What I gleaned about the story: Candice has been run over on a dirt road. Or perhaps thrown out of a moving van. Her mouth is full of road dust. But it sure is nice weather for the local crickets.
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Analysis: Here’s the opening line of the story:
Spinning tires kicking up dust in a cloud that stung her eyes was the last thing Candice saw before the van, engine growling, tore down the dirt path and disappeared into the dark forest.
My immediate reaction was, “If the spinning tires were the last thing she saw, then how does she know the van disappeared into the forest?” The word “disappearing” implies that she saw it vanish. So when I got to the end of that sentence, I immediately went back to the beginning to see if I’d misread something. Nope. It’s just one of those pesky cases where the author has used a common phrase for its rhetorical effect without fully considering its literal meaning.
Unfortunately, this happened at the very beginning of the story, and even occasional readers of IOD will know that my quibble-sensors are always set to maximum on the first page. That baby needs to be flawless.
Analysis: Having stumbled over the first sentence, I moved on. Here’s the second one:
The slam of the van’s door was still ringing in her ears, competing with her own sobs, her gasps for air, the incredible quaking panic that roiled through her, distracting her from the sting of dirt embedded in her kneecaps, her palms, every part of her that had landed hard against the earth.
I ran through this three times, trying to figure out how to parse it. As it begins, the narrator is telling us how the sound of the van door is competing with other sounds, like her sobs and her gasps for air. But then the list gets to her quaking panic, which is not a sound. Okay, so I reframed the sentence as a list of sensations, rather than specifically sounds. Only, then I hit the next bit about distraction and I got lost again. Apparently, at this point, the narrator wants to tell us about how the panic is distracting her from the stinging in her hands. Or maybe it was both the gasps and the panic that were distracting. Could it have been the sobs too?
When commas are used for multiple purposes within a list, it’s impossible to tell which phrases belong to which structures. And what ever happened to the list of things competing with the van door? I’m glad you asked, because after the distractions, we appear to jump back into list mode, summing it up with the “every part of her” bit. But are those still things that are competing with the sound of the van door? Or has the list now just devolved into a catalogue of her injuries? Sadly, the sentence is trying to do too many things at once.
This appears to be a new situation for IOD. We’ve had some run-on sentences in the past, but this is the first example I can think of where the sentence seems to change its intended purpose multiple times between beginning and end. It’s like two or three different sentence were hacked apart and then reassembled into one rather ungainly love-child. So in honor of that image, I think I’ll christen this type of WTF as a “Frankensentence.”
Analysis: Paragraph two goes on to tell us about how her mouth is full of road dust and with all the choking and desperately trying to swallow, It seems fair clear she’s still panicky. Then we move straight to paragraph three:
She heard crickets, late in the year for them to be singing out here, though with the lake not far all kinds of creatures refused to die, burrowing in its warm mud, clinging to a summer long since past.
That might be a completely valid observation about the local wildlife, but it is entirely out of place in the mind of a woman who has just been attacked (or run over, or whatever) and is still in emergency panic mode.
Note: Unfortunately, I did not get very far into this one. Not because the story idea is flawed, but because the execution presented me with editorial issues early enough, and often enough, that I never actually found out what the story was.
This serves as a good reminder of why I say that the first page should be holy ground, editorially speaking. A good story will pull readers in past the snags and barbs of editorial shrapnel, but they have to stay with you long enough to actually get to the story. So, like any good business, it doesn’t matter what the back room looks like, but your lobby has to make you look competent, or customers will just walk away.
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