Welcome to another Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Friends – this is an urgent appeal. Hit up your writing websites, post on your blogs, FB message your writing buddies, tweet out to the masses. I need more first pages to critique. Without them, the surly dragon that is In The Barber’s Chair will shrivel and desiccate. I can only reach so many creative writers through my social media channels. It’s time to see if the network works. Please, please spread the word. I know there are thousands of aspiring writers out there who desperately need a faceful of freezing water from a well-meaning stranger.
I want first pages of novels and short stories, properly edited and polished – 250 words, max. Send them to me via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. And thank you, all the authors who have already. You are awesome and courageous. Thanks for sharing your work in progress to help us all in our creative journeys.
You know the drill. Read the extract below, have a think about what you liked and didn’t like, then read my comments after ‘The Cuts’. If you disagree with anything I’ve said, or you have any additional suggestions, please do drop a comment in the comment box.
Albert (by Donna)
Albert Tullock picked up his violin case, shuffled forward a few steps and placed it back on the ground. Behind him a business man looked up from his newspaper, took one large pace forward and returned to his reading. In front of Albert, a young woman in a scarlet coat moved her weight from one foot to the other. Her eyes wandered the ceiling following the path of a crack. It began above her head and meandered across to the station entrance. Now facing backwards, her gaze fell level with Albert and the future Mr and Mrs Tullock met for the first time. Albert captured the moment with a single shot. The young woman was called to the counter. She bought a season ticket and disappeared into the crowd.
Albert collected his day return and walked out onto the platform. The station clock read 7.34, his train would arrive in 11 minutes. He sat by the porters office laying his violin on the floor. Beside him the old porter was showing his apprentice how to stack a trolley. ‘You leave the small things till last,’ he said as a Cannon Street train slowly pulled up. He took a number of hat boxes off the trolley, placed them by Albert’s feet and pointed to a large suitcase at the back ‘Remember, heavy at the bottom, light at the top.’ The old man hobbled away leaving the boy to finish. Albert stood up as a small crowd began to cluster round a nearby carriage door. On tiptoes he scanned the platform. Two carriages from the front Albert caught a flash of red disappearing into the train. He hesitated, then he ran, convinced he had nothing to lose.
It wasn’t her. Albert wandered slowly down the platform back to his seat. As the train rolled away in the distance he watched the boy, proudly wheeling the empty trolley towards him. The station clock read 7.41. Three minutes later he realised his violin was missing.
Albert Tullock picked up his violin case, shuffled forward a few steps and placed it back on the ground.
I like this as a first line. In fact, I should say right off the bat that this has been a tough Barber’s Chair to write, because there’s not a lot in this extract that makes me want to punch holes in the wall. Don’t worry, I do have problems with it! I will try to work up some disproportionate fury you guys, I promise.
I think the problem is that I’ve been reading Under The Skin by Michel Faber this week and he’s such a hopeless writer that your mistakes seem laughably mild by comparison. I feel like I’m trying to scold my son for not colour-coding his sock drawer having spent all week sitting on the jury at a war crimes tribunal. Also I have a cold. My rage is all stored up at the front of my skull, trying to burrow out.
This line gives us a protagonist, hints at his personality, and introduces something that is, by implication, important to him. ‘shuffled’ nicely implies timidity – in combination with the quaintly archaic name ‘Albert’ and the violin case, at least.
Behind him a business man looked up from his newspaper, took one large pace forward and returned to his reading.
Yes, okay. Still onboard. The pronoun ‘his’ is a little fuzzy – that first instance causes a little blur as we shift from Albert to the unnamed businessman (NB: one word). The ‘large pace forward’ is a subtle way of throwing Albert’s cautious shuffle into relief – nice work.
Can Albert see this? It feels weird that we’re suddenly switching to something that is presumably outside of his field of vision. The fact that you don’t do any blocking work – i.e. ‘Albert glanced back over his shoulder. Behind him…’ – implies your narrator isn’t limited by Albert’s point of view. This can get confusing quickly. At this stage, it just feels like sloppy writing. After all, why is this important? It’s not important to Albert – he’s not even aware of it. You might as well throw in: ‘Meanwhile, in rural Albania, a goat was giving birth in hot, braying spurts.’
Y’know, for mood.
