Death Of 1000 Cuts: In The Barber’s Chair – The Key To The Abbey (by Steph)

Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. You know the drill. Read the extract, then my comments below. Thanks very much to Steph for supplying the first page this week. Let’s snip.

The Key To The Abbey (by Steph)

My eyelids were so god damn dry.  They think I don’t know but I heard the scissors earlier as they cut the tape and pressed it onto my eyes, trying to get the perfect fit.  I pretended to be asleep, but in retrospect I should’ve flickered them open just to shit them up.  But I’m too tired for jokes now.

A bearded man all in black sits in the corner of the room, he holds up a fan of playing cards with dirty hoes on the back. What are you doing?  I ask him.  Waiting, he replies.  He never looks up at me, and I place my head back onto the pillow.  I smile because I don’t need to wait, the drugs are already taking effect now and it feels fucking amazing.

I wonder what he thinks of me, with my blue teddy sat by my side.

Teddy’s eyes look downward, I whisper – Why aren’t you looking at me?

Man in corner looks up from his cards and gives me a huh?  Not you, the teddy, why don’t you look at me?  The man shakes his head and resumes his game, my teddy glances at me then at the man, shakes his head also and looks down again.

Fuck you.  I tell him.  I’ve got some strange looks in my time, but not from my own beloved teddy, he was dead to me now.

I start to feel embaressed about my appearance, and think of the fact that I’m wearing no knickers, should I be wearing knickers?  I burst into laughter, can’t stop giggling now, teddy shakes his head in sheer disbelief at my behaviour, I swipe him off the bedside table, for I’m not taking that shit. The man slams his last card down and stands up.

Are you ready now?  He asks me.  I stare at his face for quite some time, until I visualise him on a guess who board game, the one with the bald head who looks like a peadophile.  He starts to become antsy, he scratches his beard, for that’s what I must be focusing in on.  What are you looking at? He says in a defensive tone.

Nothing, I reply, it’s just that you look like the type of guy my mum told me to stay way away from.

In your dreams honey, in, your, dreams, he says with a wink and then leaves the room.  I don’t know what he meant by that, it wasn’t even funny or witty, but I laughed anyway, probably because I felt sorry for him being so god damn ugly and all.  A long time passes, I know it’s a long time because I count how many shadows pass my door, everyone in a hurry, though not to deal with me.  I become bored, so bored that I try and fall asleep, perhaps by some miracle I’ll wake up when this is all over.  Shit, I didn’t call work to cancel my shift tomorrow, but they must know, surely, as it was only my birthday last week.  Sod it.

A little cough underneath my bed can be heard, teddy clears his throat and says – It’s ok I text them before.  I tell myself to ignore him, he hates that, but I find that I can’t and just give him a quick Thanks instead.

Suddenly, Zzzzzz PUH, one light from the ceiling cut out, PUH, and another, PUH, and another PUH… until I was in darkness.  The door opens slowly and a figure stands at the frame.  The figure steps through and shuts the door quietly as they can and starts to creep over to my bed, as the figure looms over me I start to see clearly who it is.  You! What are you doing here? I say to him.  A suit jacket, a bow tie, a bowler hat, a white face and red nose.  I smirk for I have no clue why he is dressed as a clown.  Shhhh I’m gonna get you out of here, he whispers.  He  starts to look panicked
as we hear footsteps down the hall, I raise myself onto my arms. Look you need to get out of here, they’re taking my womb and there’s nothing more to be done I tell him.

The Cuts

My eyelids were so god damn dry.

Totally fine with this as a first line. Odd without being try-hard. Raises a couple of minor questions for the reader: why? And why are you telling us this? Both good.

They think I don’t know but I heard the scissors earlier as they cut the tape and pressed it onto my eyes, trying to get the perfect fit.

Mixed feelings about this one. The pronoun ‘they’ creates some minor confusion since you introduced ‘eyelids’ in the previous sentence – the reader may parse it as ‘the eyelids think you don’t know? Oh, wait, it must be a different “they”…’ before going back and rereading.

