I have been participating in Lillie McFerrin’s weekly challenge of five sentence fiction for about six months now and I feel that my participation in the exercise has helped improve my writing. Five sentences is quite the constraint. The limit forces you to write with focus and efficiency. The phrase “less is more” is unfurled almost as often as “show don’t tell.” Both are fair pieces of advice and I have touched on both topics before. Writing is really about using only the words that you need, no more, no less.
I used to write in hunks of story, thinking in scenes. Recently, I have begun crafting my stories paragraph by paragraph rather than scene by scene. I am still concerned with the whole picture but that doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger picture. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. That’s how we read, and that seems to be the best way for me to focus on what I write. I choose my words more carefully. Sentences are adjusted and cut until they ring cleanly, saying only what they need to say. Paragraphs are restrained to a single thought. Everything is more efficient and I think (or hope) more effective.
There are experts who say one should write with abandon. Get the story down. Don’t edit as you go. Come back and make adjustments and correct errors later. There is a simple beauty to that advice but that’s not how I am comfortable working. I write a paragraph, maybe two, and I pour over them continuously honing and tweaking until I am happy with them. Then another two are committed via the keyboard and the cycle begins again. Don’t get me wrong, I come back after it is all finished and go through it again, but a good portion of the heavy lifting is done during the maiden voyage. Maybe this new approach won’t work and I’ll change my ways again. Time will tell.
I am currently writing a short story about a young boy who through extraordinary circumstances finds himself hiding in someone else’s house. Here is an initial draft of the opening paragraph:
Lawrence Sprocket is 15 and lives in the Winn’s attic, unbeknownst to them. He’s been there, undetected, for over three years. When the family leaves the morning’s chaos behind, he creeps downstairs to raid their kitchen pantry and fortify his own larder. He has survived on hoarded stale crackers, cereal and canned fruit, corn, beans and tomatoes. On a few occasions when he had been sure the family was out of town, he was bold enough to take a shower and wash his clothes but he was also very careful not to leave any evidence of his visits.
Here is a more current draft of the same paragraph:
There is a boy living in the Winn’s attic undetected. When the house is still and empty in the settling wake of the morning bustle, he gently slips downstairs to raid their kitchen pantry. He might even take a shower or hand launder his clothes when he’s sure the Winns are out of town, always careful to leave no trace of his occasional sojourns. The desperate 12-year-old child took refuge looking for shelter on a cold night. Lawrence Sprocket is now 15 and still there.
To me, the second version is tighter and is more elegant. The first draft is a bit clunky and provides too much extraneous information. By reordering some of the information and paring it down to the essentials, it is hopefully a more engaging lead.
A fellow blogger, Andrew Zahn, observed that while creating connotes making something, creatives often find themselves taking away. Just as the sculptor removes material to reveal what is hidden inside a block of stone, the author must often do the same, providing more with less.