Reviews of The Smell Collector - critique

I've received a few fairly positive reviews on http://thesmellcollector.wordpress.com over the last few years, and one very recently. I've been very rigid about edits, but the critiques are pretty consistent. So I'm in the process of doing some rewrites. I toned down some of the odd POVs, made the timeline a little more sequential, and most importantly rewrote the beginning. The first episode was a monologue from the main character, Jim Bronson. No one has ever expressed that they liked it, but many who have trudged through it have liked the serial very much. I've turned it into a scene and hidden much of his character to be revealed throughout the story like a good book should. It's extraordinarily short. My views have had a slight spike, but mainly people don't get passed the first episode.


I realize that it is not typical. Not fantasy, sci-fi, horror. I also realize that it is a little weird and creepy at first. Perhaps the premise is not attractive. That's fine. It is what it is. What I want is a hard, honest critique of why this opening scene is not causing the reader to click to the next post.


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"What the hell, Jim? Why aren't those books reshelved?"


{I don't like when people curse at me. I will not be able to respond to Connor. It's not possible at this point}, thinks Jim while continuing to examine each book with his nose.


"Jim! Don't freakin' act like you can't hear me, dude. Listen, I don't know what you are doing with those books, but they better be in the system and on the shelf before I get back from my break!"


{I can't explain to anybody here what I do. They won't understand. People are very sensitive about their smells. It's very personal, but this is my life. This is all I have. Well, smells and Mother.


Books, books, books. Very few retain a human scent. Although I did find evidence of human contact in the form of dried mucus (booger, vernacular) in a copy of The Hobbit last Tuesday at 10:46 am.}


He glances at his watch.


{23 minutes. 23 minutes till break. 23 minutes till her.}


Jim will be spending his fifteen minute break next door at the post office as is his custom.


Well, it's weird and creepy (I know you know that) and I don't know if I'd read on at this point.


But I read it four times, and what I'm getting is that I would have three more commas in there than you do (because, seriously, commas are awesome; I love commas).


The parenthesis for thoughts is unusual. If it's like that throughout, it would put me off. But I'd read another chapter or two before it bugged me enough to make me stop.


Also, I hate anything written present tense, but that's a personal quirk, and lotsa folks like it.


___________________


I think the main problem is that you're telling instead of showing, and that people don't think like that (and yes, he's a weirdo mummy's boy who smells things and stalks the woman who works in the post office, but I doubt even he would think like that).


I can't say I've ever been shouted at and thought "I don't like when people shout at me." I don't like it, but why would I tell myself I don't like it? I know I don't, and I can feel myself getting angry, and unhappy.


________________


"What the hell, Jim? Why aren't those books shelved?"


My fingers tighten on the book I'm holding. I look at it {I can't look at him, not now} and I can see my knuckles whiten. I hope I'm not holding it too tight, but I can't loosen my grip. {If this book gets damaged, it'll be his fault, not mine}, I tell myself, {he shouldn't be cussing at me, and he definitely shouldn't be cussing at me when I'm holding a book that might get damaged}.


____________


As an example, that's a bit less tell-y and a bit more show-y, I think. It needs work, but I think it works as an example to show you what I meant.


> What I want is a hard, honest critique of why this opening scene is not causing the reader to click to the next post.


Alright.


> "What the hell, Jim? Why aren't those books reshelved?"


Right off the bat, the opening line is lackluster. In the grand scheme of things, of all things and any things, the lack of books being reshelved is white-knuckle conflict only to librarians. I've opened the cover, read the first line of your story, and my first thought is Well great, this protagonist's first conflict is boring and mundane and something to do with his boring, mundane job.


> {I don't like when people curse at me. I will not be able to respond to Connor. It's not possible at this point}, thinks Jim while continuing to examine each book with his nose.


And this line follows on the heels of the first. It feels stilted, and if the goal is to represent Jim as being non-neurotypical, then you've succeeded at it. But you've succeeded at it badly, in a way that leaves me, as the reader, no closer to identifying with or sympathizing with the protagonist. You fail to explain why he "will not be able to respond to connor", nor why "it's not possible at this point".


> "Jim! Don't freakin' act like you can't hear me, dude. Listen, I don't know what you are doing with those books, but they better be in the system and on the shelf before I get back from my break!"


