Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Boiling Bridgit Goett

This week's boiling comes from Bridgit Goett, who I met on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award forums. She's offered up the first 491 words of her novel Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat. It opens with a lot of dialogue, and rather formal British dialogue at that.

Dialogue is interesting because we can express an enormous amount about people through what they say, but we can't write dialogue the way people actually talk. If we um, like, did that, our prose would like get totally run over by like run-on sentences and stuff because, um, people just don't talk in a way we want to read, you know?

Let's see what we can do with it.

The Original:

Phillip Charles Phelps-Morton, the Fourth Earl of Kensington, was sitting sprawled across a  leather chair, one leg thrown carelessly over an arm, and reading the most recent copy of The London Gazette when his valet walked into the bedchamber—a  look of gravity on his face.

Unconcerned as his valet always had a look of gravity on his face the Earl glanced up from his paper and drawled, “My dear Bertram is something the matter?”

“Nothing that can’t be solved rather easily,” replied the valet, heading straight for his master’s wardrobe. “Have you looked at the clock recently, my lord?”

“I’m sorry but I haven’t had the time,” joked the Earl.

“Ha-ha, very funny, sir, but unappreciated at the moment; have you really no idea what time it is?”

Deciding to wax philosophical, Phillip leaned his head back against the chair and said, “What is time really?”

Being of a more pragmatic bent, the valet replied, “I believe in this instance it signifies that hour of the day when you’re to get dressed for the evening.”

“Not one for thinking too deeply about things, are you, Bertram.”

“I’m thinking it’s getting awfully late if you wish to be ready on time.”

Phillip sat up straight in the chair. “But that’s the thing, isn’t it? I don’t care if I’m on time or not. In fact, I’m not sure I even want to go out this evening at all. I can’t tell you how bored I am with this endless circle of parties and routs. It’s always so predictable—never any variation! And always the same people saying and doing it.”

The valet backed out of the wardrobe. “I’m sorry, sir, what did you say?”

“All you need to know is that I’m bored.”

“Oh, is that it? Well, what say we enliven things a bit by putting on your waistcoat?” The valet waved a garment at the Earl.

Sighing heavily, Phillip stood up. “And seeing that it’s the black satin—again—is it any wonder I’m bored?”

“Yes, a black satin waistcoat is very tiresome, but perfectly suited for the evening’s festivities.” The valet pulled the garment over the Earl’s shoulders and buttoned up the front. Then, retrieving a small velvet-lined box he held it out and said, “Now which set of cuff links would you prefer?”

“Oh, I suppose those will do,” he said, pointing indifferently at a pair of gold ones.

Bertram didn’t say a word—he merely shuddered.

Amused, Phillip raised an eyebrow. “Ah, but apparently you don’t think they’ll do.”

“Oh, no, sir, they’re an excellent choice,” murmured the valet, politely. “If one were dining at home, alone, with only a kitchen maid for company.”

“I did say I wanted to stay in for the evening,” dead-panned the Earl.

“And if you were I’d let you wear the gold ones but since you aren’t might I suggest these?” The valet removed a ruby-studded link from the box.

The Condensation:

Phillip Charles Phelps-Morton, the Fourth Earl of Kensington, was sitting sprawled across a  leather chair, one leg thrown carelessly over an arm, and reading the most recent copy of The London Gazette when his valet walked into the bedchamber—a  look of gravity on his face.

Unconcerned as his valet always had a look of gravity on his face the Earl glanced up from his paper and drawled, “My dear Bertram is something the matter?”

"the Fourth Earl" can lose the "the".

We can almost always boil "was [verb]ing" down to "[verb]ed"...but in this case I think we can go a strong step further by letting "sprawled" stand on its own.

"carelessly" is, like most adverbs, clutter, as is "thrown".

The now-condensed sentence can thus lose the "and".

"the most recent copy of" is unnecessary, because when one reads a newspaper, it's only notable if it's not the most recent copy. (So "reading last Tuesday's" would give some characterization, whereas "the most recent copy of" does not.)

Let's end the sentence there, and thus boil out "when". "When" is almost always clutter, because it's a given that any action described happens at that point in the story.

"a look of gravity" is the same as "a grave look"...but "on his face" is clutter, because one doesn't wear a look anywhere else. And let's lose the emdash in favor of a comma.

The "always" statement in the second paragraph is a "tell", and we already have a scene full of "show" that Phillip isn't bent out of shape by his valet's gravity. We don't want to take the good job of showing and bash it down with an unnecessary tell—so out it boils.

The lack of concern is evident, as is the drawl, in the blase irony of his statement. The words carry both sentiments without our having to state them, so lets boil them out.

We can then combine these two paragraphs.

"The Earl" is Phillip, so let's call him that.

We already know he's reading the Gazette, so we can boil out "from his paper".

