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This is a blog about developing your self-editing skills. Here’s how it works: read the extract below, decide what you like and what you’d change, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by James)
As the bell on that tower rang its eleventh pulse the crowd surged. Dirty faces, bare feet, kicking and screaming and dragged across the gravelly ground. Vans were everywhere. Smoke permeated the street; noxious, bringing chemical tears with those of passion. Police in their armour, with their canes and their canisters, their reluctant aggression, their conflict. There was a woman with a baby caught up in it all. There was a man in a suit caught up in it all. There was a woman on the ground, her wheelchair overturned and several feet away, caught up in it all. There was Hugo Milnes, riot officer and family man, caught up in it all.
Economic anxiety. Black rectangles on the horizon. Voices muffled and ringing dead in dusty chambers. Rations reduced. Fuel drying up. The planet? Burning. Stillborn babies. Babies with rickets, with malformed limbs and no eyes. Pesticides, insecticides. The tipping point came; as every complacency has its breaking point. The cocoons were there but when the winds of change grew tempestuous they cracked and fell apart, and the streets were flooded.
A perimeter formed. Grey surrounded red, yellow and blue. The crowd fell quiet. Ringleaders screamed defiance. In the primary colours many of the grey saw parts of themselves: their old mothers, their nephews and nieces. The ones for whom they suppressed these riots. To keep the shaking tables full of just enough. With push and pull they closed the circle.
As the bell on that tower rang its eleventh pulse the crowd surged.
I bet you can form a coherent, to-the-point sentence in real life. I bet you can walk up to a deli counter and say: ‘One pastrami sandwich please.’ You can be specific and blunt when the situation demands.
What is it about writing prose that makes people transform from concise, smart users of language into portentous, brow-furrowing time-wasters? Why do they suddenly lose the ability to say what they mean?
‘rang its eleventh pulse’? Like fuck it did. It either rang or it pulsed. It can’t ring a pulse or pulse a ring. Can you imagine meeting a friend for a coffee then saying: ‘Oh, better go – just heard the bell on that tower ring its eleventh pulse’? Of course you can. You can also imagine said friend hurling scalding latte into your crotch for being such a flouncing douchenozzle.
Why ‘that tower’? Indeed, why start the sentence with ‘As the bell on that tower’? Such a clunky entry point for your story.
Let’s start again. How about this:
The clock tower struck eleven and the crowd surged.
Simple, clear, and gets us straight into the action.
Dirty faces, bare feet, kicking and screaming and dragged across the gravelly ground.
No viewpoint character then? Just an unimaginative list of ‘angry mob’ components. This sentence feels like it was downloaded from the literary equivalent of Shutterstock.
Are we to understand that their ‘dirty faces’ are ‘dragged across the gravelly ground’? By whom? Are some participants in this protest unaccountably upside-down?
And why ‘gravelly ground’? Isn’t that called ‘gravel’? It’s like writing ‘concretey ground’ or ‘mustardy condiment’.
Vans were everywhere.
No they weren’t. Although I’d love to read a story that opened with this sentence.
Vans were everywhere. In the sky. On the moonlit bowling green. Idling menacingly in the children’s soft play area. The partition walls were vans. The ocean was vans. HMV was a giant puzzle box of tessellating vans.
Colin looked down at his shaking fingers and gasped: ten tiny vans.
Until your horror magnum opus Day Of The Vans becomes reality, be specific. Pick a van and show it us in action. Give us some sense of what it looks like.
Smoke permeated the street; noxious, bringing chemical tears with those of passion.
‘permeated’ is a dull verb choice. It sounds quasi-literary but it’s actually rather clinical. You’re trying to evoke the violence and energy and havoc of a clash between the people and authorities. Why then have you chosen language more suited to a catalogue description of an 18th Century Japanned drawing room chair?
‘bringing chemical tears with those of passion’? No! Absolutely unacceptable. Why the impassive, faux-poetic reportage? You sound like Alan Whicker.
Police in their armour, with their canes and their canisters, their reluctant aggression, their conflict.
This is so, so lazy. You’re just broadly gesturing towards the cultural artefact ‘police’. There’s no sense of time or location or individuals or this moment, happening now. This whole scene feels like a badly constructed lie by someone who wasn’t really there.
