Bonjour and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog for writers, readers and editors, where we look at writers’ first pages and discuss ways of making them better.
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I have farted on about it so frequently that you cannot help but know that my first ever novel, The Honours is out on April 2nd. The Lovereading review is already up – ‘Quite simply breathtaking… vibrantly different… a stunning and beautifully moving debut novel.’ Those are kind and very probably hyperbolic words. But you can read an extract on their site and pre-order there, or at the usual online outlets.
A few people have asked me if I have a preferred method for their getting hold of the book. I’m always in favour of supporting your local indie bookshop, if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby. Borrowing it from your local library is nice too – the whole system is under assault so contributing to their circulation figures is a positive political act for your community. But, you know – just taking the time to read it is such a huge kindness that whether you buy it in the highstreet, download, or borrow from a friend, you’re already making a massive contribution, and frankly you ought to be sending me some kind of invoice. (NB I will not honour any invoices sent to me)
Right. As usual, read the extract below, submitted by the generous and I suspect lovely Liam, decide what you like and what you’d improve, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.
Friday’s Tomorrow (by Liam)
Ants marched past Andrew Friday’s shoe, carrying his envy of their freedom, but also a kinship. They were fellow workers, each with their own job, each with the same goal: to serve their community. A siren wailed, signalling work commencement, and he pulled on his trilby and swallowed a primer pill. Flecks of dust hung in the air as his colony began its march to work. The clock flashed 8.27. Friday held his hand to the chip scanner, and the door slid into the wall.
Twelve storeys down, beneath the dwelling blocks and walkways, four men crept through a storm tunnel. Dominic Baxter snapped a glow stick, and a turquoise flare illuminated slime on the walls.
‘Nineteen minutes,’ he said, as the siren’s wail filtered through drains above ground. A sewer pipe’s stench met bile at the back of his throat, and he swallowed hard. ‘We get in, grab him, get out. Fifteen seconds, no more.’
Across from Friday’s dwelling, workers peeled from apartments, always following the neighbour on your right, the neighbour on your left following you. Each wore a coloured overcoat denoting their given job: green for maintenance, brown for records, charcoal grey for data collation, where Friday worked. Under the perma-cloud smothering Presidium, the colours became a dull monochrome. Any other day, this drab marching vista would depress Friday, but not today. Today, a round of promotions was to take place, the first for six months, and his manager had told him to prepare for a change.
The title. Ernf. I mean I suppose it works on its own terms, but the problem is that its own terms are ‘be a shit albeit internally consistent pun’.
Like, once the reader has finished the extract, they might think: ‘aha, so this is a work-ethic-dystopia and the title is a play on our own experience of modern drudgery and longing for Friday’ but it’s a small realisation rather than a pleasurable clicking into place of some Sphinxian mystery, and no one is going to get that far, because the title is so godawful without context that it will drive readers away like a bluebottley turd on a buffet table.
Titles are hard, I admit – sometimes the best you can manage is something neutral that doesn’t actively dissuade people from reading – but if you’re not sure, err on the side of conservativism. Better that than yoking your fictive world to a great clanging leper’s bell of toe-curling dad-pun failure.
Ants marched past Andrew Friday’s shoe, carrying his envy of their freedom, but also a kinship.
‘Their backs were almost broken by the burden of the heavyhanded, hackneyed metaphor they had been saddled with. What a grind, what endless toil, their tiny armoured bodies seemed to groan, to bear this obvious, unenlightening analogy through the millennia.’
Don’t do this. The ants serve no material function in the story – they’re just a means of reflecting on your fictive world. Most of the time, in creative writing, it’s better to just show the thing itself rather than distracting us with an analogy. This is particularly true if your metaphor is a cliché that traces its lineage back to the Bible (and, let’s face it, probably before).
‘carrying his envy of their freedom, but also a kinship’ Ugh. I’ve got whiplash from that horrible cluster of possessives: ‘Andrew Friday’s shoe, carrying his envy of their freedom’ So it’s the ants, his shoes, his envy but their freedom. It’s not that I don’t understand what you’re saying – it’s just you’ve said it in such a cumbersome, convoluted way.
Basically, you’re telling us that Andrew sees some ants, and he feels jealous of them, but he also feels fellowship. It’s not clear why he thinks they have ‘freedom’ – ants are brainless slaves to pheromone trails and pretty much epitomise brutal hard work. So already you’ve introduced an illogical observation which never gets expanded upon or explained. Then you immediately undercut it with a partly contradictory follow-up – actually he feels that his and the ants’ lives are analogous. So you’re not even taking a clear rhetorical line in this opening sentence.
