Immerse Or Die – Page 1 – Creativity Hacker A novelist and creativity scientist explores the intersection between software, writing, and creativity theory. Sat, 06 Oct 2018 21:44:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Immortal, by Gene Doucette (40:00) Tue, 09 Oct 2018 13:00:50 +0000 Today we see that, even when treading familiar ground, a good author can make it seem fresh by adding just a dollop of humor. What I gleaned about the story:...]]>

IOD score cardToday we see that, even when treading familiar ground, a good author can make it seem fresh by adding just a dollop of humor.

What I gleaned about the story: Adam is an immortal who’s been around since Ugg and Ogg hunted nugg-beast with pointed stick. These days though, he’s a homeless booze-hound, just wandering the world, looking for parties. He’s got a raunchy ifrit for a friend, but no other attachments. Sure, there’s this one chick he’s been seeing for years and years. Not dating, just seeing. Like, from across a crowded room. And now I suspect those days of “just seeing” are about to end.

Find this book on Amazon.

Kudo #1: Funny turn of phrase

Analysis: Our protagonist, Adam, is telling us about the odd places he’s regained consciousness before: I’ve woken up in haylofts, under a butter churn, on roofs, in a choir loft (twice), under tables, on tables, in trees, in ditches, and half-pinned under a sleeping ox. One time in Bombay, I woke up to find myself lashed to a yak.

Any author who appreciates the comedic value of a good yak reference is my kind of author.

WTF #1: Familiar premise

Analysis: I let this go for a quite a while before the familiarities piled too deep for me to let them pass without comment. Our protagonist is immortal. He’s been making his way in the world since men hunted big beasts with pointy sticks. He has plenty of memories, many of which conflict with modern accepted history, but he didn’t appreciate them as momentous at the time. They were just the events of the day. He changes identities frequently, to avoid the usual questions about his continued youth. And there are a handful of other experiences that are all pretty common stock-in-trade for the “immortal among us” trope.

Where it started to seem a little too close for comfort was when he bluntly outed himself to a group of college kids at a party. Sure, they weren’t professors, and it was in a frat house rather than a remote cabin, but this situation immediately put me in mind of the fabulous 2007 indie film: The Man From Earth.

A spoonful of humor can make minor irritations much easier to endure.
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It’s entirely possible the author hasn’t seen that somewhat obscure film, and even if he has, the similarities are not egregious. They were just strong enough to invoke my “I’ve seen this all before” instinct and make me stop to think about whether or not it was too close. But I decided that this is a much funnier take on that same founding premise, and it goes in completely different directions. So it draws a flag for bursting my immersive bubble enough to consider the question, but now I’ve decided I’m happy and so I’m going back in.

WTF #2: Implausible physics

Analysis: If I tell you that a fish plant has been built on the docks, hanging out over the water so that workers can dump fish guts through a trap door, directly into the water below, how deep do you imagine that water below would be? One foot? Two? Of course not. Any sane person would reason that with shallow water like that, the guts would just pile up and become a stinking, rotting mess. No, any architect worth his blue paper would want to do this in a place where the water was fairly deep, and the current fairly strong as well, so that the dumped guts would float off to become somebody else’s problem. To be plausible for me, the water would have to be at least ten feet deep. I just can’t imagine any fish-plant designer taking a risk on anything shallower. But let’s set that aside, because that’s only part of my problem here.

Now, about that building. If I also told you that when I first saw its overhang, I imagined that the entire building might tip over and fall into the bay, how high up would you visualize it being? Ten feet? Twenty? Good, because that’s what I thought too. I’m so glad we’re on the same wavelength about this.

diving into a glass of waterSo, remembering that ten- or twenty-foot drop we’ve imagined, how would you feel if I escaped a fire in the building by dropping through that fish-guts door? No problem, right? But what if I landed in only four feet of water, still without suffering any injuries? WTF? Frankly, the whole idea sounds a bit…off-base to me. (I avoided the obvious pun there. You’re welcome.)

But maybe you’d be willing to let me get away with it one time. I mean, I suppose it’s possible to drop ten or twenty feet into four feet of water and not be maimed. Maybe if you were really lucky and landed just right. But what if I then had more than twenty people jump with me? All of them in a terrified, OMG-I’m-going-to-die panic to escape the fire. All of them jumping through the same small trap door. All falling 10-20 ft into that same 4 ft of water. And not only are none of them injured by the shallow impact, none of them are injured by colliding with other escapees either.

Unfortunately, this implausibility pulled me sharply out of the story. And it didn’t need to happen. If the splash zone had been ten feet deep, I’d have been satisfied about the shallow impact problem. And give the river a decent current (like, strong enough to sweep fish guts away) and I’d be happy with the human collision problem too. But as it’s written, I couldn’t stay immersed.

Note: That physics problem was a pretty big bump in the road for me, but I was still enjoying the story and still curious where it was going, so I put it behind me and dove back in. And before I knew it, the 40-minute timer was up. So there we have it, another IOD survivor!

