Sometimes we need to be concise. Sometimes we need to cut away the dross and get to the point.
I think a lot of my writing is too sparse, needing more description, more elaboration. But often the reverse is true and what I ought to do is cut to the chase and get on with it. Especially if I need the element of surprise. This sometimes means cutting away perfectly acceptable writing in order to achieve the result I want.
I have recently joined the blog 20 lines or less http://anexerciseindiscipline.wordpress.com/ which has made me think about some of my writing. I recently posted a short story there, which stuck to the 20 lines philosophy, but which had in its first incarnation been a 2,000 magazine story. The original wasn’t a bad story, but I realised that I could distil the essence of the whole thing down to just those 20 lines.
I have called this process distillation, not precis. Possibly others will argue over my semantics here, but whatever you call it, I think this is a good exercise in discipline and I give you an example here of a scene from one of my stories which I have chosen to slice to ribbons. Not because I think there is anything intrinsically wrong with the 150 word version, or the 80 word version, but simply to see how much punch is in the last one of just 25 words.
I took a deep breath and opened the door. Inside, I stood very still for five minutes and then five more to be sure no one had heard me, taking in every detail. Wall lights were dimmed. There was a standard lamp, but the shade was burgundy, the bulb pearlised. Not much light from that direction. On the antique walnut desk, a laptop, turned off. Heavy curtains obscured the daylight of was four-thirty in the afternoon. I discerned the sound of breathing. Not mine. I stepped to the right, skirting the Queen Anne armchair into the bedroom.
He lay on the bed, on it not in it. His breathing was slow, measured. Regular. Eyelids still, without the tell-tale flicker of REM sleep. I wondered how he could sleep at all without nightmares. Following orders, I shot him twice, placed the gun in his right hand and let myself out. (150 words)
I took a deep breath and entered quietly, waiting to be sure no one had heard me. The room was dimly lit, curtains obscuring the afternoon sun. I heard his regular breathing and skirted the Queen Anne armchair to enter the bedroom.
He lay on the bed, not in it and I wondered how he could sleep so soundly without nightmares. Following orders, I shot him twice, placed the gun in his right hand and let myself out. (80 words)
I entered the dim bedroom and following orders, shot the man on the bed twice, placed the gun in his hand and let myself out. (25 words)
So I offer you a challenge and I hope you will take me up on it:
Try distilling a passage of your writing from 150 words down to 25 words and see what happens. I will put up a new page ‘Challenge’ and if you would like to join in the please add your story to the comments.