This is actually the high point of the excerpt you've provided. Here we have someone who's actually speaking like an everyday human being. The core conflict between them, however, remains boring and mundane. Jim isn't shelving books. His supervisor angrily tells him to do his job. I, not being a librarian, am not finding this conflict riveting. This is the point where I would put your book down and flip open the next one on the bookstore shelf.


> {I can't explain to anybody here what I do. They won't understand. People are very sensitive about their smells. It's very personal, but this is my life. This is all I have. Well, smells and Mother.


YOU SHELVE BOOKS, JIM. WE'VE ALREADY ESTABLISHED THAT. We're very sorry you're weird and crazy and creepily obsessed with smells and your own mother, and your life is little and sorry and sad. But you're also a fictional character and I am under no obligation to give any shits whatsoever about your boring problems and your sad life.


> Books, books, books. Very few retain a human scent. Although I did find evidence of human contact in the form of dried mucus (booger, vernacular) in a copy of The Hobbit last Tuesday at 10:46 am.}


Only reinforcing the weird, sad little life, whose opening conflict revolves around the lack of reshelving. And now we're talking about boogers.


> He glances at his watch.


> {23 minutes. 23 minutes till break. 23 minutes till her.}


> Jim will be spending his fifteen minute break next door at the post office as is his custom.


Alright, Jim. You're a strange, sad little man, but your strangeness isn't interesting and your sadness isn't sympathetic, and I wouldn't want to read you anymore either.


---


Alright, how can we improve this?


First, remember that the social contract with fiction is that the reader pays you (ideally) in money, time, and attention. And you pay them back in entertainment. You enthrall them. You excite them. You seize them.


But don't you dare fucking bore them.


Not everything can be rising action and climax. But the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page, are the only hopes you have of seizing the reader before they'll decide to go try something else.


Step back from your story, and really examine Jim's character. Consider him, contemplate him, and then convey to the reader what is interesting about them. And do it quickly.


Good stuff! Thanks guys. I wrote this years ago, and I'm dusting it off. I wrote it as sort of an epistolary, journals, diaries, etc. and then some 3rd person narrative. It's oddball in a lot of ways, but I don't want it to be oddball in ways that turns away readers who might otherwise enjoy it. So here's a draft in first person. Tear it to pieces. I want to solve this. Much appreciated.




He stepped, very aggressively I might add, between me and the books and continued to address me in an agitated manner.




I hurriedly finished processing the books, only sampling a few more, and then pushed them around the front desk and out into the rows of books. When Connor returns, it will be my turn to take a break. And I will go where I always go, where I will always go: to the post office. That's where she lives.


2nd go. 3rd person, because all of the other narrative posts are 3rd person. The story is told in very short installments from 3rd person narrative, journal entries, and diaries.


"What the hell, Jim? Why aren't those books reshelved?"


At those words Jim winced, but continued with the books, sniffing them with great care, jotting down a few notes and returning them to the cart.


"Jim! Don't freakin' act like you can't hear me, dude. Listen, I don't know what you are doing with those books, but they better be in the system and on the shelf before I get back from my break!"


Connor stormed out of the the back room of the library leaving Jim to continue his examination. When he finished with the books, he pushed the cart into the wider rooms of the Pioneer Library System in Cleveland County, Oklahoma to shelve them. There he saw a woman with a green cardigan weeping quietly at a reading table with The Wind and the Willows in her hands. Jim surmised that she was not reading the book at all, but had been overcome by some sort of fit.


He had seen her before and had become very curious about her and wanted a closer look, or perhaps something else. He diverged from his path to come closer, and as he passed he took a long sniff, held it in, and slowly exhaled it. He was intrigued by a subtle fragrance, but he felt that he needed to push the cart closer to get a better sampling and so he took another pass, and another until the woman looked up and smiled at him confusedly. Jim blushed and went about the business of shelving the books. First, fiction, then children's, then non-fiction, until the cart was empty. When he returned to the desk, Connor was waiting for him with a cross look on his face.


"Thanks for doing your job for once. Take your break."


Without saying a word, Jim walked with great haste to the back room, gathered his notebook and his satchel and set off for the post office, as was his daily custom.


Most agree with Patrick. There isn't a cat in a tree in this first part.


I think your second post is better though. In the second take Jim is more understandable. Rather than just being unable to respond, finding things uncivil, he was taught by his mother. It feeds into the fact that his mother lives in the post office, which is a bit of a hook (given how strange this guy is, what does he mean by "live", how can a person live in a post office, etc.)


