Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
I’m here every Monday and Thursday with posts full of writing tips, apopleptic rants, interviews and links to things I think you’ll love. At the moment, Thursday is Barber’s Chair day, where I take a budding author’s first page and give it the once over. The idea is that we all read along together, hone our editing skills, and learn how we might apply that critical eye to our own work.
Are you a would-be writer? Do you know people who are? I desperately need first pages to keep this blog alive. Please send me the first page of your novel or short story, well-polished, the best you can make it, via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. 250 words max, just the title, then the text in the body of the email, no explanatory blather please. By submitting it, you are agreeing that I can post it on this blog for all time, and that I can make a few constructive suggestions for improvement. I would love to read your work, friends.
Please do share this blog via Facebook and Twitter if you think anyone you know might find it useful. Also, if you know any writers’ groups or writing websites, why not put a link in a forum? It’s great to get some new submissions from further afield. Thanks so much to everyone who has shared it so far – we’ve had a big bump in readership and a bunch of extra submissions. Thanks especially to all the writers who have sent me their first pages to look at. Without you, there is no blog.
Right, as always, read through the extract below, decide what you think, then read my suggestions under ‘The Cuts’.
Stranger (by Chirag)
A headlight blinded my grand eyes opening ceremony. ‘Taxi?’ I enquired. The window wound down and a Peruvian man with a round face nodded. He got out of the car, ‘Miraflores?’ I asked. He brushed past me. The contact threw me off balance ‘si, fine,’ he growled. He picked my bag up off the floor and in one swift graceful movement opened the boot and threw the bag in like it was a bale of hay. Impressive or he could just be a farmer. Opening the front passenger door I saw a sports holdall had shotgunned me and got in the back instead. The leather smelt new. I slid in.
We were soon out on the motorway ‘is it far?’ He turned his head to look at me and not at the road ahead as we went at a swift 70mph.
Always wear your seatbelt, I buckled up.
I looked with increased interest at the scenery as we pulled off the motorway and whizzed down a street lit road.
‘Where’s the Pacific ocean?’
He turned his head.
I closed my eyes and visualised. I’d looked at google maps a dozen times on the internet once I had chosen my hostel. There was one main road that took you from the airport to Miraflores and alongside it was the biggest ocean on Earth, the Pacific.
‘Can I smoke?’
On the outside I was smoking a cigarette and smiling but inside I was thinking this is getting a little fucked. Has this guy gone the wrong way? This was the good scenario going through my head. The taxi hit a bump in the road. This too shifted the gears in my brain, to the bad scenario. This guy is trying to fuck me. Turmoil cogs turned faster.
The seatbelt torqued, snapping tight. Wheels screeched to a halt. ‘Hey man this is fine, I’ll get out here.’ The taxi driver didn’t say a word. The lights turned green. He continued to drive. Fuck fuck fuck. He came to another set of traffic lights. ‘This will do, let me out’ simultaneously I tried the door lock with my hand but it was not responding to my instructions and neither was he when the plastic lock shattered in my final attempt, disintegrating into a thousand shards like a meteor entering the atmosphere. The noise boomed around the radioless taxi. His head turned.
‘Yeah of course. How much?’
‘All of it’
‘Give me your fucking money!’
A headlight blinded my grand eyes opening ceremony.
I’ve reread this sentence several times and I’m worried I’m having a stroke. It remains gibberish, but gibberish hovering on the cusp of comprehensibility.
Is the narrator making a joke here? Referring to opening their eyes as a ‘ceremony’ to strike a deliberately mock-heroic tone? Why only ‘headlight’, singular? What else would be ‘blinded’ but a person’s eyes? ‘The glare of the torch beam blinded my nose.’
Centuries from now, this sentence will doubtless be appreciated as a koan of considerable esoteric wisdom, contemplated by Zen monks in place of ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ For lowly mundanes like myself, I’m afraid you’ll have to clarify.
‘Taxi?’ I enquired.
The War On Overdetermined Dialogue Tags feels endless, and I suspect our enemy is banking on our resolve finally crumbling, on us throwing down our red pens and resorting to asinine guff like ‘well, these things go in trends,’ and ‘perhaps we’re just unwitting shills for Creative Writing workshop dogma’.
