Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Boiling a Shadow with Peter Salomon

The great YA horror author Peter Salomon was gracious enough to offer up Chapter One of SHADOW, forthcoming in Fall of 2014, so that I might try to boil some verbage out of the 484 words. He also sent me the rest of the novel to beta read, and it's fantastic--creepy, unsettling, and unpredictable in all the right ways.

You can find Peter at www.peteradamsalomon.com, and check out the teaser trailer for SHADOW at www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_-ramx084Y.

This chapter posed an immediate challenge, because when condensing I tend to give speech a wide berth, and this selection is all monologue. Furthermore, it's got some intentional redundancy that's essential for the piece to work. I had a lot of fun with it.

Here it is:

On what would have been her tenth birthday, the Probate Court Judge of Chatham County, Georgia declared my best friend legally dead.
Only one witness was called to testify.
Me.


“I, Richard James Anderson, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help me God.”

We were six years old, together as always. I’ll never forgive myself for being the last person to see her alive. I just can’t remember what I saw. It’s a blur, a haze. I ate oatmeal for breakfast that morning. Maple and brown sugar. With a glass of orange juice. I remember everything about that day but what happened to Melanie. I turned around and she was gone.

I remember what she was wearing, pink tights and a pale purple skirt and a white shirt she’d just spilled soda on. We were playing in her backyard, playing in the bright Georgia sun. I thought maybe she was hiding. But when I turned around, there was no one there. I counted to one hundred. I turned around. I never found her.

I swear, she was with me the whole time. I remember everything: the weather, the sound of cars passing by on the road out front. I can still smell the freshly cut grass, the wet dog running across the lawn. I counted to one hundred and then I turned around.

No one ever found her.

That night, my parents gave me medicine to help me sleep. I tried to remember like the police asked me to but every time I closed my eyes I would finish counting and turn around and she was gone. I closed my eyes and I was turning around and turning around and screaming her name. The dog barked. A car honked.

I counted to one hundred and turned around but I never found her.

And now, years later, I keep turning around, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Only there’s nothing but the dog and the car and the smell of freshly cut grass.

I placed my hand on the bible. I swore to tell the truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth. So help me God.

But I lied.

The day after the judge declared their daughter dead, Melanie’s parents buried a very small box that held nothing but a dress. The one with polka dots she’d worn the first day of first grade. The matching socks, too. They told me they were moving away but the words didn’t actually mean anything to me. My parents told me they loved me but they were just words. Nothing really mattered much any more.

They couldn’t understand. No one did. Not now. Not six years ago at that miserable excuse for a funeral. And, most of all, not that day ten years ago when I first met the ghost of my best friend.

So help me God.

The condensation:

On what would have been her tenth birthday, the Probate Court Judge of Chatham County, Georgia declared my best friend legally dead.
Only one witness was called to testify.
Me.

While we could change the last to lines to, “Only I was caused to testify”, I think it’s got more punch as-is. We could trim the adverb, as the only kind of dead that can be decreed by a Judge (as opposed to a medical examiner) is the legal kind, but “legally dead” is such a ubiquitous phrase, I think it needs to stay. So no changes here.

“I, Richard James Anderson, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help me God.”

This is rote, and thus can’t change. Um, boring blog so far, isn’t it?

We were six years old, together as always. I’ll never forgive myself for being the last person to see her alive. I just can’t remember what I saw. It’s a blur, a haze. I ate oatmeal for breakfast that morning. Maple and brown sugar. With a glass of orange juice. I remember everything about that day but what happened to Melanie. I turned around and she was gone.

This requires a bit of tip-toeing, because we don’t want to change Anderson’s voice.

Even so, I think the line “I just can’t remember what I saw” is redundant enough with “I remember everything about that day but what happened to Melanie” that we can omit one of them. “It’s a blur, a haze” is two words too long, because we can just pick one and evoke the same imagery and emotion—but I have a different issue with this line, and that is that it doesn’t follow with the next paragraph, which is a recounting neither blurry nor hazy.

Breakfast is eaten in the morning, so we can boil out “that morning.” As well, orange juice comes in glasses (as opposed to mugs or bowls or plates), so unless the container is atypical, we can get rid of that, too.

