Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Sometimes I like to discuss one miniscule element of redrafting fiction, sometimes I interview an author or editor about the editing process, but by far our most popular feature is ‘In The Barber’s Chair’, in which I take the first page of an aspiring author’s novel or short story and go at it with the scissors. If you’d like me to look at your work, all I ask is that you read and follow the submission guidelines.
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As always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you think needs changing, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. Thanks very much to Serena for submitting this week’s first page.
Nightwalker (by Serena)
The duvet pressed around him, cold against his bare back. He scanned the various shelves, staring at pictures of his mother, the only place his father would allow them. He had looked at them many times before, for years in his early teens he would stare at them until he has lost all meaning behind her eyes and she transformed into a soulless picture of a woman he didn’t seem to remember. He had figured it was somehow related to the satiation of words, as though he had repeated his mother’s visage in his mind so many times in a day that she had lost all meaning to him. He had promptly stopped going in the room, figuring one day when he needed to remember the meaning of his mother, he could reenter the room and find in it the warmth and love that had characterized her when she was alive.
He waited for it but found nothing. The blood rushed in his head as his ears tried to find a sound in the silence. He closed his eyes.
His mother appeared behind his eyelids, her eyes vacant, a trickle of blood running down her nose. Her left elbow was propped up on the toilet as she sat on the bathroom floor, her legs splayed out in front of her, her nude body gray-white. Her hair was messed up as though someone had grabbed it in passion or violence.
The duvet pressed around him, cold against his bare back.
Not every novel need start with your protagonist falling through the air, sternum studded with dum-dum bullets, after getting hurled through the engine room window of the royal airship by sky pirates. Still… a dude in a duvet. Really? Remember that your competition is every single novel ever written.
‘The duvet pressed around him’ sounds as if it’s sentient. It feels weird making the duvet the subject of the sentence and your protagonist the object. Although I would totally read a novel about a sentient duvet.
‘cold against his bare back’? It’s good that you’re engaging the reader’s senses – touch is an oft-neglected means of connecting your reader to your fictional world.
But – in my official capacity as Hair-Splitter In Chief – if he has a duvet wrapped around him, his back isn’t ‘bare’, is it? That’s like writing ‘The rough denim of his jeans rubbed against his naked thighs.’ Or ‘She fixed her professor with a smirking glare and flexed her supple nude body, completely naked beneath her underwear, dress and heavy waxed mackintosh.’
Where’s the hook in the sentence? Where’s the implied question you’re planting in the reader’s mind? Why should we care enough to read on?
He scanned the various shelves, staring at pictures of his mother, the only place his father would allow them.
‘various’ is a fluff word. Cut it. We know there’s more than one shelf because you’ve pluralised the noun.
The way you’ve phrased this, while he scans the shelves, he is continuously staring at pictures of his mother. These two statements sit together a little awkwardly. It sounds as if he’s scanning the shelves for some other purpose, then just happens to see his mother’s pictures, but at the same time, he’s ‘staring’. That implies a fixed, unbroken gaze, while ‘scanned’ implies a cursory glance. Which is it?
If he’s looking at a series of photographs of his mother, can’t you just say that? What do shelves have to do with it?
I don’t understand the whole ‘the only place his father would allow them’ addendum. The only place his father allows photographs of the protagonist’s mother is all over the shelves? Where else would they go? In the chest-freezer? Why would he care? It doesn’t sound draconian or intriguing, just arbitrary and confused.
He had looked at them many times before, for years in his early teens he would stare at them until he has lost all meaning behind her eyes and she transformed into a soulless picture of a woman he didn’t seem to remember.
‘He had looked at them many times before’
Obviously. Cut this.
‘for years…’ Wait, hold up. Let me just point out that you’ve welded the previous clause to this with a comma splice. They’re unrelated. The former clause is earmarked for execution anyway, but just so you know – commas aren’t an all-purpose placeholder. Separate sentences with full stops.
‘for years in his early teens he would stare at them until he has lost all meaning behind her eyes’
My nose is bleeding from the tense shifts in this sentence chunk. ‘he would stare at them until he has lost all meaning’? You sound like a hacky sketch comic doing a mildly offensive impression of a Ukranian.
No need for ‘for years’ – ‘in his early teens’ conveys a period of years.
