Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Boiling Sarah Remy

This week we're boiling Sarah Remy's sample, 467 words of brief conversation. You can find Sarah's blog at www.sarahremy.wordpess.com. Let's get right to the boiling!

The Original:

Pierce bent over the four-by-four, eyeing the dash. "You talk a lot, don't you?"
"Only when I'm nervous."
He considered that in silence. Unless it was the dash he found so absorbing. Reed fiddled with the brim of her cap, then looked sideways at the dogs. They sat exactly where he'd left them, like life-sized statues.
"What's your name?" he asked, abruptly straightening.
She fussed with her cap again, and then shrugged. "Reed. Reed Davis."
She saw from the blank look on his poor face that he didn't recognize her name, and felt a surge of relief, strong enough to both surprise and make her hands shake. Annoyed by the reaction, she crossed her arms and stuffed her fists in her armpits.
"How did you break your nose, then?" she asked to distract herself.
He scowled. "It's not broken."
"It is." Reed grinned a little. "And maybe knocked out of place, although it's hard to tell, isn't it? You should see a physician. Or at least try some frozen peas."
"It's not broken." She thought he sounded a trifle petulant.
"It is," she repeated. "I've a long familiarity with broken noses." Without stopping to think, she leaned forward and set a gentle finger between his eyes. "Here, on the bridge. Maybe twice. You need naproxin and an ice-pack."
He hissed in obvious pain, and then captured her hand in his own.
"You a doctor?"
"No." His palm was rough and warm against Reed's cold fingers. She tugged a little, but he didn't seem inclined to let go. Her heart leapt, and she felt a slow flush spread upward from her toes, weakening the backs of her knees.
"Then keep your prescriptions to yourself."
His eyes were very dark - almost black - and shrewd. Behind the grumpy scowl, Reed thought she saw quick intelligence, and careful assessment
She yanked until he released her fingers. The corners of his mouth curled again when she huffed in annoyance.
"You're welcome," she retorted. "For the belt, and for the advice. Next time Elvis jumps your fence, just tell him to 'go home'. He knows the way."
"Next time?" Jack Pierce protested. "I don't want him eating on my baby apple trees."
Reed swung into the Rhino and cranked the key. The four-wheeler growled to life.
"Actually," she said brightly, "the apple trees belong to me. Your fence is set 8 feet too far to the east. You'll find a letter from my solicitor in the post, next time you bother to check your box. Which must not happen very often, as I believe she's mailed it a good three weeks past."
"What?!"
He really was very attractive, Reed thought as she sped back up the gravel drive, even with the clown nose, even when he looked ready to spit nails.
The Condensation:

Pierce bent over the four-by-four, eyeing the dash. "You talk a lot, don't you?"
"Only when I'm nervous."

When I read "four-by-four", I think "lumber". Later in the passage, it's called a "four-wheeler" and a "Rhino". As Rhino is a brand of ATV, I'd incorporate that information at the beginning.

Pierce bent over the Rhino ATV, eyeing the dash. "You talk a lot, don't you?"
"Only when I'm nervous."

He considered that in silence. Unless it was the dash he found so absorbing. Reed fiddled with the brim of her cap, then looked sideways at the dogs. They sat exactly where he'd left them, like life-sized statues.

The first two sentences of this paragraph don't actually conflict, but they appear to enough so that I'd reword them. The first appears to anchor the scene in Pierce's POV, and then the second upends that and firmly anchors it in...someone else's. It isn't until the third sentence that we learn this is Reed, and even then we're not sure until we've gone a few paragraphs more.

...and yet, a straightforward "He stared at the dash in silence" neither anchors Reed's POV, nor provides the subtle uncertainty conveyed here--though to be honest, I think that fiddling with her cap is sufficient to convey the latter.

"Looked sideways" is "glanced", the "exactly" can boil away, and the simile can be replaced with a single word.

Reed fiddled with the brim of her cap as he stared at the dash, then she glanced at the dogs. They sat where he'd left them, unmoving.

"What's your name?" he asked, abruptly straightening.

Abrupt action can be conveyed with abrupt prose, and speech tags are always redundant with action tags.

"What's your name?" He straightened up.

She fussed with her cap again, and then shrugged. "Reed. Reed Davis."
She saw from the blank look on his poor face that he didn't recognize her name, and felt a surge of relief, strong enough to both surprise and make her hands shake. Annoyed by the reaction, she crossed her arms and stuffed her fists in her armpits.

