Death Of 1000 Cuts – In The Barber’s Chair: The Apprentice (by Zeba)

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

Every Thursday this blog appears, giving you advice on writing and rewriting. In a couple of weeks, we will have been going two years! Christ.

My debut novel, The Honours, came out on Thursday. It’s in the shops. I went into Waterstones today and it was on a little table. I’ve signed copies for people and everything. I don’t want to be a smuggo but it feels pretty great, you guys.

Thank you so much to everyone who pre-ordered. Like, fucktonnes of you actually did! I can’t believe it! Let me be honest – I’ve never pre-ordered a book in my life. And yet so many of you really did take the time to go online and pre-order, and as a result, loads of people have been sending me photos of their copies arriving this week.

And – maybe entirely coincidentally, but then again maybe not – Amazon decided to make it their Debut Of The Month, as did Lovereading. You can read a spoilery, in-depth review in The National, or a more coy one at The List. Not everyone likes it, but those who do seem to really like it. If you search the hashtag #TheHonours on Twitter, you can view a pretty dazzling gallery of some of photos people have sent me of their copies. It really is a sexy-looking book.

Do go into your local bookshop and order it, let the staff know about it, maybe send me a snap of it ‘in the wild’. If you read it, I’d love to know what you thought of it – you can drop me a line via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. If you’re reading it or you’ve read it, you can help me out loads by tweeting or posting about it on Facebook, and by sharing it with your friends. Recommendations are the number one way people find new books. Nothing more compelling than having a mate hand you a book and say: ‘You’ll love this.’

If you’d like to submit your own work to this blog, please read the Submission Guidelines. The waiting list is quite long owing to demand, but I do my best to get round to everyone who submits.

Right. Back to business. Not going to stop just because I’ve got a book out! As always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.

The Apprentice (by Zeba)

Now that I’m old, I look back and wonder where exactly it all began, how I came to be here at this time, in this place, surrounded by this family. Particularly today, St Nicholas’s Day, where we feast together, my son, my daughter-in-law, my grandchildren. Nelleke is always uneasy around me; her jumpiness disconcerts poor Timothy. He is trapped between his mother and his wife, the one a disgraceful harpy, the other a shrill termagant. I demand more logs on the fire, a place closer to the hearth and she opens windows. I call for more wine and she tells her maid to bring water. And of course, hovering in the space above the table and below the ceiling is the unspoken shame I bring on them all with my work. Not to mention the lack of a husband, the accent, the eccentric ways. But she must not offend me for along with all my flaws comes the money that they are waiting for like buzzards hovering above a lingering goat.

My grandson Oskar wants to know. Where did it all start? How did it all start? How did I become what I now am, sought-after, feted, a creature somewhere between a deity and a circus freak? And how did I end up in Amsterdam painting the fat wives of fatter burghers?

I’ve put him off. It’s a long story, a dull story, I say. Well, it is long, but dull?

The Cuts

I appreciate this may be a placeholder title but just in case: no. You absolutely cannot call your story The Apprentice, any more than you can call it The Great British Bakeoff or Strictly Come Dancing. Unless the narrator is later revealed to be Alan Sugar. That would be a twist.

Like if this narrator is a six-millennia-old Lord Sugar, now ruler of an entire planet at the edge of a galactic empire, mind-bogglingly rich from a star-system’s mineral wealth and kept alive by a mesh of clear tubes constantly recycling his blood, his cerebral functions outsourced to a cloudware hub, his organs floating in jars of translucent preservative, his skin a leathery grimoire of regret.

Now that I’m old, I look back and wonder where exactly it all began, how I came to be here at this time, in this place, surrounded by this family.

I don’t 100% hate this sentence.

It’s a bit hokey, a bit old school, a bit stuck in that quasi-Victorian schtick of faux-authenticity, and it doesn’t contain a single concrete noun in 30 words. We have ‘I’, ‘it’, ‘here’, ‘time’, ‘place’ and ‘family’ – all abstractions, concepts. They don’t engage our senses. We can’t picture them. There’s nothing tangible.

Still, even though it’s not a great hook, it does make a sort of tonal promise, and it does give us some definite information. The narrator is old, he or she is surrounded by family, and he or she is in reflective mode. We’re tacitly promised a kind of rambling biography, the narrator’s life story. It hints at melancholy, but also at a relatively happy ending.

I’d say that the narrator is posing two unrelated questions which he or she appears to conflate into one. Wondering ‘where exactly it all began’ is distinct from ‘how I came to be here at this time’, but you present the sentence as if it’s a list of synonyms trying to nail down a single concept.

