Flash Fiction:
a complete story in one thousand words
or fewer.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Cutting a First Draft

This is 973 words of a first draft by InarticulateBabbler (IB) from the Hatrack River Writers Workshop. Since it's a first draft, I won't try to be as perfect as I might be on something that I'm trying to finalize. Instead, I'll focus the basics (because the basics always help) and structure. With IB's permission, I'll also be less particular about rewriting -- normally I avoid rewriting very much when I cut.

Here's the original.
Pantroth was a thief.

He pushed a stolen dinghy out into the Gray Channel. The dark waters were frigid this early in summer, but for the promise of twenty gold coins, it had to be done. He was bound for Nillith, called the Dark Isle, where the exiled wizards abode -- and where he would find the tome that would earn his pay. He would identify it by the dragon that was engraved upon the spine, for he could not read.

He leaned over the side of the dinghy and rolled in. The oars shifted; they clacked together and against the boat. Pantroth looked around to see if the noise had aroused anyone. The locals were all fishermen, and even the theft of a dinghy could get him lynched.

His pulse raced. He hadn’t become a thief for the excitement – though he had to admit he’d developed a taste for it. He thieved because of the need to eat. No mother or father had ever laid claim to him, no tradesman would apprentice a street rat, and the army wasn’t for him. When he saw no lanterns spring to life, he eased the oars over the side and rowed. There was a chance someone waited in the shadows, but he couldn’t wait to find out. He watched the Port of Bree shrink in the distance.

The Dark Isle wasn’t far. It was centered in the southern mouth of the Gray Channel. Even in the dark, he could see the thick bank of fog that ringed it. Small fingers of energy snatched at unseen targets in varying depths of the fog. The result was a haunting, sapphire-blue illumination. When it flashed just so, he could see the black spires that stabbed toward the sky like the Underlord’s teeth.

Pantroth swallowed hard. He remembered the tales of sailors swallowed by mist that surrounded the Dark Isle; good, experienced seamen that entered the foggy wreath and never left. It was said that the half-rotten corpses still patrolled the mist, searching for lost souls to devour.

That was but one good reason that Pantroth hated magic. A man shouldn’t have to fear the remnants of his own people. It just wasn’t right. But, for twenty gold coins, he would sneak into the Underworld and steal its master’s scythe, if he had to.

As the dinghy’s bow crossed the mist, Pantroth could have sworn he felt resistance. It felt like something was holding the small boat back. He expected to turn and find the death-grin of a weathered corpse, whose ragged hands held tight the dinghy’s bow. But, when he turned he saw nothing and the boat felt free of restriction.

It was just a crosscurrent what had you, he told himself. What would a ghost want with you? You’ve not even seen twenty-four summers, yet. Besides, you’d taste like bung. You’ve not bathed in nigh a week.

When he looked again to the mist, he shivered. He wasn’t so sure that he wasn’t about to enter the Underlord’s lair.

As the mist grew thicker and became a true fog, he glimpsed odd shapes. Mast and sail would become clear for a moment and then fade into the thick gray clouds. Then the noiseless sight of a trireme’s oars would propel it across a thin layer of mist. All manner of strange craft did he see, for a time, in the fog. But nary a ghost stood on a prow, nor bent back for an oar, for he looked to them as they passed.

Wizards and their love of wicked things, thought Pantroth. A man what has seen enough must either become a tainted soul, or mad as a galley rat. He hoped his reason would hold out long enough to collect that twenty gold coins.

The visions disappeared and then came the sounds. Eerie, high pitched shrills, like that of a banshee. Screams and laments that chilled the bone. And the whispers –- Pantroth shuddered -– the whispered mutterings of hundreds of bodiless souls. When Pantroth had realized he squeezed his eyes shut, he made the effort to open them, and keep them open.

It got worse. There were forms made of the mist that took on human shapes. The lamenting spirits circled his dinghy. Some reached out and implored him for help; others turned away, as if afraid for Pantroth to see them. Pantroth muttered, “Give me strength,” to the Allfather, but it lacked the conviction of faith. The Allfather wasn’t known for mercy or kindness, and Pantroth had never seen a miracle – at the least, not a good one.

