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.