This week, I’m starting a semi-regular feature called ‘In The Barber’s Chair’, where we look at someone’s first page then go at it with the scissors. Last time, I asked you to send me the first page of your novel or short story. Reader ‘Peter’ kindly obliged. The idea is to show good compositional principles we can all learn from. You might like to read through it considering where you’d make a change, and what you think its strengths and weaknesses are. My thoughts after the extract.
Alice had awakened with a start. She looked at the luminous hands of her alarm clock and could just see that it was a little after three o-clock. The heavy velour curtains blocked almost all the light from the lamp in the street. As her eyes became more accustomed to the dark she began to make out the familiar shapes of her front room; the television set in the corner, her display cabinet, the chair where Harry used to sit. A muffled bang from the back of the house frightened and bewildered her. She pulled the bedclothes up tighter under her chin and listened as still as a nesting bird, hardly daring to breathe. She wondered briefly is she was dreaming but she knew all her dreams off by heart and this wasn’t one of them.
Alice’s house was at the end of one of the last remaining ‘two up two down’ terraced rows. All the others had been condemned and demolished in the brief optimism of the sixties and replaced by maisonettes and flats. It would be a simple target. The bottom panel of the door would be all too easy and at this time of night nobody would be about to see his slight, wiry figure drop into the shadows of the back yard wall. The old woman would be fast asleep upstairs too and was most probably as deaf as a plank anyway. The door panel gave way on the second kick.
Kyle needed the money; it was as simple as that. At least he needed the money because he needed the blow and he needed the blow so badly that he often went without food – which was why he was accustomed to eating in the houses. He was starving tonight and decided to raid the fridge before the rest of the house. He found himself in a wooden ‘lean-to’ that contained a cooker, an old porcelain sink and an aluminium larder. Try as he might Kyle couldn’t find the fridge. He noticed a sponge cake under a net and he stuffed it in his mouth. He inhaled crumbs and they made him cough which, bug eyed, he frantically tried to stifle. The jam in the cake was sweet and sticky and delicious, some of it got on his fingers. He gave up on the fridge.
Experience told him where to search and the drawers in the dresser in the back room were the obvious places to start. He emptied the contents of one of them onto the floor and as he rummaged through old fashioned underwear and other garments he wondered why anyone would keep clothes downstairs. Then he saw a purse that contained two ten pound notes. He jammed them into his pocket. He emptied all the other drawers but found nothing else of value, he knew there must be more money somewhere and that the front room was most likely place.
In spite of the sounds of her house being ransacked Alice hadn’t moved. All she could think of was that the burglar might leave without discovering her.
Kyle crept into the front room and made for the display cabinet. He’d walked straight past the folded down settee of Alice’s put-you-up bed. She lay there and watched rigidly. Kyle opened the display cabinet door.
“Just what do you think you are doing?”
Kyle jumped in fear; he clattered into the cabinet and upset the ornaments and photographs with a crash.
Alice had awakened with a start.
Starting a scene with a character waking up is a cliché, but let’s put that aside. My main problem with this is that you’ve cast your opening line in the pluperfect. We’re not seeing Alice wake – you’re telling us ‘oh, by the way, a while ago she woke up suddenly’. I don’t think you should keep this as a first line, but if you did, you should revise it as: ‘Alice woke with a start.’ Even better: ‘Alice woke.’ The short sentence conveys abruptness.
She looked at the luminous hands of her alarm clock and could just see that it was a little after three o-clock. The heavy velour curtains blocked almost all the light from the lamp in the street.
Noble friends, welcome to the aeons-long struggle I call ‘the War on Fluff’. Aside from the lack of tension in these lines – there’s no conflict, nothing unusual to hook our attention – there are loads of redundant words. The modal verb ‘could’ and the adverb ‘just’ – how are they furthering our understanding of the scene? Indeed, why do we need to specify that she ‘sees’ the clock? The ‘heavy velour curtains’ is a nice, crunchy detail – I believe in them, and it suggests something about her tastes – but do we really need to know that the light in the street comes ‘from the lamp’?
Again, I don’t think you should keep these lines, but if you did, revise them as: ‘The luminous hands of her alarm clock hovered in the darkness. A little after three. Heavy velour curtains blocked the streetlight.’
As her eyes became more accustomed to the dark she began to make out the familiar shapes of her front room; the television set in the corner, her display cabinet, the chair where Harry used to sit.
Again, fluff is choking this sentence – ‘became more accustomed’ can be ‘adjusted’, you can skip ‘the familiar shapes of her front room’ and hop straight to specific objects. A ‘television’ and ‘display cabinet’ feel a bit generic – try to maintain that lovely specificity of the ‘heavy velour curtains’. Right at the end of this sentence – bam! The beginnings of a story. It’s not much, but it’s the first flicker of interest in this scene. Suddenly we’re getting an inkling of history, of character. Good.
A muffled bang from the back of the house frightened and bewildered her. She pulled the bedclothes up tighter under her chin and listened as still as a nesting bird, hardly daring to breathe. She wondered briefly is she was dreaming but she knew all her dreams off by heart and this wasn’t one of them.
More fluff – ‘frightened and bewildered’? Pick one. Better yet, show, don’t tell. Have the bang, then show her reaction – the bedclothes yanked up, the held breath. The whole ‘nesting bird’ simile doesn’t work for me. It drags us out of the moment into this rather twee image.
Ignoring the typo in the last line – and the unnecessary adverb, ‘briefly’ – this was the first sentence that made me sit up and take notice. ‘She knew all her dreams off by heart and this wasn’t one of them’. That’s your first line right there. That’s where the story begins. It’s unusual, it suggests character, pathos, drama. All at once we get this image of a character whose life is so predictable that even her dreams are in a rut. And we’re meeting her at the instant that her routine changes.
