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

Friday, August 28, 2009

Crunching with Tony and Grouch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maia shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why risk making it worse, though?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why the house?"

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

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

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

Let's cut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maia shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why the house?"

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

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

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

"Ten-thirty, usually," Tony said.

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

"Why the house?"

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

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

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

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

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

-----

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maia shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why risk making it worse?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Ten-thirty, usually," Tony said.

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

"Why the house?"

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

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

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

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Trimming a Slow Spot

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

Anyway, off we go...


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

What do you think?

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments are welcome, as always.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Tripendicular Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's start.


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

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

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



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

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

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

Cut:
I had followed the staff publications for years.

Savings: 9 words, 53%.


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

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

Savings: 7 words, 27%.


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

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

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

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

"working on" is redundant with "developing".

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

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

Savings: 12 words, 52%.

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


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

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

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

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

Savings: 15 words, 41%.


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

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

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

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

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

Savings: 39 words, 37%.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Savings: 25 words, 32%.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Savings: 25 words, 42%.


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

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

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

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

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

Savings: 37 words, 37%.


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

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

Savings: 8 words, 25%.


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

I think the second sentence is unnecessary.

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

Savings: 14 words, 52%.


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

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

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

Savings: 7 words, 11%.


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

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

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

Savings: 15 words, 41%.


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

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

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

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

Savings: 21 words, 20%.


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

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

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

Savings: 31 words, 41%.


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

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

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

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

Savings: 14 words, 31%.


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

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

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

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

Savings: 3 words, 12%.


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

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

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

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

Savings: 16 words, 21%.


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



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

Savings: 19 words, 23%.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

638 words from 987: a 35% cut.

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

What do you think?

Regards,
Jake

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

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cutting a Piece of Art

Watch what you ask for.

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

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


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

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

Sometimes I think he does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's start.


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


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


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

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


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


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



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


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


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

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



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

He must.

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

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

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

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

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Short Story Opener

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

Here's his original:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Good writing!

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Example: Old Oak

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

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

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

Here's the original text:

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

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

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

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

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

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do."

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

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

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

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

"Dad?"

"Come here. Look."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Those are the best part."

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

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

"Dad, what are you doing?"

Finally. "Making a coffin."

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

"Asked and answered."

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

"Go ahead, ask me something else."

"Why a coffin?"

"Why not?"

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

"Name two."

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

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

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

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

"Why wait?"

"Why not?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do."

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

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

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

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

"Dad?"

"Come here. Look."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Those are the best part."

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

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

"Dad, what are you doing?"

Finally. "Making a coffin."

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

"Asked and answered."

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

"Go ahead, ask me something else."

"Why a coffin?"

"Why not?"

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

"Name two."

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

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

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

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

"Why wait?"

"Why not?"

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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