Moon's SUPER SECRET #33: KILL YOUR DARLINGS: The Economy of Words Flash Exercise
(This SUPER SECRET was a series of writing exercises that took place inside this topic starting on p. 22, posted June 1, 2019. They end on p. 28. This post is the summary, but if you'd like to see the application of this Secret, go back and enjoy the great writing by the members that engaged in this exercise. It will be worth your time. There is also an analysis of how to craft a solid flash fiction story.)
Have you ever read slush? You know, those piles of stories submitted to a magazine, each with an author behind them hoping to get published? I have. I've also read stories I've personally asked award-winning writers to submit to the pro magazine I work at. There is often a world of difference, night and day, from slush stories, and those written by professional writers. That difference? One is a sleek, streamlined candy-orange Porsche, and the other can be, well, to be kind, less. Okay, it looks like Mater the Tow Mater in the Cars' movies. Yes, Mater has his own special charm, but you have to see past all that rust and swinging boom and tow cable and dangling hook. When you're an editor hunting for sleek Porsches that can go from zero to sixty in three seconds, thrilling your readers with a sound of fury ... a sputtering, oil dripping Mater just isn't going to cut it. Sorry, Mater.
New writers have a problem. They think they're submitting a Porsche to an editor, usually with every story they submit. Some even include letters about how this story is the greatest story ever written, and the editor would be a blind fool not to buy it (not a smart idea). But the editor isn't wearing rose-colored glasses. He actually has bought Porsches, Ferraris, and Peugeots, lots of them, and he instinctively knows their look and the sound of their engines, first listen, first glance as they pull up to his showroom. Mater the Tow Mater, charming though he may be, is not what the pro editor will consider for his showroom floor.
So how do we fix up a rusty tow truck when we're still in that stage of thinking this story is our baby, and we believe all babies are beautiful babies, especially ours? We have to change our mindset. We have to quit believing Mater the Tow Mater is a Porsche. We have to quit slapping on a paint job to cover the rust, stop ourselves from trying to install a Porsche engine into a tow truck body, and resist painting a detailed Porsche black stallion insignia on the rusty truck's hood.
Instead, we need to learn how to create a high performance Porsche. From the ground up.
You see, that's all the editor is going to buy for his showroom.
And this Kill Your Darlings exercise is how I learned to do just that. One warning before we begin--if you are a minimalist writer, these exercises will not help you. There are two types of writers: those who put too much in their stories, and those who put too little. Most new writers put in too much, everything AND the kitchen sink. If your critique friends have been saying things like "purple prose" and "stick to the plot" and "too much description," then these exercises are for you.
Okay, we now go back in time. In 1996 I was a member of an international flash fiction contest, the first of its kind. The contest was the brain child of Dan Hurley, a writing celebrity known as The 60 Second Novelist. America Online was in its heyday, holding a virtual monopoly on internet chat rooms and social platforms, the genesis of that thing we call social media today. They asked entrepreneurs to submit proposals on ideas to expand their offerings to subscribers. The Sixty Second Novelist idea was one of those. Dan Hurley created a new member area in their platforms for writers. And later, a one year contest, where a prompt was given at the start of each week, and a story had to be written on that theme with 250 words or less. At the end of the week, a panel of pro judges selected the first, second, and third place winners. First place winners were collected over the course of the year, and those winning entries were judged for the grand prize and the title of Writer of the Year. There were 400-700 entrants *per week* according to the weekly awards' announcements. Many pro writers, reporters, and editors from around the world were in that bunch--the contest was open to all. But in the end, like the Highlander, there can only be one. One...out of some 25,000 to 30,000 total entries.
I won the grand prize. In fact, I had two stories in the Top Ten. Want to know how I won, and how it relates to this topic? BEHOLD: The Kill Your Darlings Exercise.
The prompt for one week in that contest was "secrets." I thought about my characters and what that secret might be. In this case, I distilled something out of my own life--I thought about my dad. He was a Realtor, and he expected me to follow in his footsteps and build on his success. But I wanted to be a speculative fiction writer, and that did not sit well with him. Many years later, and in the irony that goes with life, Dad decided his true calling was poetry, and he penned hundreds. They were the Mater the Tow Maters of the sing-songy, rhyming poetry world. But he was so proud of them, I had to sweat to find something good I could commend him on when he handed them to me. Okay, I could plagiarize this thing in my life for a scene, fair game. But where to find the conflict? Because all good stories must have powerful characters, and they must also have potent conflict. I found it in the prompt, which became the theme of my story, "Last Words." The son in my story had a secret. He had become a famous poet. And he had never told his dad, because he knew in doing so, he would diminish his dad's dream. And then I upped the stakes. I put the dad on his deathbed. Last call. If the son wanted to get his dad's recognition for his accomplishments he had kept in secret, this was his last chance.