Aftermath: After reaching that finish line, I sat down to write up this report, and in doing so, gave oxygen to a background quibble that had been bothering me for a while. The story hinges around our immortal protagonist, who has been alive since the dawn of human existence. (According to the cover, it’s been over 60,000 years.) But right out of the gates, he told us that he has no special resistance to death, other than being immune to all diseases. He’s been badly hurt many times, and believes he is capable of dying; he just hasn’t yet. And that just strikes me as implausible for at least three reasons. First, simply because the chance of dying by fatal accident is already non-trivial for those of us with just a century to look forward to. Expecting that our hero could do so for so many millennia just seems statistically improbable.

death by alcoholBut it gets worse. Having done so much of his living in the era before statistics, logic, and complex reasoning, you’d think that by age 200 or 300, he’d have started to think himself a god, maybe. Or at least believe he was fully impervious to death. So wouldn’t he have begun to engage in ever riskier behaviors, trying to find his limits? Hell, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day couldn’t even last a few measly years before trying to kill himself, just to see if he could.

And then, to top it all off, our long-lived-cave-daddy here isn’t exactly a cautious person, is he. He claims to have been drinking heavily since the invention of alcohol, to such extent that he has already regaled us with a laundry list of places he as awakened after being black-out drunk. But none of that ever brought him face to face with the kind of mortality that awaits most addicts, drunkards and fools?

Sadly, I find that the humorous tone was not quite enough to carry me over these last two logic issues. (The water depth and death by misadventure ones). But if logic problems like these aren’t the kind that rattle you, then by all means take it for a spin and see what you think. There’s plenty to like here, and there just might be a clever and humorous story waiting for you if you do.golden thumb awardCredit: And lastly, I need to design some kind of “golden reader award” so I can give it to IOD Scout, Judy Davis for suggesting this one to me. Thanks, Judy.

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.
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The Jewels of ImmerseOrDie Fri, 21 Sep 2018 23:00:21 +0000 You asked for it, so now it’s happening. A curated page of the very best indie fiction, as selected by the grueling ImmerseOrDie review process. These books are the best...]]>

You asked for it, so now it’s happening. A curated page of the very best indie fiction, as selected by the grueling ImmerseOrDie review process. These books are the best of the best we’ve seen on the treadmill. More than just 40-minute survivors, these titles went on to impress from start to finish.

You’ll find a link to the list page up above on the site menu as “Book Recommendations.” And in case you get lost, you can also find it under the ImmerseOrDie menu as IOD Jewels. Or of course, you could always just click here.

Each book is showcased with its cover and a short blurb from me. If seeing them inspires you to purchase, and you do so by following the links on the page, you’ll be supporting ImmerseOrDie at the same time without spending a single extra nickle. (This was a great idea that was suggested in the recent survey, so if you haven’t filled your collection of great IOD titles yet, what are you waiting for? :-)

There are still a few books not on the list, which I’ll be adding soon. I’ll also be adding additional features to make the list easier to filter and sort by genre and author, but for now, check it out and tell me what you think.

(And if you’re planning to buy a car through Amazon, let me know. I’d love to hook you up with a referral link for that too. :-)

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Survival in the Robot Dawn, by C.W. Crowe (6:46) Fri, 21 Sep 2018 13:00:54 +0000 Today we see that a prologue involving the same cast, setting, and time period as the rest of the story isn’t really a prologue. It’s Scene #1. What I gleaned...]]>

IOD score cardToday we see that a prologue involving the same cast, setting, and time period as the rest of the story isn’t really a prologue. It’s Scene #1.

What I gleaned about the story: In this world of the future, robot families keep human pets to help guide them in how to behave more like a human families. Why? Who knows? But it’s an interesting place to start.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: There was no cover in the book file. I’ve seen a number of authors send out ARCs this way, but I’ve always thought it to be a risky practice—particularly with indie fiction, where any number of things can (and frequently do) go horribly wrong. So to combat any fear of that, you want your reviewer to get the very best experience your book has to offer. And that should include the cover.

WTF #1: Quirky typography

Analysis: This began as a really minor quibble that I noticed while getting ready to read. The metadata ToC is presented with an inconsistent layout. It lists the prologue and first three parts of the story using normal roman text. Then the next three parts are listed with both bold and italics, before the epilogue and back matter finally revert back to standard roman. It made no difference at all to my conscious reading of the story, but who can say what subconscious impact it might have.

Once I got into the story, however, a second minor quibble arose. The body text is laid out with a proportional font, but has double spaces between sentences. I didn’t stop because some arbitrary rule had been broken. I stopped because something seemed unnatural about the text. Each sentence felt strangely ominous, like when you drop a single sentence into a paragraph of its own for dramatic effect.

Like this.

Reading the story was beginning to feel like crossing a river on widely spaced stones, with each leap another pause for dramatic effect. And that’s a hard vibe to maintain for very long without it wearing thin. I was still wobbling from that when I hit a section with hyphens instead of em-dashes and decided it was time to throw a flag.

The thing that’s really frustrating is that none of these issues have anything to do with poor writing. The prose is actually pretty decent. But this continual barrage of non-standard publishing/typography choices continue to sizzle at the edges of the experience for me, distracting me from actually staying in the story where I belong. And when I’m weaving and dodging around the distractions rather than watching the adventure unfolding in front of me, immersion has definitely left the building.

WTF #2: Inconsistent and erroneous capitalization

Analysis: The word Raptor is used frequently in the prologue, and each time, it appears like that. Capitalized. Almost as though this is a brand name, or a Christian name, rather than a common noun, but the more I read, the more it appears to be intended as a common noun.

A few paragraphs later, the father says, “Come on, Son. She can’t do anything.” We don’t know the boy’s name yet, but it seems unlikely that it’s Son, or Sonny, so capitalizing the word gives it an unwanted air of formality.

