• Contest: Kill Flannery’s Darlings

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 30 comments

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    Discussion questions: See the bottom of the post for a fun competition where you’re going to cut to 50 words a 91-word passage from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” For a more personal exercise, take something short you’re working on — a story, a chapter, an essay — and cut it in half. Let us know the results. How difficult was it on a 1-10 scale? In what ways does the piece benefit and in what ways does it suffer? Describe for us your typical editorial approach.


    So I learned the other day that one of my favorite writers is guest judge for a flash fiction contest. I’ve never really written flash fiction. The contest’s word count limit is 1,000, and I don’t think I’ve written anything below 2,000.

    Except for one piece that comes in at 1,937 words.

    Actually, the rough draft is 1,937 words. The second draft is 2,683. The third and most recent is just under 2,932. If I keep writing drafts I’ll eventually have a novel.

    But I really want to enter this contest. And I thought, Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if I tried to cut the 1,937-word version of the story to 1,000?

    Spoiler alert: It was not fun. I had to lose more than a few of my favorite lines, and I had to chop in half my favorite scenes.

    But you know what? There were other passages and scenes that greatly benefited from being tightened. And the story didn’t lose all that much of the effect I was going for. I may even use it for the contest. The worst-case scenario is that I’ll use some of the stuff from the 1,000-word to tighten the extended version of the story.

    In other words, it was a good exercise in editing and concision.

    Care to try the same? Take something short you’re working on — a story, a chapter, an essay, etc. — and cut it in half. Or if you don’t want to do the whole thing, cut in half an extended passage.

    Can you find spots where one word can do the work of the six words you’ve written? Where two sentences are enough to convey what it took ten lines to convey in the original? Where you can kill some of your darlings for the life of the greater good?

    Afterwards, in the comments below let me know how it went. Scale of 1-10, how difficult was it? In what ways did the piece benefit, and in what ways did it suffer? In what ways did you benefit and in what ways did you suffer? Will you use anything from the halved version to make the original tighter and stronger? Did your approach here differ from your standard editorial approach?


    Let’s have some communal practice and friendly competition.

    Yesterday someone mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” It’s such an excellent story. How could one possibly improve on it?

    Well, we won’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. I’ve taken a 91-word selection from the opening graf. Your task is to turn it into 50 words or fewer.

    Accomplish this however you wish! You can simply (lol) cut 41 or more of O’Connor’s words. You can rewrite the passage entirely in your own words. Or you can do anything in between.

    Write or paste your passage into the comments below. And if you want, tell us why you did what you did.

    Read through some of the others, while you’re here, and give a thumbs-up to any you like.

    Here’s the passage:

    The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head.

    Good luck!


    david blog


    WriteByNight writing coach and co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

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    Why go to Florida. She wanted to visit her family in Tennessee. Time came to let Bailey know. Her son, Bailey, was sitting at the kitchen table reading.
    “Now look here, read this,” she said, one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at Bailey’s head.

    91 to 50, thanks for the exercise!
    I really wanted to keep the imagery of the grandmothers thin hip and her rattling the newspaper at Bailey’s head.

    David Duhr

    That’s an excellent effort. I think you did a good job tightening the “seizing at every chance” passage. and “Why go to Florida” is a good opener. Thanks for playing!

    Barbara Mealer

    Grandmother wanted to visit her connections in east Tennessee. She seized every chance to change her son Bailey’s mind. He sat at the table, bent over the sports section of the Journal. “Now Bailey,” she said, “read this.” She stood rattling the newspaper at his head.

    91 to 46 in less than 20 min. It was fun but shows that you can cut too much, taking away the voice and the visuals.

    Barbara Mealer

    I cut a 2304 story in half. I’d say in difficulty it was about a 6. Some of what was cut added to the story, but it still makes sense and the ending works. Some cuts were good others not so much.

    David Duhr

    The good cuts, will you remove ’em from the original version of the piece? Any other edits that you’ll stick with?

    David Duhr

    I’m glad you had fun with it. And cut even more words than you needed to! You had to lose Florida, but that info can always come later. It’s a tough assignment.

    Barbara Mealer

    It is a great assignment since it teaches you how all those words are not really needed to get your point across. I’m looking at it for a book I need to pare down before I polish it. Loved the major cuts then you can add back the polish or areas that need a sentence of explanation. Definitely stops the purple prose problem.

    David Duhr

    I also feel that after doing the exercise you can also see why O’Connor does everything she does in this graf. Looking at the passage word by word gets you thinking about her choices. And her choices are wise.

