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

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Nip and Tuck for Bruce McAllister's "Game"

Many thanks to Bruce McAllister for being a really easy person to work with on the edits for "Game".

The story he sent me was around 1050 words long. After we went through a brief round of editorial changes -- points of clarity, use of the serial comma, all that kind of stuff -- we hadn't saved any words. That's when we started to cut. If you look through my archives, You'll see that I usually target 25-30% and I often get 15% or so. We only needed about 50 words (5%), so it's almost too easy of a goal. :)

Since the story is available in full online, I won't give the entire story here, as I usually do; instead, I'll just give you the parts that I actually cut, and say why.

Original:
This is a game called Is Love Possible? It’s a virtual game—real cutting-edge interface software—that (l) draws on your life, hopes, and fears; (2) may or may not, my therapist tells me, have any therapeutic benefits; and (3) with a discount costs over two grand through my therapist, and to run it needs another three in hardware from Circuit City, Best Buy, wherever.
The locution "this is a that" can almost always be trimmed at least a tiny bit. In this case, it goes from "this is a game called" to "this game is called": one word. Similarly, "tells me" is the same as "says".

Looking at prepositions, as usual, leads to some easy savings that don't change the tone much: "with a discount [costs over two grand] through my therapist" condenses to "with my therapist's discount". Slight reshuffling of the sentence is in order (sorry, but the pun's already there and I'm leaving it).

"to run it needs another three in hardware" just seemed a little long. Since the entire paragraph is about the game, and the verb phrase just prior ("costs over two grand") has an implied "it" or "the game" as its subject, we can use the same implied "it" as the subject and people should know what we mean. That leads to "needs three more in hardware".

Result:
This game is called Is Love Possible? It’s a virtual game—real cutting-edge interface software—that (l) draws on your life, hopes, and fears; (2) may or may not, my therapist says, have any therapeutic benefits; and (3) costs over two grand with my therapist’s discount, and needs three more in hardware from Circuit City, Best Buy, wherever.
65 words goes to 58: We've cut 11% of the first paragraph.

In paragraph three (level one of the game), the narrator's father says
“I love you, but this can’t go on any longer, Dorothy. Don’t you know how love works?”
"Can't go on any longer" is the same as "can't go on", an easy two-word cut. No information loss, no significant style change.

The next paragraph (level two) contains one redundant phrase. Here it is in context:
...I’ve taken a stunning 30-year-old girlfriend and don’t intend to bite her. This upsets the Brothers, my kids. They’re very worried. When Great-Granddaddy flips, what’s going to happen to them? “Don’t you love us?” they ask.
Clearly they're very worried, because of what comes before (they're upset) and the question that comes after (what's going to happen to them?). Cut "They're very worried" with no information loss and no style change at all in the surrounding sentences.

One of the challenges with any cutting exercise is avoiding style changes. Bruce has a strong style here, a little breathless (note the lack of commas in places like "In the third level I've been given a planet to rule", which, in that case, is followed by a fragment), tightly focused, highly introspective. I don't want to overcut, and since I don't have to cut a lot in this case, I could skip level three. By the same token, of course, pacing is one reason to cut as much as is reasonable, but I thought level three could stand.

Moving to the fourth level of the game: it's one of the biggest paragraphs of the story, so I thought I should try harder here. I liked the tone, though, so I had to be really careful. Here's the original:
In the fourth level I’m myself and I’ve got a mission, an important one, the kind you’d see in a thriller. I’ll need a team to pull it off, so I Google my own name. When I’ve made a list of the other fifty Bradford Mackeys I can find—among them, a guy in Maine who makes beautiful rustic furniture out of twisted juniper, a guy in Wales who raises prize-winning pigeons that carry his (our) name, an RV salesman, a bush pilot in Alaska, a Calgary news anchor, and the only police officer who’s ever successfully sued a felon—I contact them and ask them if they want to join me in my assignment, which is to rescue a little boy from the Romanian orphanage that holds the record for training the most serial killers. About a third say “yes.” One of them wants to come, and I tell him he can’t. He’s a horse trainer, has broken his back, and is going to be in a wheelchair for months. He starts crying, streaming video, and I relent. When we finally leave for Bucharest—from twelve different cities on four continents—there are fifteen of us. Interestingly, four have red hair, two are Jewish, four Catholic, two Buddhist, one a defrocked Baptist minister and one a science fiction writer. We’re going to make a great team, but can we save the boy? “Do we have enough love in us to pull it off?” the pigeon-raiser asks for the tenth time.
Isn't that fun? Hack it up anyway.

