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

Friday, August 28, 2009

Crunching with Tony and Grouch

Here are 983 words from Don (Twitter, blog). My only change so far is the f-bomb going to "freak". (It's kind of a family-friendly-ish site, right?)
The next day, Grouch got Tony hired as a temporary doorman to work the door at Club D.E.M. after the girl with the Bettie Page haircut came down with some stomach-related thing. "The things you can do at the touch of a button," Grouch joked.

For the next week, from eleven at night to four in the morning, Tony manned the sensor at the front door with his lenses activated. He assumed Grouch was watching directly, or was at least recording the data somewhere. He assured Tony that it wouldn't take up space anywhere in his brain. Disk space wasn't included in the upgrade package.

Tony couldn't see the point of Bettie Page's job. The setup at the door was simple. All he had to do was listen for the sensors at the door to ping like in those old TV game shows when contestants gave the right answer to "What's the capital of Myanmar?" or buzz when someone gave a wrong answer or no answer to the question, "Are you old enough to be here?" And, when the buzzer did go off, all he had to do was point the underaged offenders to the door. Except the buzzer never went off. Tony knew he'd let some fourteen year-olds in, but as Grouch drilled into him, "The sensors can only read what their ID chips say."

The hardest part of Tony's job was the lack of sleep. He couldn't concentrate at the door enough to study, as he found when he brought his books and left them untouched for the first three days. The nervousness of not knowing exactly why Grouch wanted him there, of struggling with whether he even wanted to know, faded away with the deer-in-headlights state of mind he'd developed getting up close and personal looks at the club's clientele.

At least Maia was there with him. For two nights in a row, she came to the club as soon as it opened to score a corner table with a sack full of handhelds trying to figure out what Grouch's game was.

On a busier than usual Saturday night, Tony took a break because his head hurt mostly, he thought, from being forced to see blue all day between studying and working the door. He ordered himself a shot at the bar. Maia slid in next to him, cheerfully ordering "One for me, too! Just put it on his tab."

"You found something?" Tony said, rubbing his temples.

"Actually, I got nothing. But that's something!"

Tony gave her the What's the Punch Line? look.

"Whatever you're recording in full holo mode is getting saved somewhere. Not to your chip, though because, no offense, but your brain isn't big enough to store a door shift's worth of data. Neither is Grouch's. Which means he's sitting somewhere with something jammed up his port."

Tony beckoned the bartender for a refill. "I'd like to jam something up his port."

Maia shook her head.

"Dammit, he's watching right now isn't he? I didn't think...God, I'm just so tired."

"Don't whine, okay. I got it covered." Maia downed her second shot, looking pleased with herself. "I might not be able to touch his gear, but I can still touch yours. All he's seeing is me bitching about our parents. Your temples? That's me, sorry."

"So, we're back to square one?"

"Yup. He's tapped into you, obviously looking for something he can't get from the cameras, here. I'm thinking that could be all there is to it."

Tony thought twice about a third shot. "Then, maybe we should just leave well enough alone."

"I said that could be. Besides, you wanna be Grouch's bitch forever?" Maia watched her third shot being poured. "You take the path-of-least-resistance to a whole new level, you know that? That's your problem! We crack on Ernie, but at least he didn't just talk about doing it 'his way.'"

Tony turned over his plastic shot glass and let his fist fall on it, crushing it flat. "What's your point, again?"

Maia pounded her fist onto the flattened shot glass. "You always do this--you take a couple of baby steps to something you want, then life throws you a curve and you don't know what to do. So you're willing to get bent over and take it, thinking a way out is just gonna magically appear."

"Why risk making it worse, though?"

"Dammit, what about the principle? You scrape together all that money just to let yourself get turned into a tool. A literal tool! For once, freaking do something, man! Get angry! And if you do make it worse, freak it. Go down swinging. With your middle finger in the air, while you're doing it!"

Tony was too buzzed to be angry. "So, what do we do?"

"What I'm thinking? Scorched earth. I'm brainstorming, here. We fry his tech, or something. We'd need a lot of power--well, unless we get the right gear...."

"Sounds painful," Tony said. "If it's gonna hurt, why not just tell him to freak off and let him do his thing?"

"I thought of that," Maia said. "Who knows what he might be able to do to you. Best to just fry his stuff and be done." She ordered her brother another whiskey. "Just finish out your shift. I've got a couple of ideas. When do you guys go to church, nowadays?"

"Ten-thirty Mass, usually," Tony said.

"Good. Skip it and I'll come by the house then."

"Why the house?"

"It's gotta be there. Don't worry."

Tony tried to protest but Maia put her finger to her lips and held out her phone. "Gotta go." She hit the button. Tony felt his headache subside as the live feed resumed.

"And you can tell 'em I said this," Maia said as she put her middle finger right in Tony's face, he knew, as a message to Grouch.
I don't know these characters (this is the beginning of act three of a short story), and Don told me that this was a fairly rough draft.

Let's cut.

-----
The next day, Grouch got Tony hired as a temporary doorman to work the door at Club D.E.M. after the girl with the Bettie Page haircut came down with some stomach-related thing. "The things you can do at the touch of a button," Grouch joked.
Do I need to say that a doorman was hired "to work the door"? :) It also probably doesn't matter that he's temporary -- that kind of work tends by nature not career-oriented.

There are bits here that I might restructure, but I can see why they'd be the way they were, so I'll defer to Don. Cutting or restructuring too much can change the voice.
The next day, Grouch got Tony hired as a doorman at Club D.E.M. after the girl with the Bettie Page haircut came down with some stomach-related thing. "The things you can do at the touch of a button," Grouch joked.
45 words becomes 40: 11% cut.

-----
For the next week, from eleven at night to four in the morning, Tony manned the sensor at the front door with his lenses activated. He assumed Grouch was watching directly, or was at least recording the data somewhere. He assured Tony that it wouldn't take up space anywhere in his brain. Disk space wasn't included in the upgrade package.
Look at the number of forms of "to be" (primarly "was") and the number of prepositions in this paragraph. Both of those are strong indicators of cuttable material.

Also note that the last paragraph and this one start almost the same way: "The next day,..." and "For the next week,..." I'm going to change the second paragraph to eliminate that.

"eleven at night to four in the morning" could be a voice thing, but it's just not that important. I'd say Tony worked the eleven-to-four shift.

"the sensor at the front door" = "the front door sensor" (Could be "front-door sensor" if you consider "front-door" to be a compound adjective.)

"for the next week" may not matter, but since it lends a sense of time to the paragraph it might be nice to do that another way -- I changed "manned the front door sensor" to "started manning" to give that temporal motion.

The "wasn't" in the disk space sentence shows that we can restructure it by figuring out what's doing the work (or not): The upgrade package didn't include disk space.

I started to re-write this several times, but it might be easier if I try to determine what data we're getting across here first:
* Tony took the job on the 11-to-4 shift.
* The lenses stream data.
* The data's too large to fit in Tony's brain.
* Grouch must be recording it or watching the stream of lens data.
Tony started manning the front door sensor during the eleven-to-four shift. Grouch had assured him that the data streaming from his lenses wouldn't take up space in his brain -- his upgrade package didn't include disk space -- but he assumed that Grouch was watching or recording it somewhere.
49 words from 60: 18% cut.

-----
Tony couldn't see the point of Bettie Page's job. The setup at the door was simple. All he had to do was listen for the sensors at the door to ping like in those old TV game shows when contestants gave the right answer to "What's the capital of Myanmar?" or buzz when someone gave a wrong answer or no answer to the question, "Are you old enough to be here?" And, when the buzzer did go off, all he had to do was point the underaged offenders to the door. Except the buzzer never went off. Tony knew he'd let some fourteen year-olds in, but as Grouch drilled into him, "The sensors can only read what their ID chips say."
"The setup...was simple" "All he had to do was listen" "to be here" "all he had to do was point" -- lots of "to be" forms.

"The setup at the door was simple" isn't really needed, is it? It seems to serve as a contrast to "Except the buzzer never went off." If I can reduce the space between "Tony didn't see the point" and "Except the buzzer never went off", maybe I won't need it.

The stuff around the TV show contestant is funny in its way, but too much. In fact, it detracted from the story for me, because we went from a true answer to a game-show style question to a bad (or no) answer in "real life" without a transition. I knew what he meant, but it was clunky and pulled me out of the story.

"Bettie Page's job" is cute, but for a guy like me who has a hard time remembering names, it's One More Freaking Name. Even if you don't care about guys like me, it's certainly a candidate for cutting.

"gave a wrong answer or no answer" just seems long. I know why it's there: both options are technically possible. But so what? It's such a minor point that you can gloss over it very quickly. Maybe going to its opposite (correctly answer the question) and negating that would help.

Maybe we can combine the "listen" and "point" sentences.

Note the repetitions of "had to". A little clunky, aren't they? Since Tony's actually doing the job, we can show him actually doing his duties instead of talking about what they were. (If you think about it, that's a minor form of "show, don't tell".) That slightly changes things, though, since the description of "pointing the offenders to the door" doesn't really happen, so that has to be a conditional. To streamline the resulting sentences, I used an em dash -- I think it gives a greater sense of hesitation and consternation to the second half of the sentence -- but you could use a comma instead. You could even use a period if you like things choppy.

"underaged" goes without saying for the offenders, so let's not say it.
Tony couldn't see the point. He listened for the door sensors to buzz like in those old TV game shows when someone didn't correctly answer the question, "Are you old enough to be here?" Then he would have pointed the offenders to the door -- except the buzzer never went off. Tony knew he'd let some fourteen year-olds in, but as Grouch drilled into him, "The sensors can only read what their ID chips say."
121 words down to 75: a 38% cut.

-----
The hardest part of Tony's job was the lack of sleep. He couldn't concentrate at the door enough to study, as he found when he brought his books and left them untouched for the first three days. The nervousness of not knowing exactly why Grouch wanted him there, of struggling with whether he even wanted to know, faded away with the deer-in-headlights state of mind he'd developed getting up close and personal looks at the club's clientele.
Only one "was". That's good. But it's the first sentence in the paragraph, which stops the paragraph's momentum cold.

This is one of those times when looking at rhythm can be instructional. "the HARDest PART of TOny's JOB was the LACK of SLEEP" -- if you were writing poetry it might work, but in this context the sentence just sort of galumphs.

"state of mind" isn't vivid, even though "deer-in-the-headlights" is, so it takes the wind out of the metaphor.

I think the point of this paragraph is that (a) Tony is nervous so (b) he can't concentrate so (c) he can't study so (d) he loses sleep (studying after hours, I guess, though that's never stated). Maybe we make those points more directly.

After re-writing this multiple times, I'm wondering if we need the stuff about the club's clientele. Maybe it's important to Don's story somehow, but I think the plastic shot glasses and the 14-year-old clientele characterize the club pretty well. Maybe we can leave this out altogether.
Questions weighed on him at first: why did Grouch want him there? Should he care? His nervousness made it hard to study. After a few days he didn't bring his books anymore, relegating them to home hours clouded with NoDoz and coffee. Eventually, even his anxiety crumbled into bleary-eyed monotony.
With the caveat that Don might need stuff in there that I've taken out, this is 50 words where once there were 77: a 35% cut.

-----
At least Maia was there with him. For two nights in a row, she came to the club as soon as it opened to score a corner table with a sack full of handhelds trying to figure out what Grouch's game was.

On a busier than usual Saturday night, Tony took a break because his head hurt mostly, he thought, from being forced to see blue all day between studying and working the door. He ordered himself a shot at the bar. Maia slid in next to him, cheerfully ordering "One for me, too! Just put it on his tab."
Two things here seem to gain unneeded emphasis. He's only been working there for a short time, but for two nights "in a row" she came to the club. The Saturday night is "busier than usual" (and despite this, Tony is allowed to take a break).

"For two nights" could be just "twice", if it's needed at all.

"with him" is unnecessary. So is "full" in "sack full". Also, where else is she going to come to if not "to the club"? "He ordered himself" is just "He ordered".

"to the club as soon as it opened to score a corner table with a sack full of handhelds" just seems really long. I think it at least needs to be broken up a little bit. (Don could argue that this is the voice: breathless and a little run-on. I would understand that if he were consistent in the story; It's his call). Instead of "as soon as the club opened", why not "early"?

"trying to" could be eliminated if the phrasing were right: She's working on figuring out the game, so make the introduction to the sack full of handhelds a little more active and eliminate "trying to".

The "he thought" in the second paragraph is actually a slight point-of-view (POV) violation. It anticipates the revelation that Maia is causing his headache. Cut it.

Do we need an "even" to talk about Maia coming early? She "was there", which sounds consistent, but only twice did she come early.

I assume "seeing blue all day" has something to do with the sensors, so I'm leaving it in without modification.

If I want to pick out every word I can -- and why shouldn't I? -- "Just" can come out of "Just put it on his tab."
At least Maia was there. Twice she even came early, scoring a corner table, working with a sack of handhelds to figure out Grouch's game.

One Saturday night, as Tony's head throbbed from seeing blue all day, he took a break and ordered a shot at the bar. Maia slid in next to him, cheerfully ordering, "One for me, too! Put it on his tab."
One hundred words becomes sixty-five: a 35% cut.

-----
"You found something?" Tony said, rubbing his temples.

"Actually, I got nothing. But that's something!"

Tony gave her the What's the Punch Line? look.
I'll leave this alone. I think people are naturally good at writing clipped dialogue. Don's not alone in this respect. It's once you start getting into bigger sentence structures and paragraphs that people start adding fat.

It's not that we couldn't trim sentences like these, by the way, just that I don't think it would help the dialogue.

-----
"Whatever you're recording in full holo mode is getting saved somewhere. Not to your chip, though, because, no offense, but your brain isn't big enough to store a door shift's worth of data. Neither is Grouch's. Which means he's sitting somewhere with something jammed up his port."
People work "shifts", so it doesn't have to be "door shift".

"is getting saved somewhere" could be implied by saying that it's getting saved somewhere else.

"you're recording in full holo mode" seems a little long.

