Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Boiling Susan Taitel

This week's boiling is a 492-word excerpt from somewhere in the middle of Susan Taitel's WIP. Susan is another of my amigos from the ABNA forums, who writes middle grade, young adult, and new adult fiction—mostly fantasy but with toe-dips in the real world. She blogs at susantaitel.com.

Let's see what we can do with her sample.

The Original:

There's a wrapped box waiting at the foot of my bed the next morning. I tear off the paper. It's new sneakers. Mom guessed exactly what I’d like. Black canvas with white stars. I run my finger over the pristine white rubber. They’ll never again be as clean as they are right now. 
I never changed into my pajamas last night, I feel funky. I take a quick shower.
Whoever Mom asked to watch me should be here by now. I hope it's not Miss Lyrea. She's nice enough, but boring. Mom says she used to be a mermaid. Now she's mist in the shape of a woman. She sings all the time. She makes me do vocal exercises and frets over my terrible pitch.
I towel off and get dressed. I walk downstairs, keeping my footsteps light, listening for singing. I hear nothing. I reach the bottom step. It doesn't sound like anyone's here.
"Aha!" I'm grabbed and lifted into a spin. "There's ma wee birthday gahrl!"
"Hi, Uncle Joch." I laugh. He sets me down. He's not my real uncle. We're not related, but I've known him as long as I can remember.
"Let me see, I think I have something for you here." He pats his big leather coat. "Ah, here we go." He pulls out a packet.
"Beef jerky?"
"Oops, that's for your beasty." He dangles a piece of jerky. Fortinbras runs into the room to beg. He scrambles after the strip Uncle Joch tosses. "Here we are. This is the one." Uncle Joch pulls another package from his pocket. I unwrap it.
"Thanks!" It's an old fashioned wire birdcage.
"Put a little jam toast in it and hang it outside your window tonight."
"What'll happen?"
"Don't know." He shrugs. "Got it off a goblit. Said kids like 'em."
"Okay."
"Now then. What do you want for breakfast?"
"A bagel?"
"Peanut butter sandwich it is!"
The downside of Uncle Joch babysitting is all he knows how to make is peanut butter sandwiches. Good thing I like them.
Uncle Joch isn't a High Fairy, but he's a species not far removed. He's as tall as Mom, and not bad looking. He might even be handsome, if he ever kept his face still. It twists and contorts as he talks, he can’t help it. He speaks with a thick Scottish accent. I asked him once if he was from Scotland. He said he's from the place Scotland is from. I still don't know what that means.
I finish my sandwich.
"Want more?"
"No thanks."
"Then what am I going to do with this?" Uncle Joch pulls a sheet cake from his coat. It's got buttercream balloons all over it and says "Happy Birthday Ben! She's a girl so put some flowers on it,” in yellow icing.
"They gave me half off for the mistake! If you're not hungry, I'll have to eat it myself."
"I could eat a little more."

The Condensation:

There's a wrapped box waiting at the foot of my bed the next morning. I tear off the paper. It's new sneakers. Mom guessed exactly what I’d like. Black canvas with white stars. I run my finger over the pristine white rubber. They’ll never again be as clean as they are right now. 

Any conjugation of "to be" is a good indication that we can boil out some words. That goes for the "'s" at the end of "There". By putting the time first, we can make "wait" the active verb, instead of "is".

We can boil out "It's new sneakers" by moving the "sneakers" later.

Adverbs yearn for deletion, sometimes on their own, sometimes by replacing the verb with something more evocative. To guess exactly what someone would like is to "nail it" in the modern vernacular.

"again be as clean as they are right now" = "be this clean again." And yeah, I'm leaving "be" here, as I'm not clever enough to come up with a replacement in this case!

The next morning a wrapped box waits at the foot of my bed. I tear off the paper. Mom nailed it; black canvas sneakers with white stars. I run my finger over the pristine white rubber. They’ll never be this clean again. 

I never changed into my pajamas last night, I feel funky. I take a quick shower.
Whoever Mom asked to watch me should be here by now. I hope it's not Miss Lyrea. She's nice enough, but boring. Mom says she used to be a mermaid. Now she's mist in the shape of a woman. She sings all the time. She makes me do vocal exercises and frets over my terrible pitch.

It's always better to describe what one has done, rather than what one has not done. To that end, never changing into one's PJ's is to still be in yesterday's clothes.

