Salut et welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
I’m up at the Edinburgh Fringe, doing my solo show Be Kind To Yourself, and bleeding from the eyes with exhaustion. On Tuesday we completed our run of Grave Invaders, a second show, so at least I’m down to one show a day most days. It is not even an emotional rollercoaster. It is an emotional get-stripped-naked-and-locked-in-a-dark-shed-full-of-bats. Everybody I know who is performing is absolutely exhausted. It sounds silly but it is surprisingly tiring, doing shows every day for a month. You forget how much until you’re here. Still, it is amazing to be amongst so many people I love and admire. My fellow performers are a constant inspiration and the audiences have been upbeat and generous. Can’t ask for much more, really.
If you’ve never read this blog before, every week I take the first 250 words of a novice author’s novel or short story, and look at ways of making them better. This is a prose fiction editing blog that focuses on making sentences work harder and more efficiently.
If you’d like your work to be considered for a future installment, please check out the rules and contact details in our submission guidelines.
Oh, and just to remind you all, my debut novel, The Honours, is due out April 2015. Soon I might be asking for your help in spreading the word to readers. In fact, I definitely will. And I know you will help, because you’re wonderful.
Right. As usual, read the extract, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.
The Caves Of Sant Senne (by Paul)
The townspeople felt some sympathy for the dog, and the old wives would send their daughters to coax him out of that vacant house with scraps of meat or bowls of spiced stew. They had prepared some sort of kennel in the Paxtons’ yard, built quickly but with affectionate detail to accommodate the lonely canine soul. However, Fogle’s mutt seemed to regard their invitations with indifference when they called him by name, and suspicion if they dared to approach the door. And when strapping, young Mr. Paxton decided it was time to remove the dog by force, to bind him to their care, he was met with such a dedicated array of incisors and molars that he eventually had to admit defeat and cursed the mongrel as he hurried away from Fogle’s plot. The dog would not be moved.
As is the case with most excited wives’ tales, the story of Fogle’s departure acquired more and more costly embellishments and speculations, to the point where Fogle’s small frame could no longer support the imagination of certain exaggerators. When, after a week, old Maribel in her knitting chair confessed she had seen him on the morning of his disappearance pushing a cart of uncertain tools and materials toward the hills, no one found the strength to believe her, and the talk of the town returned to the Autumn Fair and the mysterious circumstances of Louisa Delsorio’s pregnancy and whether or not Carla’s basket-weaving could indeed foretell the Rapture.
The townspeople felt some sympathy for the dog,
As an opening clause this is more or less perfect. I love how we start in media res without being tricksy about it. There’s an immediate assured storyteller’s cadence to this sentence.
Now this may seem a bit contradictory – regular readers will know that usually I pounce on broad category nouns like ‘townspeople’ and ‘dog’. You might be expecting me to furiously demand why this isn’t more specific – why not spaniel or miniature schnauzer or caramel-cream basenji?
Well, yes. Normally that would be better, but – and I absolutely forbid you to treat this as a loophole for making your writing baggy and imprecise – occasionally one wants to step back a little and set the scene. Sometimes, simple archetypal words like ‘man’ and ‘house’ and ‘town’ are useful framing devices that quickly allow you to sketch out a situation.
Tone-wise, they have a fablish quality to them. They imply a fairytale-esque mood, or at least hint towards a story that perhaps doesn’t take place in the present day.
So you can see that, even though they’re not precise terms, per se, these nouns are still doing an awful lot of work.
Even that ‘some’ has an important function. Usually, words like ‘some’, ‘really’, ‘very’, ‘quite’ and ‘sort of’ have a timorous, hedging quality that weakens prose and drains it of conviction. But here, ‘some’ is an important qualifier of ‘sympathy’ – it implies a limit, and it undermines the positivity. It suggests a much more ambivalent relationship, which hooks our interest.
Indeed, lots of questions are raised in a few words, chief amongst them: why does the dog deserve sympathy? You’re already getting us emotionally involved. I do really like this first clause, Paul. Nice one.
and the old wives would send their daughters to coax him out of that vacant house with scraps of meat or bowls of spiced stew.
Err. This is less successful.
It’s not dire, but the bar we’re aiming for is ‘excellent’ rather than ‘didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out’.
‘the old wives’ feels generic rather than archetypal. Why the definite article? Why ‘old’? Are they really all old? Cut ‘the old’.