Then a few lines after that, the mother says, “Go on son, play with your dad.” Here it isn’t being capitalized. But now I’m getting a bit punch drunk from trying to imagine reasons that would explain what I’m seeing. Time to call a monkey wrench by its proper name.

WTF #3: Fauxlogue

Analysis: The story opens with a prologue in which a family goes to the zoo and has a strange interaction with one of the animals there. It’s a bit unsettling, but it was supposed to be, and then the prologue ends. I turn the page, and begin the story proper with Chapter One.

But the story seems to just continue from where the prologue ended.

What? A prologue is supposed to be a scene or chapter set significantly apart from the rest of the story. Usually, my complaints about prologues have to do with them feeling pointless: unimportant backstory related through unimaginative or uncompelling means. In this case, however, the content of the prologue seems appropriate, but this time it violates the other half of the prologue equation. about time, location, and cast. So it’s an old WTF type, but being triggered this time for a new reason.

A prologue that differs in neither cast, location, or time isn’t a prologue. It’s Scene #1.
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So once again, I find myself wondering whether this might have been an intentional misdirect. Maybe we really have jumped to some other family or some other zoo. But since no names or descriptions were given in the first scene, there’s no way for me to know. All I can judge is what I’ve read, and my reading is telling me that this is a prologue without purpose. And since I’ve stopped to analyse all this, either way it’s a break in immersion.

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

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Metal Chest, by Chris Yee (4:27) Thu, 06 Sep 2018 13:00:40 +0000 Today we see that smooth and interesting prose isn’t enough. The narration also has to suit the tone and character of the narrator. What I gleaned about the story: Silas...]]>

IOD score cardToday we see that smooth and interesting prose isn’t enough. The narration also has to suit the tone and character of the narrator.

What I gleaned about the story: Silas is a robot, alone in a broken world, searching for a last hit of power before his lights go out for good. Then some dudes show up.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: I love a simple cover that manages to convey a mood, establish its genre, and be visually interesting, all at the same time. Plus, the simplicity here works well at thumbnail size. It’s astounding to me how rarely those points all seem to come together with indie covers.

WTF #1: Incongruous POV

Analysis: The scene opens on Silas, our POV robot, nearly drained and searching for a power source in a broken and inhospitable terrain. The first tremor for me came pretty quickly, in this passage from the opening paragraph: The faint hum of his dying battery grew weak as he slid his feet along the wooden floor.

A hum? From his battery? I’ve never heard a battery hum before. They’re silent, aren’t they? Did he mean the hum of some internal motor, laboring because the battery was supplying insufficient current? Or maybe he has ultra-hearing of some kind and can detect an audible sound that falls below human hearing? It was a minor point, but I did pause to wonder all this as I was slipping into the world. Not enough to yank me out, but enough that I was now questioning the abilities of this robot and left vulnerable to the next stumble.

Which came a few paragraphs later: A loud chime sounded from inside his chest. The sensor on his oil gauge. He needed some oil to loosen his rusted joints.

Here I paused again in puzzlement. This is a robot, right? Apparently autonomous, apparently intelligent. What reason would it have to sound an audible, external oil alarm? Surely the sensor isn’t designed to get his attention via his external microphone, right? It would be connected internally. It should be silent to external witnesses, unless they needed constant human supervision to keep them functioning, but his autonomous behavior seems to belie that.

When the footing becomes unstable, readers start scanning for more stumbles. And often find them.
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Many of you might say that I’m overthinking it. Hell, you’re not wrong. But that’s kind of the point I’m making. Once a reader begins to question a thing, they become increasingly sensitive to it. I don’t think it’s a matter of becoming pickier so much as it’s a concern that we’re not understanding the story. So once we’ve made an initial stumble, we become hyper-aware as we search for confirmation that we really do understand. If we get validation, great. But if a second stumble comes along before we’ve found it, things can go off the rails in a heartbeat—even if the thing that finally pushed us out would have been otherwise trivial.

And so in my case, as I was casting about for that validation, and not seeing any, I began to question more. For example, I started asking, “Why is the oil alarm sounding now?” It seems Silas has known about his rusting joint problem for a while now, so why did his alarm sound at this particular moment?

Unfortunately, the only answer I could come up with was, “So that Silas would have a reason to narrate about his oil situation and thereby inform the reader.” And that’s when my immersion finally snapped. Both the stumbles leading me here were quite minor points, but they opened the door to my inner questioner, and that relentless little termite began to ask whether the narrated events properly suited the sensory reality of an advanced, sentient robot. Sigh. Sometimes I hate that guy.

WTF #2: Incongruous POV

Analysis: As Silas continues his search for juice, we are presented with a bunch of images from his viewpoint. A crucifix, broken windows, twisting ivy, bodies, blood, spilled oil, rotting flesh, etc. All very gruesome. All very appropriate to a scene of destruction. And all very human.

But that’s actually the problem. The more I see through Silas’s eyes, the less I feel that I’m in a robot and the more I feel like I’m seeing the world through a human narrator, and this doesn’t sit well. It’s uncomfortable for me. It feels human, but the claim is robot.

This conflict came to a crescendo for me with the final line of that section: He hated it all.

Hate? From a mechanical being? It’s not that I object fundamentally to the notion of robots sufficiently advanced that they have rich emotional lives, which could easily include hate. It’s that I’ve been given no signals of any other advanced technology involved, nor any hint that the author is aware of these incongruities. A quickly hung lampshade would set me completely at ease about all this. Assure me that, yes, robots have feelings in this world and they process thought in exactly the way humans do, and I’ll explain all that in good time.

