Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Boiling a Middle School Ninja with Nikki Bennett

This week's boiling is the first 497 words of the rough draft of Nikki Bennett's YA novel, Ninth Street Ninjas. Let's see what we can do with it.

The Original:

Keni’s day wasn’t going to go well.

He knew for two reasons.  One: he was already late for the bus, and two: he was a nerd.  Everybody, including his big sister, called him a nerd.  So it must be true.

Nerds always got picked on.

So even though it was a beautiful fall day, Keni’s stomach was full of extra-hyper butterflies as he ran after the bus.  It was about to drive away and he was going to miss it—he’d be totally humiliated and the kids on his block would never let him forget it.  Keni pushed his sweaty glasses up his nose, blinked his eyes, and ran as fast as he could.  The doors were closing as he yelled.  “Wait!  Wait for me!”

The doors opened and Keni heaved his backpack up the bus steps.  He felt as exposed as if he had nothing on but his underwear as kid after kid stared at him.  He walked up the aisle, searching for a free seat.  They were all full.  Except one.

The biggest, toughest, meanest kid at Hookletown Junior High was sitting in it.  Indy Jenkins.  Keni had been terrified of him ever since Keni’s family moved to 9th Street two years ago.  Indy chomped his gum and glared at Keni through a curtain of oily black bangs. Keni inched his way up the aisle.  He felt like he might poop in his pants.  Did he dare sit, or should he just stand in the aisle for the rest of the ride?  He knew what Ms. Smith—the bus driver—would say to that.

He could hardly fit in the seat, Indy’s muscles filled up most of it.  “Excuse me,” Keni whispered as he smushed his backpack between his knees and the seat in front.

“’Scuse you f’what?  Livin’?” Indy grunted as he shot lightning bolts from his eyes into Keni’s skull.  Keni could already feel the wedgie he just knew he was going to get sometime today.  Sometime when he least expected it.  It was almost a guarantee.  It didn’t matter that there were no other spots left on the bus—Indy would get his revenge.

**********

At lunch, as Keni sat by himself, a girl plopped down next to him.  Carleigh—she lived two houses down.  She was the funniest looking girl Keni had ever seen.  Her hair was bright red and twisted into two long braids.  Freckles dotted her face.  She wore a neon green pair of overalls.  A huge ring with a big red stone in the center encircled one of her fingers.

“Hi Keni,” Carleigh said, giving him a big grin.  “Whatcha up to?”

Keni liked Carleigh, but he always felt a little embarrassed when the girl was around.  He knew he was a nerd and shouldn’t judge other quirky kids, but Carleigh was way out there.  She must bring a few pairs of overalls to school with her, because her overalls changed colors at least three times a day.

The Condensation:

Keni’s day wasn’t going to go well.

He knew for two reasons.  One: he was already late for the bus, and two: he was a nerd.  Everybody, including his big sister, called him a nerd.  So it must be true.

Nerds always got picked on.

Everything here is boilable. We'll pick up that Keni is a nerd (and is perhaps too aware of his nerd-status) through his actions and how others treat him, we'll learn he has a sister when it becomes relevant to the action, everyone knows that nerds get picked on, and the bad day becomes apparent on its own.

So even though it was a beautiful fall day, Keni’s stomach was full of extra-hyper butterflies as he ran after the bus.  It was about to drive away and he was going to miss it—he’d be totally humiliated and the kids on his block would never let him forget it.  Keni pushed his sweaty glasses up his nose, blinked his eyes, and ran as fast as he could.  The doors were closing as he yelled.  “Wait!  Wait for me!”

This in media res beginning makes a great opening paragraph, but starting with action is better than starting with weather.

The word "was" is almost always an indication that something can be boiled out. One or two here or there won't hurt anything, but by and large, boil them out. They're "tells", not "shows", and while the occasional tell is fine, by and large we should avoid them.

I'm going to make the assumption that Keni lives somewhere that leaves fall in autumn. If this isn't correct, we can change the first sentence in a different manner to indicate that it's fall without saying so. (This is one of those cases where I'd discuss it with the author were this a real edit and not a blog boil.)

The same goes for, "It was about to drive away". How does Keni know this? "The driver grabbed the handle" gives the same indication without the tell. The latter half of that sentence should keep the adverb because it gives us a bit of Kenji's voice, but "on his block" can boil out for a few reasons: the kids on the bus likely comprise more than just those on his block, word gets around, and if the latter two aren't true, the fact that it's the kids on the bus who'd witness it is implied.

