On Lucky Shores, by Kerry J. Donovan (25:47)

IOD-On_Lucky_Shores.jpgToday’s story reminds us that action may distract readers from minor prose problems for a while, but sooner or later, that action is going to slow down and drop them right back into it.

What I gleaned about the story: Chet Walker is hiking across America with his guitar, trying to escape his troubled past, but when he is the first responder to a road-side accident in a remote mountain community, he is quickly pulled into something even deeper and darker than the troubles he left behind.

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WTF #1: Redundant phrases

Analysis: Consider these three sentences:

If he had any sense, he’d turn tail and head back to the valley, but he’d made his decision and no way would he quit.

He’d made his decision on that front, burnt his bridges.

Yep, he should have stayed in the valley, but he’d made up his mind and wouldn’t turn back.

All three of these come on the first half page. When I hit the third one, I had to jump back to see what was going on. Why was I being told so frequently about his resolve? It turns out that the three statements were not about the same situation. The first and third were about his decision to stay in the valley, while the middle one was about his decision to keep his guitar with him. But even so, the effect of being told over and over about his firm decisions, and with such similar language, became a recurring refrain that pulled my attention out of the story to gawk at the words.

WTF #2: Unanchored time

Analysis: Throughout the first page, there were a number of subtle grammatical miscues. Not outright errors, but places where I felt the phrasing was odd, leaving me unsure about the proper flow, and several of those were places where I thought past perfect or past subjunctive modes might have been intended, but had not been employed.

Finally, on the second page, I hit a passage where I was completely thrown. The protagonist has been walking toward a town he had seen promoted on a billboard. He’d set out that morning and walked all through the day, but still no town. So now he’s annoyed and his stomping cadence has turned into something of a marching rhythm. Then he tells us about the stupid sign that started it all, which is followed immediately by:

After three hours of hard marching he reached the lower slopes. Two hours later, he reached foothills, rougher ground, but still no Lucky Shores, not even a sign post.

The problem is that I have no idea which time he is talking about. This comes immediately after telling us about the sign, and no time shift is signalled, so this should be about what happened this morning, right? But at the same time, I note the use of the specific phrase, “hard marching.” This sounds an awful lot like a call-back to two sentences previously, when we were told about how his walking rhythm now had turned into a march. So I’m completely torn. This could be a reference to either time. But since I’ve already been fending off those subtle tense problems, I can’t rely on the usual time signals (or lack thereof) of verb tenses to guide me.

In the end, I decided that the references to foot hills and lower slopes must mean that he was talking about the morning, as he left the valley, but by this time, immersion had clearly been severed.

Sidebar: At one point, the narrator tells us about the wind veering, first hitting him in the face, then in the back. This stood out a bit for me because in my own experience, the colloquial use of “veering” means a sudden change in direction, yes, but not a large one. I would use it in situations where the angle is not changing by any more than about 90 degrees, as in, “He crossed the llama pen, veering left and right to dodge its many organic obstacles.” To me, if the direction changes by 180 degrees, as is the case here, that takes it well beyond “veering,” and the subtle disconnect between the verb and the situation caught my eye. But it could very easily be the fault of my own quirky interpretation of the word “veering,” so I let it pass.

Sidebar to the Sidebar: Curiously, when we talk specifically about wind, the word “veering” has a slightly different meaning: to change angle in a clockwise direction. This is in opposition to a “backing” wind, which shifts in a counter-clockwise direction. I didn’t charge a WTF for any of this, but I have always been fascinated by such subtle issues of connotation and meaning, so I thought I’d share.

WTF #3: Recurring minor grammar issues.

Analysis: For a few pages there, the action picked up as Chet witnessed a car wreck and then had to render aid to the badly injured driver. To that point, I had been grumbling to myself about those minor grammar issues, but the sudden emergency pulled me right through the words and into the story. But alas, eventually all excitements must fade, and with my attention no longer riveted to the life-and-death situation, I found myself noticing those subtle grammar problems again. For example, now Chet is sitting in the ambulance, having his cuts and bruises dressed, when we get:

“Sorry. I should learn never to question a medical practitioner. Thanks,” he said, held the mask to his face, and took a couple of deep, slow breaths.

The attribution (“he said”) concludes the dialogue sentence, but then it tries to become the first action in a series, and for me, that change of duty doesn’t work. It feels awkward. Not quite right, but not quite wrong either. I fully acknowledge that this is a subtle issue, but the distraction of the preceding action sequence had lulled me into a sense that the editorial leaks had dried up. So when I came down off the adrenaline high and noticed that my feet were still splashing in the grammatical dampness, it irritated me enough to grumble about it aloud. And nothing identifies an immersion bust like a good snarl.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, 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.