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

This is a blog for writers, readers, creative people and anyone nosy about how authors make the language-stuff sound real nice. Every week we take the first page of an author’s novel or short story – polished to the best of their ability – and see if we can find ways of making it better.

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As usual, read the extract below, decide what you think about it, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. Experience the natural high of improved self-editing skills, today!

Untitled (by Ida)

“That’s Jupiter. That’s Venus. That’s home.”

The shining dots reflected in his son’s eyes for a second before the boy cast his eyes down.  John squeezed his shoulder, regretting his choice of words. He pressed a button, making blinds appear to block out the dark void that surrounded the spaceship. Somehow space had the quality of feeling both empty and overwhelmingly heavy at the same time.

“I’m sorry,” John said. “I know it’s not our home anymore, really-”

There was a rap on the door and a man entered without invitation.

“Mr Mayer,” he said. “You’re needed in the hospital wing.”

John straightened his back. He had many men underneath him to handle smaller emergencies. If he was needed outside his daily schedule, it could only mean one thing: bad news. Very bad news.

He gave his son a tight hug. “Stay here. I’ll be back soon.” Hopefully, he added to himself as he left the room.

“Not another one?” he asked as soon as the door shut behind them.

“Some symptoms have occurred.”

John swore. For a moment the fear was threatening to overtake him.  What if it gets to my son?  He forced the thought away, not letting emotion show on his face. The people needed a strong leader. There was no room for weakness at this time.

“I can’t believe it’s happening again,” he said. “Even after all this time.”

The Cuts

“That’s Jupiter. That’s Venus. That’s home.”

Some folks tut at authors who open a novel with unattributed dialogue. Some say it’s confusing. Some say it’s hacky.

I say it’s fine. Judge your first sentence on its content, not on whether it sits between speech marks.

So… content. Yeah. This opening is ambiguous because it’s not clear on a first pass whether this is a three-point list, or a two-point list with a qualifying clause.

If you read a piece of unattributed dialogue which went: ‘That’s the old lifeboat station. That’s where I got a beakjob off a gannet,’ you might reasonably assume that our anonymous speaker was identifying the lifeboat station as the place where a seabird had noshed him or her off.

‘That’s Venus. That’s home.’ makes it sound like they come from Venus. Then we do a second pass and realise, oh, ‘home’ is a third location. Some readers might get it on the first bite, some won’t. That’s a crappy hit rate, especially for your first line.

The shining dots reflected in his son’s eyes for a second before the boy cast his eyes down. 

Wow. Every time I read this sentence there’s an audible thud.

First, you’ve got a POV snarl. Is your protagonist looking into space or his son’s eyes? How is he pointing out the planets while gazing into the child’s pupils? Or are you cheating and going for a diffuse, omniscient narrator who looks whichever way it damn well pleases, like an ADHD beagle puppy?

Secondly, your pronouns are a mess. In the same sentence ‘his’ refers to possessions of the father and the son. You make it sound as if the boy is a Midwich Cuckoos style telepath who can compel his father’s eyes to turn whichever direction he likes. Which would be totally awesome.

Thirdly, the repetition of ‘eyes’ clunks.

Fourthly, ‘for a second before’ are all fluff words. Just put a full stop after the first ‘eyes’. The order in which you tell us information implies the passage of time. You never need to use ‘before’ in this way.

Fifthly, ‘The shining dots reflected in his son’s eyes’ sounds like a single noun phrase – it’s not until we reach ‘before’ that we realise ‘reflected’ is supposed to be the main verb in the sentence. What you really mean is either ‘The shining dots were reflected in his son’s eyes’ or ‘His son’s eyes reflected the shining dots’.

Sixthly, really? The wonder and majesty of the universe reflected in a child’s pupils? Oh please. Ida, I am sure you are a great and sincere person, but unless your reader has been cowering in a fallout bunker since the 50s, this kind of glurge will make them do a sick in their mouth.

John squeezed his shoulder, regretting his choice of words.

At first, the sudden introduction of ‘John’ makes him sound like a third character, creepily standing between father and son, squeezing the kid’s shoulder.

The first clause is good – it’s a clear, discrete action; we can picture it. The second is a classic case of ‘telling’ in the ‘show, don’t tell’ sense. You’re stepping in to explain what this gesture means, in case the reader is too thick to get it. Don’t.

He pressed a button,

On his son’s shoulder?

making blinds appear to block out the dark void that surrounded the spaceship.

Well, you’ve already told us it’s full of stars, so it’s not quite a ‘dark void’, which is lucky because ‘dark void’ is such a cliché it’s practically weaponised. Cut it.

