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Archive for April, 2010

We finished the selection process for Triangulation: End of the Rainbow today. We now have 17 stories, 12 fantasy, 4 SF, and 1 horror. Additionally, three rewrites were requested, bringing the total to 20 stories (14, 5, 1).

We skewed heavier toward fantasy than we would like, but the theme has something to do with that, I’m sure. Stories range from less than 500 words to just over 5000 and there’s plenty of variety in approach and voice.

We’re planning to switch printers this year, which should make the anthology available for order from the major book chains as well as Amazon and Barnes and Noble online.  We need to sell more copies than we have in the past if we want to keep the anthology viable moving forward. Any ideas you have for promoting the book are certainly welcome.

Thanks to all of you (yinz, as we say in Pittsburgh) who submitted work to the anthology. We hope you will consider purchasing a copy when it becomes available in late July.

Do you Triangulate?

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Session two from Indiana. We still have room in the anthology at this point so I’m really hoping to find a gem.

Story 1 (1400 word fantasy):  Starts off engagingly. Present tense works well so far. No speculative element at first, however.  Nice observations and an interesting viewpoint. A rainbow sighting. Speculative element sighted.  Good action sequence.  Nice complication. I sense a dark twist coming.  Very nice ending. It seems my hope has been granted early in the session. The strength of this is in its strong viewpoint (a child wishing to be seven, not six), a smattering of telling details (the sound of Father’s axe is used particularly well), a clever twist, clear use of theme, and effective, forward moving prose. There is more actual story in these 1400 words than in most 4000 word stories we see.  The speculative element arrives just in time (just when the viewpoint draw begins to wear the tiniest bit thin). Pass to second read.

Story 2 (5600 word fantasy): In contrast to the previous story, which opened with a sharp economy, this opening feels sparse. It does introduce a character in context, but spends more time hinting than revealing. We have a removal expert, whatever that is, in a so-far undefined brick floored room, looking at shards of glass that have no apparent source. Nothing wrong with this, but it would be sharper if we were in this character’s head more firmly, in this precise room more specifically, and confronting a mystery with more definite bounds. One does not want to err on the side of providing too much detail and background (this story is on the better side of that line), but if one CAN show the essence of a character in scene with a few sharply chosen words and images, the story will feel more textured. Sentences and images and words that accomplish more than one thing at a time are best. Onward with the story. As a good example of this principle, imagine a wizard stepping on shards of glass in sentence one. He’s glad none of them have penetrated his shoe. A shift, more crackling. Pain. A shard has penetrated his shoe. Rather than using one sentence to accomplish two things, we’ve used two sentences to accomplish one.  This aside isn’t really fair to the story, as it’s adequate so far, but it seemed a good chance to illustrate something important. Onward. We discover the wizard is investigating a possible removal of another wizard, whatever that means. Seems kind of late to discover this. We learn of a Glass Man, whatever that is.  Some good description of place. We learn this is the Glass Man’s place and that our wizard has already searched his main quarters downstairs. This is all stuff I wish I’d known earlier. More importantly, this mystery isn’t going to work unless we understand the rules of this world and magic. And we don’t yet. There’s some kids commenting off stage. Apparently that’s strange. I don’t know why. The Glass Man was once involved with the Children’s Choral group whatever that means. I guess we have a motive now, but since we don’t know how this place and magic work, I don’t have any investment in the investigation. Now for some background. Story moves backward. The children’s voices are singing now. We just learned that the Glass Man wanted to steal their voices at one time. Perhaps he succeeded. Since I don’t know the rules of this place and its magic, I don’t know why it matters yet. Nice description of singing and rain. Story seems to be shifting gears as scene ends. Has it lost focus? Next scene talks of wizards sucking beauty from objects. I don’t think it means that, exactly, but it makes me wonder how magic works in this world. Now we discover what a Removal Expert does. This is too late. Lot’s of parentheticals in this scene. They’re used well enough here, but are generally annoying as they usually read like an author whispering in the midst of a sentence (sort of like this) see? At this point I’m not really sure what the story is about. It seems to have veered off in a new direction. Rainbow sighting (yay). Italicized section loses me. I have no idea what it means or why I should care. Who is the Choirmaster? Why’s he important? This ends in an interesting place. The problem is the roundabout way it gets there. I would recommend focusing more tightly on the character, revealing more clearly his motivation and the rules of his world. This mainly translates to spending less energy trying to create a feeling of mystery and more energy revealing an actual mystery (e.g. something mysterious from the viewpoint character’s perspective). This story has both actual and false mystery. The false mystery obscures the real one to an extent, weakening the story. Also, the episodic ending (suggesting a new story to follow this one) cheapens this story a bit. I found myself becoming more interested in what will follow than what came before. Reject.

Story 3 (2819 word SF): Opening paragraph establishes a viewpoint character in context. Story moves backward in second paragraph. It’s not clear whether fourth paragraph is flashback or return to present. We hear a conversation that doesn’t seem to add anything (I call such exchanges chit-chat). No sign of speculative element yet. An allusion to an archeology project at some lake. Is this relevant? If so, why? More chit-chat to scene end. I’m not sure this scene accomplishes anything important. Second scene opens with confusion. Where is Darlene’s house relative to Cirie’s? It seems as if Cirie is at Darlene’s house now, but isn’t the pool at Cirie’s house? Clarification would help. I’m not following this. She seems suddenly emotional over something that was unemotional in last scene. It’s 4 am? Darlene left at 3:30 am? Isn’t that kind of late? Okay, now she’s unemotional about her husband’s death. It’s not feeling real. Cirie has a “moon time”? Seems like she would have known that in the first scene (and thus, so should we if it’s relevant to story). Speculative element appears in next to last scene. Too late.  The scene is almost entirely dialogue, unbalanced. Final scene is the reveal of what we should have known in the first scene. This is a false mystery. I don’t have a specific suggestion here as there’s really no story as it stands. Woman learns her husband has died and goes back her mer kin. The story is off page – her coming to live among humans, perhaps, or her trying to resist the call of the sea while her husband lived, or maybe her trying to resist the moon change once her husband dies. As the story stands, it runs downhill without resistance. There’s no real complication (because she had no goal to complicate). Reject.

