Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This week we’re putting another aspiring author’s first page in the barber’s chair. If you feel your work could do with a similar trim and you’re not afraid of a little honesty then please submit via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. I love getting new submissions! 250 words max, just the title and the extract please. By submitting, you’re giving me permission to publish the piece on this blog forever, and also accepting that I will engage with it in a robust manner, to help us all advance our self-editing skills just a smidge.
If you have any particular questions about editing or writing fiction, please don’t hesitate to send them to me via the same link. I’d love to include some reader questions in future Death of 1000 Cuts posts.
As always, read the extract below, formulate your own opinions on what does and doesn’t work, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.
The Sniper (by Fred)
From a bell-tower roost one hundred feet above the city, the sniper lay in wait for his prey. It was late evening, the scarlet and magenta hues fading into darkness as the night came alive. However, the fighting raged on, and distant gunfire intermittently broke the twilight ambience. Smoke rose into the sky, dark pillars against the lights and fires of the war-torn city. None of it mattered to the sniper.
He focused his attention on one street across the river – one intersection – in particular. Any moment now, an enemy general would be crossing it with a military convoy for the last time in his life. The general’s route would be directly perpendicular to his line of fire from the bell tower, intersecting with death for about ten seconds.
The sniper breathed in the chilly night air, its icy breeze blowing across his exposed face. None of it mattered to him – he was warmly dressed after all. Clasped in his hands, stock rested on right shoulder, was a scoped Mosin-Nagant, through which he viewed the intersection. A handy rifle for times like these. Clean puncture, little mess. One shot, one kill. His right index finger rested on the trigger, a hair’s breadth from it delivering death to any unfortunate soul who crossed paths with its
From a bell-tower roost one hundred feet above the city, the sniper lay in wait for his prey.
He ‘lay in wait for his prey’, eh? As if he’s some sort of predator animal and his target is a creature he’s about to kill and consume? Well wowee, my goodness Fred, that’s a pretty handy-dandy analogy you’ve formulated right there. I guess I never considered it that way before. How strikingly apt.
Sarcasm is not the lowest form of wit. The lowest forms of wit are puns and racist jokes. Still, it’s pretty low. And it’s all this hackneyed opening metaphor deserves.
It was late evening, the scarlet and magenta hues fading into darkness as the night came alive.
‘It was late evening’ is sort of fine, albeit bland – a quick way of delivering information. However, in this sentence it’s redundant. We can tell the time of day from the ensuing description. Cut it.
We know scarlet and magenta are ‘hues’ – ‘hues’ is just a word authors chuck in when they’re trying to be tarty. What do you mean by ‘the night came alive’? It’s so vague as to be almost meaningless, and a cliché to boot. Do you mean the city’s lights are coming on? Do you mean the gunfire is increasing as the sun sets? Do you mean a bunch of parties are starting? Perhaps you mean the stars are becoming visible.
We shouldn’t have to speculate on what you were trying to say, Fred. This isn’t the fucking Dead Sea Scrolls. Clarity. Specificity. Come on, son. I know you’ve got it in you.
However, the fighting raged on, and distant gunfire intermittently broke the twilight ambience.
Ding ding ding! ‘Twilight’ and ‘ambience’ in the same sentence! I only need ‘russet’ then I can make bingo.
‘However’ is meaningless in this context. Again, don’t summarise what you’re about to tell us. No need to say ‘the fighting raged on’ then inform us of intermittent gunfire. The latter indicates the former. Show, don’t tell.
Smoke rose into the sky, dark pillars against the lights and fires of the war-torn city.
See, I like this sentence up until ‘fires’. It’s simple, visual, and quietly dramatic. ‘war-torn city’ is another gobbet of foreign correspondent journalese wank. Stop reducing your descriptions to generalised clichés. It’s like writing:
‘DI Trent sipped the scalding coffee while looking back through the interview transcription, a migraine hangover pulsing in the grizzled-but-capable detective’s skull.’
None of it mattered to the sniper.
Then why the sweet creeping fuck are you telling us about it? Why isn’t the third-person limited narration focused on what does matter to him? Why should we care?
