Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Boiling Kristina Stancil

This week's boiling comes from Kristina Stancil, a fellow member of the Horror Writers Association who, let's be honest, has been a lot more active at helping new members than I've been. She brought us 461 words of the rough draft of a novel she's writing for a class. Let's see what we can do with it!

The Original:

“Look what I can do,” Drew chuckled as he tossed his baseball across the yard and his mitt mysteriously floated over to catch it with a loud smack.
            “Not outside,” Andie hissed.  She looked around nervously to make sure that no one was watching.  She was scared to death of these things that were happening.  It had been funny when they were little.  They could pretend it was an invisible friend instead of something they were doing themselves. 
This was way worse than being able to talk to each other in their minds, everyone said it was a twin thing, even the school counselor who thought she might need therapy because she refused to read The Hobbit for school because it was ‘witchcraft,’ and her mom had told her that her Daddy left when he discovered she’d given birth to abominations.  They were evil and he’d fled as soon as he could.  Even most of the kids at school avoided her as a freak. 
Her mom often demanded to know what she was doing to make people hate her when everyone loved Drew; not that she didn’t have any friends, but she claimed they were only being nice for Drew’s sake.  She sighed.  God help her if her mom found out Nate’s older brother had kissed her. 
When she first saw her with Nate and Chase, the twins’ mom had screamed she was a whore and had to be doing something to get them to like her.  She demanded to know if this was why no girls came around her because they didn’t want the reputation.  When Drew laid claim to Nate as his best friend then things were smoothed over somewhat.  Andie rubbed her arm in reaction to the phantom pain of memory of her mother’s nails digging into her flesh not to ruin things for Drew.  One day he was going to be famous or rich and it was her lot in life to be his assistant, to be on his beck and call.
            “She’s a bitch,” Drew said, rolling his eyes as her melancholy mood reached across their twin sense.  “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  If she’s not causing problems she’s not happy.”  He tilted his head to the side and assessed her.  Something else was bothering her.  He could sense her discomfort that centered in the pit of her stomach like a sense of foreboding. 
The nausea reached across to him and goose bumps rose on his arms.  He frowned as he walked over to her.  A vision of darkness rolled over him as he clasped her clammy hand.  Something was coming for them and it wasn’t good.  She couldn’t see it but as he reached for her other hand shadows came into sharper focus.

The Condensation:

“Look what I can do,” Drew chuckled as he tossed his baseball across the yard and his mitt mysteriously floated over to catch it with a loud smack.

"Look what I can do" is four words too long.

"Chuckled" is a very specific reaction to an event--something that most people relate with Santa Claus. By changing the comma to an exclamation point (which should be used sparingly, but do have their place), you can indicate his amazement and amusement much more efficiently. [Were that previous sentence part of a novel, I'd have to revise for egregious alliteration.]

"Mysteriously" is of course an adverb, and as such requires scrutiny before justifying its existence. In this case, we have to consider the POV character and whether or not they'd find it mysterious. The blasé attitude with which it's met indicates that for these characters it is not, in fact, mysterious to them. If the adverb is intended for the reader, it's especially a no-no:  telling the reader what to feel is something we should all avoid, every time. Drag them along for the emotional ride, or leave them behind--but don't tell them they're on a ride they're not on-board for.

“Look!” Drew tossed his baseball. His disembodied mitt caught it with a loud smack.

“Not outside,” Andie hissed.  She looked around nervously to make sure that no one was watching.  She was scared to death of these things that were happening.  It had been funny when they were little.  They could pretend it was an invisible friend instead of something they were doing themselves. 

Again, there's nothing wrong with "hissed" per se, but the dialogue is sufficiently terse that the speech attribution isn't necessary.

We can kill the adverb, and make the single sentence two, because the reason for looking around can be said with a few less words.

We can combine the next three sentences, boil out "to be" conjugations, and along the way eliminate the entirely redundant "things that were happening", replace "scared to death" with "terrified", and "when they were little" can become "as children".

"Not outside." Andie looked around. No one saw. As children they could laugh at their "invisible friends"; now their powers terrified her.

