “She ran like a cheetah,” for example, you could replace the simile with “sprinted” and still retain your desired meaning. The simile might be more visually appealing, but the verb still packs a punch while chopping four words. It may not seem like a lot in one sentence, but trust me, those changes add up pretty quickly.
What is your most memorable writing experience from school? Share below! As always, keep writing, word weavers!