And actually, you know what, I call bollocks on this sentence. Of course it matters. It’s directly pertinent to his mission. He wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for this conflict, and how the various battles play out in the wider city may very well impact on when – or indeed whether at all – his target passes within his line of sight. So it matters hugely to him, unless he’s an idiot or crap at his job or both.
He focused his attention on one street across the river – one intersection – in particular.
Any sense of what it looks like? Any details that might locate this within an era, a region? If someone said to you: ‘Picture an intersection.’ Well, it’s not exactly the most redolently evocative statement ever, is it? Clarity. Specificity. Come on, Fred.
Any moment now, an enemy general would be crossing it with a military convoy for the last time in his life.
An ‘enemy general’, eh? Seriously, I’ve staged play-wars with five-year-olds that demonstrated greater authenticity than this. Have you done any research whatsoever? If so, where the fuck is it?
This is so horribly vague. It sounds like a child caught in unconvincing lie. Why not go the whole hog and call him ‘the baddy man’?
The general’s route would be directly perpendicular to his line of fire from the bell tower, intersecting with death for about ten seconds.
See, at least this has the benefit of some specificity. I like ‘directly perpendicular’. It can imagine that, and it’s pertinent to the sniper’s mission. I’m not quite clear why the general’s movements are planned out so far in advance, as if he’s staging a parade, especially in a city where a battle is raging. Surely he’s going to be responding to the flow of battle?
And why would a general be travelling exposed? He’s not the Pilsbury fucking Doughboy on a Macy’s float, waving to the cameras. This is an urban combat zone. There are literally hundreds of positions on every street advantageous to snipers. If he’s pootling along with his upper-half out the top of his tank like Patton then frankly he deserves to get killed so he can be replaced by someone of entry-level competence.
The sniper breathed in the chilly night air, its icy breeze blowing across his exposed face. None of it mattered to him – he was warmly dressed after all.
Then why are you telling us about it? And again, it sounds like it does matter to him, actually. One, because – as you’ve just fucking said – his face is exposed, and the air is cold to breathe in, neither of which are mitigated by warm clothes. Two, I would have thought that the presence of wind would be super-pertinent to someone who is just about to attempt to assassinate someone at distance, via the medium of a bullet. Wind speed and direction are just about two of the most important factors he has to take into account, especially since he doesn’t have a spotter helping him out.
Small style note – you don’t ever get to use ‘chilly’ and ‘icy’ in the same sentence. It’s cold. We get it.
Clasped in his hands, stock rested on right shoulder, was a scoped Mosin-Nagant, through which he viewed the intersection.
No, he viewed the intersection through the scope, not the rifle. I think we can guess the gun is ‘clasped in his hands’. It’s not likely to be ‘inserted rectally’, is it?
It’s nice that you’ve named the gun, and the one you’ve chosen slightly narrows our field in terms of time, although not a lot. This scene could still be taking place any time between 1891 until – conceivably – the present day. Which, to be fair, we probably assumed anyway.
A handy rifle for times like these. Clean puncture, little mess. One shot, one kill.
Erm. If you’re going to do gun-porn make sure you vaguely sound as if you know what you’re talking about. The first sentence is so vague you might as well have written ‘CONFLICT + GUN = GOOD’.
‘Clean puncture, little mess’? Well that’s a function of the calibre rather than the gun itself, I should’ve thought. Why is he bothered about mess, anyway? He’s about to shoot a general through the fucking head in the middle of a military convoy, in a warzone. What, does he hope people might think the general’s just dozed off? I mean, sure, the small calibre probably means the entry wound will be smaller, but the exit wound is still going to be golf ball-sized, at least. I’m assuming he’ll be going for a headshot, right? Not just aiming for the chest and hoping the general isn’t wearing body armour?
‘One shot, one kill.’ Err, as opposed to what? I mean I know the calibre debate rages on, with advocates of smaller rounds citing their better penetration and reduced drop-off over distance, versus the obvious destructive force of heavier, wider bullets, but I’m fairly confident most guns will kill someone in a single shot if you hit them in the skull, with the obvious exception of shotguns.
