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As usual, read the extract below, decide what you think about it, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. Remember, this is about developing our self-editing skills so we can do a better job of redrafting our own work. Off you go.
She Sees Me (by Gregory)
She sees me. Or she sees right through me. She looks at me and I can feel when she does it with any real effort, because my heart lurches like some Dickensian pickpocket just made in a crowded bazaar. She knows something about me, something quiet that I betray in my sleep. And she is happy to know, because she feels privy to some sort of inner truth about me that she feels we are to secret away from the world in some grander fashion than our relative arrangement would allow (or warrant). She looks at me with all the carefully planned desire of a child before an ocean shore, and periodically away with all the sunken disdain of a shipwrecked sailor.
She lies against me, wearing my chest like an autumn cloak; my legs like sodden greaves. She brings comfort on a level, or finds it, although there is something incongruous in the way we fit together. Something acceptable yet quietly jarring, like the smell of a well-prepared meal at a funeral. I find myself unable to touch her with any real affection, though I drape myself along the contours of her hips with enough presence to provide at least the physical security the moment calls for (regardless of where it may be anchored). She sleeps uneasily, fitfully, though careful not to stir so violently as to shuffle me loose. I balk quietly at the shallow warmth of my flesh belying the winter in my veins. She could slink silently, permanently away into the night, and only one of us would feel the difference.
Or try to.
She sees me.
Great opening line. Simple, intriguing. It’s located in the narrative present or ‘now’ of the story. In three words, it introduces two characters and hints at a relationship. It gives us a couple of questions: who is she? Who is the narrator?
Not every first sentence need be simple, but the simplest ones are the hardest to fuck up.
Or she sees right through me.
Of course, there’s still room to fuck up in the second sentence.
Immediately qualifying and partially negating your first line undermines the reader’s faith in your ability to control the narrative. It’s like starting a novel with:
Call me Ishmael. Or, err, you know… don’t, if you prefer.
One of the chief characteristics of bad prose is lack of conviction. ‘But my narrator has a lack of conviction!’ I hear you cry. Fine, but that’s semantically distinct from ‘my narrator is a shit writer’.
Besides anything else, ‘she sees right through me’ is a cliché. Two sentences in and you’re already borrowing from stock cultural phrases rather than crafting your own. Your reader, in turn, is switching off.
Cut this line. ‘She sees me’ implies it. It’s far stronger without this mealy-mouthed footnote.
She looks at me and I can feel when she does it with any real effort, because my heart lurches like some Dickensian pickpocket just made in a crowded bazaar.
When you write ‘She looks at me’ you’re telling us more or less the same thing for the third time in three sentences. This is less storytelling, more Chinese water torture. The first five words are redundant. Cut them.
‘Any’ is a fluff word. It tries to justify itself by pretending to be an intensifier, but it doesn’t add to our comprehension of the sentence. Cut it.
‘my heart lurches like some Dickensian pickpocket just made in a crowded bazaar’? This is your first simile, and whoooooo boy, it’s a doozy.
What I love about it is how, at first, it appears to make sense, but with each reread it becomes less and less comprehensible. Let’s have a go at parsing this.
The narrator’s heart ‘lurches like some Dickensian pickpocket’? Do you mean the Dickensian pickpocket’s heart lurches? Or does our hypothetical sooty-jowled urchin himself lurch?
‘just made’? What do you mean by ‘made’? Like, in a mafia sense? Do you mean ‘assured of success and fortune’? Or do you mean – even more confusingly – ‘created’? If there is a frame of reference in which this verb makes sense, I don’t possess it, and I suspect a majority of your readers won’t either.
What about this ‘crowded bazaar’? Did Dickens write many stories set in the Middle East? Perhaps he did and I’m exposing my howling ignorance. Or perhaps you mean ‘marketplace’.
TL;DR – this simile is shite. Cut it.
She knows something about me, something quiet that I betray in my sleep.
Okay, so we’ve come unmoored from the narrative present here, and we’re drifting out into an indeterminate morass of fudged chronology. This changes our understanding of ‘she sees me’. We now understand that we weren’t witnessing a moment in which she turned and noticed the narrator, but a generalised observation on her perspicacity.
We’re not experiencing anything first-hand, there’s no motor driving the plot forward, nothing to stimulate our five senses, there’s no ‘now’ for us to exist in – we’re just listening to the narrator deliver an abstract editorial on a character we’ve never met. You’re telling, not showing. It’s dull as a teenager’s diary.
And she is happy to know, because she feels privy to some sort of inner truth about me that she feels we are to secret away from the world in some grander fashion than our relative arrangement would allow (or warrant).
So… much… fluff… [CHOKES]
Rarely have so many words been used to say so little. How does ‘she feels privy to some sort of inner truth about me’ add anything to ‘She knows something about me’? Why do you keep telling us the same thing using slightly different language?
Using the formulations ‘sort of’ and ‘kind of’ outside of dialogue is almost never permissible. Again, they’re all about lack of conviction. They’re a lexical wringing of the hands, a fudge, a way of not committing. Don’t kid yourself that you’re adding a chipper, colloquial bounce to your prose by sparing them the knife. You’re not. You’re just taxing the reader’s patience.
