Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Boiling Cheryl Stewart

This week's boiling comes from Cheryl Stewart, a long-time friend who has never much thought about writing for publication, or even for public consumption. She volunteered as Word Soup victim with 518 words of a story entitled Victoria Livingstone and the Fey of Fairmount Park. Normally I cut things off rather ruthlessly the sentence before 500 words, but I still want her to like me when I'm done with this, so I left in the rest of the final paragraph.

It's teenager-conversational in tone, first person with an inner monologue reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Let's see what we can do with it!

The Original:

Fear.  Paralyzing fear.
I was 13.  Our family often came to Fairmount Park to walk about the gardens and seasonal art displays.  This particular August afternoon, my sister was in a snit from some perceived slight I had imposed upon her.  Apparently she didn’t want Mom and Dad to know that she lets her boyfriend up in her bedroom when they’re not home.  Whatever!
It was late in the afternoon that August Saturday, and our parents needed to attend the opening of a new light-based art exhibit in the park from some new up-and-coming they were sponsoring.  Mom and Dad were letting the artist fawn all over them in his over-the-top gratitude, Chelsea was showing off her newest $200 Coach wristlet to some other girls while trying to sneak champagne, and I was… well… There.
I was bored.  Bored, bored, bored.  While walking around aimlessly and waiting for dusk to arrive so we could get this event over with, my sister motioned to me to come over to her and her friends.  I can’t believe I actually went over there.
“Ya know what I heard about this park?” Chelsea asked.
I eyed her warily.  “Uh, no.”
“Auntie Amy told me once that there are fairies living in the woods in this park.”  She gestured blandly to her left.  “They come out at night.  Do you think she’s nuts or what?”
“Don’t say mean things about Auntie!”
“Sheesh!  Sensitive much?”  She turned to her friends and they all giggled.
I scowled at Chelsea and stalked away from the lot of them.
Auntie Amy is by far my favorite relative.  She understands me and accepts me for who I am.  She doesn’t get all uppity just because we have money.  I love listening to her stories and legends of fairies and monsters and other creatures.  She makes it sound like it could really be real.
I was meandering off towards the woods while thinking about this, figuring that at least I could get away from that horrid event.  Mom and Dad were oblivious to my absence.  Big shocker there.
I started picking my way through a small expanse of woods.  The vegetation was tall, thick, and seemed full of mystery and life.  I didn’t notice the lights come on at the long forgotten art exhibit, nor did I hear the appreciative applause.  I thought I saw movement and twinkling up ahead.  As I pursued it, I could swear I heard faint laughter.  I was oblivious to the rapidly darkening sky and the disappearing gardens.
All of a sudden I realized that I was lost.  I thought I had been following a path, but when I looked back, the path was gone. 
Whooooosh!  Something flew past my head!
I panicked.  Stupidly, I ran further into the woods. 
Zzzzzzzzooooomm!  Something else whizzed by and brushed past my arm.  I yelped, then stopped and crouched behind a tree.  Peeking around, I saw a mesmerizing sight.  Up ahead was a clearing full of small, brightly-colored figures dancing around and laughing.  I was frozen to that spot, transfixed by what was laid out before me.

The Condensation:

Fear.  Paralyzing fear.
I was 13.  Our family often came to Fairmount Park to walk about the gardens and seasonal art displays.  This particular August afternoon, my sister was in a snit from some perceived slight I had imposed upon her.  Apparently she didn’t want Mom and Dad to know that she lets her boyfriend up in her bedroom when they’re not home.  Whatever!

The fact that the narrator is thirteen doesn't fit with the rest of the paragraph, so I'm going to find another place to squeeze that piece of information in.

The fact that it's her family becomes apparent from the rest of the passage, so we can change that we "We".

One can hardly walk through gardens and art displays without going to a place, so let's boil out "came to."

"Particular" is clutter—it gives an old-timey sort of feel that jars with "whatever" at the end of the paragraph—and otherwise this sentence can combine with the next.

