Hello dear friend and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog for writers, readers, and anyone interested in the craft of storytelling. Each week we take the first page of a writer’s novel or short story (submitted via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right) and look at ways to make it better. If you’d like to submit or you just want to know more, please read the Submission Guidelines.
Death Of 1000 Cuts is 1 year old! Gosh. Thank you so much to all the authors who have submitted pages for us to look at. And thank you, for reading it. I really appreciate all the emails and tweets I get letting me know what you like. If you have any feedback, positive or constructive, on what you’d like to see more or less of, any extra features or one-offs I could add, any design elements you think could be improved, or any other suggestions at all (would you like the occasional podcast version, reading lists, workshops, a live show?) then please get in touch via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right and let me know. Otherwise, cheers.
As always, please read the extract below, decide what you think about it (remember this is about developing your self-editing skills), then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. If you disagree with anything I’ve written or want to add something, please add your thoughts in the comments!
The Ancient Ones: Prologue (by Maeve)
I was reminded of how much I missed the lush cool springs of my birthplace by the white heat on my back and the sand shifting in my shoes. Here, on the merchant road between Hanlun and Raisis, time was measured by the water you carried with you and the distance to the next oasis. Thirteen years I toiled, a thrice month pace between both shining sovereign cities, as security for these caravans fat with valuables to be traded and sold. Yes, in those years had danger been always present in the form of desert predators, human and beast. It was at the start of my fourteenth season with the company led by the merchant Amaryl, this time to guard a caravan of seven cargo carts transporting several chests of gold-ware and gems. I was acting as senior to several hired men, some I had known since I first started traveling the desert road. By the end of this run, I was hoping to retire to a small parcel of land back home, to work my father’s fields. Dreams of forests and rich loam soil penetrated my mind, and when I woke sand and heat burned away the smell of paradise.
I was reminded of how much I missed the lush cool springs of my birthplace by the white heat on my back and the sand shifting in my shoes.
This is the start of your novel, Maeve. A disproportionate amount of the reader’s goodwill rides on getting this first sentence right. It’s the instant they emerge into your fictive universe. You’re creating a world ex nihilo – this is the only point in the whole narrative where literally anything could happen. All sentences after this one are steering mechanisms, exercises in adjustment and shaping. You’re establishing tone, but more than that, this is your first opportunity to make the case that the human being reading your novel should choose it over every other book currently available. Your opening needs to be saying – you read Anna Karenina yet? You read Lolita? Pfft. Fuck those guys. You need to find out what happens to this dude.
We could be eating a sandwich, we could be strolling through the park, we could be trying to guilt-trip an ex into giving us sexual favours – the world is an amazing carousel of competing demands, opportunities and attractions. Yet a novel makes an apparently preposterous pitch – wait (it says), today, right now, you need to be reading this.
This is the human centipede of first sentences – an abomination of vaguely recognisable shapes linked by vast amounts of ugly cartilage. Look at all the prepositions and grammatical words holding this shitty chimera together:
of, of, by, on, and, in – linking eight distinct noun phrases: the character’s memory, the character’s feeling of homesickness, ‘lush cool springs’, the character’s birthplace, ‘the white heat’, the character’s back, the sand, and the character’s shoes.
It’s so tough to read. First off, we go 11 words before we reach a concrete noun other than the narrator’s ‘I’. Why is the narrator only reminded of missing home? Surely, in the heat and the sand, the narrator simply misses home. So that’s six redundant words – ‘I was reminded of how much’ – cut immediately.
‘lush cool springs’ is a cliché. It sounds like you’re advertising aftershave. A spring can’t really be lush, in any case – the jungle or undergrowth around it is lush. We have no idea if these are mountain springs, or desert springs, or tropical springs, or what. It’s a great example of a phrase which sounds rich, but pairs a broad noun to a pair of fairly abstract adjectives (‘cool’, admittedly, is better than ‘lush’ – at least it engages our senses) and ultimately gives us very little.
