Death Of 1000 Cuts – In The Barber’s Chair: Bones In The River (by Sevrin)

Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts, making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

This is a blog about writing, reading and editing, where we look at ways of making stories better.

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My first ever novel came out at the start of this month. Lots of people are reading it – thanks for all the photos you’ve sent me! If you haven’t ordered The Honours, I’d be so pleased and grateful if you could support me by ordering a copy. You can do it online here, or even better you can go in your nearest bricks and mortar store and, if they don’t have on the shelves, order it. It has been selling pretty healthily the past few weeks, (especially for a debut by a nobody) and then Amazon decided to remove it from sale for the past three days even though it’s their Debut of the Month, because the hideous sentient algorithm had a brainshart. It’s available again now, but in the meantime the online sales dropped away to fuck all, so I really recommend you buy your books anywhere except Amazon.

I’m so indebted to all the physical bookshops who have supported The Honours‘ release, who’ve read it and shared it and put together beautiful displays and pimped it to customers. It’s only once your book comes out that you learn to appreciate the amazing army of book advocates who are out there, on the high streets, championing stories and basically giving new authors the chance at actual careers by telling customers about their books. Amazon is run by perfectly nice human beings, I’m sure, but the net result is this huge tax-avoiding beast extruding furlongs of sloppy jobbies while treating its workers like shit. I know it’s hard (and I’m as hypocritical and compromised as the next guy) but any effort we can make not to feed it is a vote for books, literature, booksellers, publishers and authors – and therefore, ultimately, readers.

Anyway, mini-rant over. Usual rules: read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.

Bones In The River (by Sevrin)

Each spring those damn herbs had the poor manners to grow on the forest’s edge and force Zan out of hiding. He hated being so close to houses, or even their property fringes as he was right now, but like the dog padding behind, he followed his feelers, directing him to his harvest.

He almost stumbled as the wind shoved him off the path into a bed of brambleberry cradling an emaciated woman. Her dress was torn; her linen slippers wicked blood. Only a formidable sorcerer could have made the energetic noose coiled around her throat.

Zan inspected the woman’s essence as it discharged thick greed and sticky selfishness. “Again?” he sighed, head shaking. He would have preferred a nice skunk cabbage. But this was the Goddess’s doing. He would obey Her bidding.

He sent his feelers along the noose’s trail until certain its spellcaster wasn’t on the other end. Using his walking stick, he rolled the girl over as if she were contagious, then raked the black hair from her face. “What in demon’s spit you stick me with, my Lady?

“Looks like you just did yourself in just right, little bird. You are done bound, see? All tied up. Bet you been strangling yourself all mornin’.”

*

The man’s voice was a beacon. Ciara willed her consciousness back to her body, back to the suffocating pain, and forced her eyes open. He stood too close, his flapping coat covered with inked patterns, some faded with age, some as new as yesterday. She recognized the three-pointed symbol of the pronged demon from her own sorcery and panicked.

No. I just escaped.

The Cuts

Each spring those damn herbs had the poor manners to grow on the forest’s edge and force Zan out of hiding.

Your first sentence, aside from being a human centipede-esque abomination of conjoined clauses pooing into the mouths of those that follow, doesn’t maintain a consistent register.

Well, actually – look, I can see someone arguing the toss here (and dissent is welcome!) but for me, ‘damn herbs’ and ‘poor manners’ are two drawn from two completely different lexical sets. It’s like your narrator swerves from grizzled cowpoke to stern governess in a couple of words.

Calling them ‘those damn herbs’ implies that they’re doing something bad mannered – you don’t need to unpack the idea, and you could just write: ‘Each spring those damn herbs grew at the forest’s edge and forced Zan out of hiding.’

Now long-term readers will recall I get a bit obstreperous about opening sentences that don’t place us within a clear narrative present. First lines don’t have an obligation to do so, and many fantastic examples don’t, but you need a good reason.