"Was in a snit" is "threw a snit."

Readers of this blog will know that I'm not a fan of adverbs, but only because I'm a fan of every word needing justification for its existence. In this case, the "apparently" conveys a sort of disdainful siblinghood quite well.

We can boil out "up" from "up in her." "Whatever" I'm ambivalent about—it conveys a very modern teenager like no other word can, but if anything it's a little passé. At least in my experience, kids don't say it nearly as often as they used to. In this case, we'll leave it.

Fear. Paralyzing fear.
We often walked about the Fairmount Park gardens and seasonal art displays. This August afternoon, my sister threw a snit because apparently she didn’t want Mom and Dad to know that she lets her boyfriend in her bedroom when they’re not home. Whatever!

It was late in the afternoon that August Saturday, and our parents needed to attend the opening of a new light-based art exhibit in the park from some new up-and-coming they were sponsoring.  Mom and Dad were letting the artist fawn all over them in his over-the-top gratitude, Chelsea was showing off her newest $200 Coach wristlet to some other girls while trying to sneak champagne, and I was… well… There.

We already know it's afternoon, August, and a park.

Instead of "needed to attend," let's make it something more active—and add some characterization in the process by making it, "dragged us to."

Openings are "new," so we can boil that out—twice, because up-and-comers are "new" as well. While we're at it, "were sponsoring" = "sponsored."

"Were letting" = "let," and as it's obvious that "the artist" is "him" we can make it so, and in the process boil out "his."

"Was showing off" = "showed off."

In "some other girls", either "some" or "other" is clutter—but come to think of it, the detail is sufficiently irrelevant that we can boil out the whole phrase.

Instead of saying "I was there," even though it's meant to be bland, we can convey exactly the same sentiment with "waited," especially if we keep the ellipsis. [NOTE: In retrospect, I think "killed time" works better, so I changed it again.]

(As an aside, ellipses need no spaces on either side of them. Something else I'm fixing on my way through is two spaces between sentences, as that's something publishers by and large do not want to see. Yes, that means your English teacher taught you "wrong.")

This Saturday our parents dragged us to the opening of a light-based art exhibit from some up-and-coming they sponsored. Mom and Dad let him fawn all over them in over-the-top gratitude, Chelsea showed off her newest $200 Coach wristlet while trying to sneak champagne, and I…killed time.

I was bored.  Bored, bored, bored.  While walking around aimlessly and waiting for dusk to arrive so we could get this event over with, my sister motioned to me to come over to her and her friends.  I can’t believe I actually went over there.

Here's a good place to put in her age.

"Bored, bored, bored" has a charm to it, but not enough of one to justify four "bored"s in one paragraph.

"Walking around aimlessly" is "wandered," "for dusk to arrive" = "for dusk," and "get this event over with" is already sufficiently ingrained in the character's actions that we can safely replace it with "go home."

"Motioned me to come over" is "waved me over," and we already know she's with friends (or at least people she'd show off her wristlet to.)

To avoid the echo on "over", let's change "I actually went over there" to "I went."

Thirteen and so bored, I wandered and waited for dusk so we could go home. My sister waved me over. I can’t believe I went.

“Ya know what I heard about this park?” Chelsea asked.
I eyed her warily.  “Uh, no.”
“Auntie Amy told me once that there are fairies living in the woods in this park.”  She gestured blandly to her left.  “They come out at night.  Do you think she’s nuts or what?”
“Don’t say mean things about Auntie!”
“Sheesh!  Sensitive much?”  She turned to her friends and they all giggled.
I scowled at Chelsea and stalked away from the lot of them.

As a general rule, one should avoid misspellings in order to convey dialect except under extreme circumstances (such as Stephen King's use of "Ayuh" for "yes" in Maine.) People who read this will mentally say, "ya know" when they read "you know". Word choice should carry dialect as much as possible...and if we want to reinforce the teenagerly informality, boil out the "you."

