Bonjour and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
You know what? I’ve been finding writing really stressful and difficult over the last few weeks. I think, weirdly, it comes from having people say nice things about The Honours. When I wrote it, I really stumbled through day-to-day, discovering the story and characters as I wrote, not always knowing where I was going, learning the geography of the place and the motivations of the major players and basically operating on something like blind faith, or at least a kind of nihilistic what-else-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life abandon.
So it’s hard hearing people accuse me of having ‘themes’ and a ‘plot’ and having ‘beautifully constructed’ the story, because frankly, all those things are accidental artifacts of turning up to my desk each morning and frantically bluffing. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing. Let me repeat that: I have no fucking idea what I’m doing.
I mention this because I’ve found writing the second book much harder since The Honours came out, because suddenly I’m aware of the gulf between the finished product and the bodged-together amateurish guesswork I fart out each day at my laptop. I have vague intimations, vague memories that this is what it was like with The Honours too, but there were so many drafts that came between, and I’m so familiar with the completed article, that sometimes I believe the world was just there, waiting for me like a fat syrupy fruit, waiting for me to saw through the stem and carry it home in a wheelbarrow and turn it into a lovely pie.
So, you know, my advice to my fellow writers this week – which is really, of course, advice to myself – is that, when you write a novel, don’t attempt to write a novel. It can’t be done in one go. Not well. When you write a first draft, write a first draft. Your goal is not to get a publishable work down. Your goal is to get a shit, corrigible, broad gesture towards a possible world containing some of your characters. Give yourself permission to make it crap, uneven, inconsistent, embarrassing, crass, improbable, try-hard, unfunny, derivative, trite and digressive. You might have a chance of writing it, then.
Once you have a first draft, you can think about the entirely distinct challenge of transforming a first draft into a second draft. But don’t try to vault onto the roof in a single bound. Use a ladder.
Uh. The metaphor kind of collapsed there, but you catch my drift. My main audience for this advice is me. Tim, sort yourself out lad. Write badly. It’s okay. You’re a good guy. (if you would like to encourage Tim on his often stressful writing journey, why not buy his well-received and actually definitively final-draftish debut novel, The Honours? It has guns in it)
Ok. Remember if you’d like to submit to this blog, please read the Submission Guidelines first.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Blood and Bureaucrats (by Ahmed)
‘Arise, arise, noble citizens of Pangeathum! The fields are fertile and the factories whirr in anticipation of your virtuous labor! Let our benevolent President’s rousing spirit shake you from unfruitful slumber and usher in a new day of prosperity. At Western Standard Lunch Hour, we will air our winning Thrifty Tip, from Mrs. Brooks of the 144th Commune about how to make your own painkillers! Praise his Munificence.’
At noon, Hodgeson wondered what would happen to an ant in a flood. Would it be crushed into a roiling black oblivion, or would it paddle on the surface until its heart gave out? It was a question of physics and his ignorance irritated him, considering his perfect 20 on the Executive Myrmecological Physics Training Seminar.
Hodgeson enjoyed the Seminars. Not just because he excelled, although he was immensely proud of that, but because…well…why wouldn’t he? At the end of every Seminar, without fail, you knew more than you did before. His parents scoffed at education because education didn’t plant corn, but what did they know about optimal plough blade thicknesses or hexagonal seed orientation?
The human wave pitched forward and the building came into view as Hodgeson slipped behind a slight man with sunken cheeks and a spanner. THE building; capital T, capital H, capital E because there could be no confusion. The Bureau for Menial and Non-Pressing Cases, all forty-six groaning stories of it. It swallowed the block as far as Hodgeson’s limited vision went. An imposing rust pyramid, the bricks exposed in tribute to the President’s fabled humility.
Arise, arise, noble citizens of Pangeathum!
Well, Ahmed, you’re certainly plunging your flag into the ground here. No one could accuse you of disguising what genre the reader is in for.
I’m going to take a wild guess and say that your imagined world is a supercontinent?
So, this is an intelligible first sentence which makes a clear genre promise. It’s less good on conflict – there’s no real tension inherent in this line – and character. Character and conflict are pretty important in a story! They’re kind of a big deal. Still. You can get away with having your first one or two sentences being worldbuildy flavourtext or exercises in style.
But note: ‘get away with’. That’s not a brilliant foundational principle for your work. As a writer, you don’t want to be exploiting loopholes. The reader isn’t a mean floor manager from under whose cosh you’re trying to wriggle.
