Hello, fellow lovers of the tongue that binds, and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog about writing, writing better, and the deep love of stories that I know we all feel, pulsing within our hearts like a dino birthing from some weird egg.
The last couple of weeks I have been taking a few days out to write stories with primary school kids, and it has reminded me just how much I love storytelling and imagination and the bright, keen fire of plucking something from nothing and creating a tale. I hope it comes across that I have a lot of affection for my fellow writers who submit to this blog – we work hard and we challenge and we strive to improve our craft in service of that love of story, in service of that desire to transport an audience. It might sound a bit cheesy, but I think it’s only truly cheesy when it’s not backed up with the genuine effort of slogging to make sentences better.
We work. And that is the love. Hopefully, fingers crossed, we make something magical. And that is the faith.
If you’d like to submit the first page of your novel or short story to this here blog, or if you’d like to ask a specific question on the craft of writing for our mailbag section, please read the Submission Guidelines.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you like, what you’d improve and how, then read my thoughts after the cuts.
Noble Quarrels (by Joshua)
In the gardens beside Highborn City, Sage twiddled with a leaf between his fingers. He was seated against a tree trunk with his black, woolen cloak wrapped around him. Yawning, he stretched his legs over the tall grass. The tree sagged over him with fiery leaves. They fell like gentle rain into his auburn hair, knotted and tangled as the roots under him. To his left were the city walls with turrets erected at the corners. Sentries stood watch on them, patrolling in boredom. The colors of the city watch were like the hues of autumn. Their tabards bore these colors, the tails of them swaying in the chilled wind under thick leather belts with brass buckles. One guard’s steel armor glared into the corner of Sage’s eye, and he winced with annoyance.
Beyond the towers of the city were steep mountains bordering its valley. They stretched up like snow-dusted spires, cut into by rivers and paths leading to distant cities. The sky was just waking from dawn; its sun bled into the clouds that pervaded the mountains overshadowing the lush foothills.
Laughter rippled from out of the meadow to the right of Sage. He glanced up at the noise, distracted from the decayed leaf in his hand, and sighed. He recognized his brother Aghiri. On his arm was a girl he had been courting for nearly a year. They strode between brush and into a clearing. Aghiri’s long, black hair was put up into a tidy ponytail that swayed while he walked.
In the gardens beside Highborn City,
*KLAXON BLARES* Naming violation! Illegal nomenclature detected!
Chrome copter-drones descend from the scraper-tops, their red visors flashing as UV-heavy, smog-strained sun strobes through rotors. Lancing blue electricity begins to crackle between four of them as they become nodes in a great fluxing portal to a penal dimension.
‘No!’ screams the author, clawing at the tarmac as vortex-gales suck him towards the gaping hellmaw. ‘Please! It was just the one!’ (the wind shears the corduroy trousers from his flailing legs) ‘I wanted… to help… the… reeeeeeeeaderrrrrrr…’ This final word tapering to a whispered resonance as he flumes away to twenty years drilling seams of some recondite otherworldly mineral of colossal value in the Re-education Pits.
This literary techno-dystopia is unlikely to arrive in my lifetime, Joshua, but sometimes I crave it. Not that I want to see authors spending the best years of their lives bow-backed and battered by plasma-goads, scraping crumbs of Zilanthium X out of the black rock for the profit of their Reptilian Editor Overlords, but how else are genre writers going to learn that shit like ‘Highborn City’ simply will not fly?
It’s too on-the-nose. It’s a pitch-perfect exemplar of why people don’t read Fantasy – because they think they’re going to be clobbered over the head with hacky world-building.
Now please understand – I get what you were shooting for, and the underlying premise isn’t a stupid one. Your imagined society has social strata, at least partly determined by heredity. A classic Fantasy trope, but we’re not required to abandon it just because it has been used before. Robust political allegories, interesting character conflicts and powerful intersections of the personal and the public can arise out of the dynamics created.
But you have to be at least a bit subtle about it. Sure, entrenched power is sometimes ostentatious, but a lot of the time it’s more insidiously codified than that.
‘Highborn City’ is literally a description of what it is. A city with nobles in it. Which doesn’t leave any room for inference and isn’t remotely plausible. Wealthy districts tend to grow in loci of governmental or judicial power, or around particularly desirable environmental features like non-industrialised sections of river, or hills. Usually the name is something economically-neutral, which comes to represent high financial and social status through association.
