Bonsoir, and welcome to another Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This week, we look at another aspiring author’s first page and take the scissors to it. If you would like me to look at the first page of your novel or short story on this here blog, please submit via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. 250 words max, just the title and the text in the body of the email, no explanatory blather please. I’ll pop it up on the blog and engage with it robustly and honestly. Please submit, and encourage friends to do so – I can only continue critiquing as long as I have pieces to work with. Thank you to everyone who has submitted thus far.
As always, read the extract below, decide what you would change, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Paolo)
The Arkenharth Forest. An impenetrable fortress of trees, stretching a hundred miles in every direction. It was considered impassable to all but the most seasoned travellers; in fact most seasoned travellers strongly advised against trying. The war stories of those few who did dare enter were hardly encouraging anyway; when confronted with a still-shaking man missing several vital organs, telling of how he narrowly escaped with his life in an encounter with a pack of Barkwolves, most people generally came to the conclusion that it’s a good idea to avoid the place at all costs.
All in all, it was the perfect hiding place for Breoth, one of the last surviving Everprime.
The Everprime had all but vanished into legend after the Battle of Golden Hail more than 500 years previously. The greatest mercenary force in the world they may have been, but they had reckoned without the Alchemists’ Guild, who for some time had been steadily growing more resentful of the Immortals’ refusal to submit themselves for experimentation. Incensed, the Alchemists had used the skills they did possess to transmute the torrential rain thundering down onto the battlefield into solid gold, slaughtering most of the Everprime in one fell swoop. Though the remainder had quickly cottoned on and taken shelter under their shields, they were outnumbered a hundred to one by their barbarian adversaries, who in their heavier armour were largely unharmed. Those Ever-Young who didn’t have the time or sense to flee were wiped out by sheer force of numbers. Those who escaped went into hiding, found work passing as normal humans, and tried to steer clear of nosy alchemists.
The Arkenharth Forest.
I don’t really mind that this sounds like it’s been cribbed from The Raccoons: ‘The Evergreen Forest. Quiet. Peaceful. Serene. That is, until Bert Raccoon wakes up.’ (just for the record, I’m quoting that from memory) You’re giving us a location. You’re not wasting any words. That’s a reasonable enough opening bid.
Although… look at those opening lines from The Raccoons again. 10 words in, it introduces a protagonist who disrupts the status quo. On top of setting, we have character, plot. 13 words to introduce the lot. Your story is already getting trounced by a moderately-successful 90s cartoon, Paolo. Reflect on that.
An impenetrable fortress of trees, stretching a hundred miles in every direction.
‘Impenetrable’? To channel Hercule Poirot: ‘Non. This I do not believe.’ I’m pretty sure a human being could just walk between the tree trunks. Also, ‘fortress’ suggests an outer palisade with a hollow centre – a ring, if you will. A fortress protects something within it. I’m assuming that the forest maintains a more or less consistent density throughout.
And what do you mean by ‘stretching a hundred miles in every direction’? From where? Its centre? Are you telling us that the forest has a diameter of two hundred miles? Or are you just being lazily idiomatic to no great purpose?
It was considered impassable to all but the most seasoned travellers; in fact most seasoned travellers strongly advised against trying.
The first part of this sentence is a classic instance of horrible passive voice construction. ‘All but the most seasoned travellers considered it impassable’ is far less clunky. The addendum after the semi-colon adds nothing – cut it.
The war stories of those few who did dare enter were hardly encouraging anyway; when confronted with a still-shaking man missing several vital organs, telling of how he narrowly escaped with his life in an encounter with a pack of Barkwolves, most people generally came to the conclusion that it’s a good idea to avoid the place at all costs.
First off – is this a novel or a Wikipedia page? I do not give a ripe and steaming shit about ‘the war stories of those few who did dare enter’, especially when we don’t get to hear them first hand but summarised vaguely by the narrator. I want character and I want conflict. These are notes for you, the author – readers don’t want information, they want drama. You are killing your story under a landslide of porridgy, frankly generic exposition.
The narrative voice can’t decide whether it wants to be Portentous Fantasy Storyteller or Chatty Dude On Skype – your prose is full of fluff words like ‘hardly’, ‘anyway’, ‘several’, ‘generally’. You stick in a contraction – ‘it’s’ – in the present tense.
Listen – if a guy ‘missing several vital organs’ can tell you ‘how he narrowly escaped with his life’, those weren’t ‘vital organs’. Imagine it:
‘Gather round, dear friends, and hear the bloodcurdling tale of how I lost my heart, lungs and kidneys in a lethal duel with a-’
‘Uh, sir? I don’t think those words mean what you think they mean.’
