Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Boiling Di Francis

This week's boiling comes from Di Francis, another friend from the ABNA boards, who has offered up the first 485 words of her novel, The Cull. Her spell check is set to "UK Standard", so I'm going to guess that she hails from across the pond--fun who the internet lets us interact with, isn't it?'

Anyway, let's see what we can do with The Cull.

The Original:

The early morning mist lay across the loch like a thick eiderdown. Beyond, the mountains rose in craggy tiers, layers of white tipped rock soaring majestically to meet the grey rose of the overcast sky.
Annie Dawes grunted, her breath revealing itself as puffs of steam in the cold air as she clambered up the steep path to a small grassy clearing.
            “Come on. Come and get it,” she yelled, looking around the bare hillside. Rays of sunlight escaped through holes in the clouds, touching the snow with gold.
Taking a small sack off her back she shouted again, her voice echoing through the glen as she scattered the contents over the stony ground, the pellets rolling across the bare patches of earth, settling between the dried yellow blades of the previous years grass growth.
            “Come on. If I can bring it, you can bloody well come and eat it.”
            A rattle of stones above her heralded arrivals as a couple of red deer hinds stepped daintily down the slope, their feet slipping and sliding over the wet pebbles. “You two greedy buggers first as usual,” grumbled Annie with a fond smile. The animals stared at her, wary despite their familiarity with the daily winter routine; the large wet brown eyes free at least for a few months, of their cluster of summer flies. The deer were not tame; their trust was driven by need. Winters were long and hard in the Highlands and food sources scarce. A human disposed to offer food inspired a certain amount of forced faith.

            Carefully Annie retraced her steps down the rocky path to where her whitewashed crofthouse glowed in the morning light, the wet slates gleaming. A pale washed out rainbow arched over the loch, apparently touching base in the small wood behind her cottage, flooding the bare branches with a mist of pastel colours.
            The site of a pot of gold?
            If only, she thought with a wry grin. Even a small pot of gold would come in very useful.
She paused to look across the glen, admiring the view.
            Her world.
A powerfully built woman in her sixties, grey hair pulled tightly into a ponytail, her face weather beaten but free of wrinkles, her body muffled in a torn muddy waxed jacket that had seen better days and waterproof nylon trousers pulled over tatty tracksuit bottoms.
Hardly a fashionable figure, but free of the obsessions of ageing females in more civilised surroundings. Who could detect the dreaded orange peel effect of cellulite under the layers of trousers and any surplus fat was an advantage of self-insulation during the inclement winter months.
But if Annie looked to outward appearances like a rural bag lady, she had the soul of a poet and the education of a scholar.
Her life had not always been so austere, but her past was a well-kept secret from the local villagers.

The Condensation:

The first thing I'd do is not start this story with the weather. I have a general issue with the starting place as a whole--"woman feeds deer" isn't much of an attention-grabber, and first lines are critical for hooking an audience before they put the book down in favor of other fare. So in general, I might not make this my opening scene. Either way, let's assume this scene appears in the final manuscript in some form or another, so we can boil it down with the attention it deserves.

The early morning mist lay across the loch like a thick eiderdown. Beyond, the mountains rose in craggy tiers, layers of white tipped rock soaring majestically to meet the grey rose of the overcast sky.
Annie Dawes grunted, her breath revealing itself as puffs of steam in the cold air as she clambered up the steep path to a small grassy clearing.

Setting matters, but not as much as the person whose POV we're in. Scenes should always anchor our POV character in the first or at latest the second sentence--and then descriptions of the setting should come from that POV. To that end, we're going to take the second paragraph (third sentence) and put it first.

Having done that, let's boil it down.

Breath doesn't "reveal itself", it just is. Breath doesn't frost in warm air, so "cold" is redundant. So is "air".

I'm going to boil out "small" here because in the next section we learn that the hillside is bare; this implies that the clearing isn't small.

If you're going to use a metaphor, don't make it a simile. Avoid "like a", maybe not at all costs, but at most costs. This helps get rid of some of the alliteration (morning mist, lay loch like), but let's replace "lay across" with "obscured", and move the fact that it's early morning to when we talk about the sun.

"The mountains rose in craggy tiers" = "Tiers of craggy mountains rose". They already rose, so they don't need to soar, and indeed, mountains, being earthy things, don't soar. "Tiers" is redundant with "layers".

"The grey rose of the overcast sky" is too poetic to boil, so despite the urge to boil it down to "clouds", I'm going to leave it.

Annie Dawes grunted frosty breaths as she clambered up the steep path to a grassy clearing. An eiderdown of mist obscured the loch. Beyond, craggy mountains rose in layers of white-tipped rock to meet the grey rose of the overcast sky.

            “Come on. Come and get it,” she yelled, looking around the bare hillside. Rays of sunlight escaped through holes in the clouds, touching the snow with gold.

