Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Each week, we take the first page of a novice author’s novel or short story and look at ways of making it better. If you’d like to submit your own work, please read our submission guidelines.
I’ve spent the past few weeks writing, and it’s hard, but I’m finding my rhythm. Basically I’m the luckiest chap alive, getting to do my dream job, and if I complain too loudly you have my eager consent to deal me a hearty slap across the chops.
So you know my fiction debut, my first ever novel, is being published by Canongate on April 2nd, 2015, right? It’s called THE HONOURS. If you enjoy this blog, I bet you will find it fascinating to see how I put all these principles into practice.
For authors, pre-orders are really important. They help build buzz around the book, they get booksellers excited, and those first few weeks of sales have a big influence on which novels get shelf space, promotional pushes and restocking orders.
And this week, for the first time, The Honours is available for pre-order! You can pre-order the ebook here and here. The physical book is only pre-orderable on Amazon at the moment – as soon as a non-Amazon link becomes available I’ll post it, but if you’re feeling especially motivated I’m sure you can visit your local independent bookshop and place an order. Once The Honours becomes available on The Hive (which allows you to order books online then pick them up from your local indie bookshop) I’ll post a link to that.
Seriously – if you love this blog and you love me and you want to show that love in a cash-money kind of way, let that impulse control your clicking finger, hit the link and pre-order. You’ll get my book on the day of release and you’ll be supporting me in the absolutely best way possible.
Right – as always, read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Eli)
NEVER go into the forest.
Wind battered the sign against its post, but the moss-eaten warning remained clear. Nails shone fresh against the faded wood. At my feet a trail of dirt led into the forest, back to the hole where the post stood only days ago.
I knew because I’d been here before, though only long enough to change my mind about going in. This was the forbidden part of Idina Palace, where branches burst through the blue-tiled roofs and ivy scaled the walls. I stuck out a finger to touch the sign’s tufted green “N.” It was a game my brother and sister and I played when we were younger—who could touch it before getting gobbled up by the monsters that dwelled past the boundary. It usually ended with all of us screaming as we ran back to the palace, collapsing in a giggly heap.
After our mother disappeared, we didn’t play that game anymore. She was a Southlander from the wintry city of Valen, where the trees slept ever under a blanket of snow. Laughing off the warning, she dared to walk among the oak and cypress, see the sunlight dance on her skin as it filtered through the leaves.
She was alone in the forest that day, ten years ago. No one ever explained to me what happened to her. She was just gone.
NEVER go into the forest.
I’m not sure that you need the block capitals – it nudges this admonition towards cartoonish ‘FREE BIRD SEED’ territory.
Aside from that, a nice opening sentence. Simple, clear – an instruction rather than exposition, which is unusual without being overly tricksy, and the immediate introduction of a question in the reader’s mind.
Plus it establishes rough genre quickly. This is a fairytale, or at least it will borrow from some of those primal, mythic, storybook tropes, even if it ends up featuring human characters in an everyday modern setting.
So yes. Good.
Wind battered the sign against its post, but the moss-eaten warning remained clear.
I’m not sure what the first half of this means. Is the sign hanging on a rope or chains? Otherwise, how is the wind battering it against the post? Surely it’s nailed to the post, right? Or are you saying that ‘the wind battered the sign’ which happened to be ‘against’ a post? Or what? This is bizarrely enigmatic for such a potentially straightforward sentence, Eli.
‘Wind battered’ is tricky because it introduces the wind before you’ve told us that the previous sentence was written on a sign. Make the sign the subject of this sentence, not the object.
I’m sure that a warning can be ‘moss-eaten’. Moss grows over stuff. Would it really grow on a sign that is:
a) presumably a reasonable distance off the ground
b) ‘wind battered’?
Even allowing for this as a possibility, how can the warning be ‘moss-eaten’ but ‘clear’? Surely it’s either one or the other? I know the lettering might but smudged but the intent might be clear, and perhaps that what you meant, but that’s not what you’ve written.
