Merry Thursdaymas and welcome to another Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Most Thursdays we take an author’s first page and look at ways of making it better. If you’d like to submit yours for similar scrutiny, please read our Submission Guidelines.
The release of my debut novel, The Honours, is just 21 days away and I’m feeling quite nervous. If you’d like to support me please pre-order so it has at least one sale in its first week. You could also mention its existence on Twitter and the Book of 1000 Faces. Basically, grassroots support or the lack thereof is what saves or kills a new book. If you could give me a shout-out you’d be saving my jacksie.
And it’s quite a beautiful book, isn’t it?
As always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
The Angel (by Ryan)
I still remember the first angel I saw.
When I was fifteen, we snuck up to the entrance of the mine to share some stolen chocolate. Fumbling with the wrapping, James dropped it, spilling the pieces across the floor, under the door, down the entrance ramp, and into the snow outside. We argued over what to do: risk going outside to retrieve it or leave it and sneak back down the shaft to our beds? Foolishness prevailed and it was decided that I, underage and uncertain, would hold open the door while the others ran out.
As they darted out of the safety of the entrance hall, I gazed up. Unlike the other four, all over sixteen, this was my first view of Heaven in the nighttime. Like the pictures I had seen in school, it was filled with beautiful dots of white light, concentrated in a smeary line. Entranced, I stepped outside, wedging the door open with a rock. Approaching James, Matt, Mary, and Paul, I took my share of the ration. Through unspoken agreement, we remained, shivering in the snow, and stared up.
That was when we saw it. The angel. A warped rectangle of light, it crossed Heaven, blotting out the tiny dots. Shimmering like gold, the angel flew through Heaven, occasionally changing direction—we marvelled at it, struck speechless by its beauty. Although we were certain it could see us, staring down with all-seeing eyes, it paid us no regard, simply passing overhead.
I still remember the first angel I saw.
*dashes out to car, drives to nearest sizeable hill, jogs to the top and shakes fist at sky* FUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUU!
Ryan, I still remember the first sentence I saw in Death Of 1000 Cuts which ignored the rule ‘place the most important information at the end of your sentence’. I was positively enthusiastic about introducing the concept of syntax. ‘Think about your word order’ I benignly advised, feeling all avuncular and wise. Fairly glowing with pedagogical satisfaction, I was, Ryan. People will read this and learn, I thought. No one will fuck this up anymore.
I erred, Ryan. Each week has brought fresh shitburgers creaking up the dumbwaiter hatch of my email submissions. I no longer feel sanguine on this issue. Every miscued sentence is a harrow dragged across my legs, a seed drill driven into my anus.
And it’s not your fault. This is, apparently, easy to get wrong, because almost every submitter does it. You’re not responsible for previous extracts.
So look, Ryan. Hi. Let’s start from scratch. Clean slate. *wipes diagram for Sweeney Todd-esque execution seat from board* I’ll go through it again. One more time.
But I swear – if authors do not listen I shall climb into my VW Lupo, set off around the country and guff on the head of every man, woman and child in the British Isles, so help me God.
‘angel’ is the most interesting word of this sentence. ‘I saw’ does not modify it in some surprising or even useful way. If you cut ‘I saw’, the sentence becomes ‘I still remember the first angel’ – which is far more powerful. It implies ‘saw’ – if you were desperate to be absolutely explicit you could write ‘I still remember when I saw my first angel’ but I think readers need less hand-holding than that. Better to get on with the story, when the nature of the this encounter should become clear.
After all, at this point the reader can still rationalise away ‘angel’ as a figurative term, or imagine the narrator is referring to an angel on a Christmas tree or something. There’s a limit to how much punch you can invest this first line with, so you might as well make it compact, close with your best word, then keep the story moving.
If you close with ‘I saw’, you’re smudging the punchline – I can’t picture the act of seeing. I can picture an angel.
When considering what to put at the end of your sentence, go interesting, go concrete.
And that’s the shit that will help you solve the case.
When I was fifteen, we snuck up to the entrance of the mine to share some stolen chocolate.
Split this into two sentences. The first: ‘I was fifteen.’ That way, you’re immediately answering an implicit question posed by the first sentence – when did it happen? Otherwise, the subclause jars – ‘When I was fifteen’ sounds like it’s about to introduce a general statement, e.g. ‘When I was fifteen, I used to pop wheelies and fart simultaneously’ rather than a specific situation.
