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Archive for December, 2010

Hard to believe we’re almost to a new year. Until then, I hope to catch up a bit on Triangulation: Last Contact slush reading. See my previous post for disclaimers.

Story 22 (12/01/2010 SF 5100 words)

This one comes from a writer I know and respect. The first reader cited issues that make it an unlikely sale, but I’ll give it a fresh read, fingers crossed.

The story opens with a great visual. We also get solid context, a character in the midst of a situation. I’m not getting motivation yet, but there’s time for that.

The first scene is well written, but not compelling. There’s a ton of background inserted skillfully into story action, and the protagonist seems fine. There’s a secondary character to play off of. So what’s missing? I’ve given that some thought and I think it’s this: The main character is not reacting to stimulus provided by the scene. Nor is he proacting with clear motivation. He’s simply moving through the world, thinking about what has happened and what might. In that sense he seems slightly disconnected from the telling. It’s a subtle thing, but it (or something else) is keeping me from fully investing. I like the story, but do not love it so far.

Second scene is flashback. This is bothersome in that it highlights further the artificiality of the opening – which appears to have been placed as a “hook” rather than an inciting incident. Usually, when I see this structure it’s because the meat of the story isn’t interesting enough to carry my attention, so the author has tacked on an active, often mysterious, hook to whet my interest. Sometimes this works okay, but usually it only highlights the backward movement of subsequent scenes. Is that the case here? Reading on.

Pretty much. The second scene is where the main character meets the secondary, and we learn some of the science involved. We get a motivation, though it’s not terribly compelling at this point. Interesting, yes, but I’m not driven to frenzied curiosity (not with 40 other stories to get through). That’s a shame, because the writing is quite good line by line and the science is well described.

Third scene takes place back in the present. The trouble early on is that it quickly devolves into characters telling each other background for my sake. I feel this is part of some larger cycle of stories, which is fine, except that makes it all the more difficult for this story to stand alone. Are the stakes high enough? Is this the single most important event in the protagonist’s life? I’m not feeling confident. The discovery is neat enough, but the story (so far) has distilled it down to talking points; where is the actual story? Especially the emotional thread?

Fourth scene picks up a bit. I’m seeing that at least part of my problem is that this character is not well motivated. He’s thinking about hostiles as the story opens, but he’s discovering an anomaly. He’s learning about the anomaly, but what is it complicating? What is his primary mission? What matters to him? In classic story structure, this anomaly would be the complication that throws his purpose off kilter. The problem is that his purpose is never really established strongly. He’s not really driven, and the anomaly comes off as a mystery to be discovered rather than the inciting incident for a story arc. My suspicion is that if this story can be refocused on the protagonist’s purpose (and the change this journey causes him to undergo) it will work nicely. Reading on.

Scene 5. Sam didn’t get it. Neither to I, not quite. I’d like the scientific discovery to be more plainly explained. I’d like the focus to be on story rather than mystery, because the mystery alone is simply a mind game unless I connect to these characters. The story seems to be trying to pull me along with a slow reveal of the device, rather than a reveal of the character. He’s just a soldier. That “just” is a problem for me. He needs to be more to carry this story.

Scene 6 is an action scene. To tell the truth, I’m not really following it. Too much has been hinted at or withheld for me to be too psyched about the outcome. I don’t really understand the stakes. Skimming to end.

“A part of him felt foolish for caring whether an inanimate object made it to the end of the war.” This is the emotional core of the story. Now, go back and restructure the story to earn it. There’s very good potential here.

Overall, the story suffers from a lack of clear motivation and clear explanation of the core idea. If I read correctly, the basic story idea comes down to making a choice between an alien artifact and human life, with a time dilation complication. That’s enough to support maybe 1500 words of story. If I were revising, I’d either write it as a much shorter, sharper incident, or refocus on the protagonist’s character development and make the bulk of the story about that. Why is this issue important to him? Why does making this choice feel so difficult to him? This story has the potential to be excellent SF – it’s closer right now to something Analog might like than something we would.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 There’s a solid military SF idea here and good line by line writing. The problem lies in a lack of protagonist motivation and clear explanation of the complications caused by the artifact. Potentially a very good story, but needs some work.

Story 23 (12/04/2010 Horror 4500 words)

You may have noticed that I’ve not had good reactions to horror so far. This, I think, is because most of the horror we see focuses on mood and surprise at the expense of story arc. Let’s see if this is different. The first reader reaction was not good (Story begins on page 5, and then there’s zombies…)

Yes, there’s a ton of static background in these first pages. I’m not sensing story. I’m also not a fan of two page paragraphs. They look exhausting on the printed page for one thing.

Ah, yes, zombies. The story does begin moving here and the line by line writing is solid. Another long paragraph, but it’s followed by dialogue so I’m not too put off (a little, yeah). Um, her husband has been hiding the existence of zombies in LA from his wife? For a decade? She didn’t come across as dense. Hmmm. That issue aside, the basic concept is kind of fresh. I’m not sure this is the right viewpoint to be telling this story from, however. Seems like most of the interesting stuff has happened off screen in the protagonist’s blind spot. The spots she does see are a little boring.

She does go on. Pages of summary about what’s been happening off stage. This comes across as an explanation of a neat idea the author didn’t want to work hard enough at to present in story scenes. I suspect it’s meant to be a character study, but the character is not that interesting I’m afraid. Skimming to end. Man, I’ve not seen this many long paragraphs strung together since required reading in high school. It’s not helping the story’s vibe. If I were to revise this, I’d start the story with a zombie crawling over the fence and move forward from there in scenes rather than summary. Husband confessing is a lot more involving than hearing that he did. Shorter, sharper paragraphs should help as well.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 The line by line writing is good, but the story is lost in background summary for the most part. It’s an intriguing idea at heart, but I suspect this is the wrong viewpoint for it.

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After a very nice day with family, I’m doing my best to catch up on slush for Triangulation: Last Contact. See my previous post for disclaimers. Here’s hoping the eggnog kicks in.

