Death Of 1000 Cuts – In The Barber’s Chair: Wireless (by Jo)

Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

It’s Thursday, which means it’s time for another In The Barber’s Chair. As always, read the extract, gather your thoughts, then read my suggestions in ‘The Cuts’. If you have the first page of a novel or short story you’d like me to dissect thusly, (250 words max) please send it in the body of an email with a title (and no explanatory blather), via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. And thank you to everyone who has shared these posts on Twitter and Facebook. We’ve been getting lots of new readers thanks to you, so cheers.

Wireless (by Jo)

Someone was killed on the way to prayers this morning. I heard the shots whilst I was tying my shoelace and stayed crouched until they stopped. They were streets away, so I wasn’t especially afraid. My leg muscles burned towards the end.

When it was over, when everything got quiet, I pulled at my shoelace. The bow undid. I eased my shoes off and went to pray in my room. Outside, the ambulances would be gliding into place and the paramedics stepping solemnly out. They’ve stopped using the sirens since there’s no traffic anyway and most neighbourhoods complained about the constant whine.

Mum was out during the shooting but she avalanched into the house about half an hour later, sweeping through our rooms, picking up any anxieties we were feeling and claiming them for her own hysteria. Her panic so closely resembled her old reactions to messy rooms and scrapping that it was easy to relax.

I don’t think she does it on purpose.

The issue, of course, was that prayers were no longer safe. How, she crowed, were we meant to keep ourselves clean in the midst of all this bloodshed? I suppose she thought God, trawling corpses, hoping to salvage, would see the thin dust on our souls and, like Doctor Patel our dentist, pounce on hints of negligence and punish us grievously.

I thought God himself would be guilty of lax comport in that case, but Mum cut me off and said times were dark enough listening to death tolls on the radio all day without me hypothesising our statistical participation.

There’s only one casualty report a day anyway. It isn’t the broadcaster’s fault (or mine) that Mum sits all afternoon waiting for it.

The Cuts

Someone was killed on the way to prayers this morning.

Look, I’m as much a slave to my whimsical predilections as any other meatbot shuffling round this grim boulder, but as far as I’m concerned, this is an ideal opening sentence. It introduces a milieu and a problem. The language is simple, clear, unpretentious.

I’m not even bollocking you for using the passive voice! Mental. But it’s appropriate here. You’re not being weasely and legalistic – the narrator doesn’t know who did it yet (confusion about how much she knows comes up later, so don’t get too excited).

I mean, if we’re pushing this to be the best sentence it can be – and there is no reason why you shouldn’t hold all your work to this standard when you redraft – then the Bez of the group is ‘this morning’. ‘Prayers’ is a more interesting, loaded word to end the sentence on than ‘morning’. Just as importantly, ‘this morning’ places the implied narrative present at some distance from the events you’re describing (although clearly on the same day).

Sure, I get you’re going for an eerie nonchalance here – the matter-of-factness in the narrator’s tone ought to bring the reader up short and add to the impact – but you need to establish the ‘now’ of your novel early on. ‘this morning’ is a relatively inconsequential slip, but it presages the great porridgy clusterfuck of temporal havering that characterises the remainder of the extract.

I heard the shots whilst I was tying my shoelace and stayed crouched until they stopped.

See, again, I really like this sentence. Simple, exciting. The understatement really ramps up the tension.

I expect most readers will be imagining a street by this stage, and surroundings, despite your giving us almost no description. This isn’t necessarily a problem, depending on what you want to achieve. Given most Western readers’ cultural conditioning, I wouldn’t be surprised if, with the mention of ‘prayers’ and ‘shots’, our collective prejudices are conjuring up a quasi Middle Eastern streetscape.

They were streets away, so I wasn’t especially afraid.

I would invert the order of these clauses and link them with a semi-colon, or separate them into two discrete sentences. ‘I wasn’t especially afraid’ is more startling if it comes first, then the explanation – which is startling because it conveys the apparent normalcy of this event – works as a mini-reveal.

My leg muscles burned towards the end.

See, again, this sentence loses some impact because the narrator is reporting events some time later. The narrator didn’t know it was ‘towards the end’ at the time. If this were written in the moment, it would be two sentences: My leg muscles burned. The shooting stopped.

When it was over, when everything got quiet, I pulled at my shoelace. The bow undid. I eased my shoes off and went to pray in my room.

Wait, wait, wait – what the fuck? So the narrator was indoors all this time? ‘on the way to prayers’ implies that they are on their way too. ‘streets away’ suggests outdoors. I pictured the narrator squatting in the street.

There might be times in a story when you want to deliberately mislead the reader about a character’s location, appearance, intent, etc, but this is not one of them. Here it just brings us up short and forces us to reread the first paragraph to figure out what’s going on.

