TimClareLR192

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Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

This is a blog about writing fiction then editing it to make it as good as possible. Each week we take the first page of a novice author’s novel or short story and look at ways of making it better. If you’d like submit your own work, please read our submission guidelines.

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As usual, read the extract below, decide what you liked and what you thought could be improved, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. Remember, this is about developing our self-editing skills, so have a think about what you might say first, before reading what I’ve written!

Sam and the Doctor (by K)

“Good morning Dr. McCarthy”, Sam called out enthusiastically as he carried the heavy tray into the room, “your breakfast is ready!”.

Every time he entered the library, on the walk to the desk of his master, Sam was impressed anew. The ancient chandelier hanging from the ceiling struggled to light the room. Its soft light, as golden as itself, gently caressed the dark mahogany bookshelves that lined the walls and made them shine.

“You could host a ballroom dance in here”, Sam thought, amused by the rhythmic clanking of silverware on the tray that matched the brisk thumping of his feet on the hardwood floor.

Sam had counted twelve measures by the time he had reached the desk of the doctor.

“Your breakfast, sir.”, Sam said with a smile that went unnoticed.

The old man had slumped over a tome in his usual working position: the back of his chair facing Sam, his feet on one of the lower boards of the bookshelf behind his desk.

Sam knew that the doctor got lost in his work frequently and wouldn’t react to anything. Sometimes the butler would hear him scuffle back to his bedchambers hours past midnight. Sam had tried to get his attention once, but he knew better this time around. He placed the tray on the desk. “Enjoy your meal, sir.”, he said and turned to leave when he remembered something.

The Cuts

“Good morning Dr. McCarthy”, Sam called out enthusiastically as he carried the heavy tray into the room, “your breakfast is ready!”.

Oh bless you, K. If that is your real name. (even if it’s not, actually)

I always dread starting each new Death Of 1000 Cuts blog in case I can’t quite articulate my objections to the piece. What if there’s something slightly off – something that stops the writing reaching the high bar we’ve set ourselves: a superb, arresting, unforgettable story – but I can’t identify it? What if I know something’s wrong but I can’t explain how to fix it?

I wake up in cold sweats about shit like that. It’s like I’ve organised this shooting weekend, I’ve bought the game pies for lunch and paid the beaters, I’ve rubbed down the barrels of my vintage boxlock side-by-side and my little 20-bore with the home-loaded magnum cartridges, but what if we don’t see any grouse?

Reading this extract felt like stepping out on the first, cold morning of the long-anticipated shoot, the dew still heavy on the stems of the wild mustard and tansy, when someone’s springer spaniel farts and the dawn sky explodes with pheasants and partridge and geese and spatchcocks and wood pigeons and quail. They are looping and diving and breaking fast and slow in ones and twos and offering every sort of sporting shot you could wish for. And rabbits and hares are bursting out of the tussocks across the moorland, and rising sun silhouettes the majestic profile of a stag upwind, and holy shit, are those buffalo? And all of the animals are singing kill us, kill us, so that we may be reborn in a paradise realm and revel with devas. Shoot, o noble hunter!

What I’m saying is I am not short of suggestions. Don’t feel bad! Writing is really hard. That’s why people get paid for it. That’s why we call it ‘writing’ and not ‘sitting in front of Netflix, picking your arse’. (if someone discovers a way to monetise that they’ll basically destroy capitalism)

This is not a compelling first sentence. It’s good that you introduce two characters and suggest a relationship but there is no conflict, no crunchy specificity, no hint of anything that makes this qualify as a story.

‘Sam called out enthusiastically’? No. Absolutely not. I ban you from writing this.

The content of the dialogue conveys the tone. Look what the character says: ‘Good morning, Dr McCarthy – your breakfast is ready!’ Who, honestly, needs hand-holding through that particular utterance? Do you really think a reader might encounter these words and think Sam ‘spluttered lustily’ or ‘shrieked enigmatically’ or ‘ejaculated frostily’?

There is an obvious way to parse the intent behind this line. You don’t need to step in to spoonfeed us little mashed-up globules of comprehension. If a reader can’t understand this basic interaction, they’ll need more than shitty adverbs to get through a whole novel. In fact, I suspect they may be a cat.

Every time he entered the library, on the walk to the desk of his master, Sam was impressed anew.

That subclause breaking up the middle of this sentence feels like a pair of buttocks emerging from the font during a christening, doing a little watery guff then resubmerging. What if they don’t immediately understand the relationship between these two characters, one of whom is bringing the other breakfast on a fucking tray, we hear you fret. Best to go steaming in and just tell us, eh? What was that old writing adage? ‘Tell, don’t show’? ‘Nuance is to good literature what crotch rot is to eulogy topics’?

And see, you’ve not managed to stay in the narrative present for two consecutive sentences. You’re immediately switching into this general, habitual time. We’re not hearing how he feels now (well, we are – but only by implication), we’re hearing his routine reaction.

I mean, that should tip you off, K! You’re explicitly telling us: oh, this shit? Happens every time he enters this room. It’s like having a character break their wrist then, instead of describing their feelings, stepping back out of the moment to say: ‘Every time she fractured a bone, Ada was hurt anew.’

At this stage, this could be any of two dozen days. It’s the usual routine. And you’re not even giving us the chance to be in the present.

The ancient chandelier hanging from the ceiling struggled to light the room.

Super impressive that. An inadequate light. No wonder this ‘Sam’ character is repeatedly, gormlessly astounded, like a toddler with a glove puppet.

Its soft light, as golden as itself,

As golden as itself? Did you just grab the nearest noun? And how golden is that? You haven’t even told us that it’s a gold chandelier. We have to retroactively figure it all out.

