Bonjour et welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a weekly blog about fiction writing with a focus on editing. Most weeks, we look at the first page of an author’s novel or short story and try to find ways to make it better.
If you’d like submit your first page for the blog, please read our submission guidelines. Thanks very much to Alex for supplying this week’s extract.
Hey, my novel The Honours is up for the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award. You can vote here – it takes about 30 seconds and it could really help me out! I don’t know how many people vote for the award but if it’s not very many then your vote might make the difference (and you get entered into a draw to win a whole heap o’ books).
If you haven’t read The Honours yet, I recommend getting it from your local indie bookshop or ordering it online from Foyles, who are doing it for an utterly bargainous price that can’t be beaten. I thought interest had pretty much died down, then the summer reading lists came out and people started buying it again. Hooray! And thank you.
I am doing a bunch of festivals this summer – Latitude, FLY, Curious Arts, Wilderness, Port Eliot, Camp Bestival, Bestival and the Edinburgh Book Festival – so if you’re about at one of them, do come and say hello. I’m on at midday on Saturday at Latitude in their ‘Shed of Stories’, reading from The Honours. Reading in a shed might sound pretty dismal but it beats working for a living. Please join me!
Anyway, here’s this week’s extract. As usual, read the words below, decide what you like and what you’d change (and how, and why), then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. Remember – we’re practising developing our own self-editing skills. Challenge yourself! And if you disagree with anything I’ve said or want to add something, please pop your thoughts into the comments box below.
A Coin Toss (by Alex)
The air crackled as she fled towards the door; a heated stream of charged electrons accelerated towards her back in a bright arc of blue and white. Her vision ran a merry-go-round in her head; the long, thin, yellow blot on the ceiling circled clockwise in her right eye, but anti-clockwise in her left. Blurred shapes dressed the room as her head strained from the ground where she’d landed. Her bare shoulders shifted awkwardly up and down as the young women tried to keep her burning back off the floor. The room still hadn’t focused but his voice added shock to her adrenaline and already body quivering fear.
‘You shouldn’t have run Donna.’
‘David!?’ Her chest rapidly begun expanding in and out.
‘They got to you didn’t they!’
The blonde haired man took a few shameful steps towards Donna, ‘I didn’t want it to be like this.’ His words were so soft they could have drifted in the night’s breeze.
‘They’re lying to you-‘ her body lurched forward as her burn rubbed the cold, tiled floor, ‘-the Devonians will kill you.’
He knelt down and for the first time stared into her eyes, eyes which flared with a restrained anger, and caringly tucked a stray black strand of hair behind her ear. ‘I don’t believe that. But don’t worry… I’ll make it quick.’ He smiled with a catch in his voice.
The air crackled as she fled towards the door; a heated stream of charged electrons accelerated towards her back in a bright arc of blue and white.
Oh Alex, come on. This first clause is ass-backwards – what is more exciting? Crackling air? Or the existence of a door? *bzzzzzt* Time up! The answer is ‘crackling air’. So put it last: ‘As she fled towards the door, the air crackled.’ Then we get character – conflict (she’s fleeing; who/what from?) – peril (crackling air – oh shiiiiiiiiiii-) Crucially, if you put it this way round, we know crackling air is probably a bad sign because we already know she’s running away.
Syntax, people. For fuck’s sake. When will you learn? I hope regular readers have it graven into their forearms in ugly, purple-black gouges. Most interesting info last. Do it. Your writing will be much, much stronger.
‘a heated stream of charged electrons’ is sciencey without appearing to demonstrate a basic grasp of the laws of physics. Okay, so I’m no Particle-ologist, and anyone who knows better is welcome to chime in via the comments below, but basically all electrons have a negative charge. That is what makes them electrons. So ‘charged electrons’ is redundant.
I’m not sure ‘a heated stream of charged electrons’ makes sense at the subatomic level. Heat is the macroscopic manifestation of interactions of microscopic bodies. Unless you’re redundantly explaining what heat is. Which is like calling a man ‘a moving gestalt of charged particles’. I mean, you could stick ‘of charged particles’ on the end of most concrete nouns and they would remain technically true:
A dog of charged particles lolloped down the rainwet street of charged particles, barking at the fizzing sodium streetlights of charged particles, dragging the twisted, gristly stump of charged particles of its severed leg of charged particles.
