Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Boiling a Zombie Master

I review a lot of zombie books, but when I want to just read one for fun because I know it'll be great, I turn to Joe McKinney. Author of The Savage Dead (which you can and should preorder now from Amazon), Dead City, The Crossing, and lots of other action-packed, suspense-filled thrillers, Joe was kind enough to provide me with a 490-word piece of nonfiction, In Praise of Spooky Old Buildings.

It's a charming homage to a land that once was, and a sad sigh for the spread of that blight we call suburbia. The challenge here will be keeping the nostalgic tone as we boil things down.

It's both an honor and intimidating as hell to work with a piece from one of my favorite authors. Let's see what we can do with it.

The Original:

Houston, 1983 - I was thirteen, out trick-or-treating with my friends.  My costume was one of my Mom’s old slips, upon which I’d written Id, Ego and Superego.  You guessed it.  I was a Freudian Slip.

The loot gathering was good that year, because I grew up in a rather affluent suburb.  (“Where their lawns were wide and their minds narrow,” to quote Ernest Hemingway.)

But it didn’t seem so terribly oppressive then.  In fact, I rather enjoyed those days.  My neighborhood was on the edge of what had once been a vast cotton farm, many thousands of acres wide.  By the time I came along, the fields had run to riot and a dense forest of trees grew where once there had been furrows.  It was a marshland full of deer and rabbits and wild dogs and wild hogs and even the occasional alligator sunning itself on the banks of some scummed over little pond.  My friends and I spent our summers roaming that empty landscape, our dogs by our sides, pellet guns gripped by the breach like we were the Green Berets on patrol on the border of Cambodia.  We boys were like gods then, carving empires of the imagination from the air on a daily basis.

But those fields weren’t entirely empty.  There was something else in there with us besides tall weeds and swamp trees.  Just a few hundred yards in from the fence that was supposed to keep us out, hidden behind a large copse of trees, was what I guess was an old cotton processing facility.  It was little more than three large, interconnected metal silos, nearly every inch of which was covered with graffiti.  But in its moldering, rusting decay I found it resplendent.  I was drawn to it in much the same way as water finds its own level.  There was an irresistible gravity around that abandoned structure that both held me hostage and set my mind free.  It was like a flint for my imagination, for with the smallest of effort I found I could turn those silos into cities, the loose machine parts scattered around them into a cemetery of dead cars.  That lonely collection of silos took me to dark and apocalyptic places.  And I loved every minute of it.

But that Halloween, as we wandered the neighborhood, collecting our loot, we happened by the new construction that would, within the coming year, spread our neighborhood with crystalline profusion into the empty fields we loved so much.  Cookie cutter houses would take the place of my beloved cotton processing silos, and another empty place on the map would get filled in with names like Spring Forest Lane and Oak Terrace and Verbena Drive.

But for that night, that magical last night of October 1983, the palace of my imagination was still intact, sitting like a sentinel at the outskirts of my own October Country.

May that land forever live.

The Condensation:

Houston, 1983 - I was thirteen, out trick-or-treating with my friends.  My costume was one of my Mom’s old slips, upon which I’d written Id, Ego and Superego.  You guessed it.  I was a Freudian Slip.

One doesn't trick-or-treat "in", so we can boil "out". Ditto the "my" in "my friends." Because he's trick-or-treating, we don't need to say that it's a costume.

The "I'd" so close to "Id" made my brain stutter a little, so despite that the phrase is innocuous and might not need it, let's replace "upon which I'd written" with "scrawled with".

We can combined the last two sentences, eliminating the "I was".

Houston, 1983 - I was thirteen, trick-or-treating with friends.  I wore one of my Mom’s old slips, scrawled with Id, Ego and Superego.  You guessed it; a Freudian Slip.

The loot gathering was good that year, because I grew up in a rather affluent suburb.  (“Where their lawns were wide and their minds narrow,” to quote Ernest Hemingway.)

We don't need to say it was that year, because we've already said it's 1983. We can also enmesh the two thoughts--the what and the why--into a single, tighter sentence. In the process, "rather" is clutter.

