Hello and welcome back to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
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This November I’ve been semi-participating in Nanowrimo, pushing myself to hit a word count every day I’m not gigging. I’d characterise it as a qualified success. Certainly, my productivity has been way up. I have written on days when I didn’t feel like writing. Little scenes which, as I reached them, were complete blanks, have opened out like crocuses as I’ve written them.
But I’ve also felt punchdrunk for much of the month – less like a mountaineer, boldly ascending in small, masterful stages before setting up my next camp and considering my next move, and more like an idiot blundering deeper and deeper into the jungle, grazed and stung and unsure if he’s just staggering in a big dumb circle. It remains to be seen whether the work I’ve produced is markedly worse than the stuff I agonise over like an artisanal cheesemonger. Possibly both will prove equally bad!
I’m going to ease off on my promos for The Honours for a bit. I’ll always stick a quick mention at the end of the blog just to remind you, but I realise it might get a bit wearying if I keep up the pitch of chipper hectoring until April, so for just this last time this week, please, it looks lush, the story is my best work, if you haven’t already, please click to pre-order and help me continue my work. I think what I do is worth supporting, and I hope you do too.
Business as usual – read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Shane)
The spent shell fell noiselessly to the ground. The small puff of smoke dissipated rapidly into the warm evening air. An overwhelming silence blanketed the open field, rushing to snuff out the sharp crack which had torn through the star-filled sky not two seconds prior. Kevin continued to clutch tightly to the semi-automatic pistol, wrapping both hands awkwardly around the grip. His mouth opened then shut several times, though he uttered not a word. His eyes, wide with fear and adrenaline, were fixated on a patch of ground several feet in front of him.
It was not the man’s body—lying on its back on the hard-packed earth, a dark red stain spreading across his chest—which was the object of his fixation. Rather, he was intently focused on the item which rested in the man’s lifeless hand: a cell phone. Small, black, and utterly harmless. Finally, Kevin rediscovered his voice.
“Oh shit…” he said under his breath. “Oh shit.” His knees felt as if they could give out at any moment, and the taste of bile crept into the back of his throat. His mind was aflame with a thousand screaming thoughts, all blurred together into a seething mass of indecipherable noise. With shaking hands, he slipped the gun into his sweatshirt pocket and reached for the duffel bag.
Somewhere, buried in the tumult of his thoughts, a voice was telling him to turn around, to make sure nobody had seen… He didn’t hear it.
The spent shell fell noiselessly to the ground.
The sentence starts off as a warm relaxing fart while stuck in traffic, before transitioning into a brutal watery trouser-miring shart. Your car stereo’s bumping Biggie Smalls but you can’t enjoy it cos you just shat your pants, son.
Little do you realise that this vicious shart attack is but a foretaste of the unholy shartnado still to come, but be comforted. We can fix this. Death Of 1000 Cuts is a completely non-judgemental valet service for people who spray diarrhoea all over their car interiors. Look at me, Shane. You have nothing to be ashamed of. I too have unintentionally painted the driver’s seat with Satan’s Bovril. It’s what writers do. *snaps on a rubber glove* Now let’s get bleaching.
‘The spent shell’ – good, simple. A provocative object, which is no bad way to kick off your story. A single clear adjective modifying a single clear concrete noun.
‘fell’ – again, a simple clear verb describing what the subject of the sentence did. The rhyme with ‘shell’ is unfortunate – it reads like a stammer – but there’s no ambiguity, no overwriting. All your word choices are one-syllable. Clarity has a power; it implies confidence. Good.
‘noiselessly to the ground’ *SHAAAAAART* Your first line pooed itself, Shane.
‘noiselessly’ is horrible for two reasons. One, using adverbs is like eating kittens. Sometimes it’s necessary, occasionally it’s amusing – in rare circumstances and done with panache it can win the admiration of a jaded audience. But mainly it’s a barbaric outmoded practice. (and yes I appreciate the irony of exploiting adverbs while advocating their eradication) Adverbs leech all the conviction out of your prose. They qualify your verbs to death. They slow the reader down. They’re like a hundred ‘oh, and-’s cluttering the story.
Ask yourself – is this adverb really necessary? Am I clarifying something probably implied by a default reading of the verb? Is it crucial that the reader see the action in precisely this way? Sometimes the answer will be yes. Adverbs tend to work better when they’re modifying adjectives rather than verbs, e.g. ‘She felt piercingly sad.’ Very occasionally, you might stack two to drive home a climactic bit of emphasis, e.g. ‘Conrad was running grievously, suicidally late.’
