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

Friday, September 28, 2007

Kate and David

This is from Meg. She tells me that it probably has too much flashback. I'm willing to agree -- I make the point with a few metrics later on -- but I've mostly stuck to cutting this piece. Here's the original.

The air lay stagnant on Kate's exposed skin, viscous with sweat. Outside the heat was oppressive, and inside... and she could not bare her legs to take advantage of even the cool of evaporation. Only a few children even pretended to listen to her history of the Crusades. The rest slept, spittle pooling on their desks.

How could information be expected to infiltrate sleeping minds?

But David Leland still watched with avid interest. It didn't seem to matter what she taught, he seemed hungry for the knowledge of things and places beyond the small town that had always been his world.

She looked away, reminded again of Joseph, constant companion of her youth, David’s brother. Joseph, voracious for her company, jealous of any sign that she had interests that did not include him. When she had been accepted to the new Brigham Young Academy, he had suddenly discovered a zeal for higher education and began planning to follow her to Provo. She had presumed he stopped short of proposing merely because he was only seventeen to her sixteen. But she’d been patient. There would be plenty of time.

Kate's thoughts returned to the present as a pen fell to the floor with a clank.

"Ah hem." She slapped the ruler down on the desk, finally rousing even the drowsiest child from his afternoon slumber.

"Are there any questions about the Cathar Crusade or the Episcopalian Inquisition of the Waldensians?" She waited. No hands went up. "Good. There will be an exam on the subject tomorrow morning. And I will be visiting each of your homes this weekend to share the results of this semester's progress with your parents." The children looked at her as though she were the most nefarious witch in the entire world.

If I were evil, I would make you experience what I feel every day. The excruciating pain of her swollen legs was not the worst of it. The worst was the way children she'd known and loved their entire lives now taunted her and ridiculed her, trapped as she was in her disease-distorted body.

She held the schoolhouse door open, and the students exited like rocks released from a slingshot. She recalled the words of her physics professor as he'd released the ball he'd held high above his head, 'And thus we see potential energy converted to kinetic energy.' Did any of those bouncing, skipping children even know what 'kinetic' meant? Kate turned away from the bright heat of the outdoors to the oppressive dark heat of the small schoolhouse.

Her eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark, so she almost walked right into David Leland.

"Pardon me, Miss DeLong." David looked down at his hands in rueful embarrassment. His voice came out slightly stilted as he continued. "I wanted to say that the bellicose behavior of the medieval church resulted in heinous acts of depravity."

Kate stood still for a moment, stunned. "Why David Leland Heywood, thank you. And may I say that you used each one of those vocabulary words perfectly correctly." A smile began to creep onto her face, reflecting her inner transformation from jaded spinster-schoolmarm to joyous teacher. David looked into her face at that moment. Her joy in the magnitude of his achievement mingled with her awareness of how much her approval meant to him. The smile slid from her face.

So Kate, will you foil David yet again?

She thought of that first day she had understood his intent. She had fled outside to the back of the chapel, unwilling to watch as Joseph and his young bride, Margaret Henrie, returned home to Panguitch. David had found her in tears. Silently he had gathered her in his strong arms and rocked her back and forth. It was the first time any man had touched her since the disease caused her ankles to swell like mutated gourds. Clothing concealed the details of how the deformity thickened her legs and arms.

By the time she discovered the disease affected her breasts and privates, she'd almost not cared. After all, what man would ever know?

But that day, with David's arms around her and the reality of him filling her senses, she'd realized that her body didn't know it was horrific, that no man could desire a woman trapped in such a prison. Her body felt the same heady delight that had coursed through her when Joseph had first held her and kissed her for the first time. But she was no teenager. She'd gently but firmly extracted herself from David's embrace, thankful for the serendipity of a prior appointment to make her excuse real.

Ever since she had been careful to never encourage David. But he had not waivered in his quiet kindness. He never joined the discussion of whether her scourge was due to her own sin or the sin of another. David simply accepted her.

The dark years at the Academy had scarred her soul. The darker reality of being pariah in her own hometown was worse. But her barriers were washed away in his steady, unflinching devotion. Melted in his regard as the ice on the mountains evaporated in the heat of early summer. His faithfulness had freed her.

