Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
So you all know by now that my first ever novel, The Honours, is due out from Canongate next year. This week, I have been going through line edits with a copyeditor. It’s basically been like what we do here on the blog, but for a document that runs to over 450 pages. Edits for continuity, edits for historical accuracy, edits for flow, edits for characterisation, edits for publisher’s house style, edits for grammatical correctness… literally straight days of sitting in front of the laptop, running through the incredibly thorough job my (brilliant, fastidious, talented, patient) copyeditor has done, approving, querying and implementing suggestions.
So much work has gone into this novel. It’s been like whittling a swan ice sculpture centrepiece out of a three-mile iceberg. I don’t care too much about optimal efficiency when it comes to writing strategies. I just want it not to suck.
Thanks to everyone who has been spreading news of my novel. You are doing me an immense kindness. The more people talk about it, the more buzz begins to build, and the more buzz begins to build, the more websites and newspapers and awesome cultural bellwethers like yourself start requesting advance copies. Sign up to my mailing list if you want the latest news, as well as my live gig dates. I’m not going to talk too much about what it’s about yet, but if you really can’t wait, email me via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right, and I’ll spill some select beans in confidence.
So remember: The Honours, Tim Clare. Published by Canongate in 2015. Spread it.
Some of you have been asking whether I’d be prepared to edit one of my own first pages on the blog. The answer is: probably not. I had a look at a few from early drafts of novels and short stories I attempted, and they fell into an awkward middle-ground between ‘hilariously shit’ and ‘probably fine’. I feel, for the metajoke to work, I have to find something genuinely toe-curling of mine to lay into, otherwise it’ll feel self-indulgent, especially if I’m repeatedly writing ‘This line isn’t too bad.’ and ‘Hey, good metaphor.’ I’m trying to dig up a copy of the novel I wrote when I was 15. I am 100% sure that every single page is fucking atrocious. Maybe if we could find a guest author to critique the first page of that?
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As always, read the extract below, decide what you think then read my comments after ‘The Cuts’. Please do feel free to disagree and add your comments via the comment box, but please be respectful to the original author (although you can slate me as much as you like).
The Disappearing Harpmaker (by Kenton)
When I was six my parents drove me up to San Francisco for the day. I looked out from the car, and saw three spotted horses running along highway 1. I could see the dirt clouds they kicked up behind them, and the smaller splashes of dirt their hooves made, beating against the ground. I could even see their muscles tightening in staccato rhythms under their skin, as they ran parallel to our car, and nearly as fast. But I couldn’t hear them. I tried, I rolled down my window. But all I could hear were the sounds of the tires pulling at the road, wind, and engine. Those silent horses didn’t feel real.
Neither did the trees viewed from Flora’s back porch. The trees caught the wind with such chaos. Greens in waves swirled around their imagined surface as if it wasn’t composed of separate branches, but instead blurred into a single thing, a green, turbulent ocean. Yet on that porch it stayed quiet. The tall tide of trees seemed dreamlike. Not that they were in any way the stuff of dreams, but that they were like a dream. Real but for a detail, but for the sound of it all. Real but for something you don’t duly consider until it’s gone.
When I was six my parents drove me up to San Francisco for the day.
Yeah, all right. It’s not showy or revelatory, but it’s clear and it places us in the fictive world. You’ve introduced the narrator, his or her relation to the story being told, and a location.
I looked out from the car, and saw three spotted horses running along highway 1.
Gnngh. You’re really not leaving me with much to do, are you Kenton? Cap up on ‘highway’. Also, ‘spotted’ feels like the wrong adjective. Dappled, brindled, piebald, pinto or skewbald are all more accurate, and more horse-specific. I don’t think claiming the narrator is falling into a childish register is an adequate defence. And maybe give us the colour? Spots of what against what?
Still, otherwise it’s a clear sentence with remarkably little faff.
I could see the dirt clouds they kicked up behind them, and the smaller splashes of dirt their hooves made, beating against the ground.
