Death Of 1000 Cuts – In The Barber’s Chair: Untitled (by Una)

Hello and welcome to another Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. This week, it’s Una’s turn in the Barber’s Chair.

Every Thursday I take an aspiring author’s killer first page – their shop window, polished up to the highest sparkle they can manage – and dismantle it for your edification. Read through the extract below, decide what you think, then read my comments beneath ‘The Cuts’. We’re working our editorial muscles here – learning to return to previous drafts with a skeptic’s eye, searching for ways to make the story stronger.

I’m aiming to do one of these a week from now on. I can only manage this if you lovely, courageous writers keep sending me first pages! If you – or anyone you know – is working on a novel or short story, please submit your first page via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. 250 words max, with a title – no synopsis or explanatory/apologetic blather, please. The page should be the absolute best you can make it – representative of your finest work.

And please spread the word – the blog has an insatiable appetite for first pages. We’re building a nice little readership here, and I’d be chuffed if it could continue. Hope you find it useful.

Untitled (by Una)

It never ceases to amaze me how ugly a baby it was. Nothing that young should have nose that prominent. I hope for its sake that those baby teeth grew back less fugly, but they may not have. Not that I suppose it matters now. That baby is long since grown, aged and dead… I wonder who they were? And more to the point how this photograph of them ended up adhered to a control panel of this heap? This hunk of crap is full of little clues like this that lead nowhere. Who’s wedding ring is that stuck just out of reach under the main capacitor section in the engine room? I dunno. And given the current situation it seems likely that I’ll be the last person to even ask the question.

The comm channel is making that sizzling noise that means a transmission is imminent. Right on schedule. It freaked me out at first, the way he could somehow tell when I was getting lonely, but trying to figure it out added exponentially to my crazy-making, unanswerable questions, so I gave it up.

Like I gave up trying to fix the engine with scrap metal and half an engine repair manual. It’s too late now, and it’ll make no difference – the fate of this crew is sealed. I would say written in the stars, but I’ve been looking into that, and so far no evidence of any foreshadowing in that quarter. Damn stars. I can’t even relate to the idea that they are beautiful anymore. I swear they taunt me while I try to sleep.

“crrzhhhhhhhhzz…..cczzccczkkkkkk….. you there? I’ve been thinking that maybe the space walk idea isn’t so bad. If we did it right, we’d at least both end up on one ship. That could be an improvement in and of itself. I mean come on… we have to do something, right?

“crrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzxkkkkkkk….crrrrrrrrrrrrrrrzzzzk……

“…. hello? I know you’re there. There’s nowhere on that bucket that you can’t hear this. Ccrzzzzzkkkkkk…”

I’m not in the mood to talk, but still the sound of his voice is somehow very comforting. Even if he is being a bit of glitching CD.

“Hey. We’ve been over this. Also, space walks are something we’re saving for when the stir-crazy gets too much. Besides, you have the better ship and thus the best equipment. And if you ended up over here we’d be in real trouble. You can’t even begin to get the levels of boredom that can be reached when there are no entertainment systems and nothing but time.”

“crrrzkkk… you should just think some more. I’m sure you’ll find there are thoughts you haven’t had yet…. ccrrzzzckk”

“yeah…” plenty of thoughts I haven’t had yet. Plenty of thoughts I’ve been working very hard not to have for years. At first, the frantic attempts to comprehend the engine systems and then the efforts to fix them had helped to keep reflection off the cards. Then, when the inevitable had overcome the optimism and the flurries of activity, sleep had warded off every unpleasantness – not just the mental ones, but the increasing hunger, and light-headedness from the rationing of food and that good ole O2. But, since I’d slept so much now that I simply couldn’t anymore, and my body has adjusted to the new limits on energy and activity, all I have to do now is think. And fuck do I not want to….

“crrrrzzzcckk… hello? ……..crrrzzzxxxk….. hello?” for the first time since we made contact I’m flicking the switch that shuts off the comm channel and mutes the ship wide tannoy system. I just want it to be quiet. Lonely is better than noise. Even if the silence leaves me at the mercy of the bullying stars…

The Cuts

It never ceases to amaze me how ugly a baby it was.

Yep. Good opener. I mean, it sounds a bit like a hack comedian’s opening line (the crowd shout back, as one: ‘How ugly was it, Johnny?’ before he launches into a series of ‘That baby was so ugly it could make a mule back away from an oat bin,’ esque zingers) but as a tee-up, it’s nice. Funny-odd and funny-ha-ha, raises some questions, and the language is simple. Doesn’t feel try-hard. We’re in for a good time.

Nothing that young should have nose that prominent. I hope for its sake that those baby teeth grew back less fugly, but they may not have.

Here’s where the hack comedian’s skull hinges open and begins spewing black cockroaches.

