Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Every Thursday we look at the first page of a novice author’s novel or short story and think of ways to make it better.
If you’d like to submit your work for consideration, please read the submission guidelines.
I did the first live Death Of 1000 Cuts at 9 Worlds on Saturday and it was dead fun. Thank you to everyone who came and helped to make it what I feel I can quite confidently dub ‘a success’. It rocked. I laughed a lot and I’m grateful to the authors who contributed their work.
I’m at the Edinburgh International Literature Festival this Sunday, so if you’re up in the city please come and watch. I’ll be talking about The Honours, which, if you think my work is worth supporting, you can buy now. You can go to a bookshop and buy it, or click the link and a person will bring it to your door. How impossibly decadent.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. Remember, this is your opportunity to develop your self-editing skills, so have a go before seeing what I have to say. And please add your own thoughts – or disagreements – in the comments box below.
Ambassador for the future (by Michael)
Upon entering the front door, Zachary was met by a balding and bespectacled european with a thick moustache; a timid looking, academic-type. He sat at a sleek glass desk at the center of small, white-tiled, and clean lobby. It was the entryway to a science facility, and the scene was exactly what you’d expect from such a place.
He let out a humourless laugh. Either they were continuing their charade with no one left to fool, or they were ACTUALLY sending him into the future. He knew it was absurd but Zachary found that he cared very little which scenario was true.
Zachary held his tongue for a moment, despite the situation obliging that he notice the small man across from him, who stared at him unabashedly with wide, curious eyes, made all the wider by his glasses. The problem was that he was unsure how he should feel about this man. In all likelihood, he was an actor who’s job it was to lead him to another room, deeper into the facility, where people would be waiting to murder him. That would make him a willing accomplice to his assassination, and a less than admirable individual. He himself might even have been the killer – he didn’t look like one, he looked entirely unthreatening in fact, but perhaps that was more suspicious. As a politician Zachary didn’t know much about assassins, so he could not say what lengths they went to to blend in.
First up, the title’s doing nothing for me. I realise often people submit not having really decided on a title (despite my explicit request to only send me work once you’ve taken it as far as you can – which would imply, I’d hope, having come up with name) but still. It’s not terribly inspiring, is it? Even if you’re setting something that will appear punny or sardonically referential once we’ve read the story, that’s too late.
Your title is the very first bit of art that the reader encounters. And, if it’s shit, it will be the last.
I have a bunch of rules for titles: no using quotes from Revelations or Eliot, and if you’re writing Fantasy, you are absolutely forbidden from including the words ‘blade’, ‘king’ or ‘dragon’, and for fuck’s sake can we please ban the formulation ‘The [ADJECTIVE] [NOUN] of [PROTAGONIST’S NAME]’, e.g. The Strange Odyssey of Septimus Fipps or The Collapsible Earwig of Ms Elizabeth Q Custard or The Suppurating Fistula of Nigel. I feel like we need to stage SALT-esque negotiations between marketing teams, where a whole bunch of shitty formulas are decommissioned.
Upon entering the front door, Zachary was met by a balding and bespectacled european with a thick moustache; a timid looking, academic-type.
Right, so I’m glancing towards the distant mountains yonder and… yep, it appears the ‘Extreme Pedantry’ beacon is lit, so: one does not simply ‘enter the front door’. You enter through the doorway, or ‘via the front door’. Unless Zachary is in fact tunnelling into the fibre of the door, inside a miniaturised drill machine á la the ones Shredder used to burrow up from the subterranean Technodrome in later seasons of Turtles. Which would be supercool.
‘European’ is a bizarre final adjective to append on ‘balding and bespectacled’ (which, although slightly clichéd when delivered in tandem, do give us a clear visual). What does ‘European’ actually connote? How do you tell someone is ‘European’? Do you mean ethnically European? As if that were actually a meaningful (and not inherently problematic) thing?
What I’m saying is I don’t think it’s possible to identify a human being as European on sight, because it’s not a function of race, it’s a reflection of nationality. And anyway I think the populations of Portugal and Finland look, broadly speaking, rather distinct.