Story 20  (12/13/2010 Fantasy 3200 words)

This comes from a reasonably well known writer and previous contributor. Will that color my reading? A little bit. I generally give such stories a little more leeway, especially in their openings.

The story begins with a quirky hook and speculative element. I pretty much have to read on now. One of those “if the story works it’s great” lines.  It’s a comfortable, conversational voice. I’m not getting a lot of density though. It has the makings of a pretty light weight tale so far. Page 2 seems kind of familiar. Page 3 picks up for me. The story starts moving on page 5.

Page 6 makes me grin. Some strong details and lively prose through page 8.

Page 11. Seriously? I guess it’s taking trite and making it (somewhat) fresh again, but it’s not exactly leaping off the page. I do like the protagonist’s voice; it’s the fairly standard sight gags that aren’t working for me. If the story was shorter, I’d be more tolerant, but I’ve invested significant time to see a pretty basic plot skeleton. The story comes full circle, but it’s a forced full circle, in that the device that comes back was forgotten through the middle of the story.

I’ll pass this on to the other editors. It’s written well for what it attempts; I’d rather it attempted more, but we do usually publish a few light stories to balance out heavier ones. I’m willing to be convinced this should be one of them.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 As a fluff story, this works well. It takes a speculative element and plays with it in a new way, utilizing an engaging voice and reasonably active plot. The story suffers a bit from an opening that takes too long to get moving and some too easy plot devices. I may not be a fan, but I do appreciate the skill on display.

Story 21  (12/16/2010 SF 5300 words)

This puts us right into the middle of a fight. Sometimes that’s a good way to involve the reader and sometimes it causes problems when the following scenes do not escalate further. Good action. I’d like a little more stage detail. I feel a bit disoriented. I wouldn’t want the detail to interfere with story action, but a few specific details mixed in would help. We have a yellow-suited human, hand claws (that works), red fur (cheats a little, but works), an electro-staff (I’m not picturing anything specific), a narrow opening, a pipeline, a corridor, an access hatch, a comm unit. These are certainly details, but nothing really jumps off the page and I end up feeling as if I’m running through a generic space ship rather than THIS one.

We come to more like the protagonist, “They had gray fur with gold eyes…”. This is sloppy description; does the fur have eyes? In general, I like the pacing of the scene, I like the character so far, I even like the general balance of detail and inner thinking, but it needs more attention to the specific to really come alive for me.

On page 3 I love the distinction between protecting the sword and using it. That’s effective, efficient culture-character development. Humans with electro-rods come down the hallway, yet I see nothing. I mean I can infer their presence and their weapon, but it’s not real to me. There’s not enough specific detail to pull me in.

Better details inside the transport pod. I’m not getting a good sense for the protagonist’s motivation. He does have a distinct goal, which is fine, but the chase scene doesn’t develop it further. I feel like there’s a lot of chasing without a lot of investment in the character (yet).  I like the action on page 5 – there’s a good sense of character interaction and I do care about the protagonist’s safety, yet I don’t really understand why this story is important yet.

The pod’s transition is delivered too abruptly. A scene cut might be better. I do like that there’s a complication.

I hope this isn’t Earth. Now we’re moving into a tour of the planet mode. I wouldn’t mind this if the character felt some tension regarding his purpose. This part of the story lacks escalation.

Page 8 provides some welcome context and some emotional escalation. This is good. Back to the world tour. Survival mode. The pacing feels more like novel-pacing than short story pace at this point. It seems part of a larger story than a depiction of an important story. Skimming.

Page 13 provides effective culture, the matrilineal nature is good. The complication of his wounds doesn’t really escalate from prior complications. What is missing in the story is a sense of story importance (Raise the Stakes).

Protagonist meets natives (not Earth – good).  They take him in without incident or particular tension. I like the dreamy interlude on page 19.  If he has a healing hand, why didn’t he heal his own wounds? Am I missing something?

An attack. Climax. Protagonist must make a decision. Is there a price? Nope.

Story ends with an episodic feel, as if this is just the beginning of the protagonist’s journey. He has learned something, but it came pretty easily – he had no real choice in the matter. The story ends up feeling like a sequence of basically well written scenes that don’t really escalate to an important resolution.  What the story needs, I think, is a stronger sense of specific detail early in the story and a much stronger sense of motivation throughout. A short story should be the most important event in a character’s lifetime, one that changes him forever and costs him in the process. Here, we don’t understand the importance of the sword, the importance of the escape, the actual motivation that keeps him moving, other than survival and possible reunion with his kind. What other option does he have, really? Now, if his mission was crucial to his species (at least his family) and it was his imperative to return the sword, such that survival is only a secondary need, and if he has to give up the chance to succeed in that quest in order to achieve this ending (i.e. he makes a choice that costs him dearly) then I think this can be a winner.

I’m not going to request a rewrite; there’s too much uncertainty as to whether “fixing” these problems will result in a spectacular story or simply a better one. I will offer to look at a revision, however, as there’s a real chance it could.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 The writing is active, which is very good for this type of story. The plot moves at a steady pace (except the world tour section, which needs to accomplish more than simply showing the world). The character is likable and does change. There’s a stated motivation, though it’s not carried well throughout the story. Overall, this is actually a decent depiction of an alien in a strange world. As a short story, however, it fails to escalate sufficiently and does not exact enough of a price from its protagonist. There’s good potential here.

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Christmas Eve Slush

With the holiday quickly approaching I do my best Grinch imitation and provide real time reading comments for stories in the Triangulation: Last Contact slush. See my previous post for disclaimers. Aren’t I merry… Oh! Oh! Oh! I’ll refrain from sending rejections today and tomorrow. There’s a chance I can send an acceptance though, which will be wonderful.

Story 16  (12/10/2010 Dark Fantasy 4450 words)

This opens in present tense, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but does raise a red flag. Present tense is difficult to pull off at this length. The more troubling aspect is the passivity of the prose. “Is teeming” could be “teems” “are piled” could be “pile” or “stack” o r “rise into” or something more active. The problem for me is that uncomfortable friction between the immediacy of present tense and the static nature of passive verbs and unmoving scenery. Why use present tense if the prose is going to paint a static, inactive picture? More relevant, why use passive prose at all? Forcing active verbs into a scene can be problematic too, but it’s generally passive prose that causes the most issues for us. Passivity does not draw a reader into a scene unless it’s exceptionally well rendered or done with purpose.

