Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. Today it’s time for another installment of In The Barber’s Chair, where we look at someone’s first page then go at it with the scissors.
A while back I asked you to send me the first page of your story or novel. The response has been fantastic – so many of you are up for the challenge! If you fancy a turn in the barber’s chair, send me just your first page and a title – no explanatory blather please – via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.
This morning we’re looking at the first page of ‘The Joined Ones’, by Richard. I suggest reading the extract first, then reading my notes. The purpose here is toning your critical muscles, and learning to read like a writer.
Enough talk. Let’s do.
The Joined Ones (by Richard)
Candy Farrell stretched her arms through the uppermost branches of the Grandmother Elm. The sap oozed through her veins. Down in the dark earth of the taproot, worms squiggled between her toes. Her fingertips were electric as the Grandmother Elm’s leaves busily converted the day’s gathered sunlight into sugar. A mother blackbird rustled in the nest near Candy’s left hand, where four hatchlings slept, as did the family of squirrels who inhabited the dray where the trunk forked near her armpit.
The screen-door squeaked open and slammed shut as Sarah came into the backyard. She stood in the light spilling over the grass from inside and glanced around with her hands on her hips. “Candy!” she called, teasing at the lock of auburn hair that hung loose from her ponytail and now harassed her dusty face. Her legs below her faded denim cut-offs were likewise dust-streaked, and her wrinkled white t-shirt bore a coffee stain.
Candy knew Sarah’s appearance meant she would have to return soon, that she would have to leave the Grandmother Elm, and not just leave it for tonight, but leave it for good before they moved away tomorrow to the town of Archangel, Illinois. But Candy fled from that knowledge. It was too soon. She had things she wanted to speak about to the Grandmother Elm
She tried to imagine Sarah wasn’t there by casting her own thoughts away from the backyard to the miles of countryside that surrounded their bungalow on the outskirts of little Shafton, Iowa. There, she saw the individual veins of each leaf on each stalk of corn to the ends of the field that ran from their property to the horizon. She saw the legs of lightning bugs as their bellies went phosphorescent, and the patterns on the wings of a luna moth. The moon’s craters formed a ridged network she felt she could scrape with her fingertips. A myriad of insects buzzed and flapped in a tapestry of sound that covered the land.
Candy Farrell stretched her arms through the uppermost branches of the Grandmother Elm.
Ambiguity is an overrated quality in first pages. In this opening scene, you are probably being deliberately ambiguous. We’re supposed to be thinking ‘huh? What?’ and you’re hoping our confusion lures us into the story.
There are several problems with this way of thinking. The first is contextual. When we pick up a book in a shop (it makes me heavyhearted to realise this analogy may be quaintly outdated) the author begins borne aloft upon a cushion of goodwill. Knowing that the manuscript has already passed various editorial gatekeepers, we assume – initially, at least – that the author knows what she is doing. If the opening sentence or paragraph, or even page, is confusing, we press on, concluding this ambiguity must be in the service of some greater goal. After all, it’s a published novel.
When you send your manuscript to an agent or editor (or when you self-publish and a prospective reader peruses your first page) you are operating without this buffer zone. If the first paragraph of an unpublished manuscript is unclear, the reader is likely to blame your lack of experience, rather than trusting that you’re still in control. Fatally, he is likely to stop reading.
This means that, in theory, established authors can take greater risks, leveraging their reputation to encourage the reader to persevere through tricky or experimental opening chapters. The promise is: stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this. There’s also an element of the sunk cost dilemma – the reader has forked out for this novel, so she doesn’t want to give up while there’s a chance she might still get her money’s worth.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying: I have no fucking clue what your first sentence means.
What do you mean by ‘through’ the branches? Are her arms weaving around them? Are her arms inside the branches? Saying her arms ‘stretched’ makes it sound like they’re growing like Mr Tickle’s. Why do we need to know that they’re the ‘uppermost’ branches, and why ‘uppermost’ rather than ‘upper’?
The sap oozed through her veins.
Right, first – no need for ‘the’. When you’re editing prose you need to imagine each paragraph as a hot air balloon plummeting towards the ocean. Hunt for every unnecessary component and throw it out.
Secondly, this is still ambiguous. Is she just relaxing in a tree, imagining this? Or is she literally becoming the tree? Remember, even if the reader comes to this knowing the genre, we don’t yet have enough information about the rules of your fictive world to parse this. At this stage, we could be reading:
a) a metaphor – Candy is sitting in a tree, hippyishly imagining its connection with the world
b) a sort of spirit walk – Candy is psychically inhabiting the tree, feeling what it feels
c) metamorphosis – Candy is literally, physically fusing with the tree
What purpose does this ambiguity serve? I can’t picture what’s going on, because I don’t know what’s going on. As a result, the story disappears and I’m left looking at text.
Down in the dark earth of the taproot, worms squiggled between her toes.
See, this specificity and this engagement with our senses are good (touch is an oft-ignored but all-important sense in writing), but what are we supposed to be experiencing here? I understand what ‘dark earth’ is, but that adjectival phrase ‘of the taproot’ is weirdly vague. I think you mean ‘the dark earth surrounding the taproot’ – the former version makes it sound as if the taproot is made of dark earth. Maybe, if Candy has become the tree, what you really mean is:
Down in the dark earth, worms squiggled between her taproot toes.
That’s not quite right either, because the taproot is more analogous to legs than toes, but you see what I mean. The jury’s out on ‘squiggled’ – a bit of a cutesy portmanteau, but appropriate to the character, and pleasingly sensory.
Her fingertips were electric as the Grandmother Elm’s leaves busily converted the day’s gathered sunlight into sugar.