There's an "appositive" (I think that's what it's called) in the first sentence: an explanatory phrase set off by commas. "an important one" both slows down the pace of the text and might be cut because "an important mission" is the same as "a mission, an important one". Five words becomes three.

Then look at "When I’ve made a list of the other fifty Bradford Mackeys I can find—among them, a guy in Maine..." The context of the story makes it clear that he's making a list, and the action that he takes afterwards ("I contact them") makes it clear that he's not doing anything else, so mentioning the list isn't needed. Then I also don't need "among them" because I'm just going through examples of the names. Result: "When I’ve found fifty other Bradford Mackeys—there’s a guy in Maine..." 20 words becomes 12: a 40% cut for that section.

In the list of names, I took out the final "and", before "the only police officer who's ever successfully sued a felon". You could argue that technically it should be there, but Bruce was creating a partial list, and I think cutting it off without an "and" makes it feel like it's trailing away rather than attempting to be complete. Your mileage may vary.

"I contact them and ask them if..." doesn't need the second "them".

"About a third say yes" can go to "A third say yes". Nobody expects precision in a statement like that anyway, right?

"is going to be in a wheelchair" is the same as "will be in a wheelchair" (two words cut), and "we're going to make a great team" is the same as "we'll make a great team" (two more).

This is a great example of a paragraph in which a lot of little changes make a big difference. 251 words (a quarter of the story!) was cut to 227, which is about 10% -- and half of our overall 50-word goal.

The fifth level gave us two more words: The original said "Peter Pan and the Big Bad Wolf are both on acid", which is essentially the same as "Peter Pan and the Big Bad Wolf are on acid." And maybe there are Disney purists out there who will argue with me, but I thought the "Fantasyland II snack stand" could become the "Fantasyland snack stand".

The sixth level is the one that cracked me up the most. I didn't cut it, but not for that reason.

In the seventh level I made lots of little cuts. Here's the original:
In the seventh level I’ve fallen in love with an Apache girl who, in order to become a woman, is dancing for three mind-altering days on a steer hide, the little scars on her arms recounting the years of her life. But I’m also in love, or was—I remember this now—with a French girl in Montreal, where I lived for years to avoid an old war. And before that (it’s coming back now) I was engaged to, and married, and lived happily with—until my death at 46—a deli owner’s daughter in Yonkers. And as I watch the Apache girl dancing (I’m 18 and she’s 16, so it’s okay—the reservation police look the other way) I see myself living another two grueling centuries during which I manage to fall for sixty-six women, one of them not even from Earth. “Is it possible,” says the shaman, who’s taken a break from the ceremony to have a Pepsi, “to love, really love, someone who isn’t your own species?”
"in order to become a woman" is just "to become a woman" -- "in order to" is a really common waste phrase that you can almost always shorten to "to".

"But I'm also in love" doesn't really need "also", because he's remembering what's happened before as if it's now, and there's more than one other love, and it's seemingly impossible. (If it were necessary to show that there were a love triangle, I would have kept "also".)

"where I lived for years to avoid a war" already has the sense of bygone time in it, so although one might argue with the point -- the two sentences aren't technically identical in meaning -- I deleted "old" where the original had "avoid an old war".

"And as I watch" went to "As I watch". The "and" is supposed to link the thoughts of older days to the current image of the Apache girl, but I think they're already linked sufficiently.

"during which I manage to fall for" went to "during which I fall for". "manage to" is strictly a junk phrase here, which could be used for tone but is eminently cuttable.

"the shaman, who's taken a break from the ceremony to have a Pepsi" doesn't need "from the ceremony". That's the only thing going on in the scene, so you don't need to point it out.

The ending contains a few cuts, too, but only in one sentence: “That’s not what I asked. I asked you whether you beat it.” That can be trimmed to "I didn't ask that" (five words becomes four) and "I asked whether you beat it" (deleting the first "you").

That's it! A nip here and a tuck there, and we've gone from fifty words over the mark to three words under.

Thanks again to Bruce for letting me suggest modifications to his work, and then for accepting all of them on the first reading. As I said at the outset, it was a pleasure to work with him.

Comments are welcome, as always.

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