Again, I’m checking the schedule and I ought to be kicking off by now, comparing some adjectival subclause to finding a soiled adult nappy in the glovebox, but it’s kind of fine. I have some quibbles? Because that’s what readers love this blog for, right? Death of 1000 minor copyediting queries.
Is ‘I could see’ better than ‘I saw’? I don’t know if that modal verb adds anything. I realise there are shades of meaning and it slightly emphasises the achievement of spotting something smaller, but you can save a word, and the repetition of ‘saw’ across the two sentences sounds nice. (repetition of words isn’t inherently bad, especially smaller, more commonplace words – it can add subtle cadences to a piece) Still, ‘I could see’ isn’t wrong, per se, so it’s up to you.
Consider deleting the first comma? No need for a comma before an ‘and’, unless you’re dropping the old Oxford comma in a list (and a lot of publishers’ style guides will just mean it gets taken out in the copyediting stage anyway) and, in combination with the second comma, it makes the middle part of the sentence seem parenthetical, so on first pass ‘beating against the ground’ sounds like it applies to the subject of the sentence, the ‘dirt clouds’.
That is some pretty primo nitpicking right there. That is some top-tier chimp-on-chimp grooming. I could set up my own nit salon and shit.
I could even see their muscles tightening in staccato rhythms under their skin, as they ran parallel to our car, and nearly as fast.
HOORAY! You did something actually shit. I was beginning to lose faith.
‘in staccato rhythms’ No. This is total bullshit. One, the narrator couldn’t have seen this from a moving car and that’s not how muscles work, unless the horse had just taken a railroad spike through the skull and was having a full-blown seizure.
But even if this is an unreliable narrator, embellishing his memory, ‘in staccato rhythms’ does nothing to evoke the motion of powerful muscles under hide. Every writer tries to drop a ‘staccato’ at some point in their career, not because it’s the right word, but because they want to sound literary. It’s like ‘palimpsest’ – an absolutely foolproof indicator of intellectual fraudulence.
Your writing doesn’t need this preposterous literary tinsel. Have some sack, man. Cut it.
But I couldn’t hear them. I tried, I rolled down my window.
A copyeditor might frown at starting a sentence with ‘But’. I’m fine with it. It’s a pacing thing. But I can’t forgive that comma splice. ‘I tried’ and ‘I rolled down my window’ are two unrelated clauses. At the very least replace the comma with an em dash.
I don’t think you need ‘I tried’ at all. Seeing the narrator roll down his or her window gets us straight to the attempt, without needing to frame it with the abstract concept of trying first.
But all I could hear were the sounds of the tires pulling at the road, wind, and engine.
Make this part of the previous sentence. You don’t need to write ‘the sounds of’ before you list sounds. Compare ‘I could hear the sounds of sirens’ vs ‘I heard sirens’. That’s 7 words vs 3, to say the same thing. Every redundant word haemorrhages power.
I like ‘the tires pulling at the road’ – that’s nice, an unusual but unshowy verb choice – but ‘wind, and engine’ sound like they’re part of a three point list that the tires are pulling at. I’m not sure they’re very evocative choices – what noise is the wind making? And you can’t just chuck in a vague noun like ‘engine’ and expect us to be able to hear that. What noise is the engine making? What type of car is this? I don’t mean you should give us make and year, but if the noise were more specific – is the engine straining, thundering, clanking, roaring, purring, growling, putting, whining, is the engine note rising or falling – then we’d immediately get a sense of age and vehicle type.
Those silent horses didn’t feel real.
Yeah, I’m kind of down with this. Nice image. Horses are rather clapped-out as metaphors for wildness and mystery and power and unarticulated stirrings of adolescent sexuality, but this is fine.
Neither did the trees viewed from Flora’s back porch.
Erk. Scene-shift is too abrupt. I’d like somewhere, either in this sentence or the next, some acknowledgement that we’ve shifted from the narrator as a six-year-old to the narrator existing in the narrative present.
