Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Wilder Boiling

This week's boiling comes from Diana Wilder, a friend from the ABNA forums. An excerpt from a piece of fiction set in Egypt, the original sits at 499 words.

The Original:

Nakhtamun frowned as he adjusted the reins' tension.  "Don't be a fool.  They'd have to march on the double and they would not thank me for ordering it without need.  The fort is obviously deserted."

Senwadjet lowered his head and spoke over him.  "If it please Your Majesty: we followed your orders and did not enter the structure, nor did we approach it closely.  We do not know whether it is deserted.  At this moment we know nothing of it apart from its outward appearance."

Nakhtamun stared for the time it took to check the arrow-filled quiver to his right.  "We can verify that ourselves," he said.

Senwadjet raised his head.  "Sire, I beg you.  If I have done anything that has pleased you in the time you have been with me: we should have our foot soldiers and scouts supporting us.  It will be slower, but we can face and fight any resistance we may encounter."

"No!"

Senwadjet continued doggedly.  "But, Sire, if they are dealing treacherously—"

"The place is deserted!  I can see it, myself!   There is nothing there.  The troops will follow us as they can."

"But Majesty!"

"Don't try my patience, General! If they have betrayed us, you have my leave to put them all to the sword!" And he urged his horses to a canter before Senwadjet could protest any further.

**   **   **

Magnificent! The sun-bleached stones of the fortress seemed set within a frame of mountains rising almost purple to either side.  The brightness echoed the lightness in Nakhtamun's heart.  He would speak with his father and with Ramesses.

He eased his hold on the reins and his team quickened its pace.  The canter became a gallop until they were in the shadow of the fortress' square gatehouse.  He drew up, then, smiling at the tower, picturing it stuccoed and painted, peopled with soldiers and traders, as it had been in the great times.  His horses felt the tension on the reins and shook their heads, their feathered headdresses tossing in the wind.

He turned to Senwadjet, who was beside him.  "They spoke truth," he said.  "It's in fine shape, from this vantage! We will see how it seems from inside!"

His horses stiffened their necks, snorting as he shook the reins.  "What's this?" he demanded.  He loosed the lash of his short driving whip and cracked it over their heads.  The team lurched forward and then steadied, though their ears flicked back and forth.  "That's it, my beauties!" he said.

He swept through the gatehouse, Senwadjet's panicked shout ringing in his ears behind him.  A twang from the right, then a heavy thud as a long black shaft seemed to bloom in his breast.  The horses screamed and reared.  He heard the whine of a bowstring and looked down, choking, as another arrow appeared beside the first.

The back of his throat was filling with blood.  His hands were losing their strength as he fell forward against the chariot rail.

The Condensation:

Nakhtamun frowned as he adjusted the reins' tension.  "Don't be a fool.  They'd have to march on the double and they would not thank me for ordering it without need.  The fort is obviously deserted." 

As the simultanaety is sufficiently implied, we can change "as he" to "and".

"The reins' tension" = "the reins". As a general rule, we should avoid describing inanimate objects with possessives, so "the tension on the reins" would be better were "the reins" insufficient.

"and they would not" = "and wouldn't", and we can lose the "obviously" without loss of content. In fact, I think that boiling out the adverb makes the sentence more confident, not less.

Nakhtamun frowned and adjusted the reins. "Don't be a fool. They'd have to march on the double and wouldn't thank me for ordering it without need. The fort is deserted." 

Senwadjet lowered his head and spoke over him.  "If it please Your Majesty: we followed your orders and did not enter the structure, nor did we approach it closely.  We do not know whether it is deserted.  At this moment we know nothing of it apart from its outward appearance."

I'm not sure what the first sentence means, but the fact that he spoke is clear without stating it. I'm going to change "lowered" to "bowed" because I think it's what the author meant. The colon is unnecessary.

One cannot enter a structure that one hasn't approached, so we can boil that out. "Closely", too, can go.

My usual admonishment about contractions and stilted prose doesn't apply here, methinks, because when speaking to kings and lords (and in the modern day, cops), people tend to be a bit stilted.

The last sentence is sufficiently obvious—if they didn't approach, they won't know what it's like inside—that I think we can boil it out without loss of content.

Senwadjet bowed his head. "If it please Your Majesty, we followed your orders and didn't approach. We do not know whether it is deserted."

Nakhtamun stared for the time it took to check the arrow-filled quiver to his right.  "We can verify that ourselves," he said.

Again I'm unclear what this sentence means. Is he staring at the quiver? If he's not and is instead staring at Senwadjet, what does it mean to check the quiver? Due to the lack of clarity, I've chosen to omit the reference to the quiver.

