Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a weekly blog about editing fiction. Hello! Most weeks we look at the first page of a novice author’s novel or short story and see if we can think of ways to make it better.
BUY MY BOOK. Please buy The Honours. It’s good. And that is sophisticated as this week’s pitch is going to get. It’s been doing all right, sales-wise, so I cannae complain. Well, I can, I just shan’t because that would be churlish. I’m super grateful to the bookshops and people who have championed it. *thumbs up, wink*
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Usual drill. Read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d improve, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Eulah)
The warm glow of terraced houses was extinguished after midnight, when the last tired family killed the lights and traipsed up the stairs, emerging into the darkness of the landing. Folding into cloudy duvets, they shut their eyes until day break.
A row of towering blocks now remained, lining the street, illuminated by the thin lamps balanced on the edge of the curb, gently humming as their light strained to reach the pavement below. Faint sounds of car engines broke through the night, tires pulled at the tarmac road, a frustrated driver beeped his horn; the city was full of energy, but none of it would enter the dimly lit street. Until it did. A fragment of life managed to seep through the cracks, trying to break free.
I watched as a man reared around the corner, beads of sweat rolling down his forehead, his shoes slapping the pavement as he ran the seemingly endless tunnel of buildings. The lightless walls sealed him in; he could only go forward, further into the darkness. He looked behind his shoulder as he ran, as if eyeing a pursuer, a mess of dark hair thrown back in the wind, one solitary wisp falling in his eyes, soon blown back to reunite with the other locks plastered to his head. The nameless man’s jacket reflected the dim light that the lamps had to offer, bringing out the pursuer’s looming figure.
The warm glow of terraced houses was extinguished after midnight, when the last tired family killed the lights and traipsed up the stairs, emerging into the darkness of the landing.
What a long way to go with no punch! I was so full of optimism when I started this sentence, then, as it continued to be bland and uneventful well past the twelfth and thirteenth word, I was like ‘ooh – wait, it’s going to pop! This is a sucker punch’ and then I hit ‘the darkness of the landing’ and my disappointment was palpable. Palpable.
Incidentally, what hypothetical family is this who all have an identical bedtime (past midnight?!) and who make the bizarre decision to switch off all the lights in the house (which they can apparently do from a central hub) before climbing the stairs in complete darkness. Because that’s the part of the evening when being able to see where you’re going is least critical, right? TV off, kill all the lights in the house, then there’s a relaxing five minutes of staggering and fumbling as I negotiate the stairs without breaking my neck, clean my teeth, then find my bedroom, change ready for bed and go to sleep. All without being able to see more than a couple of feet.
So I guess this is not ‘incidentally’ – your first sentence accomplishes the impressive feat of being simultaneously boring and utterly bizarre. I get what you were going for though, Eulah, and I’ve definitely written sentences like this – we all have. It’s not a referendum on your worth as a person or even a writer. It’s just a shit piece of writing you happen to have produced, and which you can easily fix.
Nothing of interest happens in this opening line, the nouns are broad and often abstract – ‘family’, ‘midnight’, ‘darkness’ – there’s no conflict, and the sentence ends boringly. You haven’t introduced a protagonist or named anyone, and the point-of-view is confused (we start off seeing the ‘terraced houses’ from outside – by implication from a distance if we see all of them – then in the next clause we’ve jumped to follow a single family – again no indication of how many people this is, what they look like). Oh, and the main clause is clunkily cast in the passive voice (‘The warm glow of terraced houses was extinguished’).
Fortunately, problems with a sentence do not spill over into surrounding sentences. They are not averaged out across your novel. This is no curate’s egg. It’s not like finding a batch of spider larvae in your Battenberg. You can cut the sentence and all the bad stuff dies with it. It’s no harder to deal with than a simply superfluous sentence. Highlight, delete, gone. Move on.
This is the beauty of the computer age. We’re not squandering precious vellum. Text is mutable, so you’re free to make glorious, scarlet mistakes without consequence. It’s always fixable.
Folding into cloudy duvets, they shut their eyes until day break.
So that first subclause feels like it needs a reflexive pronoun – ‘Folding themselves into cloudy duvets’, right?
Which is to say, it would need a reflexive pronoun, if there were anything recommending this sentence for any response other than swift and decisive annihilation.
I don’t know if you’re going for a deliberately hacky, faux-storybook quality here? Like you’re being sarcastically ‘Now we pass, gentle reader…’ and you’re planning to contrast the unsuspecting innocence of these numb sleeping citizens with the bleak reality of the city at night? But this contrast certainly doesn’t take place within the extract you’ve sent.
Any kind of ironic adoption of a ‘high’ narrative voice is super-risky, in my opinion. Certainly as an opening gambit. It has to be note-perfect while signalling to the reader that there is something more interesting going on. Then it has to be leveraged to achieve a specific, valuable effect. That I’m not clear whether you’re shooting for this or not suggests that – whatever your intentions – this opening is not working, tonally.
What is the purpose, in your mind, of this opening paragraph? How is it developing the story? ‘Setting the scene’ is not, for me, an end in itself. It’s not a strong opening play, either. If we see a character, in action, facing a problem, the salient elements of the scene, the context and the environment will emerge in response. But a scene isn’t intrinsically interesting to a reader. It’s only engaging insofar as it impacts upon the welfare of a protagonist we care about. (that is an oversimplification, I know – and ‘care about’ does not necessarily mean ‘like’ or ‘approve of’)
A row of towering blocks now remained, lining the street, illuminated by the thin lamps balanced on the edge of the curb, gently humming as their light strained to reach the pavement below.
So again, what is revelatory, different or even interesting about this statement? It’s not that your writing’s bad, it’s just that you’re straining to invest these lines with significance by pumping the prose full of steroids, because, if you didn’t, the content would be laid bare.
