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

Gosh, these past couple of weeks seem to have rattled by in a blur of plans and admin, writing and not-writing, gazing at the screen, praying for literary deliverance.

Next week I’m going to go back to the In The Barber’s Chair format, but I thought it was worth mixing things up for a few weeks, just because, y’know, we can all do with a reminder of first principles for the New Year. If you’re working on something at the moment, my central message is get down to it. There are no excuses. Scrape 10 minutes here and there. Eek out 100 words a day. Whatever it takes. Just make sure you are writing on the reg. Even if it sucks.

Don’t know if you saw, but I’ve announced the two launch events for The Honours at the start of April. One is a free Homework special in London on Wednesday April 1st, and the other is a launch and reading in Norwich on Thursday April 2nd. See the ‘Shows’ tab on the right for details, or click on either link for the Facebook event, which you’re welcome to share and invite people to yourself. I’d love to see you there! Yes, specifically you. Just you. Alone. That’d be weird, wouldn’t it?

Cut 18 – Hold Your Nerve

So I think most writers, if they’ve spent any time considering their craft at all, have a sense that the first line of a story or a novel is important. They know they ought to start with something interesting – a strong opening bid that grabs the reader’s attention, something odd or compelling or funny or explosive, a well-arrayed shop window, a clear message that says: I AM NOT GOING TO WASTE YOUR TIME.

And good for them.

The most common tactic I see from novice authors is starting in media res, i.e. we hit the ground running – sometimes literally – and join a character mid-scene. I get a lot of genre pieces at DoaTC, so often our first pages kick off with:

Mineth ducked into an alley and slammed her back to the wall, panting.

Which, y’know, is a bit broad, but fine. We’re moving. It’s comprehensible. I wouldn’t read this and think ‘Holy shit – I’m in the presence of a master’ but I’d certainly keep reading. Inducing your audience to keep reading is fundamental goal of your writing upon which all higher goals of entertainment, persuasion, education, emotional transformation, or whatever, rest.

However, what happens next is usually where the piece falls apart. In Samuel R Delany’s superb book, About Writing, he calls this ‘one of the most common and weakest of narrative structures for opening of stories or scenes. It should be avoided like the plague.’ I agree wholeheartedly, and I shall explain forwhy, why I think authors succumb to the temptation, and how you can resist it.

So, in most of the examples we’ve looked at, here’s how the scene progresses:

Mineth ducked into an alley and slammed her back to the wall, panting.

She had never meant things to end up like this. Earlier that morning, when she had set out from her permasheet hovel in the eastern shanty town, she’d had just one thing on her mind – finding Xan. She’d slipped her markstik into the rubber insole of her sneaker, filled a bladder with tepid, coppery water at the local spigot, then headed west towards the metro station.

Glass fragments and crumbling black macadam had crunched under her treads as she had followed the sloping street downwards, between slump-panelled shacks connected by a perilous web of thick blue electrical cables. Men sat in shadows under tarps, listening to tinny balalaika reels on their shitty laptops, heating the heads of nails with blowtorches and sucking up the molten fumes of low-grade moontar. A pack of scrawny kids chased a lone red rat through narrow side-streets, armed with planks and rocks and knives. The rat ran past a roast chicken cart and the vendor leaned over and calmly impaled it on his barbecue fork. The twin prongs, needle-sharp, went through its skull and gut, pinning it to the dirt. Mineth had watched it twitching, fitting as it expired. Then, with a flick of his wrist, the sweaty vendor whipped the fork into the air, sending the rat sailing off across the low tarp roofs behind.

The kids stood in a loose bunch, crestfallen. The vendor took the wet roll-up from his lips.

‘Gubi sa!’ he spat, in the guttural slum-pidgin. He brandished his long fork, tines slick with rat blood. ‘Gubi sa! Mantna!’

The kids hesitated for a moment, then scattered.

As she passed, the vendor’s scowl changed to a toothy grin. ‘Pilento bon! Pilento bon!’ He patted his cart.

Mineth shook her head and smiled, despite herself. The aroma of hot grease made her stomach growl. Home.

So like, I just ad-libbed this as an example, but Рaside from clich̩ and general genre cheesiness Рit suffers from an immediate failure of nerve.

It opens in one narrative present – Mineth ducking into an alley (as I say, a cliché in itself, but for now let’s focus on the structure) – then instantly abandons it to flashback into the recent past. The author has paid lip service to the notion that she should open her story in the most interesting place possible, and – having achieved this with the first sentence – reverts to the same old habits of wheeling back to earlier in the day, to indulge in a bit of world-building.

And, to be honest, at least in the example I gave above, when we go back there’s some specificity and a sense of things taking place in a replacement narrative present. The actions are mostly specific, in-the-moment ones rather than general observations (although the blue wires and men under tarps are more of this broad-strokes flavourtext category). It’s mainly showing, not telling, which is why it has a semblance of life, even though it deals with very familiar territory.

In most submissions I get, after the first sentence we collapse any pretence of narrative present altogether, and simply revert to blunt crappy info-dumping:

Mineth ducked into an alley and slammed her back to the wall, panting.

She had let them catch her off-guard. A street-orphan for as long as she could remember, she knew how to spot danger – the over-long glance from a blackhat, the too-good-to-be-true offer of food from a stranger with expensive calf-leather shoes, the dead-end, the car with its door open. She knew when to hold her ground and when to run. She could jailbreak a palmpal in under 5 minutes, wipe the serial tags off a fletchpistol’s ID crystal and fence it for better than the street price, and mule-kick a pursuer hard enough to break at least three of his ribs. She ate orahki with the shells on. She had lived in the sewers for three weeks during the family wars. She knew Jaltus the Admonisher when he was just plain old Jalt, scrawny, acned, hiding behind the bigger boys. She saw him take his first life.

But she never saw them coming.

I mean, who gives a shit? It sounds so hack.

And not, I think, because of the overwhelming genre elements, but because of the stagey framing technique. If you’re going to start your story in the most interesting place, keep it in the most interesting place, at least for the duration of a satisfying scene. I’m not inveighing against the flashback as an overall tactic – although I do think it is overused and often employed ineptly – simply against the rise and rise of the hackneyed one-line teaser that disguises a raft of the same old bad habits.

Yes, your first line is important. But it does not innoculate your story against the shittiness of your second line. It’s a statement of intent which you have to make good on, otherwise the reader will quickly cry foul and abandon your story, furious at having been cheated.

And this does not just apply to the first sentence of a novel. In a novel, you want to treat every scene like a little short story. You want to be opening – and making good on that opening – in a similar way, right throughout the book. We’ll talk more about this is in a future installment – the idea of making a compelling offer to the reader, then not just fulfilling your promise, but escalating and improving it through the scene.

Keep writing, dear friends. I believe in you!

And if you’d like to demonstrate your belief in me, why not pre-order my debut novel, The Honours, due out on April 2nd? Click here to do so in about 30 seconds.