Story 4 (4400 word SF): First person present tense, speaking to me. 4400 words of this? Enough said.  My name is Bud and my friend Don is married to Helen. Funny I don’t remember any of this. And, yes, this is how this  choice of viewpoint comes across. Is it really the best way to tell this particular story? I guess we’ll see. I’m three-quarters through and really don’t know what the story is about. I haven’t seen a speculative element or a character goal. Helen’s knees are feeling great, which is good, I guess. Then she has a heart attack, which is bad, I guess. Sounds like there’s something speculative going on, maybe having to do with watches. Lots of chit-chat and unrelated stuff though. I get to the end and offer a resounding, “huh?” I’m not clear on what the ending means to imply or why I should care. I’m supposed to be worried because of my watch? Why? And, I don’t wear a watch anyway. This one doesn’t work for me. I would suggest taking this idea, clarifying it greatly, and building a new story around it, preferably not in first person present tense talking to me. Reject.

Story 5 (4700 word SF): The title isn’t particularly catchy, but that’s a minor thing. Story begins with unattributed dialogue. That’s a larger issue. A voice in a vacuum.  Second line is author intrusion. Third line unattributed dialogue. Fourth line provides a named character in context at last. Who is Abram? Why do I feel like this ship is one of those rides outside WalMart? (because there’s no description, perhaps, and the unattributed dialogue sounds like kids arguing).  So far this has been chit-chat. No sense of a character with a goal (i.e. direction). I’m getting impatient. Where’d Ianna come from? There’s virtually no specific detail here. It’s mostly dialogue of the chit-chat variety, pointing out the precarious position these folks find themselves in. Meanwhile, I really don’t have anyone to identify with and really don’t care. “Fine. See if I make you cookies again!” pretty much sums up the experience for me.  Skimming to end. As best I can tell from skim mode, they got lost and then they made it home. The story is too long for its premise and needs a much clearer focus, with more specific details of place and character and much less reliance on dialogue to carry the action. Reject.

Story 6 (5500 word SF):  The opening paragraph shows a character in context, though it could do so a little better. Why not SHOW the crewcut when he sees himself, then the comment about uncle whatsit? As it reads, this comment from the uncle seems meaningless until we discover the character sports a crewcut he doesn’t like. False mystery (what’s the uncle mean?).  This doesn’t seem like a speculative opening. I’m expecting slice of life stuff at this point.  Where did his wife come from? All of  a sudden she’s there with him, speaking a long sentence without attribution until the very end (i.e. I had no idea who was speaking for too long). Why not show her entering the mirror’s reflection and plopping onto the bed, then speaking? It’s problematic for me that her complaint is that her dress is boring and his complaint is that his suit is boring. Are they the same person, or individuals? Ah, he’s a wife beater. I’m liking him not at all. Why should I care about this story? I need something to pull me through. Some of the dialogue has a nice ring, but there’s more of it than I want. We seem to be spending a long time on this opening scene. I get it. He wants his wife to help him get his uncle’s money and he’s a wife beater. The rest feels a little repetitious. Another new voice without attribution. We find out a couple paragraphs later who it is. I’m not feeling comfortable in this story so far. Tania and Bob and Miguel in one paragraph is something of a soap opera. I’m not really objecting, as this is dialogue, but it does remind me how little I know of this situation a quarter of the way in.  Okay, he’s been screwing the rest of the family too. He wants uncles money. This is not news. We switch to uncle’s viewpoint long enough to discover he plans to screw the main character. Let me guess, he’s going to change the will to give everything to the abused wife. Hopefully it’s more than that. We switch to her viewpoint, which is basically whiny. She’s a druggie to boot. Is that relevant to the story? Back to the uncle. He’s pretty much a slimebag too. The wife-beater just dropped dead in the garden. I didn’t expect that. I wonder what else the uncle’s got up his sleeve.  Ah, it was the druggie wife who killed the wife-beater. Only problem is that we were in her head and didn’t get a sniff of this plan. That’s cheating. She gets the inheritance as I anticipated, but the uncle has just killed her (I think).  Nope, he’s pushed her out of her body and now inhabits it. This is also a cheat since we spent a good portion of the story in his head and didn’t get any specifics of an obviously detailed plan he’s been thinking about. We get a summary of family history, then another person pushes the uncle out of the wife’s body. Of course, while they’re fighting with each other the body is killed. This is actually a pretty neat idea, but will need a fresh approach to reach its potential. It seems to me there are two choices for viewpoint here. Either the uncle or the wife. Both have a lot at stake and both make an important decision. If it’s told from the wife’s point of view, we should understand her plan to kill her husband immediately; she probably thinks that she’ll get the inheritance in that manner, as suriviving spouse. From this viewpoint the uncle remains mysterious and his motivation is not known until the final scene when he pushes our protagonist out. One could conceive of the wife witnessing in some abstract manor, the final struggle between the uncle and his adversary. Alternatively, one could tell this from the uncle’s viewpoint, in which case, we should be aware of his various plots early on. Story tension would come from complications, such as the wife-beater dying unexpectedly, and maybe the wife resisting, then his adversary (who we should already know all about) struggling with him. The point is that you’re generally better off spending your energy in finding the best viewpoint to reveal the story than in shifting viewpoints in order to hide elements of the story for a later reveal. True mystery is not generated by artificially hiding information from the reader, but by revealing information that is actually mysterious to the viewpoint character. This story has potential. Pass to second read.

And the final Slushy goes to Story 1. It’s a very nice, economical tale that utilizes the theme well, develops an interesting viewpoint, and delivers a nicely dark twist.

