Machetes and Scalpels

Machete Bolo

Machete Bolo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Lillian Csernica on May 2, 2013

This week I’ve had two opportunities to submit short stories.   Both markets are online magazines, one with a theme and a deadline, one open.

Submitting to the market with the theme and the deadline was tricky because the story I had that fit the theme was 4800 words long.  The market’s word limit was 3500.  What did I do?  I bit the bullet and proceeded to spend most of a day cutting those 1300 words.  I started with the figurative machete, taking out paragraphs, chunks of dialogue, unnecessary details.  Every so often I’d check the word count, curse loudly, sharpen the machete, and go at it again.

Then came time for the scalpel.  My agent taught me an excellent trick for tightening up the length of a manuscript.  If the last line of a paragraph has only three words or so, find a way to make those words go away.  It’s amazing how those lines add up, or rather subtract quite a bit of length.  I’ve applied this method when getting rid of the last twenty-five pages of a novel manuscript so I came in at exactly four hundred pages.

Now for the other story, the one I submitted to the open market.  I got a letter that looked like a rejection slip but sounded like a rewrite request.  I’ve been a slush reader and a fiction editor.   I know how to read between the lines on such letters.  After giving it some thought, I decided to take my chances and go for the rewrite.  The opening of the story was too long.  The actual story needed to get off to a faster start.  Also, the editors wanted to see if the story could be told in fewer words.  Machete or scalpel?  The word limit for this market is generous, so I used the scalpel but kept the machete handy.  I’m still working on this particular story.  I may have to eliminate a character to simplify the core problem and its resolution.

New writers are often afraid of editing.  I’ve met some in writers’ workshops who seem to think squeezing out the words is so difficult that they’re lucky to have come up with what they’ve produced.  They haven’t yet learned that there are always more words.  Sometimes adding more and even more is a good thing, because then you have more choices about what to leave and what to take away.  That gives you more options for which aspects of the story you want to emphasize, and which ones to downplay.

I write five drafts.  That’s my process, proven time and again.  I love it when I hit the fourth draft.  All the story elements are in place, and now it’s time to see what does not need to be there.  Cutting away those words makes the words I want to keep that much stronger, that much clearer.  Getting rid of the distractions and tangents and sidetracking means a tight, well-orchestrated, gripping story.  That’s what I want to read, and that’s what I want to write.

Machetes and scalpels are your friends.  What you cut away you can still keep in a separate file.  I’m looking forward to sending in this rewrite and seeing if I’ve lived up to the editors’ hope that I could rise to their requirements and deliver the story they want to publish.


Filed under fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Humor, Writing

3 responses to “Machetes and Scalpels

  1. robbear13

    Excellent points, Lillian. I don’t exactly do five drafts, but I do spend lots of time editing. People who are new to writing seem to sped a lot of time writing, and not much time editing. The longer I’ve been writing, the more I find I write fairly quickly, but take a log of time for editing.

    Blessings and Bear hugs!
    Bears Noting
    Life in the Urban Forest (poetry)


  2. rebeccadouglass

    Good words. I’m not sure I’m so precise, but I’d say that 5 drafts would be around my minimum. Easier with short stories than novels, but either way it has to be done if I’m to send out something I’m proud of.


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