As promised, here’s today’s post from Susan:
I write fiction that takes place in Bethesda, so when I saw the notice about the Bethesda Magazine Short Story Contest, I wanted to submit a story. Unfortunately, the piece I thought would fit best in the magazine was too long. Way too long. Over 6000 words. The guidelines said 4000 max. I fiddled a bit with some other stories, then I pretty much gave up on the contest – like many other contests.
Then the day before the deadline, from an overflowing shelf by my desk, an old rejection slip from the Alaska Quarterly fell to the floor. I picked it up, though I might just as easily have let it hang out on the floor for a while. The rejection was from a couple of years ago. The editor thought the piece – the 6000-worder – was good, but cumbersome, and suggested I stick to one or two storylines.
I took the fall of the rejection slip as a sign and opened up my “Woman with Birds” file. The narrator of the story is the adult daughter of a gambling father, a loser. The father comes to visits, courts an unsuspecting widow, and threatens to stay. In the version I’d sent to Alaska, the story opens as the father calls, announces that he’s on his way, and tells a bodily-fuctions joke that my friend Kate didn’t like. I like the joke, but Kate’s not liking it gave me the courage to cut the whole scene.
Five hundred words down.
Next, I cut the scene where Margaret tells her husband about the visit and remembers her father’s previous visit and their breakfast at the American City Diner and their argument over the Middle East and the price of milkshakes and the Lego settlement her father built with her son in the middle of the living room and – all backstory and all gone.
Another 700 words.
Then I took out the scene where the father visits Margaret’s lab and I slipped the necessary info from the lab visit into a dialogue at the Air and Space Museum Gift Shop and a phone call.
Grace Paley once pointed out that in old movies the characters – say a husband and wife – would be filmed eating dinner, then a picture of the sky would cover the screen, a moon would rise and set as the sun rose in its wake, and finally, the couple would appear at the breakfast table.
Viewers and readers have learned how to fill in the gaps.
Paley never wrote a scene that didn’t burst at the seams with passion and/or irritation.
My story read better for the slashing.
My friend Kate agrees.