Tuesday, April 29, 2014

(Actually) Boiling Liz Long

So get this: last week I boiled down Liz Long's zombie story, only I didn't boil it down, I fleshed it out. (Fleshed. Zombies. Heh.)

Here's what I didn't know: Liz wrote the piece as a journal entry found in a group of artifacts from a zombie outbreak, with an unknown narrator. That throws last week's anti-boiling out the window (although I stand by it for what it was!)

This is a journal, written at a time when fecal matter and fans are getting well-entwined, and as such I imagine that it would be much, much shorter. You could probably condense it down to three or four lines that outline the meat of what happened, but I'm not going to do that. I'll treat it as the intentionally impersonal "tell not show" that it is, and focus on the language paragraph by paragraph.

So let's try this again. 497 words of zombie-apocalypse journal, boiled down starting now.

The Original:

The hospital survivors had told us the basic outline of their story already, but now they filled in the details. Radiology was the first trouble spot. Laura and Grace’s parents worked in the hospital and forced them to volunteer as Candystripers, wearing red and white (candy) striped pinafores, after everything started falling apart. It kept their whole family close together, in case anything happened, but they weren’t exactly happy campers about doing volunteer work when school wasn’t even requiring it.

As a result, they took a lot of breaks. They noticed the first problem on their way to the Radiology breakroom, which boasted the only vending machine with a selection of potato chips. Also, no one in Radiology would notice or care that they didn’t exactly ask for permission to take another break. Anyhow, as they got closer, they heard odd noises and moaning inside. The sounds worried Laura and Grace enough to peek through the doors before walking in. The bloodstained walls and odd movements of the people they saw convinced them to leave very quickly, and very, very quietly.

They wrote a warning note to put on the door, but Radiology fell apart in those few minutes and fighting was bumping up against the doors. Before leaving again, they thought ahead enough to hold the doors shut while they threaded an IV stand through the door handles. Now, nothing could escape easily. They backed quietly away and raced to find their parents. On the way, they ran into their new friend Brando. As he gathered his spilled tools, they filled him in. As they returned to the ER, Brandon went to find his dad.

On their way, the sound of bad things came from Oncology and, more faintly, the lobby bathrooms. Together, they used some tubing to quietly tie the oncology doors shut. By the time they reached their parents, Grace and Laura were terrified. Maybe that’s why their parents believed them so quickly. Laura’s stepmother and Grace’s dad started talking to charge nurses, coordinating getting people to safety, and preparing to take out the Infected if (when) they attacked.

Brando’s dad told the hospital Chief. She made an announcement that, “some departments have been closed indefinitely, including Radiology, Oncology, and Main Reception. A complete list is being sent to all staff email accounts and will be updated as needed. New admissions are suspended effective immediately.” People were smart enough to recognize that was a bad sign and started leaving – effective immediately – with their sick friends and relatives. Hardly any officially checked out before leaving. Most simply fled.

After an hour, there were a lot less people, a barricade on the hallway leading to Oncology, a small tangle in the parking lot as too many cars tried to leave at once, and another announcement. “The hospital is closing effective as soon as possible. All staff will work to expedite patient release and transfer. Everyone still living needs to exit the hospital as soon as possible.”

The Condensation:

The hospital survivors had told us the basic outline of their story already, but now they filled in the details. Radiology was the first trouble spot. Laura and Grace’s parents worked in the hospital and forced them to volunteer as Candystripers, wearing red and white (candy) striped pinafores, after everything started falling apart. It kept their whole family close together, in case anything happened, but they weren’t exactly happy campers about doing volunteer work when school wasn’t even requiring it.

As a result, they took a lot of breaks. They noticed the first problem on their way to the Radiology breakroom, which boasted the only vending machine with a selection of potato chips. Also, no one in Radiology would notice or care that they didn’t exactly ask for permission to take another break. Anyhow, as they got closer, they heard odd noises and moaning inside. The sounds worried Laura and Grace enough to peek through the doors before walking in. The bloodstained walls and odd movements of the people they saw convinced them to leave very quickly, and very, very quietly.

We learn that they're hospital employees right away, and they could hardly tell a story were they not survivors.

