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Archive for February, 2011

See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful (and mostly good, by the way) stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. I just read D. Harlan Wilson’s “Interstate” in the latest Necrotic Tissue. While I don’t know if we would have published it, I think it’s a stellar example of flash fiction. It creates tension through sharp, slashing imagery and unreliable narration and arrives at a resonant final line that made me smile through my wince. It’s the sort of thing I want to be able to write. Anyway, if you like horror, you should check out Necrotic. I find the offerings somewhat uneven, but there are always a few that knock my socks off. And it’s a print pub that pays its authors. If we don’t support such ventures, who will?

Story 114 (1/23/2011 Fantasy 2515 words)

Reader 1: “I hate second person, but I like the whimsy in this piece. And even though the character’s arc isn’t huge, it’s there. I might like it a little better if it were just a touch shorter.”

Reader 2: “There’s charm and quirk here, but I’m not sure there’s enough story to recommend it. I like how the character grows to accept that he has to move on from his childhood fixation, but the motivation behind this change isn’t clearly outlined. Why did he realize this apart from someone else coming along and winning her hand? The battle behind the protagonist’s change isn’t presented, it just happens. Really, the entire story is about [doing something mundane] and a bit of emoting about lost love without much plot at all. There’s emotion here, but the reason behind that emotion isn’t clearly presented.
Despite this (and the use of second person), it was charming read with a nice voice. I just didn’t think there was enough of a story to recommend it unfortunately.” (plot spoilers removed)

Reader 3: “First of all, the POV doesn’t do anything. It would have been nice if his [endeavor] made a difference in the story. Instead, he is just an observer. I don’t think 2nd person is necessary and interferes with the story’s telling instead of elevating it. The story is too long for what it accomplishes and I got bored many times along the way. I think it doesn’t actually start until half way through the story. I can’t recommend it.”

Sounds like I get to do some refereeing on this one.  It will have to wow me to overcome two no votes, however.  I like the opening. It’s drawing me right along. At the end of page 2, however, I’m beginning to get a little tired of the voice. It’s a weakness of second person that the narrator has to inform me of my motivations and such. That puts added weight on the prose to keep me entertained.  I’m interested again by the end of p3.  I’m glad to see motion in the narrative on p4. This adds variety to the telling.  I’m getting a little tired again on p5 (first half).

The resolution is dragging for me. I get it and I like the different viewpoint on a well known fable. I like the emotion of the piece and the sharp details, but it feels somewhat belabored in places. I like the final line. The previous paragraph, however, is problematic for me. It makes me wonder why he did not think of this earlier in the narrative. Perhaps the witch should be mentioned then rather than now?

I think we’ll pass on this one, though it’s good. As the first reader suggests, there is a character arc here. The problem for me is that the character arc is not developed to maximal effect. The first complication (the knight) is handled very well. We feel the MC’s emotional journey and his attempt to overcome the obstacle makes sense. It’s beautifully written as well.  The climax, however, is relegated to a single line: “I wanted to hate this soldier, this stranger who came and did everything I had hoped to do.” The resolution becomes another: “But then you came into my shop, both of you together, and I
could not hate him any longer…” This is not enough to support 2000 words. If the story can present the missing piece between those two sentences in a way that escalates the emotion to a breaking point of some sort, it will have a well formed climax and feel more like a true story rather than simply a retelling. In exchange for these extra words I would recommend cutting a few less interesting passages in the earlier story and certainly cut back on what follows this climax. Balance it out and the story will be stronger. You might even convince me to take it. For now, I’ll reject with praise, because our focus is on story and this story is flawed despite the lovely writing and likable character.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 Well told retelling of a popular fairy tale. The language is wonderful, the character sympathetic, and it’s a nice way to see the tale through different eyes. The story arc is somewhat flawed by a weak climax and overlong resolution.

Story 115 (1/24/2011 SF 4900 words)

Reader 1:  “I’d recommend a re-write for possible inclusion. It held and grew on me until page 23 where the “reveal” consisted largely of revelation by talking rather than the protagonist forcing the ending. If this revelation could be cut down (and broken apart as it’s a fairly large chunk of dialog without action) by better foreshadowing, I would have felt more satisfied. I also felt the protagonist’s grief was quite remote when death and grief were core themes within the story. Finally, while I liked the framing device of the protag recording their thoughts, it falls apart as a realistic conceit during the climatic scene.”

Reader 2: “Telling this as a diary doesn’t work very well. It removes the reader so far from the characters that we don’t care what happens to them. There is a lot of unnecessary exposition at the beginning. I think the story doesn’t start until page 8/28. People go missing and die, which helps escalate the situation, but I’m not really clear what the POV’s goals are. Toward the end, one of the [characters] returns and gives the POV an info dump about what’s been happening that is a bit confusing.” (plot spoilers removed)

Reader 3: “I like the diary style, and the voice is interesting, but the story takes way too long to get interesting. The only tension comes from the fact that they’re going to be stranded, and that’s just not enough to pull me through the story.”

Well, my first reaction is that this doesn’t sound very much like an actual diary entry. It sounds like running description for a reader’s benefit. I’m not pulled in yet.  Second scene is in viewpoint and works on that level. Present tense annoys me a bit here, but not enough to throw me out yet.  Nice bit at the end of p3.  I’m losing interest as we go on. This technique (first person reportage) is about the best possible way to distance a reader from any sense of immediacy. Normally present tense adds immediacy, but it doesn’t here as we never actually see, touch, smell; instead we’re told about what the MC sees, details are inferred. Do these choices benefit this story? Not so far. Today’s lesson is that first person is one of the worst ways to provide background info to a reader; it can be a great way to characterize an eccentric or unreliable character where their mental state is part of the draw, but in terms of delivering information it pretty much sucks most of the time. Present tense is also a poor choice when presenting background. Present tense is all about immediacy and background… is not.

Ah. On page 8. “Where to start?” I would suggest here, actually. So far the techniques have been straining against the author’s need to deliver background. Were we to start here in the middle of things with a simple diary entry, I think it could work.  Yes, this is much better. The diary entries feel like diary entries, the character feels suitably stressed. Had I started here I would WANT to know more, and that is key in the writer-reader contract.

