29th September 2018 at 10:09 pm #56076
Hello kind people. Just about to head into the submissions phase – because such a book takes a bit of time to wind up I can’t say my first three chapters are the most pacy of the offerings. But are they enough to get you wanting more?
First time to the forum so apologies if not quite sure how things are run or conducted. Huge and weighty thanks in advance. Rob.
Chapter 1: A BEGINNING
“We grew up knowing the bitter hatred as of custom
We held fingers together
We demonstrated with the large crowds
And shouted with the fullness of the heart’s faith”
[Salma al-khadra al-Jayyusi]
Hands, feet, the pounding of legs and arms. Blood surging as lactic acid builds around ligaments, willing them to sleep.
For most people, Friday was the holiest of days, a day for sitting, eating, talking. But these men chose to scramble across the hillside shanty as the world below them woke. The sun had bleached the colour from the vein-like streets. Haphazard steps clawed their way through decaying rubbish. Soon the two men were high enough to gaze over man’s oldest capital – Damascus – as the Prophet Mohammed had once, unsure of whether he was ready to enter such an earthly paradise.
Their pace quickened as they reached a summit of sorts – the concrete blockhouses of the poor disappearing into loose rock and sand. They sidestepped soldiers standing half-hidden in the bushes. Muzzles of assault rifles dotting the path ahead of them as frantic military murmurs pursued them up the hill, “who are these jokers?”
Scrambling over the rocky backside of the hill they landed in the uneven dirt of an anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Even covered by a heavy muslin the gun pulsed with the special charisma of a machine designed purely to kill. It made people want to reach out and touch it. The conscript soldiers manning the weapon were brewing dark, bitter tea and smoking with the intensity of the bored. They stared at the two intruders. Only surprise stopped them reacting. All they managed was blinks and grunts.
Adrenaline helped the two friends scurry up the loose soil of a hastily built parapet and out of the fire pit. They heard rifles being cocked. Sprinting for safety the first to react is Espin, a Belfast man whose grin exploded like a firework across his pale face. Like most of his countrymen he was both more Irish than the Irish, more British than the British and never quite at ease with either. Sweat had collected in teardrops above the dense knit of his Celtic eyebrows. Beneath that was a skin stretched taut with laughter lines. His features aren’t beautiful, not in and of themselves. But they managed to arrange themselves well somehow. Espin was more than the sum of his parts.
The second man looked briefly over his shoulder. Hersch was younger and American. He stood taller and broader than Espin. His movements are fluid, measured, efficient. Few men look in a mirror and see a reflection that suits them – perhaps too beautiful, perhaps not beautiful enough. For the rest of their lives they must either live up to or conquer their looks. For Hersch, though, the outside matched the inside.
It was the American who finally waved at the stunned soldiers. Trying to smile disarmingly, he shouted loud apologies in Arabic. The two white men kept running – their pace quickening as they surprised more and more soldiers. Espin pointed at the criss-crossing tank tracks that had gouged deep rivets from the soil in front of them. Below an armoured vehicle ground it out towards the capital. The moonscape on this hidden side of Damascus’s famous mountain was freshly pock-marked by the artillery of officers finding range.
Hersch and Espin sprinted the wrong way through a military checkpoint they should never have been near. One soldier slumped heavily to his knee and unshouldered his rifle, ready to check the two strangers. Instead, he let Espin and Hersch pass in a streak. Aware that in a dictatorship a mistake unnoticed isn’t a mistake at all, the conscript laughed to himself, happy to have crept one day nearer to the end of his military service without firing the gun he detested.
Rounding a corner the two friends slowed. Out of sight, they paused, struggled to get their breath and then started to laugh. Clever men who have just done something stupid.
“Jesus. Where’d all those soldiers come from,” asked Hersch. “Normally it’s two dudes smoking ‘argile and playing with their phones.”
“No idea,” Espin said. “Perhaps, our Syrian friends are finally going to have a pop at their neighbour Israel.”
The two men giggled, aware that even Syrians privately mocked the ineffectiveness of the boy soldiers who stalked the militarised hills above them. But hidden deep was a patriotism that regretted the ill-fitting khaki of their conscript army. Since birth the whole country had been preparing for war with Israel. No one believed they could win it, but it would’ve been nice to dream.
