Thursday, July 25, 2013

A cup of Joe Klippelt.

This week's piece is the rough draft introduction to a WIP by Australian Joe Klippelt. (I mention his origin only because their spelling conventions and word usage are more UKanian than Amercan, which I ignore in this boiling.) 

It's got a casual, hey-I'm-talking-to-you feel that needs to be preserved as we boil down the 533 words.

The Original:

It’s funny how popular history works. I say the word “Salem” and what do you think of? Witches, right? Being hanged or burned at the stake? Of course. It’s one of those “dark periods of human history” that we, in our safe, modern society find so fascinating.

Salem. The Crusades. The plagues. The World Wars. Accounts of of strife, death and suffering make for much more interesting reading than farmers’ almanacs from the same periods.

But we especially seem to be fascinated by tales of the supernatural – witches, vampires, werewolves, zombies. Just look at some of the most popular books, TV shows and films from the last decade alone.  Maybe it’s because, unlike religious crusades, horrific pandemics or warfare, we really are safe from the monsters. Because of course, monsters don’t exist. They can ALL be rationalised away as hallucinogenic fungus infections, porphyria, superstition, mental illness and mass hysteria.

Right?

Wrong.

They most certainly are real. How do I know? I am one.

If I had been born during the 300 year witch panic that engulfed Europe and parts of America from the 15th until the 17th century, I most certainly would have been placed on trial and murdered along with the 47,366 other unfortunates. Hell, even today in certain parts of the world, if I were to make public the things I can do I would be stoned, or burned, or even flayed alive.

We like our monsters on paper and celluloid, not on the streets.

I’m not a vampire, although I know a few, and I’m not a werewolf either, though I know at least one pack of those. I’m not a zombie, but if you want to see mindless hordes doggedly pursuing an ephemeral goal with single-minded determination, look around any office or shopping centre. I’m not even technically a witch, although it does depend on who you ask. For example, don’t ask the Church.

See, magic is stage illusion. Magick is real. I can perform magick. I can see and speak to the dead. I can heal or harm with a touch. I can influence the weather and talk to animals. Sometimes, they talk back. I don’t know how I can do these and other unusual things, so don’t expect a scientific explanation. I just can, and have done since I can remember.

Now if I’m telling the truth, you might be thinking to yourself, it must be pretty nifty to be me. It really isn’t. In fact, most days it truly sucks. Primarily because I’m not the only one who has “special powers”, and I’m not friends with everyone who does. In fact, most of them are my mortal enemies, and would murder me on sight. Even some “normal” folk who know what we are capable of would happily see us smooshed into a messy puddle. Many governments around the world even secretly fund and equip clandestine “investigators” with that very aim in mind. So in that regard, I’m not much better off than those poor souls who burned at the stake 300 years ago.

But if I am going to be really honest with you, being me does have some upsides. Let me tell you about one...

The Condensation:

It’s funny how popular history works. I say the word “Salem” and what do you think of? Witches, right? Being hanged or burned at the stake? Of course. It’s one of those “dark periods of human history” that we, in our safe, modern society find so fascinating.

"I say the word" is perhaps too familiar, especially given that the rhetorical questions already make this a direct address to the reader. A quick trim gives us:

It’s funny how popular history works. What does “Salem” make you think of? Witches, right? Being hanged or burned at the stake? Of course. It’s one of those “dark periods of human history” that we, in our safe, modern society find so fascinating.

Salem. The Crusades. The plagues. The World Wars. Accounts of of strife, death and suffering make for much more interesting reading than farmers’ almanacs from the same periods.

The double "of" has to go, of course.

"Make for much" is the same thing as "are", and because in order to have survived until now it had to have been written down, "reading" is redundant.

Salem. The Crusades. The plagues. The World Wars. Accounts of strife, death and suffering are more interesting than farmers’ almanacs from the same periods.

But we especially seem to be fascinated by tales of the supernatural – witches, vampires, werewolves, zombies. Just look at some of the most popular books, TV shows and films from the last decade alone.  Maybe it’s because, unlike religious crusades, horrific pandemics or warfare, we really are safe from the monsters. Because of course, monsters don’t exist. They can ALL be rationalised away as hallucinogenic fungus infections, porphyria, superstition, mental illness and mass hysteria.

Right?

Wrong.

This paragraph needs almost no rephrasing, just some red lines from the editor's pen.

We can boil out the adverb "especially", as well as both "to be" and "tales of".

"Just" is filler, and can go. "some of" and "most popular" don't serve enough purpose to justify 
their inclusion, either.

Crusades are religious, pandemics are horrific. The phrase "we really are safe from the monsters" is redundant with the fact that they don't exist. "Because of course" is overfamiliar again, and we can boil it out.

