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

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Tripendicular Cuts

This is from Deb Hoag, and unlike the other recent fiction cuts, it comes from the middle of a story. She tells me, "The section that my first reader thought was loooooonnnnnnnggg (that's a direct quote) I have set off in the text with a line of asterisks....[It] is, oddly enough, exactly 1,000 words." She also says that she's not sure everyone will get the in jokes -- and I'm not sure that I will, so I may end up cutting some of them. As always, Deb, as author, can decide what stays in.

Since the section was loooooonnnnnnnggg, I'm assuming that the content needs to be abridged so that it doesn't slow down the story as much. I also think that a good portion of the story's appeal comes from the semi-psychotic voice of the narrator: a man who "believes in better living through chemistry", if you get Deb's drift. So I need to cut a lot, but the voice and the science, for me, were more important than just getting back to the plot.

Let's shoot for 25% again, but with an eye toward going deeper if there are bits unessential to the plot so this part doesn't feel quite so loooooonnnnnnnggg. (Yes, I just like that word.)

Here's the original:
I hadn't just blindly picked a school, because it was my parents' alma mater, either. I had been following the list of staff publications with some interest for the last few years. Mom wasn't kidding when she said Dad was one of the best organic chemists of his time. It's just that his time peaked in about 1962. Anyways, one of the professors in the organic chemistry department had been working on developing a strain of ergot resistant rye for years. He finally thought he had got it right, and the university was funding a full scale trial of the new rye, to the tune of ten acres, along with a matching trial on ten non-resistant control acres. They were going through a pretty elaborate process to keep it all buttoned up and prevent the ergot from drifting away free into the atmosphere, but I thought I could liberate a reasonable quantity of it for my own use. With Mom's hidden heartland acres to work with. I could be knee deep in ergot by the end of the next growing season.

It's really a sad commentary on our society that most people don't even know what ergot is anymore. In case you are wondering why I was so hot to get my hands on a quantity, the ergot fungus is what LSD was first synthesized from. Crazy, huh? They think now that that's how the Salem Witch Hunts got started – some funky rye bread was making the rounds, and BAM! Everybody went off on the same bad trip.

I had some ideas on how to extract the lysergic acid from the ergot and combine it was a couple of other tasty little items complements of Tab's home cookin' – a recipe all my own, that would let it pack a wallop, make sure the trip was a good one, and fly under the FDA radar detectors for a while.

It almost killed me trying to stay calm, cool and collected when, the first week of class, the prof I was stalking asked for volunteers to help him with his pet project. I could quote him chapter and verse on the papers he'd published in the last ten years. And, hey, professors don't get a lot of groupies. Plus, no one else had volunteered, so it's not like he had a big choice. It was just too damn early in the semester for any of these short-sighted college kids to be worrying about extra credit. Their loss,my immensely profitable secret gain.

I spent so much time hanging around the labs and doing odd jobs for the professor, that after a few weeks, nobody even bothered to ask me what I was doing anymore. I swiped a small amount of the ergot fungus, and a heaping helping of the non-resistant control rye seed. I like plants, and rye is not illegal. Mom, of course, really wanted me to do well in school, so she gave me five acres of my own on her little backwoods farm, and I was able to get it turned just in time for the grow season. In Michigan, everything grows, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. A little organic fertilizer, some of Mom's special Bug-Be-Gone spray, and voila! Rye crop.

Once the rye was successfully impregnated by the ergot, it was a downhill slide. I had enough of the fungus to psychedelicize the entire city of Detroit for about 100 years. And I was just getting started.

I really admired the creators of ecstasy, in an abstract sort of way, and this was the kind of success story I was shooting for. See, ecstasy is a combination of LSD and a stimulant, usually meth or cocaine (these are the components that stimulate all-important dopamine production). You get the fantastical trippiness of the LSD, driven by the dopamine ding-dong of the coke or meth. It was a pretty sound idea, overall, and I wasn't too proud to build on the work of those who came before me. I just wanted a dopamine driver that wouldn't show up on your basic four-panel drug screen.

