Happy New Year, and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Do you write? Do you want to write? Do you read? Do you want to read and write better? And by ‘better’ I mean ‘with the angry intensity of a jilted bride hurling wedding crockery about her empty honeymoon suite’. Then this is the blog for you!
Most weeks we take the first page of a novice author’s novel or short story and look at ways of making it better. It’s a chance for you to practise your editing skills by reading a short extract and trying to figure out how it could be improved. Self-editing is one of the most important, and absolutely the most overlooked skill a fiction writer can possess. It’s not romantic, but it will make your prose a shitload less dreadful.
If you’d like to submit work to be torn apart and tenderly reassembled on this very blog, please read our Submission Guidelines. Be warned, submitting is extremely popular. The waiting list is currently over a year long!
If you can’t wait that long and you’d like to see me put my money where my not inconsiderable mouth is, why not pre-order my debut novel, The Honours? It’s been featured in ‘Ones To Watch’ lists of fiction for 2015 on the Huffington Post and on Guardian Top 10 Book Blog Death, Books And Tea. Ooh, and if you live near an indie bookshop, it’s now available on Hive, which allows you to pre-order it and have it delivered free to an indie bookshop of your choice. Pre-ordering in this way helps to support your local awesome indie bookseller, and currently gets you a couple of quid off the cover price.
The Honours is out on April 2nd, and, in the run-up to release, I’m going to start posting a few blogs introducing you to the world of Alderberen Hall, the protagonist, Delphine, and the time, 1935. Oh, and the release just happens to coincide exactly with the two year anniversary of Death Of 1000 Cuts. I hope you take inspiration from the fact that, if a wally like me can make it, chances are you can too.
A few of you have been needling me to tackle some slightly higher-level critique, so accordingly this week’s extract is quite good, and the feedback I offer rather technical and nerdy. Strap in.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you do and don’t like about it, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. If you disagree with anything or have anything to add, please do pop your contribution into the comments box. Happy New Year.
Among The Weeds (by Cat)
Beneath the bobbing heads of the Queen Anne’s lace my four-year-old daughter digs a grave. A fat, plastic baby sits propped against the sagging chicken wire fence and oversees the interment of Mr. Carrots. Elizabeth has loved- is loving him into pieces. She has nuzzled off the pink of his nose, hugged his cotton batting into hard, cancerous lumps, and lopped off both ears when she gave him an unsupervised hare-cut.
But as my daughter often reminds me, “Mommy, you need to look with your imagination eyes. Let’s pretend. I see…” A t-rex in a tutu playing checkers with a mouse. Under the sea, Elizabeth adds between fistfuls of cereal.
Not a grave, then. Not my lazy-eyed, eyepatch-wearing daughter dusted with dirt and dappled by the morning sun. I see… My pirate princess, One-Eyed Lizzy, burying treasure in the backyard again.
The windowpane is cool against my forehead. This afternoon we will not go to the zoo. We will not see the lions and leopards and lynxes. I will let the day unwind slowly, ignore the heaviness in my limbs, my heart, and play Let’s Pretend with my little Lizzy. Let’s pretend yesterday didn’t happen.
My better half surprises me with a kiss and a cup of coffee. Bitter.
Evie, the morning lark, slept through my sleepless night and rose with the sun. I am not jealous. She runs in the mornings and is bothered by neither rain nor snow nor summer squall. Who was I to think that today would be any different?
Beneath the bobbing heads of the Queen Anne’s lace my four-year-old daughter digs a grave.
So. I have things to say about this sentence.
You open with a prepositional phrase: ‘Beneath the bobbing heads of the Queen Anne’s lace’ Opening with prepositions is risky – you’re locating a subject noun you haven’t yet introduced – but only if you don’t get to the meat of the sentence – i.e. the main clause – quickly enough. And, indeed, one could get away with stacking prepositional phrase upon prepositional phrase – e.g. ‘Long ago, on a continent still young and hot and damp, in a misty jungle, upon the banks of slow-flowing grey river, beneath the boughs of a great red tree…’ – if one were aiming for a storytelling mode, simulating a camera gradually zooming in upon the focus of interest, á la the opening credits to Bergerac.
The length of this prepositional clause is fine. However, my quibble (and it is a quibble, but that’s the level you’re at, Cat – your prose is good enough that it generates grouses, gripes and nitpickery rather than bellicose scatological broadsides against its right to exist) is that, for some readers, ‘Queen Anne’s lace’ will be an ambiguous reference on the first pass.
I daresay everyone who knows that Queen Anne’s lace is a white flower will be scoffing heartily – ‘What sort of idiot doesn’t know that?’ etc – but I didn’t pick it up on my first run through this sentence. This early in the story, we don’t have any context in terms of location, era, characters, etc, to understand from which lexical set your vocabulary draws.