Second paragraph. What, exactly, is a “golden spot”? There are some nice, specific details here, but this one does little for me. What fills him with rage? The golden spot? The forest? Since both details are roughly equal, it could be either.

“he is thinking” could be “he thinks”.  This seems an ongoing issue.

The opening stage is suitably horrific, but I’m not getting much story movement yet. We seem to be seeing the scene in various ways, using a couple different metaphors. It’s all about mood, I suppose, but mood is not story. Better to utilize mood in support of story rather than vice versa.

I get the feeling information is being withheld from me. The protagonist knows the rules and knows how he functions in this place, yet we hear only vague references to “the rules” and “queen bees” and “drones”. Nothing specific that might establish a character in context.

Nadia the Sensualist Vision, eh? It’s an intriguing term that kind of falls apart when I think about it. Nadia the Sensualist I could go with, but adding that she’s a Vision raises too many questions.

There’s a silk mattress in the olive tree? Now the story seems to shift to Nadia’s viewpoint. This makes the original protagonist kind of a throwaway character. Their conversation is interesting, though I’m getting the feeling they’re not telling me stuff they should. What rules? Why is the golden light boldness? Etc. etc. It’s good that they’re not playing talking heads, but it’s not good that I’ve been in the protagonist’s viewpoint, yet have no idea what he’s talking about. We shift back into his viewpoint.

So far it’s all very easy. Scene two switches to camera viewpoint (or perhaps the entire story is omniscient).  On page 4 we learn the golden light is a star fallen to earth. Seems maybe we should have noticed this when we viewed it through the minion’s eyes. They turned back for a reason–apparently this one–yet failed to let us know until now. One gets the sense of being manipulated rather than experiencing a scene.

Some nice dialogue on page 5. I’m not sure what the story’s focus is, but it’s an interesting exchange at least. I like a lot of the background. The story, however, seems meandering.  More interesting back story on page 7. This story, however, has not really started.

I like the magical spell. This feels like story complication. Good. Ah, we get “the rule” on page 9. I like the rule; had it come earlier, I might have been drawn in rather than feeling as if information was being hidden.

The actual battle is glossed over without emotion. It reads like a laundry list of failures. I’m not connected to this character.  He remembers the spell he just transcribed only after multiple failures. That does not ring true.

I’m very disappointed at the star’s identity and purpose. All that buildup for this?

There’s a brief skirmish, not terribly inventive, and the story ends in a way that has nothing (or very little) to do with the story opening. I’m disappointed to say the least.  There’s an interesting world here and an epic conflict, yet the story manages to avoid drawing me into any of that. The characters are not well developed, the situation seems here merely as an excuse to hint at interesting back story and the ending has no emotional impact on me at all.

Were I to revise this, I would begin with the Rule, focus on the wizard’s viewpoint with the intent of drawing readers into his perspective (we need to empathize with him for this ending to work). Alternatively, it could be told from the star’s perspective, drawing the reader in on that front and using the wizard as the final obstacle to success.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 2 This is epic fantasy that fails to draw me into any character or either side of the conflict. Generic detail and passive prose work against the present tense technique. Omniscient viewpoint only further dilutes my empathy for any of the characters. There’s a very interesting world beyond this story and I would like to explore those ideas and setting. The current story feels like a throwaway event, which is a shame.

Story 17  (12/11/2010 SF 2300 words)

This opens in the midst of an action, which is good. I would like a hint of detail to show me what “she” is, at least in broad terms. As it is, I feel a little suspended in blankness. Dialogue coming from nowhere doesn’t help this, but it does infer the protagonist and effectively identify a secondary character. I’m on board, with one foot dangling off.

The present tense is a little cloying for me. Immediate, yes, but a bit strained too. “Woken out of” has me thinking this has been a dream – it feels a bit dreamlike. Then we get “this death is real” and a nicely visceral sensory detail. Not a dream, which means the “woken” line has worked against it. Secondary character dies and protagonist “wonders why this bothers me so much.” The trouble is that it hasn’t bothered her at all until this moment. I’m not inside the character enough for this to feel like a reinforcing line. Thus I don’t quite believe it.

The next character to enter seems even less emotionally involved. That’s fine as a contrast, but the protagonist has yet to actually FEEL anything, and this tension between characters doesn’t sizzle as a result.

Typos put me off as well. There’s an apparent typo in the Title, another here with: “It’s has been a long time…” Minor fixes, granted, but they do tend to accumulate into a general feel of sloppiness.

Their ancestors wore micro-skin cloaks? That doesn’t ring true.  What about the cubs? Have they been yawning in a corner all this time? We’ve not seen them once? They’ve not moved or called out. Seems they were awaiting a cue.

Nice twist at the end of scene one. The problem is that it should have been revealed or set up through the protagonist’s emotional reaction to the death. Witholding that reaction has me disbelieving the scene — in order to get a twist ending. Not a good trade off in general.  Personally, I’ d prefer some real emotional response, a heated confrontation, ending with the new character reminding the protagonist of this twist. She has forgotten herself in the process of immersion. That would work for me. This does not.

Second scene opens very strongly.  I like the second scene. A little more sensory detail would help, but it certainly engaged my attention. I wonder if the story might start here instead. I’m also more comfortable with the past tense – seems more real. I’ll accept present tense if there’s a pressing reason for it in the end, but it seems strained too often.

Third scene is almost as good. Present tense isn’t helping it, nor is the general lack of story action, but it’s interesting stuff. Pace picks up nicely with the sacrifice. On page 7 we get a sense for the protagonist’s tension.  She resists their leader’s interpretation of the “game”. This should be set up more clearly early in story.