Good observations in the next transmission (thru p 12). Yes, I’m in this now.  I’m really enjoying this now (thru p16). Nice escalation of tension and legitimate mystery. Nice complication on p18.

On p19 we shift away from the diary and I lose a little interest. The intellectually intriguing aspect of this story is watching it unfold from “outside”.  Once I’m in the MC’s head, I begin to wonder why we bothered with the diary at all. We’ll see where it goes, but I’m losing hope.

As for the incredibly long infodump disguised as dialogue, I’ll say this: If you have to explain the story, you haven’t told it well enough.  This ending makes me wonder why I read the earlier parts at all. As readers we (most of us) want to experience a process of discovery, not go through some interesting stuff and then have it explained to us.

Anyway, I think there is a great story in here, but it’s buried beneath parts that are too concerned with explaining the idea to us. My challenge to the author would be to tell the story completely through diary entries (and not fake ones like that first one, but the really solid ones that come later in the story).  The main tension holding me through the middle was this: Is the MC reporting the truth or has she lost her mind? I’m hoping it’s the latter because that’s more interesting. In that case, you might consider interspersing one or two messages from other crew members early on, to hint that they’re worried. The MC’s reports would gradually replace them (as they died or lost transmission ability) until we’re left only with the MC’s version of events. A final message could suggest that she was delusional after all (this would be where the dead ex-lover would enter the picture)

Revised in this manner, I’d be willing to take another look at this. It would have to win over the other editors, of course, but I do think the result will be a much stronger story regardless.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An intriguing SF story that falls short primarily due to infodump and pacing issues.

Story 116 (1/24/2011 Fantasy 5800 words)

Reader 1: “While the start is fairly well written and introduces the character nicely, there simply isn’t much of a story here. There’s a bit of intrigue at the beginning, but basically the stakes start out low and they’re never escalated in a smooth and natural way. Instead, we’re given more background and relationship history than actual plot. While I appreciate that the depth and intensity of the relationship are important for the plot to work, the relationship was never effectively shown and I never really understood why [character] was so important to him apart from her beauty. [Character] seems more unreasonable than anything else. The story doesn’t start to get interesting until page 16, far too late. The conflict is introduced much too late in the story and the choice the main character is presented with doesn’t lead to significant story complication. There’s too much backstory to the relationship and the character and not enough revelation of the protagonist through action against conflict. The first choice that the protagonist faces (reuniting with [character] versus the life he has) should have been closer to the starting point and there should have been a resolution that comes through the actions of the protagonist rather than completely outside of his agency. I think this is probably a good story that hasn’t been properly explored.”

Interesting opening. Wonderful flow to it and a nice mystery on p2.  Interesting development on p4. I’m on board through p6, then the story seems to shift to a new topic on p7 and I feel like I’m starting to slog. The writing remains clean, but now it’s going inside the head and losing my interest. The escalation I felt early on has stalled; it’s now a lament/tribute to history with another character. This goes on too long for story purposes. It gets more interesting once the interaction with third character begins.

This is taking too long to escalate. On p13 we get some forward movement of the mystery. Good, but too late. It stalls out again quickly. What, exactly, does the MC want? Why does this section work against him achieving it? The writing is fine, there’s just too much of it for short story pacing.

Ironically, there’s not enough in this middle section to build tension for release at climax. We get a great deal of information and insight, but the tension between them is minimal. Thus when MC makes his hasty life-altering decision, it feels flat rather than climatic.

I’m glad the gangbangers come back.  They are not utilized, however, to provide a moment of ulitmate tension. Instead they’re brushed aside as an irritation.

Wonderful resolution here. Very touching. The story, however, does not yet deserve it. It’s handed to the MC on a platter rather than him having truly deserved it. If I were revising this I’d take out the middle half and take a fresh look at how I could escalate from the nice opening to the nice ending. How can I generate true tension between these characters? How can I bring out (and complicate) the MC’s want/need in this middle section? How can I bring their interaction to a boil that sends him careening off with new purpose? Then, how can I better use the gangbangers to raise the final tension even higher?  Story, in other words. That’s the key here, to making this one work for us.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 Intriguing opening and ending, but a middle that does not escalate strongly enough.

 

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See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful (and mostly good, by the way) stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. We currently have 5 Acceptances, 3 Rewrites under consideration, and 2 Rewrite Requests pending. Room for another 10-12 stories most likely.

Story 105 (1/10/2011 SF 5490 words)

Reader 1: “The opening wasn’t so clear. This is well-written (I particularly liked how the author inserted the future setting), but I just couldn’t buy the premise. The whole point of sport in this type of story is overcoming prejudice and having the underdog being able to succeed on the basis of talent alone. It would have been a more interesting story if it examined the perspective of the temptations of artificial enhancement, etc. or [MC’s] feelings if it was clear that would be no place for humans in [this] future (i.e. Nancy Kress with Dancing on Air).  As it is, there was a solid but bland story that I simply couldn’t buy.”

The opening doesn’t work for me. It’s all about keeping relevant information mysterious which, as regular readers of this blog know, is false mystery. The prose itself is well constructed and we do get into character. No setting, no motivation, however. “throwing pills” has multiple connotations. If we’re paying real close attention and are well aware of this genre we can make sense of it, but my first impulse was that he was throwing pills into the back of his throat, which would make just as much sense given the opening paragraph. Might be best to establish the scene more clearly before shifting to the specialized parlance.

The writing is lively and pretty observant. It’s a little overdramatic in places, but certainly the author knows his terminology and also knows the ins and outs of this particular occupation. That goes a long way toward establishing credibility.  “Caress” may be a little off, but maybe not. Depends on who this character is.  What we’re missing is character motivation (story motivation, I mean – his day-in day-out motivation is clearly communicated). On page 3, we’re basically back to page 1. The story may be starting now.

Yep, the inciting incident is here. The story seems to change gears completely at this point. It’s not about what it advertised, but a new, larger topic. At this point I wonder whose story this is? It seems there are several people with more to lose than the MC.

Love the moon metaphor on page 6.

