Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
I’m up at the Edinburgh Fringe all this month, performing my show Be Kind To Yourself. I’m… I don’t really know how to say this, but so far it’s been a wonderful experience. Audiences have been so nice that I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Cheers if you’ve turned out to see me. It’s on every day til the 24th of August.
We’ve also been performing Grave Invaders, a show about death with me, Mark Grist and MC Mixy. Similarly great fun, and a multi-round rap battle to close each performance. It’s on til the 12th, so if you’re in town, hurry hurry hurry.
If you want to submit to Death Of 1000 Cuts, please read the submission guidelines. This is an editing blog about improving your fiction, in case you’re new.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my comments after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Colton)
The wind blew calmly over the countryside on a beautiful summer day. It was a cruel trick by Mother Nature to cover up the harsh reality. For know no one was out enjoying this day in the sun. The neighbors did not hold parties and BBQ’s. The kids did not fill the air with laughter as they played. No one did anything. Because everyone was either dead or infected.
When I first heard of the infection, I had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to my 18th birthday. I heard of some new type of flu sweeping across Asia and Europe. Three days after that, the disease had spread to North America. Within the next week, the disease had infected over 3 million people in the U.S. alone. People that had the disease began dying, except they came back.
Before I knew it, the world had gone to shit. At the time, I still lived with my parents in my childhood home in a little village in western Pennsylvania. My father decided we should stay in our home. We boarded up the windows and readied our guns for whatever came to us. Things stayed quiet for a week or so. A lot of our neighbors packed up and left. Where they went I would never know. Four families stayed. There was my family, the young couple from across the street, and two elderly couples down the street.
The wind blew calmly over the countryside on a beautiful summer day.
Colton, dear friend, thank you for your submission. I bet you are a lovely person and your friends think an awful lot of you. Someone’s writing is in no way an index of their worth as a human. We are simply engaging with some text you produced – something separate from you, something that can be judged independently without impugning your intrinsic value as a human being.
This is the worst fucking first line I have read in months. You could fertilise the entirety of Shropshire’s arable farmland with all the shits I do not give about what happens next.
‘The wind blew’? The wind blew? Three words and you’ve faceplanted into the dogshit. I am stunned at how bland your verb choice is. What else is the wind going to do except blow? What does ‘blew’ add to our understanding of wind? Hey, hey, maybe the sun shone and the birds sang and the reader left, throwing an insouciant two-fingered salute over her shoulder as she gave up on your novel after a mere three words, because you’re giving every indication that you do not intend to deliver a story.
But I’m being unfair. Even stalwarts of this blog will be thinking ‘oh come on, Tim – that’s a bit much to ask of three words. How much do you expect it to squeeze in? Give it a chance.’
I don’t think I’m being unfair. Pick up a novel near to you and look at the first three words. They might not ask a question or form an intelligible sentence or be the most original combination ever conceived, but I bet, if it’s a good novel, they won’t manage the – perversely impressive – feat of squeezing a dull cliché into just three words.
So, for example, the novel on my desk at the moment is Odd John by Olaf Stapledon. I just picked it up to see if my theory holds water. First three words: ‘When I told’. There are no difficult words there, no original words, nothing that grabs the senses – but still. Don’t you immediately want to read on? When you told what to who? Who are you? And what happened?
But maybe you’ll flip it with your fourth word. *reads on*
ARRRGHHHHHHH! An adverb. A bloody adverb. And does it modify ‘blew’ in a surprising or helpful way? Nope. ‘The wind blew calmly’. So don’t worry, dear readers, if you feared perhaps that the wind might be blowing in a raucous or fierce or otherwise notable manner, maybe even with the sort of intensity that might precipitate a – whisper it – story, because this is a calm wind. Usually we’d call it a ‘breeze’, but that kind of meteorological jargon is apparently too complex, so ‘calmly blowing wind’ it is.
So we’re four words in and as welcomes go, this one feels like I’ve pushed my way through butcher’s strips soaked in fox piss. And where have I emerged?
‘over the countryside on a beautiful summer day.’ Into a dentist’s waiting room that stinks of eggy farts.
Now look – I know you’re setting us up for a twist, Colton. I know it’s deliberately tra la la, isn’t everything wonderful, because you’re planning this big reveal.
The problem isn’t that this first sentence lacks conflict, although I’d argue that is a definite weakness. The problem is that it betrays a complete lack of stylistic finesse, clarity and vividness.
Look at how vague those noun and adjective choices are: ‘countryside’, ‘beautiful’, ‘summer’, ‘day’. ‘countryside’ is just a category noun. You’re giving us a basic class of location rather than showing us a specific scene. ‘beautiful’ is a value judgement, not a concrete modifier that gives us something we can picture. Describe something specific and allow us, the readers, to conclude that it is ‘beautiful’. Show, don’t tell. You remember that, right?
Then we get ‘summer’ and ‘day’. Not even ‘morning’ or ‘afternoon’. We just know that it’s somewhere within a three month span and not night. We don’t even know in what hemisphere this is taking place. Is this Germany, Australia, the US, South Korea? Maybe if your word choices weren’t these vague, astigmatic smudges we might have some clues!