This was way worse than being able to talk to each other in their minds, everyone said it was a twin thing, even the school counselor who thought she might need therapy because she refused to read The Hobbit for school because it was ‘witchcraft,’ and her mom had told her that her Daddy left when he discovered she’d given birth to abominations.  They were evil and he’d fled as soon as he could.  Even most of the kids at school avoided her as a freak. 

The first sentence isn't just a run-on, it's also disjointed. There are very different pieces of information included, which deserve their own sentences.

"Able to talk to each other in their minds" is "telepathy".

I don't understand how refusing to read The Hobbit because it's witchcraft is related to twin-telepathy or telekinesis at all. The issues seem unrelated, and the sentence makes the paragraph disjointed and difficult to parse. I think the salient information is that twin-telepathy is accepted as normal. (Editorial note: as an identical twin married to an identical twin, I can say with some authority that we twins go rather twitchy at this kind of thing.)

"give birth to" = "birthed".

"They were evil" is redundant with "abominations", and the entire phrase "he'd fled as soon as he could" is redundant with the fact that he left.

We can boil out "even", and "the kids at school" are "her schoolmates".

Everyone said telepathy was a twin thing, accepted it as normal; but not telekinesis. Mom had told her that Daddy left when he discovered she’d birthed abominations. Andie's schoolmates avoided her as a freak. 

Her mom often demanded to know what she was doing to make people hate her when everyone loved Drew; not that she didn’t have any friends, but she claimed they were only being nice for Drew’s sake.  She sighed.  God help her if her mom found out Nate’s older brother had kissed her. 

This first sentence is enormous, and the two sentences are not sufficiently linked to justify a semicolon. It's also confusing--it's not clear if Andie is making people hate her or her mom, nor whether it's Andie or her mom that claims they're only being nice for Drew's sake. What is clear is that her mom is judgmental and awful, so we don't want to lose that.

In "any friends", "any" is clutter...but saying what someone has is (almost) always better than saying what they don't, in the same way that saying what someone does is (almost) always better than saying what they aren't doing.

"only being" is clutter.

In each case, "her mom" can lose the "her", because we're in Andie's POV. Let's carry that boiling through the rest of the sample.

Everyone loved Drew, so mom often demanded to know what Andie did to make people hate her. She had friends, but mom claimed they were nice for Drew’s sake. She sighed. God help her if mom found out Nate’s older brother had kissed her. 

When she first saw her with Nate and Chase, the twins’ mom had screamed she was a whore and had to be doing something to get them to like her.  She demanded to know if this was why no girls came around her because they didn’t want the reputation.  When Drew laid claim to Nate as his best friend then things were smoothed over somewhat.  Andie rubbed her arm in reaction to the phantom pain of memory of her mother’s nails digging into her flesh not to ruin things for Drew.  One day he was going to be famous or rich and it was her lot in life to be his assistant, to be on his beck and call.

The "she" is again ambiguous, more than once.

"and had to be doing something" is vague, when we just slapped the reader in the face with "whore".

Let's move "screamed" to the next line.

We can boil out "When", "laid claim to" is "claimed", "then things were smoothed over somewhat" can boil down significantly: eliminating "When" allows us to boil out "then", and by making "smoothed" the verb, we can eliminate "were". A smoothing is not an elimination, so we can boil out "somewhat"--but I think it's better if we keep it as its own one-word sentence fragment.

And I'd put a paragraph break there.

The next sentence does not make grammatical sense. Specifically, "digging into her flesh not to ruin things for Drew". The reader can figure out what it means, but it's not a well-constructed sentence. Let's break it up, and in the process eliminate the clunky "phantom pain of memory of" by making it "remembered pain".

Let's boil out the "was going". "Famous or rich" is a little weird. I'd change it to one or the other, and because fame almost always comes with wealth, let's go with fame.

Assistants and beck and call are redundant with one another, and "one day" is redundant with "lot in life", as both concern the future.

When mom first saw her with Nate and Chase, she'd called Andie a whore who had to be sleeping with them to get them to like her. She'd screamed that no girls came around because they didn’t want the reputation. Drew claimed Nate as his best friend, smoothing things over. Somewhat.

Andie rubbed her arm. The remembered pain of her mother’s nails digging into her flesh scolded her: don't ruin things for Drew. One day he'd be famous, and she'd serve as his assistant.