The dialogue needs a comma.

Phillip Charles Phelps-Morton, Fourth Earl of Kensington, sprawled across a leather chair, one leg over an arm, reading The London Gazette. His valet walked into the bedchamber, face grave. Phillip glanced up. “My dear Bertram, is something the matter?”


“Nothing that can’t be solved rather easily,” replied the valet, heading straight for his master’s wardrobe. “Have you looked at the clock recently, my lord?”

Dialogue tags are easy to overuse, and in conversations of only two people they're almost never necessary.

We know his name is Bertram, so there's no reason to continue calling him "the valet".

"heading straight for" = "walked to", but even that's more than we need.

"his master's" can boil out for two reasons: first, we already know it's Phillip's bedroom, and second, we already know Phillip is his Earl.

There's nothing wrong with the adverbs in the dialogue, per se, but almost every chunk of dialogue here has at least one adverb in it. And while we might talk that way, it's cumbersome to read. To that end, let's boil out "rather easily" and "recently".

“Nothing that can’t be solved.” Bertram opened the wardrobe. “Have you looked at the clock, my lord?”


“I’m sorry but I haven’t had the time,” joked the Earl.

We know it's a joke, and the Earl is the only other person in the conversation, so boil out the attribution altogether. (I also added a comma.)

“I’m sorry, but I haven’t had the time.”


“Ha-ha, very funny, sir, but unappreciated at the moment; have you really no idea what time it is?”

We can boil out either "ha-ha" or "very funny", "at the moment".

Let's change the semicolon to a period. The sentence after it reads odd to me, but it seems to fit the diction of a British valet (in my rather ignorant opinion on the topic of how a British valet does/should sound), so let's leave it in.

“Very funny, sir, but unappreciated. Have you really no idea what time it is?”


Deciding to wax philosophical, Phillip leaned his head back against the chair and said, “What is time really?”

We can always boil out cases where we state what someone does, then have them do it (or vice-versa).

"against the chair" isn't needed, as we know he's sitting in it.

Lose the speech attribution, and keep the "really" here because it's a deliberate echo of Bertram's previous dialogue, but I did add a comma.

Phillip leaned his head back. “What is time, really?”


Being of a more pragmatic bent, the valet replied, “I believe in this instance it signifies that hour of the day when you’re to get dressed for the evening.”

“Not one for thinking too deeply about things, are you, Bertram.”

“I’m thinking it’s getting awfully late if you wish to be ready on time.”

Bertram's pragmatism is inferable from the rest of the scene, and besides, a pragmatic valet follows the trope well enough that it doesn't need saying.

We can boil out a few words here and still keep Bertram's stuffy tone: "I believe", "signifies", "that hour of the day" can all go.

The next two lines can be replaced with a clause in Bertram's first line here.

“In this instance it's when you’re to get dressed if you're to be on time this evening.”


Phillip sat up straight in the chair. “But that’s the thing, isn’t it? I don’t care if I’m on time or not. In fact, I’m not sure I even want to go out this evening at all. I can’t tell you how bored I am with this endless circle of parties and routs. It’s always so predictable—never any variation! And always the same people saying and doing it.”

We know he's in a chair.

The next six lines of dialogue come close to saying the same thing over and over again. We could boil them down in near-infinite ways, most of which amount to taste, so I'm going to use my editor cudgel and boil as I see fit.

Phillip sat up straight. “But I don’t care if I’m on time. I’m not sure I even want to go out. These endless parties and routs are so predictable, the same people saying and doing the same things.”


The valet backed out of the wardrobe. “I’m sorry, sir, what did you say?”

“All you need to know is that I’m bored.”

"The valet" = "Bertram".

"All you need to know is that"...could be argued to be clutter, but we might make the argument that it characterizes Phillip as bossy and elitist. This is one of those cases where, were this an edit for real and not my blog, I'd have to talk the change over with the author to see what was meant. But as it's my blog and not an edit for real, I'm going to instead assume that what the author meant to portray here is malaise and not elitism.

Bertram backed out of the wardrobe. “I’m sorry, sir, what did you say?”

“I’m bored.”


“Oh, is that it? Well, what say we enliven things a bit by putting on your waistcoat?” The valet waved a garment at the Earl.

We can again keep Bertram's stuffy tone while boiling out a few things: "is that it", "Well", and "a bit".

"The valet" = "Bertram", and "the Earl." = "him."

“Oh? What say we enliven things by putting on your waistcoat?” Bertram waved a garment at him.


Sighing heavily, Phillip stood up. “And seeing that it’s the black satin—again—is it any wonder I’m bored?”

We can boil out the adverb, and the "up".

The first half of the sentence can boil down a bit, and can lose the "again", as it's implied by the "the" in "the black satin".

