Hey friends, and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts. Making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
There are lots of blogs about fiction writing, but this one focuses on fiction rewriting. If you like stories, or making stories, or people who make stories, you’ll probably find something here that tickles your fancy.
Each week we take a novice author’s first page, either from a novel or a short story, and look at ways of making it better. If you’d like to submit your own, please check out our Submission Guidelines for rules and the email address.
It’s really nice bumping into people in real life who read the blog. Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback. I try to implement what I can given time and technical limitations, but it’s all very welcome. If you enjoy reading these posts each week, please don’t forget to tip off friends and strangers via Facebook, Twitter, blogposts, email and good old fashioned saying with your mouth in conversation. This blog lives and dies on your recommendations. We get a big traffic spike whenever someone shares the blog with friends, so please, if you like what I do and you’d like to support it, the best favour you can do me is to publicly give DoaTC a thumbs up.
Some of you have been asking two related questions – do I ever read rewritten drafts, and do I think that, by following my suggestions, submitters could transform their extracts into publishable material?
Let me answer the first one first – no. This is strictly a one-pass deal. I feel any work after that would be diminishing returns and the best use of my time is cranking out new posts each week. But if any authors who I’ve already looked at did go back and rewrite their work, feel free to get in touch. I’d be prepared to post a few follow-ups with the redrafted versions, without additional commentary from me, for any readers who are interested.
In terms of the second question – it’s important to stress that DoaTC is not and never has been about making work ‘publishable’. That’s a nebulous quality no one can guarantee to bestow on a work. Some published fiction is utter dogshit. I’d like to encourage us all to aim for the much healthier bar of ‘excellent’. I have grave doubts about self-publishing and its many acolytes, but whether an author is published traditionally or publishes themselves is rather beside the point.
What matters is a good story, told well. (my problem with every self-published author I’ve ever read is not that they’re self-published, but that they’re fucking shit at writing)
So, to answer the second question, do I think that most of the extracts we read on this blog are salvageable? Honestly – no. I see the work we do here as being less surgery, more autopsy. We are not trying to save the patient – only to find out why she died. But I do believe that authors, in becoming cognisant of these mistakes and practising the work of repairing them, can gain skills which might one day empower them to bang out a genuinely great piece of prose.
No one writes perfect work in a single draft, but we can start to internalise certain skills so that the way we approach our fictional world grows more ambitious and interesting.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’. Any additional comments or disagreements, feel free to add them via the ‘Comments’ box!
Dragon Bound (by Mary)
Ana stared at the crumbling walls around her. She was still on her feet, somehow. How was she still standing? How was she even alive, let alone standing unharmed in the midst of the blackened stones and smoldering timbers? She was sure no one else had survived the blast. How could they have?
She tried to take a step, but her feet were unsteady on the still-trembling ground. She wobbled, and then gave into the weakness in her legs. She sank to the floor. She knew she needed to get out of here before the roof collapsed. But where would she go?
Ana squeezed her eyes shut. She pictured her family, at home in their seaside cottage. She imagined running back in through the door and throwing herself into her mother’s embrace. She could see it so clearly: her mother’s ecstatic smile, her happy cry of, “Praise the Monarchy, my daughter has returned!” as she wrapped her arms tightly around Ana. But that would never happen now. Not after what she’d done. Ana opened her eyes and raised her head to stare once again around the ruins of the Great Hall.
“There is no Monarchy,” Ana whispered. Her voice was hoarse from the smoke and ash. “I’ve killed them all.”
Calling this Dragon Bound is a very strong statement of intent, genre-wise. You’re communicating to the reader ‘this is bang in the centre of a broad, familiar genre’. I doubt you could make it sound any more generic without lapsing into parody (Blade Of The Dragonlord? Lord Of The Dragonblade? Return Of The Moonblade Dragonprince: Book 7 – Snowfire Rising + Elves?).