I'm not in love with "eyed her warily," but I don't know a word that would replace it. "Squinted" isn't quite right.

We can boil out "once that there are" if we chance "living" to "live," and "in this park" is redundant because she already said, "about this park."

"She gestured blandly" tells the reader almost nothing. What kind of gesture? What made it bland? Were this an edit instead of a blog boiling, I'd leave the comment for the author and let them come up with something. Instead, I'm going to invent a solution.

As "Do you think she's nuts or what?" is a rhetorical question, and Chelsea clearly doesn't care what our protagonist thinks, let's change "Do you think she's" to "Is she."

"Sensitive much?" is such a great conveyance of attitude that I don't think we need the "Sheesh!"

"and they all giggled" can become "who giggled"...though it's worth noting at this point that we have no idea how many friends are involved here. How many girls are "some" girls? Two? Three? Seventy-four? Perhaps we should revisit above, when Chelsea waves her over.

"At Chelsea" and "from the lot of them" are both unneeded.

“Know what I heard about this park?” Chelsea asked.
I eyed her warily. “Uh, no.”
“Auntie Amy told me fairies live in the woods.” She rolled her head left. “They come out at night. Is she nuts or what?”
“Don’t say mean things about Auntie!”
“Sensitive much?” She turned to her friends, who giggled.
I scowled and stalked away.

Auntie Amy is by far my favorite relative.  She understands me and accepts me for who I am.  She doesn’t get all uppity just because we have money.  I love listening to her stories and legends of fairies and monsters and other creatures.  She makes it sound like it could really be real.

Let's combine the first two sentences. Accepting someone for who they are cannot occur without understanding, so let's boil that out.

The now-second sentence tells us something that doesn't happen—always a good indicator that boiling can commence! ...and yet, when I try to get rid of the "doesn't", nothing I can come up with filled the void. Even so, we can squeeze out a few words with a rephrase, and combine it with the first sentence.

"Listening to" is clutter, as is "and legends"—and while "and monsters and other creatures" is a bit on the cluttered side, I think it's appropriate for the narrator's voice, so let's leave it.

The last sentence can benefit from changing the first "it" to "them" and boiling out everything between "sound" and "real."

By far my favorite relative, Auntie Amy accepts me for who I am, and doesn't let money make her uppity. I love her stories of fairies and monsters and other creatures. She makes them sound real.

I was meandering off towards the woods while thinking about this, figuring that at least I could get away from that horrid event.  Mom and Dad were oblivious to my absence.  Big shocker there.
I started picking my way through a small expanse of woods.  The vegetation was tall, thick, and seemed full of mystery and life.  I didn’t notice the lights come on at the long forgotten art exhibit, nor did I hear the appreciative applause.  I thought I saw movement and twinkling up ahead.  As I pursued it, I could swear I heard faint laughter.  I was oblivious to the rapidly darkening sky and the disappearing gardens.

Any construction of "was [verb]ing" invites further scrutiny—we can almost always lose the "was" by changing the "ing" to "ed."

"Off towards" can lose the "off," and "towards" should lose the "s". It's not wrong, but there are some especially in editor circles who are annoyed by "towards," "backwards," and so forth, but nobody is annoyed by "toward," "backward," etc.

"While thinking about this" is redundant with the fact that she's thinking about this.
"Figuring that at least I could" = "to", "get away from" = "escape".

That Mom and Dad were oblivious is a POV glitch—she can't read her parents' minds, though she may often think she can. Either way, that's a big tell instead of a show, and we already know they're busy letting the artist fawn all over them...so let's boil it out.

So now that we're down to one sentence, let's combine it with the next paragraph.

"Started [verb]ing" and its cousin "began to" should only ever be used if it's important to the plot that the event in question is interrupted. A small expanse of woods is a copse, woods are comprised of trees which are tall, "was" is an evil verb, and "seemed" is poison—from a narrator's POV, anything that seems, is. How about, "The thick vegetation embraced me with its mystery and life."