Once I had the LSD, Mom and Fuzzwad and I developed the worst cases of chronic major depression ever seen in the Midwest, thanks to the floridly verbose professor in the psych class I elected. Between the depression and the doctor shopping and the fact that nobody had ever heard of someone getting addicted to anti-depressants, we ended up with enough prescription medication to sedate turn J.R. Ewing into a nice guy for an entire season.

Most amazing of all, out of nearly a hundred doctors we visited, a whopping seventeen of them left their prescription pads alone in the room with one of us at some point during their examinations. You know, somebody should warn them about people like us. Cautioning my troops (all two of them) to take a reasonable, not noticeable, amount of scrip papers from each pad, I was really in business. The pills were even simpler to break down and extract the psychoactive components of than the lysergic acid in the ergot had been. Being able to do it all on the university dime, with university's lab equipment only made it easier. I even got Mom in the building a couple of times to assist with the separations. You know, she really is a whiz in the lab. No wonder Dad was so crazy about her.

So, there was my recipe: one part LSD, which had combined nicely with an experimental steroid into a completely new molecule that packed twice the punch of its parents, while being completely unknown to the DEA, twenty parts super concentrated dopamine production stimulator, twenty parts – super-concentrated dopamine re-uptake inhibitor. Plus one small part of essence of safrole, just because I liked it. The lab mice liked it, too. Once Fuzzwad survived a dose and pronounced it “primo”, I was all set.

I don't think I'd cut the overall flow. Not everything advances the plot, but there's a lot of character packed into these lines. I also have to be careful with cutting too much -- part of the charm of the piece is the rattle-bang prattle of the main character.

Let's start.


Original:
I hadn't just blindly picked a school, because it was my parents' alma mater, either.

"just", "blindly", and "either" redundant -- they all give the impression that he's justifying his choice of schools. It's a minor point, and not worth that level of effort. Pick one, save two words (13%).

Cut:
I hadn't picked the school just because it was my parents' alma mater.



Original:
I had been following the list of staff publications with some interest for the last few years.

I assume he'd been following "the list of staff publications" because he wanted to follow the staff publications, and later he shows that he had actually read them, not just the list, so we can cut "the list". Also, if he's been following them "for years", odds are he had followed them "with interest", which is therefore redundant.

"Had been following" uses a form of "to be", which can often (though not always) be cut.

Cut:
I had followed the staff publications for years.

Savings: 9 words, 53%.


Original:
Mom wasn't kidding when she said Dad was one of the best organic chemists of his time. It's just that his time peaked in about 1962.

I might cut this altogether. I'll have to see what I think when I put it all back together. If the author wanted to leave it in, I'd do something like this:
And Dad really was one of the best organic chemists of his time -- though that peaked around 1962.

Savings: 7 words, 27%.


Original:
Anyways, one of the professors in the organic chemistry department had been working on developing a strain of ergot resistant rye for years.

If I cut the preceding sentence, I'll probably cut "Anyways," but I'll leave it in for now.

"...of the professors in the organic chemistry department": prepositional phrases, especially strings of them, can often be cut. This can be laborious, and I don't always think the result sounds as natural as I'd like, but it's something to look for. And in this case, I think it works.

And now that I think of it, we might be able to cut "organic chemistry", too -- does it really matter what he teaches?

"working on" is redundant with "developing".

Since the work is ongoing, "had been" can go to "was". And do we need to know that it had been going on "for years", or just that it is finally going to trial? No, I think, and the next sentence will change, too, as a result.

Cut:
Anyways, a professor was developing a strain of ergot resistant rye.

Savings: 12 words, 52%.

I should point out that the next paragraph, starting with "It's a really sad commentary", might be inserted here. If ergot needs explaining, it should probably be explained closer to where it's first mentioned.


Original:
He finally thought he had got it right, and the university was funding a full scale trial of the new rye, to the tune of ten acres, along with a matching trial on ten non-resistant control acres.

Since I didn't say "for years" in the preceding sentence, I don't have to say "He finally thought he had got it right" in this one. All that matters is the trial.

Since the previous sentence's "ergot resistant rye" is now much closer to "full-scale trial", I think we can cut "trial of the new rye" to just "trial". As I cut the rest of the sentence, though -- where she talks about the "matching trial", which is just the control group for the same trial -- I thought "ten acres" now needed the "of the new rye", so that ended up being a reshuffle.

