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I am taking two stand-up poetry shows to the Edinburgh Fringe this August – Be Kind To Yourself and Grave Invaders. I am going up out of my own pocket and now shitting myself that no one will turn up. If you enjoy this blog – and, frankly, even if you don’t – I would consider it a deep and long-lasting kindness if you could spread news of either of these shows to your friends online, even if you’re not heading up to Edinburgh yourself. This might be my last year doing the Fringe and I’d like to share the experience with as many people as possible. Both shows are free.
Right, as usual, read the extract below, have a ponder, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.
Trades (by Evelyn)
Elsa woke with Omar on that Friday. Usually he stayed on the edge of the bed and let her sleep in, but today he had kissed each of her eyelids before leaving for work. She gazed at the tan, irregular circles that had recently bloomed on the stucco ceiling. Her neighbor revved the engine of his truck in the dim predawn. Sleep was elusive after so many moments of wakefulness in the light, even as her desperation prevented her from sitting up. She waited for her alarm to go off and chewed a fingernail.
Omar was already finishing the day’s first batch of bread at work when she started the coffee. Each of them was standing at a sink, holding their hands under hot water, trying to think of something that was hard to keep in the mind, something slippery and dark as a fish. Elsa turned off the water and stayed facing the wall, holding onto the thought by saying it out loud. Omar turned away, whistling to drown it out.
Just a heads up that this extract is not shit enough to make constant wisecracks about – a lot of the entry-level craft is in place. Some of you have written asking if I deliberately cherry-pick bad extracts and saying that you’d like to see me engage with some higher level work.
So far, every piece I receive goes in a queue, and each week I just pick the next one and get writing. The better it is, the harder it is to critique, but I hope you’re okay with my position that Death Of 1000 Cuts is primarily a writing and editing blog with some informed snark thrown in, not a platform for me to MyST novice authors’ best efforts for yuks. The humour is to help us all stop being so fucking precious about our craft. Fiction writing is too serious to take seriously, if that makes sense.
Anyway, I have things to say about this extract, but there’s no throwing my hands up and exclaiming ‘I cannot fucking believe this,’ because the writing isn’t ridiculously poor. It’s not amazing, but it’s not ludicrous. Do let me know what you think of this week’s post – I hope it’s helpful to do some work on fine tuning as well as macro-level ‘this car has no engine’ stuff, but your feedback is the only way I know if I’m getting it right.
This kind of hand-wringing apologising is, by the way, a really shitty way to start any piece of writing. It’s like I’m pre-empting criticism by drawing attention to it, thus denying you the right to your opinions. It’s needy, distracting and tedious. Please don’t do it yourselves, especially when contacting agents. It doesn’t make you look self-aware. It makes you look disingenuous and lazy (after all, if you can see the problem, why not fix it?).
Elsa woke with Omar on that Friday.
Either ‘on Friday’ or ‘that Friday’. Either you just want us to know it’s Friday, in which case ‘on’ is fine, or you’re trying to imply that this, in retrospect, would prove to be a significant Friday, in which case it’s ‘that Friday’.
Aside from that, this is a nice, simple opening. No pyrotechnics, no try-hard end-loaded Gabriel Garcia Marquez-esque sucker punchers like: ‘Shovelling sand over his father’s corpse on a moonlit beach, Daryl thought back to the day he went hot air ballooning over Grenoble with the dachshund.’ It introduces a pair of characters, and by making one the subject and the other the object, it implies that Elsa is our protagonist.
If you’d written ‘Elsa and Omar woke together that Friday’, the two characters would have parity, POV-wise, but your formulation gives us an inherent bias towards Elsa. Depending on what your plans are, you might want to revise that.
Usually he stayed on the edge of the bed and let her sleep in, but today he had kissed each of her eyelids before leaving for work.
‘Usually he stayed on the edge of the bed and let her sleep in’ Eh? This makes it sound like he wakes up, then just sort of perches on the side of a bed like a creepy vulture, staring at her while she sleeps. What do you mean ‘he stayed on the edge of the bed’? Do you mean ‘he kept to his side of the bed’? Why is he getting ready for work in bed? You know that’s going to wake her up anyway, right?
‘but today he had kissed each of her eyelids before leaving for work’ Ungh. So we’re only two sentences in and already the tense has shifted from past to pluperfect. You implied, in the previous sentence, that when Elsa ‘woke’, we were in the narrative present. We were seeing her wake. But now, in the second sentence, we find we’ve leapt forward, to a time where Omar has already left for work, and we’re remembering an earlier moment where he kissed her eyelids. That’s one baffling chronopretzel, Evelyn.
She gazed at the tan, irregular circles that had recently bloomed on the stucco ceiling.
I like this. I was going to question ‘recently’ – all adverbs are liable to be stopped-and-searched at any time, their papers checked, their profile run through the database – but it serves a purpose. It suggests, albeit subtly, that the place is deteriorating. ‘bloomed’ suggests change, but the marks might have always been there – ‘recently’ takes the familiarity away and makes them a little more dingy.
So yeah. It excites the senses. It has a clear and consistent point of view. It has crunchy specificity (‘stucco ceiling’ is a shrewd nailing of exactly what we’re looking at). Holy shit. I think you’re allowed this one. Well done.
Her neighbor revved the engine of his truck in the dim predawn.