The problem with just squatting over the first page and emptying your bowels of exposition is that it lays your SF premise bare and strips it to its most generic elements. Almost any Fantasy world will seem twee and unconvincing when presented to the reader concepts-first, rather than through the eyes of a character we care about, who wants something, and has obstacles preventing him/her/they achieving that want.
Even so – ‘barkwolves’ is a dire construction. So lazy, so completely without resonance. You’ve made no attempt to disguise how you came to invent them. Either spend time researching and building your world so when the story starts it feels real and three-dimensional, or just call them wolves, for fuck’s sake. Making compound nouns out of real world animals plus another noun or adjective on the front is the shittiest, most insulting trope of hack Fantasy:
Damiran strolled through the grove of moonberry bushes, stinkflies humming above brown heaps of rockhound droppings, bowstring taut as he listened for the plaintive, ululating howl of his quarry: the cosbylama.
Don’t treat your readers like idiots. Good SF is bloody hard work. You need to research every part of your world. You need to know how the climate feeds into the terrain feeds into the flora and fauna feeds into the lives of the people. You need to know what level of technology is possible and how that technology works, what problems and opportunities are created. You cannot bullshit your way through all this. You are not fooling anyone.
Let me reiterate. If you want to write Science Fiction or Fantasy that even slightly adds to the canon, you can’t wing it. You have a huge burden of research. In my experience, doing this kind of research is mostly fun! But if it sounds arduous and unpleasant to you, you probably aren’t cut out to be writing genre fiction. Or not good genre fiction, anyway.
All in all, it was the perfect hiding place for Breoth, one of the last surviving Everprime.
This is the first sentence where anything remotely interesting happens. We now have a character, an implied conflict – he is hiding, after all – and some questions – who is he hiding from? What is an Everprime?
I’d suggest cutting everything that comes before it, save the first three words, so your first sentence becomes:
The Arkenharth Forest was the perfect hiding place for Breoth, one of the last surviving Everprime.
That little expositional subclause on the end, ‘one of the last surviving Everprime’, still feels heavy-handed to me, but I guess you can just about get away with it. It’s not subtle, but it helps orient us.
Perhaps a little syntactical jiggery-pokery would help:
For Breoth, one of the last surviving Everprime, the Arkenharth Forest was the perfect hiding place.
That makes ‘hiding place’ your punchline, foregrounds the protagonist, and gives us character, setting and conflict in a single 16 word sentence. Only 3 more words than The Raccoons. Not bad!
The Everprime had all but vanished into legend after the Battle of Golden Hail more than 500 years previously. The greatest mercenary force in the world they may have been, but they had reckoned without the Alchemists’ Guild, who for some time had been steadily growing more resentful of the Immortals’ refusal to submit themselves for experimentation.
No, no, no – one thousand times no.
Don’t pretend you’ve never heard the expression ‘show, don’t tell’, Paolo. Why don’t writers listen? I am exasperated. I am clutching my temples between sentences, here.
This is permissible backstory, but dumped on us in a big, unmediated chunk like this, it reads as really shitty hack Fantasy. We do not need to know this. Only you need to know this. This backstory will become apparent as the novel progresses. We will infer it from events.
Note – I am not saying: ‘reduce the backstory’. I am not saying: ‘move this exposition to later in the book’. I am saying: ‘do not include this anywhere in the novel, ever’.
Info-dumps are the number one signal of amateurish, slapdash, woolly SF. They do crop up in other genres – authors pausing the action to explain various characters’ relationships to one another, past disappointments, hopes for the future, etc – but for some reason, aspiring SF authors seem most prone to them.
This is despite the fact that every article on ‘how to write SF’ ever written says ‘do not use info-dumps, for the love of Christ you fucken morans’. And yet it continues.
Delivered as information, this potted history is boring. We want plot, character, and events happening in the narrative present. You’re putting the cart before the horse. All this needs to be held back, informing the world. Gaps in our knowledge are what propel us through the novel. If you kill all the mystery on the first page, why should we read on?
Show, don’t tell. Being told a battle was fierce is not the same as reading an account of a fierce battle, full of crunchy specificity and sights and sounds and smells that engage our senses. Give us the blood and the screams and we will conclude the battle was fierce, and the connection will be all the more powerful for our having made it ourselves.
Go back and reread some of your favourite SF authors, Paolo. If your favourite SF authors are bit shit (be honest!) then go and read some of the acknowledged masters. See how they handle the flow of information. Then slavishly copy their technique.
If you enjoyed this, I expect you’ll enjoy my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
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