Okay, I like where this ends up very much. It needs some additional work, however. Basically, I will recommend cutting the first scene, setting up the protagonist’s doubts in the first scene (which should help to rachet up tension between her and the leader). I’d also like a clearer understanding of the “there can only be one” rule that makes the ending work. Ideally, this ought to be sprinkled throughout the story, escalating from a simple reference to a more detailed reference, to a perfect explanation at the climax.

Two editors have read and like this; both have complained of its slowness to draw them in. I think we have our first rewrite request.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 This is a clever idea that fits the theme. The current execution robs it of some of its power, unfortunately, but it still manages to draw me in and surprise me. This is one of those stories that isn’t all that strong on the page, but has tremendous upside.

Story 18  (12/12/2010 SF 4400 words)

This opens in genuine mystery, with the protagonist struggling to recall his surroundings. Normally, I wouldn’t advise this opening because it can leave the reader floundering for context. Here, it works because the details of character are so vivid and real that we’re being drawn into his perspective and feeling his mysterious existence right along with him. Very good writing. No concrete speculative element yet, but a tantalizing hint that one is coming soon.

Second scene starts well enough, the sense of strangeness growing. By the end of page 2, however, my patience begins to thin. Now I’m starting to feel as if salient details continue to be hidden from me on purpose, to create a sense of false mystery. Now, I’m feeling as if the protagonist is thinking along the edges of the concrete in order to keep me in the dark. And that does not work. What calculations? What is “this place”? Disappearances? From? Time frame?

Scene 3 is much the same so far. What happened in August? Excited and frightened about what? Entryway to what? I like the portal references, but it’s just a word without additional context.

Scene 4 begins a little experimentally for my taste (sentences drawing attention to themselves). A couple of nice descriptions, though.  He found it? Found what?  Working on what?  Skimming.

Page 5 explains that the story is a retelling of a classic. Protagonist is a literature professor, so that’s fine. It does make me wonder if the story will be more than a simple retelling.  On page 6 we learn there are multiple portals. We find out what the secondary character was working on.  At this point we seem to be slipping into the old explanation of idea trap. We’ll see. Skimming.

Ah, so they’ve already come through a portal. This does make sense in retrospect, but the story is entirely too confusing to do justice to the idea.

The real story seems to begin on page 10.  Story goes through a series of scenes, primarily in summary, leading to an open-ended ending. In the end, I don’t feel as if the story took me anyplace particularly new, primarily because I spent too much effort trying to follow the unnecessary confusions. The actual story is buried beneath them, I fear. The story of a young man and his brother lost gets lost, replaced with straight-forward conjectures about multiple world dynamics.

If I were to revise this, I’d begin it much later and focus entirely on the relationship between the two main characters, and particularly the change the protagonist undergoes and the price he must pay for his decision. Right now the protagonist feels fully formed throughout and pays a minimal price for his choice, which is further mitigated by the very real idea that he will have other choices soon. The prose is very good, but the story lacks substance and narrative drive.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 This begins beautifully, but stumbles into a haze of undescribed concepts and confusing complication. The protagonist’s emotional journey should hold these pieces together, but do not in the current version. I’m not certain the basic idea will carry this length, but a strong character story supported by this SF idea might.

Story 19  (12/13/2010 Horror4000 words)

This opens very nicely. A vivid specific detail that suggests a speculative element, sets up a character by name, and gets us into his mindset. Second paragraph is less effective. Given where we are mentally, it’s far too easy to think the Buick has dissolved into actual rust dust. Real details need to be very concrete here. The warhorse reference is okay; maybe lead with that and make it clear the body is dented and rusted and dusty.

Third paragraph does not work, as it feels repetitious in its hints of the mysterious without concrete details. The final sentence is the one that matters and that one works. I’m starting to drift away from liking this story.

The conversation pulls me back. It’s true that the protagonist isn’t telling me everything he knows, or that I want to know, but he’s in the middle of a conversation, so I’m not pushing. I WILL be upset if I don’t start to get some meaningful context shortly, however.

Nice active scene. The explanation of Chaniers is good (for now). The statements about “images of what had happened” and “the first time” and “free of the chains” do NOT work. These are clearly meant to tease me with information I should have available (in protagonist’s viewpoint). It’s starting to get old at this point.

I need more to make the demon real. It’s sort of inserted into the text now. “Time for the demon to feed” tells me the protagonist understands what is going down here. Why don’t I? The demon feels semi-real. Details are given, action described, dialogue begun, but I’m really not picturing it. Not quite sure why. Maybe we need a more intrusive presence, or maybe a smell or a texture or a taste to add dimension. Or an internal thought that conveys emotion. Something more than words on the page.

Once the demon begins interacting (to put it politely) with the Chanier, the scene takes on life.  The demon is an interesting character. The scene ends well, though I’m dreading a rinse and repeat. Hopefully I’m wrong.

Next scene opens confusingly. I have no context. Of a sudden we’re in omniscient mode. I guess it’s a dream to explain the protagonist’s motivation (revenge). I’m not thrilled with this. It does leave me with an interesting line or two, but I’m waiting for Charles Bronson now.

The next scene is an interesting exchange between protagonist and demon. I doubt I’d miss the previous scene at all if it were cut.

Back to the dream? More violence.  Skimming.

Next scene features dialogue meant to explain protagonist’s background to me. It’s mostly information I don’t need at this point. It gets more interesting as the scene progresses, but remains mainly explanation of background, even so.

Final scene is the correct scene for the story.

Overall, I think the story is overly complicated for what it achieves. There’s some very real mystery here, some interesting philosophy, some strong action scenes. Told in a more straight-line fashion without so much explanation of story and concept (rather, necessary explanation sprinkled throughout in reaction to story stimulus) this can be an excellent story. As it stands, it’s pretty good, but not for us.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8. The basic execution works well for the particular type of horror story that it is. I suspect it can be published in a horror zine without too much revision. In terms of basic story, however, if falters in a few areas. Rather than generating true mystery (i.e. seeing the mysterious through a viewpoint) it settles too often for false mystery (i.e. NOT revealing what a viewpoint knows). The backflash/dream is trite compared to the other elements and could probably be cut without loss. A brief flash of memory in response to a story stimulus would be all I need to suggest the relevant motivations. I also don’t need a full scene of theocratic explanation later in the story. What I need is a protagonist reacting to story events from his unique perspective. Note, for example that the scene in question ends with him not actually getting the information that we need, but rather with him recalling how he has dreamed the information. In other words that scene is pretty unnecessary. This is a case, I think, where less will be more.

