Day 20: Take a shortcut

Day twenty, we’ve written plenty – but we’ve still got another FIVE days left of this whole shebang so let’s get to it!

It’s getting scarily close to Christmas and we’re gonna make these last exercises as quick ‘n’ easy as possible so you can tick ’em off your list and feel all warm and fuzzy for having written each day, even if it’s just a 20 minute scribble.

So today is all about taking shortcuts. In writing and in life.

Have you ever heard of ‘desire paths’ or ‘desire lines’? Also known as free-will ways, cow paths, pirate paths, social trails, beast trails, donkey paths and elephant trails. Essentially, a convenient route through a landscape created by humans or animals – often disregarding a nearby ‘proper’ path entirely.

Like this:

A desire path that cuts through long brown grass
A desire path that veers off a concrete pathway and takes a diagonal trail across grass strewn with autumn leaves towards what looks like a university building made of glass and brick
A desire path that cuts up a small grass incline, completely ignoring the set of stairs beside it.
A 'hollow way' through the woods: a desire path that has become almost circular, like a tunnel, as the trees grow up and over the trail.
this one’s called a ‘hollow way’

JM Barrie called them ‘paths that have made themselves’ and Robert Macfarlane describes them as: “paths and tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning.”

And once you know about them, you start to see them everywhere. (There’s also a great article here about how they’re a sign of civil disobedience.)

Cool, right?

Well, that’s kind of what we want to do with our writing. Sure, there are rules and there’s structure and there are nicely paved pavements we could follow, and sometimes we need all that to get to where we’re going – but sometimes we can just as easily cut out that corner or sneak across that field or weave around that tree because:

a) actually, we make the rules

b) it’s much more fun and interesting

c) it faster and lets us skip the boring bits

That last part is probably the most important of all. It lets us skip the boring bits. William Goldman famously solved his writer’s block while writing The Princess Bride by deciding to do just that and only write the exciting parts, and there’s some wonderful advice from short fiction master Amy Hempel on the use of white space in this unit of Writing Short Fiction, from which we have handily stolen this quote:

“Transitions are usually not that interesting. I use space breaks instead, and a lot of them. A space break makes a clean segue whereas some segues you try to write sound convenient, contrived. The white space sets off, underscores, the writing presented, and you have to be sure it deserves to be highlighted this way. If used honestly and not as a gimmick, these spaces can signify the way the mind really works, noting moments and assembling them in such a way that a kind of logic or pattern comes forward, until the accretion of moments forms a whole experience, observation, state of being. The connective tissue of a story is often the white space, which is not empty. There’s nothing new here, but what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say. I think my favorite compliment that I got from a writer early on was someone saying to me, You leave out all the right things.”

Amy Hempel – The Art of Fiction No. 176, Paris Review

Skip the boring bits. Leave out all the right things. Keep the reader hopping from one exciting idea to the next, filling in the gaps themselves, connecting with the story because they’re having to be active in its telling instead of being spoonfed everything. (Incidentally, this is sort of what people bang on about when they talk about ‘show don’t tell’ – if your reader can figure out what’s going on with as little input from you as possible, you’re doing a great job.)

SO. Let’s put it into practice.

Just to keep YOU on your toes we’re going to do something a bit different today. We want you to take one of your previous advent drafts and see how many shortcuts you can add in:

  • What is absolutely essential to the story and what can you leave out while still allowing your reader to understand what’s happening? Often this tends to be describing character emotions or unessential setting description or contextual backstory that could all be construed through the action of the story.
  • How can you make use of white space? Skip the transitions. Jump from one ‘scene’ to the next. No need to lead the reader by the hand – trust that they’ll take the leap with you.
  • What’s the ‘fundamental truth’ or heart of your story (eg: it’s a story about hope, or a story about how we miss people we’ve lost touch with, or what home feels like)? How can you shape your story around this idea and ensure that every line you keep leads towards it in some way (just like a desire line).

Spend 20 minutes tinkering with your draft – crack out the highlighters, annotate the heck out of it, save as a new document (always keep your old versions!) and get cutting

Then come and let us know all about your shortcuts on the forum and give yourself a gold star because YOU just did some goshdarn editing.

Gif of a woman holding up a rainbow star sticker on the end of her finger
even better, a RAINBOW star

And now, because we know some of you may be feeling a bit salty that you didn’t get to write something new today, scroll all the way back up to those pictures of desire path and pick your favourite, do some googlying to find more, or you may know of a real life one near where you live.

Then, if you simply MUST do MORE writing, tell us a tale all about it. As a lil’ treat. It is nearly Christmas after all…

Happy writing. And always take the shortcut.

Useful Things & Stuff

Excellent lessons from William Goldman in which he skips the boring bits, inadvertently writes himself way into a corner and finds his way out again: Write Your Way Into a Pit (And Then Dig Yourself Out Again)

And this unit from the Beginner’s Guide to Flash Fiction is aaall about stripping down a story to its underwear (to get to the exciting bits, fnar fnar): Death by a Thousand Cuts

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