Thanks to everyone who’s been reading these entries. I hope that you will find them helpful in your own writing, despite the lack of specific passages, etc.. It’s been a useful exercise for me in that it’s forced me to look more closely at the stories I’ve read and that’s always a good thing for a writer to do.

I’ll continue to blog as we move the anthology forward. Thanks for tuning in.

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We arrived safely in Indiana this morning (visiting our daughter) and I’ve successfully navigated the technology barrier to my web page, so here we go.

Story 1 (1800 word SF): Interesting title and a hook that pulls me in and makes me want to know more about the character and his bloody hands.  The writing is good, but I’m feeling as if the setting has gone a beat too long without being better defined. Once we do get setting, it’s intriguing. Effective use of image to make me want to figure out what’s going on. I’m not going to be overly patient now, however. Much more of this clever writing and imagery at the expense of story movement will lose me. It’s just an operation… this intrigues, but I’ve now got three or four things pulling at me for answers and not really a lot of concrete detail to ground me. I’m pulling away from the story at this point. Where’d the man come from? He wasn’t there a second ago. Just as the city alley seemed to appear from nowhere a bit earlier (I forgave that as it opened the story action). I’m getting a sense of a writer trying to hard to create a sense of mystery rather than revealing true mystery (i.e. the mysterious from character perspective).  It’s a shame because the descriptions and imagery are efficiently and effectively delivered, just not in time to keep me anchored. He has three legs? Since when? I’m having to reinvent my stage again. Viewpoint wobble w/Justice. It’s not been set up that the protagonist can read motive or thought, yet Justice’ motive is revealed in matter of fact way. Okay, the threads have now confused me. He has pincers? Since when? I’m not clear on what’s actually happening. The second scene feels like a snippet of something much larger. I’m utterly confused as to what is and has happened, but it is an intriguing world and I’d like to know more about it. The final line has a very nice resonance to it. I just don’t feel it was earned, since I’m so unclear on what actually happened in this story and what actually motivated the character. In some ways this reminds me of stories I wrote when I first went to James Gunn’s SF workshop in the day. I had many really nice lines and the instructors caught virtually every one. This sounds nice, they would say, but what does it actually say? I would find myself stammering an explanation that amounted to “I don’t actually know” more often than not. There is power behind this, but it’s longing for clarity. Sometimes it’s best just to say something directly. The cool lines will come, believe me. Narrative, plot, clarity of image and motivation, etc. are the fundamental structure of a reader’s experience. Cool lines are only frosting. It’s rare that I recommend a story be longer than written, but I think this world and this character deserve more than is on this page. Don’t work so hard to sound mysterious and “writerly”, but instead develop the character situation and plot in concrete terms. There’s plenty of coolness in this world without obscuring it. Reject.

Story 2 (2100 words SF):  This one comes from a well established nonfiction writer and it shows in the opening paragraph, which reads as a matter of fact presentation of situation and character. While there’s nothing wrong with it, it doesn’t actually pull me in either. We’re introduced quickly to two characters in two paragraphs, neither one compelling us to care (at this point).  There’s a memory machine, which is intriguing intellectually, but it’s not given any excitement in the telling. A quarter in and I’m not getting a sense of a character with a goal or why the story begins where it does (why now and not last week or last month etc).  The machine is interesting. I’m having a little trouble seeing exactly what is happening and who is who, however. A solid viewpoint would help immensely.  At three-quarters through the viewpoint strengthens. It’s too late to really draw me in, but encouraging. We get a chunk of background information, which feels out of place so late in the story.  I like the way this ends. It’s a nice frame for the opening. Unfortunately, the opening doesn’t really introduce the primary character and the story spends too much time delivering information rather than seeing and feeling through the protagonist’s perspective. In the end, nothing much actually happens in this story. I would recommend focusing tightly on the protagonist and showing more than the simple fact of his wife’s death. He needs to want something, have a goal, try to achieve it, fail (or succeed) and then this evocative ending to confirm his journey. Right now there’s some good background, a potentially good SF idea (memory machine, which is not really explained or used fully), but lacks a motivated character and complications to his journey.  Reject.

Story 3 (2525 word SF):  The cover letter gives a laundry list of minor awards. This is usually not a good sign. A mention of relevant credits is fine, but lists of awards and such (unless they’re hugos and nebulas 😉 are often a sign of trying too hard to impress. Will the story follow suit? Looks like it. The opening sentence lacks context, which makes it sound a little pretentious. Unnamed protagonist. There’s too much cleverness of phrase when we need context. Making something sound important is not the same as revealing something important. I have no sense of who the protagonist is after three paragraphs and no sense of what he/she needs/wants. Character is finally named. It’s a girl! A third of the way through, the characters are doing stuff, but I don’t know why. Halfway through, we learn we’re not on Earth (or not on the one we know). Characters engage in a conversation meant for the reader. It’s a reconnaissance  mission, but they’re discussing history, current events, philosophy, motivation for joining the army, etc.. One sentence of observation, six paragraphs of unrelated musing. Where’s the beef (i.e. story)? Three-quarters through and they barely avoid interacting with their target. More conversation. Some description of observation from a new viewpoint (I think).  It’s a message in the end. I don’t know what to suggest. The story elements are slight and the message not particularly novel. Don’t mean to be harsh, but this one presses many of my no-no buttons. Reject.

Story 4 (3230 word SF): This is interesting, a translation from Slovak; it’s unclear whether this is a reprint, but he’s had other stories published in America and elsewhere. So, what does this one portend? Starts with dialogue. First person viewpoint is handled well. However, I’m not seeing a speculative element. Nice portrayal of a jaded psychologist. Some wry observations. I find the character engaging, but the story is really not going anywhere yet. Two-thirds through it  becomes SF. Story unwinds in fairly predictable fashion and ends with a summary presentation of the idea. Our protagonist didn’t matter in the least. So, an interesting character taking part in an idea. It’s not bad, just not what we’re looking for. Reject.

