Confessions Of A Serial Under-Writer

Confessions Of A Serial Under-Writer

In this post, Mia Botha tells us what to do if you have too few words in your story. There are her confessions of a serial under-writer.

Confessions Of A Serial Under-Writer

Most writers over-write, especially in the beginning. They tend to pad stories and sentences with useless descriptions (even really good or beautiful descriptions can be useless) and boring backstory. They add and explain and include.

The only advice I can give them is to cut and cut and cut again.

But, every once in a while I come across a student who under-writes. These are often people who write for a living, especially journalists and copywriters. They are so used to writing a column of exactly 700 words or a piece of body copy of precisely 150 words that they fit every piece of writing into that format. They set out to write a story of 60 000 words and end with 35 000 words.

Confessions Of A Serial Under-Writer

How do we fix this?

Below is a short story I started. It is from a writing prompt by Judy Reeves in A Writer’s Book of Days. I under-write. I have to confess that I am a chronic under-writer. When I finished the first draft I had 700 words. As a rule, short stories are around 2000 words. I have re-written the first draft and now I have 950 words.

What did I add?

  1. The first thing I always add is setting. I always seem to leave it out. I have plot, characters, and motivation, but never setting. I look at the story and decide what is relevant and what I need. What do I need to orientate my reader? What does my protagonist see, feel, touch, hear and taste?
  2. Then I look at plain old description and character. At the end of my first draft I could not tell you what the characters looked like. I had to go back and I add those details. I’ll probably add more as I decide which details I want to highlight.
  3. I start considering backstory. In the back of my mind I know what happened, so I consider what I need to tell my story. What is important? What happened that made them end up here? How much does the reader need to know?


Here is my story from the prompt: Write about ashes (January 2014)

The urn is tall and made of engraved brass. He once brought me flowers in a vase shaped like this one. Odd and badly designed. Just like us, you could argue. Still, it serves a purpose. Just like us. The man gives me the cold thing and tries to convey his sympathy, his understanding by prolonging the eye contact. I just want him to leave me alone. No one can understand how I feel. No one.
His ashes. Him. All that remains. I watch the man walk away, his uniform is immaculate. Clean and pressed and unaffected by its duty. A clean uniform for a messy death. Neat and tidy. Not in disarray like the ashes. He leaves us alone. I face the wall marvelling at the mediocrity of the pale, standard government-issue paint. It is the colour of urine. Pale and yellow. The colour is so true you can almost smell it.
“What will you do with him?” His mother asks behind me. I flinch, I’d forgotten about her. Honestly I haven’t thought about it. I could just tell her that, but our relationship moved beyond any such courtesies years ago. Her crimson tipped claws settled on my elbow. I know how badly she wants this urn. She would give anything to hold her beloved son again. I turn away from her. She won’t have him again. She doesn’t deserve it. She fought me enough when he was alive.
“Can I…” she asks as I start walking away.
I turn back and meet her eyes for the first time.
I walk out. I hate her. I wait for the guard to buzz me out. The air around him is thick with boredom. The gate opens and I step into the small cage. The glass partition that separates us is smeared with fingers and decorated with skew pictures sporting drooping Prestik at the corners. He is too busy doing nothing to clean the glass. I would give anything to straighten the pictures. I see my dim reflection in the dirty pane. Unremarkable is the word that comes to mind. Mousy brown hair, watery blue eyes, ill-fitting but serviceable clothing. I adjust the twisted oversized pencil skirt and pick a speck off the hand-me-down cardigan. I look nothing like the vivacious, woman he married. Nothing like the girls he chose. The iron cage threatens to close around me. I hold the urn close. I hate small spaces. It gives me no comfort to know that I am not alone. The second gates buzzes open and I am free. I leave the penitentiary and his mother behind.
Her question comes back to me as I walk away. What am I going to do with the ashes?
My little car is nestled between a big skip and an even bigger 4×4. Right then I know what I am going to do. Without any more thought I open the urn and dump everything in the dumpster. A fitting end I think.
She screams as the door closes behind her and she sees what I am doing. I give the urn a final shake before it also goes into the skip. The ashes are scattered over the decomposing rubbish.
“My boy. My baby boy. How could you do that? He doesn’t deserve that.”
I turn to her and see her for the pathetic creature that she is. Her bouffant has deflated and flops in to the side. Hairspray is no match for gravity. She hobbles in heels too high for her age; vanity will not allow for anything from Green Cross. Her tailored blouse flaps and pulls out of her tailored pants as she waves her scrawny arms. She is panting as she huffs to a stop next to me.
“He isn’t your boy. He was a monster. He killed those girls. Did they deserve that?”
She glares at me. Still unwilling to own up. Still unwilling to accept the blame. I step closer to her. Enjoying the few centimetres I have over her. “He was a monster just like you.”
“He was my baby. He was sick.”
“Yes, you knew he was sick and you did nothing. You knew what he was capable of. You knew about all of them.”
“He couldn’t confide in you. He needed me. You never understood him.”
“I hope I never understand serial killers.”