So yes – overall, fine.
The fields are fertile and the factories whirr in anticipation of your virtuous labor!
So – hmm. Look, this is certainly developing a clear sense of the world. I’m not sure where this voice is coming from. It might be a loud speaker broadcasting on every street corner, it might be on the radio or television, it might be a special magical orb or a chip implanted inside the workers’ heads, it might not even be a live broadcast taking place in the narrative present, but a written injunction.
I feel like I want some sense of the physical world, if not in this sentence, then immediately after it. I want to be able to contextualise this disembodied voice.
As for the actual content – I mean, it’s clear, uncluttered and comprehensible. Which, if you’ve read the last two years (two years?! Can you bloody believe it?) of posts, you’ll see is by no means easy to accomplish. Most novice writers (and look, let’s be honest, most professional writers hiding behind their phalanxes of brilliant agents, editors and long-suffering friends and partners) struggle with this. So I don’t want to diminish that and I’m not being condescending when I say well done.
Howevsies. ‘fields’ and ‘factories’ are super, super bland noun choices. They do, admittedly, marginally refine our understanding of the technological level of your fictional world. It has agriculture and it has some form of production line / machine-assisted labour. But I think the 20th Century workers’ paradise esque rhetoric and the implication it’s being broadcast over some kind of communication device suggests that anyway.
‘Fields’ and ‘factories’ are really the two broadest gestures you can make towards agriculture and industry. It’s vague, unengaging synecdoche. Could you make these nouns more specific – particularly, I’m thinking, more specific to this world? I realise this could result in some hammy, overdone ‘the Glorious Leader 5000 Strength Through Joy Booths await the sweat from your patriotic brow’ nonsense, but I do think you’re missing an important trick here. This is a great opportunity to slap your reader round the chops with some early, striking world-building that says ‘Hey – this story is like nothing you’ve ever read before.’ It should bring us up short. It should throw us. This second line feels too familiar, and already we’re dropping our attentiveness, convinced we know what’s to come.
Let our benevolent President’s rousing spirit shake you from unfruitful slumber and usher in a new day of prosperity.
See, this is a fairly convincing piece of propaganda, with all the cliché and banality inherent to the form, but…
The real danger is, we, as readers, are so familiar with this sort of register, we could more or less complete it ourselves. There’s nothing surprising here.
It’s tricky, because there’s nothing especially wrong in the sentence itself. It’s a more or less faithful recreation of the mode.
What I’m suggesting is that this is not sufficiently interesting to work as an opener for your novel. Here, we need to be meeting the protagonist, and getting his or her response to this. We need to be seeing the room or the cubicle or the hutch or whatever that he or she lives in. We need to be able to contrast the reality of the world to the propaganda being piped out. We need to see where the propaganda is being blasted into.
By the same token, you could reproduce a very accurate transcript of a radio advertisement or the text off the back of a Tesco’s Blueberry Wheats box, and – although it would not be stylistically bad, per se – bore the reader into a stupor.
Propaganda is banal. By its very nature, it promulgates an infantile, simplified worldview. It’s very hard to recreate without resorting to out-and-out parody, and to deliver it at any length without losing the reader necessitates some really engaging, new angle. It can be a useful delivery system for world-building, albeit a slightly trite and hacky one – e.g. A three-step chime played over the canteen PA. ‘Is there a dead under your bed? Report all rematerializing phantoms to station command the moment you see them.’ – but only if the information being delivered is genuinely interesting and novel to the reader (it may of course be mundane, routine stuff to the characters), and not, as in your story, the output of a pretty bog-standard quasi-Socialist dystopia.
At Western Standard Lunch Hour, we will air our winning Thrifty Tip, from Mrs. Brooks of the 144th Commune about how to make your own painkillers!
So, tone-wise, this tips over into out-and-out satire. This line suggests this world will be at least partly tongue-in-cheek. Which is fine. I suppose, at this stage, it does risk letting quite a lot of the tension out of the story. It makes us less invested in the world.
Also – is there a conflict between espousing communal living and this concept of ‘your own’? It seems to me, if they were suggesting how to make painkillers (and, to be honest, I think the idea of wanting to numb pain might be viewed as a reactionary indulgence – fearing discomfort is likely to blunt the workers’ revolutionary daring) they would suggest it as a service to the commune, not an exercise in ‘thrift’ that would result in personal gain. Surely the party line is that the great leader is all-providing? Even if he isn’t?
