Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Anti-boiling Liz Long

This weeks' sample comes from Liz Long, who sent me a piece of in-progress zombie fiction to boil down. Mmmm...boiled zombie.... *drools*

We've got 497 words in the original; let's see what we can do with it.

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:

Sometimes to make good soup you have to add some meat. I'm going to do something a little different here, because in this passage the POV is terrifically muddled in a way I see a lot when I'm beta reading or skimming through a slush pile, and I think/hope that readers of this blog, and Ms. Lane, can take something away from this somewhat different exercise.

We're not sure in the first paragraph—or throughout—who the narrator is. We've got an indication that it's someone close to the situation because the hospital survivors had told "us" the basic outline of their story, but Laura and Grace are referred to in the third person, so it's not clear whether or not one (or both) of them are the narrator, or if it's someone else. Indeed, given that neither Laura nor Grace takes any action independent of the other, it gives us the feeling of an impersonal camera following them about the hospital...except that 500 words in we have no idea what they look like, how old they are (Ten? Eighteen?), or anything else about them besides their names, that they volunteer as candy stripers at the behest of their parents, and that they don't seem to act independently of one another.

The omniscience here gives a strong "tell" instead of "show" to the scene, which diffuses any sense of immediacy and robs it of its impact. For some reason I see this a lot in speculative fiction—I think (but don't know) that it's because the writer is trying to recreate the feel of a movie by choosing what I call a "cinematic POV," where the camera is on whatever action is happening at the moment...and this is, IMO, by and large a mistake. The cinematic POV is a necessity in movies, sometimes but usually not softened by a voice-over narration, but in a book it creates distance between the reader and the situation that renders flat any emotional impact.

Thus, my edits here are going to be more rewrites than a straight boiling—I'll aim for all the content, but will personalize the scene by choosing, say, Grace as the POV character, and assuming she's somewhere in her early- to mid-teens. While I'll try to keep the showing as tight as possible, it's likely to end up longer than the original sample.

This is of course a huge liberty I'm taking because this is a blog post and not a real edit, and as it's not strictly a boiling it's not what Liz signed up for when she submitted a sample. I hope she forgives me.

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.

Things to convey here: Laura and Grace are sisters who reluctantly volunteer at the hospital at the behest of their employee parents, and they're headed to Radiology.

Grace smoothed down her red and white candy striper's pinafore and suppressed a shudder at the too-soft skin of the old man's wrinkled hand against her elbow. He shuffled toward Radiology like molasses, and she rolled her eyes at her sister. Laura smoothed back a lock of brown hair and tapped her wrist. Two more hours and their parents would finish their shifts, and they could head home from the hospital. This didn't even count toward community service.

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.

Things to convey: They head to the break room and...something vague convinces them to leave. (This something is indeed quite vague; that they're motivated to put a warning note on the door tells us it's serious, and I'm privy to the fact that it's a zombie novel, so likely a zombie outbreak.)

They dropped him off and cut toward the Radiology breakroom, which boasted the only vending machine with a selection of potato chips, and no one who'd care that they took another break. As Laura reached for the doorknob, an odd moan pierced the air from within. She froze, and Grace peeked over her shoulder through the small window. People jerked around like marionettes, the blood on their clothes matching that on the walls.

Grace pulled Laura's hand from the door, put a finger to her lips, and pulled her 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.

Content: warning note, run out of Radiology by unspecified bad things, run into Brando.

Laura scrawled a warning on a piece of paper and taped it to the door. Something crashed behind them. A scuffle erupted between three nurses, and a fourth shambled toward the fight with empty eyes and gnashing teeth. An agonized shriek erupted from a room on the left, and a patient stumbled out, covered in blood. They bolted out of the unit and Laura slammed the doors shut.

"Hurry." Laura dug in her feet and leaned against the door as something thudded against the other side. Grace grabbed an IV stand and jammed it through the handles. They backed away, then raced to find their parents.

They rounded the corner and Grace slammed into somebody. She stumbled back and looked into the shocked eyes of their new friend Brando.

"Holy crap." Grace knelt to help him pick up his spilled tools. "We need to get out of here. Radiology's gone crazy."

"Oh?" he said.

"Seriously. People are fighting, killing each other."

He looked at her hard for a moment, then nodded. "I need to find my dad."

He took off, so they dashed to the ER.

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.

Content: they secure the Oncology doors, then tell their parents, who take charge.

Someone screamed in Oncology, a defiant holler that ended in piteous wailing. Laura pulled surgical tubing from an abandoned gurney, and they tied the doors shut. Wet tearing sounds and heavy breathing came from the lobby bathroom; they snuck by.

