A Secondhand Life, by Pamela Crane (2:16)

IOD-A_Secondhand_Life.jpgToday we are reminded that trying to sound writerly is not the point of writing.

What I gleaned about the story: I have not, over some unspecified period of time, always been a murderer. Nor do I blame my parents or my therapists for the murder(s) that I may have one day, possibly in the future, been about to commit.

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WTF #1: Confusing opening

Analysis: Here’s the first paragraph:

I didn’t wake up one morning and randomly decide to be a killer; rather, somewhere in the recesses of my soulless being, there it was—a primal urge for blood, for manipulating life and death. Yet all the while I was unable to control my own mind. I had become an animal.

I have to say I’m confused, but not in that good way where the reader doesn’t know what’s going on but hungers to find out. It’s more of an “I don’t understand what the author means by these words”-type of confusion. It seems to begin by saying that the narrator didn’t become a murderer suddenly—that the urge to kill had always been there. But then the last sentence seems to contradict that, saying that his/her basic nature had changed. Upon second reading, however, I wonder if maybe I misunderstood the implied contrast of the first sentence. Instead of contrasting when the urge to kill had been born, perhaps it was simply saying that the decision to kill had not been a conscious one.

But even if we concede that point, the second sentence still doesn’t work. Yet all the while… All what while?Having conceded that the first sentence is about the moment in time at which the narrator’s nature changed, there has been no period of time mentioned to be “all the while”-ing through.

Unfortunately, this feels to me like prose that is trying to sound writerly, rather than prose that is trying to tell a story. It’s all well and good for an author to be concerned with style, but those clever turns of phrase and evocative images all have to mean something. Something understandable to the reader and in service of telling a story. Story first; style second.

WTF #2: More confusion

Analysis: The second paragraph continues this intimate POV ramble:

I wasn’t always a murderer, as far as I know. Born with it, or raised into it? Nature versus nurture. The question of the day. One that has baffled therapists for decades. As one of the monsters they studied, even I had no answers. Picking apart my gray matter proved fruitless.

What does that first sentence even mean? I have to assume the narrator is questioning whether they’ve always had the capacity for murder. To me, being a murderer means that you have murdered somebody, so to have always been a murderer suggests that you committed your first murder while quite young, and therefore have been a murderer ever since. (Granted, even that wouldn’t quite justify “always.” Taken literally, “always” would suggest that you must have murdered your delivery-room doctor with his own surgical implements before the cord was cut. But a childhood murder would bring it close enough to chalk the difference up to poetic license.)

But there’s more. I’m also confused by the time setting. The epigraph states that this scene takes place on Mar 4, 1992, but I can’t get a handle on where it is in relation to the murder(s). Has the narrator already killed? Has he/she only just awakened with a plan to begin killing? We don’t know, and the vague clues in the text seem jumbled and contradictory on this point. So I can’t even get a picture of where I am in the narrator’s timeline, which makes it very hard to slip into the spell of the world being created for me. Again I get the feeling that the prose is focusing too much on trying to present things in a “writerly” way, at the expense of telling an understandable story.

WTF #3: Echoing headwords

Analysis: Each of the first three paragraphs begin with “I”, and there was a pair of “I”-headed sentences as well. Normally, this wouldn’t be quite enough to trigger a flag, but I have been held at such distance from immersion by the confusion of the first two paragraphs that even simple echoes leap out at me, giving me a merciful excuse to throw the third flag.

Note: Unfortunately, the writing here just rubbed me entirely the wrong way, and I was never able to get past its surface, to fall into the story. Perhaps others will find it more to their tastes.


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.

Ten Orbits of the Sun, by David Milligan-Croft (4:58)
The Colossus, by Ranjini Iyer (5:10)

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.