Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
I have a cold. My throat feels like cactus and battery acid, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?
Read the extract below, decide what you think works and what doesn’t (and how you’d get around those shortcomings), then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Jenny)
Elabeth’s heart quickened. In the courtyard below her classroom window, Kath drew her sword and stepped into the sparring ring.
The boy facing her was taller, and his jaw was set in determination. The two warriors circled each other, polished helmets glinting in the sun. The rest of their class stood watching from the edge of the courtyard. Elabeth leaned closer to the window, chewing on one lip. Kath glanced up at her and set her stomach fluttering.
Then, Kath rushed the boy. She struck, he parried. Their swords clashed a dozen times in quick succession. Elabeth could barely follow the blur of steel, but then Kath ducked a wild swing and darted away.
Elabeth glanced back to the teacher at the front of her musty classroom, but the droning was more than she could bear and her attention returned to the warriors. She could just imagine the weight of the sword, the smell of leather and sweat, the rush of adrenaline. What she wouldn’t have given to be out there.
There was a faint glimmer around Kath, a slight blurring of her edges. Elabeth’s eyes widened in realisation – it was an illusion. The boy reacted too late. The illusion of Kath vanished, and the real Kath appeared behind him. She leapt and landed a solid blow across his back. Elabeth bit her lip, willing her to win. The boy fell, rolled, and tried to stagger back up, but Kath’s magic yanked the gravel from beneath his feet.
Elabeth’s heart quickened.
Oh hi Jenny. Excuse me a minute while I set up. *unshoulders bulging knapsack of OPINIONS, unrolls blanket, empties OPINIONS on top of it in a clattering landslide* Right. *rubs palms* Let’s get cracking.
You could have written ‘Elabeth was scared.’ Or ‘Elabeth felt excited.’ But you’ve tried to show, not tell, by giving us a symptom rather than a general diagnosis. Theoretically, that’s good. It demonstrates you’re alert to the demands of dramatic writing, and you’re trying to give the reader an immersive, engaging experience.
Still ‘her heart quickened’ is a hackneyed, melodramatic phrase. It’s cod-gothic and not terribly evocative. It doesn’t make me feel the pulmonary thumping in that cockpit of bone, that thick knot of chambered muscle pumping blood. I’m not even sure that – in a state of moderate arousal – one’s heart would be the first symptom one would notice. Surely a catching of the breath, a tensing of the hands, a scrunching of the toes?
But even then, we still have an isolated physical reaction taking place in a black void. Just a heart, beating in space. Obviously every first sentence pops into existence ex nihilo, but it feels like a weird detail to draw out on its own. On the plus side, it introduces a protagonist and the implication of conflict, on the negative side, it’s just a contextless emotional response.
Solutions? You could start with a crunchily specific sentence about where Elabeth is or an action she takes, then follow up with the emotional response. So we’re like: thing happens, then, oh, this is important to her because she farts with surprise or whatever.
But. But but but. I am going to turn the world of principle-based creative writing on its head, and say I actually don’t mind an opening sentence along the lines of: ‘Elabeth was scared.’
It’s punchy and clear. (I know in this particular scenario ‘scared’ is probably not the right word – she’s apprehensive/excited – but we’re in Hypothetical Town here) I don’t mind being baldly told something if it gets the story rolling in three words. It’s simple, but it’s not clichéd. It’s certainly – to my mind – far better than ‘Elabeth’s heart quickened’.
Still. No one answer here, except ‘don’t do what you’ve done’.
In the courtyard below her classroom window, Kath drew her sword and stepped into the sparring ring.
This second line unfolds into an origami of confusing subclauses and pronouns. I know you can’t have ‘an origami’ and that it’s the art of folding rather than unfolding, but the thing about sounding all literary is sometimes you let cadence do the heavy lifting and people believe they’ve read something rather evocative and shrewd when in fact it was nonsense.
So, the main problem with the second sentence is it immediately abandons Elabeth and reveals that the real action is taking place elsewhere, starring a different character, Kath. But that first subclause – oof!
