Hey friends, and welcome to another Death of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Please share this blog with your friends, tweet about it, post about it on forums and on your website, make general noise. It’s a quick and easy way to spread the word and I really appreciate it when you do.
If you want to submit the first page of your novel or short story, please read the submission guidelines.
If this is your first time, here’s how the blog works: read the extract below, decide what you like and don’t like about it, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
The Messenger Of Black Park (by Gary)
Black Park is my city. I even know who built it, how he built it and why he built it that way. It was my grandfather. He was the lead architect and city planner. I don’t know if he did it on purpose, but the way he built the city got me one hell of a job.
I guess I was a messenger, or a deliveryman. I’m not quite sure what my job was exactly, all I knew was that I got from Point A to Point B the fastest way possible, without getting tagged by the T-Corps. The trafficking policemen, they gave me a pretty hard time. I guess it’s not their fault, they had to. The only reason we had them was to stop Body Bombers from getting into the city and blowing grannies to smithereens. I don’t think I was carrying bombs. Whatever I had, they always told me to keep away from the T-Corps.
The T-Corps was the best enemy possible for me. They kept me on point, kept me hard on my job. Whoever set them up had decided to give them rubber bullets. So it was me with my skill and cunning versus them with their brute force and numbers. This is where I have to thank old gramps. To get past them, I used the roofs and the alleys. Roof to roof, running top speed, and sweating like a dog in the summer; that was my job. On my off days, I’d so some rooftop exploration on my own, mapping out new routes and learning new tricks. Somedays I’d just sit on a wall and watch the people go by.
Black Park is my city.
This sentence is… unshit. Simple, declarative, introduces a protagonist and a milieu. *narrows eyes* Proceed.
I even know who built it, how he built it and why he built it that way.
Skerp! Your go-kart overshoots the first corner, flips over the tyre barrier and dumps its driver into a dumpster full of discarded medical sharps.
Why ‘even’? That implies he’s already made an impressive statement upon which he’s building. Cut it.
A three-point list is a nice rhetorical device but it doesn’t excuse you from supplying content. We have no reason to suspect that these three things are remarkable. Are they not common knowledge? If not, it would be better to open with: ‘Black Park is my city. I know its secrets.’
The one thing that can be said for this sentence is that it – however clumsily – introduces mystery. I can’t wait to see how you’re going to spin out this compelling enigma, drawing the reader through the next fifty pages with the promise of…
It was my grandfather.
Well that’s the sole mystery of this novel put to bed. I guess we can safely stop reading and go back to staring at the horizon, waiting for death.
He was the lead architect and city planner.
Um, I think you just said this in the previous sentence. Why is this important now? Don’t you have a story to be getting on with?
You do realise your reader could be spending this time wanking, right Gary?
I don’t know if he did it on purpose, but the way he built the city got me one hell of a job.
‘I don’t know if he did it on purpose’ – then don’t tell us. I don’t know if Gary Wilmott likes lemon Pez, but you don’t see me farting on about it. Is this a novel or a lecture on epistemological relativism? If narrators listed everything they didn’t know, we’d have no literature, just infinite reams of irrelevant negations:
It was a cold, bright day in April, and I don’t know whether horses menstruate.
I don’t know if you should call me Ishmael.
Hmm. Actually both of those are pretty ace. Perhaps… LITERATURE IS WRONG?!!
I guess I was a messenger, or a deliveryman. I’m not quite sure what my job was exactly
Your narrator sounds like an elderly man who’s just struck his head on a cupboard. He qualifies this sentence to death.
This sentence needs to be four words long: I was a [specific noun]. ‘I guess’, ‘or a deliveryman’, and ‘I’m not quite sure what my job was exactly’ are all hedging phrases that undermine the main clause and reduce the sentence to the most blandly tentative of statements.
Why would he be unsure? Is he an idiot? He’s a fucking COURIER.
all I knew was that I got from Point A to Point B the fastest way possible, without getting tagged by the T-Corps.
Your narrative is going from Point Meh to Point Blah in the dullest way possible.
This is all abstract waffly cliché. The only hint of specificity is the sudden introduction of the ‘T-Corps’ – aside from the final few words, he could be talking about any number of jobs, in any number of time periods, in any number of locations.
See, this is a missed opportunity for world building. Instead of having your narrator talk in generalities, using the unevocative cliché ‘from Point A to Point B’, give us some crunchy detail, some street names:
I was a courier. Carrying what to who, I didn’t ask. I wasn’t the most inquisitive guy. But if you needed to get a parcel from Raudive Avenue in the northwest of town to the Zenner Turnpike in the south, I was the fastest.
This is pretty standard territory, genre-wise. No need to spend time fleshing things out. We’ll learn about Black Park as we dive into the story, which must be about to start, right?
The trafficking policemen, they gave me a pretty hard time.
Because you needlessly define familiar terms? This is a colossal failure of nerve. There is literally a single full stop between the introduction of the term ‘T-Corps’ and the narrator stepping in to provide a layman’s definition. It’s so ham-fisted that you’ve even included the plural pronoun straight after, so it sounds like a bad pastiche of foreigner speaking English.
Strong, convincing SF relies on the introduction of a specialised lexical set that the reader must decode through context. I’m not sure that ‘T-Corps’ is a glowing example of plausible future-speak (the etymology is a bit obvious) but immediately intruding to explain its meaning is a guaranteed way to make a bad thing worse.
Well look, at least you’ve introduced this antagonistic, authoritarian force working against your protagonist, dogging his every move, threatening his life. The intense loathing he must feel towards them will provide ample fuel to power your novel through its next…
I guess it’s not their fault, they had to.