The one spot I rephrased is the last sentence. "They can be rationalized away" fails the "by zombies" test, so I changed it to something more active.

But we seem fascinated by the supernatural – witches, vampires, werewolves, zombies. Look at the books, TV shows and films from the last decade alone.  Maybe it’s because, unlike crusades, pandemics or warfare, monsters don’t exist. We can rationalise them away as hallucinogenic fungus infections, porphyria, superstition, mental illness and mass hysteria.

Right?

Wrong.

They most certainly are real. How do I know? I am one.

"most certainly" just makes the sentence longer.

I boiled out "How do I know?" because it's redundant with the information, and because even though this is first person dialogue, rhetorical questions are astoundingly easy to overdo.

They're real. I am one.

If I had been born during the 300 year witch panic that engulfed Europe and parts of America from the 15th until the 17th century, I most certainly would have been placed on trial and murdered along with the 47,366 other unfortunates. Hell, even today in certain parts of the world, if I were to make public the things I can do I would be stoned, or burned, or even flayed alive.

"I had" can become a contraction. The time/place of the witch panic is common knowledge, which can always be omitted. "most certainly" is clutter.

I want to take a moment and discuss 47,366 in detail.

This level of specificity is almost never needed. It's okay to round. We see it all the time in approximations, too--a person is "about 5'9" or "around two hundred and ten pounds". Nobody assumes these kinds of numbers are perfect, so we can round them without saying that it's approximate.

Even if it's the correct number, it forces the reader to pause and say, "Really? Do we know that accurately? Does the main character? If he does, how?" Unless his knowledge of this specificity is important to the plot, it becomes a mental anchor on the paragraph.

Finally, when it comes to reading a number like that, some people will skim over it but others will read it out, so in their head this is a boiling from "forty-seven thousand, three hundred and sixty-six" (eight words) to "fifty thousand" (two words), a much more efficient nugget of information. Microsoft Word counts this as an addition of one word, but your brain won't.

The last sentence can boil down a bit by realizing that the "making public" part is implied; if people didn't know, there'd be no consequences.

If I'd been born during the 300 year witch panic, I would have been placed on trial and murdered along with the fifty thousand other unfortunates. Hell, today in certain parts of the world I'd be stoned, or burned, or even flayed alive for what I can do.

We like our monsters on paper and celluloid, not on the streets.

No changes here.

We like our monsters on paper and celluloid, not on the streets.

I’m not a vampire, although I know a few, and I’m not a werewolf either, though I know at least one pack of those. I’m not a zombie, but if you want to see mindless hordes doggedly pursuing an ephemeral goal with single-minded determination, look around any office or shopping centre. I’m not even technically a witch, although it does depend on who you ask. For example, don’t ask the Church.

I've never been a big fan of using precious words to tell people what isn't, but this has the feel of a bit of a confession, so I think it's probably okay. I'd need to see the rest of the story to make a final determination on whether or not we could get away with eliminating this entire paragraph. So for the purposes of Word Soup, let's keep it and boil it down.

The beasties in the first sentence can be combined.

"even" is clutter, as is "For example".

"although it does depend" = "depending".

I’m not a vampire or werewolf, although I know some of each. I’m not a zombie, but if you want to see mindless hordes doggedly pursuing an ephemeral goal with single-minded determination, look around any office or shopping centre. I’m not technically a witch, depending on who you ask. Don’t ask the Church.

See, magic is stage illusion. Magick is real. I can perform magick. I can see and speak to the dead. I can heal or harm with a touch. I can influence the weather and talk to animals. Sometimes, they talk back. I don’t know how I can do these and other unusual things, so don’t expect a scientific explanation. I just can, and have done since I can remember.

The first line is overdone nominalism--what you call it doesn't change what it is--and it comes across as trite. On the other hand, we want to convey the information. For the sake of style, I think it would be better to change the first two sentences even if it adds words.

There are six "can"s in this paragraph, and it reads like it.

"can perform" = "do".

"I can see" can lose the can, as can "I can influence". (Wow. Say that ten times fast.)

"I can do these and other unusual things" is clutter.

"with a touch" can become "my touch".

"have done" is very British, which is fine, but because "since I can remember" is close enough to "always" in a personal narrative, we end up boiling it out anyway.

We in the know call stage illusion magic, and the real stuff magick. I do magick. I see and speak to the dead. My touch can heal or harm. I influence the weather and talk to animals. Sometimes they talk back. I don’t know how, so don’t expect a scientific explanation. I just always have.

