Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Boiling Jacky Gray

This week's 492-word sample comes from Jacky Gray, who writes Action/Adventure stories with a historical feel. Find her books here, explore her alternate universe here, or follow her ramblings about writing at her blog.

Let's see what we can do with it!

The Original:

Sitting astride his stallion Apollo, Archer grinned as people in the crowd shouted encouragement.
‘C’mon Archer, you can do it!’
‘Go for it Finn!’ 
His grin widened as he spotted his mates; they were Finn’s friends too and their worried expressions reflected the dilemma of who to support.
Fletch didn’t care, holding up victory fists to both contenders in turn as he roared their names.
Chuckling, Archer returned his friend's gesture, then wiped away the moisture on his upper lip. He was not sure whether it was the heat of the sun or the familiar thrill of blood pumping through his veins roasting him in his armour.
 ‘Good luck, mate.’ Tybalt, Archer’s Second, held up his shield. ‘May the best man win.’
Archer raised an eyebrow. ‘Man?’ Inside he was secretly punching the air at the idea, as he slipped his gauntlet through the shield straps and took the reins.
‘Yes, Archer. Today, you and Finn are men.’ Tybalt handed over a blue and yellow lance. With an anxious glance in Finn’s direction, he walked to the dais to prepare for the tributes.
Looking down the tilt at his opponent, Archer’s heart surged with the warmth of brotherhood. No, Finn was more than a brother; they did not argue as siblings did.
Despite the intense heat, Archer shivered. This was not the same as an ordinary practice. The enthusiasm of the crowd made it more exciting than anything he had ever done in his life. The buzz of excitement was affecting everyone – many moons of effort had gone into the preparations for this day and people had travelled from miles around to celebrate Beltane, the Festival of the May.
Professor Niall, a senior trainer, had pronounced them the only pair ready for the joust – all the others settled for the rings. He nodded to both boys as he took his place on the dais.
The shield weighed heavily on Archer’s arm, which still ached from the hours spent waxing and polishing until the metal shone like a looking glass. Noticing how it reflected the sun, he worried that this might give an unfair advantage if it shone in Finn’s eye. As the glare from his opponent’s shield dazzled him, Archer realised why Niall had been so precise about the orientation of the tilt. Siting it perpendicular to the sun’s path meant they would both be equally disadvantaged.
Finn won the coin toss, electing that Archer’s tribute was first because he knew people always remembered the last thing they heard. The Seneschal introduced the two Seconds.
Tybalt did a good job of supporting his friend. As a member of the learned Magi clan, his speech was eloquent, but a little too earnest. ‘Ladies and gents, boys and girls, I present to you the splendid Archer, a true warrior of superlative courage and daring. This squire is a veritable man of the horse,’ he paused at the round of applause that greeted this statement.

The Condensation:

Sitting astride his stallion Apollo, Archer grinned as people in the crowd shouted encouragement.
‘C’mon Archer, you can do it!’
‘Go for it Finn!’

"Sitting" is redundant with "astride his stallion", and "people in" is clutter. (Yes, it's likely that not everyone in the crowd is shouting encouragement, but that's a good enough assumption that it doesn't need stating.)

Astride his stallion Apollo, Archer grinned as the crowd shouted encouragement.
‘C’mon Archer, you can do it!’
‘Go for it Finn!’

His grin widened as he spotted his mates; they were Finn’s friends too and their worried expressions reflected the dilemma of who to support.
Fletch didn’t care, holding up victory fists to both contenders in turn as he roared their names.
Chuckling, Archer returned his friend's gesture, then wiped away the moisture on his upper lip. He was not sure whether it was the heat of the sun or the familiar thrill of blood pumping through his veins roasting him in his armour.

This sentence conveys three pieces of information: that his grin widened, that they are Finn's friends as well as his, and that they're of mixed feelings on who to root for. By grouping the middle piece of information with the first instead of the last, we can boil it down quite a bit.

