100 words – a writing exercise in condensing.

I haven’t shared any posts lately about my process of writing, because truthfully I haven’t had anything exciting to share and I haven’t had any experiences of new discoveries in terms of process.

This month, a couple of things happened. I started reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant book Steering the Craft: A 21st-century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, and I came across a 100-word flash fiction contest. To be honest, I have never paid any attention to this relatively new genre of flash-fiction. It’s just not for me. This is not to say that flash-fiction is bad or unworthy, it’s just that I personally don’t relate to it. I find the idea of writing a complete story in 100 or less words almost impossible. Not that I ever tried. But this time, I decided to try it as an exercise in combination with the first exercise in Le Guin’s book. I don’t know if the result falls under the definition of flash-fiction, but that’s not really important. The concept for me was to write a condensed scene in 100 words or less. To make it even more challenging, I decided that my scene had to be exactly 100 words in length.

The Exercise in Steering the Craft is about sound effects – writing a piece with any sound effects we can think of. They can be repetitions, alliterations, rhythmic effects, onomatopoeia, and more.

For the exercise, a scene I wrote in a previous blog post, What I Never Told my Mother, jumped into my mind immediately, because it’s short and has the potential to be a self-contained, stand-alone piece.

Trigger warning: If you’ve been following my writing, you know by now that one of the major themes I explore is sexual violence. This piece is a sexual assault description. It doesn’t include any graphic details but does describe the little girl’s emotions.

Here is the original piece, which is 131 words: I never told my mother: I am small. Maybe five or six, not more. We are at my grandmother’s house. I am the only child there, everybody else is grown up. My uncle, my mom’s brother, calls me to sit in his lap. He is laughing, telling jokes. His breath is alcohol. He is a large and rough man. At some point, I start feeling uncomfortable, but I remain in his lap. His hands are feeling my small body in a way I know is wrong. Finally, after what seems like eternity, I squiggle out of his lap. I don’t tell my mom or my dad, because I don’t even know what happened, and I don’t have the words to describe it. From then on, I try to avoid this uncle.

As a first step, I wanted to know if it would be possible at all to tweak this down to 100 words, so I went at it without mercy. I edited out everything that was not necessary, leaving only the bare bones of the scene, which, to my surprise, came down to 87 words:

I never told my mother: I am small, four or maybe five. We’re at my grandmother’s house. My uncle calls me to sit on his lap. He’s large and rough, telling jokes, laughing. His breath alcohol. On his lap, I start feeling uncomfortable. His hands – feeling my small body in a way I know is wrong. After what seems like eternity, I wriggle out of his lap. I don’t tell anyone because I don’t know what happened and I don’t have the words to describe it.

Now the hard work begins. The scene as it is now doesn’t really show us how the uncle’s assault made the little girl feel. We know it made her feel uncomfortable, but that’s telling, not showing. I had to get into the little girl’s body and imagine what she felt. How did she know it was wrong? I also needed the language of a small girl. So I copied the following sentences into my notebook:

On his lap, I start feeling uncomfortable. His hands – feeling my small body in a way I know is wrong.

I spent two days playing around with these sentences, trying out different words and descriptions. I didn’t rush it. I read the various sentences out loud to hear their music. I replaced words, deleted, added, tweaked, had fun. Finally, I had my piece, and it was exactly 100 words:

I’ve never told my mama: I am small, four or five. We’re at grandmama’s house. My uncle calls me to sit on his lap. He’s telling jokes, laughing, his breath warm alcohol in my nostrils. His big bumpy hands start moving on my bony body in a way I know is wrong. I know because my blood bubbles up, my breath snatches, I feel where my heart crashes against my ribs. After what seems like forever, I slide out of his lap. I don’t tell mama. I don’t know what happened and I don’t have the words to describe it.

When you read the first version and then this last one, you can see how this one is so much more powerful. We are right there with her, on her uncle’s lap. We can almost smell the alcohol of his breath and feel her heart crashing against her ribs. We are not told she felt uncomfortable – we are made uncomfortable.  

For me, this was a helpful writing exercise. It made me aware of some of my own writing weaknesses, and how I can overcome them and make my writing more powerful. Often in writing, less is more. Try it, you might get surprised at the result.

3 Comments

  1. Really great writing exercise. I ‘m impressed by your ‘final form’ in this piece, a really gripping read. We the readers are with the child all the way, we feel the fright and anxiety which she feels. We know with her that what the uncle does is wrong. As my work in progress is in the first person, and that person is much younger than me – though the story DOES NOT tell of sexual violence, I think I can use the method of the exercise a bit, when she describes her feelings about something. (She is 16. There are lots of feelings, just not the ones you described here.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words. It’s really challenging to write a genuine young person’s point of view. I have another story, also of sexual assault, written from the point of view of a teenage girl. It was my first attempt, and I learned a lot from it. It’s always good to have a fresh pair of eyes read your draft. They will be able to tell you whether voice is reliable.

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