Hello noble friends, and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Every week we take the first page of a novice author’s novel or short story, and look at ways of making it better. If you’d like to know more, or you’d like to submit your work for perusal, please read the submission guidelines.
I’m taking two shows up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, Be Kind To Yourself and Grave Invaders. The former is an hour of stand-up poetry, including a piece from my poetry collection, Pub Stuntman; the latter is a show with spoken word artists Mark Grist and MC Mixy, telling the story of our pilgrimage round as many poets’ graves as we could manage in a fortnight, and the adventures we had on the way. If you are up in Edinburgh during August, it would be lovely to see you. You can check out dates under the ‘Gigs’ tab on this very website.
I’ll also be doing a couple of gigs for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, practising being all authory and learned in preparation for the release of my fiction debut next year, The Honours. I shall be mentioning The Honours a lot on here, over the coming months. I fully expect all of you who read this blog regularly to pre-order a copy as soon they become available, and rip the first page to shreds upon the novel’s release. My goodness, I’d love that. I shall have to think of a prize for the most spectacular takedown.
In any case, in the meantime, ‘Rob’ has offered us his first page to practise our editing skills on. As always, read the text, work out what you like and what you don’t, think carefully about how you might resolve any problems, then, once you’ve had a go yourself, read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Untitled (by Rob)
Within the caldera spores began to drift on a breeze that moved from the eastern edge to the western chasing the crescent shadow that shrunk towards the rising sun. As they flowed they deposited themselves across the crater; an eon of their accumulated travel smothered the ground under a thick carpet of organic powder, the topmost layers of which were still teal with life. High above that dust a lattice of filter-tree’s rose to comb the tide of air, their grand structure forming an hexagonal tessellation that stretched across the basin between the sheer cliffs of the caldera’s rim. Collectively the trees formed a barrier to the sun born wind and acted to slow it to a gentle breeze that buffeted their sagging fronds.
At the centre of the crater the sun was just now becoming visible. Veiled by the biotic murk it’s spherical body appeared diffuse, it’s crimson colour washed into the surrounding firmament and smeared across the western rim of the caldera. Though it was just rising, the centre of the caldera had been dimly lit for some time. Light reflected down from the biosphere protracted the twilight hours, dragging dawn and dusk into lengthy stretches of gloomy calm. It was during these periods when the sun’s torrid gaze was hidden from the world that life within the caldera was most active.
Within the caldera spores began to drift on a breeze that moved from the eastern edge to the western chasing the crescent shadow that shrunk towards the rising sun.
This is your first sentence, Rob. As an opening bid, it’s crazily needy. You’re trying too hard – splicing too much together, and failing to make a coherent whole. It’s like arriving at a first date with a 90 minute comedy Powerpoint presentation about why you’re a sweet and sexy dude. There is considerable middle-ground between that and a perfunctory ‘hello’.
If I hadn’t just returned from a week in Lanzarote I wouldn’t have known what ‘caldera’ meant. I’m not suggesting you need to dumb down to appease the uninitiated, but it is a relatively specialist term (it means the basin left by a collapsed volcano) that needs some time and context to bed in. As it stands, we spend the remainder of the sentence wondering what’s going on.
SF is particularly tricky for introducing these kinds of concepts – it’s not always clear whether the unfamiliar word is real-world terminology that we can go and look up, or an invented piece of jargon particular to this fictional universe. Readers can be left unsure whether the failure in understanding is a deliberate strategy to induce intrigue, or clumsy obscurity.
Even the lack of comma after ‘caldera’ introduces unhelpful ambiguity. On a first pass, we may – very reasonably – read it as ‘Within the caldera spores’, as if ‘caldera’ is an adjective modifying ‘spores’. What are ‘caldera spores’ we begin to wonder, then we hit that ‘began’, come unglued, and have to retreat and attempt the sentence again, parsing it a different way.
Don’t leave your readers to punctuate your sentences for you. ‘Within the caldera’ is an adverbial clause modifying the verb ‘drift’. Introducing it before we’ve encountered the verb it relates to, before you’ve introduced any fictional world at all in which this action could exist, is super-risky. Failing to properly demarcate it as a subordinate clause takes you beyond ‘risky’, into the heady realms of ‘reckless fart-buffoonery’.