“The secret is in handling the failure–never getting too high or too low, no matter what happens.” Sounds like writing. I admire this author’s command of the story topic. I’m not particularly caught up in the story, though. I’m not feeling the emotions of it, though I do enjoy what’s happening.  For one thing the MC is simply an observer so far.  The scene on p10-11 is strong. I’m closer to the emotion here.

I like how this ends. It avoids the typical ending and takes the story up a notch. The final line is great. In the end, though, I’m left feeling as if I’ve seen one of those “almost” good movies, the ones that do everything right in a technical sense, but just don’t hit that single note or two that would elevate it to greatness.  I’m a fan of sports stories, and I like the depiction of the daily life here.  But it just didn’t build my emotional investment enough to make this ending really rock. I would read this in a magazine, no problem, but it wouldn’t stay with me. I think the main issue is that it does a very good job of laying out a surface issue, but doesn’t really explore the nuances of that issue in a way that connects with me personally. In a sense this becomes a story of an overdog getting his chance to shine; it’s a retelling of a particular real life sports story, plugging one element in place of another, but the new element lacks the characteristics that made the original story so noble. To overcome this, the story really needs to spend a lot more time developing the “worthiness” aspect of this character to don the mantel of that other famous icon. On the surface, these two people are opposites, one an underdog who has worked hard to overcome obstacles, the other an overdog who is handed a chance to show off apparently inherent skills. It’s not the same thing. It IS interesting, but only if the story can get me to buy the idea that both characters are equally deserving of my sympathy.  To do that we either need to spend a lot more time with the character in this story (most of the first half is now spent on the MC, not the focal character) or it should maybe be told from the focal character’s point of view so that we have access to his history and heartbreaks.

The part that does work for me is the bonding near the end of the story and the fact that the overdog ends up being held back for reasons beyond his control. But that’s maybe 6 pages of 18.  I need more.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Believable depiction of a sports setting and player and an interesting SF issue, but the story spends too much time developing the irrelevant story aspects and not enough building emotional tension, or, rather, it begins that process to late.

Story 106 (1/20/2011 SF 600 words)

Reader 1: “didn’t think the humor was enough to compensate for the passive character. The character reaction to stimulus didn’t convince me and the resolution of the story didn’t depend upon the protagonist at all.” (plot spoilers removed)

Flash operates on somewhat different rules from short fiction. It usually relies on sharpness of language, surprising details, sometimes a twist of perception at the end, sometimes a sense of emotional resonance. Which is not to say it shouldn’t also fulfill a story arc, just that the story arc is often simpler in flash.

Which is prelude to this: The opening sentence here is flabby. In a regular short story I’d call it effective at establishing setting and character. Here it takes too long and is too windy to yank my eyeballs to the page. The language remains a little flabby in the next page as well. In flash it’s usually best to use fewer, sharper words, striking images. This description seems to have a short story pace. It’s fine as far as description goes, but not sharp enough for flash.

As a specific example (which I’ll remove should the author object): “The thing stood chest high and resembled an armored insect in appearance, though he could almost see light from the sunrise beyond the ridge steaming through its mud-colored body.” There’s nothing wrong with this description other than that it could be condensed to “The thing stood chest high, an armored insect with a muddy translucent sheen.” Later in the same paragraph: “It reminded him of something, but he couldn’t think what it was.” Again, the sentence is perfectly fine, except that we already know what it reminded him of from that first sentence: an armored insect. This is what I mean by flabby in a flash fiction sense, with apologies to the author, who’s written perfectly good prose here that I saw as a teachable moment. I hope that’s okay.

I like when the MC asks about the deer. There’s a nice dissonance to that.  I don’t like the following paragraph, which is basically the character speaking to the reader and not the other character.

It’s a cute idea. I have to agree with the first reader, though.  As it stands, this could probably be half this length and work better. One could also write a more substantial story from this concept, ala Enemy Mine (Barry Longyear).

As they say: “Writing flash is difficult, and then you die.” Something like that. Keep working at it, author. This is a credible flash concept and you’ve stayed away from the usual trap of over-complicating it.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 Cute idea, but the prose is flabby for this length, diluting any sense of buildup.

Story 107 (1/21/2011 Fantasy 2000 words)

Reader 1: “I didn’t find the twist at the end suprising or satisfying, and the story felt pretty slight to me. But the writing is solid.”

Reader 2: “Well written enough, but it only works on one level and there’s not any particular reason to care. It’s pretty much a monster hunt with no real character insight. There’s very little sense of the boy as a real character and the twist doesn’t really make me re-read the story in a new light. The twist is also the result of minor withholding…he knows exactly who the woman is and the relationship between them all.”

This comes from someone I would love to publish, but it doesn’t sound hopeful.

Sharp opening. The language is interesting and I’m in character and situation, with a hint of motive. Second paragraph begins to irritate me as it represents an intentional withholding of relevant information.  The prose is beautiful, which pulls me along for now.  One thing I would like is a slightly better sense of the larger surround. We’re told it’s a cul-de-sac but all we see is a single oak tree and a lawn chair. Then suddenly there’s a house across the way. I’d like a sense of the density of structures to set the stage before we get these details. I feel as if I’m floating in nothingness. Once we do get the house, the details of that property are solid; it’s just that it has to pop into existence from this void inside my head rather then emerging from a street stage.

I suspect I know how this will end, because I think I can guess what is being held back from me.  I’m on page 8 and while I like these characters I’m getting irritated at the way the story continues to withhold relevant back story. Who are these people? Who is the woman? Why do they chase her?  What do they fear? Magic? What sort of magic? It’s fine to reveal these juicy bits as the story demands them, but to withhold them when the story demands them creates a problem for me.  One could do this from a camera POV and the withholding would be natural. I don’t think I’d like it as well, because it’s the character that holds me here and I would lose a lot of that in camera POV. I suspect the better answer is to reveal what is relevant when it is relevant and let the story carry me rather than the mystery.

Page 8. What plan? I do like the youth comment though.  Now we get the explanation of mystery through dialogue. If I’d had this understanding earlier and the story focused on the difficulty of achieving the objective, I would be more content.