The second to last paragraph feels a bit disjointed to me. Jim starts by thinking about what he would tell Connor if he could, books by scent, etc. Then pivots to "I can't explain to anybody what I really do here, they won't..."


But that isn't quite coherent with the first part. Like, initially it seems like is what he wants to tell Connor if he didn't curse, but a second later he is thinking that he can't tell anyone, ever, they wouldn't understand. I get how these are supposed to work together (Jim couldn't respond AT ALL to a person who curses, seperately, he can't tell anyone about the project), but it still feels like an awkward paragraph.


Beyond that, "He walked, rather stormed, out of the room and left me in peace."


I'd put that in its own paragraph above this, start the next with "What I am...".


This is not a much of a "riveting" series, fyi. It is a quirky, romantic, dark comedy, which deals with death and loneliness, and aspergers. It's a bit of a slow burn. Not everybody likes that. But the moments of intrigue I want to establish is why is this guy behaving oddly? What is so intriguing about the weeping woman's scent? And why does he spend all of his breaks and the library?


I don't intend to introduce any conflict on the first 500 words of a story. There is plenty of time to do that. I've read many great books where absolutely nothing happens in the first chapters. I'm a patient reader. I want to write just enough to suggest some questions. Just enough to get someone who likes that kind of literature to turn the page.


Does that make sense?


Yeah, I get you, but I think you may be trying to fix the wrong problem.


I don't think you are bad at writing quirky, romantic, dark comedy which deals with death and loneliness and aspergers. I think people just don't want that. Your dedicated readers prove that the people who are in the market for what you are selling think you do a fine job. I think the people who are turning away are just noticing that nothing has blown up, nor seems about to, so they are out.


I'm cool with that, Walter. When you say "blow up", do you mean explosions and action? I guess that means I'm an amateur indiestraight fiction writer writing in a medium that favors sci-fi/fantasy/superhero. That makes me an amateur within a niche within a niche withing a niche. It's never going to be The Worm. But what I find interesting is that people who read the first few posts of the serial inevitably binge-read the rest. I want to know if it's because of the writing. The writing I can fix. What I can't fix is that it's about an innocent but creepy broken, lonely man who finds redemption in a broken, lonely woman. That's the story. On the onset, he might be dangerous, he might be perverted, he might be a stalker. I think people respond very negatively to the that, but might find something meaningful in the progress and resolution of that.



To me, this is an indication that this is a story that may have more universal appeal than the opening passages may suggest to people. It's a question of HOW to broaden the appeal without totally marring the essential character of the book. I'm open to any suggestion from you that might get you to the next page.


So how did web fiction become closely associated with action, sci-fi, fantasy?


I dunno if it is web fiction in particular, I think it might be fiction in general.


Like, take the Thomas Covenant books. Their synopsis is something like "A child rapist and a woman who murdered her parents fight the devil and fall in love." A small but vocal fanbase loved them. Most people quit reading because, basically, *yuck*.


Similarly, from what you are saying, readers of your book who are into that sort of thing read the whole deal, but a lot of people bail when the premise becomes apparent. I think this isn't anything to do with your writing skills, it is just what you are selling. Like, very few people want to read about people with aspergers. They are weird and rude. Those readers who do want that sort of thing are starved for content, and will likely love anything that acknowledges them, but there is an implicit ceiling to your numbers. You won't hook the Twilight crowd writing War & Peace.


Just speaking for myself, I think it was Dan Weatherby's review that first encouraged me to start reading The Smell Collector. If I remember correctly, I didn't know what to expect from the original blurb, but you might have changed the blurb since then.


If I was you, I'd emphasize the humour. In the absence of fights and explosions, that's what could hook people in ;-)


I don't think the rewrites of the opening paragraphs were necessary. In my opinion, they are making the story blander, overexplaining things.


Introductions are the worst thing. I do like to think I'm getting better; the one I went with when I started "Time & Tied" on my site was different from what I originally had 15 years ago. And there's a thread in these forums somewhere about my asking about a possible landing page shift, whether to "restart" with Book 3 (Part 48). And then I actually rewrote the first paragraph of Part 1 earlier this month, when I thought of something that kept to the theme but might be a bit more gripping. All this to say, people not getting past the first episode? In my opinion, that's pretty typical.