Story 5 (4000 word SF): First sentence establishes a character in a setting. First paragraph establishes a context with enough mystery to interest me. I am put off by “the old man”, however, as that pushes me out of Tony’s perspective. It describes him from outside rather than from within. I like this idea, which turns end of the world on its head (at least a bit).  The phrase “buried under his ribs” is a little forced. I don’t understand what the protagonist wants or needs, but there are enough hints to keep me reading just a little longer. A creature appears, which gets things rolling. It is, however, inadequately described. If it’s a typical horned owl, fine, but if not I need details (otherwise, I’ll have to reinvent my image of it as details emerge). A nice line about fear. Definitely not a horned owl. Oops. How does he know she has kittens? Nix the “then”s. Usually, “then” is unnecessary. Show actions in sequence and you don’t need to say they’re in sequence except sometimes to break up sentence rhythm. I’m flowing comfortably with the story. I missed seeing these kittens initially. Make sure that’s not possible, in revision. Nice complications. The ending works. I think the final violence is unnecessary, but it works well enough. I’m not sure it quite delivers on its potential, but it’s close. Hopefully the other editors will agree. They may have problems with logic. I was willing to grant some leeway in service of the basic concept. Pass to second read.

Story 6 (1250 word SF): This is a reprint, which places the bar a little higher. Unnamed protagonist. Very mysterious, no real sense of context. Human, nonhuman, on Earth, elsewhere? When? Second scene is poetic. The concept is high enough to justify an unnamed character. No story yet. Unnamed protagonist’s prayer is answered. Ends with obscure journey leading to obscure earlier scene. I’m with the woman at the end, longing for a sense of meaning. This piece is certainly evocative and written well, prose-wise, but we look for story over technique. Reject.

This brings me halfway through my share of stories in the final batch. I’ll try to finish the others later tonight. For this session, the Slushy goes to story 5, which is a nice SF concept, effectively handled. I hope the other editors will agree. We’ve been awfully difficult to please of late.

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We have our editorial meeting this morning, but I thought I’d try to work in a few more stories from the slush pile first. It’s another beautiful day outside.

Story 1 (3500 word SF): An interesting title and solid opening that places us in the middle of a situation, a protagonist apparently scrambling to commit a crime before he’s caught. I’m interested in finding out more. A very nice turn of phrase in third paragraph. That helps me to digest the paragraph of character background before it.  I’m more interested in the immediate getaway than the character’s history at this point, so this paragraph is not placed ideally, but it’s at least interesting enough. The next line about an impenetrable system is murky. I’m wondering what the protagonist’s motivation for the crime is at this point and this platitude doesn’t really explain that.  There’s some nice writing as the story moves on. It’s active. My niggling problem is that I feel like I’m seeing the surface of this story rather than glimpsing its depths. Will it be all action and little insight? The section subtitles reassure me a little, but I’m getting impatient for more than world building and chase scenes. Oh, I see now. This is an exercise in technique rather than an actual story. That’s likely unfortunate, but I’ll read on for now.  Well, it’s pretty clever, I’ll admit. The story begins in one genre, before progressing through another, with the two characters adding connectivity. This is nice so long as there’s some deeper meaning at the end. Otherwise it’ll feel like a nice exercise in writing technique, which is not what we’re about. The third scene troubles me. The first two worked reasonably well at presenting a mystery (why is this girl appearing in this dude’s alternate realities?), but the third shifts gears. I don’t get a sense that the protagonist is developing so much as morphing for the convenience of the genre use for the scene. There is a progression in the situation between these two characters and the secondary character does seem to be developing, but our viewpoint character remains obscure. He’s whatever the scene demands, which lessons my identification with the story. Interesting technique, yes, but that’s not enough for us. The story ends without enlightening me as to why this technique was required for story purposes. It’s a clever exercise and shows off this writer’s chops, but doesn’t really work as story. If it CAN be pulled off, however, this is the sort of story a major market might like. I would suggest rethinking this from story perspective. Rather than telling a very simple escape sequence in four genres, think of the deeper connection between these scenes. Give the protagonist a worthy goal that carries through the scenes, give him complications and get deeper into his minds and hearts. Having the secondary character as a recurring mystery element in each scene is nice, but we do have to find out why she’s there in the end. Is this the Matrix, with layers of reality to be penetrated? Is it alternate worlds with nearly overlapping story lines that lead somewhere important in some underlying reality? The concept of a “real” reality and a multitude of branching alternate realities (like a tree) is intriguing. What might happen, say, if the core reality is broken? Would ALL these worlds collapse? Is this resistance movement trying to save the underlying realities by helping this key protagonist survive through some sequence of alternate world events? (as he is caught or killed in one reality/genre the story would shift to the next). What is mainly missing here is the true purpose beneath these scenes. Reject.

Story 2 (776 word SF): This is a revision of a story for which I suggested changes earlier. It begins nicely with a sense of pounding noise-music that does a good job of conveying the mood. There’s some excellent imagery throughout, some very nice turns of phrase, and I like where it goes. My problem at this point is that the character’s motivation is not quite focused. At one point she seems pragmatically worried for her father, then storms out when he offers her a ride. I’d like that tension to be more meaningful. Yes, it gets her moving and thinking of her transient past, but it doesn’t reveal the deeper reason WHY she must continue to run away and return. There needs to be more, a little more, of the essence of their relationship on the page (where’s the mother, for example?) to convince us of her motivation in this story. I do think focusing on her need to move, to escape (tension?) is the right impulse, and her returning home after each escape brings to mind Dorothy nicely, but we need that deeper kernel of motivation to make the experience more visceral for us. I hesitate to suggest a dead mother (which is trite), but maybe a dead family, perhaps the 9-11 plane crash in Pennsylvania, would work here, maybe she came to England to be raised by relatives (Auntie Em and her husband in a sense). Maybe she moves impulsively because she can’t accept standing still, can’t accept her parents are gone and she is alone despite her friendships and loving family. She’d rather be battling balrogs than riding to school with her uncle’s mindless jabber. That would give a greater sense of thematic unity, I think. Finally, the last paragraph is too blatant for my taste. I’d rather not be told this is the final act of her human life, but infer it from context. This may require changing the experience of the exploding train a bit – the fire reaching for her with intent rather than as a pretty picture. This is close. I’m too close to it to judge whether we would want to take it at this point, but I do like its potential. Pass to second read.