These three statements are either assertions of ballistic commonplaces or flatly false. I should’ve thought our sniper would be more busy assessing the situation and preparing his shot than blandly editorialising about his weapon.
I don’t have a problem with gun-porn per se. Some readers love it, and sometimes it’s important that you, as the author, cement the authenticity of the piece and assert your expertise. As a reader, I enjoy learning as I’m entertained.
But any information you include must be pertinent, interesting, and in-keeping with the viewpoint character. Imagine writing a novel about illegal street racing where the author takes a similar tack to yours:
Clasped in his hands was the steering wheel of a red Ferrari Testarossa. A handy car for times like these. Fast acceleration, high top speed. It conveyed you from place to place, quickly.
I genuinely suggest you spend some time on a shooting range – and take notes – before attempting to write authentic-sounding rifle literature. Skimming the first paragraph of a Wikipedia article does not suffice.
His right index finger rested on the trigger, a hair’s breadth from it delivering death to any unfortunate soul who crossed paths with its payload.
Then he’s a fucking idiot. Where did he train, the funfair? If the convoy hasn’t arrived yet his index finger is going to be parallel to the trigger-guard, not resting above the trigger, where an involuntary twitch might accidentally discharge the rifle. Aside from anything, holding his finger in that position might result in cramp. It takes a split-second to tuck the index finger back inside the trigger guard. By your own admission, he’ll have a clear ten second window to shoot the ‘enemy general’.
Again, you’re dealing with cliché rather than a properly researched, fully realised fictive world. His finger is hovering over the trigger because that’s what happens in movies – presumably your primary source for this scene.
‘a hair’s breadth’? ‘delivering death’? ‘unfortunate soul’? Why are you employing these trite clichés?
Well, I’ll tell you why, Fred. It’s because you’re unconsciously trying to disguise this sentence’s vapidity and lack of content through puffed-up synonyms. Wanky language aside, what is the sentence actually telling us?
‘He was ready to pull the trigger using his finger, and when he did, any person who got hit with the bullet would definitely be killed.’
Wow! What gritty realism! I feel like a soldier now.
In this first page, we get no sense of this character’s personality. You’ve reduced him to a dull archetype. What’s his emotional reaction to all this? Doesn’t he have any preferences or thoughts that aren’t of the tedious iceman-killing-machine ilk? We have no investment in this conflict. The only way to give the scene some spice, to ramp up the tension, is to make the outcome matter to him.
Look, Fred, writing fiction that doesn’t dovetail neatly with one’s existing areas of expertise is so hard it’s basically not worth it. It requires – at the very least – months of dedicated, smart research. Sometimes years. I say this as someone who has basically spent the last two years writing historical SF. I understand now why white, middle-class writers like to write semi-autobiographical stories about white, middle-class people in dysfunctional relationships. It’s so much fucking easier.
Sure, you can bullshit your way through some moments – it is fiction, after all – but more often you have to know clearly where you are and how your imagined world operates. If you don’t, it will show up in the quality of your prose. You’ll be forced to zoom out, to generalise, to prevaricate, and your narrative will read as vague, lily-livered and clichéd as a result.
Clarity and specificity are harder than they look. My shelves are heaving with reference books that help me add a little focus and colour to my stories. The internet can help sometimes, although it’s often surprisingly hard to get a specific answer. I’m not suggesting you need to make your protagonists obsessive botanists, architects and engineers, who can recognise the make and model of an aeroplane or the precise species of a wildflower, but if we’re viewing the world through the eyes of a sniper, I’d expect that to be reflected in what he pays attention to, how he parses his environment, and his attitude towards his equipment.
Doesn’t he have any pre-hit rituals? Anything recognisably human that might – whisper it – make us give a shit? What does he care about? Why does this matter to him? Simple survival? Are there consequences if he misses? Is this an ideological thing? Is he settling an old score? Is he a weary cynic who half-consciously hopes he’ll screw up and die? Why is your sniper sniping?
To quote Steve Aylett:
‘A sniper is like a genius – it’s not enough to be one, you have to be one at something.’
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