Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Boiling Mechelle Morrison

This week's sample comes from Mechelle Morrison, who you can find at www.mechellemorrison.com and on Goodreads. Let's see what we can do with 506 words of her WIP, Being.

The Original:

I’ve had the same freaky dream, every night of my life, for as long as I can remember.  In the dream I’m lying spread-eagle on a slab of wet cement.  Cold wind gusts over me, seeping into my clothes until I feel I’m made of fog.  I smell bread, sewer, flowers, asphalt, perfume, sweat. Dog crap.  I hold my hand in front of my face, but it’s like I’m invisible—it’s that dark.  I tell myself not to be scared.
I’m scared as hell.
It starts to rain—cold fat drops.  The dream-rain puddles in my eyelids.  It worms into my hair.  I toss and turn.  Somewhere nearby a girl says, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
I jerk awake.
I always wake up when the girl talks.  Always.  But this time my breathing is so ragged it’s like I’ve forgotten how to process air.  My heart throbs in my chest.  I blink into the darkness.  Sweat beads on my forehead.
“What is this place?”  The girl!  I jerk toward the sound of her, but it’s too dark to see.  A raindrop—a real, wet raindrop—plops onto my forehead.
I touch the water dribbling toward my ear.  Taste it, cold and metallic, on my finger.  Another drop targets my cheek.  I scratch my nose. The view swirls from black to gray.  Panic surges into every cell of my body.
“Who’s there?” I ask.  My voice cracks.  For a second, I sound twelve again.
The girl yells, “It’s me, Shepherd.  Duh!  It’s Elly.”
“Elly?”  Another raindrop hits me, then another.  The dream has never been this crazy.  It’s never been this real.  And my kid sister has never, not once, been in it.
Footsteps, then Elly drops on top of me.  My vision suddenly pops with pricks of light.  I breathe—in, out, in.  This doesn’t happen in my dream.
“Sorry,” Elly says.  “You know where we are, right?”
I pinch her.
Elly punches my arm and mutters, “Dork!”  The pain of her punch spreads into my muscle.  Her weight rolls off my legs then disappears.  But I can’t see her.  I still can’t see me I reach out and she slaps my hand away.  “Knock it off,” she says.
My stomach knots.  I ask, “Can you see me?” and the air churns, swift as water around large stones.  The world grows lighter.  My hair whips my face like countless stabbing pins.  At the edge of my vision there’s something large.
Fear shreds my chest.
“You’re right here.”  Elly pokes my forehead with her finger.  Her nail digs into my flesh.  The wind draws back at her touch, like a curtain from a stage, and I suddenly see her.  She’s flushed, like she’s too hot.  Her pupils are so dilated her eyes are black.
“Are you … okay?” I ask.
“I have no idea.  I mean, I feel seriously weird.”
I shift and Elly says, “Don’t you dare leave me.”
“Why are you in my dream?”
Elly rolls her dilated eyes.  “You’re not dreaming, idiot.”

The Condensation:

So, my first issue is that I have no idea if the POV character is male or female. Based on the name(?), "Shepherd", I'm going to guess male--but I'm not sure if that's actually a first name, a last name, or a title, and words-as-names are sufficiently androgynous that it didn't provide me with enough information.

This is, IMO, an issue with most first-person narratives; without resorting to the cheesy "I look in the mirror so I can describe myself to the reader" trick, it can be difficult to fold in relevant information. Anyway, I'm going with male for my comments below.

I’ve had the same freaky dream, every night of my life, for as long as I can remember.  In the dream I’m lying spread-eagle on a slab of wet cement.  Cold wind gusts over me, seeping into my clothes until I feel I’m made of fog.  I smell bread, sewer, flowers, asphalt, perfume, sweat. Dog crap.  I hold my hand in front of my face, but it’s like I’m invisible—it’s that dark.  I tell myself not to be scared.
I’m scared as hell.

It's not necessary to tell the reader that something is freaky, or scary, or giggle-inducing. If we let the scene speak for itself, we can boil out "freaky". "Of my life" is obvious.

"In the dream" is implied, and if he's spread-eagled, he's lying down, so we can boil out "lying".

Wind gusts, and if it's seeping into his clothes, it's over him. And to "feel like I'm made of fog" is the same thing as "feel like fog."

I might choose a few less things to smell, but can't boil out any of them without eliminating content, and that's against the Word Souppian rules. I do wonder why "Dog crap" got its own callout, though--not in a "this intrigues me" sort of way, but in a, "why would the author emphasize dog crap over these other smells?" sort of way.

"in front of my face" = out", and the latter half of the sentence can be boiled down quite a bit.

As a general rule, reflexive pronouns (myself, himself, herself, etc.) are a good indication that something can be boiled, so let's do so. Meantime, "I'm scared as hell" is a good stand-alone line, but it's a "tell", not a show. If we combine the two sentences, we eliminate the reflexive pronoun and the echo on "scared", and can use that opportunity to show instead of tell.

