Death Of 1000 Cuts – In The Barber’s Chair: Things (by Sally)

Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. This week, it’s Sally’s turn In The Barber’s Chair.

If you fancy having the first page of your novel or short story edit-bombed, send it to me (250 words max) via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. Just title and text in the body of the email please, no explanatory blather. This blog can’t exist without fresh stories to work on, so thank you to everyone who has submitted so far. I hope my comments have been helpful.

Usual rules apply, gang. Read the extract below, collect your thoughts on what works and what doesn’t, then read my reaction under ‘The Cuts’.

Things (by Sally)

Four days into a new year, Alfie Pleasance starts his semi biographical novel before the milk man has started his rounds. He types fast and hopes himself to be drunk enough to find the Dylan Thomas he’s sure lurks within him. Late to bed, rather than an early riser, Alfie types fast, punching the keys with career receptionist speed and accuracy.

His mind is drunk, his fingers are not.

‘Out at the edge of the world, the sea caresses the walls built against it. It knows its own power, of salt and tide and roar, of ebb and current. It knows that it could crush and breach and swarm the hands that aim to hold it back. The threat always hovers over this little town at the edge of the world. The sea has won the battle before, taking children, cars and blooming flower pots with-‘

Alfie stops typing. His face floats pallid in the dishwater swill of a winter dawn. Four days unshaved, unwashed, barely moved. Each muscle in his body stretches in an unnatural taut line, youthful wiriness straining under a layer of age and paunch. Suze’s note sits folded on the white bedside table, almost blending in but for the network of creases several hundred re-reads have created. His bloodshot eyes fix on it, wishing it out of existence; a telekinetic reset to a week ago. He reads over what he just wrote, highlights it all and deletes. “Utter bollocks.”

The Cuts

Things is a rubbish, lazy, vague title. Go the whole hog and call it *fart noise*.

Four days into a new year, Alfie Pleasance starts his semi biographical novel before the milk man has started his rounds.

This is such a risky first line. In some ways I want you to submit this to every agent and editor in the world – we could solve the world energy crisis, if only we can find a way to harness the tremendous power generated by all those rolling eyes.

I mean, look – I accept that if you’re writing metafiction you shouldn’t dig your toe into the carpet and act all coy. You’re going to have to cop to it sooner or later.

But by foregrounding the gimmicky elements of the novel in the first line, you threaten to swamp character and plot under concept. Even highly conceptual novels, like Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual – where every page is governed by Oulipian constraints and the chapter locations decided by the imaginary passage of a knight across a chessboard – is rich with story and character. The concept acts as an organising principle for a succession of micro-narratives, which nonetheless build into the tragicomic story of eccentric Englishman Bartlebooth.

Do you mean ‘semi biographical’? It’s not clear whether that’s a deliberate joke, or whether you mean ‘semi-autobiographical’. After all, you wrote ‘milk man’ instead of ‘milkman’, so it’s hard to tell what is a typo and what is a conscious step sideways.

Also, where’s the tension in this line? Where’s the hook? What makes us want to read on?

Cut the subclause ‘four days into a new year’. We don’t need to know this so early, if at all. Don’t open your story with such neutral, mundane information. It’s like kicking off with ‘While wearing a red jumper,’ or ‘A week after eating a Muller Fruit Corner’.

He types fast and hopes himself to be drunk enough to find the Dylan Thomas he’s sure lurks within him.

Satirically, this is way too broad. He’s writing a wanky novel but – uh-oh! Guess what readers? He has delusions of grandeur!

You need to find some way of confounding our expectations. I read this sentence and I have zero motivation for reading on. What possible tension could there be? Am I supposed to be thinking, well, holy shit – maybe he will find the Dylan Thomas he’s sure lurks within! I can’t wait to find out!

We know he won’t. You might as well show him having an unproblematic bowel movement while playing Candy Crush on his phone.

Late to bed, rather than an early riser, Alfie types fast, punching the keys with career receptionist speed and accuracy.

Thanks for the reminder that he’s typing fast! I couldn’t remember it from the previous sentence on account of the massive stroke induced by pure boredom.

I like the ‘late to bed, rather than an early riser’ detail. It’s simple, and it feels like it has the inklings of pathos – and, frankly, if you can’t make us care about this dude, you’re fucked. Maybe this was just the moment where I was like ‘oh hello, I recognise this from my own life’, but it didn’t feel try hard, just a small, believable detail – and more obviously and immediately relevant than how many days we are from New Year.

I don’t see how Alfie’s ‘speed and accuracy’ are remotely pertinent or compelling. I daresay his posture is excellent and he’s cleaned his teeth too. Who gives a postmodern fuck?

‘Out at the edge of the world, the sea caresses the walls built against it. It knows its own power, of salt and tide and roar, of ebb and current.’

This is not bad enough to be interesting. It’s slightly less than fine. The cadence is nice, the content is mediocre. There’s no character or plot, just a dollop of blah style.

