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As always, read the extract below, decide what you do and don’t like about it, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. We’re developing our critical eye and looking at ways to become better self-editors, so make sure you have a crack at identifying strong points and problem areas before reading what I thought.
Adit and His Father (by Karishma)
A story Adit’s mother was fond of telling was how his father’s mother had nearly killed Adit shortly after he was born. The old woman had taken an infant Adit in her arms. The baby had opened his eyes for the first time, and in her great surprise, the child had slipped. The near-tragedy was stilled in their throats, for Adit’s father caught him, the unsuspecting boy smiling at his father, secure in his long fingers. Adit had no memory of the incident but could not imagine that he had ever felt more protected than he had in that moment, his whole body in the grip of his father’s callused hands, the man’s face encompassing his entire view and rendering insignificant the others’ panic.
He was reminded of it because a reversal of sorts was now taking place, the father in Adit’s hands, the entirety of a man reduced to a bag of ashes that rested between Adit’s palms. And just as then, nothing was happening around him that was not muted and blurred. It was a moment that existed
only between the father and his son.
A story Adit’s mother was fond of telling was how his father’s mother had nearly killed Adit shortly after he was born.
Most of our Barber Chair sessions have confronted the manifestly poo – turds steaming, tangible and crisply delineated from the unturdish, the Platonic ideal of pooness rather than mere bum-egg shadows upon a cave wall.
Which is sensible. One doesn’t teach a child to recognise an elephant by showing them a continuum of freakish chimeras close to – but not quite – an elephant, saying: ‘This is almost an elephant – but not,’ so as to gradually define the boundaries of elephantness. You show them a picture of a big grey animal with a trunk and huge ears – something smack bang in the middle of the semantic cluster that is elephant. ‘Conceptually, all notions of elephantness orbit this,’ you tell the child over and over in a glassy-eyed monotone, watching it kick fruitlessly against its restraints.
But I digress. My point is: oh, how exciting, this week we have that rarest of butterflies, a bona fide Edge-Case. Is it shit? Is it good? Is it some liminal entity flickering between states like an electric phantom? Let’s trek into this uncanny valley together.
It’s harder to critique borderline prose productively, especially in a flippant, amusing way, but here, on the outskirts of Not-Shit City, we can learn some of our most important lessons. Articulating and hammering home the basics is an evergreen task, for sure, but it’s crossing that final ten percent of terrain that requires the biggest investment and marks the difference between ‘Oh dude – sweet river jump!’ and IDIOT DIES IN BUNGLED BMX STUNT.
So, Karishma, noble friend and fellow writer, here’s what I think.
I like what this first sentence is trying to be.
It is vaguely reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s justly famous: ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ (in intent, at least, if not in execution)
Now that first sentence from 100 Years Of Solitude is interesting, because it creates something of a temporal snarl. It establishes a narrative present, implies we’ve just cut to it from a previous scene, then immediately cuts away, back in time, to another – on the face of it far less dramatic – scene. The result ought to be shit. Personally, I don’t think it is, (I know, I know – what daring critical acumen; hark at me pirouetting in the face of popular opinion) partly because of all that lovely crunchy specificity, partly because it possesses clarity, and partly because the syntax leads to that delightful little sucker punch: ‘ice’. What an odd syllable to close on!
A trick it may be, but – like the one performed by our dear friend the hedgehog – what a trick.
The idea of the sentence – to open with a dramatic anecdote, while introducing the narrator, but keeping the tone arch and restrained, so we’re brought up short by the disjunction between the lackadaisical narrator and the apparently life-threatening events – is a sound one. It’s a familiar gambit, but not overly formulaic. Done well, it’s good.
Here’s another opening sentence that it – in spirit – reminded me of:
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.
That’s from Suzanna Clarke’s absolutely dreamy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a hulking great doorstop of a novel that somehow manages to be consistently excellent on the line from beginning to end. (I say ‘somehow’ – I suspect the answer is ‘through lots of conscientiousness and love and hard work’)
But I hope you see the kinship: understatement, matter-of-factness, and the syntax arranged so the last word wallops you – FAPPO! – right in the goolies.
So those are two really good opening sentences that yours reminded me of, Karishma. That’s not to say yours is really good. Or good. Or even quite good.
It’s a failure.
But it’s a failure in the same way that planning to propose to your lover in the shade of a lakeside summerhouse strewn with lotus blossom, luring her there by various romantic feints and ruses, only to explosively defecate into your trousers as you go down on one knee, would be a failure. I see what you were going for, and it was beautiful. But you can’t blame me for thinking twice about committing to a long-term partnership.
‘A story Adit’s mother was fond of telling was’
Ugh. That repeated ‘was’ is like ashes in my mouth. Say the sentence out loud. It’s like trying to regurgitate a lump of cold gristle. So much cartilage.
‘was fond of’ might be replaceable by a single verb like ‘enjoyed’, ‘loved’ or ‘relished’. If you can find one that fits the tone, go for it – one word is axiomatically better than three. I’m not convinced those three suggestions quite suit – I get you’re shooting for a certain amount of ironic distance – but have a think about it. Remember, a novel’s first sentence is a hot air balloon rapidly descending towards an ocean riddled with kraken. Jettison anything not absolutely necessary, or die.
I’d recast this more actively, i.e. ‘Adit’s mother enjoyed telling the story’ where ‘enjoyed’ is a slightly less twee verb.