"She fussed with her cap again" = "Still fiddling", and thus "and then" becomes "she".

Sensory verbs can almost always boil out with no loss of content. Because she's the POV character, we can dispense with telling the reader that she "saw", "smelled", etc, and instead just describe what she's experienced--and then condense them into her reaction.

It's clear that she's surprised, else there wouldn't be a surge of relief, so we can boil those words away, too.

"She crossed her arms" can boil out, because she can't possibly stuff her fists into her armpits without doing so.

Still fiddling, she shrugged. "Reed. Reed Davis."
Relief surged at the blank look on his poor face, strong enough that her hands shook. Annoyed by the reaction, she stuffed her fists in her armpits.

"How did you break your nose, then?" she asked to distract herself.
He scowled. "It's not broken."

Judicious use of contractions help prose--especially dialogue--from being stilted.

I think one could make an argument that "to distract herself" adds to the narrative, but I think I could make an equally valid argument that if it does add, it doesn't add much. We already know she's annoyed at her reaction, and so we can let the abrupt subject change speak for itself.

"How'd you break your nose, then?"
He scowled. "It's not broken."

"It is." Reed grinned a little. "And maybe knocked out of place, although it's hard to tell, isn't it? You should see a physician. Or at least try some frozen peas."
"It's not broken." She thought he sounded a trifle petulant.

"A little" is clutter.

"She thought", like "She saw", can be boiled out without loss of content.

"It is." Reed grinned. "And maybe knocked out of place, although it's hard to tell, isn't it? You should see a physician. Or at least try some frozen peas."
"It's not broken." He sounded a trifle petulant.

"It is," she repeated. "I've a long familiarity with broken noses." Without stopping to think, she leaned forward and set a gentle finger between his eyes. "Here, on the bridge. Maybe twice. You need naproxin and an ice-pack."

"She repeated" is clutter. (I'll note here that her dialogue is...a bit odd. I'm not sure how intentional it is, so I'll leave, "I've a long familiarity" alone.)

"Without stopping to think" is what I call "negative words", a category that contains pretty much every phrase used to state what a character doesn't do. It's not that these phrases are never useful; just rarely.

"It is. I've a long familiarity with broken noses." She leaned forward and set a gentle finger between his eyes. "Here, on the bridge. Maybe twice. You need naproxin and an ice-pack."

He hissed in obvious pain, and then captured her hand in his own.
"You a doctor?"
"No." His palm was rough and warm against Reed's cold fingers. She tugged a little, but he didn't seem inclined to let go. Her heart leapt, and she felt a slow flush spread upward from her toes, weakening the backs of her knees.

If it's obvious, boil it out. In the phrase "and then", one or the other can almost always be deleted with no loss of content.

"Was", and other conjugations of "to be", are usually indications that something that can be boiled out. In this case, the word itself can go with a small rearrangement.

That he didn't seem inclined to let go is evident by the fact that he didn't let go.

"she felt" is sensory verbage, and thus can be boiled out.

"spread upward from her toes" can lose the "upward", as from the toes there's nowhere else to go, and "the backs of her knees" can lose "the backs of", because knees as a whole weaken/collapse, just just the backs.

He hissed, and captured her hand in his own, his palm rough and warm against her cold fingers. "You a doctor?"
"No." She tugged a little, but he didn't let go. Her heart leapt, and a slow flush spread from her toes, weakening her knees.

"Then keep your prescriptions to yourself."
His eyes were very dark - almost black - and shrewd. Behind the grumpy scowl, Reed thought she saw quick intelligence, and careful assessment

"were" is another conjugation of "to be". Let's boil it away by combining it with the next sentence, and along the way replacing "thought she saw" with "detected"--because in her POV, there's no difference between thinking she saw something, and actually seeing it.

"Then keep your prescriptions to yourself."
Behind his grumpy scowl, Reed detected quick intelligence and shrewd assessment is his dark, almost black eyes.

She yanked until he released her fingers. The corners of his mouth curled again when she huffed in annoyance.

I think these two sentences can benefit from just being more straightforward. A "huff" is an annoyed action, yanking is what freed her fingers, and a curl on the corners of his mouth is either a smirk or a grin, maybe a "slight" smirk or grin.

She huffed and yanked her fingers free. He smirked.

