Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog for writers, readers, editors, and anyone interested in the craft of writing. The blog comes out every Thursday, and most weeks, we take a novice author’s first page and look at ways they might make it better.
This has been a big week for me. Yesterday, I got a knock at the door. I ran downstairs, trouserless, yelling ‘JUST A MINUTE!’ while I scrabbled around, looking for my keys. When I finally opened the door (more or less un-naked), the postman handed me a parcel containing – gasp! – the first proof copies of my first ever published novel. My fiction debut.
Why, yes you may see a picture:
I’m no photographist, so if you want a proper butchers at what the book looks like, click here and click on the images.
For those of you who don’t know, most non-self-published books go through several phases of preparation. After submission, you do some edits, then – once these have been finished – a designer lays out the ‘page proofs’, which are printed out on sheets of A4 with little registration marks showing the actual size of the finished page. These are mock ups of how the book will look when printed out – they’re in the publisher’s chosen font, they have page numbers, and they’re laid out ready to go. At this stage, you basically check for mistakes and make any desperate last-minute changes – big changes would require lots of redesigning that will cost the publisher dosh and be a bit of a ballache, so you’re trying to stick to tweaks rather than ‘actually I think I want to remove the lecturer character and replace her with a monkey pirate’ level changes. (although I would stress the introduction of a monkey pirate is liable to improve any novel)
The ‘book proofs’ or ‘uncorrected proofs’ are where it actually gets bound and printed as an actual physical book. That’s the bit I’ve just reached. The proofs are unlikely to be quite as snazzy as the final thing, and – as the ‘uncorrected’ part implies – there may still be changes, typo fixes and various ancillary additions like the dedication and acknowledgements page to add. But book proofs are the kind of thing you start sending out to booksellers and prospective reviewers and cool people (like other authors!) whose good opinion and support you think are likely to help the novel’s fortunes.
One day, of course, you’ll get to learn all this for yourself, when your first novel gets published. I can’t wait to cheer you on!
The Honours is out on April 2nd, and I’d love it if you pre-ordered it. You could even pre-order a copy for a friend! You can pre-order a copy here, here and here. I am trying to think of something nice I could do for everyone who pre-orders, to say thank you for supporting me and my work. If you have any suggestions, let me know!
Do you know another lovely thing you could do? Maybe share this blog? That would be ace. We have a sizeable loyal readership these days, but when you lend your good name to my work, saying ‘hey – this dude isn’t crap’, a whole bunch of newbies come flooding in, and that is great.
If you want to submit your own first page, great! Please read the submission guidelines.
Anyway, you know the drill. Read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
The Mountain (by Adam)
Shrill winds howled as they ripped at Moonas’ ebony cloak. The cloak snaked around his face and then flowed down his back, waving in the neverending breeze. Torrents of dry, starchy air ripped across his torso and legs. His blade was raised high at his chest, prepared to protect him from the incoming attack. Clash went the metal as sword struck sword. Moonas remained stalwart, keeping his mind alert while bracing his body. He felt for a disturbance in the air, waited for an opening. Kair lurched in for a stab, but Moonas was gone. Moonas could move freely to the side in his unrestrictive black clothing, while Kair moved sluggishly in heavy plate, unable to keep up. Moonas’ dagger hit Kair in the chink in his hip, but only grazed him as he twisted round in a strong cleaving arc. Barely, Moonas ducked the cleave and tried to weave behind him, but despite all his agility, he couldn’t avoid the shunt as Kair pulled his weight back into him. Moonas tried to break free of the heavy armour as it crashed into him, but he it was fruitless. It crushed the wind from his chest and he lost hold of his dagger, sinking into the light snow behind him as he fell onto his knees. Kair followed up with a swing of his broadsword aimed straight at his neck, but Moonas’ adamantium bracelets deflected them with a grave shrill. Moonas then motioned for his dagger, but Kair stomped his hand under his boots, smirking under his helmet.
So, a quick note before we start – the extract you sent was over 500 words. I look at the first 250 words, max. Please read the guidelines! Most submitters are excellent at this, actually – always impressive when someone sends exactly what you’ve asked for, in the format you’ve asked for. Anyway, I cut this off after 250 words, because if history has taught us anything, it’s that rules are more important than people.
The way you formatted this, I couldn’t find any paragraph breaks. I’m going to assume that is just an accident of dumping it into an email and you wouldn’t normally present this in one unbroken word-bogey.
Shrill winds howled as they ripped at Moonas’ ebony cloak.
Well, I’ve got to hand it to you.
But what have I handed to you? Look down.