Cut ‘of that vacant house’. ‘that’ feels particularly awkward, but ‘vacant house’ is also weirdly difficult to picture. Do you mean that the dog lives in a derelict house? I just don’t think you need to try to cram this location into the first sentence. It doesn’t materially add to our understanding and it breaks the flow of the sentence.
‘scraps of meat’ is fine, although this is a case where specificity – pork, beef, chicken – might add a little crunchiness to the line.
‘bowls of spiced stew’ is utter bollocks. This is the moment where your backdrop collapses exposing the brick wall behind. It’s a lazy, generic foodstuff, like when Fantasy authors have their characters eating ‘a simple meal of bread and cheese’. It implies you’ve put the bare minimum of imagination into your world-building.
I think it’s that adjective ‘spiced’ that particularly rankles. It pretends to be helping out, but really it’s super-vague. Spiced with what? And ‘stew’? That is so broad. You might as well write ‘flavoured stuff’.
See, maybe if you wrote ‘goulash’ instead of ‘spiced stew’ we might go with it. That would imply a cultural milieu and ingredients and it would be one word instead of two. But for me, ‘spiced stew’ is where the voice broke down and I was like ‘fuck this’. And it’s only the first sentence.
They had prepared some sort of kennel in the Paxtons’ yard, built quickly but with affectionate detail to accommodate the lonely canine soul.
‘some sort of’? *whacks Paul on the nose with a rolled up newspaper* No! Bad author!
So it’s ‘some sort of kennel’, ‘built quickly’ and yet it has ‘affectionate detail’? Those things do not go together. Either it is a vague gesture towards a dog house that was rushed, or it was constructed with affection and attention to detail. It’s like writing:
They had some kind of intercourse on the bathroom floor, ten seconds long but also half an hour and actually good and stuff.
Also – ‘to accommodate the lonely canine soul’? For serious? John, that shit does not even remotely fly round here.
You’re repeating what we already know, and worse, you’re using wanky synonyms that manage the (almost) impressive feat of sounding simultaneously pretentious and dumb. It’s not a ‘lonely canine soul’ – it’s a fucking DOG.
This is a great example of where people get confused, re the ‘crunchy specificity’ advice. ‘lonely canine soul’ is, indeed, longer than the word ‘dog’, but it’s not actually anymore specific. For a start, the focus is on abstract value judgements – i.e. ‘lonely’ – rather than concrete statements of fact – i.e. ‘brown’. Secondly, ‘soul’ is less specific than dog – which is why it requires the modifier ‘canine’ to make any sense. ‘soul’, in this instance, just means ‘sentient being’, so the narrator is being needlessly obfuscatory. It’s like referring to a car as a ‘driveable object’.
It’s fine to repeat simple words like ‘dog’ or ‘house’ or ‘said’. Don’t make a fetish out of finding alternatives for everything you mention, or you’ll end up sounding like that reprehensible fuck-trumpet Jeffrey Archer, having characters variously pick up and read a ‘letter’, ‘note’, ‘missive’ and ‘epistle’ sentence by sentence, because you think that owning a thesaurus makes you all literary and shit.
However, Fogle’s mutt seemed to regard their invitations with indifference when they called him by name, and suspicion if they dared to approach the door.
‘Fogle’s mutt’ Argh! So now it’s been a ‘dog’, a ‘canine soul’ and a ‘mutt’. Three sentences, three different words. This is such fundamentally poor prose I feel as if I ought to light a little candle and hold a service to mourn its passing.
‘when they called him by name’? What’s his name? Why are you keeping this from us? Also, why hedge with ‘seemed to’? Either the dog reacts with indifference or it doesn’t. This isn’t a court of law. Commit.
And what, for the matter, does doggish indifference look like? What does the dog do that makes people believe he is reacting with ‘suspicion’ when they approach the door? Is he snarling, backing away? Cocking a skeptical eyebrow? Show, don’t tell. This is too vague and doesn’t engage our senses.
And when strapping, young Mr. Paxton decided it was time to remove the dog by force, to bind him to their care, he was met with such a dedicated array of incisors and molars that he eventually had to admit defeat and cursed the mongrel as he hurried away from Fogle’s plot.
‘strapping, young’ is a cliché. Cut it.