No need to specify ‘on a breeze’. If you’re trusting your readers to grok the word ‘caldera’ then at least credit them with the intelligence to understand that bodies of spores are moved by air currents and not at the behest of tiny invisible propeller-bearing chimpanzees. ‘drift’ carries all the information we need.
‘that moved from the eastern edge to the western’ – just say the spores ‘drifted westward’. I know by mentioning ‘edges’ you’re trying to provide a bit more context that might help us unpick this word ‘caldera’, but you’re doing it at the expense of flow. And if that is your intent, ‘edge’ is too vague. Call it a lip or a cusp or a rim – something that implies crater.
‘chasing the crescent shadow that shrunk towards the rising sun’ – see, if we stop to think about this image – genuinely stop, and try to picture it – it’s actually brilliant. Beautiful, well-observed. Yes, as the sun rises, the shadows of obstructions facing the sun sort of suck in and eventually disappear. That’s a really smart, specific, detailed thing to notice and pick out. It’s a bit filmic, which some authors tut at, and it certainly implies a time-lapse acceleration of the world we’re viewing, but both of those things are fine with me. I like it.
Also, as most readers of literary fiction will have missed, if the shadow of the crater’s western edge is shrinking, this cannot be Earth, as the sun is rising in the west. World-building par excellence, Rob.
The problem is that no reader on the fucking planet will ever pick up on these nuances, because this clause comes at the end of a horrible botched bloodfart of a sentence.
Your first line doesn’t introduce a protagonist, nor does it introduce conflict or any particular mystery. That’s okay. While these are all great qualities for a first line to possess, they are by no means essential (and a good thing too – literature would be a far blander, less diverse place if our compositional options were so crudely narrow).
But if you’re going to start off with a nature documentary style ‘Across the vast plains of the Serengeti’ opener, it needs to be comprehensible. The prose needs to be limber, lucid and well-cadenced. You don’t need any showy metaphors or bottlenecks of multisyllabic adjectives (although these are by no means verboten), you just need to show us your fictional world clearly. Providing your fictional world isn’t shit, this is enough.
Right. I’ve spent over 700 words dissecting a single sentence. This should give you some insight into the endless fractal hell of self-replicating bullshit I tumble into every time I try to line edit my own work. Paragraphs unjaw like the anglepoise limbs of a carnival ride. It’s a welter of flashing lights, vintage rave and puking teenagers, made text.
How do I think the opening should go? Here’s one possibility:
Spores drifted across the caldera. They chased a crescent shadow that shrank towards the crater’s western rim, and the rising sun.
Have a play around. See what sits sweetest in your ear.
As they flowed they deposited themselves across the crater; an eon of their accumulated travel smothered the ground under a thick carpet of organic powder, the topmost layers of which were still teal with life.
Finding an ‘eon’ in a novel’s first paragraph is like finding a live tapeworm in your stool. It’s an early warning sign that all is not well.
What’s the point of going to the trouble of using a specific, scientific term like ‘caldera’ if you’re going to pirouette off into vague bullshit like ‘eon’? It means ‘an indefinitely long period of time’. How have these spores managed to accumulate, undisturbed, for that long if they’re lying in the base of a fucking volcano? I’m no volcanologist, but I understand that being entirely immersed in lava has a non-trivial effect on things like, uh, you know, plant matter – lava that must have been present more recently than ‘an indefinitely long period of time’ ago.
On the textual level, that first clause is horrible: ‘As they flowed they deposited themselves’? No. Those two things are mutually-exclusive. Either they are flowing or they are stopping. The same pronoun can’t do both simultaneously. What you mean is: ‘As the great teal tide rolled across the crater, spores settled on the ground’. There are two distinct nouns – the undifferentiated mass, and the individual spores which break away and land.
‘an eon of their accumulated travel smothered the ground’ is such ugly phrasing. How can ‘travel’ ‘smother the ground’? That’s nonsense. What you mean is, ‘over centuries, they had accumulated into a thick, smothering carpet of organic powder’. But then ‘organic’ isn’t necessary – they’re spores, we know they’re organic – and ‘carpet’ is a cliché. Think of something less hacky.
‘the topmost layers of which’ – this is a POV fuck-up. You’ve been encouraging us to picture a panoramic view of this crater, then suddenly you switch to giving us a geological cross-section. It’s clunky and it muddies the image in our minds. Instead, just say ‘topmost layer’, which we can see.
