Critique Group Extra – Journeying to the Star

I am adding another extra piece to critique this week. Enjoy.

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Journeying to the Star – by Pamela

Ghulam was  learning, rather slowly, that riding a camel across the Arabian desert at night sounds more romantic than it really is. Especially when your rear stings from a long trip, the wind is kicking sand into your eyes, and your mind is still foggy from another annoying council meeting with the king.

Ghulam sighed. He’d entertained a funny idea going into the king’s advisory panel that the king would want his advice. The very notion!

He barely resisted the urge to pull at his hair (again). Today had been a long day.

But when he passed the last sand dune before home, he realized he couldn’t come complaining to his wife this late at night. She’d be asleep, if their little Farrah hadn’t given his momma trouble for once. He smiled at the thought, feeling the day’s stress start to melt behind him.

When Ghulam saw the stable hand coming, he stepped off his camel and waited for the shy fellow. And once the servant finished his usual fumble through some honorary titles, Ghulam tried to slip quietly inside his house. Then promptly tripped on the steps he always forgot were there.

As you do, he thought sarcastically. But he assured himself that he hadn’t been too loud (he had) before he took a deep breath and went inside. The sight of his lovely wife greeted him. She was sitting on plush blankets, rocking their child in her arms.

“Ghulam, why are you standing by the door?” she asked. She lifted one brow and smiled.

Ghulam rolled his eyes and sat beside her, side-hugging her as he gazed at the night sky through the window. Funny, he noticed the beauty of the sky only while indoors. Maybe his mental state when leaving the council meeting kept him preoccupied. He smiled at his bundle of joy and then at the sky. Bright celestial orbs twinkled at them from the dark curtain covering the heavens. It was a beautiful night, but the solemnity of it brought to his mind a similar evening fifteen years ago when his life had been one without humor.

o{O}o

Fifteen years ago, when Ghulam was only eleven and more familiar with life’s sorrows than he’d like to be, a few stars shone brighter than usual. For a while, they shone like guiding lights. Even the moon, which Ghulam had often considered to be a dull shade of gray, was twinkling with promise. And poor little Ghulam, teary-eyed from another beating, decided he’d try to follow it.

Fool, he told himself. He’d been journeying to the stars for three days now, and without any food or drink or rest.

The moon, which looked full of promise before, now appeared like the Grim Reaper’s scythe or one of the old drunk’s blades. Even the stars seemed to twinkle with mocking laughter. He supposed the gods were punishing him for running away, but then why tempt him in the first place! He sniffed, but he refused to cry. Anger was easier. So he scowled and kicked the dirt floor, never mind that his sandals were open and that his feet were scarred enough without his flare of temper adding to the patterns on his skin.

He hissed in pain, angry that he’d reopened a wound with his stupid act. Then his stomach growled, and he hugged himself, wrapping his old, ripped tunic around him as a blanket. Why did I follow those cursed stars and wish upon that cursed moon?

Well, he didn’t have to wonder for long. The last beating his father gave him replayed in his mind, as fresh as if it’d been yesterday. Then his stomach’s growling snapped him out of those gloomy thoughts, and he wrapped his arms around himself as if to will the hunger away. The problem was that it was always there, sometimes as a quiet hollowness or a dull aching, and sometimes like a lion feasting on his bowels. He squeezed his eyes to avoid any tears.

If I die and all that’s left of me is a pathetic skeleton, I’m going to haunt that pathetic excuse of a father, he thought. And he meant it, too. He didn’t know which gods were real or if there were ghosts or any of that, but he meant to petition whoever decided on afterlife affairs. Unfortunately, his hatred, combined with his lack of sleep and malnutrition, was too much stress for his mind and body to bear. So he wobbled, then stumbled, then collapsed to his knees, all his energies sapped and gone.

A loud thump-thump-thump flared in his ears, and he winced as he covered them. As the sound got closer, he realized it was the sound of wheels trampling on the broken, clumpy ground of some long-gone oasis, breaking the remaining sticks and a few lifeless plants. A dust cloud rose that made Ghulam cough like a dying man. But it woke up his dizzy mind, and he managed to get his body to run into the shadows and behind the carcass of a lone wolf.