In front of Albert, a young woman in a scarlet coat moved her weight from one foot to the other.
See, this makes sense. He can see this, and your prose is simple, uncluttered. Good.
Her eyes wandered the ceiling following the path of a crack.
Unless she is transparent or her eyeballs have literally popped wetly from the sockets to float towards the ceiling, then Albert has no way of seeing this. You’re jumping between perspectives with frankly indecent haste.
It began above her head and meandered across to the station entrance.
This is such a fucking mess. Given that the object of the previous sentence’s main clause was ‘ceiling’, our first move is to assign ‘ceiling’ to the pronoun ‘it’. Then we get to ‘meandered across’ and think: wait a second, I’ve misinterpreted this. We go back to the previous sentence, hunt for another possible candidate: aha! Crack, maybe? We retry the sentence with ‘crack’ as the pronoun: yes, it makes sense. We can move on.
Now, admittedly that whole process will take most readers less than two seconds, but that’s two seconds of fluff and confusion and grasping for comprehension. Think of how a record skipping at a DJ set can bump the entire crowd out of their euphoria – it takes minutes for them to settle back into the beat and forget that there’s a person up there working hard to make tracks flow seamlessly together.
The same thing happens every time you fudge a line. It’s like a little dig in the reader’s shoulder, a reminder that this is the sustained bullshitting of a fallible human being, not a window into another world.
Now facing backwards, her gaze fell level with Albert and the future Mr and Mrs Tullock met for the first time.
Ugh. This is horrible blocking. It makes it sound like she’s got a contortionist’s back and has flipped her head upside-down. The use of ‘now’ as an adverb in past-tense narratives is always an ugly compromise. What function is it serving in that sentence? I’ll tell you: it’s pulling a double-shift of fucking-up-your-steez duty. Erase! Erase!
I don’t have so much of a problem with the temporal leap at the end of this sentence. You’re jumping out of the moment to give us a glimpse of the future (presumably, unless Albert is getting all Walter Mitty on us) and that’s fine – it’s a nice hook – but to earn it, and to grant it the impact it deserves, you need to reign in all the other perspective slips. Keep the whole scene in third-person limited, restricted to Albert’s point of view. Whether this revelation is true or not, it will make more sense and hit harder if you’re in control of the narrative perspective for the rest of the scene.
Albert captured the moment with a single shot.
I have no fucking idea what this means. Does he have camera eyes? Is he a sniper?
The young woman was called to the counter. She bought a season ticket and disappeared into the crowd.
Right – first off, death to the passive voice. It’s clunky and legalistic. Recast the first sentence: ‘A teller called the young woman to the counter.’ Give us a proper subject with agency, not this hazy summary.
Second, how does he know she bought a season ticket? Can he overhear her? This seems like it would be quite an involved transaction, spanning more than a minute. So far, sentences have been keeping rough pace with the action – events unfold more or less at the speed we read them. Here, you suddenly accelerate through several minutes.
If Albert was genuinely taken by this woman when he first laid eyes on her, wouldn’t he be more invested in this transaction? Mightn’t he hang on her every word for clues about what sort of person she might be? Mightn’t he fantasise about plucking up the courage to speak to her?
You have a golden opportunity here to do some characterising of Albert, to introduce some mild peril and tension, to make us care about him and root for him. You could grip us with a miniature drama in these opening lines. Why, for the love of Proust, aren’t you?
The station clock read 7.34, his train would arrive in 11 minutes.
My pet hate is fake times in novels. It’s never 7:30, or 6pm. Characters are always rolling over in bed to discover ‘the clock read 6:39, in blinking red digits’. I’m not sure what I want you to do about this.
He sat by the porters office laying his violin on the floor.
These events are not continuous. He sat by the porter’s office, and laid his violin case on the floor.
Beside him the old porter was showing his apprentice how to stack a trolley. ‘You leave the small things till last,’ he said as a Cannon Street train slowly pulled up.
Beside them the old author was showing his apprentice how to lay out dialogue.
‘You start a new line for every new speaker,’ he said as the metajoke slowly ground to a halt.
Albert stood up as a small crowd began to cluster round a nearby carriage door. On tiptoes he scanned the platform. Two carriages from the front Albert caught a flash of red disappearing into the train. He hesitated, then he ran, convinced he had nothing to lose.
