You sat by the door spooked like I was Wes Craven
You need to do more deleting and less saving
– ‘Hungry’, Common
It’s time for another Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. This week we’re putting another author’s first page In The Barber’s Chair: Afterwards, by John.
If you’re new around here, why not check out previous posts? Sometimes I turn an aspiring writer’s first page to confetti, sometimes I hold forth on a concept important for writing non-crappy prose. I’ll be flipping between the two over the coming months. It’s tricky to talk about big principles of plot and structure when focusing on first pages, and I want to unpack some ideas around exposition, perspective, character arcs, etc, that a lot of writers fuck up. If you’ve got a particular problem you’d like me to address, please drop me an email via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. I’d love to do a few agony uncle posts where I give advice on a problem you’re facing in your work – the range of difficulties experienced by writers is relatively small, so it’ll help all of us.
If you fancy a turn in the barber’s chair, send me just your first page and a title – no explanatory blather please – via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. By submitting you’re giving me permission to publish it on this blog forever and to critique it in a robust and forthright manner.
The aim here is to help us all develop our craft. I’m not trying to put authors in the stocks for us to all chuck wet sponges at. Good prose is hard, hard work, but learning to recognise a shitty sentence is half the battle. Thank you to all the authors who have submitted their first pages. Your generosity at allowing us to critique your work publicly means we all can learn and benefit.
As we speak, I’m 40 pages from finishing the latest draft of my novel. Up until today, I’ve been calling it my ‘last’ draft, but I think there are still a few things I’d like to go back and fix before I send it out. That’s okay! After a certain point, endless revising becomes a form of cowardice, but writing a novel is a big, complex project – one of the toughest creative projects a person can undertake. It should take a while to do! Probably longer than any rational actor would deem worthwhile, in fact. So if you’re going to pour all those hours of your finite life into a novel, best to figure out some skills so it doesn’t suck by the time you’re done.
As usual, read through extract below and work out what you think before reading my thoughts in ‘The Cuts’. If you disagree with something I’ve said, let me know.
Afterwards (by John)
Life should be impossible. The sheer improbability of it is phenomenal. Every birth is a blessing, every life a miracle, and every moment special. Throughout our lives we eat, we laugh, we cry, we experience joy and suffering in abandon. Some lives are filled with love whilst some are filled with hatred.
Every birth opens up infinite possibilities. Will they become revered or despised? Will they change the world for the better of worse? Or spend their life hidden in obscurity? Some will end up overcoming debilitating obstacles, whilst some will find themselves stuck in a downward spiral. A child could become a world leader or discover a technology which changes everything. From their first few moments anything is possible. Their life awaiting them to use for whatever ends.
Unfortunately some lives end early, no matter their potential, whilst some who are made of evil carry on surviving. And yet, despite this disparity every birth should be seen as a blessing. A blessing that should not be wasted.
Yet regardless of creed, gender, or success every life is shadowed by its finality. Everyone dies, even if they haven’t had the chance to live. Scholars, academics, politicians, religions, leaders, and you and I all have to deal with this. We all hold onto beliefs to what happens once you step into eternity. Some believe that heaven awaits whilst some believe that there is only darkness.
This is the questions that hangs over all life. And despite humanity’s progress we have been unable to answer it. We have been unable to find out what lies beyond. Most believe it’s impossible. I will prove them wrong.
Life should be impossible.
Cards on the table time, John. There are two sentences in this extract that I think might be worth keeping. This is one of them.
It’s not perfect – you’re dealing with the abstract, rather than the concrete – but I like its bluntness. In four words, you advance a hypothesis. ‘Life’ and ‘impossible’ are a bit nebulous – they conjure up loose clusters of associations instead of something we can taste or hear or feel.
The heart of this sentence, oddly, is in the ‘should be’. I say oddly, because normally when we meet a modal verb on the field of editing – a can, a could, or may, might, must, shall, should, will and would – he is our sworn enemy and we strike him on the temple with our battle mace, wrench his dented helmet from his head and plunge our scissored digits deep into his eye sockets.
