Note: I don’t normally look at marketing materials for a book before I put them on the treadmill—I prefer to experience the story on its own terms, rather than potentially being misdirected by the marketing. But I do inspect the Amazon page to be sure the book qualifies under the IOD rules. This time, however, my gaze slid casually over the blurb and I couldn’t help but notice the tag line: You don’t always get what you want, but if you’re lucky, you might get what you need. In my view, that’s too close to the famous Rolling Stones lyric for comfort. And worse, it has now colored my expectations of the book. Even before I open the cover, I’m already worried about seeing further examples of “conspicuously familiar prose.”
What I gleaned about the story: Dale is waiting to pick up Cole so they can go do this job, but somebody arrived early and now there may be surprises in store.
Find this book on Amazon.
Analysis: Consider these two lines, which begin the second paragraph:
He glanced over his shoulder at the deserted attic. Shadows darkened it as night fell over the city, hiding the bed, the table, the chair, and the old armchair abandoned in the corner.
For some reason, this felt out of kilter to me. When I’m outside, it makes perfect sense for falling night to produce shadows that grow larger and darker until they swallow the scene. But in this case we’re indoors, in an attic. As day turns to night, I can accept that there is less light (assuming this attic has a window), but when I’m inside a building, I think of this process as “getting dark”—not as growing shadows darkening the scene. Yes, it is technically true that the darkness of an unlit room is caused by the shadows of the walls, but does anybody really think of it this way? Anyway, I had to stop to pick this apart, and even after consideration, it still feels wrong to me.
Analysis: That pesky setting sun is still causing trouble. In the middle of the next paragraph we get: A fair-headed silhouette fiddled with the window lock, then disappeared inside. But that’s not how silhouettes work. By definition, a silhouette is a solid mass of shadow. No light. And in that requisite absence of light, it is impossible to see hair color. So it can be a silhouette or it can be fair-headed, but it can’t be both.
Then, in the very next sentence, we get: When the sun was gone, the light went on, but no one bothered to pull the curtains. So I’m forced to wonder: if the light was off during this “fair-headed silhouette” observation, what was casting the silhouette? Apparently, it was a fair-headed silhouette illuminated by the unlit darkness behind it, and that’s just plain wrong.
Analysis: Still on the first page, and I’m dodging a few minor headword echoes, but then I got:
He didn’t know what surprises Cole might bring with him since he arrived days earlier than planned.
The problem is, who arrived early? Cole? Or Dale the narrator? Clearly the word “him” refers to Cole, but given this sentence construction, the “he” who arrived days earlier than planned could be either one of them. Is he saying that Cole arrived early, and therefore had time to plan some surprises? Or is he saying that he himself arrived early, which may have spooked Cole and thereby inspired him to bring surprises? Often, the surrounding text provides enough clues to let a reader error correct little uncertainties like this, but not so in this case. And when I can’t figure out which of multiple potential interpretations prevail, I can’t divorce myself from the question and slip back into the story. Especially in a case like this, where the surprises we’re talking about are weapons and thus illuminate the fundamental motives of the primary characters. That was an entirely inopportune time to drop a flopping ambiguity like that.
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.