Seriously, horrible misuse of a simile. Just write ‘Its soft, golden light’, which is a cliché, but at least it flows.

Or change ‘itself’ to ‘fuck’. That’d be awesome.

gently caressed the dark mahogany bookshelves that lined the walls and made them shine.

You know ‘gently caressed’ is the Official Euphemism for ‘fucked’, right? As in ‘I slept on a sofa last night and my back is gently caressed’ or ‘what the gently caress are you talking about?’

Also, you can’t ‘roughly caress’ something. ‘caress’ is inherently gentle, so no need for that adverb.

I think most people associate ‘mahogany’ with ‘dark’ so no need for the latter – limit your adjectives wherever possible.

‘that lined the walls’ is unnecessary. We’re not going to picture the bookshelves arranged in a pile in the middle of the room. And with your current phrasing, it sounds like the bookshelves ‘lined the walls and made them shine’ – the ‘them’ sounds like it’s referring to the ‘walls’. It’s a clunky double misfire of subordinate clause and pronoun, that forces us to reread the sentence and pick out the sense like a wedding ring out a dog’s vomit.

“You could host a ballroom dance in here”, Sam thought,

Yes, and the orchestra musicians could play the waltz song!

Pretty sure even that gauche shitmunching pauper Cinderella was down-with-the-kids enough to call it a ‘ball’ and not a ‘ballroom dance’.

Also, nice switcheroo of taking speech marks – which you’ve previously used, not unreasonably, for dialogue – and revealing 10 words into the sentence that this is, in fact, a thought! Really though, italics, or just free indirect that mother, i.e. ‘It was big enough to host a ball.’ We get that the narrative is filtered through Sam.

Incidentally, if it seems like I’m being harsh or dickish, I do quite like Sam, already. He seems quite vulnerable and wide-eyed and those are qualities that can be attractive in a protagonist. He’s not cynical, and he has a sense of wonder. Positive things, and rare in a modern protagonist!

amused by the rhythmic clanking of silverware on the tray that matched the brisk thumping of his feet on the hardwood floor.

Right, and now he just sounds like a simpleton.

One, this has nothing to do with the previous thought. He is simultaneously marvelling at the size of the room, and entertained by the rattling of cutlery.

Two, is he really ‘amused’? That seems like a very low threshold of amusement.

I do appreciate your attempt to engage a second sense here – you’re giving us some specific noises that introduce additional objects (the silverware and the hardwood floor) that are in themselves suggestive of luxury. I see what you were reaching for and I applaud that. But I need you to know, you reached up into the tree to pick an apple but some dude was there with his trousers down and your hand went up his butthole. I’m talking to the elbow. Even if you do find an apple there, you don’t want to eat it.

The parallel phrasing of the two sounds ‘the rhythmic clanking of silverware on the tray’ vs ‘the brisk thumping of his feet on the hardwood floor’ jars rather than building on itself. I’d – at the very least – remove the adjective modifying the noises (both are abstract, offering minor, qualitative distinctions) and convert both sounds into the simple present instead of the present continuous (remove the ‘ing’, which adds little). Then we have ‘the clank of silverware on the tray that matched the thump of his feet on the hardwood floor.’

I’d even consider cutting the two prepositional phrases ‘on the tray’ and ‘on the hardwood floor’. You can tell us it’s a hardwood floor later (that’s a nice detail). I think we can guess his feet are thumping on a floor and not, say, a writhing carpet of live chinchillas.

Sam had counted twelve measures by the time he had reached the desk of the doctor.

So… I actually like this? I know, right?! Zany ol’ Tim!

But I think it makes sense of this idea that Sam is ‘amused’. What you really mean is, he was ‘amusing himself’ by matching his footsteps to the rhythmic clank of the silverware. Which I don’t think really squares with being ‘impressed anew’ – indeed it sounds like he’s a little bit distracted and bored if he’s having to come up with these games – but I do really like the specificity of it. It’s a much better way to let us know that the room is big. ‘twelve measures’ is lovely language, and it suggests scale in an original but comprehensible way. Good.

“Your breakfast, sir.”, Sam said with a smile that went unnoticed.

‘Your moribund, eye-wateringly bland dialogue, sir.’

POV slip here, too. Sam can’t know that the smile goes unnoticed. You’re dropping us into the doctor’s brain to tell us this. You can write:

‘Cookie’s done you eggs Florentine, sir,’ said Sam, smiling. The doctor did not look up.

Is Sam’s smile genuine? Is he having to force it onto his face? How does it feel from the inside?

The old man had slumped over a tome in his usual working position: the back of his chair facing Sam, his feet on one of the lower boards of the bookshelf behind his desk.

The dude’s dead, right? That’s the twist. ‘slumped’ feels like the giveaway. If not, you’re telegraphing something much more exciting than is actually contained within this story.

This is some clunky, awkward blocking – you start to describe how he looks, ‘slumped over a tome’, then you stop to give us his ‘working position’. But isn’t that what you’ve just told us?

I feel like we need to know he has his back to Sam earlier on. I was imagining the old guy in bed, waiting for his kippers like Al Capone. I like the specificity where his feet are, although by ‘one of the lower boards’ I think you mean a shelf. That’s what bookshelves are made up of, K.

Sam knew that the doctor got lost in his work frequently and wouldn’t react to anything.

You’ve already implied this. No need to club us over the head with the subtext.

So, I think you have some work to do, K. It’s kind of fun, straightforward work though – with a few simple hacks, you can make this prose much more readable and punchy. The great thing about mucking up basic stuff is that basic stuff is usually the simplest to fix, and so by working on it you can see the biggest gains in the shortest amount of time. It’s later on in learning craft or working on a manuscript that extra effort shows decreasing returns. Enjoy it while it lasts! *DOOMY CHORDS, THUNDER*

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