Cut:
The university was funding a full-scale trial, to the tune of ten acres of the new rye and ten non-resistant control acres.

Savings: 15 words, 41%.


Original:
They were going through a pretty elaborate process to keep it all buttoned up and prevent the ergot from drifting away free into the atmosphere, but I thought I could liberate a reasonable quantity of it for my own use. With Mom's hidden heartland acres to work with. I could be knee deep in ergot by the end of the next growing season.

"They were going through a pretty elaborate process to" seems long.

"keep it all buttoned up" is redundant with "prevent the ergot from drifting away free into the atmosphere". "prevent [etc.]" seems pretty long, too, now that I think of it...

"in ergot by the end of the next growing season": prepositional phrase strings again. "in ergot" relates to something different (type of harvest) from "by the end of the next growing season" (time of harvest), so I won't collapse them completely, but how about "knee deep in ergot by the next harvest season"? (You might even be able to cut "season", but I don't know whether you harvest ergot at the same time you harvest the rye.)

Cut:
Elaborate processes kept the ergot from drifting away into the atmosphere, but I thought I could liberate a reasonable quantity of it for my own use. Mom's hidden heartland acres would be knee deep in ergot by the next harvest season.

Savings: 39 words, 37%.

Later, when I saw all of it together, I thought I could cut this even more. I don't really care about the ergot drifting away or the elaborate procedures.


Original:
It's really a sad commentary on our society that most people don't even know what ergot is anymore. In case you are wondering why I was so hot to get my hands on a quantity, the ergot fungus is what LSD was first synthesized from. Crazy, huh? They think now that that's how the Salem Witch Hunts got started – some funky rye bread was making the rounds, and BAM! Everybody went off on the same bad trip.

"on our society", "even", and "anymore" are all candidates to be cut, but I liked the flavor of this sentence with them more than I did without them. Heck, even I don't cut everything possible.

That said, "In case you were wondering...quantity" is almost useless, hardly even contributing to the voice. Cut it.

"the ergot fungus is what LSD was first synthesized from": two forms of "to be" should send a signal that this might be cuttable. I ended up leaving one of them, even though it's clearly passive voice: I think going to an active voice with this sentence is likely to detract from the character's voice.

Cut:
It's a sad commentary on our society that most people don't even know that LSD was first synthesized from the ergot fungus. Crazy, huh? People think that's how the Salem Witch Hunts got started – some funky rye bread was making the rounds, and BAM! Everybody went off on the same bad trip.

Savings: 25 words, 32%.


Original:
I had some ideas on how to extract the lysergic acid from the ergot and combine it was a couple of other tasty little items complements of Tab's home cookin' – a recipe all my own, that would let it pack a wallop, make sure the trip was a good one, and fly under the FDA radar detectors for a while.

I want to be careful not to cut too much here, since this is so strongly the main character's voice.

Note that the last sentence talked about "by the next harvest season." The narrator is thinking of the future. That lets me reduce "I had some ideas on how to" (looking to the past, "I had") to "I'd" (looking to the future).

"combine it with a couple of other tasty little items complements of Tab's home cookin'" just seems long. "tasty little items", "complements of", and "home cookin'" all add a particular flavor (ouch! sorry about that...) to the sentence, but it's the same flavor. Let's cut two of the three, leaving the strongest in place. The author can put one or both back later if she likes.

There are some other cuts in the second half that you can see, and I made one correction that also happens to be a cut: nobody flies under a radar detector, just under a radar. :)

Cut:
I'd extract lysergic acid from the ergot and add some of Tab's home cookin' – a recipe all my own that packs wallop, makes a good trip, and flies under the FDA radar for a while.

Savings: 25 words, 42%.


Original:
It almost killed me trying to stay calm, cool and collected when, the first week of class, the prof I was stalking asked for volunteers to help him with his pet project. I could quote him chapter and verse on the papers he'd published in the last ten years. And, hey, professors don't get a lot of groupies. Plus, no one else had volunteered, so it's not like he had a big choice. It was just too damn early in the semester for any of these short-sighted college kids to be worrying about extra credit. Their loss,my immensely profitable secret gain.