The tech here is so punishingly vague. So far the story reads like all the bad parts of pulp SF. The blinds ‘appear’? What does that even mean? Does material slide down to cover – well, yeah, to cover what? You haven’t even told us whether they’re looking out of tiny portholes or a luxurious viewing gallery or what. Does some microthin opaque polymer sheet slide from an aperture? Or are they ‘blinds’ only in effect? Do the windows tint and black out?

Similarly, ‘spaceship’ is so broad it actively undermines the reality of your story. I’m not asking for you to go full hard SF and design a plausible near-future vessel capable of travel within our solar system – but try to sound as if you have some rudimentary sense of what it might look like? Perhaps give it a name? You don’t need to go ahead and tell us they’re on a spaceship – we’ll figure it out as the story continues – but if you do, remember that it’s about as general a noun as ‘vehicle’. Go for something specific that suggests size and technology and range.

Somehow space had the quality of feeling both empty and overwhelmingly heavy at the same time.

Hey, you know what else feels both empty and overwhelmingly heavy at the same time?

“I’m sorry,” John said. “I know it’s not our home anymore, really-”

HINT O’ THE WEEK: if a character says ‘I know’ or ‘as you know’ they are about to switch off their humanity and become a soulless info-bot. Why is he saying what they both know?

Of course, the answer is: because I didn’t trust the reader to figure this bit out on their own. Thus the reader feels patronised, disengages, game over.

There was a rap on the door and a man entered without invitation.

Sorry what?

This spaceship has doors that you knock on? You can’t really ‘rap’ on steel, so the verb implies wood. It’s like we’ve jumped from pulp spaceship to 18th Century scrivener’s office.

Look at these vague, dull nouns: door, man. Could they get any broader? Yes, but barely.

I’ve complained in previous posts about ‘there was’ constructions. You might as well write: ‘A rap occurred.’ Someone rapped on the door, Ida.

‘without invitation’ is abstract fluff. We’ve just seen him enter, we didn’t hear any dialogue inviting him in – this is implied. Why are you telling us stuff that isn’t happening? It’s like writing:

Friedrich stood at the head of the casket; he read the eulogy without dropping his trousers and farting on the brow of his late father, without bursting into green and magenta flame, without disgorging a chimpanzee.

Don’t waste time negating stuff we have no reason to expect took place.

“Mr Mayer,” he said. “You’re needed in the hospital wing.”

Who said? What’s he look like? What’s he wearing? What’s his expression? Would he really add ‘wing’, as if there are a bunch of hospitals onboard? You might as well have wheeled in an MDF signboard with the word ‘MAN’ painted on it.

John straightened his back.

Good. A simple, visual action that implies attitude.

He had many men underneath him to handle smaller emergencies.

This made me imagine him standing upon a writhing conglomeration of male bodies. Which is dead sexy but not, I suspect, what you had in mind. Show, don’t tell. If someone approaches John and acts deferentially, we’ll assume he’s in a position of authority. You don’t need to explain it.

If he was needed outside his daily schedule, it could only mean one thing: bad news. Very bad news.

Really? I thought a stripper was going to be waiting for him with balloons and a giant novelty cheque. Who would have guessed that bad things happen in hospitals?

He gave his son a tight hug. “Stay here. I’ll be back soon.”

I like the ‘tight hug’. Not clear why John’s son is still anonymous.

No one’s saying your dialogue need be a welter of fruity metaphors in iambic pentameter, but you might want to shoot higher than something that reads like it was transcribed from semaphore.

Hopefully, he added to himself as he left the room.

Welp this extract is just a big ol’ orchard creaking with low-hanging fruit, isn’t it?

After a couple of reads, I see what you meant was: ‘Hopefully, he thought as he left the room.’ But without anything to distinguish the adverb as internal monologue, on the first pass this reads like he is optimistically surgically upgrading his body while leaving the room.

“Not another one?” he asked as soon as the door shut behind them.

Where does this dialogue take place? In the hallway? In the operating theatre? Your whole extract has a serious case of White Room Syndrome.

Part of this sentence’s particular problem is the syntax. You locate them after the utterance has taken place. It’s like a sequence that reads:

Geoff gazed around the wrecked office and sighed.

‘This will take all week to clear up,’ he said to his wife, three years later as he unshackled her from the PVC love-trough in their sex dungeon.

No need for ‘he asked’ – we know it’s a question from the question mark. Stick with ‘said’.

“Some symptoms have occurred.”

At last the horrible clinical vagueness serves a purpose! Talk about your stopped clock. A great piece of evasive dialogue.

John swore.