In "blinked his eyes", "his eyes" is clutter--like "shrugged his shoulders" and other such verbiage. One doesn't blink anything else!

If we boil out the speech attribution, we can combine the closing door with the run, and "ran as fast as he could" = "dashed".

I love--love--the sweaty glasses falling down his nose first thing in the morning. It cries out "nerd" in the best possible way.

Extra-hyper butterflies wracked Keni's stomach as he crashed through fallen leaves toward the bus. The driver grabbed the handle—he’d be totally humiliated and the other kids would never let him forget it.  He pushed his sweaty glasses up his nose, blinked, and dashed for the closing door.

“Wait!  Wait for me!”

The doors opened and Keni heaved his backpack up the bus steps.  He felt as exposed as if he had nothing on but his underwear as kid after kid stared at him.  He walked up the aisle, searching for a free seat.  They were all full.  Except one.

We know it's a bus, so boil that out...but add in that the driver's name is Ms. Smith, so we don't have to break up a sentence to say it later.

The second sentence contains redundant ideas. Trust your reader to know what you mean without telling them twice. "had nothing on but his" = "wore nothing but", and "kid after kid" = "the kids".

"free" is clutter, as he wouldn't be searching for a full seat.

The last two sentences can be combined with the next paragraph.

Ms. Smith opened the doors and Keni heaved his backpack up the steps.  The kids stared at him as if he wore nothing but underwear. He walked up the aisle, searching for a seat.

The biggest, toughest, meanest kid at Hookletown Junior High was sitting in it.  Indy Jenkins.  Keni had been terrified of him ever since Keni’s family moved to 9th Street two years ago.  Indy chomped his gum and glared at Keni through a curtain of oily black bangs. Keni inched his way up the aisle.  He felt like he might poop in his pants.  Did he dare sit, or should he just stand in the aisle for the rest of the ride?  He knew what Ms. Smith—the bus driver—would say to that.

Boiling down this paragraph requires a little rearrangement. Let's move "Keni inched his way up the aisle" to the beginning, and boil out "up the aisle" (because we just said it in the now-previous sentence) and replace it with "toward the only open seat."

We don't need to say that Indy Jenkins is sitting, as it would only be strange were he not sitting.

Indy Jenkins can combine with the "him" in the next sentence, and we can make it more active and thus condense it further.

We can boil the "in" before "his pants".

Rhetorical questions are something I'd generally avoid in commercial fiction, and we can condense it by making it a simple statement.

Unless Ms. Smith becomes relevant to the story, we can gloss over her name.

Keni inched toward the only open seat, next to the biggest, toughest, meanest kid at Hookletown Junior High. Indy Jenkins had terrified Keni ever since Keni’s family moved to 9th Street two years ago. Indy chomped his gum and glared at Keni through a curtain of oily black bangs. He felt like he might poop his pants.  Maybe he'd stand in the aisle for the rest of the ride. He knew what Ms. Smith would say to that.

He could hardly fit in the seat, Indy’s muscles filled up most of it.  “Excuse me,” Keni whispered as he smushed his backpack between his knees and the seat in front.

"He could hardly fit" = "He squeezed in"

"as he smushed" = "smushing". (I'd prefer "smooshing", but my dictionary says both are acceptable.)

He squeezed in against Indy’s muscles. “Excuse me,” Keni whispered, smushing his backpack between his knees and the seat in front.

“’Scuse you f’what?  Livin’?” Indy grunted as he shot lightning bolts from his eyes into Keni’s skull.  Keni could already feel the wedgie he just knew he was going to get sometime today.  Sometime when he least expected it.  It was almost a guarantee.  It didn’t matter that there were no other spots left on the bus—Indy would get his revenge.
**********

Dialect is easy to overdo, and should be conveyed through word choice rather than spelling whenever possible. If you get the voice right, people will read it the way you intend anyway.

Most speech tags can boil out, especially when there's already an action tag to go along with it. (As an aside, "grunted" is an action tag used as a speech tag, and this should be avoided pretty much every time.) By making Indy's eyes the subject, we can condense the sentence a bit.

"he just knew he was going to get sometime today" = "he'd get later." As we can assume that Keni is not actually psychic (as conveyed by the "just knew"), we can state that he knows it and thus convey his lack of self-esteem without calling attention to the fact that it may or may not ultimately be true.