The quote and attribution we can almost leave alone--what other Hemingway would we quote?--though we can dispose of the parenthesis.

We gathered tons of loot in that affluent suburb.  “Where their lawns were wide and their minds narrow,” to quote Hemingway.

But it didn’t seem so terribly oppressive then.  In fact, I rather enjoyed those days.  My neighborhood was on the edge of what had once been a vast cotton farm, many thousands of acres wide.  By the time I came along, the fields had run to riot and a dense forest of trees grew where once there had been furrows.  It was a marshland full of deer and rabbits and wild dogs and wild hogs and even the occasional alligator sunning itself on the banks of some scummed over little pond.  My friends and I spent our summers roaming that empty landscape, our dogs by our sides, pellet guns gripped by the breach like we were the Green Berets on patrol on the border of Cambodia.  We boys were like gods then, carving empires of the imagination from the air on a daily basis.

This is a large paragraph. As usual, we'll address that if necessary after we see what boils out.

I think we can boil out the "but", because it naturally follows from the previous sentence...

...and now a small tirade on the word "seem". There are few situations where "seem" should be used--the best example being when the POV character is guessing as to the thoughts or feelings of another character. Otherwise, "seem" might as well be "was", because even if it's not true, from the perspective of the narrator it is. Thus, while "seem" is not as ubiquitous as "to be" (and all its conjugations, especially "was"), it stands out like a bright pink whack-a-mole when we're looking for ways to tighten our prose. The way Stephen King feels about adverbs? Yeah, that's how I feel about "seem". So anyway...

We can omit the "terribly", or omit the "oppressive" and use "terrible".

"In fact" is clutter, as is "rather".

I'm going to separate these first two, boiled sentences out for the moment, because on the final read we're going to merge them with the paragraph above.

It wasn't so oppressive then.  I rather enjoyed those days. 

Moving on, "was on the edge of" = "bordered", and "what had once been a vast" = "a former", and we can cut the "vast" because it's redundant with the thousands of acres (from which we can boil "many", because "thousands" is already plural.)

"By the time I came along" is clutter, because we're talking about 1983, when the author was thirteen--we don't need to establish the time again.

"Forest of trees" = "forest"; we'd only need to specify if we wanted to identify a type of trees, or if we were being allegorical ("forest of telephone poles", for example)... Otherwise, forests are "of trees" by definition. "grew where once there had been furrows" = "had overgrown old furrows".

...but this clashes with the next paragraph, where the landscape is referred to as "those fields". I think, then, that we need to eliminate (as opposed to boil out) the word "dense"--though this is a guess on my part, and were this a real editing job I'd of course discuss it with the author first.

The next line's a doozy, because it rambles on purpose, but I can't help but look at that "It was" and think that there's a better way to say it. The solution is to take this already run-on sentence and combine it with the one before it. Other than that, "scummed over" needs a hyphen, and while we could dispose of "little" in "little pond", there is a minor loss of content there, and that'd be breaking the rules of my own blog.

"My friends and I" = "We", and I think "our summers" needs to go, both because it can be boiled out and because it wasn't just summers, as evidenced by the Halloween references throughout. I'm inclined to boil out the "our" before "our dogs", but am afraid that this might clash with the wild dogs from the previous sentence, so we'll leave it in. "like we were the" can lose everything but the "like", though, "on patrol on" = "patrolling", and "border of Cambodia" = "Cambodian border".

On a side note, mentioning the Cambodian border here is an excellent way to re-anchor us in the mindset of a thirteen-year-old in 1983; it carries with it all the baggage of too-young-to-have-experienced-Vietnam-but-old-enough-to-carry-it-with-us that "the jungle" wouldn't have. It's small but significant choices like this that make extraordinary writing look easy.

"We boys" can lose the "boys", and "like gods" can lose the "like", and we can boil out "then". As empires can only be carved from the air in the imagination, we can boil out "of the imagination", and given the general precociousness of boys given a place to play, we can boil out "on a daily basis".

Looking at the final product, we can combine the last two sentences and make them more active still.

