The Fire Mages, by Pauline M. Ross (29:29)

IOD score cardToday a young girl takes us on a whirlwind journey to her heart’s desire, but never lets us experience any of it.

What I gleaned about the story: Kyra has only one goal in life: to be trained at the scribery in the mysteries of spellpages. She even passes up the opportunity for a life of relative privilege to get there. But when she finally does, she doesn’t take time to smell the roses, so we don’t get to either.

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Note: Right in line one I get a sense that Fantasy Capitalization Syndrome may be an issue. A representative of the local bigman has arrived. He’s not just the Kellon’s steward; he’s every inch the Kellon’s Steward. I won’t charge a WTF yet, but it’s interesting how quickly this problem can appear in a book, and how quickly a sensitized reader will spot it when it does.

WTF #1: Confusing sentence construction

Analysis: The prose leans toward a slightly archaic feeling, but I still stumbled over this: We so seldom had visitors that it had become Mother’s sanctuary, the only valuable contents the books piled on every available surface.

In hindsight, I see that the second clause is aiming for that antequated construction that packs a question and answer into a single clause, as in, “The only valuable contents? The books piled on every available surface.” But at first approach, I wasn’t ready for that left turn. Instead, I was expecting “had” after “books,” believing that the books held valuable information within their covers. It wasn’t until after I had reached the end of the misparsed sentence that I realized that it was trying to say that only valuable contents were the books themselves.

So take this as a cautionary example. If you’re going to write with a stylized voice, you need to do so with confidence and authority. Dropping in and out, or only getting half-way there, can leave readers at sea, unsure how to parse anything.

WTF #2: Confusing regionalism

Analysis: One common device in fantasy, used to help establish the “otherness” of a setting, is to take some common English terms and re-imagine them in the vernacular of the locals. Units of measurement are a frequent target for this kind of substitution, because they can quickly convey some of the fundamental attitudes and technologies that underpin the society.

In today’s example, a “day” appears to have been replaced with a “sun,” which seems sensible enough. Unfortunately, I was not given any hint of that substitution earlier, so when I encountered a long paragraph about how busy the Kellon’s Steward was, and what a good job he was doing, and how everybody thinks so, the phrase, “this sun’s work” struck me as a spelling error. I correctly intuited that the word “sun” was a vernacular substitution, but I believed that it had been intended as “this son’s work,” as a substitution for “man’s work.” It was only when I realized that the sentence didn’t seem to fit the topic of the surrounding paragraph that I went back and took a second look, and realized that it was a unit of time, not a sexist classification of labor.

WTF #3: Payoff withholding

Analysis: I’m almost 30 minutes in now, and everything has been going along well enough, but I’ve noticed a growing subconscious frustration. It took me a while to figure out what was causing it, but I’ve finally put a finger on it. Almost everything has been told so far in what I call “recap mode.” Events are summarized and recounted in a breezy, somewhat distant fashion. That’s an excellent way to cover long strides of narrative time, or to breeze over a scene that matters, but whose details are largely unimportant.

It is not, however, a good way to engage readers, because in immersive terms, it creates a shallow pool. Full immersion just can’t happen if the reader’s senses are not being deployed in real time. Recap mode makes events feel like unimportant background; like the narrator is filling me in quickly while rushing me toward the real story. But after three chapters now, I’m realizing that there is no “real” story coming. We’re already soaking in it.

And that’s a shame, because I really wanted to experience this world. Kyra’s entire life has been a build-up toward finally reaching the scribery and learning to become a scribe. But now that we’re there, we aren’t being dropped into the experience with her. Instead, several months have already gone by in medium-speed recap mode, and I’m feeling a bit cheated, like I’ve been robbed of the payoff I’d been promised and that I’ve been looking forward to. Readers don’t read for the privilege of learning the facts of somebody else’s adventure; they read for the privilege of experiencing it themselves. And that can only happen when the author drops us into the important moments and let’s us breathe inside the protagonist while it’s happening.

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.

Blood and Beauty and Other Weird Tales, by Jeff Chapman (2:14)
Discordia: Short Stories from The Golden Apple of Discord, by Lauren Hodge (0:51)

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.