This is completely unmotivated. Albert sounds like a crackhead. Also, you can’t just assert patently false stuff and expect us to meekly switch our brains off. ‘convinced he had nothing to lose’? No he’s not. He could lose face, he might lose his possessions, he might miss his train – there is all sorts at stake. Albert doesn’t act because he’s got nothing to lose. He acts because – in this fictional universe, anyway – he’s a romantic. He acts out of sheer bravery, in spite of the risks. He acts in reaction to his prior failure of nerve. Don’t dismiss the definitive choice of his life, the inciting incident that kickstarts the motor of your plot, as an act of nihilistic pragmatism.
If you take my advice and invest their earlier meeting with proper tension, if you show Albert agonising over it and keep the scene inside his perspective, then you’ll have earnt this moment. Again, you need to unpack a bit: he hesitates. What makes him run? What are the two forces jockeying for position within him?
It wasn’t her. Albert wandered slowly down the platform back to his seat.
Oh for Christ’s sake. This is like getting us all geed up for a bank heist, showing the protagonist pulling down his ski mask and slapping a fresh magazine into his glock, the car pulling up on the opposite side of the street, his eyeing the revolving door, he steps out the car… then the next sentence is:
The heist failed.
I mean, seriously. This is like a crayon drawing of some dinner. Don’t be so bloody lazy. Give us some of the tension, some of the nobility of the pursuit. You’re denying us precious time with Albert where we see him valiantly struggle and fail.
The ‘try-fail cycle’ is a classic bit of writing jargon. On the face of it, it’s obvious – show us the protagonist reach for something and fail to get it, repeatedly, making the stakes bigger each time. The tension will pull us in, and their failure and persistence will make them sympathetic and admirable respectively. Cross-reference this with the first rule from the oft-shared Pixar’s 22 Rules Of Storytelling: ‘You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.’
And yes, there’s an odium of hackiness around admitting tricks like this, but mark my words, Donna – people who turn their noses up at stories starring characters we care about are Joyless Fucking Hipsters who will burn away like so much dawn mist. You can care about language and craft and still invest your novel with excitement and heart. These things are not mutually exclusive. Of course, you never said they weren’t. From this extract I sense you get this already.
The station clock read 7.41. Three minutes later he realised his violin was missing.
The slowness of this makes Albert sound like a complete simpleton. He has literally nothing to do but sit with his violin case. You might as well say he looked down and realised somebody has stolen his trousers. At most, a double-take at the empty trolley and a glance at where he was sitting.
Also, this works better as a payoff if you’ve established Albert’s fondness for the violin case beforehand. Give us some sense of his history with the instrument. Have him fiddle with the leather handle or pat the body when he’s nervous, as a way of reassuring himself. Make it his security blanket. And when he looks down at it, have him stand a little straighter. Have him look at the businessman and the people around him with just a hint more pride. It gives him courage. He loves it.
This is one of those rare places where a soupcon of backstory, deftly handled, can work wonders. Did the violin cost Albert a lot of money? Or did it cost a relative a lot of money? Was it given to him by a much-loved deceased relative, perhaps? Or did he sell something of great value and work extra shifts in order to buy it? Did he look at it through the window and worry it would be sold and finally afford it? You don’t have to reveal all of this immediately, of course – he might give a bit more background when he goes to lost property and explains to the person on duty – but you need to make sure we understand just what is at stake here.
And, of course, he’s lost the violin because he took a risk. He risked his heart and he lost his most prized possession. He must, on some level, feel like this is exactly what he deserves. Adventure is for other people. Cautious Albert gambled, and look what it cost him.
Which is a brilliant, compelling way to draw us into a novel. I’ve been reading about Albert for a single, flawed page, and look at me – already I’m inventing stories about him. I care. That is half the battle, and a really good sign for your book.
Don’t take this qualified praise as license to slack off. It’s all the more reason to knuckle down and be as brutal as you possibly can. The work deserves it. Albert deserves it. We deserve it.
Ungh, yeah… freestylin’. Sorry, just busting some fresh jams there. If you’d like to read a book containing zero off-the-dome rhymes, but plenty of award-winning true stories about writing, suicide pacts and Richard Madeley, treat yourself to a copy of my book, We Can’t All Be Astronauts. Click the link and a person will carry it to your actual house.
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