The Great Turning, by Lesli Richardson (5:15)

IOD score cardToday we see that a page of mundane travel details is a risky way to start a book.

What I gleaned about the story: Russell Owens used to live in Houston. Now he’s mustered out and is traveling to Montana to be with Ted.

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WTF #1: Wall of facts

Analysis: When I first come into a book, I’m hungry for information, so I tend to start out in a voracious mode, looking for as much as I can get, wherever I can get it. I’m so context-starved that in addition to reading the bare facts as stated, I also tend to read between the lines a lot, inferring even more from what I’m given. Not because I’m trying to be picky, but because I’m trying to assemble an entire world and context in my head as quickly as possible, so I can get on with understanding the story. And from what other readers have told me, I am not alone in this. So clearly, it’s important for authors to provide that grounding contextual information.

But at the same time, if the information comes too quickly, or if I’m not given enough time between factoids to fit them into my expanding mental framework, they overwhelm me and I end up drowning. It’s a delicate time for authors, who have to maintain a balance between starving and drowning the reader, and there are no fixed rules about how much is too little or how little is too much.

Having said that though, I think the opening sentence of today’s candidate fits squarely into the “drowning” category. Here it is:

Russell Owens no more noticed the noontime heat of the mid-April sun beating down on him as he hiked than he’d noticed the stifling humidity in Houston after his first month stationed there.

I had to run at that three times to be sure I’d gotten it all. It’s grammatically sound, but for me, hitting that wall of details right out of the gates was a dash of cold water. Just look at how much work that sentence is trying to do; how many facts it’s trying to convey. As an exercise, I’ll itemize all the points my subconscious tried to pick out here:

  1. The POV character of this scene is a guy named Russell Owens.
  2. The time is noon.
  3. The temperature is hot.
  4. The date is mid-April.
  5. It’s sunny out.
  6. Russell is outdoors.
  7. Russell is hiking.
  8. Houston is aggressively humid.
  9. Russell has lived in Houston for one month.
  10. Russel is/was in the military.
  11. Russell is not currently in Houston.

And then, to complicate that storm of data, the entire sentence is conveyed using a contrasting parallel clause structure that needs to be unpacked at the end before you can be sure what it’s trying to tell you.

Have you ever gone to a friend’s house and been greeted by an over-eager puppy who is unable to contain his excitement at having you visit? This sentence feels a bit like that. Not evil. Just over-eager to get things started.

WTF #2: Baitless hook

Analysis: There’s a calculus of caring that I employ, subconsciously at least, whenever I’m beginning a new book. I don’t mean that I need to understand the protagonist’s inner child or the origins of his secret pain right from page one. I just mean that I need to have some idea what makes this guy you’re talking about interesting enough for me to want to pay attention. And the more mundane the facts are that you relate to me, the more exasperated I’m going to feel about why you’re going on about him.

Consider the Chicago airport, which sees over 200,000 travelers each day. If you drop a narrative camera into the middle of all that and start telling me where Philip Averagejoe is going and what connecting flights he has to meet, etc., my immediate question is going to be: Why are you telling me this? Why Philip? Why not that guy sitting on the floor beside him? Or that woman trying to balance a coffee and a muffin while texting her agent? Why are you telling me Philip’s story?

And that’s what’s missing for me in today’s book. By the end of the first page, I’ve waded through an awful lot of details about where Russell Owens is going, but I have yet to be given even a single detail about why I should care. Just like with my airport analogy, there are presumably millions of people in this story world. Why should I care about the one named Russell Owens? I don’t need much. Just give me an odd detail to wonder about, or convey an interesting thought from his POV and I’ll be satisfied that this journey might be worth my time. But when you hit me with his travel plans for the next month before I know anything more about him than his name? Not so much.

WTF #3: Orthogonal parallel clauses

Analysis: Midway down page three, I came to this line:

And he wasn’t good enough at kissing ass—or willing to engage in dirty tricks—to step on the backs of his fellow Reds to get a promotion higher than the rank of captain.

I call this a parallel clause construction. It’s a rhetorical device that uses structural echos to create rhythm. Example: He wasn’t tall enough—or fat enough—to intimidate the mugger.

These operate on the premise that either phrase could have been used to complete the thought, and each would have made sense. But the author supplies both variants in a sort of poetic way to collapse two sentences into one, as in: He wasn’t tall enough to intimidate the mugger. He wasn’t fat enough to intimidate him either.

That little mental hitch-step we have to take to unpack the collapsed version and reconstruct the full meaning is one of those mental engagement tricks that help to keep the reader engaged in the story world. But in the quoted excerpt, the two parallel clauses do not echo. The setup of “good enough” leads us to expect that the second clause will be another thing he is not good enough at. But that’s not what we get, so the construction collapses as we scramble to figure out how they do relate. And that confusion disrupts our experience of the world, forcing us to concentrate on the words rather than the story.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

Criminalities: Three Short Crime Stories and an Essay, by Barry Ergang (1:42)
Everblossom: A Short Story and Poetry Anthology, by Larissa Hinton (2:37)

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.