Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Boiling Ronald Albury

Ronald Albury was kind enough to send along the first 464 words—a somewhat truncated prologue—of his novel ENEMY COMBATANT, based on the script of the same name that won 1st place at the 2008 Terror Film Festival. You can find it here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18944984-enemy-combatant Let's see what we can do with it.

The Original:

The beat-up van struggles up the steep gravel driveway, forcing the driver to downshift into “L”.  The roar of the straining engine scatters the birds roosting above the driveway and flushes a young deer across the van’s path.  When she parks next to the log cabin Jennifer, a pretty young woman in her late-20’s, picks up a stack of glossy promotional brochures from the passenger seat, then removes a loaded 9mm pistol from the glove compartment. 

After fumbling with the deadbolt she bursts into the cabin.  “Hey!  I got those vacation brochures like I promised.  You wanted to go to the Gulf Coast side of Florida, right?”

“Fuck you!” a woman’s voice barks from the back of the cabin.

She continues into the kitchen, collapses into a chair next to the table, puts down the gun, and begins to flip through the brochures.  “I don’t like this one because it is three blocks from the beach.  It’s cheaper, but I think it is worth the money to be right on the water, don’t you?”

“You asshole”, the unseen woman’s voice calls out again.

Undeterred, Jennifer continues with her sales pitch.  “This one has an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  I don’t understand why they would build a swimming pool at a beach-front motel, but what do I know?”

“Why are you torturing me like this?”  The other voice is nine parts anger and one part fear.

Jennifer eases up from the kitchen chair and walks toward the back of the cabin.  Jennifer is not her real name, but it is the one she is currently using.  She rotates between the five most popular girl’s names for her age group: Jennifer, Amanda, Jessica, Melissa, and Sarah.

“Aww, you know I’m not really torturing you.  I’ve told you before, Americans don’t torture.”

Walking into the back room, Jennifer studies the woman who has been cursing her.  She has on a blue denim skirt and slightly soiled white knit top.  About the same size and coloring as Jennifer, she could probably pass as her sister.  Her hair is unkempt and her tears have mixed with mascara to give her zebra cheeks.  But that is not what would catch your attention if you were to walk into the room.  

She is sitting in a child’s chair, her ankles bound to the front legs with plastic cable straps, forcing her knees up in an awkward and uncomfortable position.  Her eyes are blindfolded.  Her arms are tied behind her back at the wrists and elbows and the rope goes through a pulley screwed into a ceiling support beam, forcing her to lean forward to take the pressure off of her shoulders.   There is a large tarp on the floor under her.

“So”, Jennifer says, “did you miss me while I was out?”

The Condensation:

On first blush, this reads more like a screenplay than a novel. Third person omniscient, present tense; it's an interesting choice for a novel, and one that gives rise to some interesting challenges—like avoiding POV glitches, and introducing character attributes such as height, age, and appearance. The latter are "told" in a matter-of-fact manner in screenplays, but that violates the "show don't tell adage".

It's also reflected in the lack of detail; at the end of the scene we have no notion of Jennifer's height, weight (save that she's "pretty", which might or might not imply thin, or muscular, or what-have-you), hair color, eye color, etc. Not one whit of this would come up in a screenplay (where the visuals would take care of themselves—with the help of a large number of industry professionals), and while too much description would bog down a novel, I feel that this needs at least some.

The beat-up van struggles up the steep gravel driveway, forcing the driver to downshift into “L”.  The roar of the straining engine scatters the birds roosting above the driveway and flushes a young deer across the van’s path.  When she parks next to the log cabin Jennifer, a pretty young woman in her late-20’s, picks up a stack of glossy promotional brochures from the passenger seat, then removes a loaded 9mm pistol from the glove compartment. 

If we call "the driver" Jennifer we can boil out "the driver".

"The A of the B" can almost always be rephrased as "The B's A", so "The roar of the straining engine" is "The straining engine's roar"....and as we've made Jennifer the subject instead of the van, "the van's path" becomes "her path".

We don't need to say "when she does A, then she does B"—the sequentiality is implied.

I'm going to move the "pretty young woman in her late-twenties" to much later, where we can fold it in as a "show" rather than a "tell".

"Picks up" can be boiled down and made a bit more vibrant through the choice of a different verb.

"Loaded" is implied, as is "pistol" (given that a 9mm rifle wouldn't fit in a glove box!)

The beat-up van struggles up the steep gravel driveway, forcing Jennifer to downshift into “L”.  The straining engine's roar scatters the birds roosting above the driveway and flushes a young deer across her path.  She parks next to the log cabin, swipes a stack of glossy promotional brochures from the passenger seat, and removes a 9mm from the glove compartment. 

