Ola! Welcome to (a slightly tardy) Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
I am almost completely out of first pages, you guys! I’m firing the flare gun into the night sky. Please put the word out: aspiring authors, send me the first page of your novel or short story. 250 words max, no explanatory blather. Try to make it your best work, please. There’s no sense my laying into first drafts and telling you what you already know. Submit to me via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. By doing so, you’re consenting to my publishing your work on this blog in perpetuity, and to my engaging with it in a robust, honest way.
My aim is never to mock aspiring writers – only to help them become better self-editors. The quicker you can learn not to be precious around your writing, the quicker you can start making it better. I’ve been guilty of all of the crimes against language I identify, and my work still needs a ton of editing to get to anything approaching readable. I expect it always will.
As usual, read the extract below with your critical spectacles firmly in place – try to work out not just what you do and don’t like, but why – then read my comments in ‘The Cuts’.
Liquid Lunch (by Craig)
A stranger is seated at the bar taking longer than you’d need to drink a single schooner. As each regular enters he never turns to look. Doesn’t he know strangers aren’t welcome in this pub they whisper? One by one they come to the bar to order their lagers, and one by one they stare at him, and one by one he ignores each of them. What is he waiting for they wonder? No train runs through this town. No bus runs through this town. Only bikers stop here. The stranger takes a sip of his warm beer, winces, but remembers it was never about refreshment. A biker asks for two bottles of beer leaving his smell, a shrill cinnamon musk with an undertone of burnt eucalyptus, lingering like a marker. The stranger turns his head to the right. The biker notices and stares back showing the stranger the bark in his eyes. The pub falls into silence. The biker laughs, picks up his beers, turns and walks back to his mate. The stranger begins to whistle “In the hall of the mountain king” by Edvard Greig as he slides of his bar stool and removes a glock pistol from the inside of his leather jacket. He points the gun on the back of Jim McDonough. He thinks of that night, his mother, his father, and the vengeance he seeks pulls the trigger once then twice. Panic triggers every others finger whilst he remains calm, to dive shoulder first through the door of the women’s toilet. There a window is open. Outside his motorbike waits. In the darkness he speeds away to disappear forever.
I was tempted to divide this submission into paragraphs to save loyal Cutters’ eyes, then I thought, fuck ‘em, pain is edifying. This is like when the police show images of horrific motorway pileups to drivers who did 34 in a 30 limit. I want to shock people into improving their paragraphing skills. This could be you!
Seriously, this is worth an aside – in my work as a ‘manuscript assessor’, it blows my mind how many people have not the faintest inkling of how to organise prose in paragraphs, nor even how to arrange paragraphs on the page. If only there were some form of printed medium one could use for reference!
The first thing you need to know is: the way I set out paragraphs on this blog is wrong.
I do it this way because I’m shit at html and it’s just easier and clearer to use half-line breaks between fully justified paragraphs. When you’re sending a submission to an agent, for Christ’s sake – I can’t believe I even have to say this, but trust me, I do – lay it out like in every fucking novel ever printed.
That is to say: indent the first line of each paragraph with a tab. Start a new line for each new paragraph but save line breaks to indicate a scene change (i.e. a significant transition in time and/or location).
In terms of how to separate prose into paragraphs, there’s no hard and fast rule but you should think of it as a tool for grouping ideas and controlling the flow of the story.
A sentence on its own adds impact.
Do it too much and you risk the reader’s straining to find significance in mundane lines, though.
Novelists often get a bit wankier with paragraphing on a first page because the first few sentences are a bit more resonant and carry more semantic freight than later on. Also, on the basest level, lots of white space means the reader whips through the first page quickly, which simulates the feeling of being engrossed even when your content is rather pedestrian.
Possibly you made a mistake formatting this for the email. In which case, the above is all still true, just not entirely pertinent to your piece. Gosh, I hope I can find something else less than perfect with this extract, otherwise today’s blog is in a real pickle!
A stranger is seated at the bar taking longer than you’d need to drink a single schooner.
Hooray! You’ve saved me in the first sentence.
‘A stranger’ – that part is good. Two good words to open a novel. I feel like you could follow them up with almost any verb (poss w/ object) and it would be interesting:
A stranger waits.
A stranger convulses.
A stranger understands.
A stranger detonates a boiled egg.
A stranger strokes the Ellipse.
I would read the second sentence in any of those novels. I would be constitutionally incapable of not reading on. ‘A stranger’ – already we have a character, mystery about that character, an implied audience, and tension. Calling someone ‘a stranger’ sounds inherently hostile, or at least circumspect.
‘A stranger comes to town’ is often trotted out as a classic plot. Here, you’re flagging up the type of story this might be, and hooking our interest. We don’t know yet if this stranger is our protagonist, or if we are watching him or her through the eyes of our protagonist, or what. So yeah. Good.