It’s like calling a street ‘Swanky Avenue’ or an apartment block ‘Posh Villas’. It’s such a transparent attempt to append status to the area that, in a novel, it reads as implausible (or perhaps satirical), and, in real life, it often has the opposite end, implying something downmarket and undesirable. Impoverished housing estates in the UK often have the grandest names, a lazy cultural counterweight in lieu of improved local services and jobs and a fair, compassionate society.
So, yeah – if we were entering some down-at-heel thieves’ quarter packed with demobbed soldiers and taverns and gimlet-eyed runagates, it might be quite cool to call it ‘Highborn City’. That could be a neat, ironic name that the residents know it as, or a disparaging epithet invented by the local constabulary.
But this blatant labelling you’re engaging in – it was annoying when Bunyan did it in Pilgrim’s Progress, and the intervening centuries have done nothing to reinvigorate the practice. Totally fine for you to do this privately, in your notes, e.g.: ‘Vitriella = the Artisan Quarter’, just make sure you rub out your pencil lines after you start inking the story in.
Sage twiddled with a leaf between his fingers
No he didn’t. He ‘twiddled a leaf’. The twiddling takes the leaf as its object, because it is done to the leaf – unless we are understand that he is indulging in some unrelated twiddling, and also happens to have a leaf between his fingers.
Why should we care about this first sentence? You’ve introduced a character, but where’s the conflict? What is engaging about playing with a leaf? How is this working to draw us in? Unless his contemplation of the leaf is absolutely fucking central to the story’s themes, unless this ‘twiddling’ encapsulates some perfect little haiku of core ideas, scrap it.
This whole opening smacks of characters farting about, waiting for the story to start. You might as well literally have them whistling tunelessly with their hands in their pockets, kicking a rusty tin can.
He was seated against a tree trunk with his black, woolen cloak wrapped around him.
‘He was seated’ is an horrendously ugly formulation. Grammatical correctness be damned – these prescriptivist knobheads who claim that ‘he sat’ or ‘he was sitting’ imply a character in the act of sitting down rather than stationary on a chair are pissing into the wind of popular usage. Fie, fie, I say, you shambling twat-plasters. ‘He was seated’ could just as easily be a passive voice description of someone’s being forcibly seated by some unnamed agency. If you want to deliberately pervert the meanings of simple English sentences, by all means do so, but don’t expect us to twist our prose into artsy little shit-pretzels just to satisfy your demonstrably wrongheaded whims. I hope you scald your genitals on a hot teaspoon.
Not you, Joshua. I was talking to the imaginary glowering grammarians in my head.
‘with his black, woolen cloak wrapped around him.’
So in previous DoaTCs I’ve had a bit of a rant about cloaks employed as lazy genre signifiers in Fantasy. Please don’t just stick a cloak on a dude because it’s the first thing that comes into your head. Work at building your world. How is it different? Where can you distinguish it from what has come before?
If I could write one sentence on a bit of paper and tape it up in front of every author’s writing space, it would say this:
DON’T DO LAZY BEATS.
I’m using ‘beats’ in the broadest sense here, to mean ‘units of narrative’, large or small. Giving Sage a cloak is a beat, at this stage in the story, because it brings with it a cartload of cultural freight that implies pages and pages of information about your fictive world.
You need to be continually vigilant for moments where your concentration slips, for when the bright light of your creative spark dims and you slip into this sleepwalkery mode of just stumbling to the next beat mechanically, because it feels right. Plots developed in this way almost always slip into the most familiar, least surprising paths, because the writer is auto-piloting via drawing from the pop-cultural unconscious, filling up the paragraphs with undifferentiated porridgy grey slews of Extruded Story Product.
No. No, no, no. DON’T DO LAZY BEATS.
Push. Work harder. Go beyond. Believe in the essential brilliance of your creative spark to outdo everything that has come before. That is the wonderful, empowering arrogance of the true artistic process. You don’t stand on the shoulders of giants. You slash their Achilles tendons, stove their skulls in with cabers as they topple to the ground, then use their rib bones to build a gruesome cathedral wherein you drink blood toasts to the mouse god, Suri-Zang.
Also, think about your word order. ‘wrapped around him’ is the least interesting information contained in that sentence – it’s no more than an adjunct to the ‘cloak’. Best to close on a strong, specific noun, or, if one does not present itself, a meaty verb. Closing a line with prepositional bum-sneezery only weakens your prose, emphasising the gristle instead of the steak.
Yawning, he stretched his legs over the tall grass.
In an incredible act of transference, this sentence produced in me the same action as the protagonist!