If the narration doesn’t suit the character of the narrator, Houston, you have a problem.
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But in the absence of that helpful lampshade, all I’ve got to work with are indicators like the word “robot,” the need for oil, the use of batteries, and references to metallic construction and rust—all of which point to a relatively unsophisticated design. One incongruous with the personality reported inside. And the conflict between the two snapped my immersion.

WTF #3: Unusual usage

Analysis: Here’s the passage I tripped over:

There were four men, one on his knees in a red flannel, and three standing in a triangle around him.

Is there a word missing? A red flannel what? A hat? A red flannel cape? A sleeping bag? In my world, flannel is a material, not a specific object. I’m aware that the UK uses the term to mean a washcloth, but that certainly doesn’t fit this context. I’m also aware that some regions use “flannels” to mean a pair of pants, but the usage here is not plural. Maybe it’s a typo? But no, as I read on, this guy is referred to several times as “the man in the flannel.” Singular.

Even after a trip to Google, I find no definitions that seem to fit, so I’m left to wonder. Maybe the author has used a word that has regional meaning for him, but is not universal? Eventually, I conclude from the context that it must mean a flannel shirt, but the damage has already been done. I’ve actually been to Google and back, so clearly my immersion was disrupted.

Afterthought: I’m not sure if I’ve written about the “Incongruous POV” problem before, but it’s revealed crisply here, showing us that smooth and interesting narration isn’t enough—it also has to suit the character who’s doing the narrating. When the language being used and the tone of his observations seem to be at odds with who he claims to be, it creates a cognitive dissonance in the reader that makes it hard to stay immersed. Readers are happy to stick with such a cognitive conflict, but only if they can be confident that it’s intentional. So throw them a bone. If you let that sense of wrongness fester, they’re probably going to pull the plug.

Last Note: For some reason, I feel bad stopping so quickly on this one. Judging from the scenario that was beginning to take shape, and the quality of the prose itself, this might actually shape up into a good story, well told. But the rules of IOD are clear: stop the clock when your immersion has been broken three times, and so I bow to that unflinching task master and stop to write this report. But I just might continue my journey with Silas after I’m done. I’m honestly curious.

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.

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Need your feedback Wed, 05 Sep 2018 15:18:15 +0000 I posted this the other day, but buried it at the end of a longer note, and now I’m realizing that many readers probably skipped that post. So if you’ve...]]>

I Need Your FeedbackI posted this the other day, but buried it at the end of a longer note, and now I’m realizing that many readers probably skipped that post. So if you’ve already seen this, I apologize, but it’s important enough that I want to be sure I’m hearing from everybody who might have an opinion.

The long and short is that I need to start contemplating ways that ImmerseOrDie might generate revenue, but without compromising either the quality or the accessibility of what we’ve been doing to date. I fully intend to keep offering IOD reports for free (free to both IOD followers and submitting indie authors), but I’m exploring some other ideas to potentially help support that effort with revenue from other places and activities.

What other ideas? Well, I’ve put together a quick survey over here that will explain. Can I ask you to take 4 minutes to check it out and tell me what you think? (That’s the average time it has taken people to respond so far.)

I’d really like to hear from as many people as possible. Yes, even you. All you have to do is answer 5 multiple-choice questions about the various ideas I’m kicking around, and that will help me immensely as I try to shape the next phase of ImmerseOrDIe.

Thanks very much for your time.

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Recent IOD slowdown Sat, 01 Sep 2018 20:31:00 +0000 Many of you may have noticed that the stream of IOD reports has fallen to a trickle over the last couple of months, so I thought I should post a quick note to let you know why. There are four interconnected reasons.

1: An offline distraction

A change in my offline life has necessitated that I focus more of my time on bringing in revenue. For years I’ve focused on building up my catalog rather than doubling down on the sales efforts, but it looks like that tunnel vision is going to need to broaden a bit sooner than expected. As a result, I’ve had to put most of my energy into paying gigs lately. And that means less time to do the treadmill reads, write the reports, or even supervise/edit the reports done by the other guys.

2: A book launch

The revenue issue above prompted me to put more time and energy into my recent book release. I actually have to start taking revenue a bit more seriously than I’ve been doing in the past. So instead of just making a quick announcement and letting the chips fall where they may, (my traditional approach) this time I’ve actually put some energy into planning the launch, preparing marketing materials, etc. Stuff like this shameless plug you see here.Book launch info card

The good news is that the effort is paying off. It doesn’t completely solve the problem or anything quite so dramatic as that, but early reviews for this book are outstanding and sales are more vigorous than I expected. It’s all enough to make me think that maybe there’s something to this silly idea of “book promotion” I keep hearing about. :-)

(And while I’m on the ferris wheel of shameless plugs, if that book doesn’t look like your thing, here’s a link to everything I currently have on Kindle.)

3: A quality problem

Over the last year or so, Dave, Bryce and I have been noticing a steady decline in our ability to keep saying new and helpful things about the same steady diet of echoing headwords, galloping I diseases, POV violations, and the other usual splinters that bedevil indie writing. We need a way to kick some energy back into the process.

For now, we’re experimenting with only posting reports that have some new WTF type to talk about, or for which we find we have something new to say about an old one. That’s been helping, but we haven’t found our legs yet under this new policy, and the result is far fewer treadmill reads making it all the way through to become an actual post.

