Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

This is a blog about self-editing fiction. If you’ve just started writing or you’ve been hammering away for years, I hope that you’ll find something useful amongst my discussions of how to make bad sentences into slightly less bad sentences. You can read previous posts here, and fritter away an afternoon that you could have spent writing your next chapter or repairing your relationship with your estranged sister.

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As always, the way the blog works is this: read the extract below, decide what you do and don’t like about it, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’. Remember, the onus is on you developing your self-editing skills. Try to identify exactly what does and doesn’t work, and more importantly, why.

Untitled (by Enkel)

All April really remembered was that she was suddenly flying, not falling, but flying through the air. What ever the reason, the thought was quickly pushed from her mind and body by a heavy thud, followed by darkness.

Shrill sounds of a loud siren sunk claws into April’s skull to pull her from the nothingness. There were hands on her. April didn’t like being touched. The hands enraged her. She tried to bat them away and they only pulled her arms back down to her sides. She redoubled her determination and attempted to sit up. The hands pushed her down as easily as if she were a new born infant. Exhausted, she surrendered to the darkness as the sound of the siren faded.

Then, she was hot. Too hot. Like a sauna that’s so hot that you can barely catch your breath.

A woman’s voice in the distance. “Doctor, I think she’s waking up.”

April tried to speak but her tongue and lips refused to cooperate. Nothing but strange mumbling sounds.

A young man’s voice. “That’s okay, take it easy there young lady.”

Where am I? Panicked, she tried to rise. Bright light blinded her as hands pushed her down again. Nearly panting in fear, she tried again. The hands were stronger and pushed her back under. Waves of darkness took her back to the nothingness.

Hands shaking her and the young man’s voice again, “Can you hear me? Can you tell me your name?”

The Cuts

All April really remembered was that she was suddenly flying, not falling, but flying through the air.

Mmmf. This is so almost good. It’s like sitting down to a delicious, colourful salad, then turning over one of the crisp leaves of cos lettuce only to find the underside decorated with a skid mark.

This whole piece is a bit of a curate’s egg, in fact. I might as well hold my hands up right at the start and admit that parts of it are excellent.

In my experience, however, praise is a dangerous thing. Maddeningly, writers who are closest to producing a decent page are also the ones most likely to abandon editorial rigour when you tell them they’re nearing their goal. The validation-endorphins turn them into giddy crackheads.

So look, Enkel. Noble friend. There is a nice salad here. But it is swimming in diarrhoea.

It is not enough to drain away some or most of the diarrhoea. We want no diarrhoea in our salad, understand? So fire up your salad spinner, hold some pride in your breast, and follow me.

‘really’ is a fluff word. Read the sentence without it and you’ll see it contributes nothing. Cut it.

‘suddenly’ is almost always a useless freeloading piece of shit, but here is one of the few places where it earns its keep. It modifies ‘flying’ in an important, startling way – this isn’t graceful, continuous flight. It happened out of nowhere. You need the adverb to convey this.

I’m not totally sold on the clauses after the first comma, but I do know that a comma is the wrong punctuation. Either drop in a dash, to keep that first clause clean and impactful, or – if you’re feeling especially fruity – you could even insert a full stop and move the sentence fragment beginning with ‘not falling’ to a new line. It’d be a bit gimmicky, but this is the first page of a novel – presumably MG or YA, given the language and the implied age of the protagonist – so you might decide that extra soupcon of showiness is permissible.

What ever the reason, the thought was quickly pushed from her mind and body by a heavy thud, followed by darkness.

Fresh radishes bobbing in bum juice, that’s what this is. So nearly successful, yet if I read this in a published book I would quietly remark ‘oh fuck off’ and return it to the remainder bin. That’s right, Enkel – I just remaindered your hypothetical novel. What are you going to do about it? Edit your work to such a standard that it becomes commercially viable and enjoy a long and satisfying career as a novelist?

‘whatever’ is one word. Which is beside the point, because ‘What ever the reason’ is meaningless vacillatory garbage.

‘the thought was quickly pushed from her mind and body’? Not so fast, sonny Jim. The passive voice in the second sentence? Oh no you didn’t.

‘quickly pushed’ pairs an adverb with a weak verb. Super-poor compositional practice. ‘shoved’ or ‘shunted’ would be better.

And what’s with that cute ‘and body’ addendum? The thought was quickly pushed from her body? What the fuck does that even mean?

I appreciate you’ve gone to the trouble of sticking ‘thud’ and ‘darkness’ at the ends of the two clauses. At last, someone who has listened to the ‘stick the most interesting information at the end of your sentences’ principle.

