Good afternoon and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts, making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
I hope you’re all well. Sorry for the late posting of this and last week’s installment, and the missing episode the week before. We’ve had some sadness in the family and it’s been a difficult time. The schedule’s all over the place and it’s been a bit of a struggle to keep on top of things. It’s just the way things are, innit? Life is often crappy for many of us, and I don’t think we realise how many people are carrying invisible burdens. It does – mostly – help you focus on what’s important though, doesn’t it? So there’s that.
If you’d like to support me and the blog there are two things you can do, aside from sharing links on social media and raving about it to your buddies. Buy a copy of my debut novel, The Honours, and tell people about it online. For serious: if everyone who reads this dropped a post on Facebook and Twitter saying ‘oh gosh – have you read THE HONOURS by Tim Clare? It’s real good’ with a link to a reputable bookseller I am genuinely sure sales would quadruple overnight. It would make a huge difference. The novel is entering that weird hinterland where it’s been out for a while and so it’s no longer news/review worthy. All that is left, to help it into new hands, is either a) it wins a big award or b) people talk about it to other people. a) is vanishingly unlikely but b) is in your power, dear friend.
Secondly, The Honours is up for the Edinburgh International Festival’s First Book Award. It’s done by votes, which I think we can all agree is a completely sensical system to ascribe literary merit to a book. If you could take 60 seconds to follow this link and vote for The Honours, you would be doing me a huge fave and could make a significant difference to the life of the book. I know it’s rather gauche to canvass for votes, but you know – it could really help and it’s an easy, free way readers can help me out, so I thought why not.
Right. That’s it. Thanks for reading thus far, and I hope you find this week’s blog useful. I’m doing fine, by the way! Cheers for all your lovely messages, and do keep the submissions coming. Guidelines for submitting to the blog are here. Drop me a line via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d improve, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Emily)
The man felt the heat first. He was curled in a tight ball on the ground and was becoming uncomfortably hot where his side met the earth. He stretched and felt the texture of the surface for the first time. Sand, he was lying on hot sand. The red glare seeping through his eyelids was a warning to open them slowly. He did so and sat up, eyes narrowed against the fierce sunlight. He was sitting on red sand that stretched out as far as he could see in every direction, the sky was a cloudless vivid blue and on the horizon indistinct shapes hinted at mountains.
He waited for the information dump that usually follows on waking up in a strange place, the little rush of: don’t panic, this is how you got here, this is what happened yesterday. He waited for five minutes. Nothing was forthcoming. His eyebrows drew together in a frown. Now that he came to think of it he couldn’t remember anything about himself, let alone how he came to wake up in the middle of a desert. He glanced around rapidly, scanning the flat expanse for a clue, a hint, anything. The sand undulated in gentle slopes, occasionally punctuated by squat thorny vegetation. He rose unsteadily and walked towards the nearest dune. The climb was an undignified struggle, his body was weak from disuse and dehydration but eventually he reached the peak. The view was striking. Beached before him was the carcass of an enormous ship.
The man felt the heat first.
Not conceptually dreadful, this opener – it gives us a protagonist, sensory detail, and a question. Syntax-wise, however, it’s a shit-show.
This is the thing, Emily. Perhaps I seem picky or humourlessly literal, banging on about putting the most important information at the end of the sentence, and the second most important information at the start. It might appear an easily refutable principle. Following rules might seem somehow antithetical to art itself.
When I teach creative writing, this gets brought up a lot. People are – understandably – suspicious of writing rules. Sometimes they’re simply anxious because they’ve never heard the principle I’m talking about before, and they’re worried that they’ve been blindly getting it wrong all these years, and if they don’t fully understand me they’ll continue getting it wrong and be forever barred from the garish wonderland o’ publication. Sometimes they’re in a piss because I’m trying to get them to change long-established habits, and doing so is hard.
Of course there are exceptions. At this point, someone usually raises a pedagogical forefinger and intones: ‘You have to know the rules before you can break them.’ No you fucking don’t. This is obviously untrue. A Border Terrier does not know the rules of Baroque Period musical composition and yet slather the keys of a harpsichord in Winalot and it will gleefully break them all with reckless abandon. You can call it ‘breaking out of the formal constraints established by Bach’ or ‘a hungry dog going apeshit’ – your audience hears the same tune.