Whether this is positive or negative depends very much on your reader, or perhaps the agent you submit to. The title implies ‘this story offers nothing new’. Some people will be put off by this. Others will be delighted by the promise of a return to familiar territory. If your story is very much a traditional sword and sorcery romp, then the title fits and you should keep it.
It’s easy to get sneery about traditional Fantasy but the same lure of familiarity is alive and well in all genres – if anything, Fantasy and Romance are the only genres to acknowledge this with any degree of honesty. Contemporary literary fiction orbits around a glut of dull-as-balls middle-class angst narratives where a single traumatic event has ‘consequences that resonate through the lives of everyone’ and reading this plodding busywork is then dubbed by actual grown-ups to be somehow intellectually enriching. The drab, middlebrow hackery of gits like Ian McEwan is deemed literary because its clichés are physically possible.
Do not be fooled. Guilt sells books just as sure as wizards on the cover.
Ana stared at the crumbling walls around her.
Okay, so this sentence introduces a protagonist and places her in an environment. ‘stared’ is a loaded verb choice that implies great interest or amazement or confusion or distress, so there’s a hint of implied conflict. All good things for a first line to contain.
‘around her’ is bland way to close the sentence and adds little. Where else would the crumbling walls be? In the sky? In the distance on the back of a truck?
Having read on – normally when we say a place has ‘crumbling walls’, we mean it’s an old castle or such like, where the mortar has started to disintegrate and weather has eroded the windward side. The ‘crumbling’, used an adjective, is a slow, ongoing process.
In this story, the building has been partly destroyed. I don’t think this is what ‘crumbling walls’ brings to mind. ‘demolished walls’ might be closer to the mark, but then that seems like a contradiction in terms (if it’s ‘demolished’ then it’s not a ‘wall’ anymore, is it?) and ‘partly demolished walls’ is inelegant to say the least. Maybe something more obviously dramatic, like ‘smoking debris’ or ‘blasted ruins’? There’s no percentage in concealing the extent of the disaster from your reader. Apply shit to fan.
She was still on her feet, somehow. How was she still standing?
Avoid saying the same thing twice. Don’t repeat yourself.
See how fucking annoying and patronising it is, even when done as a joke? I know you didn’t mean to be annoying or patronising, Mary – you want the reader to be wrapped up in this exciting situation. But words are at a premium this early in the story (actually they’re at a premium all the way through, but you can get away with lower standards later on, should you decide that the reader’s enjoyment doesn’t matter quite so much to you past page 50) and these two sentences, if you look at them, add up to exactly the same thing.
Pick one, delete the other.
How was she even alive, let alone standing unharmed in the midst of the blackened stones and smoldering timbers?
Don’t try to cram all this into the question format. There’s no point using stream-of-consciousness if you’re not going to attempt to sculpt it into vaguely human rhythms.
‘How was she alive?’ is permissible as an intensifier of ‘How was she still standing?’ (cut ‘even’ – it’s a fluff word that saps impact) but after that this sentence can get to fuck.
‘let alone standing unharmed’ is just repeating what we already know. FOR THE THIRD TIME. At this stage even the most tolerant of readers will be dropkicking your notional book into a canal, hocking a vengeful loogie after it as it plumps and sinks.
‘in the midst of the’ is a clumsy way of saying ‘amongst’ or ‘amidst’. That’s an 80% reduction. Don’t use five words where one will do, Mary. It’s like making someone a sandwich containing several sheets of cardboard.
‘blackened stones and smouldering timbers’ is, at least, specific. You’re letting us picture her environment. It’s static, but then, the scene is static – this shellshocked gawping at devastation. I’d put it in a different sentence to ‘How was she alive?’ Maybe ‘She stood amongst blackened stones and smouldering timbers’ or ‘All around were blackened stones and smouldering timbers.’ I realise that ‘She stood’ more or less repeats what we already know, but it’s less dressy than ‘let alone standing unharmed’ and thus the reader’s eye skims over it. Still – bloody tricky this writing game, eh?