Then it happened, the most horrible thing of all: a wayward spirit spoke to him. “Turn back, thief,” she said. “Turn back, while you still can.”

Just as he was at his limit, when he’d been about to backpedal and come about with all speed, the bow one again pierced the mist and led him free of it. He heard the spirit’s voice thin with the mist: “Turn back…”

The moon and stars shone clear as Pantroth drifted toward the raised isle. When the black spires towered over him, Pantroth didn’t know whether to be more relieved or afraid. Light blazed in some of the slotted windows, but it was a green light and from an unnatural flame. He could see the glares from the uneven arrow-tipped iron fence that encased the Dark Isle like an old weathered crown. As the island rose out of the drink, it tapered to a sheer rise. One thing was certain, Pantroth decided: this task wasn’t going to be easy.

“Bugger!” he whispered.

He took deep breaths and tried to calm himself. It was hard to shake a spirit’s warning. It had just been magic, he supposed. The mist was a barrier. Everything in it had been designed to stop free travel.
Super. Character, conflict, goal, and ghosts. Let's start.


Original:
Pantroth was a thief.
This clearly isn't necessary for the story -- there are other ways to convey the information -- but IB might want to keep it for effect. I have to question it, though: it's a lot of space to give to two data points (name and occupation). A line of text with 12-point Courier and 1" margins is 64 characters long: he uses only 21 of them. How about incorporating it into the next paragraph?

Original:
He pushed a stolen dinghy out into the Gray Channel. The dark waters were frigid this early in summer, but for the promise of twenty gold coins, it had to be done. He was bound for Nillith, called the Dark Isle, where the exiled wizards abode -- and where he would find the tome that would earn his pay. He would identify it by the dragon that was engraved upon the spine, for he could not read.
There are a lot of sentences using a form of "to be" here, which is a tipoff that we might be able to cut pretty deeply. On the other hand, this section is dense with data: time, place, goal, motivation, geography, people, illiteracy. There's not much characterization, but there is some, implicit.

"The dark waters were frigid" shows his misgivings, and the "but for twenty gold coins" counteracts it. This is a verbal replica of what he's thinking, so I won't lose that, but I want to make the tie a little bit more explicit, and to distinguish it from the goal that would give him the 20 gold coins. (Also notice that it's nighttime, so calling the waters "dark" seems redundant.) This is editing, not just cutting, but it will help me make a denser paragraph.

"stolen" might be redundant, since he's a thief. "the thief" isn't redundant, because if he were, say, a baker in the right circumstances, he still might steal a boat.

"it had to be done" is somewhat passive, which is okay if you're looking for passivity. I think it's stronger to make Pantroth "brave the dark waters" or "steel himself against the dark waters", which both shows the necessity of the action (it's something he doesn't really want to do, but he'll do it anyway) and describe the environment (currently just "The dark waters were frigid," etc.).

But in a way, I'm nitpicking. While I like starting with the image of Pantroth stealing the boat, it takes a long time to get him from the shore out past the Port of Bree: 225 words out of 973, or 23% of the total. It's 388 words (48%) before he crosses the border into the mists ringing the Dark Isle. Can we get to the scary stuff faster without losing the information above? Do we need to know that he's leaving the Port of Bree, or that the locals are fishermen? Can we work that information in using fewer words, thereby deemphasizing it?

Let's start with the image of Pantroth rowing the stolen boat instead. I need something stronger than "rowed" to be as vivid as the original opening was, though.

Revised:
Pantroth the thief strained at the oars of his stolen dinghy. His pulse raced, but no shouts broke the night, no lanterns sprang to life. There might be a fisherman of Bree waiting in the shadows to catch him, but he couldn't wait to find out.

The Gray Channel was frigid this early in summer, but for twenty gold coins he would brave it. He was bound for Nillith, the Dark Isle, where the exiled wizards abode, to find a tome he could identify only by the dragon engraved upon its spine -- for he could not read.
"strained at the oars" might be a cliche, but I'm still in draft at the moment, so I'll go with it.

