Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

Each week we take the first page of an author’s novel or short story, and look at ways of making it better. We’re learning how to be better editors of our own fiction. If you would like to submit your work for a future post, please read the Submission Guidelines.

Argh. First drafts. If I seem a little crabby it’s because this week, after a summer of live performance, I’m making myself knuckle down and actually bash out some prose. I forgot how horrible it feels. I have this beautiful, shiny, exciting story in my head, and it’s coming out as complete garbage. This post on Author Allsorts brilliantly sums up what it feels like, with a little less self-loathing.

Some people loudly opine that if you’re not enjoying it, you need to stop. After all, if you’re not feeling inspired and happy, how on earth are you going to produce anything someone would want to read?

The last time I took that approach, I stopped writing prose for 10 years. Fuck that noise.

I write because I want to tell stories and because I love them, not because I’m good at it or I find it easy or because bashing out a first draft feels like slipping into a lovely bath filled with rose petals and friendly otters. If I had waited until it was easy, if I hadn’t written through the shitful doubt and the tens of thousands of words of flimsy characters and dogshit prose, my novel simply wouldn’t have happened.

Ocassionally I did write in a sort of rapturous blur and turned out page after page. But those bouts of inspiration tended to be ‘earned’. They built up like a Limit Break through day after day at the laptop screen, normally hitting me just after I pushed through a particular nasty episode of writers’ block.

What I am saying is, I find writing very, very hard. It is often uncomfortable and dispiriting, and although I think my first novel is easily the best thing I have ever written, I have no idea whether I can do it again. Years ago, I found the strain of writing so tough that I had a breakdown.

And despite all that, I am sure it is absolutely worth it.

So I want you to know, when I write these posts, I am absolutely on your, the writers’, side. If you find writing easy and fun, I am so pleased for you. I know how great writing feels when it just flows, and it’s wonderful you have that pleasure in your life. If you find writing tough, then solidarity, noble colleague. I do too. But hang in there. Yes, your worst fears are probably true, and your first draft will probably be a worthless piece of shit. Don’t worry. Redrafting grants you the power of time travel. You can go back and kill Hitler. You can go back and delete that double-adverb combo, which, let’s face it, is probably worse than Hitler.

My fiction debut, The Honours, is out in April.

Right. As usual, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.

Adam’s Story (by Peter)

Adam’s eyes flick open. Without moving his head, he glances down and surveys the bleeding ink badges branded upon his wrist. Unlike stamps in a passport, these colourful nightclub visas are not mementos of the proud adventurer. They’re flags of sadness, unwelcome reminders of excess and desperation, too many vodkas, too many superficial conversations and failed attempts at affection. Drugs too. Far too many. He rolls to his side to alleviate a rising wave of nausea to be confronted by a sharp emotionless stare.

Fuck. She’s awake.

Although unprepared his face doesn’t betray him. The muddy rose of her sclera confesses recent tears, and the subtle shudder of her brow screams confused pain. Instinctively his hand reaches out to her, but like a hero saving a child from falling on the train tracks, his conscious mind swiftly shuts down the attempted affection leaving his arm awkwardly dividing the two of them.

She’s pretty. His clinical disconnection to this observation shocks even himself. The warmth of her friendly beauty no longer penetrates him the way it once did. If you were to study a photo of this moment and compare it to one taken on the first morning they shared in this apartment –  just two years ago – you’d struggle to find any discernible differences. Everything is the same, but beneath the pixels, everything is different. Once, a silent visual embrace said everything that needed to be said. Now, silence lingers because neither party knows what to say. Or is too scared to say it.

The Cuts

Adam’s eyes flick open.

