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As always, read the extract below, decide what you think, then read my thoughts under ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Pseudonym)
You lie awake for hours giving the memory foam something to think about. There’s no movement, just the kind of stillness that would make any monk jealous. The TV isn’t on because the remote is more than an arm’s reach away, so the only entertainment you have is the poorly painted black and white wallpaper that you and Roommate did together. If you cross your eyes hard enough, the patterns look like diamonds. It’s a lazy day for lazy fucks like you. You could keep this up for hours, this blasé glaring at the ceilings and walls for hours while your stomach loudly complains that it’s empty.
The world spins on and you can sort of see it through the sheer window curtains that you’ve been meaning to get replaced. People walk by and you get the distinct impression there’s something missing. That is to say I. I get the distinct impression there’s something missing. I’m sorry about that, I do that sometimes. It was just past 2 pm when I finally peeled myself out of bed. The nothing in my stomach was growling too loud to ignore. Borborygmus is the scientific word for it; today I’m calling it motivation. I walked my way into the kitchenette and reached for the colourful cardboard box on top of the refrigerator.
No cereal. I’d eaten the last of it on the day before the milk went unquestionably bad…
You lie awake for hours giving the memory foam something to think about.
The jury’s out on this sentence. Oh no, wait, they’re filing back in now. Their unanimous verdict is: ‘shitto’.
It almost wasn’t! ‘You like awake for hours’ could be a viable opening bid. The use of the second person is unique enough to get our attention, and we’re immediately presented with a question: why can’t I sleep?
The whole ‘giving the memory foam something to think about’ portion of the sentence almost works. It almost works the way a dead man’s parachute almost worked. It’s not much comfort to stand at the crash site, gazing down at a mulch of viscera and bone fragments, and tell his widow: ‘On the plus side – he nearly didn’t die.’
Firstly, you’re talking about ‘memory foam’ rather than ‘brain foam’, so the more accurate analogy would be ‘giving the memory foam something to remember’.
Secondly, ‘about’ is a dull, grammatical word to end your opening sentence on. Consider the syntax of every line. Try to place the most interesting information at the end. Obviously it’s possible to overdo this or make a fetish of it. I’m not advocating you reduce your prose to Yodaish nonsense.
Just remember that the final word of a sentence carries a disproportionate weight. We retain it more clearly than words in the middle, thanks to the recency effect. More than that, your reader’s attention will start to drift if they find sentences petering out halfway through. If your lines habitually close with grammatical housekeeping, your story will feel bland and unfocused.
There’s no movement, just the kind of stillness that would make any monk jealous.
‘There’s no movement’ and ‘just… stillness’ mean the same thing. It’s like writing: ‘There’s no light, just darkness.’ Don’t repeat yourself.
What does the whole ‘that would make any monk jealous’ analogy add? Why ‘any’ instead of ‘a’? I can’t tell if you’re trying to be funny – comparing the protagonist to a monk neither feels apt nor a humorous overstatement. It’s distracting. You’re trying to describe ‘a monkish stillness’, basically. Cut all these unnecessary words.
Describing a stillness is hard, because you’re describing an absence. It’s like writing ‘There was a silence.’ It’s inherently difficult for a reader to imagine, because you’re asking us to not contemplate something that isn’t there. Better – if you genuinely feel that opening with inaction is a solid gambit likely to encourage people to read on – to describe other things around the character that imply inaction, just as silence is best implied through a beat, e.g. ‘Dennis coughed and drummed his fingers on the desk.’ (silence, like stillness, doesn’t really exist in the world – the question is the fineness of sounds or movement that become apparent)
The TV isn’t on because the remote is more than an arm’s reach away,
A nice piece of characterisation. Amusing, to the point.
so the only entertainment you have is the poorly painted black and white wallpaper that you and Roommate did together.
Do people paint wallpaper? ‘you have’ is redundant – cut it. ‘poorly painted’ is an abstract value-judgement rather than something we can actually picture. Describe what it looks like and allow the reader to come to the conclusion that it is ‘poorly painted’.
Calling his roommate ‘Roommate’ rather than giving us a name is twee and immediately irritating. It doesn’t feel like mordant characterisation, just laziness, flagged as laziness as if to pre-empt any criticism.
If you cross your eyes hard enough, the patterns look like diamonds.
