Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is an editing blog for fiction writers, creative people who work with words and nosy readers who want to see how the ugly gubbins under the bonnet does its business. Every Thursday I take the first page of a writers’ novel or short story and pull it apart to see if we can make it work better.
If you want to submit your work, please read some of the archive and, most importantly, the submission guidelines. At the time of writing, the waiting list is more than a year long, and growing. I’m trying to work out if I can schedule some extra installments, but I want to balance DoaTC with my actual fiction writing. Got to put my money where my mouth is sometime, after all. Still, hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze in some bonus episodes just to make a teensy dent in the backlog. Being popular is a nice problem to have.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. If you disagree with anything I’ve written, feel free to add your thoughts via the ‘Comments’ box – just don’t be a smug arsehole. Remember that all our submitters have generously donated their work for us to practise on and are working hard to improve, just like we all are. Keep any feedback focused on the prose, not the writer please!
Storms Wake (by Adam)
Fyrer had set off two days earlier than he was expected so he could arrive before the summit and give himself some time to explore the wizard capital of Atuin. The thought that he may get caught in a blizzard hadn’t crossed his mind at the time, but it luckily compensated for the ground he would fail to cover today.
Not far ahead he spotted a small maw in the cliffside. Each side of the opening was jagged like teeth ready to close on him while the mountain heartily swallowed him up. Fyrer trudged through the shin high snow towards the deceptively tall crack in the stonewall. His breath was becoming laboured and he felt the sting of cold finally sinking into his bark, the north sas slowly taking a grip of him with both hands firmly. The opening was no more than three feet wide, but he could see inside that it opened up inside dramatically and the narrow entrance would keep out most stocky beasts. The gap was tight, and Fyrer found himself forced to manoeuvre sideways, shimmying through the gap in a rather apprehensive manner. With each shimmy he tread lightly on the ground, as if something hungry nearby would come running at him should he be too advertising of his whereabouts.
Fyrer had set off two days earlier than he was expected so he could arrive before the summit and give himself some time to explore the wizard capital of Atuin.
So, on this blog I’ll often praise a first sentence by saying ‘good – sets up a question in the reader’s mind’. Today I’m going to refine my stance by adding: there is such a thing as a bad question.
The first two questions to arise in your reader’s mind are likely to be, in order:
1. What the fuck is going on?
2. Why am I reading this?
Followed by the swift transferal of your novel to a desk/nightstand/lavatory floor.
This is a shame because clearly, Adam, there is excitement to be had in your content. Some dude is nearing the wizard capital – which we may reasonably infer is rammo with badass sorcerers – and a summit is about to kick off, so loads of other interesting characters – some fruitily storied, some nefarious – will be showing up too. Stuff Is Afoot.
But already you’re in the pluperfect. This isn’t in the narrative present – he had set off two days earlier. You’re telling us about the past of the past. So you’re not establishing the now of the story. This is preparatory work before we get there.
Look at all the finicky grammatical linking words in that sentence – words that clarify the relationship between nouns and verbs: had, earlier, than, was, so, could, before, and, to, the, of. 11 words out of 30 – over a third – are nothing but cartilage. If your first line was a pie, trading standards would be kicking down your door at 6am.
It’s great that you close with ‘Atuin’, the most interesting word in the sentence, but I’m not convinced that flagging it up as ‘the wizard capital’ does you any favours. As a reader I’m already thinking: generic Fantasy – yawn. Seen it before. Just give us the proper noun and spare us the guidebook subheading.
Let us figure out it’s the wizard capital when we get there (which I’m assuming we will eventually) and see all the charlatan hedge-wizards peddling macabre charms in the marketplace, when we see the twisted spires of the competing colleges and smell their various signature blends of incense, when Fryer runs into the local police force – I mean, for fuck’s sake, how hardcore would the law enforcement authorities in a city full of wizards have to be? Totally terrifyingly badass. Head-to-toe magic proof armour, maybe. Various anti-magical wards, snares… oh man. So cool.
And so much more interesting for us to figure out as we wander through the city with Fryer, slowly realising that there’s something odd about this place.
Oh, and ‘Fyrer’? Really? First off I misread it as ‘Fryer’, until someone pointed out my mistake. I’d thought this guy is deep. And fat.
