Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
It is one week until my debut novel comes out. I thought I was okay, but – and this will come as a great revelation to precisely no one – it turns out that teetering on the cusp of achieving my number one ambition since I was 5, while being someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, while suffering from a three-week long bout of flu, is a somewhat stress-inducing situation.
I feel totally guilty and self-indulgent for worrying – it’s like: what, even NOW, you asshole? But yeah. The last week or so has been hard. I think most people would find it tricky, but as someone who struggles with severe anxiety and panic, it’s been particularly hard.
The good thing is that anxiety is mainly harmless and never lasts. It is unpleasant, it limits the work I can do, it makes me unhappy, but it’s impermanent. It passes. I mention it for two reasons: one, talking about these things openly usually helps me. Two, I hope talking about these things openly helps other people who may have gone, be going or one day go through similar experiences. I have had and still sometimes have mental health problems, I don’t think it’s shameful, and I think the more we talk about it the less bothered anyone will be, and the happier we’ll all be.
The Honours is out on Thursday 2nd April in the UK. Here’s the first online review at Wonderland Avenue. ‘At its core The Honours is a young girl trying to make sense of a world who seems to ignore her, when she’s the only one noticing things slipping away from reality… Basically, this was an excellent book.’ It gives you a nice sense of what the book’s about without including any major spoilers.
We’re doing a launch in London on Wednesday 1st at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Doors 7:30pm, free. There will be a bunch of new work from the Homework residents, I’ll be reading, and there will be copies to buy.
On Thursday 2nd, at 6:30pm we’re doing a launch in Norwich, at the wonderful Book Hive. That’s the day The Honours appears in actual shops all over the country too.
If you like what I do, and you’d like to support me, please consider pre-ordering the book. Order it now, it’ll be with you in a week. A week. Then you can start reading, and let me know what you think.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, would you consider tweeting or posting on FB about The Honours sometime between now and next Thursday, when it’s released? You’d be helping me so much. I’m not a famous person, I don’t have a huge marketing budget behind me, and The Honours is probably too odd and inter-genrey to ever win any prizes. So literally the only thing that will get it into people’s hands is other people going ‘this is good – read it’. Hopefully I have written something good enough to make people do that. If you’d like to help me, please do so. This is my lifelong dream, and I’d like to be able to write more books after this one.
Anyway, thanks for listening. And thank you for reading this blog each week. I really enjoy writing it, and the nice messages I get from people about it mean such a great deal. Writing’s fun, isn’t it?
As always, read the extract below (generously submitted this week by Patrick), decide what you think, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.
The Factory (by Patrick)
It took a second to recognise her. She was stood at the far end of the factory, her face lit by soft morning light from windows thick with grime. It had been so long. Her head was bowed as she waited for the rest of the new workers to file in.
He sat himself at his scratched wooden desk alongside a hundred others and set out his tools for the day.
An explosion disrupted the early morning peace.
On his shop floor they heard it as a heavy boom that rattled the windows and made the ropes hanging from the roof-beams sway. Workers spoke quietly to one another. The young worker looked across at the girl. She was looking right at him.
She lowered her eyes as a worker called for silence and the room hushed. He watched as she touched a circle of dried black paint on the front of her overalls. He looked down at the black cross on his own chest, the paint dusty and cracked.
The industrial factory complex in which they worked was surrounded by barren desert. A perimeter wall stretched around it to keep the unknown out. Hundreds of squat redbrick buildings had been built against the wall, packed tightly and placed haphazardly, with older buildings leaning and buckling under heavy slate-tiled roofs. One factory burned from its window now in the cool morning air, the bricks blackening as smoke poured out.
Work resumed. Machines fired up as the girl took her desk. Flames licked from furnaces and steam escaped from pipes, rose and condensed on windows still frozen from the night.
An ancient wind blew across the desert, sweeping sand against the perimeter wall and feeding the flames as the stricken factory’s roof caved in and its workers burned.
It took a second to recognise her.
Yep. Nothing to see here. By which I mean: fine. This is clear, and the only ambiguity is deliberate. You’re raising questions in the reader’s mind – who’s ‘she’? The standard ‘undefined pronoun opener’ – what my old A-Level English Language classes called an anaphoric reference.
