Welcome to another Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. We’re here every Thursday, trying to solve prose definitively, so humankind can move onto more productive things, like space travel and Pang.
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Please let other writers know about the blog if you think it might be useful to them. I’d be sad if I ran out of first pages to work on! For the record, I’m not presenting myself as a know-it-all here, issuing pronouncements to the lowly mortals – so far there hasn’t been one mistake I’ve called out that I haven’t made myself. Good prose is murderously hard, and my imaginary hat goes off to all the aspiring authors who have submitted work thus far. A sincere desire to improve is one of the trustiest tools a writer can acquire.
As always, read the extract below, ponder what you’d change, then read my comments under ‘The Cuts’.
Room For No Angel (by Kevin)
I drop my son off at his mother’s house, hoping to catch a rare glimpse of my daughter. She turned twenty one on Friday. The last time I saw her she was seventeen. The most recent photograph I have is a cutting from the front page of the local newspaper. In the past, if someone from my family made the front page, it was always followed by a long sentence, usually measured in years or months. But, as the lead model in the school’s fashion show, she made headlines for all the right reasons, and got her own paragraph.
Being in the family mood, I decide it best to visit my mum while I’m in the area, seeing as her birthday was the week before last. I’ve no money to get her a present, but she’ll understand, like always. She’ll be happy for a bit of time; the most I could do.
On the way to the family home I stop off at my brother’s. We joke about the size of the lump of cocaine in his pocket. He’s his usual self, moaning about it not being enough breakfast to get him out of bed in the morning. At least it gets him talking for a while. I can’t really be bothered saying much.
He’s picked a good spot high on Carman Hill overlooking Vale of Leven. I sit on the bench close by, sort myself out and sink into the landscape. On the other side of the valley my birthplace, Overtoun House, rises above the trees, against the backdrop of the Kilpatrick Crags.
The architect James Smith died before its completion in 1863, and his socialite daughter, Madeleine, was the defendant in a sensational murder trial. Observed buying arsenic from a druggist’s office, she signed for it under a false name. Her secret lover, Pierre Emile L’Angelier, threatened to expose her and force her to marry him, then died of arsenic poisoning shortly after. The jury said they didn’t believe she was innocent of the charge, but the prosecution had failed to make a strong enough case against her. She became one of Scotland’s most infamous beneficiaries of the country’s controversial Not Proven verdict.
When my cousin, Davy, became the night time security guard for the Grade A listed building I visited often, familiarising myself with where it all began.
The outside of the Scottish Baronial Country House stood as grand as ever.
With crow-stepped gables, canted bays, tourelles and large unifying central tower it dominated the surrounding countryside from any angle.
Production companies, working for the BBC, Channel Four, or film makers from Bollywood, were frequent visitors, transforming at least one room into a periodical delight a few times a year. There was always something worth stealing.
I took my kids up to see the old haunted house once and informed them it was one of the creepiest places on earth. In Celtic mythology, Overtoun is known as ‘the thin place’ – an area in which heaven and earth are reputed to be close.
Before going in I showed the kids Overtoun Bridge. Over the years hundreds of dogs have leapt to their deaths, fifty feet below in Overtoun Burn.
There are also stories of dogs surviving the jump, only to climb back up and jump again. And in 1994, a local man threw his baby to his death from the bridge, claiming he thought the child was the anti-Christ.
I drop my son off at his mother’s house, hoping to catch a rare glimpse of my daughter.
A good opener. The ‘my son/his mother/my daughter’ combo feels a bit of a squeeze – you’re introducing us to four characters in the first sentence, including the narrator – but the sentence scans well, and I suspect most readers will be able to parse it without trouble on a first read.
With great economy you’ve suggested some backstory and established what the narrator wants, while hinting at conflict that might keep him from that goal. Smart work.
She turned twenty one on Friday.
Slightly less engaging, but at least this has the virtue of being short. Exposition rarely grips, but it can serve as a shortcut to the gripping stuff – a quick tool for establishing the lie of the land. Not every sentence need be pyrotechnic. It’s not a great idea to skip back, out of the narrative present, in the second line, but you get away with it. Fine.
