August 8, 2019
One absolute need a fiction writer must have to create material for magazines is the ability to write to extremely short word counts. As this is also true of picture book writers, it's a skill that can transfer to books as well. This is the one thing many writers find toughest to do. And many writers use the wrong "tricks" to make their material shorter. So let's look at two of the biggest pitfalls of trying to write short and how to fix them.
Make Space to Show
Many writers cut word counts by simply eliminating all showing and telling the whole story. This results in work with no specific scenes at all. In picture books that rely on the illustrations to do much of the showing, this is less of a problem. But magazine stories often only have a couple illustrations, so they need to create pictures in the mind of the reader through the writing. When done entirely in telling, the writer fails to do this.
Instead the story reads much like a synopsis. This type of shortening is especially popular when the story you're trying to write for a magazine is actually better suited for a book, so you’re forced into synopsis style just to get through the plot.
So what are some hallmarks of an overly told story? One is frequent use of repeated acts using the word "would." For example:
Every day Mary would go to the barn to tend the animals. She would feed them and clean up after them. She would pet them and talk to them. The animals on the farm were her best friends, and Mary would do anything for them. She loved the baby animals best, but she always made time to pat the mothers and fathers too. She even liked the Billy goat, though he could be a little pushy.
This sample doesn't contain any showing as not one single bit of it takes place in a specific moment of time. That really is the key to showing, the creation of scenes that take place in a specific moment of time. It can be fine to condense some of the story through a little bit of telling as transitions between scenes, but when telling is how you've handled the bulk of the story (or even all of the story) then you've crafted something that won't sell.
Sometimes writers will try to fix the problem of all that telling by inserting dialogue. But even the dialogue tends to happen outside of a specific moment. For instance, let's look at our earlier example with this kind of dialogue added:
Every day Mary would go to the barn to tend the animals. As she walked into the barn, she always sang out, "Good morning, cutiepies." She would feed them and clean up after them. She would pet them and talk to them. "You're the best friends I've ever had," she often told them. "I'd do anything for you all." She loved the baby animals best, but she always made time to pat the mothers and fathers too. She even liked the Billy goat, though he could be a little pushy.
The addition of some dialogue can make all the telling feel a little more immediate, because we hear Mary's voice, but it doesn't solve the problem. The only way to solve the problem is by showing. And that means creating scenes, not summaries. For example:
"Good morning, cuitepies," Mary sang out as she walked into the barn. She always called out, and the animals always answered, but this morning, the barn was silent. Mary peeked into the Billy goat's pen. The goat stared back. "What's wrong, Billy?" Billy didn't bleat or snort or even knock his horns against the stall. He just stared.
Now that bit of showing takes place on a specific moment. We hear her speak. Then we get a snippet of telling in learning Mary always said the same thing and the animals always answered. But then we're thrust right back into the moment as none of the animals answer. We go with her to the goat's pen and listen to Mary. We also listen with Mary's expectation of an answer, but Billy doesn't make a sound. This kind of writing is much more immediate and compelling. And it trusts that the reader will come to conclusions on their own. Mary's concern and her way of addressing the animals shows us how she feels about them. So we didn't need any exposition that told us.
Showing can actually eliminate the need for a lot of telling because it trusts the reader to fill in the conclusions—as long as we paint a clear picture.
Take the Characters Out of Limbo
Another favorite ploy for cutting word count is to write a story a bit like a play with only dialogue. After all, we know readers love dialogue, so one way to shorten a story is to remove everything that isn't dialogue, right?
Unfortunately not right. Dialogue that is spoken into a void with no action feels flat and unbelievable. This is especially true when we use the dialogue to try to do the job of action. Look at this example:
"Wow, it's really raining," Joe said.
"And look at how it's steaming up the window," Mary said. "I can draw on the window with my finger."
"That's funny," Joe said. "You drew a cat."
"Good guessing. Now I'll draw three circles and a curl. Can you guess what this is?"
"A pumpkin?" Joe asked.
Mary laughed, "Wait. I have to add the legs."
"Good. Now I'll erase my pig and my cat with my hand. I like this kind of art. Why don’t you try it and I will guess?"
This kind of writing doesn't make editors very happy, because the dialogue rarely sounds natural. Mostly we don't narrate everything we do and describe everything we see. Not in normal conversation. So when we force the dialogue to do the job of narrative action, it can feel a bit odd. Also, it doesn't give the reader a clear view of setting, so that the reader can create the moment in his or her mind. We know there is a window and two children, but we don't know if it's in their living room or a bedroom or even on the bus or at school. A small amount of setting would help the moment feel more real. Consider this change with added showing:
Joe peered out the living room window at the pouring rain. "We'll be stuck inside with nothing to do forever."
His sister pressed her finger to the class, leaving a mark. Then she drew a circle around it.
"What's that, Mary?"
"Just watch." She added more dots and lines.
Joe laughed. "That's a cat."
"Good guessing. Now what's this?" Mary drew circles and a squiggly curl.
Joe frowned. "A pumpkin?"
Mary giggled and shook her head. She added four stick legs and dots for eyes.
"Right," Mary said. Then she waved at the door. "It's your turn to draw. I'll guess."
Notice how adding motion to the piece let us see so much better. In that way, the dialogue could be written more like kids actually talk. And we do add words this way, but not as many as you might think. Mostly we're moving words from one type of writing to another.
What is the Answer to Cutting Words?
If it doesn't work to remove all the showing and it doesn't work to craft the whole piece from dialogue, what is the right answer to creating a story that works in a short word count? The answer is to craft a plot that can be told in a very short space of time, with a very small cast of characters, in a very limited number of locations. And to write using strong clear verbs (action verbs in past tense with no adverbs unless absolutely necessary) and strong clear nouns. The better you choose your words, the less you'll have to prop them up with a lot of rigging in the sentence.
For instance, instead of John walked slowly, use John crept. Instead of John walked leisurely, try John sauntered. And save the lengthy verb form for times you absolutely cannot avoid them.For instance:
Instead of John was pushed hard by Larry, try Larry shoved John. [This changes passive tense to active and chooses a more specific verb].
Instead of Jenny was running down the street as Mary was jumping rope, try Jenny ran down the street as Mary jumped rope. Does that do what you need? Often we choose the "was verb ing" form out of a desire for a sense of immediacy, but that kind of verb form should be used only when you really need to convey continuous action.
So show, but:
- write the showing with strong tight verbs and nouns.
- use dialogue, but mix in clear, crisp dialogue.
- keep the plot tight in terms of time and space.
In this way, you'll find it easier to meet the word counts of magazine writing without sacrificing interesting, engaging writing. You really can have both.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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