Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a blog for writers, readers and editors, about ways we can take fiction and make it better.
The blog appears every Thursday, and most weeks we look at the first page from a novice author’s novel or short story. If you’d like to submit your own work to the blog, please read our Submission Guidelines. The waiting list is long, so please be patient.
My debut novel, The Honours seems to be doing well – yesterday I popped into a few London bookshops and signed some first editions. The Herald just printed a rave – but spoilery – review, calling it ‘a tour-de-force of breathless thrills… which dares you to read it in one long sitting.’ I’d actually recommend you don’t read that review though, just because most people who enjoyed the book have said they appreciated not knowing too much about it before they started. It seems to be a weird novel to recommend, in that people are saying to friends ‘Read this – I don’t want to tell you too much because I don’t want to spoil the surprise – but read it’. That’s an odd recommendation, I think!
Without sounding too gushy, I just want to say thank you to all of you who have bought it, tweeted about it, sent me pictures. You are the effing best. It’s working. People – actual strangers – are picking up the book, buying it, reading it, sharing it. If you read it and you like it, please tell some friends. Lend your copy to someone. Spread the word. Word-of-mouth is all-powerful in the book world. The moment you tell someone else about the book you loved, you are starting a process which ripples out and out. It’s a force multiplier. Thank you for continuing to rave about The Honours.
Anyway, as usual, read the extract below, decide what you did and didn’t like, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’.
Walking The Empty (by Dave)
He sat and listened to the surf, from here, visible only as a weakly shining line of white. The sound was awesome, though. A regular, hollow boom that even on the loose sand a quarter-mile up the beach, he could feel through his tail-bone. Another mile further inland, where the coastal valley began to narrow and sweep up gently towards old fields, he thought he could still make out the embers of his fire. It was possible. It would be the only thing in this landscape giving off light of its own rather than scattering a sliver of moon. And the moonlight itself was a reflection. The fire might be the only thing emitting light, he thought, on the entire continent. Although who’s to say a forest wasn’t burning after a lightning strike, too far away to see? And who’s to say – a vanishingly unlikely chance, he knew – there wasn’t another human being alive, somewhere in the vast interior?
He stopped himself from going down that road.
It wasn’t cold, at least. Maybe in a month. The nights were still short. The sweetness of petals still in the breeze for now. That would change.
The dog wrapped itself closer around his feet. Originally, he’d befriended it as a kind of mobile protein store. But of course he’d complicated matters, got used to having it around. His fingers twisted in the thick fur at the nape of its neck.
He hadn’t named the dog yet. He’d see what winter brought.
Good morning, Dave.
He sat and listened to the surf, from here, visible only as a weakly shining line of white.
A classic case of a sentence overstaying its welcome. ‘He sat and listened to the surf’ would be a lovely opener. Sometimes novice authors panic at the thought of kicking off with a sentence that doesn’t explicitly showcase their daring, vivacious prose – simple is feared. But you know, nine times out of a ten, if a reader notices your first line as a first line, the line has failed. Even if it’s rather clever, if they stop to notice ‘oh, I say, that’s a rather witty first line,’ your craft is calling attention to itself to such an extent that it has submerged your fictive world.
‘from here’ is a loud, rippling shart during the romantic dinner. So, so bad, Dave. It adds nothing except an ominous suspicion that the author doesn’t trust the reader to comprehend the basic conventions of contemporary fiction.
If you cut it, it’s not like we’re going to read ‘visible only as a weakly shining line of white’ and assume he is looming over a tiny sea. We understand that things that are far away look smaller.
‘weakly shining’ is a horrible, watered-down adjectival phrase. The first word modifies the second almost unto death: uh, I mean it’s sort of shining. Don’t quote me on that or anything.
Maybe just ‘glimmering’ or ‘winking’ or something. But I would cut this whole clause because it’s rubbish. You started off engaging our hearing – don’t abandon that sense mid-stride. Stick with it.
The sound was awesome, though.
No. It gives a bit of voice, I suppose, but the voice is irritating, unenlightening, and hedges the sentence on the supremely milquetoast ‘though’. Ugh. Cut the fuck out of this line.
A regular, hollow boom that even on the loose sand a quarter-mile up the beach, he could feel through his tail-bone.
What is happening to the middle of this sentence? You’ve dropped this weird, legalistic, qualifying clause of a turd into a delicious frosted crystal bowl of tamarind punch that is the remainder of the line.