Once I’d stopped imagining a greasy short-order chef, I got olde worlde friars and then the Yiddish word freier which basically means sucker. None of these are particularly useful allusions and at this stage they’re rather distracting.
Even if your protagonist were a pious but gullible cook, reflecting that in his name would just be sub-Dickensian wankery. Better to pick something neutral, or at least a name whose roots have distanced themselves from the lexicon. So, in summary: Atuin = good. Fyrer = *fart sound*
The thought that he may get caught in a blizzard hadn’t crossed his mind at the time, but it luckily compensated for the ground he would fail to cover today.
So I’ve read this extract a couple of times and I’m still confused. Are we to understand, from this sentence, that he is caught in a blizzard?
You do realise you don’t actually say there’s a storm, right? You tell us Fyrer didn’t have a thought about a blizzard.
Why are you weirdly implying a crucial piece of plot? You’re not alluding to sex in front of a child. This is – judging by your title – the key inciting incident of the whole fucking book.
Read that sentence again. You’re telling us that not anticipating a blizzard has compensated for ground he won’t cover today. How… what… *brain’s language centre haemorrhages*
Ah. The ‘it’ in this sentence is supposed to refer to his setting off two days early. Excellent. Less a pronoun, more an Easter egg hunt.
This backstory is boring. You haven’t made us care about the character yet. Give us action in the narrative present, then later we can work out his deal. Oh, and maybe don’t mask the fact that he’s caught in an almighty rock-polisher of a storm.
Not far ahead he spotted a small maw in the cliffside.
We call those ‘caves’.
I totally understand the temptation to use ‘maw’. I’m guilty of it myself. We recognise it from portentous genre fiction and we see it as a rite of passage.
But it’s a slippery slope from ‘maw’ all the way down to ‘eldritch’ and ‘ichor’, via ‘tendrils’, ‘vile’ and ‘squamous’. Save your maws for beast mouths. Especially if you’re going to modify it with a milquetoast adjective like ‘small’. What a waste! It’s like writing:
With trembling hand, I drew back the parlour door, only to espy, to my eternal revulsion… a small abomination!
Don’t pump your prose full of steroids. Let the content do the heavy lifting.
Each side of the opening was jagged like teeth ready to close on him while the mountain heartily swallowed him up.
Teeth traditionally appear on the top and bottom of the mouth, not the sides.
And you know what? Saying a cave is like a mouth is so clichéd it’s not even a proper simile. We call a cave’s opening its mouth. If you did a poll of a hundred people, asking them the first comparison that occurs to them when they think of a cave, this would be it. You need to look past the obvious, Adam. You’re trying to enchant a hypothetical reader, not win Family Fortunes.
Fyrer trudged through the shin high snow towards the deceptively tall crack in the stonewall.
Gimme a hyphen for ‘shin-high’, please – it’s functioning as a compound adjective.
How does he know the crack is ‘deceptively tall’ if he’s not there yet? ‘deceptively’ means ‘perceptually misleading’ – so you mean that the crack looks tall, but isn’t? What a weird distinction. Why does this even matter? Argh. My brain’s bleeding again.
You mean ‘stone wall’, an adjective and a noun – ‘stonewall’ is a verb, meaning to block, ignore or filibuster. Wait – hang on. Where did this wall come from? Do you mean the cliffside? Don’t introduce synonyms for the sake of it. ‘rockface’ makes more sense than ‘stone wall’.
His breath was becoming laboured and he felt the sting of cold finally sinking into his bark
Wait. So Fyrer is a tree?
If he is a tree or part-tree this is a super-cool way to introduce it. It brings us up short and puts us on notice that we need to pay attention. It’s also completely consistent with the POV. That Fyrer is a tree is of no great import to Fyrer. Thus it doesn’t get a mention.
Obviously he’s not just a tree – if I’m reading this right he’s a humanoid tree, otherwise, well… he’d just be a tree. We’d need some discussion of how bark can flex without splitting and how much feeling he’s got in flesh that must be considerably tougher than mere skin, but that can all wait.
