Don’t Gild Your Lilies

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first page comes to us, it appears, from across the pond. The author identifies it as “Comedic Noir.” Let’s have a look at it, and discuss:

 

The Bookshop

I step over a shard of a broken concrete paver, its exposed edge a looming obstacle in the fine drizzle.

A raincoat-clad woman is leaning in against the shop front window. Rain water runs in rivulets off her black mac, the gloss and her shape, has me thinking of a wet seal. Her hands cup her eyes and she peers into its shadowed recesses. Red ankle socks cut into her stout doughy legs. It’s mere idle curiosity I’m sure. After all, the advert, secured by a rusty drawing pin to the general dealer notice board, was curling and crisp with age. Nobody’s been interested in these premises for a while. 

She startles at a squeal from the sole of my sneaker and jumps back guiltily.

‘Oh my goodness, where’d you pop up from? I didn’t hear you.’ Her voice is grumbly and hoarse, sort of Nina Simone.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.’ I approach the door and fish the key out of my pocket.

‘Ah, you’re opening up. Great, I’d like a mosey inside. Any idea of the rental? I should’ve asked Daisy.’

‘I’m hoping to sign a lease on it.’ It comes out harsher than I’d intended, sort of snobby and possessive. I do know the monthly rental, but I don’t want to compete with anyone for occupancy. I unlock and push the door. It doesn’t budge. It’s wedged closed with months of accumulated dirt and rotten leaves. I scoop the slimy vegetation away with the toe of my shoe and push again.

‘Here, let me.’ She clutches the handle and puts her shoulder on the frame of the door giving a grunt and a heave. It swings open, taking her with it.

She stands inside, legs and arms akimbo, blocking my access. ‘Spiffy. Plenty of space. Ooh, I like the one raw brick wall, gives character. I can work with that.’

I could shove past her but she’s dripping water like a beached walrus. I clear my throat.

‘Oh sorry.’ She steps aside and makes her way to the right where there’s a wooden counter with pewter coloured cupboards. They contrast well with the red brick of wall.

A pungent mustiness of damp tickles my nose. I hear her opening and banging the doors but I’m drawn to the windows at the rear. They’re splattered with raindrops and the splotches of countless dead midges but when cleaned, they’ll give a great view of the village green. I can picture fellow bibliomaniacs curled in chunky armchairs, soaking up the view and the late afternoon sun.

She’s hollering to me. ‘Any idea about the wiring?’

Who is this woman? 

JSB: Let’s mention the POV off the bat. Obviously it’s First Person Present. We recently discussed this, so I’m not going to go over the same ground. As long as the writer has considered the pros and cons, I don’t have a problem with the choice. I’ll only mention that for fans of classic noir it might be a slight speed bump.

Overall, the scene is mildly interesting. But we don’t want mild in an opening page. We want to be grabbed and pulled in. I’d love to see more conflict here—more attitude, more intensity. The narrator is passive. Maybe that’s intended at the start, but at least give him some feeling—annoyance, aggravation, mad because his wife left him—anything. (Note: We don’t know what sex the narrator is, and that’s a problem. I’ll assume for discussion purposes that it’s a man. But do something on this page to clue us in.)

You, dear author, have an obvious felicity with words. But felicity can get you into trouble if you don’t watch it. I’m going to be tough on you because I know you can write. So hang in there!

In Shakespeare’s play King John, Salisbury says:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily…
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Somehow that’s come down to us as “gild the lily,” probably because it sounds better (I don’t think Bill S. would mind). It means to dress up what is already beautiful, to add a layer that is not only unnecessary, but actually dilutes the intended effect.

This piece has several such instances. The good new is that there’s an easy fix. It’s called the delete key, and the benefits are immediate.

I step over a shard of a broken concrete paver, its exposed edge a looming obstacle in the fine drizzle.

We already know a shard is something broken. We know that if he steps over it, it has to be exposed. We also know that drizzle, by definition, is fine. All those adjectives are gilding the lily. They weigh the sentence down. That’s fatal, especially for noir. Here’s the rework: I step over a shard of concrete paver, its edge a looming obstacle in the drizzle.

Much stronger, but there’s still more work to do. I’m not enamored of looming obstacle. For one thing, it isn’t looming. It’s right there under his foot. Nor is it much of an obstacle if a guy can just step over it.

Here’s a radical idea: ditch the whole thing. This opening line doesn’t add anything to the scene to come. In good noir style, let’s start with the woman!