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Today, from a secure remote location, I do my best to provide real time reading comments for stories in the Triangulation: Last Contact slush. See my previous post for disclaimers.

Story 12  (11/28/2010 SF 5800 words)

This one is a little long for us and it’s also a reprint, two strikes, but not an automatic out. The story was passed on to me by another editor, which means it’s got some promise, so…

We begin in epistolary mode, with a letter written by our likely protagonist. It delivers story background efficiently. I’m not exactly compelled, however. Midway through page 2, I’m still on background.  Worse, it’s something of a talking heads episode, with the writer telling his correspondent things he already knows for my benefit.  Page 3 and I’m still reading background. It’s an interesting time in history, which keeps me going, but I’m not compelled. The voice is very good and I love the emotional passage regarding Mira, but there’s rather more telling about story background than moving story forward at this point.

By page 6 the telling is more active and it’s an interesting situation. I’m still hung up on the fact I’m reading one humongous letter, i.e. being told about a story. As letters go it’s pretty vivid and I wouldn’t mind getting a letter from this guy. As stories go, the technique is slow and distant. My main concern is that this story requires such a telling.

Page 7 segues into actual dialogue and more immediate telling.  It’s a welcome change.

Page 8 gets downright evocative. I’m like the fantastic element.  By page 12, I’m feeling a little edgy. This seems to be taking a long time to develop. Glad to see smells utilized.

Once we get to the iron horse, the story is quite interesting, the writing often wondrous. From this point forward, I do feel compelled.  The ending is strong and does justify the epistle approach (at least marginally – I would be even happier had I read this story from within scene, though it would certainly provide a different mood in that telling).

This is a difficult one in that I really like the overall story and the voice is consistently strong. It starts too slowly, carries more words than events support, and is a reprint. Thus, I’ll vote No, but pass it along to the other editors. If they like it, I’ll be happy to relent, but will want something done with the slow opening and talking heads sections.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 The story largely accomplishes its goal, which is to provide an alternate history with an interesting speculative element. The voice is very strong and I have a very real sense of the period. The overly slow opening and talking-heads sections work against it, however.

Story 13  (12/05/2010 Fantasy No word count – 5 ms pages)

This one has been read by two editors, one favorable, one unfavorable. Let’s break a tie.

This starts with an interesting concept (good hook). I’m troubled that the writing feels very distant. Past perfect tense, a lot of passive structure.  “as he was” “he could feel” and other such phrases remind me that I’m outside character, watching the story unfold. This isn’t necessarily a problem for some stories, but it may be here, as this seems to be a character story.

It’s a really quirky, interesting idea. I wish the character were more involving.  I find the text shaping (text arranged into visual patterns on page) more distracting than helpful. The concept is escalating. Emotion is not.

Cute ending. The story has an idea I could definitely support, but settles for cuteness over depth. This is potentially a commentary on the human condition, but without human emotion comes across as an exercise in technique. Unfortunate. I have to vote No.

Were I to rewrite this I would focus more strongly on the character’s emotions and on a more immediate telling (not necessarily present tense, but less summary prose, more active). I would also look to sharpen the various scenes such that each more clearly (and powerfully) makes a point about our human condition. Alternatively, this idea might be written as a very short prose poem, in which case the text structuring might be useful. There, too, the sharpness of the word choices and images will be paramount.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A really quirky idea played out to logical extreme. The problem is in its emotional arc, which is basically missing. Points for concept; points off for execution. With a shaper satiric point, this could be wonderful. Hopefully, it will be after some revision. I don’t feel confident enough that a rewrite will solve the problems, to suggest one, however.

Story 14  (12/09/2010 Fantasy 3464 words)

Opens with a scent, which is a nice change of pace. Unnamed protagonist, not so much. No hint of speculative element on the first two pages. Very mainstream, good observational detail, but no story momentum at all. Skimming.

Unnamed love interest shows up on page 5. At this point, there’s enough story movement to justify maybe a page of prose. The writing is solid, even excellent at times, but not at all what we look for in Triangulation. Too much attention to detail that does not promote story and a hint of pretentiousness in the unnamed characters.

The first scene could be summarized in a single sentence. He played a spellsong and the animals came, and she came too. Seven pages to show this action is too much (for us; not necessarily for a lit mag).

Next scene is a dream, which feels dreamlike, but adds nothing to the story’s momentum.

Next scene: more animals. She is there as well. Interstingly, “she” is never described in other than generic terms. Am I being set up for a twist? (and is my suspicion as to what it is, correct? Stay tuned). What I’m NOT being, is drawn into the character’s perspective. I do have a good sense of his mood and memories, but when he looks at someone without seeing any detail, it pushes me right out. There is some story movement in this scene.

Another(?) unnamed woman appears. We get some dialogue on page 11.  Love the line about mirrors.  This scene has some story movement – enough to support its word count. I’m still a bit lost, but in a good way.

I’m grateful it did not go to an expected place, nor was the twist simplistic. The ending is resonant, but would be even more resonant, I suspect if the first woman’s details were not so obscure. And I’ve no real idea why the characters should not be named. An argument might be made that they’re “everymen”, but the loss of specificity in a story so obscurely told, is bothersome.

The writing is observant enough that a lit mag might like the story. For us, it’s too obscure and much too slow to develop.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 As a literary ghost story, this works reasonably well. The writing is observant and often evocative and the ending feels resonant. I think the story would be more effective, however, with more concrete details, especially of the first woman, and fewer esoteric inferences. Shining moments shine best when contrasted with gritty concrete.  In a sense, this seems to be trying too hard, at least for my taste in literary fiction.