So here there’s a clear separation between Candy’s physical body and the elm’s leaves, but the relationship is still unclear.
There’s an unhelpful ambiguity here – a reader hitting this sentence for the first time might parse the first portion as ‘Her fingertips were electric as the Grandmother Elm’s leaves’, before hitting ‘busily’ and realising they need to go back to the start and try again. You can avoid this through syntax, or rephrasing.
Quick style point – as far as possible, try to avoid constructing sentences where the main verb is a variation on ‘to be’. It makes prose feel static, like portraiture (which might, occasionally, be the effect you’re going for). Favour dynamic verbs that show change, or something acting on something else. In this sentence, after all, you’re trying to show a process.
You could edit the line in a number of ways:
Her fingers tingled with the warm flow of sunlight transforming into sugar.
She felt the rough, veined leaf-flesh in her fingertips, the thousand pinpricks of sunlight transforming into sugar.
Neither of those sentences is great, but you see what I’m pushing you towards. Verbs like ‘tingled’ and ‘felt’ are active – they evoke motion over stasis. I like the stuff about photosynthesis, although I think you could go further, giving us more detail, tightening the technical language.
A mother blackbird rustled in the nest near Candy’s left hand, where four hatchlings slept, as did the family of squirrels who inhabited the dray where the trunk forked near her armpit.
Reading this sentence is like watching a motorbike powerslide through a plate glass window into a neonatal ward. It starts off so well! And it ends so horribly!
That succession of subordinate clauses modify the main clause to death. The killer is ‘as did the family’. It’s as if you can’t bring yourself to finish the sentence, constantly returning, Columbo-esque, to say: ‘Just one more thing…’ You’ve got so many prepositional phrases and pronouns stacked within one another that the sentence feels like a Russian nesting doll – in order: ‘near’, ‘where’, ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘near’. A Russian nesting doll ending in ‘armpit’.
Think about the rhythm of your sentences! As a general rule, try to end with the most interesting bit of information. So for the first chunk of that sentence, I’d suggest the syntax would make more sense as:
In the nest near her left hand, a mother blackbird tended to four sleeping hatchlings.
Normally I’m very much in favour of technical, precise language, when it’s the right word – I think it lends authority to a text and if a reader doesn’t understand they can bloody well look it up and learn something. But ‘dray’ here just confused me. Which is to say, my eye brushed over it and it might as well have been ‘mehhhh’. Yes, it’s the correct word for a squirrel’s nest, but I have no idea what a ‘dray’ looks like. Give us some physical description so that we can picture it, otherwise it’s just a placeholder.
The screen-door squeaked open and slammed shut as Sarah came into the backyard. She stood in the light spilling over the grass from inside and glanced around with her hands on her hips.
Again there’s an unfortunate ambiguity in that second sentence. If the reader hits it wrong on a first pass, it reads as if Sarah is ‘spilling over the grass from inside’ – not an impossibility, given Sandy’s apparent abilities!
This sudden leap to Sarah is bizarre and confusing. What do you mean by ‘light spilling over the grass from inside’? Are we to understand that it’s evening? If so, this is the most roundabout, ambiguous way you could have imparted the information. More importantly, you’re introducing a new character when we aren’t even grounded in the first. In a conventional narrative this would be okay, but you’re trying to get us to understand that your protagonist can mind meld with a tree. For Pete’s sake, give us a chance!
“Candy!” she called, teasing at the lock of auburn hair that hung loose from her ponytail and now harassed her dusty face. Her legs below her faded denim cut-offs were likewise dust-streaked, and her wrinkled white t-shirt bore a coffee stain.
What a mess! Let’s attack this in order.
First, use ‘said’ unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise. We know she ‘called’ because the dialogue is a name and an exclamation mark.
Second, no need for ‘at’ – ‘teasing’ is a transitive verb. Third, no need to specify ‘lock of’ – if there’s enough of it for her to be ‘teasing’ it, which means to comb or card apart, then we know it’s not a single strand of hair (and most people assume ‘hair’ means ‘head of hair’, not ‘single follicle’).
Fourth, ‘and now harassed her dusty face’? No. No no no. ‘Now’ is redundant. ‘Harassed’ is a distracting word that personifies her hair in an unhelpful way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ‘dusty face’ except on a statue. And, if she really has stepped out into the darkness from the light, Candy wouldn’t be able to see her ‘dusty face’ anyway!
Fifth: ‘were likewise’? Again, you’re using static ‘is/was/were’ constructions, and using awkward words that draw attention to themselves, like ‘likewise’, and ‘bore’.
All of this is so unfortunate because, beneath it all, your idea is really cool. And you can do good prose, like here:
She saw the legs of lightning bugs as their bellies went phosphorescent, and the patterns on the wings of a luna moth.
That’s great! Crunchy, specific. It flows nicely. There’s half rhyme and alliteration – ‘legs’/bugs’, ‘bugs’/‘bellies’. You keep the subclauses under control.
A girl who can bond with trees is potentially a captivating viewpoint character, but – and I did say I was going to be blunt – your prose is wretched.
That’s okay – so’s mine! At least, for the first few drafts. The good news is, bad prose is fixable. It’s like clearing out a neglected back garden. It’ll take a lot of elbow grease, but working on it will condition you, building strength. Be kind to yourself (this is not, after all, a referendum on your right to exist) but be brutal on your prose.
As an aspiring author, you can’t get away with taking out a mortgage in your first page. We don’t have any reason to believe you can pay us back later. You need to hit us with down payments right from your opening line. Give us clarity, give us economy, give us story.
Want more? Buy my book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
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