Grounded, by Emily Matthew (8:02)

IOD-GroundedToday we see that if you want to monkey with known concepts, you have to get the reader to trust you before you start laying down the weird.

What I gleaned about the story: A young bird/boy/thing fails his fledging test and tumbles from his sky city home to the scary world below. Presumably he will not be immediately eaten.

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WTF #1: The hand problem

Analysis: So the protagonist is a young talking eagle, complete with wings, feathers, talons, a beak… and hands. That threw me. His fellow sky-dwellers are ravens, owls, albatrosses, etc. Except they’re not, really. Because they have hands, too. Do these hands grow out of the ends of their wings? Do they have entire arms, in addition to the wings? I don’t know. And the fact that I can’t even picture the body shape of the characters is a big distraction for me.

WTF #2: His knees weakened as he stepped…  

Analysis: So yes, birds do actually have knees, but they kinda don’t. The knee joint on a bird is tucked up under the feathers. You almost never see it. The visible joint in the middle of a bird leg–the joint that actually does the work to support the body’s weight–is the ankle. If a bird is scared and worried about losing his ability to stand, it would be his ankles that got weak, not his knees.

Now, I understand that “weak in the knees” is supposed to convey fear. But that’s a human term. Bird people wouldn’t say that. And when an author uses default idioms of English that wouldn’t really exist in their story world, it pops me out of the story. A realia is a word that exists in one language, but can’t be translated directly into another language. The phenomenon in this story, however, is sort of the opposite of that: words that do exist in the fictional world/language, but shouldn’t. So I’m going to call them anti-realias. (Unless somebody contacts me and tells me there’s a better term already in use.)

WTF #3: Fifteen years of helplessness

Analysis: The story establishes that these bird people are still hatched from eggs, and that the young are flightless. But instead of being fledged within a few months, like the birds we know, these bird-folk fledge at age fifteen, and this popped me out of the story. Really? A species that still fights and competes among themselves in the air, and juveniles can’t fly for fifteen years? This would be like human children being unable to walk until they were old enough to drive cars. Society would be crushed under the burden of lugging all those large, flightless children around.

Ultimately, the problem I had isn’t really whether these bird folks have knees or ankles, or whether fledging should happen at fifteen weeks or fifteen years. The problem is that the author has not given me a clear picture of this species, so I’m having to piece it together from the word choices, etc., but I’m getting mixed signals. I believe that if you are going to alter a fundamental concept for which the reader already has a well-established understanding, you have to hang a lantern on the fact that you’re changing it. You have to acknowledge to the reader that, yes, this is not the <concept> as you understand it. I’m making changes, so bear with me. If you don’t do that, and quickly, the reader is left to wonder whether you’ve ever even seen a <concept> before.

Several years ago, a friend of mine wrote and produced a vampire movie for Canadian television. (Rufus) Except, the protag wasn’t really a vampire. He just kinda quacked like one. So when my friend and I were discussing an early draft of his script, I suggested that since Scene 1 had this Rufus character stepping off a bus in the middle of the day, he needed to lampshade the whole “vampires and sunlight” thing, or he was going to lose the trust of his viewers. To do this, we decided that after watching the boy step off the bus, we would cut to a shot of the sun, blazing brightly in the sky. And that was all that was needed. That one shot said, “Yes, I know you think he’s a vampire, and yes, he’s standing in the bright sunlight. But I’m showing you the sun now so that you know I did this intentionally. It’s not a gaffe by some schmoe who doesn’t know what vampires are supposed to be like. I do know. Now cut me some slack and trust me.” So folks did.

But that’s what this book did not do with the bird creatures.

The Summerlark Elf, by Brandon Draga (10:13)
Thea of Oz, by Rebecca A. Demarest (34:59)

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.