Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Boiling Brendan Coleman

This week's post comes from Brendan Coleman, a friend-from-the-web who's just trying his hand at this whole writing thing. He sent me 502 words of zombie goodness to condense. Let's see what we can do.

The Original:

John smiled as he drew the bowstring. Thoughts of archery classes at his Cub Scout Summer camp came unbidden to him. He had found a joy in archery and had taken to it with a passion. Now, ten years later, he was a bow hunter and had competed in regional competitions, placing rather well in them all. He took a breath and released an arrow.

It sailed through the air and hit its mark, piercing the skull of his shambling prey and dropping it. John ran across the parking lot, keeping low and using cars for cover, and retrieved his arrow from the zombie. This was the only one between him and the supermarket's front door, but, there were more than he cared to deal with ambling around.

To his dismay, the door to the store was locked and all the windows appeared to be intact. John had brought a pry-bar along and pulled it out of his backpack. He jabbed it into the glass near where the lock was, but, the bar bounced off, barely scratching it. He jabbed harder. Nothing. He leaned back and then jabbed as hard as he could. He had successfully scuffed the glass. Then he noticed the change in the moans. He looked out into the lot and several of the shamblers had noticed him. And the ones who hadn't would soon enough notice the ones who had noticed him.

'Shit,' he muttered. John backed away from the door, keeping them in his line of sight the whole time. Some of them could be quick and taking your eyes off of them was a good way to get dead. He made his way to the corner of the building and gave a quick glace around it. There were two undead. Then he noticed the employee's only door was cracked open slightly. How had he missed that, he wondered. He moved quickly towards it, cracking the first zombie in the head with his pry-bar. The second one tripped on a crack and John jumped over it and kept going. He went in and pulled the door shut behind him.

He crept into the store, staying alert and looked up at the signs at the end of the aisles. Pet stuff, paper products, kitchen stuff, canned food. This was his first stop. There were cans strewn on the floor and the shelves had been raided, but, they weren't empty. He walked along and checked the cans on the floor. Several cans of lima beans, some tuna, a can of corn. Someone was still a fussy eater, even during the apocalypse. John stuck them in his backpack. He grabbed a few more cans off the shelf for good measure.

The back of the store was all of the refrigerated and perishable stuff. It was all perished.

The next aisle had a body half way along and John decided he'd skip this one. It was all deodorant and smelling good was the last he was worried about these days.

The Condensation:

So my first impression is "wall of text". The paragraphs are too large, but this should be easy to fix as we go. Some of them might condense down on their own, others may be split up.

John smiled as he drew the bowstring. Thoughts of archery classes at his Cub Scout Summer camp came unbidden to him. He had found a joy in archery and had taken to it with a passion. Now, ten years later, he was a bow hunter and had competed in regional competitions, placing rather well in them all. He took a breath and released an arrow.

"as he" = "and".

The second sentence is almost entirely redundant with the third.

In the third, one would not take to archery with a passion without finding joy in it.

My issue with the fourth sentence isn't so much in how it's phrased, but that it's there. We have to slog through this sentence that essentially tells us that he's good, but we get that anyway when he hits his target--which is much more interesting at this point than his background.

"took a breath" = inhaled, and I added "held it" to the last sentence, because that's what you do.

John smiled and drew the bowstring. In Cub Scouts a decade prior he'd taken to archery with a passion. He inhaled, held it, and released.

It sailed through the air and hit its mark, piercing the skull of his shambling prey and dropping it. John ran across the parking lot, keeping low and using cars for cover, and retrieved his arrow from the zombie. This was the only one between him and the supermarket's front door, but, there were more than he cared to deal with ambling around.

The arrow could hardly have pierced the skull of his prey without both sailing through the air and hitting its mark. We can then remove "and" from the shortened sentence.

Because humans are taller than cars, John can't use them for cover without keeping low. As a general rule, try to pick just one descriptor for any given action.

Let's boil this paragraph down further by frontloading the supermarket information, then bumping the last sentence to the middle.

It pierced the skull of his shambling prey, dropping the only zombie between him and the supermarket. More than he cared to deal with ambled nearby. He ran across the parking lot, using cars for cover, and retrieved his arrow.