Where is the story? Why should we give a slow, redolent guff about any of this?
And – is he really stretching his legs ‘over’ the grass? It’s ‘tall’, isn’t it? Are his legs splayed in the air? This sounds a bit more sexually-provocative than I think you were angling for, Joshua. Your protagonist is so arse-numbingly bored at the lack of plot that he’s engaging in weird mating displays.
The tree sagged over him with fiery leaves.
There’s an odd, unhelpful tension in this sentence between the active verb, ‘sagged’, and the completely static, unremarkable scene you’re describing. The tree is just hanging there – there’s really no reason the narrative eye (and thus, by implication, your protagonist’s attention) should be drawn to it.
I think part of the problem comes from the awkwardness of how ‘over him’ divides ‘The tree sagged’ and ‘with fiery leaves’. In fact, I think ‘with fiery leaves’ is horrible without any help from additional prepositional modifiers.
‘The tree sagged with fiery leaves’ implies the leaves are weighing it down. It also introduces a distracting separation between leaves and tree. ‘Above him, the tree’s fiery leaves swayed and sagged’ is closer to the kind of phrasing that doesn’t make my toes immediately scrunch. But it’s always going to be filler, because there’s no real content here. It’s just an ambient tree. It serves no purpose except to sound all pastoral and writerly.
And it fails at its purpose, because instead of sounding pastoral and writerly, it sounds shit.
They fell like gentle rain into his auburn hair, knotted and tangled as the roots under him.
So can he see his own hair here? Or are you jumping out of his POV to say ‘oh, by the way, Sage has auburn hair, and it’s curly, and – you know what, fuck it – since we’re already fudging his perspective let’s peek underground and see what these roots are doing’?
Two clangy, pointless similes in this sentence. Don’t use a simile or metaphor unless it adds something irreplaceable to the narrative.
And again, look at how the line ends: ‘under him’ There are some crunchy words in this sentence – ‘auburn’, ‘knotted’, ‘tangled’, ‘roots’ – but you’ve crammed them into the middle so they get lost, and all we remember are the vague, grammatical words bookending them.
To his left were the city walls with turrets erected at the corners.
An impressively gratuitous use of ‘erected’ there. The sentence makes sense without it – cut it. You don’t need to specify that the towers were built, as opposed to cultivated. We understand how towers work.
But again, where’s the story? You’re panning away from him to give us a shot of the city wall, which is the same as it always was, doing nothing of especial consequence. This is dull, expositional world-building.
You don’t get to the pause the scene while you draw in all the scenery. That isn’t how storytelling works, I’m afraid, which is a bummer, because it makes it flipping hard. You have to invent ingenious ways of combining action and information.
Sentries stood watch on them, patrolling in boredom.
As well they might! BECAUSE THERE’S NO FUCKING STORY
Let’s go on: ‘Within the city gates, paunched courtiers braided nooses from their louche, full moustaches and hung themselves from sheer tedium. Defunct buccaneers sat in dim garrets swigging applejack and masturbating listlessly. A bluebottle settled on the face of a painting. The painting was of a dish containing an orange and three lily petals, and yet this scene was more interesting than anything within the city’s borders by several orders of magnitude.’
I concede, Joshua, that sometimes these kind of plodding openings need to be written so you can establish the reality of the world in your own mind and work your way to the juicy stuff. But these scenes must also be destroyed without mercy.
I expect you are an ace person, and I respect you for wrestling with writing’s challenges, which are many and grave. Hold your work to the standard you deserve, especially when submitting for perusal by other human eyes. Be bold enough to believe you can do better. Oh, and don’t do lazy beats.
Oh, and thank you for reading this week’s post. If you enjoyed it and you’d like to show your appreciation, why not pre-order my debut novel, The Honours? It’d be a lovely way to help me out and make a difference to my career, and I think you will like the book, so it’s not purely an act of altruism, more like an act of pragmatic self-interest that happens to have a positive side-effect, like eating a whole bucket of praline seashells, but then at the bottom of the bucket there is a baby hedgehog sleeping, and if you hadn’t binged on the choccy seashells the baby hedgehog might have perished. Not that you knew it was there when you started, but hey. Everyone loves baby hedgehogs. Except maybe worms, which they eat. So maybe saving the hedgehog wasn’t a total net good. Pre-ordering The Honours won’t be an unequivocal good either. Your kindness might go to my head. I might affect a haughty demeanour. But I hope you are brave enough to take that risk.