“The only thing this army is any good at happens right here, in Syria,” Espin said sweeping his arm across the grey Damascus panorama. “This army’s not for invading it’s for controlling. From this point forward I kindly suggest we spend Fridays drinking cheap coffee and chatting pretentiously.”
“Can I remind you, Irishman, that these little runs were your little idea.”
“That was before half the Syrian army moved in to cheerlead,” replied Espin, as he turned to walk away. “Whatever’s happening I don’t intend to add my name to the thousands who have been killed on this historic hill since Cain invented murder here.”
Dropping down from Mount Qassioun their limbs began to harden as the smog and noise of the city rose to greet them. They nodded to other joggers trundling along in full tracksuits – lit Winston cigarettes lodged between their grimacing lips and mobile phones glued to their ears. Every available square of green was filled with sprawling Syrian families barbecuing meat and sucking on tobacco pipes. As they passed, the locals greeted the two friends, offering up cheap cigarettes and kebabs infused with rosemary. The westerners smiled and pressed their hands to their hearts in that telling Arabic gesture of submission. Though the sun was high in the sky the two stars of Syria fluttered continuously above them on immense, silken flags.
Espin snapped the simple silence of two friends at ease. “Fancy grabbing some food? Unless you’ve got some important life-saving stuff to do.”
“Food, first,” said the American. “As always.”
The two friends turned down a stairway that twisted around a mosque. Its loudspeakers still buzzing with the electric charge of the morning prayer call. In the gutter around the simple hand-tarred dome sat decaying soft toys – fertility tributes offered up by hopeful relatives. One of the city’s legion of street cats pulled at the rain-soaked limbs.
Espin and Hersch climbed through a wrought-iron gate and into a restaurant courtyard over which the Mosque’s minaret towered like a sundial. A small stream coursed between the many tables – the water spilling from a giant vat of boiling beans. Hersch saluted the owner who greeted him like a brother, rubbing his giant hands on a stained apron, leaving streaks of yellowed oil that occasionally shimmered. A flurry of action as an infinite number of sons, miniature replicas of the owner, descended on the table. Coloured pickles, garlic, lemon and small tubs of salt. And then the clogged heart of the Syrian breakfast – boiled beans and chickpeas in a moat of viscous oil and cream. This was a meal so dense that Syrians equated stupidity with eating too much of it.
“Perfect, the pièce de résistance,” said Hersch as the bowl clattered down in front of them.
“I wouldn’t say that,” a white line of salt crystals had condensed across Espin’s forehead. Occasionally they dripped into his eye – causing him to blink rapidly. “Not since what happened in Egypt.”
Intimidated by the meal the friends picked at it, gnawing carefully at the wheels of unleavened flat bread.
An Imam with perfect flowing robes approached and greeted them in gloriously archaic Arabic. Hersch garbled a response. Embarrassed by his own street language in the face of such ageless formality he reddened slightly. Espin half stood, half sat – an awkward hop of deference. The holy man maintained the universal calm of the truly theological even as he explained that his prayer-caller had just moved to Saudi Arabia – poached by on of their richest mosques.
“Espin researched that Teacher,” said Hersch. “He thinks people in the West would be interested to hear that your prayer callers have talent agents and can be paid millions. That it’s as competitive as football.”
“Researching for who, Espin brother?” asked the Imam with a smile. It was a running joke that foreign journalists were banned in the country – even though everyone knew who the scribblers were.
Espin put his hands up in mock defence as the Imam nodded, playing his part in the charade.
“And what did you find out Espin?”
“Oh, Teacher, mainly that the richer a person is the more money they want to pour into showing off how Islamic they are,” the Irishman returned. “Talent shows, huge prizes, buying the very best prayer callers for their mosques.”
“So I must be a very bad Muslim then,” the Imam said, laying a gentle hand on Hersch’s shoulder, bringing the American into the joke. “All I can say is that I am happy that Assad does not allow journalism in Syria else my world would be turned upside down all too often.”
Espin nodded, smiling. It all made journalism the perfect cover – explaining his need for secrecy to those who looked too closely at him. He shared attributes and faults with the best of the hacks. Their job, though, was to peel away at secrets while his was to hide them, keep them, trade them. And Espin never really wrote for public consumption but for the more talented of the desk officers in London who flagged his reports, their implications dawning across their desks like the faint Vauxhall sun. They at least, understood that Islamic festivals and religious celebrations had developed into a weapon in a ferocious cultural war. Espin concluded that the wealthier the individual or the richer the country, the more desperate they were to distract attention away from their bank accounts. To prove their Islamic credentials they were seduced into throwing money at jihadists on the condition that terrorism was never visited upon them in their own backyards.
