Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog for writers, readers, editors, and people interested in the craft of storytelling.
The more analytically-minded amongst you will have perceived by many tokens that Death Of 1000 Cuts did not appear in its regular Thursday slot last week. This is because I was staggering under the weight of manflu. I am sorry. To make up for it, I’m going to do two installments this week, one on Monday (today) and one on Thursday.
I feel like I’m in this surreal, liminal state between dreaming and reality, after lying in the spare room for 5 days, floating in and out of fever dreams, sleeping most of the day and night. It’s been super-grim. I have been listening to audio versions of apocryphal books of the Bible on Youtube while phasing in and out of consciousness – The Book of Jasher, the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Enoch. I’m like an ecclesiastical hipster – God? Oh, I’m more into His non-canon stuff – you probably haven’t heard of it. The Book of Jasher has a pretty entertaining houseguest swindle set piece that feels like it’s straight out of The Life Of Brian. (I was listening for research, in case you think my fever occasioned some deep spiritual awakening)
But I am pretty much better now – still wheezy and off the running, but able to speak in full sentences and get up and down the stairs without crying, so yay.
It is scarcely a month until The Honours hits the shops, you guys. I know this is exciting for no one but me, but still – it’s my first ever novel. It’s okay to be feeling a little fluttery, right?
To be honest, I am shitting bricks. More than that – I am passing breeze blocks. I am voiding myself and hearing the crunch of porcelain and glancing down to see huge stainless steel supporting columns in the toilet bowl. I would like to be tough/blasé/philosophical but honestly? I really care that people get to read this cool thing I have made! I think Delphine deserves to live in lots of people’s imaginations.
Anyway, we’re doing a free show on April 1st, at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, where I’ll have the first ever copies for sale. And on April 2nd, we’re having the launch at the Book Hive in Norwich. I hope you can make it to one or the other – it’d be lovely to see you – but if not, if you’d like to give me a little pre-launch boost, could you pre-order the book? I know I’m not a credible advocate for my own work, but actually a lot of the brilliant stuff comes from the support of my writer and reader friends and my agent and editor, so it’s the product of a team effort.
So look – you know how In The Barber’s Chair works. If you’d like to submit your own work, please read our submission guidelines. Otherwise, read the extract below, decide what you like and what parts you’d improve, then read my suggestions after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Hank)
Boyd laid parallel to John in the darkness of the room. The cold and musk of the room emanated around them with great power.
Despite the shared thoughts of the two men, they both avoided their own minds as if they were lepers. They held the banal conversation through the hidden tears and choked voices that each produced with every word. Neither could bare to bring up the gravity of the situation, for they both feared death as anyone would, regardless of how well they each believed they could hide such emotions.
Boyd rationed with himself that he was to die tonight and such an event was in fact unavoidable. John, in contrast, fought the reality with all of his insignificant might. Rambling on about the days of his youth, his mother, the various sexual partners he had been with. Despite his ability to tell his stories with such vivid descriptions, Boyd essentially ignored him. Providing no input or grand responses that John so eagerly sought out. Neither man was bitter towards the other for their actions; nor were they understanding.
As John finished describing his first true moment with the opposite gender Boyd opened his mouth and the words poured from him as water from the heavens. He began to tell John of philosophies that he had been brought to understand by The Devil many a year before.
Boyd laid parallel to John in the darkness of the room.
I have a grim headcold right now, and my judgement might be impaired, so before we nuke this entire extract from space, let’s see if there are any grubby orphan survivors hiding in the air ducts.
Which is to say: look, this first sentence is, at least, clear. I understand it. So that’s good.
Aside from that: *thumb down, fart noise*
‘Boyd laid parallel to John’? One, the verb you’re after is ‘lay’, not ‘laid’. ‘lay’ is the intransitive form, ‘laid’ is the transitive form (i.e. it takes an object). If Boyd ‘laid an egg’, you’d be bang on. If he performed the action of lying, ‘lay’ is the correct verb (I am 90% sure of my reasoning here – it is possible that ‘laid’ is a weird Americanism, like ‘gotten’, but even if that were true, it’s still inelegant and cut-worthy).
Two – and more seriously – ‘parallel to’ is a classic example of superfluous specificity that slows down the narrative whilst contributing nothing. If you’d written ‘Boyd lay beside John’ do you honestly think the reader would picture them lying in a T formation?
