Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Do you want to hear about how busy I am? No, of course you don’t. That would be tedious and beside the point.
Still, I feel swamped right now, what with gigs in Edinburgh, Bristol and Edinburgh, in that order, showing bits of my next novel to people and developing a dangerous addiction to dystopian cyberpunk asymmetric card game Netrunner. I have quit video games until the next novel is finished, but it turns out that alternate timewasters have flowed in to fill the cracks left by the previous habit. My vices are getting progressively duller, you guys. I’ve been teetotal for over three years. Writers are supposed to romantic snowballs of decadent decline. My most self-destructive habit is ‘plays too much cards’.
Once all the smoke has cleared I’m going to set about recording a pilot of the Death Of 1000 Cuts podcast. I miss radio and my wife has a pretty cool recording rig and I think with the various floating pieces of my bizarre skillset some kind of audio version is the way this is going. But I’ve no chance of starting that until September, which – terrifyingly – is almost upon us.
Don’t forget The Honours is out, and you can buy it. Please do. It’s also up for the First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Literature Festival, and you can vote for that – voting takes 30 seconds and would be a real lovely favour you could do for me.
Cut 24: See The Dog
If you will, I’d like you to take part in an exercise that’s part thought experiment, part personality test. Please don’t think about it too hard or try to get the ‘right’ answer – there isn’t one. Just relax and pay attention to your mind and simply observe what it does.
So I’d like you to picture this scene: you’re at home. You hear a noise at the door and get up to answer it. When you open the door, on the other side is a dog in a hat.
See it? Good.
My question to you is:
What type of dog are you picturing, wearing what kind of hat?
Don’t try to invent a funny combination, just look at the image your brain conjured up. If you don’t recognise the breed, maybe go on google images and see if you can find the name of it.
What type of dog, in what kind of hat? Please feel free to share your answers in the comments below. It would really help to get a good spread!
The point of this exercise (allowing of course that imagining dogs in hats is always an end in itself) is that people picture a strikingly varied range of dogs and hats. I’ve asked groups of 15, 20, 30 people, and no two people get exactly the same combination. Maybe one person sees a giant schnauzer in a red baseball cap, another person pictures a Labrador in a fez, and a third person opens the door to find a grey pug in a sombrero.
(I just asked my wife and she saw a Lassie dog in a dunce hat)
When we write, as authors we have a choice about how much to tighten our focus. We can be broad and vague:
A man went into a building.
One way to increase the precision is to append adjectives to the nouns:
A tall man went into a grey building.
Which is sort of better, and sort of worse. We now have the beginnings of flavour – the ‘grey’ perhaps suggesting mood – but the sentence is longer and the repeated rhythm of adjective-noun, adjective-noun is monotonous.
Of course, they’re not terribly exciting adjectives. How about we jazz them up a bit?
A miserable man went into a dilapidated building.
Now there’s definitely flavour, but try rereading the sentence then turning your attention to the picture in your head. What can you actually see? If you’re anything like me, not much. It’s like the picture is weirdly blurry. I get a vague impression of rain, darkness (the man in my imagination is wearing some sort of busted top hat) but I don’t feel my senses being excited. The storytelling is foregrounded over the actual story.
Notice that the adjectives here are both abstract – they’re value judgements that offer an opinion or analysis of the man and the building, not straight up facts like ‘one-legged’ or ‘burning’.
Let’s try again:
A one-legged man went into a burning building.
Yeah. So that does seem a bit more interesting. But still, it doesn’t really feel vivid to me. It’s not alive.
This is the point when we realise that pissing about with adjectives is like trying to steer your car by making all the passengers lean sharply as you approach a corner. No, no, no.
Let’s tweak the nouns.
A king went into a palace.
More interesting, right? And look again – technically all these sentences still fall under the semantic umbrella of ‘a man went into a building’. It’s just that there are a huge number of waveforms to be collapsed within the closed box of ‘man’ and ‘building’.
I mean, it depends on your story. There’s nothing terribly arresting or out of the ordinary in a king going into a palace, because they belong to the same lexical set.
A soothsayer went into a palace.
And we can start appending adjectives, once we’ve established more viable nouns:
A cruel soothsayer went into a palace.
A story’s starting to emerge, right?
A dead soothsayer went into a derelict glass palace.
Flavour is definitely present.
BUT STILL. ‘went into’? That fucking verb, man. Horrible. Bland. Verbs and nouns are where we need to see juice. So let’s try juicing it up:
A dead soothsayer stumbled into a derelict glass palace.
Right. So this is 100% more vivid than ‘A man went into a building’ – but notice that the above action could still be described as ‘A man went into a building’. That is what’s happening. But ‘A man went into a building’ could also be:
A screeching acrobat cartwheeled into a busy crematorium.
Which is flavour-rich, for sure. ‘cartwheeled’ is more specific than ‘went’.
But I’m sure you can see that there’s a tradeoff, here. The previous two sentences are easier to picture than the original, but they can also feel a bit overdetermined and try-hard. Even if we don’t make the content self-consciously wacky, the language can still come off a little ponderous:
A wrinkled gardener trudged into a small, hexagonal gazebo.
Nothing overtly silly there, right? But it feels a bit… I don’t know. A bit clinical, maybe? Even if we limit ourselves to a single adjective:
A gardener trudged into a small gazebo.
The language doesn’t feel easy and light. It draws attention to itself.
And this is why, when writing, it’s not simply a case of endlessly ratcheting up the detail in your prose. I am on the record as advocating for ‘crunchy specificity’. For saying what you mean. For giving us the French bulldog in a boater.
But you have to pick your battles. It’s not always relevant, or useful, and, just as photographers piss about with the aperture settings to bring particular parts of the image into sharp focus, so to will you want to be very precise in some areas, while leaving other areas with semantic gaps into which the reader’s assumptions can flow.
There’s a whole can of worms here about assumptions and prejudices and cultural defaults. A lot of readers don’t realise how they’ve been conditioned, when an author writes ‘A figure stood in the doorway,’ to default to seeing a white male unless they’re told otherwise. That if a character’s ethnicity isn’t specified, unless they have a name strongly associated with a particular region, like Thanh Hao, or the story is set in a particular country, most white western readers will default to seeing them as white unless explicitly told otherwise. Likewise with heteronormative and cis-normative readings, where readers will – quite unconsciously – elide information that doesn’t fit with the default assumption of straight, cisgendered characters.
At the moment, you don’t ever have to say ‘a straight, white, cis man’, because most readers will assume all those things in ‘man’. On the other hand, you can use these assumptions to wrongfoot, surprise and awaken the reader. And you don’t have to continually, painstakingly lay these things out. Part of the responsibility is on the reader. A character’s sexuality isn’t really relevant in a scene where they’re wrestling a bear.
China Mieville opens Iron Council with the sentence: ‘A man runs.’ Which is great, right? Not specific, but it puts the most important information at the end: he’s running. Why? From something? To something? The image at this stage is impressionistic – the primary sense is of movement. But that’s really effective.
The main thing is, be aware that with every noun, every verb, every adjective, you’re making a choice. Some scenes need a shiba in a bicorn. And some just need a dog in a hat.