“Strange then that our President sponsors the biggest Koranic talent shows of all time. I am sure it is just because he likes the songs,” The Imam finished, warmed by the back and forth with these foreigners.
“He must really, really love the songs,” Espin agreed.
During the research, Espin had utterly immersed himself in the world of the mosque. He had been surprised at just how much he’d come to relish hunting singers who elevated the Koran to an ethereal, ecstatic level. He’d found himself copying down the titles of cassettes sliding across the sun baked dashboards of an endless rank of Middle Eastern taxis, and hoarding CDs from desert souks. The best of the tapes forged the 6666 verses of the Koran into a perfect circle – a book with no beginning, no progression, no end – an immutable force. Occasionally Espin felt he was on the edge of understanding Islam only to see it disappear once again, like smoke. The Irishman’s own religious upbringing had long been boiled down to jokes at the Church’s expense. He used the extravagant tales of violence at the hands of his Catholic educators to breathe life into dying parties. A basement dining room green with damp, where the monks would vent their frustration on boiled liver and bored kids. A maths teacher with such a celebrated talent for violence he’d once hit a pupil with a baseball bat – even though this was Northern Ireland and no one really played the sport.
All this had been relatively unpleasant but had taught Espin to disappear when needed – which had become his greatest skill of all. And Espin hadn’t chosen cynicism, didn’t hate faith or those with it. Faith just didn’t seem to like him very much.
Breakfast was on its last legs when Espin’s friend Hamid walked up to them, faded grey Metallica T-shirt hanging from his thin frame and his chaotic jet black afro dancing with every step. Swimming in the hazel of his eyes sat four jet black, little imperfections – arranged around his pupils they gave the impression of dice. Espin and Hersch had met the Syrian one sunrise as they’d smoked cigarettes, drunk imported Turkish beer and watched the thousand of neon lights flickering across Damascus. Together they’d wondered how the Muslims and Christians had chosen green for Mosques, Blue for churches. They wondered what colour Syria’s ancient Jewish community would have gone for had they survived the tangled bedlam of Syria’s history a little longer.
Snatching urgently at his greetings Hamid laid a hand across his heart and nodded to the Imam and Hersch. Crashing their intimate space he knelt close to Espin and whispered urgently and without pause into the spirals of his inner ear – a consigliere downloading to his mafia boss. As Espin rose quickly and moved with Hamid to the back of the restaurant their closeness and shared secrets tweaked a stupid note of jealousy in Hersch.
Still chatting to the Imam Hersch attempted to tune in to two rival conversations – but was lost in the white noise between them. The Imam noticed Hersch’s faltering attention and followed his gaze over to Espin, Hamid and his earnest young friends. Their table was littered with scrunched paper balls, tea-stained glasses and enough cigarette ash to suggest a volcanic range had driven itself right through the heart of their conversation. Hersch noticed a rapid, human wave of greetings and then a flurry of earnest talk.
“Be careful brother, those are children playing in a world of adults. The game they’re playing will end them all,” the Imam said.
“Sorry Teacher, forgive me, I am being rude, what were you saying?”
The Imam was eyeing Hamid and his friends with regret.
“Hersch brother, I must be going, Allah be with you. May you persevere on the righteous path to The One True God and be reminded that whatever happens, Allah has willed it.”
“Thank you, and Allah be with you also,” Hersch babbled distracted as the Imam drifted across the restaurant forecourt and into the open. Hersch returned to his breakfast. Marveling at the intense sweetness of Damascus coffee – as he always did – he didn’t sense Espin approach the table.
“Hersch, let’s pay and get out of here,” the Irishman said without looking up. “Quickly Herschie, don’t muck around.”
Hersch threw some cash down on the table, gestured to the owner and rose to leave. He was late spotting the two suited men of the secret police sweep up to Hamid, bulges along their sides hindering the swing of their arms. Hersch’s heart made a useless leap as he dipped his head and pointed himself at the exit. On automatic he snatched a look at Hamid, who had kicked his wrought iron chair back and sat with his arms folded across his chest.