A raincoat-clad woman is leaning in against the shop front window. Rain water runs in rivulets off her black mac, the gloss and her shape, has me thinking of a wet seal.

We know that shop windows are in front. Cut front.

We know that rain is water. Cut water.

The second sentence is compound, and the second comma is misplaced.

The word leaning is also puzzling. You tell us in the next sentence that she’s peering. But leaning could mean resting her head on the glass because she’s tired, etc.

You can clear up everything this way: A raincoat-clad woman is peering through the shop window. Rain runs in rivulets off her black mac. The gloss and her shape has me thinking of a wet seal. Red ankle socks cut into her doughy legs.

You’ll notice I cut the word stout because that’s the same as doughy. Don’t gild the lily—or the legs!

It’s mere idle curiosity I’m sure.

Cut mere, for that is what idle curiosity is by definition. You also need a comma after curiosity. Or you could write, I’m sure it’s idle curiosity.

After all, the advert, secured by a rusty drawing pin to the general dealer notice board, was curling and crisp with age. Nobody’s been interested in these premises for a while.

A couple of things jolt me here. After all sounds like an expression directed to the reader, rather than the flow of narrative. Also, you lapse into past tense with was curling. And the two sentences seem on the wrong side of each other. I’d suggest: Nobody’s been interested in these premises for a while. The advert, secured by a rusty drawing pin to the general dealer notice board, is curling and crisp with age.

She startles at a squeal from the sole of my sneaker and jumps back guiltily.

Do we really need guiltily? How does he know it’s guilt and not just surprise? Anyway, any adverb here dilutes the strong picture of her jumping back. Let the action itself do the work.

‘Oh my goodness, where’d you pop up from? I didn’t hear you.’

You can gild dialogue, too! After her first statement we don’t need her to say I didn’t hear you. Plus, she just jumped back at his approach. We saw that she didn’t hear him.

Her voice is grumbly and hoarse

Grumbly and hoarse are virtually synonymous. Choose one.

sort of Nina Simone.

Okay, we have to talk about this. Normally, I’m okay with a few pop culture references, so long as they are easy to identify and help set the tone.

But how many current readers, unless they are jazz aficionados, know Nina Simone?

And when I think of her music I picture Nina at a piano singing deep and soulful blues in a smoky café. That is directly opposite the impression I get from a doughy-legged woman crying, “Oh my goodness, where’d you pop up from?”

In short, this is an old and obscure reference, and works against the comic-noir tone you’re trying to create.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.’ I approach the door and fish the key out of my pocket. 

Give the guy some attitude. Create tension. E.g., ‘You mind telling me what you want here?’

‘Ah, you’re opening up. Great, I’d like a mosey inside. Any idea of the rental? I should’ve asked Daisy.’

Ack! He’s going toward the door with a key. We don’t need her to tell him (or us) ‘Ah, you’re opening up.’

‘I’m hoping to sign a lease on it.’ It comes out harsher than I’d intended, sort of snobby and possessive.

Again, too passive. Let’s have some attitude, e.g., ‘I’m going to sign a lease, if that’s what you’re thinking.’ Then you wouldn’t need to gild it by telling us it’s snobby and possessive.

I unlock and push the door. It doesn’t budge. It’s wedged closed with months of accumulated dirt and rotten leaves.

I’m unsure of the physics here. Are “months” of dirt and leaves enough to wedge a door closed? And even so, if they’re on the outside and the narrator is pushing inward, where is the wedge?

‘Here, let me.’ She clutches the handle and puts her shoulder on the frame of the door giving a grunt and a heave. It swings open, taking her with it.

If she’s swept inside, her shoulder wouldn’t be pushing the frame, but the door itself.

‘Oh sorry.’ She steps aside and makes her way to the right where there’s a wooden counter with pewter coloured cupboards. They contrast well with the red brick of wall.

The word well, like the word very, should almost always be cut. Too bland. Also, that little of doesn’t do anything. Just write: They contrast with the red brick wall.

A pungent mustiness of damp tickles my nose.

Mustiness already implies damp, so the of damp is gilding the lily. The sentence is sharper without it.

Man! Seems like a lot of cutting, doesn’t it? But that’s what excellent writing often comes down to—trimming the fat for leaner and meaner prose (especially important in noir.)

Now let me end this on an upbeat note! I like the way the page ends:

I hear her opening and banging the doors but I’m drawn to the windows at the rear. They’re splattered with raindrops and the splotches of countless dead midges but when cleaned, they’ll give a great view of the village green. I can picture fellow bibliomaniacs curled in chunky armchairs, soaking up the view and the late afternoon sun.