‘is seated at the bar’? No, no, no.
Now before some jumped-up grammar vigilante comes cantering in on their high horse to inform me that ‘uh, Tim – “is seated” is technically correct, actually’, they should know that I do not give a gamey, sweetcorn-pocked turd about correctness. These fucking absurd prescriptivists farting on about how ‘A stranger sits’ is wrong, as if the only possible sense is of someone in the act of sitting, can totally get to fuck.
[ANTI-PRESCRIPTIVIST CRETINS DERAIL]
Firstly, sitting Cnut-like against the tide of common usage and crying foul in the name of some imaginary objective authority is intellectually dishonest and logically parlous, to say the very fucking least. There’s well-intentioned pedantry and then there’s moronic shitheadery.
Secondly, if we’re playing the bad faith game, one can intentionally pervert the meaning of ‘is seated’ just as easily, and interpret it as a phrase in the passive voice, as if the stranger is in the act of being seated by some unacknowledged concierge. Like I said: shitheadery.
My point is, Craig, after a promising start, this is such a boring sentence. It’s not even like you say:
A stranger sits at the bar, nursing his whiskey.
Which would be kinda clichéd, but at least it gets the point across. Instead you launch into this awkward, negative comparison. I mean, so fucking what? Are we to understand that he has a schooner in his hand? You introduce a quite specific object – lovely word, ‘schooner’, but very distracting – only to be ambiguous about whether it actually exists. It’s such an odd mental leap you’re asking us to make, and for what? To convey something really mundane.
I think what you mean is closer to:
The stranger sits at the bar too damn long.
Or something similar. Hey, I’m a cutter, not a writer*.
As each regular enters he never turns to look.
Who’s ‘he’? Reading the next sentence makes it clearer that you mean the ‘stranger’, but the pronoun here could just as easily refer to the ‘regular’. The ambiguity blurs your prose.
Doesn’t he know strangers aren’t welcome in this pub they whisper?
Do they? Do they really? I have been in a lot of hostile local pubs (I have even been a ‘local’ in a hostile local pub – and let me tell you, all that Cheers shit about wanting to be where everybody knows your name? Not all it’s cracked up to be. The one time I walked into my local and heard a gaggle of tri-fanged electricity-fearing yahoos bellow ‘Tim!’ in unison, it only made me feel more alone and dead inside) and never have the locals had the self-awareness to discreetly articulate their prejudices to one another. At best, one dude might nudge another, frowning, and grunt: who the fuck is he?
Aside from anything else, let us hear the actual dialogue. You’ve couched it in an absurdly formal register. It makes them sound like scheming middle-class mothers of the PTA.
One by one they come to the bar to order their lagers, and one by one they stare at him, and one by one he ignores each of them.
‘Everyone in the bar was exactly the same. They performed exactly the same behaviour.’
Thanks for summarising this for us! God forbid I should become immersed in your fictional world and momentarily accept it as real! That would be scary.
What is he waiting for they wonder?
You’ve heard of free indirect style, right? You know you don’t have to keep attributing thoughts to people as if it were dialogue? ‘What is he waiting for?’ is fine, if a bit pedestrian. We understand at this point that the narrative is coming from the point of view of the regulars, and that we don’t have access to the stranger’s thoughts.
No train runs through this town. No bus runs through this town. Only bikers stop here.
Those first two sentences can be combined into one. The repetition isn’t service of any greater cause. The last sentence is a little pat, but at least, for the first time, it gives us a hint of what the patrons of this bar might look like.
The stranger takes a sip of his warm beer, winces, but remembers it was never about refreshment.
Oh right, so now we’ve got access to the stranger’s thoughts? You’re killing tension here by revealing part of the enigma too soon. And to what end? He ‘remembers’? Like, he was just sitting there thinking: ‘ho-hum, I guess I’ll have a refreshing beer *sluuurp* – oh shit, wait, I remember. I’m here to exact murderous vengeance!’
A biker asks for two bottles of beer leaving his smell, a shrill cinnamon musk with an undertone of burnt eucalyptus, lingering like a marker.
Who’s narrating this – Oz fucking Clarke? How can a ‘musk’ be ‘shrill’? Is this a story about a wine critic embarking on a rampaging rollercoaster of revenge? Did his mind crack after one too many fanciful abstruse metaphors about a smokey Zinfandel with notes of weasel piss?
Because I would totally buy that book, Craig.
The stranger turns his head to the right.
This crazily specific piece of blocking is useless in isolation. Why do we need to know ‘to the right’? You’ve built this scene out of, like, five nouns. Bar, stranger, beer, biker. Not even five! Instead of specifying what direction his head rotates, how about using those three words to tell us how he fucking looks? It’s like a diorama made from Playmobil.
