Composing a Story – Part 2 of (?)

It’s been enough time since the first draft of a story I wrote, and now it’s time to start refining. This week I read through again, made some notes about things I’d like to see different or changed, and made some revisions.

A couple of times I’ve seen this (Stephen King comes to mind):

2nd Draft = First Draft (minus) 10%

So I often target at least cutting out 10% of the words. This usually makes the prose tighter, removes a scene or two, and generally moves things a long a little faster.

Here’s an example paragraph.

Before

It stood silently in the hallway, apparently staring at the number 17 screwed tightly to the frame. As Marcus watched, it raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and what looked like actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward, then, poised, and grasped the handle of the — what –-sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

After

It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the — what –- sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

A bit tighter, a bit smoother. Most of the words remain, just the fluff taken out. And I did remove a few whole paragraphs, because they just didn’t make sense.

Overall, first draft: 11,420 words. Second draft: 10,200 words (10.7% cut) So I managed to meet that baseline.

There are some markets where 10,000 words would be the limit. Should I wish to submit to those, I’d have to cut just a bit more. Which, at this point, would be a scene or some action, rather than just words here and there. But I don’t think I’ll have to do that. I’m now going to ask for some feedback from readers and writers. Based on those comments, I may change again. This might be cutting a few scenes, or adding something necessary. So the fact that I’m close to an arbitrary limit doesn’t mean a whole lot at this point. We’re still in development.

Okay, here it is, the first scene. If anyone would be interested in reading the whole thing and making a critique (which is, by the way, not just saying, “I like it,” or “I hated it,”), then please let me know.

Oh, by the way – I don’t have a title yet. So we’re working with “Untitled” for now

Untitled

by Stephan James

Had he been able to pay attention, he would have noticed the semi-darkness descending upon him. For as much as the sky overhead might be attempting to transform into an overbearing, oppressive presence, the fluorescent lights along the city sidewalks pushed back against the intrusion, and would have aided his attempt to fight back.

But he was preoccupied, and could not take the moments to look up, look around, and notice the gloom slowly settling over his environment as he walked home from his office, late, on a Tuesday evening.

It was only seven blocks. Not really worth the time and money to go out of his way a block to the subway, then backtrack two more. So a nothing man walked home from a nothing job in a nothing city to a nothing apartment, listening to his now-grown-up brother whining about said brother’s wife and daughter spending too much of said brother’s money on spa trips, and all Marcus could think was At least you have someone.

As soon as he thought it, he was reminded of his counselor, a mid-fifties woman who’d been divorced and remarried, who tried to tell him that he wasn’t washed up at forty-seven, who continued to push him to see the good in his life, who would have said, “Well, Marcus, why do you continue to berate yourself like that? It’s been fifteen years. You have to let her go.”

He found the door handle and pulled, automatic, thoughts swirling through his head as they always did, overwhelming, overpowering, a tidal wave of the past and all that had been taken from him. His feet moved of their own accord, his hand pressing his cell phone to his ear, into and out of the elevator, eighteenth floor, well-trod floorboards and empty picture hangers on the wall, down the hall and turn left, voice droning on and on. He couldn’t stop thinking that maybe he’d –-

There was someone at his door.

No, something.

Some thing.

It looked to be at least a foot taller than him, wearing a hooded dark brown robe. And was that one of those farm tools with the long handle and ridiculously curved blade slung over its shoulder?

Was that Death at the door to his apartment?

Waiting?

Waiting for him?

It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the — what –- sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

It put two hands on the scythe and stood waiting. Nothing happened. Why would it? Marcus wasn’t in his apartment, though he should have been for at least the last hour. Normally he would be sitting on his couch in his underwear, second drink in hand, mourning all that had been taken from him, television droning on unattended.

But today that phone call had distracted him, had made him stop in his office building lobby instead of heading out into the night so he could concentrate before the traffic sounds overwhelmed the conversation, had slowed his walk on the way home, had kept him from his usual routine enough so that he was now on the outside when he would have normally been on the inside, on the outside here where he could take a look at this ridiculously stereotypical picture of Death waiting to claim him, Marcus Jeffries, for the underworld or the afterlife or Heaven or Valhalla, he was outside the door and not inside and his brother’s voice came again through the phone and it startled him, startled him into movement, startled him into action, startled him into saying “I’ll call you back,” sliding the phone into his jacket pocket and taking two steps towards the monstrosity.

At the sound Death turned and pointed its hood towards him, four apartment doors away. He couldn’t see a face buried under there. The hands were veined, strong. Useful hands. Hands that did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. He admired that. His “career” had been spent updating electronic spreadsheets to meet another’s goals. Hardly anything to be proud of, other than that he had no debts outstanding and he’d never really hurt anyone, never really done anything wrong.

Death stepped towards him and spoke. “Marcus,” and the voice was female, surprising him. Deep, and raspy like a smoker, but definitely female. “You’re late. It’s time to go.”

Marcus held up his hands in front of him. “Uh, seriously? Do you know how ridiculous this seems?”

She moved even closer and now he could see the outline of a chin in the shadows of the hood. It moved up and down. “I have little time to play, Marcus. You’re on my list, let us be done.” She was now just a few feet away. She raised the scythe above her head.

“Wait, what?” He retreated, hands still in front, and felt his pulse spike. Adrenaline flooded his system. “I’m too young to die!”

“That’s not my issue,” she said, and swung the scythe at his neck. As it moved, the blade screamed into the hallway, the sounds echoing off the corridor walls with a banshee wail. He ducked and felt the whoosh of air as the blade swooped through the space where he’d recently been. The hairs on his arms stood out, at the sound, and at his proximity to his own demise.

“Holy hell!” he shouted, surprised at the emotion. He felt so alive! He hadn’t felt like this in twenty years or more. She cocked her weapon again and approached even closer. Two more steps and he could have grabbed her robe.

She swung again, the blade howling, and this time he dropped to the floor. The point passed within inches of his face and buried itself deep into the plaster wall of the hallway, scattering white dust into the stale air. Marcus scrambled back, crablike, and around the corner, while she struggled to release the blade from its new sheath. He got to his feet and sprinted to the elevator. He felt sweat beading on his forehead, and all those fight-or-flight chemicals had him hyped up so much he thought he might levitate.

He glanced back the way he’d been, but saw nothing, heard nothing. When the door finally opened he threw himself inside, landing against a handful of people, and grasped his jacket tight to his chest. Finding his breath coming hard, he stabbed the lobby button.

And prayed for the first time in a decade.

#

4 thoughts on “Composing a Story – Part 2 of (?)

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