‘Beneath the bobbing heads’ – well, on its own, that is ambiguous. It could be ‘bobbing heads of flowers’ but they could just as easily be literal ‘bobbing heads’. This could be a crowd of humans. So, when we hit ‘of Queen Anne’s lace’, a nontrivial portion of your readers may picture human heads with little lace caps, and – having read the ‘Queen Anne’ bit – picture a vaguely olde worlde English crowd scene. Other readers may picture precisely what you intend, but I’d suggest that a significant percentage of your readership will be lost by this initial image.
Now – I really like that you’ve gone specific. You haven’t said ‘flowers’, you’ve pinned down a precise type. That’s lovely. I just wonder if the particular plant you’ve chosen, ‘Queen Anne’s lace’, because its common name is – like so many plant names – a metaphor, makes our entry into your fictive world a little dicier than it need be. It’s a very evocative name, but I’d argue it’s too evocative – confusing, in fact – and losing even a small percentage of your readers on the first sentence is not worth the trade-off.
Of course, readers unseated by this initial ambiguity will catch-up as the scene progresses, but it means you’ve opened on a misstep, which isn’t a great way to impress your authority upon a reader and help them settle into the reality of your story. This ambiguity doesn’t serve some greater purpose.
‘my four-year-old daughter digs a grave’ is perfect. Specific, makes clear a relationship, gives us enough detail without overloading nouns with adjectives, an evocative but unpretentious verb in ‘digs’, and the most semantically-loaded word is left right till the end. ‘grave’ is a lovely sucker punch. I like it a great deal.
So, you know – with a minor tweak this could be an extremely classy sentence. It establishes a world, a viewpoint, a protagonist, someone they’re in relation to, and it suggests genre – literary fiction. Well done.
A fat, plastic baby sits propped against the sagging chicken wire fence
‘fat’ is one of my favourite adjectives. It does so much work in three letters, and it sits nicely on the mouth, like a gumdrop. For this reason, I tend to overuse it and redrafting is partly a process of poring over the manuscript, tweezing out each ‘fat’ like so many deathwatch beetles gnawing through an antique library.
‘A fat, plastic baby’ is simple, clear and has some lovely assonance – nothing too ostentatious, just enough to lend the words a gentle internal cadence. Good.
‘sits propped against the sagging chicken wire fence’ So. This is slightly harder to parse, largely because of the extra verbs drafted in to work as adjectives and prepositions. ‘A fat plastic baby sits’ is comprehensible, but following it up with a second verb, ‘propped’, so now we have ‘sits propped’, simultaneously refines and smudges the image. ‘propped’ is referring to an action not in the narrative present – the baby has been propped, and there we see agency and intentionality and the narrator’s private knowledge all converging in a single verb.
However, when we reach ‘against’, ‘propped’ is claimed as part of a prepositional phrase. So the reader’s eye does a slight – and it is, I grant you, only slight – double-take when hitting this line, in all likelihood parsing the words one way, then another, as it hits them in order.
This is a long-winded way of my querying ‘propped’. I realise it gives a different sense to the plastic baby simply sitting against the fence, but really you’re using ‘sits’ to disguise a passive voice construction. You could have rendered the line: ‘A fat, plastic baby is propped against’ or ‘A fat, plastic baby has been propped against’, both of which are more obviously inelegant.
Can you find a more accurate verb than ‘sits’? One that conveys the slightly slovenly, awkward, automaton-like appearance of the doll? If so, you get to cut ‘propped’, move straight into ‘against’, and the sentence will flow easier.
If this sounds like nitpicking, it is. But nitpicking is just a word the lazy use for ‘giving a shit’. Nits matter. Imagine receiving a birthday cake, crawling with nits. I mean, to be fair, if a cake is infested with nits, you might be better off throwing it away rather than laboriously picking off each insect then serving it to your guests. Maybe pubic lice is a better metaphor. You shouldn’t throw away your own genitalia just because of a few parasites. That’s a lesson for the ages.
‘the sagging chicken wire fence’ – so, ‘chicken wire fence’ is a single noun phrase, but, because we hit ‘chicken’ first, we get an image of a ‘sagging chicken’ before the most important noun, ‘fence’ allows us to resolve the previous three words (the first of which is a verb acting as an adjective, thus adding to the ambiguity). I don’t want to get all German on you, but it’s situations like these that make one appreciate the value of colossal compound nouns – ‘chickenwirefence’, while not conventionally beautiful, would certainly solve the above problem.
In the absence of such drastic changes to the English language, you might consider the minor fix of writing it: ‘the sagging chicken-wire fence’. Admittedly, a publisher might come along brandishing their style guide and attempt to remove said hyphen, but until such time as someone is actively paying you to listen to their arbitrary bullshit, I’d advise handcuffing ‘chicken’ and ‘wire’ together into a single phoneme for the sake of readability.
and oversees the interment of Mr. Carrots.
This is another black mark against ‘propped’. You’re indulging in a spot of twee personification here, imagining the doll has life, in which case you want to keep this consistent through the sentence.
I’d suggest that this clause would be better linked by a comma and a gerund, e.g. ‘overseeing the interment’. It is a continuous action taking place while the baby sits, not a separate and equal one.
