Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog for writers, editors, and readers who are interested in the craft of fiction. Each week we take the first page of an aspiring author’s novel or short story and we look at ways of improving it. The idea is to develop your self-editing skills by practising on short extracts, learning to recognise common problems and fixes to those problems. If you’d like to submit your work to the blog, please read our submission guidelines.
So, this week I decided everything I have ever written is dreadful.
I’ve been writing every day for the past few weeks, and I’m in those early stages of novel-writing where you’re just setting off and the map is sketched in 2B pencil and there are huge blank spots with ‘HERE BE 2nd ACT VOLTE-FACE’ scrawled across them and you can still see the village you set out from and you wonder whether it might not be best to just backtrack and start out again in a different direction. Some days you make a little progress, but you know – from experience, from pure un-pessimism-muddied pragmatism – that you might well throw away everything you’ve written so far, that you might happen upon some huge, unexpected Slough Of You Screwed Up, Dickhead, and have to turn back.
And the standard of the prose feels bad. Really fucking bad. Like, you know when you have those dreams where you have to speak in front of a huge crowd and you open your mouth and nothing comes out but this tiny, barely aspirated squeak? When you’re resitting your exams and you haven’t studied and you know you don’t know any of the answers? You are putting one word in front of the other because you don’t know what else to do, but there is no sense of music or craft or magic, you’re just a word-golem trudging through the arcane halls of the derelict sorcerers’ academy, dutifully fulfilling an empty routine when all the life that made it meaningful was wiped out in a disastrous spat between dark alchemists.
That is how it has been feeling. Ugh.
And what I have to say to you is this: if you have ever felt like that while writing, good. I have read a lot of godawful novels by people to whom the thought clearly never occurred: perhaps this is shit.
Subjecting your craft to a skeptical eye is healthy. You want to make it the best it can possibly be. You want your readers to have an incredible experience that transports them. You want to honour your ideas and your characters and your world, and you want that love you feel for story to be evident on every page.
I know it’s molar-grindingly cheesy to cite sayings from Zen Buddhism, but I do a bit of meditation these days so, you know, deal with it. Anyway, in Zen, they often say that the three fundamental elements of good practice are Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Perseverance. I’d suggest these are the three fundamental qualities you must cultivate if you want to write a decent novel.
Great Faith means believing that your stories are worth sharing. It’s about letting yourself get excited by your idea and your characters and all the different set pieces that could happen. It’s about believing that you have what it takes to write, not just an adequate novel, but a great one. A transcendent one. Why not? Why not shoot for that? Who says you can’t? Great Faith is about seeing the oak tree in the acorn, the log cabin in the oak tree, and the sweet cabana threesomes in the log cabin. Basically it’s about seeing an acorn and thinking ‘I can definitely get a threesome out of this’.
Great Doubt is about grounding those dreams in reality. It’s not enough to just hope that your novel is transcendent. You have to do the work. And you probably want to start by feeding it through the ‘passable’ filter before straining for the giddy heights of ‘good’. You don’t assume what you’re producing is great. You assume it’s shit, and you strive to improve it. You get expert opinions. You compare your work against the very best. You know what you’re shooting for is so rare, so incredibly difficult, that you probably won’t get there, and so you subject any fleeting thoughts of genius to intense scrutiny. Think a scene has no room for improvement? You’re almost certainly wrong.
Great Perseverance means having the sack and ovaries to push on through and make good on all this shit. It means keeping going despite the fact that you’re constantly, inevitably failing to reach your own high standards. You might even be failing by society’s relatively mediocre standards! It’s not a very flattering process. But you keep going. You put one word after another, over and over, even on the days when you don’t feel like a mystical prophet on a hill, when the vatic juices aren’t rumbling through your arteries, because if you don’t, that shit will never get done.
Or maybe other people find it much easier than that. Who knows?
All I can say is I want to write, and I want to be an author, even if I’m having to struggle to compensate for my natural deficiencies all the way. I love stories and I love language and if I didn’t have them I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.
Whether it’s easy or hard for you, good luck with your writing this week.
As always, read the extract below then check out my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Christopher)
Like every day before, Lawrence Abbot rose at five in the morning. He brushed the hair off his trousers and shirt as the platinum sun painted the sky red. He washed his face with icy water, shoveled the ash from last night’s fire and set upon building a new one. His wife, Jacqueline, rose just as the flames were catching on the logs, and she took one of the lit shards, holding it out with the flame away from her, and pushed it into the fire box of the iron stove in the kitchen circle. Then she went outside in slippered feet, crunching the snow, and brought another bundle of wood into the house to keep it going.
Catherine woke up to the smell of warm smoke and boiling porridge for breakfast. She put her slippers on, wrapped a gown around her pajamas, and pushed the squeaky wooden door to the bedroom aside, shivering when the cold air caressed her ankles.
Jacqueline pressed a cup of hot tea into Catherine’s cold hands and shuffled back to the kitchen to finish the first meal’s preparations. Lawrence was outside, scooping and dumping the newly fallen snow from the footsteps and path.
