Death Of 1000 Cuts – In The Barber’s Chair: The Last Day (by Frederick)

Welcome to another edition of Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. This week, it’s Frederick’s turn In The Barber’s Chair. As always, read the extract, then my cuts beneath. You might find you disagree with what I had to say! If so, please do add your two penn’orth in the comments below.

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The Last Day (by Frederick)

00:00

The television cast an artificial glow into the room, dipping and strengthening, the colors morphing into the wall; sounds of sirens projected from speakers merged with red and blue flashes that scarred the bleached cream painted ceilings before fading once more.

He sat in the corner, hidden behind a damask of shadows, letting his eyes fixate on the flickering screen, the sirens took hold of his attention; the room plunged into a sudden darkness: the camera focused on the remains of a building smoldering and smoking, embers glowing through broken windows. It quickly changed to the view of a blonde haired woman standing in front of the scene, her eyes looked tired as she held her microphone, speaking fast but pronouncing every word expertly.

“This is the fourth arson attack in two weeks to strike this usually quiet neighborhood, the town’s police still have no information as to the who and the why behind these crimes. Stay tuned for more information.”

The camera turned to the property once more, revealing a burning American flag wavering in a dull breeze.

He looked away from the television and towards the couch; a slumped shadow sat motionless, double chin resting on belly, a small wisp of smoke rose from it’s hand. He looked at the shape for a while, watching a shaking hand rise to desperate lips, the consequent exhalation of smoke and mouthful of beer, and the return to a motionless lump staining the room.

A small beep broke the silence between the news program and the advertisements; he looked down at the small black Casio hanging like a noose from his thin wrists.

00:28

He rubbed his eyes and rose from the carpet, noting there were some new stains since last time he checked. The shadow on the couch still did not move, he walked tenderly to the hall, rubbing his aching legs as he went; he paused and leant on the doorframe facing into the abyss of the television room. He took a breath.

“Night Dad.” Silence. He didn’t even know why he waited for a response anymore, he turned and clambered up the stairs, hearing an empty can of beer miss it’s target of the trash can that sat in the corner of the room.

He liked upstairs; it was his domain. A floorboard creaked under his bare feet as he turned the knob on a solid door, walking into his bedroom; the only room in the house to refrain from disarray, where the stench of spilled alcohol and cheap tobacco did not fill the air with his father’s musk. He stood and admired the tidiness of his project; his bed stood in the corner, made perfectly, his pajamas folded on top of his pillow; a small lamp and a Rubik’s cube were on top of a small dresser, he smiled, walked in and picked it up. He sat on his bed and pulled a small box from underneath it, taking out a record player and putting it on the windowsill, blowing a record before carefully placing it on the spike. His fingers held the needle for a second of silence before dropping it down, filling the room with the beloved crackle before Mozart’s Requiem began.

He changed into his pajamas and lay on his bed, listening with his eyes closed, his hands familiarly completing the Rubik’s cube.

The Cuts

The television cast an artificial glow into the room, dipping and strengthening, the colors morphing into the wall…

Oh boy. What an opening. No characters, no conflict – but look! Here are some amorphous blobs of light moving on a wall! Somebody stick Dark Side Of The Moon on the stereo.

This dreadful tendency to pad the start of novels with acres of nondescript ‘mood-building’ comes, I suspect, from watching TV shows and movies where bland, dialogue-less openings are used as a delivery system for the credits. Please, do not do this.

The TV’s not even doing anything out of the ordinary! It’s just on.

sounds of sirens projected from speakers merged with red and blue flashes that scarred the bleached cream painted ceilings before fading once more.

Right. This is more dramatic, I grant you, but why are you showing us an exciting event via an imaginary TV? Why keep us at one remove? You do realise you can actually just place us in the scene with the sirens, right?

Also – I grieve at the severe comma-famine plaguing this sentence. ‘sounds of sirens projected from speakers merged with red and blue flashes that scarred’? I feel actually nauseous rereading that. Trying to parse it is like trying to find a laptop password in the cell-wall scrawlings of a lunatic.

Why do we need to know the sounds of sirens ‘projected from speakers’? Are you honestly expecting to encounter readers who don’t understand how sound gets out of a TV? You’ve got such a mess of verbs in this sentence, some in adjectival roles – as in ‘bleached cream’ and ‘painted ceilings’ – that it feels like a chore to get through. It’s like you’re desperately trying to wring significance out of this utterly banal scene. The overwriting only emphasises how dull it is.

He sat in the corner,

Finally. A human! They’re all the rage in fiction these days.

hidden behind a damask of shadows,

Oh fuck off. This is a dude in a room, not The Death Of Socrates. Don’t be so pretentious. It smacks of a lack of confidence in your content.

And hidden from whom? I don’t believe this ‘damask of shadows’ would hide him, in any case – and by what mechanism is it being cast? Is he watching TV through a doily?

Damask of shadows. Tower of bullshit, more like.

letting his eyes fixate on the flickering screen, the sirens took hold of his attention

‘letting his eyes fixate on’ – where I come from, we call that ‘watching’.

Secondly, these are two unrelated clauses linked by a comma splice. Ugh. You’re breaking my heart, Freddie. Separate them with a full stop.

the camera focused on the remains of a building smoldering and smoking, embers glowing through broken windows. It quickly changed to the view of a blonde haired woman standing in front of the scene, her eyes looked tired as she held her microphone, speaking fast but pronouncing every word expertly.

Why are you making us sit in a room, watching TV with a motionless, completely anonymous man? Why are you describing a news report shot for shot? You are not playing to the strengths of the novel as a medium. It’s like seeing someone try to hammer in nails with a marrow.