That Fletch didn't care is a POV glitch; Archer can't know Fletch's thoughts, so he can only infer that Fletch doesn't care by his actions. (Fletch might care a great deal, but want to hide it for some reason.) Thus, it's better to let the action speak for itself.

And on that action, he can't possibly roar both names at the same time, so we can boil out "in turn" without loss of content.

We already know Fletch is his friend.

We can boil out a few words by making the latter half of that sentence, "wiped sweat from his upper lip." Only let's boil out "upper" while we're at it—sure, that's a minor loss of content, but I don't think it's a loss of important content.

We've got a mild case of bathos throughout the piece, where people are yelling "c'mon" and "go for it" and "you can do it"—modern colloquialisms all—and yet on the flip side we've got "many moons of effort"...this leaves me a little unsure as to whether or not to use contractions. I'm a fan of judicious contraction use in prose, and double-down on that in dialogue. So that said, let's make "was not sure" "wasn't sure".

We know the sun is hot, and we know that blood pumping is familiar—indeed, it's the hard, adrenaline-fueled pumping that is less familiar.

His grin widened as he spotted his—and Finn's—mates; their worried expressions reflected the dilemma of who to support. Fletch held up victory fists to both contenders and roared their names. Chuckling, Archer returned the gesture, then wiped sweat from his lip. He wasn't sure whether the sun or the blood pumping through his veins roasted him in his armour.

‘Good luck, mate.’ Tybalt, Archer’s Second, held up his shield. ‘May the best man win.’
Archer raised an eyebrow. ‘Man?’ Inside he was secretly punching the air at the idea, as he slipped his gauntlet through the shield straps and took the reins.

Anything internal is by nature secret unless shared, and "was punching" = "punched"—and "at the idea" can be boiled out with no loss of content.

‘Good luck, mate.’ Tybalt, Archer’s Second, held up his shield. ‘May the best man win.’
Archer raised an eyebrow. ‘Man?’ Internally he punched the air, as he slipped his gauntlet through the shield straps and took the reins.

‘Yes, Archer. Today, you and Finn are men.’ Tybalt handed over a blue and yellow lance. With an anxious glance in Finn’s direction, he walked to the dais to prepare for the tributes.

People rarely use a person's name when talking to that person, unless they're trying to get their attention.

‘Yes. Today, you and Finn are men.’ Tybalt handed over a blue and yellow lance. With an anxious glance in Finn’s direction, he walked to the dais to prepare for the tributes.

Looking down the tilt at his opponent, Archer’s heart surged with the warmth of brotherhood. No, Finn was more than a brother; they did not argue as siblings did.

Two minor boilings here: we can say, "They were more than brothers" and boil out one whole word, and "did not argue as siblings did" can become "didn't argue like siblings."

Looking down the tilt at his opponent, Archer’s heart surged with the warmth of brotherhood. No, they were more than brothers; they didn't argue like siblings.

Despite the intense heat, Archer shivered. This was not the same as an ordinary practice. The enthusiasm of the crowd made it more exciting than anything he had ever done in his life. The buzz of excitement was affecting everyone – many moons of effort had gone into the preparations for this day and people had travelled from miles around to celebrate Beltane, the Festival of the May.

We already know it's hot enough that he's roasting in his armor, so we can boil out "intense." I also think we can rearrange the sentence to eliminate the comma, which doesn't boil out the words, but it will mentally read faster.

Being not the same as an ordinary practice is the same as being "not practice."

"The enthusiasm of the crowd" is "The crowd's enthusiasm," while "made it" is a tell instead of a show, and it's also redundant with the "buzz of excitement" in the next sentence. Let's combine them as much as possible into a single, tight, idea.

"many moons" is the biggest piece of bathos here—it's also a big-time fantasy cliché, which may or may not be what the author is going for. I'm going to invoke blogger's prerogative and assume it isn't.