‘in the darkness of the room’ Syntax, syntax, syntax. ‘of the room’ is such a boring-as-bum-water way to close your first sentence. At the very least, cut these last three words so the line becomes ‘Boyd lay beside John in the darkness.’ I’m not fond of abstract adjectives turned into nouns – darkness, heaviness, strangeness – but it’s better than the bland introduction of a room already implied by the context.
The cold and musk of the room emanated around them with great power.
This feels like a badly translated line from a Japanese RPG. ‘emanated’ means ‘flowed out’. How does coldness ‘flow out’ around someone ‘with great power’? What does that even mean? Are they in a meat freezer? Where is this coldness flowing from?
And ‘musk’? Again, where is it ‘emanating’ from? Are they sharing the darkness with a moose?
Just like the previous sentence, this line ends on a big old abstraction that vaguely emphasises what has come before but mostly leaves an impression of fudgy imprecision. ‘cold’ doesn’t seem a strong enough word if it has ‘great power’ – the room isn’t just cold, it’s brutally freezing, right? It’s like writing: ‘The breeze wafted through his hair with punishing, hurricane force.’ The two sections don’t seem to agree with each other.
In the words of Spiderman: ‘with great power comes at the top of my list of “Shit Ways To End A Sentence”, spiderfans.’
Despite the shared thoughts of the two men, they both avoided their own minds as if they were lepers.
Hank – dear, sweet Hank. I have little-to-no idea what you are talking about. We are only three sentences in and already parsing this cluttered, rambling prose feels like a task akin to writing an exegesis of obscure Biblical apocrypha.
What do you mean ‘shared thoughts’? Are they psychic? Or do you mean they are thinking the same thing?
Why ‘despite’? Does this sentence mean, essentially: ‘Even though they were thinking the same thing, both men tried to avoid their own thoughts’? So they’re thinking about something but unaware/in denial that they’re thinking it? Is that even a thing?
By drawing our attention to something neither man is aware of, you introduce a third character – the narrator – who has access to both minds. This means we don’t feel especially involved with either man’s plight, as we’re outside them, adopting this highly artificial, godlike perspective.
‘they both avoided their own minds as if they were lepers’ – right, so ‘avoiding something like a leper’ is a clapped-out cliché of the highest order, but then you’ve managed to combine it with a pronoun confusion – ‘they’ (meaning Boyd and John) versus ‘they’ (meaning their minds) – so, on a first pass, the simile reads that Boyd and John avoided their minds the way a leper would avoid his mind. Nonsense on the first pass, hackneyed clapped-out simile on the second pass.
Why aren’t you just telling us what they’re thinking? What’s all this ‘shared thoughts’ coyness? Forget lepers – this kind of irritating faux-literary vagueness makes me want to avoid the story as if it were a sketchy toothless dude with dogshit round his mouth.
They held the banal conversation through the hidden tears and choked voices that each produced with every word.
I am imagining the pitch meeting for this scene:
‘Okay, so – we fade up on two guys. They’re laid parallel to each other, in a darkened room, having… a banal conversation.’
*applause, tossed bouquets*
Show, don’t tell. Give us the actual conversation, not this supremely untantalising summary of its general tenor.
Again, look at how the sentence closes on its most boring element – ‘with every word’, a bit of grammatical busywork, really – quite an achievement in a sentence that is already bubbling over with tedium.
The tenses don’t agree, either: ‘each produced’ ‘hidden tears and choked voices’ – meaning, essentially, that either man (note ‘either’ rather than ‘each’ when you have only two) is producing multiple voices, like a trance medium. How heartbreaking when grammatical mistakes hint at a far more interesting scene than the one we’re presented with.
Neither could bare to bring up the gravity of the situation, for they both feared death as anyone would, regardless of how well they each believed they could hide such emotions.
‘bear’ rather than ‘bare’
So look – this should be a tense, exciting situation. Two guys, apparently condemned to death, waiting in the darkness, talking. That, one would think, is a dramatic slamdunker.
Except you’re not actually dramatizing it. You’re not giving us access to what they say, the pauses and beats between utterances, the tone of it. You’re giving us a broad summary that reduces the situation to daft cliché.
‘they both feared death as anyone would’ – oh, you want to know a bit more about these characters? Well, basically they’re pretty much like anyone.
You’ve given us no means to differentiate between Boyd and John, no sense of who they are or what they look like, just this broad-brush assertion that they are two crying dudes having a boring conversation in the dark.
At this stage, any reader with the merest shred of humanity is positively rooting for their violent execution.