The biker notices and stares back showing the stranger the bark in his eyes.
Is this biker a tree? Please, oh god, let this biker be a tree and I will forgive you everything, Craig.
The pub falls into silence.
No it doesn’t. Silence doesn’t exist. John Cage taught us that. (while his son, Nic, taught us that the essence of actor’s craft = epic flip out) All that happens is that incrementally smaller noises are revealed. Don’t try to describe a negative. Tell us what people do hear. The tinier the sound, the quieter the bar has become.
The stranger begins to whistle “In the hall of the mountain king” by Edvard Greig as he slides of his bar stool and removes a glock pistol from the inside of his leather jacket.
Last thing first – I copped a bollocking off someone on Twitter a few weeks back because I failed to cap up ‘Glock’. There. I’ve done it now. Happy?
Oh, and you don’t need to specify ‘glock pistol’. It’s not like someone’s going to think he’s pulling out a Glock macramé set. Although it’d be awesome if you did a cheeky fake out and wrote ‘Glock… enspiel’ and the dude banged out a sweet set and everyone in the bar bought him Jaegerbombs.
You need to end the sentence with ‘Glock’ – it’s the most interesting part. Don’t lose it in the middle then force us to read about his damn leather jacket. ‘Glock’ is the punchline.
This whole ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’ business. For starters, if you have to specify ‘by Edvard Greig’, you’re already acknowledging that you’ve lost your audience. Either they know the title or they don’t – naming the composer won’t help. It smacks of desperation – you might as well add: ‘you know, the one off the Alton Towers adverts?’
Secondly, this was the point where I thought: ‘ahhhhhhh. Craig doesn’t want to be a novelist at all. He wants to write screenplays. And now he’s scoring his own imaginary movie.’ Consider this. Nowt wrong with writing for movies. Do you read many novels? Would you say – be honest now – that when you were writing this scene you were imagining it in a primarily visual medium?
Look, basically this is a twee detail that is less about the reality of the character and more about you fantasising about what would be cool in a movie. Trying to give your prose a soundtrack is perilous at the best of times. Even if the reader knows the song, it emphasises the limitations of the form. If they don’t know the song, it’s either an opaque reference or – if you include a snatch of lyrics – meaningless doggerel.
He points the gun on the back of Jim McDonough.
Who the fuck is Jim McDonough? The aforementioned biker? Someone else entirely?
He thinks of that night, his mother, his father, and the vengeance he seeks pulls the trigger once then twice.
Awful, awful exposition. Hackneyed, vague and unwelcome. Takes us out of the moment, and manages to reveal nothing while slackening the tension. Better to leave the killing motiveless at this point. We can guess he’s pissed off. He is executing Jim, after all.
Panic triggers every others finger whilst he remains calm, to dive shoulder first through the door of the women’s toilet.
I like the unexpected comedy of ‘the women’s toilet’. Perhaps a lady inside could pull her knickers up shrieking ‘Masher!’ while battering him with her handbag.
I’m not even going to attempt to unpiece the first part of this sentence. Hey, I’ve gone long this week. I’m tired.
In the darkness he speeds away to disappear forever.
So is this even a first page? ‘forever’ sounds pretty damn final. Was this it? Whatever’s going on, ‘forever’ is a word that closes down tension, and suddenly, jarringly, stretches time to an infinite point.
Look Craig, thank you for submitting this. I am now almost entirely out of submissions and I really appreciate your taking the time to send this so that we can all get a bit of practice at editing and developing our redrafting skills. It’s far easier for a disinterested stranger to pick holes in a piece of work than it is for the author to do so – hence the demand for this blog in the first place.
I expect you are a lovely person, but this piece of prose stinks. It’s dreadful. That’s okay! Read a bunch of novels. Chain them, ferociously, two or three a week. Read widely. I can recommend a bunch. If a couple of people request it, I’ll do a reading list of awesome books that, read with an eye on craft, will make you a better writer.
Any muppet can improve their prose. Being a brilliant writer is by no means indivisible from experiencing life, developing one’s intelligence and wisdom and humanity, etc, but there are a bunch of straightforward, practical principles that even someone dumb as rocks can pick up and internalise.
And wait – ‘in the darkness‘? This piece is called ‘Liquid Lunch’, yet… it happens in the evening! [SFX: EXPLOSION NOISE – TIM’S SKULL DETONATES, SPATTERING THE WALLS OF HIS OFFICE WITH BRAIN MATTER]
*I am a writer. I just couldn’t resist the weak pun. And hey, I’m about to embark on another round of edits on my first novel. Those of you who have been missing my live tweets about redrafting, strap in. The other 98% of you – erm, sorry? Editing gets pretty lonely!
If you enjoyed this, I expect you’ll enjoy my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
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