Story 15  (12/10/2010 Fantasy 3800 words)

This opens with a simple declarative paragraph that provides us with a character in context. Effective, not flashy. I like that.  I’m a little put off that the secondary character is static for two paragraphs, almost as if waiting for his cue. I’m also feeling slightly disoriented, because when the main character looks around, he sees nothing. Is this desert? Forest? There’s talk of “other houses”, but where? I would need one, possibly two small details (in the initial paragraph, perhaps) to set a stage to hold the details that emerge.  I do like where the opening scene takes us. We have a speculative element, a sense of true mystery (i.e. something mysterious to the viewpoint character).  It’s setting up as a three wish scenario, or perhaps a careful what you wish for. The details are different enough that I’m fine with that, but I do need it to go somewhere fresh in the end.

Second scene is similarly sparse. Mostly effective, but once again I could use just a hint more stage setting.  I’m not having a good feeling at this point. I’m expecting this to go to a familiar place. If I’m wrong that will be excellent.

Third scene throws me off balance in a very good way. Liking it.  Stage setting is strong in this scene. That makes for an interesting contrast with earlier scenes. I would still want SOME stage setting in the other scenes. They can be sparse, but not empty. I’m fully engaged at this point. Previous concerns have evaporated. Why? Because this scene takes me someplace totally unexpected, yet feels valid given the opening scenes. I do need to see the connection between the scenes by story end, but I’m looking forward to it now.

Both the woman and the man come off as a little to accepting of their fate (their transition from opening scenes to this new place and situation). It’s not a deal breaker, but a hint of … I don’t know… shock? doubt?… could potentially help, especially if each character reacts a little differently, thus differentiating them further.

Scene on p10-11. I’m not convinced by the man’s reaction to the woman. He’s definitely too accepting of his situation now. I do like his questions to her on p 11-12.  I like her explanation of the medical supplies, but her suggestion that his skills will come in handy here brings me back to feeling that she’s too accepting of her situation.

The next scene comes too abruptly. The idea is fine, but I need more of a sense of transition. The ending, while interesting doesn’t quite satisfy. The woman’s situation resolves, but the man’s seems too pat. Overall, the good parts outweight the negatives for me, but not enough so that I would recommend purchase. I will, however, send the story around to the other editors and see what they think. Maybe a rewrite, though I’m worried that the man’s story needs an inspiration. An alternative could be to tell the story completely from the woman’s point of view. In that case the man’s “wish” is not so center stage and can be reported second-hand (i.e. rather than us seeing him make his wish and knowing exactly what he said, he could report it in a way that gives some wiggle room, e.g. Oh, I told him I’d like to be well off, you know, money, land, that sort of thing.”) I can see why the trickster character would pick these two people for the tasks at hand, but it’s not clear that he’s tricking them, which makes me think he’s granting their wishes. For the story to fully work, I suspect we need to come away understanding WHY the trickster did what he did when he did it. I can infer that he did this to save the children, but WHY? And why did he really need a carpenter and medic? If the story has to be expanded to include this facet, I’m for expanding it. I wouldn’t need a lot, just enough to understand.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 The story plays to our expectations, then changes them in good ways. The middle story, in particular, is quite vivid. A somewhat rushed and imperfect ending keeps me from rating it higher. This is one of the rare stories that leaves me wanting for a little more word count, especially in transitional scenes near the end, and in the characters’ emotional transitions after their shift to the alternate world. In particular, I want to come away knowing why the instigator did this.

 

 

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Wherein I do my best to provide real time reading comments for stories in the Triangulation: Last Contact slush. See my previous post for disclaimers.

Story 8 (12/6/2010 SF 1800 words)

This begins with a summary paragraph. As a frame hook it’s okay, but reads a bit flat. Second paragraph continues in summary flashback. This is not a good sign. Not only do I have the gauze of summary separating me from character identification, now I have a flashback as well. First person is not helpful either. Contrary to common belief, first person is a difficult viewpoint to draw a reader into. It generally works best with an unreliable narrator (where the unreliability is necessary for story effect) or for a character with a colorful, vibrant voice (wherein the reader is drawn to character through the exuberance of his/her voice). Of course this is only a guideline. The actual rule is that first person works where first person works, and not where it doesn’t.

I don’t believe it’s rare for a father and son to share a favorite baseball, football, team. I imagine it’s rather common. The PA announcement seems emotionless, which doesn’t help the feeling of seeing this story at a distance. I can’t help imagining reading this story from within the events, the startling emotion of it, the sudden wonderment. That doesn’t come through in summary; all we have is an intellectual explanation.  I do like that religion is brought into the mix, but it’s not a very deep view of the issues involved, which makes it feel glossed over (summary).  Skimming.

I like that music plays an important part in this. The problem is that intellectual music does little for me; it’s the emotional context that matters. The intellectual puzzle here would be fine in support of an emotional story line.

The Jerusalem setting comes out of nowhere. Makes me wonder from where this story is being told. I should know that early in the telling. More summary. Explanation of the idea.

The story ends with an emotional moment, but it’s doesn’t feel all that new to me. The idea really isn’t all that new and since the story is told almost completely in summary, I’m not left with a sense of story power either. I’m afraid this one doesn’t work for me.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 The idea is classic SF, which means it’s a bit “been there” for me. The story is told almost completely in summary in a journalistic style. Consequently, it comes off as an explanation of the idea, rather than a story involving a motivated character facing obstacles and succeeding or failing in an important way.

Story 9 (12/7/2010 SF 1800 words)

This one comes from an author who is obviously full of himself. I try not to allow cover letters to impact my reading one way or another, but you do yourself no great favor by bragging in a cover letter. A simple list of credits and awards is plenty. If you’re an author whose work I recognize or you’ve been published in Asimov’s etc I’ll probably give the opening a bit more leeway, but the story still has to work.

The story opens strongly. Effective hook, efficient set up of character in a setting and an implication of story background (and importance). I’m on board. The story begins struggling just a bit against itself by the end of the first page.

The second page doesn’t seem to be advancing the story. Technically it’s showing the concept, which is good, but the events seem somewhat superficial to me. The idea of a cop assigned to personal surveillance due to a union requirement is kind of a hoot. These ideas feel a little old fashioned, though (I would like to see them made relevant again, but this isn’t doing it).  I do like the top of page 5.

