See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. My sincere apologies to those of you who have been waiting patiently for decisions. At this point we’ve officially accepted 15 stories (40,000 words).
Story 244 (3/5/2011 Science Fiction 4480 words)
Reader 1: “The writing is good and establishes an interesting mood. The story has too much descriptive detail at the beginning and not enough story movement. There’s a bit of a clue on page 3/21 that something is happening, but the inciting incident doesn’t happen until page 12. There is a second story line–his relationship with [someone]. That starts earlier, but it’s not clear what’s happening between them. The story would be better if it started earlier and if the [main] pert of the story was interwoven with the relationship.”
This is a reprint. Thus the bar is set higher.
The first paragraph establishes a character in scene very directly, adds a hint of context, and a touch of mood. Strong opening. The writing is evocative and active, but I’m not getting story movement. The character isn’t motivated in a story sense. Then on page 3 we get false mystery. She was scared. They all were. Of what? I ask. I’m in the MC’s head after all. It’s far more effective (at least for us) to draw a reader on with story than with false mystery. You risk frustrating him with the latter. There’s no rule that says a story can’t have story arc AND mood, right? Rather than papering over a lack of story with false mystery and mood, consider stepping back to view the plot and see whether there’s been an inciting incident, motivated character, etc..
More false mystery. How the world used to be. He knew what was coming. These techniques work superficially, but not on a deep level, where story and character arc reside. These techniques pique a reader; strong story compels.
The opening scene doesn’t really move the story forward. It provides limited background and lots of mood. I do like the mood, but I’m hungry for story by this point. Skimming. Second scene is well written, but I still have no idea what the MC’s motivation is. Third scene is background. An interesting event on page 9. Stuff is happening to the MC at this point. Motivation at the end of page 9. The MC has a goal now. Section V brings a true mystery. Another complication happens to the MC. He makes a wish and it works. The story ends with a hopeful scene tinged with doubt. I do like the subtle twist that doubt represents.
Overall, I’d say the writing here is very professional and engaging, but the story is largely absent. If I were revising, I’d look first at the character’s motivation (in this story) and craft a plot that challenges him and gives him an opportunity to risk something for what he wants/needs most.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A well written SF story about loss and second chances. Lack of clear character motivation and a weak story arc work against it.
Story 245 (3/7/2011 Horror 1406 words)
Reader 1: “I don’t feel like there is anything new here.” (plot spoilers removed)
A diary entry format. The writing is lively, which helps offset some of the distancing effect of diary format. It’s a little breezy for my taste, but carries me along. I like the explanation of “them”. However, we’re not entering info-dump mode and it no longer feels so much like a diary as a way to convey information to me. Losing interest.
There are some strong moments in this writing, but by and large it is a description of idea rather than a story. Imagine the story that is described being shown on the page. I suspect it might still be too commonplace, but it would be a great deal more active and visceral. That’s what I would do were I revising this, in any case. I don’t see what is gained by the diary format and quite a bit is lost.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A fairly common horror idea with some clever touches. Lack of immediacy works against this.
Story 246 (3/7/2011 SF 4700 words)
Reader 1: “The writing is good, but I had trouble paying attention. I think it needs some work. First, we need to be more in the POV’s head. There is a big info dump on pages 7-8 and at the same time, I’m lost when it comes to the political situation. I think it needs to come in more slowly to digest it. This isn’t my kind of story, so I’m going to give it a maybe. I think it might interest others. “
This comes from an accomplished writer/editor. The opening paragraph establishes a character in scene, a genre, and a potential inciting incident. It’s solid, though I don’t feel fully connected to anything for some reason. Not sure why that is.
Same reaction to the second paragraph. Well written and advances the scene, but I feel curiously detached. It may be because the things I want to understand and see are not the things I’m presented with. Instead I get broad concepts suggestive of context, but not very specific. In a sense, I feel as if I’m in a gurgleflurb heading for Sonaly One. Looking at the prose, it doesn’t seem as if I should feel that way, but I do. Maybe a few concrete details would help set me straight. It is difficult to balance being true to viewpoint and bridging the gap between a reader’s experience and a remote story world. I certainly don’t begrudge this story’s approach; am just reporting my reaction so far.
I love the MC’s thought when the visitor goes to one knee. Priceless. This does reinforce my issue though. I had no idea he was wearing a hat, or that he was actually from off-ship or that the ship had been waylaid. These are the details I want to know when entering a scene (unless the MC doesn’t know them, of course; then it’s more difficult).
I do like where the first scene ends. Nice tension; good characterization. We have story here.
Second scene complicates the story. Dark shifts toward light. Very nice. There’s a slight tendency to over describe, especially character reactions, but it’s solid stuff.
Drat. The next scene lost me. It’s an info-dump of epic proportions. The author steps on stage to deliver a description of concept and world history lesson. Certainly the MC will need some small part of this in her actions/reactions to story stimulus, but I certainly don’t want it now. Save it for the book (And, yes, i do grant that complex SF ideas do require some info-dumping, but this one seems self-indulgent rather than necessary to my appreciation of the story at hand).
Next scene is very good. Another complication. Next scene opens with unattributed dialogue. Not a fan of that; I’d much rather see the speaker and get a sense of his place in the world rather than hear his words in a vacuum (false mystery). The conversation that ensues is excellent.
The gender issue needs some setup early in the story. It comes out of left field here. The scene around page 17 is going on too long for me. The scene around page 20 is going on a bit long for me. This reads like anti-climax and, as such, pushes the story structure out of balance. Ah, it’s actually climax. Focus on the tension rather than lack of tension when she makes the announcement, maybe on her own uncertainty. Something to build this scene toward the climax. Her enemy should probably put up more of a struggle just before, as well. This feels too easy now.