Ideally, I want to be placed within a specific moment in your story – a moment of conflict, of change, of choice. I want to be down there, with the viewpoint character (ideally the protagonist), in that moment, experiencing it. If your first sentence isn’t doing this, then I want it to introduce a strong clear voice and tone – to make a tempting stylistic promise about what sort of story I’m in for.

The only promise this line makes is: ‘reading this story is going to feel like eating a banana with the skin on’.

But for the sake of balance – it’s good that you’ve introduced a character, Zan, and hinted at a conflict. The actual underlying premise of this opener isn’t bad – it’s just miscued. If you could strip it back and go for something blunter, punchier, it would retain its meaning while gaining considerable wallop.

He hated being so close to houses, or even their property fringes as he was right now, but like the dog padding behind, he followed his feelers, directing him to his harvest.

Oh GODDAMMIT. This sentence is like someone tried to make a sandwich blindfolded while riding a centrifuge. We can peel a limp sliver of ham off this wall, a mayo-sodden triangle of bread off that, and more or less deduce what the original plan was, but this is more an exercise in forensics than coherent pleasure.

So to start: ‘He hated being so close to houses’ kicks the sentence off in this general case. You’re not saying ‘He crept closer to the houses’, you’re telling us that, when he is close to houses, he hates it. This means you have to awkwardly clarify what’s going on in the narrative present later in the sentence, when you add ‘as he was right now’. NO. Do not do this.

Horrible lack of detail in this sentence: ‘houses’, ‘property fringes’. Ugh. Engage our five senses. Give us crunchy specificity. ‘houses’ is a vague, abstract concept. ‘two-storey oak cabins’ or ‘squat red brick cottages’ or ‘six plexiglass geodesic domes’ are specific, concrete, perceivable story objects. Giving us detail also does double-duty as world-building, implying location, tech level, era, and all sorts of other information about your fictional universe. I don’t really know what to say about ‘property fringes’ except it’s an ugly, almost meaningless pairing of words and if I never see it again it will be too soon.

‘but like the dog padding behind’ – what a weird, confusing way to introduce this information. You’re massively overcomplicating what should be a straightforward scene. Don’t mention the dog in passing while trying to describe something else – it feels like you’re trying to sneak the fucking thing into a restaurant under your coat.

Don’t discount the obvious when considering how to deliver a scene. It’s not just the path of least resistance – it’s often the boldest and best way of placing us in the moment. This isn’t to scorn ornament, simile, complex sentence structure or occasional misdirection – my own writing style leans towards the baroque a lot of the time – it’s about remembering that the really rapturous, intricate mosaics of imagery and word choice become a pixelated maelstrom of technicolour bullshit unless you give them a clean, simple background to exist against.

‘he followed his feelers, directing him to the harvest’ – now, hmm. Genre readers and ‘general’ readers will interpret this sentence in two different ways. Genre readers will probably read ‘feelers’ as some kind of literal antennae, whereas literary/general readers will more often read it as a metaphor for his intuition.

This ambiguity does not serve the story. If he has literal insectile sensory apparatus, don’t call it ‘feelers’ – physically describe what it is, and more than that, since he’s our viewpoint character, help us experience what he’s actually sensing. Is he feeling a pulse, a buzz, something akin to a smell, something like our sense of gravity, something else entirely?

If you’re describing psychic powers or just a strong intuition, explain that instead. I’m reminded of the brilliant opening to Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, where she introduces us to the viewpoint character Doro and just piles in with telling us what’s going on. It’s very deft, and I’m sort of astounded it works – there’s a directness with the exposition that feels incredibly natural, that doesn’t feel like we’re being spoonfed world-building information at all, perhaps because we meet Doro at a point of tension, so the story is drawing us along already. Here’s a bit off the second page, where he’s marching through the jungle after an unpleasant discovery:

After a while, he realised it was no longer his anger at the loss of his seed village that drove him. It was something new – an impulse, a feeling, a kind of mental undertow pulling at him. He could have resisted it easily, but he did not. He felt there was something for him farther on, a little farther, just ahead. He trusted such feelings.

