Welcome to Death of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. Does that sound like a tagline yet?
This week we put another nascent author’s first page in the Barber’s Chair and go at it with the straight razor. As always, read the extract below, work out what you think about it, then see my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’. This is all about sharpening your edge as a self-editor.
Twilight Kingdom (by Leo)
Zip stared at the bodies of her parents, slumped in their armchairs. They looked asleep. They could be asleep. If it were not for the blood on the front of their shirts. Not much. Just a little. But just enough. A little red flower blooming around a couple of holes on their fronts.
It had been her last day of school but when she got there it was closed without explanation. So Zip had rushed back from the closed gates, finally free of it. She had not rushed back to be at her house. She had rushed home so she could go straight out again. She was sixteen, free of exams and all responsibility for the summer and meant to enjoy every second of it. So she rushed.
Now she was stood still, staring at the dead bodies of her Mother and Father.
What startled her was how light was the blow. It was certainly a shock to find the front door had been kicked in, the splintered, fresh wood exposed on the door frame. More alarming still to find pictures shattered, drawers and cupboards open, furniture knocked over and objects missing. Then to find her parents dead in their seats, as if they had not moved from where they were sitting when whomever shot them had burst in, was the icing on the particularly morbid cake. Yet whilst the event was significant Zip did not feel devastated by it.
Zipporah had never liked her parents. At all. Her Dad had molested her twice when she was a lot younger. When she told her mother about it her mother’s response was
If I could enforce whimsical edicts upon aspiring authors, one of the first would be: dear writer in-training, before you don your crampons and embark on your ascent of Mt Novel, go and watch some old Emo Phillips and Mitch Hedberg routines. Go on. Shoo. You can learn more about the importance of brevity and syntax in an hour of listening to those two gentlemen than you could in a month of pouring through novels.
What, you think this opening is a transparent attempt to shoehorn a couple of gratuitous quotations into an unrelated post? Fie, I say. Fie and… oh, go on then.
‘When I went to college, my parents threw a going-away party for me, according to the letter.’ – Emo Phillips
You see where the reveal lands? The last. Damn. Word.
‘I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.’ – Mitch Hedberg
11 words! Where’s the fluff? My friend, there is none.
Now, I concede that – to the very sceptical eye – these gags might look a little hacky on the page, and that’s of course because they weren’t created for the page, but to be delivered by the very specific clowns that Phillips and Hedberg built on the stage. There’s a point of view, an intonation, a cadence, a physicality and a context that don’t exist here. All the more reason to get onto Youtube and watch them.
My point is, exactly the same mechanism is in operation here as in the famous opening of Orwell’s 1984: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Or in the first sentence of Austen’s Pride And Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’
The garden path sentence is an essential arrow in your authorial quiver. It’s not just for wanky pull-back-and-reveals á la: ‘Daniel Jones was having a perfectly ordinary day… on Mars!!! (dead!!!)’ Stripping fluff from sentences and positioning the most interesting information towards the end of the sentence should be a process you apply to every single line in the novel. Unless it makes a sentence stupidly cumbersome or destroys the sense in some catastrophic way, you should always be aiming for each line to build towards a climax.
Look at that last sentence – it ended on ‘climax’. I could have phrased it: ‘The climax should come at the end of each sentence.’ But then it closes on a bunch of boring grammatical shit that the reader can probably anticipate. The primacy/recency effect comes into play here – we’re best at retaining information that comes at the beginning and close of an utterance, so that’s where you must position your most salient nuggets.
I’m digressing, Leo dear friend, but I hope you’ll see how all this theoretical blather laid the ground for the ensuing discussion.
Zip stared at the bodies of her parents, slumped in their armchairs. They looked asleep.
This is not a bad opener. Neither is it a good one. It’s like you’ve burst onstage wielding a katana (quite impressive) but your wooden samurai clog slipped and you teetered (less impressive).
Think about the first sentence in terms of syntax. It has three beats, broadly speaking:
Zip blah blah blah bodies (woah!) blah blah parents (oh no!), blah blah blah armchairs. (what? Who gives a fuck about armchairs?)
Listen to your hypothetical reader, Leo. No one gives a fuck about armchairs. Death, family and upholstery. Pop quiz, hotshot: who is doing the heavy lifting in that trifecta?
Here’s a thought: take out ‘bodies’ altogether. Let the ‘They looked asleep’ line come as a sucker punch – that way, we don’t know they’re dead (or, at least, we don’t get a very heavy clue that they’re dead) till the word ‘asleep’. That’s subtlety without ambiguity.
They could be asleep. If it were not for the blood on the front of their shirts. Not much. Just a little. But just enough. A little red flower blooming around a couple of holes on their fronts.
Have you seen the episode of Father Ted where they get a car to raffle off, then Ted notices a tiny dent? He tries to tap it out with a tiny hammer, but accidentally creates another tiny dent. So he tries to tap that one out. Cut to hours later, and his thousands of little corrections have destroyed the car.
This is no idle Father Ted allusion, Leo! You are Ted, in this analogy, and the above sentences are the aforementioned mauling of your lovely car.