‘how I came to be here at this time’ is a particularly clunky way of saying ‘how I wound up here’. What does ‘in this place’ add that ‘here’ doesn’t already convey?

Your narrator is bullshitting us, Zeba. He or she is being all like: ‘Oh wow, I can’t believe I got here, when all those years ago I was that other place, then I got on the thing, where I met her, then we went there and found it, then they chased us through you-know-where and met him and he taught me that important lesson then I ended up here, at this time, old, incapable of speaking in anything but pronouns and vague, abstract nouns.’

I get it – you’re trying to hook us by introducing all these pronouns in the hope we’ll press on, desperate to discover the referent – ‘When what began? Oh God, I must know!’ – but I think readers are smarter than that. They don’t want cute, coy tricks. They want specifics.

If a stranger came up to you patting a small rosewood box and said: ‘Do you want… it?’

You’d be like: ‘What’s “it”?’

The stranger exposes a mouthful of splayed, toffee-coloured teeth. ‘Open the box and find out.’

Does that sound like an inviting offer to you? Like, I’d be pretty much 90% sure the box contains his dick, even if it’s nowhere near his crotch. You wouldn’t be like, ooh, the mystery, you’ve intrigued me sir!

Don’t be coy. Crunchy specificity, first sentence.

Cross-reference the famous opening of Anthony Burgess’s glorious – yes, better even than A Clockwork Orange, which I love – Earthly Powers:

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

The protagonist Kenneth Toomey doesn’t start off idly speculating ‘where it all began’. He starts off fucking a young dude before getting interrupted by an archbishop.

Of course, not all books have to start with the narrator fucking a young dude, Zeba, although it would have improved My Autobiography by Nigel Mansell no end.

Particularly today, St Nicholas’s Day, where we feast together, my son, my daughter-in-law, my grandchildren.

So the specificity of ‘St Nicholas’ Day’ is good, but why ‘particularly’? It’s ambiguous whether the narrator means ‘how did I end up here, particularly on St Nicholas’ Day’ (to which the answer of course is, by not dying before the year ended) or ‘I am particularly prone to reflection given that it is St Nicholas’ Day and I am surrounded by family’ – which doesn’t quite agree grammatically with the previous sentence but makes much more sense.

I can parse the sentence so it maintains its internal logic, but I have to work hard to do so, and that’s effort I could be using to eat a Rolo egg or, you know, enjoy the fucking story on its own terms.

The welter of relatives is a bit tricky to hold onto – by ‘daughter-in-law’, do you mean the narrator’s son’s wife? And by ‘my grandchildren’ do you mean the previous two characters’ children? Again, it’s ambiguous – the daughter-in-law could be married to a different child, the grandchildren offspring of a different woman. You don’t connect the three, and so they float, instead of feeling linked as one coherent unit.

It’s only the second sentence and already you’ve introduced a minimum of five characters. Erk.

Nelleke is always uneasy around me; her jumpiness disconcerts poor Timothy.

So switching to specific names is great – really starts to ground the scene (although we still don’t have a sense of what room this is in, where, the sounds, the smells). But divorcing these names from the family roles in the previous sentence means we don’t know whether, for example, Timothy is the son, or one of the grandchildren, or another person entirely, or the family hamster.

It’s a weird structure for a sentence too – essentially, you’re saying ‘Nelleke is nervous; she makes Timothy nervous’. It starts to feel less like coherent narrative fiction and more like one of those logic puzzles in the Beano annual that start off: ‘Trevor will not sit next to Paul. Paul likes to sit two seats to the left of a girl. Irene will not sit beside anyone in blue. Lucy sits opposite Irene.’ And so on, and you have to figure out where everyone is sitting.

Those were not fun. Help us out.

Better to introduce a single family member at a time, mentioning name and relationship together, through a specific action. Give us a beat, a movement, something grounded in the moment – locate this in a narrative present. That will lend it weight and vividness.

He is trapped between his mother and his wife, the one a disgraceful harpy, the other a shrill termagant.

So wait – which generation are we in now? Is Timothy the son, or the grandson? Has the mother already been introduced, or is this a new character (possibly the wife of the narrator)?

Not convinced by ‘disgraceful harpy’ and ‘shrill termagant’. For starters, the adjectives feel surplus to requirements. Don’t modify a noun with an adjective that merely agrees with it. It’s like writing ‘tall giant’ or ‘completely squooshable guinea pig’. ‘Harpy’, when used as a figurative insult, is implicitly disgraceful.