Well, I’m out of time for this morning. This session’s  Slushy goes to story 2.

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It’s a beautiful, if chilly, spring day here in the New Castle. I still have stories to read for the anthology, though. Blue skies will have to wait a bit.

Story 1 (4950 word SF): Ah, a Genesis rainbow quote. We really haven’t seen too many biblical references or Norse even. An interesting opening so far, hints of end times and religious corruption in a realistic modern context.  I’m not sure what announcement is being referenced (a hint of false mystery there), and I’m not sure where this scene takes place once it shifts into a perspective. Ah, the protagonist is female. Can that be suggested earlier? An intriguing end to the scene. I’m longing for a little more clarity of place and character, however. A sharply defined reality to contrast the weirdness. It’s close but not quite at this point. In scene two, the protagonist is apparently a marine. How so? Reference to “shells” is unfortunate – I flashed on ammunition shells rather than what the author meant (shells of people).  Scavengers. A new concept tossed in without context. Confusing. Reference to them evolving. Wouldn’t this require generations? Confusing. The big problem is that all of of sudden the focus of the story shifts to this new topic. It’s as if the first part was a throwaway. Consider starting the story at a different place or working in the scavenger concept immediately. I’ve lost hope for the story at this point. It’s got some neat stuff going on, but I don’t trust the author. It needs sharpening and focus in order to bring the setting, characters, and ideas into focus. Next scene begins on patrol with a new character. Why have all the animals died? Why did humans die in the Middle East. A key fact is being withheld (false mystery) rather than revealed (true mystery). We find out our protagonist is a Sentinel (late for this) and that the Scavs were responsible for the destruction (late for this).  We find out what they resemble (late for this) how they were detected (probably late for this, though it’s the sort of detail that can come later). I’m afraid the story has fallen into the trap of trying to sound mysterious rather than focusing on narrative (and thereby discovery). It’s a very common problem. True mystery comes from the viewpoint character not knowing or understanding something, not from withholding information to keep the reader from knowing it. A very important distinction. At the end of this scene we find out her partner is a priest (late for this).  Shifting to skim mode.  Next scene is mostly summary of plot action rather than active dramatization of same. Next scene is more immediate, though the actual fighting is summarized. Next scene reveals the sidekick to have a nickname (too late). Next scene reveals his love for protagonist (need a clue to this potential earlier).  Next, a bathing scene that does nothing plot wise. Some nice writing in the final scene, a potentially emotional ending with a glimmer of hope. The problem is that none of this has really been earned through the story yet. There is promise in this idea and these characters but it’s going to require some further development. The story itself will require restructuring to focus us more immediately on the important character and idea issues, remove the false mysteries in favor of true mystery (revelation through character action and thought), and set up the emotional payoff. This will require a lot more development of the priest character as well as the protagonist. What does she need as the story begins? Why is this her story? What does she think she wants and how does that change through the story events. I wanted to like this story, and I sorta do, but it’s too nebulous at this point to get a good grasp. Reject.

Story 2 (2750 word fantasy): First, there is no word count on this manuscript or cover letter. That is a no-no. Opening establishes a time frame and sketchy setting. An optical lens is inferred, but not shown (I’m experiencing this through an intellectual filter).  Protagonist has a goal, but I don’t know what it is. He’s designed a prism. This is apparently a good thing in that it will bring him the fame he desires. He’s beamed in a leprechaun. This part is kinda fun, but I’m having problems with the telling, which is very matter of fact and detached from character (and my) emotional reaction. The choice is between fortune (which may buy fame) and fame (which may bring fortune). That’s interesting. Next scene shifts to leprechaun viewpoint. I’m disappointed initially as I didn’t particularly want to get inside the guy. Now the leprechaun begins to sound like the protagonist. His voice has more energy, but he’s the same intellectual sort. This reminds me that I’m reading through an intellectual filter here, rather than experiencing a dramatic scene. Basically, this is a story explaining where Isaac Newton got his breakthrough idea. It’s clever on one level, but not particularly deep. I suspect the idea can support a flash fiction, but not 2750 words. Reject.

Story 3 (3600 word fantasy): The title doesn’t do much for me, but that’s okay. The opening paragraph gives us a character and a setting, but isn’t very effective as a speculative hook.  By the third paragraph it’s starting to sound like background for a story, rather than the story itself. I’m losing patience. There’s a problem over shoes, but I don’t get it since we don’t see the shoes. I’m supposed to infer that they’re not black, I suppose. It would be easier to see them.  Second scene shows the protagonist visiting the maker of these shoes, only we’ve already seen the other shop, the other shoes. There can be no sense of discovery through the protagonist. Be wary of omniscient viewpoint, dear writers. It may seem easy, but it has a cost. They have synthetic leather? I was thinking this was pre-industrial culture, but now I discover it’s not? Too late. Next scene shows the new competitors coming to recruit the protagonist to their cause. This seems to defuse any tension rather than increase it. They show him how to make these shoes. No tension.  The story does pick up in the latter part of the scene when the secret is revealed to our protagonist. He asks for the source of the secret and is told  he knows too much already. That seems a little pat. The competition leaves town and our protagonist decides to find the source of the magic. He travels the world, learns new professions, amasses a fortune and has a dream showing him the secret he sought. This occurs in the space of a couple paragraphs. To me, that suggests an imbalance in the story. I don’t quite get the ending. It’s atmospheric, but not revealing. I guessed the secret when the fireflies first appeared, so this is not a surprise. Also, the writing is a bit rough in places, with at least two small tense glitches along the way. Overall, I’d say the story is not bad, but not close. I would recommend taking a new look at the plot. The protagonist really does very little to earn his reward and risks almost nothing. He does have a goal that drives him and he’s fairly interesting as a character. Find a way to show his story in a way that reveals his struggle, rather than simply leading him through a series of events until the answer falls into his lap. His suffering occurs in those two paragraphs that are glossed over, not in what is shown on stage. Tension is removed by having the competition invite him into their shop. Look for ways to increase tension and force the protagonist to act upon his world in ways that earn this ending. Reject.

