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.