You mention going for a few years, so I have no idea how this will compare to you, but for actual numbers? My T&T Part 1 has 580 views. Part 2 has 103. Part 12 has *23* (that's across 16 months). When my other story, 'Full Scale Invasion', about a depressive in a techno-magic scenario hit the front page of WFG? Only one person went past Part 1, and they stopped at Part 4. As you said, "It is what it is", so don't lose sight of that. Some people are not into niches. Or as you say, niches of niches, where I think I also reside. (Also, my T&T burns so slow that we're FINALLY getting a timeline explanation in Part 62. God, at times I wish I could write a decent romance. Who wants to wait 80 parts for the initial payoff?)


With THAT said -- sure, I'll take a stab at analysis. Regarding your first, in the header? I'm keen on books, I'm curious about what's going on. But then Jim's thought patterns (to me) peg him as robotic or having some sort of mental issue. Which makes me hesitant, not really my thing, and yeah "Mother" deal is a bit creepy. "23 minutes till break" is a bit ambiguous, it's not clear whether that's his break, or Connor's break, meaning the books need to be done by then...? Though more to the point "till" conjures up a cash register, and I wonder why Jim isn't using "until" given his apparent mental quirks. The post office feels like a non-sequitur. If that's all there is, I don't have enough of a sense of where it's going, or how the books relate to "her", to continue, unless perhaps mystery is my thing.



Regarding your third? "At those words" seems redundant, now that there's no emphasis on the swearing. "When he finished with the books" blankets a lot of the backstory in the other versions, so now I don't think Jim's got a mental quirk for scent filing, so much as he's got a weird book fetish. (You are possibly running into the problem of assuming knowledge based on prior rewrites that no longer exist. Again, something I'm probably guilty of.) Do we need to know it's Oklahoma? (Well, maybe.) The whole paragraph starting "He had seen her before and had become very curious..." first has too many 'ands' (plus if he was curious before, why only act now?) and it amps the creepy factor by 10. He's inhaling her perfume? Also, the woman went from visibly weeping to smiling in confusion; my reaction might have been moving away? This rewrite also loses the hook, he's going to the post office and there's no real reason to follow him there.


The second feels like it works the best, minus the extra words. Take everything from the perspective that I am very probably not your audience. All the best!


Fiona, this may be the original that you read. I'm not sure any more. It is a very subtle/nuanced comedic monologue. Weatherby's comments made me think about easing into the weirdness a little bit more. I've omitted this entirely in my current iteration.


On some level, we all do it. Olfactory memory is believed to be the most powerful memory of all. I remember the day when I realized how valuable and unique smells are. In the mid-summer of 1977, I was a very young child of four, and my dear mother had taken me with her to the post office. There were two worlds happening in this post office. One at a height above the counter and one at a height below the counter. My world was below the counter. In my world, there was a beautiful little girl. Her hair was shiny and brown and was drawn up with a red bow. She wore a pretty polka dotted dress. On her feet, were ruffly socks and patent leather shoes. She did not say anything to me. I did not say anything to her. After all, I would be gone soon. My family was moving to a different state. Mother was filling out a change of address form. A few days after we arrived at our new house, mother took me once again to the post office. And here, I collected my first smell. When I entered the office, the smell immediately triggered the memory of the girl. This post office smelled exactly like the other one. In that moment, in my own four-year-old way, I longed for that girl. It was the first of many experiences with unrequited love.


Smell collecting is unique. It's not like stamp or coin collecting. You can't keep a smell except in your memory. However, it is far more rewarding than any silly stamps or baseball cards. It is like having a time machine. A smell can take you to another place and time. It takes you to a very intimate moment in your life. Smell is a very intimate experience.


After thirty-one years of collecting smells, I've built a system that works for me. Smell Collecting requires a combination of documentation, travel, and chemistry. When you've found a smell that you want to collect, you begin by documenting the experience. What did you feel? Where was it? What were the circumstances? What was the time and date? And so on. Next you must undergo the more challenging task of discovering what is creating the smell. Sometimes it's simple. A ballgame is popcorn, beer, cut grass, and roasted peanuts. It used to include tobacco smoke, and sometimes includes a hint of human urine. Others are not as simple. It requires investigation. For the post office, I later inquired about the cleaning agents. I researched the composition of the counter and the floors. I sniffed and studied the whole lobby. Other strong contributing smells included stamp glue, paper, scotch tape, packing tape, dust, and the metal that comprises the post office boxes. All of this must be carefully documented.