Now let's combine a few of the elements we have already built up. He hadn't become a thief for the excitement; he remembered the tales of sailors lost at the Dark Isle; there are rumors that corpses haunt the mist. We're talking about the Dark Isle, so let's start there. And let's tweak two ways this is written: first, instead of the negative form of "to be" ("wasn't far"), let's make Pantroth take in his surroundings, and second, let's assume we're in his POV and avoid phrases like "he watched" -- I'll only use "Pantroth saw" once.

Revised:
Soon Pantroth saw the Dark Isle, ringed with thick fog in the southern mouth of the Gray Channel. Small fingers of energy snatched at unseen targets, providing a haunting, sapphire-blue illumination; sometimes it flashed just so, exposing black spires that stabbed toward the sky like the Underlord’s teeth. Sailors told of of good, experienced seamen that entered the foggy wreath and never left, and of half-rotten corpses that still patrolled the mist, searching for lost souls to devour.

He swallowed hard. A man shouldn’t have to fear the remnants of his own people.

But for twenty gold coins, he would sneak into the Underworld and steal its master’s scythe. He had become a thief because he needed to eat, not for the excitement -- though he had to admit he’d developed a taste for it.
Better. We got rid of about 40% of the words, and kept most of the data, hopefully without losing the feel of the piece. If we feel like we really need to explicitly say that he hates magic, or to keep the mother / father / tradesman / army sentence, we can add that text back in -- but I think it's really not necessary. I'd rather get to the action.

Speaking of which, we're just about to cross into the mist.

Original:
As the dinghy’s bow crossed the mist, Pantroth could have sworn he felt resistance. It felt like something was holding the small boat back. He expected to turn and find the death-grin of a weathered corpse, whose ragged hands held tight the dinghy’s bow. But, when he turned he saw nothing and the boat felt free of restriction.
I don't want to wholly eliminate the eerie feeling of crossing the mist, so I'll leave the paragraph in place. There's a redundancy: "he felt resistance" means almost the same thing as "something was holding the small boat back". Some other words can probably be tightened up as well. "the dinghy" and "the small boat" are redundant, too, but I'm not sure I want to cut one -- the feeling of smallness in the fog is important for the mood. There's also the expectation of turning and the actual turning, which should be condensed.

Revised:
As the dinghy’s bow crossed the mist, something seemed to hold the small boat back. Pantroth turned, expecting to find the death-grin of a weathered corpse, with ragged hands holding tight the dinghy’s bow. But he saw nothing, and the boat felt free of restriction.



Original:
It was just a crosscurrent what had you, he told himself. What would a ghost want with you? You’ve not even seen twenty-four summers, yet. Besides, you’d taste like bung. You’ve not bathed in nigh a week.

When he looked again to the mist, he shivered. He wasn’t so sure that he wasn’t about to enter the Underlord’s lair.
I don't want to lose this, either. It's good characterization. I'd like to trim out the "you" in most cases, but that's part of the character's voice.

Some people say that the thinker attributions ("he told himself") are unnecessary, too, but I find it unnatural to leave them out altogether.

I don't know that it's necessary for Pantroth's age to be disclosed now, or ever, but I'm leaving it in because the author seemed to want to work that in.

"He looked again to the mist" is a hint: he's looking again. Is he seeing anything new? No. Is he thinking anything new? Not really. The "Underlord" comment is just a variation on a theme we've already seen. IB can put it back if he wants, but I'm taking it out.

Revised:
Just a crosscurrent, he told himself. What would a ghost want with you? You’ve not even seen twenty-four summers, yet. Besides, you’d taste like bung. You’ve not bathed in nigh a week.



Original:
As the mist grew thicker and became a true fog, he glimpsed odd shapes. Mast and sail would become clear for a moment and then fade into the thick gray clouds. Then the noiseless sight of a trireme’s oars would propel it across a thin layer of mist. All manner of strange craft did he see, for a time, in the fog. But nary a ghost stood on a prow, nor bent back for an oar, for he looked to them as they passed.
The language here is a bit archaic-sounding. More direct language might help get the images across more quickly and more transparently. But that's the author's choice, so I will keep that usage.

