Over the Transom: Pruning the Story

If you read many of the editor’s interviews over at Duotrope, you’ll notice several common refrains in the answers to the question, “What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to your publication?”

If you read many of the editor’s interviews over at Duotrope, you’ll notice several common refrains in the answers to the question, “What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to your publication?” Read and follow the submission guidelines (please, we beg you); understand what kind of work we publish (best accomplished by reading issues of the magazine); and make sure to send your best work.

At AE, we’re fortunate that the vast majority of submissions we receive do follow our guidelines, and we hope that writers submitting work to us are as excited to read the stories we publish as they are by the prospect of being published by us. This column isn’t to admonish authors not to send attachments or submit stories longer than our 3,000-word upper boundary. Such tips are not really the best advice you can give; they just give the most bang for the buck within the limits of the Q&A format. It’ll get a story into the submissions queue rather than summarily rejected, but won’t help it come out the other end with an acceptance. The goal of this series is to help push the stories that catch our attention over the line from near miss to unequivocal publication.

With that in mind, here’s a secret: One of the most common comments we make on stories that we consider for publishing is, “It could be tighter.” On some level this is a truism; a story can almost always be trimmed a little, although if that’s one of our first reactions upon reading, it means that the fat is a little too obvious. Sometimes we can see exactly where to make some focused cuts, in which case we’re likely to make an offer on the story anyway. But the “it could be tighter” comment can take several forms, including:

  • “It takes forever to get started.”
  • “The premise is interesting, but it spends too much time on ______.”
  • “The ending is good but it’s not worth the buildup to it.”

Stories that get these kinds of comments are almost always rejected, even if there’s something (or several somethings) we like about it.

Tightening up a story is more than just a Strunkian exercise in “omitting needless words.” For those who don’t have an inner Gordon Lish to channel, here’s a trick that can make it easier to wield the knife on a draft. There’s a screenwriting adage: “Come in late, leave early.” Movies used to show much more detail than they do now: A phone would ring, then the lead character would pick it up, say hello, have an entire conversation, say good-bye, then perhaps put on a coat, walk out the door, and hail a taxicab to get to a meeting, and so on … As audiences have become better at filling in the blanks, more and more of these details are omitted.

These days, we may only see the meeting without any preamble to show how the character got there. Once we’re in the meeting, someone might summarize the problem they’ve gathered to discuss. One can expect some back-and-forth as people propose solutions and others debate their merits, until they eventually come to a decision. But how often do we see the entire scene play out that way, rather than ending on someone saying “I have an idea …” then cutting to the plan being put into action?

Of course, sometimes the telephone call, the taxi ride, or the argument in the meeting is central to the story or the characterization. But it can be useful to see how much you can cut from the beginning and the end of the story without losing anything essential, and then to apply the same method to each scene within the story. This isn’t simply a matter of lopping off sentences until the story doesn’t work anymore (although that can be an interesting experiment). There’s probably a reason the material was originally written, but perhaps a scene can be condensed into a well-chosen sentence or two, or the information woven into the story at a different point when it becomes relevant.

It’s said that Michelangelo’s process was to begin with a block of stone and carve away everything that wasn’t the statue. Revising a story isn’t quite that straightforward (and neither is sculpture, probably). Editing is more like creating a bonsai, starting with something that has grown organically, and patiently pruning and shaping it. Fortunately, both trees and words are more forgiving than marble, and they often end up a little differently than we thought they would. The original draft of this essay started out a good two hundred words or more longer than it is now, with a branch or two snipped away. It’s not the shape I thought it would be when I started, but I’m happier with it now.

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