The trees caught the wind with such chaos. Greens in waves swirled around their imagined surface as if it wasn’t composed of separate branches, but instead blurred into a single thing, a green, turbulent ocean.
Eh. Borderline, this. I think the wind catches the trees rather than the other way round. The wind needs to be the subject of that sentence – it’s acting on the trees. ‘chaos’ is a bit vague and abstract but I get what you mean. Perhaps the repetition of ‘trees’ jars. ‘The wind stirred them into such chaos’? This is certainly a prime situation for pronounage.
The second sentence is almost okay, but I think, on balance, a bit wanky. You repeat ‘green’, which is a pretty shit, lazy choice of adjectives when you’re describing trees. It’s the first descriptor anyone thinks of when you say ‘trees’. You’re trying to transport us to a fictional world, not win Family Fortunes. What type of trees are they? You repeat ‘waves’ and ‘ocean’, which, again – trees make a shushing noise and flow, I get it, but can’t you do better?
What does ‘imagined surface’ mean? Don’t the leaves form a literal surface? Or do you mean ‘imagined surface’ as in ‘I am imagining this is the surface of an ocean’? If it’s the latter, sorry Kenton, your word choice doesn’t convey this.
No need for the parenthetical ‘as if it wasn’t composed of separate branches’. Don’t walk us through every step of your metaphor construction, just give us the final image: ‘The ocean of maples flowed and crashed.’
Yet on that porch it stayed quiet.
I like what you’re shooting for but this sentence is a dry turd in a pretzel basket. The use of ‘it’ to mean ‘the world around me’ is particularly clumsy and ambiguous. Why are you eliding the narrator from her or his own story? Just write: ‘Yet on the porch, I heard nothing.’ Or just: ‘Yet I heard nothing.’
The tall tide of trees seemed dreamlike. Not that they were in any way the stuff of dreams, but that they were like a dream. Real but for a detail, but for the sound of it all. Real but for something you don’t duly consider until it’s gone.
Ugh. No. Cut. This is awful.
Again, I think the broad intent behind the image is okay, but watching you dig yourself deeper after that initial sentence is so painful that it attains a kind of dreadful majesty.
First off: ‘seemed dreamlike’? So it’s not actually dreamlike, then? It just seems like a dream. But it’s not actually comparable to or reminiscent of a dream. It’s not a dream, and it’s also not like a dream, but it seems like a dream. Is that what you meant, Kenton? Because that’s what you said.
And then the narrator steps in to say: ‘wait! Wait! I fucked up! Let me explain what I meant.’ And then he or she comes out with a stupid distinction that doesn’t clarify the situation at all. Why is your narrator explaining that trees exist in the real world and are not fantastic products of the subconscious? Is this sentence catering exclusively for residents of small island communities with no access to visual media?
‘Real but for’? But for? Who the fuck says ‘but for’? Except insecure drama students who smoke clove cigarettes and try to write plays that shock their rich laissez-faire parents into noticing them? Why is the narrator painstakingly explaining that the lack of sound is uncanny and a bit spookily evocative? You might as well circle all your thematically-charged metaphors in orange highlighter and add a marginal note saying: ‘THIS IS IMPORTANT. THIS IS WHERE I BRING THIS SHIT HOME. THE REST IS JUST BRIDGING PASSAGES OF TEDIOUS SOCIAL REALISM (READ ‘GRITTY, ACUTELY-OBSERVED DOMESTIC DETAIL’) TO APPEASE CRITICS WHO ARE SECRETLY INTIMIDATED BY LITERARY FICTION.’
I have a lot of time for this opening. It’s one of the best we’ve looked at so far. Certainly it contains content to admire. But even so, still you see just how much work is left to do. Writing fiction well is fucking hard, kids. You have to decide how much you love your story, how much you love your readers, and how much you care about getting it right.
Put in the work, and I don’t care whether your story goes on to sell a million copies or languishes on your hard drive, unread – you’re an author. And I consider it a privilege to be in the same business as you.