The Fall, by M.J. McGriff (3:11)

IOD score cardToday we see that if the reader can’t get a stable sense of where they are in the universe, it’s hard for immersion to ever take hold.

What I gleaned about the story: Somebody is on a shuttle in a back-water colony town. People used to mine coal here. Presumably more is going to happen.

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Technical Note: The table of contents contains all the entries you’d expect, but inexplicably, every chapter listing is preceded by a distracting hyphen, which is not done for the other entries like the Dedication and the Copyright pages. While this in no way impacts the usability of the ebook, it does make we wonder whether the author conducted a quality review of the converted file before releasing it. Again, not a show-stopper problem if that wasn’t done, but it does set my radar tingling with an expectation of layout and/or editorial problems to come. Authors, take note. Anything that can be construed to suggest that your work has not been produced in a meticulous, careful, and professional manner can set a reader on guard. And that in turn makes any subsequent problem more intrusive and less forgivable.

WTF #1: Chaotic camera work

Analysis: The opening of the story tries to set the scene for us, but it does so with jarring implied camera work that left me scratching my head. Consider this opening:

I had no business being in the Cruz.

This New Earth colony was in the middle of nowhere—so far removed from the rest of the Federation you almost forgot it existed. But here it was, and so was I—with a job to do even though it was against my better judgment. The ten-passenger shuttle rounded the bend, and the colony came into full view.

The camera of the first sentence seems to be in a specific place. Maybe “the Cruz” is a town. Maybe it’s a building.

The next sentence alters the scale, telling me that the Cruz is a colony “in the middle of nowhere.” I naturally unpack that to mean it’s a town or settlement in some remote, hard-to-reach part of the world. Maybe in a desert or something. But then the second half of that sentence—the part after the em-dash—reveals that we’re talking about where the planet itself is located, not the colony settlement that’s on it.

Then two sentences further, we’re in a shuttle. Since the previous sentence had pulled the camera back to the planetary scale, I’m now thinking this shuttle is coming in for a landing. Only that image gets subverted by “round the bend,” so now I’m in a bus or a land crawler on some kind of road approaching town. By my count, that’s at least 4 different mental locales (and 3 unexpected camera leaps) in only 4 sentences.

When I have no confidence for which basic image should be in my mental camera (a town, a desert road, a reentry orbit, the vast expanse between a remote colony and Mother Earth) I can’t get a handle on how to process the imagery and implications of the prose that follows, so immersion cannot happen.

WTF #2: More camera chaos

Analysis: After pausing to contemplate the confusion of the previous excerpt, I dove back in, only to be further buffeted.

I took off my mirrored sunglasses, and it was hard to imagine this had been the bustling city of the early days. Back then it had been the only place where you could get Sandstone, the New Earth version of the old planet’s coal. Then they discovered Mountain Coal in the Cape Mountains back east, and just like that this place spiraled into a colonial recession.

My initial question is: what does that first sentence mean? That the protagonist is having trouble equating what he sees with the busyness of the stories from the early days? Or with his memories from back then? So my mental camera is still floundering a bit, now uncertain in time instead of place.

Then we get a reference to the old planet (presumably our Earth) and then the bit about “back east.” Is that a reference to some other place in the east of this colony world? Or is it maybe a reference to somewhere in the east back on old Earth?

And what am I to make of the word “back”? Back in what sense? Back where I just came from? Back where we all came from? Since we’ve only just met this narrator, we still have no idea what his own personal history is, so we have no grounding for what/where “back” might mean.

There are so many different spatial references here, and so much reliance on implied relative referencing, that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to unpack each of them with confidence. And the lower my confidence gets on any one issue, the harder it is to be confident with the next one. This opening would be much improved by some kind of wide-angle establishing shot, planting our feet firmly in where we are, and then stable, explicit camera and reference moves. But as written, it’s shaking me loose with every bump and lurch of passing phrase.

WTF #3: Camera trifecta

Analysis: Our third and final stop on the tour comes with this excerpt:

My ride came to a stop in front of the shuttle station, dust and sand kicking up everywhere as it slowly lowered to the ground. It took up an entire block.

Clearly the “it” at the end of the first sentence refers to the shuttle. So when the next sentence tells me that “It took up an entire block,” I’m thinking, “Why is this shuttle so freaking big? It’s the size of a city block?” Sigh. No. Apparently “it” now refers to something completely different. Without any signalling to help me follow the change, “it” now refers to the station. And that’s the third straight time in half a page that my mental camera has shown me the wrong thing.

The effect is a bit like trying to watch a movie car chase through a camera that was just left to roll randomly around in the back of the speeding pickup truck. You get flashes of imagery, but it’s so unstable and disconnected that nothing you’re seeing makes any sense. And that makes immersing into the story experience almost impossible.

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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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 underqualified in just about everything. That’s why he writes.