So the only person we know exists in the world is Elabeth, and we go ‘In the courtyard below her classroom window’ – which is hard to picture already, right? Are we to understand from this that Elabeth is looking out of her classroom window, onto the courtyard? It’s not clear – I think the preposition ‘below’ is particularly confounding, as it encourages the reader to imagine it from the outside, whereas ‘through’ normally implies someone on the inside looking out. But even then, it’s an odd, ambiguous bit of shorthand that I’m not convinced works without support. I don’t see what you gain by not saying ‘She looked out down from her classroom window’ or similar.
Okay, but anyway – main clause. ‘Kath drew her sword’ – so three words ago, ‘her’ meant Elabeth. Now it means Kath. If you reread the sentence in isolation, it looks like Kath is drawing her sword in the courtyard below her classroom window – that is the natural way to parse it. But you’re asking us to carry one pronoun assumption halfway through the sentence, then switch seamlessly.
Now, of course, as readers we do this a lot without even noticing – it’s possible to have two referents for ‘her’ or ‘she’ within a sentence without semiotics imploding in a shrapnel of infinitely-deferred meaning. But the demands on the reader exponentially increase the more of this switching you ask them to do.
I’d suggest you have one too many ideas crammed into a single sentence and comprehensibility would be best served by splitting them up. So we have, the second sentence, to the best of my understanding, the following information:
Elabeth is watching from her classroom window.
A sparring match is taking place in the courtyard below.
Kath is one of the swordfighters.
Later on in this piece, I get the impression that Elabeth is at a desk, rather than pressed to the window – so she’s watching this surreptitiously? I feel like I could do with something a bit earlier to ground us in the physicality of that, so I can picture it.
But for now, here’s a simple way to split the sentence up to make it easier to read, first pass:
She gazed out of the classroom window. In the courtyard below, Kath drew her sword and stepped into the sparring ring.
I still feel like ‘Kath’ is a bit nothingy. The name is meaningless at this point. We don’t know who this person is. Usually, even if my viewpoint character knows another character, I’ll try to drop in some immediate physical description when we first encounter them, so we have some sensory information as a stout peg to hang the new name off of.
I mean, don’t fall into ‘Burly Detective Syndrome’ either, but ‘drew her sword and stepped’ doesn’t really give us any impression of size, how she carries herself, etc. Is she a colossal bruiser, an athletic fencer-type, a scrawny backstabby rogue? Even ‘sword’ is a waste of a noun. Is it a foil, a scimitar, a katana? Is it the sort of sword with elaborate basket-work you can do all that Errol Flynn ‘have at you!’ clang clang clang piratical Etonite bullshit, or is a fuck-off serrated two-handed bastard sword that will dent full plate and break your ribs? I mean, presumably, if they’re sparring, it’s blunted and/or wooden?
And of course, how the sword, the stances and the fight are described leaks a lot of information about Elabeth. If she’s watching and she can identify different strokes (sword techniques, not the sitcom – oh great, now I’ve got the theme tune stuck in my head) and tactics and suchlike, we’ll really see how Elabeth is a secret swordfighting nerd and how she aspires to do it herself. On the other hand, if she can’t parse the fighters’ quick motions at all, then – theoretically – this should be a reflection of her lack of experience, not of your failure to lucidly convey a swordfight.
The boy facing her was taller, and his jaw was set in determination.
So good that we get some physical description – albeit relative – but I’d like a little more. ‘his jaw was set in determination’ is a bit of a cliché, and also feels like quite a zoomed-in detail to be able to see from at least one storey up. You can convey determination through his stance, which also gives us information relevant to the fight, so it’s pulling double duty. Is he holding himself with a loose, guard-down swagger? Is he tensed and poised?
This feels like a good moment to ask: how many books on swordfighting have you read, Jenny? How many youtube videos of sword technique have you watched? Or are you just guessing, extrapolating from movies and other novels you’ve read that have swords in?
This might sound strangely confrontational, but I think very few Fantasy authors ever take the time to properly research many aspects of their world. And by ‘properly research’ I don’t mean ‘play Diablo II and memorise your inventory’, I mean, you know, go to a local museum and see some swords. Go online and find out where you can do taster sessions in fencing. I bet you can try it out for relatively cheap. Watch some videos. Buy a secondhand book about learning sword technique, or get one out from your local library.