Boyd rationed with himself that he was to die tonight and such an event was in fact unavoidable.
He did what with himself? To ‘ration’ means to ‘allot portions of food, resources, etc’.
Look at all the fluff in this sentence: ‘such an event’ rather than ‘it’. ‘in fact’ rather than not putting anything because it’s just meaningless flatus.
And where’s the emotion? Boyd sounds like a sentient toaster. At least give us his direct thoughts, e.g. ‘I’m going to die, thought Boyd. It’s unavoidable.’
John, in contrast, fought the reality with all of his insignificant might.
No need for ‘in contrast’. Indeed, the most glaring contrast is between this and what you’ve previously told us – that both men are avoiding their thoughts like lepers. It sounds like both of them are entirely caught up in their thoughts, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine their keeping a conversation going simultaneously.
‘fought the reality with all of his insignificant might’ is try-hard and super-vague. ‘reality’, ‘might’ and ‘insignificant’ are all abstract value-judgements, not tangibles that engage our senses, or even specific thoughts. We have no idea what this ‘fight’ entails. It’s eye-wateringly dull, Hank, and the mock-heroic language only highlights the dearth of interesting content.
Rambling on about the days of his youth, his mother, the various sexual partners he had been with.
Even the narrator sounds bored to tears! Why should this engage the reader? What is in this story for us?
Things aren’t made inherently interesting by being placed within the frame of fiction. You can’t just tell us ‘a thing happened, then another thing, and I suppose it was like this other thing’ and expect us to care.
I assume you worked hard on this, Hank, with a sincere effort to write something moving, and engaging, and textually rich. But I’m not convinced you’re pushing yourself enough to imagine your fictive world in any detail.
Where are the specific, telling idiosyncrasies that convince us this story must be true? The list in this sentence feels incredibly apathetic – like you’ve picked the first three things that came to mind, the most obvious, boring subjects.
But you know what? ‘the days of his youth’, ‘his mother’ and ‘various sexual partners’ could all encompass hugely engaging, weird, moving, personal stories, but by hiding them behind these bland categories rather than actually giving us the stories, you reduce the piece to this monochromatic, generic world.
Crunchy specificity. That’s what this extract utterly lacks. That’s what makes it such a remarkably dreadful read.
As John finished describing his first true moment with the opposite gender Boyd opened his mouth and the words poured from him as water from the heavens.
‘his first true moment with the opposite gender’? Who speaks like this? Do you mean he’s talking about the first time he got his end away with a girl?
And what do you mean, ‘describing’? I hope he gave a blow-by-blow account in these same, toe-curling euphemisms:
‘And then, Boyd, o my faithful companion in these final hours, as I placed a fingertip on the mountain fastness once hidden beneath her garments, I experienced a tremulous upwelling in my one true area, gushing forth from me as diarrhoea from an ailing carthorse.’
Overwriting usually comes from a lack of confidence. I doubt very much that you are actually pretentious – I expect you’re trying to give the reader a rich, lyrical experience, and to pump each line full of emotional import.
Nonetheless, the net effect is that the narrator comes across as a pretentious, vapid arsehole. Every sentence is groaning under the weight of its own ludicrous self-importance. You’ve erroneously equated lyricism with abstract nouns and adjectives, and grand, clichéd similes.
For the umpteenth time, here are the rules:
Show, don’t tell.
Be specific – concrete words over abstract ones.
Engage the reader’s five senses.
Introduce clear conflict, fast.
Limit yourself to one simile or metaphor per page, and make each one fresh and in-keeping with the viewpoint character and tone of the scene.
Any author who thinks they are above these rules, who thinks there are no rules, who thinks that adhering to basic compositional principles is somehow antithetical to art, had better have a fucking good reason for breaking them before they start mouthing off. I’m serious. Sure, you can break any of them, but each time you do, the primary consequence is not that you look like a daring maverick, but that you make your story shitter. That’s the reality.
If you’re going to break one of these rules, you had better make sure you break it with the sort of flair appropriate to a gentleman corsair moonsaulting through a stained glass window, landing in front of the altarpiece, whipping out his rapier and slashing the oncoming volley of crossbow bolts to fragments with a single stroke. Breaking the rules incurs a cost, and you must ensure your transgression pays back more than the cost of breaking them.
If you don’t know the rules – or at least have some abstracted awareness or feel for them – you can’t make an informed choice about whether the cost is worth the payoff. This piece violates every principle I’ve listed, and doesn’t offer much in return.