Merry February, dear friends, and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
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As always, read the extract below, decide what you think about it, then compare with my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. If you agree, disagree, or have anything to add, please do leave a comment in the box beneath!
The Depot (by Chris)
The blackness that my lungs spewed into the winter’s crisp air, coughed into existence, like a crude oil Spindletop, gushing the very melody that would serenade my almost insurrection. Train-hitching wasn’t always my forte, but there’s little choice now. My ratty pants pockets, nearly worn through, tattered, and unwashed, offered little atonement for the fare of my sins committed back to Vegas.
The November Salt Lake City air bites the nape, like a wild dog drags its unseasoned pups back to the pack. The ears glow red, radiating with agony as the night lingers. I’ve learned to survive. I had two choices on this dreadful night: slip into the engine-car and leach the heat spilling from the compartment, or freeze to death as hypothermia sapped my body’s warmth. The A to B, the shortest distance between two points, forms a line. My entire life has been a fucking leach, over and over, a series of embittered Nihilistic decisions from points A to B. As the cold air poured into my tar-laden lungs, that insatiable itch condensed in my breath box, and pried its way out, like a new-born child birthed into the world. As I strained to repress, the veins in my neck bulged as my resolve waned.
Kaaahhkk! Kashl. Ugh. The rattled, raspy harmony of tar-ruined phlegm, climbing to the crux of my throat, alerted a station’s bull to my little patch of hell. The faint pattering of his foot-steps accelerated my heart’s beat with every step, dominating my mind like the cadence of a drum line, with the walloping thought of returning to D-Block.
The blackness that my lungs spewed into the winter’s crisp air, coughed into existence, like a crude oil Spindletop, gushing the very melody that would serenade my almost insurrection.
Really? You wrote that sentence, presumably reread it out loud when you redrafted, concluded: ‘Welp, no issues here. My work is done,’ then treated yourself to a jaffa cake?
Look, on one hand, bravo. You took a risk. You’re trying to be rich and vivid.
On the other hand, you failed. This is godawful. You took a risk like a man who superglues kestrel feathers to his naked buttocks then leaps off the roof of a bus station takes a risk. But I appreciate that you tried.
I bang on about simplicity a lot. I like simple sentences. They have power. This does not mean that clipped, journalistic prose is the only game in town. Most of my favourite authors write ‘wet’ – lots of complex sentence structures, lovely baroque similes and a broad lexical set that occasionally expects its readers to reach for the dictionary.
Writing longer sentences with a broader vocabulary may cost you readers – the market favours readability over erudition – but you may very reasonably conclude that the trade-off is worthwhile. I certainly wouldn’t advocate an author dumb down her prose just to please tepid dilettantes who read three novels a year and get migraines from anything more challenging than the matey banter on the back of an Innocent smoothie carton.
But that doesn’t mean that long sentences make your novel literary and smart, anymore than a peaked cap and epaulettes make a capybara a four-star general. Much to the world’s chagrin.
Let’s try to parse this sentence. The narrator is telling us that ‘the blackness… coughed into existence’? Doesn’t he mean he (or she) coughed it out? What does he mean by ‘blackness’? It’s an adjective turned into a noun, and, as such, rather abstract.
Maybe, instead of treating us to two completely unrelated analogies – an oil field gusher and a melody – you could tell us exactly what’s going on. Does the narrator just mean that he coughed up some smoke? Or is the ‘blackness’ metaphorical? Is he just coughing? Or is this some kind of SF biotech blackness?
I suspect the narrator is just coughing, but you don’t want to start your novel with the sentence ‘I coughed’ because you fear it’s laughably quotidian – so you’ve tried to disguise its simplicity by making your narrator sound halfway between an angsty teenage poet and a newly-divorced Reiki practioner reading at her first open mic. Seriously. Your first sentence is wearing like three fedoras and a massive brooch.
‘the melody that would serenade’? A melody doesn’t serenade anyone – people serenade people. When the narrator says ‘that would’, are we to understand that he is speaking from an unspecified future point in time, and so knows what is going to happen? Because it’s hard (though admittedly possible) to create tension within the scene if the narrator is aloof from his own welfare.
Train-hitching wasn’t always my forte, but there’s little choice now.
Train-hitching is the least of his fucking problems. How about writing in a consistent tense for more than a sentence? Screw D-Block. This guy needs busting by the Story Police.
Are you writing this in the present tense or what? Is this the narrator breaking out of telling us about a cough he did in the past, to tell us that now, in an unspecified present, he has little choice but to train-hitch? When he says he ‘wasn’t always’ good at train-hitching, are we to understand that he now is, or he is in the scene we’re watching? I’m not even sure that having ‘little choice’ now relates, logically, to train-hitching not being his forte.
Is he trying to say ‘I wasn’t exactly a natural at train-hitching, but then I wasn’t exactly given a choice,’ basically?
My ratty pants pockets, nearly worn through, tattered, and unwashed,
Stop repeating yourself. ‘nearly worn through’ and ‘tattered’ mean the same thing. ‘ratty’ means the same as ‘tattered, and unwashed’. (I don’t think you need the Oxford comma there, by the way) Pick a single adjective and commit to it.
offered little atonement for the fare of my sins committed back to Vegas.
What does that even mean?
I talked a couple of weeks ago about the ludicrous, unexamined assumption that more similes and metaphors = richer, more literary prose. You’re not even sticking to one conceit here. ‘atonement for the fare of my sins’? Either go for a religious metaphor or go for a pecuniary one. Don’t mash the two into a single incomprehensible swizzlestick of bullshit.
And why would pocket contents ‘offer atonement’? Who gets forgiven by their pockets, for fuck’s sake? When has that ever happened?
