Second thoughts

Having listened to a podcast that takes the first 250 words of any submitted pieces of fiction and examines how they can be improved, I decided to have a look at the first draft of a short story I posted a while ago, called The Armchair and see what I could do to tighten it up.

The first task was obvious – the first page was 360 words long so I had to lose 110. Removing the bottom paragraph got rid of 65, but that still left 45 to prune off. This is what I did:

THE ARMCHAIR

She managed to get in from her shopping trip before Frank got home that day and stuck the pan at the back of the cupboard where she knew he would not see it.

I was reluctant to change this opening. I like the way it brings the reader straight in the action and sets up the two main characters, even though we do not learn the female protagonist’s name. The story is one in a series that I was looking at writing, which examine the same couple and portray a marriage which has had time to settle in, and where petty annoyances have sometimes crept in. Because the POV is always the woman’s, I have been reluctant to give her a name because she sometimes feels she has no voice. This first line sets up the two main characters and hopefully establishes the small domestic conflict that is going to play out.

It was a crepe pan that she had seen in a sale. Not that she and Frank ever ate crepes, or even pancakes for that matter but there was no reason that they could not start. She could just whip them up on Pancake Day and he would be none the wiser. They had just looked so cute in the store; non-stick and with brightly coloured high gloss finishes on their undersides, hanging on the stand like a tree of giant shiny lollipops.

OK the bolded sections are where the problems start. The style starts to lean in to chatty and the language immediately starts to get baggy. The main idea I wanted to get across was that she had been lured into purchasing a non-necessary item, kind of knew it and was already justifying it. I also liked the image of the pans as lollipops because that is exactly how they looked to me when I saw a similar stand in a shop. Plus it also has a kind of fairy tale image – a land of lollipop trees – which is completely at odds with the mundanity of kitchen equipment, but chimes with the lure of a shiny thing you do not need, but want. I had added the idea of pancakes as a further justification but don’t think I need it. A crepe is a pancake. I do not need that to lead into Pancake Day.

I also changed the could to would, because she is never going to make tham anyway. She is kidding herself that her purchase will transform her kitchen operations. They never do.

Pancake day is a potential problem. It is still very well known in the UK, not much in Australia and, I think, hardly at all in the US where weirdly I see this story being set, despite the fact that I have never been to the US and so my entire experience of the place is through TV and Movies. This is a danger if I make these a series because at some point I am going to get tripped up by lack of specificity. Readers like location. I am denying them this. I put Pancake Day there because it fits with the idea of introduction by stealth that is a feature of some relationships, but it is forcing the point somewhat. 

She checked the calendar. Pancake Day had been and gone for that year. Never mind, there was one every year, and if they ate pancakes on that day for the next twenty years, that would mean the pan cost only $2.50 per batch so was well worth it.
Frank hated splashing out on new things. He preferred to hunt down a bargain. Like that bicycle he had arrived with a few years ago.

Again the Pancake Day problem. I don’t think anyone would really check the calendar for Pancake Day because anyone who has heard of it kind of knows it has something to do with Easter and even if you don’t know the date it is coming, you always know when Easter has been and gone. Then a further bit of internal monologuing which does not add much to the story or the character – we already know what she is doing – just to serve the $2.50 gag. The gag is not even that funny and this is the sentence that sets the story outside the UK. Is any of it really worth it?  

I need the next sentence, though, because it clearly establishes the central conflict: a bargain-hunting husband who wastes money by indulging in projects that claim to save it, and a wife that has to pitch against that philosophy when she sometimes wants something that she may not need.

For this reason, I killed the splashing out on new things, by exchanging it with extravagance. This left me room to change ‘to hunt’ to ‘hunting’ which put the more important verb with the present participle ending. This, I hope, will move the emphasis away from something that is continually not being done, to the more important thing that is continually being done.

‘Look at this!’ he had declared as he wobbled up the driveway, ‘Only twenty bucks! The woman down the street wanted twenty five, but I negotiated.’

I like this bit of self-delusonal dialogue, which proves the narrator is not unreliable. It is pretty cliched, but also true and hopefully the ‘wobbled’ will serve to echo that. The main problem is another one of specificty – or lack of it. I have a very clear image of Frank in my head, right down to what he is wearing, but I do not share that with the reader at this stage. Maybe that is a problem. But I am sure I have read pieces where  physicaly descriptions are left to the reader to fill in. Hmmmmm …

‘But you don’t cycle, Frank!’ she had protested.

‘That is because I never had a bike before,’ he retorted. ‘It will do me good – I just need to fix up the back gears and it will be as good as new.’

Ok this is where we get the other side of the story with Frank’s justifications just as idiotic as hers. I am hoping the ‘wobbled’ will chime in with this to make it clear that Frank is no cyclist. Would I, though, have been better off using my 250 words to paint a better picture of Frank? His portly frame, his grey combover wafting lightly in the breeze, his blue flannel lumberjack shirt and beige canvas trousers? Also I don’t like retorted, it jars and is too close to protested but I can’t think of a better verb. Maybe I don’t need a better one, just a different one.

‘What is wrong with the gears?’ she asked

‘Oh, they don’t really work. They are kind of stuck in the low range, but I am sure I can fix them.’

Let’s just ram home the point here …because the folly of Frank’s purchase needs to be equal to or greater than hers.

‘Is that grease on your trousers, Frank?’

But Frank was already wheeling his latest project into the garage, and there the bike had stayed for the next two years, untouched, until finally she got sick of the sight of it leaning against the wall. She waited until he was away on a business trip and then wheeled it down the road and leant it against a skip which was outside someone’s house.

And the laziest cut of all was the final paragraph to get the intro down to 250 from 360 words – but have I managed to achieve the same effect with 100 fewer words? Here is the second draft:

The Armchair

She managed to get in from her shopping trip before Frank got home that day and stuck the pan at the back of the cupboard, where she knew he would not see it.

It was a crepe pan she had seen in a sale – not that she and Frank ever ate crepes – but there was no reason they couldn’t start. She would whip them up on Pancake Day and he would be none the wiser. The pans had just looked so cute in the store, non-stick and with brightly coloured, high gloss finishes on their undersides; hanging on the stand like a tree of giant shiny lollipops.

If they ate pancakes once a year for the next twenty years that would mean the pan cost only $2.50 per batch, so was well worth it. Frank hated extravagance. He preferred hunting down a bargain, like that bicycle a few years ago.

‘Look at this!’ he had declared as he wobbled up the driveway, ‘Only twenty bucks! The woman wanted twenty five, but I negotiated.’

‘But you don’t cycle, Frank’ she had protested.

‘That’s because I never had a bike before,’ he said. ‘It’ll do me good.  I just need to fix up the gears and it will be as good as new.’

‘What is wrong with the gears?’ she asked.

‘Oh, they don’t really work. They are kind of stuck in the low range, but I am sure I can fix them.’

‘Is that grease on your trousers, Frank?’

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