"You're welcome," she retorted. "For the belt, and for the advice. Next time Elvis jumps your fence, just tell him to 'go home'. He knows the way."
"Next time?" Jack Pierce protested. "I don't want him eating on my baby apple trees."

We can boil out the speech tags--dialogue tells us it's a retort, and a protest, respectively.

"You're welcome. For the belt, and for the advice. Next time Elvis jumps your fence, just tell him to 'go home'. He knows the way."
"Next time? I don't want him eating on my baby apple trees."

Reed swung into the Rhino and cranked the key. The four-wheeler growled to life.
"Actually," she said brightly, "the apple trees belong to me. Your fence is set 8 feet too far to the east. You'll find a letter from my solicitor in the post, next time you bother to check your box. Which must not happen very often, as I believe she's mailed it a good three weeks past."

Instead of "said [adverb]", an action tag will tell the same thing, or even more, more succinctly. I'm going to use "beamed", though you could go with "smiled" or lots of other possible words.

I try not to touch dialogue too much, but I don't see a reason why, "the apple trees belong to me" wouldn't be "they're my apple trees".

Reed swung into the Rhino and cranked the key. The four-wheeler growled to life.
"Actually," she beamed, "they're my apple trees. Your fence is set 8 feet too far to the east. You'll find a letter from my solicitor in the post, next time you bother to check your box. Which must not happen very often, as I believe she's mailed it a good three weeks past."

"What?!"
He really was very attractive, Reed thought as she sped back up the gravel drive, even with the clown nose, even when he looked ready to spit nails.

Avoid double punctuation. If necessary to show his shock, add a sentence. "His jaw dropped." Or somesuch. It's not really a question, so in this case I'd just leave the exclamation point.

Perhaps the two most pernicious adverbs in all of fiction are "really" and "very"...and here they're coupled with a "was" and a "thought"....

"as she", "back", and "even when he looked" are clutter.

"What!"
Reed sped up the gravel drive, grinning. Even with the clown nose, ready to spit nails, she couldn't deny his allure.

The Result:

Two small notes on the scene: We're missing something about Reed's situation--we don't know if she's sitting or standing or lying down or what. The last paragraph implies that she was in a car (or on a motorcycle, or can just run really fast), but we don't really know.

We also have no idea as to their ages, except that they're apparently adults.

Aside from changes based on those two recommended additions, here's what we've got:

Pierce bent over the Rhino ATV, eyeing the dash. "You talk a lot, don't you?"
"Only when I'm nervous."
Reed fiddled with the brim of her cap as he stared at the dash, then she glanced at the dogs. They sat where he'd left them, unmoving.
"What's your name?" He straightened up.
Still fiddling, she shrugged. "Reed. Reed Davis."
Relief surged at the blank look on his poor face, strong enough that her hands shook. Annoyed by the reaction, she stuffed her fists in her armpits.
"How'd you break your nose, then?"
He scowled. "It's not broken."
"It is." Reed grinned. "And maybe knocked out of place, although it's hard to tell, isn't it? You should see a physician. Or at least try some frozen peas."
"It's not broken." He sounded a trifle petulant.
"It is. I've a long familiarity with broken noses." She leaned forward and set a gentle finger between his eyes. "Here, on the bridge. Maybe twice. You need naproxin and an ice-pack."
He hissed, and captured her hand in his own, his palm rough and warm against her cold fingers. "You a doctor?"
"No." She tugged a little, but he didn't let go. Her heart leapt, and a slow flush spread from her toes, weakening her knees.
"Then keep your prescriptions to yourself."
Behind his grumpy scowl, Reed detected quick intelligence and shrewd assessment is his dark, almost black eyes.
She huffed and yanked her fingers free. He smirked.
"You're welcome. For the belt, and for the advice. Next time Elvis jumps your fence, just tell him to 'go home'. He knows the way."
"Next time? I don't want him eating on my baby apple trees."
Reed swung into the Rhino and cranked the key. The four-wheeler growled to life.
"Actually," she beamed, "they're my apple trees. Your fence is set 8 feet too far to the east. You'll find a letter from my solicitor in the post, next time you bother to check your box. Which must not happen very often, as I believe she's mailed it a good three weeks past."
"What!"
Reed sped up the gravel drive, grinning. Even with the clown nose, ready to spit nails, she couldn't deny his allure.

369 words from the original 467, a reduction of 21%. What do you think?