"your brain isn't big enough to store" could be a little shorter, but you want the slightly derogatory tone of "your brain isn't big enough". How about "your brain couldn't handle"?

I'll keep the sibilances and some-some repetition of the last sentence.
"The holos you're recording aren't getting saved to your chip. No offense, but your brain couldn't handle a shift's worth of data. Neither could Grouch's. Which means he's sitting somewhere with something jammed up his port."
47 words becomes 36: a 23% cut.

-----
Tony beckoned the bartender for a refill. "I'd like to jam something up his port."

Maia shook her head.

"Dammit, he's watching right now isn't he? I didn't think...God, I'm just so tired."
I'll leave this.

-----
"Don't whine, okay. I got it covered." Maia downed her second shot, looking pleased with herself. "I might not be able to touch his gear, but I can still touch yours. All he's seeing is me bitching about our parents. Your temples? That's me, sorry."
These cuts aren't necessary, but I think they work.

"I got it covered." is a prelude to her telling Tony how she has it covered. You usually don't need preludes. But if we cut it, we should hold off on the beat -- her second shot -- until after she's said something that is being-smug-worthy.

"I might not be able to" is long for "I can't". It changes the tone slightly, like she's drawing out the statement -- which she might be -- but I don't think you need it.
"Don't whine, okay. I can't touch his gear, but I can still touch yours." Maia downed her second shot, looking pleased with herself. "All he's seeing is me bitching about our parents. Your temples? That's me, sorry."
45 words to 37: 18%.

Aside: Does anyone else read this and have an image of Fiona from Burn Notice in his head? I'm just waiting for her to blow something up. :)

-----
"So, we're back to square one?"

"Yup. He's tapped into you, obviously looking for something he can't get from the cameras, here. I'm thinking that could be all there is to it."

Tony thought twice about a third shot. "Then, maybe we should just leave well enough alone."

"I said that could be. Besides, you wanna be Grouch's bitch forever?" Maia watched her third shot being poured. "You take the path-of-least-resistance to a whole new level, you know that? That's your problem! We crack on Ernie, but at least he didn't just talk about doing it 'his way.'"
If it's "obvious" you don't need to say it's obvious unless it wouldn't be obvious to the other speaker. In this case, I think Maia has made it obvious enough.

"here" is unneeded, as far as I can see.

So are "Then" and "just" -- keeping one of them is better than both of them. I'll leave "Then" because it sounds like he's coming to a conclusion.

A character saying "I'm thinking X" is the same as the character saying, with conviction (and this character clearly has conviction, no waffling necessary) just plain "X".

"I said that could be" feels like it needs more punctuation. It could also be cut to "I said 'could'."

"third shot being poured" bugs me just because it's passive. There's a guy doing that action, so have her watch the guy pouring the shot. No cut, but a better sentence.

Note that some people will notice the repetition of "a third shot" and "her third shot". Rephrasing might be in order.

"That's your problem!" isn't really needed -- she's just told him what his problem is.

"We crack on Ernie, but at least he didn't just talk about doing it 'his way.'" I think this means that he wasn't all talk and no action, and if that's what Don means then we can get there more quickly.
"So, we're back to square one?"

"Yup. He's tapped into you, looking for something he can't get from the cameras. That could be all there is to it."

Tony thought twice about a third shot. "Then maybe we should leave well enough alone."

"I said 'could'. Besides, you wanna be Grouch's bitch forever?" Maia watched the bartender pour her third shot. "You take path-of-least-resistance to a whole new level, you know that? We crack on Ernie, but at least he didn't just talk."
98 down to 83: 15%.

-----
Tony turned over his plastic shot glass and let his fist fall on it, crushing it flat. "What's your point, again?"

Maia pounded her fist onto the flattened shot glass. "You always do this--you take a couple of baby steps to something you want, then life throws you a curve and you don't know what to do. So you're willing to get bent over and take it, thinking a way out is just gonna magically appear."
This is one of the reasons I always read a full scene (or story) before I start to cut: If I went paragraph by paragraph, I'd miss interactions between different clusters of words. These two paragraphs have an interplay that we need to keep.

I like the characterization using the plastic shot glass. "Plastic shot glass" characterizes the bar. The "let his fist fall" characterizes Tony -- even when he does something destructive it's small and passive -- and when Maia "pounded" that characterizes her, too. But there's too much "shot glass" "fist" and "flat" and "flattened" here. We should try to cut some of that.

We could say "let his fist crush it" or "let the weight of his fist crush it" to get the sense of passivity. "Let his fist fall, crushing it." Maia doesn't have to pound "her fist onto" it, nor does it have to be a "flattened shot glass".

Some of Maia's words are extraneous. They're not bad, just not needed. If Don feels like adding them back, I wouldn't complain.
Tony turned over his plastic shot glass and let his fist fall, crushing it. "What's your point, again?"

Maia pounded the flattened plastic. "You always do this--take a couple of baby steps, then life throws you a curve and you're lost. So you bend over and take it, thinking a way out is gonna magically appear."
77 words down to 57: 26% cut.

-----
"Why risk making it worse, though?"

"Dammit, what about the principle? You scrape together all that money just to let yourself get turned into a tool. A literal tool! For once, freaking do something, man! Get angry! And if you do make it worse, freak it. Go down swinging. With your middle finger in the air, while you're doing it!"

Tony was too buzzed to be angry. "So, what do we do?"
"Though" isn't really necessary. If you think it is, or that the mood conveyed by it is, you could substitute "But it could get worse" or something similar.

"to let yourself get turned into" is passive -- which might be okay as a way for this character's sister to describe him -- and longish.

"Dammit, what about principle?" could be shortened to "Principle!" Or not. Since I'm focused specifically on cutting, I'll cut it, but as always, it's Don's prerogative to put it back in.

Maia's vigor is displayed in the "dammit" and the following f-bombs, so some of that could be cut.

I'm going to show my bias against exclamation points by removing some. That's just me, though.
"Why risk making it worse?"

"Principle! All that money scraped together and you're just a tool. A literal tool! For once, get angry. Do something. And if you make it worse, freak it. Go down swinging. With your middle finger in the air!"

Tony was too buzzed to be angry. "So, what do we do?"
72 words becomes 55, a 24% cut.

-----
"What I'm thinking? Scorched earth. I'm brainstorming, here. We fry his tech, or something. We'd need a lot of power--well, unless we get the right gear...."

"Sounds painful," Tony said. "If it's gonna hurt, why not just tell him to freak off and let him do his thing?"

"I thought of that," Maia said. "Who knows what he might be able to do to you. Best to just fry his stuff and be done." She ordered her brother another whiskey. "Just finish out your shift. I've got a couple of ideas. When do you guys go to church, nowadays?"

"Ten-thirty Mass, usually," Tony said.

"Good. Skip it and I'll come by the house then."

"Why the house?"

"It's gotta be there. Don't worry."
I'm running out of time, and this bursty dialogue is already mostly trim. A point here or there...
"What I'm thinking? Scorched earth. I'm brainstorming, here. We fry his tech. We'd need a lot of power--well, unless we get the right gear...."

"Sounds painful," Tony said. "Why not just tell him to freak off and let him do his thing?"

"I thought of that," Maia said. "Who knows what he might be able to do to you. Best to just fry his stuff and be done." She ordered her brother another whiskey. "Finish out your shift. I've got a couple of ideas. When do you guys go to church?"

"Ten-thirty, usually," Tony said.

"Good. Skip it and I'll come by the house."

"Why the house?"

"It's gotta be there. Don't worry."
124 to 114: 8%.

-----
Tony tried to protest but Maia put her finger to her lips and held out her phone. "Gotta go." She hit the button. Tony felt his headache subside as the live feed resumed.

"And you can tell 'em I said this," Maia said as she put her middle finger right in Tony's face, he knew, as a message to Grouch.
I think "as the live feed resumed" isn't quite within the character's POV. Instead, I'd prefer to link the hitting the button with the headache subsiding in the same sentence, reminding the reader about Maia's tampering with the feed. It also saves five words. :)

This might be going overboard, but I'm trying to cut, right? The "he knew" stands out because anything in third-person limited POV is automatically something that the viewpoint character knows. Let's kill that.
Tony tried to protest, but Maia put her finger to her lips and held out her phone. "Gotta go." She hit the button, and Tony's headache instantly subsided.

"And you can tell 'em I said this," Maia said as she put her middle finger right in Tony's face: a message to Grouch.
60 words becomes 52, a 13% cut.

-----

So here's the final version. In all, we have 770 words now, down from 983. Total cut: 213 words, 22% -- not incredible, but not bad.
The next day, Grouch got Tony hired as a doorman at Club D.E.M. after the girl with the Bettie Page haircut came down with some stomach-related thing. "The things you can do at the touch of a button," Grouch joked.

Tony started manning the front door sensor during the eleven-to-four shift. Grouch had assured him that the data streaming from his lenses wouldn't take up space in his brain -- his upgrade package didn't include disk space -- but he assumed that Grouch was watching or recording it somewhere.

Tony couldn't see the point. He listened for the door sensors to buzz like in those old TV game shows when someone didn't correctly answer the question, "Are you old enough to be here?" Then he would have pointed the offenders to the door -- except the buzzer never went off. Tony knew he'd let some fourteen year-olds in, but as Grouch drilled into him, "The sensors can only read what their ID chips say."

Questions weighed on him at first: why did Grouch want him there? Should he care? His nervousness made it hard to study. After a few days he didn't bring his books anymore, relegating them to home hours clouded with NoDoz and coffee. Eventually, even his anxiety crumbled into bleary-eyed monotony.

At least Maia was there. Twice she even came early, scoring a corner table, working with a sack of handhelds to figure out Grouch's game.

One Saturday night, as Tony's head throbbed from seeing blue all day, he took a break and ordered a shot at the bar. Maia slid in next to him, cheerfully ordering, "One for me, too! Put it on his tab."

"You found something?" Tony said, rubbing his temples.

"Actually, I got nothing. But that's something!"

Tony gave her the What's the Punch Line? look.

"The holos you're recording aren't getting saved to your chip. No offense, but your brain couldn't handle a shift's worth of data. Neither could Grouch's. Which means he's sitting somewhere with something jammed up his port."

Tony beckoned the bartender for a refill. "I'd like to jam something up his port."

Maia shook her head.

"Dammit, he's watching right now isn't he? I didn't think...God, I'm just so tired."

"Don't whine, okay. I can't touch his gear, but I can still touch yours." Maia downed her second shot, looking pleased with herself. "All he's seeing is me bitching about our parents. Your temples? That's me, sorry."

"So, we're back to square one?"

"Yup. He's tapped into you, looking for something he can't get from the cameras. That could be all there is to it."

Tony thought twice about a third shot. "Then maybe we should leave well enough alone."

"I said 'could'. Besides, you wanna be Grouch's bitch forever?" Maia watched the bartender pour her third shot. "You take path-of-least-resistance to a whole new level, you know that? We crack on Ernie, but at least he didn't just talk."

Tony turned over his plastic shot glass and let his fist fall, crushing it. "What's your point, again?"

Maia pounded the flattened plastic. "You always do this--take a couple of baby steps, then life throws you a curve and you're lost. So you bend over and take it, thinking a way out is gonna magically appear."

"Why risk making it worse?"

"Principle! All that money scraped together and you're just a tool. A literal tool! For once, get angry. Do something. And if you make it worse, freak it. Go down swinging. With your middle finger in the air!"

Tony was too buzzed to be angry. "So, what do we do?"

"What I'm thinking? Scorched earth. I'm brainstorming, here. We fry his tech. We'd need a lot of power--well, unless we get the right gear...."

"Sounds painful," Tony said. "Why not just tell him to freak off and let him do his thing?"

"I thought of that," Maia said. "Who knows what he might be able to do to you. Best to just fry his stuff and be done." She ordered her brother another whiskey. "Finish out your shift. I've got a couple of ideas. When do you guys go to church?"

"Ten-thirty, usually," Tony said.

"Good. Skip it and I'll come by the house."

"Why the house?"

"It's gotta be there. Don't worry."

Tony tried to protest, but Maia put her finger to her lips and held out her phone. "Gotta go." She hit the button, and Tony's headache instantly subsided.

"And you can tell 'em I said this," Maia said as she put her middle finger right in Tony's face: a message to Grouch.
So there it is. What do you think?

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Trimming a Slow Spot

In the FlashForum there's a section for registered users called "Critique My Flash". In it, an author provided a story about a Messenger of Death that contained the following passage:
His job at the midpoint had been about as thankless as the administrative one he’d had on Earth. On Earth, he had to direct hordes of people to counters at the Health Card office; at the midpoint, he had to split up new souls into three lines: the Good, the Not So Good, and the Bad. The Good went to Heaven, the Bad to Hell, and the rest stayed at the midpoint, where they made his life hell with their incessant questions. (“When will I go to Heaven?” “Is it my time yet?” “I won’t go Down There will I?”)
The problem with this section is that it's descriptive without really helping us get to the main plot. When I said that it could use some trimming, the author gave me permission to cut it and post the results here. This section is therefore written as if I'm speaking to him rather than to you, Dear Reader, because I'm too lazy to change the original text (and I'd mess it up if I tried).

Anyway, off we go...


Original:
His job at the midpoint had been about as thankless as the administrative one he’d had on Earth.
We need to know we're talking about his job, and we need to know that you're comparing his Earth job with his midpoint job. But do we really need to know that his Earth job was administrative? I'll say "yes" because you're trying to associate what he's doing with tedium. But we definitely don't need to have the word "administrative" (telling) and the description of the job (showing) from the next sentence.

I also think that the "had been about as thankless" is too passive. First, there's no action; second, you've passed up an opportunity to characterize him, by showing the job through his eyes.

Maybe something like this (change the characterization to suit):
He hated his midpoint job just slightly less then his Earth job.
12 words from 18, or a 33% cut.


Original:
On Earth, he had to direct hordes of people to counters at the Health Card office;
"had to direct" and the following prepositional phrase string triggered my cutting instinct. At times like this, I break up sentences into their data points to see if I can reassemble them more compactly and possibly delete some. It doesn't always work -- your aesthetic sense should be your guide, not word count -- but it's a good exercise regardless. In no particular order, you tell us: the job was on Earth, there were lots of people, he was directing them, he worked at a health card office.