I mean, ‘their conflict’? How does that contribute to the reader’s comprehension? It’s so crazily general I’m almost impressed by your cheek in including it.
There was a woman with a baby caught up in it all. There was a man in a suit caught up in it all.
There was a paper plate with a face drawn on it caught up in it all.
If these strokes were any broader they’d be hitting the novels either side. Generic and boring.
Try harder. Pick stronger, tighter nouns. Choosing two people from the huge crowd and describing them is a good tactic if you want to invest this scene with some humanity, but only if you make an effort to excite the reader’s senses and give us something memorable to look at.
‘a man in a suit’? I absolutely refuse to believe that is the best you can do. Come on, James. You remember the concept of imagination, right? You understand that a novel is not simply a digest of the first thoughts that came into the author’s head? That the idea is to gift your reader something exceptional and compelling?
There was a woman on the ground, her wheelchair overturned and several feet away, caught up in it all.
Okay, and here’s the other glaring problem with this sentence structure: ‘there was’ formulations are inherently rubbish.
Look, I’ll concede sometimes it’s easier and most painless just to say ‘it was dark’ or ‘it was Tuesday’ and get it over with, but as far as possible you want to show us stuff in motion – a dynamic world, not static portraiture.
‘woman’ and ‘ground’ are drab, unevocative noun choices. ‘wheelchair’ is the first hint of something unique in this sentence, but it’s lost in the middle of porridgy grammatical dithering.
Remember: construct your sentences so the most interesting information comes at the end. Or don’t, and reap a harvest of eggy guffs.
There was Hugo Milnes, riot officer and family man, caught up in it all.
‘riot officer and family man’? This sounds like a bad movie pitch. Please don’t reduce your characters to tropes. It’s not a useful shorthand. It’s supine capitulation to the forces of blah. It screams to the world ‘I can’t be bothered anymore’, like turning up to your brother’s wedding in grey jogging bottoms and playing Candy Crush Saga all through the service.
Instead of ticking vague cultural boxes, maybe give us something concrete, something to excite the senses. What does he look like? What can he hear and smell? What, in the narrative present, is he doing?
Economic anxiety. Black rectangles on the horizon.
Brittle remorse. A fried egg whirling from my mother’s open mouth. Squirrels in pain.
Sorry, I thought that was what we were doing.
Which is to say: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Voices muffled and ringing dead in dusty chambers. Rations reduced. Fuel drying up.
Uh – I’m sorry? Where did the riot go? Why have we switched gears from ‘bland reportage’ to ‘shitty slam poem’? And may I suggest you get a new gearbox?
The planet? Burning.
I must confess I quite liked the flippancy of this one. Oh, the planet? *shrugs* Pfft. Yeah, it’s burning. Whatevsies.
Stillborn babies. Babies with rickets, with malformed limbs and no eyes. Pesticides, insecticides.
Yeah. You’re just listing atrocities now. The last two aren’t even that – they’re just categories of objects. Are you just shouting out whatever pops into your head? This is a novel, James, not wacky bingo.
The tipping point came; as every complacency has its breaking point.
Is it a tipping point or a breaking point? And why have you left the narrative present to give us this wishy-washy abstract potted history of your fictional world? The above sentence could apply equally to an international conflict or a domestic spat over teabags in the sink. It’s a vague statement coupled with a meaningless truism. What does it add to our understanding?
‘The tipping point came’? WE KNOW. There’s a fucking riot happening.
The cocoons were there but when the winds of change grew tempestuous they cracked and fell apart, and the streets were flooded.
James, look. I am sure you are a lovely person cherished by his friends and family. I am sure you have achieved much in your life. Today, you have added to that list of achievements.
This is one of the worst sentences ever submitted to In The Barber’s Chair. For a while, I wondered if it was a joke.
It commits so many crimes against English in such a short space that there’s a kind of majesty to it. It’s like a fractal turd.
So. *zips up hazmat suit* Let’s do this.
‘The cocoons were there’? Right – we touched on a similar issue earlier. If a sentence’s sole function is to tell us that the noun exists, that sentence is a bad sentence.
