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Each week we take the first page of an author’s novel or short story and look at ways of making it better. This is about developing your critical eye and self-editing skills as a reader and writer, so, as always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d improve, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. If you have any extra ideas or you disagree, wonderful! Pop your take into the comments. And don’t forget you can email me via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.
Ulterior (by Kash)
My mother always said- no pain, no gain. She was right; I inflict pain for my personal gain.
Many men and women have sat on the chair before. Many men and women have gotten their nails pulled out, legs whipped, hands burnt; tortured in several novel and creative ways. Many times, I have done it myself, brutally and bluntly. I long for those rare days that I don’t have to do this job; when there isn’t anyone to torture. But I don’t long for it enough to starve myself over it. My job is my pay, and I’m getting paid today.
The lights glow dim, aligned to the walls of the circular room, forming a ring. I see a man sitting on the chair in the center of the room, under another dim light that hangs from the ceiling. There’s sheen of metal around his wrists and ankles, he is chained, but he doesn’t seem to make any effort to free himself.
I have tortured many people, but it somehow feels different this time. I know, somewhere in my gut, that this is something big; something serious. For the first time in months, I have a strange feeling in my chest; an unsettling, lingering, weighty feeling. The only way to make it go away is to get it over with.
I walk towards him. My footsteps echo in the void, breaking the silence, reassuring me that I am not deaf. The room’s peculiar odor is a repulsive blend of blood, ethanol, hydrochloric acid and burnt flesh; I can’t breathe easily and it makes me feel like I am choking. I hate coming to this place, and I am absolutely certain anybody would. I am one of those unfortunate people whose dreams come true every single day, because I have only nightmares, and they are all of this room.
My mother always said- no pain, no gain. She was right; I inflict pain for my personal gain.
Just because your narrator’s mother spoke in forgettable clichés, that does not mean you have license to include them. Don’t use characters’ lexical shortcomings as covering fire for shitness.
This is your first sentence. I get it – I understand the joke that you’re setting up for the second sentence. I just don’t think it’s very funny. Or even funny. Or, indeed, interesting.
In fact, you could say it’s… *PUTS ON SHADES* tortured.
Many men and women have sat on the chair before.
A better potential opener. Although… word order? Anyone? Am I screaming impotently into the void, here?
What does ‘before’ contribute to this sentence? I’ll tell you, Kash – it contributes a big bluebottle-studded jobbie on the front lawn of your book. It’s already cast in the past tense – we understand that ‘have sat’ indicates things that have happened before. You don’t have to walk us through the basic conventions of English grammar.
Close with ‘chair’. Nouns usually make the strongest ending bids in a sentence, and concrete nouns (like ‘bridge’ and ‘foal’) are usually better than abstract ones (like ‘love’ or ‘Norwich’). But note that this is a super-tentative rule – read any great novel and you’ll see this principle strategically ignored on every page. It’s just something you can have in your mind, a sort of stylistic gravity pulling you towards solid composition.
‘Many men and women’ is a bit woolly. ‘men and women’ is a pair of super-bland noun choices. You’re holding back too much, being far too vague. Let’s start drilling down into the exact nature of this job. If the narrator said: ‘Senators and soldiers, CEOs and showgirls have sat on the chair.’ Or, you know, something less cheesily alliterative, then we’d start to flesh out this world in our heads.
On the other hand, you could go more punchy – what does ‘men and women’ add to ‘many’? You could cut your first two sentences, and open with ‘Many have sat on the chair.’
That’s a pretty fucking good opening line, a mon avis.
Many men and women have gotten their nails pulled out, legs whipped, hands burnt; tortured in several novel and creative ways.
So – a lot of dead weight in this line. ‘Many men and women’ – see previous comment.
‘have gotten’? Ugh. I hate the US ‘gotten’ as a word – weirdly I first encountered it in the arcade game Bombjack – but the main problem is this clumsy, legalistic use of the passive voice. I appreciate you didn’t want to say ‘have had’, because that’s clumsier, but the fact remains that you’re using this inherently inelegant, clunky passive construction to avoid saying by who.
‘tortured in several novel and creative ways’ – SHOW, DON’T TELL. Firstly – pulling out nails and whipping legs hardly qualify as ‘novel and creative’. Inserting a four-inch speculum into the victim’s anus then pumping them full of angry hornets, using the paper portion of the victim’s driving licence to administer long papercuts to their perineum, drinking scotch bonnet juice then weeing in their eyes – these would all pass the test. But they’re all better described than summarised under the dull rubric of ‘novel and creative’.
Many times, I have done it myself, brutally and bluntly.
Ermph. Wouldn’t it be better to fold this into the previous sentence, recasting it in the active voice? This feels like a fiddly qualification after the fact rather than an exciting revelation. Those two adverbs closing the line are particularly flabby. The narrator tortured someone ‘brutally’? As opposed to what? Compassionately? Sweetly? Ironically? Can you think of a means of torturing someone that wouldn’t be, in some way, brutal?
Don’t append adverbs to verbs if they more or less go without saying. The adverb needs to modify the verb in a surprising or at least information-rich way.
I long for those rare days that I don’t have to do this job; when there isn’t anyone to torture.
What is the second half of this sentence contributing? The narrator says the same thing twice. I’d cut ‘that I don’t have to do this job’.
Although… again, it’s a really abstract, broad-strokes way of saying it. This is a great example of where you can convert something nebulous and conceptual into something that engages our senses and gives us a bit of world-building.
How does the narrator know when there’s no one to torture? Does he or she walk into the secure wing of the facility, peer through the bars of the four holding cells, and see only empty bunks? Does he or she shuffle through some paperwork and find no names? Does he or she get a phonecall? Does he or she meet a gruff assistant with a scar bisecting a milky blind eye, who simply shakes her head and says ‘None today’?