She never knew what it was that he saw in that moment. But his face lit up like the sun at high noon. Perhaps her smile crossed the invisible line she'd maintained between them since that January afternoon. He closed the distance between them, gathering her in a kiss.

When they broke for breath, he gently stroked her hair away from her forehead.

"Marry me, Miss Delong." As the silence stretched, he added, "Please?"

She couldn't help it. She laughed. The first laugh she'd uttered in five years.

"I will. I will.”
It's already pretty tightly written, but let's see what we can do with it.
Original:
The air lay stagnant on Kate's exposed skin, viscous with sweat. Outside the heat was oppressive, and inside... and she could not bare her legs to take advantage of even the cool of evaporation. Only a few children even pretended to listen to her history of the Crusades. The rest slept, spittle pooling on their desks.

How could information be expected to infiltrate sleeping minds?
I can't help but read viscous as a description of skin, when logically I think it must describe the air. Since we have two images of the thick air already, let's eliminate one.

Outside / inside doesn't help describe the scene significantly -- if we know it's a school, and we know it's hot inside, then I think most readers will know it's hot outside. Based on the ellipses, Meg may be trying to say, "it's hot outside, and you know that when it's hot outside, man but it's hot inside." But I don't think this gets us very far.

Always look for forms of to be, was in this case, as candidates for cutting. Not that you should always cut them -- some statements are really clunky or imprecise without to be -- but they're good to check. In this case, Meg has separated the fact that it's hot (heat was oppressive) from her characterization of Kate (could not bare her legs). So we could incorporate the heat into the rest of the description.

That said, I think Meg has done that already. The fact that she want to cool her legs indicates that it's hot, so she's showing and telling us that it's hot. Let's just show it.

to take advantage of tends to be a waste phrase. As Richard Lanham says in Revising Prose, you need to determine who's kicking who. (He and I both know that it's "Who's kicking whom," but he doesn't care and I'll follow his lead here.) In this case, the evaporation would be doing the cooling, so let's say it that way.

I think the next two sentences are okay. I could cut the first one, but I don't like the results: Few children heard her history of the Crusades. It could also be Few of the children, but that saves no words, so I'll keep Meg's style. I could cut even, but I even pretended characterizes Kate differently than pretended would -- it makes her more impatient with the children, whereas pretended by itself is neutral.

Finally, the last sentence in the block has a to be that I'll cut. I think it sounds more natural with "can" than "could" -- that's the author's call, but I'll make the edit here anyway.

Cut:
The air lay stagnant on Kate's exposed skin, and she couldn't even bare her legs to let evaporation cool them. Only a few children even pretended to listen to her history of the Crusades. The rest slept, spittle pooling on their desks.

How can information infiltrate sleeping minds?
48 words from 65: 26%.
Original:
But David Leland still watched with avid interest. It didn't seem to matter what she taught, he seemed hungry for the knowledge of things and places beyond the small town that had always been his world.
There's an authorial choice here: does David seem hungry for knowledge, or hungry for anything she teaches? I'm assuming the latter, even though the former would condense the paragraph better. :)

I keep stumbling over "with avid interest". It feels redundant, or like the author is trying to build up the hype by piling words on top. (I think I would have come across this potential cut anyway because I always scrutinize prepositions, but this particular phrase gives me pause.) Now, I know that some people don't like adverbs, but sometimes they're still better than the alternative. We can either (a) change the verb "watched" to something that implies avid interest, or (b) make David watch "avidly". I can't think of a better word at the moment; and I'm on the train, so I can't go to reference.com; so I'm going with the latter.

Oh, and I don't think you need "still" in that sentence either. "But" implies that David's behavior is exceptional, and the sense ongoing-ness of his actions are implied in the next sentence. Result: "But David Leland watched avidly. It didn't seem to matter what she taught..."

Then again, "It didn't seem to matter what she taught" is a long way of saying, essentially, "always". So even "No matter what she taught" can probably go away anyway, replaced by "He always..."

