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

Friday, April 06, 2007

Short Story Opener

My brother is on the same writer's workshop that I participate in as Oliver House. He recently posted the first 13 lines of a short story he's writing (we only do 13 lines there to preserve copyright and because it's the first page of a properly formatted manuscript), and agreed that I could blog about the cuts that I suggested.

Here's his original:

Harvey Alvarez lost his nerve. Does that count? The experiment intended to find out if it was possible to change the past. There were two schools. The "Yes" school and the "No" school as Jacobson so eloquently liked to call them. Alvarez, like Jacobson, was of the "Yes" school. They didn't want to disrupt the time continuum until they knew what they were doing, so the team of scientists targeted a recent event from which a change would cause modest and recent consequences. Alvarez traveled back six months in time to prevent the president of the university from spilling bisque on his tie. And he lost his nerve.

It was a simple task. Because of the incident, the president of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Orville Farnsworth, lost


I critiqued the whole thing there, but I'll limit myself here to things that are relevant to cutting, and I might expand on those a little bit.

I like the first sentence -- he must have been doing something that set him a little on edge, and he has a problem because he lost his nerve -- but the following sentence, "Does that count?" simply seems not to follow, and doesn't seem to add any value.

My brother disagrees with me, by the way, because it's important to the overall story. Perhaps, but I contend that it still doesn't matter to the first manuscript page. And since it's my blog, I win. :)
There were two schools. The "Yes" school and the "No" school as Jacobson so eloquently liked to call them. Alvarez, like Jacobson, was of the "Yes" school.

The second sentence is a fragment, and unnecessary because if one school is "Yes" the reader assumes that the other is "No". (If one were "yes" and the other "maybe", it might be worth mentioning.) He could be making fun of the banality of having two separately named and distinct "Yes" and "No" schools, but (a) if that's so then the humor doesn't work for me (though I'm only one guy, and he shouldn't trust me), and (b) it's an awful lot of words to spend on a first page making a banality joke -- 27 words out of a first page of 129 words, or 21%.

These three sentences could be condensed into 'There were two schools, and Alvarez, like his colleague Jacobson, was of the "Yes" school.' As it happens, I collapsed them even more with other sentences.

To cut to the chase: I thought there were some excess phrases ("Because of the incident" could be cut if it were clear that its antecedent was caused by the incident), some redundancies ("the president of the university" was followed by another sentence that said "the president of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln"), and a few implications that get spelled out (I thought it was clear that the task was simple, so while "It was a simple task" adds a little flavor, it isn't strictly necessary). These indicated that some mild restructuring could have a significant effect. I cut it to 75 words from 129, or 42%.

Harvey Alvarez had lost his nerve. He and Jacobson believed that they would be able to change the past, and to test their theory the scientists had targeted a recent event -- a trivial incident, really -- from which a change would cause modest and recent consequences. Alvarez traveled back six months to prevent Orville Farnsworth, president of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, from spilling bisque on his tie. And he lost his nerve.


As with anything else, you can cut deep first and put stuff back later. "It was a simple task" could be worked back in, as could the dry "Yes-school / No-school" humor. He's the author, not me. But at least we know that the information we need is here, in half the space -- which means half of the first manuscript page is now freed up for other relevant stuff.

Good writing!

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1 Comments:

Anonymous mfreivald said...

-- but the following sentence, "Does that count?" simply seems not to follow, and doesn't seem to add any value.

My brother disagrees with me, by the way, because it's important to the overall story. Perhaps, but I contend that it still doesn't matter to the first manuscript page. And since it's my blog, I win. :)


To be more precise – I am conflicted about the sentence. And – if that sentence does not significantly enhance the story where it is – I think you are absolutely right.

That being said, what enhancements might be lost? (Feel free to substitute "enhancements" with "puerile obsessions with self-satisfying verbal stimuli that will be lost on the average reader" at any time it seems appropriate.)

Voice: The voice was originally intended to follow Alvarez's semi-confused reaction to what just occurred to him. "Does that count?" certainly accomplishes that, but it may be too confusing to the reader to warrant it. (So far, only one reader really liked the line and was actually drawn in by it. I guess if I were after a "cult following" of a very few that "got me," I might be satisfied with that. But, c'mon – I want *fans* man! Lots of 'em!)

Whatever the case, I think I can flesh out the voice without that line. My last attempt seems to have recovered the voice somewhat, yet it should be more lucid for the reader.

Theme: The line is an important concept for the story. It is the vehicle under which the main theme hitches a ride. Originally I thought it would be most effective to put the question in the reader's head early – even if he did not fully (or much at all) understand it. However, after playing with the story some I think it will be more effective to introduce it with a lesser character early, and pound it home with the protagonist later. So that benefit doesn't seem very compelling any more.

Characterization: If I have to rely upon one line in the opening paragraph to convey character, I should probably hang this writing endeavor up.

I have other rationalizations for it being an "enhancement," but I think I've belabored this long enough. (Feel free to cut it down for the long term.)

It may come up again after I go through the iterative process of tactically placing and shuffling my pithy moments. But I think it takes a very gifted and practiced writer to pull off a disruptive line like that. (So…If I put it back in, you'll know I'm due for an ego deflation.)

I took most of your other suggestions, too. Especially the suggestion that my sense of humor really sucks. chuckle

Here is the latest version. It seems to be a crowd pleaser, so far.

Harvey Alvarez lost his nerve. He wanted to silence that smug jerk, Dr. Glenn, and crush his insistence that the past could not be changed. Instead he watched as the university president, Orville Farnsworth, spilled lobster bisque down his silk tie. All Harvey needed to do was warn him that a busboy dropped a dirty towel into the bisque and return home. Farnsworth would have rejected the soup and averted the wardrobe disaster. More importantly, Senator Daikel would not have called him a buffoon and pulled the funding for the Time Travel project.

But Harvey did not know that Sherry – the daughter of the president and the love of Harvey's life – would be dining with her father, and at that time she didn't know Harvey. A trip six months into the past was wasted because he lost his nerve.

4/10/2007 12:02 AM  

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