These are big concepts to fit into a 250 word maximum story! How could I take these huge, bulky concepts and make a gleaming prototype that would win the sprint? Simple. I wrote the story with as few words as I could. It came in around 1,000. And then I started cutting. I got it down to 500. I thought, "There's nothing left to cut." And I was right. I had to figure out how to code the concept of that bigger story without actually putting it on the page. This involved selecting sharper opening images, employing symbolism through setting, and selecting words and phrases that said much with little. I got that story down to 250 words. And it won first place for the week, which earned me $25. And then that particular story took Top Ten in the year-end finals.
I entered that weekly contest most weeks for the year it ran. And almost every week I entered, I won first, second, or third place. Against an average of 550 entries a week! This is the method I used, and by the end of the contest year, I walked away writing more powerful, streamlined stories. With less words. I know the skills I learned helped me make my next pro sale. Two years later, I sold "Seventh Heaven" to editor Dean Wesley Smith in the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 2 anthology by Pocket Books. And the exercise has served me well down to this day. My winning story I wrote in a day and a half for Writers of the Future? It was based off a 250 word opening I had written many months before.
Here's the three phases of the exercise.
PHASE ONE: Write in free flow around a 1,000 word flash story based on an emotional prompt. Work it around a strong emotional theme, and here's a few prompts: betrayal, abandonment, despair, envy. In the exercises in the pages within this challenge, I gave the members the theme "tough choices." That's a good one to start with, because virtually every good climax you can think of comes down to a tough choice.
PHASE TWO: Now cut that story down to 500 words. Yes, you heard me, half. You'll likely discover something interesting. You can actually tell that same story, perhaps even a stronger one, with half the words. This exercise mostly involves cutting excess baggage. Pretty words, but you have to kill your darlings. To keep this ship afloat, precious cargo has to go overboard.
PHASE THREE: Cut 500 words down to 250. Yes, you heard me, half. This is the hardest part of the exercise. Because now you have no cargo on your ship, and it's still sinking. You've got to toss the anchor, empty the storage chests, dump anything that isn't vital to keeping the ship afloat over the side. You'll figure out you can't tell the whole story. So you find your vignette, some tight emotional scene within that story that will shine light on a powerful moment within. It can become a highly charged scene, often centered around the climax where all that emotional tension explodes. But it can just as easily focus on a beautiful moment, and make sparkle one breathtaking facet on a diamond. Phase three taught me how to code. How to fit potent ideas into minimal space, hinting at larger issues without them even appearing in the vignette. It's a good skill to learn. And it's not about cutting. It forces you to rethink your story, to find its essence, and to create big concepts with potent word choices.
PHASE FOUR: Just kidding! There's only three phases, you can stop here. But you could boil that 250 word vignette down to a haiku after this. In the novel SHOGUN, the samurai would compose a short poem throughout their entire life that they would recite at the moment of their death. Precious words, the very essence of something they had found exquisitely beautiful in their lives. It's a lovely thought. If we can develop similar skills in our prose, our writing will become as streamlined and powerful as a high performance Porsche.
As always, this worked for me. Your mileage may vary. If you think it has merit, give yourself one week to do all three phases. You will find it challenging at first, because you have to develop the skills to do this. Do it again the next week on another prompt. It gets easier, and like me, you may find these streamlining skills stay with you, enhancing your regular stories and novel chapters. I have made several of these vignettes into full blown stories. I found that once I boiled a story down to its essence, it lodged in my subconscious like a sequoia seed, waiting to germinate into a mighty tree. For instance, my story just published in DEEP MAGIC, Fall 2019? That's from that weekly contest back in '96. It originated from a 250 word vignette of a Spanish captain awakening from a dream about a mermaid, wondering if it was real, and finding a crystalline statue of her on his map table. It has grown from potent seed to published story, and now into the vast workings of a novel.
This "kill your darlings" exercise taught me how to build a Porsche from the ground up. It may just do the same for you.