Hello, joyful siblings and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
I hope you are brimming with festive cheer and delirious with the weird frothing upswell of seasonal feeling and repressed childhood complexes endemic to this bizarre carnival of colliding cultural nonsenses.
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As always, read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my comments after ‘The Cuts’.
Silence (by Sierra)
She listened intently, the harsh scream of the wind around her still audible even through the thickness of the steel containment. Here where all water was ice on a harsh, dry wasteland the wind always screeched, sending dust and ice flying around the containment. But so long as the main pump engines remained above ground in the warehouses it was her job to see to them, and Kae was not one to slack off at her work.
She flipped open a small knife and began scraping off the blockages around the gears inside the main pump. She did not have long to work. The pumps could only be off for five minutes at best or the water would begin to freeze within the non-insulated pipes. Moving with the swiftness of a well practiced hand she scraped the ice and muck away and to the ground, which would do until the buildup began again. The cleaning supplies were dwindling more and more with each year, and they could not be wasted on something like this sort of buildup unless it was dire.
She was very grateful that they still worked at all. Originally they had been intended for only five years use, and yet they stood ten years later still fully functional, if sluggish. No replacements or transmissions from Earth in over seven years, and still what little equipment they had carried on. In the same way life carried on, in their tiny greenhouse, and among the few stranded here.
She listened intently, the harsh scream of the wind around her still audible even through the thickness of the steel containment.
It’s all about knowing when to stop.
Imagine a novel called Silence that begins: She listened intently.
That’s a strong play. The adverb modifies the verb in an interesting way, and the sentence is simple enough that the spin the adverb imparts has space to play out.
Simplicity is bold. Remember that.
‘the harsh scream of the wind around her still audible even through the thickness of the steel containment’ is horrifically overwritten yet bland and workmanlike. You might as well have added dramatic underlining and put ‘wind’ is a spooky font. But let’s not content ourselves with labelling it ‘shit’ and moving on. That’s not instructive, and that’s not what this blog is about. Let’s compile a precise taxonomy of how and why it is shit, the many facets of its shitness, the shitness in its discrete components and the greater, emergent shitness that arises from their interaction.
‘the harsh scream’? No. Why are you modifying the noun, ‘scream’, with ‘harsh’? It’s like writing ‘the cold ice cream’ or ‘the crap first draft’. A scream is almost always harsh. Have you ever heard a ‘soothing scream’ or a ‘dulcet scream’? Unless you’re going for a deliberate oxymoron, make sure your adjectives earn their keep. Ugh. I’ve written ‘scream’ so many times it doesn’t look like a real word anymore.
‘of the wind around her’ Just last week I wrote a whole blog on how easy it is to do wind badly. Of course, you didn’t know that when you submitted, Sierra, because the waiting list is now over a year long. You’ve probably finished six novels by now, or started a promising career in aviation, or are a cobwebby skeleton hunched over a blank laptop. Maybe all three!
Of course the wind is ‘around her’. You don’t have to specify. It’s not like we were going to assume the ‘harsh scream of the wind’ was on another continent but you were just mentioning it to get us in the mood. Some things really do go without saying!
‘still audible’ – ‘still’ contributes nothing. Cut it. ‘audible’? Yes, that’s implicit in your mentioning it! It’s like writing:
Andrew stood stock still, the oozing coils of the serpent’s vast segmented body invisible to him, because it was behind a wall.
‘even through’? The intensifier ‘even’ isn’t earning its keep. It’s a fluff word. Bin it.
‘the thickness of the steel containment’ This section contains two woefully vague nouns: ‘thickness’ and ‘containment’.
Concrete nouns are usually better than abstract (this is not an absolute rule, obviously – you’re allowed to mention ‘love’, ‘time’, the concept of ‘football’, etc – just a direction in which to point the stylistic rudder) but any abstract noun formed with an adjective plus the ‘-ness’ suffix deserves extreme suspicion. Look, I bolded it for emphasis.
It’s not that I don’t understand what you mean. You mean ‘Even through the thick steel walls, Kae could hear the wind’s scream.’ (or, even better, ‘Even through thick steel, Kae heard it screaming.’ The anaphoric reference of the undefined pronoun introduces a compelling ambiguity – then you could reveal that ‘it’ is the wind.)