In the ER, they rushed their parents and wrapped them in panicked hugs. Shaking and sobbing, Grace just managed to tell them what they'd seen. Her mom barked orders to charge nurses, securing patients and barricading doors. Dad hefted a broom handle and lined up at the door with a few other men.

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.”

Content: The announcement triggers an exodus. (That Brando's dad told the hospital Chief is a POV glitch in this re-write, as from Grace's POV she couldn't know that for certain.) Without belaboring the activity, the exodus can likely remain a tell.

The PA system beeped, and a woman's voice rang out. “Radiology, Oncology, and Main Reception are closed indefinitely. A list of closed departments is being emailed to all staff and will be updated as needed. New admissions are suspended effective immediately.”

Visitors rushed the exits, dragging sick loved ones with them where they could. Some abandoned their kin in the waiting room, and a few employees left with them. An hour later, they'd barricaded the hallway to Oncology, and tried to ignore the tangle of cars trying to exit the parking lot. The PA rang again. “The hospital is closing. All staff will work to expedite patient release and transfer. Everyone still living needs to exit the hospital as soon as possible.”

The Result:

Grace smoothed down her red and white candy striper's pinafore and suppressed a shudder at the too-soft skin of the old man's wrinkled hand against her elbow. He shuffled toward Radiology like molasses, and she rolled her eyes at her sister. Laura smoothed back a lock of brown hair and tapped her wrist. Two more hours and their parents would finish their shifts, and they could head home from the hospital. This didn't even count toward community service.

They dropped him off and cut toward the Radiology breakroom, which boasted the only vending machine with a selection of potato chips, and no one who'd care that they took another break. As Laura reached for the doorknob, an odd moan pierced the air from within. She froze, and Grace peeked over her shoulder through the small window. People jerked around like marionettes, the blood on their clothes matching that on the walls.

Grace pulled Laura's hand from the door, put a finger to her lips, and pulled her away.

Laura scrawled a warning on a piece of paper and taped it to the door. Something crashed behind them. A scuffle erupted between three nurses, and a fourth shambled toward the fight with empty eyes and gnashing teeth. An agonized shriek erupted from a room on the left, and a patient stumbled out, covered in blood. They bolted out of the unit and Laura slammed the doors shut.

"Hurry." Laura dug in her feet and leaned against the door as something thudded against the other side. Grace grabbed an IV stand and jammed it through the handles. They backed away, then raced to find their parents.

They rounded the corner and Grace slammed into somebody. She stumbled back and looked into the shocked eyes of their new friend Brando.

"Holy crap." Grace knelt to help him pick up his spilled tools. "We need to get out of here. Radiology's gone crazy."

"Oh?" he said.

"Seriously. People are fighting, killing each other."

He looked at her hard for a moment, then nodded. "I need to find my dad."

He took off, so they dashed to the ER.

Someone screamed in Oncology, a defiant holler that ended in piteous wailing. Laura pulled surgical tubing from an abandoned gurney, and they tied the doors shut. Wet tearing sounds and heavy breathing came from the lobby bathroom; they snuck by.

In the ER, they rushed their parents and wrapped them in panicked hugs. Shaking and sobbing, Grace just managed to tell them what they'd seen. Her mom barked orders to charge nurses, securing patients and barricading doors. Dad hefted a broom handle and lined up at the door with a few other men.

The PA system beeped, and a woman's voice rang out. “Radiology, Oncology, and Main Reception are closed indefinitely. A list of closed departments is being emailed to all staff and will be updated as needed. New admissions are suspended effective immediately.”

Visitors rushed the exits, dragging sick loved ones with them where they could. Some abandoned their kin in the waiting room, and a few employees left with them. An hour later, they'd barricaded the hallway to Oncology, and tried to ignore the tangle of cars trying to exit the parking lot. The PA rang again. “The hospital is closing. All staff will work to expedite patient release and transfer. Everyone still living needs to exit the hospital as soon as possible.”

569 from 497, an increase of 14%. I can't help but think that in this case, it isn't enough, but I don't have the time to do more.

The action here is understated and vague; the matter-of-fact statement of the noise in oncology and the subsequent tying of the doors could be elaborated into a truly creepy, heart-stopping scene of its own, instead of a perfunctory action on the way to the ER; the initial scene outside the break room could shatter the bored, carefree world of the teenaged protagonist(s) with sudden realization and dread and uncertainty; without a single shot of gore, the barricade and evacuation of the ER could be a deeply personal, gut-wrenching tragedy of panicked people either abandoning or refusing to abandon those they'd brought there.


What do you think, dear reader, of this week's anti-boiling?