And thank you, Ida, for shielding us from his outburst. Heaven forbid you would’ve trusted us, as adults, to hear his exact choice of words first-hand.

For a moment the fear was threatening to overtake him.

‘For a moment’? Snap your fingers. That is how long John wrestled with his fear before he was like, hang on – nope, no it’s not going to overtake me after all. I’ve had bigger frights dropping a spoon – but then I am a massive baby so perhaps not the best barometer for ‘reasonable fear responses to everyday stimuli’. Once a jar of peanut butter fell out the cupboard and I was so scared I cried.

Give us his physical symptoms. Show us what he does and says and let us conclude: ‘oh goodness – John’s about to lose his shit’. Don’t pre-emptively inform us that the emotion he’s about to experience will only be temporary, or you kill all the tension.

What if it gets to my son?  He forced the thought away, not letting emotion show on his face.

Right – the very least you can do as an author is go to the effort of thinking up a name for his son. I’m pretty sure most parents think of their child primarily by name.

I don’t mind ‘He forced the thought away’ – on its own, that’s a workmanlike but perfectly functional sentence. It doesn’t sing, but it does its job, like a brick.

‘not letting emotion show on his face’ is both clumsy and a POV violation – he can’t see whether he’s letting emotion show on his face or not. ‘emotion’ is a vague, abstract noun anyway (and you’re asking us to imagine its absence, adding another kink to the steaming turd-pretzel), but the point is, John can’t see his own face. To an outsider, he might be quite obviously shitting bricks. If he pushes the thought away, and his dialogue isn’t all ‘BWAAHH! Holy shit! What are we going to do?’ then we will conclude his expression is probably neutral.

The people needed a strong leader. There was no room for weakness at this time.

This is so eye-gougingly generic. What, in either of these sentences, anchors this narrative in John Mayer, captain of a ship of post-Earth human survivors, dealing with a medical emergency? They could come from a twelve-year-old’s essay about the repeal of the Corn Laws or the coup that brought General Park-Chung Hee to power or an article in a trade gazette about a pub landlord in Bude. Your sentences should not be simultaneously applicable to all those things.

I don’t ask for photo-realism, Ida, but you are scrawling on the kitchen wall in green crayon.

“I can’t believe it’s happening again,” he said. “Even after all this time.”

It’s lovely that you’ve reprised the ‘this time’ formulation that ended the previous paragraph with such a wet fart. Shows a refreshing optimism.

John’s dialogue is so brusquely literal that he sounds like a sentient vacuum cleaner trying to pass as human. His clinical tone is at odds with his professed emotions.

And we’re not stupid. We know that second sentence is there for our benefit, not his. It’s like a little footnote, an irritating dig in the ribs where we’re jolted out of the reality while he winks at the camera. You might as well add a parenthetical note: (this has happened before, but not for some time – ed.)

Look, Ida, the good news is you’re not making the mistake a lot of writers do early on. You haven’t gone into loads of extraneous turgid backstory. This is the first page, and already you’ve introduced a protagonist, something he clearly cares about – his son – the fictive milieu in which he lives, and an inciting incident – the emergency down in sickbay. Schedule-wise, that is sound work.

But what writing a novel asks of you – and I don’t pretend this is easy – is compact richness. We want to feel that you are bringing us only the most interesting, most revealing dispatches from your fictional world, but each one must resonate like an artefact. We’re looking for shards of pottery, old coins – brilliant fragments that imply a larger world, that expand as we examine them.

Either your – perfectly wise – instinct not to overwrite has instigated a coup d’etat and suppressed every other creative instinct or – more likely – you haven’t done much research or texture work on your fictional world, and you’re just winging it. The prose is vague because your world is vague. The rooms are empty, the characters shapeless cutouts, because you haven’t sat down and done the drudge-work of making all that shit up. You don’t have character sheets detailing eye colour, appearance, backstory, anecdotes from their life. You don’t have a detailed history of the ship, with specific dates, with fake historical names.

You need to do the work, Ida! Sometimes it can feel like a displacement activity – indeed, anything that doesn’t directly raise our word count is apt to feel like sacrilegious self-indulgence until we accept that writing is about process, and process is as much about prep as it is about execution.

So give yourself permission to play. Go hog-wild. Sketch a ship floorplan, level by level. Name the cat. Most of it, you probably won’t use. But it’ll feel real to you. It’ll come alive. And if it’s alive to you, there’s a chance – just a chance, mind – that some of that magic will make it onto the page.

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You used to be so impulsive, so alive. If you wanted something, you did it. Every day crackled with unpredictable thunder. Get some of the old magic back – order my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.

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