Massacre Your Darlings

Over the past few months, I’ve sent out 5 stories to a handful of different journals. That means my inbox lately has been filling up with rejections. I check Duotrope obsessively to see who’s sending them out every day, and try to determine, based on the average response times, which of my stories got immediately rejected and which might be sitting on the desk of some fiction editor, being debated amongst the staff, maybe even possibly sitting in the “yes” pile waiting for that final vote…

Of course, that’s just me playing mind games with myself that probably aren’t healthy in the long run. While I haven’t had any hits yet this fall, I have had a few friendly responses — some from pretty respectable journals — saying they enjoyed the story or encouraging me to try them again. Last week, though, I got an honest-to-god, personal, polite request from an editor to see a rewrite based on a few “specific” suggestions, the main one being to cut the length by about a third.

The story was about 18 pages long, 6500 words, so that meant cutting a little over 2000 words from a story I’ve trimmed and revised probably a dozen times already. My first thought was, “They’re crazy; it can’t be done.” My second thought was, “Suck it up, buttercup. This story is long overdue to be published,” so I took out my red pen and started slashing.

It’s not easy to cut a third of a story, especially one you really think is as good as you can get it. I couldn’t imagine how my story would survive such a brutal pruning and still maintain its integrity. I’d have to cut a lot of character building, a bit of backstory, move things around, write a new beginning and splice together some thematic elements. But besides that, I’d also have to callously delete carefully constructed sentences that I’d really grown attached to over the years. The word “mouthspan” (used to describe the jaw of a copperhad) was one I was particularly proud of that didn’t survive the culling. Somehow, though, I managed to cut it down to size. I read it a few times, gave it a few touch-ups and was surprised to find it held together. I even had a colleague read it who was new to the story to make sure there weren’t any gaps in plot or emotional logic that I had missed, and it passed muster.

I’m not yet ready to say that the slim version of my story is better. But I do think it works, and it was a valuable exercise for a short story, to really focus on the heart of the subject and trim every last bit of fat. Those sentences that we cling to might only serve the ego, not the story, and they have to go. The lesson here is to craft sentences you fall in love with throughout the story.

Still waiting to hear back, but hopefully they’ll like the revision and I’ll have a link to share soon. Would be quite a shame to cut all those beautiful words for nothing….


p.s. If you haven’t heard it yet, the podcast from the Fictlicious Bad Show is live. At the 42:25 mark, you can hear me read my short story “Rum Springer.” There’s an excerpt from it in the Short Stories section linked on the right side of this page.

p.p.s. The next issue of Chicago Quarterly Review is due out in mid-November and will feature my short story “The Candidate” along with work by a bunch of really talented Chicago writers. Keep your eyes peeled.

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1 Response to Massacre Your Darlings

  1. Pingback: Short Story in Gulf Stream #10 | Steve Trumpeter

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