Booya and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

Each week we take the 1st page of a writer’s novel or short story and look at ways of making it better. If you’d like to submit a piece of your own work for consideration, please read the Submission Guidelines, and bear in mind the waiting list is currently running at over 6 months. (down from a year)

Oh gosh. So this week I signed off on the final-final-cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die proofs of The Honours. I’m going to have my first ever actual bound novel in my hands in like a fortnight (well, uncorrected proofs, anyway). Squee. Would any of you be interested in hearing about the process you go through when you publish your first novel? Let me know if you are and I’ll write a post walking you through it.

Anyway, you can pre-order The Honours HERE and have it land in your lap the instant it comes out, paffing Nightcrawler-like ex nihilo into existence. Let me know if you’ve pre-ordered it because I’d like the chance to thank you. Not in a sex way. But when you receive the book it is such a Thang Of Beauty™ that your pleasure will have a sexual dimension. Seriously. It’s mad fit.

The last two weeks, in-between checking proofs, I’ve been world-building and planning for my next novel. So, like, the polar opposite of fine tuning and querying misplaced speech marks. Creating stuff on the macro scale is both scary and exhausting. It can get a bit intimidating if you let yourself get caught up in grandiose thoughts of ‘establishing canon’. But once you let go it is INSANO FUN. Oh gosh I’ve been having a blast. Fun writing doesn’t necessarily = quality book, but at least the journey is turning out to have its good moments. Gotta pluck and pickle them in preparation for the inevitable Psychic Hell that lies ahead!

So, you know the drill – read the extract below, consider as you read what you like and what you’re less keen on (and how you’d go about improving it), then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.

The Stranger (by Fin)

The stranger arrived one day out of the rain. His cloak felt heavy with water and dragged in the mire of the road. A small town surrounded by a thin wooden wall loomed ahead. An old wooden sign at the crossroads two miles back had read “Bloomberg.”  He sloshed up to the wooden gate and knocked. There was no reply.

He called out in a haggard voice, “I require a bed for the night. I have coin.”

A watchman appeared at the wooden parapet to call down, “We have no interest in your coin, stranger. Move on.”

“Everyone has a need for gold,” said the stranger.

“Move along or I will call my bowmen to shoot you.”

“You have no bowmen. If you did, they would already be at the walls.”

There was a long silence as the two studied each other through the rain. Somewhere on the horizon lightning flicked across the sky followed seconds later by a boom of thunder.

“We have no room for you. Move along before I have to come down there and kill you myself,” said the watchman.

“You could try,” replied the stranger.

“I have a sword,” sneered the watchman.

“As do I.”

There was another long silence.

“Where are you from?” said the watchman finally.

“Here and there,” replied the stranger.

The Cuts

The stranger arrived one day out of the rain.

I have precisely zero problems with this first sentence, Fin. Me and this sentence are 100% compatible. Like, every time we go for a high five our palms connect perfectly. Some dude will stack it off his skateboard and I’ll say: ‘If man was meant to fly, Mr Wint…’ and without missing a beat this sentence will shoot back: ‘God would have given him wings, Mr Kidd.’ Then we’ll do Bill & Ted air guitar.

Some thundering doucho might judge it a little generic, a little broad, a little trop sur le nez, but I think it is Charmingly Frank. It is a statement of intent. It’s saying: do you want a good old fashioned story? This is not going to be an elegiac literary meditation on the human condition that the author has nuanced to within an inch of its life. Shit will actually happen. You know – like in the books you actually like, not the ones you pretend to.

We have a character, a routine that has been broken, and a little bit of Bulwer-Lytton esque drag n’ drop ambience. In less than 10 words. Good work, Fin. That is some ninja scene-setting.

His cloak felt heavy with water and dragged in the mire of the road.

Oh dear, Fin. Your ninja has done a diarrhoea on his self.

‘His cloak felt heavy’ – right, so the only person who knows that is him, right? And he is not ‘the stranger’ to himself. Because he has met himself before. I mean, unless this is a Momento-esque amnesia caper. So already you have jack-knifed your POV, switching from this outsider’s view of the stranger approaching through the rain (it’s like the perspective of a city guard, watching from the gate tower) to inside the dude’s head.

A fluff this early can be near-fatal. It’s like sidling up to a stranger in a club, saying ‘Hi,’ and smiling winningly, then doing a little fart than smells of sulphur and makes their eyes water. Later on in a relationship, you can get away with that shit – trust me, I’m married. But early on, it rather defines you. You are the Gross Farting Guy. Or, in this instance, Mr I-Can’t-Handle-POV.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with saying ‘His cloak felt heavy with water’, by the way. It engages one of our senses and helps convey mood. It puts us in the scene and encourages us to experience it. It just differs sharply from the tone and distance of the first sentence.