It’s flavour-light – there’s no sense of place, no detail at all (this could be happening in orbit around a moon, on below decks on a trireme, in a burns ward, a DIY store, an orgy) but that doesn’t matter at this stage. We have a small hook, and a sense of a character dynamic. Plenty.
Sometimes understatement is just the right amount of statement. Often, in fact.
She was stood at the far end of the factory, her face lit by soft morning light from windows thick with grime.
So my grammar-pedant-fu is not all it could be – one day I’ll have to kill my sensei in a duel and claim the secrets of the forbidden Red Quill style, pedantry so powerful that it threatens to overwhelm and destroy its wielder – but for me, the preferred phrasing is ‘She stood at’ or ‘She was standing at’. I don’t understand what extra information ‘She was stood’ conveys over ‘She stood’. Which means you’ve got a dead word in there, stinking up the place with its corpsey obsolescence.
(I daresay some commentators, however, rigorously and gruffly enforce the distinction between ‘She stood’ and ‘She was standing’, insisting that the former is an action, the latter a state of being – for my part, since you asked, I think this position, whilst probably technically correct, flies in the face of common usage and is therefore untenable – I like prescriptivism as much as the next impotently furious language snob, but come on guys – is this the hill you want to die on? I’m saving my futile howls of protest for preserving the distinction between further and farther, thank you very much)
‘the factory’ is way too broad a noun. This is a great example of the fuzzy line between showing and telling, actually – here you’re describing a space by its most general function, rather than letting us see it. A factory contains all sorts of areas and constituent parts – even by changing this to ‘the factory floor’ we’d get a better sense of where we were.
I realise that ‘factory’, in this fictive universe, may connote something subtly or significantly different to our idea of a factory – in which case you need to structure your opening to convey that, otherwise our understanding of the word and the meaning of it in this context will undermine each other.
‘her face lit by soft morning light from windows thick with grime’ I don’t think ‘soft’ light can penetrate ‘thick grime’. Maybe the word you’re looking for to describe the light is ‘weak’? ‘soft’ suggests a gentle, nourishing luminescence, when what you want – especially if we’re thinking of mood for this scene – is a pallid, feeble glow, a parody of light, a suggestion of vitality smothered and choked out by industry.
I’ve not spent much time in the desert but I doubt that the morning light is soft (which suggests something partially mediated by clouds) so much as fierce, bright, glorious, colourful and unrelenting.
It had been so long.
No. Absolutely unacceptable.
Excuse my French, Patrick, but describe her fucking face. Show, don’t tell. Christ’s sweet tree, how many times?
We want to be able to picture her. We want at least the measliest crumb of description so we can construct some rudimentary image. He is looking at her, studying her, comparing the person he knew to the person he sees, noting the subtle changes, the similarities, he’s having emotional responses.
We need actual concrete detail. Crunchy specificity. Not placeholdery cliché. This sentiment should be implicit in his description of her.
And of course, when you’re describing her, you’ll bring in bits of her environment so we’ll actually be able to picture where she’s standing. At the moment, this extract reads like sentient miasmas of emotion wafting about on the mental plane, having feelings. If you’re going to set it in a factory, if you want a sense of that bricks and mortar industrial rigour, then you must write appropriately, and not veer off into these guffy gestures towards vague psychological states.
You are far smarter than this writing, you have chosen a suboptimal strategy, and you can choose better.
Her head was bowed as she waited for the rest of the new workers to file in.
See, ‘her head was bowed’ is pretty good – it’s simple, clear, and it implies without baldly stating an emotion. But the rest of that sentence… psssh.
‘as she waited’ is just editorialising – the POV character adding a gloss on what we’re seeing, explaining her actions. This kind of note is far less important than, you know, the slightest clue about where she’s standing, what she looks like, what her environment looks like, some preliminary attempt to engage our five senses, etc.
‘the rest of the new workers to file in’ – okay, so buried in here is the implication that she is a new worker, but it’s delivered in such a convoluted and frankly dull fashion that most readers will miss it. We can’t picture this because we’ve got no sense of what the ‘workers’ look like or where they’re filing into. You must unpack these concepts, otherwise we’re just reading the synopsis for a story rather than an actual story.
He sat himself at his scratched wooden desk alongside a hundred others and set out his tools for the day.
Okay, I had no idea he wasn’t sitting already. Where was he when he was observing her? Just standing gormlessly? Filing in too?
