Unraveling Time, by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani (2:43)

IOD-UnravelingTimeToday I’ll try to demonstrate just what I mean by “declarative sentences on parade.”

What I gleaned about the story: Some guys are driving in convoy across the desert, trying to find their turn off the highway in the scorching heat and wind.

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WTF #1: It was hotter than Hamish thought it could get anywhere beyond a volcanic caldera.  It was 125°F in the shade—were there shade to be found—and the wind blew in off the desert’s grill-plate faster than a Porsche down the autobahn. 

Analysis: These are the first two sentences of the book. Notice anything? Not only a headword echo, but in this case, it’s a double-word echo. I also found the phrasing of the first sentence awkward, making it hard to parse. And then there’s the simile at the end of the second sentence, which sounds like it’s going to be hyperbole, but then ends up being disappointingly unhyperbolic—quite possibly literal—because the wind really could have been blowing faster than a car on the autobahn.

I mention all of these things because I hope that by repeating myself often enough, more indie authors will start taking it to heart. The first paragraph is holy and the first page is sacrosanct. Not because of some artsy-fartsy rule about needing your prose to glitter like a radiant moon-beam of wisdom. I’m talking strictly about the immersion. When a new reader opens your book, you are, quite literally, on trial. And as an indie author, you bear the added burden of being presumed guilty. So think of your reader as a grumpy judge who holds your future in his hands. Do you really want to start the trial by mooning him? You absolutely need time to make your case, and you buy that time by ensuring that, even if the story behind it sucks, at the very least, the prose itself is 100% flawless.

And that’s why I’m such a hard-ass about the first page.

WTF #2: Declarative sentences on parade

Analysis: But for now, I haven’t gotten out of the first paragraph yet. For those who don’t know about declarative sentence parades (admittedly, my own term) it’s when the sentence structure adheres over and over to the same basic structure: Subject, verb, object. Subject, verb, object. The problem is that this unvaried structure quickly creates a cadence that reverberates in the reader’s head, and it’s like a death march, trudging its way forward with relentless persistence. This can sometimes be used intentionally, for exactly that effect, but when used accidentally, it can undermine other writerly goals.

In this case, the tone of the opening paragraph was intended to be intense. Dramatic. A group of trucks hurtling down the highway in some frantic chase or race. I’m not sure. But it’s intended to begin the story with a bang. Then, completely out of nowhere, along comes the trudge-o-matic sentence machine, which completely undermines the anxious mood the author was trying to create. How can a high-stakes chase feel exciting when it’s also plodding along like a string of hypnotized yaks?

I’ve talked about this effect many times in the past, but I don’t think I’ve ever tried to demonstrate the effect. So I hope the author will excuse me if I borrow a few snippets of his paragraph to demonstrate. In the book, the declarative pattern has been masked, a little, because some of the sentences have extension clauses hung onto the ends. But in my head, the core of the sentence is what stays with me, and it’s when these cores all share the same structure that things go all death-marchy for me. Here then is that first paragraph, stripped down to its sentence cores:

It was hotter than Hamish thought it could get.
It was 125°F in the shade.
Sand blew across the highway.
Hamish rode shotgun with Briscoe.
Briscoe peered over the wheel.

Can you hear the sentence structure echoing in your head, and the plodding atmosphere that comes from it? If not, trying reading the paragraph aloud, or read it three or four times, in a loop. This is what I mean when I talk about declarative sentences on parade. They have a marching, plodding quality to them, which only builds as you continue to add new conforming sentences to the end of the list. Or at least, that’s what happens in my head. Your mileage may vary.

WTF #3: Aw, shit,” Axle said from his truck in the rear. 

Analysis: This is the third line of dialogue in a row that tacks a description after the tag but does not mark it with a comma. (There should be a comma after “said”.) And on the first page, all editorial gaffes are crimes—even the small ones—for the reasons stated above. So here endeth the treadmill.

Addendum: Okay, I’ve now heard from an editor friend (Karen Conlin) who tells me that prepositional phrases like this do not require a comma in dialogue tags. Really? Not even long phrases? But apparently not. And since this third WTF was for three counts of the same problem, the WTF itself is now invalidated. To my great surprise, though, this is the first time that’s happened in the IOD report series. So now I have to figure out what to do about this particular report.

To solve the dilemma, I went back to the book and began reading from where I left off. Over the next three or four paragraphs, I ran into a case of missing past perfect, and an overly complicated sentence that I had to back up and re-read to parse properly – both still on the first page. So while I feel bad about charging an erroneous WTF for the comma thing, I would have stopped a few seconds later anyway, so I’m letting the report stand, with these caveats attached.

Elona, by Steve Turnbull (9:13)
Shooting Arrows by Beverly Ann Flynn (10:31)

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.