This isn’t about joylessly parsing the text for ideological violations so much as reminding you – and all of us – that, ideally, our adjectives should all be modifying nouns in a concrete way, by which I mean a way that excites the senses. ‘yellow’ is a good adjective by this metric. ‘exciting’ isn’t. The former we can see, the latter is a concept, a value judgement appended to the noun which we’re expected to accept as fact. Readers tend to resist this kind of spoonfeeding. We want to see something in action and decide for ourselves that it’s ‘exciting’. Show, don’t tell, etc etc.
Obviously all bets are off within dialogue, where characters are free to slap whatever nonsense they like into the vibrating air that comes blasting out their dogma-holes.
That said, I don’t mind ‘a timid-looking, academic type’, despite the fact it clearly violates the above principle. ‘type’ is a weak noun, ‘timid’ and ‘academic’ are abstractions (and the ‘-looking’ qualifier waters down the adjective so that the narrative doesn’t commit to whether this guy is actually timid or not). But sometimes speed over nuance is the way to go – and, if we take this narrative to be third-person limited, the implication is that this little aside is a judgement made by the protagonist, Zachary, and therefore in his voice, meaning it falls under the exception I just laid out for dialogue.
Ungh! Tim Clare: Storylawyer wins another case!
He sat at a sleek glass desk at the center of small, white-tiled, and clean lobby.
What we’re seeing here is a mutation of a common disease: Add-Two-Adjectives-To-Every-Noun-Itis.
I get it – you want us to be able to picture the scene clearly. And that’s a great instinct, Michael. But you have to pick your battles.
‘sleek glass desk’ is ace. ‘glass’ barely counts as an adjective at all, in this instance – ‘glass desk’ feels almost like a discrete unit, and once the Germans seize control of English as she is spoke, we will all live in a compound noun utopia.
‘small, white-tiled, and clean’ is dreadful. Fucking abysmal. And I say this as a fan and staunch defender of the Oxford comma.
‘small’ is so vague as to be almost meaningless. Compared to what? Do you mean the roof is low? The cubic footage is what – inadequate? Do you mean compact, cramped, tiny, modest?
‘white-tiled’ is better. That’s a thing we can see. Although it rather suggests a surgery or a Japanese bathhouse. Since when has a lobby ever been white-tiled? The purpose of tiling, generally, is that it’s water-resistant and easily cleaned. It’s also quite slippery (and therefore suboptimal for everyday corridors and workspaces), has weird acoustics and is relatively expensive. Is the floor tiled? Do you mean ‘white-panelled’? Are these ceramic tiles, or what? This feels like it raises more questions than it answers.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be picturing but at the moment it’s a sort of elderly Belgian gentleman sitting at a comically undersized desk in some sort of bath showroom.
‘and clean’ is a weird final choice. It’s not as if we were picturing these white tiles smeared with excrement until you stepped in. Pick your battles, Michael. Don’t describe stuff implied by previous descriptions. It’s like writing:
David was plump, middle-aged and not on fire.
Which would be a deece opening line, I concede.
It was the entryway to a science facility, and the scene was exactly what you’d expect from such a place.
Sticking ‘it was incredibly clichéd – but I’m aware of that’ on the end of a sentence does not give you diplomatic immunity from cliché. I realise this serves a larger purpose in this story, but I just don’t feel like this gloss adds anything. This is all abstraction – the action isn’t advanced, there’s nothing to engage our senses, the main verbs are all ‘to be’ static constructions, and the nouns are dull as dogshit. Who fucking cares? Cut this. You’re not telling us anything we can’t infer from context.
He let out a humourless laugh.
Like the coffee spit-take, this is a phenomenon I encounter often in novels but have yet to witness in real life. Fantasy writers often use ‘mirthless’ in place of ‘humourless’ because I guess that sounds more legendary or something.
What I am saying is: this is a hack beat. And I’m not convinced it has any resonance in real life.
Either they were continuing their charade with no one left to fool, or they were ACTUALLY sending him into the future.