‘and dragged in the mire of the road.’ Hmm. I feel like this reads better if you go: ‘His cloak felt heavy with water. It dragged in the mire of the road.’ On a first pass, there’s that slight moment of hesitation where we read ‘felt heavy with water and’ and we think another noun’s coming – the cloak is heavy with water and something else. Then we hit the verb and it’s experienced as barely a half-stumble, but still – without necessarily being able to articulate why, the reader will probably feel like something’s slightly off. Separating this into its own sentence removes any ambiguity.

I’m not convinced you need ‘of the road’. Remember: try to finish a line with the most interesting bit of information. Front- and endloading sentences takes advantage of the Primacy and Recency Effect, helps your reader retain information, and creates a compelling push-pull momentum that catapults them through each sentence.

‘mire’ is much more interesting and evocative than ‘road’. We’ve probably pictured him on a road already, and it feels like the sentence is finishing up some grammatical busywork as we approach the end, when – as far as possible – you want to try to disguise that inelegant conjunctiony guff in the middle of your lines.

A small town surrounded by a thin wooden wall loomed ahead.

Again, POV Fin!

‘A small town’ is pathetically vague. A weak, broad noun modified with a weak, broad adjective. Yatton is ‘a small town’, for fuck’s sake. Is the stranger arriving at Yatton, Fin? BECAUSE HE MIGHT AS BLOODY WELL BE.

You probably don’t know Yatton but it’s shit.

Can he even see the town? Are roofs and spires visible, rising up behind the wall? If so, why not describe them, give us some specifics? If you mention some buildings, even the slowest of cud-chewing simpletons will conclude that this is probably a settlement of some kind.

If the roofs and spires (or whatever structures – and concomitant building materials – are appropriate for this country, era and world) aren’t visible, then don’t mention the town at all. Show, don’t tell. There’s no need to flag up concepts for us. Just mention that there’s a wall with a gate in it. We’ll guess it’s round a town.

The trope is called ‘A Stranger Comes To Town’, after all – not ‘A Stranger Comes To An Incongruously Fortified Lone Billiard Table’.

‘a thin wooden wall’ is, again, awful. I bet you are a swell person, Fin! This writing does no violence to your inherent worth as a unique human being. It is shite prose, nonetheless.

Firstly, why erect ‘a thin wooden wall’ around a town? Who, exactly, is that likely to keep out? Penguins?

Even fucking Bronze Age forts had mounds of earth or palings made from logs driven into the ground. You’re implying they went to the trouble of sawing wood into planks in order to create a less suitable building material than was offered by the original trees. Unless they’ve unaccountably bound together saplings or something.

If they’ve gone to the trouble of constructing ‘a wooden parapet’ and they have armed guards on watch at night, you’d have thought they’d have tried a little bit harder to create a wall that couldn’t simply be kicked down. How does he know it’s ‘thin’, anyway? Can his eyes penetrate wooden walls and estimate their density?

What I am saying is, your POV game is butt.

An old wooden sign at the crossroads two miles back had read “Bloomberg.” 

Well, crumbs – what an intriguing clue! I wonder what it could have meant…

‘old wooden sign’ feels generic, especially after the ‘thin wooden wall’ of the previous sentence. It feels like you’re setting up that everything in this world is made of wood, like the guard is going to pop his head out and he’ll be wearing a little wooden helmet and will brandish a wooden sword. And this stranger dude is coming to Bloomberg with the technology of steel, and the guards will tell him to go away, and he’ll shrug and say: ‘Maybe it’s more of a Shelbyville idea…’ and then it will be a sweet musical number in the town hall and blah blah Consequences – the end.

I don’t see what greater purpose jumping out of the narrative present a mere three sentences in serves. We don’t need to know the name of this town yet, or if we do – ‘Bloomberg’ feels weirdly modern and out of register, by the way – then you can slip it into dialogue between the guard and this protagonist.

He sloshed up to the wooden gate and knocked. There was no reply.

‘sloshed’ feels out of register. It’s all giggly and fun. ‘Slosh’ is something you do through puddles in red wellies on your way to school on a windy autumn day. Onomato-poor, more like – amirite?

No, Fin. I am not rite. It is spelt onomatopoeia.