I’ve had the same dream, every night, for as long as I can remember. I’m spread-eagled on a slab of wet cement. Cold wind seeps into my clothes until I feel like fog. I smell bread, sewer, flowers, asphalt, perfume, sweat. Dog crap. I hold my hand out, but it’s too dark to see my fingers.
But they tremble.

It starts to rain—cold fat drops.  The dream-rain puddles in my eyelids.  It worms into my hair.  I toss and turn.  Somewhere nearby a girl says, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
I jerk awake.

"Starts to" (and all such verbiage) is clutter unless it's important to the narrative that the action is interrupted.

"Toss and turn" is a weird phrase choice, here; I'm having a difficult time picturing what's going on. Part of this is because it's so dark--there's nothing to see. But moreso, I associate "toss and turn" with trying to sleep--it's vague and, given that the narrator doesn't seem to be restrained in any manner, a bizarre reaction to rainfall. Keeping all of that in mind, I'm going to go with, "struggle".

If a girl speaks and he can hear it, it's somewhere nearby, so let's boil that out.

Rain falls. Cold fat drops puddle in my eyelids, worm into my hair.  I struggle. A girl says, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
I jerk awake.

I always wake up when the girl talks.  Always.  But this time my breathing is so ragged it’s like I’ve forgotten how to process air.  My heart throbs in my chest.  I blink into the darkness.  Sweat beads on my forehead.

"the girl" = "she", and the second "Always" adds nothing to the narrative.

The breathing clauses can be condensed with no loss of content.

Hearts exist in chests, and we know it's dark.

I always wake up when she talks, but this time my ragged lungs have forgotten how to process air. My heart throbs. I blink. Sweat beads on my forehead.

 “What is this place?”  The girl!  I jerk toward the sound of her, but it’s too dark to see.  A raindrop—a real, wet raindrop—plops onto my forehead.
I touch the water dribbling toward my ear.  Taste it, cold and metallic, on my finger.  Another drop targets my cheek.  I scratch my nose. The view swirls from black to gray.  Panic surges into every cell of my body.
“Who’s there?” I ask.  My voice cracks.  For a second, I sound twelve again.

This section needs surgery in terms of story structure. Scratching one's nose is not something that a person does in a state of panic. Further, one wouldn't touch the water from the raindrop, taste it, scratch one's nose, and THEN ask, "who's there", when one just jerked toward an unexpected voice that's supposed to only be there in a dream. We need to rearrange it so that the narrator's actions make sense.


Calling out that it's the girl is unnecessary, because there's only one "her" in the narrative so far. "The sound of her" = "her voice". We already know it's too dark to see, but one could make an argument that he thinks he's no longer in a dream, so this needs re-stating.... As we do so anyway in the next paragraph, we can eliminate it here.

Similar situation with the real, wet raindrop--raindrops that plop onto heads are real and wet by nature. And "plops onto" = "spatters".

As small as this is, the raindrop is not the POV character, so we can't know that it was targeting his cheek.

There is no view, so let's change that to, "My vision".

We can tidy up the reaction to the unexpected voice into a single paragraph, and along the way get rid of sounding like he's twelve--astute readers know that adolescent boys tend to have voices that sometimes crack. "Older than twelve" isn't sufficient information to worry about including at this point.

A raindrop spatters my forehead. I touch the water dribbling toward my ear. Taste it, cold and metallic on my finger. Another drop hits my cheek. I scratch my nose. 
“What is this place?”
I jerk toward her voice. My vision swirls from black to gray. Panic surges into every cell of my body. My voice cracks. “Who’s there?”

The girl yells, “It’s me, Shepherd.  Duh!  It’s Elly.”
“Elly?”  Another raindrop hits me, then another.  The dream has never been this crazy.  It’s never been this real.  And my kid sister has never, not once, been in it.

I'm not sure why she'd yell if she's right next to him, and I don't know that the speech tag is necessary here. And in real life, people almost never use another person's name while speaking to them--unless they're calling out to get their attention or somesuch. (This is another issue with good 1st person POV; sometimes it can be hard to genuinely convey information as simple as the narrator's name.)

Another and another = "more".

"It's never been" is clutter, and we can combined "never" with "not once".

“It’s me, duh! Elly.”
“Elly?” More raindrops hit me. The dream has never been this crazy, this real. And my kid sister has never once been in it.

Footsteps, then Elly drops on top of me.  My vision suddenly pops with pricks of light.  I breathe—in, out, in.  This doesn’t happen in my dream.
“Sorry,” Elly says. “You know where we are, right?”
I pinch her.

This isn't a condensation, but we now know that "she" is "Elly", so let's use "she".

"Suddenly", aside from being an evil adverb by nature, can also be purged because the action is sudden. Sudden action doesn't need to be called out for being sudden.

We might want to add something to "I pinch her", because our narrator can't see. It's not such a simple thing to pinch someone you can't see, and without sight as a guide it's all quite vague for the reader.

Footsteps, then she drops on top of me. My vision pops with pricks of light.  I breathe—in, out, in. This doesn’t happen in my dream.
“Sorry,” Elly says. “You know where we are, right?”
I reach out, find her wrist, pinch her.

