by Nicholas Ozment
William Faulkner’s famous advice to writers—“Kill your darlings”—was cribbed from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who advises, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
It has been a mantra for decades, but it was never more true than in writing flash. Flash simply does not allow the luxury of ornamentation. There’s little room for florid, flowery prose.
The narrative framework of a longer short story or a novel may be like a towering Christmas tree with heavy, layered branches inviting decoration. With flash, though, you have a framework to hang your story on that is nearer the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Hang too much on it and it will topple—right over the 1,000-word limit.
When I’m hit with an idea that turns into a flash, I usually think right away “This could probably be expressed in a very short form.” So I’m aware that what I’m writing is potentially a flash piece; however, I still write the story out as I see it unfolding—all the details, all the dialogue. That first draft almost always comes in over the 1,000-word mark. (You have to write down your darlings before you can do anything to them.) And sometimes I discover that to tell the story right, it does need more space, in which case I expand on it and it becomes a short story.
But if I’m only off the mark by 200 words or so, then I go through and start paring. Just as with poetry, I look for extraneous words—descriptions or bits of dialogue that don’t really add much to the essential story—and I take the scalpel to them. What can be left unsaid? What can the reader infer? Most adverbs and adjectives die at this stage, too.
Elie Wiesel profoundly observes, “Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.” I have always found this to be true. Much of what I spell out in a first draft I later find the reader does not need explained, and just gets in the way. Most readers can fill in those blank spots just fine–perhaps better than I could–and in so doing, a reader personalizes it for him/herself.
When I’m down to, say, 1,002 words and I don’t see how the piece could sacrifice another word, I get really nitpicky: Is there an article or a conjunction that won’t be missed? Slice out a “the” here and an “and” there, and it’s there. That’s why some of my flash fiction comes in at 1,000 words exactly.
There are times, though, when I set out to trim 200 words and, in the trimming, find that more can go—here is a whole paragraph that isn’t really necessary—and then the piece (about which I was originally thinking “How could I possibly cut 1/6 of this and still retain its impact?”) ends up being 970 words. I like getting that wiggle room at the end—because then I can go back in and restore an adjective or two that it really pained me to lose.
So sometimes I sneak a few of those darlings back in…
This post was expanded from an answer to a question in an interview by Frederic S. Durbin on his weblog Life as a Writer of Fantasy Fiction.