The pace of submissions has picked up a bit this week, reminding us that we’ll likely get a flood of manuscripts in the next three weeks. That probably means we’ll be getting tight on slots for the anthology. If you’re a writer, consider sending off that submission before the final week. We’ll take as long as required to read each and every submission, looking for that glimmer of gold among the slush, but it gets more difficult to hook us as we run out of room.
Which brings me to this week’s slush.
Story 1 (1880 word magic realism): And my internet connection promptly goes down. A sign? Here we go… The opening scene is interesting. It promises something darkishly unicorn. There’s only minimal scene setting, but since it seems to be contemporary (despite the initial clue to rough hewn lumber) that may be enough. Could go either way at this point. Second scene makes me suspicious. This is a seven year old, and it’s premature to be discussing her ravishing looks and potential as husband bait. It’s also a little young to be labeling her as dumb, requiring help with math, etc.. I’m not getting a good vibe about this child’s portrayal. It gets much better later in the scene. There’s some wonderful writing here and that promise of darkish unicornism persists. By scene end I’m a little worried that the darkish unicorn theme is a little simplistic for the promise made, but we’ll see. Third scene starts to lose me. Too much is being artificially withheld. This is a time to reveal the mystery, not shroud it. My suspicion is the mystery isn’t really all that meaningful in the end, leaving the author trying to obscure that through making it seem really mysterious. The writing is evocative, but frustratingly obscure at key moments. Final scene constitutes a reveal, but reveals nothing clearly. One can read between the lines to figure out what may have been going on, but isn’t it the author’s job to come up with something really meaningful to make it worth my while? The mystery revealed is nothing special unless I’m badly misreading clues. There’s no deeper layer, just a puzzle. This is the most frustrating kind of story for us, because the writing is quite strong, it promises something, then can’t quite deliver. It does have unicornish stuff, which Jamie has been craving. Pass to second read.
Story 2 (4700 word SF): The opening is lively, but the first person narrative is coming too close to “clever author” for me. Still, there seem to be some interesting concepts at work. I’m getting a little frustrated that the protagonist’s goal is as unclear as the river we’re hearing about. The writing is solid, but begins to feel a little chit-chatty. A quick “as you know, Bob” moment disguised as jest. The eleventh paragraph gives us a concise situation statement. I would have liked that sooner. I’d also like to see some forward movement by now. Another “as you know, Bob” exchanged disguised as info for the viewer. It works pretty well. The story begins moving forward about a quarter of the way in. Some more thinly disguised “as you know, Bob” dialogue. A third of the way in, we learn the protagonist is a reporter (i.e. has an actual goal).
Time out for a mini-rant. Speech tags in modern fiction are used to identify a speaker. That’s their function. When choosing between “X said” and “said X” choose the former unless you have a really good reason not to (e.g. archaic story setting, fable, etc). Think of it this way: if the goal of a speech tag is to efficiently identify X is speaking, is it more efficient to focus on “said” or “X”; “said” only postpones the connection for a moment.
Back to the story. Some more “as you know, Bob” dialogue, but the main problem is that the first person narrative has distanced me from the protagonist. First person tends to minimize the link between exterior event and interior reaction. Unless the interior experience is really intense/goofy/meaningful/unreliable it’s difficult for the reader to be fully engaged. It’s counter intuitve, but we see it again and again. Reader identification with first person is difficult to pull off. Close third person where a reader can watch a character react to external stimulus (thus understanding the character from an objective distance) is much easier to pull off. It’s usually the right choice for genre stories. Choose third person unless you have a really important reason not to. Hmm, unintended mini-rant. Back to story. Some panicky moralizing that feels like a developing message. Yep, incoming Message. Nice sense of escalation in the action. We end up somewhere unexpected that ties it to our theme. The story is way too long and develops too slowly, however. Reject.
Story 3 (488 word SF): This is a flash fiction that acts as a metaphor for the modern age of Islamic terrorism. In that sense, it’ s interesting. The story, however, feels incomplete, the parts not played out for best effect. Mainly, this is a matter of sharpening and polish, I suspect. The story likely needs to be a little longer in order to build reader identification with the (iconic?) protagonist before the jolting end. The motivating device (complete with cool sparks and flame) works well for me, but I don’t quite feel the connection between it and the final image. It’s in there (in the form of a brief news story) but not completely connected yet (it’s a character issue as well, actually). Having said this, I’m seeing this as a potentially interesting addition to the anthology, a different take on the theme with real world implication, but it’s going to have to be a lot cleaner and sharper. I dunno. I’m not really compelled by it as I was the other flash piece we asked for a rewrite, but it’s intellectually interesting and could be strong with a solid revision. Pass to second read.