He doesn’t lose all meaning – her eyes lose their meaning. Did her eyes seem particularly meaningful before? I can imagine perceiving warmth or affection or life in the eyes of a dead relative, and repeated, obsessive viewings making that diminish, but ‘meaning’ is an odd quality to perceive then lose. I think you might be confusing the eyes of his late mother with the word ‘strength’.
‘and she transformed into a soulless picture of a woman he didn’t seem to remember’
Don’t overplay your hand. We get it. He looks at the photographs and strains to feel something, but they’re just pictures. Maybe it’d be nice to let us see the pictures too?
Show, don’t tell. Let us see the woman in the photographs – the differences between them, too, all the outfits and locations and ages. What does she look like? Note: not ‘what does her appearance mean to him or evoke in his mind’. What does she look like? What colour is her hair in this shot? How long is it? Is she smiling? What clothes is she wearing? How old is she? What idiosyncrasies has he noticed?
You don’t even have to tell us that he’s studied these photos a lot if you just describe them in enough detail. If he notices the rectangle of unfaded cotton and small rip on her floral print blouse, where she usually wore her 7-Eleven name badge, we’ll conclude ‘holy shit this dude has been examining these pictures too long’.
And look! That description I just pulled out of my jacksie – it was doing double-duty! Not only does it suggest things about the protagonist, but it hints at the personality/background/status of his mother. This is the beauty and the very real utility of choosing concrete specificity over abstract generality. Every single word choice – when you zero in on specific, perceivable things – cannot help but haemorrhage pints of information about your characters and imagined world.
He had figured it was somehow related to the satiation of words, as though he had repeated his mother’s visage in his mind so many times in a day that she had lost all meaning to him.
Weird register shifts here: ‘he had figured’ vs ‘satiation of words’ and ‘his mother’s visage’. You don’t ever need to use the words ‘visage’ or ‘countenance’ unless you’re putting them in the mouth of an invented pretentious buffoon or you’re writing outright parody.
In fact, fuck it. Serena, here’s an Infallible Diagnostic Tool: if, when rereading your work, you find the words ‘visage’ or ‘countenance’, the sentence they appear in is definitely shite. Kill it with fire. (NB: also works with ‘crepuscular’, ‘gibbous’, ‘flame-haired’ and ‘Penge’)
Lots of fluff words in this sentence: ‘somehow’, ‘in a day’, ‘to him’. They’re qualifying and refining clauses that don’t need it.
But more pressingly, this whole sentence is basically insurance. You’re stepping in to make explicit what was adequately implied in the previous sentence. ‘Implied’ is too kind, in fact – you repeat the same phrase, ‘lost all meaning’, in both sentences. Why would you do that? You’re supposed to be telling a story, not coaxing an elderly care home patient into remembering whether they took their statins this morning.
He had promptly stopped going in the room, figuring one day when he needed to remember the meaning of his mother, he could reenter the room and find in it the warmth and love that had characterized her when she was alive.
When? Err, what? I feel like I have concussion.
The repetition of ‘meaning’, ‘mother’, ‘room’, ‘figuring’ and ‘remember’ in a morass of grammatical connectors make this first paragraph the textual equivalent of trying to pick up a wet lemon pip with chopsticks.
You’ve abandoned the narrative present in favour of this rambling, repetitious potted history where you try to explain why this is an important, resonant moment for your protagonist. Here’s the thing: at this stage, your reader doesn’t give a shit.
Starting with a cold open – just sticking us in the moment and leaving us to figure things out – is such a compelling first move. It’s by no means the only tactic available to an author, but it’s a great way to stimulate intrigue. Don’t give the reader backstory until you’ve stimulated a desire for said backstory. Far better to just press on with the plot. If your reader is thinking ‘who is this dude?’ that’s fantastic – that’s a sturdy hook with which you can drag them through the rest of the story.
He waited for it but found nothing.
So we’re suddenly back in the narrative present. And you’re trying to have us imagine a negative. How are we supposed to picture ‘he found nothing’? Surely that’s an abstract evaluation of what happens – something we might deduce – rather than the actual action taking place in the moment. The following sentences make it apparent.
So yeah – cut it.
The blood rushed in his head as his ears tried to find a sound in the silence.
I like that you’re trying to engage our senses here, but this feels a bit like mackerel slathered in custard – two good things that don’t marry well.
‘The blood rushed in his head’ – what are we to understand from this? Are you suggesting that he hears a pulse? Do you mean he feels faint, as if he were upside down? Is this literal vasodilation or just an increased awareness of blood flow?