This goes where I expected, but to it’s credit goes on beyond that to a really interesting idea. If I were revising, I would concentrate less on withholding the idea and more on exploring what it means. As a reveal story this is okay, but it could be an excellent exploration of myth in modern world context. It would likely have to be longer though.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 Excellent prose and an interesting core idea add up to an effective reveal story. It relies too heavily on withholding information, however.

Story 108 (1/21/2011 Horror 3089 words)

Reader 1: “This is a real shame. I really liked the voice (outside of the journals…the contents of the journal were immediately explained afterwards and I didn’t think they added much to the story), but there simply isn’t a story here. It’s like the author simply didn’t know what to do with the great voice and premise. I was hoping for something much better because I loved the voice, but the whole story simply peters out.  I think the author clearly has a voice, but hasn’t used it in an effective story.”

Yes, this establishes a strong sense of period and a confident voice. It’s slow moving, but interesting. It’s also a very different approach to telling a story, which is admirable so long as the payoff warrants the approach.

I’m enjoying the mystery of this. It’s genuine (i.e. the narrator does not know the answer, though we have a fanciful theory of it on page 1).  I like the technique at the end of page 5 for transitioning from journal to foreground. What intriguing creatures!

On page 7, with the scene shift, I begin to lose some interest. The final section doesn’t hold me as well as previous ones, likely because I’m now wondering if the story will deliver or if it means simply to describe a mystery. In the end it does settle for describing the mystery. I do like that final line.

Overall, this is an excellent piece of Lovecraftian mood, paced well, described well, with undercurrents of things best unexperienced. It’s not a good fit for us, however. In a more specialized journal, sure.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 This is a very good piece of Lovecraftish writing. It does lose a little steam in the final third and while the ending is nicely resonant, the implied narrative is not as strong as it might be.

Story 109 (1/21/2011 SF 3100 words)

Reader 1: “There is no character change or revelation. A human could be put in the character’s place and it wouldn’t matter. There is talk of a special emotion, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference in the story. The author tosses around a bunch of place names, but I was never sure where I was and who was human and who was not.”

This comes from a writer I would love to publish. Good, breezy opening that establishes a character strongly and implies a setting. The first page goes on too long, however.

Page 2 suggests this is an unreliable narrator, which is fine, but I’m not getting a sense of motivation. It feels rambling. I feel trapped in the head. Landmarks are described in passing, but I don’t feel present, which emphasizes the rambling feeling. If this flashback had begun with a strong establishment of setting, I would have a concrete place from which to interpret. Now, I’m hovering, waiting for something to happen.

By the end of page 3 I’m feeling more in-scene. I’m still not sure of story motivation. We know what the character is doing in this scene, but not why it matters in any large sense. I’m getting undertones of Goodkind. I really shouldn’t be, but I am. Perhaps this world has not been differentiated enough for it to feel complete to me yet.

It occurs to me that the story could start on page 5 (top).  Now I’m getting a lot of background information. The problem is that the foreground story isn’t moving forward at all. We’re waiting with the MC.

The pace picks up with the appearance of the prisoner, but there’s still a lot of telling of background disguised as dialogue. This reminds me of an episode of Legend of the Seeker. It was a good episode.

We switch to the MC telling the other character her background. The problem with this approach is that we’re being told background, we’re being told idea; no matter how interesting this is, we’re NOT experiencing story. We’re not experiencing a motivated character encountering complications, making an important decision/sacrifice and paying the price to succeed or fail. Story comes in many flavors and at many volumes, but it’s generally present when a piece is working for us.

I do like the actual ending, which manages a touching bittersweetness. The journey was too long and plodding, however.  If I were revising, I would rewrite this from third person point of view. That would force most of the static non-story elements to fall away. I suspect it would be an eye opening exercise for this one.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 Some interesting background and a sympathetic MC. Too much of the story is spent waiting; too much dialogue is  background told to the reader.

Story 110 (1/21/2011 Other 500 words)

Reader 1: “This didn’t work for me. Conceptually, this had the potential to be interesting, but it needed a traditional structure of inciting moment, etc. to bring out its potential. The story was background rather than dynamic action revealing the character as he confronted story events. The mix of telling and showing wasn’t right, leaning heavily on the telling side. Due to this mix, I couldn’t build the requisite sympathy for the protagonist and the resolution didn’t have any emotional impact as a result.”

Okay, the story opens well enough, though the tense gaffe in the second paragraph brought me to a stop.  A second tense glitch on page 2.  This time it stays in past tense for a number of paragraphs. This is a bit sloppy.

Okay, in a flash of 500 words, it’s not wise to spend the bulk of them on background. It’s just not sharp or immediate. The story reads much longer than its word count as a result. A couple more tense confusions in the final page. There are a few sharp lines here and the concept is kind of interesting, but it mainly comes across as a character sketch rather than a story. If I were revising, I’d focus on the immediacy of the experience and sprinkle just a touch of background where absolutely necessary. I’d also focus on the devotees in that background rather than other less fantastic details of life.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 The basic idea is good flash material, but immediacy is damped by an overabundance of background detail. Awkward tense management also work against the piece.

Story 111 (1/21/2011 Fantasy 3900 words)

Reader 1:  “This might be saved with a rewrite. The second scene needs to go. We  should learn about the legend during the story. Time passes between scenes, but that is not clear. Finally, the very end doesn’t work. I’d rather see the POV swim off with the fish. I’ll give this a maybe. If she’s willing to rewrite, there could be a good story here.” (plot spoilers removed, except the fish, which didn’t want to go).

Effective opening here. Efficiently puts us in a character’s thoughts, in a clear setting. No motivation yet, but that’s fine. Inciting incident in second paragraph and it’s a strong one. So far so good. I’m in scene and involved. One nit: “[MC] knew they weren’t all going to make it…” That “knew” word is a signal that the viewpoint is slipping out of character just a touch. Why not “They weren’t all going to make it…” instead. If we’re really in the MC’s perspective, the “knew” is implied.

The end of p2 start of p3 is a little rushed. This is a time of high emotional investment and should be played out to maximize tension (without going into melodrama). The feelings are a little flat right now. It’s still decent.

