Afternoon! Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
I feel a bit funny this week. Nervous about my writing, nervous about other things. I think, in these situations, it’s best to acknowledge your feelings without giving them too much credit. Just be like, yup, I see you, then move on. So I’m doing that.
I hope you’re feeling happy. If you are, excellent, you deserve it. If not, I’m sorry to hear that, and please take comfort in the fact that one fringe benefit of living in a corrigible, dying universe where everything crumbles and dissolves, including us, is that sadness and fear are also subject to the same lack of staying power and will inevitably change over time.
That’s it. As always, read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’. Thank you Marinella for this week’s submission, and do keep sending in your fiction, feedback and questions. You can always pop a comment in the box below, too. If you disagree with something I’ve said or want to add to something, please feel free to do so – discussion welcomed!
Untitled (by Marinella)
I’m lying on the double bed, stretched out like an overweight branch, leaving the other side of the mattress for Lilly. The self-help books, with crackling spines and photos of old people smiling on the cover, that my neighbour cheerfully thrust into my arms the day after the funeral, say denial can last anywhere from a week to several years. As I’ve used the noun “funeral”, and I’m constantly reading about death, I’d say I’ve passed this stage. Then why, when I know she is gone, am I still terrified of her punching me for invading her side of the bed with my flabby stumps? That will be my goal for the day, to lie on her side without shaking and maybe, if that goes well, make a duvet angel. It’s important to have goals, otherwise you just lie in bed thinking about your dead wife, watching the hours pass by.
Patrick’s wife died at 3 AM, on a Tuesday, after choking on her own sick. Earlier that evening she had suggested that they, Patrick and Lilly, have more conversations as they hardly talked anymore. At least that was what she tried to say, although Patrick heard only grunts and moans coming from the drunken woman. Despite this his love, and naïveté, prevailed. After having gone upstairs to read and let his wife sober up, he inhaled deeply and slid out of bed, quietly telling himself for the one-hundredth time that this was her last chance, if things didn’t change tonight then he would be gone by morning.
I’m lying on the double bed, stretched out like an overweight branch, leaving the other side of the mattress for Lilly.
‘I’m lying on the double bed’ is not an arresting opening bid. Look back through previous DoaTCs (we’ve bashed out two-and-a-half years’ worth) and you’ll see by far the most common starting scene is ‘protagonist wakes up, lies in bed, experiences various shades of lassitudinous ennui’ – which is pretty much representative of the fiction world at large. Kicking off with your main character in bed is probably the biggest cliché of realist fiction.
Which isn’t to say you can’t do it. You can do whatever you like. But you need to know you are choosing something which will make most readers immediately skeptical of your ability to deliver an original, interesting, plausible story. Established authors can get away with this more easily, because they enter each new novel riding a little cushion of goodwill – there is an assumption they semi know what they’re doing. With new authors, less so.
I don’t think this is entirely bad news for us newbies – it keeps us honest. We’ve all read new offerings from an established author that feel self-indulgent and baggy, that feel like they could have been edited better, that could have done with a bit of tough love. You don’t want to get published because no one feels brave enough to call you out on your shit, right? You want to get published (or at least find an audience) because people fall in love with your characters and world.
‘stretched out like overweight branch’ – look at this simile again, Marinella, and ask yourself honestly if it makes any sense. When do branches ever ‘stretch out’? That implies something lithe, mobile and elastic, properties shared by almost zero branches. I suppose very thin branches are sometimes bendy, but they don’t stretch, which is lengthways flexibility versus lateral flexibility. So already the simile reads ‘stretched out like a thing markedly incapable of stretching’.
So okay – maybe one might describe a branch stretching out across a river? But then the term ‘stretching’ implies something hanging in mid-air. This is someone lying on a bed, supported – again, markedly unlike a branch.
Lastly – an ‘overweight branch’? I assume this is the narrator trying to be wryly self-deprecating, sticking ‘overweight’ in an incongruous place, but it doesn’t work. It just complicates an already nonsensical simile by adding an unrelated element.
Odd, off-key and complicated similes and metaphors are by no means verboten – I like them as much as the next hexagonal orangutan coin – but they must have some greater purpose in terms of character and tone. Perhaps your narrator has an off-kilter view of the world and weird similes help establish and expand upon that. Perhaps you’re looking to create a lush, complex world and thus you need lush, complex prose so the novel’s voice is in tune with its outlook.
However, the more moving parts a simile or metaphor has, the harder you have to work to make sure all the gears are meshing. If you fail to perform this basic duty of care, then the different bits of your beautiful analogy end up grinding against each other, damaging our understanding rather than enhancing it, and slowing down the pace.
Remember that metaphorical language is always a gesture away from the actual. When I say ‘He inhaled like someone loading a shotgun’ I encourage you to stop seeing a man breathing in and instead picture a shotgun, the shells, and the act of inserting them into the breech (unless of course you were picturing an American style single-barrelled pump action and the iconic ka-chunk chambering of a round via the slide action). Maybe the simile works, if you see two barrels and imagine the man’s two nostrils flaring as he breathes in, if you think ‘weapon’ and ‘threat’ and associate the sense of intimidation with his in-breath.
But whether it works or not, you cannot then immediately follow up with ‘His eyes thinned, twin moons through cloud’ because – putting aside the debate over whether the analogy is a shite one – that’s taking us in a completely different direction, towards celestial bodies and storms and peculiar, fey omens.