The November Salt Lake City air bites the nape, like a wild dog drags its unseasoned pups back to the pack.
And now you’re talking about dogs? Pick a goddamn theme and keep to it! All your analogies are pulling in different directions. Your narrator sounds like he’s having a psychotic episode, bless him.
‘bites the nape’? Does he mean ‘my nape’?
It’s a relief that you’ve finally given us a vague sense of time and place. November, Salt Lake City. Good. More specificity and less dreadful sub-Hemingway wank-maundering about wild dogs, please.
The ears glow red, radiating with agony as the night lingers.
Does he mean ‘my ears’? Why the weird cant of an axe-murderer, Chris? It puts the correct possessive pronoun in the basket. It rubs the lotion on the crappy prose.
I’ve learned to survive.
A simple, comprehensible sentence that develops character. I feel like I’ve come up gasping for air in a swimming pool filled with patchouli-scented diarrhoea. More of this, please.
I had two choices on this dreadful night: slip into the engine-car and leach the heat spilling from the compartment, or freeze to death as hypothermia sapped my body’s warmth.
Up until the colon, I like it. ‘dreadful’ might be overplaying your hand a bit, but still – you’re upping the stakes, you’re not slipping into stupid metaphors, you’re making sense.
By ‘engine-car’ do you mean ‘of a train’? Because you haven’t actually told us where he is with any more precision than ‘Salt Lake City’. I think you mean ‘leech’, by the way – ‘leach’ means ‘to percolate through’, whereas ‘leech’ means ‘to suck the energy out of’.
No need for ‘as hypothermia sapped my body’s warmth’ – we know what freezing to death is. It’s like writing:
I shot him, the bullet passing through his body and causing damage that hurt him.
Besides which, the sentence has much more impact if you close on the word ‘death’. Cut the rest.
The A to B, the shortest distance between two points, forms a line.
Holy shit. What an epiph. Whenever I’m reading a novel I’m always disappointed there aren’t more geometrical commonplaces breaking up tedious character development and plot:
‘Martin.’ My throat was dry. ‘She’s dead.’
Martin placed his palm flat on the glass tabletop and stared at it. The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two shorter sides.
He turned, his eyes hard. ‘I know. And I’m glad.’
What I’m saying is, Chris, I am sure you are a lovely person, but cut the sentence, because it’s shit.
As the cold air poured into my tar-laden lungs, that insatiable itch condensed in my breath box, and pried its way out, like a new-born child birthed into the world.
‘breath box’? Is this dude a robot? Itch condensing in breath box. Initiating blackness purge procedure.
I think what you mean is ‘I coughed again’. And no, his lungs aren’t ‘tar-laden’. If they were, he’d be dead. And he’d finally stop spouting these eye-clawingly bad similes about babies and dog babies and forgiveness tickets.
As I strained to repress, the veins in my neck bulged as my resolve waned.
‘my resolve waned’? The reader’s resolve has been ‘waning’ since line one of this simultaneously highfalutin yet woefully imprecise prose.
What you’re trying to say is ‘I tried not to cough’.
Kaaahhkk! Kashl. Ugh.
What happened here? Did he get into a fight with Batman?
The rattled, raspy harmony of tar-ruined phlegm, climbing to the crux of my throat, alerted a station’s bull to my little patch of hell.
There’s actually an important plot point buried here – either someone is hunting for the narrator, or he needs to remain hidden, and his cough has just given his position away. But you’re so intent on channelling Amanda McKittrick Ros that it’s easy to miss.
Prose like this isn’t intelligent, or resonant, or emotionally-gripping, it just sounds sophomoric and needy. It’s like an actor delivering all his dialogue in an exaggerated, cartoonish wail. You need to demonstrate some discrimination. Stop trying to wring drama out of every tiny moment. It makes your writing feel one-note.
The faint pattering of his foot-steps accelerated my heart’s beat with every step, dominating my mind like the cadence of a drum line, with the walloping thought of returning to D-Block.
Again, you kill this with overwriting. ‘faint pattering’ is tautological – cut ‘faint’. ‘Footsteps’ is one word. ‘my heart’s beat’? I think you mean ‘my heartbeat’. The repetition of ‘step’ sounds clunky.
Your syntax makes ‘accelerated’ ambiguous – it sounds like you’re saying ‘the pattering of his footsteps accelerated’, i.e. ‘his footsteps got faster’, but then we come to the next part of the clause and see that ‘accelerated’ takes ‘my heartbeat’ as its object, so we have to go back and reread the sentence.
Does a ‘drum line’ (I think you mean ‘beat’) especially ‘dominate the mind’? And does ‘cadence’ really belong in the same register as ‘walloping’?
Don’t rely on all these emotive, abstract adjectives to sledgehammer your point home. Turns out the old adage ‘show, don’t tell’ actually means something and we – the bellicose gatekeepers of the art – haven’t been writing it all these years just to practice our touch-typing.
As I’ve said in previous posts, overwriting is symptomatic of a lack of confidence. Please Chris – believe in the strength of your scene to carry the day. This is an inherently dramatic situation! A dude is on the lam, he’s hiding from a guard, and he has a chronic cough. That is a recipe for tension.
In writing like this, to quote Henry Green, the author ‘intrudes like a Greek chorus to underline his meaning’. We don’t need you stepping in with all your ten dollar words and tortuous, irrelevant metaphors. It’s like watching a movie where they slap minor key violin strings all over a death sequence so we understand we should feel sad. Except in this case you’ve added a blue wash over the lens, subtitles that read ‘BE SAD NOW’, and you’ve sprayed the theatre with tear gas.
Do not fear simplicity. I’ll say it again, and this time, I’m not just speaking to you, Chris, but everyone who reads this blog – we all need reminding.
Do not fear simplicity.
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