Without really explaining yourself you’ve shifted from talking about the ‘townspeople’ to the Paxtons. It’s confusing – you keep using the pronoun ‘they’ but it seems to narrow in meaning as the paragraph progresses, without any clear delineation being made.
I quite like the qualifying subclause ‘to bind him to their care’. It usefully elaborates on ‘remove the dog by force’, and tone-wise it feels consistent with this storybook, slightly archaic voice.
‘a dedicated array of incisors and molars’ is, frankly, shite. Again, it’s faux-literary in that sub O. Henry style appropriated by so many authors going for an old-timey American voice, but it doesn’t do any work. It’s all guff and no stool. ‘a dedicated array’ doesn’t suggest teeth or biting or anything really. One could have a dedicated array of spatulas or light switches. It’s such a drab, clinical way of phrasing it. And it’s not even true! There isn’t ‘an array’ of incisors. There are relatively few. And why are you specifying two types of teeth and not just saying ‘teeth’? Just awful.
‘and cursed the mongrel’ Oh, so now it’s gone from ‘dog’ to ‘canine soul’ to ‘mutt’ to ‘mongrel’. No. Dreadful. This kind of compulsive word-switching is the unmistakable hoofprint of third-rate prose.
The dog would not be moved.
Love it. Simple, rounds off the themes of the paragraph while presenting us with our first clear conflict of the story. Unpretentious. Oh, and you called it ‘the dog’ instead of ‘the furry gentleman’ or ‘the four-legged interloper’ or ‘the recalcitrant hound’.
As is the case with most excited wives’ tales, the story of Fogle’s departure acquired more and more costly embellishments and speculations, to the point where Fogle’s small frame could no longer support the imagination of certain exaggerators.
Confusing. I’m getting the impression that we’re supposed to understand that the house belonged to some dude called Fogle, and now he’s absconded and the dog is left?
The prose is fucking awful, Paul. ‘costly embellishments and speculations’? What does ‘costly’ even mean? It’s like you’re half-committing to this metaphor of the story being a building, but then you cancel it with speculations, then in the next clause you switch from talking about ‘the story of Fogle’s departure’ to ‘Fogle’s small frame’. What the fuck is that? His body? Is ‘small frame’ supposed to be part of this building metaphor? Why not just ‘Fogle’? Why phrase it in such an needlessly cumbersome, legalistic way? It’s like writing:
Geoff’s body crossed the lounge. Geoff’s eyes looked out the window.
‘Something’s going on out there,’ said Geoff’s mouth.
This voice you’re putting on isn’t charming or cute. It’s not convincingly archaic or classic. It’s just shit.
When, after a week, old Maribel in her knitting chair confessed she had seen him on the morning of his disappearance pushing a cart of uncertain tools and materials toward the hills, no one found the strength to believe her,
I didn’t know a ‘knitting chair’ was a thing, but still, if you’re sure it is, that’s okay.
The main problem with this bit is the chronology. ‘after a week’ from what? You haven’t established a narrative present for this statement to exist relative to. I suspect, in your muddled way, you’re trying to say ‘a week after Fogle’s disappearance’. If so, what possible reason could you have for not just saying that? Are you trying to win some complicated bet?
I’m okay with the rest of this sentence though, compositionally-speaking. Although we do rather seem to have abandoned the dog.
and the talk of the town returned to the Autumn Fair and the mysterious circumstances of Louisa Delsorio’s pregnancy and whether or not Carla’s basket-weaving could indeed foretell the Rapture.
Love this. Nice specificity, nice three point list. Funny, understated, and finally gives this community some actual fucking texture. The clauses flow – even ‘indeed’, which is usually a fluff word, gives a welcome tonal kick to the end of the line.
So there you go. Writing convincing historical pastiche is hard – who’d ‘ve thunk it? Nail the voice and it’s beautiful, but fuck it up even slightly and the effect is jarring. You’ve set yourself an incredibly difficult task, Paul, and my only advice is to return to the novels written during the era you’re writing about, and read those. Not books written now but set in that time – actual contemporary literature from the period. Read them with a religious fervour. You can’t really learn the language rhythms piece by piece – you can only absorb them through repeated, prolonged immersion. Good luck.
Enjoyed this? Chances are you’ll like my award-winning memoir on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
If you’d like to know when I’ll be appearing live in your area, sign up to my monthly mailing list.