The Final Cut.

Further to the publication of the Alternate Hilarities anthology, I’ve been interviewed by Strange Musings Press. I’ve also received two paper copies of the book, but I’ll read the electronic version and keep the physical copies pristine and flat.

The story in that anthology is 1,160 words long, but in fiction, as in food, it’s sometimes necessary to cut down. I’m a great fan of reading work aloud. It’s a very good way of finding where one clause would be better than two, or where a semicolon could replace several words.

I only half-follow Elmore Leonard’s advice to Kill your darlings. In other words, to cross out any lines you particularly like. I think that’s fair game if the line in question has been squeezed in where it’s inappropriate, but if it’s the perfect means of expressing what you mean, I say jolly well leave it in.

But what if the problem is not just a line or two, but whole chunks of text? I encountered this problem with a 1,000-word story I wrote well over a year ago. I simply couldn’t make it work to my satisfaction. I shuffled round a few of the characters, who are all introduced as they enter a house, but I still couldn’t make the story flow.

In the end, I cut out the first 700 words, and I’m much happier. All the characters are still there, but it works by starting when they’re already in the house. The dialogue explains the immediate situation, and the twist makes the reader fill in the gaps.

But what to do with the cut part? Don’t delete or bin it, whatever you do. You’ve worked your hardest on it, and it deserves to be seen. I’ve recently started to maintain a list of story stems, those ideas that have thus far gone nowhere. Some are mere seeds, others are massive chunks, but they’re waiting with their jackets on in case the right alternative idea comes along.

Since constructing my list, I’ve used three of the stems. Once I use them all, I’ll need to start actually thinking again.

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A Sense of Time

I’ve recently started watching old episodes of the comedy show Drop the Dead Donkey. At the beginning of each episode, an announcer now explains some of the topical references. As the series ran from 1990 to 1998, it’s likely a lot of them will have been forgotten.

A similar rule applies to fictional writing. If you want to set a story in a particular era, there might need to be some explicit or implicit reference to the timeframe in which the story is set.

For instance, one of my novels is set in 1964. This is introduced to the reader when a 21-year-old character is revealed to have a birth year of 1943. There are plenty of other era references throughout, but this avoids the dull initial statement that, “The year was 1964.” In one of my short stories, the 1980s is drawn more subtly, since the main character possesses a Filofax and a pager. It falls under Elmore Leonard’s classic advice to show, not tell.

To me, it’s important to avoid jarring the reader by letting them assume the story is set in the modern day if it isn’t. If a character is described as arriving home by car, then watching TV, that could have happened any night in the last fifty years. But tell the reader that the character arrived home in a Ford Capri, or watched Popstars: The Rivals, and that says they belong to the 1970s or the 2000s, especially when they go on to look up a number in the Yellow Pages and dial it from a wall phone. There will, of course, be occasions when you’re already aware the author lived in or wrote about a particular era.

The alternative is to make this story timeless. It’s hard to do in an urban environment since architecture and technology change, but it can still be done very successfully. If you’re describing a natural scene, it’s much easier to imagine it being any time over the last thousand years.

For anyone reading this well beyond 2014, this entry was set at a time when David Cameron was Prime Minister, coffee-lovers went to Starbucks for their fix, and people still thought Twitter was a good idea.