And finally, if you want to revisit one of your smells, you have two choices. One, you can go to the place where you collected the smell. I make as many as 20 little trips a week to browse my collection. Or, two, you can attempt to construct the smell. This is where chemistry comes into play. Some smells are not bound to a place. They exist in a single moment in time. A woman's perfume, a whiff of cigarette smoke, a little bit of diesel fume, and some spearmint gum might come close to someone's first kiss, for example. Of course, it's almost impossible to recreate a first kiss because of the human element. I've tried samples of human saliva and sweat. I've tried various hair products and toothpastes; anything, really, that I imagine might go into a first kiss. Perhaps she'll be wearing Secret Deodorant For Women. I fancy, that she'll be wearing some sophisticated perfume from the Chanel line. Mother always says that my first kiss will make me light-headed. I wonder if it has anything to do with the smell?


My smells are my life really. Smells and Mother. I don't know what I would do without them. Smells capture all those special moments. Mother's goodnight kisses, for example: Maybelline lipstick, stale coffee, Chanel #5, and Finesse Moisturizing Shampoo. I think it's a great hobby. More of a way of life really.


mathtans, what you are seeing here is me unable to be objective about this anymore! No, I don't like any of those rewrites at all, nor did I like the one I presented to start with. Check the previous post for the absolute original. The library scene comes after this. My fear with this is that it's just too much of a character dump. I dunno anymore! Honestly! I know this story has limitations, but I want to give it everything I can to make it compelling.




I do believe in starting with a conversation, as a way to draw the reader into the story. I like the library scene in that respect. The only thing I don't like is the parentheses for thoughts; and I think it's best in first person, and kept simple and snappy, more like it is in your first post.


I can't remember if the version I read started with the mini-essay on smells that you quote above, but it's too much a block of text for an opener. I'd save it for later when the reader is getting a little curious about what exactly makes Jim tick.


I guess I'm at odds with the other commenters so far. I don't think it matters that the opening scene is about shelving books, the point is the interpersonal conflict between Jim and his supervisor. I don't agree that readers are uninterested in idiosyncratic characters, or people with Aspergers. Aspergers is actually kind of hot right now! For example, the book "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" was so popular it has been made into a stage play, and possibly a film.




Fiona, I do not like books that start in the middle of a car race or something. It's jarring, not enticing. YES. I think you understand what I'm trying to do here. Ok, when you read it. It started in the library, then jumped into the monologue. I rewrote that as well to be a little less blocky. I made it one of his bizarre journal entries.



[note #18998: does passion have a smell? research project 3.3 under Emotions.] [note #18999: is passion an emotion? also research project 3.3]

A man at the post office began asking me what I was doing, and I described the goal of project 1.0 (leaving out the romantic details of course). I suspect he thought that I was joking. He laughed. [note #19000: breath smelled of stale coffee, ginger, garlic, and a mild degree of bacteria from gingivitis. start profile for man #422] I explained that not only was I proving a theory that American post offices (pre-1980s construction) have a universally common smell, but that isolating that smell was of great sentimental value to me. Or perhaps he suspected I was mentally ill and not in fact a life-long devotee of the collecting of smells.


Since the school board banning of my presence on elementary school grounds, I have been forced to continue my work strictly by memory. This has proven to be a challenge. Although elementary schools have many materials in common with a U.S. Post Office, they are not identical by a long shot. The presence of children and the materials that they use in school complicates the matter many-fold. [note #19001: Make a timeline of the history of the use of floor wax and cleaners grouped by school district within county]


[#374 smell component #4]

Mother [profile #2] is calling for her chamomile tea and ginger snaps.


Your opening scene is the 'landing page' of your serial. Everyone's landing pages get many, many more visitors than readers - that's normal. Most of those visitors probably don't even read the first line - they were curious what the serial blog looks like, or they misclicked, or they were mildly curious but don't actually have time to read, or (insert 1001 other reasons here). If you only put an author's note with a 'start reading here' link on your landing page, you'd probably notice the same thing - people who visit the landing page but never click further.


To summarize - stop worrying about your opening scene. This is normal. :)


(Wildbow gave you a 4 star review. I'd kill for a 4 star review by Wildbow! Your story is good - Wildbow is a harsh critic.)


Chryslalis, that was a kindness. You're right. And this is just a hobby besides.


I revised it one more time 5 minutes ago, and I'll let it ride. I took Fiona's tip, since she's actually read it in its entirety, to focus on the humor. The post is not hilarious now but it has humor. The humor of this character is that he is so obtuse, like Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. He could be the smell collector if he weren't so social and animated.