The same applies to prose. I mean, I suppose you could salt every page with footnotes which read ‘by the way, I meant to do that’ but ultimately, if you want to find a worthwhile audience and write something likely to stand the test of time, you’re going to have to engage with how readers actually experience your text versus how you insist they ought to.
You don’t have to know the rules before you can break them. But it’s useful to know the effects and costs of violating certain compositional principles so you can make an informed choice. So, for example, you might decide in one instance not to end a line with the most interesting piece of information, because you prefer the cadence or because you’re echoing a previous structural choice. A lot of the work of sentence construction is performing a – largely unconscious – cost-benefit analysis and trying to find an optimal configuration where content and style augment one another rather than working at cross-purposes. It’s bloody hard work, because each word must be considered in the context of the clause, which exists in the context of a sentence, which then must be considered in terms of its relationship to the vast ecosystem of the book. Everything effects everything else, if only minutely.
Novels are like colossal, city-sized Rubik’s Cubes, and I don’t think it’s within the intellectual capacity of human beings to solve them, so the best we can hope for is to arrange each of the faces into pleasing patterns.
Which is to say, some people might read ‘The man felt the heat first’ and be like, I don’t get the problem. Sounds fine to me.
Fuck those guys, Emily. Seriously. Your fictional world, your characters, your creative vision deserves better than shruggy meh levels of effort. I’ve heard published authors admit they write functional prose because they ‘want to focus on the story’. Which is basically code for ‘I’m a lazy hack who can’t be bothered to put the work in’. They’re also slyly implying that authors who care about writing sentences that don’t sound like a bag of spanners falling down a well are somehow careless when it comes to story. As if it’s an either/or.
Which is like saying: ‘I can either develop the culinary skills to prepare you an excellent meal, or I can check to make sure none of the ingredients have expired. CHOOSE ONE.’ Authors who claim literary botulism in an inevitable artefact of the cooking process are hoodwinking you. They want your money and they want to put in the lowest possible number of hours to receive it.
‘The man’ – not a fantastic noun choice. Vague, unenlightening. If you’re going to go broad, you might as well chunk it down to ‘He’, and save a word. At least the use of the pronoun implies familiarity.
‘felt the heat first’ – so, to syntax. ‘first’ is an adverb, modifying the verb ‘felt’. Now I don’t deny that this kind of adverbial qualification can’t be the most important part of a sentence. Charles Dickens uses an adverbial clause to great effect in the opening line of A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’ I mean come on. That is fucking good. We’re given a piece of information, then Dickens hairpins it back upon itself, and the very genre shifts.
But ‘first’ is not performing anything like such an important function in this line. The most important word (when you look through your sentences you’ll usually find the most important information is contained within a noun) is ‘heat’. That is the key thing that begins to suggest a location, and the key problem that faces the protagonist.
So I’d suggest the optimal rendering of this line is: ‘The first thing he felt was the heat.’ Or even ‘The first thing he felt was heat’. (not sure about that second use of the definite article – does it make a difference?)
In fact – is there any reason why you don’t give us his name? It strikes me that the Dickens quote massively benefits by giving us a specific person’s name, which immediately locks it down into a character, a human, a person with a backstory, rather than the broad, unevocative ‘he’. I guess he’s lost his memory, right? But it makes him super-bland.
So there you have it. Over half the column blown ranting about the first sentence. Never let it be said that I’m losing my touch.
He was curled in a tight ball on the ground and was becoming uncomfortably hot where his side met the earth.
Prose isn’t just about conveying information, Emily. It’s about imparting an experience. How does this sentence gift unto the reader the close, sensory experience of waking up, disoriented on baking hot ground?
‘He was curled in a tight ball on the ground’ – I’ve talked about how the verb ‘to be’, when used as a main verb, and how it tends to create static portraiture. Avoid it when possible.
