Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Hope you’re well, dear friends. If this is your first time, this is a blog about writing and editing fiction. Most weeks we look at an author’s first page and find ways of making it better.
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After months of working every weekend, finally this week I find myself with a bit of spare time. Life suddenly seems so much more manageable! Not whinging, natch, but it’s a timely reminder of the importance of giving yourself breaks if you want to create well and efficiency and still have some energy over to appreciate your life. The prospect of writing now feels like a treat as opposed to a hellish obligation.
I had a great time at the Edinburgh International Literature Festival – thanks to everyone who came out to my gigs. It was fun to get a question about DoaTC from the audience! I’m looking forward to roadtesting a podcast version of this blog. Even if I only do a limited run of episodes, I expect it will be fun.
Right. Enough waffle. On with the show. You know the drill.
Under A Juniper Tree (by James)
Like every other morning, the pain starts as she opens her eyes. There is a single moment of doubt; maybe it didn’t really happen; a bad dream? That’s all she is allocated each day: a moment, a split second. Twenty four hours and all she gets is a split second. And then the pain starts.
She doesn’t move. Doesn’t want to. Ever. Each night she used to say a prayer taught to her by her father: If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. She doesn’t pray anymore, but if He wants her soul, for what it’s worth, He can have it. She has no use for it.
She absorbs the onset of early morning, the softer light of October is less intolerable because the brighter the morning, the more she distrusts it. Daylight reminds her that she has outlived her daughter.
There was a time when Fiona used to tilt her head to the sky and ask over and over, what did we do to deserve this? The sense of injustice, she has to admit, brought her a perverse kind of comfort. Then it went: what did I do? Now all the questions have dried up.
She trails down the stairs past Ruth’s ground floor bedroom. Always trying to keep her eye off the door handle; afraid that she might have a rush of blood. She begins the left turn toward the kitchen but there is a prickling at her temples.
Like every other morning, the pain starts as she opens her eyes.
How to fuck up a sentence with a subordinate clause: Fig 1.
Just lop off that ugly, pendulous threadwart of a qualifier for a moment, James, and reread the line:
The pain starts as she opens her eyes.
Right there we have a character and a conflict, situated in the narrative present. You’ve set up your entire story rig in 7 words.
So ask yourself: what is that subclause adding?
This gets down to the heart of the philosophy powering Death Of 1000 Cuts, a fundamental question underlying most of the more specific advice we discuss. It’s an editor’s question more than a storyteller’s question, but any author who has designs on being not shit needs to encompass both roles. What does this bit here contribute? That’s what we’re asking ourselves, over and over.
The question becomes more pertinent in second and third drafts, where you can judge each sentence and scene within the context of the novel’s wider ecosystem, but I think it’s possible to internalise a lot of the basic protocols and run them whenever you write a line:
Is this adverb necessary?
Is this adjective necessary?
Is this noun specific and concrete enough?
Is this verb specific enough?
Have I arranged the syntax so we hit the most important information at the end (and to a lesser extent, the beginning) of the sentence?
These – and a bunch of other subroutines – activate each time I bash out a sentence, and if I see a condition hasn’t been fulfilled, I’ll usually make adjustments on the fly before rolling on to the next line. There are some more macro-scale questions, like ‘Have I used more than 1 metaphor or simile this page?’ that I’ll often check for having finished the page.
(before you start, of course a novel can contain more than 1 simile or metaphor per page – but beyond a certain density they’re anti-synergistic, bleeding into each other and cancelling each other out; 1 per page is an arbitrary but useful metric for alerting me to whether I’ve wandered off into a self-indulgent wankfest. If a page exceeds its quota you can imagine metal shutters rattling down and a klaxon sounding as the page is lit by flashing red lights. Basically every bit of allegorical language becomes a potential cull target. I sweep the page, not lifting the lockdown until every simile or metaphor has convinced me of its excellence or I’ve deleted them and brought the page back to code)
The best stories are about the time when something went wrong, when the routine was broken, when everything changed. They’re about points of transformation or collapse.
‘Like every other morning’ is not a compelling way to open a narrative. There’s nothing concrete or sensory for us to imagine, nothing to appeal to our five senses. It’s conceptual. More than that, it’s shifting out of the narrative present before you’ve established the narrative present. And finally, most damningly, it’s prefacing your first statement by warning us that today will be unexceptional, that the action we’re about to encounter is routine and unremarkable.
In what universe is this an exciting opening bid? Why should the reader care? Four words in and the narrator already sounds bored!
I think readers are super, super skeptical of any story that starts with a character waking up. It’s by far the most common ploy I saw when I used to critique manuscripts and I think we’ve all written a scene that opens this way. Which is not to say that ‘waking up scenes’ are forbidden, just that you have to hit the ground running and be brilliant fucking fast, otherwise your beautiful text will be lost to a whirlwind of rolling eyes.
So yeah – ‘The pain starts as she opens her eyes’ is great on a word-by-word basis, and slightly weaker on a metatextual ‘Not another fucking person-wakes-up opening scene’ level. But cut those first four words.
There is a single moment of doubt; maybe it didn’t really happen; a bad dream?
‘There is’ – fluff words, as far as I’m concerned. This isn’t grammar class – if the only purpose of your main clause is to introduce a static noun, drop the ‘is/was/to be’ construction and just give us the noun, i.e. ‘A single moment of doubt’ Occasionally copyeditors flag this sort of thing but it’s hardly turning the English language on its head. Most readers don’t notice, except to the extent that your novel is more readable than the work of joyless pedants.
‘a single moment’ – do you mean ‘a moment’? You realise that English already distinguishes between singular and plural nouns in two ways: the use of the indefinite article ‘a’ (one cannot have ‘a moments’) and the lack of ‘s’ on ‘moment’? So why step in with a third signpost? It’s like you don’t trust the reader to parse basic English.