‘birthplace’? No. Give us a place name. This feels like fudgery, and worse than that, it plays into all sorts of tired tropes of mysterious desert nomads spinning yarns about ‘the land of my birth’. I have never once referred to the place I grew up as ‘my birthplace’ – although I might mention I was born there after mentioning it by name. Don’t skew the character’s vocabulary to impart information to the reader. Style always trumps exposition.
‘by the white heat on my back’ His back is over 1315 degrees centigrade? So this is a story about an asbestos caravan guard with some kind of smelting works between his shoulder blades? Because I would totally read that book.
‘the sand shifting in my shoes’ This doesn’t feel like the observation of a dude (I’m guessing he’s a chap, although the gender isn’t specified and it could just as easily be a lady) who has spent 13 years walking the desert. It’s more ‘day at the seaside’ than ‘over a decade’s grizzled service’. We need something so idiosyncratic, but so true, that you don’t even need to say ‘oh I’ve been doing this 13 years’ because the way he observes his environment, his demeanour and the fucking state of him will scream ‘hardened veteran of the burning wastes’.
It just seems like such a petty thing to be bothered by when he’s in searing heat, trudging for miles, thirsty, tired, and constantly on the lookout for bandits. It’s like a guy on his final walk to the gallows, bare back prodded with branding irons, complaining about the way his boxers ride up his arse crack. Which is to say, superficially plausible, but not very atmospheric or engaging.
Here, on the merchant road between Hanlun and Raisis, time was measured by the water you carried with you and the distance to the next oasis.
No need for ‘here’. He’s not Alan Whicker narrating a travel documentary about Persia.
Indeed, why is he explaining this at all? Show, don’t tell. These are generalised statements that could apply to the journey at any time over his 13 years of service. They are broad, overarching cases rather than specific moments.
Locate your story in a narrative present. I don’t give a pint of hot shit that this is a ‘Prologue’. Writing ‘Prologue’ above a piece of text isn’t some literary Jedi mind trick that frees you from the obligation to deliver a decent story.
Rereading this sentence, I’m not even sure it makes sense. How, precisely, is time measured by the water you carry and the distance to the next oasis? I understand that they are important metrics – by far the most important ones – but why are they transformed into expressions of time? What has time got to do with anything? Really, what the narrator means is: ‘Out in the desert, time is meaningless. All that matters is how much water you have left, and the distance to the next oasis.’
Thirteen years I toiled, a thrice month pace between both shining sovereign cities, as security for these caravans fat with valuables to be traded and sold.
I’m imagining all this delivered in the voice of Grandpa Simpson. ‘So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time…’
‘Thirteen years I toiled’ implies a character looking back on a concluded chapter in his life. Yet the previous lines imply that he is tramping through the desert right now.
And you know what, Maeve? Who cares? This guy hasn’t done dick to make me invested in his welfare. Let us see him acting in the narrative present. Make him face a challenge. Let us see him make choices. Perhaps then we’ll give a dry dog-egg how he got here.
‘a thrice month pace’ I am trying to make this make sense. My brain is squinting so hard trying to bend English just so I can give you a pass on this. Does he mean ‘thrice monthly’? As in, every month, he has to do the trip there and back? I can’t help feeling that the only reason you used ‘thrice’ was because it sounds vaguely storybooky and archaic.
‘between both shining sovereign cities,’ Why ‘both’? It’s not as if he could be between a single city. The narrator sounds a bit like Reagan here. Maybe it’s important that the cities are ‘sovereign’, i.e. they are independent city-states – unless of course you mean that each one is metaphorically like a ‘shining sovereign’. I’m not sure how that would work. Basically your chosen adjectives are abstract and ambiguous.
‘as security for these caravans fat with valuables’ Unpack these offensively broad nouns. ‘caravans’? What do you mean? Are they wagons? Are they powered? If not, what type of animal pulls them? Give us something to picture. Give us noises, smells. ‘valuables’? NO! Absolutely not. I will not let you get away with that.
You can do better. Be specific. The exact nature of the cargo will give us clues about this world, its tech levels, what it values, and what the relative wealth and resources of the two cities are. After all, the only way this journey could be profitable is if one city has resources and luxuries that are scarce in the other – otherwise there’s no point travelling for, by your account, almost a week both ways, across perilous terrain.