The vagueness of who the babysitter will be is conveyed quite well by "I hope it's not", so we can boil it out of the first sentence—and "by now" is so common a phrase, most of us never realize that it's clutter.

We can boil out the "is" in "She's" by combining with the next sentence.

"mist in the shape of a woman" is "woman-shaped mist", and let's combine this with the next sentence to break up the sentence structure from "She [verb]" twice in a row.

Still in yesterday's clothes, I feel funky. I take a quick shower.
The babysitter should be here. I hope it's not Miss Lyrea. Nice but boring, Mom says she used to be a mermaid. Now she's woman-shaped mist who sings all the time. She makes me do vocal exercises and frets over my terrible pitch.

I towel off and get dressed. I walk downstairs, keeping my footsteps light, listening for singing. I hear nothing. I reach the bottom step. It doesn't sound like anyone's here.

To "get dressed" is to "dress"—though even I admit I might be going overboard on the word-boiling here!

To "walk downstairs, keeping my footsteps light" is to "tiptoe downstairs".

"I hear nothing" is redundant with "It doesn't sound like anyone's here". At the very least, we can combine the two—and "I reach" = "On", and to hear nothing is silence.

I towel off and dress. I tiptoe downstairs, listening for singing. On the bottom step, silence.

"Aha!" I'm grabbed and lifted into a spin. "There's ma wee birthday gahrl!"
"Hi, Uncle Joch." I laugh. He sets me down. He's not my real uncle. We're not related, but I've known him as long as I can remember.
"Let me see, I think I have something for you here." He pats his big leather coat. "Ah, here we go." He pulls out a packet.
"Beef jerky?"

"I'm grabbed" doesn't need a boiling, it needs a re-write. It's a tell, through-and-through, and could benefit from different phraseology, something that tells us something about Uncle Joch beyond that he's grabbed her—I'm going to guess on this one because it's a blog post instead of a real edit.

I'm going to borrow a page from Elmore Leonard and get rid of most of the dialect, including the misspelling of "gahrl"—anything that makes your work harder to read should be used with the greatest of caution, and "ma wee" carries the accent by itself.

"He's not my real uncle" is redundant with "we're not related," and "as long as I can remember" is close enough to "forever".

Other than that, I tend to leave dialogue pretty much alone.

"Aha!" Massive, hairy arms lift me into a spin. "There's ma wee birthday girl!"
"Hi, Uncle Joch." I laugh. He sets me down. We're not related, but I've known him forever.
"Let me see, I think I have something for you here." He pats his big leather coat. "Ah, here we go." He pulls out a packet.
"Beef jerky?"

"Oops, that's for your beasty." He dangles a piece of jerky. Fortinbras runs into the room to beg. He scrambles after the strip Uncle Joch tosses. "Here we are. This is the one." Uncle Joch pulls another package from his pocket. I unwrap it.
"Thanks!" It's an old fashioned wire birdcage.
"Put a little jam toast in it and hang it outside your window tonight."
"What'll happen?"
"Don't know." He shrugs. "Got it off a goblit. Said kids like 'em."
"Okay."
"Now then. What do you want for breakfast?"
"A bagel?"
"Peanut butter sandwich it is!"

The sentence "He scrambles after the strip Uncle Joch tosses" I had to read three times. I'm sure part of that is my fault—I don't read many first person present tense stories—but part of it is because Joch's and Fortinbras's actions are interspersed in the same paragraph, so "He" was ambiguous on first blush. The scrambling implies the tossing, so I think we can safely condense all of that together.

Because we've disambiguated, the next "Uncle Joch" can be "He."

"I unwrap it" belongs in the next paragraph, with the protagonist's dialogue, and can be condensed with the contents therein. We have to be careful to put it before the "Thanks!", though, so as to not change the meaning of that word—she(?) says it after it's been unwrapped.

"Oops, that's for your beasty." Fortinbras runs in to beg, and scrambles after a piece. "Here we are. This is the one." He pulls another package from his pocket.
I unwrap an old fashioned wire birdcage. "Thanks!"
"Put a little jam toast in it and hang it outside your window tonight."
"What'll happen?"
"Don't know." He shrugs. "Got it off a goblit. Said kids like 'em."
"Okay."
"Now then. What do you want for breakfast?"
"A bagel?"
"Peanut butter sandwich it is!"

The downside of Uncle Joch babysitting is all he knows how to make is peanut butter sandwiches. Good thing I like them.

