Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
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Okay – as usual, read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Merav)
It’s a quiet night at Harper’s, where I work as a waitress, and I’m thankful for the lull. Harper’s is now the only bar in Willow Grove since the little pub down the road closed down, so it’s almost always busy. It can get to be pretty rowdy, too. I’ve had shifts where fights break out every few minutes, and more than a few men and women go home with bruised pride and broken bones.
When you’ve been living here as long as I have… my whole life, as a matter of fact! You know, there are going to be some days where the whole town is restless, itching for a fight. Sometimes I wake up, open the window, taste the air, and get right back into bed. I can just tell when it’s no good to be out and about.
On those kinds of days, peoples’ tempers run short and scuffles break out easy, and once two people get to fighting, it’s like a blood frenzy and everybody just jumps in. When that happens, the only thing I can do is to try and make myself small by the dark wood-panelled walls and hope no one notices.
Tonight, though, is not one of those nights. The tables and booths are mostly empty, and people are mostly here to eat, not drink. Everybody seem preoccupied. They talk quietly and slurp at their beers. No one’s tried to pinch me on the backside yet too, which I’m pleased about.
It’s a quiet night at Harper’s, where I work as a waitress, and I’m thankful for the lull.
Right – so that little parenthetical aside in the middle of the sentence, ‘where I work as a waitress’? That right there is a textbook example of information that is better shown than told.
If we see the narrator doing waitress work, we will conclude that this is where she works as a waitress. This is reasonably guessable information, given that the scene takes place at the bar itself. Maybe, if the narrator were in a car driving past the bar, you might be forgiven for tossing this little aside in, since we wouldn’t actually get to see her doing any waitressing.
But she’s in the goddamn building, Merav. It’s a bizarre thing to explicitly state – so much so that it borders on undermining our belief that she actually is a waitress. Because why the fuck would she say it? Imagine if you were about to go under general anaesthetic for abdominal surgery, and the surgeon leant in and said: ‘I work here as a surgeon, you know.’ Would that make you feel reassured? Or would you start desperately casting around for help as your vision blotched and you sunk into a deep – and possible permanent – unconsciousness?
Harper’s is now the only bar in Willow Grove since the little pub down the road closed down, so it’s almost always busy.
No need for ‘now’ (unless the narrator is a native of Norwich, where we add redundant modifiers like ‘now’ and ‘do’ for decoration, e.g. ‘I’m now going down the pub,’ or ‘Them do say it going to rain tonight’).
I don’t think either of these two lines are especially strong opening bids, storywise. Nothing’s happened so far to really grab our attention. There’s no particular conflict, nothing striking about the voice, no idiosyncrasy of character.
Of course, not all stories need to start with a burning ambulance powersliding through plate glass doors into an ice sculpture centrepiece of Saddam Hussein fucking a swan (although the world will be a poorer place if at least one doesn’t – get to it, gang; you have your writing prompt) but it’s generally considered good manners to offer the reader something to get their teeth into, even if it’s just some vivid sensory description.
Notice you’ve stuck to fairly broad category nouns, most of them abstract: night, waitress, lull, bar, pub, road. Quite vague, general words. Again, a story needn’t start with a clutch of fruity screwball objects, but if you’re not baiting your trap with plot and character or a delicious smear of voice, interesting objects are pretty much all you have left.
A story can start off unassuming, sure. But don’t try to rebrand thin gruel as ‘minimalism’. Lead with your best punch. Don’t hold back.
It can get to be pretty rowdy, too.
Not stylistically amazing or anything, but at least we have a hint of conflict here. Oop, the reader thinks, trouble’s brewing. Thank fuck.
I’ve had shifts where fights break out every few minutes, and more than a few men and women go home with bruised pride and broken bones.
Meh. When you summarise like this you kill the tension stone dead. Far, far better to have the narrator pick one specific instance that is representative of this occasional occurrence, naming the characters, hinting at the circumstances and the outcome and where, specifically, it happened in the bar, than just gesturing vaguely at its existence as a phenomenon.
That ‘bruised pride and broken bones’ is particularly grating. I see what you’re trying to do with the symmetry of the two phrases, but they’re both unevocative clichés that obscure the drama rather than allowing us to experience it.
I should say – it’s totally fine for the narrator to find these fights boring, by the way. She can throw away the account and that’s a valid storytelling tactic – in fact it can tell us a lot that she is neither surprised nor especially thrilled by violence that ends in broken bones taking place in front of her. So you can completely undersell the fight itself, using flat language – but we still need the specificity that makes it real for us, the quirky details that bring it alive. All you’re omitting are the cheesy strings underscoring the whole thing, telling us how to feel.
When you’ve been living here as long as I have… my whole life, as a matter of fact!
No need for that statement after the ellipses. In fact, there is a very strong anti-need for that statement. There is a compelling and urgent mandate for it to be extracted from this sentence, taken to a compound outside the city and humanely destroyed.
The former clause implies that she has been there a long time – no need to expand on it so explicitly. If this becomes relevant or important we can find out later. Don’t dump lots of biography on us before you’ve stimulated our desire to know it. Make us hungry before you serve us dinner.