The ______ was/were there. There was a _______. NO NO NO
Using a noun implies its existence. You wouldn’t write: ‘Some trees were there. They bowed in the breeze.’ Well, you might, if it happened to be Stupid Writing Day. Otherwise, writing: ‘Trees bowed in the breeze’ would make sense on its own. The reader wouldn’t do a spit take and exclaim: ‘Hang on… where did all these trees suddenly appear from? Nobody told me they exist!’
‘but when the winds of change’
Clichés: the Best Way to Make a Bad Sentence Worse!
So – cocoons exist, but? Why ‘but’? In what way does the following clause contradict or undermine the fact that the cocoons ‘were there’? If you’d told us that the cocoons hung still and impassive, but… it’d still be a dreadful image, but at least the conjunction would make sense.
Anyway, the people are cocoons being blown by the winds of change. With you so far. Even though you sound like Harold Macmillan on shrooms.
Ah! You’ve attempted to resuscitate a hackneyed image by pumping it full of steroids. No. This sounds silly and pretentious.
‘when the winds of change grew tempestuous they cracked and fell apart’
Wait. The winds of change grew tempestuous then cracked and fell apart?
Obviously, rereading the sentence, you mean that the cocoons (remember them, folks?) ‘cracked and fell apart’. Because that’s what cocoons do when exposed to wind. They disintegrate.
So the people are cocoons blown by the winds of change, then the winds of change get stronger and the cocoons (which are the people) crack and fall apart. Gotcha.
‘and the streets were flooded’
Incredible volte-face. Not since the tale of John Stalvern has a story jack-knifed with such baffling panache.
The cocoons are blown by the winds of change, the winds of change get stronger and the cocoons crack and fall apart… then the streets are flooded?
James, have you ever been outside? Does your entire concept of a ‘cocoon’ come from a single passing reference in an episode of Rude Dog & The Dweebs? You know cocoons aren’t little pouches of water, right? Where do you think butterflies come from – clouds?
And for bonus points, the final clause is in the passive voice! You haven’t even written ‘and they flooded the streets’. By eliding the agent you achieve maximum ambiguity and assure this sentence permanent residency in the Oubliette Of Shitty Prose. Congratu-fucking-lations.
A perimeter formed. Grey surrounded red, yellow and blue.
Eh? Has your narrator got glaucoma? Why is the scene (which we’ve finally returned to) rendered as a mass of coloured blobs?
The crowd fell quiet. Ringleaders screamed defiance.
So they didn’t fall quiet then. And why don’t we get to hear exactly what they’re shouting?
If a reporter came back and filed this story, that reporter would be fired, because it’s so light on details that her editor would assume she had skipped the riot and spent the afternoon down the pub.
I’m not suggesting that the platonic ideal of a first page ought to read like a well-sourced news report, but atmosphere isn’t shameful. It’s not antithetical to literature.
A lot of aspiring authors get caught up in the pursuit of ‘voice’, and I can’t say I blame them. It might be a nebulous quality but it’s also the number one thing that agents and editors respond to in a new writer. Plot and character are grudgingly acknowledged as qualities, but they’re seen as rather gauche and unfashionable (especially the former). [/AXE GRIND]
So look. Go for a strong, unique voice if you must. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that ‘Voice = Polysyllables + Similes’.
The principles of crunchy specificity and engaging the reader’s five senses, and of showing, not telling, still apply. You still need to favour the concrete over the abstract.
Anchoring this scene in the consciousness of a single viewpoint character would do a lot to improve it. This godlike omniscient perspective (apparently via a God who needs to get His spectacles prescription updated) doesn’t do much for our sense of involvement. It makes us feel as if there’s very little at stake.
I think most writers know, deep down, when they’re winging it. If your conception of a scene is hazy, listen to that doubting voice. Stop and make some notes. Go on Google image search for inspiration. Find out the specific technical names of the things you’re describing. Read other people’s first-person accounts of similar situations. Let’s get some smells, some idiosyncratic detail you wouldn’t expect – things so odd, so specific, that they must be true.
The point of this blog is not to admonish writers for their failures. It’s to empower you, the person reading this now, to become a better self-editor, so you can do justice to all the beautiful, shiny visions fluttering about your head.
Don’t write something, sigh, then say to yourself: ‘Welp. Probably pretentious crap.’ Engage with it. Use the principles I’m giving you to weed out and replace the weak parts. That’s all that writing is.
You write. You check. You take out the bad bits and try to replace them with better bits. You check again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
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