To tell a basic outline is to "outline." "Already" and "they" are clutter.

"Radiology was the first trouble spot" is redundant with the following paragraph, so let's boil it out.

The red and white pinafores bother me a bit. In an account of how they survived a zombie outbreak, what kind of sociopath would comment on what people were wearing, unless it was pertinent to their survival?

"As a result" = "So", and we can combine this with the previous paragraph.

We don't have to say that they noticed a problem, we can just present the problem—in the same way, we don't have to say that the Radiology vending machine was the only one with potato chips (which I find unlikely anyway), only that it had chips that served as their motivation to go there.

We can probably boil out either "odd noises" or "moaning," but they're sufficiently distinct that I'll leave them both.

That they peeked implies their worry, and if they never walk in, they don't do so "before" walking in.

We also don't need to say that what they saw convinced them, as this is obvious from their course of action. "Odd movements" is vague, perhaps too vague—it doesn't convey much of anything to the reader. Let's use "jerky movements."

To leave very quickly and very quietly is to "slink away."

They'd outlined their story, and now filled in the details. The candystripers, Laura and Grace, didn't like volunteering where their parents worked, so they took a lot of breaks. On their way to the Radiology vending machine for potato chips, they heard odd noises and moaning inside. They peeked through the doors at the bloodstained walls and jerky movements, then slunk away.

They wrote a warning note to put on the door, but Radiology fell apart in those few minutes and fighting was bumping up against the doors. Before leaving again, they thought ahead enough to hold the doors shut while they threaded an IV stand through the door handles. Now, nothing could escape easily. They backed quietly away and raced to find their parents. On the way, they ran into their new friend Brando. As he gathered his spilled tools, they filled him in. As they returned to the ER, Brandon went to find his dad.

They can't leave in the previous paragraph (much less very quickly) and write a note to put on the door. Either they leave a note first, or they skedaddle. Given what you might see in a break room full of zombies, my money's on the skedaddlin'!

They can't do things in Radiology after leaving (again), so "Before leaving again" can be boiled out. That they used the IV stand to keep the doors closed is sufficient evidence that they thought of doing so, as well.

"Now" is worse than clutter, because in a third-person journal written after the fact it doesn't make sense. Out it goes.

While we're at it, "easily" is implied—with difficulty, most people can do most things!

We either need to change the "and" to a "then," or, in keeping with my preferences, eliminate either the "backed quietly away" or the "raced." As the hurry causes Brando to spill his tools, let's boil out the former.
"On the way" is clutter. "Ran into" is too figurative—the spilled tools made me double-take the first time. How about "crashed into"?

That Brando was their new friend is also one of those details that stood out to me as extraneous in a journal about survival.

The penultimate sentence is fine as-is, but if I can be picky in a vague sort of way for a moment, I think we can make it read just a hair faster by switching the order—we lose a comma, and thus a pause, even though we don't boil out any words.

The "As" can be boiled out with no loss of content if we change "returned to" with "headed for".

Radiology fell apart. They threaded an IV stand through the doors handles so nothing could escape. They raced to find their parents, and crashed into Brando. They filled him in as he gathered his spilled tools. They headed for the ER, Brandon went to find his dad.

On their way, the sound of bad things came from Oncology and, more faintly, the lobby bathrooms. Together, they used some tubing to quietly tie the oncology doors shut. By the time they reached their parents, Grace and Laura were terrified. Maybe that’s why their parents believed them so quickly. Laura’s stepmother and Grace’s dad started talking to charge nurses, coordinating getting people to safety, and preparing to take out the Infected if (when) they attacked.

"On their way" is implied, and "the sound of bad things" are "bad sounds."

"More faintly" is another detail I don't think would make it into a third-person journal entry of this kind.

"They" implies "together", "some" is clutter, and "quietly" falls into the same category as "more faintly."

We can combine the next two sentences, and in doing so boil out about half the words contained therein. Linking the now-single sentence to the next, we can boil out the clunkily-inserted information that they're step sisters, and remove the "started [verb]ing" (which I've commented on many times in the past).

