The Rat Collector, by Chris Yee (6:21)

IOD-The_Rat_Collector.jpgToday I am reminded that when the problem is a stylistic one, examples can recur so frequently that the reader gets hyper-sensitized to them.

What I gleaned about the story: Vince is atop an icy ridge, watching the snowy field below. It would be nice to be warm, but he has a job to do. And Saul is late.

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WTF #1: Temporal miscue

Analysis: Several times on the first page, I’ve been confused about what’s happening now and what is allusion to the backstory. Our hero, Vince, has been standing on a cliff for some time, watching the field below. The story is being told in past tense, and paragraph five opens with:

The spot Vince chose was not ideal, but it would serve his purpose well enough. He hoped for a place with more cover, more places to hide, but the area was void of any trees or vegetation, and the snow plains were extremely flat.

Because the story is being relayed in past tense, saying “The spot Vince chose” tells me that he is choosing it presently, as we watch. The next sentence does the same thing, telling me that “He hoped for a place,” as though he is right now hoping for a better vantage point, but that contradicts the fact that he is currently standing still, watching the field below. It seems he is both choosing the space now, and already standing in it, making use of it.

In the past, I’ve called this a “missing past perfect” issue, but I decided to give it a different label today, to highlight an important distinction. The problem for me as a reader is not so much that the wrong tense was used. The real issue is that I got confused by what appeared to be two contradictory things happening at the same time. But whatever we choose to call it, my immersion definitely broke.

WTF #2: Temporal miscue

Here’s another example, from further down the page:

Come nightfall, a fire would only ruin his night vision, and worse, reveal his position. As tempting as a warm, freshly crafted fire was, it was a bad idea. He closed his eyes and imagined the warmth that radiated against his back when the fire was once fresh, but it only made him colder.

That last sentence is a bit of a mess. It sounds as though he’s having to imagine the fire even though it is now radiating its warmth to him, because again the wrong verb tense has been used. But there’s something even more curious. See that bit where he says “when the fire was once fresh”? I think that was the author’s attempt to convey the deeper past, but for some reason, without using the verb tense specifically designed to do just that. With more nuanced verb choices, that passage probably wouldn’t have popped my bubble.

WTF #3: Echoing headwords

Analysis: I tried to ignore it throughout the first page where a lot of “He”-, “His”-, and “The”-headed sentences and paragraphs battled for supremacy. But on the second page, the “He”s emerged victorious and took the field.

Unfortunately, when an author wrestles with verb tenses and echoes, examples do not tend to occur in isolation, and the more often a reader stumbles over them, the harder they become to ignore. We get over-sensitized to the pattern of their appearance and begin flinching each time we see another occurrence coming up in the headlights of our line-scanning. So it not only trips us up when it happens, but it pre-stresses our attention to make subsequent instances more likely to grab at us on the way by as well.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

The Tilt, by M.A. Robbins (17:04)
Short Stories, Crimes, Cults and Curious Cats, by Jonathan Day (2:40)

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.