Story 4 (1000 word SF):  The title is provocative, though it doesn’t feel particularly suited to the theme. This is a reprint, thus a somewhat higher bar. Opening is vivid, yet obscure. I like vivid, not obscure. A tiny skull could mean a mouse, a vole, a cat. It does NOT convey a human without additional detail. A female rat? There are a lot of active words, but not much actual action. The story seems strangely stagnant until the final few paragraphs, when we witness some gratuitous violence followed by a surprising twist. Unfortunately, the twist is not surprising because I didn’t see it coming, but because there was no way for me to see it coming as it had not an ounce of setup. The idea itself is intriguing, but the story feels like a character sketch of a skinhead with a couple lines tacked on. Reject.

Story 5 (2605 words): The opening is sharply written. Nice descriptive detail. Second paragraph, not so much. Would he physically drag the counter guy? Why? Why would a bell sounding have that effect at a truck stop? Here, a few more words would help. Did he come to meet the girl? Why? What’s his motivation or need? I’m starting to get impatient. I have no idea why he came to the truck stop. This is problematic. The last few sentences feature two tense glitches, which detract from reading. Nixon? Huh? Story stops while she tells him her background. When the protagonist says he knows the answer to something, I’d better know it too if I’m in his viewpoint, which I am. Intentional obscurity is false mystery. More of this in the final scene. All this talk of his mistakes and such, should be clear to me since I’m in his head. Ends with a faraway-gazey kind of passage that would engender some emotion in me had I understood either of these characters. It’s particularly problematic that I’ve been in this guy’s head for the whole ride, yet did not have an inkling as to who/what he was or what he wanted or why he was here until the very end. That is false mystery, not true. It’s annoying rather than compelling. Lyrical writing is not wallpaper to patch over spotty story logic. I would suggest looking at this with fresh eyes. Who has the most to gain or lose from these events? Currently, that would be Amy, not the protagonist. Try writing it from her perspective. Alternatively, give the protagonist enough investment in this story so that it becomes his. Right now this is just A story along his path to redemption, not THE story. It’s an important distinction. Reject.

Story 6 (1600 word horror): This one comes from a writer with an impressive track record. It’s a reprint, which places the bar a little higher. It’s an interesting opening. With the title, I have enough context to make sense of it. I’m not sure how he knows no human could possibly detect the blood smell. A bit of an “as you know Bob” when the rabbi describes his predicament. Not that the protagonist would know (which is why it’s only “a bit” of one), but it’s not really believable the rabbi would feel compelled to tell him this. This is starting to read like a day in the life. I’m getting impatient. It’s not really believable the guy knows about beef and chicken etc., but not blood.  The lesson misunderstanding feels forced. I don’t mind the semantic confusion, which makes for a nice tone shift, but I do mind that the lesson supposedly being taught as the protagonist awoke at story opening is not shown on the page. That, like the story above, is a viewpoint cheat, an artificial mystery. We don’t see the semantic confusion coming not because we were distracted from the clue, but because the clue was not available to us. We hear a man speaking in a deep voice, but nothing of what he says. It would be enough to provide specific words and showing the protagonist listening in silence while he gathers strength. Or that he had been listening in silence while awareness materialized. He needs to hear this passage in order to use it later. If there’s a gun on the mantel in scene one, you should use it by story end. However, if you use a gun in the final scene and merely tell us then there was a gun on the mantel in the opening scene, you’ve cheated. I do like the way this story ends, with an uncomfortable mix of comic and tragic elements. It does not, however, feel like a story we need to have in the collection. If we were short on material, it would likely work, but it’s not a must have. Pass to second read.

Well that’s going to be it for tonight. We still have roughly 60 stories to work through. I’ll try to get to a good portion of my share of those in the coming week.

The Slushy for this session goes to Story 6. It’s not the most ambitious of the batch, but is the best executed.

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My wife planted potatoes yesterday, so I’ve got hoeing on my mind as we set out to discover tonight’s slushy treats. Brow furrowed, I plough into the pile…

Story 1 (3500 word fantasy): Nice credentials provided without fanfare. Good, breezy opening. I’m curious, but not terribly patient. Good, we’re moving forward with a casually talking gem. Interest piqued. First scene works well enough. It’s a trifle long for what it accomplishes. Second scene features some nice imagery. The dream is perhaps too lucid, but not bad. I’m beginning to suspect, however, that the story may lack a dimension. The idea is developing new facets, but the character feels static. I’m not getting a sense of development on that front (flaw, need, etc).  Third scene is a nice complication. The mystery deepens. Still not getting a sense of character arc. Scene four begins nicely, but turns abruptly to the matter of dragons, which have been set up, but do not feel integral despite that. Dragons are cool, but WHY does she need them, why is this the protagonist’s story and not just a clever idea? Scene five starts out well, feels like a natural progression of events. A little too heavy an emphasis on the decaying meat smells. A little goes a long way. Devolving into a tug of war over a dragon. Not so elegant as I had hoped. Recovers quickly, though, with a nice passage. The final scene is very nice. Overall, I like this one. I would recommend working a bit harder on the character (who she is prior to the story) as that could bring more depth to the telling. She basically has one trait now and no real history. Friends are mentioned, but nothing specific holding her to the world. Makes her final resolution easier on her than it might be. Pass to second read.