First, kill "had to". It's a job, so of course he has to. :) Next, find different, stronger words. Here, if they're "hordes of people", how about "herding" them? That leaves us with this:
On Earth, he herded people to counters at the Health Card office.
12 words from 16, or 25%.


Original:
at the midpoint, he had to split up new souls into three lines: the Good, the Not So Good, and the Bad. The Good went to Heaven, the Bad to Hell, and the rest stayed at the midpoint, where they made his life hell with their incessant questions. (“When will I go to Heaven?” “Is it my time yet?” “I won’t go Down There will I?”)
This seemed to tell me something once, and then again: "First, let me define the divisions, to wit: good, not-so-good, and bad; now let me walk through these divisions, showing that the good go to heaven, the bad go to hell,..." But you don't really need to define the groups before showing where they go, because the names of the groups are already well-enough understood. Define the groups by where they go.

Cut:
at the midpoint, he guided souls into three lines: the Good went to Heaven, the Bad went to Hell, and the Not So Good stayed at the midpoint, making his life hell with their incessant questions. (“When will I go to Heaven?” “Is it my time yet?” “I won’t go Down There will I?”)
54 words from 66, 18%.


That gets us here:
He hated his midpoint job just slightly less then his Earth job. On Earth, he herded people to counters at the Health Card office. At the midpoint, he guided souls into three lines: the Good went to Heaven, the Bad went to Hell, and the Not So Good stayed at the midpoint, making his life hell with their incessant questions. (“When will I go to Heaven?” “Is it my time yet?” “I won’t go Down There will I?”)
This is an iterative process, so I'd take a last crack at the first two sentences, which sound a little clunky to me, to get this:
He hated his midpoint job just slightly less then his old job on Earth, where he had herded people to counters at the Health Card office. At the midpoint, he guided souls into three lines: the Good went to Heaven, the Bad went to Hell, and the Not So Good stayed at the midpoint, making his life hell with their incessant questions. (“When will I go to Heaven?” “Is it my time yet?” “I won’t go Down There will I?”)
This version is 80 words, a 20% cut from the conveniently sized original 100 words, and, more importantly, it streamlines the text while adding characterization and without changing the voice.

What do you think?

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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?

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Novel Opener

I reserve the right to modify this post a little bit. I'm in a hurry right now. :)

This is the opening of a novel by Jeanne. The original, below, is 728 words.

A scream echoed through the valley. Jessup stood in the copse of trees, barely breathing. Below the camp of the Faragund army teemed with movement. He pressed back against the tree behind him knowing that in the shadows of the dense trees he would be impossible to spot from below. The scene showed him what a bad idea being captured would be.

The wind brought the sound of the mages chanting. One of the scouts from Ilkasar hung bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet not dangling a handspan above the ground. The muscles of Jessup's jaw knotted, but saving the man wasn't even a possibility in the middle of an army that stretched nearly to the horizon. Jessup felt fairly sure it was the Faragund King who stood before the prisoner. Five mages stood, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes.

The king was of no great height, but massively muscled with a vast chest and arms. His biceps bulged from his gold brocade vest catching the bright sunlight. The man's blond hair flowed in a mass of braids to below his shoulders. On each of his cheeks, scars ran from mouth to hairline. Long strands of a blond mustache drooped from corners of his mouth.

He raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm. The man gave a hoarse scream. Blood gushed and one of the mages rushed forward to catch the liquid in a bowl that glinted golden in the sunlight.

For the entire day Jessup had watched the scout being bled. The ground around him was black with it. At first they had simply let the blood drip into the dirt while the prisoner had refused to scream. Now his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive. With each slash, they poured blood onto the stone altar standing nearby.

Jessup stared past the camp into the thick forest of oak to the east where giant trees reached toward the sky and a gentle dark settled between their columns of their trunks. He sucked in a deep breath to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors in his days, from the day his own people were slaughtered, but watching this was a twist to the guts.

Jessup forced his eyes back to the Faragund camp. The altar he recognized as one to the god Kanandra, but he wasn't sure what magic they were powering with this. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. Khyle would want word of their movements though. Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped.

He had told Jessup that he feared the Faragund had gained enough power to attack the Ilkasar Empire again. It had been twenty years since their last attack had failed, and the Faragund army was wiped out by the Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and the Ilkasar Imperial army. The hatred between the Faragund god Kanandra and his twin the goddess Urthus, whom the Ilkasar worshiped, mirrored the hatred between their followers. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. Few families hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.

One of the mages near the king motioned to him and seemed to speak. The sound of the chanting changed, becoming softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel the surge of power as the chants grew demanding. He sucked in his breath as the King plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest. Jessup gritted his teeth.

The mages' chanting again changed cadence, growing faster and faster. Smoke swirled around the altar.

The King ripped the dagger up the dead scout's chest. He jerked and sawed and then pulled out the dripping heart. Jessup thought he removed other parts, but with the king blocking his way to see exactly what was happening. He raised both arms over his head. Blood ran down his arms in rivulets as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat. A roar from out of the smoke ripped the air.

The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze. The king stood motionless watching. Then he turned and struck one of the mages a blow across the face, knocking the man to the ground. The conjuration, whatever it was supposed to do, hadn't made the King happy.
My first thought is that we might be able to start slightly later, when the king stabs the scout; but I tried that, and it wasn't easy, so first I'll try a more straightforward cut of the introductory scene.



Original:
A scream echoed through the valley. Jessup stood in the copse of trees, barely breathing. Below the camp of the Faragund army teemed with movement. He pressed back against the tree behind him knowing that in the shadows of the dense trees he would be impossible to spot from below. The scene showed him what a bad idea being captured would be.

The wind brought the sound of the mages chanting. One of the scouts from Ilkasar hung bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet not dangling a handspan above the ground. The muscles of Jessup's jaw knotted, but saving the man wasn't even a possibility in the middle of an army that stretched nearly to the horizon. Jessup felt fairly sure it was the Faragund King who stood before the prisoner. Five mages stood, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes.

The king was of no great height, but massively muscled with a vast chest and arms. His biceps bulged from his gold brocade vest catching the bright sunlight. The man's blond hair flowed in a mass of braids to below his shoulders. On each of his cheeks, scars ran from mouth to hairline. Long strands of a blond mustache drooped from corners of his mouth.
Look at the critical data from the first several paragraphs:
  • The main character is Jessup
  • The Faragund is the enemy
  • They are cruel
  • The Faragund king (Jessup thinks) is bleeding a captured scout to invoke a spell
  • Jessup is hiding in the woods from the Faragund army
  • The Faragund army is assembled below him, where the king is bleeding the scout
  • The player list is fairly long: Faragund, the Faragund god Kanandra and his twin sister Urthus, Khyle, the Ilkasar Empire, the Ilkasar Empire's Sharenta mages


We may not need all of that detail; even if we need it, we might not need it just yet. I'd like to get to the action, the knife thrust, earlier. (I actually tried to rewrite the scene starting with the knife thrust, but found it hard to do.)

The passage has one structural problem: every paragraph has some information about every person in the scene. That makes Jeanne have to identify everyone in every sentence. I've broken that up, so the paragraph structure now looks like this:
  • Scream
  • Setting / POV establishment
  • Scout description
  • Jessup interlude
  • King description
  • Description of mages

Descriptions should be easier -- note below that I can abridge "The man's blond hair flowed in a mass of braids..." to "Thick blond braids flowed...".

"A scream echoed through the valley" isn't a particularly strong way of opening this scene, for several reasons. It doesn't introduce the POV character; the POV character knows who is screaming and why, but the sentence doesn't give us any of this compelling detail; and the latest stabbing hasn't happened yet, as far as I can tell, so it feels funny -- as if I'm getting a preview of the stab that's about to come. Let's cut it, painting the setting first.

Little things tip me off to what else can be cut. For instance, "stood in the copse of trees" and "pressed his back against the tree" and "the dense trees" indicated that we might be able to incorporate all of the tree description into a smaller space. The concepts I need are "shelter", "copse", and "individual tree".

It seems to me that the writing shows too much of the thinking vs. what's being thought: "knowing that", "showed him", "the wind brought the sound", "felt fairly sure". Since I know that anything in the description is in Jessup's POV -- not always true in every story, but Jeanne has done a good job with third-person limited POV here -- I shouldn't have to think about how Jessup experiences or knows what he does. The only one that might be needed is "felt fairly sure", since saying "the Faramund King" wouldn't show Jessup's lack of certainty. If we just show the experience without the self-consciousness, we should get a more direct prose style (most important) and fewer words (a byproduct of the direct style).

Lots of prepositional phrases: for example, "in the copse of trees", "against the tree behind him" "in the shadows of the dense trees". These aren't always a problem, but the indicate something about sentence structure to me. Even if I don't cut them directly, I generally look for things to cut or ways to restructure in the paragraphs that contain them.

Lots of forms of "to be": for example, "The scene showed him what a bad idea being captured would be." (Although I think that sentence doesn't add a lot of value anyway -- if the scene shows what a bad idea being captured would be, and you're about to show the scene, why tell us ahead of time?)

There are little things that I noticed, too, that aren't strictly related to cutting.
  • Alliteration is chief among them: "barely breathing" (which would be mundane enough to go unnoticed if it weren't for the rest of it), "felt fairly sure it was the Faragund King", "five mages...head to foot in flowing...", "massively muscled", "biceps bulged...brocade vest...bright sunlight", "blond hair...braids...below his shoulders". (In the next paragraph, "blood gushed...bowl that glinted golden".) A little alliteration isn't likely to get noticed, but sometimes we write as though we're creating Anglo-Saxon poetry. So we'll look for this, and even if we don't eliminate it all, we'll especially avoid having the alliterative letters fall on accented syllables close together, as in "BARE-ly BREATH-ing" and "BI-ceps BULGED".
  • The narrator describes the scout, but doesn't mention the blood that must cover him if he has been bled all day.
Let's cut deeply, maybe more than we're comfortable with. We can always put stuff back.

Cut:
Jessup pressed his back against a tree, using the copse's shadows to hide from the teeming Faragund army encamped below.

An Ilkasar scout hung bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet dangling a handspan above the ground. Blond braids flowed down below his shoulders, and long strands of a blond mustache drooped from the corners of his mouth. On each cheek, scars ran from mouth to hairline.

Jessup's jaw muscles knotted, but the army stretched nearly to the horizon -- he couldn't save him.

A man -- Jessup thought it was the Faragund King -- stood before the prisoner. Though of no great height, he was massively muscled; gold brocade covered his vast chest and arms, glinting in the sunlight.

Five mages stood chanting nearby, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes.
211 words to 135, or about 36%. Not bad as far as it goes. The picture is still static -- we're setting up for the knife thrust rather than starting with it -- but the reader has 76 fewer words to get through to get there.


Original:
The king raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm. The man gave a hoarse scream. Blood gushed and one of the mages rushed forward to catch the liquid in a bowl that glinted golden in the sunlight.
"raised...and plunged" is cinematic and draws out the tension, so though I could cut it to just "The king plunged a long..." I don't want to do that.

I don't love "The man gave a hoarse scream", but I'm not sure what to do about it.
  • "Gave a scream" doesn't seem as strong (or as short) as "screamed", but I don't really want to say "screamed hoarsely", either.
  • Cutting "hoarse" eliminates the sense that the man has been screaming a lot. Now, we're about to hear how the king has been bleeding the scout all day, so maybe we don't need "hoarse" -- but in original, that explanation occurred in the next paragraph, making it less immediate.
  • Maybe we could attach it to the previous sentence: "into the scout's arm, evoking a hoarse scream."
  • Maybe we use the stronger verb, which would normally also reduce the word count, but expound a little bit instead: "The man screamed, his voice hoarse..."
  • Maybe we bring some of Jessup's attitude to the description, getting deeper into his POV and characterizing him a little bit more.

I think I'll do the latter. To do so, I need to steal some of the text (which I will also trim, of course) from the next few paragraphs:

Original:
For the entire day Jessup had watched the scout being bled. The ground around him was black with it. At first they had simply let the blood drip into the dirt while the prisoner had refused to scream. Now his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive. With each slash, they poured blood onto the stone altar standing nearby.

Jessup stared past the camp into the thick forest of oak to the east where giant trees reached toward the sky and a gentle dark settled between their columns of their trunks. He sucked in a deep breath to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors in his days, from the day his own people were slaughtered, but watching this was a twist to the guts.
Cut:
The king raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm.

Jessup winced at his hoarse scream and sucked in a deep breath, trying to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors in his days, even his own people slaughtered, but this twisted his guts.

They had bled the scout for the entire day. At first he had refused to scream, and they let his blood drip into the dirt. The ground was black with it. Finally, as now, a mage would rush forward to catch it in a golden bowl and pour it onto the stone altar nearby.
105 words from 170: 38%. I lost some data, though: "thick oak forest" (not just a copse of trees) "to the east" (orientation) "gentle dark" (characterization of Jessup and the forest). I can fit that in later, as he starts to leave. [In the event, I didn't -- Jeanne will have to decide whether she misses it.]

I also lost "his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive", but I don't know that that's necessary at this point.

Notice that I had to slice the paragraphs up carefully to make sure the pronouns work.
  • The first paragraph is the king's action.
  • The second is Jessup's reaction. This was needed to make sure the references to "he" and "his" were unambiguous. The only one that doesn't refer to Jessup is the first one, "his hoarse scream", and I don't think that will cause any problems.
  • The third is about the scout. "He" and "his" refer only to him.
Maybe I didn't need to do that; the original had the same kind of problem.
For the entire day Jessup had watched the scout being bled. The ground around him was black with it. At first they had simply let the blood drip into the dirt while the prisoner had refused to scream. Now his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive.
Technically, it's ambiguous whether the ground was black around the scout or around Jessup. Also, Jeanne couldn't easily replace "the prisoner" with "he" in the phrase "the prisoner had refused to scream" -- for just a fraction of an instant, the brain has to figure out whether "he" refers to Jessup or to the scout. To me, it just sounds wrong. If you found the original to be fine, then you might not care as much about the disambiguation I undertook here. As always, it's the author's call.