That’s right – it’s an award for Services To Reinforcing The Entire Literate World’s Prejudices Against Genre Fiction. It’s a bronze figurine of a dragon taking an eldritch dump on the Western Canon. And there’s a little nameplate that says ‘Adam’. Congratulations. Pose for photo. *flash* Wine reception. Write up in the Bookseller.
What I am saying is that you’re trying too hard. What I am saying is that I admire your passion but passion alone is horrible. We want to make you a sensitive and adroit lover but at the moment you are a velociraptor rage-fucking a toilet door while a terrified family cowers inside.
Of course not everyone likes Fantasy. Of course you shouldn’t shuffle towards the reader in a posture of apologetic supplication, disguising all the elements of the genre that you love in the hope of softening the cold hearts of those too culturally-stunted to engage with anything beyond bog-standard Realist fiction. Of course it’s okay to have Cool Things.
But there is a difference between indulging genre expectations, and batshit self-parody.
‘Shrill winds howled’? On multiple levels, this is a viscerally terrible adjective-noun-verb combo. Mentioning a ‘shrill wind’ or saying ‘the wind howled’ are both instances of lazy, clichéd writing – they’re such familiar phrases that we don’t hear the sound you’re describing, nor do we feel the wind about us. All the reader experiences is a vague apprehension of style – a sense of this hammy, portentous narrator trying to forcefeed us gothic ambience.
So they’re weak on their own, but together, they stumble into something dangerously close to nonsense. If you’re telling us the wind is ‘shrill’, that means you’re asking us to consider it primarily as a sound. Why then, do you need to tell us it ‘howled’? It’s like saying ‘tumbling leaves fell’. ‘howled’ already contains the sense of making a high, ululating noise like an animal. So why add ‘shrill’?
What you really mean is: ‘Winds howled shrilly’ (‘shrill’ properly modifies the sound the wind is making, not the wind itself) but that manages to be even more wretched than your original proposition.
The winds ‘howled as they ripped’? Why double up your verbs like this, introducing one action then a second, only tangentially-related action? And are the winds (why ‘winds’ plural, by the way? What does that add beyond ‘wind’, except that same faintly highfalutin air of portentous storyteller-ness?) really ‘ripping’ at his cloak? Are they really that strong? Where’s he fighting – a clifftop in a hurricane? (which isn’t a bad place to stage a swordfight, obviously – it’s just we’re given nary a fucking clue as to where this battle might be located)
Is your protagonist really called Moonas? Pronounced mooners? Not sure the image of cackling schoolboys baring their arsecheeks out the back window of a bus has quite the heraldic gravity you were hoping for.
‘ebony cloak’? No. When the coup finally takes place and I’m running my benevolent dystopian police state, this combination of words will be expressly forbidden. Basically, if you were to type them into a keyboard, a klaxon would sound and masked riot troops would kick down your door and you’d be sentenced to 20 years in the diarrhoea pits of Meteor X-71. Mining diarrhoea for the glory of the empire.
By ‘ebony’, you mean ‘black’, right? Why is the colour important in this moment? Are we supposed to be experiencing this from Moonas’ point of view? How is he seeing the colour of the cloak wrapped round his own face?
Cloaks are such a hackneyed, lazy first-choice piece of clothing for a Fantasy writer. You might as well have doubled-down and stuck him on a horse. No – a ‘sable mare’.
Point-of-view is a big, big problem in this opening sentence and right across the scene. This could be an exciting duel if you let us experience it from the perspective of one of the two fighters, but instead your narrator is sort of hovering loosely around Moonas, sometimes telling us what he’s thinking, sometimes emoting darkly about the howling wind, and sometimes objectively describing what everything looks like from the outside. There’s no sense of immediacy – nothing in the tone that matches the content.
The cloak snaked around his face and then flowed down his back, waving in the neverending breeze.
So now we’re not experiencing the fight from Moonas’ point-of-view, but being asked to look directly at him – to see the cloak round his face. This jars – it makes the scene less exciting, less involving, more objective. There are lots of reasons you might want to look at a protagonist from the outside-in, but you must be aware you’re doing it.
I suppose a cloak could ‘snake around’ someone’s face. It sounds like it would be uncomfortable and a liability in a swordfight, so ask yourself if you’ve picked this description just because snakes sound a bit dark and cunning and because you once saw a picture of an assassin within his cloak all wrapped round his face that looked pretty cool.
If the cloak is long enough to wrap round his face and then down his back, surely unwound it would be trailing in the dirt like a bridal train. Does it really ‘snake’ around his face? Wouldn’t it be easier to wear some kind of scarf or bandana over his mouth? Or have some kind of hood built into the cloak? Basically he has a garment designed so that if anyone grabs his cloak or it catches on anything, he’ll be throttled. Sounds less of a grizzled assassin and more a ludicrous dandy about to come to a sticky end.