I drive away. In my rear view mirror I see her trying to climb into the skip. The sick mother of a sick son. He kept them in her cabin. Some of them he kept for months. Beautiful girls he lured with his charm and his smiling blue eyes and his deceptive dimples. Seven that they know about. He lured them there and them he kept them there. Tied to a bed. Begging for his mercy. There where he beat them and fucked them and finally killed them, before he came home to me. His mother took care of them while we went on holiday. Like they were his pets.

They arrested him at his office. He said his mother knew nothing about them. The police wouldn’t believe me. Fine upstanding citizen that she was. She could never be an accomplice. I still don’t know how I missed the signs. He explained away the scratches and the absences. I never suspected. Does that make me guilty? Should I not have known? I am exhausted. I take a deep breath. It is done. It is over. Now I can focus on my revenge. I will find the evidence to bring her down. That is what I can do for those girls.


What will I do next?

The next big change I want to make is to add another scene. Perhaps I will add something about their marriage before she knew or when she started to suspect. I will repeat this process and keep adding until I am satisfied. I add only that which advances the story. Don’t chase a word count. You’ll only pad.

What would you add to this story? Please add your comments below.

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

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This article has 0 comments

  1. Michael

    A scene with the cop who caught the killer, perhaps? Or maybe she goes home to face her children? Just thinking.

  2. Joshua

    She goes home to purge his belongings. While doing so, she reminisces about their falling in love and ponders why she was never one of the girls in the cabin. Her thoughts are interrupted by the discovery of a major convicting piece of evidence that will surely bring the mother down.

  3. theresa

    I think it’s perfect as is. Whatever you do, don’t lose the tone.

  4. Charlene de Weerd

    Wish that was the beginning of a very thick book!

  5. I am

    A scene about when she started to suspect would be great! Wonderful writing, btw 🙂

  6. Sarah Campbell

    I agree. This would make a great thriller.

  7. Leslie Smith

    Thank you for sharing. I am an underwriter also and think you have developed a perfect process. I consider my first draft the skeleton and layer in the body until it is fully clothed and animated. Your story is great–chilling, really. If you were to add anything, I agree with Joshua (above). I think your character might remember something significant that would implicate the sick mother. What, I don’t know but it would be satisfying.

  8. Mia Botha

    Thank-you for all the great comments. I can’t wait to try them out.

  9. Stephanie Reisner

    I am a chronic under-writer, too. I think the problem is with journalism training you’re taught to be concise, to write tight, and that every word matters. That doesn’t always bode well for fiction. I have to do the same things you list here. Despite my best efforts I tend to write short novels and novellas. You will never get a novel past 80K out of me. Just won’t happen. ::shrug::

  10. Joy Sieminski

    I thought underwriting was a sign of my innate lack of talent. I don’t like long drawn out descriptions in the hundreds of books I read each year. But I am learning to build on the bones of the story. Thank you for this important piece of encouragement.

  11. Mia Botha

    Thank you for your comment, Joy. Good luck and keep writing. It all starts with the bones.

  12. Mia Botha

    We can start a club, Stephanie.

Comments are now closed.