Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

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Otherwise, you know the drill. Read the extract below, formulate your own thoughts on it, and then – and only then – read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’. Bon chance.

Untitled (by Pat)

The trees flitter past, but I don’t notice. The river is off to the left, but I don’t see it. My legs hurt.

“Keep a smooth pedal stroke”

The lactic acid is building in my thighs, causing my legs to burn. It’s a bad sign. Means that I’m relying too much on the limited energy stored in my muscles, instead of the oxygen I’m breathing. I can’t keep this up.

I press inward on my right shifter and drop down two gears. My legs spin faster, but I manage to maintain my speed.

Slowly, the burning shifts upwards, from my legs into my lungs.

Can I keep this up? Yes.

But it hurts.

With effort, I pull back from the discomfort. I glance left, at the river, and see the reflected sunlight. I notice how the treetops arch over the trail, and I take in the earthy smell of decaying leaves. In my mind there is no bicycle. I’m merely flying along, unaided. The pain is still there, but it’s in the background. I can handle this.

Around a bend, and the trail slopes upward. My body protests, but I’m in control.

15 miles to go.

The Cuts

The trees flitter past, but I don’t notice.

Oh, I think you do, Mr/Mrs Narrator-Person. This is first-person present tense narration – by implication, anything you mention, you notice.

I sense a great disturbance in the comments section, as if a thousand pedants coughed ostentatiously. Yes, yes, theoretically you could have an omniscient first-person narrator who is also the protagonist narrating in the present tense, but it would be a weird, unwieldy dynamic whereby the narrator and the protagonist are essentially two versions of the same person, one of whom has access to all this extra information. You’d have to keep making explicit which parts of the narrative are known to the protagonist, and which are godlike observations of the nebulous unshackled narrator.

It’d be all: I lace up my half-brogues. Next door, the Roylances’ youngest daughter, Millicent, is punching holes in a blood orange with the head of a dart. Under the eaves at the gable end of the house, a bat gives birth. In Nantes, a horse briefly perceives a meringue. But I don’t know any of this.

I suspect this has been done several times. Perhaps, if one were writing a satirical novel about the impotent picayune absurdity of human existence, this sort of smug, heavy-handed stylistic prancing might even been appropriate.

But you’re trying to write an immersive sports scene. Why focus on the things your protagonist can’t see? We could be here all week.

And more than that, as I said straight away, your narrator is lying. Have you ever run fast? Pedalled hard?

Do you honestly expect us to believe that someone going fast on a bike doesn’t perceive the flicker of trees? Can’t see an entire river? If he or she has suffered an undiagnosed stroke and can’t see out of their left eye, then yes, possibly. If the line said: ‘Trees flicker past, but I am unable to appreciate their individual beauty and fail to identify the loan cork oak amongst a copse of turkey oaks’ then admittedly I’d still wonder why the narrator is listing things they don’t perceive, but at least it would pass the low, low bar of not being demonstrable bollocks.

My legs hurt.

See, on the one hand, this is simple, it engages our senses, it’s an actual thing rather than a negation of a thing, and it’s believable.

On the other hand: come on, Pat. I know you can do better than this. I’m not asking for a melodramatic simile or multisyllabic synonyms, but I am going to drop that most overused and wanky of words, and ask if you can’t think of something just a smidge more evocative.

Anyone who has cycled for any distance – or indeed done any kind of protracted exercise – knows that the human body reveals its wondrous layers of nuance chiefly through pain. The runner and the cyclist do not experience legs as this gestalt entity capable of only one state.

Over a single run, you might start out with a little stiffness in your kneecaps, then your quads start to burn as you tackle a hill, halfway through your left calf muscle starts letting out a freezing ache that pulses every time your heel hits the tarmac, an ache that spreads down to your tendon and tightens as you press on, only to pull your lower right hamstring and experience that strange, jellylike agony that sharpens to a knifing jag whenever you extend the right leg fully.

A seasoned cyclist does not simply have ‘legs’ that ‘hurt’. They have specific, mobile agonies all jostling for attention, from fatigue through to old nagging injuries to oh-shit-I-might-have-just-torn-something. I like the simplicity of your sentence, but in this case it feels like a trim too far.

“Keep a smooth pedal stroke”

‘Remember to put punctuation inside the speech marks,’ said the enigmatic, disembodied voice, before melting away and contributing jackshit to the rest of the narrative.

More stories should have a piece of unattributed dialogue dropped into the middle, dispensing unsolicited advice:

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. ‘Watch out for that shithead Mr Wickham, Elizabeth!’

If you meant this speech to be shouted by someone trackside, attribute it to them. If it’s a thought, either italicise it, or just work it into the narrative using free indirect style. Don’t put inner monologue in speech marks.


The lactic acid is building in my thighs, causing my legs to burn.

Lucky for you I’ve written a whole post on the leaden ‘causing to’ formation, pointing out how shit it is and how to cure it.

And you know what? At the risk of repeating myself, the lactic acid building in the thighs is making the narrator’s thighs burn, not their whole fucking legs. Because it’s in the thighs. *thighs othtentathiouthly* Thtrewth.

It’s a bad sign.

No shit Professor Cycling! I thought it meant the rider was about to go Full ET.

Means that I’m relying too much on the limited energy stored in my muscles, instead of the oxygen I’m breathing. I can’t keep this up.

