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As always, this is about developing your self-editing skills. Read the extract below, decide what you like, what you think could be improved, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
13 Hanover Terrace (by Paul)
We did it the traditional way – we lugged the machine up from the cellar.
Little known fact: once he made it big as a writer, my great-great-uncle had access to the greatest minds of his time. And, although the machine was not the steam-punk behemoth with the spinning parasol portrayed in the movie (the good one, not the one with Guy Pierce), it was bulky enough to require it being carefully disassembled and then reassembled on the platform we had mounted on the flat back part on the roof at 13 Hanover Terrace.
This gave us the chance to familiarize ourselves with its parts and instruments. Having said that, we did not dare touch the dense block of wires, vacuum capsules and tubes under the seats. And I did say “seats”, all eight of them. Apparently, when Mr. Wells entertained, he entertained in style.
In this tradition, the plinth on the roof would allow us, we thought, an unobstructed view of Regent’s Park as we traveled. Why bother go anywhen, we reasoned, if you could not enjoy the views?
There were practical reasons for our decision also. After two months studying the machine, we were still far from knowing how it worked or the use it had been put to. Had Uncle George just gone a few seconds into the the future or past? Did they build in a safeguard against hitting an object on re-entry? Was there a re-entry or was the machine continuous to all space-time? Did we know what that even meant or implied?
13 Hanover Terrace
Rubbish title. No. Just because you know a piece of trivia that does not make it a compelling shop window for your fiction. Change it.
We did it the traditional way – we lugged the machine up from the cellar.
I like this as a first sentence – particularly the first clause, which strikes a nice balance between ‘woo, pronoun mystery’ (who’s ‘we’? wonders the reader, what’s ‘it’?) and giving us enough to grip onto. (and the phrasing reminded me of ‘This Shall Be Decided In The Traditional Way’, from A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible, the best webcomic ever and one I need the most slender of pretexts to link to)
Little known fact: once he made it big as a writer, my great-great-uncle had access to the greatest minds of his time.
So it’s the second sentence and you’re already abandoning the narrative present to offer us some ancillary information from an indeterminate time period. How does this sentence develop, logically, from the first?
I mean, having read the entire extract obviously I understand what you’re getting at, but read in this context they feel like two unrelated statements. This early on in a novel, you need to make sure that every sentence builds on the last – that they’re all working in concert.
I won’t lay into the style because I don’t actually think it’s that bad – ‘Little known fact’ is a nice provocation, I’d prefer ‘after’ rather than ‘once’, and the introduction of the ‘great-great uncle’ is a nicely specific bit of mystery-escalation – but, as a reader, I don’t want you to immediately abandon an interesting scene so you can start giving us a potted history.
Competently-written or not, this is an info-dump. Ooh! Ooh! I know someone who has written a lucid and intelligent post on info-dumps and the art of withholding information in fiction! You’re giving us facts without having first stimulated an appetite for said facts.
In the first sentence, people are lugging an unspecified machine up from the basement. Stick with them! Engage our senses. Let us hear them huffing and puffing. Give us a sense of the weight of the thing. Introduce a dash of mild peril – perhaps the machine is too heavy, perhaps they can’t get it through a doorway (ooh! Will they manage it?). Establish a narrative present and locate our investment within it.
I don’t want you wading in and going ‘actually you’re reading yet another Time Machine pastiche’ because that immediately kills my curiosity-boner. Give us characters, relationships and drama first, and broad summations of the milieu and backstory second (or even – get this for radical – not a-fucking-tall, because they’re hacky, lazy and boring).
And, although the machine was not the steam-punk behemoth with the spinning parasol portrayed in the movie (the good one, not the one with Guy Pierce)
This kind of genre-savvy sub-Joss Whedon esque winking drains any investment we might have in the story. The first person you name is Guy fucking Pierce! How about naming your goddamn protagonist? Can we have some actual story, please, before you start with the charmless editorialising on pop culture?
You haven’t yet established the reality of your fictive world. Until we have characters we care about, our willing suspension of disbelief hangs by the slenderest of threads. Most writers go through a phase of experimenting with metafictive smart-arsery, and I’m not suggesting it doesn’t have its place, but it is no substitute for compelling conflict and the ability to write in simple, clear sentences.
it was bulky enough to require it being carefully disassembled and then reassembled on the platform we had mounted on the flat back part on the roof at 13 Hanover Terrace.