Outside, the ambulances would be gliding into place and the paramedics stepping solemnly out. They’ve stopped using the sirens since there’s no traffic anyway and most neighbourhoods complained about the constant whine.

Do ambulances ‘glide’? I suppose, if they no longer use sirens, you might be trying to convey that sense of quiet movement, but they’re still essentially big vans. Unless violence in this city has escalated to the point where ambulances operate on a whisper-quiet tram network.

What are you basing this ‘most neighbourhoods complained about the constant whine’ line on? It feels like something that could be true, I suppose, but it also smacks of a calculated attempt to hammer home your point that these killings have become dangerously normalised. The phrase ‘most neighbourhoods’ makes it sound like whole communities rallied together to petition the emergency services – I just find it hard to believe that anyone, even under these circumstances, would be so crass.

I also think that ‘constant’ is ambiguous here. You mean ‘continual’ – ‘constant’ makes it sound as if the whine is a single, unbroken tone, when of course ambulance sirens in any country oscillate.

Mum was out during the shooting but she avalanched into the house about half an hour later, sweeping through our rooms, picking up any anxieties we were feeling and claiming them for her own hysteria.

And here’s where Mum bursts into the story, trailing shitty prose behind her. After all the success you’ve had with simple, unpretentious prose, this feels like the height of ingratitude, like a toddler taking his first steps, then directing a two-fingered salute at his parents and yelling ‘Ha! Fuck you, Mum and Dad! I don’t need you anymore!’ before blundering into a glass coffee table and shitting himself.

She ‘avalanched’ into the house? No she didn’t. ‘Avalanched’ has no thematic or environmental resonance – it doesn’t even work as a straight metaphor – and only serves to distance us from what is being described. Here’s an idea: instead of pumping your verbs full of steroids, unpack that dull, generic noun ‘house’. We’ve got absolutely nothing to give us a flavour of where the narrator lives, or any of the idiosyncrasies that make it home.

The part of this sentence after ‘later’ is unsalvageable. Show, don’t tell. We don’t want to hear a cumbersome summary of what went on, particularly when it makes the narrator – ostensibly a child – sound like a middle-aged therapist. Just horrible.

Her panic so closely resembled her old reactions to messy rooms and scrapping that it was easy to relax.

SHOW US THE FUCKING PANIC. Give us actual dialogue. It’s as if the director is standing between the camera and the action, saying: ‘Pretty sweet scene going on behind me, guys. Some pretty intense emotional dynamics taking place there.’

Get out the way. Properly dramatise your scenes – don’t force us to read through a bland, clunky digest of what happened.

The issue, of course, was that prayers were no longer safe. How, she crowed, were we meant to keep ourselves clean in the midst of all this bloodshed?

Give me one good reason why you aren’t rendering this as actual dialogue. This isn’t some shitty ‘isn’t middle-class life absurd?’ humour column in the Guardian. It’s fiction. Exploit the form’s strengths. Put words into characters’ mouths. Let us hear them speak.

I suppose she thought God, trawling corpses, hoping to salvage, would see the thin dust on our souls and, like Doctor Patel our dentist, pounce on hints of negligence and punish us grievously.

No. I like the basic image underpinning this, but the prose is so mangled and tortuous that it gets lost. Restrict yourself to a child’s vocabulary. Far from infantilising the voice, it will make it bold and assured.

I thought God himself would be guilty of lax comport in that case, but Mum cut me off and said times were dark enough listening to death tolls on the radio all day without me hypothesising our statistical participation.

Argh. I am literally clutching the sides of my head and rocking here. This sounds like dialogue from a joke professor character in a cartoon. Unless your narrator turns out to be Professor Frink from The Simpsons, (in which case the earlier narration doesn’t fit) then cut all the needlessly complex big words and render the conversation as actual conversation, instead of this naff summary.

This scene is suffering from chronic White Room Syndrome. I admire your spare, no-nonsense prose style, but you need to look for places to add some deft touches to tip us off as to what the actual fuck is going on. If you leave gaps, the reader will happily fill them with stock images, but unless you employ some deft touches to steer our imaginations, the world in which your story exists will remain vague and watery.

Restrain the faux-literary flourishes. I have nothing against rich vocabularies and complex sentence structures, but here they break out like warts. Sudden trolley-dashes through a higher lexical set aren’t the way to invest your narrative with literary resonance. Hold true to your protagonist’s voice.

Enjoying this blog is no guarantee of enjoying my award-winning book on writing, gnawing jealousy and death, We Can’t All Be Astronauts. But I do call Geoffrey Archer an ‘arse-countenanced hack’ – Ebury’s lawyers had no problem with that phrase in the libel read, so I can only assume this fact is enshrined in British law.

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