Welcome to another Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
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Otherwise, you know what to do, my sweet, sweet soldiers. Read the extract below, exercise your editing muscles by deciding what you like and what you would change, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Joel)
John Bashir was a hero. His life was laid down for his brothers and sisters in C-Squad.
There is no greater love than this; that of the public for a man who has died for their nebulous cause. It was perfect. He was handsome, but boyish enough that older women would feel maternal, men would feel an older brother’s obligation to protect him. Bashir was an average man-boy, tragic in death, nameless in life and worth a moment of outrage.
We could plaster his face across a brief explosion of public grief. He would fan the burning hearts, keep them invested in the war. Then be forgotten before anyone dwelled on the outrage than a boy died in the mud of another planet on their tax dollar.
I edited the piece myself, cutting out parts of the footage that contradicted the narrative. This was done the day after he died, as I lay in my bunk. No one but me saw the footage of Bashir crying out for his mother like a child in the dark. I wrote the narration and performed it myself before publishing it. Bashir would be grateful, who would want to be shown to die weeping in a pool of their own piss?
He was the first person I ever saw die, his blood and screams indelible in my imagination. Flashes of his pawing, awkward scramble still wait behind my eyelids. Despite the memory’s tenacity, his was the easiest death to write.
John Bashir was a hero.
Normally, when I read lines like this, my rage is felt by the entire writerly hivemind. All across the planet, authors glance up from their laptop screens, feeling a great disturbance, as if millions of shitty adverbs were written, then suddenly deleted. They wake from dreams of a faceless man, sweating, to find black stigmata burnt into their arms, a legend in gothic script that reads: ‘SHOW, DON’T TELL’. The sun cracks open and a flock of squawling bats descends to devour humankind’s firstborn.
However, in this instance you’re being ironic so you get a pass. As you were.
His life was laid down for his brothers and sisters in C-Squad.
[KLAXON FX] Improper use of the passive voice. You are sentenced to life in Hack Jail.
‘He laid down his life’ is the way to phrase this, unless you’re trying to be extra, extra clever and ironic and imply that he had no say in the matter – that some other agency laid down his life on his behalf. In which case, you’re being too subtle. Lay it on the line. Say ‘His country laid down his life’ or whatever. I suspect that this is just a failure of craft rather than super-dry ideological winking, however.
There is no greater love than this; that of the public for a man who has died for their nebulous cause.
So you were going for a colon there, rather than a semi. Heh. That sounds sort of dirty.
Why are you only half-quoting John 15:13? The original is ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Why change the phrasing? I don’t mean of the second part – you’re being wry, I get it. But why blunt the power by misquoting the first part?
It’s like using the whole Jane Austen ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that’ formulation, but rendering at as ‘It’s a truth always acknowledged, that’. Paraphrasing doesn’t add anything. It just kills the impact.
‘that of the public for a man who has died for their nebulous cause.’ This needs simplifying. It’s too much of a mouthful. I understand what you’re getting at but the sentiment gets bogged down in too many finicky grammatical words: ‘that of the’, ‘for a’, ‘who has’, ‘for their’. There are too many components that need linking.
I’m not convinced the statement is even, on a first glance, true. I don’t think the narrator even believes it. Soldiers die in droves all the time, anonymously, and most of the public do very little to acknowledge their deaths. The narrator sounds jaded and traumatised – surely he’d feel the same way?
And is the cause really ‘nebulous’ in the public’s eyes? Misguided, possibly. Impossible. Brutish. Motivated by fear. Oversimplified, if anything. But ‘nebulous’? It means ‘cloudlike’. Not convinced that’s the right term.
It was perfect. He was handsome, but boyish enough that older women would feel maternal, men would feel an older brother’s obligation to protect him.
