Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Boiling into Space

This week's boiling is an excerpt from Space in the Heart by Rodney Walther, author of the acclaimed and bestselling and most excellent Broken Laces, a tale of grief and loss and baseball. His fiction is orthogonal to mine; while I tend toward horror, sci-fi, and fantasy thrillers, Rodney tends toward realistic, emotional dramas. But dammit, he's got a heck of a voice, and I can't help but recommend his work.

I met Rodney on the ABNA forums several years ago, and he's one of the most gracious, delightful people I've met online. Let's see what we can do with his 429-word offering.

The Original:

Garrison Sterling ran a gloved hand along the surface of the four-foot rocket model, feeling for spurs and cracks. He’d been working on it for more than a month, and everything needed to be perfect before he delivered it to the science museum in Waco. Illuminating the gleaming white surface of the orbiter with his flashlight, Garrison considered how truly beautiful the space shuttle was.

Just one flight, he thought, for probably the millionth time since he received his acceptance letter from NASA. Just one flight into the dark expanse of space, one chance to experience the rumbling liftoff from a launch pad, to circle the planet and gaze down on her continents and oceans, to float weightless. But that one flight had never been in the cards for him.

He examined the silvery, ribbed surface of the main engine thrusters, slightly wiggling them to make sure they’d hold up to minor bumps. He confirmed the position of every decal and the color of every painted line, because he knew that details mattered. And then, as he always did for every handmade model of the space shuttle, he inspected the grey-tipped delta wing of the orbiter, lightly running his fingers along its leading edge as if checking for foam insulation damage.

In the quiet of his workshop, surrounded by spray paint cans of every imaginable color, organization bins for PVC pipe fittings, and a movie poster of Apollo 13 on the wall, Garrison paused to remember his friends.

He’d worked with them all, of course. The American public didn’t know the crew’s names—Husband, McCool, Anderson, Ramon, Chawla, Brown, and Clark—until they perished in the sky over East Texas, but Garrison had long known them on a first-name basis. Because he’d trained with them. Because he’d originally been slated to fly with them.

A drop of sweat fell from the tip of his nose and landed on the orbiter’s payload bay doors. He quickly wiped it off and blew on the shuttle’s surface. This was not the time for mistakes.

His cell phone buzzed, and then Elton John’s Rocket Man filled the silence. Garrison fished the phone from his pocket.

“Mister Garrison?” the female voice asked.

“It’s Mister Sterling. Garrison’s my first name.”

“Oh.”

After an awkward pause, he said, “Can I help you?”

“You’re the Mister Garrison with the telescope?”

He took a deep breath and gritted his teeth. “Garrison’s my first name,” he repeated. “Last name’s Sterling. And yes, I have a telescope out at my weekend ranch. I’m sorry, ma’am, but what do you want?”

The Condensation:

Garrison Sterling ran a gloved hand along the surface of the four-foot rocket model, feeling for spurs and cracks. He’d been working on it for more than a month, and everything needed to be perfect before he delivered it to the science museum in Waco. Illuminating the gleaming white surface of the orbiter with his flashlight, Garrison considered how truly beautiful the space shuttle was.

Gloves go over hands, so "a gloved hand" = his glove". As you can only touch the surface of objects, "the surface of" can boil out.

In the second sentence, we can combine the clauses and thus boil it down to about half its original length, and "he delivered it" can boil down to "delivery".

"The [feature] of the [object]" can almost always boil down to "the [object]'s [feature]." But in this case, we've got a repeat of "surface". A flashlight isn't going to illuminate the subsurface, so we can boil it out again.

I'm not in love with the last line of this paragraph. First, as readers of this blog will know, I'm "was"-adverse. Second, I'm also adverb-adverse; in this case, "beautiful" is a strong enough word, though "stunning" or "awe-inspiring" might be even better, and any of the above can stand on its own without adverbial clutter.

Garrison Sterling ran his glove along the four-foot rocket model, feeling for spurs and cracks. His month's work needed to be perfect before delivery to the science museum in Waco. Illuminating the gleaming white orbiter with his flashlight, Garrison considered the space shuttle's stunning beauty.

Just one flight, he thought, for probably the millionth time since he received his acceptance letter from NASA. Just one flight into the dark expanse of space, one chance to experience the rumbling liftoff from a launch pad, to circle the planet and gaze down on her continents and oceans, to float weightless. But that one flight had never been in the cards for him.

