Sean McCluskey makes his fiction debut with the story “The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow” in EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2023). He tells EQMM that he is a federal agent on a fugitive task force in New York and that he appeared briefly on a reality show about it, experiences that convinced him he much prefers fictional to real crime. We’re glad he does, because his is a very original new voice in the field. In this post he talks about his struggle to cut unnecessary words—a battle most writers will have had to wage at one time or another. —Janet Hutchings
I have a problem: I write too much.
I don’t mean prolific. That’s a problem I’d pay cash money to have. I mean literary logorrhea. I mean never using one word when five will do. I don’t want to kill my darlings—I don’t even want to hurt their feelings.
The first step is realizing you have a problem, but I never did. I had it pointed out to me in grade school. In that benighted era, book reports were handwritten, in cursive, on ruled composition paper. Ten lines per side, and you could only write on the front. Two pages long, no more, no less, fill up every line.
My friends hated it. “Two pages? What am I supposed to say about Where the Red Fern Grows for two goddam pages?” We were foulmouthed fourth graders in a Catholic school; God was always on our minds. I hated the page count, too, but for the opposite reason. How in the hell—again, Catholic school—was I supposed to cover The Mystery of Cabin Island in two measly pages? It’s 178 pages long, including illustrations, and like all Hardy Boys books it’s packed with plot twists and character development. Two pages wasn’t even enough for my warm up.
So I cheated. Our composition paper had a horizontal dotted line bisecting each text line, to help distinguish between upper and lower-case letters. I chose to misinterpret this as two separate lines, turning a pair of pages into a quartet. Still a bit cramped, but at least now I had room to dig into some subplots and focus on character traits. Frank, dark-haired and serious, in stark contrast to the blond, impetuous Joe. Problem solved, thought I.
The nuns didn’t buy it. They’re kind of a rules-oriented bunch, and my masterful exploitation of a loophole didn’t get past them. They knew damn well how much space was on those pages. Every one of them glided around holding a ruler, after all. “If you can’t say it concisely, you don’t really understand it,” as one Bride of Christ advised me. I didn’t think pointing out that the King James Bible isn’t exactly a model of pithiness would cut much ice with her, so, like Cain when questioned by God about the whereabouts of Abel, I reluctantly conceded the point.
But in my heart, the sin still lurked. It was going to take more than a nun to forgive me my trespasses, and lead me into the light of succinct brevity. It was going to take someone a whole lot less holy.
It was going to take a writer. A genre writer.
My personal savior was Keith Thomson. He’s a novelist, non-fiction author, and painter. One of those annoying types who excels at every artistic pursuit he pursues. When I first encountered him he’d just published a spy novel, and to market it, he decided to hold a contest. An espionage-themed short story contest, in which he’d read the entries and pick the best. The winner would get a pen. A spy pen, with a built-in digital audio and video recorder. Brothers and sisters, I wanted to win that pen.
But like all the best spy stories, the contest itself had a twist: the entire entry could be no longer than two hundred words.
Forget it, I thought. That’s barely enough space for the set-up, never mind the payoff. No way I can tell a story in less space than one page of a paperback. A man’s got to know his limitations. Regretfully, I put the thought aside.
But the pen. The spy pen. I wanted it.
More than that—I needed it. For work, I told myself. I wanted to whip it out for an interview. “Don’t worry about taking notes,” I’d tell my partner. “I’ve got this. It records, audio and video.”
My partner would be incredulous. She’d have a question. Not a sensible question, like Why don’t you just record it with your cellphone? No, she’d have an admiring question: Where’d you get that awesome pen? Sharper Image? Amazon? CIA?
“I won it,” I’d say. “Writing contest—no big deal.” But here’s the thing: It would be a big deal.
The only writing is rewriting, Ernest Hemingway said. And he’s the man who—allegedly; apocryphally—wrote a whole story in six words. By that standard, 200 words felt like an expansive canvas. So I started writing. And re-writing. And re-writing the rewrites. Hacking, carving, whittling, contracting, lopping off dialogue tags entirely, and giving my characters dialogue so terse they made Abraham Lincoln (the fella who penned the 271-word Gettysburg Address) look like Edward Everett (the guy who dropped the 13,607-word bloviation that preceded the Gettysburg Address). In fact, no offense to the Great Emancipator, by Keith Thomson standards, Honest Abe was 71 words worth of long-winded. No spy pen for him.
And in the end, after all my labors, I wrestled it down to 200 words on the nose. I polished it up and fired it off. Keith Thomson read them all, rendered his verdict, and on a Wednesday in July, I clicked on an e-mail to learn my fate.
My prize was an official KGB identification booklet, a pocket-sized hardback with a red cover, naturally. Looks authentic to me: Cyrillic letters, rough paper, and utilitarian-bordering-on-totalitarian design. Might even come with preferred parking at the Kremlin—I’ll let you know if I ever get there.
But maybe the real prize was what I learned about myself, in the tradition of all those toy commercials disguised as cartoons I wasted my misspent youth on. Maybe it was learning that the power was in me all along, and all I had to do was want something bad enough. Approval, publication, readers, or even a pen that records audio and video. Digitally, no less.
Did it work? Well, by way of example, I was told that this blog post should be 1,000 words long. You can count ‘em if you want to.
PS—Another confession: Janet Hutchings, Ellery Queen’s inimitable editor, actually told me this post could be any length I liked. I heard those words, and I felt the sin uncoil in my heart, just a little bit. But I stood strong, brothers and sisters, yes I did. Hallelujah, amen, and good night.