Some nice weather we’re having today. It was good to get out walking again. But one can never walk too far from the slush or risk falling behind.
Before I begin, let me iterate (or reiterate if I’ve already iterated) exactly why I chose to undertake this endeavor. As a writer I’m painfully aware of how difficult it is to get real world reaction from editors. Some editors will send a really useful comment or two along with their rejection, but most do not have time or do not want to put up with the inevitable flak.
So, thunk I, why not post a “real time” reaction to slush stories as I read them? It seems to me this would be the very best feedback an author (especially a newbie) could ask for. I didn’t want to turn this into an exercise in author bashing, nor did I want to shy away from honest reaction, colored by the monotony of reading so many stories that do not work or do not fit or do not stand out, or by the rapid fire submission of trunk stories from a few authors. This is not a workshop and it is not my job to determine the intent of a story and craft detailed criticism designed to help it reach its platonic ideal. I do a good bit of that for my face-to-face workshops, mind you, but that is not my role here. Here, my job is to read a story as carefully as necessary to determine whether or not it is of serious interest to us in putting together a themed anthology.
That said, it’s been pointed out that I’ve become increasingly harsh in my readings of late. With that in mind, my goal this and future weeks is to continue with “real time” reaction to a story, but to follow that with a brief suggestion as to how one might go about improving said story if one wished to do so before submitting to other markets. I hope it helps someone. It may even help me in my continuing quest to become a “real” writer.
Story 1 (3000 word Fantsy): This one begins with a moderately solid hook intimately related to our theme. I’m interested so far. Next few paragraphs summarize the Wizard of Oz and catch us up since then. These dull my interest. I’m not feeling closer to the protagonist, but as if I’m reading a synopsis. The writing is borderline flowery for us (it’s good stuff, but draws attention to itself at the expense of plot, which is moving backward at this point). The first scene is essentially background rather than story. I’m losing patience. Second scene is mostly background as well. There are some nice moments, particularly in the third scene, but the story continues to exist in the past. We do finally have an inciting incident near the end of scene 3 and it’s interesting, if late. I like where this story ends and it’s nicely realized in terms of theme. I’m just troubled that it takes so long to unwind and depends too heavily on prose over narrative. I would suggest starting this with the inciting incident (mystery of returning shoes) and move forward briskly from there, using foreground to incite memory rather than just to break memory into smaller parcels. There’s some very nice imagery and metaphor at work here, but the story engine is idling. I think this will be complete when the foreground story fully competes with the background. Pass to second read.
Story 2 (3200 word SF-humor): It’s never a good sign when a cover letter begins by saying the author doesn’t think the story succeeds, but sent it anyway. I’ll try not to let that impact my judgment, but it won’t be easy. As an author, you really do need to develop a thick skin and not sabotage your efforts. If you truly believe your story doesn’t work, don’t send it. If you aren’t certain whether it works, let it sit as long as you can and read it again. If it doesn’t work, fix it. If you believe it does, send it confidently into the marketplace with the understanding that editors can be right or wrong. There are no gods here, only people trying on the stories you send our way. We may have a comment that helps you or say something stupid that hurts (wince and move on). Or we may just buy the darned thing if it’s good and hits us at the right time in the right frame of mind, etc..
Okey dokey, then. The story begins with dialogue, which is typically not a good sign. I’m not able to quickly identify the next speaker, also not a good sign. This is intended as farce, I see in the second paragraph. It’s good to establish that early. Nice rainbow, but I’m not seeing a character motivation yet. Scene the second starts zapping me with some funny lines that make me smile. There’s even some triangulation going on (which reminds me, dear reader, Do you Triangulate?). I like the second scene. Third scene breezes by as well. Fourth scene starts to lose some sharpness. Still some good lines, but it’s growing more strained. Fifth scene continues that trend, though I do like the final line a lot. Final scene is fun, but the story resolves too easily to be really compelling. We like humor, but we want story too. This moves well for a time before heading down the path of least resistance to an easy ending. I would suggest envisioning this from a single viewpoint, concentrating on an actual plot with setup complication climax and resolution. This sequence can be over the top, but would add a level of interest the story does not currently have. There’s some sharp humor/satire here. I’d hate to see it wasted. Pass to second read.