‘scratched wooden desk’ is quite good, although if this is a ‘factory’ isn’t it more likely to be a ‘bench’ or ‘workbench’? ‘desk’ implies a school setting. Maybe this is some as yet unrevealed facet of your worldbuilding, but it feels like a flub.
I’d always try and refine ‘wood’ and ‘wooden’ into a specific type, unless it’s completely implausible that the viewpoint character would know. Pine? Walnut? Oak? Some other type of tree that only exists in your imagined universe? Let’s try to make our writing info-rich, so we’re offering as much value, word-for-word, that we can.
Same goes for ‘tools’. I’m sure you’re a swell chap, Patrick, but whenever I read something like that, my reaction as a reader is ‘oh, fuck you’.
It makes your narrative sound like a surly teenager trying, unsuccessfully, to evade questions from suspicious parents.
‘Where are you off out to?’
If you’re going to be sniffing Loctite out of a Netto bag with Dean then tell us – we’re not your mum.
An explosion disrupted the early morning peace.
Syntax. Beelzebub on a bicycle WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?
‘early morning peace’ is a crappy abstract noun anyway. Show, don’t tell. Don’t give us the concept, imply the concept through what happens.
But that aside – if you picture this, it should be testicle-puntingly obvious that the peace comes before the explosion. SO WRITE IT THAT WAY
I’ve talked about this so many times before that I literally cannot summon the strength to explain any further.
On his shop floor they heard it as a heavy boom that rattled the windows and made the ropes hanging from the roof-beams sway.
Then write it like that! Don’t give us the previous sentence which sort of vaguely summarises it as a concept.
And why have you switched from ‘he’ to ‘they’? Keep your perspective consistent. Cut the previous sentence, and just start: ‘A heavy boom rattled the windows and made the ropes hanging from the roof beams sway.’
I mean, I have a problem with the tautology of ‘heavy boom’ (as opposed to what – a light, trebly boom?) and ‘made the ropes hanging from the roof-beams sway’ is an inelegant mouthful (I’d consider lopping it off and making this clause a separate sentence – you don’t need to explicitly state the causal link; the order you give us the information can imply it) but this is editorial triage and we have to prioritise.
Workers spoke quietly to one another.
Give us actual dialogue. You have a viewpoint character! Have him say something specific or have someone say something specific to him.
What are they saying? In its present form, this sentence tells us almost nothing. Are they like ‘oop – there goes another one’ or ‘HOLY FUCK WHAT WAS THAT’ or ‘we are so broken by the work ethic we accept these atrocities as normal’ or what?
The young worker looked across at the girl. She was looking right at him.
So it takes a reread to ascertain that ‘the young worker’ is our viewpoint character. Especially as you’ve just used ‘workers’ in the previous sentence.
If you’re going to make this dude the protagonist, or at least the POV for this scene, commit, goddamn it. Put us in his shoes. Make us feel the things he feels. Actually give us access to his five senses, his thoughts, his perspective.
This loose, woolly POV, where you’re partly gesturing towards third-person limited but also straying into lazy omniscient top-down distance, is poison to reader engagement.
Omniscience is fine – omniscience can be fantastic. Omniscient narrators can do wonderful, wonderful things unavailable to other types, and I am not dumping on them. But you’ve got be aware you’re doing it. This milquetoasty havering bullshit will not stand. You’ve embraced the weaknesses of both forms while jettisoning the strengths. In literary terms, this opening is a McDonald’s salad.
She lowered her eyes as a worker called for silence and the room hushed.
Again, pathetically vague. What does ‘a worker’ look like? What words does he or she use? Why would you deny us this knowledge? What purpose does this vagueness serve, aside from alienating the reader?
He watched as she touched a circle of dried black paint on the front of her overalls. He looked down at the black cross on his own chest, the paint dusty and cracked.
So this – this, whilst not amazing per se, is certainly the strongest moment of the piece. We can see it. It’s a weird, telling detail. A black cross painted onto overalls? Creepy, specific, and it leaks all sorts of implications while raising all sorts of questions. It’s a clue. It gives us, the readers, something to go on. It’s exciting, flavour-rich, interesting – everything that, sadly, the rest of the extract is not.
Show, don’t tell. Crunchy specificity. Engage the five senses. Think about word order. Keep your POV consistent. Carve these slogans into your forearm with a scalpel. Meditate upon them. The art of fiction is more or less the art of not fucking these basics up.