Sighing, Phillip stood. “The black satin. Is it any wonder I’m bored?”


“Yes, a black satin waistcoat is very tiresome, but perfectly suited for the evening’s festivities.” The valet pulled the garment over the Earl’s shoulders and buttoned up the front. Then, retrieving a small velvet-lined box he held it out and said, “Now which set of cuff links would you prefer?”

We know it's a black satin waistcoat.

"perfectly" can boil out.

"The valet" = Bertram, "the Earl's" = "Phillip's".

"Then" is clutter. As it's the next sentence, sequentiality is implied.

As "retrieving" is so vague so as to not convey any envisionable information, we can leave it implied.

Again we can remove the speech attribution.

We know cufflinks (one word) come in sets.

Both characters know the box contains cufflinks, so there's no reason for Bertram to say it.

 “Yes, very tiresome, but suited for the evening’s festivities.” Bertram pulled the garment over Phillip's shoulders and buttoned up the front. He held out a small velvet-lined box. “Sir?”


“Oh, I suppose those will do,” he said, pointing indifferently at a pair of gold ones.

Now's the time to mention that they're cufflinks, subsumed into the action.

Let's get rid of the unintentional rhyme by boiling out, "I suppose".

Boil out the speech attribution and the adverb.

“Oh, those will do.” He pointed at a pair of gold cufflinks.


Bertram didn’t say a word—he merely shuddered.

There is almost never a reason to state that a character didn't do something. And boil out the adverb.

Bertram shuddered.


Amused, Phillip raised an eyebrow. “Ah, but apparently you don’t think they’ll do.”

It's clear he's amused, so boil it out.

Boil out the adverb, and "they'll do" = "so."

Phillip raised an eyebrow. “Ah, but you don’t think so.”


“Oh, no, sir, they’re an excellent choice,” murmured the valet, politely. “If one were dining at home, alone, with only a kitchen maid for company.”

Bertram is the valet, and the sentence is polite on its face, so we don't need to say so.

"alone" and "with only a kitchen maid" contradict each other.

“Oh, no, sir, they’re an excellent choice,” Bertram murmured. “If one were dining at home with only a kitchen maid for company.”


“I did say I wanted to stay in for the evening,” dead-panned the Earl.

"did say" = "said", except that here I think the extra emphasis is a good thing, so we'll spare it.

We know it's "for the evening", and it's a dead-pan as written, so we don't need to say so.

“I did say I wanted to stay in.”


“And if you were I’d let you wear the gold ones but since you aren’t might I suggest these?” The valet removed a ruby-studded link from the box.

Most of the first sentence can boil out, unless it's critical that the reader know that Bertram, while the valet, feels that he has the power to dictate to an Earl what he can and can't wear. (This is another "talk to the author" moment).

"The valet" is Bertram, and as we know the cufflinks are in the box, we can boil that down.

“And since you aren’t might I suggest these?” Bertram held up a ruby-studded link.


The Result:

Phillip Charles Phelps-Morton, Fourth Earl of Kensington, sprawled across a leather chair, one leg over an arm, reading The London Gazette. His valet walked into the bedchamber, face grave. Phillip glanced up. “My dear Bertram, is something the matter?”  
“Nothing that can’t be solved.” Bertram opened the wardrobe. “Have you looked at the clock, my lord?” 
“I’m sorry, but I haven’t had the time.” 
“Very funny, sir, but unappreciated. Have you really no idea what time it is?” 
Phillip leaned his head back. “What is time, really?” 
“In this instance it's when you’re to get dressed if you're to be on time this evening.” 
Phillip sat up straight. “But I don’t care if I’m on time. I’m not sure I even want to go out. These endless parties and routs are so predictable, the same people saying and doing the same things.” 
Bertram backed out of the wardrobe. “I’m sorry, sir, what did you say?” 
“I’m bored.” 
“Oh? What say we enliven things by putting on your waistcoat?” Bertram waved a garment at him. 
Sighing, Phillip stood. “The black satin. Is it any wonder I’m bored?” 
“Yes, very tiresome, but suited for the evening’s festivities.” Bertram pulled the garment over Phillip's shoulders and buttoned up the front. He held out a small velvet-lined box. “Sir?” 
“Oh, those will do.” He pointed at a pair of gold cufflinks. 
Bertram shuddered. 
Phillip raised an eyebrow. “Ah, but you don’t think so.” 
“Oh, no, sir, they’re an excellent choice,” Bertram murmured. “If one were dining at home with only a kitchen maid for company.” 
“I did say I wanted to stay in.” 
“And since you aren’t might I suggest these?” Bertram held up a ruby-studded link. 

491 words boiled down to 283, a reduction of 42%. I believe I succeeded in keeping the tone not only in the individual sentences, but in the relationship between Phillip and Bertram. Do you agree?