She’s hollering to me. ‘Any idea about the wiring?’

Who is this woman? 

It’s a nice contrast between the narrator’s vision and the sudden hollering of the woman. Your description here of the splotches and midges and chunky armchairs is solid. You need a comma after midges, but I’d suggest making two sentences out of it: They’re splattered with raindrops and the splotches of countless dead midges. When cleaned, they’ll give a great view of the village green.

As I said up top, writer friend, you have a way with words and promise as a writer. I suggest you write your pages, then come back the next day and look for those gilding-the-lily spots. Pay special attention where you’ve used two adjectives in the same sentence. Almost always cutting one of them makes the writing stronger.

Thanks for your submission. Now let’s hear from the TKZers.

14 thoughts on “Don’t Gild Your Lilies

  1. Brave Author, you’re fortunate to receive an excellent critique from JSB, the master.

    There are some great visuals: “wet seal”, “red ankle socks”, and “countless dead midges”. Plus, I can smell the place. Terrific job of stimulating the reader’s senses.

    Cut the overwriting and this will be an intriguing story. Good job!

  2. Brave writer, thanks for sharing your first page with us. My favorite line is: “I do know the monthly rental, but I don’t want to compete with anyone for occupancy” because it tells me about the narrator’s goal and his/her character.

    I didn’t know who Nina Simone was.

    I love the seal and walrus comparisons.:-)

    Maybe the wet weather has swollen the door against the frame, so that’s why it’s hard to push open.

    I think JSB gave you a great critique, and I agree with his assessment of the overwriting and the reader needing to know if your protagonist is a man or a woman.

    Best of luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Author!

  3. Brave writer, you have an awesome way with scene descriptions. I think though that they slow the action down and perhaps a few pages in, I might be turned off. I also didn’t know who Nina Simone was and thought perhaps she was an old actress. I did wonder why she choose such a miserable day to stare inside a vacant property.

    The work was described as “comedic noir”. Having read the first page I would call it “sarcastic noir.” However, I rarely read noir and maybe this is comedy in the noir sub-genre.😃

    Good luck with your story.

  4. Dear Writer,

    You lucky guy. (I’m guessing guy from the “sound” of it.) First, you have talent, that’s for sure. Second, Jim has just given you a marvelous lesson on how to manage your talent. In real life, you’d owe him a few hundred pounds.

    I was interested in the story. It has a noir feeling off the bat (cricket or baseball). But I confess that I did not read past the first few paragraphs because of the cadence. Your descriptive vocabulary can only be effective if you have a smooth rhythm to match. Jim has told you how to create that rhythm, and that puts you ahead of the game.

    I can only add: read your pages out loud. If your tongue trips on concrete pavers, rewrite.

    Good luck to you.

  5. I agree with what has already been said. You, brave writer, are fortunate to have a critique from JSB. I love the setting and I also enjoy your style. As others have said, I needed more on who the main character is. An example, the realtor should not be able to muscle the door open if the main character can’t unless you explain why. I need to start liking the main character on page one. You can reveal a lot with the description of the realtor. A wet seal is imaginative but doesn’t take us far beyond showing the main character has a low opinion of her. Why? If the realtor is one more stumbling block in the way of the main character achieving his/her goal, saying so now would build suspense. “The realtor looked up from her text with a flash of relief (nobody likes standing in the rain), followed by a fakey bright smile since anybody with eyes could see the place should be torn down….Well, shall we take a peek inside? I nodded, matching her fakey bright smile with one of my own. I already knew this place was perfect for what I had in mind. The only question was, how much would I have to shell out?”
    Good luck. I personally would love to browse that bookstore when it opens!

    • That’s interesting that you took the narrator to be a realtor. I took him to be someone looking to lease the place, which is why I was confused as to why he had a key and no one there showing him the place.

  6. I like this beginning, especially after your comments, JSB.

    BA, I’d keep reading to find out “who is this woman” for sure. I wonder what she wants the space for; if it’s not a bookshop, she needs to leave. I already feel protective of the MC’s plans. 🙂

    Plus, as always, I learned some stuff about my own projects. Leaner, meaner, cleaner always works.

  7. Congratulations, Brave Author, on your entry. “Comedic noir” sounds like a genre I could get into.

    I know who Nina Simone is, but I didn’t know what a paver was. Had to look it up. I found it amusing that I tripped over the first sentence of your work that describes an obstacle. 🙂

    I liked the sentence “It swings open, taking her with it.” It was easy to visualize and funny.

