Thursday, September 5, 2013

Boiling a Poet's Prose with Sy Maher

This week's boiling comes from Sy Maher, a creative writing student who has published several poems in the horror genre. She submitted the first 527 words of her novel, Dead Play, for a turn in the pot.

The Original:

The sword sliced through the air, and Jai danced foot to foot making wide circles with the blade. The Viking sword, named Ulfberht or at least a copy of the famed blade, was a steel door, and shut her away from the mundane. Gods she loved make believe. Thord of the traveling renaissance festival, Thord of the fake name, was one hell of a smithy, and had made it for her for a dear price.

Sunlight stretched from the window and flashed on the steel sword its light spotted her shirt, and flashed her eye for a second. Ulfberht was strong, yet so flexible it would not break under the rages of warfare. She’d made the tale of its making, a metaphor for her life. Baptized in fire, and hammered free from impurities, the sword was a marvel for its era. The making of it took patience--and in time, like it, she would be complete. Face misted of sweat droplets, she placed Ulfberht back on the wall rack, and flopped down in a tan leather chair to type. Jai wrote scripts, codes, and designed fantasy combat games for a living.  In this room, she could let her mind run as wild as a microburst hiding in the Arizona wind. Never knowing where it would hit, or what it would uproot. Gods she loved such things.

On display in the room: Viking axes, spears, and shields, Japanese tea service, shodō calligraphy, and a samurai sword passed down by her ancestors. Her namesake and grandfather presented it to her, the samurai sword, on the day she received her master’s degree. It hung next to Ulfberht--both swords were her most prized possessions. Collecting whatever honored her Swedish and Japanese ancestry made her feel like she belonged to something bigger than her chaotic beginnings.

Her eyes fixed to a spot where an ax was mounted. If her dad had been strong, she liked to think he would have been the one to give her some of these things. A long time ago, he’d been an archeologist mom told her. He should have been the one to tell her about the Viking weapons, the meaning of decorated handles, or the indestructible sword. If mom knew what drove dad to ruin his life, she never said.  If Jai knew, maybe she could forgive him. What her mom said was that she loved him too much to leave at first. Then when Jai was fifteen, and her mother found out what dads tanked-up friends were up to, she knew she had to leave.

A key clinked and the front door opened, and Jai rose from her chair.

“A little warning, Gods mom. You scared the crap outa me.”

“Got some Miso soup from Grandma.”

“I was working.”

“You were playing with the swords.”

“That is work.”

“Just on my way home and--.”

“You thought you would make me feel guilty about grandma. Not visiting.”

“No, she just wants to know if you are getting any hang ups on the phone. She says it’s happening again.”

Mom was standing there with the Pyrex container of Miso and Jai was being an ass.

The Condensation:

Throughout, I've deleted commas as I've felt necessary. I've yet to meet two editors who agree on comma usage, not even Strunk and White vs. the Chicago Manual of Style, so I tend to go with what feels right.

Jai danced, making wide circles with the blade. The Viking sword, named Ulfberht or at least a copy of the famed blade, was a steel door, and shut her away from the mundane. Gods she loved make believe. Thord of the traveling renaissance festival, Thord of the fake name, was one hell of a smithy, and had made it for her for a dear price.

Any blade with which one makes wide circles will slice through the air, and all dancing is foot to foot.

The next two clauses are clunky; we never need to state that something is named, only name it. I'm simile-adverse by nature, but will keep it in deference to the author... Yet, it can be combined with the next phrase to condense things down a bit.

If we kept the next sentence I'd add a comma, but otherwise leave it unchanged. However, I question its existence at all--if the rest of the chapter doesn't reveal that she loves make believe, then there's a problem with the rest of the chapter for which this tell is just a symptom. Between the rest of it and the previous sentence, I think we can remove it entirely as redundant.

The last sentence has some charming and intentional redundancy, but we can keep that redundancy and still boil things down a bit. That he made the sword, however, identifies him as a smith without us having to say so. And if the fact that the ren faire travels isn't important to the narrative, we can boil it out.

"made it for her" = "custom made it", and we can change a "for" to "at" to eliminate the echo.

And now that we know it's custom-made by Thord of the fake name, we don't need to state that it's a copy, as that is now obvious.

Jai danced, making wide circles with the Viking blade, Ulfberht shutting away the mundane like a steel door. Thord of the fake name, Thord of the renaissance festival, had custom made it for her at a dear price.