‘to be traded and sold’ Traded and sold? As opposed to that type of trading where you just take the thing and rub your face against it? I suppose you might mean ‘swapped’, but I’m pretty sure your fictional world is sophisticated enough that they’ve risen above crude barter systems, especially if they’re travelling so far. In any case, ‘traded’ covers both.
I’m not being pedantic just to be an asshole, by the way. It’s important that your language is precise and that any redundant words are pruned so the story can bloom. Remember, the goal is that your story gets read by a whole bunch of human beings. They’re all going to bring different life experiences and education levels and reading histories to the text, and if any phrases have unintended dualities of meaning, you can bet your trusty ringpiece a non-trivial percentage of your readers will choose the wrong one.
The more accuracy you can bake into your prose and the fewer unnecessary words you tax the reader’s brain with, the more chance your story has of surviving the journey from your mind to the mind of the reader. Imagine every sentence as a splendid limited edition Moomin mug mailed from Finland, and each successive edit as a layer of bubblewrap. The more fastidious you are with your edits, the more chance it has of arriving at its destination without becoming a twenty piece Moomin jigsaw.
Editing is an act of love.
I could almost stop the blog there. That statement is the most important summation of why I do this. I believe it deep in my heart, and over the past year of writing Death Of 1000 Cuts posts, my conviction has only grown stronger.
When we edit our work, we are sweeping the hearth and chopping the firewood and filling a dish with ginger snaps ready for the arrival of that one important guest – the reader. Or, if you prefer something less twee, we are on our knees in the bathroom, squirting Toilet Duck into the U-bend and trying to scrub off our shit stains off the porcelain.
We work hard because we want our guest to feel welcome. We work hard because we want our guest to enter and feel immediately at home. We want them to relax. We want them to see that everything is just so, everything in its right place.
And we will never perform this duty perfectly. There will always be that weird brussel sprout covered in dog hair that rolled under the armchair. The damp log that doesn’t burn so well. The lone pube in the ginger snaps.
What matters is, that we knew this, and still we tried our best. We tried our best, not so we could glory in our aptitude as hosts, but because we remember the times that a stranger took us into their house, and the hearth was swept, and the eiderdown was soft and cool and smelt of lavender, and we knew that we were home.
I fail as a host. I know I do. There is not a mistake in the whole 12 months of this blog that I haven’t committed myself. Most, I continue to make. That’s what it is to be a writer. To fall short repeatedly. To watch yourself doing it. Then to drag yourself the rest of the way, inch by painstaking inch.
Yes, in those years had danger been always present in the form of desert predators, human and beast.
All that faux-Zennish maundering has slightly blunted my rage, but even so – ‘desert predators, human and beast’? Oh poo off. You might as well write [SCARRY MONSTARZ GO HEAR – GRARR!]
Actually sit down and do the world building, don’t fob us off with a category. Better yet, show don’t tell. Instead of alluding to the potential for danger, start by putting the caravan in fucking danger. Why would you deny us that? Why can’t we open with this dude taking aim with a rifle of a wheel arch of the circled wagons as a shit-ton of nasty beasts thunder towards him? Why relegate all your most interesting story elements to encyclopaedia footnotes?
The rest of the extract commits crimes I’ve already gone through – lack of specificity, lack of narrative present, telling not showing, and a narrator so generic in his desires and reactions that you might as well call him Second Caravan Guard. Played by Marlon Blando.
I like that you introduce the parcel of land as his little Of Mice And Men-ish dream. He has a goal, something he cares about. Stakes.
But it’s all so abstract. I’m assuming this is Fantasy – I seem to get a lot of SFF, which is great because I love genre – but your world-building is a tumour that has completely consumed your story’s face. A cold open doesn’t necessarily mean a gun fight, but you know what, you could do a damn sight worse. Why hold back with your awesome scenes? You are saving the best silver for a dinner that will never come.
Thanks everyone for reading the blog over the last year. I love writing it. Here’s to another 12 months.
Want to read the last year’s worth of Death Of 1000 Cuts posts? Click here.