Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Boiling named Sue

Sue Jerrems sent me a 590-word snippet of her work in progress. Here it is:

     In the past year, he did not think much more could go wrong in his life.  Hard to believe a few years ago he thought he had the world in his hand.  Everything he wanted from life--his own business thriving and growing; a beautiful house in a nice neighborhood; a gorgeous wife and two children, a boy and girl--was his.  Before their fifth anniversary however, he already suspected the marriage was not all he had hoped for.

     The first glimpse of Elaine, back in 1965, astounded him.  Her blond hair was stacked in a woven beehive.  The mini-skirts, which just started a scandalous craze, looked fabulous topping her long shapely legs.  At his shop, when she stepped out of her Mustang, one of the first muscle cars Ford built, her allure entrapped him. 

     Most of the desire was young raging male hormones and an inflated ego.  Conscious of his image, he kept his body well muscled and trim, while letting his hair reach almost to his shoulders in a small show of rebellion.  At only twenty-two, to be the sole owner of such a successful car repair and restoration shop made him unusual, too.  He had the money to indulge himself and the women he dated, giving him an edge over the competition.  Not to mention, the relaxing attitudes of the 60’s had allowed him to have far freer ways with the ladies. 

     Since she was three years older than Chuck, he did not expect her to respond to his advances.  Yet, with enough money to indulge her whims, she not only noticed him but enjoyed his company.  At least he thought she did, when he was so full of himself he did not heed the warnings of his lifelong friends.  No matter that they called her a predator and gold-digger, he chalked their attitude up to jealousy. 

     So what, he thought, if at twenty-five she was a divorcee; everyone can make a mistake.  True, she scorned shopping in Flint, but then on a body as fine as hers, getting her clothes at JC Penny or Montgomery Wards seemed ludicrous.  He did not mind taking her on the shopping expeditions down in Detroit.  Afterwards they stopped by the London Chop House for dinner and spent the night at the new Hotel Pontchartrain.  With her encouragement, Elaine made him believe he was a big shot, while she snagged another victim in her web of greed.   

     Now, a decade after their first meeting, he wished to God he had listened.  Failing that, when she became pregnant ‘accidentally’ in spite of claiming she was on the pill and his using condoms, he wished he saw her intent.  Infatuation blinded him.  He wanted a family, loved the idea of having someone to settle down with and share his success.  If he needed to marry her to make her an honest woman and legitimize their child, the creation of a family brought him closer to what he sought for his future. 

      The first warning bell should have chimed at the wedding.  The ceremony had been completely overdone, and even with her parents picking up half the bill, the spectacle left him in debt.  She deliberately chatted with her maid of honor while Bucky gave his toast.  The guy standing at his side, his best man, offering a salute to their future, was his closest friend, his guiding force, and yet she showed him no respect.  After the wedding, he quickly found she dismissed most of his old friends as trivial and beneath him.

The Condensation:

     In the past year, he did not think much more could go wrong in his life.  Hard to believe a few years ago he thought he had the world in his hand.  Everything he wanted from life--his own business thriving and growing; a beautiful house in a nice neighborhood; a gorgeous wife and two children, a boy and girl--was his.  Before their fifth anniversary however, he already suspected the marriage was not all he had hoped for.

Judicious use of contractions helps keep prose from becoming stilted. "Did not" can become "didn't" with no trouble. We can consolidate "In the past year" and "in his life" to the phrase "in one year".

"Hard to believe" is redundant with the first sentence, and because we're in his POV, we don't need "he thought". "In the past year" conflicts with "a few years ago".

I'm not a fan of splitting up sentences when it can be avoided, and we have the semicolons anyway. So why not say, "He had everything--" and then do the list? But even that's redundant with the prior sentence, so let's combine them. Because he had it, we don't need to say "his own" business, and if it's growing, it's thriving (or vice-versa), so we can pick which of those we like the best and go with it. Boy children are sons, girl children are daughters.

In the last sentence, the "however" is there to contrast the joy of the previous sentence, but might be better said as "but". "Already" isn't needed. "Was not" = "wasn't", and "he had" = "he'd". I'm going to keep "the marriage" instead of changing it to "his marriage" or "their marriage", because from the whole passage it seems that this emotional distance is intentional.

Finally, give us his name up-front.


Chuck didn't think much more could go wrong in one year. He'd had everything--a thriving business, a beautiful house in a nice neighborhood, a gorgeous wife, a son and a daughter. But by their fifth anniversary, he suspected the marriage wasn't all he'd hoped for.


     The first glimpse of Elaine, back in 1965, astounded him.  Her blond hair was stacked in a woven beehive.  The mini-skirts, which just started a scandalous craze, looked fabulous topping her long shapely legs.  At his shop, when she stepped out of her Mustang, one of the first muscle cars Ford built, her allure entrapped him. 

I'd change "The" to "His", just to make it more active. As the past is implicit, we don't need "back". The "in 1965" clutters up the sentence, so we can find a better way to incorporate the date.