Note also that this paragraph is the first in a three step "ready, set, GO!" sequence: seeing ghosts, hearing ghosts, and directly communicating with ghosts. I think the structure works, so I'll use it as it is.

Revised:
He began to glimpse odd shapes through the thickening fog. A mast and sail would become clear for a moment and then fade. A trireme’s noiseless oars would propel it across a thin layer of mist. All manner of strange craft did he see, but nary a ghost stood on a prow, nor bent back for an oar, for he looked to them as they passed.



Original:
Wizards and their love of wicked things, thought Pantroth. A man what has seen enough must either become a tainted soul, or mad as a galley rat. He hoped his reason would hold out long enough to collect that twenty gold coins.
I'll leave this as is for now.

Original:
The visions disappeared and then came the sounds. Eerie, high pitched shrills, like that of a banshee. Screams and laments that chilled the bone. And the whispers –- Pantroth shuddered -– the whispered mutterings of hundreds of bodiless souls. When Pantroth had realized he squeezed his eyes shut, he made the effort to open them, and keep them open.

It got worse. There were forms made of the mist that took on human shapes. The lamenting spirits circled his dinghy. Some reached out and implored him for help; others turned away, as if afraid for Pantroth to see them. Pantroth muttered, “Give me strength,” to the Allfather, but it lacked the conviction of faith. The Allfather wasn’t known for mercy or kindness, and Pantroth had never seen a miracle – at the least, not any good ones.
There's a bit of a disconnect here in the imagery. The visions disappeared, he realized he had shut his eyes, and then forms made of mist took on human shape. So did the visions disappear or not? I'm going to go out on a limb and take out "The visions disappeared". Again, I'm editing, making actual changes to the imagery provided, rather than just cutting -- but this is a first draft, so as long as the author doesn't mind (and he told me he doesn't), I think it's reasonable to do so. I'm also going to make the "then came the sounds" part just a little bit more subtle.

"It got worse" could be replaced with an impression that Pantroth got to make it more vivid, but I'm trying to cut more than to edit. Replacing that phrase might require an expansion rather than a cut. Nothing wrong with that.

"the conviction of faith" sounds like a cultural transplant. The reason he doesn't have faith is that "the Allfather wasn't known for mercy or kindness", not that he doesn't believe in him (or so it seems to me).

"like banshees" also might not fit, since they're connected to a particular culture in real life. Some readers won't notice, but others will have the spell broken by an earthly reference. I'll pull that out.

Revised:
An eerie, high-pitched shrill broke the silence. More followed, screams and laments that chilled the bone. And the whispers –- Pantroth shuddered -– the whispered mutterings of hundreds of bodiless souls. He realized that he had squeezed his eyes shut; he forced them open.

It got worse. Misty forms took on human shapes; lamenting spirits circled his dinghy, reaching to him for help or cowering away. Pantroth muttered, “Give me strength,” to the Allfather, but it lacked conviction. The Allfather wasn’t known for mercy or kindness, and Pantroth had never seen a miracle –- at the least, not any good ones.


If you don't like semicolons, you can replace those above with periods.


Original:
Then it happened, the most horrible thing of all: a wayward spirit spoke to him. “Turn back, thief,” she said. “Turn back, while you still can.”

Just as he was at his limit, when he’d been about to backpedal and come about with all speed, the bow one again pierced the mist and led him free of it. He heard the spirit’s voice thin with the mist: “Turn back...”
There's a bit of a disconnect here, too, in that the lamenting spirits of the prior snippet had "implored him for help", and yet it's shocking to him when a wayward spirit speaks to him. I assume that the previously mentioned spirits implored him nonverbally; that could be made explicit if the author chose.

I choose to ignore the disconnect and let the author decide how to handle it. :)

"backpedal and come about" is essentially redundant. I also want to make that piece less passive: not "he was at" his limit, but "he hit" it. Not "he'd been about...to come about", but "he spun around to come about". Yes, I'm editing again. Sorry.