Original:
Jessup forced his eyes back to the Faragund camp. The altar he recognized as one to the god Kanandra, but he wasn't sure what magic they were powering with this. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. Khyle would want word of their movements though. Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped.

He had told Jessup that he feared the Faragund had gained enough power to attack the Ilkasar Empire again. It had been twenty years since their last attack had failed, and the Faragund army was wiped out by the Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and the Ilkasar Imperial army. The hatred between the Faragund god Kanandra and his twin the goddess Urthus, whom the Ilkasar worshiped, mirrored the hatred between their followers. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. Few families hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.
I ended the last paragraph with a reference to the stone altar. Let's pick up there, and, since he was thinking (it's a flashback), we can continue the same paragraph with additional thoughts.

I don't have to force his eyes back to the Faragund camp, because I never made them leave it.

Since "the altar" is the last thing I mentioned, I can refer to it more simply. That also lets me avoid the object-subject-verb structure currently in place ("The altar he recognized').

Cut:
[...and pour it onto the stone altar nearby.] He could see that it was for the Faragund god Kanandra, twin of the Ilkasar goddess Urthus -- their hatred for each other mirrored the hatred between their followers -- but he couldn't tell what magic they were attempting.

He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Khyle would, though. He had told Jessup that the Faragund might attack the Ilkasar Empire again, for the first time in twenty years. Back then, Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and Imperial army had wiped out the Faragund army. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. Few families hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.

Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped.
141 words becomes 109: 23%.


Original:
One of the mages near the king motioned to him and seemed to speak. The sound of the chanting changed, becoming softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel the surge of power as the chants grew demanding. He sucked in his breath as the King plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest. Jessup gritted his teeth.
Little cuts: "One of the mages near the king motioned to him" seems a bit long. "near the king" and "to him" are prepositional phrases with the same object, but one uses a pronoun, so they can probably be condensed. Make it "One of the mages motioned to the king". (They're already near him; it doesn't matter exactly how near they are; we just need to show change related to the king, since the mages will explicitly change their chanting in a moment anyway.)

"He sucked in his breath" serves the same function as "Jessup gritted his teeth" -- characterizing Jessup and keeping us in his POV. I'd cut one of them.

"as the chants grew demanding" is redundant with "but more insistent", so we should cut one (and I think the former is the obvious choice here). Note that we have to change "the surge of power" to "a surge of power" to make that work.

Cut:
One of the mages motioned to the king and seemed to speak. The chanting became softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel a surge of power. He sucked in his breath as the King plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest.
52 words from 67: 22%.


Original:
The mages' chanting again changed cadence, growing faster and faster. Smoke swirled around the altar.
"again changed cadence" and "and faster" both serve to draw out the sentence. Jeanne might like the way this adds tension. Personally, I don't, so I'm cutting them. This is just a matter of taste, and Jeanne will have to decide what she prefers.

Cut:
The mages' chanting grew faster. Smoke swirled around the altar.



Original:
The King ripped the dagger up the dead scout's chest. He jerked and sawed and then pulled out the dripping heart. Jessup thought he removed other parts, but with the king blocking his way to see exactly what was happening. He raised both arms over his head. Blood ran down his arms in rivulets as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat. A roar from out of the smoke ripped the air.
The only individual sentence that feels problematic here is "Jessup thought he removed other parts, but with the king blocking his way to see exactly what was happening." It's a fragment, for one thing, and I think we can tighten it even so.

The paragraph itself has one deviant among the pronouns. "He jerked" and "he removed" refers to the King; "his way" refers to Jessup; "He raised" and subsequent pronouns refer to the king again. I don't think it's really critical, but I'd like to use something like "He seemed to..." because that way all male pronouns in the paragraph refer to the king.

"with the king blocking his way to see" is "the king blocked Jessup's view". "To see exactly what was happening" is redundant with "Jessup thought" showing the uncertainty and "blocked his view" to show its cause.

Cut:
The King ripped the dagger up the dead scout's chest. He jerked and sawed and then pulled out the dripping heart. He might have removed other parts, too, but his body blocked Jessup's view. He raised both arms over his head. Blood ran down his arms in rivulets as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat. A roar from out of the smoke ripped the air.
76 becomes 70: 8%, with one fragment fixed.


Original:
The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze. The king stood motionless watching. Then he turned and struck one of the mages a blow across the face, knocking the man to the ground. The conjuration, whatever it was supposed to do, hadn't made the King happy.
After the tension build-up, the short sentences here work very nicely to show an anticipation that goes unfulfilled.

There's no need to show that the king was "watching". (You might even consider it a POV violation, though of the least problematic kind.)

"a blow" is redundant with "struck".

I think we can lose the whole last sentence. "whatever it was supposed to do" characterizes Jessup (because we're in his POV still), but in a way that has already been done; and Jeanne has already shown that the king is unhappy, so there's no need to tell it again.

Cut:
The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze. The king stood motionless. Then he turned and struck one of the mages across the face, knocking the man to the ground.
49 becomes 33: 33%.


I'm running out of time. Someone has requested the novel from Jeanne, due this week -- Go Jeanne! I'm really excited for you! -- so let me just finish up and get out of her way.

This version is 515 words, down from 728, for a 29% cut.
Jessup pressed his back against a tree, using the copse's shadows to hide from the teeming Faragund army encamped below.

An Ilkasar scout hung bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet dangling a handspan above the ground. Blond braids flowed down below his shoulders, and long strands of a blond mustache drooped from the corners of his mouth. On each cheek, scars ran from mouth to hairline.

Jessup's jaw muscles knotted, but the army stretched nearly to the horizon -- he couldn't save him.

A man -- Jessup thought it was the Faragund King -- stood before the prisoner. Though of no great height, he was massively muscled; gold brocade covered his vast chest and arms, glinting in the sunlight.

Five mages stood chanting nearby, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes.

The king raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm.

Jessup winced at his hoarse scream and sucked in a deep breath, trying to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors in his days, even his own people slaughtered, but this twisted his guts.

They had bled the scout for the entire day. At first he had refused to scream, and they let his blood drip into the dirt. The ground was black with it. Finally, as now, a mage would rush forward to catch it in a golden bowl and pour it onto the stone altar nearby. He could see that it was for the Faragund god Kanandra, twin of the Ilkasar goddess Urthus -- their hatred for each other mirrored the hatred between their followers -- but he couldn't tell what magic they were attempting.

He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Khyle would, though. He had told Jessup that the Faragund might attack the Ilkasar Empire again, for the first time in twenty years. Back then, Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and Imperial army had wiped out the Faragund army. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. Few families hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.

Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped.

One of the mages motioned to the king and seemed to speak. The chanting became softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel a surge of power. He sucked in his breath as the King plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest.

The mages' chanting grew faster. Smoke swirled around the altar.

The King ripped the dagger up the dead scout's chest. He jerked and sawed and then pulled out the dripping heart. He might have removed other parts, too, but his body blocked Jessup's view. He raised both arms over his head. Blood ran down his arms in rivulets as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat. A roar from out of the smoke ripped the air.

The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze. The king stood motionless. Then he turned and struck one of the mages across the face, knocking the man to the ground.
What do you think?

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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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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

First Scene of a Novel

This 983-word novel excerpt is a solid piece of prose from J over at Hatrack River. (Did I mention that I solicited blog entries from Hatrack? :) ) It's relatively transparent: there's nothing standing between the reader and the story, no poetic language, no high diction. There's maybe a touch of country flavor to it, which, as you'll see, fits his setting and characters.

My goal, as usual, is about 25%. As you'll see, I only got down to 19%, but I'm still reasonably happy with the results.

Here's the original:

Micah slammed the bailing hooks into the last bale of hay in the cart. The bales were dusty and heavy and Micah's back ached from wrestling them over the cart's high sidewall. Ballard's sons huffed and sweated, stacking the bales Micah had unloaded against the back wall of their father's barn. The last bale thumped onto the barn floor, and Micah dropped the hooks and started slapping straw dust from his tunic.

"Can you handle those?" Micah nodded to the tumbled pile of unloaded bales in the middle of the barn floor. One of the brothers grunted, the other nodded. Micah climbed onto the driver's bench, and picked up the loose-lying reigns. Before he could twitch them, the carthorse ambled forward past the barn door and turned to the left, down the well-worn track to Ballard's house. Micah gave the reigns a tug just before the cart drew even with the front door. The horse looked back at him reproachfully. Father and Ballard stood in the doorway. Ballard was a big man, broad and sturdy, like most of the men that lived outside of the city. Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest. Both men were sun-dark and leathery, forearms corded from a lifetime of labor. Micah resembled his father, and took a secret pride in his inherited physical strength. He was careful never to boast of it, though. Strength was a gift of Thoth, and to boast of it without giving Him credit was to risk losing it.

As the cart drew up, the two men shook hands. Father climbed onto the bench beside Micah, and lowered the sack he was carrying into the cart bed. The horse started forward and turned left again, down Ballard's lane, heading for the cobbled stone road. Micah felt a thrill of pride at the road. The road ran parallel to the Great River though the center whole country, broad and straight from Great River's mouth at the edge of the desert in the south to the mountains in the north. Its whole length was cobbled stone, nearly three hundred miles all told. It had taken more than a generation to build, even with Thoth's aid, and Micah gloried in belonging to a people who could build such a thing. That, Father said, was the difference between their people and the outlanders. Their people were growers and builders who labored for Thoth, and were rewarded by Thoth in His generous mercy. Outlanders were thieves, selfish and godless. Pungent fresh cheese smells leaked from the sack. Micah's mouth fell open in unabashed desire.

"Close your jaw, boy; we'll be home for supper soon enough." Father said. Micah's teeth snapped shut, but his stomach growled.

"Any news from Ballard?" Micah asked, mostly to cover his embarrassment. Travelers on the River Road carried news, and they often stopped to buy feed or a bed in one of the spare rooms at Ballard's. Father leaned out of the cart and spit, careful to make sure his saliva did not land on the sacred road itself.

"More of the same, but worse. Outlanders raiding the southern herds. Big group of them rebuilt that bridge on the Little River near Alhay. They got a flock or two back across the bridge, and scattered what they didn't take. If the rumors are true, Thoth might be displeased with the number of cattle at the fall sacrifice."

"The Judges will recover the flocks," Micah said, believing it. Judges were invincible. "Especially if it is necessary to please Thoth at the sacrifice. They'll chase the outlanders across their own bridge into their own lands if they need to." Micah had every confidence that this was so. "Thoth is with them."

"Surely He is, as He's with all of us. Maybe even more so." Father nodded, then sucked on his teeth, like he did when he was thinking. There was more news. Micah waited. Father would tell him when he was ready.

"A Judge was killed during the raid."

Micah jerked back on the reigns involuntarily. The horse tossed its head and kept walking. "Not Jacob?"

"No, not Jacob, praise be to Thoth. Judge Asher of Alkut. He attacked the raiders alone on their way back to the bridge."

Micah's stomach unclenched. Anger replaced worry.

"There must have been a thousand outlanders to do such a thing! How many did he kill?"

"Ballard says he killed twenty, but rest of the brutes climbed over their own dead and got him."

"Dead?" Micah asked. Excitement and dread rose in his chest. Shame at the reaction followed. Judge Asher was one of Thoth's chosen, to whom the safety of Thoth's people was owed, and his passing demanded sincere mourning. Micah tried to conjure sadness, but the nervous excitement in his gut would not be ignored.

"Dead," Father said. "They'll have to hold trials three months from now, at the fall sacrifice, so they can anoint someone to replace him."

Micah released his breath slowly. There was going to be an anointing, and he was of age. It didn't happen for everyone. Judges were nearly invincible. Thoth protected them Even though they fought constantly against outlanders, they rarely died. They suffered losses so infrequently that many men went right through the age of eligibility without a chance to try. As Father had. Micah would turn twenty-six at the fall sacrifice. Three more months, and his time would have passed. Three months, and he would have been old enough to seek permission to marry. He had set his mind to marrying. But now a Judge was dead, and he, Micah, was still of age. A tremendous weight slammed into his shoulder and he jumped. It was Father's hand. Father was smiling.

"Don't worry, son. You're a powerful strong man—stronger than your brother was. We'll see about making you stronger still come fall."

983 words. As I read through it, I thought I noticed a little bit of redundancy and some overuse of prepositional phrases. The latter can be deadly: not only do they lead to bloat, they can also impart a monotonous rhythm. And of course, I'm always on the lookout for forms of "to be", which can often be rephrased more concisely and powerfully.

Besides the grammatical trimming, I also think we can eliminate some of the extra content. If there's stuff I don't need to know right now, don't tell me. Of course, only the author knows whether something's important enough to introduce early, but as usual I'm going to cut as deeply as I can -- you can always put stuff back later.

Here we go.
Original:
Micah slammed the bailing hooks into the last bale of hay in the cart. The bales were dusty and heavy and Micah's back ached from wrestling them over the cart's high sidewall. Ballard's sons huffed and sweated, stacking the bales Micah had unloaded against the back wall of their father's barn. The last bale thumped onto the barn floor, and Micah dropped the hooks and started slapping straw dust from his tunic.

Bailing hooks, last bale, bales were dusty, last bale. The next paragraph starts with a reference to unloaded bales. There's got to be a way to condense all of those references.

"into the last bale of hay in the cart": I may not be able to trim this particular sentence, but three prepositional phrases in a row tells me that I should be on the lookout for them.

We know the bales were heavy, because Micah's back ached from wrestling with them -- we're showing and telling here.

Something I notice whenever I cut things: we humans repeat a lot of the same words inadvertently. "the tumbled bales Micah had unloaded" is in once sentence, and "the tumbled pile of unloaded bales" is in the next paragraph. This isn't a slam against J -- it's something I notice in my own writing, too. And it's a sign that we should condense.