In silence Espin and Hersch walked the cracked ventricles of Old Damascus. Passing through the butchers’ souk the American caught Espin giving a wry nod to the rogue’s gallery of decaying animal corpses that stood in the kiosk windows. With their skin peeled back the sheep heads were frozen in a shared joke – yellowed teeth protruding from sinewy skull meat. Staggering slightly Espin stood on a loose paving stone that displaced a flash of water, heavy with blood and soap, across the white of his running shoe. A detached sheep’s eye sat near his foot. Espin kicked out and it arced across the market – bloody optic nerve following like the tail of a comet. It ruptured against a wall.
“The walls have eyes,” muttered Espin with a smirk that emerged Errol Flynn-like from one side of his face while the other remained serious.
The two friends managed a smile. Often, when alone, they felt that mutual joy of finding a true friend in a foreign country. A person who heightens the experience of that place and, accidentally, enhances your understanding of self.
“What’s going on with Hamid, do we need to be worried?” asked Hersch, unsure what concern was scratching at him.
“Hamid can take care of himself,” answered Espin with an irritated little flick of his hand. “He’ll be alright, he’s got protection.”
“Protection from what?”
Espin tried to dismiss him. “Don’t worry about it Hersch. Now’s not the time.”
But the young American pushed, “Christ, you’re annoying sometimes,” Hersch said. “Can’t you even tell me what you and Hamid were talking about? How hard is it to just give a friend a straight answer?”
“It’s not that simple Herschie,” Espin returned.
“Was Hamid actually getting arrested?”
“I hope not.”
“So what’s going on then?”
“Hamid says today’s the first day of summer, and that it’s going to be the hottest ever.”
“What does that mean?”
Espin paused and Hersch could see that the conversation had ended before it had even begun. The shutters had clattered down and the Irishman would only raise them once he had fully ordered, compartmentalised and processed whatever he was wrestling with.
“What time is it?” Espin asked out of the blue.
“Coming up to midday,” Hersch replied.
The Irishman had a decision to make, whether to bring his friend into what he knew was about to happen. After 40 years of the barely hidden viciousness of the regime a reckoning was upon them. For months now the glorious, young, heroes of Egypt’s Tahrir Square had been reaching out to the young of Syria from Facebook updates – seeking to pass on the pathogen of revolution. A history of dealing with the fallout from the Lebanese civil wars and Iraq suggested to Espin that Syria was immune. The military build up that he had just seen on the hill and the tanks idling just out of sight of Tourist Damascus told him, however, that the regime was taking preventative measures. Espin sensed a collective insanity moving all around him. A pressure change before a storm.
“Hersch, you really want to know what’s going on?”
“Of course, when have I ever not wanted to know what’s going on?”
“Don’t you dare tell Roula I was the one who showed you,” said Espin as he turned downhill towards the decaying beauty of Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque – one of the most powerful buildings in history – a sacred site since the 9th century, that once celebrated bloody sacrifices.
Tunisia, Libya and finally Egypt had exploded. Since then Espin had been on a hair-trigger, expectant. Hamid had told him again and again that the Arab Spring would come to Syria. Nothing ever materialized. Espin had reported to The Office the difference between walking up to a precipice and actually jumping off. Now, approaching the sacred square, Espin dialled into the hesitancy all around. People were beginning sentences and getting distracted before finishing them – as if making polite conversation on the opening night of a much-hyped play – with one eye on the stage for the curtain to rise.
The Umayyad mosque was its usual confused chaos – tourists fighting their way out of the famous courtyard as pilgrims fought their way in. What was left of the gold and green mosaic depicting an ancient Eden, caught the sun. Amongst it all were the secret policemen trying to blend in seamlessly. With little idea of what else to do, the two friends joined the strange constellations of people milling around. The strangest of words in Syria began floating along the ancient walls of the claustrophobic souk and burst upon the leviathan gates of the mosque. “Dignity”, “freedom”, “honor”. Espin was already on his feet, running toward the source of chants – pushing against the tide he forced his way into the darkness of the covered market. Hersch shoved his concern down and rode the excitement that electrified his stomach propelling him after Espin. Other Syrians stampeded down the Old Town’s nexus of alleys in the hope they could ignore the moment that Syria finally stood up to history – fleeing a bomb that was about to detonate.