But it’s not an excuse to wrench your syntax into all sorts of butt-ugly contortions. The tough part about writing fiction is making all the different rules play nicely with each other.

If you rewrote the main clause as ‘a heavy thud shunted the thought from her mind’, sure you’d have recast it in the active voice, but you’d have also ruined its impact. ‘heavy thud shunted’ – the most exciting part of the sentence – comes too early, leaving the dull, abstract nouns ‘thought’ and ‘mind’ for later on.

But wait – is she remembering this, or realising it? ‘remembered’ implies she is recalling ‘suddenly flying’. Why does the memory get ‘pushed from her mind’ by a ‘heavy thud’? Did she get punched while reminiscing?

I think you’ve got your narrative present in a bit of a twist here… which offers an elegant solution to our problem. All the cumbersome parts of that second sentence also happen to be the chronologically confusing ones.

Better to reduce it to sentence fragments, to mirror the fragmented nature of her memory (and, more importantly, to save the reader from shitty prose):

All April remembered was that she was suddenly flying – not falling, but flying through the air.

Then a heavy thud. Darkness.

Maybe we need an extra thought between ‘air’ and ‘then’ – a hint of the surprise she remembers feeling in the moment? On the other hand, why bog down your opening with superfluous brainguff? Better to get into the story. That’s a blunt, arresting start. Why spoil it?

Shrill sounds of a loud siren sunk claws into April’s skull to pull her from the nothingness.

‘shrill’ and ‘loud’ are such crappy ways to modify the noun ‘siren’. They don’t tell us anything we wouldn’t have guessed. It’s like modifying ‘penguin’ with ‘black’ and ‘white’.

And why do you specify that the sounds of the siren woke her up? Is the reader likely to assume that the siren is rousing her with its smell? The pungent aroma of anus-salad? Because I would totally read that book:

Robyn sat bolt upright in bed, her nostrils twitching.

The air roiled with a familiar odour: spinach and turds. The siren was going off!

The ‘sunk claws’ metaphor ought to be overwrought but I think you get away with it. ‘nothingness’ is an almost meaninglessly abstract noun, but again, I think it works in this context. The plot is moving quickly. We’re engaged. One or two placeholders might be worth it for the sake of pace.

I’m not down with ‘to pull her’. It’s a continuous action, happening as the siren blares. ‘pulling her’ would be better.

Rewritten, the sentence becomes: ‘A siren sunk claws into April’s skull, pulling her from the nothingness’.

There were hands on her. April didn’t like being touched.

The first sentence is okay. Better to make the hands the subject rather than the object, and give them an action. Let us see them in motion, rather than rendering them as static portraiture, i.e. ‘Hands gripped her wrists and throat’ or wherever she’s being grabbed.

The second sentence is a blatant slamdunker of a ‘show, don’t tell’ violation. Like, if this were a courtroom, the prosecuting attorney would just amble in half-cut and say: ‘I don’t know… maybe you shouldn’t find him guilty?’ And the judge would be like: ‘No, he’s definitely guilty.’ Gavel slam. 100 years in crime jail.

Show her reacting badly to being touched. Describe the sensation of the tightening fingers and her bucking against them. Really make it clear how much she hates this – how this goes beyond the normal distress someone would feel at waking up to find themselves restrained by strange hands.

By baldly stating a personality trait instead of showing a character in action and allowing her behaviour to arise naturally out of conflict, you’re robbing an important scene of impact. You want you reader to see her act and think ‘goodness – she really doesn’t like to be touched’. It will be several orders of magnitude more powerful if the reader deduces this from implicit evidence, rather than you blundering towards us with your big spoonful of info-mush, acting all ‘here comes the choo-choo train’ when we’d really rather prefer to consume our leafy greens de la merde in our own time.

She redoubled her determination and attempted to sit up.

This is the first I knew about her lying down. You need to establish her position earlier.

‘redoubled her determination’ is a bizarre shift in register – it sounds like part of a badly translated speech by a defiant dictator. Again, this is a question of show, don’t tell. Show us what she does, and allow us to conclude: ‘my, my – she certainly appears to have redoubled her determination!’

The hands pushed her down as easily as if she were a new born infant.

A ‘new born infant’, eh? As opposed to those 43-year-old infants still living in their parents’ converted loft. (NB: ‘newborn’ is one word)

If the only simile you can think of is a lazy cliché, here’s an idea – don’t use it. ‘easily’ contains everything we need to know. After that, you’re just pointlessly noodling on a theme. You might as well write: ‘The hands pushed her down easily, that is to say, it took no particular effort for the hands to do so – they pushed her down in an easy manner, with ease, without trouble, as if she were very weak, like a small young baby is weak, or an old pensioner, or a slow loris on horse tranquilisers.’