Then Catherine’s younger brother, Faraday, stirred in his sleep, kicking the blanket to the end of his straw bed, yawning and stretching his arms.
Like every day before, Lawrence Abbot rose at five in the morning.
Bonjour, Christopher, o plucky lexonaut. This is your opening bid. Your first sentence. This is the plush toy of your novel raising one furry paw from the mountain of stuffed puppies and cutesy anthropomorphised pineapples, baying at the crane-grabber: ‘Pick me! I’m the one you want!’
Here’s what it does right:
It makes sense. It’s simple, comprehensible. That might sound like I’m patronising you or damning with faint praise but you only have to read back through previous editions of this blog to realise how many novice authors faceplant attempting to negotiate this ostensibly low hurdle.
Being clear and concise is hard. Sometimes painfully so. When I’m writing, saying what I want to say in a way people can understand feels like shitting a cannonball.
Your first sentence introduces a character – someone we’ll immediately leap on as a possible candidate for our protagonist. Certainly someone who ought to prove important to this scene. That’s good. The story is located in a specific human. Again, sounds easy, but a lot of first pages fanny around with potted histories or an estate agent’s tour of the fictional environment.
Here’s what it does wrong:
It is excruciatingly boring. Eye-wateringly dull. Bland as a circle.
You need to be making an offer here. A bid. We need some stakes, or a suggestion of tone, or an arresting voice. There is nothing in this first sentence that would make any human being who wasn’t locked, alone, in a shipping container with only this manuscript for company, read on. It is utterly bereft of intrigue.
You even flag it up! ‘Like every day before’? NO! NOT LIKE EVERY DAY BEFORE! This is pretty much the polar opposite of what a story purports to offer. Even as a coy ‘nothing to see here, *wink*’ lowering of expectations, this clause is death to fiction.
Suggesting a routine is fine. Suggesting a routine that is dull as balls is literary suicide.
‘before’ is redundant, by the way, and you could lose ‘in the morning’ by swapping ‘day’ to ‘morning’.
He ‘rose at five’? Who gives a shit? Seriously. Where’s the crunchy specificity? Where’s the engaging of our senses? This is vague and it’s trite and it is utterly without dramatic interest.
And here’s the thing: a first clause suggesting routine only improves the sentence if the thing the main clause describes is bizarre, outrageous or ultra-specific.
Dr Gustav Horbiger turned up to the autopsy drunk.
As expected, Dr Gustav Horbiger turned up to the autopsy drunk.
Margaret Park sliced open her ring finger with the shucking knife.
Like every morning, Margaret Park sliced open her ring finger with the shucking knife.
Jerome Washington forgave his wife.
Once a year, Jerome Washington forgave his wife.
You see? Each of those adapted versions suggests a story. (feel free to use one of them for a writing prompt if you fancy, readers – or try knocking out a dozen of your own as a warm-up)
‘Lawrence Abbot rose at five’ would be just about permissible. It’s bland but clean. It implies routine. You don’t need to say ‘in the morning’ because we’re not anal-retentive literalists.
He brushed the hair off his trousers and shirt as the platinum sun painted the sky red.
Ooh. Exciting. I know, as a human with a finite lifespan I certainly want to invest time I could be spending with my loved ones watching an imaginary man perform nondescript household chores.
What type of hair? Pubes? If it’s animal hair, why not just name the animal?
And POV query here – can he see the sunrise? Is he looking out the window? If you must include this – frankly uninspiring – visual, at least locate it in the character’s experience.
In fact, that’s precisely why this sunrise feels a bit Marlon Blando. It’s just a generic sunrise. What we want to see, what we might care about, is Lawrence’s sunrise. How does he see it? The way you describe it through his eyes will tell us so much about his mood and personality. Is he feeling hopeful, restless? Is he practical, romantic? The very fact that he notices something like the sunrise at all – that he isn’t so absorbed in his morning tasks that it totally passes him by – tells us something about what kind of man he is.
This is precisely the strength and the beauty of third-person limited narration. The restrictions it imposes earn you a whole bunch of exposition that pulls double-duty, world-building while developing character.
He washed his face with icy water, shoveled the ash from last night’s fire and set upon building a new one.
See, I like ‘shovelled the ash from last night’s fire’ – that feels nicely specific without overburdening the reader with finicky detail.
‘washed his face with icy water’ is less engaging. We still don’t know if he’s getting it from a tap, if he has to draw the water from a bucket, if he uses soap or if he simply splashes it from a basin in a corner of the bathroom. Do they have a separate bathroom? What era is this? ‘shovelled the ash’ goes some way to narrowing the possibilities – ‘washed his face’ is far too vague.
‘set upon building a new one’ is telling, not showing. Again, it’s too vague. Have him stacking logs or kindling – we don’t even know from this line whether he’s using coal or wood, so we can’t picture what ‘building a new one’ looks like.
