Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Each week we look at a novice writer’s first page and try to think up ways to make it better. If you’d like to submit your first page of your novel or story, please read my submission guidelines.
This week the lady who served me in the Co-Op said she’d seen me on TV and asked what my book was called. She wrote down the title and said she’s going to buy it. I guess I am going to have to become a recluse or something.
If you want to see why I’m suddenly so crazy-famous to small subsections of the Norwich populace, please buy my new novel, The Honours, which came out last month and which a bunch of newspapers have said is not shit. I shan’t flatly contradict them here but you know what the British press are like, don’t you, so best you read it for yourself and come to an informed opinion.
Okay – usual drill. Read the piece below, decide what you do and don’t like, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Mark)
Love can sometimes be tricky; it takes on many forms. Love leads us to do crazy things, make difficult decisions and make great sacrifices. Love fuels us all. My name is Walter, and this is the story of the decisions and sacrifices my own love has led me into.
June 1st, 2012.I will never forget that day. I treaded down the hospital hallway. There was plenty of action: nurses hurrying about, mothers crying and announcements through the P.A. system. None of it mattered to me however; all of it was a blur. I walked down to the very end of the hallway, through the sea of people, to room 42. The golden letters on the door seemed to taunt me as I stood there with a heavy feeling in my throat.
I sighed. I forced myself to go through the door.
I was met with a blast of cold air, pierced with the sound of beeping and booping from the fast array of monitors and medical equipment that filled the room. The odor of medicine was prevalent, with a subtle scent of urine hanging in the air. In the center of the room, lying almost motionlessly, was a pale old man. You couldn’t tell if he was alive or not unless you focused closely on his chest and noticed his shallow breathing. I kneeled down to this man and kissed his cold, bald head. He was breathing, but that was pretty much all he did these days.
‘I love you, father’ I whispered into his ear, as if shouting into deep space and hoping someone would shout back. No response; just the rasp of his breath.
First off – a note on word length. I say ‘note’. I mean the kind of shitty, passive-aggressive note that gets jammed under drivers’ windscreen wipers in bitter, avaricious market towns in Tory heartlands, complaining that the bit of kerb they’ve parked on is private land.
The extract you sent me was three times the requested length. Please read the Submission Guidelines and stick to them, everyone! For a start, in these ‘analyses’ (i.e. gibbering volcano-jacksied conniptions) I’m lucky to get through the first paragraph, let alone nearly 800 words, so fine-toothed is the comb I drag through the lice-riddled pubic tuft of each extract.
I don’t mind too much (I’ll just lop your piece off at the 250 word mark) but if you’re not prepared to respect basic submission instructions you may find your work dismissed unread by busy agents and editors. Not following the guidelines is usually a pretty reliable indicator that the writer in question is either firing off their work to every available outlet without bothering to check whether it’s suitable, or considers themselves a radical creative type who doesn’t play by the rules.
As a writer, you are submitting in a saturated market. Give an agent or editor an excuse to ignore your work and they will, not because they’re an arsehole (although they might be) but because the internet is blasting a continual torrent of submissions their way, and if they tried to read every one from beginning to end they would drown in words.
So yes. Mark. Consider yourself tsk-tsked. Everyone else, heads up.
Love can sometimes be tricky; it takes on many forms.
Not a big fan of the ‘tepid maxim’ as an opening gambit, Mark. (of course ‘gambit’ isn’t synonymous with ‘tactic’, and properly means a ‘tactical sacrifice’ or move that involves a loss – in this instance the loss is that of your reader’s faith and attention, and the gain is you get to read this diverting little parenthetical note about the technical meaning of ‘gambit’)
You don’t even commit to it: ‘can sometimes be tricky’? Why hedge so early on? What reader is likely to be challenged by this statement, provoked, unnerved, surprised? What is there to grip us?
Can you imagine a single human being disagreeing with this assertion?
Well, I suppose only in the sense that it feels like three-day-old-iceberg-lettuce-limp understatement.
Besides anything else, ‘can sometimes be’ – a fucking split infinite, Mark – hobbles your first line. Why not ‘Love is tricky’?
Prose thrives on commitment. As a writer, our general, everyday hygiene protocol needs to be checking through the words we hammered out yesterday, and stripping out all the hedge-words, all the watering down, all the steps back and splicey-meh ‘on the other hand’ havering horseshit.
I’m talking: slightly, almost, rather, nearly, sort of, kind of, seemed to – those flavourless, cowardly pipecleaner words that qualify your language to death and relieve you, the author, of the responsibility of ever having to take a stand.
Be provocative. Be opinionated. Love is impossible. Love rips your guts out. Love is the medicine that eventually kills you.
Saying ‘love takes on many forms’ is about as revelatory as saying ‘poop comes out the butthole’. At least the latter has the virtue of being visual. ‘on’ is a fluff word. Cut it.
I would lose this whole first line altogether, to be honest. It’s just naff truisms, watered down so much as to be almost meaningless.
Love leads us to do crazy things, make difficult decisions and make great sacrifices.
No. Cut this. Mark, I am sure you are a wonderful human being. This writing has absolutely no bearing on that.
It’s not even a referendum on your as a writer. It’s just some writing you have produced.
This is a fucking awful line. It’s so banal it could be used as a crowd-control measure by riot police. It emits a powerful field that robs human beings of strength and volition.