Let’s look at this line without the fancypants gussied-up pseudo-lyricism:
There was a line of terraced houses and the street was lit by street lamps.
That is the information being imparted here. We already know about the houses and we know it’s night.
This isn’t an exercise in facetious reductio ad absurdum mockery – you might counter that any story sounds a bit flat when reduced to its base elements. But content is a thing. And I think subconsciously, as writers, we know when we’re winging it, and we try to puff up our writing to cover the lack of narrative excitement, then we wonder why our writing has suddenly gone so pompous and overblown and dreadful, and we blame ourselves, and tell ourselves we’ve lost it, or we never had it, and aren’t we dreadful sophomoric poetasters.
And I think often, when you return to the work, you’ll find that bad prose and stilted dialogue often arise out of the narrative or the characters have nothing to do. It’s hard to write compelling prose about jack shit. It’s hard to write good dialogue when there’s nothing at stake and the characters are just twiddling their thumbs between scenes. (incidentally, I don’t think ‘twiddling one’s thumbs’ is a thing. That is not something I do when I’m bored or idle. Maybe it was a pre-mobile phone era thing. Like, in the olden days, people just used to mindlessly tap their thumbs against a void. Then one day, the mobile phone was invented, and suddenly those thumbs were hitting buttons – as if human beings had some reverse vestigial memory extending backwards through evolution, as if our thumbs were always waiting for a touchscreen to appear beneath them, finally, like a rose-cut jasper set into the socket of a diadem, completing the masterwork)
Faint sounds of car engines broke through the night, tires pulled at the tarmac road, a frustrated driver beeped his horn; the city was full of energy, but none of it would enter the dimly lit street.
Vague, clichéd gestures towards a city. Nothing distinctive or interesting here – even when you engage our senses with sounds, they’re the most obvious, familiar beats and the nouns you choose – ‘car’, ‘road’, ‘driver’, ‘city’, ‘street’ – are the broadest, least enlightening.
This line might as well read: ‘You know a city? Basically that.’
Until it did. A fragment of life managed to seep through the cracks, trying to break free.
FINALLY. A glimmer of fucking story.
I feel like the second sentence is a bit metaphorical. It’s hackneyed – ‘life seeping through the cracks’ is a bit worn-out as a phrase – and I’d rather you just weighed in with what’s actually happening. Be upfront. Coyness is irritating.
Still – at least something is breaking the routine. This needs to come much, much earlier though. You’re demanding a lot of the reader to walk this far before something happens.
I watched as a man reared around the corner, beads of sweat rolling down his forehead, his shoes slapping the pavement as he ran the seemingly endless tunnel of buildings.
So a first-person narrator? After three paragraphs. No. Put the ‘I’ in the first sentence. So much more compelling than the general wash of horns and tarmac and lights.
‘reared around the corner’ – I don’t think that verb means what you think it means. It would be cool if the guy came pelting round the corner backwards with his bum out, though. To ‘rear’ means to go up on one’s hind legs. So maybe this dude is like a centaur or something? He’s half-horse and he’s pulling a wheelie.
To be fair, that would be an awesome opening:
I watched the half-horse mutant gallop round the corner, kicking over bins and setting off car alarms. He reared up in the orange sodium glow of a street lamp, hoofing the air. He had a lot of tattoos.
How can the narrator see ‘beads of sweat’ at night, at a distance?
Not sure about ‘seemingly endless tunnel of buildings’. Is that just a confusing synonym for ‘street’? Is the street really ‘seemingly endless’? That sounds like a ludicrous exaggeration.
I like ‘shoes slapping the pavement’ though. I can hear that.
The lightless walls sealed him in; he could only go forward, further into the darkness.
Again, weirdly overwritten. And a POV slip – is the narrator thinking this, or is the man thinking it? Is a lit, residential road really this intimidating?
‘lightless’ is a really bad synonym for dark. I get it – once you’ve said ‘darkness’, ‘blackness’, ‘night’, ‘dimly lit’, ‘faint glow’ and whatever, you’ve pretty much exhausted the language. But maybe don’t club the reader over the head with all this emphasis on how dark it is. It’s night, we get it. The more you try to invest it with portent – may I suggest ‘the gloom’ and ‘the inky void’ for extreme wankitude – the more your narrator sounds like Vincent Price on sitting in his leather club chair on Masterpiece Theatre, desperately trying to invest some shitty clapped-out schlock with a semblance of menace.
He looked behind his shoulder as he ran, as if eyeing a pursuer, a mess of dark hair thrown back in the wind, one solitary wisp falling in his eyes, soon blown back to reunite with the other locks plastered to his head.
Wow, that’s a… that’s certainly a very fastidious commentary on the relative states of different parts of his hair. Which is obviously going to be the reader’s main concern at this stage. Fuck whoever’s chasing him, the question on everyone’s lips is: is his barnet maintaining its structural integrity?
I don’t think those other locks are ‘plastered to his head’, by the way. I suspect they’re growing from follicles in his scalp. Unless this is a bald guy who coated his head in PVA glue then rolled around on a barber’s floor. Maybe that’s who’s chasing him. Maybe this is a centaur with alopecia who steals other people’s hair clippings. Poor chap.
Look, so, Eulah. My basic diagnosis is: this is overwritten. Which I suspect is a confidence thing. You don’t have to prove yourself as a writer – you are a writer. So please give yourself permission to get to the point, to write simply, when the situation demands. I’m not against lush, complex prose, but if you make it your only move, you are hampering yourself as a storyteller. Sometimes you just want to get to the guts of a scene.
‘I watch as a man runs.’ That’s enough style for anybody.