Have you ever killed a story? A story that you are trying to tell. I bet you are thinking, why on earth would I want to kill my story? Really, WHY? Yet, many people do that every day. They write their stories (articles, news releases, novels, reports, essays, blog posts etc.) and kill them on the spot.
There are so many ways to kill a piece of writing, it would take a book to discuss all the killing implements and methods. But the most common one is death by drowning. Drowning in verbiage.
Guess, how I know that. Correct. Guilty as charged. My excuse is, or rather, was – I tend to overwrite. In the creative writing course I am currently taking, my weekly assignments are limited to 500 words, and sometimes 250 per piece. Up until now the very idea of a word count limit in creative writing made me cringe, because like many beginners I mistook verbosity for eloquence.
From discussions with my classmates, I gathered that most of them were also wrestling with the word count limit. So I decided that “overwriting” wasn’t such a big deal and my pieces were fine. Then I read a comment from another classmate who said,”I am actually enjoying the challenge of the word count. I am finding that the word count pressures me into finding the “best” word possible. Additionally, I suspect that it mirrors how writing for publication in the real world works!”
That little comment hit home and got me thinking. I re-read what I’d written and found that my stories were not that interesting after all. They lacked panache. They were ridden with run-on sentences and wordiness, and I’d exceeded the word count limit before bringing the story to its conclusion. So, I re-wrote my pieces cutting ruthlessly everything that didn’t add to the story or the character and found better words and metaphors. Doing just that improved the flow and made the narrative a lot more entertaining and dramatic.
As I am not ready yet to share my pieces here, I thought I’d share a short short story that our instructor posted on the discussion board, to demonstrate how much can be said with fewer words. Enjoy!
by Etgar Keret (700 words)
She said, “Don’t touch that.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s glue,” she said. “Special glue. The best kind.”
“What did you buy it for?”
“Because I need it,” she said. “A lot of things around here need gluing.”
“Nothing around here needs gluing,” I said. “I wish I understood why you buy all this stuff.”
“For the same reason I married you,” she murmured. “To help pass the time.”
I didn’t want to fight, so I kept quiet, and so did she.
“Is it any good, this glue?” I asked. She showed me the picture on the box, with this guy hanging upside-down from the ceiling.
“No glue can really make a person stick like that,” I said. “They just took the picture upside-down. They must have put a light fixture on the floor.” I took the box from her and peered at it. “And there, look at the window. They didn’t even bother to hang the blinds the other way. They’re upside-down, if he’s really standing on the ceiling. Look,” I said again, pointing to the window. She didn’t look.
“It’s 8 already,” I said. “I’ve got to run.” I picked up my briefcase and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be back pretty late. I’m working –”
“Overtime,” she said. “Yes, I know.”
I called Abby from the office.
“I can’t make it today,” I said. “I’ve got to get home early.”
“Why?” Abby asked. “Something happen?”
“No . . . I mean, maybe. I think she suspects something.”
There was a long silence. I could hear Abby’s breathing on the other end.
“I don’t see why you stay with her,” she whispered. “You never do anything together. You don’t even fight. I’ll never understand it.” There was a pause, and then she repeated, “I wish I understood.” She was crying.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Abby. Listen, someone just came in,” I lied. “I’ve got to hang up. I’ll come over tomorrow. I promise. We’ll talk about everything then.”
I got home early. I said “Hi” as I walked in, but there was no reply. I went through all the rooms in the house. She wasn’t in any of them. On the kitchen table I found the tube of glue, completely empty. I tried to move one of the chairs, to sit down. It didn’t budge. I tried again. Not an inch. She’d glued it to the floor. The fridge wouldn’t open. She’d glued it shut. I didn’t understand what was happening, what would make her do such a thing. I didn’t know where she was. I went into the living room to call her mother’s. I couldn’t lift the receiver; she’d glued that too. I kicked the table and almost broke my toe.
And then I heard her laughing. It was coming from somewhere above me. I looked up, and there she was, standing barefoot on the living-room ceiling.
I stared open-mouthed. When I found my voice I could only ask, “What the hell . . . are you out of your mind?”
She didn’t answer, just smiled. Her smile seemed so natural, with her hanging upside-down like that, as if her lips were just stretching on their own by the sheer force of gravity.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you down,” I said, hurrying to the shelf and grabbing the largest books. I made a tower of encyclopedia volumes and clambered on top of the pile.
“This may hurt a little,” I said, trying to keep my balance. She went on smiling. I pulled as hard as I could, but nothing happened. Carefully, I climbed down.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get the neighbors or something. I’ll go next door and call for help.”
“Fine,” she laughed. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I laughed too. She was so pretty, and so incongruous, hanging upside-down from the ceiling that way. With her long hair dangling downwards, and her breasts molded like two perfect teardrops under her white T-shirt. So pretty. I climbed back up onto the pile of books and kissed her. I felt her tongue on mine. The books tumbled out from under my feet, but I stayed floating in midair, hanging just from her lips.
- Etgar Keret: “Creative Writing.” (newyorker.com)
- Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret : review by Toni Whitmont (booktopia.com.au)