And why not use this as an opportunity to engage our senses? If he has to get a fire going the moment he gets up the house must be fucking brass monkeys. I live in a house with four open fireplaces and no central heating and I can assure you that, when rising upon a winter’s morn, the first thing I’m aware of is not the majesty of the platinum sunrise, but the wrinkly sunset of my scrotal sac retreating into my pelvis.
Dude must be hella cold. Make us feel it.
His wife, Jacqueline, rose just as the flames were catching on the logs,
Okay, so significant time has passed between the end of the last sentence and the beginning of this one. When we left him, Lawrence was stacking the fire. Now, the logs are starting to catch, which is a good five minutes later, at least.
Be considerate to your readers and start a new paragraph.
and she took one of the lit shards, holding it out with the flame away from her, and pushed it into the fire box of the iron stove in the kitchen circle.
It feels awkward trying to cram all these actions into a single sentence, as if she rises, reaches into the fireplace (sidenote: really?! Are you fucking serious? She just sticks her hand into the flames? What the hell do you mean by ‘shards’? Do you mean a piece of kindling? Because if the logs are catching that kindling is gone, dude. Do you mean she lifts a whole log out the fire? Is she sleepwalking? WHAT IS GOING ON I DON’T), pulls out one of these quasi-mythical-sounding flaming shards, wanders into the kitchen and lights the stove, all in one fluid movement.
Incidentally, I like the specificity of the fire box, the iron stove and the kitchen circle. I don’t quite know what each of those means (I suspect ‘kitchen circle’ might indicate that they have a dedicated kitchen area rather than a whole separate room) but we have enough context to make non-stupid guesses and the tightness of the lexical set allows us to start refining our understanding of what environment these characters are living in.
Also, the use of non-jargony technical terms builds your authority as writer. We believe you’ve done your homework, and we trust you a bit more. That’s such an underrated and little-talked-about quality of good prose. So, kudos, Christopher.
Then she went outside in slippered feet, crunching the snow, and brought another bundle of wood into the house to keep it going.
Absolutely no need to start with ‘Then’. We understand the chronological conventions implicit in sentence order. It’s not like if you leave it out, readers are going to be clutching their hair, muttering: ‘Wait – did she go outside then wake up and plunge her arm into the fire? How can we be sure in which order these events took place?’
‘crunching the snow’ is a bit of a cliché, but at least it engages our senses and informs us without too much clumsiness that it is cold outside.
I feel like the pronoun ‘it’ at the end of this sentence is too far away from the noun it’s supposed to be representing. I understood the line on a first pass, but it’s a little shaky.
And again, I’d like to draw your attention back to the general air of boringness about this scene. Who gives a hot sweetcorn-pocked shit? I mean, really?
You could beef-up the sentence a little by returning to the principle I’ve mentioned many times before, and organising the syntax so the most interesting information comes at the end of the line. ‘keep it going’ is flabby narrative busywork. ‘crunching the snow’ has a bit of pop to it, especially because it has an aural quality, and maybe a kinaesthetic one too.
Ugh. Sorry for using ‘kinaesthetic’, you guys. I just threw up a bit in my mouth.
Catherine woke up to the smell of warm smoke and boiling porridge for breakfast.
Horrible, clanging mid-scene POV switch here. We’re now inside Catherine’s experience, smelling what she smells.
Also, that ‘for breakfast’ addendum makes it sound as if she’s having ‘the smell of warm smoke and boiling porridge for breakfast’. You don’t need to specify what the porridge is for. It’s not like we’re expecting Lawrence and Jacqueline to give her a steaming porridge enema.
Okay, if you opened with a porridge enema scene (between consenting adults) I would totally buy this book.
She put her slippers on, wrapped a gown around her pajamas, and pushed the squeaky wooden door to the bedroom aside, shivering when the cold air caressed her ankles.
Who gives a porridge-clogged bloodfart? She got up and put on some slippers? She wrapped a robe round her pyjamas? Come, friends, gather round the campfire and let me tell you the tale of when a girl put on a robe and slippers after waking up!
So look, the squeaking door and the shivering cold are, at least, token attempts to put us in the moment, but it’s a shitty moment. Cut all this tortuous drab waffling. There’s nothing surprising here, nothing that rises above the most perfunctory of clichés. It’s fine for her to put on slippers and a robe, but you don’t need to force us to live through the process. I bet these four characters have done a whole lot of breathing, too, but you haven’t painstakingly logged every single respiration, because you understand that to do so would be to encase your story in several metres of quick-drying cement.
That’s what you’re doing when you tell us boring shit. So don’t.
Look, it’s fine to write your way into a scene, Christopher. I do it all the time and routinely have to chuck away days and days of work because – while nominally useful for me – the scenes produced have no business being in a novel I expect human beings to read for pleasure.
Some dialogue would spice this scene up! Or some conflict. Or some kind of problem. Preferably all three. I don’t see why asking for these things should be base or require dumbing down. A novel isn’t portraiture, and it’s not an educational diorama. It’s drama. It’s human experience. It’s incident. Give us those things, or we will take our business elsewhere.
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