Revised:
Then it happened, the most horrible thing of all: a wayward spirit spoke to him. “Turn back, thief,” she said. “Turn back, while you still can.”

He hit his limit. But as he spun himself to come about with all speed, the bow once again pierced the mist and led him free of it. He heard the spirit’s voice, thin with the mist: “Turn back...”



Original:
The moon and stars shone clear as Pantroth drifted toward the raised isle. When the black spires towered over him, Pantroth didn’t know whether to be more relieved or afraid. Light blazed in some of the slotted windows, but it was a green light and from an unnatural flame. He could see the glares from the uneven arrow-tipped iron fence that encased the Dark Isle like an old weathered crown. As the island rose out of the drink, it tapered to a sheer rise. One thing was certain, Pantroth decided: this task wasn’t going to be easy.
I'm running out of time. Here's my edit. Note (a) rise / rose, (b) an attempt not to use too many adjectives, and (c) a slight rearrangement to facilitate a flow of ideas that lead from one thought to the next, which helps eliminate some words:

Revised:
The moon and stars shone clear. The island tapered to a rise of black spires above him, and he felt unsure about whether he should be relieved or afraid. Light blazed in some of the slotted windows, but it was a green light from an unnatural flame. Eyes glared from the uneven arrow-tipped iron fence that encased the Dark Isle like an old weathered crown. One thing was certain, Pantroth decided: this task wasn’t going to be easy.



Original:
“Bugger!” he whispered.


I can't touch that! :)

Original:
He took deep breaths and tried to calm himself. It was hard to shake a spirit’s warning. It had just been magic, he supposed. The mist was a barrier. Everything in it had been designed to stop free travel.


Revised:
He took deep breaths to calm himself, trying to shake the spirit’s warning. Just magic, he supposed. The mist was a barrier, and everything in it was designed to stop free travel.



Okay! That gives us this "final" version:

Pantroth the thief strained at the oars of his stolen dinghy. His pulse raced, but no shouts broke the night, no lanterns sprang to life. There might be a fisherman of Bree waiting in the shadows to catch him, but he couldn't wait to find out.

The Gray Channel was frigid this early in summer, but for twenty gold coins he would brave it. He was bound for Nillith, the Dark Isle, where the exiled wizards abode, to find a tome he could identify only by the dragon engraved upon its spine -- for he could not read.

Soon Pantroth saw the Dark Isle, ringed with thick fog in the southern mouth of the Gray Channel. Small fingers of energy snatched at unseen targets, providing a haunting, sapphire-blue illumination; sometimes it flashed just so, exposing black spires that stabbed toward the sky like the Underlord’s teeth. Sailors told of of good, experienced seamen that entered the foggy wreath and never left, and of half-rotten corpses that still patrolled the mist, searching for lost souls to devour.

He swallowed hard. A man shouldn’t have to fear the remnants of his own people.

But for twenty gold coins, he would sneak into the Underworld and steal its master’s scythe. He had become a thief because he needed to eat, not for the excitement -- though he had to admit he’d developed a taste for it.

As the dinghy’s bow crossed the mist, something seemed to hold the small boat back. Pantroth turned, expecting to find the death-grin of a weathered corpse, with ragged hands holding tight the dinghy’s bow. But he saw nothing, and the boat felt free of restriction.

Just a crosscurrent, he told himself. What would a ghost want with you? You’ve not even seen twenty-four summers, yet. Besides, you’d taste like bung. You’ve not bathed in nigh a week.

He began to glimpse odd shapes through the thickening fog. A mast and sail would become clear for a moment and then fade. A trireme’s noiseless oars would propel it across a thin layer of mist. All manner of strange craft did he see, but nary a ghost stood on a prow, nor bent back for an oar, for he looked to them as they passed.

An eerie, high-pitched shrill broke the silence. More followed, screams and laments that chilled the bone. And the whispers –- Pantroth shuddered -– the whispered mutterings of hundreds of bodiless souls. He realized that he had squeezed his eyes shut; he forced them open.