It’s a mess, Liam. This is your first sentence and already you’ve got a huge cliché, fudged thinking and mangled prose. One thing I will say – you do at least end on an interesting word. I’d prefer a concrete noun over an abstract one like ‘kinship’, but relative to previous extracts this isn’t too bad.
Still, overall this is a rather twee and contrived opening metaphor. Better to establish his environment a little better (as in, at all) and deal in specifics as opposed to mashing us in the face with the great iron saucepan of your primary theme.
They were fellow workers, each with their own job, each with the same goal: to serve their community.
Literally the most prosaic, detail-light description of ants I have ever read. We don’t even get a sense of these specific ants, in this specific moment, in this specific environment – it’s just ‘Ants: a cultural artefact’.
Go the library, thou sluggard. If you must include ants – if, for example, these are some kind of brilliant Chekhov’s Gun you’re planting on the mantelpiece, and later on they play a key role in some piece of industrial sabotage/revolutionary skulduggery (which would be cool) – then make it sound like you’ve looked at one within the last twelve months. Describe what they look like, not their ideological function.
‘Ants are hard workers and work as a community’ is a revelation to precisely no one. Not even a six-year-old. It’s like telling us that dogs are loyal or that when you die alone your cats will eat your face.
A siren wailed, signalling work commencement, and he pulled on his trilby and swallowed a primer pill.
‘A siren wailed, signalling work commencement’ Now this is the very first hint we get about what sort of world – and therefore novel – we might be entering. It’s almost okay, but a bit expositiony – a bit out of Andrew’s POV.
It’s like if you had a protagonist in the real world, and you wrote: ‘An image of a man on the traffic light turned from red to green, signalling that it was safe to cross the road.’ You’re explaining something – implicitly using the protagonist’s thoughts, in third-person limited mode – that is commonplace in this world.
The key POV slips, for me, are the use of the indefinite article (‘A siren’ rather than ‘The siren’ – surely there is one very familiar siren that they hear day-in, day-out, that signals the next shift?) and ‘signalling work commencement’, which is an explanation he would never think to himself. He knows what the siren means, after all.
You can sneak world-building into adjectival phrases before the noun – e.g. ‘The shift siren blared’ which imply function whilst burying it in what, to the characters, would be an unremarkable term. ‘mobile phone’ is an example of an everyday modern term that contains sufficient information to be comprehensible to a reader 100 years ago – they could certainly make a sensible guess at its function, especially when shown in context.
You can even invent new terms that might be actively incomprehensible on a first pass, but – to anyone but the most milquetoast of casual readers – hint at a world and offer a satisfying learning curve as the story teaches us how to read it. I’m not advocating obscurity for obscurity’s sake, but don’t walk us through your universe with this sort of tour guidey compulsion to explain, unless you want to crush every vestige of discovery and wonder.
‘and he pulled on his trilby and swallowed a primer pill.’
Absolutely no need to weld this to the previous section with ‘and’. Only use conjunctions when linking clauses serves some greater purpose.
‘trilby’ = good, unexpected detail. ‘primer pill’ = hacky Golden Age SF trope, when the utopias and dystopias of the future all involved meals in pill form. Can you push yourself to make this just a little more original? Can you give it another quarter-turn twist so it stands orthogonally to the canon? I like how you don’t explain what a ‘primer pill’ is – that’s solid world-building – but I think ‘pill’ is too semantically-loaded in terms of genre-expectations to be your optimal choice.
Of course what you change it to will be guided by tech levels of your imagined culture – even changing the word ‘pill’ to ‘tablet’ makes it less stock, but I’d urge you to push yourself even further than that, so immediately we get a beat that feels fresh, arresting, and engaging. This is your opening paragraph. Why wouldn’t you want to include some element that makes the reader think What the FUCK? and alerts them to the fact that all bets are off? Isn’t that what all the best books do?
Flecks of dust hung in the air as his colony began its march to work.
What is the functional difference between ‘flecks of dust’ and ‘dust’? If you can answer that, you get to keep the beginning of this sentence as it is. Otherwise, it perishes screaming as we hurl it into the volcano.
