Flash Fiction:
a complete story in one thousand words
or fewer.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Example: Old Oak

This excerpt is from "Old Oak", an unpublished story that was a finalist (though not in the top 25 and therefore not on the Web site) of the Glimmer Train Press's Fiction Open. Since I had already edited it pretty tightly, it should be tough to cut more.

As a rule of thumb, cut deeply, more than you feel comfortable with; then, if you can, set the manuscript aside for a week. Come back and see if you miss any of the words you had taken out. If you did, add them back in (make sure you saved your previous version!). Because you cut deeply, even if you add back a third of what you took out, you'll still have a pretty steep reduction in word count.

I'm not going to fully take my own advice here, because (a) I had already successfully cut 20% before submitting to Glimmer Train, and (b) I want my first blog post to go up. (Deadlines are deadlines, even if self-imposed.) Let's see if I can get 10% out of this section of "Old Oak". The original is 811 words, so I'm shooting for a reduction of 81 words, or 730 total.

Here's the original text:

For the next stage he needed help. His sons had worked with him when they were young men; John had left the business to become an attorney, but Alex had continued in the cabinetmaker's craft for a decade before becoming a general contractor. Alex was a better chip carver than his father, and his original patterns often appeared in woodworking magazines. His best work, a complete set of kitchen cabinets he had made and decorated for one of the local Brahmins, had appeared in Better Homes and Gardens.

"I don't get it, Dad," he said. "This whole thing is a little creepy."

"No, it's not. It's my coffin, so I get to decide what's creepy. I want it to be beautiful."

"Why?" Alex rubbed his eyes. "Do you think the ants care how good your coffin looks?"

"There won't be ants six feet under."

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do."

The two men looked at each other, the father placidly grinning, the son pursing his lips.

Alex finally dropped his eyes. "All right, Dad. If that's what you want."

Terrence didn't want Alex to tell anyone what the design was for, but there was no way to keep it quiet. How could his wife miss an elongated hexagon stretching over a man-sized sheet of butcher paper? Once she knew, there was no keeping it from anyone. Shelley's phone call came just two days after Alex left the shop. The call wore him out, but at least he knew that Alex had already started working.

John stopped by the church the next afternoon, rapping five times on the heavy oak door.

"Dad?"

"Come here. Look."

Terrence sat in the front pew near his workbench. His heart fluttered a little, but he willfully pretended it was elation. "Look," he said again. "The carcase is done. Ain't she beautiful?" He followed the swirling lines of deep honey brown as they flowed down the unfinished coffin. "All built, but no polyurethane on her yet. It's almost a shame to put it on."

"Right," John said. "You know it's no shame, dad. You always love the raw wood, and then you love it even more when you've shined her up."

Terrence grinned. "Well, I'm allowed." He stood up and pointed to the joint that would be next to his left elbow. "You see how the curve of the grain meets the edge here? And look here," he said, pointing at the narrow piece that would be above the top of his head, "wormholes, right in the middle of some nice tight grain. There's so much going on in that board, I could look at it all day."

"Is that why you're doing this? To look at the wood?"

He continued to gaze at the wormholes. "Sure," he said at last. "That's one reason." He turned and sat again on the pew.

"So why not build something else? I bet these benches would make a damn good hutch."

"Right." A silence settled between them like a layer of new-fallen snow. Finally Terrence took his eyes off the coffin, looked at his son. John had moved to the foot of the coffin, inspecting it — or at least acting like he was. "You won't find any flaws."

John laughed, and Terrence thought it was genuine. "When you don't figure that wormholes are flaws, I guess you're right," he said.

"Those are the best part."

"Right," John said. He ran his fingers along the rabbet that would hold the piano hinge.

Terrence smiled. He knew that John wouldn't find a single splinter — and he knew that John knew it, too.

"Dad, what are you doing?"

Finally. "Making a coffin."

"Dad," John said, "what are you doing?"

"Asked and answered."

The edges of John's mouth curled. Terrence loved it when he could make John smile, even a little bit. "You're still watching Law and Order, I guess."

