Broken Wizards, by Jeffrey Bardwell (4:55)

IOD score cardToday we see that inadequate editing is the fastest way to derail the immersion train.

What I gleaned about the story: A youth who looks like the magistrate’s son is on trial for being a mage. Or possibly a dragon. Both?

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WTF #1: Problematic prose

Analysis: We open on a concluded trial and a magistrate readying himself to pass down a sentence. The magistrate is clearly ready for this long, emotionally grueling trial to be over. It doesn’t help that the defendant looks a lot like the magistrate’s own son. That’s a poignant touch. But the sentence that reveals this fact is a little hard to work through:

He had suffered through the whole proceeding peering into some bizarre, hideous future seeing that face stare back at him: a face his mind kept warping into a twisted, older version of his son.

At first I thought there might be a missing comma or two. Re-reading it several times, I finally decided that the sentence wasn’t necessarily ungrammatical. But if I were wearing my editor hat, I’d probably leave a note asking the author to rewrite it for clarity. If I’m trying to read for enjoyment, my editing hat should be in the other room.

WTF #2: Idiosyncratic word selection

Analysis: As the magistrate tries to square the youth’s appearance with the depictions of mages in state propaganda, he thinks:

At least true dragons have the grace to look like fire-breathing monsters. [emphasis added]

The author is clearly using the old formula, “At least [X] has the courtesy to [Y],” as in “At least Bob had the courtesy to look me in the eye as he stabbed me in the back.” Usually, the formula is employed to compare the behavior of Awful Thing X to worse behavior by Awful Thing Z (like Tom, the sneakier backstabber).

The thing about familiar formulas is, when you see the formula tweaked, you figure there’s a reason for the change. Dramatic or humorous effect, or to better fit it to the situation, or even to make the formula seem a little less clich├ęd. And when the reader can’t find a good reason for the change, they may start trying to read between the lines.

Here, where you’d ordinarily expect to see “courtesy” or “good manners,” we instead find the word “grace.” ‘Grace’ can (in proper context) be used to describe someone’s refined manners. One could argue that by substituting it for the more formula-expected ‘courtesy,’ that context is provided. But the word also has several other meanings, like “spiritual forgiveness,” or “elegance and beauty of form.” The latter one is most suggestive, because the magistrate is thinking about the physical look of the fire-breathers. But ‘monsters’ and ‘grace’ don’t easily fit together either.

After a bit of back and forth, I decided that I can’t tell whether the word choice was meant to convey the same meaning as ‘courtesy,’ or if the substitution is supposed to add meaning. It felt like an important argument for my brain to have, since the narrative seems to be putting a lot of weight on the relationship between mages and actual dragons. But the sentence brought me to a halt, which is the opposite of immersion.

WTF #3: For the want of a hyphen…

Analysis: The magistrate briefly considers how the boy came to trial in the first place. It’s proof that the trade guilds wield a great deal of political power. As a history lesson, the section is short and engaging. But there’s a punctuation fly in the pedagogical ointment:

Even after banishing the ex apprentice from their ranks, the artificers looked after their own.

There should definitely be a hyphen after the ‘ex,’ and the lack of it is distracting in its own right. But it resonates harder because the book is already showing signs of not being well edited. The more times you see the impression reinforced early, the more likely the reader is to assume the problem will persist for the rest of the book.

Editing aside, the book shows signs of life. The prose is frequently good, and hints at a detailed world of magic, dragons, political intrigue, and history. The magistrate is already a sympathetic character, even though he seems to have it in for the defendant (who I’m guessing is the main character). Something’s glittering beneath the fine dusting of editing problems. It might be gold or just pyrite. Either way, it will shine brighter when the dust is cleared away.

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.

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