Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. This is a blog about self-editing for writers, readers and the nosy. Each week we take an aspiring author’s first page and put it to the knife, to see if we can’t learn something about how sentences and stories work.
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As always, read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. This is all about developing your self-editing skills so you can write better fiction.
Though Shadows Fall (by Leo)
“It is the 256th year of the eighth epoch of the the Degenerate Era. My name is Jeremy Solan and I am an engineer aboard the Phoenix. We are survivors of the rising tide of entropic collapse; but we won’t be survivors of anything for long if this reactor doesn’t stabilize. There had been a slight impurity in the uranium we’d bought on our last trip to the Core, but it hadn’t been an issue until we’d had to outrun a group of pirates. At 113%, even a tiny bit of lead can wreak havoc in the delicate innards of a hyperfission reactor. In this case, seven of the eight control rods had been severely corroded by the high-energy lead slamming into them repeatedly. I’d already replaced six of them, but the final rod was giving me trouble.
The rod was a ten-foot-long piece of ligor, a lead-iron-gold composite. It weighed close to three hundred pounds, and since all out lifters were out of service, we’d had to stop spinning the entire section of Phoenix to negate the gravity. The reactor maintenance chamber was evacuated, too, for “safety”. I was pretty sure it was just because my super hated me, though. Intravehicular suit work was a pain in the ass – no jetpacks, not even MMUs, for fear of puncturing the hull. I had to manipulate a three-hundred-pound rod, while wearing a hundred-pound EVA suit, without stabilizers. Yeah, safe.”
“It is the 256th year of the eighth epoch of the the Degenerate Era.
Delete the rogue speech mark and the repeated ‘the’.
Now, let’s play a game called Guess The Genre.
If you guessed ‘shitty pastiche of the Star Wars title crawl’, congratulations! You get to live in the 30s and write pulp radio serials, the last time this sort of leaden info-dumping was remotely permissible.
Listen. I like SF. I do not have a problem with SF tropes or fun or big, colourful Space Opera-ish fictive worlds. But this is not a good first line, in any genre.
Who gives a shit what year it is? I daresay the narrator had a nightmare about go-go dancers with faces like shar peis and his last bowel movement required only a single wipe. Just because something is canonically true in your universe, that does not make it worthy of writing down.
Context will soon alert the reader to the fact that this story does not take place on a 1970s council estate in Wigan. You don’t have to come all Portentous Epic Voiceover on us just to point out the obvious.
I’ve said it before – when you rely on info-dumps in SF, you reduce your setting to a series of tropes. Even the best, most original imagined world ends up looking a bit ropey and generic when you strip it down like this. You need to immerse us in a story, and let us experience these things first-hand. We’ll soon figure out what’s going on, and we’ll enjoy doing it.
My name is Jeremy Solan and I am an engineer aboard the Phoenix.
My name is Tim Clare and I am first-officer aboard the HMS If One More Author Calls A Spaceship Phoenix I Swear To God I Will Drown Every Man Woman And Child In The British Isles.
We are survivors of the rising tide of entropic collapse
Again, portentous generic info-dumping. I would love to figure this out from context, later in the chapter, or even later in the novel. What a revelation that would be! What a thing to stumble across, to discover!
And yet how measly it feels when you just lay it on us before giving us any characters we care about or any sort of environmental texture to make it all real. Who is his nominal audience? Who could he possibly be addressing who wouldn’t know (and here I’m guessing) that the universe – or at least their part of it – is on the verge of heat death?
It’s not even very convincing sciency-language. ‘the rising tide of entropic collapse’? That’s so vague. Surely there is some physical manifestation of this that they’re escaping – otherwise he could be describing basically anything. Arguably the three slices of Best of Both in my breadbin currently coated in white-green pinmould are ‘victims of the rising tide of entropic collapse’.
The only ‘entropic collapse’ I see here is the narrator disappearing into the event horizon of his own pseudo-scientific bumhole.
but we won’t be survivors of anything for long if this reactor doesn’t stabilize.
I like that you finally locate a narrative present and give us some mild peril.
Three Demerits for lazy space jargon. ‘if this reactor doesn’t stabilize’? No. Show me a reader that encounters this line and thinks ‘oooh! Convincing technical language!’ and I will show you a credulous simpleton who has spent the last 250 years sealed inside an Alaskan glacier.
You’ve switched from past to present tense here – totally fine, as long as you remain consistent.
There had been a slight impurity in the uranium we’d bought on our last trip to the Core, but it hadn’t been an issue until we’d had to outrun a group of pirates.
Aaaand immediately you switch to the pluperfect. Wrongo, my friend. Ruh-Oh-Ung-Oh.
If events in the present (the destabilized reactor in front of the narrator) are in the present tense, then past events are in the simple past tense. ‘There was a slight impurity’. Easy.