Heh. I get a kick out of this, especially the last line. My goal is to cut the words without cutting the kick.

"calm, cool and collected" is both cliche and long. Of the three, I think this guy would say "cool".

"don't get a lot of groupies", "no one else had volunteered", "not like he had a big choice", and "too damn early [etc.]" all say roughly the same thing.

Cut:
It almost killed me trying to stay cool when, the first week of class, the prof I was stalking asked for volunteers for his pet project. He didn't have much choice: it's not like professors get a lot of groupies, and it was too damn early in the semester for college kids to worry about extra credit. Their loss, my immensely profitable secret gain.

Savings: 37 words, 37%.


Original:
I spent so much time hanging around the labs and doing odd jobs for the professor, that after a few weeks, nobody even bothered to ask me what I was doing anymore.

Cut:
After a few weeks of hanging around the labs and doing odd jobs for the professor, nobody bothered to ask what I was doing.

Savings: 8 words, 25%.


Original:
I swiped a small amount of the ergot fungus, and a heaping helping of the non-resistant control rye seed. I like plants, and rye is not illegal.

I think the second sentence is unnecessary.

Cut:
I swiped a little ergot and a heaping helping of non-resistant rye seed.

Savings: 14 words, 52%.


Original:
Mom, of course, really wanted me to do well in school, so she gave me five acres of my own on her little backwoods farm, and I was able to get it turned just in time for the grow season. In Michigan, everything grows, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. A little organic fertilizer, some of Mom's special Bug-Be-Gone spray, and voila! Rye crop.

"Mom". LOL... Can't lose that. In fact, I've got almost nothing to change.

Cut:
Mom, of course, really wanted me to do well in school, so she gave me five acres on her little backwoods farm. I got it turned just in time for the grow season. In Michigan, everything grows, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. A little organic fertilizer, some of Mom's special Bug-Be-Gone spray, and voila! Rye crop.

Savings: 7 words, 11%.


Original:
Once the rye was successfully impregnated by the ergot, it was a downhill slide. I had enough of the fungus to psychedelicize the entire city of Detroit for about 100 years. And I was just getting started.

I don't think we need the details -- we know that the fungus grows on the rye.

Cut:
Soon I had enough fungus to psychedelicize the entire city of Detroit for about 100 years. And I was just getting started.

Savings: 15 words, 41%.


Original:
I really admired the creators of ecstasy, in an abstract sort of way, and this was the kind of success story I was shooting for. See, ecstasy is a combination of LSD and a stimulant, usually meth or cocaine (these are the components that stimulate all-important dopamine production). You get the fantastical trippiness of the LSD, driven by the dopamine ding-dong of the coke or meth. It was a pretty sound idea, overall, and I wasn't too proud to build on the work of those who came before me. I just wanted a dopamine driver that wouldn't show up on your basic four-panel drug screen.

Okay, this has nothing to do with cutting, but I get totally caught up in the drug related-but-apparently-not-induced insanity of the main character in bits like this.

Anyway (which is not "anyways" -- this narrator drives me a little crazy (in a good way) with that), I can't get rid of things like "fantastical trippiness". I didn't want to get rid of the "dopamine ding-dong of the coke or meth", even though we could say "dopamine ding-dong of the stimulant." What we'd save doesn't justify changing that crazy voice. Just minor cuts here.

Cut:
I really admired the creators of ecstasy, and I was shooting for their kind of success story. See, ecstasy combines LSD with a stimulant, usually meth or cocaine, to stimulate the all-important dopamine production. You get the fantastical trippiness of the LSD, driven by the dopamine ding-dong of the coke or meth. I wasn't too proud to build on the work of those who came before me. I just wanted a dopamine driver that wouldn't show up on your basic four-panel drug screen.

Savings: 21 words, 20%.


Original:
Once I had the LSD, Mom and Fuzzwad and I developed the worst cases of chronic major depression ever seen in the Midwest, thanks to the floridly verbose professor in the psych class I elected. Between the depression and the doctor shopping and the fact that nobody had ever heard of someone getting addicted to anti-depressants, we ended up with enough prescription medication to sedate turn J.R. Ewing into a nice guy for an entire season.