To just tidy things up, I might do something like this:

Cut:
Micah slammed his hooks into the cart's last bale of hay. His back ached from wrestling the dusty bales over the high sidewall. Ballard's sons huffed and sweated, stacking the unloaded heap against the back wall of their father's barn. The bale thumped onto the barn floor, and Micah dropped the hooks and slapped hay dust from his tunic.

Not bad. 72 words goes to 59, an 18% cut.

I could have said, "Micah's back ached as he slammed the hooks", but the force of "Micah slammed" is good, and shouldn't be mucked with.

I changed "pile" to "heap" because I didn't want to lose the sense of "tumbled", but I thought that "unloaded" was important to make sure the reader knew that the Ballard boys were outside of the cart.

"Micah had unloaded" might be good if the author wants to emphasize that Micah did all that work, and that the other brothers couldn't keep up with him. I'm taking it out; it's the author's call if he wants to keep it.

Some nits: "reigns" becomes "reins", and since straw is different from hay I change "straw dust" to "hay dust". If J knows better, he can change it back.

Okay, but can we take it farther?

What's the purpose of this paragraph? I got several things from it:
  • Micah is strong, keeping Ballard's sons busy all by himself.
  • They are country boys: farmers maybe, familiar with animal husbandry.
  • I got a bit of the hay dust in my mouth from the imagery.


I know from the first read-through that there's a man named Ballard, but so far neither the man nor his sons have any particular relevance to the story: they're just so much furniture. We should probably minimize the amount of space that they take up. How about this, instead?

Cut:
Micah dropped the last bale of hay onto the barn floor. His back ached. He hung his hooks on the side of the cart and slapped hay dust from his tunic.

Ballard's sons were stacking the heap of unloaded bales against the wall of their father's barn. ["Can you handle those?"...]

(To make this work, I had to shift the reference to Ballard's sons to the next paragraph. I kept those words in the word count, though. The words in square brackets don't count against my percentages, because they're part of the next section to be cut.)

This is better. 72 goes to 47, a 35% cut.

From my own hay-mowing days, I know that I personally wouldn't drop the hooks: I'd hang them. (Of course, I never wore a tunic, either.) That change made it possible for me to open with "Micah dropped the last bale" without worrying about Micah also dropping his hooks. I might also cut "His back ached", but it adds another of the six senses to the description.

I've now spent over 40 minutes on 72 words. Time to move on...
Original:
"Can you handle those?" Micah nodded to the tumbled pile of unloaded bales in the middle of the barn floor. One of the brothers grunted, the other nodded. Micah climbed onto the driver's bench, and picked up the loose-lying reigns. Before he could twitch them, the carthorse ambled forward past the barn door and turned to the left, down the well-worn track to Ballard's house. Micah gave the reins a tug just before the cart drew even with the front door. The horse looked back at him reproachfully. Father and Ballard stood in the doorway. Ballard was a big man, broad and sturdy, like most of the men that lived outside of the city. Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest. Both men were sun-dark and leathery, forearms corded from a lifetime of labor. Micah resembled his father, and took a secret pride in his inherited physical strength. He was careful never to boast of it, though. Strength was a gift of Thoth, and to boast of it without giving Him credit was to risk losing it.

As the cart drew up, the two men shook hands. Father climbed onto the bench beside Micah, and lowered the sack he was carrying into the cart bed. The horse started forward and turned left again, down Ballard's lane, heading for the cobbled stone road. Micah felt a thrill of pride at the road. The road ran parallel to the Great River though the center whole country, broad and straight from Great River's mouth at the edge of the desert in the south to the mountains in the north. Its whole length was cobbled stone, nearly three hundred miles all told. It had taken more than a generation to build, even with Thoth's aid, and Micah gloried in belonging to a people who could build such a thing. That, Father said, was the difference between their people and the outlanders. Their people were growers and builders who labored for Thoth, and were rewarded by Thoth in His generous mercy. Outlanders were thieves, selfish and godless. Pungent fresh cheese smells leaked from the sack. Micah's mouth fell open in unabashed desire.

I wanted to edit these paragraphs separately, but notice that they both contain similar imagery. The personality of the horse, the well-worn tracks, Ballard and Father talking and shaking hands, Micah's pride in his family, his people, and his god. In fact, it's a little odd that Micah gives a tug in the first paragraph, and the second paragraph starts "As the cart drew up." I think these get cut together.

These paragraphs give me the personality of the horse (which incidentally reinforces Micah's animal husbandry characteristic), a feel for the physical characteristics of the local stock, a view into Micah's relationship with his father, and a taste of his respect for Thoth.

Notice in the second paragarph how J refers to Micah heading for the road, the thrill of pride at the road, the road ran parallel.

Cut:
[Ballard's sons were stacking the heap of unloaded bales against the wall of their father's barn.] "Can you handle those?" Micah asked. One brother grunted, the other nodded. Micah climbed the cart onto the driver's bench and picked up the reins. Before he could twitch them, the carthorse ambled past the barn door and turned left, down the track to Ballard's house. Micah was still several hundred yards away when he saw Ballard and Father in the doorway. Ballard was a big and sturdy man, like most of the country folk. Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest. Both men were sun-dark and leathery, forearms corded from a lifetime of labor. Micah resembled his father, and took a secret pride in his inherited strength. He never boasted, though. Strength was a gift of Thoth, and to boast of it without giving Him credit was to risk losing it.

Ballard and Father shook hands as the cart drew even with the front door. Father climbed onto the bench beside Micah and put a sack into the cart bed. The horse started forward and turned left again, down Ballard's lane, heading for the cobbled stone road. Micah felt a thrill of pride: the road ran broad and straight for nearly three hundred miles, paralleling the Great River from the desert at its southern mouth to the northern mountains. It had taken more than a generation to build, even with Thoth's aid, and Micah gloried to belong to the people who could build it. That, Father said, was the difference between their people and the outlanders. Their people were growers and builders who labored for Thoth, and Thoth rewarded them in His generous mercy. Outlanders were thieves, selfish and godless. Pungent fresh cheese smells leaked from the sack. Micah's mouth fell open in unabashed desire.

364 words to 294, or a respectable (though not thrilling) 20%. I think I'd like to cut more, but it's tougher than it looks: though Ballard's not needed on his own, his description is actually a foil for Father's.

Cuts are judgment calls, as always. For instance, I thought that a "track" is usually well-worn so I cut "well-worn"; the emphasis it provides that this route has been taken many times before doesn't seem necessary. Your mileage may vary.

As a side note, I think the last two sentences should be a new paragraph.
Original:
"Close your jaw, boy; we'll be home for supper soon enough." Father said. Micah's teeth snapped shut, but his stomach growled.

"Any news from Ballard?" Micah asked, mostly to cover his embarrassment. Travelers on the River Road carried news, and they often stopped to buy feed or a bed in one of the spare rooms at Ballard's. Father leaned out of the cart and spit, careful to make sure his saliva did not land on the sacred road itself.

"More of the same, but worse. Outlanders raiding the southern herds. Big group of them rebuilt that bridge on the Little River near Alhay. They got a flock or two back across the bridge, and scattered what they didn't take. If the rumors are true, Thoth might be displeased with the number of cattle at the fall sacrifice."


I didn't have a lot to cut here. If I were cutting this "for real", as part of a larger editing job, I would change a few things (a comma inside the quotation marks before "Father said" in the first paragraph, for instance). Since I'm just trying to cut, I'll leave those alone.

I didn't think I should cut anything in the first paragraph; the third is dialogue, and I don't want to lose the flavor that J gave his characters (note how terse Father is, because that comes into play later); so I only cut the second paragraph, like this:

Cut:
"Any news from Ballard?" Micah asked, mostly to cover his embarrassment. Travelers on the River Road often stopped at Ballard's for feed or a bed, and they carried news. Father leaned out of the cart and spat, making sure his saliva did not land on the sacred road.

For the second paragraph, 58 words becomes 48, a 18% cut. For the whole section, 137 becomes 128, only 7%.
Original:
"The Judges will recover the flocks," Micah said, believing it. Judges were invincible. "Especially if it is necessary to please Thoth at the sacrifice. They'll chase the outlanders across their own bridge into their own lands if they need to." Micah had every confidence that this was so. "Thoth is with them."

"Surely He is, as He's with all of us. Maybe even more so." Father nodded, then sucked on his teeth, like he did when he was thinking. There was more news. Micah waited. Father would tell him when he was ready.

"A Judge was killed during the raid."

Micah jerked back on the reigns involuntarily. The horse tossed its head and kept walking. "Not Jacob?"

"No, not Jacob, praise be to Thoth. Judge Asher of Alkut. He attacked the raiders alone on their way back to the bridge."

Micah's stomach unclenched. Anger replaced worry.

"There must have been a thousand outlanders to do such a thing! How many did he kill?"

"Ballard says he killed twenty, but rest of the brutes climbed over their own dead and got him."

"Dead?" Micah asked. Excitement and dread rose in his chest. Shame at the reaction followed. Judge Asher was one of Thoth's chosen, to whom the safety of Thoth's people was owed, and his passing demanded sincere mourning. Micah tried to conjure sadness, but the nervous excitement in his gut would not be ignored.

"Dead," Father said. "They'll have to hold trials three months from now, at the fall sacrifice, so they can anoint someone to replace him."

Note in this excerpt how much J hammers repeats Micah's faith in the Judges. "believing it." "Judges were invincible." (Note that later he says "Judges were nearly invincible.") "Micah had every confidence". Again, J is showing us (through Micah's speech) and telling us (with a series of asides) the same thing: Micah has faith in the Judges. We can cut a lot here. I'll leave in one internal reference just to show that Micah's sincere, and cut the rest.

Similarly, "There was more news" is Micah's way of reacting to "then sucked on his teeth". I don't need to be told that Father sucks on his teeth when he's thinking, because Micah's reaction makes it obvious. I also like the anticipation created by the choppy sentences stuck together, which contrasts nicely with Micah waiting for Father to be ready.

Also, we've already seen that the Judges are protectors of Thoth's people, so I think we can safely cut that.

Because Father is terse, I made him more so. For example, "Ballard says he killed twenty" is a longish way of responding to "How many did he kill?", so that went to "Ballard says twenty."

I cut "Micah asked" because the dialogue is a clear back-and-forth, and used his name instead of a pronoun in the following sentence ("Excitement and dread rose in his chest.").

Cut:
"The Judges will recover the flocks," Micah said. Judges were invincible. "Especially to please Thoth at the sacrifice. They'll chase the outlanders across their own bridge into their own lands if they need to. Thoth is with them."

"Surely He is, as He's with all of us. Maybe more so." Father nodded, then sucked on his teeth. There was more news. Micah waited. Father would tell him when he was ready.

"A Judge was killed during the raid."

Micah jerked back on the reins involuntarily. The horse tossed its head and kept walking. "Not Jacob?"

"No, not Jacob, praise be to Thoth. Judge Asher of Alkut. He attacked the raiders alone on their way back to the bridge."

Micah's stomach unclenched. Anger replaced worry.

"It must have taken a thousand outlanders! How many did he kill?"

"Ballard says twenty, but the brutes climbed over their dead and got him."

"Dead?" Excitement and dread rose in Micah's chest, followed by shame. Judge Asher was one of Thoth's chosen, and his passing demanded sincere mourning. Micah tried to conjure sadness, but the nervous excitement in his gut would not be ignored.

"Dead," Father said. "They'll hold trials three months from now, at the fall sacrifice, so they can anoint someone to replace him."

258 words becomes 220, an 18% cut.
Original:
Micah released his breath slowly. There was going to be an anointing, and he was of age. It didn't happen for everyone. Judges were nearly invincible. Thoth protected them Even though they fought constantly against outlanders, they rarely died. They suffered losses so infrequently that many men went right through the age of eligibility without a chance to try. As Father had. Micah would turn twenty-six at the fall sacrifice. Three more months, and his time would have passed. Three months, and he would have been old enough to seek permission to marry. He had set his mind to marrying. But now a Judge was dead, and he, Micah, was still of age. A tremendous weight slammed into his shoulder and he jumped. It was Father's hand. Father was smiling.

"Don't worry, son. You're a powerful strong man—stronger than your brother was. We'll see about making you stronger still come fall."

Cut:
Micah released his breath slowly. There was going to be an anointing, and he was of age. It didn't happen for everyone. Judges rarely died, even though they fought constantly against outlanders. Many men went right through the age of eligibility without a chance to try. As Father had. Micah would turn twenty-six at the fall sacrifice, just three months before his time would have passed. Three months, and he could have sought permission to marry instead. He had set his mind to marrying. But now a Judge was dead, and he, Micah, was still of age. The tremendous weight of Father's hand slammed into his shoulder and he jumped. Father was smiling.

"Don't worry, son. You're a powerful strong man—stronger than your brother was. We'll make you stronger still come fall."

152 becomes 133, a 13% cut.

Doing this blog is somewhat artificial, because I explain the reasons behind all of the cuts. When I look at everything together, I sometimes make additional cuts or put things back. What follows may be slightly different from what I have above. Here's the final version:
Micah dropped the last bale of hay onto the barn floor. His back ached. He hung his hooks on the side of the cart and slapped dust from his tunic.

Ballard's sons were stacking the heap of unloaded bales against the wall of their father's barn. "Can you handle those?" Micah asked. One brother grunted, the other nodded. Micah climbed onto the cart. As he took the reins, the carthorse ambled past the barn door and turned left, down the track to Ballard's house. Micah was still several hundred yards away when he saw Ballard and Father in the doorway. Ballard was big, a sturdy man, like most of the country folk. Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest. Both men were sun-dark and leathery, forearms corded from a lifetime of labor. Micah resembled his father, and took a secret pride in his inherited strength. He never boasted, though. Strength was a gift of Thoth, and to boast of it without giving Him credit was to risk losing it.

Ballard and Father shook hands as the cart drew even with the front door. Father climbed onto the bench beside Micah and put a sack into the cart bed. The horse started forward and turned left again, down Ballard's lane, heading for the cobbled stone road. Micah felt a thrill of pride: the road ran broad and straight for nearly three hundred miles, paralleling the Great River from its southern mouth in the desert to the northern mountains. It had taken more than a generation to build, even with Thoth's aid, and Micah gloried to belong to the people who could build it. That, Father said, was the difference between their people and the outlanders. Their people were growers and builders who labored for Thoth, and Thoth rewarded them in His generous mercy. Outlanders were thieves, selfish and godless.