Don’t be murderers or slave traders, he thought, begging whatever gods up there were tormenting him so that he’d at least get a chance at life. But as he continued to stare, he realized he need not have worried. The posh caravan of camel riders and covered wagons was too pompous to belong to criminals. Even the servants were well-dressed! He concluded they must have uniquely gracious masters, a trait that hardly befit criminals.

And look at the silk! And the wool! And is that perfume I smell? He wouldn’t feel bad about stealing from these people. They could afford to be forcibly generous, right? But he soon realized that, though some servants were going to sleep, new servants came in to replace them. Ghulam hid when these servants set firepits around the camp to scare away any hungry beasts, and then they set up one more firepit in the center for the hungry masters to talk to one another while the servants cooked.

“Such luxury,” Ghulam said, bitter. But when they started snacking before their meal, his mind shut down as he salivated and licked his lips. Then he got closer, still sticking to the shadows. He hoped they’d throw some food away, but then he realized that would be like inviting the beasts to share a meal with them. He sighed. They’d burn the food, no doubt about it.

As the servants set up more fires, the shadows slowly receded. Ghulam started taking a few steps back—unwilling to be seen and yet unwilling to leave—when he bumped into something solid. He jumped. And when he turned around, he saw a terrifying, a horrifying . . . little girl.

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15 replies

  1. I really like your setting! I really like the distant, imaginative feel it gives it. I also really liked the way you have it formatted, with the flashback. It gives a picture of where he is compared to where he was, and leaves you wondering how he got there, and how stumbling upon that caravan in the desert changed the direction of his life. My big question is, is the little girl his future wife?! You’ve sparked my curiosity, which is such a good thing.

    One thing I might change is the way he interacts with his wife in that first section. It feels affectionate, but more like a friendship than a marriage. Rather than a side hug, you could say he pulled her close, or she rested her head on her shoulder, or she looked up at him as he slid his arm around her shoulders. It’s an almost identical physical posture, but it implies the greater intimacy of marriage. To me, a side hug is more of a friendship physical affection than a marriage one.

    One other thing I really liked was your description of him coming home and seeing his wife snuggling their child – it genuinely made me smile.

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  2. This was a lovely story! I really enjoyed all the descriptions and little details, they just flowed together so well. The complaining about the camel riding in the beginning made me laugh. I am curious why he rides a camel too and from work though – I’ve always been under the impression that camels are long-distance transportation.

    Just a few critiques – the scene where he walks into the house feels a little strange, where his wife is just sitting there despite his earlier thoughts about her being in bed by now, and also the lack of dialogue between them. This doesn’t even have to fixed with words – more body language and soundless communication between them in this scene could make it feel more comfortable for me. Maybe him looking at her and seeing, I don’t know, something about her face or her clothing that helps him understand her day/how she’s feeling, that sort of thing? And her doing the same to him in return?
    Similarly, your other scenes feel like they could use a few more visual descriptions. Like, instead of thinking how well dressed the servants are, he could look at their flowing robes and brightly coloured sandals, or something like that?

    Overall, an excellent story! Can’t wait to see what more comes from this!

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    • I’ll try to make him describe the servants in greater detail! I’m not sure about him being descriptive in situations that aren’t life-threatening just because most guys I know aren’t, so maybe I’ll just make him talk more. Thanks so much for your help!

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  3. Pamela,

    This is nicely written and intriguing with lots of descriptive prose. I would continue reading.

    I would like to see you try to employ a more intimate point of view by showing everything through your focal character’s senses without using narrator phrases such as “he realized” “and he meant it” and “he noticed.”

    A couple of times you reported a reaction before the reason for the reaction, such as ” Ghulam hid when these servants set firepits around the camp to scare away any hungry beasts.” Try to put motivations and reactions in chronological order.