Scene 2 shifts to another viewpoint. I’m a little disappointed, having invested in the first one, but we’ll see if it’s as strong. Not really. The viewpoint actually shifts a couple times, neither time really grabbing me with the force of that first scene. The writing is less effective too, more prone to generality. The story is not withholding its surprise, which is fine, but in handling it this way it’s losing a chance at genuine mystery. Had its stuck with the initial viewpoint, we would have no reason to know this mystery yet and it would remain mysterious. The problem then–and it’s a valid concern–is that the story would delay its speculative element until much later. A possible trade off would be to remain with the first viewpoint, but have him glimpse the speculative element (perhaps even in a frightening way) at the very end of scene 1. Then we probably would not need scene 2. Unless the story resolution requires this second and third viewpoint, which could make the first scene expendable.

Nope, we’re back to the initial character in scene 3. Good. I’m comfortable with him. The writing could be sharpened, however. For example: “He was enveloped in a grief-induced, mind-numbing fog.” This tells me about his emotional state rather than compelling me to feel it. It’s not a child’s language either. I note a too-adult perspective in a few other key places as well.  It’s not bad, just not spot on.  Interesting interaction with another character.

Time begins moving rather quickly without warning. We shift into pure summary mode. I’d prefer to see the more important moments dramatized (i.e. turned into small scenes) if they’re important in terms of moving the character toward his climax. If they’re not, do we need them?

Then we have the trusty old I-can’t-show-you-this-so-I’ll have-the-character-dream it moment. I’d rather have this moment in a scene (one of the scenes mentioned above perhaps).

I like where the reunion. This is moving in a good direction. “That is the gift you bring.” Love that line. Not quite so thrilled with the scene itself, which is too easy.

The viewpoint shift in the final scene does not help the story.  Overall, I’d say there’s a very sweet, moving story to be had here but that it needs quite a bit of work to bring it out. A closer focus on story elements: inciting incident, complication, climax, resolution and tighter viewpoint through middle and end should help. I don’t often say this, but the story probably needs to be at least another thousand words. Second scene should go, but I’d like a couple new scenes to experience the later transition toward that climatic moment when MC must decide whether to go in or not. Right now it’s all superficial and fairly easy. Make it difficult.

I think there’s too much work to be done to ask for a rewrite, but this is one of those stories I would look at again if the author did decide to revise substantially. I do agree with the first reader about this “legend” as well. The MC ought to come across it in his search to make sense of his experience; this could be part of his escalating complication.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 Nice establishing scene and strong viewpoint early in the story is diffused by a less involving middle section and a weak final scene.

Story 112 (1/22/2011 SF 2405 words)

Reader 1: “There was a lot of withholding taking place in this story (though the nature of the incident was pretty clear from the start) in an effort to create some tension. There is no real clear inciting incident in this story and, in fact, the inciting incident was really the crux of the story. While I can live with minor withholding, especially at the beginning, this entire story was mostly a tease. I found the story quite over-written (which may be a simple by-product of the blatant withholding) and there were some minor tense changes throughout. Taking out the false tension created by the withholding, there was very little at stake in the story. There’s a lot of story-time expended on techno-babble, but it’s handwavium, not interesting techno-babble. Why waste time discussing tachyons if you’re not going to use it in an interesting way? My feeling is that any story involving physics has to be hard SF (in which case, you better know what you’re talking about and nothing here used the theoretical existence of tachyons in an interesting way) or you treat it as magic and don’t waste a lot of time on it.” (plot spoilers removed)”

The cover letter offers a synopsis of the story, which is usually not a good thing. To be fair, a number of literary zines and some genre zines have begun asking for this information, so it’s not a big deal for me. My impression though is that a story that has to be explained is typically not a story that will stand on its own merits. Where will this data point fall on that curve?

I’m on the fence with the opening. It’s direct, forthright, and it does catch my attention. It’s not particularly deep, however, which makes me suspect this may be a fluff or joke story.  Nope, it’s serious, which is good. I would try the story without that opening line and see how you like it. I like it better without.

The journal device isn’t doing a lot for me. So far (p3) it’s been a lot of static background delivered through journal entry, which adds another layer between me and the events. The concept could be interesting, but is pretty generic thus far.

Remember that film where Mel Gibson classically calls out “Hold!” about two dozen times while the opponents charge and charge and charge? I’m so there.  Page 9. Still there.  There we go. Middle of page 9, we get the first actual volley.

It doesn’t end predictably, but the ending doesn’t do much for me anyway. I do think this idea could make for a nice little steampunk tale. Drop the journal concept, whip up some Victorian technology and an almost mad scientist to wield it, and this could play out pretty well, I think.  Right now it’s just a musing on paper. Interesting how that works, ain’t it? One typo and I would have said “amusing”.  Damned English language.

Now for my withheld shock. This is a reprint. Let that serve as evidence that just because one editor pans a story does not mean another will. I do believe it’s wise to pay attention to feedback, especially from editors. Use it to strengthen a story or hone your approach, but never let it stop you from writing and submitting that next story.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 Static presentation of an old idea. There is enough of a twist that it could work with a new presentation.

Story 113 (1/22/2011 SF 1500 words)

Unnamed characters tend to worry me. Does the story require archetypes? If not, the cost is high.  It’s working fine so far.  Effective first page. I’m intrigued. Starting to lose interest on second page as it begins to devolve into an in-the-head story of background details. The details are fine, but I also need a sense of foreground movement. If the background is more interesting shouldn’t the story start there instead?

Motive comes in at end of page 2. Story could begin there just as easily. I wouldn’t lost the existing opening, but move this part closer to it so that we have a goal to focus on.

On page 3 the writing loses sharpness. I’m losing confidence that this story will take me to a powerful resolution. The balance between interior and exterior is off (too much interior, the exterior action largely told about).  I’m feeling as if I’m reading about an idea rather than experiencing a story at this point.  If there’s no rain, where did the muck come from? Why did it take so long to realize stuff shouldn’t grow without rain?

You’re forgiven for the muck–eeeewwww! 🙂

Now we’re moving to back flash. So far the foreground story has been walking through a field and discovering something yucky – something they’ve likely seen before. I don’t understand why the story takes place on this day. The earlier stuff seems more interesting, so far at least.  Nice image on p6.