So anyway, you know how I feel about this opening propaganda section (too much propaganda, not enough of a ‘proper gander’ at the protagonist and narrative present, arf) so let’s move on.
At noon, Hodgeson wondered what would happen to an ant in a flood.
So yes, I would start with this and ditch the shitty propaganda bit at the beginning. (which clearly happens hours before, if it’s now noon and the first broadcast was exhorting workers to wake up) This jump of hours jars.
It’s great that you’re introducing a character, though, and the sardonic tone is nicely realised.
Would it be crushed into a roiling black oblivion, or would it paddle on the surface until its heart gave out?
My quibble here is with ‘crushed into’. Do you mean ‘crushed by’? And does a flood really ‘crush’ people? I thought it drowned them. Surely ‘Would it drown in a roiling black oblivion, or’?
That is all. I mean, this is technically thought rather than a description of the world, but it’s quite a bleakly funny metaphor for the situation and, you know, good.
It was a question of physics and his ignorance irritated him, considering his perfect 20 on the Executive Myrmecological Physics Training Seminar.
So I really like the sense of character we get here. I feel engaged with Hodgeson already.
Interestingly, given my prior gripes about ‘fields’ and ‘factories’, I found ‘Executive Myrmecological Physics Training Seminar’ too much. I think it’s that ‘Myrmecological’ bit. It’s too silly.
I mean, it’s interesting that you’re using a crushing workers’ dystopia as a springboard to do wacky bits, but I feel like you push too hard and it actually kills my engagement. It’s too bumbling-wizard-school – it’s the standard joke where Hodgeson is a trainee sorcerer and thinks ‘He had scored highly on his Ant Levitation and Hydroperambulation Exams’ or whatever unlikely specific field of study, and we chuckle, ho ho, these eccentric wizards! As a result, this already feels rather familiar, despite the setting. Same meat, different gravy.
What I’m saying is, maybe some readers find this kooky, whimsical gaggery sufficiently entertaining to sustain a novel, but – for me, at least – it immediately kills my investment in the world. I have no real sense of what is and isn’t possible, because the reality you’re describing seems subservient to the dictates of jokes. Unless you are hitting the gags bam-bam-bam and keeping the character tension up, it’s really hard to keep this kind of thing going over any length of time. It’s just, for me, too self-consciously silly.
Hodgeson enjoyed the Seminars.
See, I really like this line. People are going to think I’ve taken leave of my reason, but seriously. It’s lines like these that really cement a story.
And look! Gasp! It’s telling, not showing. But that’s the thing. You can tell, every so often, if you like. This makes me feel invested in Hodgeson. Bless him. It’s just a simple line that gives us a very clear sense of this character, and what matters to him. And, once you’ve established what matters to your protagonist, given them something they care about and made us care a bit about their welfare, you can rip that thing away from them and basically commit the textual equivalent of stabbing your reader in the heart.
Ha ha! That’s fiction, folks. Well, it’s mainstream fiction, anyway. Experimental literature is where you hold the knife and say: ‘I am denying you the usual satisfaction of being stabbed in the heart.’ Probably in a special font.
His parents scoffed at education because education didn’t plant corn, but what did they know about optimal plough blade thicknesses or hexagonal seed orientation?
So Ahmed, I just wanted to pick this out so I can fall at your feet and kiss the sainted paving slabs upon which you tread.
‘optimal plough blade thicknesses or hexagonal seed orientation’ – THAT is crunchy specificity, motherfuckers. That is better adjective-noun combos than ‘fields’ and ‘factories’. Do you believe that Hodgeson knows something about arable farming in this sentence? I fucking do.
Your protagonist now has a convincing passion. I am onboard, I feel engaged in this world and I trust that you have some little sliver of authority on the subject you’re writing about. Great, great work. I really do think moves like this, little eye-dropper splats of concentrated knowledge, can have a massive positive effect on the reader’s experience. They help us feel immersed, they build trust.
So look – not a perfect first page by any stretch of the imagination. But it contains good stuff. I think you have some tone issues and some questions around getting the story started, but that’s all stuff for a second draft, once the entire story is complete. The seedlings are definitely present. Fingers crossed they’ll germinate, not like the fucking grass seed I put down over the bare patches on my lawn, which has just been sitting there for weeks.