If we change the comma to an exclamation point, we can eliminate the speech attribution in favor of the action. "Looked around" is "scanned".

"Rays of sunlight" is redundant, yet evocative. Let's keep the evocative language but boil it down a bit, and add in "dawn" to make up for the deletion above.

I'm not sure "touching the snow with gold" works as a phrase--snow hit by sunlight is bright white, not gold. On the other hand, I'm at a loss to change the image without discussing it with the author, so as this is a blog post and not a real edit, in it stays.

            “Come on. Come and get it!” She scanned the bare hillside. Dawn light speared through holes in the clouds, touching the snow with gold.

Taking a small sack off her back she shouted again, her voice echoing through the glen as she scattered the contents over the stony ground, the pellets rolling across the bare patches of earth, settling between the dried yellow blades of the previous years grass growth.
            “Come on. If I can bring it, you can bloody well come and eat it.”

Similar to her breath earlier, her voice shouldn't be treated as a separate entity.

"the contents" is terrifically vague--it tells the reader nothing, and as our POV character knows what it is, we should just say it upfront. And in the meantime, we can combine "stony ground" and "bare patches of earth".

It's winter, so any grass (which grows in "blades") in the vicinity would have to have come from the "previous year", and is by definition "growth", so all of that can boil out.

She took a small sack off her back. Her next shout echoed through the glen as she scattered pellets. They rolled across the bare patches of stony earth, settling amongst the dried yellow grass. “Come on. If I can bring it, you can bloody well come and eat it.”

            A rattle of stones above her heralded arrivals as a couple of red deer hinds stepped daintily down the slope, their feet slipping and sliding over the wet pebbles. “You two greedy buggers first as usual,” grumbled Annie with a fond smile. The animals stared at her, wary despite their familiarity with the daily winter routine; the large wet brown eyes free at least for a few months, of their cluster of summer flies. The deer were not tame; their trust was driven by need. Winters were long and hard in the Highlands and food sources scarce. A human disposed to offer food inspired a certain amount of forced faith.

Stones herald nothing--they just rattle. "A couple of" = "two". I question the use of the word "hind"; I recognized it only due to being a giant fantasy geek, and I wonder if it's either too anachronistic or too colloquial for a general-audience novel. Either way, a "hind" (or a "doe" to us Yanks) is a "deer", so we can boil out one word, anyway. We can lose the adverb "daintily", as (a) it's an adverb, and thus eeeeevil, and (b) slipping and sliding over wet pebbles is not dainty. And yet again, the feet are not independent of the deer.

As a general rule, one shouldn't hide dialogue in a paragraph--it should come at the beginning and/or the end. Let's boil out the "two" while we're at it. The attribution is both clunky and, I think, unnecessary--whenever dialogue can carry itself, let it.

"The animals" = "They", "at her" is clutter, routine is by definition "familiar", and we already know it's winter. As for the large wet brown eyes, we know what deer eyes look like, and it's almost never necessary or desired to tell the reader what isn't happening, so let's boil out the bit about the cluster flies.

"The deer were not tame" = "Wild", and "was" is the enemy, a strong indication that the phrase is passive and not active--boil it out wherever you can. That goes for the "were" in the next sentence, too.

To get rid of the alliteration in "forced faith", let's change it to "forced trust", and to get rid of the echo on "trust", let's change the first one to "proximity".

Finally, we know Annie's a human.

            Wet pebbles rattled above her as two red hinds scrabbled down the slope. “You greedy buggers first as usual.”
They stared, wary despite the daily routine. Wild, their proximity came from necessity. Food sources ran scarce in the long, hard Highland winters. Offered food inspired a certain amount of forced trust.

            Carefully Annie retraced her steps down the rocky path to where her whitewashed crofthouse glowed in the morning light, the wet slates gleaming. A pale washed out rainbow arched over the loch, apparently touching base in the small wood behind her cottage, flooding the bare branches with a mist of pastel colours.

We need to move the rainbow sentence to the front for physics reasons: rainbows always form a semicircle (or circle if you're high up enough) centered on a line that connects the sun to the observer's eyes. If she's in front of the cottage, there's no way it could arch over the loch and hit behind the cottage at the same time--she's too close for that!

"Pale" and "washed out" are redundant, "apparently" is poison--in her POV it happened, so just say it happened--"touching base" can be combined with "flooding", and we already know it's winter, so the branches are bare.

"Carefully" can merge with "retraced her steps" to become "tiptoed" (or some other succinct verb).

The slates are not disembodied from the crofthouse, so, as with the other disembodiments above, we can do away with that by combining the clauses, and "morning light" is "dawn".

            A washed-out rainbow arched over the loch, flooding the small wood behind her cottage with a mist of pastel colours. Annie tiptoed down the rocky path to the whitewashed crofthouse, wet slates gleaming in the dawn.

            The site of a pot of gold?
            If only, she thought with a wry grin. Even a small pot of gold would come in very useful.
She paused to look across the glen, admiring the view.
            Her world.