After fumbling with the deadbolt she bursts into the cabin.  “Hey!  I got those vacation brochures like I promised.  You wanted to go to the Gulf Coast side of Florida, right?”

There's something here that's unclear. If the deadbolt is on the inside (as it would be in a normal situation), she wouldn't fumble with it here, she'd use a key. If it's on the outside, that should be made more apparent. Given the situation, I'm going with "on the outside". (This is, as usual, one of those cases where I'd consult with the author instead of just changing things were this a true edit rather than a boiling.)

I tend to leave dialogue by and large alone, but there's some level of Maid-and-Butler dialogue (also known as, "As you know, Bob") here that can boil away.

She unlatches the external deadbolt and bursts into the cabin. “Hey!  I got those vacation brochures. Gulf Coast of Florida, right?”

“Fuck you!” a woman’s voice barks from the back of the cabin.

People speak with their voices, so we don't need to say so, and we already know it's a cabin.

“Fuck you!” a woman barks from the back.

She continues into the kitchen, collapses into a chair next to the table, puts down the gun, and begins to flip through the brochures.  “I don’t like this one because it is three blocks from the beach.  It’s cheaper, but I think it is worth the money to be right on the water, don’t you?”

A kitchen with a table and chairs can be a dinette, at which point we don't need to say that the chair is next to the table.

"Continues into" = "enters".

"Begins to", "started to", and all such verbiage can be cut wherever it isn't important to the plot that the action is interrupted.

In the dialogue, that she doesn't like it is redundant with the latter sentence.

Also, judicious use of contractions helps keep prose—and especially dialogue—from being stilted.

She enters the dinette, collapses into a chair, puts down the gun, and flips through the brochures.  “This one's three blocks from the beach.  It’s cheaper, but I think it's worth the money to be right on the water, don’t you?”

“You asshole”, the unseen woman’s voice calls out again.

I don't think any of this attribution is necessary.

“You asshole.”

Undeterred, Jennifer continues with her sales pitch.  “This one has an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  I don’t understand why they would build a swimming pool at a beach-front motel, but what do I know?”

The dialogue makes it clear both that Jennifer is undeterred, and that she continues. Otherwise, you can confer the same dialogue and tone with a few fewer words.

“This one has an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  Why would they build a swimming pool on a beach?”

“Why are you torturing me like this?”  The other voice is nine parts anger and one part fear.

There are only two characters present, so "the other" = "her".

Then there's "is". Like all conjugations of the verb "to be", it merits further scrutiny. At best, it's a tell instead of a show. It's a good indication that the same content can be conveyed through more vivid words. 1/10th = tinged, and an angry voice = a snarl.

“Why are you torturing me like this?”  Fear tinged her snarl.

Jennifer eases up from the kitchen chair and walks toward the back of the cabin.  Jennifer is not her real name, but it is the one she is currently using.  She rotates between the five most popular girl’s names for her age group: Jennifer, Amanda, Jessica, Melissa, and Sarah.

To ease up from a chair is to stand.

Because she walks into the back room in the next paragraph, we don't need to say that she walks toward it in this one.

The fact that Jennifer isn't (not "is not") her real name, combined with the last sentence, renders "but it is the one she is currently using" redundant. So let's boil it out.

We can replace "for her age group" with the "late 20s" from above.

Jennifer stands. It isn't her real name. She rotates between the five most popular names for women approaching thirty: Jennifer, Amanda, Jessica, Melissa, and Sarah.

“Aww, you know I’m not really torturing you.  I’ve told you before, Americans don’t torture.”

More Maid-and-Butler dialogue, here, compounded by telling her that she knows with a "you know".... I think the "Aww" conveys the sarcastic disdain well enough without the "Really".

“Aww, I’m not torturing you. Americans don’t torture.”

Walking into the back room, Jennifer studies the woman who has been cursing her.  She has on a blue denim skirt and slightly soiled white knit top.  About the same size and coloring as Jennifer, she could probably pass as her sister.  Her hair is unkempt and her tears have mixed with mascara to give her zebra cheeks.  But that is not what would catch your attention if you were to walk into the room.  

She is sitting in a child’s chair, her ankles bound to the front legs with plastic cable straps, forcing her knees up in an awkward and uncomfortable position.  Her eyes are blindfolded.  Her arms are tied behind her back at the wrists and elbows and the rope goes through a pulley screwed into a ceiling support beam, forcing her to lean forward to take the pressure off of her shoulders.   There is a large tarp on the floor under her.

Common in a screenplay, it's rare in fiction to find an author addressing the reader directly. I'd avoid it here.

Because we're in Jennifer's POV, we don't have to say that Jennifer studies the woman—and that she walks into the back room can go with the paragraph above.

