Death Of 1000 Cuts – In The Barber’s Chair: The Price of Magic (by Bee)

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

I’m sorry I missed last week’s post, and that this week’s is late. It’s been a difficult time for a number of reasons, and we’ve had some sadness. Life is often like that, I guess.

So please accept my apologies for not saying too much this week. We’ll get back to normal operations pretty soon. Hope you’re good, and remembering to love the people around you.

The Price of Magic (by Bee)

The bridge to the Bird Tower was slippery. Five spans wide, it dropped away on the left into a chasm three quarters of a mile deep. There was no railing. The small man crossing it, holding a leather case under his arm, would have plenty of time to scream if he fell.

If that had occurred to him, though, he gave no sign. One hand held his broad-brimmed hat clapped firmly to his head, as though daring the wind to try to take it. He walked briskly, an absent-minded crease in his brow.

At the door, he stopped to greet the guards. Their surcoats were emblazoned with the tower-and-moon emblem of the Paragon Holdings Syndicate, the same as the brand on his forearm. Both snapped to attention when they saw the mancer.

“I’m here to see the prisoner,” Enoch said, by way of introduction. The wind snatched at his words. Six hundred feet below, he heard the mighty support chains creak; felt the vibration in his feet.

The Bird Tower held cells for over a hundred prisoners, but there could be no doubt which one he meant. The guards knew it too, from the way they grimaced.

“Has she been giving you more trouble?” Enoch asked.

“No, m’lord mancer, no more’n usual. Nobody else’s lost fingers, far as I know.”

“Well, we can be thankful for that much.” A cold wind howled up from the rift below, stirring the mancer’s cloak. “I’ll try to keep it that way.”

The Cuts

The bridge to the Bird Tower was slippery.

So like, you might be tempted to believe that I would be all up in this sentence’s grill, what with its not introducing a character nor showing something in movement. That verb, ‘to be’, is a super-boring main verb – possibly the most boring main verb possible. It creates static portraiture: ‘It was raining’ is less evocative than ‘Rain pounded the eaves.’

And yet. And yet.

See, what this first line does have is an interesting, clear pronoun in ‘Bird Tower’. It immediately suggests genre, and presents us with a mystery. On top of this, there’s implied conflict – the slipperiness of the bridge leading to it. This gestures towards peril, which makes us feel that teensy bit more invested in the world.

This is by no means a whip-my-pants-off-and-go-galloping-into-the-ocean wondrous first sentence o’ joy, but it does the job.

Five spans wide, it dropped away on the left into a chasm three quarters of a mile deep.

Congratulations! You’ve tested the principle of ‘crunchy specificity’ to breaking point!

There’s specific, then there’s bizarro serial-killer levels of statistical fastidiousness. You’re trying to create an image in the reader’s mind, not provide them with instructions on how to reconstruct every building and landmark from scratch. What’s the functional difference between the chasm’s being ‘three quarters of a mile deep’ and ‘a mile deep’ or ‘deep’? Are we going to encounter a monster that can survive falls of up to five-sixths of a mile unscathed?

I’m not even sure what a ‘span’ is, and placed alongside ‘miles’ it feels like you’re on some kind of measuring jag. Don’t get your ruler out for every fucking sentence.

There was no railing.

A weird line, in that it asks us to imagine an absence. I hadn’t pictured a railing until this sentence, at which point I had to imagine a railing and then unimagine it. I mean, where do you stop with this sort of negation? Why not add:

There was no horse. There was no pool of vomit. There was no catamaran. There was no ersatz godmother. There was no tachioscope. There was no scorched wigeon. There was no undulating daylgo Swastika.

Just so we know they’re not there?

The small man crossing it, holding a leather case under his arm, would have plenty of time to scream if he fell.

‘small man’ is a weaksauce combo of unexciting adjective and crazy-broad noun. ‘man’ tells us almost nothing.

