The Gentle Man, by Michelle Montague Mogil (8:27)

IOD-GentleManToday we see that shifting verb tense is like changing lanes on the highway – proper signalling will keep you out of the ditch.

What I gleaned about the story: A bar-tender closing up alone after hours hears voices in the darkness that freak her out. Presumably more happens after that.

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WTF #1: Cliché to start

Analysis: The dreaded “How I came to be here” monologue. It’s not horrible in this case, because at least we’re not watching some dweeb recount the most recent hour of his life while he flees in terror from whatever consequences he’s unleashed upon himself. But as I’ve said before, giving me a character’s back story before I’ve invested emotionally in that character is like meeting someone at a party who begins the conversation by recounting their life history. To do so is a huge presumption on their part, because they’re assuming I give a damn. Once I get to know them, maybe I’ll decide to care about that stuff, but not before. And the same thing goes for the fictional people I meet.

The other problem I have here is that we start the story and then immediately jump back in time. If you need to begin with a flashback, it might be a sign that you should have started the story at that earlier time in the first place.

WTF #2: I wondered if I had made the right decision. I second guess myself on the average of once an hour—I may have been legally blind at the time without my Coke-bottle-bottom glasses, but my hindsight has always been impeccable.

Analysis: The verb tenses keep flopping between past, past perfect, and present. As we see in this example, it’s sometimes caused by the narrator making editorial asides about their usual mode of being, expressing those in the present tense. But even so, tense shifts should be more clearly signalled, so that the reader doesn’t have to back up and take a second run at the sentence. That could have been accomplished here by introducing a temporal qualifier, and/or by making the aside a proper aside, using parenthetical parens. Something like:

I wondered if I had made the right decision. (I tend to second guess myself on the average of once an hour.) I may have been legally blind at the time …

It’s still not especially smooth – especially with that case of Galloping I Disease – so I’d probably want to massage this further, but even these very slight changes help the reader anticipate the mode shifts. So when they do hit them, they’re ready, and can move right through them without slowing down.

WTF #3: I shook off my thoughts and shuffled about turning out lights to discourage last-minute patrons while I got down to my closing duties…

Analysis: I count at least one, possibly two places where commas would have made this easier to parse. They’re not extreme, but I did have to jump back to re-read, and there were a couple of other similar occurrences, so immersion was broken when I began to notice the pattern of them.

Black, by Catherine Winters (12:43)
Willem's Tale, by J. S. Davis (4:23)

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.