Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Boiling Janet Oakley

First, a quick apology: comments don't seem to be appearing on the blog. I see them, I get an e-mail notification that they exist, and then they disappear. No idea why that is, but I'm looking into it.

This week's boiling comes from Janet Oakley, another friend from the ABNA forums. She's offered up a 508-word excerpt from Mist-shi-mus: A Novel of Captivity. This piece (what little of it we see here) has a period feel to it, so we have to take care to preserve that while we boil it down.

Let's see what we can do.

The Original:

Interspersed among the hooped skirts like kingpins between egg cups were the soldiers and officers of the two military camps dressed on the hot summer day in their red or blue wool uniforms. Separating out of the group of officers, Captain Pickett greeted Jeannie and Gladyse as though they were the goddesses of grace and beauty.
Good day, ladies and welcome.” Pickett gave his hand to Jeannie and helped her down. Always the gentleman, Jeannie thought, as a young subaltern with very large drooping mustaches steadied the team of horses.
Once Jeannie and Gladyse were on the ground, they were escorted to an awning where a group of ladies sat on folding canvas chairs. The day was hazy but before them the expansive water that flowed miles across the straits to the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island sparkled like a sheet of cut crystals. The sun was not far behind.
Gladyse immediately found someone to talk to and preparing her hooped skirt before she sat down, joined in the on-going conversation. Before long, Jeannie been introduced and new acquaintances made. She was relieved that none of the British ladies were from her part of England. Lately, she was aware of Devonshire men in the marine ranks and she feared that someone might recognize her. Would they know her family?
Ladies and gentlemen, the race is about to begin. Please bring your horses to the starting line.”
Is the brown bay your favorite, Mrs. Naughton?” United States Captain James Forsyth suddenly appeared at her shoulder with Andrew Pierce, both of whom Jeannie had met at Pickett’s dinner. Forsyth nodded at the Hudson’s Bay horse. “Or are you interested in international harmony and support all favorites?”
Jeannie laughed to see the horses gathered at the start. “I suppose in the interest of the joint occupation I should cheer for all, although in reality I should cheer any poor brute to make its way safely to the other end of the prairie.”
Then you should cheer for Captain Pickett’s horse. It’s the black one next to HBC horse.”
So I shall.” She studied the horses stamping and tossing their heads in anticipation. Their riders sat astride and worked the reins in their leathered gloved hands. Soldiers and marines struck wagers. Beyond them a new group arrived from the beach far below. In it were Jonas Breed, Collie Henderson and his Indian friend, Sihks. They stood off in the middle behind the starting line as though they didn’t want to commit to either nationality.
You are not wild, today. She stole a glance at him. The cedar rope necklace he wore on the day he confronted Krill was still visible at the neck of his linen shirt. He was coatless, but wore a tan canvas vest over his shirt and braces. He makes no apologies for his casual dress, she thought, but with the heat of the day increasing, there were others, for sure, who were itching to join him. As she watched him, she felt a little prick in her throat.

The Condensation:

Interspersed among the hooped skirts like kingpins between egg cups were the soldiers and officers of the two military camps dressed on the hot summer day in their red or blue wool uniforms. Separating out of the group of officers, Captain Pickett greeted Jeannie and Gladyse as though they were the goddesses of grace and beauty.

This first sentence is a doozy of a run-on. Let's see if we can't tidy it up a bit.

First, an admission: I'm not a fan of simile in fiction. Some people cherish their similes, but by and large I find that they distract from the narrative rather than enhance it. Most of the time, eliminating a simile by itself might leave us with enough, but sometimes more description is needed to make up for the boiling. In this case, I think we can get away with the former.

"The two military camps" implies that at this point in the story the reader is aware that there are two camps at the race, and both are military.

Not all soldiers are officers, but all officers are soldiers, so let's boil out "and officers".

"The hooped skirts" is confusing. Surely there are women wearing these skirts?

"Hot summer day" is a "tell", not a "show". Let's describe Pickett's discomfort in the heat—this will both personalize the detail and remove the "tell".

In the first sentence, officers were interspersed. Now we have "the group"; so despite it not boiling out anything, let's make that "a group".

"Separating out of" is rather vague, and it puts the action before the actor.

The last line, "as though they were the goddesses of grace and beauty", is a tell. We'd be better served with a sentence describing how he greeted them. A bow and a kiss to the hand? Let's move that to the next paragraph.

Soldiers in red or blue wool stood interspersed among women in hooped skirts. Captain Pickett split from a group of officers to greet Jeannie and Gladyse, a sheen of sweat on his forehead.

Good day, ladies and welcome.” Pickett gave his hand to Jeannie and helped her down. Always the gentleman, Jeannie thought, as a young subaltern with very large drooping mustaches steadied the team of horses.

You don't kiss a hand without taking it, so let's add the chivalry there.

I'm not big on thought attributions unless absolutely necessary, but in this case it establishes Jeannie as the POV anchor for this scene—though because her thoughts are italicized later in the piece, let's do that here to be consistent. It should, however, split off into a new paragraph, distinct from Pickett's dialogue. In the process, let's boil out the "as" and make the thought its own sentence.