"seem" [to matter] / "he seemed" are redundant qualifiers, even if they didn't have the same root word. Cut one.

"for the knowledge..." seems long. Meg is packing in data: let's see what we can do with it.
  • hungry for knowledge
  • what knowledge he's hungry for
  • he lives in a small town
  • he had always lived there
  • he was mostly limited to it
What can we do with all of that? I don't want to change the voice too much, and changing, say, "hungry for knowledge" to "eager to learn" is a big deal.

Notice a minor contradiction: no matter what she taught, he was hungry, it says; but he was hungry for things bigger than his small-town home. To be pedantic about it, if she taught him something about his home town's history, would he be hungry for it?

Trimming might look like this: Make the change to "always"; "things and places" can probably be cut (it's just more than is necessary to get the point across). "He always seemed hungry for knowledge she could teach that went beyond the small town that had always been his world." (28 words to 21, 25%.) I don't love what I did here, though: "THAT went beyond the small town THAT had always been his world." It galumphs.

So let's cut more deeply: "He always seemed to hunger for anything she taught that reached beyond his small-town world." This is a deeper cut (15 words from 28, a 53% cut) and also eliminates that minor contradiction.

Note that "small-town" needs a hyphen; it's now a compound adjective that modifies "world", whereas before it was a noun phrase that was the object of the preposition "beyond".

I was tempted to say "He always hungered for...", but I think that's a POV violation -- an easy-to-gloss-over one, but a POV violation nonetheless.

If Meg thinks the paragraph can live without the "she taught" I'd pull that out, too. (17/28=61%.)

Cut:
But David Leland watched avidly. He always seemed to hunger for anything she taught that reached beyond his small-town world.
Wow. That's a lot of effort to cut 44% of 36 original words. Next paragraph.
Original:
She looked away, reminded again of Joseph, constant companion of her youth, David’s brother. Joseph, voracious for her company, jealous of any sign that she had interests that did not include him. When she had been accepted to the new Brigham Young Academy, he had suddenly discovered a zeal for higher education and began planning to follow her to Provo. She had presumed he stopped short of proposing merely because he was only seventeen to her sixteen. But she’d been patient. There would be plenty of time.
We've just gone from direct observation of her frustration and surroundings to a daydream, so I don't want to lose the somewhat langourous (which is not to say "boring") quality of the writing here.

I like the first sentence. Lots of data, given in pulses, like three waves in an incoming tide.

"of any sign that she had interests that did not include him" seems long. How about "of any interests that did not include him"? Or "of her outside interests"? Or even "of anything that might distract her from him." As always, it depends on the author. "Jealous of any sign of outside interests" shows deeper jealousy than "jealous of any [implied actual] outside interests". We see in a moment that his jealousy is short-lived -- he marries someone else -- so I think the intensity level may not matter. On the other hand, if David loves her intensely, then showing that intensity in Joseph might be a form of foreshadowing. I think I'll leave it for Meg to pick something, if she thinks the alternatives work -- I'm not going to mess with something that could be that meaningful.

Forms of to be are always worth looking at ("Always look at forms of to be": 7/9=22% :) ), like "had been accepted". Also, I don't think we need to know that BYA is "new". So how about "When Brigham Young Academy had accepted her"? And I don't think anyone needs "suddenly", because it's clear that her acceptance to BYA is the trigger of his interest in Higher Ed.

I might cut "had" from "had discovered, and from "had presumed", if it's possible she still believed that. You could also cut one of the last two sentences -- "But there would be plenty of time." -- but I like the way they emphasize her mindset. These are all style choices I leave to Meg.

I will make one little non-cutting edit, because there's a small temporal issue. The flashback is written in a form of past tense (what is it, grammar mavens? Past perfect?) that uses "had" to indicate actions already completed. So technically, there would have been plenty of time. But we're in her head, and "would" is a kind of conditional (again, not sure if I'm using the term right), and since we already know that he didn't actually propose to her, it sounds funny in this flashback. In other words, "would" only fits if the flashback were written in a tense that allowed conditionals, which the past perfect doesn't. I don't know if anyone else would notice, but I recommend saying "They had plenty of time."