    Sid Kemp

    My first thought was horror at touching the sacrosanct prose of Flannery O’Connor. I got past that. Here are my 50 words: “Not Naples,” grandma said. “We’re goin’ t’see Patsy and Joe near Knoxville.” Her son Bailey sat on the edge of his chair, ignoring breakfast and reading the orange sports section of the Journal just like he did every Saturday. “Paper says 4H fair is opening in Pigeon Forge. Saddle up!” I learned a couple of things from this exercise: Writing a scene can be more concise than writing a narrative. I always thought exposition was a short summary,… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I dig it, Sid. You’ve kept O’Connor’s layout but totally reimagined the dialogue, which I appreciate. And the “Saddle up!” lends it an air of playfulness the original doesn’t contain. Whether she’s actually being playful or not, we must read on to find out!

    Elissa Malcohn

    “Now look here, Bailey.” Bailey’s bald head swiveled from the orange sports section. The paper in his mother’s wrinkled hand rattled like wind whipped Florida palms. He could almost smell Miami. Her eyes blazed Knoxville, Tennessee, instead, her tireless arguments gathering hurricane strength, ready to blow him off course. ————— Trimmed to 49 wds. Thoughts as I rewrote: Where can I take what’s expository and make it more cinematic? What details do I care most about as I read?  “Now look here, Bailey” is what grabbed me as I read the passage. Let’s move that up top. (Of course, by the end of… Read more »

    David Duhr

    This is great. What I like the most is the change in perspective, seeing her through Bailey’s eyes, and his use of the hurricane imagery to highlight the coming shitstorm. Good work.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Thanks. And good luck in the contest!

    David Duhr

    Thanks! I just finished the first story. Naturally, I think it stinks. Which is usually when something has potential.

    John Liebling

    Over the last 14 months my first chapter has been edited more than 14 times. Initially 17 pages. Brought it down to 14, 11, and now it sits at 8. I’ve even made some changes since I posted the first page two weeks ago. Over the years I’ve reduced this mammoth manuscript from about 182K to where it currently stands about 144K. My goal is to take it down another 20K over the next 5-6 months. I know I’ve pushed that end line many times this year…but it is what it is…I’ve made some better progress in April compared to… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Steady as she goes, my friend.

    david lemke

    Grandma didn’t want to go to Florida; wanted to visit her east Tennessee connections. She seized at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. She lived with only son, Bailey who was sitting on the chair’s edge at the table, bent over the orange sports section. 
    “Look here, Bailey,” she said, “see, read this,” stood, one hand on her thin hip, the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head.

    David Duhr

    Good start, Dave. Just 19 more words to go!

    david lemke

    Grandma didn’t want to go to Florida; wanted to visit her Tennessee friends, seized every chance to change her son, Bailey’s mind. He sat on chair’s edge, bent over the sports section. 
    “Look here, Bailey, read this,” She stood hand on hip, rattling the newspaper at his bald head.

    Mary Jeffredo

    She didn’t want to go to Florida, and she was seizing at every chance to change his mind. Bailey, her only boy, was bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Read this,” she said, one hand on her hip. She rattled the newspaper in front of his eyes.

    David Duhr

    Well done, Mary. It hits all the highlights without losing much of O’Connor’s pleasant images.

    Dawn Cartwright

    Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida, preferring instead to visit connections in Tennessee. Her only son, Bailey was sitting at the table, his bald head bent over the sports section. Seizing a chance to change his mind, she rattled the newspaper and said, “Now look here, Bailey, read this!”

    Took me three days of coming back to this! Great exercise. I removed words and combined sentences to keep the general idea,but preserving those that described their relationship.

    David Duhr

    Excellent work, this. There’s something I like particularly about keeping Bailey’s bald head but shuffling it elsewhere. Good job, Dawn.

    Dawn Cartwright

    Thank you.

    Susan W. Green

    Grandmother wanted to go to east Tennessee, not Florida. She seized every chance to change Bailey’s mind. As her only son sat bent over the sports section of the Journal, she stood with one hand on her thin hip, rattled the newspaper, and said, “read this”. 

    46 words. I tried to keep the overall image the original paragraph created in my mind, and cut away at words that didn’t alter my original image of the scene.

    Thanks for making me think hard.

    David Duhr

    I love that approach. Thanks for playing, Susan! And for sharing your results. It’s good work.


    Giant flying cockroaches. That’s all Florida had. How she longed for Tennessee. Her idiot bastard son Bailey was a big enough roach, and she wanted to crush him with the newspaper in her fist.

    David Duhr

    Good. And the thing is, I can see the rest of the story still playing out pretty much the way it does in the original.


    Men. Totally useless. Even her son Bailey, another low-rent Floridian Ignatius P Reply. If burping was a sport, he might be worth something. She had kin in Tennessee and she needed him to drive the Hudson. She waved the paper at his head, balder than a well-digger’s ass and not half as smart.


    “What sports do oranges play?,” Bailey wondered aloud. She rolled her eyes and rattled the newspaper at his bald baboon’s ass of a head. She could stay in Tennessee if she thwarted his desire for Florida. Fortunately, dumb people were easy to gull, especially men. “Look, look. It’s Miss Knoxville…”

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