This line is mainly awful because we are two sentences in and there are still no people in this story. Objects are chilling out in a portentous manner. Who gives a shit? Introduce your damn protagonist! This is a novel, not a ghost train. Don’t give us cheesy ambience, give us characters we can start getting invested in.
Nails shone fresh against the faded wood.
So wait – these are new nails? Or they’re wet? Or what? What do you mean, ‘faded wood’? Faded from what? How do we know it’s ‘faded’ as opposed to always having been that colour? I can understand how someone might perceive paint as ‘faded’, or see old oak planks that have swollen and split in the brackish, swampy air after salt has got into the grains, but ‘faded wood’? You are populating your fictional world from a great big trunk o’ clichés, not stopping to check whether some are dripping with viscous bullshit.
And again – why should we care? What makes this information meaningful and not just irrelevant data?
At my feet a trail of dirt led into the forest,
THANK FUCK, a person. At bloody last. I am weeping with relief, Eli. Immediately this feels more like a story.
So, unless this is a little bitty wee forest, the trail of dirt doesn’t lead into the forest ‘at [the narrator’s] feet’. ‘A trail of dirt led from my feet, into the forest,’ perhaps.
Although I would totally read a story about a tiny forest. Oh God that’d be great.
back to the hole where the post stood only days ago.
What? Can the narrator see this? Is this purely notional? Why is this important? I can’t even… This book has barely started and already I’m expected to keep track of – and, even more stunningly, care – where a fictional signpost has been over a period of days.
I knew because I’d been here before, though only long enough to change my mind about going in.
Ugh. What a mess. What a hellish chronopretzel.
Look, Eli. Look what your narrator is doing. He or she is having to stop the story to explain what the previous sentence meant.
There’s so much ambiguity in this sentence – a reader might easily take three or four passes before fully understanding it. ‘I knew’ – knew what? Oh, wait – okay, it probably refers to the very last part of that previous sentence. The narrator knew that the sign had stood days before where a hole exists today. My brain is bleeding just from processing that.
And look at the sentence again. Not a concrete noun to be seen. What a wretched, wretched abomination. It’s all abstract concepts: ‘here’, ‘mind’, ‘before’, ‘long enough’. None of it exists in the real world. You’re not exciting our five senses. It’s not just that there’s no crunchy specificity – there are no fucking tangible things at all!
This was the forbidden part of Idina Palace,
‘Ere, where d’you want this info dumping, guv?’
‘Oh, right in the middle of the page here will do fine.’ CLANG!
Don’t have your narrator explaining things he or she already knows. It knocks us out of the story, suffocates the narrative present, and kills your protagonist as a believable, living breathing human being. They’re no longer a character with needs and wants and a unique viewpoint, they’re just a crappy tour guide.
I do not give a rat’s dick about ‘the forbidden part of Idina Palace’ – not, at least, if it’s presented to me as a Wikipedia entry. Put me inside Idina Palace, however, let me observe its weird splendour and menace, allow me to conclude ‘holy shit dude, I’m not sure we’re supposed to be in here’ and then have Pegasus Wolf Nuns burst from their sentry sarcophagi or a bunch of pit traps open in the marble floor and I would have to be a joyless douchenozzle not to be 100% involved.
where branches burst through the blue-tiled roofs and ivy scaled the walls.
So again – this is quite visual (if a little clichéd) which is nice, because we can picture it, and that makes the story feel more real. I like the fact that the roofs are ‘blue-tiled’. That feels like an odd, unique detail that rescues the line from being pure hackwork.
But you’ve abandoned the narrative present to tell us this. The narrator can’t see this right now – this is a memory, if I’m understanding correctly. The narrator knows that this scene exists, within the forest, but can’t currently see it.
Why step out of the ‘now’ of the story to tell us this? Why not just put us at – or in – the fucking castle? Or, alternatively, have your narrator lingering on the cusp of the forest, tentative, nervous, without telling us what he or she is afraid of? Why not use the power of the unknown?
I stuck out a finger to touch the sign’s tufted green “N.”