No greater cliché hath an author than this – to open a story with some dude waking up, groggy and hungover, and the whole world dead gritty and nihilistic, like. Everybody writes this story. Everybody. It’s like a little .exe file implanted in every would-be writer, and at some time in your development it activates and you start a scene with ‘Ted opened his eyes’ or ‘Jessica gazed into the garish red digits of the screeching alarm clock’ or ‘K’Tsar XIII, Tribulator Of The Twice-Scarred Moons, frowned woozily through the mucus membrane of his resucculence chamber as, out in the Mustering Hub, the shrieks of another blood sacrifice signalled the call to morning combat.’

We’re like salmon, somehow knowing that we have to flap and struggle upstream to our spawning grounds, only instead of dumping an assload of eggs then dying, exhausted, it’s like we take this massive dump, and it flows out into the sea, and then we’re free with getting on writing good stuff.

What I am doing is declaring a prejudice, Peter. I suspect I am not the only reader who has it and I think we can all agree that prejudices are prima facie bad, but as an author it’s important you know when readers are likely to activate Skepticism Shields so you can prepare countermeasures – if, indeed, you decide their scepticism is unjustified and not a perfectly rational response to crappy cliché.

So, if this is from Adam’s POV, I think this sentence needs rewriting. It implies a third-person viewpoint, like a camera shot. We see the eyes opening.

This is mainly because you’ve made his eyes, not Adam himself, the subject of the sentence. ‘Adam’s’ is an adjective, modifying the ‘eyes’. They ‘flick open’ seemingly of their own accord. Unless this dude is a creepy painting, recast this. It robs him of agency.

‘Adam opened his eyes’ is much better, although it exposes the essential blandness of this opening scene. Better to give us a few beats describing other senses, introducing a bit of a hook – something surprising, something that engages our smell or hearing, something with crunchy specificity. Then, he he opens his eyes, we might give a shit, because there might be something at stake. Otherwise it’s like writing ‘Adam went inside’ or ‘Adam put the phone down’. Those might be dramatic beats, if we had any kind of context, but on their own, there’s nothing to grip the reader, nothing to draw us in.

In the opening sentence, the author should be prepared to show a bit of leg, stylistically-speaking. I don’t think there’s anything tacky or desperate about it. If you’re too proud to woo your readers, go and write copy for cans of bowling shoe deodorizer.

Without moving his head, he glances down and surveys the bleeding ink badges branded upon his wrist.

Don’t preface sentences with sub-clauses negating actions the protagonist isn’t performing – we’ll be here all fucking week. ‘Without moving his head’ is the thin end of the wedge. Soon the simplest movement will come with a raft of pre-emptive qualifiers:

Without licking his lips, flexing his calves, scrunching his toes, insouciantly breaking wind, thinking about meringue, phoning his broker, annexing Quebec for the French, remembering the concept of – but not the word for – schadenfreude, or finger-banging a gnome, Thomas opened the door of the nursery.

I’m no slippery-slope Chicken-Licken doomsayer, Peter, but unless you tighten up your prose THIS WILL DEFINITELY HAPPEN.

When you say he ‘surveys’ the stamps on his wrist, you mean ‘sees’, right? But you’re trying to sound literary so you say ‘surveys’ as if the reader will think: ‘Hello… this is no ordinary author! “Surveys”, eh? How creamily redolent with intellection! Artistic merit ahoy!’

I mean, maybe ‘checks’ is okay. I suppose that Adam, unable to remember all of the previous night, is working out where he’s been from the stamps on his wrist. So ‘sees’ might be too passive. But ‘surveys’ is try-hard.

You cannot say that the club stamps are both ‘bleeding ink badges’ and ‘branded’. Those are two different images. And both are shit. ‘bleeding ink badges’ is pretentious and obfuscatory – ‘bleeding’? Please. What an overblown adjective to modify ‘badges’. It’s like writing ‘visceral sultanas’. ‘branded’ is a horrible cliché. Don’t just grab the nearest word and try to turn it into a sentence. This isn’t Ready Steady Cook.

What’s wrong with writing: ‘He glances down and checks the club stamps on his wrists.’ Or even: ‘He checks the club stamps on his wrists.’ Who made all these up-and-coming writers afraid of crisp, comprehensible prose? Tell me, cos I will get him for you.