You can have fun with adjectives that contradict or undercut the noun. I like Steve Aylett’s line:

There’s no such thing as a normal angel. It’s never done that way.

‘normal angel’ is a strong, jarring collocation. ‘shrill termagant’ is just tautological cliché.

I’m not convinced that there’s a distinction between ‘harpy’ and ‘termagant’ as misogynist insults. Both mean a loud, bullying woman, idiomatically speaking. It makes the attempt to contrast the two fall flat. It’s like writing: ‘He is parked between two vehicles, one a large red, two-tier mode of public transport, the other a bus.’

Also, the narrator is telling, not showing. We can’t picture or hear these characters for ourselves. We have no way to distinguish between them. There’s no sensory information. None of this feels rich or real.

It can be fun, engaging and effective for a narrator to out-and-out pronounce another character a fool, an absolute bastard or a darling (especially when our assessment runs contrary to theirs), but it’s no substitute for actually giving us access to living, dramatized characters, and that access must come first.

I demand more logs on the fire, a place closer to the hearth and she opens windows.

Show, don’t tell! Gwaaarrr! *grips skull, psychokinetic blast shatters windows within a 3-mile radius*

Give us the exact words the narrator uses – direct speech. We want to hear word choice, get a sense of intonation. All these things haemorrhage information and sneakily build your world.

Who does the narrator demand put logs on the fire? A ‘she’ is mentioned towards the end of the sentence (that final clause is bizarrely tacked-on, by the way) but it could be mother, wife, or indeed another character – it’s not clear how many people there are, given that you keep referring to people by different titles.

I call for more wine and she tells her maid to bring water.

Ah, right. So I get now that, in the previous sentence, the narrator is saying: ‘I tell her to do this, she does that.’

I’d cut ‘a place closer to the hearth’ from the last sentence, so you’re always comparing two clauses. It makes the repetition punchier. Plus, in the original example, it reads like you’re attempting a three-point list rather than a one-two comparison, and we falter.

Still don’t know who this ‘she’ is.

And of course, hovering in the space above the table and below the ceiling is the unspoken shame I bring on them all with my work.

Ungh. The weirdly-specific locating of the shame isn’t doing it for me, I’m afraid. ‘amongst us’ would be better than ‘in the space above the table and below the ceiling’ – two words instead of ten, but the latter is more or less a joke, and not a dreadfully-rewarding one at that.

However – I fucking love that you’ve introduced some stakes. This line makes me sit up. The narrator is resentful, there’s conflict, and I’m like: ‘What’s his/her work?’

This is where the story begins. You could get to this punch much quicker, give us those beats with the logs and the wine which have something visual and involve conflict, but cut the faffy Grandpa Simpson-esque nest circling where the narrator smacks his chops and starts to settle into storytelling mode.

Not to mention the lack of a husband, the accent, the eccentric ways.

Ah – so this implies the narrator is female? Who knows? That is a heteronormative assumption and it’s totally fine if it later proves false. Certainly I don’t think it matters that we know yet.

I feel like ‘eccentric ways’ is the weakest of this three-point list – the previous two are quite specific and suggestive. ‘Ways’ is about as broad as it gets. I’d rather you hit that final point with the most idiosyncratic and specific item of all. Something really, really unique, something info-rich that implies story.

My grandson Oskar wants to know. Where did it all start? How did it all start? How did I become what I now am, sought-after, feted, a creature somewhere between a deity and a circus freak? And how did I end up in Amsterdam painting the fat wives of fatter burghers?

I just want to step into say I love this paragraph. It’s ace. The details of ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘burghers’ are surprising and they feel like chugging a freezing pint after six hours sanding benches in a hot back garden. Finally, you’re committing to specific things! Thank fuck!

Thanks for submitting this, Zeba. It’s the old story: specificity, specificity, specificity. A horrible word, especially when you try to say it three times out loud, but an important one for us purveyors of fiction.

It’s the soul of narrative. Commit to detail. Don’t give us the pixelated, broad-brush, pronouny abstract bullshit treatment. Give us tangible concrete objects. Give us sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.


One Comment

  1. Zeba says:

    Thank you. This really helps me with why this effing book just isn’t working for me at the moment. But I am going to get it to work. Now I just have to bring this level of detailed revision to the 112000 words I’ve written. And no, it really isn’t called The Apprentice.

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