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

Friday, September 28, 2007

Kate and David

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

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

How could information be expected to infiltrate sleeping minds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Kate, will you foil David yet again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here's the new version:

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

How can information infiltrate sleeping minds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Kate, will you foil David yet again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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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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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?

Labels: ,

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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