Part of me wants to shift the IOD focus toward celebrating the really great stuff that we do find, but I don’t want to lose the value of providing helpful critiques to authors who are having trouble finding it elsewhere. It’s an interesting problem, and one I’m open to hearing input about. So if you have any thoughts, feel free to comment on this post (or hit reply if this post reached you by email alert) and maybe we can start a dialogue about how to address the problems without sacrificing the value.

4: The revenue problem, again

The earlier-cited revenue problem is also forcing me to rethink ImmerseOrDie as a whole, to see if there are ways that I can generate revenue without compromising either the quality or the accessibility of what we’ve been doing to date. I fully intend to keep offering IOD reports for free (free to both IOD followers and submitting indie authors), but I’m exploring some other ideas to potentially help support that effort with revenue from other places and activities.

What other ideas? If you’d like to see what I’m thinking, and maybe offer some constructive input to my deliberations, I’ve put together a quick survey over here. I’d really like to hear from you. Whether you’re a casual visitor to IOD, a frequent follower, a hopeful submitter, or even if today is your first visit. Please take 5 minutes to answer 5 questions about the various ideas I’m kicking around, and help me shape the next phase of ImmerseOrDIe.

Anyway, that’s it for the update. Thanks for sticking through to the end. I expect the slow trickle of reports to pick up at least a little, once this book launch is over and done with. And hopefully, with feedback from you guys, we’ll be able to kick it back into high gear in the fall.

Stay tuned to this station,

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The Fire Eye Refugee, by Samuel Gately (34:11) Fri, 27 Jul 2018 13:00:01 +0000 Today we see that if you want your fantastical world to seem “long ago and far away” you should probably stop filling it with “here and now.” What drew me...]]>


Today we see that if you want your fantastical world to seem “long ago and far away” you should probably stop filling it with “here and now.”

What drew me to this book: This may be the most drop-dead gorgeous cover I’ve ever seen on an indie novel. It’s evocative, it’s dramatic, and it immediately made me yearn to be in that place. So without even reading the blurb, I was already pretty sure I wanted to check it out.

Then there’s the title. So many indie novels have drab, unimaginitive titles. I’m talking about the books that serve up a fantasy-word cliché salad but provide nothing whatsoever that implies story. You know what I mean: The Blood of the King’s Dragon Sword etc.

Well, today’s candidate gives us something a little meatier than that. What’s a “fire eye?” And if there’s a refugee, what is that person fleeing? Where are they fleeing to? It’s just a taste, but it ignites curiosity, and if you can get me asking questions like that with your cover or title, then there’s a very good chance I’m going to come in for a closer look.

What I gleaned about the story: Kay is a fetch; a sort of private detective who finds missing children, and the fact that such a job exists and has a name tells you that children probably go missing a lot in this world. Well, she’s on a new case now, and this one is starting to look like it might get her killed.

Find this book on Amazon.

WTF #1: Anaculturism

Analysis: This is going to seem subtle, but it’s something that pulls me out of books frequently. I have a very sensitive ear for language, and when a character or narrator uses a word or expression that seems out of place, I can’t help but notice. For example, suppose you were reading a news article about Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Speech, and she was quoted as saying, “The assholes among us must be given a good shit-kicking.” That doesn’t sound like Liz, does it? In fact, it seems so out of character that you’d probably want to double check the source to see if maybe you were reading an article from TheOnion, or one of those rabid-right shouting blogs. The point is, out-of-place language disrupts the mental image you’re constructing as you read and makes you question your understanding of the greater context.

So in today’s book, I found two such disruptions fairly early. In the opening prologue, our hero is being rescued from a burning building when his rescuer says: Focus, Joah. You want to give this guy another clean kill?

I have two problems with that. First, being burned to death in a fire isn’t really what “clean kill” means. Normally, I see that phrase used in reference to single-shot executions with minimal splatter, resulting in a kill that leaves little mess—literally clean—although it’s often extended to imply clean in a sense of leaving little forensic evidence. With either definition though, burning somebody to death in a house fire is pretty much the exact opposite of “clean.”

The second problem I have with this phrase is the anacultural bit. In my ear, “clean kill” is a very modern term. According to Google’s N-Gram Viewer, the term has had two major surges: once around WWII, and then rising again over the last 30 years. So when I hear that phrase uttered by a mystic in what is trying to be a quasi-medieval setting, it snaps me out of the world to wonder why he’s suddenly talking like a Hollywood military assassin.

(In addition to “clean kill,” I also tripped over the casual use of the word “guy.” And again, the N-Gram Viewer shows it to be extremely rare prior to WWII, and only really becoming common since the 1980s.)

WTF #2: Pointless prologue

I always try to give prologues a fair chance. In theory, there are some stories in which the reader simply must experience a particular element of the backstory for themselves if they are to fully appreciate everything that happens later. And in such cases, I have no problem with a quick and efficient prologue to convey that experience. Unfortunately, very few authors seem to have a purpose behind their prologues, and they end up feeling like a false start, a herky-jerky start to the action. And that’s no fun for anybody.

So when I encounter a prologue these days, I roll my eyes, tighten my flak jacket, and dive in. Unfortunately, I take damage to that jacket far more often than seems reasonable. Far more. It’s getting to the point where I’m almost ready to declare prologues an automatic WTF, and a lot of publishers and agents have gone on record with that very policy, for the same reason. I’m going to keep trying them for now, and hoping, but it seems like a lost cause. I think my current count is somewhere around three satisfying examples out of about a hundred attempts.