But, as readers, we shouldn’t be getting a vague impression of your meaning. It’s your job to deliver this scene with precision. How your words sound and their content should be in harmony. (unless you deliberately place them at odds to create an emotional dissonance – i.e. a brutal murder described in simple, dispassionate terms, or a 7-year-old’s sense of injustice couched in the dramatic prose of an heroic epic)
You don’t mean ‘thickness’. You mean ‘walls and roof’, right? This is a classic flub – reaching for two terms simultaneously, failing to concentrate, and missing both. It’s easily done, and I don’t blame you, but it’s still utterly shit. You need to hold your prose to a higher standard than this kind of meandering gabble-speak. It sounds like someone talking to a mate over the phone hungover while trying to pay for a trampoline online. ‘What’s the word for those bits that separate rooms from the outdoors? You know – like a “thickness”. Fuck it. You get what I mean.’
I get that ‘containment’ might be an in-world term you’re trying to teach us, but it’s bland and, coming at the end of this sloppy poo-bath of a sentence, it smacks of yet another woolly gesture towards comprehensibility, rather than interesting jargon.
Here where all water was ice
So now you’re abandoning any pretence of telling a story and going into a Star Wars title crawl. There is zero chance your viewpoint character is thinking this. This is just hokey scene-setting for the reader’s benefit.
‘Here’ particularly jars. It sounds like a ham actor doing some breast-clutchy monologue.
To realise just how implausible this info-dumpery is, you only have to transpose it into real-world fiction:
Tim sat at his desk, rattling out yet another blog post of questionable value, listening to the trucks rumble past his windows. Here where huge wheeled machines burned the stored energy of fluids sucked from far beneath the ground, carrying humans, foodstuffs and sometimes animals to different locations to be bought, sold and consumed.
The second sentence suggests the viewpoint character is having a breakdown. To begin deconstructing one’s own world in such a guileless, literal way is bizarre and artificial. Lazy SF authors do it because they think they can get away with it, and they whinge about the impossibility of ‘show, don’t tell’ and they claim it doesn’t matter.
Well, it does. It drains plausibility from the world, it reduces characters to cardboard puppets, and it patronises readers. It’s much, much easier, and it’s much, much crapper, and a great deal of SF’s reputation for shite writing blooms directly from the festering dung-heap that is this single bad habit. Don’t do it.
And editors. Buy a big red stamp that says ‘NO’. When editing your authors, hammer it down on each and every info-dumpy paragraph submitted to you. Then return the manuscript with a compliments card that reads: ‘FUCK YOU – FIX IT’. You can stop the madness. Don’t go soft on authors. We’re feckless arseholes. If I had my way – and if the technology existed – we’d all be implanted with skull chips like Spike out of Buffy, and every time we tried to sneak exposition into a third-person limited narrator we would jerk back as our crania exploded with searing pain. We would never be redeemed, exactly – you’d get no sense we’d truly reformed, as such – but we would stop acting like such total fucking berks.
You’re not a berk, Sierra. I expect you are brilliant. But feel free to imagine a neural implant sending waves of agony coruscating through your bonce if it helps you refrain from lazy prose. Imagine you’ve just decided to explain part of your fictive world to the reader. Now imagine blue pinpricks flashing at the corners of your vision, the stink of hamburgers and a metallic taste on your tongue. And incredible, mind-ablating pain.
on a harsh, dry wasteland
Second use of ‘harsh’ in two sentences – both instances completely redundant! My hands are grasping my head, Sienna. I am stunned. Are you including it to win a bet?
the wind always screeched
With that ‘always’ you’re abandoning the narrative present. We’re no longer in the ‘now’ of the story – we’re in some ill-defined, general period.
This is blurry storytelling. You need to put us in the moment. You need to be specific and engage our senses so we experience it. Locate your story in a definite present, and – especially at the start – don’t keep wandering off.