You need to be more specific than ‘patterns’, and this information needs to come in the previous sentence, in place of ‘poorly painted’. And what do you mean by ‘diamonds’? Diamond-shaped? Or that they look like actual sparkling gems? Ambiguity really lets this scene down.
It’s a lazy day for lazy fucks like you.
At least there’s a bit of personality in this sentence. Both in the narration and in the implied protagonist.
You could keep this up for hours, this blasé glaring at the ceilings and walls for hours while your stomach loudly complains that it’s empty.
Meanwhile the reader is attaching a noose to the punchbag bracket in their ceiling and climbing onto a stool. What is our investment in this scene supposed to be? Why on earth should anyone who isn’t related by blood or having sex with the author (or both) care what happens next?
The world spins on and you can sort of see it through the sheer window curtains that you’ve been meaning to get replaced.
Oh my fucking God GET ON WITH IT. I am clutching my skull here. This is supposed to be a novel. You’re not nattering on a phone cradled between your cheek and shoulder while making a flan. Respect the reader’s time. They have paid you for the right to read these words, and they have given up time in their finite span of consciousness, forsaking friends, family, and other forms of entertainment and income. The least you can do is make sure that when they start your first page you’ve got something to say.
People walk by and you get the distinct impression there’s something missing.
It’s called a fucking story.
That is to say I. I get the distinct impression there’s something missing. I’m sorry about that, I do that sometimes.
What? Lose your nerve and chicken out of second-person narration a meagre one paragraph into your novel?
Unless we’re reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, ‘you’ narration is wanky at the best of times. Either write in the second-person or don’t. Commit. This lily-livered compromise isn’t having your cake and eating it. It’s having your cake and repeatedly mashing it into your forehead shouting ‘buhhh! Postmodernism!’
Trust me – if, less than a page into your novel, your narrator is apologising for doing a shit job of narrating, that is your unconscious mind’s desperately trying to alert you to the fact that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
It was just past 2 pm when I finally peeled myself out of bed. The nothing in my stomach was growling too loud to ignore.
So, not content with bailing on the second-person, you’re now backing out of present tense narration too? What next? ‘Oh by the way, I’m not actually an insipid slacker languishing in a bedsit, I’m a pirate captain locked in a swordfight with a rakish cephalopod on the stern of a burning galleon’.
Because I would totally read that novel.
Borborygmus is the scientific word for it; today I’m calling it motivation.
I do like the specificity here. I like that I’m learning something I didn’t know. This moment, while not dramatically satisfying, at least feels original. In a single sentence, that’s all I ask. Good.
I walked my way into the kitchenette and reached for the colourful cardboard box on top of the refrigerator.
No cereal. I’d eaten the last of it on the day before the milk went unquestionably bad.
Dun dun dun! The protagonist looks to camera and screams.
I mean, really? I’m not suggesting every story need open with a character dangling from a cliff-edge by their fingertips while wolves bay on the plateau above and grey waves lash the jagged rocks below, but at the very least give us some conflict. Offer some emotional stakes. Make this scene matter to the protagonist, if no one else.
Remember that your story enters a marketplace of competing narratives. Most readers will come to you in good faith but you have to fulfil your side of the contract. It’s not enough to amble into a drab vignette where you’re just feeling your way through, sentence by sentence, with no sense of direction or forward momentum.
Even the most basic anecdote works via the push-pull dynamic of raising and answering questions. Whether a character is late, or upset, or in an argument, or intimated, whether they’re trying to carry a tray of overfilled iced teas through a very crowded party or compose a love letter to a bassoon teacher who might be dead or retrieve a cherry blossom petal floating in the head-basin of a sleeping kappa, they need to care about what’s happening to them in that first moment we meet them. That’s the only way the reader is going to feel invested in your story.
I think most writers knock out a slacker-story early in their development. I know I did. A dude wakes up late, maybe blinks at the clock, his room’s in a state, he shuffles downstairs… I’m not quite sure what the appeal of these pieces are, aside from the fact they feel vaguely gritty and transgressive, and they’re a piece of piss to write. What they emphatically are not, is good.
Unless this protagonist undergoes a third-page transformation into a swashbuckling plunderer (in which case skip ahead and start there) I suggest you write this piece off as a necessary rite of passage and move onto topics worthy of your and your readers’ time.
Enjoyed this? Then you might well like my award-winning memoir on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
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