    You also have a couple of narrative fragments, such as “Especially when your rear stings from a long trip, the wind is kicking sand into your eyes, and your mind is still foggy from another annoying council meeting with the king.” Narrative fragments are popular, and many publishers will accept them, but they will cause me to put a book down and not pick it up again. I suppose this is a personal pet peeve.

    Overall, this is quite good. Keep it up!

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    • I’ll fix the motivation/reaction order. Thanks for your comments! It’s good to see my work from a fresh pair of eyes, and makes editing a lot easier.

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  4. Sounds like an interesting start to a story!

    This might be more of a pet peeve than something publishers won’t accept, but often times in a book it’s jarring to have narrative in a book say ‘you’, ‘your’, etc. It’s hard to explain, but in a third person narrative(and sometimes other POV types) ‘you’ feels strange because it’s almost like the narrative is directly speaking to the reader even though it isn’t really supposed to be.

    It’s also a little risky since the use of ‘you’ or ‘your’ tends to project certain things onto the reader that they might not actually think and feel. My highschool English book put it this way:

    “If you put this in your essay ‘When you do drugs, you hurt your friends and family,’ my first reaction is that I don’t do drugs, and I might then feel offended or like the text has no relevance to me.”

    That wasn’t exactly how the English book worded it, but, that was the general idea. ‘You’ and ‘Your’ within narrative can be risky because the writer doesn’t know if it will bother the reader or jar them from the story. This is is an increased risk in POV styles that don’t habitually use ‘you’ and ‘your’.

    Overall, good work. I like your writing style 🙂

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  5. This is good. Grammar is good, story interesting. I like how to the last portion of the “present” connects to the beginning of the “past”.

    I will echo the other comments–camels are generally long-distance animals. Also, wouldn’t the adviser for a king live in the king’s city? Ancient or medieval wealthy people tend to live in a walled house in the city. That’s not to say some people aren’t oddballs. Cities aren’t too friendly places, but neither is the Arabian desert.

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  6. Hi Pamela,

    I’m no pro but I wanted to point out some things that may help you as a writer. Hopefully some of it does help.

    I like the visuals you have to start your story. A long, boring trip with sand in your eyes after an annoying council meeting. I felt his pain. I do feel that it is missing that opening line/paragraph hook to grab a reader’s attention. Maybe knowing the fate of the people depended on the meeting or that he had a secret that could bring down the kingdom would give the readers reason to continue.

    Ghulam sighed. He’d entertained a funny idea going into the king’s advisory panel that the king would want his advice. The very notion!
    – try replacing ‘a funny idea’ with ‘the funny idea’. It will make it sound clear that the idea of the king wanting his advice was the funny idea. What is Ghulam’s role?

    When Ghulam saw the stable hand coming, he stepped off his camel and waited for the shy fellow. And once the servant finished his usual fumble through some honorary titles, Ghulam tried to slip quietly inside his house. Then promptly tripped on the steps he always forgot were there.
    – I paused a little when seeing the sentences starting with ‘And’ followed by ‘’Then. “It felt like one continuous sentence broken into parts. Maybe try: When Ghulam saw the stable hand coming, he stepped off his camel and waited for the shy fellow. Once the servant finished his usual fumble through of some honorary titles, Ghulam tried to slip quietly inside his house and promptly tripped on the steps he always forgot were there.

    You set the stage for his happiness in seeing his wife after a long boring journey great, and it gives the reader a moment to smile, but the wording of ‘side-hugging her’ makes it less intimate. Describe the motions so we can feel him bring his wife closer to him as he embraces her and the child.

    Before the flashback, you mention a similar evening fifteen years ago and then started that new scene by saying fifteen years ago. I don’t think you need to repeat how many years ago. When the flashback starts we understand that it is the fifteen years ago you just mentioned.

    Even the moon, which Ghulam had often considered to be a dull shade of gray, was twinkling with promise.
    – Sorry to be really picky but I learned that stars twinkle due to the pinpoint light from a star being diffracted (bounced around) in our atmosphere but larger object like planets and the moon don’t twinkle the same way, so this line made me stop and say, “the moon doesn’t twinkle.” Maybe say bright with promise. Just trying to point out any area that may take your reader out of the story and back to reality. Also, was it a full moon he was following? If so, it wouldn’t take the shape of a scythe just 3 days later, maybe 8 or so days to be close to that appearance.