X-ref ‘my own mind’/’her own path’, etc for another meaningless redundancy (cut ‘own’ if it follows a possessive) that authors use because It Has Always Been Done This Way. Be alive to what words actually mean. Kill the weak ones.
I’m not sure what your use of semi-colons is in aid of. They feel bizarre here, like gherkins in a wedding cake. You’re about to elaborate on the ‘moment of doubt’ – that’s an em dash or a colon, not the weird adjunct of a semi-colon.
‘a bad dream’ is a hacky, obvious beat. Don’t paint by numbers. Try to reach for something original, idiosyncratic and specific that gives us information about the world and the character. This feels like a line that would appear in a Buzzfeed listicle titled ‘If Novels Had Autocomplete’.
That’s all she is allocated each day: a moment, a split second.
So now you’re editorialising on the information – hammering it home, while stepping out of the narrative present. I have mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, hmmph. Sometimes you can get away with a short opening paragraph that sort of tees up the central conflict and gives it a bit of thematic or stylistic spin. It’s not very subtle but it can emphasise the main thrust of your novel and for some authorial voices or genres, subtlety is less important than clear stakes, early on.
On the other hand – do you really need to labour the point like this? Why write ‘a moment, a split second’? Why do you need to put those two synonyms next to each other? Either repeat ‘a moment’ to echo the previous sentence, or write ‘a split second’ to distinguish it. He who chases two rabbits catches neither, James. (although to be fair, he who chases one rabbit usually doesn’t catch it either. Have you tried chasing a rabbit? They’re fucking fast. Just set up snares. I don’t know what snares represent in this metaphor.)
Twenty four hours and all she gets is a split second.
Oh my fucking GOD I am bleeding from the eyes. You JUST SAID THIS.
Come on, James, you can do better than this. Don’t endlessly repeat yourself. Remember that reading is voluntary and people will stop reading your book if it feels like repeatedly stabbing oneself through the hand with a fish fork.
And then the pain starts.
Ugh. Again with the saying what you’ve already said.
This whole opening paragraph could be condensed down to: ‘The pain starts as she opens her eyes.’ The rest is just empty portentous flavourbollocks.
She doesn’t move.
Slightly iffy insofar as it’s describing the absence of something. Basically the reader is required to imagine her moving, now imagine the absence of that. We can’t really picture anything because we don’t have a location or any information about her except that she is a she, has just woken up and is in pain.
But maybe we’re imagining ourselves inside her consciousness, eyes closed, aware of our body and choosing not to move. So passable.
Doesn’t want to. Ever.
Hmm. Again, okay. Simple, clear. Not sure what ‘ever’ adds except a vague, hyperbolic emphasis. I’d rather you got down to describing specific sensations and nailing down the concreteness of this scene, personally. But not awful.
Each night she used to say a prayer taught to her by her father: If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. She doesn’t pray anymore, but if He wants her soul, for what it’s worth, He can have it. She has no use for it.
Wow. I get the intent behind this, but the execution is like watching a drunk guy trying to carry a giant inflatable banana through a revolving door.
‘She has no use for her soul’ probably sounds dark and edgy to a 13-year-old whose self-expression is limited to eyeliner and frowning, but in this narrative it sounds overwrought and dreary. It’s a boring choice of prayer, the anecdote is without detail – we just get the word ‘father’, the general concept rather than the person – and in labouring the point you make her sound self-pitying rather than genuinely in distress.
Far better to push forward into actually describing the situation than to give us this broad, angsty gloss. Show, don’t tell. Rather than repeatedly insisting what a terrible scenario she finds herself in, drive the story on and let us experience it for ourselves.
I expect you hoped to create tension for the reader, James, by holding back like this. And that’s a good instinct, but it’s also mistaken. In holding back, you just piss the reader off. We need a rich flow of information, and quickly. Tension arises out of knowing what is at stake, not from the author acting all coy and covering everything in veils and being all: ‘But reader, I can scarcely bear to relate what happens next…’ as if we care.
She absorbs the onset of early morning, the softer light of October is less intolerable because the brighter the morning, the more she distrusts it.
Okay – it’s been a while since I experienced the grinding fury of encountering a comma splice. Thank you for that. PS: after ‘morning’, put a full stop and start a new sentence.
Except don’t, because what the fuck does ‘She absorbs the onset of early morning’ mean? If you met a friend for a coffee, and asked them what they’d been up to that day, and they replied: ‘Oh, you know… absorbing the onset of early morning,’ you would deduce that they were either taking the piss or a consumer-grade arsefather.
Again – imagine reading an interview which contained the utterance: ‘The softer light of October is less intolerable. The brighter the morning, the more I distrust it.’ It screams flouncy, posturing hipster. I know we are quick to judge these days and we suffer from a paucity of compassion, so I’m not advocating the condemnation of people who say apparently pretentious things, but I do think this is a crap, overly fussy, largely irrelevant sentence.
It’s hard, James, it really is – resisting the temptation to jazz up our language, to pump it full of steroids and slather it in cosmetics and spritz it in perfumes, believing that if a sentence isn’t this radiant twerking explosion of adjective-ridden clauses and emotive disclosures we’ll be outed as the amateurs we mostly assuredly are.
But simplicity is bold. Stripping back to essentials is powerful. Picking your battles carries huge emotional punch.
Don’t say the same thing three ways. Focus on the concrete and the narrative present. Trust in the power of your scene (by the end we get the sense it’s probably about a bereaved mother – which is intrinsically story-worthy) and get out of the characters’ way so they can live and make choices and develop.