Cleaving it from the subsequent clause also helps to keep things clear. You’re introducing a lot of concepts rapidly. Help the reader out.
‘we snuck up to the entrance of the mine to share some stolen chocolate.’ Right – so if this is some kind of grim dystopia (and it’s telling that, by the end of this extract, I’m not really sure – you’re so vague it’s tricky to figure much out about the world) or if these kids are grindingly poor, then the adjective ‘stolen’ is superfluous. In-world, it makes about as much sense as writing ‘illegal murder’. Of course he’s had to steal his chocolate.
Maybe it’s the adjectival form, ‘stolen’, which irritates me. You make it sound like a bland category, when actually there must be some kind of world-buildy story behind that. Wouldn’t better to say ‘with some chocolate he’d stolen from Malakai’s commissary while the old man was out back fetching the big bottle of iodine’ or ‘with a half bar of cooking chocolate he’d snuck out the stores tucked beneath his respirator’ or ‘with the half-melted 3 Musketeers bar he’d lifted from Lei’s back pocket while the kid was sleeping in his hammock between shifts’? Stolen from who?
Don’t hold back. Holding back is bullshit. It forces your narrator into all sorts of contortions as they hide information from us. Crunchy specificity. Do it.
Fumbling with the wrapping, James dropped it, spilling the pieces across the floor, under the door, down the entrance ramp, and into the snow outside.
Why have they gone here? What does where they are look like, sound like, smell like, feel like? All you’ve given us in ‘entrance’ and ‘mine’. That makes me picture a sort of cave mouth opening out onto a mountainside.
‘Fumbling with the wrapping’ – see you’re introducing this subclause but we don’t even know who’s performing the action. We don’t have names, genders – all you’ve given us is ‘we’. So, as we hit these words on a first pass, this is a vague action happening in a floaty undescribed space, performed by god knows who.
It forces us to return to it a second time, once we’ve read the sentence. This is the epitome of clumsy, draggy writing that makes the reader feel like they’re staggering through a corridor meshed with horrible cobwebs. I think you mean ‘wrapper’ rather than ‘wrapping’, by the way. And what sort of wrapper? This, again, is an opportunity for world-building hints, so important when we know so little. Is it plastic, paper, foil? The existence of plastic would suggest a whole different timeframe and tech level for your fictive world.
James dropped it, spilling the pieces across the floor, under the door,
So they’re at the entrance, but there’s a ‘floor’? Not ‘ground’? So where are they? Is this a room? A tunnel? How is it lit? Candles? Oil? Gas? Electricity? Something else?
Why is the chocolate in pieces? Doesn’t it usually come in a solid block inside the wrapper, then you have to break it up once unwrapped?
There’s no tension here, no build up. No sense of place or character. How does the narrator feel in this moment? Are these just a bunch of teenagers sharing some nicked merch?
What’s the room/tunnel they’re in like? Are they sitting down on things? Standing? Are they warm? Cold and rubbing their hands? Does someone have to keep watch? Who’s the leader? Are they nervous? Are they hungry? If we see them all huddling round, impatiently saying ‘Come on, come on,’ and maybe one complains about portion sizes – one offers to get his knife out to carve up the bar fairly, one is saying she doesn’t want the ends – then we’d see that this is a really rare treat, and things must be pretty shitty in this world.
If, on the other hand, they’re all lounging around, smoking cigarettes, flirting with each other, trying to act cool, and the chocolate is sort of ancillary to the socialising, a bit like how a game of pool is a locus for interaction rather than a high-stakes event in itself (unless you’re in some pool shark betting situation), then we know it’s a different type of world, or that, at least, they view their place in it differently.
Detail and dramatization haemorrhage world-building. How could they not? But when you summarise blandly like this, you place the entire novel under the killing jar of wretched indifference.
down the entrance ramp, and into the snow outside
So presumably these chunks of chocolate (it sounds like a fucking big bar) are rattling down a ramp on the other side of the door? How is the narrator seeing this?
We argued over what to do: risk going outside to retrieve it or leave it and sneak back down the shaft to our beds?
SHOW, DON’T TELL! Ryan, you are a brilliant human being, I am sure. You can do much better than this.
Those two fancy little typographical marks you’ve being seeing so much of ‘ and ’ – you know, the ones that look like earrings? If you place them either side of text you can magically transform those words from narrative into dialogue uttered by human beings.