Cut:
She looked away, reminded again of Joseph, constant companion of her youth, David’s brother. Joseph, voracious for her company, jealous of any sign that she had interests that did not include him. When Brigham Young Academy had accepted her, he had discovered a zeal for higher education and began planning to follow her to Provo. She had presumed he stopped short of proposing merely because he was only seventeen to her sixteen. But she’d been patient. They had plenty of time.
81 words from 87: 6%. I'm not unhappy about that. There's good character development here, and a nice rhythm. It's not all about word count.
Original:
Kate's thoughts returned to the present as a pen fell to the floor with a clank.
There is a string of phrases here that sound too pedestrian to my ear: "to the present as a pen fell to the floor with a clank." (The actual rhythm would be something more like, "to the PRESent as a PEN fell to the FLOOR with a CLANK.") Let's get the data together and try again.

Data:
* Kate's thoughts returned to the present.
* A pen fell and made a noise.
* The noise was the cause of Kate's return.

Cut:
A pen clanked onto the floor, bringing Kate back to the present.
12 words from 16, 25%. You could say "Kate's thoughts", but I don't think you need to.
Original:
"Ah hem." She slapped the ruler down on the desk, finally rousing even the drowsiest child from his afternoon slumber.
Minor cuts here.

Cut:
"Ah hem." She slapped the ruler on the desk, rousing the drowsiest children from their afternoon slumbers.
17 from 20 = 15%.
Original:
"Are there any questions about the Cathar Crusade or the Episcopalian Inquisition of the Waldensians?" She waited. No hands went up. "Good. There will be an exam on the subject tomorrow morning. And I will be visiting each of your homes this weekend to share the results of this semester's progress with your parents." The children looked at her as though she were the most nefarious witch in the entire world.
I think her initial question is good as is: a little pedantic, making sure the key words are there. I like the punch of 'She waited. No hands went up. "Good...." I even like "There will be an exam on the subject tomorrow morning" (though you could probably cut "on the subject"), even though it uses "to be" (the alternatives don't really help).

The next sentence is structured around a form of "to be" and can be condensed. Also, the prepositional phrase "of this semester's progress" raised a flag for me; I think she wants to share this semester's progress, not the results of this semester's progress. I can collapse prepositional phrases "of your homes" and "with your parents" into one. And I don't think we need "this semester's".

The next sentence has at least one prepositional phrase that can be condensed. I wanted to change "she were the world's" to active voice, but couldn't think of an elegant way to do it.

Cut:
"Are there any questions about the Cathar Crusade or the Episcopalian Inquisition of the Waldensians?" She waited. No hands went up. "Good. There will be an exam on the subject tomorrow morning. And I will visit each of your parents this weekend to share your progress." The children looked at her as though she were the world's most nefarious witch.
60 words from 71, or 15%.

I should pause for a moment and talk about prepositional phrases. I've been struggling with how I should express this for the last few posts, because I always look at them and think, "Oh, good! Prepositional phrases! Something to cut!" and then I end up not even cutting them. So what gives?

Well, first, note that I don't hate them. I don't think we can always eliminate them, or that we should try to eliminate all of them. But looking at them almost always bears fruit. Let's look at how looking at them informed the changes I just made.
  • Sometimes you can collapse them using a possessive ("the most nefarious witch IN the world" becomes "the world's most nefarious witch")
  • Sometimes they show that the author misdirected the verb. Above, the author probably wrote "share the results" and then wanted to answer the question, "results of what?" That made her go on, "OF this semester's progress". But it's really the progress that she wants to share -- "results" was a red herring, which is why she needed the prepositional phrase to explain it.*
  • Too many prepositional phrases often give the text a repetitive, galumphing feel. It feels like the mind starts a thought and just starts piling additional facts into it. You can often restructure the sentence to be clearer, which often results in more compact prose.
Enough of that for now.
* You might argue that we can't share progress, but only the results of progress or the measures of progress. That's a legitimate argument, with which I disagree in this case. But the principle I've expounded here is still true, even if you disagree with its application in this case.