Not only that, but all you’re doing is repeating the previous sentence! The wind screamed harshly, and it also screeched. WHO IS TEACHING PEOPLE TO WRITE ABOUT THE WIND SO DAMN MUCH
sending dust and ice flying around the containment
Wait. What? ‘around’ is a horrible choice of preposition. It’s not clear whether the ‘dust and ice’ is circling outside the ‘thickness’ of this ‘containment’ (which we still can’t picture – you’ve given us nothing, no details at all, except the word ‘steel’), or within it. Do you mean ‘around’ as in ‘The cat has spent all day running around the apartment, shitting in plant pots’ or ‘A massive lava-filled sinkhole has opened up in the street – I guess we’ll have to go around it’?
But so long as the main pump engines remained above ground in the warehouses it was her job to see to them
So, I sort of follow. But again, you’re not in the narrative present – you’re outlining a general principle, an ongoing condition. You don’t say ‘Kae was in Warehouse B, working on one of the pump engines’ but it’s clear from the next paragraph that you meant to imply this.
In fact, I don’t think meant to imply it – I suspect you thought you’d outright stated it, but the narrative is so wishy-washy and meandering that you’ve done nothing of the sort. The result is this feeling that we’re watching a very badly water-damaged print of a pirate movie while suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
On the plus side, at least you’re introducing the beginnings of some stakes here – the first hints that people are relying on Kae, and that her failure here would have consequences.
and Kae was not one to slack off at her work
Show, don’t tell! Write the story in which she acts in a way consistent with this statement and allow us to infer it, don’t baldly state it at the start.
There are exceptions to this – you can have a third-person narrator offer direct, declarative evaluations of characters (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell does this with great aplomb) but it’s hard to do well and an effect with specific applications that works only in a small range of circumstances. It is emphatically not a shortcut to clue-in the reader, or an insurance policy against the writer’s inability to convey character through dialogue and action. Use it as such, and you instantly spray a jet of watery diarrhoea upon the drying canvas of your masterpiece.
She flipped open a small knife and began scraping off the blockages around the gears inside the main pump.
This could use some tightening. ‘flipped’ is a nice verb – we get a good visual there, and a sense of her familiarity with the tools she’s using.
‘small knife’? Is there a more specific tool you can namecheck here? Always hunt for the technical term, unless it’s crazy-obscure and impenetrable. I keep a copy of the Reader’s Digest Reverse Dictionary on my desk, directly beside my laptop, and I use it daily. It’s invaluable for quick, unexpected spot-research during first drafts.
Here, look. I’ve turned to the entry ‘knives’ and there’s a little chart with a column for ‘working knives’: bistoury, cleaver, draw-knife, lancet, machete, palette knife, panga, scalpel, Stanley knife, Swiss Army knife. None of those are quite what we’re looking for – although I’m happy I now know what a drawknife is – but it’s got my mind working. I expect a good knife for her to have would be a lock-knife or a clasp knife. ‘lock-knife’ and ‘clasp knife’ are both lovely, specific, solid noun phrases. They feel good on the tongue and they point to exact coordinates on the linguistic map.
Similarly, be more specific than ‘blockages’. That’s an abstraction – describing them by their function rather than their colour, texture, smell, composition. What do the gears clog up with, in this sealed environment? I see that later on you say ‘ice and muck’ but better to be clear earlier. (and even ‘ice and muck’ is still broad – this is a great opportunity for world-building and for demonstrating your technical authority – and Kae’s – by explaining exactly what is accumulating and why. Why have the gears been constructed in such a way that they don’t compensate for this? Were these conditions not anticipated?)
Specificity is the soul of narrative. Work on your precision. At the moment, you are bludgeoning the reader with a telegraph pole. Instead, you should be making tiny, deliberate incisions with a bistoury. Or a lancet. Or a scalpel.
Best of all, make a delicate incision into your wallet and pre-order The Honours. Go on, click the link and do it – your nucleus accumbens will reward you with a little shot of dopamine. And I will reward you with a little shot of lifelong loyalty and gratitude. The Honours comes packaged in a handsome protective sleeve to protect readers who are highly symbol literate from overdosing on raw cosmic truth. Miracles attributed to the unshielded cover are, at the time of writing, entirely unsubstantiated. Infants born with smoked red gems set in their foreheads, numerals forming in the vaporous breath of dogs, and a low, sourceless murmuring may or may not follow your commitment to receive a copy upon release.