"millionth" is sufficiently approximate to render the "probably" either redundant or implied. Similarly, "the" can replace "he received his", as we can easily infer from the rest of the passage that the letter came to him (and not, say, to a relative or friend).

"one flight"  = "once", and "chance to experience the" is extraneous.

The last line has a certain redundancy that I'm sure is intentional, but I don't think it's needed. We can boil out the repeat of "one flight" and the cliché, and thus make a short sentence with a lot of impact.

Just one flight, he thought, for the millionth time since the acceptance letter from NASA. Just once into the dark expanse of space, one rumbling liftoff from a launch pad, to circle the planet and gaze down on her continents and oceans, to float weightless. But no, not for him.

He examined the silvery, ribbed surface of the main engine thrusters, slightly wiggling them to make sure they’d hold up to minor bumps. He confirmed the position of every decal and the color of every painted line, because he knew that details mattered. And then, as he always did for every handmade model of the space shuttle, he inspected the grey-tipped delta wing of the orbiter, lightly running his fingers along its leading edge as if checking for foam insulation damage.

Here we go from considering to examining; essentially the same thing, so let's boil out the redundancy. And there's "surface" again. "Slightly wiggling" is "jiggling", though I think either will work here.

We never need to say what a POV character knows or things, we just need to state it as true. This gives another short sentence with some punch.

I'm not a big fan of telling sequentiality, as it's implied almost always without the need of saying it, but the "And then" here seems essential to point out the ritual nature of the act. However, we already know it's a handmade model, and we already know it's a space shuttle--though we can emphasize this by replacing "orbiter" with "space shuttle" as we move it to boil out the "of the". Finally, "lightly running" can lose the adverb, as the care he's shown so far is quite evident, and there'd be no reason to believe it wouldn't continue.

As a general rule I hate "as if"s, but in this case it's so terribly appropriate that it just has to stay.

He jiggled the silvery, ribbed main engine thrusters to make sure they’d hold up to minor bumps. He confirmed the position of every decal and the color of every painted line; details matter. And then, as he always did, he inspected the space shuttle's grey-tipped delta wing, running his fingers along its leading edge as if checking for foam insulation damage.

In the quiet of his workshop, surrounded by spray paint cans of every imaginable color, organization bins for PVC pipe fittings, and a movie poster of Apollo 13 on the wall, Garrison paused to remember his friends.

Spray paint comes in cans.

"imaginable" is clutter given that "every color" is already hyperbole.

We can boil out "pipe", as most people only know PVC as plumbing pipe, especially where fittings are involved. I'm not 100% on this one, but I think we can eliminate "organization" without loss of content or tone. If we really want to emphasize a meticulous, organized nature, we can add "racks of" before "spray paint", but I don't think it's necessary.... A disorganized workshop would have the PVC in a box, not in (multiple) bins.

"a movie poster of Apollo 13 on the wall" can lose "movie" and "on the wall", and we can rearrange it to boil out the "of".

In the quiet of his workshop, surrounded by spray paint of every color, bins for PVC fittings, and an Apollo 13 poster, Garrison paused to remember his friends.

He’d worked with them all, of course. The American public didn’t know the crew’s names—Husband, McCool, Anderson, Ramon, Chawla, Brown, and Clark—until they perished in the sky over East Texas, but Garrison had long known them on a first-name basis. Because he’d trained with them. Because he’d originally been slated to fly with them.

The first sentence of this paragraph is redundant with the rest of it; to whit, we have the same sentence later with "worked" replaced by "trained". We should pick one, and eliminate the other.

"didn't know" needs to become "hadn't known", because it's in the past and goes with "until".

We can boil out American as redundant with both NASA and East Texas, "the crew's" = "their", and "in the sky" is redundant with "over"...though on that score, I like the longer "in the sky" more, even though it's longer, I think it preserves the tone of the piece better.

It is obvious that if he'd trained with them, he'd know their names and be on a first name basis.

The last sentence can lose "Because" and "originally" with no loss of content.

The public hadn't known their names—Husband, McCool, Anderson, Ramon, Chawla, Brown, and Clark—until they perished in the East Texas sky, but Garrison had trained with them. He’d been slated to fly with them.

A drop of sweat fell from the tip of his nose and landed on the orbiter’s payload bay doors. He quickly wiped it off and blew on the shuttle’s surface. This was not the time for mistakes.

Sweat doesn't fall except in drops, so we can boil that out; when it falls from the nose, it overwhelmingly falls from the tip, so we can boil that out, too. We know it's an orbiter, and "payload bay doors" is no more informative than "bay doors".

