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Diary of a Runner

By Wildbow, author of Ward

Jul 10, 2012: It seems reviews for ‘Diary of a Runner’ are very divided, with two 5 star reviews and one 2 star review. A fairly large gap considering that the former indicates professional level writing and the latter is ‘a tough slog’, a half-step from ‘unreadable’. The primary point of contention is the writing style.

So let’s be blunt; Diary of a Runner is laid out in such a way that it’s virtually unreadable. Gavin noted all of this: Lack of paragraph formatting, awkward dialogue construction and errors of all kinds. The main thing that got to me was that most entries (that weren’t surprisingly short) were effectively walls of text, with no apparent paragraph breaks – just a wad of paragraphs all stuck together. This is made worse when several lines of dialogue from different individuals all share the same paragraph. (Note: This has changed; see the edit at the bottom of this review.)

The key point, I feel, and where I feel that the author Steve Kuhn missed the mark, is that you can have writing that’s intentionally sloppy, crafted in such a way as to create a particular voice for a character that’s perhaps not very literate or not very good at expressing themselves (while still being readable & of interest to your audience), and you can have writing that’s sloppy because the writer is lazy, which then gets excused because the character is supposedly not very literate. This work is the latter.

Some places where we can note this – the opening chapter takes the form of a letter written by Staff Sergeant Chalmers to a Colonel. One paragraph is squished into the next (how unprofessional!), he feels the need to clarify that Sector C is the California coastline (why? the Colonel will know), there’s an overuse and incorrect use of ellipses (The frequent ‘ . . . ‘ joins multiple exclamation points as a mark of poor writing, and Steve Kuhn’s ellipses have four dots rather than the standard three), there’s the mistake of calling the enemies Z’s (unnecessary apostrophe), there’s inconsistent capitalization (California Coastline) and the letter is packed with unnecessary details – stuff someone in the endgame stage of a zombie apocalypse wouldn’t feel the need to elaborate on.

If this was a carefully crafted work creating the ~illusion~ of a main character without strong literary skills, these details would have been taken care of in chapters where the writers should be more literate and educated.

Logical inconsistencies overwhelm: The first/prologue chapter lays out the entire premise of the story: A journal that SSG Chalmers found that contained the musings of a survivor. It’s kind of shocking that he’s not only got the free time to read all of this, but that he finds it of any particular interest, given the lack of new information (unless he’s been living under a rock) in any of the chapters to date.

Similarly, there’s a chapter towards the middle with the response from the Colonel to SSG Chalmers. He’s surprised that, in the midst of the crisis with limited supplies and constant danger, people are banding together into warbands and fighting among one another. Really? This is news to him? It’s equally surprising he finds the journal to date so interesting and demands more – how is this stuff not common information to him?

Entry 47 is cut short (or rather, the text is reduced to lines of "@#$@%&(@$(!)@#$(&()(!@#$&(()!@($#&)!&@)#$(&!" – because a single page of the diary burned. How exactly does that happen? As far as I can tell, there’s nothing in the diary explaning how a single page out of a book with 200+ pages came to be burned, either. I admit I might have missed this, as the formatting of the story -does- make a careful read difficult.

There’s other inconsistencies (I’m thinking primarily in terms of how injuries are handled – a bullet wound is largely ignored after one case, barring the side effects, where it would likely have been fatal or far more debilitating as described) but I want to move on to the rest of the review.

Characterization felt fairly shallow, and more importantly (a pet peeve of mine), character development seems largely nonexistent. We don’t grow to care about the characters in the five, twenty or thirty chapters between their introduction and their death, and the general lack of development and change in the characters that ~do~ persist seems to indicate I shouldn’t even bother caring about a character in the hopes that they’ll become more interesting or redeeming. In one late (as of the point of this writing) entry, two characters get married. Not two chapters afterward, one of them is dead. It feels forced, and this occurs several times through the story, to the point of it being predictable.

I really don’t want to be the kind of reviewer that’s overly critical of the writing of others (Though my previous reviews have tended toward the harsh side, I am working on reviewing some better stories -which is taking more time-) but I felt that the people who might see the five star reviews and be inclined to rush over and read DoaR deserve a more moderate take. Frankly, the story is not very strong, and it reads very much as one might expect a high schooler to produce after a marathon of Left4Dead or watching the Walking Dead TV series. It is riddled with errors, lacking in originality and yet (to the author’s credit) the author is very, very excited about what he’s writing. The most agonizing point besides the formatting is that there is little to nothing to set it apart from the ‘zombie’ genre as a whole, no fresh ideas or story elements. Even the author’s family members and facebook friends in the comments section note things like "saw that one coming for a while =/." If you’re going to write a story in a popular genre, play with conventions, turn cliches on their head! Don’t join the herd!

Author Steve Kuhn would be well advised to sit down with an editor and comb through the chapters to render the overall work more readable while maintaining Baxter’s narrative voice. Even then, I remain unsure if the story would merit a two-and-a-half or three star rating. It’s ultimately a story and a collection of events you could read in a hundred other places. I’m even not sure that’s hyperbole – I really do suspect you could find a hundred other stories like this if you went looking.

As it stands, DoaR isn’t in a state where I could tell someone about it and expect them to read it, which leads to my one-and-a-half star rating. Not only would it be unfair to readers to rate it higher, but I think the author deserves better as well – his enthusiasm is top notch (even if his attention to formatting isn’t), and I really do feel he’d be served best by a blunt assessment and a push to use that enthusiasm to develop his writing abilities and to create something more original.

*Edit (July 23rd, 2012): I should note that the author Steve Kuhn has apparently gone through his work in response to reviews and adjusted the aforementioned paragraph formatting. A quick glance through a dozen entries has shown that the work is a great deal easier to read. Mr. Kuhn’s willingness to respond to criticism and adjust his work should be commended. As one of the primary hurdles of reading his work has been amended, I’ve adjusted my rating & the title of this review (from 1.5 stars and ‘Diary of run-on Paragraphs to the current rating & no review title).

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