As Death Of 1000 Cuts approaches the end of its second year, I thought it’d be fun to see what the five most popular posts have been. We’ve been going at it so long that, to newcomers, the whole thing probably resembles some crumbling cargo cult enacting empty rituals in the hope of appeasing long-departed skygods, so maybe worth reviewing some old posts that you might have missed, that other people seemed to like.
If you’ve never read Death Of 1000 Cuts before, this is a great place to start! Clickbaity headline? Unaccountably furious and entitled writer attacking other aspiring writers? Woohoo! you exclaim, a-rubbing your word-coarsened mitts, count me in!
Here they are, in reverse order of popularity, with links and a key point extracted from each. I’ll insert the usual caveat that I’ve been guilty of making all these mistakes myself, and I continue to make them. The trick isn’t becoming suddenly perfect, it’s learning to catch yourself being crap and fixing it. Good luck!
‘I know it’s tough. I’ve made this mistake, trying to give two characters sparky, combative dialogue in the hope of creating a scene that crackles with smart, sexy tension. The trouble is, when you’re trying to write ‘witty’ it’s very easy to spiral off into ‘twatty know-it-all’. You’re aiming for Beatrice and Benedict, but you end up with something about as charming as Piers Morgan licking spunk off a mirror.’
‘Syntax is an essential part of constructing readable prose that doesn’t make people want to drive an apple corer up their nostril. You need to be thinking about word order in every sentence.
Like every piece of writing advice, it’s important not to turn this into dogma, but you should always be trying to put the most interesting information at the end of the sentence. Worst-case scenario are sentences that close with a bunch of grammatical housekeeping – words like ‘about’ and ‘of’, finishing off an idea that we’ve already digested. It’s dull, and the reader will find their attention habitually wandering as they predict ends of sentences, but they won’t be able to put their finger on why.’
‘There’s this unexamined fallacy floating in a lot of author’s heads that goes something like:
similes = literary
Which is self-evidently preposterous when written down, but nonetheless unconsciously informs a lot of stylistic decisions. So many writers, when trying to make a scene more vivid and resonant, start stabbing the simile/metaphor panic button. After all, goes the submerged logic, if one simile is memorable, surely twenty will be twenty times as memorable.
In the second paragraph of this extract, your similes go apeshit. Let me disabuse you of any lingering conviction that this is a viable compositional policy.
When you use lots of similes, you do not sound like James Joyce. You sound like Dusty fucking Springfield.’
‘Sure, you can bullshit your way through some moments – it is fiction, after all – but more often you have to know clearly where you are and how your imagined world operates. If you don’t, it will show up in the quality of your prose. You’ll be forced to zoom out, to generalise, to prevaricate, and your narrative will read as vague, lily-livered and clichéd as a result.
Clarity and specificity are harder than they look. My shelves are heaving with reference books that help me add a little focus and colour to my stories. The internet can help sometimes, although it’s often surprisingly hard to get a specific answer. I’m not suggesting you need to make your protagonists obsessive botanists, architects and engineers, who can recognise the make and model of an aeroplane or the precise species of a wildflower, but if we’re viewing the world through the eyes of a sniper, I’d expect that to be reflected in what he pays attention to, how he parses his environment, and his attitude towards his equipment.’
‘The central problem of creating lucid, durable art is speaking the truth without stating the obvious.
When writing about a culture not your own (or even your hometown, for that matter), you can’t just stage a trolley dash of local clichés and expect the reader to accept your authority as a guide. We’re looking for the small, surprising, telling detail – the subverting of expectation, the closely-observed object or action or phenomenon so idiosyncratic that it must be true, that makes us – however subconsciously – think ‘ah – this person must have lived there.’
And that’s it. Please keep spreading the word and sharing your favourite posts – it makes a huge difference to site traffic and temporarily sates my overmastering neurological dependency on hitting arbitrary social media targets. If you’d like to submit your own extract for consideration, please read our submission guidelines.
If you fancy reading a good old-fashioned page-turner, and you’d like to see how well I manage to apply my own rules, please order my debut novel, The Honours. If you’re into Goodreads, you can mark it to-read and check out what other people have had to say about it here.