‘oversees the interment’ feels like a failure of nerve. I get it – you’re trying to add mock-gravity to a childish scene – but the effect is to blur what’s going on. It’s too much – it feels like a dig in the ribs. Far better to pull back the vocab slightly – ‘watching the burial’ is far more immediate and gives the line room to breathe.
The introduction of ‘Mr. Carrots’ is a little confusing. We have to read on for a bit to figure out ‘oh, it’s a second toy’. I think the name, ‘Mr. Carrots’, is unfortunate, because we’re in a garden, and so there’s a bit of a semantic clash where we picture her burying actual carrots. It’s so early in the story, and so little of the reality has been established, I’d strongly advise you name the toy something else. I understand the absurd name is supposed to feel like a punchline that upends the funereal tone of the sentence, but there’s too much going on for the whole sentence to come off clearly.
Elizabeth has loved- is loving him into pieces.
So, I’d render the parenthetical ‘is loving’ like this:
‘Elizabeth has loved – is loving – him’
The em-dashes show the beginning and the end of the inserted, extra remark or thought. I don’t think you need ‘into’ – ‘to pieces’ sounds more natural.
The other problem is that you have two possible candidates for the pronoun ‘him’. I realise that the object and final word of the previous sentence was ‘Mr. Carrots’, but the subject of the previous sentence was the ‘fat, plastic baby’ and we’re trained as readers to prioritise the subject and central agent of a sentence over the thing that is acted upon.
So I wonder if a pronoun is not appropriate here, and you might either repeat ‘Mr. Carrots’ or put your cards on the table and call him ‘her stuffed rabbit’. I understand how you’ve worked to imply that he’s a stuffed rabbit in the descriptions that follow, showing not telling, allowing us to deduce as much, but I just don’t see the advantage of not calling him a stuffed rabbit. What does this coyness buy you? There’s an obvious cost – the scene is harder to see.
Otherwise, this sentence is really good. I like the parenthetical switch from observation about the past to observation about the narrative present – it feels authentic and the narrator has a clear reason to be thinking this. A train of thought is sparked by something happening in the moment. You’re exploiting the present tense well.
She has nuzzled off the pink of his nose, hugged his cotton batting into hard, cancerous lumps, and lopped off both ears when she gave him an unsupervised hare-cut.
Gnngh. This sentence has such a mix of good and bad. It is like a mix of peanut M&Ms, cherries and lanced crotch cysts.
‘She nuzzled off the pink of his nose’ – well, this sounds like she has actually removed his nose. It’s more that she has ‘nuzzled the pink off his nose’, isn’t it?
‘hugged his cotton batting’ I didn’t know that ‘batting’ was another word for ‘stuffing’. Maybe everyone knows except me. It’s the correct word in this context, but I’m not convinced it’s the right word. Everyone understands ‘stuffing’, I – and an unknown percentage of other readers – don’t understand ‘batting’. What does ‘batting’ offer that ‘stuffing’ does not? If the answer is ‘little’ or ‘nothing’, change it.
‘and lopped off both ears’ I think ‘his’ is better than ‘both’ – we understand rabbits have two ears. Better to include the possessive, I reckon.
‘an unsupervised hare-cut’ After the high standard of this opening paragraph, this godawful pun feels like lifting the silver cloche from the centre of a beautifully-arrayed wedding dinner only to find a hole sawn in the table and a pair of clammy human buttocks poking through, a party-favour inserted between the cheeks which proceeds to unroll and razz.
Allow humour or absurdity to arise naturally out of the situation or conflicting character needs – don’t force it with abrupt tonal jack-knifes or toe-curlingly poor plays on words. You’re writing a novel, not the shitty alliteration-filled links for a novelty clips show.
Overall, I think this page is one of the strongest openers we’ve looked at so far. It has a clear point-of-view, strong tension buried in the tone, and you engage our senses. You introduce three characters, you hint at conflict without being unnecessarily coy, and you make us care. By the end of this page, I care about the narrator and her daughter, and I want to read on. You’re doing great, Cat.
But I hope you can see that, just because a page does some things well, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for huge amounts of work. This is the hellish thing about writing – solve one problem, and you unlock a whole new tier of harder, more fiddly problems. And each problem interacts with the others, so that, by correcting one, you may exacerbate three more. Specificity and vividness are forever in conflict with pace and readability.
The better you are doing, the harder you have to be on your work in order to do it justice. Effort yields increasingly small returns.
But that’s the job. And, in the end, the thing that makes a novel good is the focused application of giving a shit. It’s caring about your world, your characters and your readers, directed through craft.
Push your work far enough, and you may find yourself in a position where an agent, then an editor, then a proofreader, all step in to help you out, and pass your work through ever-finer sieves. It’s amazing to me how apparently minor, fiddly changes can make a huge difference to the reader’s experience – can, indeed, make the difference between an unsatisfying read, and a transporting work of art.
Be one of the first people to get their hands on a first edition copy of The Honours, as soon as it’s released. I put stuff off all the time, and feel like a total loser. You’re not a loser. Do yourself a real, easy kindness. Pre-order in just a couple clicks, then it’s done, innit?