Story 2 (4900 word fantasy): Nice opening. Second paragraph is a little disorienting. The pawn shop reference should be moved higher (otherwise, I have to reinvent the stage I’ve erected in my head – initial reference to a “shop” was vague enough, but once I started hearing about jewelry and guns, I filled in specifics that weren’t contradicted by pawn shop, but weren’t quite syncopato  either).  Why risk me guessing wrong? Good description of the little man.  By fifth paragraph I’m getting impatient. There’s been a bit of repetition and little forward movement. Yes, it’s relatively funny, but the joke wears thin. NOW we learn it’s raining outside? (“carrying the weather” was generic and the “glistening trail” did not provoke rain for me, but perhaps leprechaun magic in the context of the anthology)  Didn’t the guy come from there in the first place? Is he dripping? Did we see rain through the window/door? Okay, now were slipping into “clever” mode (for my taste), with every observation and description triggering a cute or clever line. I’m losing interest. It’s not funny enough that I’m blown away, and is now detracting from narrative movement. Note: one should note an accent when a character speaks for the first time (more than a word or so), not a few paragraphs later. Grandfather Sal is an interesting character to be sure, but his scene doesn’t feel quite right in this story. It’s substantial in ways the story is not (yet) and long winded for what it accomplishes plot wise.  I do like where this goes. It’s a clever take on the theme and I’d like to see us publish it. However, the cleverness factor is problematic, especially in the early scenes. I would recommend cutting the early scenes mercilessly, cutting Sal’s scene somewhat, and setting up the ending through some veiled reference in the story opening. Right now the guy is advertised as St Patrick the snake charmer, but that only confuses the actual story, which is about a leprechaun creating a rainbow. We may ask for a rewrite on this, but it will be fairly extensive, if so. Pass to second read.

Story 3 (4015 word SF): This is a reprint, which places the bar a little higher. Written in present tense, first person. The opening scene is effective at setting up an SF situation. I’m interested. Second scene shows a parking lot that the humans should have identified from space, I would think. It’s an unconvincing discovery for this protagonist, in other words. Oh, I see. Humans have only recently arrived. That was not clear from the opening scene. In any case, this scene basically repeats the first scene rather than advancing it much.  Third scene escalates the mystery. It also seems to have a tense shift midway through. Nothing too awkward, but not precise either. I’m becoming increasingly aware of the summary nature of the prose. We’re not so much participating in a story as hearing about one. This is damping my initial enthusiasm. I feel distant from the world and this emotionless character.  The next scene begins to reveal the mystery (good pacing on that front). Tense shift is slightly problematic. Again, not jarring, but time frame is not quite clean. Scene 5 is an escalation. Same tense shift problem, same sense of hearing about an active story secondhand. Scene 6 personalizes the mystery, a good idea. The “I cry” speech tag is a bit melodramatic; reinforces that these characters aren’t real humans, but placeholders in a message story. Scene 7 returns missing men to the narrative. The protagonist’s reaction seems a bit overboard. The storm is a nice touch as it amps up tension just a bit. Soapbox moment: Story tension comes from many sources, setting, language, character interaction, idea. Use them all effectively and you’ll have a story that seems more layered than it otherwise would. Scene 8 offers a jolting end. It was set up well enough. The main problem with this story is in its telling, which is intellectual almost to the point of sterility. That can work in SF, but the payoff in this story is as much visceral as intellectual. A more immediate telling, in which characters inhabit this world and interact with this girl and develop emotional connections with each other (and me) would be much stronger. Since this is a rewrite, I’ll not suggest specific improvements. Reject.

Story 4 (2840 words SF): This story comes from a well respected SF writer with abundant pro credits, yet we have rejected a number of their stories in the past. The usual complaint is that the story takes too long to develop. Let’s see what this new one promises. We’d like to publish something from this person, but only if it fits the collection well.  First scene opens with some effective description. I am noting an abundance of specific detail early. While specific detail is very important to making a world seem real, it can also overload a story (I know this because it’s one of my problems as a writer). The best way I’ve had this explained is that while modern readers crave specific detail, they also want to feel a part of the creative process. Giving them too many details, especially irrelevant details can lead to a feeling that the author is smothering them or not trusting them. The ideal is to find that one really spectacular detail that causes a scene to flash into the reader’s mind. It’s not important that the reader experiences the exact same scene as the writer, only that the scene he/she experiences does not contradict NECESSARY story scene details. For example, I might describe a room with one door to the left of a window with a curtain featuring a rustic duck pattern. Unless it matters that the door is to the left of the window, why bring it up? That just burdens the reader with one more thing to keep track of. Anyway, on with this story.  The first scene seems a little arch, as if the characters are talking around something they know in detail in order to create a sense of mystery for the reader. I’m a little frustrated by this and also the omniscient viewpoint, which keeps me from bonding with a particular character. I’m closest to the child at this point and I do like her, so it’s not a fatal flaw (yet). There’s a rainbow connection too.  Scene 2. WHO knew this place? With omniscient viewpoint it could be anyone. Again, this is a beat of false mystery I find frustrating. Finally, we learn what the implant was. It’s not SF at this point. Scene 3 is nice. I like the description of the rainbow colors. Next scene shifts to Mother’s point of view. I’m not as compelled by it. We learn more about the implant, but nothing too speculatively exciting. I think I’ve guessed the ending. Nope. I’m glad I was wrong. The story ends with an image that should evoke emotion, but falls rather flat for me. I understand the need for omniscient viewpoint with this deaf character, but that viewpoint also weakens my identification with her, spreading it among other characters. The ending, being so personal to the deaf character, isn’t as impactful as it could be.  I would recommend trying this story either from the mother’s point of view or, more challenging, the deaf child’s point of view. In the latter case her implant might sporadically work so that we get snippets of conversation that make no sense to the child (but do to us). The key, I think, is to get us more fully identified with the child so that this ending reaches its full potential. There’s really no speculative element here either, which is a problem for our collection, but not other markets. Reject.

Well, that does it for this session. I’m going to try to get a few more done tomorrow. The Slushy this time goes to Story 1. It’s an evocative idea that’s handled pretty well. Story 2 is a close second.

