Ox Herding: A Secular Pilgrimage, by Jackie Griffiths (6:31)

IOD-OxHerdingToday we see that repetition is no substitute for immersion.

What I gleaned about the story: A girl is broken up over the death of a close grandmother.

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WTF #1: Prologue problems

Analysis: This particular prologue pushes all my buttons. It’s entirely in tell mode. It starts with a digression to the deeper past. And it’s written in the present tense. I’ve commented before that since a prologue is already a step back in time from the opening of the story, it makes no sense to begin the prologue with a reminiscence to an even deeper past. Why not just open the prologue there, at that deeper time? But that’s what happened here, and it got me ranting to myself, which was a clear sign immersion was broken.

WTF #2: Since her early teenage years she’d felt a special kinship with her paternal grandmother, convinced they shared a unique and profound alliance of philosophical and political affinity. 

Analysis: There was a disconnect here that pulled me out of the story, and it took me a moment to figure out why. Clearly I’m being told about a deep emotional connection, but the words being used are almost completely devoid of any emotional weight. It ends up feeling like part of the author’s outline about what she meant to convey to the reader, rather than the prose that was intended to convey it. And that’s the fundamental trap of tell mode. It is cold and distant. And most often, unengaging. So it’s particularly bad for depicting strong emotions.

WTF #3: Redundant exposition

Analysis: There are several points that seemed belabored, but here’s a concrete example. We are told that Jae (the protagonist) and her grandmother shared a “profound alliance of philosophical and political affinity.” And then a few paragraphs later, we’re told they had “many extraordinary conversations over the years on a variety of complex topics, including philosophy, politics, and religion.”

Unfortunately, it seems that almost every point is being made more than once—as if the author does not trust that she has conveyed it the first time. And this is a common problem with tell-mode. Subconsciously, I think authors recognize that they haven’t sold the point, but they don’t recognize what the problem is, so they sell it again. But what’s wrong is that you’re only telling me the words you want me to believe when what you should be doing is showing me the relationship so that I don’t need to be told in the first place.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

To Carry the Horn, by Karen Myers (8:37)
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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.