I’m having issues at this point, though. The story seems to be evolving as a brainstorming exercise rather than a story with an actual point. We’ll see how it ends.

The co-opting on page 6 is nicely done. That drew my interest back to the page.  The scene on p7-8, however, seems like more free form plotting. I don’t sense escalation of idea or emotion, just cool ideas thrown out there to see what sticks. It’s unfortunate because I love the prose, efficient and vivid.

I really like the core concept here; the execution is turning me off, however. When there is an actual plot element it comes across as an explanation of plot; when the prose becomes involving it’s mainly meaningless action meant to intrigue or provoke. Page 10-11 is a good example. This is plot background explained to us via a talking heads device.

Another new idea on page 14. It could be escalatory, but I’m betting it’s not.  Page 15-16 is more explanation of idea. I like the end of page 16.  Nice imagery on 19.

Ends well enough. A little Adam and Evey for modern SF, but it’s more than that too,  so that doesn’t bug me too much.  What does bug me is that there’s some really nice throwaway ideas here, some great visuals and a wonderful core idea, yet I don’t get a sense of story at all. There’s no real sense of a motivated character encountering obstacles and succeeding or failing in an important way. Technically, the obstacles were faced before this story began, the character succeeded and failed before this story began, and what we see on the page is pretty much inevitable rather than compelling.

I’d love to see a revised story based on this core idea, but I won’t suggest it. Past experience suggests this author will not be receptive. It’s a shame.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 I like the writing here, but the story arc is relatively flat, lacking escalation. Instead we’re given a series of active scenes with little relevance to plot escalation, interspersed with dialogue that tells us about the idea and story background. While I really like the core idea and the way it’s implemented within character, I don’t find myself caring much about the outcome. It strikes me that this character is fully formed at story opening; the obstacles he’s faced took place before this story, his success and failure took place before this story. This leaves the experience feeling more inevitable than compelling.

Story 10 (12/8/2010 SF 991 words)

This begins with a fairly dull hook. It’s okay, but doesn’t really grab my eyeballs.  Then we come to unnamed characters, which can be a problem for me. It generally comes across as pretentious unless there’s truly a reason to populate the story with unnamed icons. We’ll see.

The opening page is presented reasonably and does make me think. The story action, however feels a little repetitive and I’m not engaged with any particular character yet. Page 2 names a character, which makes the unnamed character on page one more annoying (to me). We then get an argument second hand.  In a story starving for on-page drama, this seems the wrong choice here. I feel as if I’m being told the idea, with story action as a filler between points.

Where’d the elevator come from? By the end of page 2 I’m finally identifying with a viewpoint character. The memory adds a nice texture here. A clever bit on the bridge; I like the switching cars detail as it characterizes the protagonist and adds some on-page action. However, I don’t feel any real escalation of emotion yet.

Okay, this goes to a kind of interesting, ironic place, a choice between the past and the present as the world ends. Truthfully, though, the story doesn’t do enough with this idea. The first three pages read as a setup for the final action, rather than a story escalating and changing its character. Even flash fiction requires a sense of change, preferably in the character as well as the situation. If I were to revise this, I’d begin with a clear viewpoint character, show the actual argument, and push the character to run to the cemetery, then have something there trigger his regret. It’s all a little too pat as the story stands now. We don’t witness any real drama and the idea is logically delivered, rather than a consequence of story arc.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 While I like the irony of this situation, the story itself comes across as a delivery mechanism for the idea. We don’t particularly empathize with the main character until halfway through, and then it’s a fairly simple hop from his initial state to his end state. I didn’t feel that the story pushed him there, partially because the argument is held off page.  This story will likely work best as a very close character study rather than a summary of an afternoon.

Story 11 (12/9/2010 Horror 3000 words)

Okay, another cover letter devoted to braggadocio. This author does not come across as bragging, but a letter listing 20 or more credits and a review for a different story strikes me as overkill. There are a few markets out there that ask for this nonsense, so I’ll not be too critical (but still a little critical, eh?).

Anyway, the story begins with a character in an intriguing situation. I identify with him almost at once. The second paragraph, which mainly belabors the point, could go and I wouldn’t miss it.

Page 2. So he can read, but he can’t see other than to notice the light is dimmer? That rings false. I’m having a little problem with the passivity of the prose. Stuff keeps happening to the protagonist; he doesn’t seem to act upon his world at all. Red flag there. I’m quickly losing sympathy as this page goes on describing small details with extreme attention. Are they the precise details we need? Do they advance story or character? It’s kind of hit and miss so far.  Yet, when I NEED a specific detail (say a face or a voice) I get generic.  The mix is off to my reading ear.  For example, when a character looks at a face he knows without seeing a single detail, I’m certainly not fully in his perspective.  When characters react to the stimulus of the scene, they become real. When they react without that stimulus it usually comes off as an intellectual exercise, as it does here. To be fair, the story never says he’s “reading” the novel (I went back and re-read), but that’s what stuck with me because that’s a first level assumption from the evidence. I’m being a little tough here because I think the story has some potential to be sharp and involving, but settles too often for mushy detail and introspection.

On page 4 “when he was thrown off”. All these passive indicators are piling up on me. This character needs to DO something.

Top of page 5. I have a prediction where this is going. Hope I’m wrong.

I’m feeling more involved as page 6 begins. There’s a realistic conversation, some specific details. If this is going where I expect, the story should have begun with the ghost that popped up at the end of page 2.

It gets more interesting on page 8. Some effective horror bits.  It doesn’t end quite as I expected, which is good, but it’s a fairly typical horrific end, without a lot of character exploration. On the horror level it succeeds fairly well, though it’s too long for the payoff. On the character and idea level, it doesn’t do enough to stand out from other stories I’ve read.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 While there’s an effective horror ending here, I felt the story opened and developed too slowly and didn’t offer much beyond a standard horror payoff.  The protagonist’s extreme passivity was also an issue for me.

