Bonsoir and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
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As always, read the extract below, evaluate it, then compare your thoughts with mine after ‘The Cuts’.
Three Fingers (by Oscar)
Eight hours after consuming a bread roll, Jack shat it out again and as he was doing so considered that the bread roll was the only thing he had eaten for two days. There was barely enough matter for him to shit. Unemployment was something he knew he would suffer as a mime artist, but he hadn’t fully realised it until it had happened.
He wiped and stood up, pulling his trousers and pants over his hipbones and buttoned them. He saw himself in the mirror. The paint on his face was old to the point that he was not sure if it would ever come off. He remembered learning that it could be quite dangerous to prevent ones skin from breathing. Blocking the pores. But the paint had become like a second skin for Jack. It spoke for him.
“It is monstrous that someone must live as I am living. I am an artist.” He thought, then washed his hands and left the bathroom drying his hands on his trousers and his shirt. It was, Jack had to admit, no great surprise that he could find no work as a mime. What work was there for mimes to do? He had tried street performance, but the only money he ever received was thrown at his head.
The cooker was dirty, but Jack had no desire to clean it. He took a knife from the drawer, turned on the hob, cut off his left index finger, roasted and ate it.
Eight hours after consuming a bread roll, Jack shat it out again
As I read this, the surging majesty of Elton John’s anthem The Circle Of Life flooded my breast, and I don’t mind admitting to you, Oscar, that I wept. I wept.
No, obviously not, but I don’t have much a problem with this as an opening line. It’s not exactly dramatic, but it is mildly – albeit crassly – amusing, blunt, and it tacitly introduces a problem.
and as he was doing so considered that the bread roll was the only thing he had eaten for two days.
Super ugly. Try saying ‘and as he was doing so considered that’ out loud. If you wear false teeth, you’ve probably just spat them into your lap. Bowel movements I’m fine with. Lazy, cumbersome prose – ugh. Get that shit away from me.
Always read your work aloud to yourself. It’s not foolproof, and it doesn’t catch every mistake, but it’s a useful filter to pass prose through. The order in which you give us information implies relationships between that information. You don’t always have to add great snarls of unsightly connective tissue to hammer the point home.
Cut ‘and as he was doing so considered that’, replace it with a full stop (or semi-colon, if you can’t live with splitting the sentence in two), and replace ‘the bread roll’ with ‘it’ (God invented pronouns for a reason). Then your opening becomes:
Eight hours after consuming a bread roll, Jack shat it out again. It was the only thing he had eaten for two days.
Clearer, shorter. Job done.
There was barely enough matter for him to shit.
This is repeating information you’ve already told us. Don’t labour the point – especially when you’re talking about pooing, subject matter that is likely to try many readers’ patience. Shock value decays fast. Unless you back it up with actual story, we’re likely to switch off.
Unemployment was something he knew he would suffer as a mime artist, but he hadn’t fully realised it until it had happened.
The content of this sentence is fine – you’re being a bit expositiony, but you’re framing the world of this story and the protagonist’s central problem, so it’s just about justifiable.
The second half of this sentence is ugly as a waxwork bust of John McCririck rescued from a furnace. ‘it until it had happened’ is a horrible little hairball of grammatical words to close the paragraph on. What ‘it’ refers to is woolly. It can’t just refer to ‘unemployment’ – ‘he hadn’t fully realised unemployment until it had happened’? I think what you mean is, he hadn’t appreciated the magnitude and true hardships of unemployment until he found himself unemployed.
Again and again on this blog, I counsel putting the most interesting information towards the end of your sentences. The example above is absurdly frontloaded. You could just cut everything after the comma, but then the sentence wouldn’t be conveying all you wanted it to.
I leave it up to you to figure out a way to close on something more punchy. ‘unemployment’ and ‘mime artist’ feel like the two big wallops of the sentence, and if you could rearrange the syntax to end on one of those, the whole first paragraph would have far more impact.
He wiped and stood up, pulling his trousers and pants over his hipbones and buttoned them.
That last ‘and buttoned them’ is like a kid in a nativity play missing his cue then running on late, panting. Cut it. We don’t need to know the exact mechanics of how he dresses himself – ‘trousers’ aren’t some oblique cultural artefact with a purpose and operation we can only guess at.
Besides, the punchline of this sentence is ‘hipbones’. It’s a sneaky bit of information that emphasises he’s incredibly thin. Don’t bury it halfway through. It’s your finisher.
He saw himself in the mirror. The paint on his face was old to the point that he was not sure if it would ever come off.
That second sentence is a bit of a clusterfuck. Not a whole clusterfuck. Just a piece. A soupcon.
‘The paint on his face’? That’s called ‘face paint’, dude. ‘to the point’ is a clunky way of putting it. Why not ‘The paint on his face was so old’? In this context, ‘that’ is a fluff word that can be elided with no loss of meaning.
I wonder if ‘old’ is a bit imprecise. It’s not that the paint’s ‘old’, exactly – it might just be vintage paint, or something – it’s that it has ‘been there so long’. On the other hand, the trade-off feels too much. Better to go for one short, slightly less accurate word, than four drab, grammatical words that offer more exactness.
You don’t need ‘he was not sure if’ – you’re writing in third-person limited, and thus any statements within the narrative are implicitly his. Taking all these suggestions into account, the revised sentence becomes either:
His face paint was so old it might never come off.
His face paint had been there so long it might never come off.
Both of those feel clearer, more confident.
He remembered learning that it could be quite dangerous to prevent ones skin from breathing. Blocking the pores.