Elly punches my arm and mutters, “Dork!”  The pain of her punch spreads into my muscle.  Her weight rolls off my legs then disappears.  But I can’t see her.  I still can’t see me I reach out and she slaps my hand away.  “Knock it off,” she says.

You don't need a speech tag when you have an action tag, and the mutter can be taken care of by replacing the exclamation point with a period.

"Of her punch" is clutter.

If he can't see her, and her weight rolls off her legs, then by definition it disappears.

"But" is clutter, as is "away", and the final speech tag.

She punches my arm. “Dork.” The pain spreads into my muscle. Her weight rolls off my legs. I can’t see her. I still can’t see me. I reach out and she slaps my hand. “Knock it off.”

My stomach knots.  I ask, “Can you see me?” and the air churns, swift as water around large stones.  The world grows lighter.  My hair whips my face like countless stabbing pins.  At the edge of my vision there’s something large.
Fear shreds my chest.

Let's boil out the speech tag.

"grows lighter" = "lightens".

Simile and metaphor are easy to overdo. Either one would be fine, but two in a paragraph is excessive. As the water around large stones is more evocative than the countless stabbing pins, let's keep the former and boil out the latter.

The last sentence is a tell, and a vague one at that. (It has to be vague, because our narrator's vision hasn't cleared up yet...but it can be tightened up.) We can convey a sense of largeness by changing the bland and always boilable "is" to something more active.

My stomach knots. “Can you see me?”
The air churns, swift as water around large stones. The world lightens. My hair whips my face. Something looms at the edge of my vision.
Fear shreds my chest.

“You’re right here.”  Elly pokes my forehead with her finger.  Her nail digs into my flesh.  The wind draws back at her touch, like a curtain from a stage, and I suddenly see her.  She’s flushed, like she’s too hot.  Her pupils are so dilated her eyes are black.

The action tag doesn't jive with the narrator not being able to see.

Again, I think we can dispense with the simile and the adverb.

People that are too hot get flushed, so let's boil out the explanation.

The word "are" can boil out, as can all forms of "to be". I'm inclined to say, "her pupils dilated", but that doesn't convey the all-encompassing blackness in the original. That said, pupils can't dilate so much that the whole eye turns black, so I'm not sure which effect to go with here. He doesn't freak out and start screaming, so I'm going to go with dilation.

“You’re right here.” A fingernail pokes my forehead, digging into my flesh. The wind draws back at her touch, and I see her.  She’s flushed, her pupils huge.

“Are you … okay?” I ask.
“I have no idea.  I mean, I feel seriously weird.”
I shift and Elly says, “Don’t you dare leave me.”
“Why are you in my dream?”
Elly rolls her dilated eyes.  “You’re not dreaming, idiot.”

We can boil out both speech attributions, and the "dilated", because we already know that.

“Are you…okay?”
“I have no idea.  I mean, I feel seriously weird.”
I shift and--
“Don’t you dare leave me.”
“Why are you in my dream?”
She rolls her eyes. “You’re not dreaming, idiot.”

The Result:

I’ve had the same dream, every night, for as long as I can remember. I’m spread-eagled on a slab of wet cement. Cold wind seeps into my clothes until I feel like fog. I smell bread, sewer, flowers, asphalt, perfume, sweat. Dog crap. I hold my hand out, but it’s too dark to see my fingers.
But they tremble.
Rain falls. Cold fat drops puddle in my eyelids, worm into my hair. I struggle. A girl says, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
I jerk awake.
I always wake up when she talks, but this time my ragged lungs have forgotten how to process air. My heart throbs. I blink. Sweat beads on my forehead.
A raindrop spatters my forehead. I touch the water dribbling toward my ear. Taste it, cold and metallic on my finger. Another drop hits my cheek. I scratch my nose. 
“What is this place?”
I jerk toward her voice. My vision swirls from black to gray. Panic surges into every cell of my body. My voice cracks. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, duh! Elly.”
“Elly?” More raindrops hit me. The dream has never been this crazy, this real. And my kid sister has never once been in it.
Footsteps, then she drops on top of me. My vision pops with pricks of light.  I breathe—in, out, in. This doesn’t happen in my dream.
“Sorry,” Elly says. “You know where we are, right?”
I reach out, find her wrist, pinch her.
She punches my arm. “Dork.” The pain spreads into my muscle. Her weight rolls off my legs. I can’t see her. I still can’t see me. I reach out and she slaps my hand. “Knock it off.”
My stomach knots. “Can you see me?”
The air churns, swift as water around large stones. The world lightens. My hair whips my face. Something looms at the edge of my vision.
Fear shreds my chest.
“You’re right here.” A fingernail pokes my forehead, digging into my flesh. The wind draws back at her touch, and I see her.  She’s flushed, her pupils huge.
“Are you…okay?”
“I have no idea.  I mean, I feel seriously weird.”
I shift and--
“Don’t you dare leave me.”
“Why are you in my dream?”
She rolls her eyes. “You’re not dreaming, idiot.”


That's 381 words, down from 506, a reduction of 25%. What do you think?