This is it then, the very last ‘Word Has It…’ post! It’s been a real pleasure to share writing news and tips with you for the last few months, and although my time as ‘blogger in residence’ is over, I’ll still be writing one-off posts for Victorina Press about various things, as well as interviewing new VP authors.
More Bruce time for me next week, as I’m heading off to London for the BST festival in Hyde Park. I’ll also be squeezing in a trip to the Tate Modern to see the Yayoi Kusama infinity room exhibition, a visit to the newly re-opened National Portrait Gallery and a Southside Johnny gig at Shepherd’s Bush O2. Can’t wait!
And if you’re anywhere near Malton in North Yorkshire, I might catch up with you at the short story event at Kemp’s Bookshop on Friday 21st July, when I’ll be reading from An Unfamiliar Landscape and chatting with flash fiction writer, Hannah Storm. You can book tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/an-evening-of-short-stories-with-amanda-huggins-hannah-storm-tickets-640787571877
Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on these posts – enjoy your summer!
So, here’s the final excerpt from my short story course The Heart of the Short Story.
LIFE AFTER THE LAST LINE…
Editing and honing your story can be the most rewarding part of writing – I personally enjoy it more than writing the initial draft. Most of us don’t need to be told that our work will need revising before it’s good enough to submit, but don’t get in your own way by trying to produce something perfect – if you do that you’ll never let your stories go.
Remember Margaret Atwood’s words: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
I always leave a story alone for a few days before I go back to edit it. Then I read it aloud, all the way through – without making notes at this stage – checking it makes sense, that it flows. If my story isn’t quite working at this point, the first things I consider are tense, POV and story arc – always edit structure before grammar, language and punctuation, otherwise you could waste time editing a paragraph that doesn’t make the final cut.
At this point, I work through a checklist of the fundamental changes my story might need to make it sing. It might be crying out to be in present tense rather than in past, or to be in first person rather than third. First person present tense is hard to pull off for an entire novel, but for a short story it can work really well.
Does my story have a recognisable arc? The plot and structure of a short story aren’t as complex as a novel, but there still needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end, and you still need some form of conflict, a shift in perception, consequences to actions. If you don’t have that then your story is simply a report of an incident or an anecdote.
Then I ask myself if my main character is convincing, authentic and relatable, if I care about them, feel empathy for them and their situation, if the setting is compelling and evocative, if the story starts where it should and ends where it should.
If I’m not sure that my story is clear then I might ask for feedback. If you ask a reader to summarise your piece and the response doesn’t match the story you intended to tell, then you will learn how and where to make changes.
It’s only when I’m happy with the characters, setting and structure that I go to work on the detailed pruning. At the pre-pruning stage I am often adding words, filling in the perceived gaps in the story, strengthening my characters and themes, but by the time I’ve finished editing I’ve almost always eliminated more words than I’ve added.
“Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’”— George Orwell
Time to tighten up your writing so it would bounce right back at you if you dropped it!
Check that every sentence does a job of work – developing character, exploring your theme, advancing the plot. If a sentence isn’t doing one of these three things then it really needs to go. Ideally it should be doing more than one of the three things – remember those added value words we talked about before?
FILLER WORDS & REPETITION
Before I move on to the final fine-tuning, i.e. the part where I listen for rhythm and flow, I get rid of all the ‘filler’ words and the repetition.
Consider the difference between:
“…when the merger takes place between the two companies”
“…when the two companies merge.”
Why use nine words when you could use five?
Repetition is often rife in a first draft. When you have a certain word in your head and you need to use a similar word in the next sentence, then that same word just slips out again without you noticing. The more unusual the word, the more obvious the repetition.
George Orwell said: “Never use a long word when a short one will do.”
Generally speaking I follow his advice and try to pick shorter words – ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’ etc – but when I need to say a similar thing in my next sentence or paragraph then I give myself permission to consider synonyms and go for something longer if necessary!
THAT & WAS
Next, I aim to reduce instances of ‘that’ and ‘was’, as those are two of my particular vices, but you need to identify your own worst sins too, as well as checking for several other words which can weaken your writing – such as ‘one of,’ ‘some’, ‘thing’, ‘very’, adverbs that end in -ly (always choose the strongest verbs rather than using adverbs), and leading words such as ‘mostly’ and ‘so’.
‘That’ can be useful and necessary, but it can also be completely redundant, cluttering up your prose. Here are some examples of when you can use a substitute or leave it out altogether:
‘That’ is often used as a relative pronoun to connect two clauses, and in these instances it can often be substituted by ‘who’ or ‘which’ to avoid repetition.
Lucy bought the grapes that the woman was selling
Lucy bought the grapes which the woman was selling
The teacher asked the girl that was new in class to come down to the front
The teacher asked the girl who was new in class to come down to the front
‘That’ can also be dropped after reporting verbs – eg imply (that), say (that) etc.
Ellie tells me (that) she wants a new coat
Paul said (that) he needed a rest
It can be left out when used after adjectives:
Martha is sad (that) he’s leaving the company so soon
I’m thrilled (that) we’re going to the seaside
Lastly, it’s common to leave out ‘that’ when it is the object of the relative clause it precedes.
She fell in love with the boy (that) she met on the bus
Adam wants to see the film (that) my friend recommended
‘Was’, along with fellow ‘being’ words, is simply that – a state of being, and unlike run, laugh or fight, it doesn’t do a lot. ‘Was’ isn’t the devil, it can and does have its legitimate place in your prose, and can be used for specific effect. For example, I use ‘was’ three times in the opening paragraph of ‘Red’ as a deliberate repetition to enforce the description of the relentless dust. However, if you read through your story you can probably cut its use by half. So check each and every one – can the sentence be re-phrased to better effect? Did you simply fall back on it out of habit?
Think about the following:
WAS can often be indicative of passive voice. If that’s the case, try and change the sentence to active voice – use more dynamic verbs.
WAS is also a good sign you might be telling instead of showing.
WAS allows you to write static prose with no action – use more robust descriptions.
RHYTHM & FLOW
When your story has been pruned, then you are ready to read it aloud again and make the final changes. At this stage you should be considering the sound and rhythm of every sentence as you read. Does the story speed up when it should, slow down when it should, is it lyrical? Is there anything clunky that might jar the reader’s internal ear, that might pull them out of the story?
‘I WANTED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO HER NEXT’
I’ve written two novellas on the back of readers saying exactly this. It’s a sign you have achieved your goal, and the reader believes in your characters to the extent that they’re convinced they have lives beyond the page.
Another great compliment is when a reader tells you they were still thinking about your story days later – that it has unsettled them or moved them in some way. Think one last time about the things you don’t say, the way they are as important as the things you do say. Have you hammered anything home when you could have left the reader to think about it for themselves? Don’t fill in every colour – if you demonstrate trust in your readers then your writing will appear more confident. As we discussed in previous tutorials, there is no sense in carefully ‘showing’ your reader something and then ‘telling’ them it in the next sentence. Finally, think about your opening and your ending again – are you sure that’s where the story starts? Are you sure that’s how you want it to end, that it leaves your readers thinking, questioning, wondering – yet not confused or frustrated?
Short stories can’t give you all the answers to the world, but they can ask questions, hold a mirror up to the human condition and have a lasting resonance. When my story is finished and is as good as it can be, the thing I want most is for it to be read and remembered, for its life to go on long after the last line.
Word of the Week…
There’s only one appropriate phrase for this week’s word slot, and that’s ‘See you soon’. So, as I’m currently learning German – Bis bald!