Inside the souk were young men and women spontaneously gathering into tight mercury-like cells, quickly holding up scrawled signs, shouting slogans, and then disappearing. Espin began mentally recording all the faces he recognized from a thousand late night drinking sessions. They were all here, Damascus’s brightest. The shopkeepers looked on, not exactly supportive nor disgusted – just amazed. An elaborately costumed water seller span around, confused. If the protestors shared one thing, it was shock at their own boldness. They linked arms as smiles toyed with the corners of their chanting mouths. It was delicious, flirtatious even. Espin had to concentrate to keep from being seduced by it. Words bubbled up from somewhere deep inside the protestors as they studied those around them for a reaction. They seemed to wonder if they’d just said that out loud. The chants began to bind the little groups of protestors together. Soon they had formed a body several hundred strong – the market was bursting with a swelling confidence. Espin paid special attention to their words. They shouted for reform, for jobs and for the end of the 42 years of a brutal secret police who screwed with everything. A special reverence was afforded to the word that had brought them to that spot – “democracy”. Not a single chant asked for the destruction of the House of Assad. For as long as that was the case Espin knew he could still stop the apocalypse.
A friend threw herself at Espin – Laila, who worked at the UN alongside Hersch. The Irishman was reminded of her perfect lightness. Momentarily he was infected by her grace and beauty and they hugged with balletic poise. Her afro shock of hair enveloped his face and muffled his voice.
“It’s starting,” she shouted in his ear. “Finally we get to tell these bastards what we think of them.”
Despite being from the same tribe as the President, Laila wasn’t the only Syrian to talk like this about her own regime. She was, though, amongst the most consistent. Laila was regularly called in front of various Generals and warned that she was not completely immune to the violence of the state just because she was Alawite, the minority clan that ran the country.
“You’re a journalist Espin, you’ll tell the world what we want right?”
“Depends, what do you want them to hear?” the Irishman shouted.
“You know what we want, what everyone everywhere wants. Karama – treat us with dignity. Treat us all equally, allow us to think freely, allow merit to be the only reason to get a job, not connections. And above everything else don’t arrest us and torture us just for wanting a better Syria.”
All Espin could do was nod against the din and watch Laila slip into the crowd, her defiant fist raised in the air. Espin pushed his way back towards the aged walls. If Syria’s President saw them for what they were he’d understand that these people posed no threat to the state. The country had educated these protestors then given them no jobs to fill. Young, Westernised and intellectual – the demonstrators were a loaded gun. The question now was how would President Assad choose to disarm them.
Minutes later Espin got his answer. The state police revealed themselves. Wordlessly the uniforms charged, unleashed, at any available enemy. They were indiscriminate. Tourists, shoppers, protestors, all tried to flee but were jammed against the ancient walls of the souk. Their fearful faces were framed by light pouring through bullet holes from the anti-French rebellion of the 1920s. Espin found himself ploughed downstream by the melee, catching glimpses of protestors being thrown into shops by batton-wielding policemen; the shutters pulled down behind them. Washed into a side alley the Irishman paused long enough to catch sight of white-shirted policemen beating young protestors with the standard issue rubber batons that the heads of Syrians knew so well. Espin began to feel white and conspicuous. He slipped into a rug shop where he stepped between tasseled hills of overpriced tourist tat, nodded to the shopkeeper and helped himself through a tiny door and onto a backstreet that took him away from the market.
Espin caught up with Hersch as the American wandered dazed along “The Street Called Straight” – the ancient Roman road that bisected the Old City along which ludicrous luxury shops had mushroomed to cater to Assad’s best profiteers.
Oddly the two men found themselves hugging.
“Man, I thought someone had grabbed you,” Hersch said his voice rising with the renewed excitement of a story shared.
“Not at all, I’m fine,” Espin replied.
Rounding the corner away from the chaos they found a café. Hersch was visibly trying to catch his breath. It wasn’t fear he was feeling, exactly.
The protest had seemed to evaporate. The streets filled once more with the regular hum of Damascus, as if someone had simply clicked their fingers and made the whole thing go away.
“Did they arrest a lot of people?” asked Hersch.
“Plenty from what I saw, they went back up the souk asking who had been involved. Some of the shopkeepers helped the police by pointing out protestors.”
The two men, rejuvenated by that very rare victory of seeing a watershed moment, talked with a frenzy.
“What else did you see?” asked Espin, detailing every moment.
“Round the back of the mosque I saw guys just sat, waiting, in those normal, green buses,” the American said. “They weren’t dressed as police but in green, with riot gear and batons. They all looked like carbon copies of each other, beards, black hair, same height, young. Not like normal policemen. Scary as all hell.”
