Daily Archives: May 12, 2008

The Cropped Short Story

What do a great shot and a solid short story have in common? Simple: the crop. This is one of a few pieces where I establish a connection between literature and another field, be it physics or photography.

The Cropped Short Story:

A Composition Compromise

Kenneth Burchfiel

Have pity on the short story writer. If their plot, setting and characters are kept rather undefined to stay within a respectable word count, critics dismiss the piece as they would a low-resolution photo. If they pack an elaborate, full-length story into, say, 3,000 or 5,000 words, the story appears too scrunched for the reader to really see anything. Short fiction writers are like photographers, in this sense; they want their “photo” to be small for brevity’s sake, but want the faces and scenes in it to be big enough for the reader to appreciate.

Of course, this defeatist assumption is built upon a one simple assumption of its own. “Cropped” short stories reject this base belief and, in doing so, might just solve the short story writer’s predicament over content and word count.

This preliminary assumption that I speak of is a basic tenet of literature: a proper story has a well-defined opening and a well-defined conclusion. This doesn’t entail that a story starts at the very beginning and ends at its natural conclusion; rather, the expectation goes that the story one’s audience reads is the story in (more or less) full detail. Traditional photos don’t end abruptly at a person’s elbow or eyebrow; rather, they display the whole scene at hand.

I’m not about to proclaim that plot is an archaic structure, and that the best stories have no transitions at all. (I do think that plots are archaic structures on which to build a story, however—see https://schreibendepot.wordpress.com/2008/05/05/thematism-a-new-look-at-the-writing-process/ ). Nevertheless, the unique structure of the short story gives writers the option to deviate from the time-honored tradition of beginning-to-end literature. A “cropped” short story, as its name would suggest, does not merely condense an extensive plot nor pick a simple, straightforward plot to express, but focuses on one part of that story in particular. Instead of trying to run 100 slides of film through a projector in ten seconds, a cropped story dedicates all ten seconds to a handful of those slides.

The attentive reader is probably wondering what I propose to do with the other 85 slides—the other parts of the plot and story that a “cropped” piece never covers. My retort is simple: those other 85 bits of film are more than present in the selected fifteen.

Let us return to the photographer’s analogy. Say that the cameraman has an oversized shot of a birthday party and must crop it down to size. She decides (not surprisingly) to focus on the birthday girl, cuts out that portion of the print and tosses the scrap film in the trash. Has the photo been ruined? Does it lose its effectiveness due to the crop? Quite the contrary. The new, smaller picture focuses on the girl, but we have a number of telling clues in the background. The pile of pink ballerina slippers alludes to a possible dance hall setting. A smear of brown frosting on little Natalie’s lips indicates the flavor of the cake, and the adult’s hand closed around her wrist tells the reader that the party is almost over. The scrapped background for the picture might have showed us this more clearly, but in a sense, the picture of the girl includes all those “missing” pieces.

It may be a paradox that such crops, either in photography or in writing, can make a piece far deeper than the original. If the reader saw the leftover cake, the ballet instructor and the waiting minivan immediately, would they have had such appreciation for those items? Cutting a story down to an eloquently described scene or two adds a hint of mystery and adventure to an otherwise standard piece. The reader might not know how a given story really begins, but the cropped piece they read has enough clues for them to figure it out. With enough literary dexterity, a writer can describe a full-length story in detail while focusing on just one scene alone.

This is merely the base of “Crop Theory.” Writers might try composing only the beginning and end of a story, placing them back-to-back on the page and explaining the gap in between through allusion and hints alone. They could write only the last chapter of a story, but richly enough that the rest of the book gets explained. The specifics are in the artist’s hands.

This literary technique is a fragile one, however. Improper handling, or a simple desire to turn a story on its head, might result in a cropped story breaking into fragments of dialogue and description. A writer cannot simply draft a park scene, then shove vague clues in the mass that allude to some unknown storyline. They must have a comprehensive understanding of the plot, characters and setting from which the scene is plucked, even if it seems wasteful to come up with names and events that never get explicitly mentioned. The expert photographer doesn’t just zoom in on an odd-colored frog; they take a picture of the entire rainforest and determine the crop that “says” the most.

It may seem that I’m typing on well-trodden ground. There’s nothing radical about taking out an opening scene or employing the showing, not telling method. What I propose, though, is that one takes these basic fundamentals to their functional reality by creating “long scenes” instead of “short stories.” It’s more than possible to express a book-sized plot in a handful of pages, provided that the writer use enough hints, references and dialogue to allude to that plot in full. As any photographer might say, the crop makes all the difference.


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Writing for Charity: a Blog Idea

[Ever wanted to rant about dress sizes and feed the hungry at the same time? Well, here’s your chance? (Not yet, but… you know… I’m working on it. Here’s my pitch to an imaginary web developer.]

Writing for Charity: A Blog Idea


Kenneth Burchfiel

It’s always been a dream of mine to write in a manner and method that helps out someone other than me. Problem is, writing doesn’t pay much to begin with (I should know, as I haven’t received a cent from it J), and charity work is associated more with boot drives than with experimental poetry. Still, I figured there had to be some way for writers to pitch in for society.

The thought came to me during physics class. Say that you have a blog—nothing all that fancy about it, though there are some coding and payment issues that you’d have to work out (more on that soon). Anyone can post anything on the blog, but first, they must pay a certain “commission—” 1 dollar, 10 dollars or 100 dollars per 100 words, depending on the “level” of their post. Before publishing their comment, the user would have the total calculated and pay the site—which we’ll call “Writing for a Cause” for now—however much they owe for publication. This money will then go straight to charity, giving the user that warm, fuzzy feeling that writing alone can’t provide.