And sadly, today’s prologue was not one of the three.

At the close of that establishing fire scene, I found myself wondering why it was included. We saw a guy tied to a chair, waiting to be consumed by the fire that was set to kill him. We then saw a woman walk into the fire to rescue him, apparently using some sort of magical or alchemical power over the flames. But that’s about it. The only other thing we see is that there is some kind of social apartheid going on between the “Farrows” and the “Gols”—whoever, or whatever, they turn out to be.

Given how many editors and publishers HATE prologues, the wise writer seeks another way.
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The prose was pretty tight, aside from the minor anaculturisms I cited earlier, and the imagery was good, but I’m not left with the sense that this was something truly important that I had to witness in order to understand the motivations of the protagonist, or the stakes of the story, or some key aspect of world lore around which everything later revolves. This is my razor for deciding whether a prologue is warranted, and sadly, the Fire Eye Refugee takes a slash to the throat from it.

Kudo #1: Cool phrase

The flip-side of my over-sensitive ear for language is that, when a word or phrase really does fit, I get all kinds of goose-bumpy about it.

In this particular case, our protagonist is talking about a mysterious person who’s asked for a meeting and says: She had no idea where his money was born or where it slept. That’s strikes me as a really cool way to express that she didn’t know his business, while staying entirely consistent with the established world.

I also really like the term the author has invented for the kind of investigator Kay is. She finds lost or stolen children and she’s called a “fetch.” It’s simple, descriptive, and just the tiniest bit archaic sounding. Exactly what the doctor ordered for this kind of story world.

WTF #3: Anaculturism

If the object is to make your world feel unusual, don’t fill it with things from ours.
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Damn! And we were getting so close! Sigh. As mentioned above, Kay is a sort of private investigator, from a very low-status social class, in what appears to be one of those low-technology, magic-friendly worlds that pervade much of fantasy literature. She seems to be ostracized by society, and, while good at her job, not particularly well off.

So it felt entirely out of place for me when she went to her office and consulted with her receptionist.

Let me say that again. A poor, outcast, street urchin detective went into her office. And consulted with her receptionist.

WTF? How do those concepts fit?

And then, to shine an even brighter light on this incongruity, we find she also has a guy on long-term retainer to do some of her leg work for her.

This leaves me with two big irritations: First, a private investigator with a business office seems entirely out of place for the culture that has been otherwise established for this world. I would expect a poor refugee fetch to call the streets and alleys their place of business.

My second problem is that having a support staff seems totally at odds with her apparent social status. It feels too formal and way too expensive. To me, it would be much more believable if her “receptionist” was some crippled girl who hung around the town fountain, taking messages in exchange for food and a safe place to sleep. That would fit both the culture and the social context. But a girl sitting at a desk, waiting for people to drop by? I’m completely thrown by that.

Thrown hard enough that it popped me out of the story just before reaching the finish line.

Final note: So the title and cover drew me in, but conflicts between the broad strokes and the details in the world rendering kept throwing me out. But if you have the good fortune to be less a slave to language cues than I am, it’s otherwise pretty good and might be worth your time to check it out.

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The Apples of Idunn: Eschaton Cycle, by Matt Larkin (40:00) Mon, 16 Jul 2018 13:00:51 +0000 Today we see that when your marketing matches your book, it will hook readers who love your book. What I gleaned about the story: Odin’s father has died, leaving him...]]>

IOD score cardToday we see that when your marketing matches your book, it will hook readers who love your book.

What I gleaned about the story: Odin’s father has died, leaving him leader of the tribe. And now everyone wants him to do things that aren’t about getting drunk and taking women to bed.

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Note: This book is “From the Firehose”, a category Jeff started for books we download from the steady stream of book recommendations that cross our inbox every day because something in the marketing content caught our eye. So, in addition to the normal IOD immersion test, I’ve included a note on what aspect of the book’s marketing drew me in and whether or not the book delivered on that promise.

What Attracted My Attention: I’m a sucker for good riffs on Norse mythology so the title hooked my eye. While I’m not utterly sold on the series “sticker”, the cover looks like dark or epic fantasy and the quality made me think this is a book that’s had effort spent on it. So, when the blurb opened with: Only a fool would venture into the freezing mists that steal the souls of men, the dark-fantasy-reader part of me couldn’t hit the buy button fast enough.

So this looks like a reader-magnet trifecta: title, cover, and blurb all displaying a consistent message and adding more reasons to buy.

Kudo #1: Lack of explanatory digressions

When you trust readers to work things out, they’ll trust you to make it possible.
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Analysis: When the narrator first speaks of the enemy trapped behind an ancient barrier, they term them jotunn. While this use of a old Nordic word is not unexpected for a book based on Scandinavian myths, they offer no explanation, giving me the impression of someone speaking their native language rather than someone standing beside me giving a voice-over. By telling me the basics—that these were dangerous beings who had been trapped long ago—and then moving on without feeling the need to bury me under further explanations, the author demonstrated confidence that I was an intelligent reader and would work things out for myself.