It was a cruel trick by Mother Nature to cover up the harsh reality.
Show, don’t tell. This is a wasted line – basically you, as the narrator, stepping in to say: ‘but ah! Dear reader, do not be fooled – for twas all a wicked hoax! You have been foxed! And I am about to relate the way in which you have been foxed, revealing how the clement weather does not reflect the mood of this story. Are you ready? Brace yourself, for now my tale continues, with a very different tone…’
Also – three clichés in a single sentence? Bravo. ‘cruel trick’, ‘Mother Nature’ and ‘harsh reality’. Some people would argue ‘Mother Nature’ is an archetype rather than a cliché – in the same way mentioning ‘Santa Claus’ doesn’t necessarily betoken a lack of originality so much as a referencing of a cultural figure – but using ‘Mother Nature’ as synecdochical expression for the weather is definitely clichéd. It’s lazy and it encourages us to switch off.
For know no one was out enjoying this day in the sun.
Not sure what happened with this typo. Cut ‘know’.
Don’t describe the absence of things. It’s a weird mental backflip that distracts readers.
Actually, back up. Don’t start sentences with ‘For’. It makes this read like the portentous voiceover at the beginning of a 1950s public information film on diphtheria.
The neighbors did not hold parties and BBQ’s. The kids did not fill the air with laughter as they played.
No apostrophe needed on ‘BBQ’s’. Indeed, no awkward grocer’s blackboard abbreviation to ‘BBQ’ needed. It’s a barbecue, Colton. I’m pleased you’re conscientious about saving ink but come on.
Again, these are clichés, evoked with broad strokes. You’re giving us categories, not characters. It’s not an excuse to say that these things are absent, therefore they can’t be painted in detail. Basically you’ve chosen to open your novel with trite, slapdash descriptions of stuff that doesn’t appear in it. Ask yourself, Colton – is that an optimal strategy for hooking readers?
And where are all these ‘neighbors’ living? Why should we expect lots of people in what you’ve only just told us is the ‘countryside’? This sounds more like suburbia. So your colossal umbrella terms aren’t just imprecise, they’re flatly false.
No one did anything. Because everyone was either dead or infected.
This is unintentionally comic. I know you’re going for a big rug-pull reveal, but the effect, after all the hammy stereotypical picturesque suburban utopia fluff, we just don’t care enough for this to have any sort of heft. It reminds me of the Horror excerpts Garth Merenghi used to read on the introductions to Darkplace.
When I first heard of the infection, I had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to my 18th birthday.
Oh! What? You made us sit through all that when you had a perfectly good first line sitting here all the time?! I’m so aghast I just used an interrobang, Colton. An interrobang.
It’s not a flawless sentence, but it does introduce a protagonist and a story. Let’s apply that three word test – ‘When I first’. Sweet Jesus. Notice how very similar that is to Odd John – the SF classic that we agreed was an excellent model of how to start a novel?
‘When I first heard of the infection’ is a pretty great opening clause. I would read on. That gets my blood pumping. And look – an adverb that contributes! ‘When I first heard’ is significantly different to ‘When I heard’. It implies that this was something that was ongoing, that the narrator heard about a lot, and was therefore important. So the ‘first’ carries all this ominous weight. Nice.
I’m less enamoured with ‘I had just graduated from high school’. It’s okay, but a bit generic. Maybe switch out ‘high school’ for a specific name of an institution? It does at least locate this within the US.
Same with ‘and was looking forward to my 18th birthday’. This sounds super-vague and bland. I don’t get any sense of personality. ‘looking forward to’ is a very limp, unappealing phrase. And why is the narrator looking forward to his or her 18th? This isn’t exactly tension city. If he or she was ‘counting down the days until’ his or her 18th so they could finally get away from their step father, or claim that inheritance, or bust loose down to Mexico, or whatever, that would be story-worthy. Simply looking forward to one’s birthday ceases to be reasonable material for a book around the age of 7+.
I heard of some new type of flu sweeping across Asia and Europe. Three days after that, the disease had spread to North America.
Well hey, just by coincidence I think I was infected by a strange sleeping sickness when I read this, because my eyes grew heavy and I started to nod off.
Show, don’t tell. These info dumps are boring as balls. Not only that, but we’ve seen this a hundred times before. Why are you wasting time trotting out this clichéd world-building? Cut to a scene in the narrative present, give us some action, give us some characters, and let us deduce what has happened (zombie virus) for ourselves, through contextual clues.
I’m not going to plough on doing line edits for the rest because the above stands for the entire extract. If you’re going to write a generic post-zombie apocalypse world, that’s fine, but just like writing a piece of Fantasy in ‘default medieval Europe with wizards and dragons land’, you don’t need to walk the reader through the rules of your world.
If you’re going to use clichés, and the same setting we’ve encountered again and again, at least make a virtue of that. You get a whole bunch of stuff for free. You don’t have to explain zombies to us, and what the rules are. You can just jump into the stories of these survivors, in this community, in this moment. Give us those stories, not your plodding description of a potted history of your world.
Don’t treat your readers like idiots. Throw us in at the deep end, and play to your story’s strengths. Trust us. We can handle it.