‘how his father’s mother had nearly killed Adit’
Oh horrible, horrible. I see the problem – you’ve introduced the mother, but the grandmother in question is on the father’s side, so how to make that clear? But then, by specifying ‘father’s mother’, you’ve introduced a second male into the sentence. ‘his’ was fine, because Adit was the only male at that point, but ‘him’ could refer to Adit or his father, so you’re forced to name him a second time. The result is this jarring cacophony of qualifying words and repetition.
‘killed’ is nice though. It’s striking. It grabs our attention. But then:
‘shortly after he was born’
A naff little modifying clause dangles off the end like poo from a goldfish’s bum. Look at those two classic opening lines I quoted. Both close strong. Where possible, arrange your sentences so the most interesting information comes at the end.
And you know what? It’s almost always possible. It’s hard work, but it’s doable. It’s your choice how much you care about your reader’s experience, sentence by sentence.
Here’s a rough model for how I’d rethink this opening sentence:
Adit’s mother relished telling the story of how, when he was a newborn, his grandmother had almost killed him.
That has more punch, it’s simpler (you can tease out the finer points of paternal versus distaff sides of the family later), and ‘killed’ comes close to the end. I’m still not sold on that word ‘relished’, and ideally we’d end on a specific, evocative noun or verb rather than a pronoun, but it’s moving in the right direction. Alternatively, you might recast that final clause in the passive voice (usually a no-no, but let’s go hog wild) and make ‘grandmother’ the punchline, e.g.
Adit’s mother enjoyed recounting the story of how, when he was a newborn, he had almost been murdered by his grandmother.
‘murdered’ is probably a verb too far – I’m just experimenting here. The idea is have ‘grandmother’ perform the same function as ‘magicians’ and ‘ice’. A cheeky little leftward swerve executed in the final word.
The old woman had taken an infant Adit in her arms.
‘the infant’ rather than ‘an infant’ – this is the protagonist we’re talking about here. Unless this is a story about clones.
This is not terribly vivid. Expanding ‘father’s mother’ into ‘old woman’ feels like a waste of an adjective and a noun. Grandma’s an ‘old woman’, is she? Who’d have believed it? What a cavalcade of worthwhile revelations!
‘taken’ is a super-weak verb, which is why you have to add ‘in her arms’ at the end of the sentence. Even strengthening it to ‘picked up’ makes ‘in her arms’ redundant.
The baby had opened his eyes for the first time, and in her great surprise, the child had slipped.
Your prose is suffering from what the Turkey City Lexicon calls ‘burly detective syndrome’. Magical time-sink death-carnival TV Tropes explains it thus:
The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession.
Three sentences in and Adit has already been ‘him’, ‘an infant’, ‘the baby’ and ‘the child’. This kind of compulsive synonym-insertion quickly starts to read like a vicar trying to be witty in a parish newsletter. It’s fine to use pronouns, and it’s fine to repeat someone’s name. But if you really can’t live without switching up your terminology with every single usage, may I suggest the following options for later on:
our youthful hero
the heedless heir
the doe-eyed changeling
the fresh-faced boy
the little shit-muncher himself
The near-tragedy was stilled in their throats,
Uh no. They say there are no absolute rules in creative writing, but I’ve just made one, and it’s that you’re not allowed to write these words in this order, ever, because they sound shite.
One, the register is pretentious without being lyrical or even articulate. ‘near-tragedy’? ‘was stilled’? Oh poo off.
Two, why would the tragedy be taking place in their throats? What you mean is, the near-tragedy was averted, and cries of sorrow (or whatever) were stilled in their throats.
Three, it’s in the passive voice, which I suspect you’ve picked purely for wank-factor.
for Adit’s father caught him,
How? This makes his Dad sound like a tiny capering goblin running between grandma’s legs with a circus net. Again, ‘caught’ is such a fudgy, vague verb. Did he dive, lunge? Grandma can’t be that tall, right? Help us picture it.
Oh, and that ‘for’ is horribly twee and archaic. It’s pastiche literary rather than actual.
He was reminded of it because a reversal of sorts was now taking place, the father in Adit’s hands, the entirety of a man reduced to a bag of ashes that rested between Adit’s palms.
See, I like this – again, in spirit rather than execution. It’s not subtle, but I think it works.
Cut ‘now’ – redundant fluff word.
‘the father in Adit’s hands’ is howlingly awkward. ‘the father’? I get it – you’re having pronoun trouble again. You wanted to say ‘his father in his hands’ but you were worried that the second ‘his’ would be ambiguous, because it might refer to Adit or his father.
Maybe put a full stop after ‘place’. Start the new sentence: ‘Adit held his father in his hands’, or possibly ‘In his hands, Adit held his father’.
I understand your pronoun woes, Karishma. I sympathise with them. I face the same problems every day. But if I found silverfish under my fridge I wouldn’t burn the house down to kill them. That’s replacing one problem with a worse one.
‘that rested’ are fluff words. Cut them.
Not sure about ‘Adit’s palms’ – feels like Burly Detective Syndrome again, but with hands. Maybe try to give us some sense of temperature or texture, so at least the sentence ends by adding some information, rather than simply restating what we already know. Or even better, cut everything after ‘ashes’. Repetition solved, and you close the sentence on the most interesting word.
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