The Tales of Abu Nuwas, by Marva Dasef (19:19)

IOD-AbuNuwasToday we see that even minor issues become large when they cluster together to form patterns.

What I gleaned about the story: An old beggar sits on a street corner, selling tales of ancient wonder.

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WTF #1: The girl looked at the old man for a moment and then took a step as if to go about her business. But she stopped and turned toward the old man.

Analysis: Here we see a simple phrase echo. Not an egregious one, but it’s easy to fix. This would read more smoothly to me if the second occurrence had been swapped for a pronoun. But she stopped and turned toward him.

But I didn’t flag this for that one echo alone. Unfortunately, I found a number of them. A little bit later, we see [the old man] began his tale, followed two paragraphs later by, [he] began to talk. In essence, he “began” his story twice. While I understand that the girl interrupted him, that second instance really needs to either say that he began again, or else that he “resumed” his story.

And a bit later, I found …her father would never free her, even when she came of age. Would he even let her marry? For me, the word “even” echoed here. Now, many of you will say that this is only just barely an echo at all, but remember, once a pattern forms in your head, you become much more sensitive to it. I agree completely that if this had been the only echo in the story, I would have passed by it without even blinking. But coming after a series of other examples, even the small ones start to leap out.

WTF #2: As far as she knew, no one but she had found the crumbling opening. When she discovered it, she immediately recognized its importance.

Analysis: Verb tense flopping. Yes, you can use past perfect to establish a time shift and then drop into simple past to simplify the prose, but you have to give more than a single example of the past perfect before switching, and you should only do so for relatively lengthy time regressions. If you’re only jumping back for one short paragraph, keeping it in past perfect is just easier. Otherwise, it can be mistaken for a tense mismatch, which is what happened to me.

There were other examples of tense flopping, too. Here’s another one that caught my eye as comment worthy: She sighed, a deep sigh only a very young, very romantic girl can muster.

It is quite common these days for the narrator, speaking in past tense, to then toss in chatty little asides like this, generalizing about human nature in the present tense. The problem is that, again, those changes need to be properly signalled, so that the verb tense shift doesn’t seem erroneous. One thing that helps is to split the sentence into two, so that each sentence is at least internally consistent for tense. The other thing you can do is to put in more signalling words, making it clear that you’ve shifted focus from the specific case to the general. She sighed a deep sigh. The kind that only very young, very romantic girls can muster. That’s how I would handle it, but I’d be happy to hear from copy editors about how they recommend handling those.

WTF #3: More echoing.

Analysis: Echoes aren’t always caused by repeating a precise word or phrase. Sometimes a cognitive echo arises from repeated use of the same phrasal concept. At one point in this story, the narrator is telling us about how the protagonist likes to watch sun sets. But in the course of one paragraph, I counted about four references to “sun setting,” “sun set,” “sunset,” and so on. Again, echoes like this can often be eliminated by replacing some of the references with pronouns. But another solution is to find other ways to say it. Maybe one of those could have had her watching the “great lantern sinking into the west,” or “watching the Day-god’s fire expire into the embers of night.” Obviously, the style of the replacement needs to be appropriate to the tone of the story, but expunging an echo can sometimes be a great inspiration for poetic eloquence.

Almost tripped: They hit hard and fast and then returned swiftly to their mountain aeries. I stumbled over this one at the time, but managed to keep moving. Later, after the treadmill had stopped, I went back and checked, to be sure. Yup, an aerie is a nest for a bird of prey. If these raiders are human, which is what the text seems to suggest, this makes no sense. Or at least, needs further explanation. Why are human raiders living in nests?

[Edit: After prompting from some readers, I’ve discovered that some dictionaries show a second meaning for “aerie”, as a “lofty dwelling.” In my own experience of the word, the bird’s nest angle is dominant, and I can only ever recall it being used for humans when there was an deliberate avian metaphor at work. I didn’t charge a WTF for it here, but if I had, I guess that would just have underscored the fact that sometimes, a reader will bail for reasons that pertain only to themselves.]

Note: This is actually a delightful story so far, calling to mind the 1001 Arabian Nights. I’m always tickled when I find a fantasy piece that follows older models of the fantastic, and while I found some hiccups in the execution here, this is one of the stories where the tone and content seemed beguiling enough to keep me reading even after the treadmill had stopped.

Fancy Free, by Pam Uphoff (10:00)
Fatal Infatuation, by Melanie Nowak (9:37)

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.