‘even on the loose sand a quarter-mile up the beach’ – the aforementioned ‘from here’ – is just horrible, clumsy prose. The narrative voice can’t decide whether it’s centred around the protagonist or the ocean, and so we get these confusing relative terms with switching reference points.
Look, I get it. Your nervous the reader won’t understand unless you painstakingly plot out the scene. And you want to be specific. I talk about that a lot, and it’s good you’ve tried. But remember – crunchy specificity. We want those targeted, concrete nouns and the occasional apposite adjective to undergird those choices. Pick your battles.
Cut all the superfluous shit I’ve suggested cutting and your opening reads:
He sat and listened to the surf. A regular, hollow boom he could feel through his tail-bone.
Which sounds pretty fucking great to me.
(pedants will protest the use of a full stop rather than an em dash to separate the two sentences – I think it’s fine; not every sentence needs an active verb, you joyless nitpicking gitlizards)
Another mile further inland, where the coastal valley began to narrow and sweep up gently towards old fields, he thought he could still make out the embers of his fire.
What is ‘further’ contributing here? FUCK ALL. Kill it with fire. (plus it’s ‘farther’ for physical distance, ‘further’ for when you advance a cause, an argument, etc – anyone who fails to recognise the distinction loses shades of meaning and contributes to the decline of our once-great language etc etc)
A coastal valley, is it? Holy shit! If only there were some contextual clue that could have provided that information without your having to devote a whole adjective to it. Like, I don’t know… that massive sea thing he’s been staring at?
I don’t really know what a valley ‘sweeping up gently’ looks like. I don’t really know what it tells that the fields are ‘old’. As opposed to what? The ultra-modern cyber-fields?
So wait – is he looking behind him now? It feels like you’re giving us this panoramic view, then only at the end to you bring the protagonist into this, and have him possibly dimly perceiving a bonfire.
I think you need to start a new paragraph and give us a character-based action – ‘He tipped his head back and gazed…’ – that signals the shift from the shoreline to the valley behind him.
It was possible.
Fucking awful, awful fluff. This adds nothing to the previous sentence. It’s fine to track a character’s stream-of-consciousness, but that’s not an excuse to write reams of banal, tautological verbiage just because that’s what it’s like inside their brain.
It would be the only thing in this landscape giving off light of its own rather than scattering a sliver of moon.
Ugh. ‘giving off light of its own’? That phrasing is so clumsy I tried to say it out loud and sprained my face.
‘It would be the only thing in this’ is a snarl of eight – count em – ugly, abstract grammatical words that are contributing nothing except setting up the sentence. There’s nothing vivid, nothing concrete, nothing to engage the reader’s five senses. It’s a grot of connective tissue – linguistic gristle – that you’ve spat out onto the page.
Also, notice the pronoun confusion here. You started the last sentence ‘It was possible’. In that sentence, ‘it’ connotes the same thing as ‘it’ in ‘It was raining’ – it’s just supplying a notional subject because, I don’t know, if you tried to construct a sentence in English without a subject your laptop would collapse on itself, form a black hole and begin sucking in all matter around it. (down your pitchforks, grammar pedants – let’s not get into the whole ‘what makes a sentence’ dung-slinging match today)
In the next sentence, ‘It’ refers to the – possibly imagined – fire. I know pronouns shift their referents all the time – that’s the whole point of them – but you have to insert the actual noun in-between to signal the shift. Otherwise you get situations like:
Daniel opened the bathroom cabinet and unwrapped the suppository. It was a sunny day. He inserted it up his anus.
Which, I’ll admit, is a pretty great situation. I, for one, would read a novel called DANIEL: BUM GALACTUS.
‘scattering a sliver of moon’ – you’re just throwing out random words now. I’m guessing this is an oblique reference to reflective things, like pools? I’m not sure why you’re coyly alluding to his surroundings rather than just describing them, but in any case I don’t think anything ‘scatters slivers’. It might reflect the crescent moon. It might reflect lots of fragments. It might break the moonlight into slivers.
But ‘scattering a sliver’ – singular – doesn’t make sense. It suggests the light is thrown elsewhere (which, on a strictly photonic level, I guess it is, but we still perceive it as being at the point of reflection) and ‘scattering’ implies a distribution of multiple objects – you can scatter grain, you can’t scatter a stone.