Now if I’m telling the truth, you might be thinking to yourself, it must be pretty nifty to be me. It really isn’t. In fact, most days it truly sucks. Primarily because I’m not the only one who has “special powers”, and I’m not friends with everyone who does. In fact, most of them are my mortal enemies, and would murder me on sight. Even some “normal” folk who know what we are capable of would happily see us smooshed into a messy puddle. Many governments around the world even secretly fund and equip clandestine “investigators” with that very aim in mind. So in that regard, I’m not much better off than those poor souls who burned at the stake 300 years ago.

That is one big honkin' paragraph. Let's boil it down, see how it looks, then see if it needs to be (and can) be split.

"Now if I'm telling the truth" is something I might cut, but it does key the reader into the fact that the narrator knows that the reader might think he's lying, so it's important enough to keep if and only if this is important characterization. I'm going to assume it is and leave it in. (This is another of those times where dialogue between editor and author would be necessary.)

I understand that when dealing with the supernatural, it may be possible to think to someone else, but if so, that's the situation that should be called out. Otherwise, all thinking is to one's self.

"pretty nifty to be me" = "nifty being me". ("pretty" is clutter either way).

The evilest of all adverbs is "really". It has its place, once in a great while, but can almost always be eliminated with no loss of content.

"In fact" is clutter. Even in a familiar narrative like this, once is probably too much. Twice in the same paragraph is definitely too much.

"truly" can go.

"Primarily because I'm not the only one who has "special powers" is redundant--we already know there are vampires, werewolves, and those who do magick.

"mortal enemies" is redundant with "murder me on sight".

"Even" and "happily" can go.

"Many" in front of "governments around the world" is another case where specificity isn't needed--whether or not it's all governments probably isn't important to the story. "around the world" can go, because, well, where else would these governments be? "secretly" is redundant with "clandestine", and we can boil out almost every "very" we find. On a re-read post-edits, I felt that combining this sentence with the one before it reads better, at the cost of an added "and".

"in that regard" is a bit like "in fact"; it doesn't serve a purpose.

In looking at what's left, it can be split into two paragraphs.

Now if I’m telling the truth, you might think it must be nifty being me. It isn’t. Most days it sucks.

I’m not friends with everyone with "special powers". Most would murder me on sight. Some “normal” folk would see us smooshed into a messy puddle, and governments fund clandestine “investigators” with that aim in mind. So I’m not much better off than those poor souls who burned at the stake 300 years ago.

But if I am going to be really honest with you, being me does have some upsides. Let me tell you about one...

Just a few little things here:

"I am" = "I'm", kill the "really", and "does have" = "has".

But if I'm going to be honest with you, being me has some upsides. Let me tell you about one...

Having read the final draft, I'm convinced that the "what I'm not" paragraph doesn't need to be there. "I'm not a werewolf, vampire, or zombie" is redundant with "I do magick." "I'm not a witch" conflicts with "don't ask the church"--if the church thinks he(?)'s a witch, then to some extent he's a witch; if he disagrees with the label, this can come out later in the story in a seamless manner.

...and I have no idea if he's a he, but I assume that will become apparent at some point later in the story.

The final product:

It’s funny how popular history works. What does “Salem” make you think of? Witches, right? Being hanged or burned at the stake? Of course. It’s one of those “dark periods of human history” that we, in our safe, modern society find so fascinating.

Salem. The Crusades. The plagues. The World Wars. Accounts of strife, death and suffering are more interesting than farmers’ almanacs from the same periods.

But we seem fascinated by the supernatural – witches, vampires, werewolves, zombies. Look at the books, TV shows and films from the last decade alone.  Maybe it’s because, unlike crusades, pandemics or warfare, monsters don’t exist. We can rationalise them away as hallucinogenic fungus infections, porphyria, superstition, mental illness and mass hysteria.

Right?
Wrong. 
They're real. I am one. 
If I'd been born during the 300 year witch panic, I would have been placed on trial and murdered along with the fifty thousand other unfortunates. Hell, today in certain parts of the world I'd be stoned, or burned, or even flayed alive for what I can do.

We like our monsters on paper and celluloid, not on the streets. 
We in the know call stage illusion magic, and the real stuff magick. I do magick. I see and speak to the dead. My touch can heal or harm. I influence the weather and talk to animals. Sometimes they talk back. I don’t know how, so don’t expect a scientific explanation. I just always have.

Now if I’m telling the truth, you might think it must be nifty being me. It isn’t. Most days it sucks.

I’m not friends with everyone with "special powers". Most would murder me on sight. Some “normal” folk would see us smooshed into a messy puddle, and governments fund clandestine “investigators” with that aim in mind. So I’m not much better off than those poor souls who burned at the stake 300 years ago. 
But if I'm going to be honest with you, being me has some upsides. Let me tell you about one...


That's 334 words down from 533. 199 words comes out to a 37% reduction. How did I do?