"quickly" is clutter. I'm inclined to do a word-for-word exchange, and swap "on the shuttle's surface" with "to evaporate the moisture". We know the moisture is on the shuttle's surface--on the bay doors, to be precise--so that part is redundant. But it might not be obvious why he'd blow on it if we left it as "blew on it". While not a boil out per se, we can include more information in the same number of words, and evaporation is related to boiling, so we can let it slide. ;)

Judicious use of contractions can help prose from becoming stilted. Thus, "was not" = "wasn't".

Sweat from his nose landed on the bay doors. He wiped it off and blew to evaporate the moisture. This wasn't the time for mistakes.

His cell phone buzzed, and then Elton John’s Rocket Man filled the silence. Garrison fished the phone from his pocket.

Arguably, "cell phone" can lose "phone" or "cell" and still work--so few people have land lines these days, and it's pretty common to call a "cell phone" a "cell". That it has a ringtone makes it doubly clear.

Everyone who will recognize Rocket Man knows that Elton John sings it. Everyone who doesn't, won't care. The second "the phone" = "it".

His phone buzzed, and Rocket Man filled the silence. Garrison fished it from his pocket.

“Mister Garrison?” the female voice asked.

“It’s Mister Sterling. Garrison’s my first name.”

“Oh.”

After an awkward pause, he said, “Can I help you?”

“You’re the Mister Garrison with the telescope?”

I have nothing to boil here--the dialogue is authentic, and the speech/action tags just enough to tell use who's talking.

“Mister Garrison?” the female voice asked.

“It’s Mister Sterling. Garrison’s my first name.”

“Oh.”

After an awkward pause, he said, “Can I help you?”

“You’re the Mister Garrison with the telescope?”

He took a deep breath and gritted his teeth. “Garrison’s my first name,” he repeated. “Last name’s Sterling. And yes, I have a telescope out at my weekend ranch. I’m sorry, ma’am, but what do you want?”

If he took a deep breath and gritted his teeth at the same time, then he "sucked air through his teeth". Alternatively, we can just eliminate whichever of the two actions is less necessary. I'd normally go with "He gritted his teeth" as enough, but as I don't want to eliminate content, we'll go with sucking air.

"He repeated" is clutter--we know he's repeating it, and we don't need a speech tag to go along with the action tag used to start the paragraph.

He sucked air through his teeth. “Garrison’s my first name. Last name’s Sterling. And yes, I have a telescope out at my weekend ranch. I’m sorry, ma’am, but what do you want?”

The Result:

Garrison Sterling ran his glove along the four-foot rocket model, feeling for spurs and cracks. His month's work needed to be perfect before delivery to the science museum in Waco. Illuminating the gleaming white orbiter with his flashlight, Garrison considered the space shuttle's stunning beauty. 
Just one flight, he thought, for the millionth time since the acceptance letter from NASA. Just once into the dark expanse of space, one rumbling liftoff from a launch pad, to circle the planet and gaze down on her continents and oceans, to float weightless. But no, not for him. 
He jiggled the silvery, ribbed main engine thrusters to make sure they’d hold up to minor bumps. He confirmed the position of every decal and the color of every painted line; details matter. And then, as he always did, he inspected the space shuttle's grey-tipped delta wing, running his fingers along its leading edge as if checking for foam insulation damage. 
In the quiet of his workshop, surrounded by spray paint of every color, bins for PVC fittings, and an Apollo 13 poster, Garrison paused to remember his friends. 
The public hadn't known their names—Husband, McCool, Anderson, Ramon, Chawla, Brown, and Clark—until they perished in the East Texas sky, but Garrison had trained with them. He’d been slated to fly with them. 
Sweat from his nose landed on the bay doors. He wiped it off and blew to evaporate the moisture. This wasn't the time for mistakes. 
His phone buzzed, and Rocket Man filled the silence. Garrison fished it from his pocket.

“Mister Garrison?” the female voice asked. 
“It’s Mister Sterling. Garrison’s my first name.” 
“Oh.” 
After an awkward pause, he said, “Can I help you?” 
“You’re the Mister Garrison with the telescope?” 
He sucked air through his teeth. “Garrison’s my first name. Last name’s Sterling. And yes, I have a telescope out at my weekend ranch. I’m sorry, ma’am, but what do you want?”

So there you have it, 322 words from an original 429, a reduction of 25%. How'd I do?