Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a weekly blog about writing, editing and stories. Most weeks we take a first page submitted by a novice author, and look at ways of making it better. If you’d like to read previous posts, there are nearly two years’ worth. If you’d like to submit your work for consideration, please read our Submission Guidelines.
My debut novel, The Honours, is out April 2nd, and you can treat yourself to a first edition the day of release by pre-ordering. If you click that link there’s even a pdf preview where you can read the opening pages and decide for yourself whether it’s something you want to get into. If you do read the first page and like it, please spread the word and share it round.
Speaking of checking out first pages, onto our main feature. As always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you think could be improved (and how that might be achieved) then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Critic (by Tim)
The skin on her arms was fair. That was the detail that drew me in. Bleached pine arms. Her hair melted into the darkness behind her, which was looking in through the window. The finger bashing on keyboards gave the impression of rain outside. She held her biro out in front of her, in the air, looking towards me. Looking right at me. Had she seen me watching her? The temperature in my ears went to a number equating to searing. She looked away. They instantly cooled.
I focused back on my screen. Three words. One hour. Miserable words too. They wouldn’t make it. I looked up to see her. We were back where we’d started. Then a smile. I smiled back. Her head shot back down to her A5 writing pad. The page was filled with red inked sentences. The candle between us puffed a black smoke ring whose shadow drifted across the communal pinewood table at the centre of the café for a few seconds before it disappeared. She was now counting the pages, one by one, checking her progress. A wry smile appeared.
What could she be writing about? Nothing as poor as this. Three words. Three fucking words! My talent was still locked in a seed. Yet to be germinated. She though, could be flowering…A novel, perhaps a thriller or love story set in a cafe. Was she writing about me? The mysterious stranger…The possibilities were endless.
That’s why I followed her as she left.
Just to make it absolutely mountain-spring clear, I am not the ‘Tim’ who authored this piece. I’m no dazzling master of subterfuge, dear readers, but if I did want to sneak some of my own work onto this blog, please credit me with the wit to invent a pseudonym. (it’d probably be one of those Victorian virtue names, like Constance, or Gnarly)
The skin on her arms was fair.
And that’s good, is it?
Sorry, I was quoting Jez from Peep Show. The line he reads at random from a book is ‘The look on her face was one of disappointment,’ which at least has the merit of an emotional tone and a suggestion of stakes.
This sentence is legible, but bland as hell. In general – and with the clear exception of Hamlet – lines where the main verb is a variant of ‘to be’ are boring and best avoided. Indeed, ‘to be or not be’ is interesting because it is a question. Similarly, ‘Where the fuck am I?’ is reasonably compelling. Statements of existence – e.g. ‘It was raining.’ ‘The drapes were a savage, liquid blue.’ ‘Charles would always be in the pub, sinking halves of mild and muttering to anyone who would listen that Christ had been a Cornish pilchard fisherman and was buried in a mineshaft just south of Perranporth.’ – are usually the flattest, most static way of presenting your world to the reader, even when, as in the last example, they’re buttressed by auxiliary verbs and huge gerundy adjectival clauses.
‘The skin on’ is redundant. I can see how ‘Her arms were fair’ might sound, on a first pass, like a weird ethical appraisal, but ‘The skin on her arms’ feels clumsily over-specific. Is her skin a different colour elsewhere? Could you not render it ‘Her skin was fair’?
But then, of course, stripping back some of the redundancy lays bare that this opening salvo is dull as balls – and if there’s one writing rule I try to advocate every week, Tim, it’s: don’t be dull as balls. Dull as balls is a bad look for your fiction.
That was the detail that drew me in.
So this is better. It’s clear, but it’s inflected by a definite point of view. We now have two clear characters, the observed woman and the narrator. The latter of whom is creepy as fuck. Which is a workable dynamic! He/she/they is intrigued by, maybe lusting after this other character.
Again, it’s a ‘to be’ statement – this is static, rather than active, and there’s not much sense of a narrative present – but at least we have the beginnings of a story.
Bleached pine arms.
Okay so now this sounds like the narrator has a pervy stonk-on for Mokujin. I’m not even being facetious – we’re too early in the story to determine the reality of your world. Ambiguous lines like this chuck us all over the place: ‘bleached’ suggests a literal bleach injury, ‘pine’ suggests she’s made out of wood, then again you return to these static arms, just floating there against a grey void, literally the only tangible things that exist in your fictional world thus far.
If we read a bit farther we can be like ‘oh, he means “Arms the colour of bleached pine”’ but by then we’ve already got a succession of bizarre half-images in our heads. This is a horrible shamblefuck of an opening, Tim.
Her hair melted into the darkness behind her, which was looking in through the window.
So – first half of this sentence = dire romance novel cliché. Hair doing any sort of ‘melting’ needs to be put on a chart somewhere that all writers can tack to their study walls. And if you find you’ve written about ‘His hair melted over’ or ‘She rose, her raven hair melting into’ or whatever, you following along the chart with your finger and it tells you what punishment to administer to yourself, like ‘No chocolate mini-rolls for the rest of the month’ or ’30 Minutes Of Mrs Brown’s Boys’ and other such horrors.
The second half is a failure, plain and simple. You try to switch the focus of the sentence from her hair – the subject and a concrete noun – to ‘the darkness’ – the object and an abstract noun – while simultaneously personifying said darkness as ‘looking in’. And then you close on ‘window’, so our lasting impression is neither.
It’s like you’re trying to make love while cooking a Spanish omelette and taking a shit. All three of these timeless pleasures suffer as a result. Pick one purpose for your sentence, one particular idea, and have it convey that well.