"Go ahead, ask me something else."

"Why a coffin?"

"Why not?"

"Because you've got better things to do."

"Name two."

John wrinkled his nose in just that way — his mother's habit, when she didn't want to tell Terrence how annoyed she was with him.

"John, you wouldn't want me to stop combing my hair just because I'm gonna die sometime, would you?"

"You could teach the boys how to work wood."

"And I'm going to do that," Terrence said, "just as soon as I'm done with this project."

"Why wait?"

"Why not?"

"If you think this much— " John began. Then he scratched his head and rubbed his nose, as if chasing the words around his face. "If you think this much about dying, I'd think you'd want to get started sooner rather than later."

Terrence smiled, a real smile, large as the ocean. "That's why I've gotta do it now, John. Nobody else will worry about it as much as me."

I didn't quite make my goal. Here's what I came up with in half an hour:
For the next stage he needed help. His sons had worked with him as young men; John left the business to become an attorney, but Alex had continued as a cabinetmaker for a decade before becoming a general contractor. Alex was a better chip carver than his father, and his original patterns often appeared in woodworking magazines. His best work, a set of kitchen cabinets he had made and decorated for one of the local Brahmins, had appeared in Better Homes and Gardens.

"I don't get it, Dad," he said. "This whole thing is a little creepy."

"No, it's not. It's my coffin, so I decide what's creepy. I want it beautiful."

"Why?" Alex rubbed his eyes. "Do you think the ants care how good your coffin looks?"

"There won't be ants six feet under."

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do."

The two men looked at each other, the father placidly grinning, the son pursing his lips.

Alex dropped his eyes. "All right, Dad. If that's what you want."

Terrence didn't want anyone to know, but how could Alex's wife miss a man-sized hexagon traced on a sheet of butcher paper? She must have told Shelley, because she called Terrence just two days after Alex left the shop. The call wore him out, but at least he knew that Alex had started working.

John stopped by the church the next afternoon, rapping five times on the heavy oak door.

"Dad?"

"Come here. Look."

Terrence sat in the front pew near his workbench. He pretended that the fluttering of his heart was elation. "Look," he said again. "The carcase is done. Ain't she beautiful?" He followed the lines of deep honey as they flowed down the coffin. "All built, but no polyurethane yet. Almost a shame to put it on her."

"Right," John said. "You know it's no shame, dad. You always love the raw wood, and then you love it more when you've shined her up."

Terrence grinned. "Well, I'm allowed." He stood up and pointed to the joint that would be next to his left elbow. "See how the curve of the grain meets the edge here? And here," he said, pointing at the narrow piece that would be above the top of his head, "wormholes, right smack in some nice tight grain. There's so much going on, I could look at that board all day."

"Is that why you're doing this? To look at the wood?"

He continued to gaze at the wormholes. "Sure," he said at last. "That's one reason." He turned and sat again on the pew.

"So why not build something else? I bet these benches would make a damn good hutch."

"Right." A silence settled between them like a layer of new-fallen snow. Finally Terrence took his eyes off the coffin, looked at his son. John was inspecting the foot of the coffin — or at least pretending to. "You won't find any flaws."

John laughed, and Terrence thought it was genuine. "When you don't figure that wormholes are flaws, I guess you're right," he said.

"Those are the best part."

"Right," John said. He ran his fingers along the rabbet that would hold the piano hinge.

Terrence smiled. He knew that John wouldn't find a single splinter — and he knew that John knew it, too.

"Dad, what are you doing?"

Finally. "Making a coffin."

"Dad," John said, "what are you doing?"

"Asked and answered."

The edges of John's mouth curled. Terrence loved it when he could make John smile, even a little bit. "You're still watching Law and Order, I guess."

"Go ahead, ask me something else."

"Why a coffin?"

"Why not?"

"Because you've got better things to do."

"Name two."

John wrinkled his nose in just that way — his mother's habit, when she didn't want to tell Terrence how annoyed she was with him.