See, this is actually good. A little clinical, but it sounds like actual knowledge, it suggests something about the character – they’re smart, they’re serious about their cycling – and it introduces a hint of stakes. We don’t know why this person needs to go fast – maybe they left the dinner on, maybe they have diarrhoea and their admirable sense of ecological stewardship won’t let them open bumbay doors over the river – but we know it matters to them and that’s enough for now.

I press inward on my right shifter and drop down two gears. My legs spin faster, but I manage to maintain my speed.

This is pretty good as well. I’d cut ‘manage to’ – it’s almost an intensifier and a lesser editor might wave it through on that basis, but your readers deserve lean, clear prose.

Slowly, the burning shifts upwards, from my legs into my lungs.

I want an extra line acknowledging some relief in the thighs. ‘shifts upwards’ is ambiguous – it doesn’t necessarily connote cessation of the original pain, which might be spreading rather than migrating.

This would be a good place to give us some sense of surroundings again. At the moment, this reads like a description of a person pedalling on a stationary bike in a completely white room. Give us a sense of the terrain. Is it flat? Is the narrator having to steer at all? Are the wheels crunching over grit, skidding in dust, churning mud, hissing over hot concrete? What?

I do like the specificity of this sentence, though. It’s nice that we’re already seeing the protagonist faced with a problem, making a rational choice, and solving one immediate difficulty while creating another. Plot-wise, that’s a nice process to take us through – you’ve shown the protagonist being active, making a smart choice, but you haven’t let down the tension. Not an easy thing to achieve, and a sweet move that all writers reading this should take note of. (I mean the general shape of it – I’m not suggesting you all stick your main character on a bike in the opening movement)

Can I keep this up? Yes.

No need for blunt rhetorical questions that restate the central problem. Don’t treat us like boss-eyed knuckle-draggers.

And especially don’t present the story’s central conflict – currently the only thing that is keeping your reader reading – then dismiss it. Rather kills the tension, Pat. The tiny soupcon of bathos and plausibility you squeeze out of this is not worth bludgeoning to death the puffer fish of your central hook.

Err… I think my Analogy-Maker 5000 might be malfunctioning this week.

With effort, I pull back from the discomfort.

Whenever prose is too precise, whenever clarity threatens to bestow upon a reader the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings of a fictional scenario, whenever a story looks set to transport its audience to an imagined place and time, pray for the obfuscating grey mists of…


What does this even mean? Is the protagonist telling us that they move their attention away from the burning in their lungs? Why have you downsized ‘burning’ to ‘discomfort’? This is the problem with compulsively hunting for synonyms – you end up diminishing the impact of your big moments. It’s like writing:

Freezing forks of agony twisted up Abbot’s wrist as the drill bit chewed into his palm. A black ache radiated from the ragged entry wound, thickening. He was blind with pain. Above the whirr of the motor he could hear his own hoarse screams, an ecstatic liturgy of dead tongues as the soreness continued.

Be specific. Actually stop writing, turn away from the screen, close your eyes, and imagine yourself in the situation. Push past the obvious.

I glance left, at the river, and see the reflected sunlight.

Oh, so you can see it now? First off, no need for ‘left’. You’ve already told us where it is. Don’t slavishly position it every time.

Secondly, ‘reflected sunlight’ feels like the most obvious, stock observation of a river one could possibly formulate. Can’t we have something a little more idiosyncratic? Come on now, Pat. Don’t make me drop the e-word twice in a week.

Thirdly, I feel slightly cheated that the narrator can go from ‘how will I deal with this punishing pain?’ to ‘ah – hark at the restorative bucolic multiplicity of nature!’ in a single sentence. This line conveys no sense of a person on a bike, coughing up blood, hating life.

The pain is still there, but it’s in the background. I can handle this.

Around a bend, and the trail slopes upward. My body protests, but I’m in control.

15 miles to go.

Here’s an idea. Don’t kill the only source of tension in your story then cheerfully announce to the reader that we’re nowhere near the end. In the context of the previous sentences, that ‘15 miles to go’ carries all the doomy odium of a poet at an open mic who flips through their sheaf of crumpled paper and says: ‘I’ll just do… five more.’

If the narrator said:

My hamstrings are fucked. The back tyre is making an odd keening noise. Something hits me in the eye and I’m blinded. I feel my old Achilles tendon injury reasserting itself as I lean into the slope. My mouth is dry. I can barely draw a breath.

15 miles to go.

We would be like – holy shit, this dude/dudette/sweet person is Mayor of Poo-Poo Town. How are they going to make it? I’d better read on to find out!

In your version, they’re ‘in control’.

Cos that’s what readers crave, isn’t it? The promise of 15 miles of competent cycling.

Even if the next page features cyclists kidnapped by aliens or the protagonist whipping out an uzi for some sweet drive-by gunplay against a gang of BMXing ninja droids, your readers will not reach it. The problem you introduced has been resolved. It’s like your story was a little egg, and we heard a little ‘crik crik crik’ from inside the shell, and we gathered round, waiting for it to hatch, then the noise stopped, and after a while we realised that the chick inside was probably dead.

Goddamn it, Pat. Now I’m thinking about dead baby chicks. HOW COULD YOU LET THEM DIE, GOD?