 

 

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Ditty

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The Light Ray has become a reality over at Write1Sub1. If you’re intimidated by a story a week, check out the story a month option. Simon describes it well in his blog entry.

I spent the weekend writing a refreshing little ditty for Liberty Hall and reading Triangulation: Last Contact submission stories that had already been first-read by other editors. We’re already up to 37 submissions and I’ve rejected 10. Another four or five are being read by full staff. Hopefully we’ll have one or two accepts by next week.

So far I’ve been very impressed by the level of the prose. I don’t think a single story has been badly written. About half of the submissions have been reprints. We’re being very selective with reprints this year, since that has been a criticism of past issues. I’m sure we’ll end up taking a few, most likely from fairly “name” authors, and only if they’re really good.

What about the others, you ask? It’s been interesting. Last year we saw a great many stories that began with a startling hook before devolving into less interesting backstory. This year I’ve seen one, maybe two of those. No, a larger issue so far this year is the lack of genre indicators early in the story.  As a science fiction, fantasy and (a little) horror antho, we’re very sensitive to this issue. Our readers want well written genre stories, with definable story arc and are generally less patient with stories that depend primarily on glistening prose and emotional spaces. We want ambitious idea and competent or better character and prose.

Ideal examples from last year’s collection would include Tinatsu Wallace’s “A Womb of My Own” and Jaime Lee Moyer’s “Commander Perry’s Mystic Wonders Show”. Both stories utilize strong literary technique in service of their equally strong ideas; Science Fiction in Wallace’s case and modern fantasy for Moyer.

Don’t get me wrong. We loved every single story we published. Each editor, I imagine has a favorite or two (my blog, my faves above), but we all liked them or they didn’t get in. In my next post, I’ll run through each story and highlight exactly what we liked.

Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...

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In personal news, today I finished up chapter 4 of the fantasy novel. I’m working through a character motivation issue for chapter 5, but hope to write again tomorrow. I polished and submitted three flash fictions to literary markets. Finally, I received a page proof for my Daily Science Fiction story, which will appear on December 21. I hope you will read it, and post your compliments/complaints (I value both) to their Facebook Page.

My latest twitter fiction appeared at trapeze magazine over the weekend and I had one appear at Seedpod last week.

Well, off to bed for now. Wishing you a good night.

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What a lazy day, I’ve spent. I did do some thinking about my Golden Heart of the World serial. Sue set me straight on several fronts 🙂 but progress was made.

I’m reading Aftershock (Robert Reich). Apparently four books at one time is not enough. Sigh. Anyway, it’s a great book about the problems we face after the Great Recession of 2008.  I’ll give a review when I’m done.

On to the slush for today. See my prior post for disclaimers.

Story 7 (12/8/2010 SF 4400 words)

This one has a very large strike against it even before I start. It’s going to be published in a fairly prominent SF magazine in the spring, making it a reprint to us. It will have to be absolutely incredible for us to take it.

The story begins with unattributed dialog, but it’s handled well enough that I don’t object. The second paragraph feeds off the statement to characterize in an interesting way.  The viewpoint is omniscient, which worries me a bit. The situation is pretty dry and I’m not anxious to read 4400 of detached viewpoint. We like characters in our SF, hard or otherwise.

By page 2 the scene is feeling very much like talking heads, with one character explaining an idea to the other. It’s not talking heads, however, as the second character is a reporter and would need the idea explained in some detail. The problem for me is that I’m not a reporter and I don’t really want to read an idea; I want to read a story that utilizes an idea. Still, the writing is pretty good. The dialogue reads naturally, etc. I’m not skimming yet.

We get a sudden barrage of direct internal thought. This does help to define a protagonist (reporter) and add some character. I do feel pulled in to a degree. There’s no real sense of this character off the page, but at least he’s got a discernible mindset on the page. The thoughts themselves are pretty trivial and don’t add much to story tension. The reporter doesn’t care for his interviewee’s attitude. Since we don’t really know the reporter’s motivation, beyond writing a science story, this may or may not be relevant.

Ted Chiang, American science fiction author. T...

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The next few pages are a demonstration of the invention in question. It’s handled pretty well. The problem for me is that it’s not really story, but description of idea. This is a pretty big idea, but I don’t get a sense of consequence to the characters at this point. It’s kind of a “isn’t this a cool idea” story; we’ve seen these in Analog and in many of the pulps and still see them today in places. Nothing wrong with cool ideas. For the anthology, though, we focus on the effect of technology on characters, on story arc and tension. Ted Chiang would do more than show me a device operating as designed, he’d use the device to comment on the human condition. That’s the sort of thing we really want, though we do take a few fluffier pieces and straight adventure, etc. to balance the anthology a bit.

Anyway, back to this story.  The device gets a catchy name (though it’s not really that catchy) and what it does is cool.  It’s not like Earth-shattering or anything, but it’s interesting. I doubt most SF readers will be all that awestruck, however, as it’s a fairly straight-forward application of quantum concepts and semi-unlimited computational power. For me, personally, the demonstration takes too long for what I come away with.

The story proceeds reasonably enough to determinism, and resolves around that idea. An unhappy ending for our stalwart reporter, I’m afraid. Since I didn’t much care about him, I didn’t much care for the ending. There’s nothing really wrong with it, other than that it pushes into sheer speculation (but what SF does not?) to create its twist. The twist doesn’t do much more than add on to the original “what if” in a semi-random way. What if determinism is correct? Well, what if it isn’t? Since there’s no objective evidence in the story beyond the made up device and experiment, it doesn’t really do much to push my thinking one way or the other. Of course I could be missing some important nuance. I just wasn’t all that interested, unfortunately. Reject.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 The story is written well enough to convey its idea and contains enough characterization that the people are not cardboard cutouts. For a simple SF idea story, this is fine; kind of reminds me of early Asimov, though with less nuanced thinking.  If I were revising, I would look to complicate the story arc and connect the idea to larger issues in some manner (what will it mean to society to be able to predict future events?). But it’s actually a decent exemplar of this “type” of story. It’s not a good fit for the anthology however.

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