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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