"Sometime when he least expected it. It was almost a guarantee." is clutter; he expects it, indeed can already feel it, and everyone (including your readers and Keni) already knows that bullies are all about surprise and opportunity.

“’Scuse you for what?  Living?” Indy's eyes shot lightning bolts into Keni’s skull.  Keni could already feel the wedgie he'd get later. It didn’t matter that there were no other spots left on the bus—Indy would get his revenge.

**********

At lunch, as Keni sat by himself, a girl plopped down next to him.  Carleigh—she lived two houses down.  She was the funniest looking girl Keni had ever seen.  Her hair was bright red and twisted into two long braids.  Freckles dotted her face.  She wore a neon green pair of overalls.  A huge ring with a big red stone in the center encircled one of her fingers.

We can convey that Keni's at the table alone without explicitly saying it, combine the down-plopping with the fact that it's lunch, and give Carleigh's name in one fell swoop.

That she's weird-looking is conveyed by her description, and his worry that he shouldn't judge other quirky kids in the next paragraph, so let's boil that out.

Again, we can boil out some "was"es.

Overalls come in "pairs" (sort of, but that's how we say it), and "encircled one of her fingers" is sufficiently vague that we can boil it out entirely--rings are worn on fingers unless otherwise specified.

Carleigh plopped her lunch down next to his. She lived two houses down. Her bright red hair twisted into two long braids, and freckles dotted her face. Her neon green overalls clashed with the big red stone on her huge ring.

“Hi Keni,” Carleigh said, giving him a big grin.  “Whatcha up to?”

        Keni liked Carleigh, but he always felt a little embarrassed when the girl was around.  He knew he was a nerd and shouldn’t judge other quirky kids, but Carleigh was way out there.  She must bring a few pairs of overalls to school with her, because her overalls changed colors at least three times a day.

Again boil out the speech tag, and "giving him a big grin" = "grinned." (Or if the bigness is important, "beamed.")

"he always felt a little embarrassed when the girl was around" = "her friendship embarrassed him".

"he was" is clutter, as is "and"--and the bold on way shouldn't be there.

What must be true can always be boiled out, and her overalls do not change spontaneously, she changes them.

Finally, "at least three" = "multiple", because once would be once, twice would be twice, thrice would be several, and multiple can mean several or more!

“Hi Keni.” Carleigh beamed. “Whatcha up to?”

        Keni liked Carleigh, but her friendship embarrassed him. He knew a nerd shouldn’t judge other quirky kids, but Carleigh was way out there. Even at school, she changed into different colors of overalls multiple times a day.

The Result:

Extra-hyper butterflies wracked Keni's stomach as he crashed through fallen leaves toward the bus. The driver grabbed the handle—he’d be totally humiliated and the other kids would never let him forget it.  He pushed his sweaty glasses up his nose, blinked, and dashed for the closing door.

“Wait!  Wait for me!”

Ms. Smith opened the doors and Keni heaved his backpack up the steps.  The kids stared at him as if he wore nothing but underwear. He walked up the aisle, searching for a seat.

Keni inched toward the only open seat, next to the biggest, toughest, meanest kid at Hookletown Junior High. Indy Jenkins had terrified Keni ever since Keni’s family moved to 9th Street two years ago. Indy chomped his gum and glared at Keni through a curtain of oily black bangs. He felt like he might poop his pants.  Maybe he'd stand in the aisle for the rest of the ride. He knew what Ms. Smith would say to that.

He squeezed in against Indy’s muscles. “Excuse me,” Keni whispered, smushing his backpack between his knees and the seat in front.

“’Scuse you for what?  Living?” Indy's eyes shot lightning bolts into Keni’s skull.  Keni could already feel the wedgie he'd get later. It didn’t matter that there were no other spots left on the bus—Indy would get his revenge.

**********

Carleigh plopped her lunch down next to his. She lived two houses down. Her bright red hair twisted into two long braids, and freckles dotted her face. Her neon green overalls clashed with the big red stone on her huge ring.

“Hi Keni.” She grinned. “Whatcha up to?”

        Keni liked Carleigh, but her friendship embarrassed him. He knew a nerd shouldn’t judge other quirky kids, but Carleigh was way out there. Even at school, she changed into different colors of overalls multiple times a day.


311 words from an original 497, a reduction of 37%. How'd I do?