In A Right State, by Ben Ellis (19:33)

IOD-RightStateToday we see that when an author disregards established story points, readers lose faith. Even if the premise is good.

What I gleaned about the story: When Duncan’s wife dies, he attends the auction of her body parts in the hopes of saying goodbye. And to make sure nobody finds out how she died.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: I quite like the cover on this. Quirky, but effective. And intriguing enough that I’d be likely to pick it up to read the back.

Technical Note: 4.7 MB is far too big a file for an EPUB novel. Not only does this take up the space of 9 novels on my ereader, but it also costs the author 9 times as much in download fees being paid to the retailers. There is no reason for a novel to be any larger than 500 or 600K unless you’re packing fonts and a whole bunch of images into the file, and even then 1 MB is plenty.

Kudos #1: A truly intriguing start.

Details: We begin in the middle of an auction. What’s being auctioned off? Body parts from the recently departed. And to make matters even more curious, the focal character is an older man who is attending the sale of his wife, piece by piece. What the hell kind of world is this? And that is one of my all-time favorite questions, because it means the world has pulled me in.

Note: I can’t help noticing the superficial similarities between this scenario and the Gnome culture in my Finding Tayna series: A people whose economy is entirely centered on the processing of dead bodies, extracting the stuff of magic from the recently deceased and repurposing it for the good of the living. That echo makes the culture in this book seem even more ghoulish to me than it otherwise might have.

WTF #1: Missing past perfect

Analysis: “…to a crime Duncan committed.” That should be “had committed.” There have been a few earlier editorial miscues that I skipped over, but this one actually tripped me. In a story told in the past tense, this line reads as though Duncan is committing it now, or in the continuous mode, committing it regularly. But by the surrounding context, it’s clear that it was a singular crime, committed in the deeper past. Unraveling that only took a beat, but it pulled me out of the experience.

So if it only took a beat, and the intended meaning was clear, why did I throw the flag? It was fairly minor, so why didn’t I just move on and wait for a “real” error? Well, it’s because I’ve been doing that for a while now. I had already made notes-to-self about occasional missing words and even another missing past perfect. With each of them, I paused long enough to make the note, but the premise had me so intrigued that I was willing to overlook them in order to keep reading. And this is something that a lot of indie authors don’t seem to appreciate. When we talk about having an opening hook, this is exactly what we mean. Like a fish caught on a line, the hook is what pulls you forward, even when you might not want to go. It doesn’t have to be violence or danger, it can be as placid as a man sitting in an auction house watching other people bid. The hook is about fascinating the reader. Intriguing them. Plant the seed in their curiosity that compels them to read more.

Want a demonstration of how important this is? In this book right here, I skipped three errors because of the hook. Three. In other words, had the hook not been there, I would never have even reached this first WTF point, because I would already have thrown three flags and pulled the plug.

But even when I’m invested in a story, if I continue to brush past minor problems, my irritation rises. I find that there’s a sort of attenuation effect with story problems. When I encounter one, I get mildly irritated and then read on. This irritation will taper off, eventually, but for some time after the issue passes, my sensitivity will be heightened.

I find that if I’m encountering problems only every chapter or two, there’s enough story in between the interruptions that my spider senses have a time to desensitize before the next one. But if they come more quickly, before that jangling nerve has completely settled, then each one kicks my irritation higher than the last. It’s a bit like having somebody bump against your already injured elbow. The infraction itself may be small, but your increased sensitivity makes you react disproportionately. And if every person who walks through your living room whacks that elbow on the way by, you are soon screaming at the universe, hosing it down with your righteous fury.

Or in my case, throwing a WTF fit.

WTF #2: Sloppy copy editing

Analysis: There are two types of errors I’m seeing with unfortunate frequency. First, there has been a light dusting of omitted words. Some of them seemed innocuous enough, not really causing any confusion, and in fact, in a couple of cases, I wasn’t sure if the phrasing might have been more of a Britishism than an actual mistake.

But consider this excerpt: In death, Nicole was a product, everything being sold, apart from her soul; each hand, ear, eye, femur, bicep – a vengeful zombie shadowed by a poisonous ghost, demanding penance for Nicole’s struggle. Insisting on recompense for wasting her life with Duncan, a debt only repayable with own demise. That last phrase seems pretty clearly to be missing the word “her.”

The second class of issues I’ve been seeing are the verb tense mismatches. Shortly after that one, I found this: Duncan was here, hoping that Nicole’s stomach was bought by an insurance group and used in a simple transplant for someone. But he wasn’t hoping that it had been bought by them in the past. He was hoping that it would be bought by them in the next few minutes. I tripped over that, because to my ear, it sounded like it had already been purchased, even though I knew that it had not yet come up as a bidding lot at the auction. That should probably read: …hoping that Nicole’s stomach would be bought…

Then a bit later on, I encountered this bit of dialogue, in which Duncan is calling out another character for having apparently contradicted himself: “I thought all information has a price?” Admittedly, since it’s dialogue, it’s possible that Duncan really did say it that way. But since I’ve already been sensitized to verb tense disagreements, this one whacked my elbow on the way by, so I stopped to give it a good bellow. To my ear, that would have been much better if it had been “I thought all information had a price?”

WTF #3: Inconsistent story points

Analysis: Towards the end of the first scene, a conflict arises between Duncan and the man sitting next to him, but throughout the conflict, the behavior of both characters seemed inconsistent. At one point, Duncan tells us that he cannot bid because it’s not even legal for him to be there, but then later he does bid, and of course is immediately confronted by security. But he knew he would be. It makes no sense for him to have bid in the first place.

But it’s not just Duncan’s behavior that seems a bit out of kilter. His nemesis seems to have the same problem. He’s quite solicitous when Duncan gets into trouble with security, all while continuing to make threats. I can rationalize why he might have done that, but there were a number of these kinds of contradictions, and I never felt that either character had stabilized.

One of the things I enjoy about fiction is the chance to get inside a character’s head and live vicariously through them. When I understand their motives and attitudes, I have a decent chance of understanding their reactions to situations, and maybe even predicting them. But when characters seem to contradict themselves arbitrarily, that connection is lost. And for me, it’s even worse when those contradictions seem to be in the service of making the current scene or beat more dramatic. I call this “breaking faith” with the reader, because the author makes a sort of promise or contract when they sketch out a character’s psychology, and if they don’t live up to that bargain, I feel cheated.

And there’s one last inconsistency. It’s about the technology. In a day when every person in the room has immediate access to online data and sensor equipment, they still wave little paddles to signal the bids. That part is fine, because we can write it off as auctioneering tradition. But when Duncan is confronted, these security people suddenly behave as if the number written on the paddle is the height of security technology. Even being jacked into the hyper-web, they hinge their entire confrontation on whether or not Duncan has the correct number on his paddle, completely ignoring the wealth of records they have instant access to. To me, this is the most troubling way in which authors break faith: by ignoring the realities of the world that they have put into play, in order to manipulate the tension of a story beat.

Cold Run, by Rachel A. Brune (3:54)
Twisted Endings, by Timothy D McLendon (1:23)

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.