Her blond hair was stacked...by zombies. Get rid of the was, and choose an active verb. Incidentally, male blonds are blond, female blondes are blonde. As we're describing his first glimpse, I'd not pluralize mini-skirt.

"Which had just started" = "that new", and would only look fabulous if those long legs were shapely. And to be a bit of a sexist pig for a moment, a man wouldn't think that the mini-skirt looked fabulous on those legs, he'd think that those legs looked great in that mini-skirt!

I don't think it's necessary to tell the reader that he Mustang was one of Ford's first muscle cars; those who know don't need to be told, and those who don't know almost definitely don't care. Furthermore, I very much doubt that this piece of information furthers the plot, and it breaks up the narrative, so we should boil it out. "Her allure entrapped him" is two words too long.

Finally, the structure of the paragraph is a bit disjointed. It would flow more if the description was melded with the action.

His first glimpse of Elaine astounded him. She pulled up to his shop in her brand new 1965 Mustang, a blonde beehive crowning her head. She stepped out on fabulous long legs under that scandalous new craze, a mini-skirt, and entrapped him.



     Most of the desire was young raging male hormones and an inflated ego.  Conscious of his image, he kept his body well muscled and trim, while letting his hair reach almost to his shoulders in a small show of rebellion.  At only twenty-two, to be the sole owner of such a successful car repair and restoration shop made him unusual, too.  He had the money to indulge himself and the women he dated, giving him an edge over the competition.  Not to mention, the relaxing attitudes of the 60’s had allowed him to have far freer ways with the ladies. 

We know he's male, and we learn in the paragraph that he was twenty-two at the time, so "young" can go. "Raging horemones" and "inflated ego" are a trite phrases; both can boil out a word.

"Conscious of his image"  = "Image-conscious". Well-muscled has a hyphen. "While letting his hair reach" = "his hair".

"At only twenty-two, to be the sole owner of" = "Owning [X] at twenty-two", and we can kill the "such"--we know it was thriving from the previous paragraph. A car repair and restoration shop is a garage.

Make "the money" the topic of the next sentence.

The last sentence is almost all clutter. "Not to mention" is a phrase that can always be boiled out--because you're mentioning it. Everyone knows what the sixties were, so there's no need to belabor the point... but we can use it to add a little characterization.

Most of his desire stemmed from hormones and ego. Image-conscious, he kept his body well-muscled and trim, and his hair almost touched his shoulders in a small show of rebellion. Owning a successful garage at twenty-two made him unusual. The money to indulge gave him an edge over the competition, and hell, it was the sixties.


     Since she was three years older than Chuck, he did not expect her to respond to his advances.  Yet, with enough money to indulge her whims, she not only noticed him but enjoyed his company.  At least he thought she did, when he was so full of himself he did not heed the warnings of his lifelong friends.  No matter that they called her a predator and gold-digger, he chalked their attitude up to jealousy.

Here, we say that she's three years older, and in the next paragraph that she's twenty-five. We don't need both.

We've got an echo on "indulge" here--we just used it in the prior paragraph. Let's change this one to "cater to". (Yes, I just added a word! Eeek!) "Not only noticed him" is redundant with "enjoyed his company".

We should be in past perfect tense here, and you're not. Also, I'd contract "did not" and change "the warnings of his lifelong friends" to "his friends' warnings." (Any "of" phrase like this can likely be condensed and made more active in one fell swoop.)

The clauses in the last sentence can be made a little more rhythmic.

He didn't expect a twenty-five-year-old to respond to his advances. Yet, with enough money to cater to her whims, she'd enjoyed his company. At least he thought she had, when he was so full of himself he hadn't heeded his friends' warnings. They called her a gold-digger; he called them jealous.

     So what, he thought, if at twenty-five she was a divorcee; everyone can make a mistake.  True, she scorned shopping in Flint, but then on a body as fine as hers, getting her clothes at JC Penny or Montgomery Wards seemed ludicrous.  He did not mind taking her on the shopping expeditions down in Detroit.  Afterwards they stopped by the London Chop House for dinner and spent the night at the new Hotel Pontchartrain.  With her encouragement, Elaine made him believe he was a big shot, while she snagged another victim in her web of greed.   

We don't need "he thought" when we're in his POV.

The next sentence can be condensed a little by combining the latter two thirds.

The fact that he took her shopping is implicit that they'd stop by the Chop House.

Something funny about the words "afterwards", "towards", "backwards", and others of their ilk: they're correct with or without the 's' at the end, but while the 's' at the end annoys some people (famously some Big Six-now-Five editors), the versions with no 's' don't. I have no idea why.

"they stopped by for dinner" = "they'd get dinner"

If it matters for ambiance that the hotel is new, call it "brand new". If not, boil it out.

"With her encouragement" is unneeded, and he is the "another victim". This sentence is quite effective at (in Chuck's mind at least) displacing all blame onto Elaine.

