Writing critiques have often pointed out that I add superfluous information to my scenes. Sometimes, I have superfluous scenes. Sigh. Writing isn't easy.
Lots of people have the same problem. If you're one of them, fear not. I've found a wonderful antidote to that particular dilemma--a cool exercise that's helped me tighten my writing. Flash Fiction!
A few years ago, my friend Dianne encouraged me to enter a flash fiction contest at a the Crime Bake writing conference. The challenge was to write a short story having to do with a mystery or crime. Okay. That didn't sound too bad, although I've always had trouble writing short stories. I tend to take up too much time setting up the plot and adding (you guessed it) superfluous information. Still, I thought I could do something.
Then she added the kicker. "It has to be under 150 words."
What? Not only was I certain that I couldn't write a story with so few words, but we also had to use ten of twenty words given to us. My first thought was, Impossible. Dianne assured me that not only was it possible, but it was attainable. She had done it the previous year. My back straightened as my competitive streak took over. If she could do it, so could I.
I began searching for a story idea, wishing I'd never agreed to write the stupid thing. It took many attempts before I found something I could live with. The story would be about a little boy whose family had just moved to the area and, to his parents dismay, had acquired an imaginary friend. I decided to center the story around the boy's fifth birthday party where an old mystery is solved.
Things I wanted to include:
- · That they'd just moved to the area
- · That neighbors were aware that the boy talked to himself or some imaginary person.
- · That the boys invited to his party had never met his "friend".
- · That there had been an unsolved kidnapping of a young boy twenty years before whose name people would recognize.
I wrote the bones of the story, inserting everything I deemed necessary and making sure to use ten of the twenty words on the list. The finished piece was clever, interesting, and long-- way too long.
It took me days of re-writes to finally get a crime story that adhered to the rules. if you're interested, you can find it on my blog at the bottom of the page under Exciting WritingChallenge. Here is the photo of the happy winners. Dianne (on the left) and I (on the right) were both shocked to find out we had each won.
Encouraged by my success, I entered the flash word competition for the next two years, and made the winner's circle each time. Me! The person who couldn't pull together any kind of a short story. How did I do it? Let me tell you what I learned and how I try to keep the lessons fresh in my mind, because they work as well with my full-length manuscripts.
I know that all first drafts are important. They spell out the plot and allow the writer to get a handle on characters, motivations, and themes. That draft allows me to see the big picture before I start editing. When I begin the edit, I go back over the manuscript and delete all the irrelevant material. Next, I focus on each scene as if it were a short story. I decide exactly what I want the reader to take away from it and then make sure I have all the necessary elements. This is the same exercise I use in my flash fiction.
After that, I look for things I can combine. In flash fiction, each word must be essential. Redundancy won't fly. It's the same with my manuscript. Once I've ousted the unimportant information, I have to make sure I've included the necessary. The reader needs to be able to see the scene in his head, with all the images, smells and sounds. When I write, I know exactly what I want to convey, but I often forget that the reader can't see into my mind.
Finally, I read it again, looking for the flow. During this process, I usually consult my writing group, getting critical help as well as new ideas.
Since my introduction to flash fiction, I find it much easier to spot areas where I can tighten my writing. Not all the time, mind you, or perfectly, but I've done so much better. Often, when I read over what I've written, I'm amazed. It's difficult to believe that I could lose so much weight without harming the story. Writing tight keeps the reader involved. Add a few hooks at the end of scenes and chapters, and you'll have a bleary-eyed reader, too caught up in your story to go to sleep.
I highly recommend flash fiction contests. Try these: Mondays Finish the Story, Three-Line Thursday, Microbookends, and Friday Fictioneers. They're easy to enter and fun to do. Many blogs have them, usually with pictures or word prompts. You can some I've entered below with their photo prompts.
Have a little fun, see how much weight you can lose, and, remember--Keep Writing!