Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog for fiction writers, mostly about making your stories better, sometimes about the hard process of making them at all. A new one appears every Thursday.
Often, I’ll look at a novice author’s first page and offer some analysis. This isn’t me pronouncing from on high about worthiness (I wasn’t a published novelist two years ago when we started), just a fellow writer giving his considered thoughts. If you’d like to submit your work, please read our submission guidelines first.
I am working very hard on a novel at the moment. It is tough! Some days it feels like very slow-going. Actually, most days. I don’t know whether it’s going to be any good and I don’t know how long it will take me. I’m doing my best, mostly, even if sometimes I find myself guiltily evading the computer. I have put in a lot of effort and research and love and we’ll see what comes out. That’s all you can ask of writing in the end, really. I will not be quite so philosophical if the fruit of my labours is a steaming pile of shit – I don’t think anyone would consider poo-fruit a welcome harvest – but the fact remains that one’s control is limited by the compass of one’s competence.
Have you read The Honours? It is my debut novel, published by Canongate, and it’s a pretty cool adventure set in 1935. You can buy it here, or go into your local bookshop and ask them to order it for you. It might even be on the shelves. Supporting me by doing this single act will be a wonderful kindness and will also improve your happiness by resulting in a splendid book becoming yours to possess, cherish and defend from burglars forever.
Don’t forget you can send me writing-related questions for the DoaTC mailbag via the ‘contact me’ link on the right. These are most welcome.
Right. On with the extract. If you have anything to add, or if you disagree, please pop your thoughts in the comments.
A Man Alone (by Luke)
Larry’s wife was dead. He thought a long time about what that meant. She was not away, like she had been when she stayed with her sister during that long summer in Minnesota, and she was not missing, like she had been when they had the Disagreement and she drove away without saying a word. She was gone. He would not find her at her sister’s house, where she would sit on a stone bench under dappled sunlight reading a book, and he would not find her on some lonesome stretch of highway. He could go to the farthest star in the galaxy, to the place where the very universe ends and curves back in on itself, and she would not be there. She existed in no place and at no time, as intangible as the memory of a dream.
He sat in an armchair watching an old cowboy movie on the television, picking the cotton stuffing that was bursting out of a torn seam in the armrest. In the movie the cowboys were engaged in a shootout in a desert town, and one man after another dropped dead in the dust. He kept the TV loud to drown out the sound of a knock he heard coming from inside the wall to his left. He had been hearing it for three days. He rationalized it as a hallucination caused by his anxious mind, but a deeper part of him wondered if it was something else.
Larry’s wife was dead.
On one level, a very good opening bid. In four words, you introduce the protagonist and a problem he faces. You close on the most interesting word.
I talk a lot about locating sentences – especially ones at the start of a novel – in a clear narrative present rather than wandering off into some indeterminate fudgy pseudo-now where you talk about the general states of things rather than tracking the story’s action as it unfolds. This sentence doesn’t really exist in a moment – it’s a statement of a broad condition rather than the description of an event – but that doesn’t disqualify it.
Reasons for exemption: it’s short. This is always a pretty good get-out-of-jail-free card (don’t get me started on the implied criminal justice system in Monopoly – in fact, don’t get me started on the whole narrative underpinning it in general, which gestures towards coherence but is basically bananas – whoever went bankrupt by accidentally staying at a hotel? Where one night costs more than purchasing all the major railway stations in London? Why would you keep compulsively staying at rivals’ properties when you own several streets? It’s almost as if this venerated cultural institution is total bollocks) for any anomalous sentence – the quicker you get in and out, the more rules you’re allowed to break.
Also: it’s interesting. It’s striking. Four words in, and something’s happened. The story’s moving. You’re rewarding our investment of attention. That is, need I remind you, a fantastic way of building reader commitment.
A lot of writers forget that the function of the first page is to flip a psychological lever in the reader’s brain. You want them to think: ‘Okay, this seems like a good bet. I’ll give this a go.’ If you’re already one of their favourite authors or your novel has one a major prize or a trusted friend has pressed the book into their hands saying ‘Read this – you’ll love it,’ then you may get this little cushion of goodwill for free, but nevertheless it’s wise to proceed assuming it doesn’t exist.
