Trophies, by J. Gunnar Grey (12:22)

IOD-TrophiesToday we see that deviating from publishing conventions can create unintended problems for the reader.

What I gleaned about the story: Aunt Edith is dead. Charles is suffering from PTSD, was known to have argued with her, and has no alibi for the time of the murder. Plus he was found tampering with the scene of the crime. Chances are good he’s going to be a suspect.

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Note: The book opens with a list of the major characters. This is a well-enough established practice, especially for sprawling books of political intrigue. But here’s a thing I’ve noticed. In 95% of the books I’ve ever read that included a cast of characters listing, those lists have been absolutely necessary, but not because there are too many characters to keep straight. The problem I see over and over again—even in major books from major authors—is that the casting roster is required because the author has done an abysmal job of making their characters distinct and memorable.

If your protagonist, his sidekick, his great-uncle Louie, and the dastardly villain all behave the same, talk the same, and are little more than label markers for the indistinguishable dialogue you give them, then you can be absolutely certain readers won’t have any idea who’s who. When this happens, the solution most authors seem to leap for is the casting roster. But in reality, when readers are confused about who is who, that’s a sign of a deeper, more insidious problem, and providing a character list is not so much a fix for that problem as a bandaid slapped on over it. These days, I interpret the presence of a dramatis personae at the start of a book as a confession by the author that they suck at writing distinct characters. And I set my expectations accordingly.

Note: Once again we see a book that indents every paragraph as well as putting a blank line between them. This is an instant red flag for me, suggesting that no experienced book designer was involved in the making of the book. Shields up!

WTF #1: Missing past perfect

Analysis: This happens repeatedly throughout the first two pages. Little quips and asides about the deeper past are set in simple past, so the timing is indistinguishable from things going on in the “present.” Consider this bit, taken from the second page:

I still smelled the blood. I failed Aunt Edith. Everything inside me wrenched. 

The story is being told in past tense, so the simple past represents “now.” Reading this passage, it sounds like he smelled the blood, and then he failed his aunt. But that’s not what happened. The aunt is already dead, lying at his feet. It’s her blood he’s smelling. The failure had already happened before the story even opened.

Unfortunately, it’s little grammatical flaws like this that can completely undermine a reader’s faith in the writing and/or the editing. I understand that writing in the past tense and knowing when to drop into past perfect for deeper past references can be a bit tricky in some situations, but it really is like immersion shielding when basic errors like this happen repeatedly in the first two pages.

WTF #2: Distracting typography

Analysis: I’ve mentioned before that I find the practice of double-marking the paragraph breaks distracting. I honestly have no idea what leads some authors to doing it, because I have never in my life seen a professionally produced novel that had blank lines between paragraphs. For me, it conveys a subconscious feeling that the author is trying to make each paragraph its own special princess; weighty and profound and not to be taken lightly. I know that is not at all the intention, but it’s how that style feels to me. But whether intentional or not, it irritates me constantly when I see it—at pretty much every paragraph break—and distracts me from the story being told.

It’s possible that I’d get used to it once I got further into the book, but do you really want your readers having to grit their teeth and bear it for the first half hour?

WTF #3: Confusing joke

Analysis: The second chapter opens on a scene in which the protagonist and his parents are all present, but we haven’t been told whether anybody else is in the room with them. The protagonist is 11 yrs old and is leaving for boarding school. His father makes a remark advising him not to get girls pregnant. We are then told that the protagonist’s older brother has just baptized William III.

At first, I wondered what the former king of England had to do with this, but then the narrator told us that the advice about pregnancy had been a joke, and I noticed that the father and brother were also called William. I’m normally pretty quick on picking up humor, so I’m wondering why it escaped me here. I suspect the problem was two-fold. First, there was that red herring about British royalty to break up my reading flow, and then I suspect there was another culprit at work: those pesky paragraph breaks.

See, I think part of the problem for me with those blank lines is that this is normally how fiction signals a scene break. I think that, subconsciously, this is why every paragraph feels a bit isolated to me, because scene breaks are where the situational context gets set to null, and we readers prepare ourselves mentally for a shift, throwing out the context of the previous scene and getting ready for the new scene that’s about to begin. It may even trigger the same psychological process, called the “doorway effect,” that accounts for why we can’t remember what we were doing when we enter a new room.

Anyway, regardless of reasons, when I finally did piece the parts of this joke into a whole, I realized that I’d spent almost a full minute excavating the logic for what turned out to be an inconsequential aside.

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.