You know, there are going to be some days where the whole town is restless, itching for a fight.
The fluff words in this sentence – which is to say the needless grammatical cartilage that bogs the line down – are ‘you know’, ‘there are going to be’ and ‘where’.
I reckon this would make a pretty great first line, those wretched lazy words aside. Look at what’s left:
Some days, the whole town is restless, itching for a fight.
That’s a serviceable opening bid, in my humble opinion. Its main drawback is it doesn’t introduce the protagonist, so maybe your follow-up would be: ‘I can feel it.’
Lovely potential one-two punch. Don’t let me write your story for you, but you get the idea. When you’re looking back over your first page, you need to be asking yourself, what’s the essence of this story? What’s my most arresting way in? I’ve said it before and I shall continue saying it until the last faithful readers of this blog abandon it in disgust, but your first line carries a disproportionate amount of your novel’s thematic and tonal (and to a lesser extent semantic) freight. It is the first sound or image to surface out of the blackness. It exists in near-perfect void.
Make it count.
Sometimes I wake up, open the window, taste the air, and get right back into bed.
I quite like this. I like that we’re getting some character, and I like that this is a surprising action.
However, I feel like the rule of three applies here, Merav. Rhetorically, it’s a better sentence recast as a three point list: ‘Sometimes, I blah blah, blah blah, and blah-de-blah blah.’ Four actions hobbles it slightly. I’d consider killing ‘open the window’, or rephrasing.
What does the air taste like, by the way? That would be a great, fascinating detail. What does she taste when she senses there’s going to be a fight? Give us the flavour of conflict, at least in her mind.
I can just tell when it’s no good to be out and about.
So yeah. A bit of a nothingy tag on the previous sentence that could be put to better use. It’s fine to have narrators make little offhand comments on what they’ve just said – it’s one of their joys, in fact – but the tag needs to develop or undermine or otherwise twist their previous statement. ‘out and about’ is a bit clichéd – you could close on ‘I can just tell’. Then maybe add a line about the specific taste, as previously suggested?
It’s up to you, obviously, but if you’re going to have a first-person narrator with opinions, make sure you’re exploiting the form. Make sure you use them.
On those kinds of days, peoples’ tempers run short and scuffles break out easy, and once two people get to fighting, it’s like a blood frenzy and everybody just jumps in.
What’s great about this sentence is it evokes the emotional state it’s describing. Like I can actually feel myself getting more pissed off and surly as I read it, as the narrator restates something we’ve already been told, without adding any new information.
It’d be ace if the next page of the story was just the narrator repeating this in various ways:
It’s like everybody’s angrier somehow – more hot-headed. Folk will disagree over something and, before you know it, they’re throwing punches. Once two people are at it, everyone wants to join in. It spreads quickly, and before you know it, a whole crowd are at each other’s throats. It’s like the town’s patience has worth thin. Everyone you meet has this edginess to them. They’re defensive – liable to snap. You see it happening everywhere – a simple disagreement will escalate to shoving, then to blows, and then four, five, a dozen people are involved. It’s as if the whole population have collectively lost their cool. A pair of acquaintances start to squabble in the street and pretty soon they’re whaling on each other. After that everyone piles in. You could almost believe the whole town has become more irritable.
Until the reader turns to the nearest human and cold cocks them right in the skull, screaming: ‘SHUT UUUUUUP!’
What I am saying is cut this sentence, if you care at all for the welfare of the people on the receiving end of this story.
When that happens, the only thing I can do is to try and make myself small by the dark wood-panelled walls and hope no one notices.
See, now this is better. It actually details how the narrator responds, introduces some stakes and character. Good.
‘the only thing’ is a fluffy way of saying ‘all’.
‘to try and’ is all fluff. Needless modification. Cut it.
I feel like the key part of this line, the part you want to close on, is ‘wall’. ‘and hope no one notices’ is a pointless coda. We get it. It’s not like we think she’s saying ‘When that happens, all I can do is make myself small by the dark wood-pannelled walls in the hope that my presence enrages someone so I can get into the mix myself and break a few noses’.
I like the specificity of ‘dark wood-pannelled walls’, although its presence at the end of the line feels a bit incongruous, a weird detail to append to such a violent scene. I’d suggest recasting the sentence so you can end with ‘small’, which is, after all, the point of her actions. So you’d end up with something like:
‘When that happens, all I can do is press myself to the dark wood-pannelled walls and make myself small.’ That feels punchier, more first-pass comprehensible and more tonally complete, to me.
Tonight, though, is not one of those nights.
Oh thank fuck. For a second I thought a story was going to break out.
This feels like a good setting for a story, Merav – a small town full of tension and conflict. Still, for some reason you’ve started your story at a point where none of that is taking place. Perhaps you’re still writing yourself into the character and the setting. May I humbly suggest you consider starting your story as late as you can, at the most exciting point that you can? Develop character by putting the narrator under duress and letting us watch how she responds.