Alison…Shushing, murmuring.

I looked up. The man at the other end of the carriage stared, speaking. From the torrent I grasped only rivulets of meaning. Not my name. Just my nerves, jumpiness. I lowered my head, avoiding his full mouth, dark eyes. Every man here seemed familiar. In the line of a shoulder, stubble on a pale jaw, I saw Rafael. He was everywhere, a thousand when I thought there was only one.

The wooden carriage lurched, gaining speed.A broken window, boarded over, rattled. In the dim light, I saw my reflection amidst timeworn gilt and red paint, flickering like a silent film in the darkness. My coat pulled tightly round me, face taut under a wool cap, hurtling though the tunnelin the shabby train.

Mend and make do, my father would say. That’s what we did in the war.

The man had picked me out. I could pass, here in Caracas. People trusted the dark hair, let me go unnoticed. But when I looked up, the focus sharpened. Que ojos bonitos, breathed a bookseller on the street. Such beautiful eyes, blue. Eyes closed, mouth shut, I could pass as Venezuelan. They stared at Zahra, but for her beauty. Soft copper skin, black hair. She kept her secret until she spoke.

The man staggered closer, clutching the handstraps. I couldn’t understand him, what he wanted from me. 

It’s an advantage, Zahra said, To be relieved of the obligation to respond to men, acknowledge their desires.

I stood, moved away. The man jeered, voice rising against the shriek of the brakes, taking his last shot as the train stopped at the station. I slipped out to the platform, alone, without looking back. I was getting better, calmer. I had made it this far.

Instructor Response

You’ve got great images in this beginning, you’ve got action, and you’ve got the plot moving well. You’ve introduced characters too. Well done. If you’re happy with what you’ve done, forget what I’m about to say. For this reader, and as a teacher, there are craft issues that I think need to be addressed, and that is how I’ve approached my critique. Your writing style needs to be clear to make story easily accessible. Here are suggestions that may be generalized to your writing to improve readability, credibility, and acceptance.

I looked up. The man at the other end of the carriage stared, speaking. From the torrent [of what?] I grasped only rivulets of meaning. Not my name. Just my nerves, jumpiness. [What is this? He grasped his “nerves, jumpiness”? Make sure you’re carrying the reader logically from idea to idea, image to image, etc.] I lowered my head, avoiding his full mouth, dark eyes. Every man here seemed familiar. In the line of a shoulder, stubble on a pale jaw, I saw Rafael. He was everywhere, a thousand when I thought there was only one. [This idea is great. Just say it better. Don’t make the reader stop to try to figure it out.]

The wooden carriage lurched, gaining speed.  A broken window, boarded over, rattled. In the dim light, I saw my reflection amidst timeworn gilt and red paint, flickering like a silent film in the darkness. [This imagery is not clear enough to make the simile effective. And “timeworn” is not the right word, and “gilt” will be interpreted as “guilt” by some readers, and the confusion will frustrate. And is the action in “dim light” or “darkness”? These words are similar but different enough to question the credibility of the description of the scene. Try to pay attention to these details in revision, especially in an opening; collectively these details will fail to engage a reader, distressing because the reader knows you have good story stuff going here . . . he or she just can’t grasp it.] My coat pulled tightly round me, face taut under a wool cap, hurtling though the tunnel in the shabby train. [This fragment of a sentence needs a verb to be effective.]

Mend and make do, my father would say. That’s what we did in the war. [This seems removed from the story at this stage, like finding a piece of a nut shell in a chocolate with almonds candy bar. And the italics increase the importance of the sentences making tem even more distracting. But it’s the disparate idea and new character that are out of place.]    

The man had picked me out. I could pass, here in Caracas. People trusted the dark hair, let me go unnoticed. But when I looked up, the focus sharpened. Que ojos bonitos, breathed a bookseller on the street. Such beautiful eyes, blue. Eyes closed, mouth shut, I could pass as Venezuelan. They [You’re in 1st person and here you switch to third person. It’s a narrator function that doesn’t fit into telling. Couldn’t you just use “I” with the same effect, which is very well done.] stared at Zahra, but for her beauty. Soft copper skin, black hair. She kept her secret until she spoke.  [This is actually backstory. And it’s a little confusing. All secrets are kept until they are spoken. It seems obvious. So you are not adding to characterization. Maybe you could take the approach of revealing a characteristic, rather than a past action. Her secret

The man staggered closer, [to what or whom?] clutching the handstraps. I couldn’t understand him, what he wanted from me. 

It’s an advantage, Zahra said, To be relieved of the obligation to respond to men, acknowledge their desires. [If she said this, put it in quotes. If she thought this it can’t be written in this way. You’re in first person and the first person can’t just know another person’s inner thoughts. It’s a credibility issue that most readers won’t accept. Use italics when your reader is inside the brain of the character, and that is possible only in third person (a narrator function). You could present the thought through the 1st person perception: “I imagined . . . I guessed . . . Her eyes seemed to reveal her thought to me . . .etc.]

I stood, moved away. The man jeered, voice rising against the shriek of the brakes, taking his last shot [help the reader visualize what happened, it would only take a word or two. At whom? Why? A gun shot? The way it is is obscure and it leaves the reader wondering, even frustrated, and may stop the reading at this point.] as the train stopped at the station. I slipped out to the platform, alone, without looking back. [Is the protagonist shot? Would he be “calmer” and getting better?] I was getting better, calmer. I had made it this far. [This is a sentence the author is using to create suspense. It is manipulation of the reader that can be and should be avoided. Be specific and give information that furthers story advancement or meaning. Maybe something like “two years on the run. Will he try again?]

You can ignore all that I’ve said, continue with what you’re doing, and be successful as a storyteller. So don’t be discouraged. If there is something useful in the comments, use it and ignore the rest. You a good writer. And you’ve got a good story!

Thanks for the submission.

WHC

  1. Thank you so much for your kind words and excellent feedback! I cut this down from about 500 words, and it’s helpful to me to see what your missing. Editing it that hard really helped me think about how to refine and tighten, but I think it could use adding back in about 50% of what I cut. That was a great exercise alone.
    Sorry about the italics problem. I was confused about how to show the narrating character remembering something someone else actually said. I’ll track down the proper format!
    Funny what you say about “I had made it this far”and reader manipulation. I felt it was a cop-out! I really do feel disappointed when I hit something like this in a book. I’ve just noticed some writers I think are otherwise excellent do it sometimes, so I thought maybe it was excusable. Not by you, ha ha!
    Thanks again. I’m enjoying your site and Creating Literary Stories very much.

    • Ack! My use of “your” instead of “you’re” before “missing” is a genuine typo! I have to defend myself since I can’t edit my comment.

    • Thanks for your comment and all the best for your writing career. WHC

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