Exhausted, she surrendered to the darkness as the sound of the siren faded.

Chipper lists of ‘Writing Tips’ are the worst thing – worse than parasitic eyeball worms, worse than Richard Littlejohn, worse than tucking into a sumptuous platter of raw spring vegetables only to discover that the little pile you thought was mushroom paté is, in fact, a mouldering grot of puréed jacksie-chocolate. They’re a great way for authors to self-mythologise while passing on zero of practical value. Aspiring writers approvingly quote them to each other, nodding sagely and feeling very arty, apparently untroubled that their prose remains as godawful and wretched as it ever was.

But if, in some bizarro parallel universe, I were to construct such a list, it would definitely open with the following handy hint:

1. Attach a pair of barbed Taser electrodes to your nipples. If you find yourself tempted to write the phrase ‘surrendered to the darkness’, activate the Taser.

Simplify this sentence. ‘exhausted’ is obvious from the context and thus unnecessary. Cut it. We’ve established that ‘surrendered to the darkness’ is terrible, ersatz, adolescent emoting. Cut it.

Better to run with something like: ‘The siren faded, along with the room.’ You might want to tinker with the phrasing, but the point is to close on room, so we realise at the same instant she does ‘oh, she’s passing out’, i.e. just before she goes under.

Then, she was hot. Too hot.

I love how you don’t signal a time transition. This feels authentic – the kind of sudden jump cuts experienced by people under anaesthetic or in comas. The sentences are simple and punchy, even if they’re awkwardly reminiscent of the hackneyed ‘It was quiet. Too quiet.’ formulation.

Like a sauna that’s so hot that you can barely catch your breath.

See ‘new born infant’ for my thoughts on crappy first-thing-that-came-into-your-head similes. Limit yourself to one simile or metaphor per page, and make it a non-shitty one. Here, just tell us: ‘she could barely catch her breath’.

A woman’s voice in the distance. “Doctor, I think she’s waking up.”

I like this. Clear. Simple.

My only suggestion is that you give the doctor a name. Make her or him ‘Dr something’. Specificity is axiomatically better than vagueness, and by dropping in a name you ease this dialogue away from the slightly generic flavour it currently possesses.

April tried to speak but her tongue and lips refused to cooperate. Nothing but strange mumbling sounds.

I just did a quick Google search for ‘mouth refused to cooperate’ and got about 16,700 results. Double that for ‘legs’. Pick most body parts and you’ll get thousands of hits. It’s a cliché. You’re better than clichés. Cut it.

We know that ‘strange mumbling’ is a sound. I feel like ‘strange’ is one of those adjectives that seems expressive but doesn’t actually give the reader much. Can you think of a more striking, more specific word, that maybe suggests something more about the sonic quality of this mumbling? Dry mumbling? Animal mumbling?

Better to smoosh these two sentences into one: ‘April tried to speak but only made a dry mumbling.’ Or something. Play around with it a bit until you find something that works.

Where am I?

The sudden switch into the first person is unnecessary. Keep it stream of consciousness: ‘Where was she?’ Or, even better, don’t bother with this heavy-handed signposting at all.

Panicked, she tried to rise.

This adequately implies the above question. No need for ‘panicked’. That telling, not showing. Give us her physical sensations, her breathing, what she feels and smells and hears. Do that with sufficient detail and her emotional state will be obvious.

So look – there are good things about this first page. You present us with an exciting scenario, you handle time transitions adroitly, there are some flickers of competent style. Reading it didn’t make me pissed off.

But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, this does not mean you’re home free. You have a metric fucktonne of revision to be getting on with. Almost every sentence on this page needs attention – multiply that by however many pages the novel or short story runs to and you’ll appreciate the magnitude of your task.

But that’s writing. It’s bloody hard.

In fact, if you don’t find writing incredibly tough, you’re either:

a) a jammy savant (I am not sure these people exist)

b) shite at writing

Being the latter is not necessarily a bar to publication, but this isn’t a ‘how to get published’ blog. It’s a ‘how to be the best writer you can be’ blog. I reckon the best writer you can be, Enkel, is a pretty great one. The extent to which you fulfil that promise will be measured by how much time and effort you put into self-editing.

That’s it. That’s the secret. Like any true piece of magic, the secret behind writing is ugly and inelegant. That’s why so many people miss it.

If you enjoyed this, and you’d like to reward me while taking our relationship ‘to the next level’, why not order my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts?

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