So, this is a pretty interesting line from a plot point of view. We’ve got the novum of this story – time travel – which is great and makes us perk up.
The first half of this sentence feels a bit baffling. It’s fine to have references we don’t yet understand, but how is there ‘no one left to fool’? Isn’t Zachary witnessing this? Couldn’t he be the dupe? We don’t have enough information to fully parse this and I’m not sure the ambiguity serves any greater story purpose. Could you rephrase it something like:
Either their commitment to the joke was absolute, or they were actually sending him into the future.
That’s not ideal, but what I’m nudging you towards is killing the ‘no one left to fool’ bit, which is clumsy and unduly confusing.
He knew it was absurd but Zachary found that he cared very little which scenario was true.
Oh great. Well that’s always a great omen, when two paragraphs in the protagonist thinks the story is stupid and doesn’t care how it turns out. That’s not at all a death knell for your subconscious commitment to the plot. I’m going to drop you a little linky here and move on.
Zachary held his tongue for a moment, despite the situation obliging that he notice the small man across from him, who stared at him unabashedly with wide, curious eyes, made all the wider by his glasses.
Sweet Jesus. What a sentence. I kept thinking it was over and more and more came out, like a cross between food poisoning and a handkerchief trick.
‘Zachary held his tongue for a moment’ – okay, so what you’re describing here is an absence of action. You’re telling us what he didn’t do, essentially. This has the same problems as saying ‘the room fell silent’ or ‘he paused’ or whatever, in that we can’t picture it, because you’re asking us to infer what is actually happening by describing what isn’t. Which is, I hope you’ll agree, a bizarre strategy in an artform which thrives on clarity.
I don’t blame you, Michael – I pull shit like this all the time in my writing, and I do my best to weed it out. Lots of published authors do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not shite and lazy.
You can imply a silence, a hesitation, an absence, by giving us a beat that describes a different action, or a sound, or a smell, while not including any dialogue. If there’s no dialogue, we know he’s holding his tongue. You don’t have to step in to say it – the literary equivalent of ‘THIS SPACE LEFT INTENTIONALLY BLANK’. So Zachary could shuffle his feet, or clear his throat, or fiddle with something in his pocket or examine his vague reflection in the tiles or a hundred other more unique, idiosyncratic and revealing beats.
Ideally you want an action that combines revealing his mental state with world-building – so he might twist the business card in his pocket (the pocket of what? You can give us a sneaky insight into how he’s dressed with an extra word here) that invited him to this location. Or whatever. You get the idea.
‘despite the situation obliging that he notice the small man across from him’ – oof! That didn’t turn out well, did it? What an ugly snarl of cartilage!
So, what you’re trying to say is ‘even though he had clearly noticed the man’, which we already know. This is an insurance clause, basically. You’re stepping in to reframe a scene you’ve already painted. It’s okay. We understand social situations and object permanence. You don’t have to constantly reiterate that human beings persist through time. We don’t think they suddenly pop out of existence unless you’re explicitly describing them in a sentence.
‘who stared at him unabashedly with wide, curious eyes’ – ‘unabashedly’ and ‘curious’ are fluff words in this sentence. You’re just larding your prose with words that describe what we’ve already inferred. Please don’t.
‘made all the wider by his glasses’ – ‘all the’ is fluff. Cut it. I know it sounds sort of emphatic but contributes nothing from a semantic point of view and ruins the punch of the sentence. I guess I understand what you’re getting at here – the guy is wearing high-prescription long-sighted spectacles which magnify his eyes – but it feels like an odd reveal. I guess I was picturing, from ‘bespectacled’, a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses, and so this forces me to go back and reimagine the scene.
I do like the setup here, Michael – I’m certainly intrigued as to where this scene is going to go – but it feels like we’re shackled to a dozen sandbags then forced to wade through waist-deep treacle just to get there. Don’t hold back, don’t dawdle, don’t waffle. Simplicity has power. It is an incredible statement of intent. Grab your flensing blade and de-blubber this scene. The skeleton that emerges will be more powerful than you can imagine.