‘Take that! You pernicious – little – arse-barnacle,’ we say, punctuating each word with a blow from our gauntleted fists until his head is naught but salmon-coloured putty studded with grass and bone fragments. We recognise the modal verb as a mountebank who weakens every sentence he appears in. The modal verb is a weasely, legalistic piece of shit – he robs prose of conviction, qualifying and conditionalising statements to death. He inserts himself into sentences he has no business being in, then contributes nothing:
She saw two men talking, at the foot of the meadow.
She could see two men talking, at the foot of the meadow.
Yet we stand by and do nothing! Or, modal verbified: Yet we would stand by and will do nothing!
But getting back to this sentence – the modal verb is the heart of this sentence because it suggests character. This hint of an ‘ought-ness’ to things hints at a viewpoint, opinions, potential conflict. And, you know what, coulds and shoulds are fine in dialogue, because that’s how people talk. We are weasely, evasive gobshites.
The sheer improbability of it is phenomenal. Every birth is a blessing, every life a miracle, and every moment special.
And this is where my interest fashioned its necktie into a noose and hung itself from the ceiling fan.
Are you familiar with the creative writing principle, show, don’t tell? I accept that here, you may be laying out the premise upon which your novel is built. One problem: none of us gives a shit.
I mean, chucking little considerations like character and story aside for a second, what the sweet creeping fuck has that third sentence got to do with your initial assertion, ‘Life should be impossible’? The first line implies that you’re about to lay down some evidence to back up your argument, but you’re already meandering off into vague, demonstrably false platitudes.
Look, I concede that you might be setting up an unreliable narrator here, a twee, punchable idiot or someone in manic, desperate denial, á la Marion And Geoff. Remains Of The Day kicks off with its butler narrator rambling about the importance of a good staff plan. But crucially, in these examples character is front and centre. There’s an explicit ‘I’ leading the show, who we’re free to disagree with. Nobody reads American Psycho thinking what a wise, reasonable dude Patrick Bateman is. Well, maybe a few people, but the point is, once you introduce that ‘I’, we’ve got a little breathing room, a character to react to. But the ‘I’ doesn’t appear in this extract till way, way late.
Every birth opens up infinite possibilities. Will they become revered or despised? Will they change the world for the better of worse? Or spend their life hidden in obscurity?
You’re killing me, John. You’re actually killing me. I’m clutching my chest here. I’m about to say ‘bargle’ and slump over my desk. We’ve come to your book looking for characters we care about, looking for conflict, for plot, for drama, and you’re refusing to give us those things until you’ve belted out six verses of Que Sera, Sera!
Perhaps you hoped this would come across as a kind of Twilight Zone introductory voiceover, beckoning us into your fictional universe. Do you know why TV shows don’t use Twilight Zone style intros anymore? Because they’re hacky and patronising. Even with Sex & The City and Desperate Housewives style theme-framing voiceovers, they’re delivered by a character who has a stake in what goes on, who has an opinion and a personality.
Again, maybe your narrator does have a stake in all of this! Maybe he or she does have an engaging personality and there’s more to him or her than streams of sophomoric generalisations, but if you make this the first page no reader will persist to find out.
And yet, despite this disparity every birth should be seen as a blessing. A blessing that should not be wasted.
Okay, so I flag up these sentences for two reasons. Firstly, they demonstrate why the passive voice and modal verbs are so horrible – ‘every birth should be seen as a blessing’? No.
Quick recap: the passive voice is a way of constructing a sentence to remove agency from an action. So:
Darren hit Phil = active voice
Phil was hit by Darren = passive voice
The point of the passive voice is we can hide the source of the punch altogether:
Phil was hit.
Allowing the pugnacious Darren to get off scot-free. You see why it’s a useful grammatical construction in English, but if you don’t watch out it’s an easy path to some wretched, wretched prose.
With the first sentence above, just write: But despite this, every birth is a blessing. If you wanted people to think Super Mario was cool, you’d write: ‘Super Mario is cool’ not ‘Super Mario should be seen as cool’.