On the other hand, it’s great that you introduce a bit of conflict so quickly. Why are persons unnamed taping up her eyes? That doesn’t sound like something a nice person would do! It raises a bunch of questions, it’s unusual. Good.

But what’s this? A third hand? And on the palm of this third hand is written… well, the ink’s smudged pretty badly but I think it says ‘ambiguity = good; sloppiness = bad’ but that second-to-last word might be ‘gloppiness’ so who knows?

My point, Steph, is this: reading on, I get the sense that either our narrator has mental health issues or she (I’m deducing ‘she’ from the knickers and the ‘honey’ appellation, although I accept that I may be jumping to gender-normative conclusions!) lives in a different reality to ours. The evidence on this page – the dude who can’t hear the teddy talking, her scatty emotional state – points to the former, although very possibly she has some latent psychic power that manifests to other people as craziness. Genre still unclear.

My point – which, ah, here it comes, lumbering into view like an implacable rad-zombie – is that just because she has come unmoored from the mundane world, that doesn’t give you diplomatic immunity from woolly, cumbersome prose. If your narrator is weird or struggles to apprehend their environment, you need to keep your writerly shit together.

The reason I’m going on about this is that the sentence in question makes superficial sense, but on a second inspection crumbles like a shitty meringue. Why would the sound of scissors be the giveaway? Why not, you know, the sensation of someone pressing fucking tape into her eyes? I know you’re trying to engage the reader’s senses but your phrasing makes it sound like the noise of scissors was the key piece of evidence, which is confusing.

I pretended to be asleep, but in retrospect I should’ve flickered them open just to shit them up. 

‘I pretended to be asleep’ is a key piece of information! Better to open the previous sentence with ‘They thought I was asleep’. Also: ‘flicked’ them open – ‘flickered them open’ makes it sound like her eyelids are glitching holograms. And finally, note again the unhelpful ambiguity created by multiple values of ‘they’ and ‘them’ in this first paragraph. Pronoun confusion equals foggy, limp prose.

No need for ‘but in retrospect’, by the way – you’re not some sideburned governor petitioning Congress for reparations after the end of the Civil War: ‘and furthermore,’ etc, etc.

A bearded man all in black sits in the corner of the room, he holds up a fan of playing cards with dirty hoes on the back.

At first I thought this was a gardening implements-themed deck. Which would be hashtag bonerific, natch. But seriously, the correct plural for more than one ‘ho’ is ‘hos’. (and I just realised I’m an awful person with fucked-up priorities because I genuinely get more outraged at seeing an erroneous green grocer’s apostrophe in ‘ho’s’ than I do at the crass misogyny of the word)

I actually don’t think ‘dirty hos’ is all that evocative, anyway. Granted, the choice of terminology reveals something about the narrator, but ‘dirty hos’ is another of those terms dragged-and-dropped from the collective consciousness. They’re not exactly Jungian archetypes, but it’s one of those phrases so vague that you might as well write: ‘meh, I dunno – something skeevy?’

Like, if I write: ‘I drew the bolt and opened the door. On the doorstep was a dog in a hat.’

Quick. What dog did you picture? In what kind of hat? Don’t think about it too much, it’s not a Rorschach test.

Today, in my mind’s eye, I saw a Dalmatian in a sombrero. I just asked my wife and she saw a Labrador in a cowboy hat. You probably pictured something different. Sometimes those semantic spaces and that plurality of vision can add huge richness to your text. They create voids which the reader can populate with their own creations. They allow for speculation and mystery and can add a mythic edge to a story.

But most of the time they’re just lazy writing.

I’m not trying to trick you into devoting ten pages to describing, shot by shot, an entire pack of porno playing cards. Although I genuinely do think that could be awesome. Like a completely sexless, analytical description of all 52 women. It’s certainly the kind of quirky cul-de-sac that literary readers enjoy bumbling down from time to time – x-ref the Glass family bathroom cabinet in Franny and Zooey – and one that, executed well, reveals character while doing a little ancillary world-building – x-ref Stevens’ lengthy description of the importance of a good staff plan at the beginning of The Remains Of The Day.