So fundamentally, in my understanding, this sudden incongruous blast of technical language is complete bollocks.
Also – point of view? Whose story is this? In the very next sentence you switch to giving us the view from inside her head. But here, you show us something accelerating towards her back, which presumably she can’t see.
Jumping from broad overview to third-person limited is jarring and a trusted hallmark of shitty prose. Unless you absolutely know what you’re doing, omniscient narration is perilous as pushing baby crabs up your bum, one by one. Pick one character’s viewpoint to deliver the scene from, Alex. It’ll be far more exciting, and less of an incoherent mess.
Her vision ran a merry-go-round in her head; the long, thin, yellow blot on the ceiling circled clockwise in her right eye, but anti-clockwise in her left.
Ugh. You have perfectly reproduced the sensation of disorientation with this crappy, fragmented writing.
‘ran a merry-go-round’? What does that even mean: to ‘run’ a merry-go-round? Are you metaphorically saying her vision – this abstract ability – became the proprietor of a carnival ride? Then I suppose her hearing put on a couple of pot-luck dinners and her balance ran some evening classes in beginners’ Arabic.
Or do you mean ‘her vision ran round and round’? Which, look – I’m not saying it’s not comprehensible, I understand what you mean, but it’s the room that seems to be running round and round, not her vision.
Why add ‘in her head’? Where else would it happen? In her elbow of charged particles?
‘thin, yellow blot on the ceiling’ I have no idea what type of room she’s in, what technology level this world has, what the fuck a ‘long, thin, yellow blot’ is. This could be a castle or a med lab or a pirate ship. When has a blot ever been ‘thin’? Isn’t it round, or like a splat?
‘circled clockwise in her right eye, but anti-clockwise in her left’ Nothing to evoke a sense of creeping menace like cartoonish boggly eyes spinning in opposite directions. How is she even able to keep track of which eye is rotating in which direction? This shows an incredible level of visual acuity for someone with concussion.
I’ll say this: I do like how you simply place her on the floor, describing the ceiling, rather than telling us that she fell. Confusing time-jumps where a character is briefly knocked out can be an effective technique for putting us in their shoes and making us feel their disorientation. However, in this instance, it’s too much, too soon, and we don’t have enough context to make even basic sense of what’s going on.
Blurred shapes dressed the room as her head strained from the ground where she’d landed.
Dressed the room? What? These verb choices are making me feel like I’ve suffered a severe head injury. Blurred shapes are putting clothes on the room?
And what are we supposed to see when you say ‘the room’? That is almost literally the vaguest term for describing an indoor space you could possibly come up with. It’s totally undefined. Where is your crunchy specificity? Where are the telling details?
‘as her head strained from the ground’ – oh for fuck’s sake. ‘strained from the ground’? As in it was filtered through a mesh? What you mean is ‘she strained to lift her head’. The head doesn’t strain – she does.
Don’t close on ‘from the ground where she’d landed’ – it’s a horrible bit of expository tidying up where you step in to go, ‘oh, by the way, she’s fallen over’ and it undoes the subtlety of just describing her experience moment by moment. If she’s staring at the ceiling, vision blurry, straining to lift her head, any reader not currently suffering from a similar impairment will be able to figure out she’s on the ground.
Although, if we’re being pedantic – or, you know, just fucking accurate – it’s not even ‘the ground’. It’s the floor, because – as pretty much the only locational information we’ve been given has told us – she’s in a room, and therefore indoors.
Her bare shoulders shifted awkwardly up and down as the young women tried to keep her burning back off the floor.
Oh wait – what? Is this sentence like, oh by the way, her back is on fire? Or, by ‘burning’, do you just mean ‘alive with hot pain’? Because it’s not clear, and it reads bizarrely, just tossed in casually like this.
‘shifted awkwardly’ is particularly ugly, unevocative combination of verb and adverb. ‘shifted’ implies seamlessness, ease, a single clean movement, then you modify it with ‘awkwardly’, which carries an opposing sense. And look – let’s be honest here. Her fucking back is on fire. Yet you describe it as if she is trying to pull her knickers out of her arse crack during jury duty.