The finger bashing on keyboards gave the impression of rain outside.
What a perfect example of how word choice and order can fuck up an otherwise viable sentence!
Regular readers – pay attention. Seriously, if you can nail this, you leapfrog over 95% of your fellow authors. This is the key to robust prose. Fuck that. It’s more powerful than a key. This is The Sweeney hacking down the door to great prose with an axe, bursting in and clobbering the shit out of it.
So – you don’t mean ‘The finger bashing on keyboards’, you mean ‘The finger-bashing on keyboards’. Unless there’s just one giant disembodied finger ramming keyboards all over the café like some horrifying cursed penis.
But ‘finger-bashing’ doesn’t do much to excite the ear. It doesn’t suggest the noise of rattling keyboards. It sounds like something Simon Hitch and Louisa Fallman did at the back of the 29 on the way home from watching The Winter Soldier, at least that’s what Jess put on Louisa’s Facebook wall and now everyone in school knows and Louisa’s nan saw and it’s really out of order.
‘gave the impression of rain outside’ is such a toothless, mealy-mouthed, cabbagey guff of a phrase. Look at that weak-ass verb – ‘gave’. Then you end with the qualifier ‘outside’, blunting the – not exactly staggering – impact of ‘rain’, to precisely zero benefit. Why specify ‘outside’? Can you not trust that your readers possess the most rudimentary meteorological knowledge known to humanity – that weather happens outside? And the noise isn’t even coming from outside! The noise is happening indoors! So the sentence isn’t even fucking true! Argh!
So like: ‘The rattle of fingers on keys echoed like rain.’ That’s what you’re saying. It’s a banal simile – rain almost always is – but if you’re going to say it, make your nouns and verbs precise and put the most important information at the end and at the start.
And don’t roll your eyes, dear readers, because you’re guilty of this too. Go back to your latest piece of writing and actually check. Run this test on your work. Fuck, pick a novel off your shelf – preferably one you like – and check the extent to which the author follows this rule, and how potent and readable you judge their work. If you disagree with it as a principle, or if you’ve got some counter-examples, please drop me a line. I’d love to wrestle this one to the ground, find some loopholes, pound a bit of nuance into it. I’m happy to spout dogma but I want it to be targeted, refined dogma.
She held her biro out in front of her, in the air, looking towards me.
‘in the air’ is a contender for Worst Qualifying Clause Ever. How does it aid our comprehension? Where else was a biro held ‘out in front of her’ going to be? ‘in the howling vortex’? ‘in the sentient gelatinous cube taking up most of the room’?
Also, it’s confusing that you draw our attention to her arms, her hair, and the sound of typing on keyboards – really the only details we’ve got to build this scene from – only to reveal she’s using a pen! Most readers will have pictured a laptop in front of her. Now we have this odd dissonance where the two objects briefly co-exist and we try to reconcile them in our imaginations.
Looking right at me. Had she seen me watching her?
Don’t do this naff Victorian pacing where you painstakingly map out the narrator’s mental state – try to match the speed of the narrative present. This makes it sound like she’s looking at him/her/them and the narrator is just staring gormlessly back.
What happens? Do they look away? If they’re embarrassed (as the next lines imply) that should be the very next beat: ‘Looking right at me. I dropped my gaze quickly.’ Or whatever.
I mean, it’s a hacky beat anyway – not super-exciting as an opening move in a novel – but I do think it’s one of those clichéd-for-a-reason situations. People really do sneak glances at other people then get flustered when they think they’ve been seen, and you’re allowed to write these scenes in fiction, because they’re part of being human.
I don’t think you even need ‘Had she seen me watching her?’ That question is implicit. Don’t spoonfeed the reader when we’re in familiar territory. Especially don’t try to nudge them towards the central tensions of the scene.
I’m guilty of this – when writing action in third-person limited, it’s very easy to drop in those ‘Were they coming? Was she in danger?’ tags that feel like legit evocations of psychological states – they feel like sentences you’d read in a book – but are actually mostly dogshit pulpy signposting that bulks out your narrative without adding much. You can get away with one or two, but there’s a definite odium of corner-cutting – too many and you render your prose flavourless and insipid.
The temperature in my ears went to a number equating to searing.
‘a number equating to’? Oh god. I just can’t. So many words. So little said.
‘My ears felt hot.’ Or ‘My ears prickled with heat.’ That’s it. You need 5 words, absolute max. This sentence is more than twice as long as it needs to be.
Again, look: horrible, weak verb in ‘went’, qualified to death with a long, clunky adverbial clause. Those two ‘ing’ words so close together, ‘equating to searing’, clang with particular discordant severity. Read your work out loud, please. Don’t let these crimes stand.
Look, overall I feel like there’s an ambiguity around the story’s relationship to this intensely creepy narrator, who may be a sexual predator or just a weird douche. ‘That’s why I followed her as she left’ is a neat twist, but I felt I’d slightly broken faith with this charmless git before then. The vainglorious writing stuff doesn’t make him sound like the kind of person we wanted to spend a whole book stuck with. I almost want him or her to be a bit more shy, a bit more halting, a bit more likeable and tentative in this opening scene, so we’re on board, rooting for them a bit more, complicit, basically, and then they follow the woman out the café and we’re like ‘oh shit – I yoked my sympathy wagon to this fucked-up douchebag’ and everything escalates kaboom.
Style botches can be fixed, so please take my criticism as a stirring call to arms rather than a referendum on you personally, something feedback on a piece of art can never be. I am sure you are a great chap, Tim, and thank you very much for sharing your writing with us.
The Honours, by me, is out at the start of April. Pre-order and read the beginning now.