Kudo #2: Skilled echoing of myth and legend

Analysis: While all stories are arguably based on preceding ones, fiction that adapts well-known stories rather than merely drawing inspiration faces a special challenge: being innovative enough to offer the reader surprises without losing the strong connection to the source that probably drew them to the book. In this case, the author quickly shows that Odin and the Aesir are human tribespeople living in a far past but that gods and supernatural creatures do exist, then has the Aesir behave like mostly honourable but rowdy warriors living to the full because the world is hostile. This set me up to expect that the story would depart from the original sagas but would preserve their themes of heroism and darkness.

Kudo #3: Plausible conflicting viewpoints

Nothing creates more delicious conflict than sympathetic characters with differing goals.
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Analysis: The point of view shifts between several different characters, whose stories intersect. Each of these has a unique voice and set of past experiences, morals, and desires. This gives the reader several distinct perspectives on the world and allows for misinterpretation and conflict that never feels forced or makes a viewpoint character less sympathetic.

Final Thoughts: As indicated by the clean pass, this book more than lived up to its marketing: the story is dark fantasy in an ancient Scandinavian world; the prose is both clean and well-formatted; and the mists are a true threat to any who venture in. Between hitting the 40 minute mark and finishing this report, I’ve already read more than another hour without losing immersion.

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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Fluency, by Jennifer Foehner Wells (6:23) Mon, 18 Jun 2018 13:00:07 +0000 Today we see that if you promise hard SF on the tin, implausibilities by the pound are not what you should pack inside. What I gleaned about the story: Dr....]]>

Today we see that if you promise hard SF on the tin, implausibilities by the pound are not what you should pack inside.

What I gleaned about the story: Dr. Jane Holloway is about to board an alien vessel that NASA has been watching since the 60s. Apparently she’s elected herself Earth’s ambassador to aliens that nobody knew were there. Because she’s got a good ear for languages?

Find this book on Amazon.

This is another book taken “From the Firehose,” meaning that I’ve pulled it from the steady stream of book recommendations that cross my inbox each day. These titles are chosen because something in the marketing content caught my eye. Then, in addition to the normal IOD immersion test, I also comment on what aspect of the marketing drew me in, and whether or not the book delivered on that promise.

The Marketing Appeal: In this case, I was immediately drawn to the strong cover design. It’s a classic look that, to me, harkens back to the fairly hard SF stories and covers I grew up with – stories with strong SF themes, exotic aliens, and premises that stood with their feet firmly on the science end of the spectrum. These were contrasted against the softer kind of SF stories that usually featured a prominent human character on the cover, standing in front of some vaguely SF backdrop. And just as those latter covers implied, those softer stories tended to be more about the people than any specific tech premise. People who just happened to live in an SF world. It was a subtle signal, but a fairly reliable one. Tech-dominant cover = tech-dominant story. Human-dominant cover = human-dominant story. So I’m in good hands here, because there isn’t a single living creature anywhere in the cover at all. This looks like pedal-to-the-metal hardcore SF.

Hooked by the cover, I then went in for a closer scan of the blurb. Yup. Drifting alien vessel. NASA’s been studying it for years, from afar. Now we’ve finally got the tech to send humans there to check it out. Sounds like Rendezvous With Rama. Just the kind of thing I like.

The only thing that threw me about the marketing was the slight awkwardness of the full title: Fluency: Book 1 of the Confluence series. Fluency-Confluence seemed a bit clunky, so maybe I won’t be getting any strong word-play (or dare I say, melifluence :-) in the prose, but the cover and blurb were more than enough to counter it. So buckle up, kids. I’m going in.

Note: Hmm. I’m about three sentences in and I’m annoyed to find that we’re starting in media res. This is a first contact story and what makes this trope so delicious to me is the building sense of anticipation. That first moment of discovering a signal; of seeing a blip on a telescope or hearing a sound in the radio distance. Could it be? Then there’s the slow, steady buildup as, one by one, rational explanations are pared away and the truth becomes more clear. It just might be. This is followed by weeks or months of intensive study and logistical planning. Yeah, it looks like maybe it is. Then a launch, followed by the achingly slow approach, the docking, the waiting for air pressures to equalize, the creaking hinge of an ancient door that hasn’t been opened in a thousand millenia… and then, at last… Oh my god. It is!

But instead of all that, Confluence drops us in with the initial exploration crew about 4 minutes before docking with the alien ship. Oh no! That entire rich tapestry of potential drama is already in the rearview mirror! Sigh. There might still be a wonderful story to come, but starting here sends a shudder through my bones. I’m already worried that this author doesn’t share my sense of what’s exciting about a first contact story.

WTF #1: Implausible logic

Analysis: The crew is approaching the alien vessel. They’re about four minutes from contact when a light snaps on outside the alien ship, illuminating the docking port our heroes are aiming for. Let’s take a peek at how our brilliant linguist POV character reacts to the docking light:

She adjusted mentally to this development. She’d play the role of translator, then, presumably learning an audible language rather than deciphering symbols of text left behind.

WTF? A light came on, and that means the ship isn’t abandoned after all? It means there must be living aliens aboard? Has this woman never experienced grocery store doors that open automatically? Never driven a car and had traffic lights change in response to her approaching vehicle?

That seems an enormous and entirely unjustified leap of logic. Bad enough that it undermines any sense that the protagonist is even functionally intelligent, let alone brilliant. It also casts grave doubts on there being any plausible “sciency” invention to come.

WTF #2: Implausible scenario

SF readers will accept a lot of weird stuff. But one thing they won’t tolerate is bad logic.
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Analysis: From what we’ve been given, NASA has known about this ship since the 1960s and has been working feverishly in secret to develop the technology to take a human crew out to investigate.