Which points to the second problem with this section. He’s just introduced a piece of evidence that runs contrary to his thesis. This is his opportunity to explain the discrepancy. It would actually be quite interes… oh nope. He’s just repeated the same stupid platitude and moved on without supporting his assertion.
It’s the logical equivalent of writing:
There are no sharks in the ocean surrounding Australia. A bull shark bit my uncle’s arm off while he was swimming off the coast of Queensland. And yet, despite this disparity, there are no sharks in the ocean surrounding Australia.
Admittedly, you could have a lot of fun with this dynamic! A narrator who spouts idiotic, trite maxims then immediately undermines them with examples from his life, but doesn’t seem to spot the disconnect.
Everyone dies, even if they haven’t had the chance to live. Scholars, academics, politicians, religions, leaders, and you and I all have to deal with this. We all hold onto beliefs to what happens once you step into eternity. Some believe that heaven awaits whilst some believe that there is only darkness.
Seriously, what reader is going to read these sentences and think: ‘oh yeah… I never thought of it that way before!’ A made-up reader, John, that’s who.
This is the questions that hangs over all life. And despite humanity’s progress we have been unable to answer it. We have been unable to find out what lies beyond. Most believe it’s impossible.
We know this! Even if this was pertinent, world-building exposition, explaining how humankind rebuilt after The Terrible War With The Octochimps or whatever, the first page would not be the place to include it. Show, don’t tell, remember? But it’s not even that. It’s a broad digest of the human condition.
One, I should add, that isn’t even accurate! As a regular reader of Take A Break: Fate & Fortune and Chat: It’s Fate I know that hundreds of thousands of people believe that we can contact the dead, see ghosts and angels, and have glimpses of past lives. Many millions more believe they know what lies beyond, as explained by their chosen organised religion. And then there’s a whole bunch of us who also believe science has solved the question of what ‘lies beyond’, and the answer is ‘fuck all’. Human consciousness doesn’t survive death.
Your narrator is, in fact, describing agnostics, who comprise a minority, not ‘most’.
I will prove them wrong.
This is the other line I liked. It’s my favourite sentence of the extract. I think it’s great. Finally we get some bloody character! Not only that, but we get story. I actually felt a jab of excitement when I read this line. Again, there’s a rare instance of a modal verb working hard, giving us character, point of view.
This sentence has character, tension, anticipation – it’s really good, and it proves you can write. It emphatically does not rely on the mess of bland, waffly exposition that comes before.
If you want to open your novel by introducing a key theme, then for gawd’s sake do your job and invent a scene, a fictive moment, that encapsulates said theme. Have your narrator, aged seven, encounter the rotting corpse of a goat while playing in the quarry near the back of his house. Have her (after all, we don’t yet know your narrator’s gender) sit at her grandfather’s bedside, listening to the gargle-hiss of his breathing as he slowly dies from emphysema.
Give us the bluebottles glinting like scales in the goat’s eyeball, the roughness of grandfather’s palm versus the smoothness of the cannula in his wrist. Give death a smell, a temperature, a quality of light. Make us live in the moment when death became an obsession for her, when it became a companion.
Zoom out far enough, and anything becomes trite. As an author, it’s your job to tighten the focus knob, to plunge in the stinking bog of detail and resurface, Lady of the Lake style, clutching a cold black nugget of truth.
A story about someone who ventures into the realms beyond death could be great. Sure, Flatliners didn’t exactly knock it out the park, but you can learn from its mistakes (which are many and grave). The key is, don’t waste time noodling on your theme.
A first page isn’t Jerry’s Thought For The Day. It’s not the abstract for a sociology PhD. It’s a door, opening just a crack. Whether we step through depends on what we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we feel. Don’t give us a voice promising: ‘Interesting things lie beyond this door!’ Trick us. Let us overhear an argument. Let us see an old man scritch-scritch-scritching with a craft blade at what looks like… could that be a gigantic scrimshaw whale? And is he crying?
Softee, softee, catchee monkey, John. Show, don’t tell.
If you enjoyed this, I expect you’ll enjoy my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
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