But also – look at point of view in this sentence. Does this first clause describe the sensations of being curled in a tight ball on the ground? It feels like a holistic summary of what is going on, rather than a sense by sense evocation that implies it. What can he feel? What can he hear?
‘and was becoming uncomfortably hot where his side met the earth’ – so this sensory stuff should come before the summary of what he’s doing. Would the side of his body in contact with the ground really be hotter than the side exposed to the sun? Surely the ground beneath him has been in shade and so would be relatively cool.
‘side’ is a vague noun. Say what you mean – flank, cheek, jowl, temple, thigh, haunch, ankle, tricep, elbow. Pick specific body parts to evoke. I’m not asking you to write like a weightlifting manual, but we feel sensations in specific parts of our body, not broad amorphous categories of location.
‘was becoming’ is a clunky verb construction. Actually, this whole sentence feels mangled and overly technical. Split it into shorter, discrete sensations. ‘Sweat soaked through his shirt. He felt the cotton cling to his ribs. Hot, damp earth tickled his cheek.’ Or whatever.
He stretched and felt the texture of the surface for the first time. Sand, he was lying on hot sand.
So why do you describe it as ‘earth’ just a sentence earlier?
‘the texture of the surface for the first time’ is just awful. Not hide nor hair of a concrete noun, just snarls of grammatical cartilage and bloaty, general concepts like ‘texture’, ‘time’ and ‘surface’. I am sure you are a great person valued and loved by everyone around you. And I am sure you will relish the opportunity to work on stylistic weaknesses like this.
The quality of this writing does not reflect on your personal worth one iota. And that’s good, because it’s really bad! We’ve all written like this. It’s to do with focusing only on the function of the language rather than the music of it. Good writers, at a bare minimum, need to care about both.
When you say ‘He stretched and felt’, what does he feel with? Is he running his fingers through the sand? Is he brushing it with his thigh, and feeling it through a layer of clothing? Is it in his hair?
I’m going to go ahead and say, I think if you woke up in a desert and touched hot sand you’d do more than think ‘oh, I’m lying in hot sand’. You would be in instant, searing pain. It would be like resting your forearm on hot coals. It’s that kind of pain where, for a moment, your nerve endings can’t tell if you’re freezing or scalding.
Again, I don’t feel like you’ve really immersed yourself into one person’s subjective experience of what it would feel like to wake up in some of the most extreme conditions imaginable. It reads like a judo manual.
The red glare seeping through his eyelids was a warning to open them slowly.
The content of this line is fine – quite well observed, really – but again that crappy main verb ‘was’ hobbles the whole sentence. Better to recast it more actively: ‘The red glare seeping through his eyelids warned him to open them slowly.’
He did so and sat up, eyes narrowed against the fierce sunlight.
You create tension in the previous sentence – oop! Open your eyes slowly, or else! – and then throw away the act of it in ‘he did so’. Make your writing match the action. Coupling it with ‘and sat up’ makes it sound like a thoughtless, momentary action, when this should be the most important few seconds of the entire scene – the moment where he sees where he actually fucking is.
I don’t get much sense in the rest of the piece of the naked panic one would expect from someone experiencing total memory loss. The world-flipping vertigo of realising: I don’t know who the fuck I am. That would be quite the revelation to have sitting in a cosy hospital bed, let alone lying in the middle of a desert, very probably hours from death.
You quite casually give us the line ‘He waited five minutes’, as if it’s a throwaway thing to sit in desert heat with absolutely no concept of self. As if ontological crisis in extreme environments is a bit like waiting for a bus. THIS IS BANANAS.
First, unless he’s a complete idiot, the dude is going to check his clothes. Does he have boots? Is he in uniform? What’s in his pockets? Is he dressed for desert survival? Secondly, he’s going to get off his jacksie and look for clues. The idea that he’d just sit there, pondering, like an elderly gardener, is totally at odds with his situation. He is dehydrated, alone. He is going to be staggering desperately in search of shelter, water, help. This is not some mildly diverting conundrum. This is urgent life-or-death peril.
Make your writing style match the mood of the scene. Put yourself in your protagonist’s shoes. Imagine it fully.