Happy 1st o’ May and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Friends, this blog has been going for almost a year. I can’t believe it. We’ll have to do something cool for the first anniversary. Like maybe I could announce something so exciting that you will chug 5 cups of coffee, jump onto your BMX and bunnyhop a house. Maybe.
If you want to submit to this blog, please read the Submission Guidelines. If you enjoy it, please tell your friends, tweet and FB post about it, yada yada yada. Thank you to Haleigh for sending this week’s first page.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Collapse (by Haleigh)
“Do you think she’ll live?” Empty fingers caressed her sleeping face.
“If it goes as I have ordained,” he said, “she will not want to.”
Mia woke and clutched the blankets to her chest. Her breath came out in staggered gasps that turned white in the air. Though her nightmares would have convinced her otherwise, she was alone in the room. She leaned back against the tired armrest of the couch and closed her eyes, letting the panic pass.
Slivers of colorless light draped down through the blinds into the darkened room. They landed, distorted, on her covers, and conformed to the curves and bumps of her tiny body under them. Over the clouds, the sun must have been right above the house. So it was around noon. She stretched her arm to move the curtains so she could see out the broken window. Nothing new presented itself to her, and she let the taut blinds snap back into place.
She turned her head back to the ceiling and the couch creaked with her. She wondered what day of the week it was. She had lost track of things like that; the day, the month, even the year. Drifting back asleep, she watched flakes of dust swim around each other in the air, stirred by her breathing.
‘Do you think she’ll live?’
On board. I suppose some readers who fancy themselves possessed of more refined literary sensibilities might roll their eyes at such a transparent attention-grab, but fuck those guys. We’ve started, we’re cooking, it’s story time. The sentence is clear, unpretentious. A solid first line.
Empty fingers caressed her sleeping face.
Oh shit off.
‘Empty fingers’? See, this is one of those phrases that sounds poetic on a first pass, but the more you read it the more it reveals its true form: utter bollocks. How does one discern that fingers are ‘empty’ from touch alone? Unless someone blew air into a pair of marigolds?
It’s not immediately clear that the ‘she’ in the dialogue and the ‘her’ in the narrative are the same person – when we read a piece of unattributed dialogue, especially this early on, then meet a character in the next sentence, our first instinct is to assume that the character is the speaker. This is a basic convention of modern fiction – a tenet of narrative implicature that spares the author – and, more importantly, the reader – from slavishly appending dialogue tags to every utterance.
Oh, and I hate the word ‘caressed’. Every reader has a list of words on their I-Don’t-Want-To-Read-This-BINGO card. Mine include – but are not limited to:
I just think it’s hard to use ‘caressed’ and not come off as a bit try-hard.
“If it goes as I have ordained,” he said, “she will not want to.”
‘ordained’ is a funny word, in that it immediately identifies this as a genre piece. I suppose it’s possible that this could be a member of the church speaking in an historical novel, but prophecy and phrases like ‘as I have ordained’ turn up all the time in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
I don’t have a problem with genre elements per se, but this feels a bit dragged-and-dropped from a 100 different novels and TV shows. We’ve seen it before. Baddy invokes dark prophecy. Dark prophecy never fucking comes to pass. Or does, but is considerably less dark/final than prophesied and quickly overturned. I’m not sure you want such clear generic markers so early.
That first clause has an awkward register shift: ‘if it goes’ is informal and clipped; ‘as I have ordained’ is formal and grandiose. One would have thought ‘if things proceed’ would fit more naturally.
I like the second clause though. Nice use of the dialogue tag to add a beat, making us pause before the killer coda.
Mia woke and clutched the blankets to her chest.
So you’ve opened with a spooky dream. Hmm. Actually, fine. You get a maximum of one dream fake-out per novel. You’ve used yours early.
Her breath came out in staggered gasps that turned white in the air.
‘staggered gasps’? No. ‘staggered’ means ‘arranged in a series of overlapping intervals’. So she’d be having to release a second gasp halfway through executing the first, and so on.
Her breath ‘turned white’? The only time I’ve been able to see my breath after waking up, the temperature in the house had dropped to 4 degrees. Either it’s midwinter and Mia’s central heating is broken, or she’s been holding that bong hit for a loooooong time.
Though her nightmares would have convinced her otherwise, she was alone in the room.
Unacceptable. That initial qualifying clause takes up over half the sentence. We have to wait till the final six words to find out what it’s modifying, then go back and reread with this new knowledge. Don’t make your readers fix your sentences for you, Haleigh. They will rapidly become tired, then they will stop being readers.
You could fix the basic problem by putting the main clause first: ‘She was alone in the room, though her nightmares would have convinced her otherwise.’
Hang on – ‘would have’? What’s this modal verb telling us? Do you mean her nightmares almost convinced her otherwise (which isn’t what ‘would have’ means)? Or are you using it in the archaic sense, as in ‘I would have you travel to Bath tomorrow afternoon and speak to your father in person’?