Espin silently recorded it.
“I saw them drag some of the protestors onto the buses before driving off.”
“Which way did they go?” Espin asked.
“They drove to the top of the souk and then headed towards the mountain. But it was hard to tell, they just blended in with the other buses.”
Espin knew they were heading for the torture halls of the Air Force Intelligence headquarters hidden in the glitzy regime neighbourhoods, nestled behind a defensive wall of million dollar flats. Since Egypt’s Tahrir square, Espin had been watching the government as it felt around with its tentacles, warning bright, young Syrians of the dangers of protest. Now it was pulling back all available prey to its breast to be pulped. Behind all the attempts to drag the country into modernity, Espin knew the regime had been fighting this revolt for an age. The President never wanted change, he was going to keep his father’s world at all costs – just try to paint a smile across its face.
“After all the build up, of everything in Egypt, if this is the start of the Arabic Spring in Syria, I don’t think President Assad has too much to be worried about,” sighed Hersch. “It was hardly Tahrir square was it.”
“Herschy, don’t ever forget that 50 protesters on the streets of Damascus are braver than 5000 in Tahrir Square.”
The Irishman had noticed much that the American hadn’t. Above all else, the presence of the President’s own militia – the Shabiha, or ghosts. Fully armed, they had just waited to be called into action. He’d caught a glimpse of the President’s intelligence advisor, sat in a car across the road from the action, receiving whispered entreaties from agents. They’d briefly lean in the window, deposit their information, and withdraw silently. For such an important figure to expose himself meant the regime saw the protest as a matter of life or death.
3rd October 2018 at 11:45 am #56361
Lots and lots of information in here. I feel a bit mind blown. A complicated area to get across the whole politics and beliefs of the region, but a great boiling pot of tension to place your story in. An ambitious undertaking.
I felt the run up the hill should be an exciting start to the novel. Why were they doing this, were they running from someone, would they get arrested? But it’s none of these things, just two friends out for a run, admittedly in an unusual place, and you’re just using it to give us some information about the place. For me that was a let down. You’re giving us an impactful opening, but then it turns out to be nothing. I felt the same about the whole breakfast scene. You’ve used it to give us information, and specifically to tell us in black and white that Espin is a spy.
For me, the story really started at the demonstration. I feel this has great potential for an explosive opening. You would also be able to see Espin at work, remembering faces, counting policeman, spotting in real time the President’s intelligence advisor, rather than telling us about it. All this would infer to the reader that Espin is a spy, without you actually spelling it out, and also show us the tension in the area. All the other information you’ve put in earlier could probably be fed in later.
The other thing to think about is your point of view. You start out with a quite omniscient narrator. We’re seeing the two runners from a distance, rather than experiencing what’s going on through them. I’m not sure at first who the main character is, and you do drift a couple of times into a minor characters view points (see below). When they holy man first comes to talk to them, we’re in Espins POV, and then he moves off and we’re in Hersch’s. You’re head hopping, which you need to be careful of. By the end, I get the impression that Espin is going to be your main character and maybe Hercsh the sidekick. A bit like Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt and Al. If that’s the case I think you maybe need to stick in Espin’s POV.
You might also want to think about the psychic or narrative distance. (See here http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/psychic-distance-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html if you don’t know what I mean by that). You keep us quite distant from the characters, and there’s a fair amount of filtering being used (emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2016/07/filtering.html) which contributes to this. I do wonder if with closer psychic distance, the demonstration could be a really impactful way to open the book.
These are of course just my opinions, coloured by my preferences, so do keep the accept, reject, adapt filter firmly in place, and figure out what works for you. Hope some of that was useful. Below you’ll find a few comments about some of the nitty gritty. Good luck with the editing and submission.
‘lactic acid builds around ligaments’
Think this should be builds – built is wrong tense.
‘Prophet Mohammed had once’ – found this sentence rather clunky and figured out after some head scratching that I think it should be ‘once had’ rather than ‘had once’.
‘frantic military murmurs’ – for me frantic and murmurs are fighting each other, because they suggest very different sound.
‘His features aren’t beautiful’ – you’ve slipped into present tense there.
‘His movements are fluid, measured, efficient’ – Tense slip again.
‘Aware that in a dictatorship a mistake unnoticed isn’t a mistake at all, the conscript laughed to himself, happy to have crept one day nearer to the end of his military service without firing the gun he detested.’ – you’ve kept the narration distant until this point, where you slip into the soldiers point of view. He’s just a passing character so I think it might be an idea to find another way to do this.