Quick style note: I’d write it as ‘twenty-one’ or ’21’.
The last time I saw her she was seventeen.
If you get the chance, go and watch a stand-up gong show, like King Gong at the Comedy Store. It’s a real education in the art of editing. Comedians go on stage with the aim of lasting five minutes. If the three randomly-selected judges in the crowd get bored, they hold up red cards. Once all three cards are up, you’re gonged off.
What’s fascinating is you can feel, viscerally, the moment when a comedian is doomed. It comes before the first card goes up, and often it’s not even as obvious as the swing-and-miss of a dud gag. It can be something as simple as a dead tag on the tail of a successful joke – a nothing line after the laugh, like ‘so yeah, that was interesting’. These empty lines telegraph a lack of confidence to the audience. They’re born partly from a lack of discipline, and partly from a fear of the blank space, the silence.
The piece isn’t truly bombing yet, but this sentence is the first trickle of sweat down your neck, the rapid blink, the flicker of cowardice presaging the unholy public clusterfuck poised to descend.
The narrator has already told us he’s ‘hoping to catch a rare glimpse’ of his daughter. We don’t want you to unpack ‘rare’ for us, yet. We want the scene to move on, in the narrative present. You were already pressing your luck in the previous sentence. Now we’re dragged back even further, from last Friday to four years into the past.
The pooch is not yet screwed, Kevin, but it’s cowering on the poured cement floor of the guest room with its tail between its legs. Please don’t do what we think you’re going to do.
The most recent photograph I have is a cutting from the front page of the local newspaper.
Two problems with this: firstly, this is a cliché of the estranged father. It’s what he produces from a drawer on CSI when a girl’s body has been dredged from a canal: ‘This is the only picture I have. Me and her mother, we… we don’t see eye to eye.’ Then he pours himself a bourbon and wipes a thick, tanned hand across his designer stubble.
Don’t assemble ideas for your story like someone on a trolley dash. Be discerning. Reject your first and second choices – these are likely to be informed by habit. Hunt for the surprising, the new. Paradoxically, unusual details feel more realistic.
I’m not advocating you opt for something so self-consciously wacky that it undermines the credibility of your fictive world, but the more odd or unlikely the keepsake that the narrator has, the more poignant and convincing it will feel. If he kept a little pottery gorilla she made when she was twelve in the glovebox, or the chewed lid of a Tippex pen she left behind the last time she visited him – maybe something that speaks to a sense other than sight – anything, really, that doesn’t have the ersatz afternoon movie feel of a newspaper cutting.
Secondly, and more importantly, now is not the time for your narrator to start mooning about the past. We’re not even a paragraph in and already I feel like I’ve been cornered by a maudlin drunk in a bar. Stay in the narrative present. Advance the story. Maybe he can wheel round to address this later, if it’s still pertinent. For now, your narrator needs to STFU.
In the past, if someone from my family made the front page, it was always followed by a long sentence, usually measured in years or months.
You know what’s guaranteed to imbue a scene with emotional resonance? A shitty pun. You can amplify the effect by explaining the joke after you’ve delivered it.
A thousand times no, Kevin. And don’t point to your narrator as if to say ‘what are you looking at me for – blame him!’ You can’t excuse bad writing by claiming it’s somehow ‘in character’, that the narrator is supposed to be dull/discursive/criminally unfunny. Unless you’re Kazuo Ishiguro. In which case you get on the Booker shortlist.
Being in the family mood, I decide it best to visit my mum while I’m in the area, seeing as her birthday was the week before last.
Are you fucking kidding me? You set up this potentially intense, emotive encounter with the daughter he hasn’t seen for years, then just abandon the scene and pop to his mum’s? Just imagine reading a thriller that contained a passage like:
The cable ties bite into my wrists. Romanek aims the SIG’s laser sight at my left eye.
