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.