But maybe push yourself to come up with something a little more striking than ‘dirty hos’? At the very least, show, don’t tell. Are the models naked, topless, in lingerie? Is there a theme? What would be an interesting, unexpected property of these porno cards? (I don’t mean that they’re sentient or they cure Legionnaire’s Disease or some shit – just, you know, are all the women pictured holding automatic weapons? Or snakes? Or wrapped around fishing gear? Maybe they’re porno playing cards produced as promotional tools by a pharmaceutical company and they have brand names of psychiatric drugs on the backs, beside the racy ladies? That’s probably too far down the heavy-handed satire route, but you catch my drift) Whatever you choose, describe a couple of the images on the back of the cards and lead the reader to conclude: I say, those women sound like dirty hos!

Anyway, I’ve just spent 500 words discussing the stylistic nuances of porno playing cards. Either my work in the mortal realm is complete and I can assume my true form as a being of pure light, or I need to go hang myself.

What are you doing?  I ask him.  Waiting, he replies.

I don’t like dialogue outside of speech marks. I don’t find it cute, and I find literary fiction’s infatuation with it faddish and superficial. These are my prejudices and I articulate them, in part, to exorcise them.

Maybe in this story this is a sound stylistic decision. Certainly, ambiguity surrounds what is real and what is in the narrator’s imagination. A lack of speech marks helps blur the line between narrative and dialogue. It also means we hear all the voices slightly in her voice. Certainly inflected through her.

On the other hand, I don’t think this effect is watered-down if you start a new paragraph for each new speaker. At the moment it feels a little confusing. Comprehensible, sure, but hamfisted.

I smile because I don’t need to wait, the drugs are already taking effect now and it feels fucking amazing.

Good line! Cut either ‘already’ or ‘now’ – they’re serving the same function. But this is a good reveal at the end of the paragraph. You’re keeping us guessing, advancing the plot while revealing character, keeping the story moving.

I found the shift from past to present tense between the first and second paragraphs jarring. It’s unwise to kick things off in a tense you’re about to abandon. Give us the narrative present, anchor us in now. Later, once you’ve established the pattern, you can move through time a little more freely, but the disjunction between these two paragraphs creates an unhelpful fuzziness that spreads like a wet fart through the rest of the extract. We never quite believe that you’re in control.

I wonder what he thinks of me, with my blue teddy sat by my side.

So is she on a bed? If the teddy is by her side, it is farther down the bed? If so, how can she see its expression? Or is it really by her head, on the pillow?

What I’m saying is your teddy blocking is hella wack.

Teddy’s eyes look downward, I whisper – Why aren’t you looking at me?

Firstly, that comma splice linking ‘downward’ and ‘I’ – *FX: KLAXON* No. They’re unrelated clauses. When you were born, God gave you enough full stops to last your lifetime. Use them. If you must harness these two actions, dig deep into your pocket and retrieve an ‘and’.

Man in corner looks up from his cards and gives me a huh?  Not you, the teddy, why don’t you look at me?

Here’s an object lesson in why disdaining speech marks is a bad idea. The second sentence is particularly hard work. Initially unclear that it’s dialogue, then unclear who’s speaking, then unclear that she shifts who she’s addressing halfway through, the pronoun ‘you’ referring to both the man and teddy within the same sentence.

Ugh. Do not do this. It feels like untangling three sets of headphone cables.

The man shakes his head and resumes his game, my teddy glances at me then at the man, shakes his head also and looks down again.

I can’t quite picture the logistics of where she is in relation to the teddy. She said she laid her head back on the pillow. Also the first paragraph implied she might be somehow restrained, which clearly isn’t the case now. Or is she? I don’t know.

I’m fine with the teddy being alive, whether in her head or actual or some Calvin & Hobbes-ish combo of the two. But I want to be able to fucking see it.

Also: ‘teddy’ = ‘dirty hos’. It’s just a generic placeholder word. ‘blue’ is okay, but it’s like writing ‘the fat man’ then threading your fingers, sliding them behind your head, leaning back in your chair and saying ‘welp, my work as a writer is done’. No. Want us to care about teddy? Want teddy to live for us in the story?