For Christ’s sake, if you want to write a screenplay, write a screenplay! But don’t describe scenes in purely visual and auditory terms and expect a reader to stick with you.

“This is the fourth arson attack in two weeks to strike this usually quiet neighborhood, the town’s police still have no information as to the who and the why behind these crimes. Stay tuned for more information.”

Another comma splice! Ack. Every time it’s like a hair being tugged from my nostril.

Also, you’ve managed to render this news report generic to the point of implausibility. She doesn’t name the neighbourhood, we don’t get the name of the reporter – she’s just ‘blonde haired’ (incidentally you mean ‘blond haired’ – ‘blonde’ refers to a woman or girl with fair hair rather than the hair itself) – and she closes with ‘stay tuned for more information’ which I have never heard a real journalist say, ever.

She might as well sign off by saying: ‘Coming up next on Exposition-Shitter News – a tepid digest of this fictional world’s backstory.’

The camera turned to the property once more, revealing a burning American flag wavering in a dull breeze.

You know what else wavered in a dull breeze here for the first time? My interest.

I mean, sure, you’re being about as subtle as a Valentine’s dildo slapped onto the desk of a co-worker, but at least, finally, we get some sniff of looming conflict. The burning American flag suggests some form of politicised struggle. And you’ve hinted! You haven’t actually had the presenter say: ‘It is believed the arson attacks are politically-motivated.’ You’ve shown a burning American flag and you’ve encouraged us to draw our own conclusions. Good!

He looked away from the television and towards the couch; a slumped shadow sat motionless, double chin resting on belly, a small wisp of smoke rose from it’s hand. He looked at the shape for a while, watching a shaking hand rise to desperate lips, the consequent exhalation of smoke and mouthful of beer, and the return to a motionless lump staining the room.

The shadow image is a bit clumsy, but I get what you’re going for. I suppose I can’t quite see how it’s possible to distinguish a ‘double chin resting on belly’ in a shadow. But it’s nice that you’ve made an effort to hint at his appearance while staying within his point of view (something you don’t do earlier in the scene).

‘a shaking hand’ is fine, but ‘desperate lips’ is just silly. Show, don’t tell. What the hell do ‘desperate lips’ look like? And how do you see them on a shadow? You’re overplaying your hand here, taking a shortcut so the reader knows ‘this dude is desperate’. We get it.

‘the consequent exhalation of smoke’ is another horribly overwritten phrase. Please, for the love of all that is holy, simplify. Adopting a register like this doesn’t sound writerly. It sounds like sophomoric douchebaggery.

He rubbed his eyes and rose from the carpet, noting there were some new stains since last time he checked. The shadow on the couch still did not move,

Oh holy shit! Wait, so the ‘shadow’ is actually a separate person? This feels less like a cool twist, more like a confusing ambiguity. Scratch what I said above. You need to be clearer right from the start.

“Night Dad.” Silence. He didn’t even know why he waited for a response anymore, he turned and clambered up the stairs, hearing an empty can of beer miss it’s target of the trash can that sat in the corner of the room.

Dialogue. Great! It’s short, it conveys information – this is a father and son. Suddenly, I feel massively more emotionally engaged with this scene. Now we have a relationship, an implied dynamic.

You need to let us know that the father and son are in here right from the start. They’re where our potential locus of interest lies, not in your imaginary TV.

He liked upstairs; it was his domain.

Good. Simple. Straightforward. Reveals a bit of character.

A floorboard creaked under his bare feet as he turned the knob on a solid door, walking into his bedroom;

Again, good. Easy to picture. Engages our ears and eyes. Unpretentious. Feels like a writer in control.

the only room in the house to refrain from disarray, where the stench of spilled alcohol and cheap tobacco did not fill the air with his father’s musk.

And here’s where you shit the metaphorical bed. ‘refrain from disarray’? You sound like an Edwardian village parson. ‘his father’s musk’? No. Absolutely not. Pluck the flouncing artist out of your brain right now and throttle him with his own kimono. All this attempted showboating smacks of desperation.

his bed stood in the corner, made perfectly, his pajamas folded on top of his pillow; a small lamp and a Rubik’s cube were on top of a small dresser,

See, I really like this. Detail. Physical things. They suggest character, but they also help us to believe in your fictional world. The real world has stuff in it. Yours needs stuff too.

And notice how your writing gets considerably less pretentious when you focus on specifics? It’s almost as if – gasp – you’re not having to disguise a lack of content with style! What do you think would happen if you focused on more specificity? I think you know, Freddie. I think you know.

He changed into his pajamas and lay on his bed, listening with his eyes closed, his hands familiarly completing the Rubik’s cube.

And the prize for Worst Adverb Use Of 2013 goes to… well, to be fair that’s a pretty colossal accolade, but ‘familiarly completing the Rubik’s cube’ must have come to the judges’ attention at some stage. Again, this is telling, not showing. You’re stepping in to dig us in the ribs and say: ‘Psst. Guys. In case you didn’t realise, he does the Rubik’s cube every night. It’s kind of how he unwinds. He finds it therapeutic because his dad is an emotionally-detached slobby asshole.’

WE GET IT. Shut up.

Overall, this extract starts bad but gets better. I really think you have the makings of an able writer, Freddie – there are good sentences in here, you just need to build up your confidence, keep your language as simple as possible, and stop going for the showy, clunky jawbreakers.

Really imagine each location. Make notes for yourself, if it helps. Engage the reader’s five senses. Go for crunchy specifics over vague generalities. Structure your scenes around human conflict, not static portraiture. Play to the strengths of the medium. Make us believe.

‘I want more Death Of 1000 Cuts!’ Here. There’s a bunch. Tuck in, chuckles.

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