My neighborhood bordered a former cotton farm, thousands of acres wide.  The fields had run to riot, old furrows overgrown by a marshy forest full of deer and rabbits and wild dogs and wild hogs and even the occasional alligator sunning itself on the banks of some scummed-over little pond.  Our dogs by our sides, pellet guns gripped by the breach like Green Berets patrolling the Cambodian border, we roamed that empty landscape as gods, carving empires from the air.

But those fields weren’t entirely empty.  There was something else in there with us besides tall weeds and swamp trees.  Just a few hundred yards in from the fence that was supposed to keep us out, hidden behind a large copse of trees, was what I guess was an old cotton processing facility.  It was little more than three large, interconnected metal silos, nearly every inch of which was covered with graffiti.  But in its moldering, rusting decay I found it resplendent.  I was drawn to it in much the same way as water finds its own level.  There was an irresistible gravity around that abandoned structure that both held me hostage and set my mind free.  It was like a flint for my imagination, for with the smallest of effort I found I could turn those silos into cities, the loose machine parts scattered around them into a cemetery of dead cars.  That lonely collection of silos took me to dark and apocalyptic places.  And I loved every minute of it.

The first sentence can be eliminated entirely--we already know that the fields were full of trees and dogs and hogs and the occasional alligator.

"There was something else in there" = "Something [verbed] there". I'm going to go with "brooded", because it seems appropriate to me given the apocalyptic atmosphere Joe's imagination gave the building. It also allows us to boil out "with us".

"Just" is clutter, as is "in", and "that was supposed" = "erected". In "was what I guess was", we've got too many "was"es, so let's replace the first with a verb... I'll go with "lurked". On that same note, let's change "old" to "abandoned", which conveys the same information, plus a little more--and allows us to boil out the "abandoned" that comes next, too. We can boil out "what I guess was" because whether or not the author is ultimately right on that score isn't relevant.

We can boil out "it was", and as delicious as it is that one of Joe's phrases fails the "by zombies" test for passive voice, we can tighten up the latter clause by making it active. And while I'm certain that every inch was not literally covered in graffiti, the figurative nature of the phrase is sufficiently strong that we can lose the "nearly" with no fear of misunderstanding.

We can combine the next sentences' two parts into one single idea, and this makes a great transition into the next paragraph... (I'm going to insert a paragraph break here because (a) this one's pretty long, and (b) the physical presence of the building and the author's impressions thereof are sufficiently different to justify their own paragraphs.)

But something brooded there besides tall weeds and swamp trees.  A few hundred yards from the fence erected to keep us out, hidden behind a large copse of trees, lurked an abandoned cotton processing facility.  Little more than three large, interconnected metal silos, graffiti covered every inch.  But I found its moldering, rusting decay resplendent.

We can combine the gravity analogy in the next two sentences, and split off the dual hostage/freedom into its own sentence.

"It was like" is clutter, as is "of", "for", "I found", and even "could" (if "turn" gains an "ed"). "Loose" can go, because if they weren't loose, they wouldn't be parts and couldn't be scattered.

"That lonely collection of silos" = "Those lonely silos"...and yes, I like this adverb and think it should stay, King be damned!

The last sentence of this paragraph is exactly the right cliche for the moment, but I like it a bit better when merged with the previous sentence.

The irresistible gravity around that structure drew me to it much as water finds its own level. It held me hostage and set my mind free. A flint for my imagination, with the smallest effort I turned those silos into cities, the machine parts scattered around them into a cemetery of dead cars.  Those lonely silos took me to dark and apocalyptic places, and I loved every minute of it.

But that Halloween, as we wandered the neighborhood, collecting our loot, we happened by the new construction that would, within the coming year, spread our neighborhood with crystalline profusion into the empty fields we loved so much.  Cookie cutter houses would take the place of my beloved cotton processing silos, and another empty place on the map would get filled in with names like Spring Forest Lane and Oak Terrace and Verbena Drive.

Loot collection brings us back to "that Halloween" without having to state it.

