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Thanks very much to David for this week’s extract, and thank you to everyone who has submitted their work, or who has made the effort to spread the word on Twitter, Facebook, and writers’ forums. I really appreciate your continued help. I’m not a credible advocate for my own blog, so when other people recommend it, it has a huge impact. Cheers.
As usual, peruse the extract below, decide what you like, what you think could be improved, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Jane At The Fair (by David)
She believed in God, but only as a power worthy of her grand defiance. She feared Hell, but marched hellward with steadfast resignation.
If she hadn’t believed in God, she would have missed some fun, for Mattie Dorsett enjoyed baiting the Almighty from time to time. She had nothing to lose in doing so, because she expected to go to Hell anyway. She feared God, but like anything she ever feared, she enjoyed challenging Him with her own special brassy antagonism.
It was Mattie’s choice to live the way she had done, the risk of infernal consequences notwithstanding. She didn’t fear Satan any more than she did God, and scorned him with the same satisfaction. Neither God nor the Devil would cow Mattie Dorsett. She resented authority.
Mattie was sick, thoroughly exhausted, and she wanted to die. She wanted to die if only to unleash a bellowing torrent of proud profanity when the Devil came to claim her. Afterward, maybe, she and the Devil would share a laugh as if they were kindred souls. Of course they were not. The Devil was pure evil. Mattie was not evil, however dissolute her existence had been. Still, there was something she admired about the Devil’s style. She thought about him often. The time to meet the Devil was nigh. She believed it. Life had given her a wild ride, and like a wrangler breaking a spirited horse, Mattie had run life ragged. The ride was nearly over.
Initially this submission ran to nearly double my unambiguous 250 word limit, so I found a suitable cut off point and deleted the rest. Follow the submission guidelines.
This isn’t an admonition pertaining purely to this blog, but whenever you submit work to magazines, competitions, agents or editors. Discarding work that ignores the criteria is the first and easiest part of any sifting process. It’s an efficient way of weeding out most of the cranks. Authors who haven’t bothered adhering to word limit and format guidelines probably haven’t read the magazine or don’t know anything about the agency, and are just blasting out multiple submissions. If you enter a competition with a piece that doesn’t meet the guidelines, you will be disqualified.
People who submit to In The Barber’s Chair are usually excellent at following the guidelines exactly. I’ve been surprised and impressed, actually. It bodes well for submitting elsewhere in future. Attention to detail and professionalism – while they aren’t skeleton keys to a mansion of literary delights – can only reflect well upon your work.
So yeah, I cut it. Read the guidelines, David.
She believed in God, but only as a power worthy of her grand defiance.
This is almost a good line. Yes, it’s telling rather than showing, but we don’t scorn exposition per se, only exposition lazily-employed. This introduces a character, gives her a bit of personality, implies looming conflict, hints at possible overarching themes, and – through the vocabulary – suggests a tone for the novel.
The problem lies with that ‘but only’. I don’t think this conjunction-adverb combo reflects the relationship between the two clauses.
‘but’ suggests that what we’re about to hear will in some way contradict or limit what we’ve just been told. Again, ‘only’ limits and qualifies. What are you saying here? That she only believes in God when she’s defying Him? Rereading the sentence, that’s not quite right. It says she thinks he’s ‘only… worthy’. That feels like a contradiction.
It’s like writing: ‘She loved him, but only as a hero worthy of her affection.’ The second statement doesn’t contradict or undermine or otherwise restrict her belief in God, it simply elaborates upon her motives.
It might be more accurate to write: ‘She loved God, as the only power worthy of her grand defiance.’
Revise this sentence for clarity. You’ve prioritised cadence over comprehension and the result is mellifluous gibberish.
She feared Hell, but marched hellward with steadfast resignation.
This repetition of the first sentence’s structure suffers from diminishing returns, unfortunately. It doesn’t materially add to our understanding of her character – it’s simply reiterating what we already know from an alternative angle.
I’m not sure ‘resignation’ can be ‘steadfast’. Indeed, I’m not convinced that ‘resignation’ agrees with ‘grand defiance’ either. It implies lassitude, defeat, a rather broken acquiescence. It feels like you’re stacking abstractions and the result is less than the sum of its parts.
If she hadn’t believed in God, she would have missed some fun, for Mattie Dorsett enjoyed baiting the Almighty from time to time.
This sentence is ambiguous. Is ‘she’ Mattie Dorsett? If so, it feels weird to reveal the identity of the pronoun so late in the sentence. Or is ‘she’ taking pleasure in Mattie Dorsett’s baiting of the Almighty? Since the title of your piece is ‘Jane At The Fair’, the reader may well begin by assuming that this ‘she’ is the eponymous Jane, causing more confusion.
Reading on, the evidence suggests that this is Mattie Dorsett, in which case, why are you repeating what you told us in your first sentence? Instead of asserting the same thing multiple ways, let’s establish a narrative present and see this protagonist living, breathing, in action. Support your narrator’s assertion with an actual dramatized scene.