Original:
If I were evil, I would make you experience what I feel every day. The excruciating pain of her swollen legs was not the worst of it. The worst was the way children she'd known and loved their entire lives now taunted her and ridiculed her, trapped as she was in her disease-distorted body.
Note that we use italics to set off internal monologue (i.e., thoughts) from the rest of the text. Otherwise, the tense gets confusing.

The author uses "to be" forms a lot here, and "The worst was" follows "the worst of it". This is a candidate for restructuring.

Look at the data:
  • Swollen legs
  • Excruciating physical pain
  • Diseased body
  • Has known and loved (some of?) these children
  • Children taunted and ridiculed her
  • Emotional pain worse than physical

I question the use of "taunted and ridiculed" here, because none of the children are actually taunting or ridiculing her. Maybe "contempt" or "disdain"? And at any rate, I can probably use one word instead of two.

The restructured sentence needs to be sensitive to the existing flow: hurtful looks from the children, then the If I were evil thought.

Cut:
If I were evil, I would make you experience what I feel every day. She had loved these children for their entire lives, and their taunts hurt her more than the excruciating pain from her disease-distorted legs.
37 words from 54, 31%.
Original:
She held the schoolhouse door open, and the students exited like rocks released from a slingshot. She recalled the words of her physics professor as he'd released the ball he'd held high above his head, 'And thus we see potential energy converted to kinetic energy.' Did any of those bouncing, skipping children even know what 'kinetic' meant? Kate turned away from the bright heat of the outdoors to the oppressive dark heat of the small schoolhouse.
Minor cuts here, triggered by seeing "of her physics professor", "of those bouncing...", and "from the bright heat of the outdoors to the oppressive dark heat of the small schoolhouse."

I think I can eliminate "any of" from "any of those bouncing, skipping children" if I really want to, but I decided to leave it. It's the difference between making a general complaint (as a group, do they?) and a specific one (I don't think any child here does).

I like the balance of outside-bright heat and oppressive-dark heat. I almost trimmed "of the small schoolhouse", but I think it characterizes the setting enough that I'd keep it.

Cut:
She held the schoolhouse door open, and the students exited like rocks released from a slingshot. She recalled her physics professor releasing a ball from high above his head and saying, 'And thus we see potential energy converted to kinetic energy.' Did any of those bouncing, skipping children know what 'kinetic' meant? Kate turned from the bright outdoor heat to the oppressive dark heat of the small schoolhouse.
68 words from 76, 11%.
Original:
Her eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark, so she almost walked right into David Leland.

"Pardon me, Miss DeLong." David looked down at his hands in rueful embarrassment. His voice came out slightly stilted as he continued. "I wanted to say that the bellicose behavior of the medieval church resulted in heinous acts of depravity."
First, leaving the minor cuts aside, note that 425 original words have passed from the beginning until this event. 324 words, or 3/4 of the total so far, have passed since we've been introduced to David. In other words, 75% or the story so far is waiting for something to happen with David after he was introduced. (In the cut version, it's 343 words and 275 words, or 80%.)

The author has given us a lot of data -- characterization, setting, emotion -- so I don't want to say that she should cut everything that has come between our introduction to David and now; but it's reasonable to ask, "Is some of this information extraneous? Can I get to this point faster without sacrficing emotional impact?"

I don't know the answer. It might be "no". :) I'm just pointing out the question.

That's a structural issue. This text itself seems fine, needing only minor cuts. We might trim "yet" from "not yet adjusted", "right" from "walked right into", either "down" or "at his hands", "rueful" from "rueful embarrassment" -- rather than cut every possible thing, I played with those ideas and came up with a version I like. "His voice came out slightly stilted" seems a touch long, and could be replaced with a more active verb.

I like David's sentence: a little nerdy, a little shy, an apple for the teacher.

Cut:
Her eyes had not adjusted to the dark, so she almost walked into David Leland.