The image is okay but it is, at best, irrelevant to the march of the workers – at worst, it’s demonstrable bollocks. How is he seeing these ‘flecks of dust’? Normally it has to be illuminated by a shaft of light in a dark room, so the individual particles reflect the light but are visible against a dark background. Also, quite patently, the room has to be still. You don’t see ‘flecks of dust’ outside, except maybe pollen if you’re lying in a meadow on a calm, sunny day.
If dozens of workers are marching in unison, they are going to be creating drafts. So dust isn’t going to ‘hang’ in the air – it will be blown about. Unless this is a colony of incorporeal ghost workers (their curse is to labour endlessly while being completely incapable of affecting the physical world, their hands passing uselessly through pick shafts, etc) then your chosen detail is not only irrelevant, but actively contrary to the scene you’re trying to portray.
The clock flashed 8.27. Friday held his hand to the chip scanner, and the door slid into the wall.
‘Flashed’? Is this supposed to be like a timecard-punching system? If so, these two sentences are the wrong way round. ‘chip scanner’ is a teensy-bit generic and on-the-nose as a tech name, but it does the job. The second sentence is certainly clean and intelligible, which is good to see.
I don’t have much idea where Andrew is at the moment, how far he’s walked since the siren went, or indeed where he was before, whether he’s indoors or outdoors, how many people are surrounding him, what things look, sound, smell and feel like – anything, really. He exists against a more or less hazy white background. It’s good that you want to get on with telling the story, but in terms of engaging with our five senses, this is awfully thin gruel.
Twelve storeys down, beneath the dwelling blocks and walkways, four men crept through a storm tunnel.
This sudden scene-change is jarring – mainly because you’ve done so little to establish the physical reality of Andrew’s milieu, so I’m not even sure of where we’re leaving. We certainly had no indication whatsoever that we might be ‘twelve storeys’ up – not even much to tell us that we were indoors.
‘dwelling blocks and walkways’ is super super vague. I can’t picture these, and they don’t evoke much of a mood. We need more detail, more richness, more ideological flavour.
But look – at least some tension has entered the piece. Things are afoot. That’s good.
Dominic Baxter snapped a glow stick, and a turquoise flare illuminated slime on the walls.
So one, don’t call it a ‘glow stick’. That suggests twats at a rave.
I like the specificity of the turquoise flare illuminating slime – very visual, something we can see that also tells us a little about the world. However – are you suggesting that they have been making their way through the tunnel in darkness up until this point? And then Dominic is like ‘oh, maybe I should light one of these phosphorescent tubes I brought for the express purpose of allowing us to see?’
And why a glow stick? Why would he bring a one-use item designed for emergencies rather than, say, a torch, or even an oil lamp, both technical commonplaces that offer a far more reliable, constant, brighter and longer-lasting light source? It seems you’ve written this scene without thinking it through at all – it’s like a half-remembered Hollywood cliché that you’ve lifted without quite realising you’re doing so, hence the major logic holes.
‘Nineteen minutes,’ he said, as the siren’s wail filtered through drains above ground.
Don’t repeat ‘wail’ – it’s starting to smack of a stylistic tick.
The dialogue is good – simple, clear, introduces stakes and implies intent.
Cut ‘above ground’ – we know where the sound is coming from, and ending the sentence on ‘above ground’ is the most boring way of closing things.
‘We get in, grab him, get out. Fifteen seconds, no more.’
Really? Not only is this hacky dialogue, but surely they’ve discussed this prior to crawling through a storm drain? It’s like having a scene with firefighters where one turns to her colleague and says: ‘Remember – we’re here to put out the flames, and get the people to safety. Don’t inhale too much smoke.’
He’s not restating the plan because it’s important to his character, or realistic – this dialogue serves purely as information for the reader. Of course, it’s better than baldly stating ‘they were on their way to perform a kidnap/rescue [delete as appropriate]’ – but I suspect you can do better than ‘passable’ and convey their purpose in a more interesting, plausible way. Indeed, we don’t really need to know what they’re up to exactly – you just need to pile on the pressure and make us feel emotionally engaged.
Neither character sounds especially emotionally-engaged, which is a big problem – the stakes don’t feel very high for them. And the zoom-out final paragraph suggests a muddled, wishy-washy opening that can’t pick an angle and commit to it.
There are lots of interesting questions raised by this opening scene, but you really need to place yourself inside your characters’ perspectives and take time to fully realise their surroundings. They inhabit an astigmatic blur comprised of amalgamated clichés. We need a crisp, rich world that feels new and exciting.
The Honours is nearly out. Be a winner. Pre-order.