    I love the visualization I get when he is angered with the gods and kicks the dirt, opening his cuts again. My foot began to hurt along with his. Great ways to have the reader feel his frustration and pain.

    When his stomach growls and he wraps his arms around himself, I don’t see a break before his stomach grows and wraps his arms around himself again. I just didn’t see him loosen his grip to be able to do it again. Maybe only have him do this once.

    The scene with the posh caravan around the campfire was excellent! I was totally immersed in the story, following Ghulam in the shadows. I was hoping he’d get some food. Then when more fire pits were being made and he was backing up, I was scared he’d been seen. Then bam! A girl! Totally unexpected. This is a great cliffhanger. The wording did feel a little weird though. ‘a terrifying, a horrifying . . . little girl.’ Might flow easier like, ‘a terrifying, horrifying…little girl.’ I find the extra ‘a’ trips you up a little.

    Overall it’s the start of an interesting story. The visuals are there that make the reader clearly see your story as it’s happening, but watch out for items that may take your reader out of the story or pause. I am very curious as to who this girl is, and would read on to find out. That’s one of your main goals as a writer; to make the reader want to turn the page. And I want to turn that page. Great job!

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  7. I could easily connect with Ghulam- great internal dialogue. It made me smile when he was thinking he couldn’t come home complaining. Loved the cliff hanger at the end and the build up for it.
    A couple small things: he talks about coming home from another council meeting but this seems to be the first time he’s ridden a camel long(ish) distance. Does he normally ride something else? Yet when the stable hand comes out there’s nothing to indicate the camel is abnormal.
    I liked the interjections you had where you as the author or his internal thoughts contradicted the current situation. From a punctuation stand point it might look better to have those sections marked by a – rather than ( ). This may be a personal pet peeve but it doesn’t seem as “profession” of punctuation.
    When he first comes in and his wife asks why is he still standing by the door but it doesn’t seem like he’s been standing there long enough for her to make a comment about it. Maybe you could add a sentence about him just watching her for an extra minute.
    Him getting angry at the God’s was a very poignant scene. One small comment when he kicks the dirt I’d recommend taking out “floor” since he’s not indoors.
    When he’s been journeying for 3 days I’d take out the “and” before without food/water/rest. In that though I’m wondering how much stamina an already malnourished 11 year old has that he can keep pushing himself that long/hard. From a medical stand point people can’t go 3 days without any water and still coherently be on their feet- they’re more likely to be in a comatose state. Maybe instead of no water or rest he could only have little?
    Last comment is the wolf carcass seems slightly random. It appears when he needs something to hide behind but disappears again after that. If he is in the desert still I don’t think that many wolves would be there. Maybe instead he could hide behind a dune. For whatever reason I was thinking he was in a forest when he went out to follow the stars but going back I realized there’s no topography descriptors- a passing comment about sand or trees would help paint a more complete picture of where he is in the flashback.

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  8. Pamela,
    I chuckled at the very end when he was confronted by a “terrifying, horrifying little girl.” (I also wondered if she would become his wife.)

    Bryan Davis and others have hit on a lot of the comments I have, so I’ll just point out a few small things I noticed:

    The term “advisory panel” – is this a term they would have used then?

    Why does he trip? After tripping once or twice, surely he’d remember them. Is this a new home? Is there a significance to the steps and the tripping?

    Perhaps: “Fifteen years ago, when Ghulam had been more familiar with life’s sorrows than an eleven year old should be”?

    Would this culture know about the “Grim Reaper”? Would a nomadic desert culture know what a “scythe” is?

    Instead of “forcibly generous”, perhaps “unwittingly generous”?

    Also, since I am a speculative sci fi fan, your title made me wonder if there’s a connection with space travel. Probably not, but I did wonder from the start. 🙂

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