Anyway, that second clause is pointless noodly editorialising. It’s making explicit what should be implied, clubbing us over the head with ‘… OR WAS SHE??!!’ portentous signposting. Don’t treat your readers like drugged Neanderthals freshly thawed out the iceberg. ‘She was alone in the room’ is fine.
She leaned back against the tired armrest of the couch and closed her eyes, letting the panic pass.
The armrest isn’t ‘tired’. It can be battered, threadbare, soiled, faded, scuffed, grimy, sagging, tattered, ageing, worn, abraded, patchy, stained, sun-blanched, ragged, sunken, crooked, pungent or old, but it can’t experience exhaustion.
Show, don’t tell. Don’t write ‘letting the panic pass’ – give us her physical symptoms: the pounding chest, the sweats, the shaky arms, the dizziness, whatever. Writing the word ‘panic’ doesn’t evoke panic. Writing the symptoms of panic can work so well that – for nervous people like me – it can be difficult to read without replicating those symptoms in your own body. That’s fundamentally good writing.
Slivers of colorless light draped down through the blinds into the darkened room.
Technically, ‘colourless’ is black, or possibly transparent. The light might be milky or gold or white or sickly yellow, but it’s not colourless. Are you near a window? Is it daytime? Look at the light coming through. Is that actually ‘colourless’? You know you’re allowed to check your writing against the real world, right? That’s not cheating.
‘draped down’ is just wrongo. ‘draped’ implies ‘down’ so you never need to add that second word. ‘draped’ doesn’t describe the behaviour of light passing through blinds anyway. Unless the room is really dusty you don’t see the beams at the point they penetrate the blind, but where they hit a solid object.
They landed, distorted, on her covers, and conformed to the curves and bumps of her tiny body under them.
This makes it sound as if she’s capable of watching photons pass through space and physically strike her duvet. Which would be fucking awesome – a scene related in hyper bullet time – but is not the scene you’re going for.
This is a classic example of an author stuck with a dull scene – a groggy person sat on a couch – trying to disguise its mundanity by pumping the language full of steroids. Like so:
Anders conveyed the egg sandwich to his arid lips, his arm, fingers and palm a musculoskeletal crane lifting the rare prize of sustenance – two isosceles triangles of wheat bread gently caressing the empty dreams of so many childless hens – towards the straight rows of teeth and the undulating, sea lion-like tongue.
Please don’t. As the author, your job is to provide content, not to caper, chimp-like, to disguise the lack of it.
Over the clouds, the sun must have been right above the house. So it was around noon.
So it’s noon, the sun’s out, and she can see her breath? Why should the reader care about these sentences? What’s at stake here?
You can’t go from portentous dream to jack shit and expect to ride the momentum through the next few pages. There is no momentum. It was a dream. You might as well write an author’s note that reads: ‘Sure, this novel starts slow (backstory, atmosphere, you know how it is), but stick around till page 50 – shit gets insanely real.’
She stretched her arm to move the curtains so she could see out the broken window.
You don’t have to add these weird causal chains to explain basic actions. ‘She stretched her arm to move the curtains’? It’s not like if you wrote ‘she drew back the curtains’ we’d assume she used her teeth.
The mention of ‘the broken window’ is the first time in this whole section we’ve got anything remotely resembling a hint of a rumour of story. It’s like a single cake crumb in an empty tin. Why is the window broken, we’d wonder if we weren’t already comatose with boredom.
Nothing new presented itself to her,
Brilliant! Well, thanks for telling us regardless. Because that’s the important part of fiction, isn’t it? Being fastidious. As readers we expect a comprehensive digest of everything that’s unremarkable in your world, otherwise how will we recognise the truly storyworthy when it arrives?
She wondered what day of the week it was. She had lost track of things like that; the day, the month, even the year.
Do you remember how, in the Sonic games, if you stopped running for a bit, Sonic would look quizzically at the screen and tap his feet and yawn? And when you looked up from your beans and fish fingers and noticed you’d be like – oh fuck, I’m putting so little effort into this game that Sonic himself is becoming impatient? And you’d either pick the controller back up or quit altogether?
Your protagonist is pulling a Sonic. She is bored shitless. She is so lost for something to do that her higher cognitive functions are collapsing like a swan ice sculpture centrepiece under a stream of hot piss.
Here’s a tip: if the person your story is happening to is bored, just imagine how your reader feels. Like a shipwrecked armless dude with a swingball set.
Don’t start your story on a boring day, in a boring moment. Start it in an instant of evocative change. Start it when the pattern breaks. I’m not asking for Godzilla’s variegated purple iris to appear blinking at the 50th floor penthouse window – necessarily – but I want the sense of a story beginning, not the trailer for a story that might start sometime next month, if we’re lucky.
Don’t wait to throw your big punch. Punching is how you build your muscles so the next punch is even bigger.
You used to be so impulsive, so alive. If you wanted something, you did it. Every day crackled with unpredictable thunder. Get some of the old magic back – order my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
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