We can combine the two thoughts, get rid of "she thought" (as it's in her POV), and eliminate the obvious statement that gold comes in handy (especially for those who wear the clothing we're about to describe.)

Looking across the glen is the same as admiring the view, and can't really be done without a pause anyway.

            A pot of gold? If only. She grinned, admiring the glen. Her world.

A powerfully built woman in her sixties, grey hair pulled tightly into a ponytail, her face weather beaten but free of wrinkles, her body muffled in a torn muddy waxed jacket that had seen better days and waterproof nylon trousers pulled over tatty tracksuit bottoms.
Hardly a fashionable figure, but free of the obsessions of ageing females in more civilised surroundings. Who could detect the dreaded orange peel effect of cellulite under the layers of trousers and any surplus fat was an advantage of self-insulation during the inclement winter months.

Both of these paragraphs are a POV glitch; you've gone from Annie's POV to a sort of cinematic "now we're looking at her" video-camera POV. A more consistent (dare I say, "authentic"?) way to do this would be to fold the information about her age, appearance, and clothing into several actions--like as she steps inside, cracks her back, strips off her gloves and outer clothes, etc. Regardless, let's leave it in for now so we can boil it down:

The first paragraph is a run-on sentence without a verb. Let's fix both.

"powerfully built" = "powerful", and she knows how old she is, so we should just say it. (I'm going to say sixty-four, just because.) "pulled tightly" = "wrenched" (or a softer verb, if preferred).

The outfit can boil a bit: "torn" and "had seen better days" is close enough to "frayed"--we don't need to give every detail, just enough for the reader to paint a picture.

"Hardly a fashionable figure" = "unfashionable"

The last line is an odd one. We go from a question (it starts with "Who") without a question mark about her trousers, and then to a comment about excess fat (which I believe we should call "pudge" to indicate that there's not too overmuch of it.)

Finally, "the inclement winter months" = "the winter", and let's make this all one paragraph.

A powerful woman at sixty-four, grey hair wrenched into a ponytail, her weather-beaten face boasted no wrinkles. A frayed, muddy, waxed jacket and waterproof nylon trousers pulled over tatty tracksuit bottoms served their function. Unfashionable, but free of the obsessions of ageing females in more civilised surroundings. The outfit hid the dreaded orange peel effect of cellulite and the pudge that insulated during the winter.

But if Annie looked to outward appearances like a rural baglady, she had the soul of a poet and the education of a scholar.
Her life had not always been so austere, but her past was a well-kept secret from the local villagers.

Would Annie actually think this while pondering the beauty of her surroundings? This seems to be a non-visual addition to the cinematic POV glitch of her description. As such, we'll leave it in for the moment and boil it down, while noting that it's very much a "tell" instead of a "show".

"But if" = "Though", "to outward appearances" is clutter, "bag lady" is two words, and "the [noun] of a [person]" = "a [person]'s [noun]".

We can combine the last two clauses, while boiling out a good amount of clutter.

Though Annie looked like a rural bag lady, she had a poet's soul and a scholar's education. Her secret past couldn't claim such austerity.


The Result:

Annie Dawes grunted frosty breaths as she clambered up the steep path to a grassy clearing. An eiderdown of mist obscured the loch. Beyond, craggy mountains rose in layers of white-tipped rock to meet the grey rose of the overcast sky.
            “Come on. Come and get it!” She scanned the bare hillside. Dawn light speared through holes in the clouds, touching the snow with gold.
She took a small sack off her back. Her next shout echoed through the glen as she scattered pellets. They rolled across the bare patches of stony earth, settling amongst the dried yellow grass. “Come on. If I can bring it, you can bloody well come and eat it.”
            Wet pebbles rattled above her as two red hinds scrabbled down the slope. “You greedy buggers first as usual.”
They stared, wary despite the daily routine. Wild, their proximity came from necessity. Food sources ran scarce in the long, hard Highland winters. Offered food inspired a certain amount of forced trust.
            A washed-out rainbow arched over the loch, flooding the small wood behind her cottage with a mist of pastel colours. Annie tiptoed down the rocky path to the whitewashed crofthouse, wet slates gleaming in the dawn.
            A pot of gold? If only. She grinned, admiring the glen. Her world.
A powerful woman at sixty-four, grey hair wrenched into a ponytail, her weather-beaten face boasted no wrinkles. A frayed, muddy, waxed jacket and waterproof nylon trousers pulled over tatty tracksuit bottoms served their function. Unfashionable, but free of the obsessions of ageing females in more civilised surroundings. The outfit hid the dreaded orange peel effect of cellulite and the pudge that insulated during the winter.
Though Annie looked like a rural bag lady, she had a poet's soul and a scholar's education. Her secret past couldn't claim such austerity.


303 words, down from 485, a reduction of 37.5%. What do you think?