Thursday, September 19, 2013

Shhh.... Boiling a Librarian with Hillary Dodge

This week's guest is Hillary Dodge, The Horror Librarian. I met Hillary at BEA in New York City this past spring, and it's exciting as all get out to see a librarian focused on the horror genre. (We also ate some killer Italian food at a hole in the wall not too far from Penn Station.) She's offered up her first draft of Suffer the Little Children, a creepy short story, from which I've taken the first 501 words.

You can find Hillary's excellent blog here.

The Original:

I wake in the dark.

“Catherine,” he calls. 

“Yes?”  I turn over.  He is standing in the doorway, his dark form blocking the light from the moon.

“There’s something wrong.”  He says.

I sit up in a surge of panic.  Has it happened already?  I took the test before he’d let me go to bed.  Maybe the results were in.  Maybe he didn’t like what it said.

“What’s wrong?”  I ask slowly, fear putting an edge to my voice.

“You’ll have to see for yourself.”  He steps into the room and takes my arm, helping me out of bed.  “Come on.”

He leads me out of the dark room and down the hall.  His house is vast and I feel small.  He takes me up the back stairs, the only ones that I am allowed to use, and leads me down another hall.  As we near the bathroom, I begin to shake.  He stops and turns me in the slivers of moonlight.  He looks at my face.

“Can you feel it?” he asks.

I don’t know how to answer.  “I’m not sure.”

“You’ll see in a minute,” he promises. 

As we pass the bathroom, I feel a strange tingle of relief.  Maybe it isn’t what I think. But then he opens a door at the end of the hall and the panic returns.  We are going into his workshop. 

“You can see it best from up here.”  I don’t understand what his words mean.  Clearly it had happened, what I fear most, and now I was going into his workshop for the last time.

He pulls me into the rickety stairwell.  In former years, the attic had been the servants’ quarters.  He closes the door quietly behind us and leads the way up the stairs.  At the top, he pushes open the door that is always locked and takes me inside.  I have only been inside the workshop once on the night he first brought me here.  That was probably four years ago.  At the time, I hadn’t understood what the workshop meant.  I do now. 

He kept the room meticulously clean, every surface spotless and every corner well-lit.  There were two tall cabinets along the east wall.  These contain the tools.  In the center of the room beside a specially designed drain grill, is the long table. 

But he pulls me past the table and towards the small window set low on the wall.  I have to kneel down to look out.  He takes a few steps back.

“Keep looking,” he instructs.  “You’ll see it soon.”

I nod and watch.  I feel the seconds tick by.  Outside, the moonlight glitters in the fog that enshrouds the farm.  I don’t understand what he wants me to look for.  I wait, eyes scanning the trees at the edge of the forest. 

“Have you seen it yet?” he asks suddenly close behind me again.  I feel his breath on my neck.  It is hot but different somehow. 

I shake my head.  “Not yet.”

The Condensation:

I wake in the dark.

“Catherine,” he calls.

“Yes?”  I turn over.  He is standing in the doorway, his dark form blocking the light from the moon.

“There’s something wrong.”  He says.

Speech attributions are rarely necessary in a scene with only two people.

We can boil down the descriptive sentence by combining his location with the consequence of his standing there. Note that this follows the general principle that conjugations of "to be" should invite further scrutiny when it comes to boiling.

"light from the moon" = "moonlight".

I wake in the dark.

“Catherine.”

“Yes?” I turn over.  His dark form blocks the moonlight through the doorway.

“There’s something wrong.”


I sit up in a surge of panic.  Has it happened already?  I took the test before he’d let me go to bed.  Maybe the results were in.  Maybe he didn’t like what it said.

“What’s wrong?”  I ask slowly, fear putting an edge to my voice.

“You’ll have to see for yourself.”  He steps into the room and takes my arm, helping me out of bed.  “Come on.”

The rhetorical question isn't necessary here, because we already know she's afraid and anticipates something. The naked question doesn't give the reader any new information, so out it boils.

We can combine the maybes, because he could hardly dislike results that hadn't come in yet.

By moving the fear up, we put it front and center for the reader. Slowly is a Tom Swiftly adverb (see the Turkey City Lexicon), so out it boils. This allows the short, concise question to stand on its own, thus giving it more impact.

There's an echo here on "wrong", so I'm going to change "What's wrong?" to "What is it?"