Yuck. So many nested clauses disgorging one another, linked by gross, ugly strands of grammatical connective tissue.
For a start, why have you cast this in the passive voice? (NB: ‘to require its being carefully disassembled’, not ‘it’ – that’s a mislaid possessive right there) What happened to the far more engaging ‘we’? Surely the machine was so bulky that we had to carefully disassemble then reassemble it.
Cut ‘carefully’. Adverbs are like ninjas: a necessary evil, more effective the fewer you employ, and never to be trusted. ‘Disassembling’ and ‘reassembling’ implies care. They’re finicky, technical verbs. An adverb would only be permissible if the characters disassembled and reassembled the machine violently or haphazardly, and even then, the main problem would be the inappropriateness of the verb choice.
The final three ‘ons’ – ‘then reassembled on the platform we had mounted on the flat back part on the roof’ fatally wound this sentence. And why does it matter where they set it up? If you want to establish location, have the protagonist wipe his or her brow and gaze across the view after they finally get the machine built.
But the central problem with this sentence is that it’s summary. You’re blustering through an entire scene that you could be using to establish characters, setting and personalities, and reducing it to an extremely bland bit of backstory. If you’re so bored with your own premise, how can you expect your readers to care?
This gave us the chance to familiarize ourselves with its parts and instruments.
Vague, vague, vague. Weak noun choices, and the ‘us’ still undefined and nebulous. Every object in the world has ‘parts’. Show, don’t tell. Be specific.
Having said that, we did not dare touch the dense block of wires, vacuum capsules and tubes under the seats.
Better. ‘wires, vacuum capsules and tubes’ are all things we can picture. You are beginning to engage precisely one of our five senses.
Cut ‘having said that’. It’s redundant, and a tacit admission that the previous sentence was at least 50% horseshit.
And I did say “seats”, all eight of them. Apparently, when Mr. Wells entertained, he entertained in style.
This would be far better delivered by an actual character in actual dialogue, in the narrative present. Editorialising in the narrative like this just gets in the way.
I’m not sure if you’re going for a pastiche of a digressive Wellsian narrator, but if you are, you’ve borrowed all of the crap parts while abandoning all the successful ones. Give us actual dramatized moments, please, not this easy spoonfed pabulum masquerading as literature.
In this tradition, the plinth on the roof would allow us, we thought, an unobstructed view of Regent’s Park as we traveled.
Again, this would be far more entertaining delivered by an actual character, in the moment – and either agreed or disagreed with by the rest of the party – than diluted by this clumsy narration. If you were going to keep this sentence (hint: don’t) then ‘we thought’ should be moved to after ‘in this tradition’, rather than breaking up the main clause.
There were practical reasons for our decision also.
When is this set? Your language feels like a pastiche that doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions. Yet again, if you’d just given us direct access to the bloody scene instead of summarising, we’d have a much better idea.
After two months studying the machine, we were still far from knowing how it worked or the use it had been put to.
So wait – had they studied it in the cellar or has it been on the roof for two months? You said earlier that assembling it on the roof gave them a chance to familiarise themselves with its parts and instruments. What was stopping them doing that before? Or, if they have been studying it for two months, why would they need to familiarise themselves with it once on the roof? Don’t they have a light in the cellar?
Did they build in a safeguard against hitting an object on re-entry? Was there a re-entry or was the machine continuous to all space-time?
It seems to me the second question comes logically before the first. And… yawn… THIS WOULD BE FAR MORE INTERESTING DISCUSSED BY ACTUAL LIVING CHARACTERS, RATHER THAN SPUNKED UP THE WALL BY A TEDIOUS NARRATOR.
Did we know what that even meant or implied?
This feels perilously close to acknowledging that your narrator is talking bollocks.
Look, I think the standard of prose across this extract is pretty reasonable, overall. You can string a sentence together. Well done.
But why have you convinced yourself that show, don’t tell only applies to other people? This isn’t a story. It’s notes for a story. You’ve dodged the difficult work of bringing characters to life, developing relationships, exciting the reader’s five senses so we can see, hear, smell, feel and taste your imagined world, and instead you’ve given us a broad digest of events. It’s like the ‘Plot’ section of a movie’s Wikipedia page. Economical? Pretty much. Immersive? No.
I can imagine this being a great scene if you make the effort to invest it with texture and nuance.
DTFW. Do The Fucking Work. Dramatise scenes. Give us tension. Make us care.
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