How Being Short Can Take You a Long Way

Being short, you’ll never have to worry about seeing all of that guck that’s on the top of your refrigerator. Me being the long, lanky type, so shamed am I when I spot that accretion of grime that I have to stop the speechwriting I do for the American Graham Cracker Collection Society, and clean it immediately. But here I’m referring to length, not height, where bigger isn’t necessarily better—in writing.

There’s a situation that brings this to mind: I’m going to the Writer’s Digest West writing conference in LA in late October, and there I’m going to engage in a frolicsome thing called a pitch slam. A pitch slam isn’t where you test your curveball to see if you can strike out Albert Pujols; it’s where a hoard of peevish, underfed literary agents listen to your strangled proposal for your book, and then press a button that puts you in a trash compactor, while you hear the waning sounds of their maniacal laughter.

The slam part is this: you have 90 seconds to pitch your book. Ninety seconds: that’s easily enough time for me sit in front of the agent, swallow my tongue, fall to the floor and writhe spasmodically. I have scanned the agents who are available for this particularly torture, and I see that I will have at least five chances to pitch—a fit—in front of them. Thus my writing exercise for the next month will be to put the novel I’ve just finished into a readily digestible pill: sweet, vivid and utterly condensed.

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie

I’ve written before on how challenging (yet oddly freeing) it can be to be forced to write with brevity. It’s refreshing, like ice in your underwear. For ballast, I’ll be checking out some information on pitching and synopses from the Guide to Literary Agents blog, where I’ve gleaned good information before.

Writing short is a useful art. A couple of months ago, I won a great MediaBistro Literary Festival conference pass just by tweeting what I judged to be the best sentence I’d ever written. (Never mind, with counting the hashtag, that my first three choices were longer than Twitter’s character count allows). As Dorothy Parker said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” Thus, to display my lingerie, I just entered the Gotham Writer’s Workshop 91-word memoir contest, where you are supposed to deliver your biography in 91 words. Here’s my first half:

A Cardboard Fort, Conquered by Language
At six, long backyard hours in cardboard refrigerator-box fort, alone with clock, dinosaur books and languid time. At twelve, graduating to Hesse, Twain, Steinbeck, and hearing the sweet siren call of language. At twenty-four, English-degreed, writing crabbed copy for catalogs, questing.

You’ll just have to wait for the rest; I don’t want to reveal the part about my secret marriage to Doris Duke while the contest is pending. Have to run—have to figure out how to squeeze my multi-points-of-view tragicomic opus into 90 seconds, without including all the sighs, cries and lies.

(And hey, if any of you agents happen to read this, I don’t really think you are peevish or underfed. I will remember all your children’s birthdays forever.)

Bonus Material! Missing Teeth, Dangerous Drugs and an Unsober Man

And for a little comic relief, of the not-so-short variety, take a look at my guest post on the charming aspects of hysteria experienced in the dentist’s office. That minor play of neuroses is courtesy of Dr. Richard Wilson’s Bite Point blog; Doc Wilson is the author of many a toothsome tale, including the forthcoming epic, The Man Who Wore Mismatched Socks.

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6 thoughts on “How Being Short Can Take You a Long Way

  1. Excellent thoughts on brevity, sir. And thank you so much for the nod! I love that guest post of yours, it’s more than just funny. It reminds us dentin jockeys what it all looks like from the outside. Much appreciated.

    Usually able to grok brevity, I must grudgingly admit that TMWWMMS is now standing at 210,533 words. A magical number, to be sure, but not small. Ah, well, perhaps, Moses-like, we’ll just split it in half.

    I can sum it all up in an ultra-brief pitch slam, though:

    “Yes. Yes, it bloody well does. Because the REAL dichotomy in the world, the one that matters most, is this: the dichotomy between people who want to make a difference, and those who don’t.” – Group Captain Charles Lazarus, ca. 1954

  2. Rick, thanks back to you for giving me the bullhorn to spew my peculiar memories. And yes, 210,000 words, a round—if not bulging—number. Your keyboard is potent indeed.

    Hey, I like your pitch quite a bit. I have to find a way into my work (which is all of one-third the length of yours) that has a succinct snap like that. Thanks!

  3. When you’re forced to write short it makes you find ways to concentrate your thoughts into the most powerful words. It’s a brilliant exercise, even if most of the time you write novels. I love to do exercises like that to keep my mind sharp. Writing poetry helps too because that’s like writing a whole novel in just a few lines.

    I used to bemoan being short. These days I’m glad to be petite!


  4. Jai, yeah, brevity requires a lot of focus. It always surprises me when I have to cut a piece down from a certain word count, and how at first I’ll think “Impossible!” but after going through it a couple of rounds, rephrasing and eliminating useless things (often unnecessary intensifiers like “very” or “There is” type of statements), words fall away, and the story falls in place.

    And so often for the better.

  5. Joel, I can’t say I’ve really ACCEPTED brevity; I am still wrestling. And I do uphold that some tales are best told elliptically. But yes, putting too many feathers on the bird can make it fly awkwardly.

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