‘The exit wound will be big as fist,’ he says. ‘Now. Give me names.’
Being in the talking mood, I pop in to see my mate Boswell on the way home, and we have a quick game of Goldeneye.
Quite beside the fact that your sentence contains zero conflict – it’s the kind of information most of us would think twice about including in a casual email, let alone the first page of a novel we were asking strangers to pay for – why don’t you tell us what happened when he dropped his son off? Did he wait in the car? What did the street look like? Did the mother shoot him a dirty look, or did she not know he was there? Did he watch the windows, searching for a twitch of curtain, a face peering back? What does the interior of his car smell like? Is it a hot day, a wet day? What time of day is it? What type of car is it?
Where’s the texture? Where’s all the detail that makes us believe in this world and care about the people in it?
On the way to the family home I stop off at my brother’s. We joke about the size of the lump of cocaine in his pocket.
Cheers for summarising that for us. I would’ve hated to have been exposed to actual dialogue conveying the specific flavour of what was said and offering insight into the characters.
Does he really have coke in his pocket? Is the joke about its size, or are they just messing about? Why don’t you let us hear them joking first-hand? This slew of summarised moments is about as comprehensible as a fan-maintained Digimon wiki.
He’s picked a good spot high on Carman Hill overlooking Vale of Leven. I sit on the bench close by, sort myself out and sink into the landscape.
I don’t understand this. What do you mean by ‘He’s picked a good spot’? His house is in a good spot? Is he sleeping rough? Baffling, ambiguous stuff. Why is the narrator sitting on a ‘bench close by’? What on earth does ‘sort myself out’ mean? Are we supposed to infer that he’s getting high?
I do like the specificity of the actual place names, though. Grounds it in the slightest of realities, but grounds it nonetheless.
The architect James Smith died before its completion in 1863, and his socialite daughter, Madeleine, was the defendant in a sensational murder trial. Observed buying arsenic from a druggist’s office, she signed for it under a false name. Her secret lover, Pierre Emile L’Angelier, threatened to expose her and force her to marry him, then died of arsenic poisoning shortly after.
WARNING!! A huge Wikipedia page is approaching fast!
At the very least, do your readers the courtesy of trying to disguise your research by making it tangentially relevant to the story. While you rattle off this charmless little factoid your plot is on the floor, carking it. This neither develops character nor advances the story. If your only criteria for inclusion is ‘mildly interesting trivia’ then why not go the whole hog and stop the novel for ‘5 Amazing Facts About Owls’?
To be fair, that would probably be awesome. This is not awesome, however. It doesn’t fit with your narrator, it’s obtrusive, and our sense of the narrative present or ‘now’ of the story is practically non-existent.
With crow-stepped gables, canted bays, tourelles and large unifying central tower it dominated the surrounding countryside from any angle.
See, normally I like specificity and the use of apt technical language. I’m with you for ‘crow-stepped gables’ and ‘canted bays’ – I can just about picture what they might look like. I have no idea what a tourelle is, and by the time we reach ‘large unifying central tower’ it’s like your narrator has completed his metamorphosis from human being to drab audioguide on the tour bus.
I took my kids up to see the old haunted house once and informed them it was one of the creepiest places on earth.
This is just about the only sentence worth keeping in the remainder of the piece. I’d split it into two and change ‘informed’ to ‘told’, but at least there’s a sense of character, and the narrator reflecting on better times.
All the information about the area is quasi-interesting, but in its current form it has no place in a novel. It’s obtrusive info-dumping – a maundering anorak foisting his local knowledge on an unwilling audience. Crucially, it feels at odds with the narrator.
We need characters, conflict, properly dramatized scenes. By all means allow true historical events to inform set pieces, but the balance is totally off here.
On the plus side, your first sentence is good, and the implied characters and conflicts are interesting. The facts you choose to include have the potential to add richness and depth to a story, if properly integrated with the narrative. Your tendency to summarise renders scenes confusing and lifeless. To resurrect an ancient battle cry: show, don’t tell.
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