Friday, 13 April 2018

Open Critique: Obscurity

Tapa Tasneem has bravely offered up their chapter for me to sink my teeth into. I enjoyed reviewing this opening and could see how a lot of small tweaks in the writing style could really bring out the best in it.

Here’s my line review:

Hans Hayder was never told no by anyone.

His heart pulsed against his chest as he felt the cigarette climb to his mouth and exhaled with an aura of tranquillity. [A nice striking image with lots of emotion! There are tricks to making this sound instantly stronger (see below)] His being [Isn’t ‘his being’ just himself, so you could just say ‘he’?] felt lighter and for just the smallest amount of time, he forgot who and where he was. His feet left the ground, and he was soaring like the hawk that his mother had imitated to him as a child [This really makes me wonder what the hawk means to him and why his mother imitating one sticks in his mind - maybe explore this intriguing idea. Perhaps split the sentence in two to improve the flow, and then expand on the idea.]. The sky was illuminated as he passed villages surrounded by forests and cities with shining neon lights. [Nice detail, but I can’t tell whether the soaring is a metaphor or literal. Either way, more sensory detail would be great.]

Unexpectedly, reality was a heavy shove[The passive voice here makes it hard to understand this phrase (see below)], and he was pushed back into the world that he had now been accustomed to: the world where he was a grown man with no mother to cook for him and no wife to sing for him. [Poor guy. I like the slither of detail here – it’s the right amount to intrigue without info dumping.]

The dim lights of the delicatessen were disheartening [How so?] as he was dropped to the ground from the tallest of skies[In what way?]. There were a few men standing [This makes me realise I don’t know where they are – perhaps a line to describe the setting? He might have blocked out where he is, but I want to know so I understand the context and can picture the scene] with stronger dosages of drugs that Hans couldn't stand to smell himself. He passed the cigarette to Maj Ali, a friend since their successful births [This seems strange phrasing]. Maj dropped the cigarette to the ground and crushed it beneath his heel, imagining his sister's tan face against his foot [We’ve jumped POV here – I think it would be best to stay over the shoulder of Hans, but that will depend on the rest of the story].

Hans walked towards the outline of his navy [The description of Hans’ motorcycle is a good way to show his personality, but 'navy' doesn’t really say much. Maybe pick one word or a short description that gives off personality more. Is it an old rusty bike, or shiny and new? Or does it have skulls or flowers or a hawk painted on the side? Each of those things hints at who Hans could be.] motorcycle slowly, his head bowed down just so slightly that it was nearly unnoticeable and his heart beating a bit more calmly than it had just a few minutes previously. Suddenly, he heard the hum of a motorcycle, and as he looked up, he saw the headlights of his motorcycle blare like neon lights in the darkness. After quite some time, his eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness as he squinted against the light. [I think there's a fair bit of repetition about the light. It might feel more sudden with shorter sentences and without the mention of time passing e.g. The hum of a motorcycle closed in on him and light drenched him from the headlights. He squinted, raising his arm to adjust to the sight.]

Hans realised that it was the hum of the engine of his motorcycle, and something clicked in his mind then: Someone was stealing his prized possession that he had worked for years to get. [Great line! It’s good that there’s action right at the start of the book.]

What I’d recommend

The story seems to start in a good place, with (hopefully) a plot-related incident ready to happen in the next few paragraphs - that's a great start. There are some tricks to instantly strengthen a sentence which I think could really help here. Once you know them, you can instantly make your writing feel stronger with minimal changes.

Oh, and my examples are very rough - take the idesa from them, not the exact words.


This means describing the scene through the character when it would be much stronger to go directly into the description. As we already know the POV is Hans, the reader will assume that anything described is because Hans sees, smells, feels, hears, or tastes it. 

His being felt lighter - The smoke filled his lungs and spread through him like helium

Take a step back and work out what that feeling means.

Passive voice

You’ll want as much of your writing to be in active voice (see here for more details). The easiest way to spot passive voice is through the verb ‘to be’.

was soaring – soared
was a heavy shove – He shoved his focus back to reality
was dropped from the sky – He dropped from the sky to the cold cobblestones
the sky was illuminated – The streetlamp illuminated the sky

In the last three examples, the passive voice creates a vague image. It’s not clear what’s illuminating the sky, or how he was dropped, or who is shoving what, which in turn makes it hard for the reader to picture.

Indirect language

Sometimes it’s better to boycott surplus words and get to the meat of the sentence or description. Often, you can spot these cases with ‘felt’ and ‘was’, as avoiding passive voice and filtering is a good way to strengthen your prose. Other times it just takes working out what you really want to say in a wordy situation.

his being felt – he felt
There were a few men standing  - A young group hung / A man stood
his head bowed down just so slightly that it was nearly unnoticeable – his head bowed to hide his features

The last line is a bit different, but it’s doing two things. It’s removing colloquial words like ‘down’, ‘just’, ‘so’, ‘slightly’, and ‘nearly’ which are easy to overuse as they’re very flexible. Writing around them can strengthen a sentence. Also, ‘down’ in particular is a good word to delete as usually the word before will imply ‘down’ without you having to expend another word. A lot of the time, less is more.

Show don't tell

This phrase gets thrown around a lot in different situations, but in this case it’s for the specific phrasing of the descriptions. I can tell you’ve got a strong image in your head, and you want to build the emotion into the scene, but if you find yourself giving emotions to inanimate objects then take a moment to work out why. What about that object inspires that emotion?

Aura of tranquillity
Lights were […] disheartening

These descriptions make me ask ‘How so?’ How is the aura tranquil? Why are the delicatessen lights disheartening? These phrases are the impressions you want to give the reader, but its much stronger if you leave it unsaid and let the descriptions imply these things instead. Describe a tranquil setting or a gloomy one, but leave these words aside.

Hope that’s helpful in some way!

As always, my advise and suggestions are my opinion and not hard fact. Feel free to ignore anything I say, especially if it doesn't sit right in your stomach. Sometimes my examples might sound terrible - they're just there to illustrate the idea, but you have to write it in your own way. Extra research/other opinions are always good to get if you're unsure. There's often many ways to sharpen a sentence - that's just how I'd go about editing it.

I hope it helps in the writing process, Tapa, and thanks so much for sharing!