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Opening day 2010 and my Pirates actually won a game. Surely the slush holds a gem or two today.

Story 1 (4600 word SF): One gets jaded reading slush. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the opening here, but nothing that reaches out and grabs my attention either. One thing I’ve learned is that if you don’t pull my eyes out and make me want to read, someone else will. This opening is competently written, drops me into the middle of a situation, and gives enough context to feel grounded. Yet I’m not anxious to read on, because it’s just not that interesting yet. Imperial conference rooms tend to be boring unless you’re CJ Cherryh. Second paragraph is background that I don’t really want to know yet. A viewpoint wobble begins the third paragraph. I’m also struck by how description is being rendered through an intellectual filter rather than as direct observation. I feel consequently distant from the setting, kind of stuck in the protagonist’s head. It’s good to see some inward thought since that helps to characterize and pull me closer, but too much of a good thing can detract too. Personally, I find it’s usually best to describe setting and allow character to react to setting rather than running all observation through the character’s perspective before it hits the page. It feels more natural. For example: Gibby saw the chair and knew it would provide an ample cushion for her head, versus, The overstuffed chair in the corner drew Gibby’s attention like a magnet. She was tired after working a double shift. In the second case we see the surround, feel its immediate effect, then an interior reaction. Enough minutia. Onward with the story at hand. I’m about a quarter through it and I still don’t know this character’s goal. It seems like the day in the life of a mediator, in which case I wonder why THIS day? A paragraph of explanation inserted into dialogue usually brings story momentum to a standstill. It does here. Shifting to skim mode. Inciting incident seems to happen about a third of the way in. That’s likely where the story should begin. I keep hearing the protagonist and her friend are Excellenzi, but still have no idea what that means.  Secondary character dies. I should care, but I don’t really. Some nice lines between protagonist and her superior.  As it turns out, the protagonist is not a protagonist, but merely an observer. The story takes place off stage and is only explained through dialogue in simple terms. This feels like an episode rather than a story because our viewpoint character really doesn’t participate in narrative events but is only present to witness. Anything interesting takes place outside the story as told. I would suggest rethinking this from the viewpoint that actually has the largest stake in and impact on the story outcome, present that character as having a goal, and show him/her overcoming obstacles (complications) to achieving that goal.  Reject.

Story 2 (5000 word SF): Nice opening line, though it’s an unnamed protagonist yet again (this comes across as arch in most cases). Second line is pushing me toward confusion, however. I need something solid soon. Nice visual, but now an unnamed secondary character too. “She” and now “He”. If nothing else, I hope folks reading this will begin to understand that this choice is one to be made after careful consideration. Unnamed characters suggest icons,  larger than life heroes of epic proportion, etc., not real people. Sloppy use tends to make a story seem pretentious or overdone. By third paragraph I’m sensing a writer working to hard to sound writerly. Some elegant passages, but tending toward obscurity over clarity. When she thinks of something her adversary says, only to not remember it on purpose, I’m groaning. Intentionally hiding relevant information is not mystery, it’s annoying. The words are revealed at the end of the scene (drum roll). They clarify slightly, but also murk up what I thought I did know. This opening scene could basically have been handled in a nice, concrete paragraph to establish character with a goal in a setting. Then I would feel anchored and likely interested. As it stands, I’m more confused than interested, and waiting for something to actually happen. Second scene moves backward to provide the context that was withheld in the first scene. It’s somewhat melodramatic and lacks nuance for a story attempting to be important.  Third scene returns us to present and informs us that she has fallen asleep after having apparently (she doesn’t know?) chosen a campsite. We get some more background. This offers a hint of complication, but nothing’s going on in the foreground story yet.  Fourth scene takes us back to the past. We get some repetition of information and more background. Ends with another mystery. Next scene is apparently still in the past, but I’m not quite sure where it fits. We get some concrete context. It’s pretty simple, really. I suspect this story is too simple to support this structure or word count. Skimming to end. Rainbow ending. I do like the final line, but the story is much too long to support its puzzle, which has only two or three pieces. This could work as flash fiction perhaps. Alternatively, I would suggest complicating the story, perhaps beginning it at the beginning (when she’s taken from her mother) and developing it through the implied complications of slavehood and contractual technicality. There’s a tendency for writers to focus on language and emotion to paper over a weakness in plot. My advice is to not work so hard to sound evocative, but work harder to tell a solid story. The nice images and lines will come out, trust me, and they’ll be all the sharper when set within a good forward-moving narrative.  Reject.

Story 3 (2100 word fantasy): The title is intriguing. Opening is solid. Nice concrete description of a situation in mid-action, with hints of speculative content. It’s a dog viewpoint, which means it may not be speculative after all. Observational dog viewpoint grows tiresome after a while. I’m looking for speculative content now. The sentence about quadroped and biped really puts me off as it’s out of viewpoint and too clever.  It’s going on too long. More observation and more and more. Halfway through we hear of gryffuns and dragons. I have probably guessed the ending. Yep. This reads like background for a story idea. The dog viewpoint is only a device to hold my attention for a time.  I would suggest writing the story that is suggested in the dialogue instead. Reject.

Story 4 (1000 word horror):  Starts with untagged dialogue, which is usually suspect. More untagged dialogue. One gets a sense of artificial mystery (e.g. hiding identity of speakers to create sense of unknown). Jigsaw puzzle image is good, but not really utilized as well as it could be.  Zombie reference feels forced, when it could be set up in the initial image and character’s reaction to it. Overall, the piece is too familiar (Shaun of the Dead, Romero’s later work, 28 Days, Legend). If you’re going to use a common trope you really need to work extra hard to bring something new to it, to make it your own. Not sure what to suggest for this one. Reject.

It’s getting late, so I’m calling it quits for the night. More later this week. I have to give the Slushy nod to Story 2 this session. It’s got major issues, but it’s the closest to a complete, ambitious tale.

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