Oh Christ – not this moss business again. How can he or she see the ‘N’ if it’s covered in moss? You make it sound like the letter itself is grown out of moss. Like this sign is the equivalent of one of those eggshell people with cress hair you grow when you’re a kid.
I am baffled – baffled, I tell you – by these irrelevant details. They manage to obfuscate while contributing zilch to the story.
It was a game my brother and sister and I played when we were younger—who could touch it before getting gobbled up by the monsters that dwelled past the boundary.
Yet again you’re leaving the narrative present to shoehorn in backstory. Start the damn story, Eli. You can do all the wistful nostalgia horsecrap later.
This sentence is unhelpfully ambiguous because you haven’t yet established the rules of your world. You’ve just told us about a forbidden palace, then here you mention monsters – our first instinct is to think: really? These kids were so unconcerned for their own safety that they routinely risked getting eaten by monsters? It’s only on the next line that we realise these were – presumably – imaginary monsters.
But frankly, we don’t care. I get it – you’re trying to add background colour, to flesh out this protagonist so he or she seems like they have a life that extends beyond the boundaries of the story, but this is not the place to include that.
You need to put your main character in a sticky situation in the narrative present. If their predicament requires lengthy explanations of how they got here and why it matters, then this is the wrong place to start.
But you know what? Usually, the backstory can wait. (and when it does appear, it doesn’t need to be dropped on us in a huge expository chunk – hints can come out in dialogue, through context, etc; show, don’t tell, remember?) If a dude is fighting a mecha-ogre on the floor of a Death Doll factory you don’t need to make us wait to be all ‘of course this was emotionally significant for him because the clanking hulk of sprockets and brass had murdered his sister’ – just show us the fight, and show us, through his actions, that he cares.
After our mother disappeared, we didn’t play that game anymore. She was a Southlander from the wintry city of Valen, where the trees slept ever under a blanket of snow.
Show, don’t tell. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
We mean it when we say it, Eli. It’s not a joke. It’s not a suggestion for sometimes. It’s a foundational compositional principle for effective fiction.
This is important for you, the author, to be aware of as a motivation for the protagonist. But it’s not important for us to know. Delivering information about your main character before you’ve put that character in peril and made us care about them is putting the cart before the horse. And the cart is full of dead kittens. And the horse is crying.
I know what you’re thinking: that would make one hell of a beautiful painting, Tim. Don’t worry Eli, I’m on it. #art
Laughing off the warning, she dared to walk among the oak and cypress,
Okay, it’s not clear that you’ve jumped here from the wintery city of Valen back to the forest, and the ‘warning’ she’s laughing off is the one on the sign.
I still don’t quite understand whether this is a forest or a forbidden palace. I’m glad you’ve been specific with ‘oak and cypress’, but that raises more questions than it answers. They’re a weirdly specific pairing to be growing together in a forest – most cypresses are evergreen, whereas oaks are deciduous, and for the most part they grow in different climates. If this were an ornamental garden for the palace, then any combination of trees would make sense, but it’s a forest. Who planted it? Are we to believe these two types grow together naturally? There are so many different types of cypress that you might need to be more specific.
But then – these are both types of tree peculiar to our world. Yet we’re in an imagined other world, right? It’s a bit like having a Shetland pony trot into the scene. It feels odd to transplant trees from Earth into Fantasyland. Maybe it’s okay – I guess Tolkien did it, right? But if you’re going to feature trees and you’re going to make a point of naming them, make sure you know what you’re talking about, eh?
She was alone in the forest that day, ten years ago. No one ever explained to me what happened to her. She was just gone.
So yes, I’ve already explained – superfluous backstory bad, especially this early in the narrative, when we’re hunting for reasons to give a shit, not mini-autobiographies of fictional strangers.
But I do think the language in this is at least comprehensible. It’s not especially vivid, but it flows nicely and is understandable on a first pass. There’s a rhythm to it.
I don’t think I need to do a summing up here. I’ve repeated myself so many times I feel like I’m about to enter some species of ecstatic trance. Show, don’t tell. Give us action and drama, not cold exposition. That’s it.
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