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Archive for December 25th, 2010

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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