"Pardon me, Miss DeLong." David looked down at his hands in embarrassment. He stammered slightly as he continued. "I wanted to say that the bellicose behavior of the medieval church resulted in heinous acts of depravity."
51 words from 57, 11%.
Original:
Kate stood still for a moment, stunned. "Why David Leland Heywood, thank you. And may I say that you used each one of those vocabulary words perfectly correctly." A smile began to creep onto her face, reflecting her inner transformation from jaded spinster-schoolmarm to joyous teacher. David looked into her face at that moment. Her joy in the magnitude of his achievement mingled with her awareness of how much her approval meant to him. The smile slid from her face.

So Kate, will you foil David yet again?
"Began to creep" or "crept"?

"At that moment" isn't needed because we've been proceeding chronologically. (Stood still, smile began to creep, David looked.)

Do we really need "the magnitude of"? Is the use of vocabulary words really an achievement of an extremely high magnitude? If so, keep it; I cut it.

For that matter, do we need "in his achievement"? We've already seen an Kate's "inner transformation...to joyous teacher", and "in his achievement" forces the reader to put her joy in that context. But there are probably a lot of things resonating around in Kate right now: David's achievement, the fact that he actually tries, a validation of her identity as a teacher, the justification of all of the hours spent in the dark heat. Maybe we should just show her joy, and let the reader feel all of those joyful resonances -- only implied but still present -- instead of just his achievement.

"her awareness of how much her approval meant to him" -- "of / to" triggered me to look at this. We can handle it a few ways.
  • We can say, "her awareness of how much he loved her approval", which is stronger and gets the words "loved her" in it.
  • We could also use something like, "her awareness that he longed for her approval."
  • We could combine it with the next line, in which her joy is clouded and the smile slides from her face. (This might also eliminate the repetition of "joyous" and "joy", and of "David looked into her face" and "smile slid from her face"; although I didn't notice them at first, a very sensitive reader might have.) "Her joy faded as she thought of how much her approval meant to him."

Cut:
Kate stood still for a moment, stunned. "Why David Leland Heywood, thank you. And may I say that you used each one of those vocabulary words perfectly." A smile crept onto her face, reflecting her inner transformation from jaded spinster-schoolmarm to joyous teacher. David looked into her face. Her joy faded as she thought of how much her approval meant to him.

So Kate, will you foil David yet again?
70 words from 88: 20%.
Original:
She thought of that first day she had understood his intent. She had fled outside to the back of the chapel, unwilling to watch as Joseph and his young bride, Margaret Henrie, returned home to Panguitch. David had found her in tears. Silently he had gathered her in his strong arms and rocked her back and forth. It was the first time any man had touched her since the disease caused her ankles to swell like mutated gourds. Clothing concealed the details of how the deformity thickened her legs and arms.

By the time she discovered the disease affected her breasts and privates, she'd almost not cared. After all, what man would ever know?
"she had understood his intent" confused me a little bit, so I'd like to cut and be more explicit at the same time. Because I introduced Joseph's name in the first sentence, I replaced it with a pronoun in the second.

There are some other cuts I could make -- should make, really, and then let Meg decide if she wants to keep them -- but I dislike the results enough that I'm dismissing them out of hand. I'm leaving these paragraphs mostly alone.

Cut:
She thought of Joseph's wedding. She had fled outside to the back of the chapel, unwilling to watch him and his young bride, Margaret Henrie, return home to Panguitch. David, finding her in tears, had silently gathered her in his strong arms and rocked her back and forth. It was the first time any man had touched her since the disease caused her ankles to swell like mutated gourds. Clothing concealed the details of how the deformity thickened her legs and arms.

By the time she discovered the disease affected her breasts and privates, she'd almost not cared. After all, what man would ever know?
105 from 114, 8%.
Original:
But that day, with David's arms around her and the reality of him filling her senses, she'd realized that her body didn't know it was horrific, that no man could desire a woman trapped in such a prison. Her body felt the same heady delight that had coursed through her when Joseph had first held her and kissed her for the first time. But she was no teenager. She'd gently but firmly extracted herself from David's embrace, thankful for the serendipity of a prior appointment to make her excuse real.
We probably don't need both David's arms around her (we already know they are) and the reality of him filling her senses. Maybe we can combine them, or maybe just keep one.