It’s kind of a trite ending. I don’t mind it so much, but it could be shortened since I’ve seen it many times before.
I have not seen the story proper before though it’s slightly reminiscent of Foundation. Overall, I like this a lot. It can be shaped a bit better to deliver a cleaner climax and to better focus it on the gender issue that becomes important. The writing can be sharpened a little here and there. I think this could find a place in the collection with some revision. I’ll pass it along.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A complex political SF story about empire and personal power. A weaker than optimum story arc weakens it somewhat.
Story 247 (3/8/2011 SF 4334 words)
This one opens with dialogue, not unattributed, and a character waking another character up. It’s mid-scene and establishes a character, but feels a touch overwrought. I recall James Gunn’s advice to me after I opened a story in a moment of high tension. “There’s only one way to go from there.” That’s the danger.
Second paragraph establishes that the person speaking is NOT the MC, the person being awakened is (and first person to boot). These are all red flags for me, unfortunately. I’ve had to shift the protagonist; the first person filter is in place, and now I have an awakening MC (usually a sign that the story is not ready to begin). Red flags are not always right though.
Another red flag. The MC is not explaining something to the other character that they (presumably) already know. This is a dialogue info dump and a sign that I’m not quite in the MC’s perspective, at least not yet.
There’s a paragraph of background information. This is okay since it’s internal thought, but I’m not sure why the thought is triggered here. The previous reaction to the other character’s prodding works, but this further elaboration seems for my benefit, not the character’s. Beware whenever you find yourself striving to provide background information to me. If it’s important to the story, the character will need it, not me.
There are some nice details here. I like the feel of this world. Page 3 brings a potential inciting incident. I’m not sure it actually motivates the MC in a story sense. Seems to happen to the MC. The end of scene is pretty good. This could be the beginning of a true mystery. I don’t understand what the MC wants or needs though, which limits my appreciation of the stakes involved.
Next scene is a card game. It’s not moving the story forward. The story hasn’t really begun actually, since we haven’t got a motivated protagonist yet. We do have a strange incident but we also need a character who reacts to it and pulls us in. This scene feels very day-in-the-life so far. Another potential inciting event. I would call it a complication, but I don’t know what the goal is that it complicates.
We get some world background. A conflict between parties. No motivation for the Main Character yet. Story really hasn’t begun yet. Some nice tension in this scene. The MC is a spectator. A tense standoff. Some character tension. This provides a momentary motivation, but what is the larger motivation?
On page 12 we have a nice decision point. It feels like a climax, but it’s not as powerful as it should be because we have not invested in the character’s larger story. Good action though. On page 16 we get the answer to the mystery earlier in the story. The trouble here is that we haven’t even thought about it since then. It comes across as convenient rather than substantial. Then we get explanation of background.
The story seems to be starting now. Another action scene. It’s done pretty well. If I were intensely identified with the MC it would be even stronger. The ending comes mostly out of left field. It wasn’t set up until midway through the story (unless I missed something earlier, which is possible). The actual ending has real potential. The story needs to focus on this issue from the get go and develop around the MC’s desire to see something like this happen, complicated by her friendship with the secondary character. What if the injections happened on page 1, for example, and the MC took this as evidence of government abuse or disrespect? In reacting to that impulse, we could get some political background that is relevant and some setup for this ending. The mystery would need further development through the middle so that the revelation of the answer doesn’t seem so random (MC ought to be actively seeking an answer to the issue). Mainly, I want a motivated character faced with these events, rather than a character whose primary function is to show the world to me.
I should also mention that while first person is handled just fine in this story, I don’t think it’s the best choice of viewpoint. A close third person will almost certainly work better to draw the reader into identification with the MC. There’s something about being trapped in a character’s head that weakens reader identification. First person is usually best used when the perspective itself is an important part of the story’s effect (say a quirky character voice, an unreliable narrator, or a character who views the world in some particularly interesting way that is relevant to the story resolution). Where a character’s context (how he fits into the world) or objectivity is important, third person is usually the better choice. Which is a perfect opportunity to share a quote from a fellow flasher at Show Me Your Lits (who teaches creative writing), Cat Carlson: “We struggle to get in[to a character's head], but the really beautiful writing comes when you make it back out. “ This is her comment on the tendency of her students to write first person narrative at first, then third person as they become stronger writers.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A military SF tale with a political undertow. Lack of a motivated protagonist and a slow opening detract.
Story 248 (3/8/2011 SF 1500 words)
The opening places me in scene. The second sentence goes on too long for me. It tries to jam too much information in too quickly. What I need is a sense of stage, how this character fits into it. Then the smaller details can pull my focus to her. I would keep the breasts, but delay the other info just a bit.
Unfortunately, the story starts out moving backward. There’s no inciting incident, no motivation, just background to get us up to the opening image. Much like a framing device, which we all know I’m not a big fan of because it’s so often used to paper over a lack of actual story.
I’m through four pages and its’ all background, with a few flashes of back flash. The result of this approach is that I feel no immediacy. Rather, it’s as if the story is being explained to me rather than experienced. Imagine showing this story on the page instead? Forward movement, character identification, rising tension, mystery as to how it might end. Much more interesting than investing a half hour finding out why the MC is crying in the first paragraph, no?
Around page 5 it begins to feel like forward movement. More interesting here. A suitably sad ending, yet imagine how much power it would have if we didn’t already know something like it was coming? This is the cost of a framing device. Too many of us choose this device without really considering why. It’s an easy way to give a story that full circle feel; more often it’s just a way to sap tension and immediacy from it. Every once in awhile we see a framed story that works really well for us, but it’s pretty rare.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 An SF love story with an alien twist. Lack of immediacy and forward movement hinder it.
Well, that’s it for tonight. One more candidate story.