I tried omitting “about that day”, and while it tightens up the sentence, when combined with the rest of the paragraph it appears that Melanie disappeared at breakfast. As we know from the next paragraph she didn’t, I put it back.

We were six years old, together as always. I’ll never forgive myself for being the last person to see her alive. I ate oatmeal for breakfast. Maple and brown sugar. With orange juice. I remember everything about that day but what happened to Melanie. I turned around and she was gone.


I remember what she was wearing, pink tights and a pale purple skirt and a white shirt she’d just spilled soda on. We were playing in her backyard, playing in the bright Georgia sun. I thought maybe she was hiding. But when I turned around, there was no one there. I counted to one hundred. I turned around. I never found her.

We don’t have to say “I remember”, because if he didn’t remember, he couldn’t supply the details. The second “playing” adds a rhythm to the sentence, but I’m not sure that it’s necessary.

Counting to one hundred implies that they’re playing hide and seek; else he wouldn’t just randomly count when he couldn’t find her. This makes “I thought maybe she was hiding” redundant, and same with “But when I turned around, there was no one there.”

She wore pink tights and a pale purple skirt and a white shirt she’d just spilled soda on. We were playing in her backyard in the bright Georgia sun. I counted to one hundred, and turned around. I never found her.

I swear, she was with me the whole time. I remember everything: the weather, the sound of cars passing by on the road out front. I can still smell the freshly cut grass, the wet dog running across the lawn. I counted to one hundred and then I turned around.
No one ever found her.

I love the rhythm of the repeated phrases at the end of these two paragraphs, so I don’t want to mess it up. Still, there are some things that can be boiled out.

Cars drive on roads, which typically are in the front of houses. The smell of cut grass fades with time, so we can make Stephen King happy and kill the adverb “freshly”.

I swear, she was with me the whole time. I remember everything: the weather, the sound of cars passing by. I can still smell the cut grass, the wet dog running across the lawn. I counted to one hundred, and turned around.

No one ever found her.


That night, my parents gave me medicine to help me sleep. I tried to remember like the police asked me to but every time I closed my eyes I would finish counting and turn around and she was gone. I closed my eyes and I was turning around and turning around and screaming her name. The dog barked. A car honked.

I counted to one hundred and turned around but I never found her.

And now, years later, I keep turning around, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Only there’s nothing but the dog and the car and the smell of freshly cut grass.

We can dispense with “That night.” Even though it could have been during the day, it’s unlikely, and we don’t need to call attention to things unless they’re worth calling attention to.

I like the second, run-on sentence. It works, though “like the police asked me to” is the same thing as “for the police”. The second run-on also works, and despite the redundancy I think the second “and turn around” helps to add a whirling feel to the prose that it would lose if it were omitted.

“Freshly”, again, can go.

My parents gave me medicine to help me sleep. I tried to remember for the police but every time I closed my eyes I would finish counting and turn around and she was gone. I closed my eyes and I was turning around and turning around and screaming her name. The dog barked. A car honked.

I counted to one hundred and turned around but I never found her.

And now, years later, I keep turning around, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Only there’s nothing but the dog and the car and the smell of cut grass.


I placed my hand on the bible. I swore to tell the truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth. So help me God.

But I lied.

Nothing to change here.

The day after the judge declared their daughter dead, Melanie’s parents buried a very small box that held nothing but a dress. The one with polka dots she’d worn the first day of first grade. The matching socks, too. They told me they were moving away but the words didn’t actually mean anything to me. My parents told me they loved me but they were just words. Nothing really mattered much any more.

“The day after the judge declared their daughter dead” = the next day.

“Very small” = tiny. (“Very” is almost always a cuttable word.)

The staccato sentences worked well in the deposition, but could be broken up a bit here. This also gives us a chance to condense the information about the dress. “Melanie’s parents buried a tiny box that held nothing but the polka dot dress she’d worn on the first day of first grade.”

“Actually” is a pernicious adverb that can actually be omitted every time it comes up (except perhaps once in a while in dialogue) without really losing anything but verbal clutter. Ditto “really”. “Mean anything to me” can lose “to me” with no problems.

The “much” can go, too. First, it’s alliterative, and second, it doesn’t add much to the sentence.

“Anymore” is one word.

