What I gleaned about the first story: A cocky gambler has fabulous luck, every time, all because of an old religious coin that once belonged to the gods. Well, now the gods want it back.
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Analysis: Part way through the first scene, I caught myself skimming, but I had no idea why. The writing was decent, I hadn’t brushed across any editorial slivers, and the story had some tense high-stakes poker action building up. But there I was, skimming. I had no idea what I was reacting to, but skimming is a sure sign that I was not engaged. I was fast-forwarding, trying to skip ahead to something that I could dig my brain into…
Hang on a sec. Now that I say it that way, it sounds like a clue. Let me just go take a look…
Yup. Now I understand. It was in tell mode. I hadn’t noticed at the time because the telling was happening in a fairly active scene, so there were things for me to at least visualize while the tell played out. But going back over the text now, I see that it was one long tell scene. I’m told that Jack acted bored, I’m not shown it. I’m told that he shouldn’t have done the thing he just did – I’m not allowed to witness the consequences and reach that conclusion for myself. I’m told that he breaks all his promises, not shown. I’m told his fellow players were all rotten men. I’m told that they’re not happy about his continual winning. Etc.
This is an excellent illustration of why tell mode is problematic: there’s a part of your brain that thrives on the ongoing analysis it gets to do while reading, and tell mode starves that part, resulting in boredom. And maybe even skimming.
Analysis: In the real world, some people find it very difficult, or even impossible, to form bonds of trust with other people. Generally, they are referred to as having an “attachment disorder.” But it occurs to me that this can be applied to readers and fictional characters as well. In order for me to relate to a character, I have to be able to put my head in his situation, witness the facts of his world and his experience, and then draw conclusions about him. If I generally approve of his behavior and sympathize with his predicament, I find myself relating to him. Liking him. Caring about his future happiness. In short, I form an attachment to him.
But what if I’m never shown the things I need in order for that bond to form? I think that’s exactly what happened here. As a result of all the telling, mentioned above, I have witnessed a series of Jack’s experiences, but I have not been shown anything much that I can judge for myself. So there’s no act of assessment going on, from which my decision to either empathize or revile him can be triggered. In short, the writing puts me into a position where I can’t attach to the character. It’s not a perfect description of what happened, but it’s as close as I can come for now.
Analysis: When Nibuan Mok catches up with Jack, and then immediately begins to monologue about the history of the evil coin, my eyes rolled. It was just too heavy handed for me. He might as well be saying, “Excuse me Mr. Victim. I’ve been sent to take that thing back, and probably to kill you for even knowing about it, but before I do that, please allow me to educate you on the history of what it is you hold.” One of the classic forms of the info dump.
Note: This brings me to an observation about multi-author anthologies. It doesn’t matter how many authors wrote the collection, I’m not going to be reading all their work – only the first 40 minutes’ worth. In most cases that means I’ll likely only read one or two stories. So how is it fair for me to post a review of the writing in the book, when I haven’t read the work of all the contributors? I end up posting a review that paints all the authors with the laurels or tar and feathers earned by just a few, and that feels wrong to me. I’m also finding that it’s harder to judge immersion when stories go by so much faster. The rhythms are all different from novels, and I don’t read enough short fiction these days to have a well-developed sense of them.
So from here on, I will no longer be accepting short story collections, regardless of how many authors are collected within. I know this is going to frustrate some writers – especially those who only work in the shorter form – but it would be hypocritical of me to continue commenting on a format that I just don’t read these days.