Two paragraphs in and you’re like: ‘Welp, *cracks knuckles* reckon I’ve built up enough goodwill to spunk a few sentences on the sea, which, by the way, is not present in the scene except in the imagination of my protagonist.’

That takes some chutzpah! Unfortunately, when it comes to writing novels, chutzpah is necessary, but not sufficient. The homeless guy who showed me one of his huge bluish testicles then asked for a quid had chutzpah. I somehow doubt he’s the next David Foster Wallace. Although he did look a little like a pissed John Updike.

Alfie stops typing. His face floats pallid in the dishwater swill of a winter dawn.

Who is observing this? Up until now you’ve stuck to Alfie’s interiority, more or less. We’ve had access to his thoughts, his hopes, his inner state. Now we’re lurching outside him to look at his face.

Choose either ‘dishwater’ or ‘swill’. The two words work at slightly cross purposes and obscure what could be a nice image (perspective issues aside).

Four days unshaved, unwashed, barely moved.

We’re still operating within cliché territory here, but at last we get the first stirrings of a conflict. This is the point at which the mentioning New Year becomes tangentially relevant.

Suze’s note sits folded on the white bedside table, almost blending in but for the network of creases several hundred re-reads have created.

Whammo! Holy shit – what’s this? It’s a New Year’s fucking miracle! A story!

Recast this as two sentences. I don’t know what you were thinking with that ‘almost blending in but for’ snarl of connective tissue in the middle there, but please don’t do it again. It’s horrible. I’m assuming no one has a revolver to your head, bellowing: ‘Use as few sentences as possible, or so help me God…’

First sentence:

Suze’s note sits folded on the bedside table. Or Folded on the bedside table sits Suze’s note. Which has the advantage of leaving the most interesting information till the end of the sentence, but is a little less elegant.

Second sentence:

It’s creased from rereading. Or It’s mapped with creases from rereading.

‘Have created’ is a dull way to close the sentence. You’re finishing up grammatical housekeeping while the main business of the line is already out the way. And no need for ‘hundreds’ – that just feels like you’re reaching. Exercise a little more restraint.

His bloodshot eyes fix on it, wishing it out of existence; a telekinetic reset to a week ago.

See, ‘bloodshot’ is hacky and also another POV slip – in those first two clauses, we jerk between external, observing his eyes, and internal, Alfie’s wishing. Pick one – I’d suggest the internal narrative.

Also, cut ‘telekenetic’. It sticks out like a shortwave transceiver on a donkey, and it’s just as useless.

He reads over what he just wrote, highlights it all and deletes. “Utter bollocks.”

Erk! This may come perilously close to the reader’s actual experience of the extract. But nice to know that prose deemed unworthy even by the fictional character who wrote it is nonetheless good enough for your readers, the luckless sods.

Look, Sally – the mystery part, the hook of the note from Suze, that’s good. Presumably he’s been dumped and he’s now investing all his self-worth (and possibly his hopes of winning her back) in his novel. I can relate to that! It doesn’t end well. But it’s interesting and believable. On the other hand the note might contain something entirely different, but equally compelling. The point is, you’ve raised a question, and we have a reason to go on reading.

The metafictive elements, by way of contrast, are doing nothing. No, that’s not quite true. They are actively spoiling your story. It is so, so risky to include your own character’s novel in a novel – or even to have a writer protagonist at all. Even at their absolute best, such stories are wide open to accusations of self-indulgence. At this stage in the narrative, I don’t see why we need to read Alfie’s actual writing.

You know, you might get a lot out of reading George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which follows a tragicomic protagonist as he tries to write the poem that will finally garner him critical recognition and lift him from the drudgery of working in a bookshop, where he sneers at the patrons and their ostensible vulgarity. I think it’s a wonderful novel, but to me, one of Orwell’s big achievements is to give us snatches of the – not very good – poem that the protagonist, Gordon Comstock, is working on, throughout the novel. It sounds clunky and a bit laboured – sometimes comically so – until, when Comstock hits his lowest ebb, we read the poem in full. Nothing’s changed, but knowing what the piece means to him, and the disappointment and bitterness it expresses, it suddenly gains an emotional intensity that is very affecting. I don’t mind telling you that, towards the end of the novel, I cried.

I’m not castigating you for not reaching the standard of Orwell, just suggesting that the novel might serve as a good model or spark some ideas. Always, always seek out novels that sound as if they’re covering similar territory to your own. Some aspiring authors react with horror, claiming they don’t want to be ‘influenced’. Guess what, fucko? You’re being influenced all the damn time. Take control of it, and take responsibility for it. Make it a conscious process. Learn.

Ungh, yeah… freestylin’. Sorry, just busting some fresh jams there. If you’d like to read a book containing zero off-the-dome rhymes, but plenty of award-winning thoughts about writing, suicide pacts and Richard Madeley, treat yourself to a copy of my book, We Can’t All Be Astronauts. Click the link and a person will carry it to your actual house.

Want more writing tips? Death Of 1000 Cuts is here to serve.