We probably don't need both "first held her" and "kissed her for the first time". At the least, the two "first"s are redundant.

I feel like the doubled mental activity -- "she'd realized" and "body didn't know" -- should be collapsed into one thing. I can't think of a good way to do it, though. If anyone wants to plug one into the comments, I'd be interested in your solutions.

"it was horrific" and "she was no teenager" are both appropriate uses of "to be". They're not passive, really, because there's no reasonable active counterpart.

"FOR the serendipity OF a prior appointment" led me to cut the first prepositional phrase, which led me to make the infinitive "to make" into a past tense "made" form and other related changes.

Cut:
But that day, with the reality of David filling her senses, she'd realized that her body didn't know it was horrific, that no man could desire a woman trapped in such a prison. Her body felt the same heady delight that had coursed through her when Joseph had first kissed her. But she was no teenager. She'd gently but firmly extracted herself from David's embrace, thankful that a prior appointment made her excuse real.
74 from 90: 18%.
Original:
Ever since she had been careful to never encourage David. But he had not waivered in his quiet kindness. He never joined the discussion of whether her scourge was due to her own sin or the sin of another. David simply accepted her.
The prepositional phrase "in his quiet kindness" can be collapsed. "was due" can be turned around: "whether her own sin or the sin of another had caused". "joined the discussion" can be collapsed to "joined discussions", and "joined discussions of whether" can be further collapsed to "discussed whether". I think "discussed whether" loses the sense that there are discussions about it already going on, so I'm sticking with "joined discussions".

Cut:
She had never encouraged David, but his quiet kindness had not wavered. He never joined discussions of whether her own sin or that of another had caused her scourge. David simply accepted her.
33 from 43, 23%.
Original:
The dark years at the Academy had scarred her soul. The darker reality of being pariah in her own hometown was worse. But her barriers were washed away in his steady, unflinching devotion. Melted in his regard as the ice on the mountains evaporated in the heat of early summer. His faithfulness had freed her.
"was worse" might be cut. This is really something for Meg to decide, because it changes the sentence structure and the feel somewhat. I really wanted to do something with "OF being pariah IN her hometown" (should that be a pariah? I've never seen that usage before), but couldn't think of a good way to do it.

"barriers were washed away in his...devotion" can be flipped around to remove the passivity, and I think you only need one of "steady" and "unflinching". I chose "steady" because it reminds me of raindrops, and there's a washing and melting theme going on. I also eliminated the fragment.

Cut:
The dark years at the Academy, and the darker reality of being pariah in her hometown, had scarred her soul. But his steady devotion had washed away her barriers. They had melted in his regard as the ice on the mountains evaporated in the heat of early summer. His faithfulness had freed her.
53 from 55: 4%.

Original:
She never knew what it was that he saw in that moment. But his face lit up like the sun at high noon. Perhaps her smile crossed the invisible line she'd maintained between them since that January afternoon. He closed the distance between them, gathering her in a kiss.
"it was that" is a waste phrase. "at high noon" and "afternoon" repeat just a little bit, and I think we can cut "since that January afternoon" anyway.

Cut:
She never knew what he saw in that moment. But his face lit up like the sun at high noon. Perhaps her smile crossed the invisible line she'd maintained between them. He closed the distance between them, gathering her in a kiss.
42 from 49: 14%.
Original:
When they broke for breath, he gently stroked her hair away from her forehead.

"Marry me, Miss Delong." As the silence stretched, he added, "Please?"

She couldn't help it. She laughed. The first laugh she'd uttered in five years.

"I will. I will.”
I think this bit stays as is.

So here's the new version:

The air lay stagnant on Kate's exposed skin, and she couldn't even bare her legs to let evaporation cool them. Only a few children even pretended to listen to her history of the Crusades. The rest slept, spittle pooling on their desks.

How can information infiltrate sleeping minds?

But David Leland watched avidly. He always seemed to hunger for anything she taught that reached beyond his small-town world.

