Hello dear friends and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Each week we take a novice author’s first page and look at ways of making it better.
If you’d like to contribute the first page of your novel or short story, please read our submission guidelines. The waiting list is so, so long. Colossal. So heads up.
I am a writer, and as well as chivvying other writers along I do books myself. My debut novel just came out, and it’s called The Honours, and you could make an instant difference to my life and well-being by ordering a copy now. Basically, if people buy my book, I get to write another one. So I hope you like it. It’s done pretty well, reviews-wise, but the best thing is getting messages from readers. If that sounds like I’m being a schmaltzy wanker, well, I might be, but that doesn’t necessarily make the statement untrue. We all write with the dream that we’ll connect with a reader, temporarily highjack their imagination, and make them exclaim ‘sweet creeping fuck‘ while caring about a bunch of characters who exist only in our heads. I’ve done that now. And it feels great.
If you have read The Honours and you liked it, could you do me a massive fave and let other people know? Word-of-mouth is several orders of magnitude better than any other form of marketing. Please use the goodwill you’ve spent a lifetime generating to make me money. Seriously though, a quick tweet or FB post, a review or rating online, or a heads-up to a friend – all these things are the preciousest of preciouses to an author, and if you were to do one of them you’d be massively helping me out and I’d be super-grateful.
Right, so – as always, read the extract below, decide what you like and don’t like, then read my thoughts after ‘The Cuts’. If you disagree or have anything to add, please pop a comment in the box below!
What are False Teeth? (by Dan)
Great Grandma Bella used to look after me; she took me to the Sea-Life Center once and bought me a bag of fool’s gold. I used to cut the dead heads off her hydrangeas and she would give me a pound. Mostly though, she just watched the telly and ate ready salted crisps. Once I had gone into town with my real grandma; it rained all of a sudden and I was soaking wet, so she dropped me off at Bella’s to dry. Bella draped my clothes on the fire guard, which I sometimes used as a jail. She always had sweets and called them toffees; this time they were Jelly Babies, but the massive ones. I arranged the green ones into the shape of a crocodile on the plastic stool she used to spit grape seeds onto. She was watching Coronation Street and it was when Kevin Webster had a mustache.
I was pleased with my crocodile. She looked at it and belched, which she did a lot. But then, she picked up the stool and threw the sweets onto the carpet – which I thought was strange – and she was sick, or sort of: brown and gloopy, like the spit after a Werther’s Original. Then she collapsed.
The stool crunched and her slipper was touching the gas fire; there was blood where her glasses had cut her eye. But there was something skeletal about her: I realized it was her teeth. They had somehow slid right out of her mouth.
What are False Teeth? is not a good title for a piece of fiction. It’s not resonant or intriguing. It doesn’t make us consider something in a new way or suggest great content. The only question it raises in the reader’s mind is: ‘why didn’t the author have time to think up a decent title?’ And then maybe we imagine all the scenarios that might lead to such an oversight: flaming meteor shower, violent uprising of the forces of faeryland, ice cream with broken refrigerator van selling off stock at half price.
Great Grandma Bella used to look after me; she took me to the Sea-Life Center once and bought me a bag of fool’s gold.
So. I am not convinced by this semi-colon. I think an author could quite easily get through an entire career never using a semi-colon and no one would notice.
I don’t have anything against semi-colons myself. I am not semi-colonist. I do use them, although if you put a gun to my head and demanded I tell you the situations in which an semi-colon is acceptable but as em dash is not, I wouldn’t be able to. Well, I guess I’d probably bullshit something about related but discrete ideas and hope that you’d at least have to lower your weapon while you checked on the internet. Then I’d totally axe kick you in the back of the skull, bind your prone unconscious body with the flex off an iron, and phone the police. So please don’t ever threaten my life for educational purposes. Besides anything else, I have a panic disorder and high-pressure situations are likely to prove detrimental to my ability to elucidate the fundamentals of punctuation.
But in this situation, I just don’t see the argument for a semi-colon over the humble, functional full stop. It’s not like full stops bring readers screeching to a halt, pausing for a full three seconds before reading on. The switch from a general case to a specific instance feels to me enough of a shift to warrant a new sentence.
Besides anything else, if you’re trying to give this voice a childlike air (it’s not clear how old the narrator is when they’re relating this story, but the tone still has the disjointed, naïve rhythms of a child) I’m not sure dropping a piece of punctuation most adults cannot deploy competently, less than ten words in, is conducive to your intended voice.