She had nothing to lose in doing so, because she expected to go to Hell anyway.
We know! You’ve said! Get on with it!
She feared God, but like anything she ever feared, she enjoyed challenging Him with her own special brassy antagonism.
Argh! WE KNOW! It’s like reading a novel narrated by Grandpa Simpson.
Stop spoonfeeding us value judgements. We want to observe Mattie’s behaviour and deduce that she has ‘her own special brassy antagonism’, (‘own’ is redundant – ‘her’ is a possessive, after all – and ‘special’ is an almost meaningless intensifier – cut them) not have you working as pitchman for your own novel, delivering this interminable, repetitive spiel where you bludgeon us with instructions on how to interpret a character we haven’t met yet.
It was Mattie’s choice to live the way she had done, the risk of infernal consequences notwithstanding.
What does this add to our understanding? Are you saying she exercises free will? Like every other human being on the planet? No shit! And haven’t you already told us this? Why do you keep repeating the same tedious information, over and over, like a pastor with concussion?
She didn’t fear Satan any more than she did God, and scorned him with the same satisfaction.
What? Previous paragraph: ‘She feared God’. Paragraph before that: ‘She feared Hell’. Somehow you’ve managed to go one worse than mere repetition. This is flatly contradictory nonsense.
Neither God nor the Devil would cow Mattie Dorsett.
WE KNOW. You keep fucking telling us. Please stop.
She resented authority.
Show, don’t tell. As I said before, exposition is a crucial and adaptable building block of the modern novel, but don’t use it as a substitute for conveying through drama. Don’t include it as insurance, to make sure the reader understands the inference you want them to draw.
I get it – you’re trying to channel this O. Henry-esque genial, opinionated turn-of-the-century narrator, who good-naturedly comments on characters’ motivations in a patrician but ultimately benevolent manner, but actually go back and read some O. Henry short stories. The dude usually allows himself a sentence of opining before hitting the narrative present. By the third paragraph we’re often hearing a bit of dialogue. Certainly he has moved from general assessments of the protagonist’s personality to specific actions in a specific location on a specific day.
Mattie was sick, thoroughly exhausted, and she wanted to die.
See, this is a lovely sentence. It’s comprehensible, it tells us something new, it introduces conflict, and it appears to be happening in a narrative present. It seems like you’re telling us something that Mattie is experiencing in the moment, and we’re about to start the story proper.
She wanted to die if only to unleash a bellowing torrent of proud profanity when the Devil came to claim her. Afterward, maybe, she and the Devil would share a laugh as if they were kindred souls. Of course they were not.
Ugh. No, false alarm. We’re back into turgid editorialising. Still no sense of when our story starts, of a specific day, of anything to excite the reader’s senses and make this an experience rather than a string of adjectives and tortuous analogies.
The Devil was pure evil. Mattie was not evil, however dissolute her existence had been.
The Devil is evil? Really?! Well, this is a first page simply chock-full of revelations.
You’re just telling us more of what we know. It’s not homely or charmingly old-fashioned. This isn’t successful pastiche. It’s just patronising.
Still, there was something she admired about the Devil’s style. She thought about him often. The time to meet the Devil was nigh. She believed it.
See, weirdly, I like these lines. I’d want them to come after the scene has actually started – you know, us seeing Mattie walking down an actual street on a particular day, or whatever – but the language is straightforward, the characterisation intriguing, and the sense of thematic tension palpable.
A lot of what has come before this is clumsily self-negating – I still don’t know quite how to reconcile all of the narrator’s statements about Mattie’s beliefs and character – but this, in isolation, feels plausible and consistent. If coupled with a rapid payoff in the narrative present, these could be a solid few sentences.
Life had given her a wild ride, and like a wrangler breaking a spirited horse, Mattie had run life ragged. The ride was nearly over.
Yup. I like these too. Again, as long as this came after some establishing of the narrative present, some physicality, some concrete things we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste, I’d be happy with this small authorial intrusion. The simile works for me, and it’s a nice inversion of the tired old trope of a ‘spirited’ young woman being like a wild horse, who finally gets tamed into respectability by a handsome dude. It makes me like Mattie a bit more, although admittedly I can’t feel very much attachment to someone we still haven’t met.
It’s clear you’ve done a lot of thinking about style, and that’s a positive thing, but at the moment you aren’t pulling it off. There’s an awful lot of waffle. Don’t kid yourself that the redundancy is a necessary stylistic component of an old school narrative pastiche. It isn’t. If it was, literature would have perished as a medium. Readers would have flung themselves under the wheels of stage coaches out of sheer boredom.
The principles of good composition don’t change. Appropriating an archaic style offers additional challenges and opportunities, not diplomatic immunity from being shit. Hold your work to a higher standard. If you do, it will get better, readers will enjoy it more, and you will reach a wider audience. Everybody wins. (except perhaps your bitterest rivals, who will snap their pens in half while cursing your improvement in fortunes)
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