That it's a downside is evident by the "good thing" comment; other than that, we already know it's Uncle Joch, and that he's babysitting.

They're all he knows how to make. Good thing I like them.

Uncle Joch isn't a High Fairy, but he's a species not far removed. He's as tall as Mom, and not bad looking. He might even be handsome, if he ever kept his face still. It twists and contorts as he talks, he can’t help it. He speaks with a thick Scottish accent. I asked him once if he was from Scotland. He said he's from the place Scotland is from. I still don't know what that means.

Being a species not far removed from a High Fairy is being not "quite" a High Fairy—and we can boil out the "is" in "He's" by combining the first and second sentences.

I'm not a fan of "might be" in fiction, and the twists and contortions are redundant with his face not keeping still.

The sentences about his accent can be combined.

As tall as Mom and not bad looking, Uncle Joch isn't quite a High Fairy. He'd be handsome if his face wouldn't twist and contort as he talks; he can’t help it. Because of his accent, I asked him once if he was from Scotland. He said he's from the place Scotland is from. I still don't know what that means.

I finish my sandwich.
"Want more?"
"No thanks."
"Then what am I going to do with this?" Uncle Joch pulls a sheet cake from his coat. It's got buttercream balloons all over it and says "Happy Birthday Ben! She's a girl so put some flowers on it,” in yellow icing.
"They gave me half off for the mistake! If you're not hungry, I'll have to eat it myself."
"I could eat a little more."

The perfunctory manner in which the sandwich is treated meshes well with the overarching philosophy of Word Soup, but I can't help but think that somewhere in there he should have prepared the sandwich, or she should have taken a bite, or something should have registered on her taste buds while she ate it...though in the spirit of the blog, I'll leave it as-is.

Meantime, we know his name so Uncle Joch can be referred to as "he." The buttercream balloons can go with the sheet cake, thus boiling out "It's got".

I finish my sandwich.
"Want more?"
"No thanks."
"Then what am I going to do with this?" He pulls a sheet cake festooned with buttercream balloons from his coat. It says, "Happy Birthday Ben! She's a girl so put some flowers on it,” in yellow icing.
"They gave me half off for the mistake! If you're not hungry, I'll have to eat it myself."
"I could eat a little more."

The Result:

The next morning a wrapped box waits at the foot of my bed. I tear off the paper. Mom nailed it; black canvas sneakers with white stars. I run my finger over the pristine white rubber. They’ll never be this clean again. 
Still in yesterday's clothes, I feel funky. I take a quick shower.
The babysitter should be here. I hope it's not Miss Lyrea. Nice but boring, Mom says she used to be a mermaid. Now she's woman-shaped mist who sings all the time. She makes me do vocal exercises and frets over my terrible pitch.
I towel off and dress. I tiptoe downstairs, listening for singing. On the bottom step, silence.
"Aha!" Massive, hairy arms lift me into a spin. "There's ma wee birthday girl!"
"Hi, Uncle Joch." I laugh. He sets me down. We're not related, but I've known him forever.
"Let me see, I think I have something for you here." He pats his big leather coat. "Ah, here we go." He pulls out a packet.
"Beef jerky?"
"Oops, that's for your beasty." Fortinbras runs in to beg, and scrambles after a piece. "Here we are. This is the one." He pulls another package from his pocket.
I unwrap an old fashioned wire birdcage. "Thanks!"
"Put a little jam toast in it and hang it outside your window tonight."
"What'll happen?"
"Don't know." He shrugs. "Got it off a goblit. Said kids like 'em."
"Okay."
"Now then. What do you want for breakfast?"
"A bagel?"
"Peanut butter sandwich it is!"
They're all he knows how to make. Good thing I like them.
As tall as Mom and not bad looking, Uncle Joch isn't quite a High Fairy. He'd be handsome if his face wouldn't twist and contort as he talks; he can’t help it. Because of his accent, I asked him once if he was from Scotland. He said he's from the place Scotland is from. I still don't know what that means.
I finish my sandwich.
"Want more?"
"No thanks."
"Then what am I going to do with this?" He pulls a sheet cake festooned with buttercream balloons from his coat. It says, "Happy Birthday Ben! She's a girl so put some flowers on it,” in yellow icing.
"They gave me half off for the mistake! If you're not hungry, I'll have to eat it myself."
"I could eat a little more."

397 from 492, a condensation of 19%--not too shabby with all the dialogue. What do you think?