The Aeronaut, by Bryan Young (3:27)

IOD-TheAeronautToday we see that any unbelievable thing can happen in a story, so long as the reader is given reason to believe you did it on purpose.

What I gleaned about the story: A young American joins the French Army to help fight WWI and has his legs ripped off by poorly designed jetpacks. Or at least, that’s what should happen logically.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: There was no embedded cover in the ebook file I received. Sure, many authors rely on the ebook vendor to insert the cover image into the book once everything has been uploaded, but IMO that’s no excuse. Even if you rely on the vendor to attach the cover, you should at least buy a copy of your book after it becomes available and ensure that everything was done properly. Would you send out print books without first ensuring that the covers had been printed and attached?

The second benefit of doing this simple test is that you then have a production copy of your novel, which you can send out to reviewers. In the old days of publisher’s ARCs, sending out an incomplete product made sense, but only for reviews being solicited before publication. Once the book has been published, you want the reviewer to see the most professional version possible. Why risk even the slightest chance that some rough corner will attract the reviewers attention and skew his perception of your book?

Case in point: me.

I try hard not to judge a book by its lack of cover, but I suspect that it continues to influence me subconsciously, despite those intentions. This isn’t a show-stopper issue, nor is it something I charge a WTF for, but I can’t promise that it doesn’t color my perception of the entire reading experience. In my mind, real books have covers and sloppy books don’t. I thought maybe I should declare that bias up front.


WTF #1: Unfortunate character name

Analysis: The first five words of the story are: My name is Robert Preston. The sentence continues from there, but I was already distracted. In my head, the protagonist is already painted with the attitudes and behaviors of a mid-western confidence man. Why? Because Robert Preston is the name of the actor who played Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. His other major role of note for genre geeks? He played Centauri, the alien quasi-con artist in The Last Starfighter. Those two roles are strongly associated with the name Robert Preston in my mind, so the character has to carry all that baggage whether he wants it or not.

Sure, you can never hope to know for certain whether some name you pick might be significant for some reader, but at the very least, it’s probably worth your time to Google the names of important characters. If you get a hit on somebody apparently famous on page one of your Google results, it’s a damned good bet that at least some of your audience will know the connection. Especially if that person’s fame relates to the same genre as your book.

Unfortunately, once the connection had been made in my head, it was pretty much impossible to unmake it, and I proceeded to read the narration in Harold Hill’s fast-talking patter—which is definitely not a style suited to the events being narrated.

WTF #2: Unclear time references

Analysis: The first sentence references two time periods: some unspecified present, from which the narrator is recounting his tale; and the day at which his adventure began, which he tells us was his first day in the trenches of WWI. The second sentence then references two time periods as well: a period prior to the trenches, in which he had received training and then traveled to the front; and again, the period of those first few days at the front. The third sentence reinforces the fact that the narrator is speaking from the present, and the fourth introduces a third, more ominous sounding time period, making a vague hint at deeds to come some time after those first few days. Two sentences later, we get another time reference (is this 5 now?) to an even further future event, after he gets wounded, at which point we will meet another important character who is as yet off-screen. This was all a bit Memento feeling, but not quite enough to throw the cart off the tracks.

Unfortunately, that’s when the narrator tells us that: I was naive then to think the war would fix my problems. And my first question was: Which “then” would that be? Before the war? After the injury? It’s an important concern, because this sentence is trying to tell me about his state of mind, but if I don’t know which of the half dozen time periods we’re talking about, it serves no purpose at all, other than to confuse me.

But the final straw on this WTF came in the next sentence, which talks about yet another time period: “When I left the states.” And again, we’ve been given absolutely no temporal cues. Was this after basic training? Before? We don’t have any information about the guy yet, not even his nationality, so there’s no way to know what “leaving the states” signifies, or how it fits into his war experience.

This was a lot of confusion to find in the first half page, but it was all about the same core issue, so I’ve lumped it together as a single WTF.

WTF #3: A mess of unbelievabilities

Analysis: To this point in the story, everything we’ve been told more or less fits with a traditional First World War setting. We’ve got the trenches, an American wounded in 1915 but fighting for the French, U-boats, zeppelins, etc. But then I got to this curious sentence:

French scientists, working around the clock for years, cloistered away in rooms full of computational machinery, had cracked a scientific code the Germans hadn’t: they had designed and manufactured individual jump packs.

Rooms full of computational machinery? That sounds a lot like computers, but circa 1915? That seems like an anachronism, unless those computational machines were just adding machines. Or was the author implying that Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine had actually been built? If so, then it might have been nice to see a lampshade hanging on that, to assure me that the author knew it was out of place, and that it was a fact of this world I would have to suspend my disbelief over.

Then in the next paragraph, we’re told that this “jump pack” he’s wearing is rocket powered. Rockets existed in those days, as weapons, but certainly not in any vehicular form, let alone personal vehicles. So again, this should have been lampshaded. But that’s not what really threw me about the packs, because then we get to the part where we’re told how these jump packs are being used.

The pack is huge—about twice the width of a man—and made of metal. It has metal tanks that contain its fuel, and it’s strapped to his back. In addition to that, he’s wearing a heavily armored vest and lead-asbestos pants or leggings of some kind. All this weight allows him a 60-second jump time to leap across the battlefield. But I’m thinking, “What keeps his legs from being crushed or torn out of his hip-sockets when he lands?” Where’s all that momentum going?

On top of all that, he’s armed with a flamethrower as his primary weapon. (And no, it isn’t using the same fuel as the jump pack, because he specifically says they fire-hosed the Germans until the fuel ran out and then jet-jumped back to their own lines.) So that’s even more fuel, more weight, and more wildly shifting mass to somehow be balanced and accounted for by the jet pack.

For me, this is just too many unbelievable things crammed into too short a space. It’s not that they can’t possibly be explained away, but if an author writes something unbelievable and doesn’t say anything to convince me otherwise, I remain suspicious that he wrote it that way because he doesn’t know it’s a problem. This is exactly what I mean when I talk about the first few chapters of a book being about building up a reader’s trust. When the reader has learned that you know your stuff, and everything you do is for a reason, they’ll let you get away with all kinds of weird stuff. But in the early going, before that trust has been established, unbelievabilities count against you.

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.

Pandora Red, by Jay Tinsiano (3:55)
Flash! Vol 1, by Brady Koch (2:13)

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.