This isn’t about patronising one-upmanship, where we all try to outdo each other by claiming more knowledge and thus the ‘right’ to include swordfights in our fiction, and just because you own your own forge and have scratch-built a broadsword, that does not mean you will necessarily be brilliant at writing a swordfight (although the direct experience is surely useful).
But I do think giving yourself permission to throw yourself into research is a key moment in any writer’s journey. It entails a lot more work, but really the work of finding out interesting shit is writing. Compelling, true details are the lifeblood of successful fiction in any genre.
Ooh look – someone’s lit the Unsolicited Personal Anecdote beacon. Cometh the hour, cometh the man…
When I was writing The Honours I decided to get shooting lessons. I wanted to include guns but the scenes with them in felt sheepish and stilted. At first, I felt weirdly fraudulent, booking a lesson, travelling there on the bus, trotting up this isolated tree-lined lane. It was an admission that I was properly trying with this novel, that it was a project, that I was giving it my best. That is a vulnerable position to be in!
And, you know what? A lot of what I learned, from directly handling different guns, was pretty much what you’d expect. Hey, shotguns are fucking loud! They’re also fun to shoot. You thumb the locking lever and break the barrel and the empty shells pop out the breech with this bacony smell. I knew that already from just reading descriptions. It wasn’t like I went shooting and realised this secret authentic information about guns.
But I did feel, afterwards, confident about writing them. Like I had permission. Like if anyone challenged me, saying ‘that doesn’t sound very realistic’, I’d know it was, because I’d seen and heard and felt and smelt it myself. And so I was able to throw myself into it wholeheartedly, and give my imagination the latitude to create, and I had fun.
From the description of this swordfight, I don’t get the impression you have put much thought into it. I’m not accusing you of laziness, Jenny – I just don’t think you realise how good your writing could be if you properly invested in it. This is a bog standard pop-up swordfight: ‘The two warriors circled each other’. Where’s the surprise here? What makes the reader sit up and go ‘wow’?
So the illusion/teleportation bit at the end is certainly a step in the right direction – although weirdly it makes me admire Kath less! It’s like: The two combatants faced each other in a battle of strength and wits and – ohhh one of them has just used a crazily overpowered supermove! She can make copies of herself and literally rip the ground up via telekinesis! We’re basically watching Robocop fight a chimpanzee with a stick!
She doesn’t win by cleverness or guile or determination. She wins because the fight is ludicrously unfair. In fact, if the boy was all OP-hologram-decoys, whip-the-gravel-up, super-duper and she saw through him and countered those tricks? That would be fucking impressive. Like he makes a clone and she feints like she thinks it’s real then brings her sword round to strike him as he goes for her back. Like he makes the stones under her feet slide away but she’s agile and composed enough to keep her balance and catch him with the tip of her blade.
At the very least, you need to give the boy some supermoves too. Maybe they show far less finesse and subtlety. Like his are all concussive blasts, bursts of speed, super-strength style moves. And hers are these classy, surgical takedowns. Or perhaps she uses conventional moves but in unconventional, creative ways. But I think we would be far more likely to share Elabeth’s sense of admiration and awe if the fight were a tough one, and we saw Kath win out through guile and bravery and skill. Otherwise we just watched the school track champion beat the asthmatic fat kid in a 100m sprint. (full disclosure: I was the fat kid at my school and came last out of the entire school when we did cross-country – no regrets, food is great)
It’s good that you’re jumping straight into a clear scenario here – protagonist dreaming she can be like the cool kid, magic and combat, etc – but we need far more detail, far more rich sensory description and idiosyncratic stuff to make this your world, not just Generic Fantasy High. Have a little think about your magic system – what is the cost to spellcasters? If your answer is ‘they feel a bit tired after they cast a spell, and there’s a cooldown before they can recast’, think again. Be more interesting and original. Push yourself. These answers are what will make your world compelling and unique.
Do that, and readers can only come to you to get what you’re offering. And you can take that to the bank.