"months of effort" can become "months of preparation," and people who have traveled from miles around are "visitors"...lots of them can be a "visiting throng." We can tie it together with a good word; let's use "crescendo."

Archer shivered despite the heat. This wasn't practice. The crowd's enthusiasm entwined with his own, the crescendo of months of preparation for the throngs visiting to celebrate Beltane, the Festival of the May.

Professor Niall, a senior trainer, had pronounced them the only pair ready for the joust – all the others settled for the rings. He nodded to both boys as he took his place on the dais.

Niall's position is inferable from his pronouncement, and "all" is clutter.

"as he" = "and," and "took his place on"  = "ascended."

The others settling for the rings isn't relevant to the main characters of the scene, so we can remove it without loss of meaningful content.

As the second sentence gives us an anchor for while we're talking about him, let's swap the two.

Professor Niall nodded to both boys and ascended the dais. He'd pronounced them the only pair ready for the joust.

The shield weighed heavily on Archer’s arm, which still ached from the hours spent waxing and polishing until the metal shone like a looking glass. Noticing how it reflected the sun, he worried that this might give an unfair advantage if it shone in Finn’s eye. As the glare from his opponent’s shield dazzled him, Archer realised why Niall had been so precise about the orientation of the tilt. Siting it perpendicular to the sun’s path meant they would both be equally disadvantaged.

"weighed heavily on" = "weighed down," "the hours" = "hours," and a "looking glass" is a mirror—which means we can change the whole phrase to "to a mirror shine."

"Notice" is, in essence, the most bland of the sensory verbs—and if we stick to one POV per scene we can always boil out sensory verbs. The sun's reflection is "sunlight," which we can combine with the advantage in the latter half of the sentence.

"the glare" can lose "the", "his opponent" is "Finn," and "orientation" is redundant with "tilt".

In the last sentence, instead of explaining that it means something, we can just say what it means.

The shield weighed down Archer’s arm, which still ached from hours spent waxing and polishing to a mirror shine. He worried that sunlight in Finn's eye might give an unfair advantage. As glare from Finn’s shield dazzled him, Archer realised why Niall had been so precise about the tilt. By siting it perpendicular to the sun’s path, Niall disadvantaged both opponents.

Finn won the coin toss, electing that Archer’s tribute was first because he knew people always remembered the last thing they heard. The Seneschal introduced the two Seconds.

Again, Archer can't read minds. So while he would likely guess Finn's motives, he doesn't actually know them. (Also, I'm "was" adverse—let's use "go" instead.)

We can boil out "always" if we drop the "ed" from "remembered," and "the two" can be "their."

Finn won the coin toss, electing that Archer’s tribute go first; people remember the last thing they heard. The Seneschal introduced their Seconds.

Tybalt did a good job of supporting his friend. As a member of the learned Magi clan, his speech was eloquent, but a little too earnest. ‘Ladies and gents, boys and girls, I present to you the splendid Archer, a true warrior of superlative courage and daring. This squire is a veritable man of the horse,’ he paused at the round of applause that greeted this statement.

We know from the rest of the paragraph what he's doing, so we don't need to say "of supporting his friend," and doing "a good job" is doing "well".

"As" is clutter, and we should allow the reader to decide if the speech is either eloquent or earnest.

Applause come in rounds, and it's obvious that they happen where he paused.

A member of the learned Magi clan, Tybalt did well. ‘Ladies and gents, boys and girls, I present to you the splendid Archer, a true warrior of superlative courage and daring. This squire is a veritable man of the horse.’ He paused for applause.


