Cutting It Close

    You don’t have to win–or place–in a writing contest to reap a reward. True, it’s a thrill to receive a check, read your winning entry to an audience, or have it published.  But, for the moment, let’s consider the benefits of the process as well as the outcome.
I began sending in an occasional entry about ten years ago. My main objective was to have fun as opposed to the serious work of laboring over a manuscript. To that end, I’d pick a contest that required a small–if any–entry fee, assuming there might be hundreds, if not thousands, of entries and chances were slim.
Sometimes the publishers or organizations sponsoring the contest were looking for serious pieces; at other times it was all in jest. And, surprisingly, I won a few. The cash amounts I won were never over $150, although my work was published. The real payoff for me was learning to cut my material to meet page or word limits. Talk about editing! Try cutting 2463 words down to 750!
For an NPR Three-Minute-Fiction contest, I sent in a short piece, called Trucker,  that you can read at the end of this blog. It wasn’t chosen, but I found out how few words take up three minutes reading time.
The lesson I’ve learned? Entering contests, and adhering to the maximum word count requirement, is an effective way to achieve a tight, concise narrative. As writers, we face the dilemma of wanting to bring our scenes and characters alive with vivid description, yet avoid becoming verbose. It is a tough balance to achieve. Too much and the reader’s attention will stray; too little and your work seems shallow and sketchy.
Is there a fix, an automatic braking system that alerts you that you are off on a tangent, albeit an intriguing one?
For me, the discipline came from the contests and, astonishingly, allowed me to cut 80 pages from my latest novel. A publisher in our state ran a contest that limited manuscripts to 250 pages; I had 330. I trusted and respected the publisher, so I began hacking away at my manuscript. I went beyond their requirements and got it down to 244 pages. I didn’t win, but when I decided it was time to publish the novel, I pulled up both versions of the manuscript with the intention of putting back all the scenes I’d cut–details, descriptions, hundreds of words. To my amazement, they didn’t belong; didn’t work; detracted instead of embellished, and were better forgotten. In all, less than 10 pages made it back into the manuscript.
Want to try? Pick a contest; dig through some of the short stories, essays, or  stand-alone chapters you’ve already written; cut until you reach the required maximum page or word count. You may not win the top prize, but you will have gained an appreciable amount of expertise and discipline. Let me know how it works for you.

TRUCKER  (3 minute selection for NPR contest)

Laura stood in front of her car, cursing as the wind whipped the map from her hand and spun it into the air. She ran after it, but stopped when another strong gust swirled it across the interstate and into the prairie beyond. She heard the screech of brakes. A semi-truck come to a halt behind her car. The trucker jumped from the cab and rapidly covered the ground between them.
“Having trouble?”
“No, I’m fine. I’m just taking a break.”
“This is a bad time to stop. Radio said a blizzard’s on the way and it’s sixty miles to the next town. Sure you’re okay?”
“Yes. Really.”
“Well, you better get to Rawlins before dark. Won’t be long now. You don’t want to get caught in a storm out here.”
Laura looked in the direction her map had taken. The prairie stretched endlessly, flat and brown with grayish humps that she took to be sagebrush.
“Rawlins is the next town?”
The trucker hitched up his pants. His hat was pulled low and she couldn’t see his eyes.
“You don’t know where you are, do you?”
She couldn’t tell if he was smiling or smirking. He leaned back against the driver’s door. Laura looked in both directions, but there was nothing but empty highway. The sky was already darkening. The wind whipped her hair into her eyes. She pushed it away.
“You don’t, do you?” he insisted.
“It’s not a problem. I told you; I just stopped to stretch.”
“Looks to me you do have a problem if you don’t know where you are. There ain’t a gas station or a living soul between here and Rawlins.”
Laura felt the first snowflakes on her face. She tried to appear calm. If she could reach the passenger door, she could jump inside and hit the door lock.
“Do you want to follow me to Rawlins?”
“Huh?”
“Lady, you need to get to somewhere before the storm hits. You got a California plate. I’m bet you’ve never seen a Wyoming blizzard.”
Humor him, she thought. “ Okay. I’ll follow. Thanks.”
The trucker turned and walked back to his truck. Once safely inside her car, Laura felt the trembling begin. She wiped incipient tears from her eyes and waited for the truck lights to flare and the truck to pull away. Instead, the trucker was coming back. He tapped on the window, motioning for her to roll it down.
“No way,” she thought, then saw he was holding a thermos bottle. He pushed his cap back and mouthed the word “coffee.” She hesitated, then felt foolish for her fear. She rolled the window down and reached for the thermos. The hand that grasped her wrist was strong and sure

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Channeling Camus or the First Paragraph Problem

In Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, one of the characters, Joseph Grand, a middle-aged man in a government job, is writing–or attempting to write–a book. What gets in his way is that, as a perfectionist, he can’t seem to get the first sentence written to his satisfaction. So, he revises and rewrites it–over and over. For many writers, it is hard to get beyond that first paragraph because it is important. Frequently, concern over how to “start the book” crowds out great plot ideas or scenes that, if neglected, will become stale or forgotten.

I’d planned my first few blog entries to be on other writing topics, but, while eating a banana-walnut muffin at a hotel snack bar in Charleston, SC this past weekend, I began chatting with a man on the next stool. He is currently an executive who not only amassed several impressive degrees, but played a mean game of football. He said he’d been an English major in college. Talk turned to writing and what it took to write a novel. More specifically, where to begin.

My suggestion to him–and advice to myself–was to quit worrying about the first paragraph, first page, even the first chapter. True, they eventually have to be as good as you and all your rewriting can make them, but for the moment, what is the story you want to tell?

Sometime in the late 1990s, I picked up a copy of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields. I was fascinated by the way she skipped from decade to decade, played with perspective, switched time and setting, and threw in newspaper announcements and other interesting bits germane to the story. And–it all worked so well!

I was putting together a nonfiction book at the time, and it was a liberating experience to see how interesting a book could be when the author strayed from a conventional, chronological format. My nonfiction book therefore has poetry, photos, and narratives. I’ve Carol’s work to thank for it.

So, back to that first paragraph. My advice to the gentleman at the snack bar was to develop characters, write scenes, write dialogue, write description. It doesn’t matter if it is only a few words, a few sentences, a few paragraphs. Write when the idea pops into your head. It’s hot and fresh then, and you will never write it quite so well six weeks later.

Keep writing until you have a collection, then sort it into an order that tells your story. If some don’t fit, save for another time. All you have to do to get started with your novel is know the story you want to tell.

How do you handle the first paragraph dilemma?