‘Nothing that young should have nose that prominent – am I right? AM I RIGHT?’ grates a metallic voice from somewhere inside the automaton’s chest cavity. The audience trample each other in their rush for the exits, shrieking. The magic is dead.

The chronology of this opening is such a car crash.

‘It never ceases to amaze me’ – that’s in the narrative present, though you’ve added the conditional ‘never ceases’ so it’s a continuous state.

‘how ugly a baby it was’ – that’s in the past. But past-tense is the standard storytelling mode, so maybe this is the narrative present, the moment of seeing the unattractive baby.

‘Nothing that young should have nose that prominent’ – this would be a clumsy line even without the dropped indefinite article, but also, we’re lurching back into the present tense.

‘I hope for its sake that those baby teeth grew back less fugly, but they may not have.’ – so this sentence starts off in the present, then swings into the past tense to talk about something in an implied future after seeing the baby, then it tacks on a conditional clause about a possible present that is also in the past tense.

AAAAARRRGHHH!

‘Prominent’ is a clunky, unfunny word. I think you meant ‘big’. ‘Fugly’ is one of my least favourite portmanteaux, just behind ‘meatza’. Adding ‘but they may not have’ kills the sentence – it’s a fluff clause, weakening the main one with a boring conditional.

Structure your sentences so the most interesting information comes at the end. This is a fundamental principle of creative writing, and, while it’s not absolute, you need a good reason to break it. You should be applying it to every sentence.

Not that I suppose it matters now. That baby is long since grown, aged and dead… I wonder who they were?

Oh Jesus. So you’ve just thrown away the first paragraph of your novel, this load-bearing wall that carries a disproportionate burden of meaning, on an irrelevant aside? ‘Not that I suppose it matters’ is a classic Signal From Fred. Here’s a tip: if you’re narrator is thinking ‘but I guess that’s just a heap of frivolous bullshit’… it’s probably a heap of frivolous bullshit.

And more to the point how this photograph of them ended up adhered to a control panel of this heap? This hunk of crap is full of little clues like this that lead nowhere. Who’s wedding ring is that stuck just out of reach under the main capacitor section in the engine room? I dunno.

Again, ‘more to the point’ is another blaring Signal From Fred. Don’t be coy, Una. It’s not cute and it’s not intriguing.

This seems like an apt moment – if such a thing exists – to quote from pathetic, reprehensible bigot and author Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy. Yes, he’s a cowardly, hate-filled whackjob drooling onto his own trembling knuckles as he hammers out another insano screed for lovers of dog whistle politics, but he knows a fair bit about sound compositional principles for SF – so it’s swings and roundabouts. Here he is:

Most novice writers imagine that this is how suspense is created – by holding back key information from the reader. But that is not so. Suspense comes from having almost all the information – enough information that the audience is emotionally involved and cares very much about that tiny bit of information left unrevealed. (How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, p85)

This is a much more sensible, practical version of Kurt Vonnegut’s oft-quoted eighth rule of writing:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Look, I’d happily sacrifice a busload of Orson Scott Cards for a single Vonnegut, but Vonnegut’s ‘rule’ is transparently bollocks. He’s trying to be contrarian and interesting because his instincts are those of the entertainer, not the teacher. But – much as it pains me to say it – Card is right. I’ve read novels where I could’ve finished the story myself – they were total shit.

Your coyness in this opening paragraph doesn’t work for me. Place us in the ship. These little clues might be interesting later on, but only once we’ve got a protagonist with a clear problem in a specific, vivid milieu about which we can care.

Also – ‘this heap’? ‘hunk of crap’? No. Lazy clichés plucked straight from TV. ‘hunk of crap’ and ‘dunno’ (a Britishism) feel like they’re from completely different registers, and neither feel convincing. The Grizzled Engineer is a clapped-out SF character. You need to work harder to make your narrator an individual.

And given the current situation it seems likely that I’ll be the last person to even ask the question.

Lots of awkward fluff words in this sentence: ‘And’ adds nothing. ‘the current’ can be reduced to ‘my’. ‘it seems likely that’ can be cut to ‘it’s likely’ (‘seems’ is always suspect – like ‘sort of’ and ‘kind of’ it’s a weaselly hedging word – a means of resisting commitment). ‘even’, like ‘very’, often feels like it’s performing a valuable function – i.e. emphasis – but the effect is so slight you’re usually better off cutting it altogether.

All that aside, this is the first time since your opening line that I feel anything other than sadness and hollow-chested disappointment. The narrator is in the shit. The story has a pulse. Finally. A reason to care.

The comm channel is making that sizzling noise that means a transmission is imminent. Right on schedule.

*facepalm* Yeah, because in the age of interstellar travel we’ll still be using the communication paradigms of a fucking U-boat captain. Why not go hog-wild and have the narrator hammer a little Morse key, or lift a black plastic moulded earpiece and ask for the operator?