It’s so obvious, so insipid, so, so… nothingy. It’s not even twee in a Hallmark way, because its claims are so small. Love promotes personal sacrifice? Precisely who will find this a novel or interesting statement? What, exactly, is a reader supposed to get out of this? This is supposed to be a novel, not a primer on basic human interaction for stroke victims.
Love fuels us all.
AAARRRRGGGHHHH! *covers head, dives through plate glass window*
My name is Walter, and this is the story of the decisions and sacrifices my own love has led me into.
So, ‘My name is Walter’ is at least specific. That’s good. ‘and this is the story of’ whets the appetite a bit as well. Good.
After that is just a very boring smear of abstractions and grammatical cartilage. ‘has led me into’ is a truly horrible way to close the sentence. Put your most interesting, vivid words last. I’ll admit that the pickings in this sentence are decidedly slim.
June 1st, 2012.I will never forget that day.
So including the date is good, specific, helps narrow the field. No shame in that. It’s straightforward, saves a lot of faffing.
‘I will never forget that day’ is clichéd, hammy and drab. The tone completely undermines the content.
Also – show, don’t tell. Don’t have your narrator step in to say how momentous or emotive the events we’re just about to see are, unless the narrator explains it in a particularly interesting way. By implication, the narrator should be dropping us into the story at an interesting point. It’s not like we’re expecting:
June 1st, 2012. What a shit, unremarkable day. I picked my arse and watched Columbo. At half-past six I ate a jacket potato but I hadn’t done it properly and the middle was all hard. I threw half of it away, had a wank, and went to bed early.
I haven’t read that Scandinavian Karl Ove Knausgård fellow, but I imagine it’s all like that.
I treaded down the hospital hallway.
I’m not sure ‘treaded’ is a great verb choice here. It feels… weirdly neutral, actually. I’m not sure whether you mean tiptoed or crept or trudged. It’s ambiguous.
There was plenty of action: nurses hurrying about, mothers crying and announcements through the P.A. system.
No need for ‘There was plenty of action’ – you don’t need to set up the concept of what you’re about to show us before you deliver it. We don’t need warnings.
All of these beats are vague and obvious. Why ‘mothers crying’ specifically? How does he know they’re mothers? Is he passing a maternity ward? Why would the mothers be crying? Or is he passing a children’s ward?
This feels like a scene made up on the fly. There’s no real sense of detail, no crunchy specificity. Give us the sights, sounds, smells and feels that are specific to this hospital, in this moment. Little, fragmentary bits of very sharply realised information that make it real.
None of it mattered to me however; all of it was a blur.
Both of these feel clichéd, but if you must include something like this, pick one and cut the other. You keep saying the same thing twice, repeating yourself, covering your bases. Commit!
I walked down to the very end of the hallway, through the sea of people, to room 42.
Okay – do hospitals have numbered rooms? I guess some must do.
Don’t write ‘sea of people’ – that’s another hoary old cliché. It just distances us from the story, makes the language dead and used up. I’m not convinced it’s even accurate – I mean, this feels way too busy for a hospital. A ‘sea’ suggested an unbroken crowd. Even if it were that jam-packed, it’s a corridor, so it would be more like a river.
The golden letters on the door seemed to taunt me as I stood there with a heavy feeling in my throat.
I think this is the best writing in the piece so far. We have a visual stimulus, and we have emotion evoked through a physical sensation. I feel sorry for Walter in this moment. Good work.
I sighed. I forced myself to go through the door.
Not good, but not bad. It’s clear and you haven’t overwritten it, and there are some basic stakes. I guess I would see this as placeholder text that I would come back to in a second draft, seeing if I could add some kind of detail that made it richer and more unique without overwriting it or overburdening it with wackiness, but I wouldn’t feel bad about leaving it and pressing on, because it’s functional.
I’m not suggesting you can’t shoot higher than ‘functional’ prose, Mark. I think you should trust yourself and your abilities to go for the very best writing you can, of a quality your story and your imagination deserves, but it’s best to pick your battles when redrafting, starting with big, messy edits, than gradually working up to finer and finer tweaks in successive passes. No sense in laboriously varnishing the floor that you might have to rip up a few days later.
I was met with a blast of cold air, pierced with the sound of beeping and booping from the fast array of monitors and medical equipment that filled the room.
Are rooms really cold? If they are, that’s fine. It just surprised me.
Not sure about ‘pierced with’ – it’s ambiguous whether this refers to the subject of the main clause, ‘I’, or the object, ‘air’ – and neither results in much sense.
It will come as no great shock to my regular readers that I am, shall we say, unconvinced by ‘beeping and booping’. ‘beeping’ you could perhaps have got away with. ‘and booping’ is a bizarre addition, tonally jarring, and containing zero extra information. It’s so crashingly out of register. It’s like a card that reads: WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND DYSENTRY
The sentence peters out into grammatical busywork – ‘that filled the room’ is dull and redundant. I think we’ve guessed it’s in the room with him. This kind of preposition is only permissible if we could not have possibly foreseen it, e.g. ‘from the fast array [NB I think you mean ‘vast array’] of monitors and medical equipment adhered to the ceiling in a transparent resinous goo.’
Look, Mark – I get the sense you’re still finding your voice, and actually I think the subject matter of this piece is poignant. I don’t want you to get dismayed by my criticism here, because it’s not criticism of you, but just a few of these habits you’ve picked up, which are easily shed. Go back to your favourite books (or if your favourite books are a bit shit, go to some acknowledged classics) and look at how they do it. That’s how we all learn.