I sit up in a surge of panic.  I took the test before he’d let me go to bed.  Maybe he didn’t like the results. Fear put an edge to my voice.

“What is it?”

“You’ll have to see for yourself.”  He steps into the room and takes my arm, helping me out of bed.  “Come on.”


He leads me out of the dark room and down the hall.  His house is vast and I feel small.  He takes me up the back stairs, the only ones that I am allowed to use, and leads me down another hall.  As we near the bathroom, I begin to shake.  He stops and turns me in the slivers of moonlight.  He looks at my face.

We already know it's a dark room, and he can hardly lead her down the hall without leading her out, so we can leave this as implied.

It's only one word, but we can boil out the "and" by making the next sentence more active.

"I am" = "I'm". Judicious use of contractions help keeps prose from becoming stilted.

"Takes me" renders the second "leads me" boilable.

"Shake" is a little vague, so let's change it to "tremble". "I begin" is in the same category as "started to"--unless it's important that the action is interrupted, it's clutter.

As a side note, there are a lot of indications here of utter subservience and domination without saying it outright, which is well done. (I've read the rest of the story, and it's important!)

He leads me down the hall.  I feel small in his vast house.  He takes me up the back stairs, the only ones that I'm allowed to use, and down another hall.  I tremble as we near the bathroom.  He stops and turns me in the slivers of moonlight.  He looks at my face.


“Can you feel it?” he asks.

I don’t know how to answer.  “I’m not sure.”

“You’ll see in a minute,” he promises. 

Boil out the speech attributions, and avoid telling the reader what doesn't happen.

“Can you feel it?”

I hesitate.  “I’m not sure.”

“You’ll see in a minute.” 


As we pass the bathroom, I feel a strange tingle of relief.  Maybe it isn’t what I think. But then he opens a door at the end of the hall and the panic returns.  We are going into his workshop. 

"I feel" is a strong indication that you're showing instead of telling, and while sometimes that's fine, in general it makes prose more dynamic if you avoid tells.

"But then" is clutter--sequentiality is implied.

"The panic returns" is a tell as well. It's not bad, but perhaps we could change it to a show.

We already know they're going, and by making the final sentence as short as possible you reinforce the importance of it.

My skin tingles in relief as we pass the bathroom.  Maybe it isn’t what I think. He opens a door at the end of the hall and my throat tightens.  His workshop. 


“You can see it best from up here.”  I don’t understand what his words mean.  Clearly it had happened, what I fear most, and now I was going into his workshop for the last time.

"what his words mean" is clutter, as is "clearly" and "now".

"going into" = "entering"

“You can see it best from up here.”  I don’t understand.  It had happened, what I fear most, and I was entering his workshop for the last time.


He pulls me into the rickety stairwell.  In former years, the attic had been the servants’ quarters.  He closes the door quietly behind us and leads the way up the stairs.  At the top, he pushes open the door that is always locked and takes me inside.  I have only been inside the workshop once on the night he first brought me here.  That was probably four years ago.  At the time, I hadn’t understood what the workshop meant.  I do now. 

The adverb "quietly" can go--if it's important that it's quiet, change the rather bland "closes" to something that emphasizes the quiet. "He eases the door closed" or simply, "He shuts the door".

"leads the way up the stairs" = "leads me upstairs".

"that is" = "that's", and "and takes me inside" is clutter.

"I have" = "I've", and we can combine these next two sentences.

We can boil out the first "the workshop" to avoid the echo.

"I do now" is redundant with "At the time".

He pulls me into the rickety stairwell.  In former years, the attic had been the servants’ quarters.  He shuts the door behind us and leads me upstairs.  At the top, he pushes open the door that's always locked.  I've only been inside once, on that first night maybe four years ago.  At the time, I hadn’t understood what the workshop meant. 


He kept the room meticulously clean, every surface spotless and every corner well-lit.  There were two tall cabinets along the east wall.  These contain the tools.  In the center of the room beside a specially designed drain grill, is the long table. 

But he pulls me past the table and towards the small window set low on the wall.  I have to kneel down to look out.  He takes a few steps back.

“Keep looking,” he instructs.  “You’ll see it soon.”

Boil out the adverb, and as corners are made of surfaces, we can boil that out, too. On a re-read, we can boil out "the room clean" as well.

"There were" and "these contain" are clutter. "The tools" gives them a creepier vibe that "his tools" or just "tools" doesn't, so despite it just being a simple "the", it's importance in ambiance keeps it in.