Do your fucking job then! Describe him!

I’ve got some strange looks in my time, but not from my own beloved teddy, he was dead to me now.

Another comma splice sticky-tapes that final clause to the sentence. It’s sloppy. Don’t do it.

But my main problem is with the first two clauses. They’re a bit nudge-wink. You’re overplaying your hand. It’s like you’re desperately trying to alert us to the wackiness of the scenario. You need to play down the strangeness. It will stick up more, and feel more plausible, as a result. Besides which, the teddy didn’t give her ‘a strange look’ – it shook its head and averted its gaze.

I start to feel embaressed about my appearance, and think of the fact that I’m wearing no knickers, should I be wearing knickers?

Putting the ‘embarrassed’ typo to one side, this is good. A striking, unsettling detail that advances character and plot. Makes us wonder what’s going on.

I burst into laughter, can’t stop giggling now, teddy shakes his head in sheer disbelief at my behaviour, I swipe him off the bedside table, for I’m not taking that shit.

Ugh. Stop the damn comma splices! Also, it’s not till now that you specific that teddy is on a bedside table. You locate him spatially the moment after he leaves the space. It’s not enough to retroactively flesh out a scene that the reader has had to feel their way through because of poor description – the damage is already done.

And what’s with the ‘for’? It feels like it’s from the same lexical set as ‘but in retrospect’ – weirdly archaic, awkward, and unconvincing.

Are you ready now?  He asks me.  I stare at his face for quite some time, until I visualise him on a guess who board game, the one with the bald head who looks like a peadophile.  He starts to become antsy, he scratches his beard, for that’s what I must be focusing in on.  What are you looking at? He says in a defensive tone.

I don’t understand why he is surprised at her looking at him after he addresses her. His behaviour feels ersatz and inconsistent throughout this whole scene. I don’t get any sense of a real human being – he seems to lurch from one isolated emotional reaction to another.

I don’t think the Guess Who? reference works. It feels like a dodge rather than a witty cultural allusion. I still don’t know what this guy looks like, just ‘bald’, and ‘beard’. Are paedophiles (note correct spelling) particularly associated with beards?

Also – no need to add that he says ‘What are you looking at?’ defensively. That’s obvious from context and content. It’s like writing: ‘Fuck off you prick! He says in a shirty manner.’

In your dreams honey, in, your, dreams, he says with a wink and then leaves the room.

And now suddenly he’s winking and happy. I totally don’t believe in him as a person.

A little cough underneath my bed can be heard, teddy clears his throat and says – It’s ok I text them before.

Your sentences are collapsing here. First, recast that opening clause in the active voice. ‘I hear a little cough’ rather than the bizarrely impersonal construction ‘can be heard’. Secondly, ‘teddy clears his throat’ is repeating the information in the previous clause. Unless the ‘little cough’ is someone else clearing his throat. Thirdly – ‘I text them’? Is English not teddy’s first language? I’m imagining him with the voice of Manuel out of Fawlty Towers.

Suddenly, Zzzzzz PUH, one light from the ceiling cut out, PUH, and another, PUH, and another PUH… until I was in darkness.

Why have we shifted into the past tense again? Confusing, clumsy, jarring.

Look, overall there are a lot of fun, original elements to recommend this piece. There’s intrigue and a great sense of humour. It’s striking, and I’m not just saying that as some patronising sop. I’m sure everyone who reads it will agree, there’s definitely a spark.

But you cannot get away with a crazy, fragmented narrative unless your prose discipline is military-tight. Unless you are on point with that shit, you’re not building a rollercoaster, just a porridgy mess. I can’t tell what is deliberate mystery, and what is creative incompetence. You need to get on top of your grammar. Don’t abandon the principles of sentence construction and bullshit yourself that it’s somehow freer or fresh or engagingly chatty.

Pick your battles. Don’t try to do everything all at once. Introduce us to a couple of mysteries at a time, and make everything else HD fucking sharp.

When it’s accurate and economical, prose thrives. Save the fuzziness for teddies.

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