TimClareLR192

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Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

This week we’re taking a look at a novice author’s first page, to see if we can think of ways of making it better.

If you’d like to submit your first page for consideration, please read our Submission Guidelines.

As always, read the extract, have a think about what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d do to remdy the problems, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. Remember, this is about you developing your own self-editing skills, not about ripping into someone else’s work. If you disagree with any of my takes or have something to add, please drop a comment into the box below.

Conclave (by Matt)

“A rebel was killed outside the stables this morning.”

Elana feigned ambivalence but Luke had what he always sought out when he came to drink here – her attention. He shook his tumbler in her direction. She refilled his whiskey and cocked an eyebrow.

“How do you know it was a rebel?”

The apprentice smith relaxed into his seat, glancing around as though Conclave agents were likely to spring from the shadows and drag him away. Sipping his drink, he tried to hide his grimace and leaned towards Elana.

“He had a cache of Dwarfish rifles in a cart. Scrolls of runes, too. Father thinks he was going to steal a horse and take them to the rebel encampment in Direwood.”

“Who was he?

“Some traitor.” Luke downed his drink and didn’t try to hide the grimace this time. “Who cares who he was?”

Elana snatched the tumbler away, dunked it in the bucket and wiped it down. “Was he from the town, I mean?”

Luke’s eyes narrowed when Elana replaced the tumbler on the shelf instead of in his hands and waited a beat before answering: “No. From Goldfork, I think. I don’t remember.”

He drummed his fingers on the bar, gazing through the bottles behind her. Elana rinsed and wiped another tumbler automatically as the sheriff guffawed from the corner, evidently winning a sizeable hand of Reveal. The milkmaids across the room paused their gossip to see, then resumed their furtive whispers. Old Jon snored from his usual corner table, and Luke continued to drum.

Goldfork, Elana thought. Who was stationed there – Sebastian? James?

The Cuts

“A rebel was killed outside the stables this morning.”

‘Yes – I heard he read this first line and rolled his eyes so hard his optic nerve haemorrhaged.’

Matt, this is one of the most nakedly derivative openers we’ve ever encountered in Death Of 1000 Cuts. This is what non-genre readers imagine all Fantasy is like. This line – this precise line – hangs over the twisted gates of the ghost town that is Genre, as a warning to all foolhardy enough to enter.

And it’s not even, structurally-speaking, a bad line! Fellow readers, play along at home and see if you can guess the four problems I have with this.

What a fantastic example of the interplay between style and content. You’re starting with dialogue, which I like (although you’ll hear some authors tsk tsk about this, claiming that hearing a disembodied voice in a white void is artificial, jarring, and damages your fictive world before it starts. I disagree, but writers take note: it pisses some readers off) and the dialogue contains provocative content.

Although let’s just question that for a moment. Is this provocative?

Problem one: time-frame.

The speaker is clearly referring to an event in the past. The danger is over. He’s just recounting it. Compare these two as opening lines of dialogue:

‘The church is on fire.’

‘The church was on fire.’

Which makes you sit up more?

Problem two: vocabulary.

Calling one side ‘the rebels’ is, I propose, one of the biggest clichés in genre fiction. It’s flavourless, it requires nothing from the reader in terms of parsing unfamiliar terms, and it more or less predicts how this story is going to go. Wicked ‘rebels’, eh? I bet we ultimately end up siding with their struggle against a faceless analogue of Rome!

You need to hit us with specific local term here. A slang or official name for a rebel that we won’t understand. So we’re like ‘huh? A what-now was killed?’ and we have to keep reading, to work, to find out what that means.

At the moment I don’t feel any compulsion to keep reading. You’ve more or less given us the entire story arc in a single sentence.

Problem three: syntax.

Place the most interesting parts of each sentence at the beginning and end. Otherwise your prose will be dull as balls.

The rules for dialogue are a little looser – granted, not every character will speak in a rhetorically-engaging manner – but this is your first sentence, Matt. Whether it’s a big showy blast through the bank vault wall or an unassuming limbo under the laser web, it needs to be robust. Dropping ‘was killed’ somewhere in the mushy middle and closing with ‘this morning’ the lexical equivalent of squeezing out a moist, cabbagey fart into your reader’s brain-ear.