This is dull info-dumpy twaddle, btw. Pirate chase? A bit overdone, but potentially super-exciting… unless you do what you’ve done here, and summarise it. Pretty depressing for a reader to start a book, only to be told: ‘Well gee, you’ve missed the apocalyptic collapse of most of humanity and our thrilling escape from some murderous pirates, but not to worry – you’re just in time to watch me do some Space Plumbing!’
At 113%, even a tiny bit of lead can wreak havoc in the delicate innards of a hyperfission reactor.
I am 113% bored to tears with this crappy jargon. It feels like it’s being ad-libbed by a middle-aged divorcee in a community improv group. And the rest of the group hate him because he always goes big too quickly and dominates the scene and does accents so bad that they border on hate crimes.
And, more importantly, who cares? Why aren’t we getting to see this havoc play out in real time? It’s like, instead of giving us a dramatic car chase through the streets of Paris, you’ve just shot a long, drab scene where a mechanic examines the engine and says: ‘Gosh, they must have been going really fast.’
In this case, seven of the eight control rods had been severely corroded by the high-energy lead slamming into them repeatedly.
‘In this case’ is a meaningless bit of grammatical busywork. Cut it.
Again, you’ve got tense problems here. ‘Seven of the eight control rods were severely corroded by’, not ‘had been’.
I don’t know why you’re so fixated on giving us all this technical detail when you’ve put almost no effort into naming the technology in any sort of resonant, convincing way. You’re not playing to your strengths – it’s like you’ve taken Hard SF’s plodding obsession with explaining the science (a lot of Hard SF short stories feel, to me, like delivery systems for semi-plausible designs of mining spaceships) and combined it with Space Opera’s handwavy quasi-magical tech fudges.
The result is the worst of both worlds – a narrative light on both characterisation and technical rigour which satisfies neither the epic adventure fans nor the legions of spoddy protractor-fanciers.
The rod was a ten-foot-long piece of ligor, a lead-iron-gold composite.
Okay – sort of onboard with this. It feels nicely specific. Indeed, if you cut most of the info-dumping from the first paragraph and just opened with the narrator struggling with the technical challenge, this would be fine as an aside in the second paragraph. It’s a short explanatory note that orients the reader without throwing us too far out of the moment.
It weighed close to three hundred pounds, and since all out lifters were out of service, we’d had to stop spinning the entire section of Phoenix to negate the gravity.
Again, sort of onboard. I get the rough science behind it, and although I still don’t have any sense of atmosphere (what am I supposed to be picturing here? A dark, industrial cargo hold edged with rivets, loading bays marked out in hazard tape? A spotless futuristic lab? Is it big/small? Oppressive/homely?) at least there’s a task at hand.
What do you mean by ‘the entire section of Phoenix’? It feels like there’s an adjective missing, one that should be modifying ‘section’.
The reactor maintenance chamber was evacuated, too, for “safety”. I was pretty sure it was just because my super hated me, though.
I don’t see how the latter follows from the former. Why would having other people standing around watching be beneficial?
Cut ‘just’ and ‘though’ – they’re fluff words. Sure, you can try to justify them as reproducing the chatty redundancies of informal speech. They probably do. But why would you want that in your novel?
Intravehicular suit work was a pain in the ass – no jetpacks, not even MMUs, for fear of puncturing the hull.
I like this. Non-genre readers will be vomiting into their cupped hands, but screw them. This feels fun, immersive. Crucially, it’s specific. I’m not sure you’re any further away from rather obvious, generic territory, but at least now it sounds vaguely authentic. I don’t know what MMUs are and I don’t care – I can make a wild guess via context, but it’s great to have some terms we don’t immediately understand flung into the mix. That’s good world-building. It motivates us to read on. (unless we’re anaemic milquetoasts so coddled by the easy pandering of literary fiction that the merest hint of the unknown gives us nosebleeds – seriously, fuck those guys)
I had to manipulate a three-hundred-pound rod, while wearing a hundred-pound EVA suit, without stabilizers. Yeah, safe.”
I like the first sentence for the same reasons as the previous. ‘Yeah, safe’ is horrible, though. It makes him or her sound like a douchey teen. If you want your narrator to add a sardonic rejoinder, at least make it a clever one.
This extract is not wall-to-wall poo-poo, Leo. Amongst the cackhanded world-building are some nice, reasonably competent-sounding flickers of technical language. You’ve started with a protagonist faced with a problem. You’ve thought about the fictive milieu in which this takes place. Good.
Don’t be in such a rush to blow your expository load. Unless – as I’ve said above – your reader is a complete imbecile, rendered timid by years of drab realist novels about dysfunctional middle-class relationships or middle-class families ripped apart by tragedy, they don’t need you hand-holding them through your world.
Give us unexplained technical language, assume we know the politics and history of your world, and get into the conflict of the present moment. We will pick up the ancillary details later, and when we do, we’ll actually care, because you’ll have aroused our curiosity. Make Your Readers Hungry Before You Serve Them Dinner – what ‘philosopher’ said that?
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