I’m not sure ‘under his arm’ usefully modifies ‘leather case’, which is where the clause really ought to end. Remember that primacy-recency effect – the principle that the first and last parts of a sentence are what the reader remembers most clearly, so you should close with your most interesting/important word and start with your second most interesting/important word. The same applies within clauses. (this is a rule of thumb rather than an absolute, obviously – adjust for expediency, and don’t mangle the syntax for the sake of it; but notice how often you can make a line punchier by shifting the big, unusual noun or strong verb to the end)

This applies to the final part of the sentence: ‘would have plenty of time to scream if he fell’. That ‘if he fell’ qualifier sucks power from the end of the line, even though it’s a pretty good joke. Moving the qualifier to the start, so we close on ‘scream’ makes it much more of a punchline: ‘if he fell he would have plenty of time to scream.’ Of course, this necessitates snapping this final clause off the sentence and making it its own thing, but I think it’s worth it.

If that had occurred to him, though, he gave no sign.

‘though’ is a fluff word here. Cut it.

But of course this whole sentence is another example of stating a negative. I don’t see how it advances our understanding of the scene. You don’t need to be constantly policing conclusions the reader might possibly be drawing. You might as well add: ‘If he was fifty frogs piloting a hessian mansuit, though, he gave no sign.’ He’s not giving a sign of lots of things, Bee. Too many to mention.

One hand held his broad-brimmed hat clapped firmly to his head, as though daring the wind to try to take it.

This hat would have been good to mention in your first description of the man, instead of the eye-wateringly bland ‘small man’.

‘clapped’ is a fluff word. You can’t ‘hold something clapped’ – either the hat is clapped to his head, or he holds it to his head. ‘firmly’ is a fluff word. You can’t ‘clap something loosely’.

I don’t really understand how gripping his hat tightly constitutes a dare. It implies timidity and caution more than a challenge. Keeping both hands by his side would feel more defiant, more of a challenge. It’s like claiming you’re challenging someone to a fight by running away from them into a house and locking the door.

He walked briskly, an absent-minded crease in his brow.

I’m a bit baffled by ‘absent-minded crease’. The crease is absent-minded? It forgets shit all the time, zones out mid-sentence… I mean, no, I get what you were going for, but since when did people’s foreheads crease when their minds wander?

‘walked briskly’ is an adverb paired with a weak verb. Strengthen that verb and have that adverb humanely destroyed.

At the door, he stopped to greet the guards.

Vague waffly bumspray. ‘door’, ‘guards’, ‘he’ (which we understand to mean ‘small man in hat’). That’s all we have to go on. It’s like a scene drawn in brown crayon on a piece of cardboard.

Their surcoats were emblazoned with the tower-and-moon emblem of the Paragon Holdings Syndicate, the same as the brand on his forearm.

Well look, this is a bit info-dumpy, but at least it’s specific and flavourful. ‘surcoats’, ‘emblazoned’, ‘tower-and-moon’ – compare this register to the previous sentence, and ask yourself which feels more exciting, more vivid.

In keeping with what we’ve said before, ‘forearm’ is a pretty balls-out-boring way to close the line, so you ought to look at ways of monkeying with the syntax so you can close on something more arresting, but this is a comparatively interesting sentence.

Both snapped to attention when they saw the mancer.

It is by no means obvious on a first pass that this means ‘he’, i.e. the small man. Why have you suddenly switched from dull, vague description to going ‘oh, by the way, he does magic’? Give us that straight away! We might give a shit!

“I’m here to see the prisoner,” Enoch said, by way of introduction.

Again, a non-trivial percentage of your readers will be unsure of who ‘Enoch’ is on a first sweep through this sentence. It’s clear, rereading and then reading on, that ‘Enoch’ is the mancer is the small man. So now we have three sobriquets for the same dude. Why not call him Enoch right from the start? It’s confusing and porridgy and coy otherwise.

Also, cut ‘by way of introduction’ – we’re in the scene as well, we don’t need the narrator stepping in to explain basic interactions.