But adverbs are showy, and impractical for most purposes. For most of your writing career they should sit in your cupboard along with the fondue set. Don’t cover everything in melted cheese just because you can.
‘fell’, to me, doesn’t imply a noise. Not on its own. It’s like, to borrow from our opening metaphor, writing: ‘Jessica farted colourlessly.’ I suppose that might imply someone who does drab, uninspiring farts, but you get my point. We don’t assume a fart has a colour so there’s no need to specify a lack of one. Perhaps a better example would be: ‘The stairlift descended unerotically.’
Two, ‘noiselessly’ is asking us to imagine a negative. Why ‘noiseless’ instead of ‘silent’? It’s like writing ‘unbright’ instead of ‘dim’. I’ve written before on my aversion to authors invoking ‘silence’ – I don’t accept it exists, except in the abstract. You’re telling us something wasn’t happening. Guess what? A whole fuckload of things aren’t happening! No need to painstakingly list all the ways in which an object isn’t doing something! You end up with the jarring effect of simultaneously creating and negating a state that’s irrelevant to the action in question. It’s like writing:
‘I love you,’ he said, uncheesily.
Immediately we’re asked to think of those words in the light of cheesiness, then put a big red cross through the action we’ve just imagined, and try to imagine it again, only excluding that state. That is what you’re doing in this first sentence, Shane.
‘to the ground’ is boring. That is the problem with it. Boring, vague. ‘ground’ is a dull, general noun. Where else would the shell have fallen? Credit us with a loose understanding of physics.
Think about syntax, and structure your sentences so the most interesting information comes at the beginning and end (but mainly the end).
The small puff of smoke dissipated rapidly into the warm evening air.
Be sparing with your adjectives. Don’t plonk them everywhere just because they’re free.
‘the small puff of smoke’? Shit off. ‘small’ is as redundant as testicles on a hairdryer. Again – what does ‘puff’ imply? Will the reader really imagine a giant cloud of smoke unless you specify ‘small’? Don’t forget we have some contextual knowledge as well. We know what a modern gun looks like when it fires.
‘dissipated rapidly’ – the adverb is unnecessary. I don’t much like ‘dissipated’ either – it’s a bit fussy – but we don’t need to know it happened quickly. We’ll guess, partly from context, and partly from the speed of the sentence.
‘into the warm evening air’ – and here, losing faith with the thriller genre, you briefly lapse into ‘shitty in-flight magazine article about wine-tasting trips to the South of France’. No. This is clichéd and lazy. You’re making a broad gesture towards the scene instead of genuinely thinking about it. Don’t just guff words out. Sweat blood for some fucking style.
An overwhelming silence blanketed the open field, rushing to snuff out the sharp crack which had torn through the star-filled sky not two seconds prior.
So look, Shane, before I explain that I don’t think this works very well, let me be clear that the situation which you’re describing – we’ve arrived the split-second after a gun has been fired in a field at night – is neither stupid nor dull. There’s a protagonist, there’s mystery, and – eventually – there will be a dead body. These are all elements that we have seen in successful suspense fiction. I mean, it’s a little generic, if I’m being picky, but it’s not inherently unworkable and that is not why I am criticising it.
My problem is that the style is anus. Utter anus.
What’s the difference between a ‘silence’ and an ‘overwhelming silence’? For practical purposes, I mean. How does the reader distinguish between the two in their imagination?
‘blanketed’? In what way? Does the silence really ‘rush’? My experience of letting off firearms without ear protection is that – especially for those not used to it – it fucking hurts your ears. And what he’s likely to be hearing after the echo of the gunshot fades is not ‘overwhelming silence’, but ringing.
‘to snuff out’? Why has this suddenly become Victorian melodrama? Is there any reason you want us to picture someone extinguishing a candle flame? Or did you just pick a familiar phrase with all the dramatic heft of an oven mitt with a photo of Brian Blessed sellotaped to it?
‘the sharp crack’? As opposed to a blunt one?
The rest of this sentence is a horrendous snarl of grammatical catching up that closes with the supremely awful ‘not two seconds prior’. So you’re wheeling round out of the narrative present to explain that a pistol has just been fired. WE GUESSED!
Tone and voice are effects arising from word choice. Make your tone match your content. This is a gritty suspense thriller periodically told in the voice of a cosy pastoral romance about a village parson.