She was sure no one else had survived the blast. How could they have?
Tim stood amidst the wreckage of the first paragraph. How was he alive? How was he still standing? Standing, his two legs holding his body above the ground, he surveyed the mangled tautology and melodramatic questions that clubbed the reader over the head with the alleged stakes. He was sure no one else had bothered reading this far. How could they have?
That is a bit of satire encouraging you to cut these two dick-pic-subtle-yet-boringly-abstract sentences. This is all stuff happening in the protagonist’s head – hypothetical questions rather than concrete, external events and objects as perceived through the five senses. Give us sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Resorting to all this ‘But if… then… It could not be! How was such a thing possible?’ reduces us to second-hand consumers of your fictional world, desperate to engage with it directly but stymied by all these stupid signposts telling us how to think and feel, continually emphasising how strange and dramatic the situation is.
She tried to take a step, but her feet were unsteady on the still-trembling ground.
Right, so for a start, she’s on a floor, not the ground. Secondly, this sentence feels so bloody dull. All your noun and verb choices seem calculated to yield as little juice as possible: take, step, feet, were, ground. This should feel like such a stunning moment, but the drabness of your language is a tranquiliser dart in the arse of a bear. Instead of rampaging towards the reader, roaring, your story lollops a few yards then collapses, trailing ropes of slobber.
She wobbled, and then gave into the weakness in her legs. She sank to the floor.
Argh. Clutching my scalp, trying not to bleed from the eyes. Again with saying in three sentences what could be conveyed in one!
Show, don’t tell. ‘her feet were unsteady on the still-trembling ground’ and ‘gave into the weakness of her legs’ are lengthy, ploddingly literal ways of saying ‘she wobbled’ and ‘she sank to the floor’.
And do you really mean ‘She sank to the floor’? It implies something more gradual than a collapse – a sort of mediated swooning. I can totally believe that someone in shock would sink to the floor, the strength in their legs gone, afraid that if they don’t sit they will simply collapse. So it’s fine, as long as that’s what you intended.
I feel like you could more or less cut this down to:
She tried to take a step. She wobbled. She sank to the floor.
It’s not hugely exciting language-wise, but it feels more punchy and dramatic. No one’s saying you have to be all florid and literary, but if you’re not, you’d better be hitting us with a fast-paced story, engaging characters and clear, readable prose.
She knew she needed to get out of here before the roof collapsed.
What roof? With all your talk of crumbling walls, blackened stones and smouldering timbers, I had assumed there was barely a house left. Certainly I was picturing a room open to the sky.
I think you probably mean ‘ceiling’, in any case. From her perspective, it’s a ceiling – from the outside, it may well be a roof. Is the room on fire? You mention ‘smouldering’, but not flames or smoke.
‘She knew’ is a pointless phrase in third-person stream-of-consciousness. Just give us the thought directly – i.e. ‘She needed to get out’ – and don’t frame it by explaining it’s something she knows. That’s implied by the conventions of the form.
Talk of the ceiling collapsing feels like an unconvincing attempt to shoehorn urgency into the scene. We understand how stories work. Do you really think any reader’s going to believe there’s even a remote possibility that you might immediately kill her off by dropping a ton of scorched masonry on her? Oh, that’d be ace. Oh, I’d be so onboard if the apparent protagonist got killed almost immediately.
Whenever you want to create a sense of peril, show, don’t tell. Have her glance up and notice the whole ceiling shudder, crumbs of mortar falling from around a fractured joist, one end of which is blackened and slowly burning through. Have her hear the groan of tons of quarried stone pressing down. Have her smell the thick, salty stink of scorched oak.
Let the reader experience the thought: ‘That girl is in deep shit. She needs to do one.’ It’s 100 times more powerful when it happens in the reader’s head instead of the protagonist.
Don’t tell us a situation is perilous. Show us the situation and allow us to conclude that it is perilous. Some examples:
He had to kill the dragon before it ate him. But how would he reach his sword?