To spice up the idea a little bit, I propose a series of “levels” that donators can pick and choose from. Level One, at $1 per 100 words, simply puts the reader’s post up and bumps it down as new posts arrive. Level Two users, though ($10 per 100 words) will see their post stay on top of the others until (A three Level One posts are published or (B another Level Two post is published, in which case their entry will “detach” from the top and slowly get bumped down along with all the others.

Level Three, at a near-philanthropic $1 a word, has the best premiums of all. Users get to choose their text color and (to some degree) font size, and their posts occupy an exclusive column to the left of the Level One and Two posts. In other words, if someone publishes a Level Three post, no amount of Level One and Two posts will remove it from the front page. Nor will bloggers feel guilty about hogging all the attention; the money’s going to charity, after all.

I’m not much of a webmaster, but I figure that this is a simple enough idea that setting up a working site would not be terribly difficult. My hopes are that I can find someone over the summer willing to implement the plan.

Until then, get your posts ready!

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My plan for publication

This is one piece I really did just write for myself, but you're welcome to take a look if you so desire. Though I don't count it as my prime reason for writing, getting a fictional story published has been my hope for some time. Reflecting on this earlier today, my mind had a simple conversation with itself:
Inner Critic: "You? Published? Heh."
Inner Writer: "It can happen! I just need to work hard."
Inner Critic: "Work hard? How vague. What you need is a plan."
Inner Writer: "Okay, fine! I'll show you a plan."

Well, here’s my plan. It’s a bit more general in places than I want it to be, but it’s a start.

You have time.

You’re not out to be some child actor of writing. You’re out to write good stuff with good support, and this head start is far more valuable than any “youth writer” appeal. (By the way: see D3)


Part A: Read and Write a lot (in effect now)

A1-What’s the best way to improve your writing? Read a lot of good writing! Dickens, Warren Penn Van Brown (or whatever his name was), Joyce, ETC.

Two hours of (good) fiction a day is an excellent way to get started.

There’s a “Things to Read” section at the bottom of this page. Keep filling it; keep crossing stuff out.

A2-Keep on writing. This is more important than you’ll ever know. Articles, short stories, long stories-everything. Absolutely everything.

A3-Experiment. Experiment as if it’s the only way to write. Try out something new every day if need be! Also, develop your thoughts and positions on writing as you go.

A4-Crystallized knowledge! Go into Washington for inspiration. Keep on raiding Wikipedia for content. You have the ability to learn a lot of stuff. Go for it!

A5-Just something to remember: sketch your theme down for the first draft, then edit it (AFTERWARDS) into a finished piece. You don’t send sketches off to editors; you send paintings off. And yet, the first draft is only the sketch (and that’s a good thing); afterwards, you can paint.

Part B: Study the Trade a lot (in effect now)

B1: Do some research




^^^These are four good books to read.

B2: Look for a good agent for what you’re trying to sell. Get to know some possible people.

B3: REALLY refine and shape your query letter. I mean, REALLY refine and shape it.

B4: Get N5 ready for submission. Draft a query letter for it; consider more edits to the book. Explain who you are, why you wrote it and why it (just might) sell. (Yes, you can do this while writing N6!)

Part C: Submit a Lot (once you’ve studied well, and even before)

C1: It never hurts to land a Cessna a few times before setting a 747 down at Kai Tak. J Look for a few outlets to send short stories to; they’re easier to write, better reflect your instantaneous abilities and don’t take up so much space in the SASE envelope. That’s a publishing base that you can build on.

C2: Not to plan out your life right now, or anything like that, but wouldn’t journalism be a good field? You get a lot of experience with writing, pick up on some good stories with your own, gain publishing credentials and find a way to pay the bills. Nothing against CW teaching, but this is an interesting career path to think about. (How about social issues journalism?)

C3: Keep a collection of your rejection letters as a source of pride. Not many people have the courage to brazenly show their work to editors and critics, then proudly display the results (however disappointing).

C4: Submit, of course. Look up agents (see B2) and ship SASE things off to them. Get the hang of it.

C5: Try some writing contests. It’s another way to practice your writing, no?

Part D: See the whole picture. (This is the most important category)

D1: Pray. J

D2: You’ve already got a life-have it! Go into DC, play some video games, cheer for the Broncos and the Nats, watch a sunrise, take a few walks down the creek. There’s a time for huddling up around the computer, but there’s also time for a great James Bond movie, an interesting history book, and-yes-plane spotting.

D3: It’s not as if you’ve been given eight stories to write and no more. At this point, you don’t even know what kind of stuff you’ll be writing in the next five years, should you still be active at that point. Forget five years-how about the next fifty years? In other words, you don’t have limited opportunities to find an agent/publisher/whatever. Luckily, this isn’t basketball or football; you’re decades away from your prime, as long as you keep reading, writing, experiencing (and praying).

D4: Want the good news? Writing isn’t everything. All of this-the things you see above-are a mere fraction of your life. Writing is a reaction; if you spend your entire life on it, where’s the action?

The unhappiest writer in the world has the literary brain of Dickens and nothing to write about.

D5: The worst reason to write is this: “I want to get published.” You write to get your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, emotions and hopes down on paper. Yes, there’s great value in having others see those thoughts, but it’s almost secondary.

D6: Getting published helps you benefit society, but it’s only one way to benefit society. If you want instant gratification in that sense, go to a soup kitchen-donate to Darfur-feed the ducks-tutor someone on anything-talk to a homeless person-anything.

There’s one thing more timeless than even classic literature, and that’s making a personal difference in someone’s life. We read great books and set them down, but such a difference never leaves the benefactor.

Kenneth Burchfiel

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