If four paragraphs on the pros and cons of a single semi-colon seems like overkill, then:
a) this is obviously your first time reading Death Of 1000 Cuts, Jesus Christ man I can do like 1500 words on a single sentence without breaking a sweat; THIS IS REAL TALK
b) I’m labouring it because I’m more or less happy with the rest of the sentence as it stands (assuming you concede to splitting it in two)
There’s excellent specificity throughout – the nouns are all character pronouns, proper nouns, or specific, concrete objects. I’ve talked about the primacy-recency effect many times before – how the first word and the last word of your sentence carry a disproportionate bulk of the semantic and tonal freight, with the balanced tilted towards the last word.
Don’t get me wrong – any writer who thinks they’re too good to write a simple, clear sentence like ‘He picked up the note and read it’ is a wanker who needs to be chased out of town with butt paddles, but the more you can get into the habit of front- and end-loading your sentences with strong, tangible nouns, the more powerful your prose will become. Your writing will become more compelling, more memorable and more poetic, and no one will be able to put their finger on why, and they’ll just attribute it to natural talent or ‘a storyteller’s instinct’ and you and I will know the truth and we won’t tell anyone because most of the world are idiots.
Your opening line starts with ‘Great Grandma Bella’ and ends with ‘a bag of fool’s gold’. I mean, that ending object – so interesting! So cool. I would never have predicted the ending of the sentence. I’m not being sarcastic. I really like it. It’s striking, it jack-knifes, I can see it. I’m in. Good stuff.
I used to cut the dead heads off her hydrangeas and she would give me a pound.
Continuing the primacy-recency principles just discussed, I’d switch these two clauses round. Also, allow yourself some contractions. This isn’t an academic essay. Spare us every clunking grammatical nicety. Trim a bit of the gristle off before you serve us dinner.
Anyway, I’d render this: ‘She’d give me a pound for cutting the dead heads off her hydrangeas.’
It’s normally called ‘dead-heading’. You could even write: ‘I’d dead-head her hydrangeas and she’d give me a pound.’ ‘pound’ isn’t a particularly strong punchline, but ‘dead-head’ is a nice opening verb.
Still, again, this is sparkily specific. You’re not shitting out a blancmange of vague gestures towards instances. You’re showing, not telling. This is proper writing, Dan. You’re doing it. You’re the carnival queen.
Mostly though, she just watched the telly and ate ready salted crisps.
Skerp! Your carnival float mounts the pavement and runs over a long line of blind spaniel puppies collecting money for war orphans in little red plastic pails. The puppies die and the spilt change is gathered up by an organisation which tattoos full-colour images of the Iron Lady onto the backs of homeless people while they sleep.
‘Mostly though’ – come on, Dan, you’re better than this havering mealy-mouthed bum gravy. Boring grammatical words, that step in to say: ‘oh wait, that stuff I said? Not really relevant after all.’
‘watched the telly and ate ready salted crisps’? I hope you can see, after the richness of the last two sentences, how lazy these beats are. ‘watched the telly’ is awful. At the very, very least you need to pick a favourite show and put it here. Otherwise we’re suddenly losing focus and your world becomes bland and generic. A character who ‘just watched the telly’? Oop! Sounds a bit emotionally-stunted and disengaged!
It’s just so stock and drab and divorced from the quality of what has come before. Ditto ‘ready salted crisps’. What an uninspiring choice, compared to ‘the Sealife Centre’ or ‘a bag of fool’s gold’! Again, at the very least you need to lock down a specific, idiosyncratic and telling brand of crisps. ‘ready salted crisps’ is the most bland, generic choice possible – and I don’t think it’s even defensible through some kind of convoluted ‘well she’s a bland, generic person’ justification pretzel. Give us a brand name, give us a more interesting type, give us a more interesting flavour. Even Morrisons own-brand salt and vinegar twists feel more real than ‘ready salted crisps’.
Once I had gone into town with my real grandma; it rained all of a sudden and I was soaking wet, so she dropped me off at Bella’s to dry.
Again with the semi-colon. Oi! It is a needless piece of ostentation.
I like the sly introduction of ‘my real grandma’. Feels like a nice complication – although it’s also a weird distinction, since the narrator has never called Bella his grandma, but his Great Grandma. Maybe ‘my actual grandma’ would be better? Otherwise readers may read more into this than you want them to?