When you hit a certain density of metaphorical language, the reality of your story, the actual narrative present I bang on about so much, gets nudged out. Metaphors and similes are force multipliers but they require a proper ecosystem to support them.
All of which is only tangentially relevant to your piece. Sorry, Marinella. Back we go.
‘leaving the other side of the mattress for Lilly’ – introducing a second character with the final word of the sentence is good, notwithstanding the mess that came before. Our attention immediately lifts – it’s great that you save the name for your punchline word, because it hits harder and has a little accent on it.
Shall we have a crack at the second sentence?
The self-help books, with crackling spines and photos of old people smiling on the cover, that my neighbour cheerfully thrust into my arms the day after the funeral, say denial can last anywhere from a week to several years.
Far be it from me to ask writers to make an actual decision or commit to anything, but when you compile that mental shortlist of possibilities for details to include within a sentence, the optimal choice is never: e) ALL OF THEM
So, first off, you’re abandoning the narrative present one sentence in. You’re moving from the ‘now’ of the story to an abstract, timeless space to discuss general cases.
Secondly, you’re painting in very broad strokes. We have a ‘neighbour’, ‘self-help books’ and ‘old people’ – vague, general categories rather than crunchily specific, concrete things. Rather than gesturing towards a category of things, it’s usually better to realise a single specific instance that can stand for them. It would be better, for example, to have the narrator flicking through a single specific self-help book, where you give us the actual title and describe its weight and cover and quote directly from the text rather than summarising.
Remember show, don’t tell? That is still a thing. That didn’t suddenly stop being the case.
Going by the metric of putting the most interesting information last, this sentence falls woefully short. It’s abstract ruminations rather than story action, and, as such – especially this early in the novel – it is a massive liability that kills our engagement with your fictional universe.
Narrators offering opinions in the abstract, before they’ve done anything – no matter how cynical or poignant or adorned with metaphor those opinions might be – rarely works. We need to buy into them as real people first.
As I’ve used the noun “funeral”, and I’m constantly reading about death, I’d say I’ve passed this stage. Then why, when I know she is gone, am I still terrified of her punching me for invading her side of the bed with my flabby stumps?
So amongst this uneven mass of verbiage is quite a cool reveal – Lilly is dead, and ‘her side of the mattress’ doesn’t actually contain her. But the narrator is so incapable of getting to the point that all the impact is haemorrhaged away.
The opening clauses of the first sentence ‘As I’ve used the noun “funeral”, and I’m constantly reading about death,’ make for ambiguous reading on a first pass. You’re asking us to wait a very long time, storing these qualifiers in our short-term memory buffers, before we hit the main clauses. ‘As’ is ambiguous on a first pass – it might mean ‘Since’ in the sense of ‘because’, but it might also mean ‘While’. We have to wait to hit the main clause before we can successfully resolve the plurality of meaning (roughly 50% of your readers will pick the wrong one), then we have to go back and reread the sentence, armed with the new information, so we can parse it correctly.
It all adds up to a slow, porridgy, frustrating reading experience.
I don’t know quite how to take ‘flabby stumps’ – I’m assuming this isn’t literal? That the narrator is making a mildly tasteless, quasi-self-deprecating remark, maybe channelling Lilly a bit? It’s a weird term for limbs, and it made me think the narrator might be tetraplegic. Of course I’m not suggesting you can’t have a tetraplegic narrator, just that the ambiguity at this stage doesn’t appear to be serving any broader purpose.
Patrick’s wife died at 3 AM, on a Tuesday, after choking on her own sick. Earlier that evening she had suggested that they, Patrick and Lilly, have more conversations as they hardly talked anymore.
I like the first line of this second paragraph. It feels like a much more to-the-point opening for a novel.
But… err. Is the narrator reporting this? Is he/she summarising the situation? Or have you switched from 1st person to 3rd, and the narrator of paragraph one is in fact Patrick of paragraph two?
If the answer is the latter, SLOW DOWN COWBOY. Anything is permissible in art, but you are absolutely not fucking allowed to do this. It is flatly wrong.
If this section is still being delivered by the original narrator, we need some telltale ‘I’s in there to remind us. If it isn’t, then I applaud your experimentation and willingness to break new ground. The results of your experiment are back: THIS DOES NOT WORK. Publish your findings in a peer-reviewed journal and move on.
It’s a horrible, jarring technique that exposes the weaknesses of both methods and makes the author look like they lack the courage of their convictions, as if they don’t trust the person they’ve chosen as their narrator to tell the story. On the other hand, the 3rd person narration is made to look flat and clinical by the presence of a 1st person narrator so close by. Only separated by a paragraph break, these two styles bleed into one another like gravy dribbling into custard.
Grief is incredibly hard to write about yet incredibly important to write about. People aren’t interested in reading about it until they suddenly really, really are. It’s endemic to the human experience and full of drama, emotion, richness, ambiguity and lyricism. It will always be fertile ground for art.
But none of this excuses you from the work of knuckling down and making your scenes real. We need detail, we need specifics, we need a clear sense of the narrative present and we need to have our five senses engaged. These key concerns transform a piece of fiction from an essay to an experience.
Your instincts in tackling this topic and this story are good, Marinella. You just need to spend the time making it come alive.