Let me pause for just a second to reiterate. As a novice author, making your prose real purty is not what will distinguish you from 95% of your rivals. Getting through a sentence without fucking it up is what will distinguish you from 95% of your rivals.

Reread that paragraph. There. You know the secret. Congrats. Have a biscuit.

Unlike stamps in a passport, these colourful nightclub visas are not mementos of the proud adventurer. They’re flags of sadness, unwelcome reminders of excess and desperation, too many vodkas, too many superficial conversations and failed attempts at affection.

For maximum enjoyment, I recommend reading these sentences in the voice of Alan Whicker.

‘Unlike stamps in a passport’ – oh great, so now you’re not only telling us what the protagonist isn’t doing, but you’re offering similes in negative. I see where this is leading:

Rachel smiled, unlike a constipated Rottweiler straining mince through its nostrils.

‘Thank you,’ she said, unlike a chimney, ‘but I couldn’t possibly.’

In the early evening light, Deng’s sad eyes were unlike five giant croissants. Unlike a surgical glove filled with diarrhoea and secured with a jubilee clip, he loved her.

Who is delivering this commentary? Are these supposed to be Adam’s thoughts? Cos, I’ve been teetotal for over two years now, but I was never this articulate whilst hungover. I barely had enough energy for gross motor control. Once, I accidentally put a second pair of trousers on over the first – including a second belt – and only realised when I tried to take a slash later on and nearly pissed myself.

‘flags of sadness’? Really? Imagine an actual person delivering these lines to you. You notice the club stamps on his wrist:

YOU: ‘Looks like you had a fun night there, buddy.’

ADAM [glancing down]: ‘These? These aren’t fun. They’re flags of sadness, unwelcome reminders of excess and desperation, too many vodkas…’

YOU: ‘You are a self-involved asshole.’

It doesn’t even continue the awful passport metaphor. Countries don’t stamp their actual flags into your passport.

Readers don’t want this faux-gritty commentary on how hanging out in bars is ultimately unsatisfying. It’s clichéd and dull and there’s zero tension. Maybe physically describe each stamp. Which one corresponds to which bar? Actually give us specifics. Spare us the Lonely Cowboy schtick.

Drugs too. Far too many.

Yep. You can tell an experienced user when he refers to his favoured recreational narcotics by their street name of ‘drugs’.

He rolls to his side to alleviate a rising wave of nausea to be confronted by a sharp emotionless stare.

See, the actual beats of this sentence are okay. He rolls over, feeling sick and oop! There’s a second person there. Ending on ‘stare’ is good – it’s the most important word of the sentence, and leaving it till last makes it function as a punchline.

But your actual execution is poo-poo, Peter. I am sure you are a super-lovely person, by the way! Writing is incredibly hard. I struggle with every sentence of fiction that I write. I expect you want your writing to be as good as it can be, too. So, you know – this is not a referendum on your value as a human being, which is beyond reproach. We’re trying to fix this shitty abortion of a sentence you had a hand in creating.

‘He rolls to his side’ – more or less fine. Maybe ‘to his side’ could be ‘aside’ but I think that’s tinkering rather than improving – it doesn’t carry the same sense, and implies dodging something. So yes. This bit – fine.

‘to alleviate’? No. You’re not an Edwardian village doctor treating the parson for dyspepsia. ‘ease’ or ‘stop’ will do. This guy feels fucking rough. He doesn’t have the brain cells for ‘alleviate’.

‘a rising wave’? No. ‘a wave’. Wave implies ‘rising’.

‘a wave of nausea’ is a cliché but I’m going to let it through. We have to pick our battles, Peter.