To his dismay, the door to the store was locked and all the windows appeared to be intact. John had brought a pry-bar along and pulled it out of his backpack. He jabbed it into the glass near where the lock was, but, the bar bounced off, barely scratching it. He jabbed harder. Nothing. He leaned back and then jabbed as hard as he could. He had successfully scuffed the glass. Then he noticed the change in the moans. He looked out into the lot and several of the shamblers had noticed him. And the ones who hadn't would soon enough notice the ones who had noticed him.

"To his dismay" is a tell rather than a show, and I don't know that it's necessary either way here. Avoid "appeared to" and "seemed to" and all variations thereof--they have their uses, but by and large perception in the POV character's mind may as well be reality, so just state it as such.

He couldn't pull out a crowbar he hadn't brought. "out of" = "from".

"near where the lock was" = near the lock. "barely scratching it" is the same number of words as "without a scratch", but we can ditch the comma, which makes the sentence read faster. Furthermore, if he's not taking the time to inspect, he wouldn't notice a bare scratch anyway.

"He leaned back and then jabbed as hard as he could"... How about, "He put his body into it."?

"He had successfully scuffed the glass" doesn't need to stand on its own, and certainly doesn't need "successfully"... The fact that he did it makes it a "success" such as it is.

Transitioning from door-scuffing to moans should have a paragraph break.

You never need "he noticed" or other such sensory verbage in a single POV. Ditto "he looked".

"Had noticed him" is a bit of a bland tell, so I changed it to the show, "had turned his way". This allows us to condense the last sentence, which contains too many echoes on "notice", to three ominous words.

He tried the door. Locked. He pulled a pry-bar from his backpack. He jabbed it into the glass near the lock, but it bounced off without a scratch. He jabbed harder. Nothing. He put his body into it, and scuffed the glass.

The moans changed. Several shamblers in the lot had turned his way. Others would follow.

'Shit,' he muttered. John backed away from the door, keeping them in his line of sight the whole time. Some of them could be quick and taking your eyes off of them was a good way to get dead. He made his way to the corner of the building and gave a quick glace around it. There were two undead. Then he noticed the employee's only door was cracked open slightly. How had he missed that, he wondered. He moved quickly towards it, cracking the first zombie in the head with his pry-bar. The second one tripped on a crack and John jumped over it and kept going. He went in and pulled the door shut behind him.

Single quotes should be for quotes in quotes. Otherwise, use double quotes. Also, this can break out to its own paragraph. Furthermore, as he's the only actor thus far, we don't need a speech attribution, and the period (instead of an exclamation point) makes it a mutter--or close enough.

"the whole time" can boil out.

We can squeeze the descriptor "Some of them could be quick" into the action "taking your eyes off of them". "was a good way to get dead" can be condensed in a variety of ways ("could get you killed", "could kill you", "was unadvisable"), but it's a charming turn of phrase and as such I'm going to leave it.

"He made his way" is bland. Did he jog? Saunter? Skip? Walk? Frolick? Also, "gave a quick glance" = "glanced", as glances are quick by definition; I'll take the liberty of fixing the typo "glace", which would not be caught by a spell check, but almost definitely was not what the author intended, despite the delicious visual of giving a zombie ice cream.

"There were two undead" is a passive sentence that can be combined with the next sentence.

Again, "he noticed" can go. "Cracked open" makes "slightly" redundant (as is oft the case with an adverb), and "Employees Only" should be capitalized and in quotes. This is a good place for a paragraph break.

"How had he missed that, he wondered" is, as far as I can tell, an irrelevant phrase of the "You can't fire me, I quit!" variety. (You don't want the reader to wonder how he missed it, so you make him wonder why he missed it. Don't do this--if it's reasonable that he missed it, let it go. If it's not, change the plot so that it's reasonable!)

"Moved quickly" is a perfect illustration of what should be done with most adverbs: eliminate the adverb by picking a better verb. Oddly enough, "towards" (as well as "backwards" and a variety of other words) annoy the crap out of some people, but "toward", "backward", and so forth annoy no one. I can't explain why, but it's true, so don't add the "s". In this case, though, we can do one better and boil it out completely with the use of the verb "charge".