So what if she was a divorcee at twenty-five; everyone makes mistakes. True, she scorned shopping in Flint, but it was ludicrous to frame her fine body with JC Penny or Montgomery Wards. He didn't mind the shopping expeditions to Detroit. Afterward they'd get dinner at the London Chop House and spend the night at the Hotel Pontchartrain. Elaine made him believe he was a big shot as she entangled him in her web of greed.

     Now, a decade after their first meeting, he wished to God he had listened.  Failing that, when she became pregnant ‘accidentally’ in spite of claiming she was on the pill and his using condoms, he wished he saw her intent.  Infatuation blinded him.  He wanted a family, loved the idea of having someone to settle down with and share his success.  If he needed to marry her to make her an honest woman and legitimize their child, the creation of a family brought him closer to what he sought for his future. 

"Now" isn't needed, and "a decade after their first meeting" = "a decade later".

"when she became pregnant 'accidentally'" = "her 'accidental' pregnancy. And of course she was on the pill and he was using condoms--it could hardly be the other way around. We can combine "he wished he saw her intent" with the beginning of the sentence.

"of having someone" is redundant with "share".

"If he needed to marry her to make her" = "If marriage made her", and "what he sought for his future" = "the future he wanted." This sentence is effective in conveying his narcissism; I like the irony, especially combined with the last sentence of the previous paragraph, and we have to be careful to preserve it.

A decade later, he wished to God he'd listened. Failing that, he wished he'd seen the intent of her 'accidental' pregnancy, despite the pill and condoms. Infatuation blinded him. He wanted a family, loved the idea of settling down and sharing his success. If marriage made her an honest woman and legitimized their child, the creation of a family brought him closer to the future he wanted.

      The first warning bell should have chimed at the wedding.  The ceremony had been completely overdone, and even with her parents picking up half the bill, the spectacle left him in debt.  She deliberately chatted with her maid of honor while Bucky gave his toast.  The guy standing at his side, his best man, offering a salute to their future, was his closest friend, his guiding force, and yet she showed him no respect.  After the wedding, he quickly found she dismissed most of his old friends as trivial and beneath him.

The first and second sentence can be combined, the adverb boiled away, and just generally tidied up.

The next two sentences should be combined, because "she showed him no respect" is a redundant tell-not-show with the deliberate chatting.

The last sentence can boil down by eliminating the adverb and the qualifiers "most" and "old". "Him" should change to "them", because it's more manipulative that way.

The first warning bell should have chimed at their overdone wedding, a spectacle that left him in debt despite her parents picking up half of the bill. While Bucky, his best man, his closest friend, his guiding force, offered a toast to their future, she chatted with her maid of honor. After the wedding she dismissed his friends as trivial and beneath them.

And that boils down to:

Chuck didn't think much more could go wrong in one year. He'd had everything--a thriving business, a beautiful house in a nice neighborhood, a gorgeous wife, a son and a daughter. But by their fifth anniversary, he suspected the marriage wasn't all he'd hoped for.

His first glimpse of Elaine astounded him. She pulled up to his shop in her brand new 1965 Mustang, a blonde beehive crowning her head. She stepped out on fabulous long legs under that scandalous new craze, a mini-skirt, and entrapped him.

Most of his desire stemmed from hormones and ego. Image-conscious, he kept his body well-muscled and trim, and his hair almost touched his shoulders in a small show of rebellion. Owning a successful garage at twenty-two made him unusual. The money to indulge gave him an edge over the competition, and hell, it was the sixties.

He didn't expect a twenty-five-year-old to respond to his advances. Yet, with enough money to cater to her whims, she'd enjoyed his company. At least he thought she had, when he was so full of himself he hadn't heeded his friends' warnings. They called her a gold-digger; he called them jealous.

So what if she was a divorcee at twenty-five; everyone makes mistakes. True, she scorned shopping in Flint, but it was ludicrous to frame her fine body with JC Penny or Montgomery Wards. He didn't mind the shopping expeditions to Detroit. Afterward they'd get dinner at the London Chop House and spend the night at the Hotel Pontchartrain. Elaine made him believe he was a big shot as she entangled him in her web of greed.

A decade later, he wished to God he'd listened. Failing that, he wished he'd seen the intent of her 'accidental' pregnancy, despite the pill and condoms. Infatuation blinded him. He wanted a family, loved the idea of settling down and sharing his success. If marriage made her an honest woman and legitimized their child, the creation of a family brought him closer to the future he wanted.

The first warning bell should have chimed at their overdone wedding, a spectacle that left him in debt despite her parents picking up half of the bill. While Bucky, his best man, his closest friend, his guiding force, offered a toast to their future, she chatted with her maid of honor. After the wedding she dismissed his friends as trivial and beneath them.


That's 590 words down to 401, a reduction of 32%. I took a few liberties with this exercise that an editor wouldn't without consulting the author. How'd I do?