The Result:

Astride his stallion Apollo, Archer grinned as the crowd shouted encouragement.
‘C’mon Archer, you can do it!’
‘Go for it Finn!’
His grin widened as he spotted his—and Finn's—mates; their worried expressions reflected the dilemma of who to support. Fletch held up victory fists to both contenders and roared their names. Chuckling, Archer returned the gesture, then wiped sweat from his lip. He wasn't sure whether the sun or the blood pumping through his veins roasted him in his armour.
‘Good luck, mate.’ Tybalt, Archer’s Second, held up his shield. ‘May the best man win.’
Archer raised an eyebrow. ‘Man?’ Internally he punched the air, as he slipped his gauntlet through the shield straps and took the reins.
‘Yes. Today, you and Finn are men.’ Tybalt handed over a blue and yellow lance. With an anxious glance in Finn’s direction, he walked to the dais to prepare for the tributes.
Looking down the tilt at his opponent, Archer’s heart surged with the warmth of brotherhood. No, they were more than brothers; they didn't argue like siblings.
Archer shivered despite the heat. This wasn't practice. The crowd's enthusiasm entwined with his own, the crescendo of months of preparation for the throngs visiting to celebrate Beltane, the Festival of the May.
Professor Niall nodded to both boys and ascended the dais. He'd pronounced them the only pair ready for the joust.
The shield weighed down Archer’s arm, which still ached from hours spent waxing and polishing to a mirror shine. He worried that sunlight in Finn's eye might give an unfair advantage. As glare from Finn’s shield dazzled him, Archer realised why Niall had been so precise about the tilt. By siting it perpendicular to the sun’s path, Niall disadvantaged both opponents.
Finn won the coin toss, electing that Archer’s tribute go first; people remember the last thing they heard. The Seneschal introduced their Seconds.
A member of the learned Magi clan, Tybalt did well. ‘Ladies and gents, boys and girls, I present to you the splendid Archer, a true warrior of superlative courage and daring. This squire is a veritable man of the horse.’ He paused for applause.

359 words from 492, a reduction of 27%.

Here's Jacky's response:

Hey Patrick, no way did I imagine you could boil away 133 words (27%) – and here was me thinking I did lean, mean writing. I will definitely be using a lot of your suggestions, however the one thing I forgot to mention is that although this story is set in modern day, I was deliberately trying to give it a medieval feel because the characters are caught in a time-warp. Their alternate universe is still wallowing in gentler times hence the paucity of contractions and plethora of labored constructions which when boiled down lose that olde-worlde feel. Having seen your treatment of Janet Oakley's work, I think this knowledge would have affected some of your comments.

Something you may be able to help on: I was trying to show that because he is warrior, he is very familiar with the effects of adrenaline. I think I did say something like "adrenaline pumping round his veins" til someone pointed out that it doesn't. I just think that "the familiar thrill of adrenaline-fuelled blood pumping round his veins" is way too wordy and "adrenaline rush" is way too modern. I really like the idea of mentioning the thrill (akin to the rush), so if there is any way you can suggest to keep the familiar thrill and retain the period feel, I would appreciate your expertise.

Coupla things that snagged on the boiled piece:

Astride his stallion Apollo, Archer grinned…” I’m surprised this one escaped your dislike of alliterations. 

He paused for applause.” Not on my watch; I was vaguely aware of the potential for this horror. Applause and clapping does feature rather a lot throughout. I may change to "He paused as the crowd showed their appreciation," but I'm pretty sure they do this on the next page and I really liked the greeting - another olde worde. 

As always I have learnt a lot from your skill in flab-trimming and I will be taking yet more tools into my editing toolkit for more modern renditions. Thank you so much for your time, effort and amazing skill, I’m sure there are many people who would benefit from seeing the written word as you do. I used to think I saw it exactly the same, but you have given me a valuable masterclass in how much I still have to learn. I look forward eagerly to your next boiling to lean more.

Fair enough. As for the thrill, you could mention the rush without including adrenaline, or keep the inaccurate but colloquial "adrenaline pumping through his veins". Then again, "Flushed with excitement" or somesuch could work just as well, depending on exactly the effect you wanted to achieve.

Thanks so much for allowing me at your baby!

Dear reader, what do you think?