The wind snatched at his words. Six hundred feet below, he heard the mighty support chains creak; felt the vibration in his feet.

See, this engages the senses, describing things that are immediately important to the main character. It’s good.

Notice how you’ve switched perspective, from not knowing the name of this man, and being able to see his brow from outside, to being inside his head, knowing what he hears and feels. You’ve gone from omniscient to third-person limited, and it jars.

I’d suggest starting with this third-person limited perspective right from the beginning, instead of being all distant and storybooky. The scene immediately becomes richer when we’re locked into the head of an individual.

The Bird Tower held cells for over a hundred prisoners, but there could be no doubt which one he meant.

Show, don’t tell. If you simply allow the conversation continues, and the guards don’t ask, in puzzlement – ‘hey, we’ve got over 100 prisoners – which one do you mean?’ then this is all implied. Stepping in with an insurance line like this, just to make sure, weakens your writing and patronises the reader.

“Has she been giving you more trouble?” Enoch asked.

“No, m’lord mancer, no more’n usual. Nobody else’s lost fingers, far as I know.”

This direct speech is welcome – really good to give us direct access to the character interacting. The register of the guard might be a bit oo-arr oim Farmer Goiles but I think, for a minor character, you can get away with it. It quickly gives us a social status and distinguishes him from the mancer.

The word that jars most for me is ‘else’. That’s the point where the dialogue tips over from an exchange that reveals character to an info dump. The guard wouldn’t say that – the only reason you’ve included it is for the reader’s benefit. You can hint towards some kind of injury having happened in the past (maybe the guard could even tighten his three fingers round the haft of his spear) but this is too on-the-nose, too explicit.

“Well, we can be thankful for that much.”

Not convinced that this final line adds much. It feels a bit nothingy.

A cold wind howled up from the rift below, stirring the mancer’s cloak.

Nice to engage the senses here, even if this is a bit clichéd and improbable. I don’t really see how wind rises up out of a canyon, but I’m no windologist, so I could be wrong.

Look Bee, I like the broad idea behind this opening scene, and your instincts are clearly leading you towards creating tension through anticipation and mystery, which is good. However, the central problem with this scene is consistency of point of view. You’re not really clear whose story this is, and the narrative behaves variously like an all-knowing storyteller, a neutral camera, and the direct thoughts of Enoch the mancer.

I’d suggest that the last of these three is the richest and most useful, even as it reveals information about Enoch and the nature of his situation earlier. There’s absolutely no need to hold back on the basics of what’s going on – tension is not created by making a scene ambiguous or by blindfolding the reader. Tension arises from our knowing the stakes. We need to know who this character is and what he wants.

The best description in this scene comes from things that directly stimulate Enoch’s senses – the shake of the bridge, the howl of the wind. By restricting yourself to third-person limited, you’ll make the scene less of a story, and more of an experience.


2 Comments

  1. Bee says:

    Thanks for reviewing my sample, Tim! You make some great points. I’m on board. Thanks again for taking the time.

    PS. Congrats on your book – I started reading it today and am totally hooked!

  2. Ed says:

    So, I’ve been re-reading all the “Death of 1000 Cuts” posts as I’m editing some of my own work. And if I haven’t said it before, thanks Tim. These posts are awesome.

    There’s one point in this post that I don’t agree with, though. In the line “No, m’lord mancer, no more’n usual. Nobody else’s lost fingers, far as I know” you suggest cutting “else” because it’s infodumpy. I don’t buy that. I think it implies that the prisoner took someone’s fingers in the past, and the mancer heard about it or was present when it happened or read the report, or whatever. Perhaps he even spoke to the guard about it. Since then time has ellapsed, and the mancer hasn’t been receiving regular reports, or hasn’t been to visit, or whatever. And in that context “else” makes perfect sense.

    Having said that, “far as I know” bothered me. How would he not know? Wouldn’t the loss of additional digits be something that would do the rounds in the guard dormitory?

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