Problem four: passive voice.

‘A rebel was killed’? By who? Conclave troops? Bandits? A falling pig?

The passive voice is an ugly, clunky, legalistic construction that erases agency and hobbles sentences. Only use it if you have no choice. If the speaker knows who killed the rebel, rephrase the utterance to reflect that.

Although, as I’ve already said, I think this is a boring way to start your story. A character is reporting a stranger’s death that happened off-screen, earlier. He has no relationship to the deceased and so he doesn’t give a shit. Consequently, we don’t give a shit either. If your opening line was:

‘Solomon’s dead.’

We might sit up and take notice.

Elana feigned ambivalence but Luke had what he always sought out when he came to drink here – her attention.

‘feigned ambivalence’ is too fussy. Simultaneously, it’s totally non-specific – despite the apparently sophisticated vocabulary, you’re telling, not showing. What physical action does she do in order to pretend she doesn’t care?

And, actually, I think you mean ‘indifference’ rather than ‘ambivalence’. She’s pretending she doesn’t particularly care, right? Not that she has mixed feelings – otherwise the ‘but’ conjunction doesn’t make any sense.

The second clause is a bit clumsy. Cut ‘out’ – it’s a needless fluff word that contributes nothing. ‘when he came to drink’ could be rendered ‘when he drank’ with no loss of meaning.

I do like the close on ‘her attention’. It gives the sentence a bit of a punchline, and suggests a dynamic between the two characters. Good.

He shook his tumbler in her direction.

Again – sentence order. ‘in her direction’ is boring.

This might be irrational prejudice but I hate the word ‘tumbler’. It doesn’t immediately suggest to me a short, chunky whiskey glass. It suggests the circus.

I know it’s the technically correct word, but there’s an ambiguity in it that irritates. I suspect some readers will reread it at least once before understanding. So maybe change to something more on-the-nose.

She refilled his whiskey and cocked an eyebrow.

This is a hacky beat. The hackiest.

Old soak at the saloon bar trades gossip for whiskey. Don’t try to defend it as a familiar genre pleasure. It’s trite and worn out.

Also – POV slip. Up until now, the narrative has been filtered through Elana’s perspective. Her cocking an eyebrow is a physical, observable reaction to an inner state – she’s more or less unaware of it, unless she is consciously, performatively cocking an eyebrow to make a show of interest (which would seem to contradict her attempts to ‘feign ambivalence’ just a moment before).

“How do you know it was a rebel?”

Dull, flavourless dialogue. Unattributed too, so we pause a moment before going – oh wait, this must be Elana speaking.

The apprentice smith relaxed into his seat, glancing around as though Conclave agents were likely to spring from the shadows and drag him away.

So look, at least you have the wherewithal not to just info-dump a bunch of facts:

Luke was an apprentice smith. The Conclave ruled with an iron fist and agents could be anywhere, arresting someone on the slightest pretext.

But your solution is not much better. Calling Luke ‘the apprentice smith’ this early is confusing. We have another double-take where we have to reread before we realise ‘okay, this is just Luke again’. You’re shoehorning in a bit of world-building that would not appear naturally in Elana’s thoughts. She doesn’t think of him as ‘the apprentice smith’. He’s Luke.

Calling your evil empire the ‘Conclave’ is tired and hacky. Search Conclave on TV Tropes and you’ll see it’s been done to death. Maybe some apathetic readers would give you a pass. But is that the bar you’re setting for yourself? To be good enough for readers who’ll settle for any old shit? I bet you can do better.

Oh, and this sentence doesn’t make any fucking sense. He ‘relaxed into his seat’, while looking around as if he’s about to get arrested for treason? DOES THAT SOUND RELAXING TO YOU?

Sipping his drink, he tried to hide his grimace and leaned towards Elana.

Don’t get ingers disease – that tendency to glue a clause in the present continuous onto every sentence, e.g.

Picking his bum, Marrochump waddled down the dais steps. He unfurled the tea-brown scroll, licking his fat lips and grinning. Clearing his throat, he turned to address the assembly.