‘his ears tried to find a sound in the silence’
Firstly, I’ve chuntered on before about how ‘silence’ doesn’t really exist – how, if you want to imply quietness, you need to do so by revealing the audibility of increasingly tiny sounds.
Secondly, ‘his ears’? Would you write ‘his legs staggered across the rusted gantry’? Or ‘his brain wondered how the weevils were getting in’? He is trying to find a sound in the silence – his ears are the apparatus that allows him to accomplish this.
He closed his eyes.
This is simple and cogent. This would work better at the start of the paragraph – he shuts his eyes, cutting off the visual, and focuses on sound.
His mother appeared behind his eyelids
This makes her sound like a tiny little wizard. Don’t get me wrong, Serena, I love tiny little wizards (‘he who is bored of tiny little wizards is bored of life’ – Tim Clare) but I think the tone you’re shooting for might be better served with: ‘He saw her.’
her eyes vacant, a trickle of blood running down her nose.
You’re getting warmer, I’ll give you that. At least this is paying lip-service to specificity.
‘vacant’ is an iffy adjective. It’s a value judgement rather than a physical thing we can see or hear or touch. Abstract adjectives aren’t inherently bad – they’re just less powerful than concrete ones. ‘vacant’ is an assessment you – ideally – want to happen in the reader’s head.
When you say ‘a trickle of blood running down her nose’ down you mean ‘from her nostril’ or actually ‘down the bridge of her nose’, from her eye or brow or hair? If it’s the former, you need to rephrase. You should rephrase anyway – ‘trickle’ and ‘running’ are repeating information. Better to write: ‘blood trickling from her nostril’.
Her left elbow was propped up on the toilet as she sat on the bathroom floor, her legs splayed out in front of her, her nude body gray-white.
‘up’ is a fluff word. Cut it.
No need to make this all one sentence. I don’t have a problem with complex sentences, but you need to pick the right tool for the right job. Five unrelated clauses cobbled together with conjunctions don’t make a long, sonorous sentence, anymore than five monkeys sewn together make a gorilla.
‘out in front of her’ is more or less redundant. It feels like finicky, unnecessary refinement. We picture them ‘out in front of her’ from ‘splayed’.
This might sound like madness, but I reckon ‘nude’ comes under the category of ‘abstract value judgements’ mentioned earlier. ‘body’ is certainly a vague, unhelpful noun. Better to give us glimpses of a few areas of grey-white flesh, maybe a mention of pubic hair.
Sorry – I realise I’m constantly advising authors to crowbar more mum-pubes into their first pages, but trust me on this. Editors love ‘em. They cannot get enough mum-pubes.
Her hair was messed up as though someone had grabbed it in passion or violence.
No need for the whole ‘as though…’ speculation. Don’t overplay your hand. The reader isn’t some drooling dolt who needs handholding through all the possible implications. I’m not sure that hair can get messed up in such a specific manner – it’s not as though it holds the shape of someone’s clenched fist, is it?
Subtlety is far creepier and more disturbing. Show us her hair twisted and bedraggled. Is it long? What colour? Is it wet? Is any of it matted or stuck together with something? Let us worry how it got that way.
You know what? Just looking at this as an opening scene, the actual content is potentially very engaging. There’s this guy, whose mother died when he was young, who looks to these photographs for comfort, and who – by implication – either found her dead under unpleasant circumstances or is imagining her death. Either way: she didn’t meet a happy end.
That’s potentially poignant and gripping and exactly the kind of content that fiction deals with well. Aside from my style notes above, you need to consider a few things:
Have you started the story in the right place? Why are we meeting him now? Is this a crucial, dramatic juncture in his life? Or are we still in the garage, waiting for the engine to warm up so we can start to drive?
Is this the best voice for the story? Have you considered recasting it in the first person? I realise I’m stepping slightly beyond my remit as a word-chopper here, but it strikes me that this is already a deeply internalised point of view, so much so that the grammatical demands of third-person limited might be unnecessarily cramping your steez. With first-person, you could really go to town – include sentence fragments, the whole taco – and try to close the gap between the voice and the mood you’re trying to evoke.
Go on. Indulge me. Do an experiment: 250 words in first person, with all that crunchy specificity, a focus on the concrete, and engaging the reader’s five senses. You might just crack the case!
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