‘teal with life’ is weird and clumsy. After a couple of reads, I get it, but ‘teal’ is an awkward colour to just throw in there, and it doesn’t work because we don’t know what colour the rest of it is, so we’ve got nothing to compare it to. ‘with life’ is just inelegant as a modifier – too on the nose. Perhaps tell us that the top layer is a ‘vibrant, teeming teal’ or something, so you close on the adjective.
High above that dust a lattice of filter-tree’s rose to comb the tide of air, their grand structure forming an hexagonal tessellation that stretched across the basin between the sheer cliffs of the caldera’s rim.
Nah mate. No way.
Again, sentence opens confusingly – it could be parsed as ‘High above that, dust’ or ‘High above that dust, a lattice’. I realise, after reading on, that it’s the latter, but woo boy. No need for ‘that dust’ in any case – ‘High above’ covers it.
‘filter-tree’s’? You mean ‘filter-trees’, but it still feels like a lazy SF compound word. They’re trees, they filter the atmosphere – meh, call em filter-trees. If you’re not going to make your imagination stretch any farther than the bedside table, don’t expect your readers to experience that all-important sense of wonder.
‘grand’ is an abstraction – you’re trying to tell us how to feel about them. Don’t.
What’s ‘an hexagonal tessellation’? Do you mean the trees link together in tessellating hexagons? Why have you phrased it in such an awkward way? It’s like calling a dissolving witch ‘a witchy dissolution’.
And what are we picturing here? Trees linked together in a kind of honeycomb? What parts of the trees? The branches? The leaves? Do they have branches or leaves? What forms the edges of the hexagons? In what way are they trees? WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?
And hang on – didn’t you describe a shadow, shrinking across the crater? Where are these trees? Why aren’t they casting a shadow? Why, indeed, aren’t they blocking out all sunlight?
It feels like you’ve described this whole vista, then gone ‘oh, by the way’ and added this huge extra element that we ought to have seen in that first moment. It’s like writing:
Edgar J set his pack down against the stump and gazed across the valley. Silver waters threaded through a winding burn, round leaning maples and clover meadows. In the evening light, gnats fizzed above a cataract where the burn widened and frothed. The air smelt rank and sweet. He took a sip from his canteen, and glanced up to regard the giant hovering penis that loomed over the entire landscape, like a promise.
It forces us to revise our mental image, and not in an entertaining or surprising way. We blame you, the author, for failing to give us all the pertinent information upfront.
Or, by ‘hexagonal tessellation’, do you mean that the trees are intertwined round the perimeter of the crater, forming a kind of windbreak? If so – how the sweet creeping fuck does a volcanic crater end up being hexagonal? And – more pertinently – why have you phrased it in such a confusing way?
Do you know what, I could go on, I really could, but the problem with this as an opener is we’ve got absolutely zero investment in what’s going on, especially once you plunge into a second paragraph of cackhanded world-buildy ecological exposition. I expect you are a lovely and valuable chap, Rob, but your fictional universe desperately needs populating with characters.
All this Gardeners’ Question Time guffery about ‘biotic murk’ (I do like that phrase, for what it’s worth) and filter-trees is not your first priority when starting a novel. Your first priority is to communicate clearly to the reader ‘here is why you must continue reading’. Note: not ‘should’. Must.
There is time for world-building later. In fact, told properly, any good SF novel will be constantly world-building. Everything your protagonist notices, every environment she moves through, every conversation that she has, will all contribute in ways large and small to our knowledge of her universe.
And I bet, filtered through the eyes of a viewpoint character, even in third-person limited, all this opaque expositional word salad would break down into far simpler, far clearer language.
I don’t know what you have planned. Perhaps people live inside this crater – perhaps its unique ecology makes it one of the only habitable areas on the planet. Or perhaps it is home to a very special type of creature, or resource. At this stage, who gives a shit? But show a character trapped within its sheer walls, or who desperately needs something hidden within it, or who relies on the filter-trees to live, and suddenly this information, this setting, this delicate natural balance, matters to us.
If it matters to us, we’ll keep reading. If we keep reading, you’ve done your job.
If you’d like to be first to know when my debut novel, The Honours, is coming out, or when I’ll be appearing live in your area, and you fancy the occasional free mp3 of my work into the bargain, please sign up to my monthly mailing list.
Enjoyed this? Chances are you’ll like my award-winning memoir on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.