‘But hidden deep was a patriotism that regretted the ill-fitting khaki of their conscript army’ – Your with Espin & Hersch at this point, so it feels as if you’re talking about their hidden deep patriotism and it takes a moment to figure out you mean the soldiers.
‘“The only thing this army is any good at happens right here, in Syria,” Espin said sweeping his arm across the grey Damascus panorama. “This army’s not for invading it’s for controlling. From this point forward I kindly suggest we spend Fridays drinking cheap coffee and chatting pretentiously.”’ – There’s a name for this that I can’t remember. Something like ‘Well Bob…’ It’s when one character tells another character something that they will clearly already know. The writer’s using it to tell the reader something, and it sticks out. I’d recommend finding another way to tell us this.
‘killed on this historic hill since Cain invented murder here’ – nice
‘Though the sun was high in the sky the two stars of Syria fluttered continuously above them on immense, silken flags.’ – why would the sun being high stop the flag being up?
‘Espin snapped the simple silence of two friends at ease. “Fancy grabbing some food? Unless you’ve got some important life-saving stuff to do.”
“Food, first,” said the American. “As always.”
The two friends’ – You repeat ‘two friends’. As you’re at submission stage these little wrinkles need seeing to.
‘Intimidated by the meal the friends picked at it,’ – why go somewhere where they’ll get food they don’t like?
‘“Espin researched that Teacher’ – I think you need a comma before teacher, or it sounds as if it’s the teacher that’s being researched, rather than an address to the holy man. That confused for a bit. Also I felt you launched into the Teacher telling them about the caller rather abruptly. Did they already know this holy man and had discussed tis before. Needs a little filling out maybe.
‘It all made journalism the perfect cover – explaining his need for secrecy to those who looked too closely at him. He shared attributes and faults with the best of the hacks. Their job, though, was to peel away at secrets while his was to hide them, keep them, trade them. And Espin never really wrote for public consumption but for the more talented of the desk officers in London who flagged his reports, their implications dawning across their desks like the faint Vauxhall sun’ – you come straight and tell us he’s a sort of spy. Might be better to hint at it, give the reader a bit of mystery?
‘The Imam finished, warmed by the back and forth with these foreigners.’ Here’s another point where you drift away from the omniscient narrator into a minor characters POV.
‘Snatching urgently at his greetings’ I don’t understand that?
‘Espin was already on his feet, running toward’ didn’t realise he was sitting down?
5th October 2018 at 10:26 am #57836
Apologies for the late reply – just welcomed a new kid into the world which is amazing but typically anarchic.
Your notes are incredibly helpful – and in such detail I’m tempted to bring you on board for the whole book. I think part of my thing is that this not be a typical pot boiler thriller – as I appreciate them, just not where my writing naturally falls – so want to tease the drama that is going to very quickly unfold but not blast the audience away with a typical Jack Reacher type opening. It’s incredibly useful having this level of insight – amazing even. Well beyond what I was expecting so a huge and very genuine thank you.
5th October 2018 at 11:22 am #57842
Congratulations on the new arrival. :-)
I am a huge fan of espionage thrillers and I am sorry to say that this did not grab me. Your writing is lovely and I like your reference to body parts in your descriptions, particularly the ventricles of Old Damascus. Kate has already pointed out much of what I would have said.
I can appreciate that you don’t want to write a typical pot boiler thriller, but how, then, are you planning to sell the idea to an agent? Genre can be annoyingly restrictive but you need to get across what you have written. I have formed the impression that agents love to be able to slot things into the “right” genre box, and publishers possibly even more so. It irritates me on some levels, but based on this beginning if I were looking for an espionage thriller I’m afraid I would pass this one over. So how would you sell it to me, such that I could overlook the relatively slow start (for a thriller)?
A lot of issues with this could possibly be cleared up by addressing Kate’s POV point. As things stand I am not sure who is the main character. Who am I supposed to feel the most for (or against)? There isn’t enough attachment to any character to make me care particularly what happens to them.
I am sorry to sound negative because there is much to like about your writing and your idea. I’m just not sure it’s quite there, yet. Good luck with it.