Either way, the action makes the speech attribution boilable.

Nakhtamun stared at him. "We can verify that ourselves."

Senwadjet raised his head.  "Sire, I beg you.  If I have done anything that has pleased you in the time you have been with me: we should have our foot soldiers and scouts supporting us.  It will be slower, but we can face and fight any resistance we may encounter."

This dialogue is clunky, though I get the feeling that this is at least partially intentional. Still, I think we can keep the stilted feel and still boil out a few words. Again, the colon is unnecessary.

Senwadjet raised his head. "Sire, I beg you. If my service has pleased you, foot soldiers and scouts should support us. It will be slower, but we can fight any resistance."

"No!"
Senwadjet continued doggedly.  "But, Sire, if they are dealing treacherously—"
"The place is deserted!  I can see it, myself!   There is nothing there.  The troops will follow us as they can."
"But Majesty!"

Arguments in real life are often repetitive to the point of savage annoyance. Arguments in prose should be more concise, so as to get the point across without bogging down the plot.

"Continued doggedly" is a tell, not a show. The dialogue carries his persistence without the tag.

"No!"
"But, Sire, if they are dealing treacherously—"
"The place is deserted! I can see it, myself! The troops will follow us as they can."
"But—"

"Don't try my patience, General! If they have betrayed us, you have my leave to put them all to the sword!" And he urged his horses to a canter before Senwadjet could protest any further.
**   **   **

Here I'd add contractions, because kings are less formal with their subordinates than the other way around.

I'd go a bit easier on the exclamation points, too.

We can boil out the "And" and the "any". The "horses" confused me here—I'd consider adding something to indicate that he's in a chariot(?) as opposed to on horseback.

"Don't try my patience, General! If they've betrayed us, put them to the sword." He urged his horses to a canter before Senwadjet could protest further.
**   **   **

Magnificent! The sun-bleached stones of the fortress seemed set within a frame of mountains rising almost purple to either side.  The brightness echoed the lightness in Nakhtamun's heart.  He would speak with his father and with Ramesses.

"stones of the fortress" = fortress stones, "almost purple" is close enough to "purple", and instead of "seemed set within a frame", we can make the sentence more active and have the mountains frame the fortress.

The brightness/lightness rhyme is a bit sing-songy, and we can convey the same sentiment without it.

The final sentence, "He would speak with his father and with Ramesses" disrupts the action without providing the reader with useful information. We don't know who Ramesses is, nor do we know what he intends to speak to his father about, nor do either apply to the immediate matter, which is the ride to the fortress. Thus, out it boils.

Magnificent! Purple mountains to either side framed the sun-bleached fortress stones. The brightness echoed Nakhtamun's heart.

He eased his hold on the reins and his team quickened its pace.  The canter became a gallop until they were in the shadow of the fortress' square gatehouse.  He drew up, then, smiling at the tower, picturing it stuccoed and painted, peopled with soldiers and traders, as it had been in the great times.  His horses felt the tension on the reins and shook their heads, their feathered headdresses tossing in the wind.

The latter half of the first sentence is redundant with the next sentence, which itself can boil down a good deal.

"then" is clutter, better replaced by the near-invisible "and".

He can't know what his horses felt—that's a POV glitch (though a minor one). I'm not a big fan of sensory verbs anyway, as even when they're not clutter, they're usually a "tell".

He eased his hold on the reins. They galloped into the shadow of the fortress' square gatehouse. He drew up and smiled at the tower, picturing it stuccoed and painted, peopled with soldiers and traders, as it had been in the great times. His horses shook their heads against the tension on the reins, their feathered headdresses tossing in the wind.

He turned to Senwadjet, who was beside him.  "They spoke truth," he said.  "It's in fine shape, from this vantage! We will see how it seems from inside!"

That Senwadjet is beside him is implied by the fact that he turns to him, and the action obviates the need for the speech attribution. Other than that, "We will"  = "We'll".

He turned to Senwadjet. "They spoke truth. It's in fine shape, from this vantage! We'll see how it seems from inside!"

His horses stiffened their necks, snorting as he shook the reins.  "What's this?" he demanded.  He loosed the lash of his short driving whip and cracked it over their heads.  The team lurched forward and then steadied, though their ears flicked back and forth.  "That's it, my beauties!" he said.

We can boil out both speech attributions without loss of content.

He can't crack the whip without loosening the lash, and indeed with at least one hand on the reins it's difficult to picture how he'd do that other than just letting go of it, so let's boil that out.

Driving whips are short, so pick one or the other.

"The team" = "they", we can lose the "then".

Ears can only flick back and forth, so back and forth is redundant.

