A coworker gave me a copy of a recent Chicago Tribune column announcing a ghost story contest. Her timing couldn’t have been better. I’ve been in the creative doldrums in recent weeks, as evinced by the dearth of postings in this journal, and I’ve been looking for something to jump-start my creativity.
So in I dove. First order of business: a reading of the official rules. They were pretty straightforward. A) Suitable for a family audience; B) Must have a Chicago setting; C) Maximum of 700 words.
Uh-oh. [sound of needle skipping across phonograph record] 700 words! If you’re not much into writing, that might sound like a big number, but it isn’t, particularly for someone as in love with the sound of his own voice as I am. Let me put it this way – the last word in this sentence is already the 208th word in this essay, and I’m just getting started!
This word limit is particularly critical in the telling of something like a ghost story; that is, something requiring the creation of a particular, other-worldly atmosphere. But there’s nothing like a challenge to get the juices flowing, I figured, and after all, all of us who post entries have to operate under the same constraint, so be of good cheer – it’s a fair contest! So with the deadline for entries looming, I got busy.
In about two hours, I’d come up with a first draft. I’d decided in advance not to count words as I went. I figured I’d just try to come up with a halfway decent, economically told story and then set about cutting it down. So I probably shouldn’t have been so dismayed when the first draft clocked in at a little over 1,100 words.
“Okay,” I thought, “I’ve tried to write an nice little story, and now I have to cut out over a third of it while retaining a semblance of mood and narrative.” I had arrived at the moment of challenge in this process. We may have ultimately finished this editing process with a nail clipper, but the first tool to wield here was a scythe. It was not a painless process. Lovingly composed stretches of mood-setting prose were hacked off and thrown into the bonfire. Clever sub-plots and side references that had filled out my virtual canvas were extracted and shredded. At the end of this painful process, I checked the word total again. 831 words.
Gakk! You’re effing kidding me! I still have to cut out another 131 words? OK, OK. Calm down. We can do this. It was time for some strategic rephrasing. Don’t tell your readers things they already know or can figure out for themselves… use contractions where feasible… get the same information across in fewer words… but while you’re burning these sacrificial offerings at the altar of The Great God Writing Contest, don’t toss actual pieces of mood or essential story unless they are wrested from your bleeding fingers, because that’s the stuff that gives the story a reason for being.
OK. Whew! Got through that. Let’s check that word total again… 720 words.
After several minutes of beating my head against an iron grating, I returned to the task at hand. So close… we’re so close… but the rules were clear on this point: “…when we say 700 words, we mean it. Longer entries are automatically disqualified…” To make matters worse, I was now familiar enough with my own story that I could now see some logical gaps and irresistible opportunities that would, of course, have the effect of adding words to the story!
You get the idea. At the end of the process, we weighed in at a svelte 698 words. To give you some perspective on how little time that gives one to tell a story, the journal entry you’re reading now totals 769 words, and frankly, it’s probably scarier than my actual contest entry. But the deadline for entries is this Sunday and the winner will be printed in the Trib on November 1st. It may not sound like it, but I really enjoyed the process. It was a good little lesson in editing one’s work. I’ll keep you posted on the outcome and if I’m feeling really brave, I may even post the story here.