Not noticing and not hearing violate three tenets of fiction writing: One, they're telling what didn't happen, two, they're using sensory verbs, and three, they're POV glitches. From her POV, anything she doesn't notice or sense doesn't happen.

"I thought I saw" is another double-whammy. "I thought" is equivalent to "seemed," and "I saw" is never necessary. "I could swear I heard" is the same construction, with the same flaws.

The final sentence is again something she's oblivious to, so we need to either make it something she notices, or boil it out.

I meandered toward the woods to escape that horrid event. The thick vegetation embraced me with its mystery and life. Something twinkled up ahead. I pursued it to faint laughter.

All of a sudden I realized that I was lost.  I thought I had been following a path, but when I looked back, the path was gone.

This is a tell that could be a show, and will convey the obliviousness stated in the previous paragraph. Let's try something like this:

I stopped, and recognized nothing in the fading light. No path, no party, not even a glimpse of the manor lights.

Whooooosh!  Something flew past my head!
I panicked.  Stupidly, I ran further into the woods. 
Zzzzzzzzooooomm!  Something else whizzed by and brushed past my arm.  I yelped, then stopped and crouched behind a tree.  Peeking around, I saw a mesmerizing sight.  Up ahead was a clearing full of small, brightly-colored figures dancing around and laughing.  I was frozen to that spot, transfixed by what was laid out before me.

Two things to use sparingly if at all: onomatopoeia and exclamation points.

While running through thick vegetation, one should experience more than one thing whizzing by and brushing past one's arm—one should be barraged by branches and other such things.

The yelp should go with the thing brushing her arm, letting us boil out a few words.

One can hardly crouch behind a tree without stopping.

"I saw" can go.

"Up ahead" is clutter, and "was a clearing" has to go.

"Frozen to the spot" can lose "to the spot", and we can boil out everything after "transfixed."

Something whizzed past my head. I crashed through the branches in blind panic, and yelped when something tugged my sleeve. I crouched behind a tree. A light mesmerized me. Small, brightly-colored figures danced around a clearing, laughing.  I froze, transfixed.

The Result:

Fear. Paralyzing fear.
We often walked about the Fairmount Park gardens and seasonal art displays. This August afternoon, my sister threw a snit because apparently she didn’t want Mom and Dad to know that she lets her boyfriend in her bedroom when they’re not home. Whatever!
This Saturday our parents dragged us to the opening of a light-based art exhibit from some up-and-coming they sponsored. Mom and Dad let him fawn all over them in over-the-top gratitude, Chelsea showed off her newest $200 Coach wristlet while trying to sneak champagne, and I…killed time.
Thirteen and so bored, I wandered and waited for dusk so we could go home. My sister waved me over. I can’t believe I went.
“Know what I heard about this park?” Chelsea asked.
I eyed her warily. “Uh, no.”
“Auntie Amy told me fairies live in the woods.” She rolled her head left. “They come out at night. Is she nuts or what?”
“Don’t say mean things about Auntie!”
“Sensitive much?” She turned to her friends, who giggled.
I scowled and stalked away.
By far my favorite relative, Auntie Amy accepts me for who I am, and doesn't let money make her uppity. I love her stories of fairies and monsters and other creatures. She makes them sound real.
I meandered toward the woods to escape that horrid event. The thick vegetation embraced me with its mystery and life. Something twinkled up ahead. I pursued it to faint laughter.
I stopped, and recognized nothing in the fading light. No path, no party, not even a glimpse of the manor lights.
Something whizzed past my head. I crashed through the branches in blind panic, and yelped when something tugged my sleeve. I crouched behind a tree. A light mesmerized me. Small, brightly-colored figures danced around a clearing, laughing.  I froze, transfixed.

304 words, down from 518, a condensation of 41%. What do you think?