‘that she feels we are to secret away from the world’? First off, the word you are looking for is ‘secrete’. It’s a horrible word, because it means both ‘to hide within’ and ‘to extrude’ as in ‘the witch’s flesh began to secrete a thick, milky substance’. Secondly, ‘we are to’ is a clunky, archaic and confusing formulation. It’s oddly distanced and fatalistic – there’s no agency in it. What does the narrator mean? That this female character feels an obligation to hide this secret? That the character is predicting that they will hide it? That the character suspects that they currently are hiding it? Awful, awful stuff.
‘in some grander fashion than our relative arrangement would allow (or warrant)’ There’s that word, ‘some’ again, appearing for the second time in the sentence to add a sense of flippancy. What’s ‘our relative arrangement’? The narrator is talking entirely in the abstract here, being coy without being charming or engaging. Why should the reader care? What concrete things have you given us to grip onto?
The final parenthetical ‘or warrant’ shows, again, that inability to commit. It’s probably a confidence thing – you keep stepping in with insurance lines, qualifying or repeating what you’ve just said to make sure we’ve got it. The effect is to undermine our faith in your ability to carry the day, and to fill the narrative with irritating repetition.
She looks at me with all the carefully planned desire of a child before an ocean shore, and periodically away with all the sunken disdain of a shipwrecked sailor.
See, half of me quite likes the odd, almost oxymoronic juxtaposition of ‘carefully planned’ and ‘desire’. I can almost see what you mean – a kid on the beach, gazing out over an expanse, full of plans and excitement. ‘all’ is a fluff word – cut it. Also, the child isn’t ‘before an ocean shore’ – they’re either ‘before an ocean’ or ‘on a shore’. If they’re ‘before an ocean shore’, they’re not even on the beach yet – they’re in the car park or something.
‘periodically away’ is, at best, inelegant. I understand what you mean in the same way I can understand someone who talks to me through a mouthful of baked potato, but in either case it’s neither pleasant nor flattering to the interlocutor.
Does a ‘shipwrecked sailor’ feel ‘disdain’? As in: ‘Oh dear, how dreadfully gauche, my boat has sunk.’ I would have thought gloom or despair or resignation would be closer to the mark.
Is this mysterious ‘she’ still looking at our narrator in bed? Or is this happening in the narrative present? Or is he referring to her general behaviour over an indeterminate period?
It feels like you’ve chosen these similes because they sound vaguely literary, rather than for anything so trivial as advancing our understanding of the story.
She lies against me, wearing my chest like an autumn cloak; my legs like sodden greaves. She brings comfort on a level, or finds it, although there is something incongruous in the way we fit together. Something acceptable yet quietly jarring, like the smell of a well-prepared meal at a funeral.
There’s this unexamined fallacy floating in a lot of author’s heads that goes something like:
similes = literary
Which is self-evidently preposterous when written down, but nonetheless unconsciously informs a lot of stylistic decisions. So many writers, when trying to make a scene more vivid and resonant, start stabbing the simile/metaphor panic button. After all, goes the submerged logic, if one simile is memorable, surely twenty will be twenty times as memorable.
In the second paragraph of this extract, your similes go apeshit. Let me disabuse you of any lingering conviction that this is a viable compositional policy.
When you use lots of similes, you do not sound like James Joyce. You sound like Dusty fucking Springfield.
And, at least, in The Windmills Of Your Mind, all the similes in a verse are pulling in the same direction, building a larger conceit. Yours are all over the place. It’s as if she sang:
Like a leopard in McDonalds
Like a pie within a pie
Like a jobby in a trumpet
Like a Frenchman with one eye
Which, I should add, is a song I would totally listen to.
What I am saying is, I am sure you are a lovely person, but your similes are bad. On their own, they are merely mediocre and pretentious, but in combination they are a firehose of diarrhoea.
You do not need them. When we write, similes and metaphors feel as if they should tighten the focus, enabling us to see and hear and feel a fictive world better. Actually, by moving our attention away from the thing as it is, to a thing that is a bit similar, they interpolate themselves between us and what you’re trying to convey. They distract and obfuscate.
Turn your attention to the concrete. The physical. Give us something real, happening in the narrative present, to engage our senses. Something we can visualise, or hear, or feel.
There’s a place for abstract maundering (I feel I have to say this otherwise a certain glowering subset of literary apologists will accuse me of peddling creative writing workshop dogma) but the first page of your novel isn’t it.
I’m not averse to similes and metaphors per se, either, but unless you have exceptional verve and can pull off a Michael Herr Dispatches esque stream-of-consciousness mindspew (which he does brilliantly but which, crucially, is anchored in continual concrete specificity) you need to be super-parsimonious with your use of them.
I prescribe a simile-diet. Limit yourself to one per page. Yes, it’s an arbitrary restriction, but you need to develop your style without the crutch of ‘like’. Come on, mate. You’re not rapping.
I balk quietly at the shallow warmth of my flesh belying the winter in my veins.
I just wanted to highlight a final line to say please, do not do this. This is overwritten, abstract, and conveys almost nothing. ‘balk quietly’? What does that qualifying adverb even mean? What noise is the narrator making ‘quietly’? A little quack? ‘belying the winter in my veins’? Who the fuck is your narrator supposed to be? A nineteenth-century Parisian count?
Overwriting is usually symptomatic of low confidence. Gregory, please. Go back to basics. Pare back, engage our senses, be specific, and give us actual real world things rather than a character’s opinions. I’m not inveighing against complexity or richness. I’m just saying that simplicity has great power. And you have to learn to crawl before you can run.
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