Kevin continued to clutch tightly to the semi-automatic pistol
‘continued to’? Fiddly, not needed. It’s not like we’re going to think he snatched it out of mid-air. We understand events exist in a causal chain – you don’t have to specify that they’re not random tableaux winking in and out of existence like wondrous ontological god-pearls.
‘clutch tightly to’ – when was the last time you heard someone say they ‘clutched to’ something? Did you slap them? No, because I bet you are a principled and compassionate person, Shane, but my point is your hypothetical friend would have been wrongo, because ‘clutch’ exists in transitive form where it can just take the object in question. ‘He clutched the pistol’ is real English!
In its intransitive form we say ‘clutched at’. It implies an attempt, rather than a completed action. So basically quit this nonsense.
And ‘clutch tightly’ makes me so angry I want to dropkick a watermelon. ‘clutch’ implies grasping something tightly. Don’t put hats on your hats.
wrapping both hands awkwardly around the grip
How is this a revelation? Where else could his hands possibly be if the pistol has just discharged? Your sentence ends with the word ‘grip’ – a dull noun already implied by the rest of the line. If I were Kevin I would be twisting that pistol round right about now and blowing my own brains out just so I could escape from this shitty prose.
His mouth opened then shut several times, though he uttered not a word.
What is happening after that comma? ‘uttered’? ‘not a word’? Is your narrator an actor at a Renaissance Fair?
And why are you telling us about something that didn’t happen? He ejaculated not a jet of tepid hollandaise sauce, but you don’t mention that.
His eyes, wide with fear and adrenaline,
So now, instead of encouraging us to experience this as Kevin, you’re describing him as if from the outside-in. These POV slips weaken the tension. They make it more objective, more storybook, less subjective, visceral, real.
It was not the man’s body—lying on its back on the hard-packed earth, a dark red stain spreading across his chest
How is he seeing this? Given that it’s night and he’s in an empty field? Presumably there was some muzzle flash from the pistol that fired a few seconds ago? How can he perceive ‘a dark red stain’?
And if Kevin could – through some miraculous post-kill nightvision bonus – see this ‘dark red stain spreading’, I suspect his first thought would be: ‘huh – I never expected murder to feel so fucking clichéd.’
When composing a scene, think of all the obvious beats that come to mind, especially if it’s a scenario – like a shooting – you’ve seen and read many times before. Maybe note down all the immediate images and tropes that pop into your head. Then try to write a scene that doesn’t simply glue all of those hackneyed moves together into one gigantic turd-collage. If you write in a routinized, half-focused way, your reader will consume the scene in the same spirit and soon they’ll be drifting off from your murky, gaseous, barely palpable fictive world.
When the cell phone gets introduced, the scene perks up a tiny bit. It’s good you put ‘cell phone’ at the end of a sentence – it is the most important part, and putting it there gives it impact. The list of adjectives in the next line is total bullshit. Don’t pull all that coy ‘a perfectly ordinary cell phone… or so he thought’ wankery on the reader. We know it’s not ‘utterly harmless’ and the attempt at irony serves no purpose. Why do we need to know it’s ‘small’ and ‘black’? That’s probably what we’ve pictured – if it were ‘colossal’ and ‘mauve’, then yes, adjectives clarifying its size and colour would be appropriate.
I know getting this kind of critique can be a dispiriting ballache, Shane, and I’m sorry. For me, writing is, a lot of the time, a dispiriting ballache. If you take my advice, you’re kind of buying into that a bit, and you’re free to disagree and go elsewhere.
But what I think is, the struggle of writing, what makes it hard and what makes it good, is that painful act of concentrating before each line, and trying to work out what you actually see in your mind’s eye. What you hear. What you smell. You try to sit inside the protagonist’s skull and you try to experience the scene. Or maybe you try to sit inside your narrator’s skull, and you experience the scene through their senses – but really experience it, get all the flavour and emotional tones of it, and work out how the person you’re imagining you are feels about all of it.
That’s a pretty big ask, and it can feel draining, and then there’s all sorts of compositional fannying about to meet those requirements of placing your most interesting words at the end of the lines, and you have to tell a story. I fucking hate it sometimes, Shane.
But I also think stories are the best thing. And I’m grateful to every author who has worked their arse off so I can be transported by their fiction. It’s a lovely thing to do for people.
So, if you want to make this scene as exciting and as vivid for the reader as it once appeared in your head, you need to go back and practise seeing. And that is the work that takes our whole lives.
My debut novel, The Honours, is due out in April. Pre-order now, pre-order one for a friend – it’s not shit. That is my quality promise to you.