‘waving in the neverending breeze’? Look at this clause in isolation. If presented with it on its own, do you think an uninitiated reader would be likely to think it came from:
a) a gritty fight-to-the-death
b) a pleasant day out at the seaside?
‘breeze’ means a ‘light wind’. So now the wind has gone from ripping and howling to just meekly puffing. Adam, I bet you are a really great person but this prose makes me want to eat my own head.
Torrents of dry, starchy air ripped across his torso and legs.
‘starchy’? Starchy? Are they fighting in a pasta factory?
Because I would totally read a book that started with a swordfight in a pasta factory.
Fucking hell. I’d love that. If an editor was trying to pitch a book to me and they said ‘It’s called Swordfight In A Pasta Factory,’ I’d be like ‘Give me that book or so help me God I will go on a spree of such barbarous majesty that it will fuel soul-searching state-of-the-nation articles in our newspapers for years to come’.
There’s ‘ripped’ again. Ripping across his torso and legs. So, like 90% of his body. Basically not his head, because it’s got a massive cloak snaking round it.
What you’re saying here is: the wind I’ve already mentioned twice continued to do what I’ve said it was doing, but his head was snug.
I am golf clapping to express my utter indifference.
His blade was raised high at his chest, prepared to protect him from the incoming attack.
Eh – I’m no swordist, but that sounds like a suboptimal non-getting-killed strategy. Unless he’s actively swinging the sword to parry the blow, deflecting its momentum, he’s just going to feel the length of his own blade chopping back into his chest when his opponent’s weapon connects. Have you studied the art of swordfighting? When you say ‘his blade’, what type do you mean? Is he holding it two-handed, single-handed? Is it a rapier, a sabre, a broadsword?
Also – think about word order. That first clause is much more interesting than the follow-up clause, which is just a little abstract footnote explaining why he’s taking said action. ‘the incoming attack’ is such incredibly vague language. It could mean anything from a descending halberd to a phalanx of fart-sharks – or ‘sharts’.
Clash went the metal as sword struck sword.
‘Clash went the metal’? Do I really have to explain why this is a bad line?
Look, fair enough. You’re trying to evoke the rhythms of an oral storyteller – you’re imagining an epic told round a campfire, the hearty inflections of some charismatic orator.
But we’re not gathered round a campfire. We’re reading a book. You can’t just imagine your prose being delivered really well and then hope that your readers do the same. You must work to create that immersion through your words on the page.
At this stage, right, you have not even mentioned the existence of a second combatant. We have no idea of what he or she looks like, whether they present a threat, and where this fight is taking place, let alone why. You’ve indirectly alluded to another participant through ‘incoming attack’ and ‘sword struck sword’.
But where’s the visceral feel of blocking a sword blow intended to end your life? Someone has just brought their weapon down with all the force they can manage, and you’re telling us that Moonas absorbs this by blocking – i.e. primarily through his wrist. What’s that going to feel like? That must be a painful, jarring, knackering effort by itself – a huge feat of strength and endurance and nerve.
And your only attempt to capture all that is ‘clash went the metal’? The dude’s got a cloak snaking round his face and the wind is howling and ripping. He’s going to barely hear the connecting noise. But dear Lord, will he feel it!
POV, Adam. POV. It’s the secret behind nailing so much of this. That and actually stopping to picture your scene – really closing your eyes and imagining it, proper next-level trance-state shit – to think through the implications of what you’re writing and make sure you’ve researched the bits you don’t have first-hand experience of.
So often, bad writing comes from fuzziness in the writer’s imagination. If you perceive the scene with absolute clarity, it’s much harder to fuck it up. Look at this, for instance:
He felt for a disturbance in the air, waited for an opening.
HE’S IN A FUCKING HURRICANE.
Gale force fucking winds are ripping at his cloak, howling. Under these circumstances, feeling ‘for a disturbance in the air’ is like trying to smell a fart while kneeling in a paddling pool filled with human faeces.
If you’d stopped and actually imagined the scene, actually put yourself in Moonas’ position and asked: what am I seeing? What am I hearing? What am I feeling? What am I thinking? You’d never have made this blunder, because it would have been a transparently preposterous thing to write.
When we don’t work to imagine a scene, we fall back on cliché to fill in the gaps. And cliché, as the old saying goes, is fucking bullshit.
Oh, and please don’t forget to pre-order The Honours. And when you do, please spread your enthusiasm about its imminent release via social media. We’re going to change the world, people. And then the eye on the front of each copy will activate and you will realise your destiny as an Ascended Master. Thank you!