Mustaches cannot droop unless large. Very, like really, is almost always clutter, so let's boil it out.
Multiple horses are a team, so that can go, too.

Good day, ladies and welcome.” Pickett kissed Jeannie's hand and helped her down.
Always the gentleman, Jeannie thought. A young subaltern with drooping mustaches steadied the horses.

Once Jeannie and Gladyse were on the ground, they were escorted to an awning where a group of ladies sat on folding canvas chairs. The day was hazy but before them the expansive water that flowed miles across the straits to the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island sparkled like a sheet of cut crystals. The sun was not far behind.

They got on the ground last paragraph, so we don't need to reiterate it here.

"They were escorted" fails the "by zombies" test for passive voice.

Ladies—plural—is a group, so we don't need to call them a group.

"Was," like all conjugations of the verb "to be," is a good indication that something can be boiled. So "The day was hazy" deserves scrutiny...in the meantime, let's incorporate the "but" and eliminate the "day".

"Expansive" and "miles" say essentially the same thing, so we could boil one out. However, both are implied with the rest of the view, so let's boil them both out.
"that flowed" = "flowing"

"A sheet of cut crystals" doesn't make sense to me—cut crystals don't come in sheets, they come in little faceted gems—and I have no idea what "The sun was not far behind" is supposed to convey beyond the fact that the sun is out in the daytime. We could go with "sparkled like diamonds", but I don't think the simile is necessary here.

Pickett escorted them to an awning where ladies sat on folding canvas chairs. Despite the haze, the water flowing across the straits to the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island sparkled in the sunlight.

Gladyse immediately found someone to talk to and preparing her hooped skirt before she sat down, joined in the on-going conversation. Before long, Jeannie been introduced and new acquaintances made. She was relieved that none of the British ladies were from her part of England. Lately, she was aware of Devonshire men in the marine ranks and she feared that someone might recognize her. Would they know her family?

Let's purge the adverb, consolidate "found someone to talk to" with "joined in the on-going conversation," and eliminate the explicit sequentiality of "before she".

"Joined in" can lose "in", and "on-going" is obvious by the fact that Gladyse is able to join.

"Had been introduced...by zombies."
"New acquaintances made...by zombies."
A passive-to-active rewrite boils out a lot of unneeded words. In the meantime, the barrage of short actions gives the sense of "immediately" without having to say "immediately".

To be from her part of England, they'd have to be British. The rhetorical question at the end of the paragraph conveys her anxiety, and the relief can stand implied. "Her part of England" is Devonshire, so we can just say so.

"Devonshire men in the marine ranks" are "marines from Devonshire", and we can convey her anxiety better by adding a thought instead of telling the reader that she feared recognition.

Gladyse prepared her hooped skirt, sat down, joined the conversation, and made introductions. None lived in Devonshire, thank God. No marines from Devonshire had recognized Jeannie, either. Would they know her family?

Ladies and gentlemen, the race is about to begin. Please bring your horses to the starting line.”
 “Is the brown bay your favorite, Mrs. Naughton?” United States Captain James Forsyth suddenly appeared at her shoulder with Andrew Pierce, both of whom Jeannie had met at Pickett’s dinner. Forsyth nodded at the Hudson’s Bay horse. “Or are you interested in international harmony and support all favorites?”

I have no issue with the first line of dialogue per se, except that it's disembodied. We have no notion of who said it, so I'm going to make up a name.... How about Sergeant Broud? Sure, why not. (This is of course one of those situations where the editor would talk to the author, were this a real edit and not a blog post.)

I'm going to boil the next paragraph assuming that while Jeannie has met Forsyth and Pierce in the past, this wasn't part of the narrative, so this is the reader's first encounter with them.

Let's boil out the adverb, as "appeared" is sudden enough.
"Both of whom Jeannie had met" = "Jeannie had met them"

Sergeant Broud clapped his hands. Ladies and gentlemen, the race is about to begin. Please bring your horses to the starting line.”
 “Is the brown bay your favorite, Mrs. Naughton?” United States Captain James Forsyth appeared at her shoulder with Andrew Pierce; Jeannie had met them at Pickett’s dinner. Forsyth nodded at the Hudson’s Bay horse. “Or are you interested in international harmony and support all favorites?”

Jeannie laughed to see the horses gathered at the start. “I suppose in the interest of the joint occupation I should cheer for all, although in reality I should cheer any poor brute to make its way safely to the other end of the prairie.”
Then you should cheer for Captain Pickett’s horse. It’s the black one next to HBC horse.”


Sensory verbs are also a prime indicator of boilability. That is to say, in Jeannie's POV, we don't need to say that she saw or smelled or felt.

Otherwise, I'm disinclined to change dialogue as a general rule.

Jeannie laughed as the horses gathered at the start. “I suppose in the interest of the joint occupation I should cheer for all, although in reality I should cheer any poor brute to make its way safely to the other end of the prairie.”
Then you should cheer for Captain Pickett’s horse. It’s the black one next to HBC horse.”