This part seemed a little unclear to me, and I think that some bits (e.g., "the floridly verbose professor") aren't really needed.

Cut:
Once I had the LSD, Mom and Fuzzwad and I developed the worst cases of chronic major depression ever seen, and since nobody ever gets addicted to anti-depressants, we got enough prescription meds to turn J.R. Ewing into a nice guy for an entire season.

Savings: 31 words, 41%.


Original:
Most amazing of all, out of nearly a hundred doctors we visited, a whopping seventeen of them left their prescription pads alone in the room with one of us at some point during their examinations. You know, somebody should warn them about people like us.

"alone in the room with one of us at some point" is a long string of prepositional phrases. In this case, we can cut most of them.

I almost kept the "You know", but decided that cutting it doesn't significantly affect the voice.

Cut:
Most amazing of all, out of nearly a hundred doctors, a whopping seventeen left us alone with their prescription pads at some point. Somebody should warn them about people like us.

Savings: 14 words, 31%.


Original:
Cautioning my troops (all two of them) to take a reasonable, not noticeable, amount of scrip papers from each pad, I was really in business.

"reasonable, not noticeable, amount" is almost redundant. I decided to say "reasonably small number" instead. Even though it doesn't cut the number of words by much, it eliminates an... um... I think it's "appositional phrase" -- a phrase set off in commas -- that was slowing down the sentence.

I've been cutting "really" a lot because it seems overused. I might keep it in this case, but I don't need it, so I'd rather cut it, come back to it in a few weeks, and see if it really makes a difference.

Cut:
Cautioning my troops (all two of them) to take a reasonably small number of scrips from each pad, I was in business.

Savings: 3 words, 12%.


Original:
The pills were even simpler to break down and extract the psychoactive components of than the lysergic acid in the ergot had been. Being able to do it all on the university dime, with university's lab equipment only made it easier. I even got Mom in the building a couple of times to assist with the separations. You know, she really is a whiz in the lab. No wonder Dad was so crazy about her.

The first sentence felt a little clunky, mostly because of the opening section that ends in "components of". It also had two "to be" forms ("were even simpler" and "ergot had been").

I liked the voice in the last three sentences, and found nothing worth changing.

Cut:
I could extract the psychoactive components even more easily from the pills than from ergot -- on the university's dime, with the university's lab equipment. I even got Mom in the building a couple of times to assist with the separations. You know, she really is a whiz in the lab. No wonder Dad was so crazy about her.

Savings: 16 words, 21%.


Original:
So, there was my recipe: one part LSD, which had combined nicely with an experimental steroid into a completely new molecule that packed twice the punch of its parents, while being completely unknown to the DEA, twenty parts super concentrated dopamine production stimulator, twenty parts – super-concentrated dopamine re-uptake inhibitor. Plus one small part of essence of safrole, just because I liked it. The lab mice liked it, too. Once Fuzzwad survived a dose and pronounced it “primo”, I was all set.



Cut:
So, there was my recipe: one part LSD, blended with an experimental steroid into a completely new double-strength DEA-evading molecule, twenty parts super-concentrated dopamine stimulator, twenty parts super-concentrated dopamine re-uptake inhibitor -- plus one part essence of safrole, just because I liked it. The lab mice liked it, too. Once Fuzzwad survived a dose and pronounced it “primo”, I was all set.

Savings: 19 words, 23%.


Okay. That brings us to the complete final copy -- and, when I saw this all together, I edited another hundred words out. Far from cheating, I think it's really necessary to read the whole thing in context to make sure that you haven't messed things up.
I hadn't picked the school just because it was my parents' alma mater. I had followed the staff publications for years, and a professor was developing a strain of ergot resistant rye. It's a sad commentary on our society that most people don't even know that LSD was first synthesized from the ergot fungus. Crazy, huh? People think that's how the Salem Witch Hunts got started – some funky rye bread was making the rounds, and BAM! Everybody went off on the same bad trip.