My first reaction to this is, “What? Why would we have sent the Voyager missions to the outer reaches, or the Pathfinder to Mars, or bothered exploring any of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Why would we have mounted any of these expensive and low-probability missions in the hopes of detecting some small fragment of protolife in the universe if we knew there was a hulking great spaceship floating around out there all along?”

But maybe those other missions were all a smoke-screen. A duck blind to keep humanity from panicking while NASA secretly included experiments on those missions that developed the real tech we needed to finally send humans out to the ship. I’m grasping at straws here, trying to throw the plot a bone, but… maybe?

Only, then the commander of the mission tells somebody to, “Open up a channel to Houston.” We then wait for what seems to be about a minute or two of narration before said channel is open and the commander can send his terse report to mission control about the porch light coming on.

Think about what that little exchange means. It means that humanity has finally sent a crewed mission to investigate this strange alien presence after fifty or more years of planning and preparation. They don’t know what they’re going to find or how long the crew will even remain alive. For all anyone knows, they’ll all be vaporized by automated defences systems before they even get close enough to knock. Yet despite all that, there doesn’t appear to be a single dedicated comms feed sending data back to Earth. Not even an audio-only feed to record the crew’s comments for posterity and/or troubleshooting if the mission goes sideways. The commander has to actually ask for a channel to be opened. And then he has to wait several minutes for said channel to be ready.

I’m sure there are people for whom these kinds of plot holes don’t matter, but for the kind of science fiction I crave—the kind I thought was being promised by the cover and the blurb—this kind of implausibility is a cardinal sin. SF fans are willing to suspend all kinds of disbelief: aliens who speak English, time travel, FTL drives, artificial gravity… You name it. But the one thing we will not glide happily past is an implausible story point.

WTF #3: Implausible logic

Analysis: After another page of drama about the unexpected presence of living aliens aboard and the excitement of waiting for that tell-tale thump of docking clamps, our protagonist shares her nerves:

In minutes she’d be stepping up to do her thing with no idea whatsoever of precisely what or whom she’d be facing. Dr. Jane Holloway would be Earth’s ambassador.

Really? Who made that decision? For some reason, she’s decided that she outranks the mission commander just because she has an ear for language? Even assuming she can figure out the alien speech in a day or two, alone, without any help from Earth or her crew mates, why would she assume that such an achievement would make her any more than the official translator?

Final Note: Unfortunately, the cover was a bait-and-switch for me. It lured me in with promises of a particular kind of story and then delivered something…else. The take-home lesson? Be sure your marketing promises the kind of story you actually deliver. Otherwise you’re going to pull in a lot of readers who were expecting something different. And then they’re going to write reviews.

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.

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Sliced and Diced: A collection of dark and twisted short stories, by Joan De La Haye (40:00) Mon, 04 Jun 2018 15:44:36 +0000 Today we see that humor can make dark stories seem even darker. What I gleaned about the stories: If someone secretly hates the gift you got them, them sharing it...]]>

Today we see that humor can make dark stories seem even darker.

What I gleaned about the stories: If someone secretly hates the gift you got them, them sharing it with you might not be a good thing.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: This is a short story collection, so the rules are slightly different from standard Immerse or Die: instead of reading on every time I lose immersion, I stop reading that story and move on to the next one. As usual, I stop reading after the third WTF.

WTF #1: Muddled clauses

If your clauses don’t fit together tidily, readers will get lost unpacking them.
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Analysis: The second sentence of the opening story is: It’s a death knell for some unfortunate creature, even if it isn’t always an immediate end, but it is always a bloody one. When I hit the second comma, my instinctive parsing was the end of a modifying sub-clause. While It’s a death knell for some unfortunate creature… but it is always a bloody one is a technically valid sentence, this broke my flow; a death knell is an audible warning so what would a blood-spattered sound look like?

A moment later, I realised that the third clause modified the second; the end was not always swift but it was always bloody. However, …even if it isn’t always an immediate end, but it is always a bloody one isn’t grammatically correct, so whatever trust that might provide in one area was lost in another.

My faith damaged before the end of the first paragraph, I moved on.

Kudo #1: Humorous Horror

Analysis: One of the stories opens with a werewolf who is only a wolf while the light of the unobstructed full moon is on them, so clouds and shadows are causing them to shift back and forth to comic effect; however, the story is otherwise the usual visceral killing that characterises classic werewolf tale. This contrast both saves the story from becoming a single joke and makes the horror of tearing someone apart feel even more brutal by contrast.

WTF #2: Missing punctation

Analysis: Several pages into a subsequent story, I hit: He smelled worse than mother superiors rude noises after bean soup. Because there was no apostrophe, I parsed mother superiors as a plural; thus the remainder of the sentence conflicted with my mental image requiring me to rebuild it.

Ironically, the mixing of humour and seriousness that I had noted earlier contributed to this catching me so off guard; while smelling like several mother superiors is not normally a description someone would use, a joke that the mother superior smelt a little odd so several of her would smell worse works quite well as banter between people who know each other.

Momentum stalled, I moved on.

Kudo #2: Variety

A short-story collection needs to balance consistency of style and diversity of stories.
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Analysis: While the stories do share an authorial voice, so have a certain consistency in type of horror, the stories and characters display sufficient range that I didn’t begin to feel I was reading the same story repeatedly with only the details tweaked.

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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