 “So I shall.” She studied the horses stamping and tossing their heads in anticipation. Their riders sat astride and worked the reins in their leathered gloved hands. Soldiers and marines struck wagers. Beyond them a new group arrived from the beach far below. In it were Jonas Breed, Collie Henderson and his Indian friend, Sihks. They stood off in the middle behind the starting line as though they didn’t want to commit to either nationality.

The dialogue is terse in all the right ways, so let it stand on its own.

"She studied" is a sensory verb trying to sneak through in a clever disguise.
"In anticipation" is unnecessary—it's conveyed by the action—and a POV glitch, as Jeannie (probably) can't read their minds.

"Sat astride" is redundant with "riders", both instances of "their" are clutter, and "leathered gloved hands" boils down to "leathered gloves".

"Soldiers and marines" are "Men" (at least in this period, in which case they could be "people".)

Because the new group just arrived, "new" is extraneous.
The expanse is already well-communicated above, so "far below" can go.
"In it were" = "including".

"Off" is clutter, "in the middle" = "centered", and "as though they didn't want to commit to either nationality" can be "skirting both nationalities."

So I shall.”
The horses stamped and tossed their heads. Riders worked the reins in leathered gloves. Men struck wagers.
Beyond them a group arrived from the beach, including Jonas Breed, Collie Henderson and his Indian friend, Sihks. They stood centered behind the starting line, skirting both nationalities.

You are not wild, today. She stole a glance at him. The cedar rope necklace he wore on the day he confronted Krill was still visible at the neck of his linen shirt. He was coatless, but wore a tan canvas vest over his shirt and braces. He makes no apologies for his casual dress, she thought, but with the heat of the day increasing, there were others, for sure, who were itching to join him. As she watched him, she felt a little prick in her throat.

I don't know who "him" is—the second sentence needs his name to make this clear. I'm going to guess it's Jonas Breed. (Obviously, in a real edit I'd talk to the author about who she meant!)

Necklaces are worn at the neck, and he's wearing a shirt. "Was still visible" is a double-whammy "to be" and sensory verb—and meantime, we need to change "he wore" to "he'd worn," but in the process we can boil down "on the day he" to "when he'd".

"He was coatless" can lose "he was" with no loss of content.

I'm not sure why we'd switch to present tense for her thought—and as we've already established italics for thoughts, we can boil out "she thought" as well.
"With the heat of the day increasing" = "in this heat," "there were others, for sure, who were itching" = "the others must itch."

Aside from the cliché (and accompanying joke) "it's just a little prick," we can boil out "little" with no loss of content—because a big prick in this context is a stab.

But "she felt" is the blandest of sensory verbs. I'm not sure what emotion the author is going for here (and this is another place where I'd consult the author. I'm going to go with "worry" but could just as easily choose "desire" or "disgust" or whatnot.)

You are not wild, today. She stole a glance at Jonas. The cedar rope necklace he'd worn when he'd confronted Krill peeked from his linen shirt. Coatless, he wore a tan canvas vest over his shirt and braces. He made no apologies for his casual dress, but in this heat the others must itch to join him. As she watched him, worry pricked her throat.

The Result:

Soldiers in red or blue wool stood interspersed among women in hooped skirts. Captain Pickett split from a group of officers to greet Jeannie and Gladyse, a sheen of sweat on his forehead.
 “Good day, ladies and welcome.” Pickett kissed Jeannie's hand and helped her down.
Always the gentleman, Jeannie thought. A young subaltern with drooping mustaches steadied the horses.
Pickett escorted them to an awning where ladies sat on folding canvas chairs. Despite the haze, the water flowing across the straits to the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island sparkled in the sunlight.
Gladyse prepared her hooped skirt, sat down, joined the conversation, and made introductions. None lived in Devonshire, thank God. No marines from Devonshire had recognized Jeannie, either. Would they know her family?
Sergeant Broud clapped his hands. Ladies and gentlemen, the race is about to begin. Please bring your horses to the starting line.”
 “Is the brown bay your favorite, Mrs. Naughton?” United States Captain James Forsyth appeared at her shoulder with Andrew Pierce; Jeannie had met them at Pickett’s dinner. Forsyth nodded at the Hudson’s Bay horse. “Or are you interested in international harmony and support all favorites?”
Jeannie laughed as the horses gathered at the start. “I suppose in the interest of the joint occupation I should cheer for all, although in reality I should cheer any poor brute to make its way safely to the other end of the prairie.”
Then you should cheer for Captain Pickett’s horse. It’s the black one next to HBC horse.”
So I shall.”
The horses stamped and tossed their heads. Riders worked the reins in leathered gloves. Men struck wagers.
Beyond them a group arrived from the beach, including Jonas Breed, Collie Henderson and his Indian friend, Sihks. They stood centered behind the starting line, skirting both nationalities.
You are not wild, today. She stole a glance at Jonas. The cedar rope necklace he'd worn when he'd confronted Krill peeked from his linen shirt. Coatless, he wore a tan canvas vest over his shirt and braces. He made no apologies for his casual dress, but in this heat the others must itch to join him. As she watched him, worry pricked her throat.


That's 365 words, down from the original 508, a reduction of 28%. How'd I do?