Locate the concept of ‘there isn’t anyone to torture’ in a specific, tangible moment – an action with sound and visuals and smells. As authors, we’re not looking to give readers information – we’re looking to give them experiences, which give rise to ideas, feelings and troubling questions.
But I don’t long for it enough to starve myself over it. My job is my pay, and I’m getting paid today.
Again, what a mouthful! What a long, shambling arse-drag over flinty ground just to deliver the concept: ‘But a job’s a job.’
‘I don’t long for it enough to starve’ is particularly mangled because of the collocation of ‘long’ and ‘enough’, which will make a non-trivial percentage of your readers parse ‘long’ as ‘a significant length of time’ rather than ‘yearn’. So we have to reread the sentence a couple of times, which slows us down and makes reading feel like wading through slurry.
And look at all the pellety little grammatical words in that first sentence: ‘But’ ‘for’ ‘to’ ‘over’. A third of them!
‘my job is my pay’ – really? No shit?! You receive money in exchange for providing a service? Fuck. Holy shit – what kind of topsy-turvy screwball world is this novel taking place in? Thanks for that, narrator-pal! What next? Will dinnertime be like:
I’m not a big fan of chicken kievs, but I don’t hate them so much that I’ll actively refuse them. My food is my fuel, and I’m refuelling now.
Protip: if your novel is starting to sound less like a gripping story, and more like a Christmas round robin email from friends with zero ability to discriminate between fascinating anecdotes and deathly fucking boring trivia, TURN BACK.
The lights glow dim, aligned to the walls of the circular room, forming a ring.
So much waffle I feel like I’m in Belgium.
‘glow dim’? No. I’m rescinding your oxymoron privileges until you’ve proven you can handle them. It’s like writing ‘The crowd yells softly’. I mean, I can sort of see a situation where that might be nice (distant crowd noises drifting on the wind from a stadium) but you mean that the lights are burning with this dull, grim half-light. Maybe describe the colour of the light? Is it a kind of amber? A pale white? What? And what kind of lights are they? Electric?
‘aligned to the walls’ No. I don’t even… what? Do you mean they’re set into the walls? As opposed to what? Free floating orbs? Are they flush with the wall, or set into glass cupolas?
So, writers – if you’re writing about something like a light fixture, or a chair or a caulking gun or whatever, you do realise there is an electronically-distributed repository of all human knowledge available to you, for free, via the same machine with which you are writing the story, right? You know you can go on google images and type in the name of the thing you’re trying to describe? That, if you’re describing lights, you can go look up some different styles of light and actually find out the technical names for what you’re describing? Or, if you’re describing a chair, you can find out what sorts of materials it tends to be upholstered with, the type of wood it tends to be made out of, and what the names of different types of chairs are?
And then, you can slip that information into your book (POV character knowledge dependent, obvs) and give the reader the impression you have the vaguest fucking clue what you’re talking about?
Well, you can. SO DO IT. It will take you a little longer but it will make your book demonstrably less shit and you will sell it and make a mint then find yourself trapped in a cycle of ever-increasing expectations, locked at your desk, doubting yourself, comfort eating and masturbating furiously to ease the churning fear in your gut.
I like that the lights are in a ring, though. That’s a cool detail.
I see a man sitting on the chair in the center of the room, under another dim light that hangs from the ceiling.
Look at those noun choices: man, chair, centre, room, light, ceiling. ‘ceiling’ is literally the most challenging word in the sentence.
I’m not advocating you salt your prose with baroque lexical gewgaws purely for the purpose of showboating – actually, paring down one’s language to the simplest tools that do the job is meritorious and I applaud it – but say what you mean and be specific. Show us what’s actually there.
‘I see’ is unnecessary. Anything you describe in the narrative present is implicitly seen by the viewpoint character.
Let’s have a bit of flavour to this moment. Crunchy specificity, and the engaging of our five senses.
There’s sheen of metal around his wrists and ankles, he is chained, but he doesn’t seem to make any effort to free himself.
I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘a sheen of metal around his wrists and ankles’. Are you describing shackles? It’s as if the narrator doesn’t quite understand what he or she is seeing. Indeed, you describe this room as if the narrator is seeing it for the first time, rather than their referring to it as this grimly familiar location.
Surely what they’d notice were any differences? Like, if one of the lights in the ring had blown, or was flickering. Or if there were a dried bloodstain on the floor that hadn’t been totally removed by the latest clean up? Or how high the victim sits in the chair? Who was the tallest person the narrator’s had sitting here? Who was the smallest? Might these not be more likely to be the things he or she thinks about?
‘he is chained, but he doesn’t seem to make any effort to free himself’ – how is that a ‘but’ situation? It’s like writing: ‘He has a rubber bung up his jacksie, but doesn’t seem to make any effort to shit’. Why would he be straining against metal chains in some Sampson-esque, impotent bestial rage?
And what’s with ‘seem to’? If he isn’t moving, he isn’t making any effort to free himself, transparently. Unless you’re implying that the non-movement might be some kind of trick, and actually the effort is all taking place on the mental plane or something.
So look, Kash, dear fellow author and noble peer – this is definitely an engaging opening scenario. What’s needed is a bit more engagement in the narrator’s POV – actually embracing the routinized nature of the this torture, and trying to locate your scene on this particular day, rather than laying out for us a Platonic, timeless ideal of the torture chamber. Look at what we’ve discussed, and commit to ruthlessly culling the waffle and fluff from your work. What remains, as we’ve seen, is actually pretty exciting.