Boil out "is" by choosing a better verb. "specially designed" = "custom", and while these changes only boiled out two words, I hope you'll agree that they make the sentence more engaging.

In the next paragraph, "the table" is clutter.

Oddly enough, "towards", "backwards", and so forth bug the crap out of some people, while "toward" and "backward" do not. Both are technically correct, so pick the one that doesn't annoy some people...only in this case, he doesn't just pull her toward it, he pulls her to it.

"have to" is clutter, as is "down". (One never kneels up!)

By putting his action (from which "take a few" is clutter)

He kept every surface spotless and well-lit.  Two tall cabinets along the east wall held the tools.  The long table dominated the center of the room beside a custom drain grill. 

But he pulls me past, to the small window set low on the wall.  I kneel to look out. 

He steps back. “Keep looking. You’ll see it soon.”


I nod and watch.  I feel the seconds tick by.  Outside, the moonlight glitters in the fog that enshrouds the farm.  I don’t understand what he wants me to look for.  I wait, eyes scanning the trees at the edge of the forest. 

"and watch" is redundant with scanning the trees.

"I feel" is clutter, as is almost every statement that time passes. The fact that she has time to mentally comment on the fog and moonlight tells us that time ticks by.

Of course fog happens outside, and "that enshrouds" = "enshrouding".

In the next sentence, we can boil out "he wants me to" if we change "understand" to "know".

She's not waiting, she's scanning, so "I wait" should boil out.

"eyes" is clutter.

Forests are made of trees, so we can boil that out, too.

I nod.  Moonlight glitters in the fog enshrouding the farm.  I don’t know what to look for.  I scan the edge of the forest.


“Have you seen it yet?” he asks suddenly close behind me again.  I feel his breath on my neck.  It is hot but different somehow.

I shake my head.  “Not yet.”

He has to be close behind her again if she can feel his breath on her neck, "I feel" is clutter, and by boiling it out we can combine this sentence with the next.

On a side note, reading the rest of the story, we never get any indication of why his breath would be somehow different, or what that even means. As such, I believe it serves as a distraction. So I'm going to invoke blogger's prerogative and break my own rules by cutting it, even though I pledge to leave content alone. This is one of those situations where, were I doing a real edit for publication, I'd have a discussion with the author about the intent of the phrase, and whether it should be expanded upon or eliminated.

“Have you seen it yet?” His breath warms my neck. 

I shake my head.  “Not yet.”


The Result:

I wake in the dark. 
“Catherine.” 
“Yes?” I turn over.  His dark form blocks the moonlight through the doorway. 
“There’s something wrong.” 
I sit up in a surge of panic.  I took the test before he’d let me go to bed.  Maybe he didn’t like the results. Fear put an edge to my voice. “What is it?” 
“You’ll have to see for yourself.”  He steps into the room and takes my arm, helping me out of bed.  “Come on.” 
He leads me down the hall.  I feel small in his vast house.  He takes me up the back stairs, the only ones that I'm allowed to use, and down another hall.  I tremble as we near the bathroom.  He stops and turns me in the slivers of moonlight.  He looks at my face. 
“Can you feel it?” 
I hesitate.  “I’m not sure.” 
“You’ll see in a minute.”   
My skin tingles in relief as we pass the bathroom.  Maybe it isn’t what I think. He opens a door at the end of the hall and my throat tightens.  His workshop.  
“You can see it best from up here.”  I don’t understand.  It had happened, what I fear most, and I was entering his workshop for the last time. 
He pulls me into the rickety stairwell.  In former years, the attic had been the servants’ quarters.  He shuts the door behind us and leads me upstairs.  At the top, he pushes open the door that's always locked.  I've only been inside once, on that first night maybe four years ago.  At the time, I hadn’t understood what the workshop meant.  
He kept every surface spotless and well-lit.  Two tall cabinets along the east wall held the tools.  The long table dominated the center of the room beside a custom drain grill.  
But he pulls me past, to the small window set low on the wall.  I kneel to look out.  
He steps back. “Keep looking. You’ll see it soon.” 
I nod.  Moonlight glitters in the fog enshrouding the farm.  I don’t know what to look for.  I scan the edge of the forest.  
“Have you seen it yet?” His breath warms my neck.  
I shake my head.  “Not yet.”

So, 367 words down from 501, a 27% boiling. What do you think?