Why, every time we get a hint of conflict, to you step in to squash it? The reader isn’t an hysterical Victorian woman on bed rest. You’re allowed to excite us. It’s kind of your job, Gary.
The only reason we had them was to stop Body Bombers from getting into the city and blowing grannies to smithereens.
Who could your narrator conceivably be talking to who wouldn’t know what ‘Body Bombers’ are? Again, I’m not convinced by the term – the derivation is too obvious – but isn’t it the kind of thing he’d drop casually into his story, assuming everyone knows what he means?
‘grannies’ feels like a weird tone shift. You move instantly from Neuromancer to the Beano.
But aside from all the stylistic quibbles, why are we still trapped in this godawful potted history? Where’s the narrative present? Where’s the ‘now’ of your story? Where’s the living, breathing narrator, in a situation, facing conflict?
I don’t think I was carrying bombs. Whatever I had, they always told me to keep away from the T-Corps.
Oh for Christ’s sake. Who fucking cares? He’s carrying suspicious packages, we get it. You’ve already told us he has to do his job ‘without getting tagged by the T-Corps’. Why are you telling us again, within the same paragraph?
The T-Corps was the best enemy possible for me. They kept me on point, kept me hard on my job.
I like the second sentence. The first one is a vaguer version. Cut ‘was’ up to and including ‘They’, revised as a single sentence.
Whoever set them up had decided to give them rubber bullets. So it was me with my skill and cunning versus them with their brute force and numbers.
Why are you telling us this in summary? Why aren’t we starting the story by watching the narrator sprint across rooftops, rubber bullets pinging off brickwork (maybe one even clips his ribs), outwitting this quasi police force (who we’d actually get some physical description of), doing all his fancy-pants parkour between buildings, a mysterious package clutched under his arm/attached to his belt/tucked inside a backpack.
Did you think that when writers said ‘show, don’t tell’, they were being sarcastic?
Gary, they were not being sarcastic. They were trying to help you.
This is where I have to thank old gramps. To get past them, I used the roofs and the alleys.
Thanks gramps! What a wild-eyed visionary urban planner you were, putting roofs on buildings.
And alleys? Whoo boy! Who would have thought to include alleys in a city? Noteworthy, intrinsically interesting stuff, to be sure.
FYI, Gary, that was an example of a writer being genuinely sarcastic.
Look, I appreciate that what you probably mean is that the design of the city is such that the rooftops are unusually close together and of a more or less uniform height, and thus conducive to his traversing them, and that there are an unusual number of alleys.
It’s not exactly clear to me why the authorities wouldn’t have taken this into account and adjusted their tactics accordingly – are you suggesting that they still travel up and down the roads in conventional vehicles, shaking their fists impotently whenever some criminal mastermind has the crazy notion of entering one of the abundant alleyways, or climbing onto a roof? Isn’t this in the future? Don’t they have helicopters and thermal imaging?
And look – this guy has to deliver small packages, right? Option one – sprint conspicuously from rooftop to rooftop, sweating, repeatedly drawing the attention of the T-Corps. Option two – put the package in your bag or up your jumper and walk through the city like a normal person.
Which do you think is the more sensible option? I mean, I get it – you want your protagonist to be caught up in this high octane Mirror’s Edge meets Johnny Mnemonic life of cat-and-mouse urban runs and spiralling conspiracies.
On the other hand, your protagonist is a fucking imbecile. He might as well be trying to cross the city in purple hot air balloon. Running across the rooftops is such a stupid, transparently ineffective solution to his problems.
Is this a police state or isn’t it? I mean, perhaps, if – on the ground – the city was a crazy dystopian hellscape, the authorities’ reach only hampered by corruption and a lack of resources, then I might be able to see why crossing the rooftops (at night, presumably) would be the safest out of a suite of deeply unsafe options.
But we’re told that the T-Corps are basically decent folk just doing their job, that they only use rubber bullets, and that when he isn’t couriering the protagonist is perfectly free to flounce about the rooftops finding new routes or just people-watching. As if he wouldn’t be instantly familiar to the authorities with whom he has – presumably – had dozens of run-ins.
Gary, it’s cool that you’ve tried to come up with a cool setting and scenario. I understand your enthusiasm for this world.
You have two central problems – one of style, one of content. Stylistically, this first page sucks because it’s all backstory. It’s mostly telling, and you don’t locate a narrative present. You don’t engage our senses. There’s nothing gripping or experiential.
Content-wise, this first page sucks because your imagined city doesn’t work on its own terms. Based on what he tells us, your protagonist is not making rational choices – just ones that serve your idea of what would be cool. On top of this, there’s no immediate conflict, just a broad setting which offers the possibility of conflict.
These problems deliver a one-two combo of who-gives-a-shit. The good news is, it’s rectifiable.
Give us that scene, in the narrative present, where the narrator’s running from the law across the rooftops, clutching a mysterious package. You’re not allowed backstory. You’re not allowed to pause the action to explain about ‘old gramps’. Engage our senses – all of them. I want smells, noises, the taste in his mouth.
We’ll learn so much more about Black Park, the narrator’s job, and the nature of power in your fictive world if you just throw us into a scene. More importantly, we’ll care. Instead of just dumping information in our laps, you’ll be snaring us with questions: who is this guy? Why are these other guys chasing him? Where is he? What’s in the package? Is he going to be okay? Where did he learn these sweet moves?
Unanswered questions are what keep readers reading. Use them.
If you enjoyed this, and you’d like to reward me while taking our relationship ‘to the next level’, why not order my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts?
If you’d like to know what I’m up to and when I’ll be appearing live in your area, sign up to my monthly mailing list.