"John, I wouldn't stop combing my hair just because I'm gonna die sometime, would I?"

"You could teach the boys how to work wood."

"And I'll do that," Terrence said, "just as soon as I'm done with this project."

"Why wait?"

"Why not?"

"If you think this much— " John began. Then he scratched his head and rubbed his nose, as if chasing the words around his face. "If you think this much about dying, I'd think you'd want to get started sooner rather than later."

Terrence smiled, a real smile, large as the ocean. "That's why I've gotta do it now, John. Nobody else will worry about it as much as me."

That's a total of almost 55 words, or almost 7%. Although I didn't make my goal, I did go a little bit beyond my comfort zone, which is important. Cutting isn't everything, but it's too easy to cut too little. You can always put words back in.

Where did the words come from? Why did I cut so few of them?
  • Unnecessary description. This is a tough one for me personally. What's "unnecessary"? In the original, I wrote, "His best work, a complete set of kitchen cabinets". But does the reader really need to know that it was "a complete set"? "Complete" was cut from the final version. You can do a "death by a thousand cuts" walkthrough of a manuscript just looking for this type of one- or two-word cut to be made, over and over again.


  • Slight phrase alterations. I have to read a document in "cutting mode" to handle this. I can't just be editing, although sometimes while editing I notice where little alterations can fit; I have to read with my mind set to bounce around a bunch of alternative phrases.

    For example, the original read, "His sons had worked with him when they were young men". The cut version says, "His sons had worked with him as young men". The trigger here was seeing "were": forms of "to be" very often can be reworked.


  • Reworking paragraphs. I do this a lot in my own work, but I don't do it often for other people. Too often, you can change what the text sounds like. When I reworked a paragraph in this example, I wasn't very comfortable with the results, but I think I'll sit on it for a while before I decide what to do. Here's the original:
    Terrence didn't want Alex to tell anyone what the design was for, but there was no way to keep it quiet. How could his wife miss an elongated hexagon stretching over a man-sized sheet of butcher paper? Once she knew, there was no keeping it from anyone. Shelley's phone call came just two days after Alex left the shop. The call wore him out, but at least he knew that Alex had already started working.
    ...and here's the final:
    Terrence didn't want anyone to know, but how could Alex's wife miss a man-sized hexagon traced on a sheet of butcher paper? She must have told Shelley, because she called Terrence just two days after Alex left the shop. The call wore him out, but at least he knew that Alex had started working.

    Word count: 54 vs. 75, or 28%.


  • Dialogue. Most dialogue isn't concise, so I couldn't easily cut superfluous phrases without sounding unnatural. Since most of this section was dialogue, I couldn't cut everything as far to the bone as I might like. When Alex says "All right, Dad. If that's what you want", either the first sentence or the second could be cut without changing the meaning; but that didn't sound like a real person talking. (To see whether something sounds natural, try reading the passage -- not just one sentence in isolation -- out loud.)

    On the other hand, I had already decided that Terrence would be terse, so I could cut him in several spots: "And I'm going to do that" became "And I'll do that" (6 became 4), and "wormholes, right in the middle of some nice tight grain" became "wormholes, right smack in some nice tight grain" (10 became 8). That's a lot of effort for four words, but when you consider the original was 16 words, that's a 25% cut.

    There are other little spots where I edited Terrence down, too. "No, it's not. It's my coffin, so I get to decide what's creepy. I want it to be beautiful." became "No, it's not. It's my coffin, so I decide what's creepy. I want it beautiful." -- 19 becomes 15, for a 21% cut. After making that cut, I decided I liked it better anyway. It's less "perfect", and thus more real: I used cutting to help me find a character's voice.

    Finding a balance for your character is important. If all I were worried about was cutting, I'd cut either "right" or "smack": "wormholes, right in some nice tight grain" or "wormholes, smack in some nice tight grain". It didn't sound right, though, so I left it.

I think that's where I'm going to end this entry. Please comment, add your suggestions, and, if you're interested in having your work cut, send no more than 1000 words to cutting.blog@gmail.com.

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