5th October 2018 at 1:26 pm #57848
Congratulations Rob. Been there, seen it, done it, and am so glad not to be you! :-D
Glad my comments were helpful. Can never be too sure of someone’s reaction. Bella makes a good point above. When you’re a successful writer, you can do what the hell you want, but when you’re trying to sell to an agent it’s probably best to try and tick all the boxes. Not that I’ve succeeded yet! The other thing is, when you’re setting up an expectation, like your character’s running up a hill in a seeming dangerous situation, but then you’re not fulfilling the expectation, that can be a let down for the reader. Too many of them, and you’ll lose them. I’ll admit I’m an impatient reader, but if a scene isn’t achieving anything, isn’t moving the story on, which I’m not convinced your opening passages do, then they need axing. Again, it’s all opinion, and the more you can garner and compare the better. If everyone’s saying the same thing, then you’ll know not to ignore.
Good luck with the editing and look forward to maybe seeing some more.
6th October 2018 at 4:26 pm #57939
I love this sort of book and it’s exactly what my husband would read too. It does require some editing to improve the pace, but it’s full of fascinating detail, which almost makes up for it.
I agree with Kate’s comments and that I’d like to read more when it’s more polished.
Self editing is the hardest task and you may want to make use of one of the professionals from this site if you think it will help. I have done so and was very impressed, it made a tremendous difference.
8th October 2018 at 8:43 pm #58061
Again very kind of you to comment and apologies for not getting back sooner. Certainly agree that self-editing is neither an easy nor a pleasant thing to do, And will certainly consider your advice to outsource – so to speak. Pacing is tricky, particularly – as I’ve had agents and publishers try push me to kick off with frontlines, car bombs and bullets – which all certainly exist during the book – during previous discussions. And though I admit it’s always disconcerting to get negative feedback I am generally happier to have writen a book I would like to read – in terms of style and substance, than the restrictive modern thrillers. Espionage thrillers – traditionally – exist in the grey. Are subtle, revealing and intelligent. I guess, that is what I’m striving for. But guessing this first chapter just isn’t working for you guys so that’s given me something to think about.
8th October 2018 at 9:25 pm #58062
Again very kind of you to comment and apologies for not getting back sooner. Certainly agree that self-editing is neither an easy nor a pleasant thing to do, And will certainly consider your advice to outsource – so to speak. Pacing is tricky, particularly – as I’ve had others in the industry try push me to kick off with frontlines, car bombs and bullets – which all certainly exist during the book – during previous discussions. And though I admit it’s always disconcerting to get negative feedback I am generally happier to have writen a book I would like to read – in terms of style and substance, than the restrictive modern thrillers. Espionage thrillers – traditionally – exist in the grey. Are subtle, revealing and intelligent. I guess, that is what I’m striving for. But guessing this first chapter just isn’t working for you guys so that’s given me a whole lot to think about. You are very kind for taking the time.
20th November 2018 at 11:37 pm #68541
I’m very late to respond to this post, but I found the setting and genre of your story interesting so I wanted to give the chapter a read.
First off, I love the idea of placing a spy story in an active war. It gives the story a real “ripped from the headlines” feel. And Syria is an endlessly fascinating place ripe with political intrigue. So there’s plenty of content to use there. You’ve clearly put a lot of effort into learning the culture and lifestyle of the people and it really shows in your writing. It all feels wonderfully authentic.
Now for the downsides. You lost track of your POV a couple of times. In the beginning I wasn’t sure who the POV was because the writing was so remote. You need to get closer, to your POV at the very least, to mark him clearly as your lead. And once there, stick with that POV until the end of the chapter.
I found the opening sequence rather confusing and difficult to follow. I had to re-read a few times to establish what was happening.
Lastly I found several typos and missing commas. Since you mentioned this was meant to be a final version, I felt the need to bring it up.
I’ve gone back and read some of the other comments and they said pretty much what I just said (but better) so maybe you’ve already addressed these issues.
I strongly recommend you sign up for Debi Alper’s next self-editing class. I just finished it and I’m not afraid to admit that it changed my writing life. I think your writing would improve tremendously. You’re not that far off.
Good luck Rob and congrats on the baby!
21st November 2018 at 1:06 pm #68574
Thanks so much for this Billy,
And huge respect for reading the extract and getting involved. Everything you say makes perfect sense and actually mirrors the changes I am already making. Rather difficult to nail in general how to maintain the character and authenticity while still stripping large sections out – but sure it will come together in the end. Again, thanks so much for the help and I hope your own projects are going well,
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