Pungent fresh cheese smells leaked from the sack. Micah's mouth fell open in unabashed desire.

"Close your jaw, boy, we'll be home for supper soon enough," Father said. Micah's teeth snapped shut, but his stomach growled.

"Any news from Ballard?" Micah asked, mostly to cover his embarrassment. Travelers on the River Road often stopped at Ballard's for feed or a bed. Father leaned out of the cart and spat, making sure his saliva did not land on the sacred road.

"More of the same, but worse. Outlanders raiding the southern herds. Big group of them rebuilt that bridge on the Little River near Alhay. They got a flock or two back across the bridge, and scattered what they didn't take. If the rumors are true, Thoth might be displeased with the number of cattle at the fall sacrifice."

"The Judges will recover the flocks," Micah said. Judges were invincible. "Especially for the sacrifice. They'll chase the outlanders across their bridge into their own lands if they need to. Thoth is with them."

"Surely He is, as He's with all of us. Maybe more so." Father nodded, then sucked on his teeth. There was more news. Micah waited. Father would tell him when he was ready.

"A Judge was killed during the raid."

Micah jerked back on the reins involuntarily. The horse tossed its head and kept walking. "Not Jacob?"

"No, not Jacob, praise be to Thoth. Judge Asher of Alkut. He attacked the raiders alone on their way back to the bridge."

Micah's stomach unclenched. Anger replaced worry.

"It must have taken a thousand outlanders! How many did he kill?"

"Ballard says twenty, but the brutes climbed over their dead and got him."

"Dead?" Excitement and dread rose in Micah's chest, followed by shame. Judge Asher was one of Thoth's chosen, and his passing demanded sincere mourning. Micah tried to conjure sadness, but the nervous excitement in his gut would not be ignored.

"Dead," Father said. "They'll hold trials three months from now, at the fall sacrifice, so they can anoint someone to replace him."

Micah released his breath slowly. There was going to be an anointing, and he was of age. It didn't happen for everyone. Judges rarely died, even though they fought constantly against outlanders. Many men went right through the age of eligibility without a chance to try. As Father had. Micah would turn twenty-six at the fall sacrifice, just three months before his time would have passed. Three months, and he could have sought permission to marry instead. He had set his mind to marrying. But now a Judge was dead, and he, Micah, was still of age. The tremendous weight of Father's hand slammed into his shoulder, and he jumped. Father was smiling.

"Don't worry, son. You're a powerful strong man—stronger than your brother was. We'll make you stronger still come fall."

983 becomes 793, a 19% cut. That's respectable, though not that deep, and when you consider that J will probably want to put some things back in, we'll be lucky to hit a total of 15%.

Why not cut more? For instance, "Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest" could be "Father was larger, four inches taller and broader across the chest" or even "Father was a good four inches taller, and even broader." But I thought that "a good four inches taller" gave the prose a flavor, a kind of country smoke, that I didn't want to lose. Your judgments -- and J's, more importantly -- may differ.

Also, I'm not upset about only getting 15%. It's nothing to sneeze at. 15% off at a store saves real money, and 15% off a story -- if you really don't need what you're cutting -- keeps the pace that much faster. Heck, if I dropped 15% of my weight, I'd go from 195 pounds to 166 -- I'm sure both my wife and my doctor would love it! So while my goal may have been higher, I think I would have done too much violence to J's prose if I had tried to hit it.

What do you think?

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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:

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cutting a Piece of Art

Watch what you ask for.

I told the denizens of Hatrack River that I wanted some stuff to cut, and the first person who responded was Djvdakota, a mature writer with an economical style. This one will be tough.

She sent me a flash piece, a haunting vignette in which a puppet describes his life. It's just under 800 words. I don't want there to be issues with publication rights, so I'm only excerpting about a quarter of it, or 185 words.


The puppetmaster has just kissed the face of a puppet (not the narrator) that he has selected for tonight's performance.

Does he know what we are? Does he know of the fallen souls that inhabit his puppets?

Sometimes I think he does.

The rest of us stay where we are, stacked one atop the other, cushioned with dozens of colorful silk costumes--costumes that the audience will see only in silhouette, simple shadows of what we really are. We listen and wait for Master to set up his screen and position his lanterns. Only then does he take us out, but only those he needs. Sometimes five, sometimes twelve. Sometimes I wait weeks between the nights he chooses me, but every time he opens the trunks I hope for a glimpse of sky or stars. Otherwise I pass the hours and days praying. It's fruitless, I know. I've long since spent every opportunity I had to redeem myself. But what else is there to do? Fret over the dark or the damp? Seethe over Bung Ok's elbow jammed against my nose?

Bung can't help it of course. Poor bastard. He's no more capable of independent movement than I. Only at the Master's bidding do we...
Boy. I don't want to cut any of it. But what if she had to? What if she were working on an entry to a contest that had a maximum for the number of words, and she needed to shave everything she could?

I'm not messing with djvdakota's meaning, really -- her meaning is clear throughout -- so I'm messing with her art. I have to tread lightly, and she may not like what I do here, but here's what I think:

1. Trim every word that isn't absolutely necessary, slightly rearranging words if need be -- but not ruining the tone that she's given us. This isn't as easy as it sounds, because sometimes words that aren't needed to convey meaning are needed to convey tone. You can't cut every "superfluous" word.

2. Identify the functions of this part of the story. This is tricky because language can work at different levels, and something can serve more than one function. If you're not sensitive to what you're cutting, you might cut something necessary without realizing it. You need the author's feedback to ensure that you're getting it right.

I should warn that side-by-side comparison doesn't fully work here. I do it to show what I did, but I think the only way to know whether a cut is acceptable is to come back to it a week later and read the cut version to see if you miss what was there before, then go back to the original and see if it's substantially better.

Let's start.


Does he know what we are? Does he know of the fallen souls that inhabit his puppets?
These two questions mean the same thing, but the repetition's needed to keep the tone. I don't think I can either cut one out completely or combine the two. That means I can only slightly rephrase.
Does he know what we are? Does he know that fallen souls inhabit his puppets?
Notice the rhythm: "Does he know of the fallen souls that inhabit his puppets?" vs. "Does he know that fallen souls inhabit his puppets?" Djvdakota's original is softer, perhaps pleading; mine is more rhythmically intense, more demanding. Which is better? For me, it's too soon to say.


Sometimes I think he does.
There's nothing to cut here; however, if the function of this sentence is to accuse the puppetmaster, we might say it thus:
He must.
This is more certain that Dvjdakota's version, but the preceding questions ensure that the reader knows that the puppet harbors some doubt.


The rest of us stay where we are, stacked one atop the other, cushioned with dozens of colorful silk costumes--costumes that the audience will see only in silhouette, simple shadows of what we really are.
This is tough. There are lots of ways to trim it, but none may be successful. It's beautiful writing, already packed with feeling. How can you cut this?
  • "stay" and "where we are" give the reader the sense of stasis.
  • "stacked", reinforced with "one atop the other", feels claustrophobic.
  • "cushioned" and "dozens of...silk costumes" provides relief -- but ironically, as these beautiful things are smothering the puppet (though, horrifyingly, not to death).
  • "colorful" links to the silhouette and shadow of the stuff after the em dash.
  • "simple shadows of what we really are" resonates. Explicitly, the audience sees only the silhouette, which isn't as beautiful as the puppet in his clothing; this implicitly ties to the Master, who sees only a puppet in pretty clothing instead of a living soul
I'll try. It's not terribly comfortable, but I always cut more than I'm comfortable with at first. I can always put it back in.
  • We can cut reinforcing phrases and condense things that have similar functions.
  • We can change "will see" to "sees", since we're talking about an ongoing action.
  • I don't think we can cut the pause in the middle (currently an em dash) without losing the resonance of color and silhouette, but we might be able to modify it a little bit.
  • "Cushioned" counterbalances "stacked" and highlights the action of the "silk costumes" -- so maybe I can rely on "silk costumes" alone to counterbalance "stacked" instead.
That gets me here:
The rest of us stay stacked among colorful silk costumes--costumes that the audience sees only in silhouette, obscuring shadows of what we are.
I could cut "that" from "costumes that the audience", but it just didn't feel right. I think it's the rhythm that stops me.

"Obscuring shadows" is ambiguous, which may be too poetic; personally, I think that's okay here. The clause could mean that the silhouette of the clothing obscures the outlines of the puppets, or that the silhouettes are preventing the audience from seeing the puppets, which are themselves shadows of the souls that the puppets really are. There may be more ambiguity there, too -- I'm sure somebody would help me figure it out if I re-read his book.


We listen and wait for Master to set up his screen and position his lanterns.
I couldn't cut this. The specificity and tension were too important.


Only then does he take us out, but only those he needs. Sometimes five, sometimes twelve.
We can't remove "only", because of the tension. We can't remove the sentence, because this is the moment the puppets long for. Maybe, but just maybe we can say:
Only then does he take out those needs. Sometimes five, sometimes twelve.



Sometimes I wait weeks between the nights he chooses me, but every time he opens the trunks I hope for a glimpse of sky or stars.
"Sometimes" parallels the sentence before it, so it stays. "I wait weeks" could be "weeks pass", but the former is active and the latter is passive. "every time" can't be replaced by "when" because we need to keep the sense of eternal repetition.
Sometimes I wait weeks for him to choose me, but every time the trunks open I hope for a glimpse of sky or stars.
That's a lot of effort for two words out of twenty-six, but it's still an almost-eight-percent cut.


Otherwise I pass the hours and days praying. It's fruitless, I know. I've long since spent every opportunity I had to redeem myself. But what else is there to do? Fret over the dark or the damp? Seethe over Bung Ok's elbow jammed against my nose?
"hours and days", though redundant, gives a sense of monotony that I don't want to eliminate. Maybe I can restructure...
Otherwise I pass the hours and days praying fruitlessly; my opportunities for redemption are spent. But what else shall I do? Fret over the dark or the damp? Seethe over Bung Ok's elbow jammed against my nose?
I love Bung Ok's name, by the way.


Bung can't help it of course. Poor bastard. He's no more capable of independent movement than I. Only at the Master's bidding do we...
"Poor bastard" and "of course" are redundant; specifically, "Poor bastard" in this context contains a superset of "of course"'s meaning.

"capable of independent movement" seemed to be too much. It's clinical. Technically, Bung Ok is no more capable of movement than the narrator, to "independent" is unnecessary, but leaving it out makes you think about the fact that they really can move, just not alone... well, maybe we can cut through that with fewer words.
Bung can't help it, poor bastard. He moves no more freely than I. Only at the Master's bidding do we...



Here's the result:
Does he know what we are? Does he know that fallen souls inhabit his puppets?

He must.

The rest of us stay stacked among colorful silk costumes--costumes that the audience sees only in silhouette, obscuring shadows of what we are. We listen and wait for Master to set up his screen and position his lanterns. Only then does he take out those he needs. Sometimes five, sometimes twelve. Sometimes I wait weeks for him to choose me, but every time the trunks open I hope for a glimpse of sky or stars. Otherwise I pass the hours and days praying fruitlessly; my opportunities for redemption are spent. But what else shall I do? Fret over the dark or the damp? Seethe over Bung Ok's elbow jammed against my nose?

Bung can't help it, poor bastard. He moves no more freely than I. Only at the Master's bidding do we...
150 words: a 19% cut.

We have an angrier puppet, and Djvdakota must decide whether she likes that. In fact, it would be perfectly reasonable for her to put back most of what I've taken out. But at least we've explored some of the possibilities.

I'll shut up now. What do you think?

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Short Story Opener

My brother is on the same writer's workshop that I participate in as Oliver House. He recently posted the first 13 lines of a short story he's writing (we only do 13 lines there to preserve copyright and because it's the first page of a properly formatted manuscript), and agreed that I could blog about the cuts that I suggested.

Here's his original:

Harvey Alvarez lost his nerve. Does that count? The experiment intended to find out if it was possible to change the past. There were two schools. The "Yes" school and the "No" school as Jacobson so eloquently liked to call them. Alvarez, like Jacobson, was of the "Yes" school. They didn't want to disrupt the time continuum until they knew what they were doing, so the team of scientists targeted a recent event from which a change would cause modest and recent consequences. Alvarez traveled back six months in time to prevent the president of the university from spilling bisque on his tie. And he lost his nerve.

It was a simple task. Because of the incident, the president of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Orville Farnsworth, lost


I critiqued the whole thing there, but I'll limit myself here to things that are relevant to cutting, and I might expand on those a little bit.

I like the first sentence -- he must have been doing something that set him a little on edge, and he has a problem because he lost his nerve -- but the following sentence, "Does that count?" simply seems not to follow, and doesn't seem to add any value.

My brother disagrees with me, by the way, because it's important to the overall story. Perhaps, but I contend that it still doesn't matter to the first manuscript page. And since it's my blog, I win. :)
There were two schools. The "Yes" school and the "No" school as Jacobson so eloquently liked to call them. Alvarez, like Jacobson, was of the "Yes" school.

The second sentence is a fragment, and unnecessary because if one school is "Yes" the reader assumes that the other is "No". (If one were "yes" and the other "maybe", it might be worth mentioning.) He could be making fun of the banality of having two separately named and distinct "Yes" and "No" schools, but (a) if that's so then the humor doesn't work for me (though I'm only one guy, and he shouldn't trust me), and (b) it's an awful lot of words to spend on a first page making a banality joke -- 27 words out of a first page of 129 words, or 21%.

These three sentences could be condensed into 'There were two schools, and Alvarez, like his colleague Jacobson, was of the "Yes" school.' As it happens, I collapsed them even more with other sentences.

To cut to the chase: I thought there were some excess phrases ("Because of the incident" could be cut if it were clear that its antecedent was caused by the incident), some redundancies ("the president of the university" was followed by another sentence that said "the president of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln"), and a few implications that get spelled out (I thought it was clear that the task was simple, so while "It was a simple task" adds a little flavor, it isn't strictly necessary). These indicated that some mild restructuring could have a significant effect. I cut it to 75 words from 129, or 42%.

