Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

During my years as a working writer I’ve had opportunities to participate in public readings and open mic nights, including a “slam” in which I placed second while a student at the MFA Program at Queens University at Charlotte. With such events, a common element is the time limit. Often I’ve had only two or three minutes to make an impression, which has led me to a game I call Beat The Clock, a revision strategy that helps pare one’s prose to its vital core. While it works with flash and microfiction, it’s most effective with longer stories or passages from a novel.

First, select the passage needing revision. Time yourself reading it aloud. A two thousand-word story takes me approximately eleven minutes to read. After that initial timed reading, I’ll pretend I have a coveted slot at the famed 92nd Street Y in New York, but with a time limit of ten minutes, not a second more or I’ll be yanked from the stage and booed ferociously by the restless crowd. With such a strict time limit, I’ll push every word and sentence through a three-question interrogation. Does it advance the story? Develop character? Does the language possess an aesthetic beauty? Each question is wielded like a guillotine ready to drop. The results? Invariably I find things I should have caught previously: repetitions, unnecessary dialogue, seven-word descriptions better replaced by Flaubert’s famous le mot juste. When I read and time the revised version, I know that it’s better, and I celebrate getting it under the required ten minutes. 

But, wait! In my head Colson Whitehead arrives unexpectedly wanting to read on the same night, and who am I to keep such an award-winning heavyweight from the stage? Luckily the organizers decide that if everyone reading gives up only thirty seconds, Whitehead will have all the time he needs. Once again, I play Beat the Clock, cutting another thrity seconds (in general, around 100 words) from what I thought was a polished piece. Sure enough, those thirty seconds of cuts improve the story, and when I read it aloud a third time, it holds together as if those missing ninety seconds had never been written. 

There are many ways one can approach revision, but Beat the Clock works best for me, as reading aloud with a specific time limit focuses the mind and turns the eyes and ears into gatekeepers weeding out all but the very best.

Chuck Augello is the author of the novels A Better Heart and The Revolving Heart, a Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2020 selection. His most recent is Talking Vonnegut: Centennial Interviews and Essays (McFarland), an exploration of the life and work of Kurt Vonnegut. His work has appeared in One StoryNecessary FictionSmokelong Quarterly, and other fine journals. He’s part of the fiction team at Identity Theory and a contributing editor for Cease, Cows. 

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