Story 3 (1900 word Fantasy): This starts with an unnamed protagonist for no good reason. Strike One. The next few paragraphs are author intrusion telling us the setup for a story (apparently an inverted version of sleeping beauty). It’s well enough written, but relies too much on cleverness over story for our needs. Successful fairy tales have a certain momentum that carries the reader along to ultimate message. Here, the story seems to meander around a single character trait while clinging to the most basic icons of the original tale without really updating their relevance (unless I’m particularly dense tonight). It’s nice to see a stutterer in fiction, but stutter, like most affected dialect grows irritating after a time. Overall, the story just doesn’t have enough plot or layering for us. I would suggest actually following the original tale’s plot structure more closely and updating its message for a modern audience. Gender change is fine, but that choice should mean something in terms of story message. Reject.
Story 4 (3100 word SF): This drops me into the middle of a situation, which is a good idea. The problem is that it feels like chit-chat without real purpose. We learn a little info about the characters and that they’re heading somewhere and got lost, but why? They find a place to ride out a storm. A third of the way through the story we find out what the protagonist does (and that there’s a king), but not why this time is special. Why does a story erupt THIS time and not last or next? More info about the sidekick. End of scene one offers up a potential complication, but of what? The story is well enough written, but lacks plot. Yep, it was a complication with predictable results. Next scene offers another complication and then an explanation of the complication, then a quick end scene, summarizing how things came out a year later. There’s some potentially good background here, but the story is minimal. The story offers a situation without character motivation (thus the chit-chat feel). Motivate this character so that this story has its own momentum and shape, rather than using a couple of events to reveal background information about the sidekick and world. I need to identify with this protagonist (i.e. pull for him or against him) in order for the story to have impact on me. Reject.
Story 5 (no word count SF): This starts promisingly. Another story about disappearing colors, which could be a problem. It’s done well so far, good detail, fluid language. In scene 2 we learn that this is happening to everyone, which doesn’t ring true. No one else the protagonist saw has reacted appropriately. The doctor seems unconcerned, which does not ring true to life. No TV warnings or cell phone calls, etc.. Third scene finds the protagonist putting daughter to bed and casually educating herself on a variety of complex topics, without a shred of emotion. One paragraph draws attention to the fact that a similar idea has been done in movies (Pleasantville). It doesn’t state this, but brings up the idea in a way that makes me think of it. I like her dream. The final scene is quietly sentimental and contains an interesting take on this idea I’d like to see developed. As the story stands, I don’t buy the lack of emotional reaction in world at large (and in protagonist specifically, at least until the final scene) and I don’t think it handles this idea as strongly as the other two stories we have purchased. I do like the writing in general, very comfortable and observant of detail (sans emotional detail). I would suggest taking this a little different direction, perhaps moving the color phenomena to the opening and developing the idea implied in final scene through the middle of the story. One could still end with this ending; it would be a reinforcement of the story rather than a new idea. The story could be longer or shorter depending on intent. The ideas are big enough to play with, but the characters are not yet. Pass to second read.
Story 6 (2200 word horror): Second person point of view. Difficult to pull off well. It’s competently written, but I’m halfway through and haven’t seen a hint of speculative elements. The final page or so turns horrific and it’s handled nicely enough. The story feels overlong for this payoff, without sufficient foreshadowing to hold me through it. The ending comes out of left field, in other words. At half the length and with a more horrific undertow it might work, but probably not for us. Reject.
This week’s slushy goes to story 1. It is a very appropriate story for the collection and the writing is very good for the most part. My problem with it is primarily in the balance between foreground and background.