Consider combining these two sentences into one. Don’t start out vague then refine in successive clauses. Pick the most accurate description and cut the others. Again, you don’t have to tell us ‘he remembered’ – in a third-person limited, it’s understood that we’re reading the thoughts of the protagonist as they occur to him.
‘quite’ is a qualifier that weakens the sentence. Cut it.
Basically, you need to get to the guts of what you mean much quicker. For example:
Blocking your pores was dangerous. Skin needed to breathe.
Pared down like that, the ideas feel more powerful. The narrative feels more confident.
But the paint had become like a second skin for Jack. It spoke for him.
These two statements/half-metaphors are unrelated. It was like a second skin, it spoke for him? Skin doesn’t speak! You’re hinting at two different analogies and committing to neither. Pick one.
“It is monstrous that someone must live as I am living. I am an artist.” He thought
Please don’t put thoughts in speech marks. Use italics.
I realise nobody’s internal monologue sounds like this, but I’ll confess I quite liked the archaic braggadocio therein. Maybe it would be more convincing if Jack wrote these lines down in a journal? They have the feel of a classic story translated from a foreign language. They are stylised, sure, but they’re to the point and they convey character and they use interesting, specific words. ‘monstrous’ brought me up short.
Perhaps other readers disagree – I can certainly imagine this (and the first line turding, natch) dividing opinion. But still, for what it’s worth, it more or less worked for me.
then washed his hands and left the bathroom drying his hands on his trousers and his shirt.
This isn’t dramatic blocking, it’s dull housekeeping. It doesn’t build character or mood. Cut it.
It was, Jack had to admit, no great surprise that he could find no work as a mime. What work was there for mimes to do?
Start a new paragraph here. There’s a clear shift in topic.
I’m fine with these sentences. They don’t convince me you’ve done any research into mime or know what you’re talking about because of their lack of specificity (one could replace ‘mime’ with any niche job and the sentences would still make sense) but they’re easy to read and develop character. As long as you quickly demonstrate genuine expertise on the subject of mime, the broadness here is acceptable.
He had tried street performance, but the only money he ever received was thrown at his head.
Better than starving to death, surely? This is very vague indeed – really one of the weakest sentences in the whole piece. It’s a missed opportunity.
Unpack Jack’s motivations here. Is he too proud to do street performance? What was his preferred career path? What did he once hope he might do? Fobbing us off with this idea that he’s never considered the question undermines the whole story. Has he worked before? Where? Why isn’t he working there now?
Show, don’t tell. You move past this very rapidly. If he’s prepared to basically starve himself, he must have a very strong antipathy towards street performance. I’m minded of Gordon Comstock in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, refusing the safety and comfort of a decent wage out of a desire to spurn the world of money.
Is it arrogance that stops him? Is it incompetence? Perhaps he’s just a shit mime. Why doesn’t he go work in a bank or something? What drives him? Idealism?
I’m not suggesting you spend page after page giving us an in-depth psychological profile and potted history of the chief traumas that inform his worldview, but we need something, damn it. There’s a huge motivational hole here, and I don’t believe that you’ve given it the consideration it demands.
He took a knife from the drawer, turned on the hob, cut off his left index finger, roasted and ate it.
Did he fuck.
I don’t believe you for a second. This is lazily provocative. It doesn’t shock us. You might as well write ‘and then a troupe of elephants marched out of his bum’. In fact, that would be a lot better. I would read the shit out of a novel with that line on the first page. With the finger-cutting, there’s no physicality here, nothing to engage our senses.
I get it, you’re trying to be flippant – trying to make us even more shocked by delivering the information in such a matter-of-fact manner – but you haven’t done anything to make this action remotely plausible. A guy chops his own finger off – not even his little finger, but his index finger – then still has the strength to roast and eat it? Bollocks.
He’d rather do that than steal something? There’s hardly any meat on a finger, anyway. I doubt people ate their own fingers during the Siege of Leningrad, let alone sitting in a flat. Churches give away free lunches. Homeless shelters have places you can sit down an eat. Supermarkets are relatively easy to steal a tin of corned beef from.
When you abandon basic logic for the sake of shock, you lose the reader’s good faith and we remember that this is only fiction. We stop caring about your invented character and see the text in front of us and give up. It is the opposite of shocking. It is deadly dull.
If you can come up with a genuine reason for Jack to eat his own finger, one that feels consistent and believable given his personality and what matters to him and the range of options available, that could be a powerful – if macabre – story. Don’t dodge the act, either. It seems to me that there would be a lot of mileage in the build up, in an authentic, visceral description of the pain as he cuts through flesh and muscle into the bone, of how he staunches the blood, bandages his hand, then goes on cooking despite being in agony.
You’ve read ‘Survivor Type’, right, the Stephen King story where a surgeon gets shipwrecked on an island with a load of heroin, and slowly eats himself? King places the protagonist in such a bind that eating himself does feel like a rational option. The story is all the more horrifying for the reader’s feeling of ‘well, what else could he have done?’
If your protagonist behaves arbitrarily, it’s only human nature to disengage. Notice I didn’t say ‘if your protagonist makes mistakes’ – misjudgements are fine, essential, even, when it comes to gripping fiction. But when we start to get the impression that a character is obeying the demands of the plot rather than acting from genuine motivations, we lose interest in your imagined world.
Whether played for horror or black humour, you have to earn your grotesque set pieces. Don’t shortchange your readers. We’ll only empathise with characters we believe in.
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