“She’s a bitch,” Drew said, rolling his eyes as her melancholy mood reached across their twin sense.  “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  If she’s not causing problems she’s not happy.”  He tilted his head to the side and assessed her.  Something else was bothering her.  He could sense her discomfort that centered in the pit of her stomach like a sense of foreboding. 

Speech tags can almost always be boiled out with no loss of content. The action tag following makes it clear who spoke.

The two sentences about their mom can be made into one, either by combining them, "She doesn't know what she's talking about, and isn't happy unless she's causing problems." (Or something like that, which boiled out one whole word). But it's worth noting that you can't write the way people talk--dialogue in books is terser, even rambling dialogue. So my choice would be to keep the more vibrant of the two descriptors, and boil out the other.

I'm not sure if the POV glitch here is intentional--we start in her head, and end up in his. Because they're telepathic, I'm going to assume it's intentional and let it be, though I'd recommend on a rewrite that even for telepathic people, one POV per scene is a good idea.

"to the side" is redundant with "tilted his head", "something else bothered her" is redundant with the sentence after it, and the last sentence has a lot of little clutter in it. (As well as an echo on "sense"--three times in one paragraph is way too much, and so is twice in one sentence!)

“She’s a bitch,” Drew rolled his eyes as her melancholy mood reached across their twin sense.  “If she’s not causing problems she’s not happy.”  He tilted his head and assessed her. He sensed the foreboding centered in the pit of her stomach. 

The nausea reached across to him and goose bumps rose on his arms.  He frowned as he walked over to her.  A vision of darkness rolled over him as he clasped her clammy hand.  Something was coming for them and it wasn’t good.  She couldn’t see it but as he reached for her other hand shadows came into sharper focus.

By rearranging the first sentence, we can make it more active and boil out a couple of words.

"as he" = "and", and "to her" is clutter.

Constant reminder of visions is unnecessary--if we've accepted that they're psychic, then we can describe what they experience as if it's normal to them. You have an echo on "over", and the h-c-h-c-h alliteration is a bit much for me.

"Something was coming for them and it wasn't good" and "She couldn't see it" are both so vague that they provide, in essence, no content. So let's boil them out.

"Coming into focus" doesn't need "sharper", as that's what "coming into focus" means.

Goose bumps rose on his arms as her nausea reached him. He frowned and walked over. Darkness enveloped him as he grabbed her clammy hand. As he reached for her other hand, shadows came into focus.

The Result:

On a final read-through, I realized that I'd missed that the third and fourth paragraphs both start with "Everyone [verb]ed", so let's change one of them to break it up a bit. With that final change, here's what we've got:

“Look!” Drew tossed his baseball. His disembodied mitt caught it with a loud smack.

"Not outside." Andie looked around. No one saw. As children they could laugh at their "invisible friends"; now their powers terrified her.

Everyone said telepathy was a twin thing, accepted it as normal; but not telekinesis. Mom had told her that Daddy left when he discovered she’d birthed abominations. Andie's schoolmates avoided her as a freak. 

People loved Drew, so mom often demanded to know what Andie did to make everyone hate her. She had friends, but mom claimed they were nice for Drew’s sake. She sighed. God help her if mom found out Nate’s older brother had kissed her. 

When mom first saw her with Nate and Chase, she'd called Andie a whore who had to be sleeping with them to get them to like her. She'd screamed that no girls came around because they didn’t want the reputation. Drew claimed Nate as his best friend, smoothing things over. Somewhat.

Andie rubbed her arm. The remembered pain of her mother’s nails digging into her flesh scolded her: don't ruin things for Drew. One day he'd be famous, and she'd serve as his assistant.

“She’s a bitch,” Drew rolled his eyes as her melancholy mood reached across their twin sense.  “If she’s not causing problems she’s not happy.”  He tilted his head and assessed her. He sensed the foreboding centered in the pit of her stomach. 

Goose bumps rose on his arms as her nausea reached him. He frowned and walked over. Darkness enveloped him as he grabbed her clammy hand. As he reached for her other hand, shadows came into focus.

So there you have it, 276 words down from 461, a reduction of 40%! What do you think?