She looked away, reminded again of Joseph, constant companion of her youth, David’s brother. Joseph, voracious for her company, jealous of any sign that she had interests that did not include him. When Brigham Young Academy had accepted her, he had discovered a zeal for higher education and began planning to follow her to Provo. She had presumed he stopped short of proposing merely because he was only seventeen to her sixteen. But she’d been patient. They had plenty of time.

A pen clanked onto the floor, bringing Kate back to the present.

"Ah hem." She slapped the ruler on the desk, rousing the drowsiest children from their afternoon slumbers.

"Are there any questions about the Cathar Crusade or the Episcopalian Inquisition of the Waldensians?" She waited. No hands went up. "Good. There will be an exam on the subject tomorrow morning. And I will visit each of your parents this weekend to share your progress." The children looked at her as though she were the world's most nefarious witch.

If I were evil, I would make you experience what I feel every day. She had loved these children for their entire lives, and their taunts hurt her more than the excruciating pain from her disease-distorted legs.

She held the schoolhouse door open, and the students exited like rocks released from a slingshot. She recalled her physics professor releasing a ball from high above his head and saying, 'And thus we see potential energy converted to kinetic energy.' Did any of those bouncing, skipping children know what 'kinetic' meant? Kate turned from the bright outdoor heat to the oppressive dark heat of the small schoolhouse.

Her eyes had not adjusted to the dark, so she almost walked into David Leland.

"Pardon me, Miss DeLong." David looked down at his hands in embarrassment. He stammered slightly as he continued. "I wanted to say that the bellicose behavior of the medieval church resulted in heinous acts of depravity."

Kate stood still for a moment, stunned. "Why David Leland Heywood, thank you. And may I say that you used each one of those vocabulary words perfectly." A smile crept onto her face, reflecting her inner transformation from jaded spinster-schoolmarm to joyous teacher. David looked into her face. Her joy faded as she thought of how much her approval meant to him.

So Kate, will you foil David yet again?

She thought of Joseph's wedding. She had fled outside to the back of the chapel, unwilling to watch him and his young bride, Margaret Henrie, return home to Panguitch. David, finding her in tears, had silently gathered her in his strong arms and rocked her back and forth. It was the first time any man had touched her since the disease caused her ankles to swell like mutated gourds. Clothing concealed the details of how the deformity thickened her legs and arms.

By the time she discovered the disease affected her breasts and privates, she'd almost not cared. After all, what man would ever know?

But that day, with the reality of David filling her senses, she'd realized that her body didn't know it was horrific, that no man could desire a woman trapped in such a prison. Her body felt the same heady delight that had coursed through her when Joseph had first kissed her. But she was no teenager. She'd gently but firmly extracted herself from David's embrace, thankful that a prior appointment made her excuse real.

She had never encouraged David, but his quiet kindness had not wavered. He never joined discussions of whether her own sin or that of another had caused her scourge. David simply accepted her.

The dark years at the Academy, and the darker reality of being pariah in her hometown, had scarred her soul. But his steady devotion had washed away her barriers. They had melted in his regard as the ice on the mountains evaporated in the heat of early summer. His faithfulness had freed her.

She never knew what he saw in that moment. But his face lit up like the sun at high noon. Perhaps her smile crossed the invisible line she'd maintained between them. He closed the distance between them, gathering her in a kiss.

When they broke for breath, he gently stroked her hair away from her forehead.

"Marry me, Miss Delong." As the silence stretched, he added, "Please?"

She couldn't help it. She laughed. The first laugh she'd uttered in five years.

"I will. I will.”
814 from 964: about 16%.

What do you think?

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2 Comments:

Blogger daughterofheaven said...

Dude cool.

The way I originally wrote it was a couple hundred words over 1000, so I had come through and tightened it a bit already, having seen your cut of Deb Hoag's piece (The Chemist).

So I would have been sad if there had been, say, 40% to cut.

I must study, oh master. Kudos all around!

And I blogged about things including this fabu experience here:

http://daughtersofheaven.blogspot.com/2007/09/070928-facebook-cutting-wotf-etc.html

10/01/2007 10:38 PM  
Blogger deb said...

Nice piece, Meg, even before Oliverhouse tightened it up.

10/01/2007 11:43 PM  

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