or, How to Avoid Boring Your Readers
I was reading a serialized novel, and my mind started to wander. This is exactly what you don't want to happen if you are an author. Once the reader starts to wander, to ask questions about the reality of the story, you've already lost. I shall then take a close look at the passage in question, and see what can be gained from reading it.
From Procyx (in the April 2003 issue of Deep Magic):
The parkways were themselves sweeping gardens. The fragrances of rich, floral perfumes drifted and flowed among the trees. They were exquisite, never competing - always complimentary. One fragrance would seem to drift by and end, and there would be an interval of olfactory silence before another scent might swell upon the air.
That's it, in its entirety. Now, before I begin to dissect it, let me show you just what was wrong. Compare the following paragraph, which adds on my thoughts.
The parkways were themselves sweeping gardens. The fragrances of rich, floral perfumes drifted and flowed among the trees. They (the fragrances, not the trees) were exquisite, never competing - always complimentary (this word never failed to remind him of art class in high school). One fragrance would seem to drift by and end, and there would be an interval of olfactory silence (he winced, even as he thought it, because it really was mixing metaphors) before another scent might swell upon the air. Reeber sneezed twice, in quick succession, and felt in his pockets for a kleenex. He never would have thought that he would be allergic to the flowers of that earthly utopia. At least, he assumed they were flowers, as the trees weren't blooming, but he couldn't actually see them. He snufffled. His eyes were already beginning to water.
So what happened? Obviously, by the end of the description I'm bored stiff, and have wandered off on a mental tangent. The first sentence isn't bad. It isn't very interesting, but it gives necessary information. The second sentence begins to give interesting images. We have perfume, but no flowers for the perfume to come from. In other words, the image is very nebulous at this point. Now, the next sentence get's into a bit of trouble. The last noun was "trees", but "they" refers to "the fragrances". This bit of confusion drew me out of the story for a moment, until I understood what the author was saying. Now I'm paying more attention to the words, which is bad. I don't just follow the flow of the story. The author must, at this point, work to regain my attention.
The next sentence, about the drifting fragrances, is bad. It gives no concrete images or scents. We don't see any flowers, or pollen on the air, or know what it smells like. Do the scents come from the trees? from herbs? from flowers? Are they sweet or pungent? Is it more like cinnamon or roses? What associations does the narrator have with the scents? I can't picture the garden, I can't smell the garden. I see someone standing in the middle of trees (and I don't even know whether they are really ordered, like a park, or more unkempt, like a wood), smelling various things.
Now, the description "olfactory silence" seems particularly ill timed. It mixes senses. There may not be a word for "not smelling anything in particular at the moment", but that is no excuse. But this might have been excused, if it was clear what sort of silence it was. There are all sorts of silence: the quiet after everyone has gone to bed, the tense silence while a class is taking an important test, the happy silence when everyone in the lab is working on a project that is going decently, the numbing sensation when a large, persistent noise like a drill has suddenly stopped, or the delicious silence on the way back from a party when the people in the back seat of the car have stopped talking. But we don't know which of these silences it is like. Further, it is confusing, because just a few sentences ago, the author was talking about mingling the fragrances, and here it is quite plain that they don't mix. What's a reader to do?
Finally, this is the sort of story that doesn't seem particularly realistic. I love gardens, especially the sweet, citrus smell of my roses on a muggy evening. But they make me sneeze. Most flowers do, in fact. Or they make my nose run. In fact, lot's of scents, particularly unexpected, strong scents, make me sneeze.
I should close by saying that this is definitely a problem passage. The author wrote some pretty decent stuff (otherwise I should never have made it this far). But any scene that confuses or bores the reader is bad. Once the reader stops to pay attention to phrases like "olfactory silence," you've lost them. Now, it may be possible to gain their interest again (or they may feel like slogging through the rest of the book because they've already read most of it), but it is still poor writing, and you risk the reader putting down the book and never picking it up again.