And, in a final damning strike against this sentence, where’s the tension? What’s at stake? Why should we give a shit? The character doesn’t seem particularly invested. There’s no conflict – just a mild ambiguity over whether he can or can’t see a smouldering bonfire in the distance. What is the pitch you are making to the reader at this point? Why should they pay you, and invest a portion of their one and only life in reading your words?
And the moonlight itself was a reflection.
No shit! Is that how it works? I thought literal fragments of the Moongod’s soul inhered in water and polished metal, charging them up until they became, temporarily, part-moon.
Next you’ll be telling me that water over a campfire doesn’t boil because it’s angry, and you’ll be blaming convection or some shit.
The fire might be the only thing emitting light, he thought, on the entire continent.
No need for ‘he thought’. We understand how third-person limited narration works.
I mean, ‘emitting’ is the wrong verb here. He means ‘producing’ or ‘generating’. A reflective thing still ‘emits’ light.
But at least this sentence gives us a hint of world-building and tension. Okay – so either post-apocalyptic or some kind of alt-world Edenic wilderness. The beginnings of a reason to engage. We need to get to the first punch quicker.
Although who’s to say a forest wasn’t burning after a lightning strike, too far away to see?
Great. Fantastic. Immediately water-down your previous statement in case of pedants. You already hedged with ‘might be’, and now you’re going further, listing alternatives.
The contraction ‘who’s’ is short for ‘who is’, not ‘who was’ – you need to make the tense agree with the rest of the sentence.
And who’s to say – a vanishingly unlikely chance, he knew – there wasn’t another human being alive, somewhere in the vast interior?
I can’t let you do that, Dave.
AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! HA HA! HA! Ha. Ehhhhh.
Seriously – if you can rid yourself of your terrible addiction to mid-sentence qualifying clauses, you will immediately improve your writing four-fold. ‘a vanishingly unlikely chance, he knew’ is a hot nugget of dogshit in the middle of a Mars bar. What does the sentence lose if you cut it? A hot nugget of dogshit, that’s what.
‘vast interior’ is vague, unevocative. Let’s make a promise to go for concreteness over vague conceptual sweeps.
He stopped himself from going down that road.
A metaphor that is both hackneyed and briefly confusing. On a first pass, we might think you’re referring to a literal road.
I think you can afford to be a bit more direct in this thought interruption. Something closer to: ‘But no. He mustn’t think of that.’ Or whatever.
It wasn’t cold, at least.
Again, that ugly use of ‘it’ as a nominal subject. At first it sounds like ‘the road’ wasn’t cold.
And describing something in terms of a negative is always and awkward, ugly approach. Do you mean ‘The night was mild, at least’?
The introduction of the dog feels weird – the idea that we notice the distant bonfire before the dog at his feet. We’ve already imagined this whole scene, then a dog pops into existence. Get it in earlier. No need to immediately drop the whole backstory about how this grizzled survivalist’s heart softened and he came to love the old mutt. It’s cheesy and clichéd, particularly when presented in a summary like this, rather than implied through observed behaviour.
But my main question is – why now? Why are we joining him and the dog now, here? Absolutely J poop of interest is taking place. This isn’t a moment of change or revelation or peril. He hasn’t discovered something that upends his understanding of the world. He is chilling out on the beach.
It doesn’t matter that there might be a looming dystopian backdrop to this moment of calm. It’s like devoting your opening twenty minutes of screen time to Darth Vader sleeping, or taking a shit. Man, that would have been a bold cinematic move. The first 20 minutes of Star Wars, just this severely injured veteran trying to crimp off a log, sweating, constipated. Then he marches out and Force-chokes like six dudes and blows up a planet. Poignant. As. Fuck.
I mean, who knows – that might be how it opens. I haven’t seen it.
Anyway, my point is, you’ll find your prose almost always lifts when you give it something to do. I am sure that, with a bit more confidence in the power of your main clauses to carry the day, and an inciting event for the protagonist to react to, your writing will become far, far stronger almost by itself. By contrast, if your protagonist is just sitting around twiddling her thumbs, don’t be surprised if your work on the line crumbles into a hookworm-riddled latrine of wanky, trivial psychogeography.
The Honours is available to order at 50% off from Foyles, here. But please consider supporting your local bookshop and popping in to buy or order it!