Flame geysered from the blackened nostrils, forcing him back against the wet cave wall. The dragon smacked its gore-soaked chops. It kicked aside Wyrmbane then turned to face him squarely, talons scrape-clacking as its monstrous forelegs advanced.
The ship was sinking. He was so angry with the monkeys.
‘You little bastards!’ Bertie’s imprecations were half-gargled as water filled the engine room. ‘I’ll have your eyes for this! I’ll scoop them out with two fingers,’ here he mimed the action, ‘and piss in the bloody sockets while you shriek for death’s sweet release!’
All around him, dead monkeys bobbed with remorseful grace, floating face down and naked, long tails trailing beneath the surface, their fur dark with the weight of moisture.
And so on and so forth.
But where would she go?
Out. Out of the fucking collapsing house. If this is a non-stupid question we certainly don’t have the necessary context to judge it as such. Your protagonist just seems like a dolt.
If you were in a burning room, would you sit in the middle of it working out who you could stay with? Or would you exercise some basic prioritising skills and wait until you weren’t in imminent danger? If you answered number two, congratulations, you are entry-level competent in not dying horribly in a crisis.
(Mary, I sincerely hope that you know it’s not okay to stay somewhere potentially lethal while you sketch out an itinerary. Please look after yourself!)
Ana squeezed her eyes shut. She pictured her family, at home in their seaside cottage.
If the ceiling really is about to collapse then this is where we break faith with Ana completely. In my head I’m like: ‘Fuck you, lady! You’re in danger! Run! Don’t expect me to care about you if you won’t take basic precautions like not slipping into an exposition-heavy flashback when a shitload of burning rubble is about to fall on your head.’
She imagined running back in through the door and throwing herself into her mother’s embrace.
See, at first glance this seems nice and specific, but look again at those nouns: she, door, herself, mother, embrace.
‘She’, ‘herself’ and ‘mother’ are all characters we’ve had fuck-all physical description of. So you might as well write ‘Astigmatic Splodge 1’ and ‘Astigmatic Splodge 2’. ‘door’ is vague, generic, and not even true. She’s running through the doorway, not the door. ‘embrace’, at least, implies intent and tone, but since it involves two characters we don’t know and can’t picture, it’s lost.
What does this ‘seaside cottage’ look like? What do seaside cottages look like in your world? What is the rough year, in terms of technology? Is it a seaside cottage in medieval times, a seaside cottage now? Is there glass in the windows and a thatched roof, or what? What do these concepts mean in your imagined world?
Praise the Monarchy, my daughter has returned!
‘the Monarchy’ is a bit of weird term. Does this mean something specific in your world or are you just reinventing the wheel and coming up with an awkward way of saying ‘the King and Queen’? Wouldn’t she be more likely to praise specific members or a member of the royal family?
Introducing your readers to new terms and concepts is tough, especially the first couple of times you use the new word. My advice is, wherever possible, not to capitalise concepts. Doing so is like including a big blinking red neon arrow saying ‘WORLD-BUILDING’. Obviously it’s not always avoidable, but where possible cap down so you can slide in new lingo unobtrusively.
“There is no Monarchy,” Ana whispered.
No she fucking didn’t. This isn’t telly.
Don’t have characters deliver soliloquies to thin air if you want your story to retain any shred of plausibility. The only reason this happens in films and TV shows is because we haven’t yet invented a Telepathy Camera that allows direct access to a character’s brain. (and a good thing too, since it turns out all these people you love and care about are portrayed by actors who are probably thinking about the sweat bead working its way down their arse crack or how they could really go for some Adderall right now)
Prose fiction is a Telepathy Camera. Especially third-person stream of consciousness! Why would you have a character say something this unnatural when you can just have them think it? It’s like fashioning a sex doll out of two flour sacks and a partially-decomposed Jack O’ Lantern when your loving partner is upstairs naked in bed yelling ‘Come on!’
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