So there, while Butler doesn’t explicitly say ‘Doro had psychic powers’, she implies it, and she implies something of their nature by describing how they manifest. ‘a kind of mental undertow’ is great, the ‘kind of’ formulation permissible because it modulates the simile and reminds us any descriptions are, at best, approximations, inadequate. We don’t picture Doro with huge mucus-covered slug antlers or jointed beetle-antennae because we’re explicitly told this is ‘an impulse, a feeling’. Butler is describing something none of us have ever experienced but manages to do so clearly and without ostentation.

I’m not presenting this extract in an angry ‘why aren’t you as good as an SF legend on your first try?’ – and in fact it’s clear from reading some of Butler’s work written before Wild Seed that she developed this supreme confidence with world-building and characterisation over time, like any of us. I just think it’s always helpful, as an author, to be constantly on the look out for models for the piece you’re writing.

A lot of writers protest that they don’t want to read anything too similar to what they’re writing in case they ‘get influenced’. To which I say: that is the whole fucking point. We should read as much as we can that’s as close to what we’re writing as possible and as excellent as possible, in the hope that all the shite will be influenced out of our work.

‘directing him to his harvest’ – this is a strong way to close the sentence and paragraph. It appears to introduce a desire and a potential conflict, and you’ve ended on an interesting word. Good.

He almost stumbled as the wind shoved him off the path into a bed of brambleberry cradling an emaciated woman.

The sentence makes me feel like I have a head injury.

‘almost’? He’s been blown into a bush! How is that not a stumble? And how strong would the wind have to be to blow him bodily off the path? Another bizarre detail that you’ve forgotten to mention until now: ‘He followed the scent of the herbs, and oh, by the way, gale force winds with the power to drag a man into brambles were ripping laterally across the path.’

The lack of commas in this sentence borders on neurological terrorism.

‘into a bed of brambleberry cradling an emaciated woman’ Is he blown into the brambles while cradling an emaciated woman, or are the brambles cradling an emaciated woman? I mean, given how the dog pinged into existence a sentence ago I wouldn’t put the former past you, but I assume it’s the latter, right?

Simplify, simplify, said Henry David Thoreau. To which I reply, no need to repeat yourself, Henry. Just say ‘simplify’. Don’t ruin your message with tautological irony.

‘cradling an emaciated woman’ is fiddly, ambiguous and pretentious. And, actually, this whole bit feels unintentionally slapstick. He’s walking along then he’s like ‘woah, woah… argh!’ and blown into some brambles, then he looks and finds himself next to this skinny woman lying there. Cue eyeballs popping out, comedy klaxon SFX.

Her dress was torn; her linen slippers wicked blood.

Her slippers ‘wicked’ blood? Oh, not as in ‘wicked’ the two-syllable word meaning evil, but ‘wicked’ the one syllable word, as in ‘sucked up’, like a candlewick?

Because a non-trivial proportion of your readers are going to parse it as the former on their first pass, and think you have lost your reason. It’s a noble effort and a nice enough image, but untenable. It will sow confusion.

I feel like ‘Her dress was torn’ is pretty much the most obvious beat available. A woman, sprawled in a bramble patch? Give us a surprising detail, not just the ones that we’ve probably reflexively pictured anyway.

Only a formidable sorcerer could have made the energetic noose coiled around her throat.

I have no idea from this sentence whether she’s been strangled with some kind of laser lasso, or if it’s just a very frisky piece of rope, or what. I’m not sure nooses ‘coil’ round people’s throats, either.

And again, this detail feels far more striking than ‘her dress was torn’ – the effect is that it pops into existence after we’ve been encouraged to picture just a woman.

It might sound weird, Sevrin, but I’m going to advocate you return to the obvious. The simple. The straightforward. There’s a lot of circumlocution in this extract that ends up baffling the reader. Think about how you’d tell this story to a friend. Maybe even try telling it, out loud. What details do you focus on? What order do you give the information? What do you leave out?

It’s a worthwhile exercise, and a great way to embark on a much-needed bullshit cull. We all get caught up in the flair and grandiosity of being storytellers sometimes, but we need to rein that shit in, and focus on what matters. Your story deserves it.


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