This is an interesting world and an interesting situation, but the story is not so interesting. It’s mainly an explanation of the world and events leading to it rather than a motivated character meeting complication, making a life changing decision, etc. Technically we do have a motivated character and an obstacle, but notice how these things barely divert him from thinking about more interesting events that have already occurred. It’s a bad sign when the MC can’t stay interested in foreground events. If I were revising this, I’d tear it down to its roots and decide what the theme of the story is, then how I could craft a story (inciting incident, motivated character, meaningful complications, life-changing decision) to bring that out to its full power. There is a good story to be had here, possibly more than one.

I’m betting the author has read McCarthy’s The Road.  I really enjoyed that book myself.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 Interesting world. Story suffers from imbalance between internal and external events and doesn’t escalate well enough to deserve its ending.

 

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See my previous post for disclaimers. Having fallen further behind, I place one foot in front of the other through the backlog. I’m hoping that these capsule reactions are helping folks out there because they do slow me down somewhat, and that’s a negative for contributors. I’ll try to move faster through these and do more ditto-ing of points I’ve raised in prior posts.

Story 98 (1/18/2011 Horror 3000 words)

This is a revision of a story we rejected earlier. I suggested that it might be acceptable with some significant revision. In such cases I’m certainly happy to see the revision. It’s less certain that we’ll take such stories than if we had requested a formal rewrite, but the point is to get the best stories we can however we can (legally?).

Okay, I like the mystery of the opening. By page 2 I want just a little more internalization, however. I feel like I’m being held artificially out of viewpoint (it would take maybe a line to fix that). On page 3 I’m getting into it. The writing is a little awkward at times, which keeps me from fully connecting. It’s a little too difficult to segregate real from unreal. The best way to manage this is to focus on distinct, concrete details in the for-real passages and let it blend into fuzzy focus in the unreal. Right now there’s not enough contrast between the two for me to feel anchored.

Page 5 tooth scene is what I’m talking about. I’m definitely anchored now. Ouch. I’m getting goose bumps at one passage. This story is much closer now. Before I felt I had glimpsed a shadowy behemoth beneath the surface; now I see it, tantalizingly close to breaching, but not quite there. I keep wanting to go in and edit the language just so in certain places to make it sharp and needy. In other places I sit back and admire it.

Loving the middle of this (p8-11). Gotta love the demon, no?

Sweet ending. I gotta say, Author, that you blew the doors off this revision. It needs some polish in the opening third or so, but once it finds its footing it rocks right along. I get it this time around. I will send this to another reader for a fresh reaction. The fact that it’s horror could work against acceptance, but regardless of the outcome here, I hope you will take pride in what you have accomplished with this revision.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 9 Tremendous psychological horror. The mystery is genuine (after first page) and emotions real. Nice.

Story 99 (1/18/2011 Other 2300 words)

Reader 1: “While this story has a strong voice and expertly mimics the tone of a Poe-era story, I don’t think there’s enough of a story to recommend this one. It relies too heavily on knowledge of Poe’s Dupin stories for its success and it isn’t strong enough a story on its own. I expected a bit more of a meta-story in that the narrator would provide more of a Dupin-style mystery (i.e. a chance to match my intellect against the protagonist’s), but the structure doesn’t present a clear set of clues and then the intuitive leap to the denouement that I expected. Without a clever mystery at its heart, most of this story presupposes knowledge of Poe. It’s a lovely piece of writing, but there’s simply not enough plot here to satisfy me.”

Yes, I do see an expertise in the prose of the era it seeks to capture. I can see myself curling up before a fire and reading those thick pages one by one. Unfortunately, it’s not really hitting the notes we look for in Triangulation. We don’t mind period writing, but story is what matters, and I’m almost halfway through before I’m presented with the actual mystery of this piece.  That’s too leisurely for us, I’m afraid.  And, yes, the ending leaves me feeling as if I’ve witnessed a minor event (though it’s clearly not). It just didn’t compel me.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 In terms of atmosphere and setting, this works well as a period piece. The story, however, is laboriously slow by our standards and the ending too slight (in its effect if not its reality).

Story 100 (1/18/2011 SF 5200 words)

Reader 1: “The story works for the first half.  The writing is good and the character done well until the second half when he loses his gruffness. I think this could be a good story if the second half was chopped short and it became a character realization story instead of a surprise idea ending. It might work with a rewrite.” (plot spoilers removed)

This opens well, though I’d like to see the first 3 pages condensed into 2.5 or so. It’s a little slowish. I want to get to the cool complication more quickly. The explanation at end of first scene doesn’t quite work for me. Probably a matter of the wording of it.

On page 7 we get a clearer hint of what’s going on. I like what the being says very much. In fact I like it so much that I wonder if this could happen at the end of scene 1 to speed up the story. I don’t mind what I’ve read, but it’s not compelling and it’s not really escalating my understanding all that much. Now if this being shows up in scene 1 and then I learn some of this information, I’m probably more interested. I’m not suggesting the entire explanation be moved up, but that the woman at the end of scene 1 be replaced by one of these beings, with the cryptic initial message about what is going on. Then the stumbling around to find media, the larger world interpretation, and a second encounter (with a different being?) where questions are answered. This might cut a few words and would be a more compelling way to go, I think.

Scene that starts on page 12 does indeed shift gears. In the first half of story I felt I was experiencing events through the MC. Now I get the distinct sense the MC has become a tour guide. What he’s doing makes sense, but I feel no connection to him.  It’s a good, active scene, however, which helps. Still, the change in perspective is troubling. I’m suddenly less interested in the story. I feel like he’s befriending this guy because the script tells him to; where is his need prior to this encounter? Probably won’t take much to fix this.

Page 22. This seems random. I’d better learn WHY this person was doing this disguised as a human. Story comes full circle, but I don’t feel a sense of resolution. The ending was just kind of an explanation of idea rather than story escalation. I feel as if this is two separate stories. The first one is intensely interesting, the second one not so much. Fix that and this will be a keeper. I’ll send it to another editor. It’s possible we would request a rewrite, but I’m not quite sure what to suggest. It will be a fairly significant change.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 I’m tempted to give this two ratings, a 9 for the first half and a 3 for the second. A wonderful idea, with excellent complication in the first half followed by a typical relatively flat second half.