NO! No, no, and thrice no, the author asserted vociferously.
A question mark conveys that it’s a question.
‘Taxi?’ I said.
is fine. Adding the clunky, obtrusive ‘enquired’ is to slow down the sentence, distract the reader, and repeat yourself. It’s like writing: ‘I jumped, leaping.’
Also – start a new paragraph for each new speaker.
The window wound down and a Peruvian man with a round face nodded. He got out of the car,
Aside from the stray comma at the end of the second sentence, these are two great lines. Simple, clear. Not written in the Impenetrable Riddletongue Of The Fair Folk.
‘Miraflores?’ I asked.
See previous rant.
He brushed past me. The contact threw me off balance
Again, aside from the missing full stop, two economical, confident sentences. I like how you introduce a note of threat here without being too explicit.
‘si, fine,’ he growled.
Wow. That dialogue tags rant sure is earning its keep, eh?
Sure, ‘grunted’ and ‘whispered’ are very occasionally permissible – they’re not always conveyed in the text – but I think here, ‘growled’ is redundant. It’s not like the reader’s going to encounter this taciturn, brusque cabbie and think the words ‘Si, fine’ (note cap up on ‘si’ – and you need to start a new paragraph to indicate the new speaker) were ‘sung mellifluously’. That might be the only situation when I heavyhanded dialogue tag is necessary: when the content and its delivery are so radically at odds, that, even with a dialogue beat (‘he pounded his fist on the marble slab’) and the reactions of the other characters (‘kindly moderate your volume – may I remind you this is a place of worship?’), the reader would be unable to parse it without help.
He picked my bag up off the floor and in one swift graceful movement opened the boot and threw the bag in like it was a bale of hay.
Cut ‘up’, ‘swift’ and ‘graceful’. Replace ‘the bag’ with ‘it’, and cut ‘it was’. Hey presto, your sentence can now go out in public.
To explain the most controversial of those cuts: we don’t need ‘swift graceful’ underlining your meaning. Show, don’t tell. The flow of the sentence conveys the skill with which he deposits the bag, and the ‘bale of hay’ simile gives us a visual. Don’t, in the words of Patton, pay for the same real estate twice.
Impressive or he could just be a farmer.
Or he could be a fucking cabbie who puts a lot of luggage in his boot?
Opening the front passenger door I saw a sports holdall had shotgunned me and got in the back instead.
Nice, although split it into two sentences so that initial subordinate clause isn’t continuous throughout (and separate the first clause with a comma). So it becomes:
Opening the front passenger door, I saw a sports holdall had shotgunned me. I got in the back instead.
Again, the sudden appearance of ‘shotgunned’ does a good job of conveying subtle menace without bludgeoning us with it.
The leather smelt new.
I don’t know the difference between ‘new leather’ and the plain old ‘stink of leather’. Maybe you could unpack this slightly so we know what exactly the narrator is smelling here? Does it just smell very leathery? Or does new leather have some extra quality, and, if so, what is it?
We were soon out on the motorway ‘is it far?’
So again, start a new paragraph for each new speaker. You know books, right? Look in one of those. Sentences have full stops at the end. Dialogue starts with a capital letter. Don’t invent new rules then inconsistently enforce them. We’re not hippies.
He turned his head to look at me and not at the road ahead as we went at a swift 70mph.
As opposed to a ‘slow 70mph’? How does the narrator know their exact speed? Better to describe road signs rushing past than to get all cosine of the hypotenuse on us.
This needs to be two sentences, and the middle portion is redundant. So maybe:
He turned to look at me. (we know he uses his head to do this – unless he has a camera installed in his arse) Road signs flashed past the window.
Or something. ‘flashed’ is a bit weak. Hey, don’t look at me. I’m the demolition guy.
Full stop at the end of a sentence please. Do I really have to explain this?
NB: I don’t go through submissions tweaking every erroneous lower case proper noun or punctuation error because this is an editing blog, not a proofreading blog.
IANYFP – I Am Not Your Fucking Proofreader. Remember this phrase when you submit work to an agent. Imagine it emblazoned across their skull in flaming ink.