Story 4 (6500 word SF): Long stories have a hard time with us, one strike. Starts with dialogue, two strikes. Reading on. Tense confusion in second paragraph confuses me; I’m not getting a solid sense of place. In fact I’m not SEEING anything on the first page. Not smelling, tasting, touching either, but seeing is crucial in establishing a scene for us sight-centric human readers. Unseen people talk without attribution on the next page. We learn crucial character fact too late. By this point I’m on strike three. I’ll keep reading out of courtesy. Page 4, we learn (I think) we’re on an alien world with limited tech. Seems to be turning into a murder mystery. Why was the opening scene necessary? Maybe it will be, but seems unlikely right now. Read on. Gets interesting on page 5. Page 6 gives more setting info (too late). Character seems curiously detached from her own tragedy. A nice turn of phrase on p 11. Story is moving along now. Gotta say, though, that it’s focusing on a lot of seemingly unimportant stuff. A bit of “as you know, Bob” on p16. Character named Rainbow? Seems kind of tacked on. The story is well shaped (yes, the opening mattered, though it failed to set up the character’s emotional state effectively). Clues lead to answers, etc. I’d call this a competent murder mystery SF story, just not compelling. Connection to theme is tenuous. From my perspective, the protagonist’s emotional arc needs considerable work to deserve this ending. Reject.
Story 5 (2530 word SF): The title is a bit bland, leading me to expect a typical story. That’s not a deal breaker, of course, but I could be more excited to get to this one. Starts out moving backward, usually not a good idea. We bore easily. It is a nice depiction of childhood fantasizing, but where is the story seed? Where is the story movement? Character motivation? We do have a concrete setting, which is good. I believe I see the ending coming about halfway through; will let you know. Yep, that’s the one. Small twist on what I figured, but not too different. Basically, the story we might be interested in is the one that begins after this final page. That said, there’s some good evocative writing here, just not enough story to make us spin. Reject.
Story 6 (4329 word Fantasy): This comes from a very accomplished author with more than 300 sales, 20 books, etc.. In a way these are among the more difficult stories to judge. I want to like the story out of respect, but more often than not they simply don’t pan out. I guess the lesson is that a trunk story from an excellent writers is not always better than a new story from a beginning writer. I should have known this, having read Ted Chiang’s only unsuccessful short story when I was at Clarion with him in ’89. He made sure it never saw the light of day, but it showed us peons that even giants can stumble. Anyway, on with this one. It starts with an unnamed protagonist. Strike one. There’s a sense of (possibly forced) mystery in the first couple pages. I’m not all that interested yet. So far no speculative element, story seems very simple. P3 who’s Pat? P4-5 moves to omniscient viewpoint to further sense of (possibly forced) mystery. I like the line by line writing, it’s not overly flowery, effectively conveys action and image. Story seems to be taking an awfully long time to go anywhere, though. P6-8 lots of background, little story movement. P9 I learn he’s going to the place I thought he was running from. Strike two. I learn the horse’s name. P10 moment of potential tension comes and goes without actual tension. Strike three. Reading out of courtesy now. P14 back to an omniscient moment to add to the (probably forced) mystery. That’s one mean horse, but where is the speculative element? P18, the dude’s Irish? Really? P18 delivers the speculative element. That’s a bit late to hook a speculative reader. Nicely sentimental ending. I liked that. Overall, too much of the story action takes place off the page. There’s very little tension to hold my interest and the speculative element comes way too late. Reject.
Story 7 (???? word SF): No word count or contact info on first page. Strike one. The opening is a nice, easy exchange. Solid setting delivered with minimal word count. Change Strike one to ball one ;-). A clunky background disguised as dialogue instills a bit of doubt in me. Further somewhat clunky background interjection is worrisome. Nice description of secondary character – but this should be set up initially. I have to reinvent my vision. A quarter through and no speculative element. Story could (and prob should) start with them stumbling upon the unusual woman. There hasn’t been a real hook to this point. Not quite halfway through, I think I see the ending. Stay tuned. This gets interesting after the woman encounter. Ends kind of lamely, unfortunately. A very nice incident that should have deeper meaning, but doesn’t yet. With some rethinking this could be very good. Not close enough for a rewrite request though. There’s an entire layer of meaning missing at this point, but the story is worth pursuing. Reject with suggestions.
Story 8 (2833 word SF): Unnamed protagonist. Strike one. The prose is a bit pretentious in its bleakness. First pages is moving backward. Strike two. To be fair, a case can be made for a nameless protagonist, so back to Strike one. The prose is getting heavier and heavier, however; soon I won’t be able to keep my eyes moving. First nearly-half of story is telling us what protagonist is going to do; next section shows him attempting to do it. Very long for what it is so far. Maybe he’s going to talk his adversary to death? Now he’s telling us his background, disguised as telling the adversary. “Allow me to explain” Oh, dear lord, no. Strike two and three. I like the final line. Basically, this is a description of a story that could be worth telling. As the story stands, it’s not. Reject.
Story 9 (620 word magic realism): Nice hook. This is a nice attempt at fable with a feel good payoff. It certainly fits the theme. I’m just not convinced it actually works as well as it should. The escalation seems random rather than purposeful. The character arc is undeveloped. I think it needs a sharper progression and maybe a few more words, but it’s clever enough to consider. Pass to second read.
As you can tell, I had more time to devote to slush reading this week. I’ve tried to be more thorough (and brutally honest) with the above in hopes this can be helpful to writers out there who want to see the process through the editor’s perspective.
This week’s slushy goes to Story 9. It’s a perfect fit for the anthology. Other stories were more ambitious and even better written, but this one hits the sweet spot after some reworking.
Tune in again next week.