Oh Christ – ‘wooden’ again? Hey, did you hear about that author who appended the adjective ‘wooden’ to every concrete noun in his entire story? No – I guess you wooden have.

If that pun made you feel bad then remember that is the sort of pain you’re inflicting on your readers every time you write ‘wooden’.

He called out in a haggard voice, “I require a bed for the night. I have coin.”

‘haggard’ means ‘wild-looking’. It relates to appearance. A voice can’t be ‘haggard’.

If you meant ‘He called out in Haggar’s voice,’ I would, of course, be wholeheartedly onboard.

Mayor Mike Haggar, sometime in the 1990s…

‘I require a bed for the night’? He sounds like a 16 year old trying to buy rum with fake ID. ‘I require one seventy centilitre bottle of your “dark rum”, please Mr Shopkeeper. Why certainly you may see photographic evidence of my adultation. I believe I have left it in the passenger seat of my automobile.’

‘I have coin’ – you might as well have written ‘I have [GENERIC CURRENCY]’ Just invent the name of a currency, for the love of gosh. Or why not just have him say ‘I have money’? ‘coin’ is such a Fantasyland cliché. You couldn’t have a clear marker of genre if a sword-wielding dragon burst from his anus wreathed in photos of George RR Martin.

A watchman appeared at the wooden parapet to call down, “We have no interest in your coin, stranger. Move on.”

Well, look. The ‘wooden’ thing is getting beyond parody now. You know how I feel about that, you have been duly abashed, let’s move on.

The dialogue is flavourless and generic but at least it introduces conflict. We have two (flat, archetypal) characters, and they are at odds. It’s… a start?

“Everyone has a need for gold,” said the stranger.

Sort of an empty parry, here. ‘gold’ takes us deeper into generic Fantasyland territory. But I’d also like to know the emotional tone of this. Is he entreating? Is he being a bit sinister and revealing a venal side?

I don’t know. I’m not asking for a clanging overdetermined dialogue tag saying ‘he entreated earnestly’ or whatevsies, but some hint of how the stranger feels in this moment, even if you hint through an accompanying action, would be ace. Engage our senses a bit more. Make it clear who we’re supposed to be empathising with, and root this exchange in the experience of one character, rather than floating outside of them like this.

“Move along or I will call my bowmen to shoot you.”

Dull dialogue that, again, feels vague and insipid. He sounds like a crotchety old lady fussing at some teenagers to stop sitting on her wall. There’s no threat here and no sense of character.

“You have no bowmen. If you did, they would already be at the walls.”

This does not logically follow (it’s raining, and he’s one man – they might well just be sheltering and would only come out if needed) and why the guard doesn’t just call his bluff or say they’re concealed or simply say: ‘Piss off,’ and disappear back inside the parapet I don’t know.

The guard comes across as very dense indeed for not pointing this out and the scene loses tension as a result.

There was a long silence as the two studied each other through the rain. Somewhere on the horizon lightning flicked across the sky followed seconds later by a boom of thunder.

For the umpteenth time, silence does not exist. Especially not in a rainstorm. They are studying each other as the sound of rain on roofs and parapets and mud fills their ears.

This is very generic – and ‘a boom of thunder’ is nearly silly – but it is clear and it does establish some basic mood. You’ve gone for the most obvious beats, the very first things one might think of when constructing a Grim Scene – rain, thunder, lightning – but you haven’t mangled the prose explaining it, and you know what Fin, that deserves praise, because most people eff it up. It’s harder than it looks, and that’s worth acknowledging, as long as you don’t take that nod of qualified approval as license to not bother trying to make the scene actually original.

And that’s the shit that will help you solve the case.

I believe one person can make a difference. Guess what? You’re that person! Pre-order my first novel, The Honours, now. Clicking that link will send a tiny electrical impulse back through time (which science now understands to be non-linear) to 5-year-old me, sitting with his Winnie-the-Pooh lever arch folder, drawing his first ever story on A4 paper (it was about two men who wanted to cross a river and was called Try It Out) and dreaming that one day his stories would be good enough that other people would want to read them. That electrical impulse will arc across his synaptic pathways and – just for a moment – Past-Me will experience an instant of profound existential wonder at how the universe heard his wish, and granted it.

That one, brief experience of joy will be enough to stop him taking the path of darkness and rising, years later, to become a cackling megalomaniac marshalling his legions of deathbots to grind the West beneath their brass heels. We’ve got to love our frustrated artists, you guys!

Enjoyed this? Chances are you’ll like my award-winning memoir on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.

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