Peh. No way. If you can knock out a sentence like the last one I’m not going to let you get away with something as hopelessly generic as ‘revved the engine of his truck’. ‘neighbour’ (sorry, can’t help but Anglicise it) is pretty broad too.
Basically we read this sentence as: ‘Her [broad category noun] [clichéd verb] the [generic noun] of his [generic noun] in the [hopelessly pretentious bollocks masquerading as ambience].’ It’s the kind of line you could administer to shire horses to put them out before surgery.
A bunch of possible fixes: amp up the choice of nouns so we get that engaging, crunchy specificity all good writers and readers ought to be jonesing for. Contrariwise, you don’t need to specify that he revved ‘the engine’ of his truck – it’s not like if you wrote ‘Her neighbour revved his truck’ we’re going to be all ‘but what part did he rev? The hubcap? The Magic Tree air freshener?’ The syntax of this sentence is poor – better to frame the action with ‘Outside, in the dim predawn’ (I don’t really like ‘dim predawn’ – it sounds vaguely literary but is horribly tautological, given that ‘dawn’ is defined by sunrise; it’s like writing ‘the dark night’) then close with the action, rather than giving the action then ending with this insipid adverbial phrase that modifies it in an unsurprising way (you might as well write ‘Her neighbour revved his truck in the air, in the street, using his foot, making a noise which she heard with her ears in her room, on the bed, in the morning, before the sun had arrived, as it always had.’).
Sleep was elusive after so many moments of wakefulness in the light, even as her desperation prevented her from sitting up.
Ugh. Show, don’t tell. Don’t state ‘Sleep was elusive’ (which is a cliché, anyway). Show her tossing and turning (only don’t use those words, which are an even graver cliché) and allow us to deduce that she can’t sleep. Give us the associated senses – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the textures and temperatures, the taste in her mouth – and encourage us to experience the desperation ourselves.
I don’t understand how ‘desperation’ prevents someone from sitting up. Do you mean, she’s so keen to get to sleep she decides not to sit up? ‘prevented’ is a weird verb choice. It sounds as if she’s physically incapacitated.
She waited for her alarm to go off and chewed a fingernail.
How long is she waiting? Chewing a fingernail is normally a task of a couple of seconds, max. This makes it sounds like she manages to kill several minutes just gnawing away on that ol’ fingernail. At the very least, make the two actions simultaneous: ‘She chewed a fingernail, waiting for her alarm to go off.’ The waiting goes second, because it’s the more important of the two.
Omar was already finishing the day’s first batch of bread at work when she started the coffee.
This sudden POV switch is horrible. You’ve done no work at all to establish Omar’s location, or give us any indication into his interior experience. ‘work’? A bakery, presumably. What does ‘the day’s’ add to our understanding?
The end of this sentence lurches back into Evelyn’s perspective and skips forward several minutes/hours? I don’t have an issue with due POVs within the same scene but you have to at least fake like you know what you’re doing. This has all the coherence of a doddery Colonel telling an interminable anecdote about the state of the canteen at Spandau Prison.
Each of them was standing at a sink, holding their hands under hot water,
See now this, while not great – ‘sink’, ‘hands’ and ‘hot water’ are all super-boring, super-general noun choices – at least invites us to see the two narratives simultaneously. It anchors the scene in a narrative present. It has a degree of clarity, albeit one lacking precision.
trying to think of something that was hard to keep in the mind, something slippery and dark as a fish.
I actually quite like this. That fish simile is simple but apposite. I like how you’ve controlled the syntax so the sentence ends on ‘fish’ – a nice sucker punch that rewards without being tricksy.
And, for the first time in the narrative, you’re implying conflict. If this line stands out, it’s because it’s the moment we come round from our stupor and think: ‘oh shit – an actual story?!’
Elsa turned off the water and stayed facing the wall, holding onto the thought by saying it out loud.
I think this would flow better and make more sense split into two sentences. ‘Elsa turned off the water. She stayed facing the wall, holding onto the thought by saying it out loud.’
Something about ‘stayed facing the wall’ is bugging me but I can’t quite formulate what the fix is. I suppose it feels clunky and you’re only now introducing ‘the wall’ – which is implied by but not a necessary consequence of the sink. Ungh.
Omar turned away, whistling to drown it out.
I like the parallel sentences, but using ‘it’ as a repeated pronoun for ‘the thought’ in this second sentence is problematic. For me, it doesn’t quite work. There’s something that half-jars – just enough to throw the tone – of treating this as a single thought, rather than two parallel thoughts.
It’s also partly to do with the dissonance of holding these two characters in our heads, in similar but separate scenes. You haven’t done enough to establish either environment or character. I don’t know what they look like or where they are. I just have two sinks, and two names. That is jackshit to go on. That’s like winning a luxury food hamper and opening it up to find cobwebs and a couple of Twiglets.
Scene needs fleshing out, yo. If you’re going to use a parallel structure, commit to it. Don’t half start with both characters, switch to Elsa, then stumble into this ping-ponging between them. Give us their parallel routines, in a narrative present. Make it a stylistic virtue, not a baffling labyrinth of epistemological razor wire.
It’s not a bad idea, in and of itself, Evelyn. There are hints of tension. But a half-decent idea doesn’t excuse you from making your world clear and rich, and from streamlining your storytelling. Go back and reread some parallel narratives (maybe Faulker, B S Johnson) and see how different authors manage it. No shame in learning from your peers.