This is lazy, off-the-peg bullshit. We’ve all seen Alien. It’s not an invitation to set all your SF on the set of the Crystal Maze.

It freaked me out at first, the way he could somehow tell when I was getting lonely, but trying to figure it out added exponentially to my crazy-making, unanswerable questions, so I gave it up.

The first two clauses are fine, apart from ‘somehow’. After ‘but trying’, it sounds like a teenager wittering in her diary. Indeed, if you want this narrator to come across as gruff and no-nonsense, probably best not to have them constantly give in to these whimsical flights of fancy.

Like I gave up trying to fix the engine with scrap metal and half an engine repair manual.

Oh fuck off. Just title the story ‘I HAVE DONE NO RESEARCH BECAUSE I DO NOT RESPECT MY READERS’. ‘scrap metal’? Yeah, totally, I can buy that. They’re basically flying through space propelled by a large lawnmower engine.

NO. No no no no no. If this is your level of interest in the mechanics of SF (i.e. none) stop writing it now. I’m not asserting the superiority of Hard SF over Space Opera – I happen to prefer the latter, and find that a lot of Hard SF is just a delivery system for the author’s imaginary mining spaceship – but without richness, specificity, and a world that feels internally consistent, the whole thing is a waste of time.

I would say written in the stars, but I’ve been looking into that, and so far no evidence of any foreshadowing in that quarter. Damn stars.

Hooray! It’s the return of ‘dreadful pun, overexplained’. Do you honestly expect us to believe in a narrator who says ‘hunk of crap’ one minute and ‘no evidence of any foreshadowing in that quarter’ the next? He or she lurches between surly Wild West bandit leader and finicky valet.

“crrzhhhhhhhhzz…..cczzccczkkkkkk….. you there? I’ve been thinking that maybe the space walk idea isn’t so bad. If we did it right, we’d at least both end up on one ship.

Your static noises are the single worst thing about this extract. Horrible. Just use three dots for ellipsis. If you must, put a description of the static in the narrative, e.g.: ‘A voice surfaced from the roar of static.’

I like the dialogue though. It introduces a problem, peril, and locates these two characters. The key clause is ‘If we did it right’ – so many unspoken dangers hang off that condition. Good.

That could be an improvement in and of itself.

Empty fluff. It sounds like something Clive from the Regional Sales Team would say while trying to convince a client to switch their mastic supplier. Cut it.

“…. hello? I know you’re there. There’s nowhere on that bucket that you can’t hear this. Ccrzzzzzkkkkkk…”

Wait? Is this a new speaker? If not, why have you started a new paragraph? Confusing layout, and that constant, irritating skein of consonants. Also, ‘that bucket’ falls into our previously-discussed category of unconvincing hack dialogue.

Even if he is being a bit of glitching CD.

This is like a character in contemporary novel comparing someone to a spluttering gas mantle. In other words, preposterous bollocks.

At first, the frantic attempts to comprehend the engine systems and then the efforts to fix them had helped to keep reflection off the cards. Then, when the inevitable had overcome the optimism and the flurries of activity, sleep had warded off every unpleasantness – not just the mental ones, but the increasing hunger, and light-headedness from the rationing of food and that good ole O2.

Please don’t do this. Repeat after me: no info-dumps on the first page. Especially ones so light on convincing technical details. We already get that they’re in trouble. No need to spell it out, especially when you’re doing so in such woolly, general terms. Show, don’t tell.

Lonely is better than noise. Even if the silence leaves me at the mercy of the bullying stars…

This doesn’t make me want to read on. The protagonist is listless and doesn’t seem to care. There’s no sense of urgency. Where’s our investment? Where’s the hook to keep us reading?

I really think you need to go away and do some serious world-building. Don’t just picture a spaceship in your head. Do the full rundown, starting with propulsion systems. Are they burning chemical fuel? (which seems, on the face of it, preposterous, but I don’t know – perhaps you could make it work) If this ship is surrounded by stars then presumably it’s no longer in our Solar System, which implies either hyperspace capacity or jump-gates or an FTL drive or some means of cryogenically storing the crew, or a huge generation ship piloted by the children of the children of the children of the original mission. Or something cool and new.

It feels like you’re discovery writing, working out your world as you go along, filling in the gaps with stock tropes from SF. Discovery writing – or writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pants – is fine as a starting point, but you can’t skip your world-building and just plunder other authors. It makes for flat, familiar fiction – the very antithesis of the brain-mashing awe and wonder SF is supposed to evoke.

There are some good lines in amongst this, and the dialogue is mostly sound. Maybe it’s an issue of confidence. Push yourself. Believe in your ability to come up with an original, engaging world. Don’t settle for the stale, the pre-packaged. Originate. Create.