Killing the darlings


I wrote a short story a few years ago, the first short story I had written in ages. I was quietly and fiercely proud of it, and of me: I felt like I had pulled this one off. My story, I thought, was a quirky, observant, vulnerable piece. The protagonist shifted from beginning to end. It involved recreational soccer, regulation hotel rooms and thigh-high black leather boots. I brought it to my writing group, edited it in response to some of their feedback, and then began submitting it to magazines and literary journals.

My story was rejected, over and over.

The magazines and literary journals rejections didn’t say why they said no. And I was slightly perplexed by the stream of rejections — my story, I thought, was as good as or better than so many short stories I read, stories I had read in their pages. So I let it be for a while. Maybe I wasn’t part of the CanLit (ha) elite (thankfully?). Maybe those editors had no taste. Maybe they’d published a similar story recently.

And then, last month, I decided that I may as well enter my baby into a short fiction competition. I read the contest rules, and then groaned when I saw the word count: 3,500. My story clocked in at well over 5,500 words. There was no way.

And yet, I opened the file, just to reread, just to see. And it occurred to me that the little sister wasn’t really pulling her weight in terms of plot advancement. And that that whole scene at the hotel banquet didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. And that my lovely, vulnerable protagonist ruminated repeatedly about the same things and that I could probably eliminate some of her repetition, tighten the language, minimize description, get the action going earlier than I had.

A few hours and a couple of editing sessions later, I had 3,501 words, but the contest rules said that the title didn’t count, so I was good.

I also had a much better sense of why my precious story wasn’t getting published. I hadn’t been able to see, much less let go of, so much of the bloat and padding that had weighed down my tale. Really, by the time I’d read through the leaner version a few times, I couldn’t have told you what was missing. I’ll let it sit for a few more months and take another look at it, see if there isn’t more to cut, see if what’s left needs shaping.

It was a newbie mistake, of course, or, rather, several newbie mistakes (and by mistake, I mean arrogance): assuming that my rejection was all about them and not at all about me, that all my words were precious and necessary, that the story had to be the way it was because it had always been this way (They go to the banquet after the pool; they always have; they can’t not); that my edits were done; that well-constructed sentences one after the other an excellent story make, when really sometimes they are simply a bunch of well-constructed sentences one after the other.

In any case, maybe this version will find a home, and maybe it won’t. But I think I have a new test for all my writing: could you cut it by a third without anyone really noticing? If so, you’ve got some work to do.

And that work, darling, is on you.