Story 101 (1/18/2011 SF 3200 words)

Reader 1: “In this end of the world story, the first half is spent telling us that some announcement’s been made and the end is coming. The view point is mixed at the beginning. The story doesn’t start until about halfway through. Not really any character change or reader discovery. Nothing special about the POV or the town to make them stand out.” (plot spoilers removed)

This starts in mid-scene and the writing is strong. I’m a little put off by the artificial withholding of info to create mystery. I’d much prefer having the reveal on page 2 (which is nicely stated, by the way) on the opening page. It worries me that the story will work to hard to hide the obvious rather than developing a story arc. We’ll see.

Nope, that’s not the problem. The prose is fine, the level of detail nice. I like the explanation for the knives. What is missing, however, is a sense of motive. Why does the story begin where it does for the MC? So far her role has been as tour guide to the idea. I’m interested in what’s here, but not compelled to read on.  Ah. Yes, the story could begin with the man’s entrance. That changes her worldview. I don’t know if that’s enough, but it’s something. I like their dialogue. I am feeling, however, that the idea is being milked a little too heavily. Lots of consequences, no real escalation yet.  I’m skimming by page 8. It’s starting to feel like chit-chat. It’s a good idea, but not a story.

Oh no. The MC actually becomes a tour guide in the second half? Pretty spooky. That’s it? 3200 words for a simple (and pretty standard) twist? Consider trying this as a flash piece, say 800-1000 words. It’s a nice idea and there’s some sharp writing here, but the story is lacking motive, complication, and escalation.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 Interesting “what if”, but the story arc is minimal.

Story 102 (1/19/2011 SF 3400 words)

Reader 1: “This is well written and well characterized. For me, there are a number of plot holes which make the climatic symbolic gesture irrelevant. I think there are also plot holes that threw me out of the story. I’m happy for these possible plot holes to be addressed by the author (there’s a good chance I’m technically wrong). as such, I’d recommend a re-write because I think the core theme of acceptance of your past mistakes versus old regrets and living in the moment can be very, very powerfully done if given the right treatment. What I don’t think is made clear is the significance of his final decision. This bears the problem of a passive protagonist who has events thrust upon him rather than acting in the current moment. The background is fascinating and full of rich detail, but the story itself doesn’t make the personal stakes explicit. What hard choice does the protag make and why isn’t this explicit? I’d recommend a re-write.” (plot spoilers removed)

Reader 2:  “It has all the markings of an okay story, but the climax just isn’t there. I don’t know what to suggest with this one. I might give it an okay if it could be improved. I don’t want to give it an automatic no, but am not going to fight for it.” (plot spoilers removed)

Wonderful opening. Great first line immediately followed by context that sets me firmly in character, in place, and with a motive.  It’s rocking through page 3.

The complication on page 5 should come up earlier. Background on page 6 seems convenient. Should come up earlier. I’m having to reinvent the story I thought I was reading.  Nicely written though. Good level of detail, great dialogue. Again on page 7 I feel this is the story opening, not its middle. Here, I get a broader context. Here I get a sense of the story being more important than one guy.  I am confused, however, as to exactly why the MC wants to die with patents intact. It would be easy to CLEARLY explain this situation so that I would not be focused so much on figuring out what’s going on and could enjoy the story unfolding instead.

Oh, Dear Deity. There is so much wonderful here, yet the story is shaped all wrong. Move the stuff about Ben to the story opening, explain the setup clearly in the opening, use the dreams as a complication,  use the daughter-in-law as a escalating complication (only be clearer about exactly what she wants and exactly why he doesn’t want her to get it), use the reporters as a climax (need to escalate the danger of that scene, and force MC to make a choice, perhaps to give in and express emotion rather than withholding as he does by habit – this would be painful to him and mimic the story’s theme).  Then the letter as an anti-climax. Do that and this story will work.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 Great core idea, very nice writing. The story develops poorly, however.

Story 103 (1/19/2011 Horror 1900 words)

This opens with a mysterious delivery. I’m in scene, in character, and motivated. Good. It’s about a writer; not so good, but not a killer. First scene ends with a time travel element. I think paradox at once. I also think this had better go somewhere other than the obvious route. Second scene is nicely handled.

Okay, the twist in scene three redeems the idea for me. Nice.

Dang. It all comes collapsing down in the final scene, which takes this to a too familiar place and spends its energy recapping a more interesting scene.  Plus it doesn’t quite make sense (in a paradox sort of way).  It does try diligently, however. I wanted to like this one, but I don’t see how to “fix” it, so I guess I’ll have to wish the author luck in placing it elsewhere. It won’t surprise me to see it published on the strength of the writing and the clever twist on the basic idea.  Not enough here to sell me on it, however. Maybe as a 1000 word flash? Hard to say. I think I’d prefer a longer story with the paradox issue worked out more clearly and additional complications and explorations of theme such that it doesn’t rely so heavily on the old chestnut of an ending.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 Good writing, good emotion, nice twist on an old idea. It ends weakly, however, in a too familiar place.

Story 104 (1/20/2011 SF 5000 words)

Reader 1: “The first 4/27 pages introduce MC and are unnecessary. Page 4-7 we find out about the [antogonist]. On page 7 a child ends up dead, killed by the [antagonist] and [MC] finally has a problem. The story continues to drag. This doesn’t have enough escalation to hold my attention. I wish there had been more at stake. Other people might like it though.” (plot spoilers removed)

This begins well. We’re in mid-action, in scene, in character. Motivation is not clear yet, but there’s time for that.   Too many adjectives and adverbs weaken the prose somewhat. The story isn’t really escalating after three pages. Wouldn’t you know it? End of page three story escalates. I would suggest maybe condensing these first pages just a bit.

Here’s one of those passages we should watch out for as writers: “Anger swept over [MC’s] body.” When emotion happens to a character or when a body part acts on its own, it can be a sign that we have lost connection with the viewpoint character and are writing from outside rather than inside. The question then becomes whether that’s the most effective place for us to be writing from in that story moment. Here, it is not. The rest of the scene is a little superficial, especially the dialogue between MC and family. It feels staged rather than genuine. It’s good to have this interaction here, just not working at full potential yet.