I remember my English teacher telling me about a conference she went to where Colin Dexter said that, to write a story, you take an ordinary situation and think of ways it can go wrong. I like that. Of course it’s not the be all and end all of fiction, but it’s a nice starting point, a north star to navigate towards when you’re adrift on an ocean of themes and character arcs and bridging scenes and metaphor.
Alice’s house was at the end of one of the last remaining ‘two up two down’ terraced rows. All the others had been condemned and demolished in the brief optimism of the sixties and replaced by maisonettes and flats.
What?! Don’t be mental. Think about this. What is more compelling: an elderly widow in peril, or a brief history of town planning in the late twentieth century? Why would you give up precious space in the all-important shop window of your first page to tell us this?
Okay, okay, I get it that perhaps this is a metaphor for Alice herself – she’s clinging on in the face of remorseless modernisation, a totem for a bygone age of community and compassion, but come on. Freezing time to play cod-anthropologist is a high risk strategy. Unless the narrative voice is utterly compelling, surprising, engaging, you’re smothering your story in banal footnotes.
Show, don’t tell. This is good information for you, the author, to know. If you lay it on a plate for the reader, you kill the novel. Reading prose like this is like watching a play where the action keeps stopping while a voiceover explains each character’s background and motivations.
It would be a simple target. The bottom panel of the door would be all too easy and at this time of night nobody would be about to see his slight, wiry figure drop into the shadows of the back yard wall. The old woman would be fast asleep upstairs too and was most probably as deaf as a plank anyway. The door panel gave way on the second kick.
Hey, slow down there, killer. ‘The old woman’? I’m sure everyone else reading this found the sudden switch from Alice’s perspective to the burglar’s perspective jarring. You start the story as if this is going to be third-person limited, giving us hints of Alice’s history, mirroring her feelings, then all at once the narrator doesn’t know her name, and we’re entering the house from a new character’s point of view.
Perspective problems are one of the most common issues I encounter. Writers often protest ‘oh it’s only because the omniscient narrator has become unfashionable’ but the truth is, it’s fine to have an omniscient narrator – Dune does it very well – you just have to know what you’re doing.
Third-person limited narration, where we experience your fictional world through a single character’s eyes (or at least, we stick to one character’s viewpoint during a scene) is compelling because it mirrors the experience of being alive. Aside from anything else, switching from Alice’s viewpoint to Kyle’s kills the tension in the scene, by answering most of the questions raised by the first paragraph. Is someone breaking in? Yes, and we’re about to get his entire backstory in one undigested gobbet of exposition:
Kyle needed the money; it was as simple as that. At least he needed the money because he needed the blow and he needed the blow so badly that he often went without food – which was why he was accustomed to eating in the houses.
Again, it’s fine for you as the author to know this information, but dumping it on us like this is putting the cart before the horse. You haven’t given us any compelling reason to care who Kyle is or why he does what he does. It’s like someone crashing down in the seat next to you on the nightbus and immediately saying: ‘Oh man let me tell you about Andy – he is one angry dude, all cos his Dad left when he was six and now he drinks too much…’ and by this stage you’re lunging for the bell, desperate to get away from this unsolicited exposition-shitter.
Another problem with telling instead of showing is it tends to reduce human beings to caricatures. Kyle doesn’t convince at all in this thumbnail sketch – he feels like a stereotypical junkie as imagined by someone who’s never been or met one. But – unless it’s done really, really well, generally by an interesting, opinionated narrator – exposition tends to have this effect on any character, even one taken from life.
I won’t quote the rest of the piece. Suffice to say that the central problem (besides the ones we’ve already covered) is the lack of specificity – describing things in vague, general terms: ‘other garments’, ‘a purse’, ‘nothing else of value’ (a particularly egregious offender – you’re describing things in terms of what they’re not – how is the reader supposed to imagine that?). You need to engage the reader’s five senses so we experience the scene for ourselves.
Concepts like show, don’t tell, omniscient narrator versus third-person limited, cutting fluff, and engaging the reader’s senses are huge topics – I could easily spend a couple of months discussing each, and probably will, eventually. It’s always tricky to know when I’ve stating the obvious and when I’m articulating something useful – it’d be great if you could use the comments box to suggest areas you’d like me to expand on, or to let me know if there’s jargon I’m using that doesn’t make sense. I don’t want to teach my grandma to suck eggs, but then again, I’ve never seen my grandma suck an egg – maybe she’d appreciate some lessons. Let me know.
Thanks very much to Peter for sharing his first page – in fairness to him, these are issues that crop up in most writers’ first drafts, to a greater or lesser extent. They’re nothing to worry about, as long as you’re able to identify and rectify them when editing. There’s a reason why – even as publishers lament the death of the editor – the publishing industry still employs phalanxes of agents, proofreaders, and yes, editors, to work on a text before it reaches the buying public.
If you fancy a turn in the barber’s chair, click the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. Send me the opening page of your novel or short story – just a title and your name, no synopsis or explanatory blather, absolutely no more than a page, thanks! If I pick it, I’ll do my best to give an honest breakdown of ways to make it better. Obviously you have to be okay with the extract being published on this blog in perpetuity, and with my giving some constructive feedback. I don’t claim to stand on some Archimedean point of absolute neutrality nor do I claim to be a flawless writer – I’m just a chap who loves stories.
Death Of 1000 Cuts will be back next Thursday – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
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