Harvey Alvarez had lost his nerve. He and Jacobson believed that they would be able to change the past, and to test their theory the scientists had targeted a recent event -- a trivial incident, really -- from which a change would cause modest and recent consequences. Alvarez traveled back six months to prevent Orville Farnsworth, president of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, from spilling bisque on his tie. And he lost his nerve.


As with anything else, you can cut deep first and put stuff back later. "It was a simple task" could be worked back in, as could the dry "Yes-school / No-school" humor. He's the author, not me. But at least we know that the information we need is here, in half the space -- which means half of the first manuscript page is now freed up for other relevant stuff.

Good writing!

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Sometimes You Cut So You Can Add

Here's an excerpt from a writer named Scott, a.k.a. Trailmix, on a thread at the Hatrack River Writers Workshop.*
My name is Brodi. At last count I was 178 years old and as far as I can tell, I shall never die. I have been cast into the deepest, darkest oubliette in the Kingdom. I’ve been in here so long that I have taken to recounting stories of my past to the darkness. A better audience than that fat boar of a King and all his bony cronies, I’ll tell you that much. I don’t suspect the good King thought I would survive the fall. Honestly, I wished I hadn’t. Although I do take comfort in the fact that I outlived the old pig. The King, by now, has passed on; it’s likely his successor has as well, perhaps his after that. There is not a single person alive, save for myself of course, that even remembers my crime. Murderer they called me but that isn’t exactly true is it? When Fate has it in for you, there is no escaping her. Believe me, I tried. That’s how I ended up in here.

Original excerpt: 174 words.

He was concerned that people were telling him to answer more questions in the first 13 lines** of his text. It seems he didn't think he had the space. My solution was, of course, to cut some text so he could add more important stuff.

Now, none of what I'm about to say would matter if the opening were supposed to hook us through atmosphere; but it's clearly setting a hook through specific information. Your mileage may vary.

I analyzed the excerpt for specific information Scott conveys. It includes:

  • Name

  • Age

  • Unnaturally long imprisonment

  • Unnamed king did it to him

  • Committed a crime (I assumed I could take him literally, since he's not qualifying the words "my crime")

  • Imprisoned for murder.



With a pure cut -- no rewording or reordering involved -- we can cut 44%, for a 98-word opener.
My name is Brodi. At last count I was 178 years old and as far as I can tell, I shall never die. I have been cast into the deepest, darkest oubliette in the Kingdom. The King, by now, has passed on; it’s likely his successor has as well, perhaps his after that. Not a person alive, save for myself, even remembers my crime. Murderer they called me but that isn’t exactly true is it? When Fate has it in for you, there is no escaping her. Believe me, I tried. That’s how I ended up in here.

Note that all of the data points have been preserved.

Here's a 69-word version: a 60% cut.
My name is Brodi. At last count I was 178 years old and as far as I can tell, I shall never die. King XXXXXX, who cast me into his deepest, darkest oubliette, has surely passed on; it’s likely his successor has as well, perhaps his after that. No one alive remembers why they called my crime "murder". I couldn't escape Fate. I tried, and I ended up here.

What's the principle here? Identify the information you want to convey up front, and then you can rip out anything that doesn't contribute to it.

The main culprit here was superfluous detail.

  • The characterization of the king as "fat" and his cronies as "bony" stuff is unnecessary. If it were important to his characterization, that would be one thing -- but it's not something I need to know now, and possibly not ever. It's certainly something he can insert later in the story if it's relevant.

  • I don't know what "the fall" is that Brodi wasn't supposed to survive, but since it doesn't get explained anyway, it only confuses the issue. Some other time, when it's important to know about the fall, Scott / Brodi can explain it.

  • "Honestly, I wished I hadn't" is an aside, and somewhat unnecessary. There may be places in which an aside fits, but in the first 13 lines of a story you need to be ruthless about what you expose in order to maximize the hook. When you're orienting the reader, asides are likely to be unhelpful.


Two other items to note:

  • We already knew he lived a supernaturally long time, and I kept the part about the king's successor's successor possibly already dying, so "I've been here so long that I've recounted stories to the darkness" was redundant.

  • There are ways to say "The King, by now, has passed on; it’s likely his successor has as well, perhaps his after that," in fewer words -- but I liked the way this sounded. It gives a feel of the monotony Brodi has experienced, without actually being monotonous. Sometimes you have to know what not to cut.



Finally, note that I added one data point in the 69-word version: the king's name. It just felt right. If the king's irrelevant, then it's not something the reader will need to remember, and it just adds specificity; if he's an important force in the story, then we should learn his name anyway.

Since I wrote the 69-word version, Scott has rewritten the opener, adding the details people wanted to know (and then some), and made the Fate tie-in significantly nicer. (I didn't try to do that because I didn't know where he was going.)

Good writing!

Regards,
Jake

* I didn't disguise anything in this example, because it's already public.

** Hatrack limits public critiques to the first 13 lines because (a) that's the first page of a properly formatted submission, so it's what a slush reader will see, and (b) it avoids the question of whether something has been "published".

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Example: Luz and Ludmilla

This is a disguised version of a novel excerpt that I got from a member of an online critique group. It's the end of chapter one and the beginning of chapter two.

My initial cut took this section from 1003 words to 677, for a 33% cut. Then I took more liberties with the text -- changing the grammar to reflect time differently, using slightly different punctuation, things like that -- and achieved a 603-word version, or a 40% cut.

After you read the original, see if you miss anything in the cut versions; also, see what you think about the pace and flow of the edits. If you have comments or additional suggestions, please post them!

Here's the original:

Finally alone, she paced the room, feeling the anxiety she had been fighting the last hours crawl around her body, making her utterly exhausted. In some ways she was relieved. The only witness of that dreadful night when her husband had died was gone; shot, and not by her hand. But, curse that miserable Officer Jimenez. Why did he not die before the Chief of Police got there, before he had a chance to mention her?

Stay with a friend. She almost laughed out loud. She had no friends. She needed no friends. She wanted no friends. There were plenty of associates, more pawns to her than friends. She could think of several men, Mares amongst them, who would be happy to have her stay with them for “a few days.” But the mere thought of their lustful looks was enough to make her sick. No, these men kept their distance, and she would do nothing that would change that.

She stopped by the window, parting the heavy drapes. Lightning colored the night. Luz. Luz Garcia, she thought suddenly. Luz fawned on her like a dog. She would be delighted to have Ludmilla Bustamante, owner of Plumeria Enterprises, stay in her house. It was perfect except for one thing; it was not Luz's house, but her son Gabriel's, and he would never let Ludmilla so much as set foot in his house. Gabriel hated her, and made no attempt to hide it. He was bitter and resentful. He was also, she remembered happily, supposed to be out of town for a couple of weeks.

Luz had mentioned to her how her son had been asked to be a guest speaker at some conference or other in Monterrey. She was so proud. You would think that Gabriel had just become the new President of Mexico. If Gabriel was not home, Ludmilla could stay with Luz; a real slumber party. The thought made her ill.

Chapter 2

Luz Garcia sat on the red leather sofa glancing nervously at the old grandfather clock. Time seemed to move faster than normal, daring her to speak to her son before the expected and dreaded figure appeared at the door. How would she convince Gabriel to let Ludmilla stay in his house? The problem was that Gabriel liked Ludmilla about as much as he liked a scorpion. He would never consent to having Ludmilla in his house. But Gabriel was supposed to be in Monterey, speaking in an important conference, in front of important business people, giving Luz something to talk about to her friends. This morning, he was supposed to be walking out the door, packed suitcase in hand, Luz bidding him farewell, and assuring him all would be well, and telling him that yes, of course it would be an added burden on her to have him gone for two weeks, but that’s what mothers are for. Instead, she saw her son going out to get the paper, no suitcase in his hand. Oh, he forgot to tell her, he is not going after all. Just like that, no consideration, no explanation, after all, she was only his mother. And now, Ludmilla would arrive any minute, and what was Luz supposed to do? She couldn’t call Ludmilla at home. Ludmilla did not give out her phone number, not even to good friends like Luz, with whom she felt comfortable enough to stay for a few days. Luz couldn’t very well call Ludmilla at her office on a Sunday. No, her only option was to talk some sense into her son.

Ludmilla had given her no explanation. She had simply told her that she needed to stay in Luz’s house for a short time. It made no sense to Luz. Ludmilla’s mansion on the outskirts of Juarez made Gabriel’s big and comfortable house look small and shabby. Truly, her reasons made no difference to Luz. The thought of having Ludmilla staying with her made her giddy, like a child on Christmas day. But first she had to deal with her son, and that, she dreaded. Gabriel Garcia was willful and stubborn, and when angered had a voice that could crumble the sturdiest of souls, though he presented no real threat. She knew he would not strike her or hurt her in any real way.

The clock moved on like the ticking of a bomb. It was twenty minutes before noon. Luz looked around the room and saw Gabriel in the same spot, reading the same book and sipping the same coffee from this morning. It always irritated her that he would drink his coffee cold and stale. Actually, there were a lot of things that irritated her about him, like his inability to reason with anyone who had a different opinion from his, and the way he bulldozed his way through any conversation.

Gabriel owed her. Hadn’t she come to stay when his wife, Isabella, had passed away over a year ago, leaving him and three little girls behind? The constant ache in her back was sign enough of all the work she did for him. She wasn’t a young woman anymore, and she easily could have refused to come to help him. Instead, she sold the house she had lived in for over thirty years, and traded her quiet and peaceful days with little work to do tending after only herself for a house full of noisy little girls and more work than should be required of a woman half her age. She had to look over the entire household, and keep control over the servants and the girls.

Of course, she would not have had it any other way. She would never suffer those little girls to be raised by anyone else. If Isabella was dead, bless her soul, then Luz was the next best choice. She could bring them up herself and teach them proper manners. She had her work cut out for her, though. These girls were too free willed and loud to be proper ladies.


My initial reaction to this text was that instead of the author showing or telling, she was showing and telling. So, for example, we know that Gabriel was loud and hated Ludmilla from Ludmilla's thoughts, and then from Luz's worry about talking to Gabriel about her; so it's not necessary for Luz to say "Gabriel liked Ludmilla about as much as he liked a scorpion." Most of my cuts are along those lines.

Here's the 677-word version:

Finally alone, she paced the room, feeling the anxiety she had been fighting crawl around her body, making her utterly exhausted. In some ways she was relieved. The only witness of that dreadful night was gone; shot, and not by her hand. But, curse that miserable Officer Jimenez. Why did he not die before the Chief of Police got there?[1]

Stay with a friend. [2] She almost laughed out loud. She had no friends. She wanted no friends. There were plenty of associates, more pawns than friends. She could think of several men, Mares amongst them, who would be happy to have her stay with them for “a few days.” But the thought of their lustful looks was enough to make her sick. No, these men kept their distance, and she would do nothing that would change that.

She stopped by the window, parting the heavy drapes. Lightning colored the night. Luz Garcia, she thought suddenly. Luz fawned on her like a dog. She would be delighted to have Ludmilla Bustamante, owner of Plumeria Enterprises, stay in her house. But it was not Luz's house, it was her son Gabriel's, and he would never let Ludmilla so much as set foot in his house. But Luz had mentioned how her son was a guest speaker at some conference or other in Monterrey. You would think that Gabriel had just become the new President of Mexico. If Gabriel was not home, Ludmilla could stay with Luz; a real slumber party. The thought made her ill.

Chapter 2

Luz Garcia sat on the red leather sofa glancing nervously at the old grandfather clock. This morning, Gabriel was supposed to walk out the door, suitcase in hand. Luz should have bid him farewell, assured him all would be well, and told him that yes, of course it would be an added burden on her to have him gone for two weeks, but that’s what mothers are for. Instead, her son went out to get the paper, no suitcase in his hand. Oh, he forgot to tell her, he is not going after all. Just like that, after all, she was only his mother. And now, Ludmilla would arrive any minute, and what was Luz supposed to do? Ludmilla did not give out her phone number, not even to good friends like Luz. She couldn’t very well call Ludmilla at her office on a Sunday. No, her only option was to talk some sense into her son.

Ludmilla had simply told her that she needed to stay in Luz’s house for a short time. It made no sense. Ludmilla’s mansion on the outskirts of Juarez made Gabriel’s big and comfortable house look small and shabby. Truly, her reasons made no difference to Luz. The thought of having Ludmilla staying with her made her giddy, like a child on Christmas day. But first she had to deal with her son. When Gabriel Garcia was angered, he had a voice that could crumble the sturdiest of souls, though she knew he would not strike her or hurt her in any real way.

The clock moved on like the ticking of a bomb. It was twenty minutes before noon.

Gabriel owed her. Hadn’t she come to stay when his wife, Isabella, had passed away over a year ago, leaving him and three little girls behind? She wasn’t a young woman anymore, and she easily could have refused to come to help him. Instead, she sold the house she had lived in for over thirty years, and traded her quiet and peaceful days with little work to do tending after only herself for a house full of noisy little girls and servants and more work than should be required of a woman half her age.

Of course, she would not have had it any other way. If Isabella was dead, bless her soul, then Luz would bring them up and teach them proper manners. She had her work cut out for her, though. These girls were too free willed and loud to be proper ladies.

[1] It had already been established that Jimenez had told the Chief of Police that Ludmilla had paid him off.
[2] Just previously, another character had suggested she stay with friends.


Finally, the 603-word version:

Finally alone, she paced the room. The anxiety she had fought crawled around her exhausted body. She was relieved that the only witness of that dreadful night was gone – shot, and not by her hand – but she cursed Officer Jimenez. Why didn’t he die before the Chief of Police got there? [1]

Stay with a friend.[2] She almost laughed out loud. She had no friends. She wanted none. She knew men, including Mares, who would happily have her stay with them for “a few days.” But the thought of their lustful looks made her sick. No, these men kept their distance, and she would do nothing to change that.