I’d cut ‘all of a sudden’, which is just a four-word way of saying ‘suddenly’, which is just a one-word way of saying ‘I can’t be trusted with adverbs, kindly slap me about the jowls with a pair of soiled smalls’.
Bella draped my clothes on the fire guard, which I sometimes used as a jail.
See, this is great! I might nudge you to give us a little adjective to modify ‘fireguard’ (which is one word), but you know what? I think a lot of authors would see me doing that and glower, Dan. ‘This is why you overwrite everything, Tim Clare,’ they would say. ‘This is why you Fuck Shit Up.’ A surprising concrete noun to close the sentence. Yes. Good.
She always had sweets and called them toffees; this time they were Jelly Babies, but the massive ones.
So that first bit, before the shite and completely unnecessary semi-colon. I really like the idea behind it, but I think you shart slightly during execution. I get what you mean, but it’s a bit garbled. Maybe it needs unpacking? So, instead: ‘She always had sweets. She called them toffees. This time they were Jelly Babies, but the massive ones.’
Reading that back, that doesn’t feel quite adequate either. Maybe ‘She called sweets “toffees”, and kept them in a clamp jar.’ Or something. I don’t know. Have a look at this, is what I’m saying. On a first pass, I think a nontrivial percentage of your readers won’t quite pick up that Bella refers to all sweets as toffees. They’ll reread, then they’ll get it. But it’s the equivalent of a record skipping during a party.
These moments of vague ambiguity, where we have to reread, barely register on their own, but they build into a frustrating, stuttery reading experience that ultimately makes people give up, without necessarily being able to articulate what it was that put them off.
I arranged the green ones into the shape of a crocodile on the plastic stool she used to spit grape seeds onto.
I maybe don’t like the verb ‘arranged’? It feels a bit fiddly to describe an act of play? But I am picking the shit out of those nits, Dan. I am indulging in some fastidious-ass reciprocal grooming. Because this is another pretty great sentence. A lovely sneaky bit of characterisation with the grape seeds.
Although – look! Isn’t ‘onto’ a rubbish way to close a sentence? Is there a way you could recast this so it closes with ‘grape seeds’ instead. That would be miles stronger. ‘onto’ should more or less never be used to shut a sentence. It’s like ending a phone call with ‘uh, wait-’ then hanging up.
She was watching Coronation Street and it was when Kevin Webster had a mustache.
Ideal sentence. And look how much more interesting her telly-watching becomes when you locate it in a specific programme and time!
I was pleased with my crocodile. She looked at it and belched, which she did a lot.
So, first sentence – fine, a bit meh, but fine. It develops a bit of character, I suppose. I guess I’d like to know why the narrator is pleased with his or her crocodile? Does it look particularly great, particularly bumpy, particularly green, particularly scary?
I don’t think we need ‘which she did a lot’. I get that it’s a quite revealing little addendum, but on the other hand, if the narrator doesn’t react to it, we’ll more or less assume it’s normal anyway. I feel like ‘belched’ is a stronger sentence closer than ‘a lot’.
But then, she picked up the stool and threw the sweets onto the carpet – which I thought was strange – and she was sick, or sort of: brown and gloopy, like the spit after a Werther’s Original.
I would cut ‘But’ and the comma after ‘then’. I feel like the flatness of tone so brilliantly executed in the remainder of this sentence is best served by underplaying it right from the beginning. Don’t step in to alert us that things are about to shift.
‘Werther’s Original’ might be a bit on-the-nose as a cultural reference, just because it’s so aggressively associated with the elderly, but I do think it also perfectly refers to the thing you’re talking about, so I’m prepared to grant it a stay of execution.
I like this bit and I like the last paragraph. I’m a sucker for understated grimness – the mundanity of a horrible accident. My model for it is the ending of the Canadian Indian folktale, The War of the Ghosts, used by psychologist Frederic Bartlett in his work on memory. At the end of the story (which Bartlett had participants memorise then write down, to test how cultural assumptions skew memory) a young man recounts his encounter with a ghost:
‘He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.
He was dead.’
‘Something black came out of his mouth’ is a great example of how vagueness and understatement can – against all expectations – work powerfully in moments of high drama. I nicked this move several times while writing The Honours, in fact… *flicks through annotated copy on desk* yes, I’ve more or less copied it word for word:
‘A little more water came out. Delphine looked down at ______’s pursed, purpled lips. Something black hung from the corner of his mouth.’ (name redacted in case of spoilers)
Fuck yeah cultural appropriation.