Don’t switch to ‘the young woman’ halfway through the sentence. It forces us to reread, to check you’re not introducing a new character. This is a hair’s breadth from being full-blown ‘Burly Detective Syndrome’, a wonderful term from the funny-and-actually-useful Turkey City Lexicon.
The room still hadn’t focused but his voice added shock to her adrenaline and already body quivering fear.
What voice? Whose? Where? Eh? Surely this should come after the dialogue?
After a few passes I managed to parse the last bit of this sentence as ‘to her adrenaline and already-body-quivering fear’. ‘already body quivering’ is one big adjectival phrase, but because of the order the words come in it reads as gibberish. We read: ‘his voice added shock to her adrenaline and already body’ and we’re like WHAT?
I mean, first off, how does a voice add shock to adrenaline? Adrenaline is a substance. It can’t feel anything. Then we hit ‘already body’ and we’re completely at sea. Our galleon has blown apart and we are clinging to a chunk of kelp-splattered gunwale singing Kate Bush songs while barracudas gnaw at our calves.
Then we hit ‘quivering’. ‘And already body quivering’? Hunh? So the reader’s brain goes, okay, maybe this is a new clause, not a list. Maybe it’s ‘his voice added shock to her adrenaline’ STOP, new thought: ‘Already, body quivering’. But that doesn’t make sense either.
Then we hit ‘fear’, and the sentence ends, and it’s still claptrap, and we despair. Then we reread multiple times and more or less glean your intended meaning.
This scenario I have just described is the real human cost of sloppy sentences. Yes, all the above mental gymnastics are performed in a matter of seconds, and most readers will be only semi-conscious of them. But the strain and dissatisfaction and eventual conscious assessment ‘this is shit’ is very, very real, Alex.
Your story deserves so much better.
‘You shouldn’t have run Donna.’
Look, no offence to people called Donna. I am sure they are wonderful human beings. But it just reads a bit comically – the sudden switch from magical firebally death spasmy tension to ‘Donna’. It’s one of those names, like ‘Nigel’, like ‘Doris’, that just carries a bit of a comic charge.
It’s loveable, also. Homely. Down-to-earth. But it absurdly end-loads this sentence. And, you know. I don’t think he’d be using her name right now. People who know each other use each other’s names relatively rarely. You’re only having him say it so we get to hear it. That’s why it sounds so forced.
‘David!?’ Her chest rapidly begun expanding in and out.
So their names are alliterative? HA! Amazing. Oh god, please say the entire book is made up of alliterative pairs. Polly and Peregrine. Magnus and Mo. Retsuko and Richard.
‘Her chest rapidly begun expanding in and out’ – amongst my peers, we refer to this mysterious process as ‘breathing’. And notice we don’t even get to the action, technically speaking – her chest only rapidly begins – that’s the active verb. The actual breathing might be taking place very slowly.
And you know what? I’m pretty sure someone who just took a flameblast to the back with such force that they temporarily passed out of consciousness and woke up on the floor is going to be breathing pretty fucking fast already. Unless you really expect us to believe that her thought process was: ‘Welp, I’ve horribly maimed by telekinetic superheat, no biggie. Guess I’ll just… hang on… DAVID?!’
‘They got to you didn’t they!’
Clichéd, flavourless dialogue. The rhetorical ‘didn’t they’ is particularly grating. I was desperately hoping that David would respond: ‘No. I just fireballed you in the spine as a goof. Of course they fucking got to me.’
The blonde haired man took a few shameful steps towards Donna
There’s that Burly Detective Syndrome again. And how do we know his steps are ‘shameful’? Show, don’t tell.
‘-the Devonians will kill you.’
Man, I just came back from the south-west, and I totally agree. Those bucolic custard-swigging outcasts have all the empathy of hill cannibals.
Look – it’s great you’ve started somewhere exciting. That shows you care about hooking the reader, and telling a thrilling story. But you need to work on the richness of your prose, and the depth of your world. Imagine it fully. Engage our five senses. Lift your dialogue out of hackneyed, B-movie stereotypes. Always be thinking: how can I make this original? What wouldn’t they expect to happen next?