"Within the coming year" can be boiled out. If the construction wasn't imminent, you'd not have stumbled across it at that time, so despite its seeming (gah!) immediacy that the phrase adds, we can remove it and lose nothing.

As an editorial comment, instead of eliminating (not boiling) the "empty" here as we did above, I think it's more powerful if we instead emphasize it with quotes; bereft of houses, those fields were chock full of childhoody goodness that the expanding suburb would bleed out.

"would take the place of" = "would overtake", and we know that the silos were for cotton processing, and that they were beloved--calling them "my" in this case emphasizes the ownership and emotional investment to the point that calling them "beloved" here might actually overpower the subtle poignancy of the comment.

"get filled in" = "filling" (which we can use to replace the "and"), and we don't need to call out the fact that the street names are names, as long as it doesn't matter if the names are exactly accurate for the area (a detail I don't know, and I'm not sure if Joe found important. Again, a place to talk to the author). However, I think the relentless march of suburbia can be reflected even better by pluralizing them.

But as we wandered the neighborhood collecting our loot, we happened by the new construction that would spread our neighborhood with crystalline profusion into the "empty" fields we loved so much.  Cookie cutter houses would overtake my silos, filling another empty place on the map with Spring Forest Lanes and Oak Terraces and Verbena Drives.

But for that night, that magical last night of October 1983, the palace of my imagination was still intact, sitting like a sentinel at the outskirts of my own October Country.

May that land forever live.

"But for" read to me as "Except for" on my first read, and again when I moved into condensation mode. For that reason I'm going to change "for" to "on".

I don't think that the redundancy on "that night" gains us anything, so let's boil it out. For that matter, because we eliminated the "Halloween" in the previous paragraph, we can replace "last night of October 1983" with "Halloween".

"was still intact" = "stood intact", and as sentinels generally stand, let's boil out the "sitting like".

I love the Bradbury reference, and those who don't get it can look it up and find something else wonderful to read!

But on that magical Halloween, the palace of my imagination stood intact, a sentinel at the outskirts of my own October Country.

May that land forever live.

The Result:

As I mentioned above, I'm going to combine those two lines I pulled out of the first large paragraph into the preceding paragraph. That leaves us with:

Houston, 1983 - I was thirteen, trick-or-treating with friends.  I wore one of my Mom’s old slips, scrawled with Id, Ego and Superego.  You guessed it; a Freudian Slip.

We gathered tons of loot in that affluent suburb, “[w]here their lawns were wide and their minds narrow.” The oppression in Hemingway's quote notwithstanding, I rather enjoyed those days.

My neighborhood bordered a former cotton farm, thousands of acres wide.  The fields had run to riot, old furrows overgrown by a marshy forest full of deer and rabbits and wild dogs and wild hogs and even the occasional alligator sunning itself on the banks of some scummed-over little pond.  Our dogs by our sides, pellet guns gripped by the breach like Green Berets patrolling the Cambodian border, we roamed that empty landscape as gods, carving empires from the air.

But something brooded there besides tall weeds and swamp trees.  A few hundred yards from the fence erected to keep us out, hidden behind a large copse of trees, lurked an abandoned cotton processing facility.  Little more than three large, interconnected metal silos, graffiti covered every inch.  But I found its moldering, rusting decay resplendent.

The irresistible gravity around that structure drew me to it much as water finds its own level. It held me hostage and set my mind free. A flint for my imagination, with the smallest effort I turned those silos into cities, the machine parts scattered around them into a cemetery of dead cars.  Those lonely silos took me to dark and apocalyptic places, and I loved every minute of it.

But as we wandered the neighborhood collecting our loot, we happened by the new construction that would spread our neighborhood with crystalline profusion into the "empty" fields we loved so much.  Cookie cutter houses would overtake my silos, filling another empty place on the map with Spring Forest Lanes and Oak Terraces and Verbena Drives.

But on that magical Halloween, the palace of my imagination stood intact, a sentinel at the outskirts of my own October Country.

May that land forever live.


So the final tally is 345 words down from 490, a 30% reduction. I believe I succeeded in preserving the mingled melancholy and nostalgia. What do you think?