Sunlight stretched from the window and flashed on the steel sword its light spotted her shirt, and flashed her eye for a second. Ulfberht was strong, yet so flexible it would not break under the rages of warfare. She’d made the tale of its making, a metaphor for her life. Baptized in fire, and hammered free from impurities, the sword was a marvel for its era. The making of it took patience--and in time, like it, she would be complete. Face misted of sweat droplets, she placed Ulfberht back on the wall rack, and flopped down in a tan leather chair to type. Jai wrote scripts, codes, and designed fantasy combat games for a living.  In this room, she could let her mind run as wild as a microburst hiding in the Arizona wind. Never knowing where it would hit, or what it would uproot. Gods she loved such things.

If we take the information that she's in a room from later in the paragraph, we can boil out "from the window". "stretched" is clutter, as is "steel" (because all blades are steel unless in some weird fantasy land). There's an echo on flashed, so we can change the first to "reflected". As she's mid-dance, "for a second" is unneeded, as the situation necessary for the sword to reflect sunlight to her eye would be transient. I question whether or not, mid-dance, she'd notice the shirt-spotting especially with the light hitting her eyes. To avoid the POV glitch, we should remove it.

The second sentence is a tell (the "was" being a dead giveaway), and I don't see much of an opportunity to turn it into a show in this paragraph. It's boilable as-is, ("so flexible it would not" = "flexible enough not to"), but we'll revisit it on a final read and see what can be done with it.

"She'd made the tale of its making" can lose the first 2/3, and we can combine it with the next sentence. "the making of it" can become "the forging"... And by moving the "like it", we can avoid telling the reader that it's a metaphor, and just make the metaphor.

I don't know how to read, "Face misted of sweat droplets", and I think we could make it more active anyway. "back" is clutter, as is "wall". "down in" = "into"

I think we need a paragraph break here...but the next line is a tell. It's probably okay as a tell, but "wrote scripts, codes, and designed" = "coded"

"she could let" is clutter if "run" becomes "ran". "where it hit or what it would uproot", while fine as-is, can convey the same feeling--which is what's important in metaphor--if we boil out the first "it would".

Reflected sunlight from the sword flashed in her eye. Ulfberht was strong, yet flexible enough not to break under the rages of warfare. A marvel for its era, baptized in fire and hammered free from impurities, the forging took patience--and like it, in time her life would be complete. Sweat misting her face, she placed Ulfberht on the rack and flopped onto a tan leather chair to type.  
Jai coded fantasy combat games for a living.  In this room her mind ran as wild as a microburst hiding in the Arizona wind, never knowing where or what it would uproot. Gods, she loved such things.

On display in the room: Viking axes, spears, and shields, Japanese tea service, shodō calligraphy, and a samurai sword passed down by her ancestors. Her namesake and grandfather presented it to her, the samurai sword, on the day she received her master’s degree. It hung next to Ulfberht--both swords were her most prized possessions. Collecting whatever honored her Swedish and Japanese ancestry made her feel like she belonged to something bigger than her chaotic beginnings.

We can condense a lot by moving the samurai sword--katana--to the next sentence, and combining that with the one after.

The tell of "were her" can be made more active.

We already know she's a collector from context. "made her feel like she belonged to" = "tied her to"

On display in the room: Viking axes, spears, and shields, Japanese tea service, shodō calligraphy.... Next to Ulfberht hung the ancestral katana her grandfather had presented her when she'd received her master's degree. She prized them above all other possessions. Honoring her Swedish and Japanese ancestry tied her to something bigger than her chaotic beginnings.

Her eyes fixed to a spot where an ax was mounted. If her dad had been strong, she liked to think he would have been the one to give her some of these things. A long time ago, he’d been an archeologist mom told her. He should have been the one to tell her about the Viking weapons, the meaning of decorated handles, or the indestructible sword. If mom knew what drove dad to ruin his life, she never said.  If Jai knew, maybe she could forgive him. What her mom said was that she loved him too much to leave at first. Then when Jai was fifteen, and her mother found out what dads tanked-up friends were up to, she knew she had to leave.

This first sentence is a cumbersome way to say that she looked at an ax on the wall, and given the descriptions of everything else, I don't know that it adds any substance to the narrative. So let's boil it out.

"she liked to think" is clutter, because we're in her mind already. "been the one" is clutter if "give" becomes "given".

"mom told her" on first blush looks like clutter, but might not be, because it reveals that Jai didn't know her dad...but later in the paragraph we learn that her dad left when she was fifteen, and it's next to impossible that she'd reach that age without knowing that her dad had been an archeologist. "A long time ago" = "Once".

"been the one" appears again, and is clutter here, too. "the Viking weapons" can condense with "decorated handles" to become "Viking hilt decorations".

