The Unknown Sun, by Cheryl S. Mackey (13:00)

IOD-UnknownSunToday’s read touches on about four things, right out of the gate, that I find difficult to suspend disbelief on, so immersion never really happened for me.

What I gleaned about the story: A grief-stricken girl mopes around town avoiding everyone and their cruel judgements, until she is suddenly attacked by a familiar stranger. Then angels step in, and everything appears to be about to change.

Find the book on Amazon.

Kudos: For one of the stronger indie covers I’ve seen. It really is gorgeous.

WTF #1: Welcome to my morning routine.

Analysis: Readers who haven’t read a lot of slush-piles and student work will not be as sensitive to clichéd openings as I am, but that’s a fact of my background, so it effects my ability to slip into a story. The two biggest clichés I can think of are the “running from danger while pausing to remember why” opening, and the “walk with me in my morning routine.” This story begins with Moira pulling on clothes and then follows her along her morning journey, through the house and then to school. That experience is so commonplace and so familiar that I’m bored before she reaches the kitchen, and I was already skimming by page 2, looking for the bits that are different from a typical high school girl’s trip to school.

There were a couple of improvements over the usual cliché though, in that we didn’t start with eyes opening, and there were a couple of scene breaks to advance things a little faster. I might have been able to look past this one issue if it hadn’t come intertwined with the other three. But with all four of them working in parallel, I just never reached the point where I slipped into the world.

WTF #2: Present tense.

Analysis: This is going to gain me some snarls and growls from a lot of writers – especially younger ones – but I’m going to do my best to explain why this creates problems for me. Fans of the present tense mode like to say that it is more immediate. It puts you in the middle of the action, like it’s happening now. And actually, that’s exactly what my problem is. Because I know it’s not happening now. If it were, how did this book get written and put into my hands, days before the events took place? That sounds like a picky detail, but I kid you not, that’s the question that keeps running through my head. Subconsciously, I know it can’t possibly be happening now, so clearly this is made up. With past tense, I am at least able to concede that it might have happened. After all, I wasn’t there. But if you tell me it’s happening now, while I’m watching, I call bullshit, because it clearly isn’t. Your writing mode is in conflict with my subjective reality. And that’s a hard premise from which to construct willing suspension and immersion.

Worse, it conflicts with the cultural tradition of storytelling. I believe that we humans are hard-wired for stories. They are a form of early-warning system, in which important cultural lessons are accumulated and passed down. It goes back to the warrior, returning from the hunt, and relating how he crept under the banyan tree on the trail of a gazelle, only to have a tiger leap on him from the overhanging branches. Survival lesson: don’t go under a banyan tree without checking the branches first. These stories are always conveyed in the past tense, and that subtle cue gives them veracity. It did happen. The narrator was there. It was real. And this story is the lesson he brings to share with me from that harrowing experience.

By contrast, present tense story telling conveys a more anecdotal, inconsequential feeling to me. So there I am, a chicken in one hand and a squirrel in the other, when my belt lets go and my pants drop to my knees. What am I supposed to do? For me, present tense always feels like the setup to a joke, and that makes it harder for me to take the story seriously.

I realize that a few very successful books have used present tense, and I grant that it can work. But for my money, present tense counts against you, and your story will have to be all that much stronger to overcome that handicap out of the gates.

WTF #3: I did this. And then I did that. I went to the thing. And then I went to the other thing. = Galloping “I” disease.

Writing in the first person is a great way to get us inside the protagonist’s head, but it comes with a hidden trap: the above mentioned “I” disease. In third person, the writer has many ways they can refer to the protagonist: first name, nickname, pronoun, etc. But in first person, all you have is the pronoun. Unless you want your hero to sound like some retarded egotist, referring to himself constantly by name, the only way he can include himself in his exposition is by calling himself “I.”

One solution is to turn the lens outward: talk about what other people around your hero are doing. Or you can drop the self reference altogether and use an even more direct and intimate mode. Instead of: I went to the store but it was vacant, try: The store turned out to be grimy and dark, like it hadn’t been opened in a year or more.

First person is tough. No question. But if you want to use it, this is one of the challenges, and you have to overcome it if you want a reader like me to immerse.

Bonus WTF: Poor mopy me.

Analysis: Moira certainly does seem to have a wretched existence, and some tough things have happened in her life. But from what I can see, more than half of her marginalization and isolation is self-imposed. Sure, there are a couple of instances when somebody says something unkind to her, but far more often, we see her grumbling over what she imagines people are saying or thinking about her. This, combined with the constant “I, I, I” references mentioned above, made her feel like a spoiled, self-absorbed little princess, and I simply can’t connect emotionally to a hero who sees herself constantly as a victim. This is not my kind of protagonist. I want to experience characters being bigger than their problems, not whining about them. I want to cheer for a character who reaches out to others, despite her tragedies, rather than turning inward in self pity. I want characters who can give me the strength to be bigger, nobler, and more courageous about the challenges I face in my own life – not ones who tell me to shut up about what I want and coo over them in their misery.

In short, I loathed the protagonist and couldn’t find a reason to want to spend time in her world view. If she had been doing something interesting, or thought provoking, I might have gone along for the anti-hero ride, but no such intrigue presented itself to me before I’d reached my WTF quota.

Caveat: I don’t know for sure, but I get the impression there’s a romance angle developing here. And if so, and this story is drawing on the tropes and conventions of the romance genre, then I may be citing things that are perfectly acceptable to its intended audience. Romance is a genre of which I remain blissfully ignorant.

Discovering Aberration, by S.C. Barrus (15:27)
Unselected, by John Kipling Lewis

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.