Always wear your seatbelt, I buckled up.
Argh! [TIM PULLS HIS HAND AWAY FROM HIS CHEST – HIS PALM IS SOAKED IN BLOOD] Comma splice! Right when I’d let my guard down! [HE DOES A SWEET TEARS IN RAIN SOLILOQUY, THEN EXPIRES]
Do not link unrelated clauses with a comma. It’s a moot point here, because that twee ‘Always wear your seatbelt’ quip needs nuking, stat. ‘I buckled up’ is fine. Fewer of the chipper winks to camera, please.
On the outside I was smoking a cigarette and smiling but inside I was thinking this is getting a little fucked. Has this guy gone the wrong way? This was the good scenario going through my head.
See, the English isn’t perfect here, but I feel like I’m reading the convincing voice of a real narrator. I have no problem with this. You’re cranking up tension. Nice.
The taxi hit a bump in the road. This too shifted the gears in my brain, to the bad scenario. This guy is trying to fuck me. Turmoil cogs turned faster.
I hate the final sentence. ‘Turmoil cogs’? No.
My friend, I want you to imagine a threshold, and on that threshold is written the word ‘publication’. There’s a party waiting for you on the other side. Look, all your friends are there, smiling and waving. Music is playing. Someone just pulled a party popper.
You move to join them. But what’s this? Some invisible membrane prevents you from crossing. The music grows faint. Your friends’ smiles become grey and indistinct.
Why have you been denied passage? What bars you from this paradise?
Friend, it is none other than ‘turmoil cogs’. Unless you learn to leave ‘turmoil cogs’ and all their shitty ilk behind, (and learn to punctuate a sentence) you will be forever cast out of the party.
Can I ask a question? What gender is the narrator? I haven’t picked that up yet. I suppose the ‘trying to fuck me’ part comes off as ambiguous. Is the narrator worried she (or he) might get raped? Or is this a more straightforward ‘trying to do me over’?
The seatbelt torqued, snapping tight.
Man, I love the word ‘torqued’. It reminds me of watching basketball videos. Yikkit-yikkit BOOMSHAKALAKA! Good word.
‘This will do, let me out’ simultaneously I tried the door lock with my hand but it was not responding to my instructions
Don’t puncture the tension with dad jokes. This is a colossal failure of nerve on your part. It’s an exciting scene! Let it be exciting. Don’t be all, ‘oh, but Pulp Fiction had shifts in tone’. Sure it did. But ‘shitty’ isn’t a tone.
the plastic lock shattered in my final attempt, disintegrating into a thousand shards like a meteor entering the atmosphere.
Nothing kills a moment like a miscued simile. God, that is awful. End the sentence on ‘shattered’. It’s not just that the simile is showy, distracting and cumbersome – it’s not even true. A lock shattering and a meteor entering the atmosphere have all the parity of a grandmother buying a Radio Times and a goose farting.
‘Yeah of course. How much?’
‘All of it’
‘Give me your fucking money!’
Apart from the missing punctuation, this feels like spare, convincing dialogue.
And if it weren’t for the constant missteps and presentation errors, I’d be into the story by now. You’re not mucking about. We have a narrator. We have peril. We have an antagonist. Great. It’s story time.
You need restrain these ludicrous flourishes where you switch registers from someone telling a dramatic story in crisp, matter-of-fact language, to ersatz, faux-literary posturing. It’s as if you lack the confidence in your content to carry the day. As if these incontinent blasts somehow prove your credentials as an author.
Unless you have a compelling reason, keep it simple. Complexity and lyricism are great, but only if they’re done well, and only if you have a good reason to employ them. Far better – and often far harder – to go for simple, bold language. When the content is there, you don’t need to tart up the narrative with yards of linguistic tinsel. Have faith. Take us for a ride.
Enjoying this blog is no guarantee of enjoying my award-winning book on writing, gnawing jealousy and death, We Can’t All Be Astronauts. But I do call Geoffrey Archer an ‘arse-countenanced hack’ – Ebury’s lawyers had no problem with that phrase in the libel read, so I can only assume this fact is enshrined in British law.
Want more writing tips? Death Of 1000 Cuts is here to serve.