Authors, if their careers do well, sometimes get sloppy with later books, since a core of readers forgive them shitty first pages, slow first chapters, sagging middles and lacklustre endings, on the basis that they’re successful, they’re an ‘Author’ (capital A), and they must know what they’re doing. We, on the other hand, are blessed in not having such a distracting miasma of acclaim blinding us to the truth of the work we produce.
Prose wants to be shit. Shitness is its natural state, one which we must constantly strive against. If we are lucky, we will never be so popular as to stop having people tell us: ‘No, this is not good enough. Make it better.’ We will always be supported in our desire to make the story as good as it can be.
My last problem with this opening sentence is one I don’t have an entirely satisfactory solution for. ‘Larry’s wife’ is an oddly inappropriate, faintly demeaning epithet. She had a name, right? I don’t mean this so much as an accusation of sexism as a practical one of viewpoint. The narrative is, by implication, third-person limited. We’re cleaving reasonably close to Larry’s thoughts and feelings, albeit with a little ironic distance at points. We’re restricted to what Larry knows, certainly.
So why is the narrative allowed to be specific with a place like Minnesota, but not with her name? I can only speak for my own marriage but I don’t greet my significant other with: ‘Hello, my wife.’ I use her name. ‘Larry’s wife’ brings in a slightly clinical distance and diverges from how he thinks of her. It’s an expositional signpost for our benefit.
Of course, if you tweaked the sentence to read ‘Beryl was dead’ then we lose our protagonist and his relationship to the deceased. The dead wife becomes the implied main character. It doesn’t work at all.
I think this is a problem you can’t address within the sentence itself. For now, consider the target well and truly painted. We’ll sort it out in a bit.
He thought a long time about what that meant.
Yeah. I like this. It’s not terribly showy, but it’s comprehensible, sad in an understated way. I think a lot of grief is unspectacular, cut through with boredom. The world refuses to explode in the hideous, pyrotechnic manner your heart demands. It’s just mundane. It chugs on.
So this works for me. It also makes it clear that this is third-person limited narration – we’re going to have access to Larry’s thoughts and feelings.
She was not away, like she had been when she stayed with her sister during that long summer in Minnesota, and she was not missing, like she had been when they had the Disagreement and she drove away without saying a word.
Hmm. Luke, my feelings on this are Decidedly Mixed.
Firstly, I’d split it into two sentences. That first ‘and’ sticky-taping the two halves together contributes nothing in terms of comprehension, cadence or flow. It’s just a compulsive little tag. The parallel construction is clearer if you start a new sentence. Full stop after ‘Minnesota’, a strong, specific proper noun to end on.
I like that you provide semi-concrete examples for ‘away’ and ‘missing’. You’re sneaking in backstory, making the two characters feel more three-dimensional, and as you do, our investment necessarily increases. I say ‘semi-concrete’ because while ‘Minnesota’ and ‘the Disagreement’ feel nicely idiosyncratic and precise, ‘her sister’, ‘long summer’ and ‘drove away’ are pretty vague and don’t excite our senses. You can afford to tighten and specify even more.
Also, the repetition of ‘away’ – ‘She was not away’, ‘she drove away’ – jars, especially when you’ve loaded the first usage with so much semantic freight.
I like how he’s struggling with these concepts. I realise a human being knows, intellectually, the difference between ‘away’ and ‘dead’, but aspects can feel functionally the same, and death really isn’t a coherent, single thing, is it? It’s a concept that ties together all these different instrumental consequences in one’s life. So this felt authentic and sad to me – the bafflement at its hugeness, and also its weird anticlimactic-ness.
She was gone.
No need for this. There’s employing a leitmotif and then there’s repeatedly bopping the reader over the noggin with a giant squeaky hammer. This, Luke, is the latter.
He would not find her at her sister’s house, where she would sit on a stone bench under dappled sunlight reading a book, and he would not find her on some lonesome stretch of highway.