‘to be confronted by’ – ugly, grinding, clunky passive voice construction here. I realise you want to arrange the sentence so that ‘stare’ comes last, and this is a good instinct! But you can’t do it at the expense of the rest of the line. It’s like strangling your dog so it will lay still while you wipe its arse. Switch this out for a simpler conjunction-verb combo that keeps Adam as the subject, e.g. ‘and sees a’

A stare cannot be both ‘sharp’ and ‘emotionless’. Also, ‘emotionless’ blows the surprise of stare, by revealing that this noun must be a person (although given your fetish for negating things, I suppose it’s possible that you’d be clarifying that a table leg was emotionless). I’d cut ‘emotionless’.

Fuck. She’s awake.

Simple, clear. Injects some drama. Good.

Although unprepared his face doesn’t betray him.

How can he possibly know? This is a big POV slip.

And there you go with that negating, yet a-shitting-gain. You’re asking us to imagine preparedness and a face that betrays his emotions, then wipe those out, because that’s not what’s happening. What a cumbersome, illogical way to describe the scene.

The muddy rose of her sclera confesses recent tears, and the subtle shudder of her brow screams confused pain.

Okay, so I am reasonably clever and I was not sure what a ‘sclera’ was. The contextual clue of ‘muddy rose’ implies butthole. Like she has recently torn her butthole. Like they were totally rawdogging it the night before and he’s just woken up and rolled over and he is looking into her emotionless brown eye.

‘confesses’ and ‘screams’ are horribly overwrought verb choices. Both are metaphors, both are abstract. How the hell does a brow ‘scream’?

‘subtle shudder’ is like writing ‘slow run’ or ‘minor clusterfuck’. Just cut the adjective and write ‘tremble’ or ‘quiver’ or ‘twitch’.

Basically this sentence is overwritten. Cut the sophomoric abstract poetry and restrict your descriptions to actual, concrete things we can perceive with our five senses. Show, don’t tell.

Or, you know, give us some actual dialogue. Get the ball rolling.

As I said at the beginning, Peter, writing this scene is more or less a rite of passage. It’s so familiar now it’s practically a Jungian archetype bubbling up in the collective unconscious.

Can it be saved? Is it possible to rewrite this scene but write it good?

Yeppo. But you need to strip away all the drab philosophical disquisitions and actually give us a clear, dramatized scene. Don’t have your protagonist constantly stepping in with commentary on what he’s doing and the meaning of it all. Make that attitude implicit in what he does and how you describe things.

Stick to the tangible. Simplify your sentences. Get to the meat quicker. Doing so is not a process of dumbing-down. It’s about exploiting what the medium does best. Embrace nuance and ambiguity. Create some semantic gaps where your reader’s imagination can flow in and participate in the fiction.

Enjoyed this? Chances are you’ll like my award-winning memoir on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.

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1 thought on “Death Of 1000 Cuts – In The Barber’s Chair: Adam’s Story (by Peter)”

  1. I know I’m not the only one who finds writing difficult, but it’s always nice to hear the validation. My theory revolves around the medium itself. Other artists channel their energy into a tool, be it a paintbrush, or clay, or violin. And the truth is, some days, or least some hours, they can fake it and still pull off a decent result. As long as they have honed their craft over the years and yadayadayada. Disclaimer: I’m not being a know-nothing twat here. I’ve been a professional artist for the last 15 years.

    But writing is different. It’s a fully immersed experience, a performance art, and you can’t hide behind anything, not even your body (although, to be sure, dancing is insanely raw and difficult too). But we’re talking about putting your thoughts, emotions, and intellect right there in stark font for all the world to see. And you might even be a perfectly thoughtful, deep, intellectual person, yet still look like a fool from lousy pacing or incoherent syntax. *

    Your ‘Astronauts’ book was pretty raw. It’s what makes it stick in my memories when other books have faded. And it’s what makes me look forward to April. You’re going to do fine on this next piece and it’s going to suck much of the time you’re making it. So have fun! Enjoy your misery!

    *music composition has got to be in this category too. You can’t even hide behind words.

    P.S.: OT/ You asked once for sites that pick apart first page works. I forgot about this one:

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