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

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cutting a Piece of Art

Watch what you ask for.

I told the denizens of Hatrack River that I wanted some stuff to cut, and the first person who responded was Djvdakota, a mature writer with an economical style. This one will be tough.

She sent me a flash piece, a haunting vignette in which a puppet describes his life. It's just under 800 words. I don't want there to be issues with publication rights, so I'm only excerpting about a quarter of it, or 185 words.


The puppetmaster has just kissed the face of a puppet (not the narrator) that he has selected for tonight's performance.

Does he know what we are? Does he know of the fallen souls that inhabit his puppets?

Sometimes I think he does.

The rest of us stay where we are, stacked one atop the other, cushioned with dozens of colorful silk costumes--costumes that the audience will see only in silhouette, simple shadows of what we really are. We listen and wait for Master to set up his screen and position his lanterns. Only then does he take us out, but only those he needs. Sometimes five, sometimes twelve. Sometimes I wait weeks between the nights he chooses me, but every time he opens the trunks I hope for a glimpse of sky or stars. Otherwise I pass the hours and days praying. It's fruitless, I know. I've long since spent every opportunity I had to redeem myself. But what else is there to do? Fret over the dark or the damp? Seethe over Bung Ok's elbow jammed against my nose?

Bung can't help it of course. Poor bastard. He's no more capable of independent movement than I. Only at the Master's bidding do we...
Boy. I don't want to cut any of it. But what if she had to? What if she were working on an entry to a contest that had a maximum for the number of words, and she needed to shave everything she could?

I'm not messing with djvdakota's meaning, really -- her meaning is clear throughout -- so I'm messing with her art. I have to tread lightly, and she may not like what I do here, but here's what I think:

1. Trim every word that isn't absolutely necessary, slightly rearranging words if need be -- but not ruining the tone that she's given us. This isn't as easy as it sounds, because sometimes words that aren't needed to convey meaning are needed to convey tone. You can't cut every "superfluous" word.

2. Identify the functions of this part of the story. This is tricky because language can work at different levels, and something can serve more than one function. If you're not sensitive to what you're cutting, you might cut something necessary without realizing it. You need the author's feedback to ensure that you're getting it right.

I should warn that side-by-side comparison doesn't fully work here. I do it to show what I did, but I think the only way to know whether a cut is acceptable is to come back to it a week later and read the cut version to see if you miss what was there before, then go back to the original and see if it's substantially better.

Let's start.


Does he know what we are? Does he know of the fallen souls that inhabit his puppets?
These two questions mean the same thing, but the repetition's needed to keep the tone. I don't think I can either cut one out completely or combine the two. That means I can only slightly rephrase.
Does he know what we are? Does he know that fallen souls inhabit his puppets?
Notice the rhythm: "Does he know of the fallen souls that inhabit his puppets?" vs. "Does he know that fallen souls inhabit his puppets?" Djvdakota's original is softer, perhaps pleading; mine is more rhythmically intense, more demanding. Which is better? For me, it's too soon to say.


Sometimes I think he does.
There's nothing to cut here; however, if the function of this sentence is to accuse the puppetmaster, we might say it thus:
He must.
This is more certain that Dvjdakota's version, but the preceding questions ensure that the reader knows that the puppet harbors some doubt.


The rest of us stay where we are, stacked one atop the other, cushioned with dozens of colorful silk costumes--costumes that the audience will see only in silhouette, simple shadows of what we really are.
This is tough. There are lots of ways to trim it, but none may be successful. It's beautiful writing, already packed with feeling. How can you cut this?
  • "stay" and "where we are" give the reader the sense of stasis.
  • "stacked", reinforced with "one atop the other", feels claustrophobic.
  • "cushioned" and "dozens of...silk costumes" provides relief -- but ironically, as these beautiful things are smothering the puppet (though, horrifyingly, not to death).
  • "colorful" links to the silhouette and shadow of the stuff after the em dash.
  • "simple shadows of what we really are" resonates. Explicitly, the audience sees only the silhouette, which isn't as beautiful as the puppet in his clothing; this implicitly ties to the Master, who sees only a puppet in pretty clothing instead of a living soul
I'll try. It's not terribly comfortable, but I always cut more than I'm comfortable with at first. I can always put it back in.
  • We can cut reinforcing phrases and condense things that have similar functions.
  • We can change "will see" to "sees", since we're talking about an ongoing action.
  • I don't think we can cut the pause in the middle (currently an em dash) without losing the resonance of color and silhouette, but we might be able to modify it a little bit.
  • "Cushioned" counterbalances "stacked" and highlights the action of the "silk costumes" -- so maybe I can rely on "silk costumes" alone to counterbalance "stacked" instead.
That gets me here:
The rest of us stay stacked among colorful silk costumes--costumes that the audience sees only in silhouette, obscuring shadows of what we are.
I could cut "that" from "costumes that the audience", but it just didn't feel right. I think it's the rhythm that stops me.