And guess what the reader’s feeling? Sweet FA. You’re telling, not showing, and hammering us with abstract adjectives that give us absolutely no concrete world, no sensory information, upon which to fasten our docking clamps. Look how vague and abstract those nouns and adjectives are: ‘women’, ‘men’, ‘brother’; ‘perfect’, ‘handsome’, ‘older’. This is about as richly evocative as a trip to McDonalds.
Even if you chose to stick with this, I’m not convinced ‘but’ is the appropriate conjunction. ‘boyish’ doesn’t contradict or undermine ‘handsome’. You could call someone ‘rugged but boyish’ or ‘intelligent but boyish’, but ‘handsome but boyish’ doesn’t make sense – they’re complimentary terms.
‘obligation to protect him’ is covered by the word ‘protectiveness’. I’d separate the final two clauses into separate sentences so you can get rid of that unsightly ‘would’: ‘Older women felt maternal. Men felt an older brother’s protectiveness.’ Hmm. Maybe ‘obligation to protect him’, despite its inelegance, would be better than ‘protectiveness’ after all. Your call. Neither are great.
Bashir was an average man-boy, tragic in death, nameless in life and worth a moment of outrage.
I think ‘young man’ is fine – ‘man-boy’ is a weird, distracting formulation that contradicts the idea that he was ‘average’. If he’s average, use a familiar, average term, otherwise you undermine yourself.
I like the cadence of the ‘tragic in death, nameless in life’ clauses, but ‘worth a moment of outrage’ is not a worthy third item in that list. It doesn’t flow well, especially the ‘a moment of’ part, and it’s too vague. Your third item on the list needs to undercut the others. I appreciate that the ‘moment’ part is supposed to be sardonic – all he gets is a single moment, before people forget – but I think the list would be much more powerful if you gave us something concrete here, rather than more abstractions.
Do a bit of world-building – the story needs it. Up until now we still don’t have an era, a country, a war. You need to start locating this in a specific narrative present.
We could plaster his face across a brief explosion of public grief. He would fan the burning hearts, keep them invested in the war.
‘plaster his face’ is a cliché. Change it. Wait – they were going to ‘plaster his face across a brief explosion’? That is not even remotely a thing. Your metaphors are so mixed that to gaze upon them is to gaze into chaos. They are mercurial, unknowable things, yet their basic nature is bullshit.
‘He would fan the burning hearts’ is very near the cliché of ‘fan the flames’, and again, you’re favouring broad analogies that suggest a mood over concrete details, specifics, actual dramatized moments that we can see and hear and smell and touch and taste, moments that in turn evoke emotions in us.
This is the kind of narration that might work at the start of the movie, because the words would be paired with specific images and we’d have some real, crunchy specificity to go with the ambient waffle. In a novel, it’s like a diner giving you a bowl of barbecue sauce and no fucking buffalo wings.
Then be forgotten before anyone dwelled on the outrage than a boy died in the mud of another planet on their tax dollar.
Okay, so the repetition of ‘outrage’ clangs a bit. Change it. ‘Then be forgotten’ doesn’t exactly sing, either. Again, there are a lot of fiddly prepositional phrases explaining the relation of each thing to the next: ‘then be’, ‘before’, ‘on the’, ‘than a’, ‘in the’, ‘of’, ‘on their’. You need to simplify and rephrase.
The sentence is so complicated that an absolutely crucial bit of world-building almost gets buried – ‘another planet’ firmly establishes the genre that ‘C-Squad’ implied. This is Military SF. Which is great, but you shouldn’t have been able to get this far without this becoming obvious. We don’t know this is set in a future/alternate world, because you’ve been so coy with actual concrete details. There’s nothing to be gained by holding back like this. Deal in concrete specifics right from the get-go and the world-building will take care of itself.
I edited the piece myself, cutting out parts of the footage that contradicted the narrative.
Oh for fuck’s sake. Be specific! This is a great idea for a dramatic moment, but you’re summarising it rather than dramatizing it. Show, don’t tell.
Put us in the editing suite. What’s his/her equipment like? What is he/she eating/drinking? What, specifically, is the footage of, and what parts is he/she cutting out? Engage our senses. Let us experience it first hand.