"what drove dad to ruin"  = "why he'd ruined", fixing the tense in the process.

The next sentence needs no boiling, but the one after can lose "What", and "was that"

"Then" and "when" can boil out, rendering the sentence more active. "she knew she had to leave" = "and left him".

If her dad had been strong, he'd have given her some of these things. Once an archeologist, he should have told her about the meaning of Viking hilt decorations, or the indestructible sword. If mom knew why he'd ruined his life, she never said.  If Jai knew, maybe she could forgive him. Her mom said she loved him too much to leave at first. When Jai was fifteen, her mother found out what dad's tanked-up friends were up to, and left him.

A key clinked and the front door opened, and Jai rose from her chair.

“A little warning, Gods mom. You scared the crap outa me.”

“Got some Miso soup from Grandma.”

“I was working.”

“You were playing with the swords.”

“That is work.”

“Just on my way home and--.”

“You thought you would make me feel guilty about grandma. Not visiting.”

“No, she just wants to know if you are getting any hang ups on the phone. She says it’s happening again.”

Mom was standing there with the Pyrex container of Miso and Jai was being an ass.

No reason not to boil out the second "and", and as we already know she's sitting, "rose from her chair" = "stood".

"outa" is not a word, and colloquialisms like this should be avoided. Most people will read it that way anyway.

I tend not to touch dialogue much, but judicial use of contractions can help keep it from being too stilted. Thus, "That is work" = "That's work". The "just" and "any" in the last line can be boiled out while preserving the accent (enough for this reader, anyway...dialogue is tricky, and the author might insist they go back in.)

This chunk is Brenda Starr Dialogue, and could benefit from some action (setting down the soup, standing awkwardly, whatever works to break it up a little and add some texture to the conversation).

This last sentence is all tell, no show. The standing there with the Pyrex container (which we know is full of Miso soup from the dialogue) can be incorporated to the dialogue, and whether or not Jai is being an ass can be inferred from the dialogue and actions of the characters--it's not something you can force the reader to think just by saying so.

A key clinked and the front door opened. 
 Jai stood. “A little warning, Gods mom. You scared the crap out of me.” 
 “Got some Miso soup from Grandma.”  
“I was working.”  
“You were playing with the swords.” Her mom stood there with the Pyrex container.  
“That's work.”  
“Just on my way home and--.”  
“You thought you would make me feel guilty about grandma. Not visiting.”  
“No, she wants to know if you are getting hang ups on the phone. She says it’s happening again.”

The Result:

Revisiting the tell from the second paragraph, we can merge those first two sentences. (I'm dubious of the claim of unbreakability, but don't know if this piece is fantasy or not, so left it in.)

Jai danced, making wide circles with the Viking blade, Ulfberht shutting away the mundane like a steel door. Thord of the fake name, Thord of the renaissance festival, had custom made it for her at a dear price. 
Reflected sunlight from the strong, flexible, unbreakable sword flashed in her eye. A marvel for its era, baptized in fire and hammered free from impurities, the forging took patience--and like it, in time her life would be complete. Sweat misting her face, she placed Ulfberht on the rack and flopped onto a tan leather chair to type.  
Jai coded designed fantasy combat games for a living.  In this room her mind ran as wild as a microburst hiding in the Arizona wind, never knowing where or what it would uproot. Gods, she loved such things.  
On display in the room: Viking axes, spears, and shields, Japanese tea service, shodō calligraphy.... Next to Ulfberht hung the ancestral katana her grandfather had presented her when she'd received her master's degree. She prized them above all other possessions. Honoring her Swedish and Japanese ancestry tied her to something bigger than her chaotic beginnings. 
If her dad had been strong, he'd have given her some of these things. Once an archeologist, he should have told her about the meaning of Viking hilt decorations, or the indestructible sword. If mom knew why he'd ruined his life, she never said.  If Jai knew, maybe she could forgive him. Her mom said she loved him too much to leave at first. When Jai was fifteen, her mother found out what dad's tanked-up friends were up to, and left him. 
A key clinked and the front door opened.  
Jai stood. “A little warning, Gods mom. You scared the crap out of me.” 
“Got some Miso soup from Grandma.” 
“I was working.” 
“You were playing with the swords.” Her mom stood there with the Pyrex container. 
“That's work.” 
“Just on my way home and--.” 
“You thought you would make me feel guilty about grandma. Not visiting.” 
“No, she wants to know if you are getting hang ups on the phone. She says it’s happening again.”

So that's 356 words from the original 527, a 32% reduction. What do you think?