"Obscuring shadows" is ambiguous, which may be too poetic; personally, I think that's okay here. The clause could mean that the silhouette of the clothing obscures the outlines of the puppets, or that the silhouettes are preventing the audience from seeing the puppets, which are themselves shadows of the souls that the puppets really are. There may be more ambiguity there, too -- I'm sure somebody would help me figure it out if I re-read his book.


We listen and wait for Master to set up his screen and position his lanterns.
I couldn't cut this. The specificity and tension were too important.


Only then does he take us out, but only those he needs. Sometimes five, sometimes twelve.
We can't remove "only", because of the tension. We can't remove the sentence, because this is the moment the puppets long for. Maybe, but just maybe we can say:
Only then does he take out those needs. Sometimes five, sometimes twelve.



Sometimes I wait weeks between the nights he chooses me, but every time he opens the trunks I hope for a glimpse of sky or stars.
"Sometimes" parallels the sentence before it, so it stays. "I wait weeks" could be "weeks pass", but the former is active and the latter is passive. "every time" can't be replaced by "when" because we need to keep the sense of eternal repetition.
Sometimes I wait weeks for him to choose me, but every time the trunks open I hope for a glimpse of sky or stars.
That's a lot of effort for two words out of twenty-six, but it's still an almost-eight-percent cut.


Otherwise I pass the hours and days praying. It's fruitless, I know. I've long since spent every opportunity I had to redeem myself. But what else is there to do? Fret over the dark or the damp? Seethe over Bung Ok's elbow jammed against my nose?
"hours and days", though redundant, gives a sense of monotony that I don't want to eliminate. Maybe I can restructure...
Otherwise I pass the hours and days praying fruitlessly; my opportunities for redemption are spent. But what else shall I do? Fret over the dark or the damp? Seethe over Bung Ok's elbow jammed against my nose?
I love Bung Ok's name, by the way.


Bung can't help it of course. Poor bastard. He's no more capable of independent movement than I. Only at the Master's bidding do we...
"Poor bastard" and "of course" are redundant; specifically, "Poor bastard" in this context contains a superset of "of course"'s meaning.

"capable of independent movement" seemed to be too much. It's clinical. Technically, Bung Ok is no more capable of movement than the narrator, to "independent" is unnecessary, but leaving it out makes you think about the fact that they really can move, just not alone... well, maybe we can cut through that with fewer words.
Bung can't help it, poor bastard. He moves no more freely than I. Only at the Master's bidding do we...



Here's the result:
Does he know what we are? Does he know that fallen souls inhabit his puppets?

He must.

The rest of us stay stacked among colorful silk costumes--costumes that the audience sees only in silhouette, obscuring shadows of what we are. We listen and wait for Master to set up his screen and position his lanterns. Only then does he take out those he needs. Sometimes five, sometimes twelve. Sometimes I wait weeks for him to choose me, but every time the trunks open I hope for a glimpse of sky or stars. Otherwise I pass the hours and days praying fruitlessly; my opportunities for redemption are spent. But what else shall I do? Fret over the dark or the damp? Seethe over Bung Ok's elbow jammed against my nose?

Bung can't help it, poor bastard. He moves no more freely than I. Only at the Master's bidding do we...
150 words: a 19% cut.

We have an angrier puppet, and Djvdakota must decide whether she likes that. In fact, it would be perfectly reasonable for her to put back most of what I've taken out. But at least we've explored some of the possibilities.

I'll shut up now. What do you think?

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Mig said...

Excellent job of editing someone else's artistic work. that is a difficult thing to do. My only cut I question is the use of "He Must." I think that changed the meaning to much, but I like the change in rhythm afforded by the to the shorter sentence.

7/25/2007 1:28 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

Thanks, Mig. I question a lot of the edits here. Fortunately, I just have to propose them. The Artist Herself gets to decide whether to keep them. That's a tougher job. :)

Thanks for commenting!

7/25/2007 9:40 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

After reading this for the cutting blog, I kept it in mind while starting Flash Fiction Online, and then bought it from DJVDakota (Suzanne Vincent) for our inaugural issue. Check it out!

1/01/2008 8:53 PM  

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