You have an echo on "crack"--first in the head with a pry-bar, then tripped upon.

"and kept going" is a bit bland.

"shut it behind him" can lose "behind him", and given the urgency of the situation, "slammed" is more likely (even if shutting it is more wise in the "I don't want to make noise" sense.)

"Shit."

John backed away from the door, keeping them in his line of sight. Taking your eyes off of the quick ones was a good way to get dead. He jogged to the corner of the building and glanced around it. Two undead stood between him and the ajar "Employees Only" door.

He charged, cracking the first in the head with his pry-bar, body checking the second. John jumped over the fallen zombie, scrambled through the door, and slammed it.

He crept into the store, staying alert and looked up at the signs at the end of the aisles. Pet stuff, paper products, kitchen stuff, canned food. This was his first stop. There were cans strewn on the floor and the shelves had been raided, but, they weren't empty. He walked along and checked the cans on the floor. Several cans of lima beans, some tuna, a can of corn. Someone was still a fussy eater, even during the apocalypse. John stuck them in his backpack. He grabbed a few more cans off the shelf for good measure.

"into the store" = "in".
"staying alert" is a tell. How about "eyes wide"?
"looked up at" = "surveyed"

I'm not sure what "This was his first stop" is supposed to mean, and it breaks up the narrative, so I'd boil it out.

"There were" is clutter, and "but, they" can lose the comma and the "they". Add a paragraph break here.

"Walked along" is clutter--human mobility can be assumed in most cases. A judicious semicolon saves us a few more words, and plurality of lima beans can be inferred when contrasted with "a" can of corn.

The last two sentences can be combined, and "for good measure" is clutter.

He crept in, eyes wide, and surveyed the signs at the end of the aisles. Pet stuff, paper products, kitchen stuff, canned food. Cans strewed across the floor and the shelves had been raided, but weren't empty.

He checked the cans on the floor; lima beans, some tuna, a can of corn. Someone was a fussy eater, even during the apocalypse. John stuck them in his backpack, with several more off the shelf.

The back of the store was all of the refrigerated and perishable stuff. It was all perished.

The next aisle had a body half way along and John decided he'd skip this one. It was all deodorant and smelling good was the last he was worried about these days.

Combine the first two sentences. "It was all perished" is pretty funny, and I'd like to preserve that humor. We can condense further by putting it at the end of the next paragraph. Furthermore, "all" is redundant in such an inclusive statement.

Let's condense the second paragraph by combining the passive description with the action, and replacing the somewhat clunky phrase "was the last he was worried about" with "wasn't a priority".

John skipped the deodorant aisle because of the face-down body. Smelling good wasn't a priority these days. The perishables at the back of the store had perished.


The Result

John smiled and drew the bowstring. In Cub Scouts a decade prior he'd taken to archery with a passion. He inhaled, held it, and released.
 It pierced the skull of his shambling prey, dropping the only zombie between him and the supermarket. More than he cared to deal with ambled nearby. He ran across the parking lot, using cars for cover, and retrieved his arrow.
 He tried the door. Locked. He pulled a pry-bar from his backpack. He jabbed it into the glass near the lock, but it bounced off without a scratch. He jabbed harder. Nothing. He put his body into it, and scuffed the glass.
 The moans changed. Several shamblers in the lot had turned his way. Others would follow.
 "Shit."

John backed away from the door, keeping them in his line of sight. Taking your eyes off of the quick ones was a good way to get dead. He jogged to the corner of the building and glanced around it. Two undead stood between him and the ajar "Employees Only" door.
 He charged, cracking the first in the head with his pry-bar, body checking the second. John jumped over the fallen zombie, scrambled through the door, and slammed it.
 He crept in, eyes wide, and surveyed the signs at the end of the aisles. Pet stuff, paper products, kitchen stuff, canned food. Cans strewed across the floor and the shelves had been raided, but weren't empty.
 He checked the cans on the floor; lima beans, some tuna, a can of corn. Someone was a fussy eater, even during the apocalypse. John stuck them in his backpack, with several more off the shelf.
 John skipped the deodorant aisle because of the face-down body. Smelling good wasn't a priority these days. The perishables at the back of the store had perished.

302 from 502 is a 40% reduction. What would you have done differently?