Turning 1,300 words into 750 words is not easy, but it makes a stronger, faster writer.
I used to scoff at writing prompts and the contests that inevitably went with them. Having re-entered the fiction game with an eye toward making money, I know Writer’s Digest is the best way to do your due diligence in the markets. The February 2014 issue was the first of my new subscription. Every month they have a “Your Story” contest that alternates between writing the first line of a story based on a picture and writing a 750 word story using a prompt as the first line.
Two things are true of all types of writing:
1. Practice=better, faster writing
2. Producing good writing quickly; based on ideas not of your creation, to specifications not of your choosing, pays the bills.
I decided to enter contest #56 a 750 word story based on a prompt–at least one person would read my work, right?
How the contest works is you use the prompt as the first line of the story. You submit your story. Then the WD editors chose 5 finalists that are posted to the Your Story section in the WD forms. Those five are then voted on by the WD community.
“Phish! 750 words, piece of cake,” I told myself. The problem? I was not inspired by the prompt at all. It was a line of dialogue and had to be the first line of the story verbatim. Here it is:
“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it.”
Most likely the story would be about one of the Pollywog kids with a frog in their pocket and it died and they learn about death and responsibility or something like that. I did not have a plan when I sat down to write. I am a create as you go kind of writer (AKA in the moment).
What came out on the page surprised me. It was very different from anything I had written or thought I would write. At first, it seemed it would not be long enough. Then I couldn’t find a natural ending and did not like where it went as I continued to write in search of the ending.
It was set aside for a day and mulled over. A few changes to the circumstances along with a character make-over produced a viable story with an ending. It was 1,700 words.
Yesterday, was dedicated to editing it down to 750 words. That’s 950 words to cut. The toils were tweeted. When it was done, it felt like I built a stone wall from rocks first busted with my head. It was great writing exercise.
I LOVE to re-write and this was a to-the-death cage-match. I’ve collected the tweets below. Who can relate?
The Toils Were Tweeted
On days you must cut a story, perfect at 1,375 words, to 750 words; those are the days you feel like a wordsmith and not a writer #writing
Only down to 1,159 words after the nip/tuck. The next cut is REALLY going to hurt.
Anyone know how to unclog the mouse ball on an Apple mouse? <–What would Dickens think of that sentence?
Desperately checking to see if I read the word limit wrong…please let it be 1,000…no such luck. 750. Those evil Bs at WD! #writing
956 words. Oh, it hurts, hurts so bad. It’s like a giant festering wound! It can’t be done! #writing Delete the comma and 2nd hurts.
Nothing frees me up like giving up. 894 words. #writing
856 words. If this were a play; I’d have it done days ago. They can see who’s talking and how they’re saying it! #writing
803 words. I cannot cut my title line. There’s got to be another way. Maybe I can cut some more ‘saids.’ Frigging prose! #writing
751 words. There has to be something I can replace with a semicolon. #writing
I did it! 750! Had to jettison a part I felt gave it depth. Maybe to ordinary without it. #writing #EditingRemorse
I’ll go for a walk and maybe I’ll get a brain wave. #EditingRemorse #writing
Read it out loud to the dogs. Doesn’t need the part. It has more depth without it. 746 words with title and by line. Less is more! #writing
Time to proof for goofs #writing
I can so use ‘much’ and ‘these days’ in the same sentence grammar checker! #writing
‘Blazed’ is not modifying ‘dead’ you stupid grammar checker; it’s modifying…what is it modifying? #writing
It finally clicked why they’re called modifiers; they CHANGE the aspect of other words. #stupidwriter #writing
It’s only 739 words but they’re so beautifully arranged. Don’t we all have a little hubris when we finish a project? #writing
My little story is all grown-up and toddling off to it’s first day of being judged. So proud. #writing
I’m walking around with glazed eyes muttering, “I can tell that story in 500 words…200 words…a 100 if I have to…” #writing
This has been a dramatic re-creation of my day editing a short-short. #writing
If Dickens had to edit one of his stories to 750 words; he’d go on a 10-day twitter tirade! #writing #WWDD
I’m celebrating with a bottle of #LeelanauCellars Cherry wine and listening to @DollyParton! Good stuff! #writing
Rejection or Beginning of Something Wonderful
Ultimately, the story, “Plays Well With Others,” was not selected as one of the five finalists. No losers here; this is a win-win. Here are the spoils of the hard fought battle:
- Knowledge of my abilities and how long it takes me to edit a project like this. Knowing what you can do and how long it takes, is invaluable if you want to make a living as a writer.
- A great story to develop for paying markets. (Yay to me for saving the longer version!) If it was chosen as a finalist, I would have got nothing but the thrill of seeing my name in print.
- Knowledge as to what it feels like when a story is shoe-horned into to few words. Says it all. Knowing something intellectually is good, but when you can feel it–then you got something.
- My instincts were correct about the missing parts. Having instincts re-affirmed by making a mistake in a way that does not lose money is a beautiful thing. You learn to trust them.
- Writer’s Digest editors and I don’t see eye-to-eye on what makes a good story. What makes good writing or a good story is subjective. It’s hard to get two people to agree on this. Usually, when I get rejected and have the privilege of seeing what was selected, I can see the weaknesses in my piece. Not in this case. I felt my story was better than three of the finalists. Two of the finalists I felt lacked emotional truth, something very important to me. What this tells me is WD is probably not the best market for my work. This is why it’s very important to read the choices of agents or editor’s you are submitting your work to. However, I think I could craft something that they would select if I put my mind to it. Will I? I’m not sure. I got a lot out this, so if the mood strikes me, I may give it another whirl.
Contest #57 is a write-the-first-line-based-on-a-picture type. When I saw the picture, a line popped into by head, so I sent it in. Can’t hurt. Did not place in that one either.
The story is not posted because I hope to sell it to a consumer magazine that publishes fiction. It is bad business to give away something you want to sell. Fingers crossed for a spectacular ending to this post..
Keep on writing!