Bad sounds came from Oncology and the lobby bathrooms. They tied the oncology doors shut with tubing. Their parents reacted quickly to the girls' terrified story, coordinating with charge nurses to get people to safety and preparing to take out the Infected if (when) they attacked.

Brando’s dad told the hospital Chief. She made an announcement that, “some departments have been closed indefinitely, including Radiology, Oncology, and Main Reception. A complete list is being sent to all staff email accounts and will be updated as needed. New admissions are suspended effective immediately.” People were smart enough to recognize that was a bad sign and started leaving – effective immediately – with their sick friends and relatives. Hardly any officially checked out before leaving. Most simply fled.

"She made an announcement that"  = "who announced."

As to the announcement itself, we can boil out a few words and make it sound more like an announcement. Furthermore, a "complete list" of three departments sounds a little unnecessary. (The passive voice is exactly right; just as I choose to use passive voice for a lot of my comments on this blog, announcements are almost always made in a passive voice, so this regular no-no is a yes-yes here.)

"People were smart enough to recognize that was a bad sign" is condescending (which might be on purpose) and unnecessary. It's telling the reader something obvious, which yes, people will do in journals, but in fiction—even a fictional journal—it leaves a bad taste in the reader's mouth.

"Started leaving" is of course another "started [verb]ing", so we'll boil it out.

That hardly any checked out is telling the reader what didn't happen, which is something we want to avoid.

Brando’s dad told the hospital Chief, who announced, “The following departments are now closed: Radiology, Oncology, and Main Reception. An updated list will be emailed to all staff as needed. New admissions are suspended effective immediately.” People fled with their sick friends and relatives.

After an hour, there were a lot less people, a barricade on the hallway leading to Oncology, a small tangle in the parking lot as too many cars tried to leave at once, and another announcement. “The hospital is closing effective as soon as possible. All staff will work to expedite patient release and transfer. Everyone still living needs to exit the hospital as soon as possible.”

I'm never a fan of "there were" and "there was" type statements—any conjugation of "to be" invites further scrutiny.

"Leading to" can lose the "leading."

"A small tangle" is "a knot".

The announcement at the end clashes with itself. Staff can't "expedite patient release and transfer" (which implies paperwork) and exit the hospital "as soon as possible." Let's keep the administrative jargon, but tighten it up a bit.

An hour later, the few remaining staff had barricaded the hallway to Oncology, a knot of cars still fought to escape the parking lot, and the Chief announced, “The hospital is closing effective now. All staff will expedite patient egress. Everyone still living needs to exit the hospital as soon as possible.”

The Result:

They'd outlined their story, and now filled in the details. The candystripers, Laura and Grace, didn't like volunteering where their parents worked, so they took a lot of breaks. On their way to the Radiology vending machine for potato chips, they heard odd noises and moaning inside. They peeked through the doors at the bloodstained walls and jerky movements, then slunk away.

Radiology fell apart. They threaded an IV stand through the doors handles so nothing could escape. They raced to find their parents, and crashed into Brando. They filled him in as he gathered his spilled tools. They headed for the ER, Brandon went to find his dad.

Bad sounds came from Oncology and the lobby bathrooms. They tied the oncology doors shut with tubing. Their parents reacted quickly to the girls' terrified story, coordinating with charge nurses to get people to safety and preparing to take out the Infected if (when) they attacked.

Brando’s dad told the hospital Chief, who announced, “The following departments are now closed: Radiology, Oncology, and Main Reception. An updated list will be emailed to all staff as needed. New admissions are suspended effective immediately.” People fled with their sick friends and relatives.

An hour later, the few remaining staff had barricaded the hallway to Oncology, a knot of cars still fought to escape the parking lot, and the Chief announced, “The hospital is closing effective now. All staff will expedite patient egress. Everyone still living needs to exit the hospital as soon as possible.”

Okay, so I broke one of my own rules, again—the final passage does not contain all of the information in the original. The omissions, however, were not for the sake of brevity, but because the inclusion of that information seemed out of place for an after-the-fact, third-person journal. Were it one of the girls writing the journal I would have made different choices on what to keep and what to discard.


So with that said, the final toll is 257 from 497, a condensation of 48%. What do you think?