The next day, Melanie’s parents buried a tiny box that held nothing but the polka dot dress she’d worn the first day of first grade. The matching socks, too. They told me they were moving away but the words didn’t mean anything. My parents told me they loved me but they were just words. Nothing mattered anymore.


They couldn’t understand. No one did. Not now. Not six years ago at that miserable excuse for a funeral. And, most of all, not that day ten years ago when I first met the ghost of my best friend.

So help me God.

The first two sentences can be combined.

The last sentence can be condensed quite a bit. Every day was “that day”, “first met” can drop the “first”, “most of all” injects false drama that you don’t need, because the sentence has plenty of real drama, and “the ghost of my best friend” is Melanie’s ghost.

No one understood. Not now. Not six years ago at that miserable excuse for a funeral. And not ten years ago when I met Melanie’s ghost.

So help me God.


After a good turn in the stock pot, here’s what we’ve got:

On what would have been her tenth birthday, the Probate Court Judge of Chatham County, Georgia declared my best friend legally dead. 
Only one witness was called to testify. 
Me.

“I, Richard James Anderson, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help me God.” 
We were six years old, together as always. I’ll never forgive myself for being the last person to see her alive. I ate oatmeal for breakfast. Maple and brown sugar. With orange juice. I remember everything about that day but what happened to Melanie. I turned around and she was gone.  
She wore pink tights and a pale purple skirt and a white shirt she’d just spilled soda on.  We were playing in her backyard in the bright Georgia sun. I counted to one hundred, and turned around. I never found her.  
I swear, she was with me the whole time. I remember everything: the weather, the sound of cars passing by. I can still smell the cut grass, the wet dog running across the lawn. I counted to one hundred, and turned around. No one ever found her.  
My parents gave me medicine to help me sleep. I tried to remember for the police but every time I closed my eyes I would finish counting and turn around and she was gone. I closed my eyes and I was turning around and turning around and screaming her name. The dog barked. A car honked.
I counted to one hundred and turned around but I never found her. 
And now, years later, I keep turning around, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Only there’s nothing but the dog and the car and the smell of cut grass. I placed my hand on the bible. I swore to tell the truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth. So help me God. 
But I lied.  
The next day, Melanie’s parents buried a tiny box that held nothing but the polka dot dress she’d worn the first day of first grade. The matching socks, too. They told me they were moving away but the words didn’t mean anything. My parents told me they loved me but they were just words. Nothing mattered anymore.  
No one understood. Not now. Not six years ago at that miserable excuse for a funeral. And not ten years ago when I met Melanie’s ghost.  
So help me God.



484 words down to 403. 17% of the words boiled out.

Peter looked over what I'd done, and after my treatment he came out with a 402-word final product (that will see another edit or two before the book hits print, of course). One place he disagreed with my choice was when I boiled "freshly" out of "freshly cut grass."

He had this to say on the matter:

The most obvious place where I didn't accept your suggestion would be the double use of the adverb 'freshly.' In my first novel, HENRY FRANKS, there are very few adverbs. That's one of the primary rules of fiction writing (as Stephen King so wisely attests...see what I did there?) and one I do happen to agree with. However, SHADOW is written with such a distinct voice, one that routinely breaks most fiction writing rules: adverbs, run-on sentences, repeated words, etc.  
They are broken often throughout the book and replaced, for the most part, with some of the rules for writing poetry. Because of that I found myself leaving 'freshly' in for a couple of reasons: 1) the rhythm of the voice needed those 2 syllables in there, and in a book where rhythm is so important and the voice is so strong, I did find myself having to pay as close attention to syllables (number of and accents on) as to word choice. 2) 'freshly cut grass' is, for the most part, a trademarked smell (I'm sure you can buy an air freshener somewhere with that particular scent) that 'cut grass' does not quite capture. That smell is so familiar to pretty much everybody and would be so memorable to a six year old that I felt using the 'trademark' term of 'freshly cut grass' was an acceptable adverb use.


Peter's objection fits well with my philosophy on polishing a manuscript. It's not that every adverb needs killing, it's that if there's an adverb there, it should be because it has to be there. The same goes for every other word... (Adverbs by nature tend to be extraneous but prolific little monsters, which is why you hear a lot of static about them and why they have to die. But in truth, they just follow the same rules as every other word: put them only where they're needed.)

So, I have Peter's generally positive opinion of how I did. What do you think?