She stopped by the window, parting the heavy drapes. Lightning colored the night. Luz Garcia, she thought suddenly. Luz would be delighted to have Ludmilla Bustamante, owner of Plumeria Enterprises, stay in her house. But it was not Luz's house, she remembered, it was her son Gabriel's, and he would never let Ludmilla set foot in it.

But Luz had mentioned how her son was a guest speaker at a conference in Monterrey. You would think that Gabriel had just become the new President of Mexico. If Gabriel was not home, Ludmilla could stay with Luz; a real slumber party. The thought made her ill.

Chapter 2

Luz Garcia sat on the red leather sofa glancing nervously at the old grandfather clock. This morning, Gabriel should have walked out the door, suitcase in hand. Luz should have bid him farewell, assured him all would be well, and told him that yes, of course it would be an added burden on her to have him gone for two weeks, but that’s what mothers are for. Instead, her son went out to get the paper, no suitcase in his hand. Oh, he had forgotten to tell her, he is not going after all. Just like that. After all, she was only his mother. And now, Ludmilla would arrive any minute, and what was Luz supposed to do? Ludmilla did not give out her phone number, not even to good friends like Luz. She couldn’t very well call Ludmilla at her office on a Sunday. No, her only option was to talk sense into her son.

The visit made no sense anyway. Ludmilla’s mansion on the outskirts of Juarez made Gabriel’s big and comfortable house look small and shabby. She had given no reasons, although they would have made no difference to Luz anyway. She was giddy at the thought of Ludmilla staying with her, like a child on Christmas day. But first she had to deal with her son. When Gabriel Garcia was angered, he had a voice that could crumble the sturdiest of souls – though she knew he would not hurt her.

The clock moved on like the ticking of a bomb. It was twenty minutes before noon.

Gabriel owed her. Hadn’t she come to stay when his wife, Isabella, had passed away a year ago, leaving him and three little girls behind? She wasn’t young anymore, and she easily could have refused to come help him. Instead, she sold the her home of thirty years and traded her easy, solitary days for a house full of noisy little girls and servants and more work than should be required of a woman half her age.

Of course, she would not have had it any other way. If Isabella was dead, bless her soul, then Luz would bring the children up and teach them proper manners. She had her work cut out for her, though. These girls were too free willed and loud to be proper ladies.

[1] It had already been established that Jimenez had told the Chief of Police that Ludmilla had paid him off.

[2] Just previously, another character had suggested she stay with friends.


Tell me what you think!

Regards,
Jake

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Example: Old Oak

This excerpt is from "Old Oak", an unpublished story that was a finalist (though not in the top 25 and therefore not on the Web site) of the Glimmer Train Press's Fiction Open. Since I had already edited it pretty tightly, it should be tough to cut more.

As a rule of thumb, cut deeply, more than you feel comfortable with; then, if you can, set the manuscript aside for a week. Come back and see if you miss any of the words you had taken out. If you did, add them back in (make sure you saved your previous version!). Because you cut deeply, even if you add back a third of what you took out, you'll still have a pretty steep reduction in word count.

I'm not going to fully take my own advice here, because (a) I had already successfully cut 20% before submitting to Glimmer Train, and (b) I want my first blog post to go up. (Deadlines are deadlines, even if self-imposed.) Let's see if I can get 10% out of this section of "Old Oak". The original is 811 words, so I'm shooting for a reduction of 81 words, or 730 total.

Here's the original text:

For the next stage he needed help. His sons had worked with him when they were young men; John had left the business to become an attorney, but Alex had continued in the cabinetmaker's craft for a decade before becoming a general contractor. Alex was a better chip carver than his father, and his original patterns often appeared in woodworking magazines. His best work, a complete set of kitchen cabinets he had made and decorated for one of the local Brahmins, had appeared in Better Homes and Gardens.

"I don't get it, Dad," he said. "This whole thing is a little creepy."

"No, it's not. It's my coffin, so I get to decide what's creepy. I want it to be beautiful."

"Why?" Alex rubbed his eyes. "Do you think the ants care how good your coffin looks?"

"There won't be ants six feet under."

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do."

The two men looked at each other, the father placidly grinning, the son pursing his lips.

Alex finally dropped his eyes. "All right, Dad. If that's what you want."

Terrence didn't want Alex to tell anyone what the design was for, but there was no way to keep it quiet. How could his wife miss an elongated hexagon stretching over a man-sized sheet of butcher paper? Once she knew, there was no keeping it from anyone. Shelley's phone call came just two days after Alex left the shop. The call wore him out, but at least he knew that Alex had already started working.

John stopped by the church the next afternoon, rapping five times on the heavy oak door.

"Dad?"

"Come here. Look."

Terrence sat in the front pew near his workbench. His heart fluttered a little, but he willfully pretended it was elation. "Look," he said again. "The carcase is done. Ain't she beautiful?" He followed the swirling lines of deep honey brown as they flowed down the unfinished coffin. "All built, but no polyurethane on her yet. It's almost a shame to put it on."

"Right," John said. "You know it's no shame, dad. You always love the raw wood, and then you love it even more when you've shined her up."

Terrence grinned. "Well, I'm allowed." He stood up and pointed to the joint that would be next to his left elbow. "You see how the curve of the grain meets the edge here? And look here," he said, pointing at the narrow piece that would be above the top of his head, "wormholes, right in the middle of some nice tight grain. There's so much going on in that board, I could look at it all day."

"Is that why you're doing this? To look at the wood?"

He continued to gaze at the wormholes. "Sure," he said at last. "That's one reason." He turned and sat again on the pew.

"So why not build something else? I bet these benches would make a damn good hutch."

"Right." A silence settled between them like a layer of new-fallen snow. Finally Terrence took his eyes off the coffin, looked at his son. John had moved to the foot of the coffin, inspecting it — or at least acting like he was. "You won't find any flaws."

John laughed, and Terrence thought it was genuine. "When you don't figure that wormholes are flaws, I guess you're right," he said.

"Those are the best part."

"Right," John said. He ran his fingers along the rabbet that would hold the piano hinge.

Terrence smiled. He knew that John wouldn't find a single splinter — and he knew that John knew it, too.

"Dad, what are you doing?"

Finally. "Making a coffin."

"Dad," John said, "what are you doing?"

"Asked and answered."

The edges of John's mouth curled. Terrence loved it when he could make John smile, even a little bit. "You're still watching Law and Order, I guess."

"Go ahead, ask me something else."

"Why a coffin?"

"Why not?"

"Because you've got better things to do."

"Name two."

John wrinkled his nose in just that way — his mother's habit, when she didn't want to tell Terrence how annoyed she was with him.

"John, you wouldn't want me to stop combing my hair just because I'm gonna die sometime, would you?"

"You could teach the boys how to work wood."

"And I'm going to do that," Terrence said, "just as soon as I'm done with this project."

"Why wait?"

"Why not?"

"If you think this much— " John began. Then he scratched his head and rubbed his nose, as if chasing the words around his face. "If you think this much about dying, I'd think you'd want to get started sooner rather than later."

Terrence smiled, a real smile, large as the ocean. "That's why I've gotta do it now, John. Nobody else will worry about it as much as me."

I didn't quite make my goal. Here's what I came up with in half an hour:
For the next stage he needed help. His sons had worked with him as young men; John left the business to become an attorney, but Alex had continued as a cabinetmaker for a decade before becoming a general contractor. Alex was a better chip carver than his father, and his original patterns often appeared in woodworking magazines. His best work, a set of kitchen cabinets he had made and decorated for one of the local Brahmins, had appeared in Better Homes and Gardens.

"I don't get it, Dad," he said. "This whole thing is a little creepy."

"No, it's not. It's my coffin, so I decide what's creepy. I want it beautiful."

"Why?" Alex rubbed his eyes. "Do you think the ants care how good your coffin looks?"

"There won't be ants six feet under."

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do."

The two men looked at each other, the father placidly grinning, the son pursing his lips.

Alex dropped his eyes. "All right, Dad. If that's what you want."

Terrence didn't want anyone to know, but how could Alex's wife miss a man-sized hexagon traced on a sheet of butcher paper? She must have told Shelley, because she called Terrence just two days after Alex left the shop. The call wore him out, but at least he knew that Alex had started working.

John stopped by the church the next afternoon, rapping five times on the heavy oak door.

"Dad?"

"Come here. Look."

Terrence sat in the front pew near his workbench. He pretended that the fluttering of his heart was elation. "Look," he said again. "The carcase is done. Ain't she beautiful?" He followed the lines of deep honey as they flowed down the coffin. "All built, but no polyurethane yet. Almost a shame to put it on her."

"Right," John said. "You know it's no shame, dad. You always love the raw wood, and then you love it more when you've shined her up."

Terrence grinned. "Well, I'm allowed." He stood up and pointed to the joint that would be next to his left elbow. "See how the curve of the grain meets the edge here? And here," he said, pointing at the narrow piece that would be above the top of his head, "wormholes, right smack in some nice tight grain. There's so much going on, I could look at that board all day."

"Is that why you're doing this? To look at the wood?"

He continued to gaze at the wormholes. "Sure," he said at last. "That's one reason." He turned and sat again on the pew.

"So why not build something else? I bet these benches would make a damn good hutch."

"Right." A silence settled between them like a layer of new-fallen snow. Finally Terrence took his eyes off the coffin, looked at his son. John was inspecting the foot of the coffin — or at least pretending to. "You won't find any flaws."

John laughed, and Terrence thought it was genuine. "When you don't figure that wormholes are flaws, I guess you're right," he said.

"Those are the best part."

"Right," John said. He ran his fingers along the rabbet that would hold the piano hinge.

Terrence smiled. He knew that John wouldn't find a single splinter — and he knew that John knew it, too.

"Dad, what are you doing?"

Finally. "Making a coffin."

"Dad," John said, "what are you doing?"

"Asked and answered."

The edges of John's mouth curled. Terrence loved it when he could make John smile, even a little bit. "You're still watching Law and Order, I guess."

"Go ahead, ask me something else."

"Why a coffin?"

"Why not?"

"Because you've got better things to do."

"Name two."

John wrinkled his nose in just that way — his mother's habit, when she didn't want to tell Terrence how annoyed she was with him.

"John, I wouldn't stop combing my hair just because I'm gonna die sometime, would I?"

"You could teach the boys how to work wood."

"And I'll do that," Terrence said, "just as soon as I'm done with this project."

"Why wait?"

"Why not?"

"If you think this much— " John began. Then he scratched his head and rubbed his nose, as if chasing the words around his face. "If you think this much about dying, I'd think you'd want to get started sooner rather than later."

Terrence smiled, a real smile, large as the ocean. "That's why I've gotta do it now, John. Nobody else will worry about it as much as me."

That's a total of almost 55 words, or almost 7%. Although I didn't make my goal, I did go a little bit beyond my comfort zone, which is important. Cutting isn't everything, but it's too easy to cut too little. You can always put words back in.

Where did the words come from? Why did I cut so few of them?
  • Unnecessary description. This is a tough one for me personally. What's "unnecessary"? In the original, I wrote, "His best work, a complete set of kitchen cabinets". But does the reader really need to know that it was "a complete set"? "Complete" was cut from the final version. You can do a "death by a thousand cuts" walkthrough of a manuscript just looking for this type of one- or two-word cut to be made, over and over again.


  • Slight phrase alterations. I have to read a document in "cutting mode" to handle this. I can't just be editing, although sometimes while editing I notice where little alterations can fit; I have to read with my mind set to bounce around a bunch of alternative phrases.

    For example, the original read, "His sons had worked with him when they were young men". The cut version says, "His sons had worked with him as young men". The trigger here was seeing "were": forms of "to be" very often can be reworked.


  • Reworking paragraphs. I do this a lot in my own work, but I don't do it often for other people. Too often, you can change what the text sounds like. When I reworked a paragraph in this example, I wasn't very comfortable with the results, but I think I'll sit on it for a while before I decide what to do. Here's the original:
    Terrence didn't want Alex to tell anyone what the design was for, but there was no way to keep it quiet. How could his wife miss an elongated hexagon stretching over a man-sized sheet of butcher paper? Once she knew, there was no keeping it from anyone. Shelley's phone call came just two days after Alex left the shop. The call wore him out, but at least he knew that Alex had already started working.
    ...and here's the final:
    Terrence didn't want anyone to know, but how could Alex's wife miss a man-sized hexagon traced on a sheet of butcher paper? She must have told Shelley, because she called Terrence just two days after Alex left the shop. The call wore him out, but at least he knew that Alex had started working.

    Word count: 54 vs. 75, or 28%.


  • Dialogue. Most dialogue isn't concise, so I couldn't easily cut superfluous phrases without sounding unnatural. Since most of this section was dialogue, I couldn't cut everything as far to the bone as I might like. When Alex says "All right, Dad. If that's what you want", either the first sentence or the second could be cut without changing the meaning; but that didn't sound like a real person talking. (To see whether something sounds natural, try reading the passage -- not just one sentence in isolation -- out loud.)

    On the other hand, I had already decided that Terrence would be terse, so I could cut him in several spots: "And I'm going to do that" became "And I'll do that" (6 became 4), and "wormholes, right in the middle of some nice tight grain" became "wormholes, right smack in some nice tight grain" (10 became 8). That's a lot of effort for four words, but when you consider the original was 16 words, that's a 25% cut.

    There are other little spots where I edited Terrence down, too. "No, it's not. It's my coffin, so I get to decide what's creepy. I want it to be beautiful." became "No, it's not. It's my coffin, so I decide what's creepy. I want it beautiful." -- 19 becomes 15, for a 21% cut. After making that cut, I decided I liked it better anyway. It's less "perfect", and thus more real: I used cutting to help me find a character's voice.

    Finding a balance for your character is important. If all I were worried about was cutting, I'd cut either "right" or "smack": "wormholes, right in some nice tight grain" or "wormholes, smack in some nice tight grain". It didn't sound right, though, so I left it.

I think that's where I'm going to end this entry. Please comment, add your suggestions, and, if you're interested in having your work cut, send no more than 1000 words to cutting.blog@gmail.com.

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