Will it take a few more words? Of course. Your reward will be one shit, given by every reader.
This was done the day after he died, as I lay in my bunk.
So what – is he/she doing it on a tablet or phone? Surely if the footage is of a sensitive nature, propaganda and content wise, the narrator wouldn’t be doing it where he/she might be disturbed.
And it’s not enough to start unpacking broad abstractions after the fact. Go straight into the scene – don’t summarise it then give us a breakdown afterwards.
No one but me saw the footage of Bashir crying out for his mother like a child in the dark. I wrote the narration and performed it myself before publishing it.
Again – the military isn’t known for its privacy. Nor for the acoustic quality of its bunks. Surely, if this person is in the military and media is scrutinised and controlled as tightly as the narrator claims, a grunt can’t just lie in a bunk, edit, narrate and publish combat footage?
And look, there’s some more detail here, but you’re not locating it in the narrative present. You’re not giving it us moment-by-moment. You’re not tracking what happened chronologically. It’s still summary – generalised, abstract. We don’t hear the words. We don’t see colours. There’s nothing for our senses to grip onto. Nothing to imagine.
He was the first person I ever saw die, his blood and screams indelible in my imagination.
Up until the comma, this sentence is good, pertinent. Past the comma it’s melodramatic and hackneyed. The latter is implied, anyway. Cut it.
Flashes of his pawing, awkward scramble still wait behind my eyelids.
‘pawing, awkward scramble’ is nicely specific, but we’ve got no way of picturing the scene around him. Actually take us into the moment where the narrator watches the footage back, either on the bunk or in an editing suite or whatever, so we see and hear what he/she saw and heard, and the emotions are evoked within us.
I realise I’m asking for more than line edits here – I’m requesting that you materially change the scene – but it’s not enough to do this familiar, ersatz, faux-gritty narration like the voiceover for a video game trailer.
Despite the memory’s tenacity, his was the easiest death to write.
‘tenacity’ feels a bit out of register here – a bit unnecessarily prissy. And you’ve just told us that the memory’s there when they close their eyelids – no need to repeat the information in the next sentence.
Look, Joel – what you’ve got here, as we so often see, is the blueprint for a really good opening chapter. There’s drama, there are characters and relationships, there’s an implied world. Good.
At the moment, none of it means jack shit. You’ve settled for summarising instead of dramatizing. ‘Showing’ is hard work. It’s greedy for detail. We have to know the names of people and places, you need to know the dimensions the sleeping quarters, what they smell like, the type of device your narrator is editing the footage on. You need to know the name of the planet and the location on that planet where Bashir was killed. You need to know the name of the engagement, against what enemy, on what date, in what year, as part of what campaign. What was Bashir’s rank? What killed him? Who was filming him? What technology do the soldiers have? What medical capabilities? What are the stakes of this war? What colour are Bashir’s eyes? What were his exact dying words?
I’ve read some comments to the effect that I’m too obsessed with specificity. That I request too much information of a first page. That my demands are unrealistic. Bullshit. Answers to all of these questions would come up naturally if you were just describing things with a reasonable amount of detail. Sure, it would take more than a page, but you need more than a page. You’ve tried to squeeze too much in.
A narrative with a proper focus is packed with information. It continually gives us clues about the fictive world we’re entering. Think of the opening to 1984, with its clocks striking thirteen and the smell of ‘boiled cabbage and old rag mats’. A genuinely detailed narrative eye cannot help but haemorrhage information about the world it surveys. Word for word, it’s actually far more economical than slavishly spoonfeeding the reader a potted history.
This is my war, Joel. I’ll keep fighting until aspiring writers all over the world finally renounce shitty shortcuts forever. And my battlecry shall be: ‘Show, don’t tell!’
And nobody shall fucking listen.
Want more ranting about writing from me? Try my award-winning memoir on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
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