Monday, August 9, 2010

Wednesday Critique on a Monday

Yes, I know it's not Wednesday yet, but the BIG, FREE online conference, WriteOnCon (dot com) is happening this week on Tuesday through Thursday, and I want to concentrate on it! Having said that, today's writing sample is from the prologue of an adult novel by Hannah.

Gunmetal Gray

       There’s a man yelling at me in a language I don’t understand. The streets are empty; the sun’s just about to rise, the sky looks like it’s holding its breath before color explodes from the horizon. And the man is screaming. John’s trying to talk to him, trying to calm him down enough to speak. Tex’s voice murmurs like the sand, quiet: “What’s he saying?” We wait, and the sky’s not the only thing holding its breath. Sometimes, you don’t need to be a language specialist to figure out what someone’s saying – there’s a crazed look to the man’s eyes. They’ve seen too much death, too much destruction; the land is reflected in his irises. They’re black, but gray and brown, too. I’ve never seen eyes like his.
       He looks like he’s seen a ghost.
       “I dunno.”
       “John, what the hell's he saying?” We aren’t alone anymore – people are beginning to notice us. They don’t speak, but I see children behind their mothers’ silhouettes. If we aren’t careful, soon we’ll have a situation. We might already have one.
       “He’s talkin’ Turkish! I don’t speak Turkish! I speak Farsi – not Turkish!” The man’s begging for something, looking between John and Tex and me.
       “Ben, Doc, you boys come with me.” Preacher’s watching the people watching us. Everyone’s waiting for something to happen – our rifles are heavier, the wind gentler. The man’s not screaming anymore, but he’s babbling. Talking to hear himself talk. To convince himself that everything’s gonna be alright, that his world’s not going to disintegrate around him.

MY COMMENTS:

There’s a man yelling at me in a language I don’t understand. The streets are empty; the sun’s just about to rise, the sky looks like it’s holding its breath before color explodes from the horizon. And the man is screaming. John’s trying to talk to him, trying to calm him down enough to speak.
I like the phrasing and images here in this excerpt, the emotion and tension. Staccato sentences (and/or short ones) are used well for effect, and the use of present tense shows the action unfolding in real time, which is more impactful. Using first person also ramps up the immediacy. The first sentence catches attention and shows conflict right away. Great image, of the sky holding its breath before the explosion of color. I like that; it not only is original but good in the sense of foreshadowing events to come in this war scene (yes, there is an explosion later; I've read the entire prologue, which is more than the 258 words printed here).
As far as things to improve upon: technically, if the streets are empty, there wouldn't be a man there yelling. Or even a first-person narrator (Ben). It's therefore unclear where that man or man's voice is--in the streets, or not? And obviously, the narrator is there too, along with John (and, as we see later, Tex, Doc, and Preacher)--unless they are somewhere else other than the streets.

Tex’s voice murmurs like the sand, quiet: “What’s he saying?” We wait, and the sky’s not the only thing holding its breath. Sometimes, you don’t need to be a language specialist to figure out what someone’s saying – there’s a crazed look to the man’s eyes. They’ve seen too much death, too much destruction; the land is reflected in his irises. They’re black, but gray and brown, too. I’ve never seen eyes like his.
He looks like he’s seen a ghost.
The murmuring like the sand is a nice comparison, though the simile is awfully close to the last one about the sun, and "like" is repeated yet again in the ghost line. Perhaps change one of these lines (I'd suggest the sun line) to "as though" or "as if." I would omit or rewrite the ghost line, because it is a cliché; something fresher and more original is needed. Even something like, "They reflect unnamed ghosts" would steer clear of the cliché. Discovering later that the narrator is Ben, I would let the reader know this (and that Tex is near the narrator) earlier by changing the first line to something like: Next to me, Tex's voice murmurs like the sand, quiet: "What's he saying, Ben?" I'm not really sure you need to add brown for his eye color; the gray might be enough, especially since gray is your symbolism for fear and destruction showing in someone's eyes. Or keep brown but ditch the black (Like: They're brown, but gray too.)

“I dunno.”
“John, what the hell's he saying?” We aren’t alone anymore – people are beginning to notice us. They don’t speak, but I see children behind their mothers’ silhouettes. If we aren’t careful, soon we’ll have a situation. We might already have one.
To me, the "I dunno" is separated too far from the question, and I can't tell who says the line. A dialogue tag is needed, as is some way of indicating why someone would be saying "I dunno" since it's been a while since you've mentioned it and it's less clear what it's referring to. You might also consider giving the last line here a new paragraph/line of its own for added emphasis.

“He’s talkin’ Turkish! I don’t speak Turkish! I speak Farsi – not Turkish!” The man’s begging for something, looking between John and Tex and me.
"Turkish" is repeated 3 times in this dialogue sentence. Not needed. It's also not 100% clear who's saying this line, so a dialogue tag would be helpful. For instance: “He’s talkin’ Turkish," John calls back. "I don’t speak Turkish--I speak Farsi!”
Also, as shown in the suggestion, at least one exclamation mark should be eliminated, because the more of those you use, the more the reader is deadened to them. Use them only when you have to, and absolutely need emphasis. Be careful of dropping too many g's, as in talkin'--there are a lot of apostrophes in this passage, and it's easy to overdo that kind of thing. It can become distracting or wearying for the reader.

“Ben, Doc, you boys come with me.” Preacher’s watching the people watching us. Everyone’s waiting for something to happen – our rifles are heavier, the wind gentler. The man’s not screaming anymore, but he’s babbling. Talking to hear himself talk. To convince himself that everything’s gonna be alright, that his world’s not going to disintegrate around him.
There are 3 instances of the word "but" in this page excerpt; weeding some out by rephrasing or substituting "except" would be good. For example, this last "but" could be omitted by saying: The man’s screaming has morphed into babbling.

Thank you, Hannah, for submitting a sample for critique!

1 comment:

  1. Again, another in-depth and very helpful blog. You have an eye and a gift for this. You seem to notice things that readers skim over. I'm amazed every time I read one of your comments and suggestions. Things I hadn't given a second thought to, you show as needing clarification. And you explain why. Great job! Don't stop critiquing.

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