It got worse. Misty forms took on human shapes; lamenting spirits circled his dinghy, reaching to him for help or cowering away. Pantroth muttered, “Give me strength,” to the Allfather, but it lacked conviction. The Allfather wasn’t known for mercy or kindness, and Pantroth had never seen a miracle –- at the least, not a good one.

Then it happened, the most horrible thing of all: a wayward spirit spoke to him. “Turn back, thief,” she said. “Turn back, while you still can.”

He hit his limit. But as he spun himself to come about with all speed, the bow once again pierced the mist and led him free of it. He heard the spirit’s voice, thin with the mist: “Turn back...”

The moon and stars shone clear. The island tapered to a rise of black spires above him, and he felt unsure about whether he should be relieved or afraid. Light blazed in some of the slotted windows, but it was a green light from an unnatural flame. Eyes glared from the uneven arrow-tipped iron fence that encased the Dark Isle like an old weathered crown. One thing was certain, Pantroth decided: this task wasn’t going to be easy.

“Bugger!” he whispered.

He took deep breaths to calm himself, trying to shake the spirit’s warning. Just magic, he supposed. The mist was a barrier, and everything in it was designed to stop free travel.


New word count, 654. From 973, that's a 33% cut, and I don't think very much of it was flesh.

Of course, with a cut that deep, you need to decide if it was too deep -- and I still would consider this a draft, with some potential for polish. But I think it's a pretty good start. What do you think?

Labels:

3 Comments:

Anonymous debhoag said...

sweet! i was familiar with the first version, and really like how you tightened it up while being so respectful of the nuances that make it uniquely IAB. One nit - the word wait is used twice in the same sentence in the first paragraph.

7/24/2007 9:45 PM  
Anonymous Mig said...

Revised Version of the paragraph beginning "As the dinghy’s bow crossed the mist..." My impression leading up to this point was that the character was facing forward, but I became confused when he turned to face the bow. Plus the implication is that something is holding back the boat. The bow is at the front of the boat. The ghost would be hold on to the stern if it was holding it back. If the resistence was from the front of the boat, then the character would not have had to look back. This needs to be clarified. Also in the paragraph "the boat felt free of restriction" reads awkward. Better something like "but he saw noting, and the unseen hands seemed to free their grip."

In the next paragraph, "he told him self is very awkward. Better a simple "he thought." People don't tell themselves things, they think them. Also too many "you's" in that paragraph.

The sentence "A man shouldn’t have to fear the remnants of his own people" is unclear and awkward. Not sure what this means. A better word choice that remnants would help alot. Otherwise not clear if he fears thier spirits, dead bodies, garbage, used clothing, or what?

My main proplem with this draft is that there is too much exposition mixed in. For example, start with letting the reader know that the character is on his way to steal something. We don't need to know what yet, and not knowing what he intends to steal lends to the mystery. Knowing that the character can't read can also wait until later. I'd also cut back on some of the fantasy cliches, like giving everything two names, e.g., Nillith, the Dark Isle.

Also, there's too much telling and not showing. Often if a writer just shows the action, the reader can fill in the blanks without having to be spoon fed the meaning. For example, you shouldn't write "When Bob kissed Sue his knees were shaking because he was nervous." I think you make this mistake with "He took deep breaths to calm himself, trying to shake the spirit’s warning." Also the point in the later part of this sentence is made more clear with the following sentences. Better to just write, " He took deep breaths."

This is a good first-round of cutting, but it would benefit from further paring.

7/25/2007 2:27 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

Debhoag, good catch. Just goes to show that there's no substitute for another pair of eyes.

Mig, you make some very good points, but many of them would take me farther into rewriting than I would feel comfortable with. I'm trying to act more as an editor than as a second author. If, as you point out, there's too much exposition here, then some bits of this piece could use a little expansion; showing takes more words than telling. Don't get me wrong, I'd pare down the showing, too, but I'm trying to make IB's choices as they are tighter, not to change IB's choices.

For all that, your comments are good, and IB could do a lot worse than to heed them. There's only one thing I'd actually disagree with you on: I liked "A man shouldn't have to fear the remnants of his own people."

Thanks to both of you for your comments.

7/25/2007 9:38 PM  

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