Look, I’m just glad you’ve given us a little physicality. Cold having a ‘sting’ is a bit clichéd, but relatively-speaking this sentence is pretty deece. It’s certainly your best yet.
the north sas slowly taking a grip of him with both hands firmly.
Eh? What’s a ‘sas’? If it’s a typo I can’t even figure out what it was supposed to be.
In any case, I suspect this whole clause is a metaphor (although one never knows with Fantasy) and you’re describing how the wind is gripping him. Which is a rubbish metaphor. How does ‘with both hands firmly’ improve our understanding of ‘grip’? Cut it all.
The opening was no more than three feet wide, but he could see inside that it opened up inside dramatically and the narrow entrance would keep out most stocky beasts.
I literally don’t care and I suspect Fyrer doesn’t either. He’s caught in a storm and this is the only shelter. He’s going to run inside and then he’s going to look around.
That repetition of ‘inside’ clangs horribly. I don’t like the adverb ‘dramatically’ either – better to get him inside, then describe the cave interior – its lofty roof, the contours of its dripping walls – in such a way, in such detail – what type of rock is it, what colour, are there veins of other rock running through it – that we unconsciously think: golly, this cave doesn’t half open up dramatically once you get inside!
I appreciate what you’re trying to do with the ‘stocky beasts’ aside. You’re trying to alert us to the fact that Fyrer is no – ahem – freier, that he’s not just going to amble into a bear’s lair and get eaten. This is a reasonably travelled dude and he’s aware of potential dangers.
But ‘stocky beasts’ is such a naff, vague phrase. You might as well write [COOL NATIVE FAUNA GOES HERE]. Make something up! Just don’t call it a ‘fang-bear’ or something obvious and shitty.
The gap was tight, and Fyrer found himself forced to manoeuvre sideways, shimmying through the gap in a rather apprehensive manner.
Absolutely no need for this to be one sentence. ‘The gap was tight’ full stop. Here’s a writing tip: if you can exit a sentence before fucking it up, do so.
‘found himself forced’? How is that relevant? The physical world imposes limitations on us all the time. This is in no way worthy of comment. If I want to leave my office I find myself forced to open the door. Except I don’t, I just do it. We’re all temporarily sentient aggregations of meat, Adam. Let’s not waste time whinging about it.
Anyway, you said the gap was ‘three feet wide’. Is Fyrer obese? Is he wearing a pair of polyester angel wings? Why the hell can’t he just walk in?
Maybe it’s the tree thing again, I don’t know. But wouldn’t trees be relatively impervious to cold? If Fyrer is human and has to ‘shimmy’ to sidestep through a gap a yard across, I’m less worried about fang-bears and more about his impending coronary.
With each shimmy he tread lightly on the ground, as if something hungry nearby would come running at him should he be too advertising of his whereabouts.
You can’t repeat ‘shimmy’ in a paragraph. Not unless one of your characters is reciting the rap from Big.
You mean he ‘trod lightly’. There’s no ‘as if’ about it, though, is there? He is explicitly treading lightly in case a dangerous predator is asleep in the cave. He has no other reason to.
Which, again, I don’t buy. Either he goes into the cave or he doesn’t.
You need to make the snow storm absolutely perishing – unbearable, to the point that he desperately needs shelter. Have Fyrer scramble into the cave, shivering, or whatever treepeople do to raise their body temperature. Then he thinks – oh shit, hang on – and gets out his flint or his luminescent orb or whatever and looks round the cave interior. It’s bigger than he expected – dramatically so, one might say. He’s still cold. The storm is howling outside.
Now he starts to worry about predators. The cave continues into darkness. He examines the floor for dung or bones, sniffs the air – this shows his basic competence and survival smarts. Then… something happens to raise the stakes. Something that tests his character and hooks our attention. Some conflict, his response to which will reveal something interesting and surprising about him. Your choice what it is.
Hit the ground running, Adam. Don’t open your story with background, footnotes and editorialising. Locate the narrative present, engage the reader’s five senses, avoid cliché, and introduce the stakes for which your protagonist is playing. Do this quickly.
Respect your reader’s time. Treat their allegiance as something to be earned, not taken for granted. The world deserves to hear about your morbidly obese treedude. Do the legwork to make that happen.
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