Stop fannying around. ‘Not much. Just a little. But just enough.’ Who do you think you are, Paul fucking Daniels?
I get it – you’re trying to be cute, you’re establishing the voice. It’s supposed to have this wry detachment. We’re supposed to feel the disjunction between the voice’s finicky, whimsical exactitude and the gory horror of what it’s describing. The problem is that we’re a few sentences in and already you’re dithering. It’s not charming, it’s aesthetic cowardice.
Decide. Pick your best lines, and cut the rest. Whimsy is a fantastical bloom, but unless you practice ruthless, bloodthirsty topiary at all times it will smother your garden and render all around it barren.
It had been her last day of school but when she got there it was closed without explanation.
Use of the pronoun ‘it’ to mean two different things makes this sentence harder work than it should be. Also: show, don’t tell. This is bland, textureless summary. What do you mean? What actually happened? Was it a hot day, and she trudged up the road, and the big wrought iron gates were chained and padlocked? Was there a sign? Did she stare through the bars and see no one? Was the metal warm under her palms? Was she pleased?
She was sixteen, free of exams and all responsibility for the summer and meant to enjoy every second of it.
This is about the most generic way you could have expressed this. For starters, ‘free of exams and all responsibility’ is describing a negative – an uncomfortable cognitive leap at the best of times. Far graver, this sentence feels like it could be about any teenager, from almost any time in the last half century.
Details, details, details. Where is the specificity that excites the reader’s five senses? What, specifically, does Zip want to do? Who, specifically, does she want to see? Where, specifically, does she plan to go? Names, textures, idiosyncrasies. Populate your fucking world.
Even her parents, in this opening scene, feel like featureless test dummies. All we know about them is that they’re dead, shot, and they’re both – apparently – wearing ‘shirts’. That’s it! Nothing to locate this as two very specific individuals. Nothing to give these corpses the ring of authenticity. No detail so odd, so specific, so unexpected, that it must be true.
Now she was stood still, staring at the dead bodies of her Mother and Father.
Yes, we know. I realise you’re attempting to re-establish the narrative present but this is just dead air. Indeed, it points to the folly of leaving the narrative present so early in the story. We don’t need to know that she rushed back from school. Fuck it. Let’s see her reactions, here and now. We can infer the context later. Story please.
Then to find her parents dead in their seats, as if they had not moved from where they were sitting when whomever shot them had burst in, was the icing on the particularly morbid cake.
Look, I concede that my calling you out for a tortuous metaphor may be the height of hypocrisy, but still. This is a cliché, and doesn’t even fit what it’s describing. It leeches impact from the scene. Focus on actually conveying what’s in the room before you start ornamenting your prose with little rhetorical flourishes.
Zipporah had never liked her parents. At all.
See this, this is nice. Blunt. Interesting. Also I’m going to take this opportunity to say I really like the name ‘Zipporah’ for a protagonist.
Her Dad had molested her twice when she was a lot younger.
Whether it’s tasteless to apply the metric of crafting one-liners to a sentence about child rape is a question for greater philosophers than you or I to debate, Leo. All I know is that the adjectival clause ‘when she was a lot younger’ is dull as balls compared to the main clause, ‘Her Dad had molested her twice.’ We don’t really need to know when the abuse happened. Perhaps you can clarify later in the novel. For now, end the sentence at ‘twice’.
When she told her mother about it her mother’s response was
I don’t know whether the email cut off here or whether this was the literal end of your first page. I suspect and hope it was the latter, in which case, I salute you for taking to heart my ‘first page only please’ request. Kudos – and, on a serious note, an ability to listen to and obey submission guidelines will hold you in very good stead when approaching magazines and agents. Nice one.
On the title: does anybody else think that writing a novel with ‘Twilight’ in the name is sailing a little close to the wind? Angsty vampires aside, it sounds like a cross between Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and a Zelda game. It’s, um… it’s not very memorable. If you were writing insipid commercial Fantasy then I might grudgingly accept it, but I think you’re attempting something markedly different, and far more interesting. So basically: change the title, dude. It’s bad. Sorry!
Look, overall, your writing instincts are good. This is a dramatic, arresting scene with which to begin your novel – that’s why you chose it. But you need to toil to raise it from blueprint to three-dimensional fictive experience. We need a clear locus of empathy; we need visual, aural, even gustatory cues. Don’t simply report the existence of this moment – hurl us into it.
My goodness. Haven’t I splurged this week? Listen – if you or someone you know is working on a novel or short story and could use a turn in the Barber’s Chair, please send your first page to me via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. No explanatory waffle please, just the first page, a title, and your name. By sending it to me you are consenting to my posting it on this here website in perpetuity, where I will rip it apart in the name of helping you on your creative journey.
Thanks so much to everyone who has tweeted and Facebook linked to the blog. It’s exciting! Getting a little bit of a following already. I’m always open to suggestions on topics to cover, ways of expanding, questions, or even a little email letting me know that you’re here, reading and lurking. Again, use the ‘Contact Me’ link to get in touch.
See you next week.
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