‘It says here that Darius III is the rightful heir of Sinnaland,’ he said, the nobles muttering and shuffling on their ivory benches.

It quickly becomes grounds for flinging a book across a room and swearing at it.

Also, don’t just plonk random bits of blocking on top of each other like that’s how a story works. You keep giving your characters these little dialogue beats where they fiddle with something, but you haven’t worked out why they’re doing this or how they fit together, so they read like bizarre tech demos for 3D models, cycling through a suite of pre-programmed behaviours.

Luke sits back in his seat, relaxing, then literally one second later glances around the bar, paranoid, then a second later he is drinking while leaning back forward. He sounds like he’s having a seizure. He probably is, in protest at being such a shit character.

“He had a cache of Dwarfish rifles in a cart. Scrolls of runes, too.

Dwarves! DING DING DING! We just reached Tier 3 of our Worn Out Genre Bullshit Thermometer.

And runes! My goodness! Any moment now the red stuff is going to rise into that glass bulb at the top and we will have hit our target!

‘Scrolls of runes’ is particularly poor. It is acceptable to borrow concepts from the common pool of ideas, Matt – after all, that’s what literary fiction does exclusively. It contains no original world-building at all, and recycles existing ideas, so, you know – it’s okay. But this doesn’t feel like even you believe in the world. It’s paper-thin.

Father thinks he was going to steal a horse and take them to the rebel encampment in Direwood.

You’re not allowed to call it ‘Direwood’. That is an absolute, cast-iron prohibition.

No idea is 100% original, but come on. This is too stock, too familiar. I feel like I’m sleepwalking through this world. There’s nothing to surprise or wrongfoot or astound.

And nothing’s really happening in this scene, yet. Sure, they’re alluding to a greater conflict and a dramatic situation, but there’s no real tension in the narrative present. It’s just gossip.

“Who was he?”

“Some traitor.” Luke downed his drink and didn’t try to hide the grimace this time. “Who cares who he was?”

What a silly, implausible thing to say. Given the implied tech level, these are small communities where most people know each other. It’s not unlikely that she might know the person – indeed, strangers will stick out, and the idea that this rebel was completely unknown to the village, town or whatever is almost as noteworthy as if they were the grand-nephew of Jeremiah, the retired hooper or Gabriel the dyer, or whatever.

You don’t have to be – gasp – a secret member of the resistance to care whether a slain rebel was your neighbour’s cousin or just some interloper from out of town. Luke’s reaction feels totally false.

Elana snatched the tumbler away, dunked it in the bucket and wiped it down.

No need for ‘away’ – it’s a fluff word – but otherwise this is a reasonably sound, simple beat that conveys a clear action with an implied emotion behind it.

“Was he from the town, I mean?”

Yes, of FUCKING COURSE. Don’t make your characters so obtuse that they have to spell out conversational commonplaces to each other. Just jump straight to the meat, please.

Luke’s eyes narrowed when Elana replaced the tumbler on the shelf instead of in his hands and waited a beat before answering: “No. From Goldfork, I think. I don’t remember.”

How does Elana see his eyes narrowing if her back is turned to place the tumbler on the shelf?

I’m not getting much of a sense of what this bar looks like. What are its distinguishing features? What does it smell like? Is it big, small? Dingy, grand? What’s the clientele like? Is it day outside? Night? Is there music? Is it a pleasant atmosphere? Threatening? Are people loud? Muted? Are there any idiosyncratic objects or wall hangings? What catches the eye when you first walk in? What is particular to this bar, that you wouldn’t find in any other?

I don’t doubt you can do miles better than this, Matt. It’s all about demanding more of yourself and trusting your ingenuity and patience to go beyond the broad, familiar strokes of Sword n’ Sorcery and, to a lesser extent, the Western.

Trotting out used-up tropes is easier than constructing your own world but it washes past most readers in a kind of beige haze. No one really cares if they feel they’ve seen it all before, if they can predict each beat before it arrives. Challenge yourself. Tighten and focus the vision.

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My first novel, The Honours, is out on April 2. Pre-order it here.

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