Isn’t that great! No longer will you have to simply fob the reader off with a vague digest of what was said! We can hear the exact words! Can you imagine it? Think of how narrative fiction will be transformed!
And if we hear how different characters respond to this situation, then we’ll be able to start to differentiate between them, and we might give a shit about their welfare. These are Good Things, Ryan.
Foolishness prevailed and it was decided that I, underage and uncertain, would hold open the door while the others ran out.
‘Foolishness prevailed’? This sounds like an editorial in a 1922 edition of the Daily Express. What next? ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’? Is the narrator a bluff old colonel back from the Boer War?
What’s worse, you’re expecting us to accept ‘foolishness prevailed’ as a substitute for actual dialogue, conflict and characterisation. I mean fuck it, you could replace half the Western tragic canon with those two words. ‘Hamlet contemplates killing Claudius. Foolishness prevails. THE END.’
And what’s all this breathless adjectivising about the narrator’s traits? ‘underage and uncertain’? Show, don’t tell! The former we already know, the latter is a value judgement better implied through action than baldly stated.
Also, dialogue could hint at the consequences of this apparent risk – what are they worried about? I realise that, in this world, it’s obvious to all of them why going outside is a ‘risk’, so they can’t out-and-out state it, but the varying responses – one of them might evince bravado, another might be cautious, etc – could give us tantalising clues to the potential dangers. Is it an external, environmental threat? Or simply the threat of getting caught and punished? What’s the official line? Do the kids all believe it?
As they darted out of the safety of the entrance hall, I gazed up.
So, if you’d been dramatizing this scene instead of summarising it, delivering it through the narrator’s perspective, we would have felt this as a momentous turning point. This is a big moment for him, right? He is about to see something for the first time in his life. Does he want to hide from them how nervous/impressed he is? Is he distracted by the danger? Does he care about the chocolate? What’s his stake in this scene?
And why does it take four fucking kids to pick up a little bit of chocolate?
Unlike the other four, all over sixteen, this was my first view of Heaven in the nighttime.
If this view is so rare and forbidden, wouldn’t they fuck the chocolate and just dare each other to open the door and look out? Teenage boys would probably knob a hot waterbottle full of broken glass if you told them not to and put it in a locked cupboard. Practically the only way for a parent to stop them doing anything is to show a healthy enthusiasm for it oneself.
That’s why, if I’m ever lucky enough to be a Dad, I will openly, merrily roger a rubber bladder filled with shattered jam jars as my son looks on – to save him from himself.
Nice introduction of ‘Heaven’ as a concept though – unobtrusive bit of world-building. Good.
Like the pictures I had seen in school, it was filled with beautiful dots of white light, concentrated in a smeary line.
I’m not really sure what I’m trying to visualise here. Are these stars? Does the kid really have no concept, no word, for ‘stars’? What did they teach him at school, then? ‘Here’s Heaven – as you can see, some white dots are concentrated in a smeary line. Now, back to mining.’
Entranced, I stepped outside, wedging the door open with a rock.
‘Entranced’ is telling, not showing. And ‘wedging the door open with a rock’ hardly sounds like someone ‘entranced’. It sounds like the dull pragmatism of someone on autopilot.
Approaching James, Matt, Mary, and Paul, I took my share of the ration.
Now look – I’m smart enough to see you’re attempting more worldbuilding here. We have Heaven, an angel, Matthew, Mary, Paul and James. If the protagonist isn’t called John or Joseph I shall eat my gigantic novelty edible sombrero.
But the effect here – of tossing in four names at once, without giving us any meaningful way to picture them or distinguish between them – is to confuse the reader and emphasise just how thinly these characters have been painted. To call them ‘thinly painted’ is frankly, a gross overstatement. They are translucent. They are nametags hovering in a whitish gas.
‘I took my share of the ration’ – what richly evocative prose! Why, I can almost smell the bland, uncategorised comestible object!
What does a ‘share’ look like? How big is it? What type of chocolate is it? What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What does it taste like? Is he savouring it? How do the others eat theirs? Is this a wonderful treat?
Detail, detail, detail. There are some tantalising elements here, Ryan, some hints that this might be an interesting or unusual world, but they are smothered under a vast beige blanket of BLAH.
Show, don’t tell. It’s not a joke. It’s a holy regimen. Do it or perish.