What I gleaned about the story: A hungry boy named Rat has killed a bird and eaten part of it.
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Analysis: There’s a movement I’ve noticed across the indie writing scene in which authors are A) telling each other to eliminate pleonasms (extraneous words) from their writing, and then B) going on to declare the word “that” to be a pleonasm. (Here’s an example of such writerly discussions.) But as with many rules expressed in simplistic absolutes, dealing with pleonasms and “that”s is a lot more complicated than it might appear. First of all, it’s not true that pleonasms should always be removed. Sometimes they can be an effective stylistic choice – especially for depicting wind-bag characters. But of greater concern in this case, not every use of “that” is extraneous.
I’m not saying that the pleonasm rule was the cause of this particular issue, but this is a convenient place for me to comment on it. It’s true that in many instances, the word “that” is superfluous, but not here. In this case, it would have helped keep me from choosing the wrong parsing for this sentence. I saw the phrase, “Rat knew what he was doing” and parsed it as a complete thought in its own right. But then that pesky “was disgusting” came along and it didn’t fit onto the meaning I had just parsed, so I had to back up and read it again. If it had been written as “Rat knew that what he was doing was disgusting…” there would have been no alternate reading for me to stumble onto.
Normally I’d have grouped this with other issues before charging a WTF, but this one came on the first half of the first page, which is holy territory in the IOD world. So since I had to back up and re-read, this immersion pop is charged full freight.
Analysis: Oops. Editorial detritus. Obviously, a previous reading of the sentence was changed, but not quite carefully enough. Bonus words are particularly disruptive to immersion because they almost always force at least one additional backup and re-read before the reader realizes that there is no way to parse that sentence properly with the number of words given.
Analysis: This is meant to be an aside, speaking about the deeper past, and as such, should be written in past perfect. Curiously, this issue conforms to another bit of internet editorial wisdom I’ve seen floating around recently. I don’t know whether that meme was involved in this particular case, but again I’m going to avail myself of the convenient opportunity to talk about it.
Like with pleonasms above, I have heard some authors telling each other to avoid the words “was” and “had” wherever they find them, and to double-especially avoid the “had had” construction. True, the passive mode can be distancing, but it serves a role in some situations, so you can’t always just chuck it. But worse, I’ve actually heard some writers advising each other to solve the “had had” problem by simply deleting one.
::apply palm to face::
Unfortunately, if you follow that advice, you change the tense of the verb, replacing past perfect with simple past, which takes a correct (but awkward) phrase and makes it flat out wrong. A better solution would be to recast the sentence to avoid the double-had. For example: Instead of Rat had had another name once, you could rephrase it to Rat had gone by a different name once. That second variation avoids the awkwardness while still properly signalling the deeper past tense. And hopefully, it will help to keep your readers following along and completely immersed, which is where you want them to be.
Note: Two of today’s issues serve to demonstrate what can potentially happen when applying the kinds of oversimplified editorial advice we often see floating around the web. Whether these played a role in Aaron’s process or not, I can’t say, but I hope he will forgive me for using this opportunity to talk about the points anyway. Ad-hoc editorial advice you get around the water cooler or online is no replacement for a real editor who actually knows when that advice applies and when it doesn’t. These memes can be a guide to helping you write your early drafts more cleanly, but they shouldn’t be used to eliminate the editor altogether.