Anyways, the university was funding a full-scale trial, to the tune of ten acres of the new rye and ten non-resistant control acres. I thought I could liberate enough ergot to get Mom's hidden heartland acres knee deep in it by the next harvest season. I'd extract lysergic acid from the ergot and add some of Tab's home cookin' – a recipe all my own that would pack a wallop, make a good trip, and fly under the FDA radar.

It almost killed me trying to stay cool when, the first week of class, the prof I was stalking asked for volunteers for his pet project. He didn't have much choice: it's not like professors get a lot of groupies, and it was too damn early in the semester for college kids to worry about extra credit. Their loss, my immensely profitable secret gain.

After a few weeks of doing odd jobs for the professor, nobody bothered to ask what I was doing. I swiped a little ergot and a heaping helping of non-resistant rye seed. Mom, of course, really wanted me to do well in school, so she gave me five acres on her little backwoods farm. I got it turned just in time for the grow season. In Michigan, everything grows, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. A little organic fertilizer, some of Mom's special Bug-Be-Gone spray, and voila! Rye crop.

Soon I had enough fungus to psychedelicize the entire city of Detroit for about 100 years. And I was just getting started.

I really admired the creators of ecstasy, and I was shooting for their kind of success story. See, ecstasy combines LSD with a stimulant, usually meth or cocaine, to stimulate the all-important dopamine production. You get the fantastical trippiness of the LSD, driven by the dopamine ding-dong of the coke or meth. I wasn't too proud to build on the work of those who came before me. I just wanted a dopamine driver that wouldn't show up on your basic four-panel drug screen.

Once I had the LSD, Mom and Fuzzwad and I developed the worst cases of chronic major depression ever seen, and since nobody ever gets addicted to anti-depressants, we got enough prescription meds to turn J.R. Ewing into a nice guy. Most amazing of all, out of nearly a hundred doctors, a whopping seventeen left us alone with their prescription pads at some point. Somebody should warn them about people like us. Cautioning my troops (all two of them) to take a reasonably small number of scrips from each pad, I was in business.

I could extract the psychoactive components even more easily from the pills than from ergot -- on the university's dime, with the university's lab equipment. I even got Mom in the building a couple of times to assist with the separations. You know, she really is a whiz in the lab. No wonder Dad was so crazy about her.

So, there was my recipe: one part LSD, blended with an experimental steroid into a completely new double-strength DEA-evading molecule; twenty parts super-concentrated dopamine stimulator; twenty parts super-concentrated dopamine re-uptake inhibitor -- plus one part essence of safrole, just because I liked it. The lab mice liked it, too. Once Fuzzwad survived a dose and pronounced it “primo”, I was all set.

638 words from 987: a 35% cut.

As always, I don't recommend taking my suggestions blindly. Deb should put this part of the story down, come back in a few weeks, and see what she misses from the original.

What do you think?

Regards,
Jake

UPDATE: One word changed based on Mark's comments below.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous debhoag said...

Jake, I am thrilled and impressed (did I mentioned thrilled?) at the job you did on this piece. You have tightened up the prose amazingly, while keeping the flavor of the writing completely intact. I am still comparing original lines to the new and more potent ones so that I can learn how you did it, and hopefully apply some of your skills on my own in the future. Thank you very much, you have greatly improved the flow of my piece.
deb

8/18/2007 12:25 PM  
Anonymous mfreivald said...

I should point out that the next paragraph, starting with "It's a really sad commentary", might be inserted here.

It's good in the cut version, but I actually enjoyed the suspension in the original (what du heck is dat?) and the explanation was a nice payoff.

It's a sad commentary on our society that most people don't even know that LSD was first synthesized from the ergot fungus. Crazy, huh? They think that's how the Salem Witch Hunts got started –

When I first read the "They" in this clip it sounded as if you were saying: "Those people who don't know that LSD was…from ergot fungus think that's how the Salem Witch Hunts got started--"

It's not as bad when I read the whole paragraph--but I still sense it as a distraction.

Other than that--superb job!

8/18/2007 7:35 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

Deb, I'm really glad you liked it. The story was a fun read, and I hope you see it in print soon.

Mfreivald, that's a good point about "They" -- I've changed the post to read "People think that's how the Salem Witch Hunts got started..."

8/19/2007 12:03 AM  

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