    I thought the tension was good. You’ve already set these two at odds with each other. By her initial politeness, I thought the woman would be a Miss Marple clone (I’ve been reading a lot of Agatha Christie lately), but you dispelled that notion with the hoarse voice. To be honest, I would have loved to see a sweet but powerful little old lady up against grumpy guy.

    Good luck with the story! I hope you’ll let us know when we can read the entire thing.

  8. First off, I’ve no idea what “comedic noir” really means so take my thoughts with that in mind.

    I may not know what comedic noir is, but if the first page is supposed to show comedy, I didn’t really read anything that hinted at that overtone. Perhaps the woman opening the door where the (supposed) man couldn’t? But otherwise, I didn’t pick up on ‘comedic’.

    Like JSB, I was thrown off as to why the broken paver was an obstacle since (he?) so easily stepped over it.

    Have no idea what a “mac” is (guessing not mac & cheese but a coat?).

    Have no idea who Nina Simone is so whatever image I was supposed to conjure up didn’t work. But then I don’t read People Magazine nor do I watch TV, so I’m probably far less clued in about the who’s who of the universe then most people.

    The biggest stumbling block to me when reading this first page is–if this dude (assuming it’s a dude) is looking to rent this space, WHY does he have a key himself already and WHY is no one there to show him the place? Granted, maybe other countries do things differently but in the U.S., the salesman/landlord is always there to open the place up and show it.

    Those things said, I enjoyed reading the first page. And when you mentioned your narrator is a bibliomaniac, he(?) instantly won me over. I could already clearly envision his plans for the place (and it’s got to be better than whatever she was planning. LOL!)

    I agree w/JSB–narrator needs more attitude. You have clearly established an attitude with the woman, but narrator, while he has won me over, needs stronger/more decisive presence—you tried to go there when you said:

    “‘I’m hoping to sign a lease on it.’ It comes out harsher than I’d intended, sort of snobby and possessive.”

    But “I’m hoping” loses its strength and this could probably be worded to make the narrator stronger.

    I enjoyed reading it, but I think there’s room to make it better.

  9. When I think of the phrase ‘comedic noir’ I straightaway think of Firesign Theatre’s, Nick Danger — Third Eye. Here’s a link if intrigued: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwG5c9IsgbA. Rollicking good vintage fun for curious ears.
    This sample is not ‘comedic noir’ — or not as I recognize it.
    Beyond that, I know who Nina Simone WAS, but never in a month of Sundays would I describe her singing or speaking voice as being both, “grumbly and hoarse”. Grumbly, sometimes maybe; hoarse, sometimes maybe—but never both at the same time.
    If serious about this opening (get the feeling much of it is tongue in cheek) do as JSB says.

  10. What an excellent critique! I’m going straight to my WIP to look for all those “gilding the lily” words with a pair of shears!
    My impression is that this is a wonderful writer who can create beautiful images, but it’s a case of “kill your darlings” exactly in the way that JSB has identified.

  11. Bravo, brave writer-person! Comedic-Noir–I have spent many a fortnight writing that genre and love it, its settings, mood, and atmosphere, the flawed MCs, the OTT similes:

    “It was foggy that night in ’46 as I drove my ’32 Ford up La Cienega into the Baldwin Hills, heading for the X on the map. The fog was thick, thick as a bowl of yesterday’s oatmeal at an all night diner….”

    Similes and metaphors are a big part of the genre, so I’m glad to see them here. Well done. And if you’re going to be comedic, pull out all the stops on the comparisons. And try to tie the hijjus similes to the theme or story or mood:

    “…I could see the lights of Los Angeles spread out below me like a shattered bottle of muscatel glittering in the headlights of an ambulance.”

    But generally avoid mixing metaphors. If you compare the lady to a wet seal one place, maybe don’t liken her to a beached walrus so soon after–unless all your similes are going to be oceanic. (Personally, if consistent with the story, I’d have compared her to Death–in the black raincoat, peering in the window, face shrouded by a hood, presumably–“Death in Red Socks?”)

    Watch out for run-on sentences. The third sentence might better read: || Rivulets of rain run down her black mac︔ the gloss and her shape 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 me thinking of a wet seal. ||

    Avoid putting too many words between pronouns and their referents: || …shop front window…[30 words]… its shadowed recesses. ||

    It’s a nice start. I sense (besides the British English) that some previous effort has been devoted to proofing the piece.

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