"She has on" = "In" if we combine it with the next sentence.

We can boil out "slightly" with no loss of content—"soiled" isn't "filthy", after all.

We can combine the comment about size and coloring with the line about sisterhood, and boil out the "probably" on our way.

"have given" = "give"

We can imply the messy hair by making her Jennifer's "unkempt sister", as long as we reword the last sentence of this paragraph just a little.

And because it's now so short, let's combine this paragraph with the next one, after eliminating the direct-address to the reader.

That she's sitting is plain from the rest of the description. Awkward positions tend to be uncomfortable, and saying so is a POV glitch—Jennifer could infer the discomfort, but can see the awkwardness.

The blindfold can move up with the zebra cheeks.

The "are" in "her arms are tied" is another "to be". We can eliminate this one by making the rope the subject of the sentence.

"The pressure" can lose "the".

The tarp can go with the child's chair.

And though it isn't a boil-out per se, "goes" should be something more vibrant. I'm going with "snakes".

She walks into the back room. 

In a blue denim skirt and soiled white knit top, with her size and coloring the woman could pass as Jennifer's unkempt sister. Tears mixed with mascara give her zebra cheeks under her blindfold. Plastic cable straps bind her ankles to a child’s chair on a tarp, forcing her knees up in an awkward position. The rope tying her arms behind her back at the wrists and elbows snakes through a pulley screwed into a ceiling support beam, forcing her to lean forward to take pressure off of her shoulders.

“So”, Jennifer says, “did you miss me while I was out?”

Here we need the speech tag—though you might consider changing it to an action instead. We'll boil out the "while I was out" to make room for it.

Jennifer leans against the doorframe. “So, did you miss me?”

The Result:

The beat-up van struggles up the steep gravel driveway, forcing Jennifer to downshift into “L”.  The straining engine's roar scatters the birds roosting above the driveway and flushes a young deer across her path.  She parks next to the log cabin, swipes a stack of glossy promotional brochures from the passenger seat, and removes a 9mm from the glove compartment. 

She unlatches the external deadbolt and bursts into the cabin. “Hey!  I got those vacation brochures. Gulf Coast of Florida, right?”

“Fuck you!” a woman barks from the back.

She enters the dinette, collapses into a chair, puts down the gun, and flips through the brochures.  “This one's three blocks from the beach.  It’s cheaper, but I think it's worth the money to be right on the water, don’t you?”

“You asshole.”

“This one has an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  Why would they build a swimming pool on a beach?”

“Why are you torturing me like this?”  Fear tinged her snarl.

Jennifer stands. It isn't her real name. She rotates between the five most popular names for women approaching thirty: Jennifer, Amanda, Jessica, Melissa, and Sarah.

“Aww, I’m not torturing you. Americans don’t torture.” She walks into the back room. 

In a blue denim skirt and soiled white knit top, with her size and coloring the woman could pass as Jennifer's unkempt sister. Tears mixed with mascara give her zebra cheeks under her blindfold. Plastic cable straps bind her ankles to a child’s chair on a tarp, forcing her knees up in an awkward position. The rope tying her arms behind her back at the wrists and elbows snakes through a pulley screwed into a ceiling support beam, forcing her to lean forward to take pressure off of her shoulders.

Jennifer leans against the doorframe. “So, did you miss me?”

299 words, down from the original 464, a reduction of 35.5%.

I always give authors a chance to respond before I post, and Ronald took me up on it. This is what he said:

Thank you for taking the time go to through the excerpt and proposing edits.  While I do agree with some of your changes, there are others I can't embrace.  In the end, your version is certainly more concise, but to me it feels less pleasurable to read.  It now seems like a TV dinner rather than a home cooked meal.  It may be that saying the gun was loaded is unnecessary, but it may also be that the word "loaded" is a necessary dash of salt to let the reader know that the situation is serious.

I do tend to have exposition and an occasional info dump in my writing, but to me having a "rule" against exposition and info dumps is too rigid.  I use them for "stage setting", and to provide necessary information to the reader while keeping them focused on what I feel is important.  If one were to edit "Old Man and the Sea" and eliminate the exposition you'd end up with "Some Guy in a Boat".  Tom Clancy is another author who not only has exposition and info dumps in his works, but relies on them to tell his story.

Two other rules I violated (that you couldn't see because I could only send an excerpt) were writing in first person and changing POV half way through the book (to third person omni present).  But these sins are committed with intent and for a purpose.

Perhaps I am just being protective of my baby.  Perhaps I am one of those authors who is so inward facing that they are deaf to good advice.  Or perhaps it is just a question of style and voice. 

Thanks again for the effort you obviously put into this.


What do you think?