His horses stiffened their necks, snorting as he shook the reins. "What's this?" He cracked the short whip over their heads.  They lurched forward then steadied, though their ears flicked.  "That's it, my beauties!"

He swept through the gatehouse, Senwadjet's panicked shout ringing in his ears behind him.  A twang from the right, then a heavy thud as a long black shaft seemed to bloom in his breast.  The horses screamed and reared.  He heard the whine of a bowstring and looked down, choking, as another arrow appeared beside the first.

"behind him" doesn't work here. First, it seems like his ears are behind him, and second, we already know that he's outpased Senwadjet.

"Seemed to" is perhaps my least favorite phrase in all of fiction. If it seemed to do something to the POV character, then it might as well have done it. If later this turns out to be wrong (and the fact that it's wrong is important to the plot), it can be dealt with as that becomes apparent to the POV character.

You have a lot of compound sentences here, and you can emphasize the arrow by breaking it off. Given that some reasonable amount of the shaft is buried in his chest, "long" can be boiled out.

I don't know why trained warhorses would scream, so would recommend omitting that, but doing so in this case would be a removal of content, so I'll leave it in.

"He heard" belongs with almost all sensory verbs: boiled out. As the POV character, if he didn't hear it, you wouldn't describe it.

Bowstrings don't whine, and though you've already used twang, I think you can get away with it again.

The time between the sound and the arrow appearing would be darn close to zero, especially if he's close enough to hear the twang, so the likelihood of his looking down as it hit is small.

The "choking" stalls the sentence, and works better in the next paragraph.

He swept through the gatehouse, Senwadjet's panicked shout ringing in his ears. A twang from the right, then a heavy thud. A black shaft bloomed in his breast.  The horses screamed and reared. Another twang. He looked down at the second arrow beside the first.

The back of his throat was filling with blood.  His hands were losing their strength as he fell forward against the chariot rail.

"was [verb]ing" is almost always a sign that something can be boiled out. In this case, let's use the "choking" we pulled from above. Choking occurs in the back of the throat, and wouldn't happen without enough blood to fill it.

"were [verb]ing" almost always can lose the were" and the "ing".

He choked on blood. His hands lost their strength as he fell forward against the chariot rail.

The Result:

Upon reading the boiled version, something came to my attention. The structure of each paragraph is much the same.

Before the break, it's [Name] [verb]ed four times in a row: N frowned, S bowed, N stared, S raised.

After the break, it's He eased, He turned, His horses stiffened, He swept, He choked.

The piece will benefit by not only varying the types of sentences (as we did above), but also the structure of paragraphs. Given that there are only two speakers, we can combine the stare and the head-raising, and boil out a few of the names, thus mixing up the paragraph forms a bit.

After the break, a little rearrangement accomplishes the same thing.

Nakhtamun frowned and adjusted the reins. "Don't be a fool. They'd have to march on the double and wouldn't thank me for ordering it without need. The fort is deserted." 

"If it please Your Majesty." Senwadjet bowed his head. "We followed your orders and didn't approach. We do not know whether it is deserted."

"We can verify that ourselves."

Their eyes met. "Sire, I beg you. If my service has pleased you, foot soldiers and scouts should support us. It will be slower, but we can fight any resistance."

"No!"

"But, Sire, if they are dealing treacherously—"

"The place is deserted! I can see it, myself! The troops will follow us as they can."

"But—"

"Don't try my patience, General! If they've betrayed us, put them to the sword." He urged his horses to a canter before Senwadjet could protest further.

**   **   **

Magnificent! Purple mountains to either side framed the sun-bleached fortress stones. The brightness echoed Nakhtamun's heart. He eased his hold on the reins.

They galloped into the shadow of the fortress' square gatehouse. He drew up and smiled at the tower, picturing it stuccoed and painted, peopled with soldiers and traders, as it had been in the great times. His horses shook their heads against the tension on the reins, their feathered headdresses tossing in the wind.

He turned to Senwadjet. "They spoke truth. It's in fine shape, from this vantage! We'll see how it seems from inside!"

His horses stiffened their necks, snorting as he shook the reins. "What's this?" He cracked the short whip over their heads.  They lurched forward then steadied, though their ears flicked.  "That's it, my beauties!"

Senwadjet's panicked shout rang in his ears as he swept through the gatehouse. A twang from the right, then a heavy thud. A black shaft bloomed in Nakhtamun's breast.  The horses screamed and reared. Another twang. He looked down at the second arrow beside the first.

He choked on blood. His hands lost their strength as he fell forward against the chariot rail.

341 words, down from 499, a reduction of 32%. How'd I do?