I like the intention behind this, but it’s gone off half-cocked. I get that you’re mirroring the previous construction, showing the solutions to ‘away’ and ‘missing’, but the language is cumbersome. It’s like you’ve sent us a lovely parcel of Moomin mugs but forgotten to bubblewrap it and we’re peeling open a cardboard box full of lethal shards of Moominpapa’s reproachful top-hatted face. (can a face be top-hatted? I suppose it depends how unconventional you’re prepared to be with regards to chapeau-fu)
‘where she would sit’ is particularly mangled. I think you mean: ‘He would not find her at her sister’s house, sitting on a stone bench in dappled sunlight reading a book’. I’m not convinced by ‘sister’s house’ (you still haven’t unpacked that vague concept ‘sister’, and ‘house’ is a super bland noun), ‘dappled sunlight’ (the cliché police are hacking through your door with an axe, Sweeney-style, for crimes against prose) and ‘reading a book’ (an incredibly boring beat – at least tell us what kind of book, or give us a title?). Neither am I won over by ‘some lonesome stretch of highway’ (be specific! Show, don’t tell. This baldly states the mood of the highway, when you should evoke that state through description – you’re skipping steps)
So yeah. You stood, tapped your spoon against your champagne glass and called for silence, then with the entire wedding party looking on, you audibly sharted. It happens to the best of us, Luke. The very best. Fortunately, as an author you have magical time-reversing powers called redrafting, which allow you to inhale that espresso-rich bum-sneeze back up your metaphorical colon and attempt the speech a second time, sans soilage. No fault, no foul.
He could go to the farthest star in the galaxy, to the place where the very universe ends and curves back in on itself, and she would not be there. She existed in no place and at no time, as intangible as the memory of a dream.
Jesus Christ, Mr Extended Conceit, the party’s over. Go home.
‘as intangible as the memory of a dream’ is a cluster of words that should never appear in any work of fiction, ever. This is an immediate signal to any reader to cease reading.
I get what you’re doing here, Luke, but there’s no need for it. You’re stepping in to bludgeon us repeatedly with your intended meaning. We already got it. It’s far better implied than spelt out in this frankly sophomoric bong-talk.
He sat in an armchair watching an old cowboy movie on the television, picking the cotton stuffing that was bursting out of a torn seam in the armrest.
I like the second half of this sentence. I’d cut ‘that was bursting’ – an unnecessarily fussy elaboration that is already implied, but otherwise, it’s a good detail.
‘an old cowboy movie’ is a bit broad. It’s a hacky beat – here he is, watching bland TV. Try to be specific, or interesting, or weird. By implication, a novel is supposed to be something worth our paying you for, something worth trading hours of our finite (as far as we know) and only (as far as we know) span of consciousness for. So make a bit of fucking effort, eh? I know you can do better, Luke, and I want you to realise that you’re allowed to be more interesting – that each of these moments is an opportunity, a socket into which you can insert any one of a thousand strange and dazzling gems.
‘on the television’ is fluff – it’s more fluffy, ironically, than the latter half of the sentence which is literally about fluff. If you wrote ‘He sat in an armchair watching an old cowboy movie’ the reader isn’t going to be like ‘holy shit! How is this movie manifesting? Is he having a psychotic episode? Is R2D2 beaming it in a crappy hologram?’ You might as well add: ‘with his eyes’.
In the movie the cowboys were engaged in a shootout in a desert town, and one man after another dropped dead in the dust.
This is in no way revelatory or interesting.
He kept the TV loud to drown out the sound of a knock he heard coming from inside the wall to his left.
STORY! ACTUAL STORY HAPPENING! *glitter cannon fires*
No need for ‘to his left’. That is a super-anticlimactic way to close the sentence. ‘from inside the wall’ – that’s the kicker, right?
‘the sound of a knock’ – a knock is a sound, right? I mean, I suppose it’s both the action of rapping one’s knuckles on a surface and the sound, but still. ‘the knocking’ is functionally the same as ‘the sound of a knock’, and two words instead of five.
By the end of this piece, I am on the cusp of being engaged, Luke. There’s very good writing and very bad writing in this opening page. Welcome to my writing life, as lived, day by day. I constantly produce stuff that makes me think ‘ooh, neat’ and ‘ooh, sheeeeet’. If you’re able to identify both, that means your critical faculties haven’t gone offline. Easy fixes you can do on the fly, during the first draft, bigger ones you can make your peace with, press on, and wheel round to address later.
Have confidence in your details’ ability to carry the day. Cut your insurance lines that explain to the reader what you meant. We don’t need our hands held.