Okay, while there’s nothing really wrong here (and a good deal right), the story isn’t really compelling me. I think it’s because I feel as if I’m being led through the plot by the nose. Here’s what I need to see now; here’s where this aspect escalates. In a case like this, it’s usually not a matter of moving scenes around, but of sharpening the actual scenes and amping up the investment in character. When I feel as if a character is being moved across a stage by invisible fingers, it’s not as interesting as if they seem to be moving of their own volition, reacting to their world in occasionally unexpected ways, etc.

The action on page 11, for example, is not particularly involving. I see it well enough, but I don’t care enough yet. The tension with the son, as another example, seems more repetitious than escalating.  I like how this breaks scene after the first half climax, and advances me almost casually into the future. MC’s emotions seem more genuine here too. I’m soon back to not caring quite enough as MC’s wife leads him through a scene.  I learn something I should have learned in the first section (that he has not been allowing her to show him this before – if it was set up, I missed it).

A predictable twist regarding the son. The confrontation also seems a little by the book. This is a story that is competently written and competently imagined, but doesn’t have that spark, yet, that pushes it to the next level. I believe the key is to get closer to these characters and write from within the protagonist so that we begin to feel his emotional state and understand what is at stake for him. The story should probably be shorter as well, or additional complication added. The device found in the second half seems conveniently delivered in order to make the ending possible, rather than earned through the MC’s efforts or choices.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A perfectly competent story, though slow to develop and long for its payoff.

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Write1Sub1 Week 8

A scene in a steel mill, Republic Steel, Young...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Week 8 already? Wow. This week is literary for me.  I still have stories to finish from prior weeks’ goals, but I have been generating at least one brand new story each week and at least 2-3 submissions, so I’m not going to beat myself up. We’ll see if taking that added pressure off helps my daily production. As long as I DO finish these stories I begin, I’ll be  content.

Saturday: For Week 8  I’ve chosen to target a local literary journal called Jenny. It’s put out by Youngstown State University. I’m not sure what story I’ll write, but I want to include a rustbelt angle. Loss, repurposing, rebirth, etc.. The impact of the loss of a way of life on the human psyche or the effect of the slow process of rebirth on human hope.

Jenny will publish short fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and interviews with artists and writers. We hope to bring together writers and artists both from the local region as well as the wider world, connecting our stories with yours, yours with ours here in America’s heartland and America’s rustbelt. Submissions do not have to be set in Youngstown, or in rustbelt or postindustrial settings at all, though we do encourage writing and art that speaks to that experience.

Jenny will appear twice a year, in late fall and spring. We will be publishing 5-7 pieces of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry per genre, per issue.

We ask that prose not exceed 7,000 words (preferably 5000 or under), and that poetry submissions not exceed 5 pages (or 5 poems).

Sunday: We were away most of today. A reading at Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh for the Triangulation series and my nephew’s tenth (!) birthday bowling party. It was closer to dodge ball than bowling at times, but a lot of fun.

Monday: Finished Chapter 7 of the fantasy novel. I also worked on an edits of a couple of previous stories, with hopes of getting at least one of them subbed this week. Received a rejection from OSC Intergalactic Medicine Show. I have reader comments for that story and will edit it this week as well.

Tuesday: I did my moderator gig today at Show Me Your Lits. It’s quite a bit of work, but certainly I get a lot out of my participation and should be willing to give something back. I wrote two literary flashes as well and am proud of them both for different reasons. Neither has the rustbelt theme I wanted. Just couldn’t get that to kick in with the prompts available.

Wednesday: Today was a great day, with an acceptance arriving from Daily Science Fiction and my flash, “Clockwork Clef” appearing at Eschatology. I’d been in a bit of a slump, so this really helps. On the writing front, I came up with a new literary story that includes a rustbelt theme and Youngstown setting.  I also decided to pare the Fantasy back to two viewpoints and greatly streamline the plot. It feels like the right decision for my current level of competence. I also worked through a critique for a story subbed to Triangulation. Good story that needs some reining in in places and dramatization in others. I suspect we’ll purchase it for the anthology if revision goes well.

Thursday: My, but the days fly by. I subbed stories today and worked through a couple of small revisions, but nothing major. The two literary flashes I wrote this week are getting good feedback.

Friday: Today, at long last, I worked through the story critique. Also had a couple of twitter fictions accepted at trapeze magazine and a couple by Cuento magazine. Tonight, I’ve been submitting flash stories to various markets, trying to keep my sub count above 20.

Saturday:

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See my previous post for disclaimers. I’m going to have to spend less time on these, rather than falling further behind, so I’ll do a quick read through and summary comments rather than the “real time” approach. Hopefully the feedback will be nearly as useful.

Story 93 (1/17/2011 SF 2500 words)

Reader 1: “I like the writing. It kept me reading to see what was going to happen. I think it needs a little work. On page four there’s an info dump that slows things down. I think the climax needs some work. It’s very abrupt. Throughout, I think there needs to be a bit of clarification here and there, cut out a few repetitious things, and a little editing. I’m not sure if it fits last contact.”

Reader 2: “There’s a lot to like about the ideas and the setting of this story, but a lot of it reads as an extract rather than a stand-alone short story. The antagonists never come into clear focus as dynamic and character-specific opposition. The key scene is short and isn’t built up enough to overcome the scene’s emotional inertia. Simply put, there’s good ideas and an interesting situation, but I don’t have a real reason to care. What I hoped to feel was the tragedy of someone great realising that history has moved past them, but I never cared enough for [the MC] to feel her tragedy. The ending is also problematic. There’s not enough foreshadowing or meaning behind the end. What should be a tragic ending didn’t move me enough and I think it’s because I didn’t feel for [the MC].”

The opening is interesting, but I’m not feeling the character’s motivation strongly enough. The character is coming through fine, but it’s not feeling as if a particular story is about to begin. In general I feel as if this story is the scene in a novel or movie that introduces the characters moving through the cool world, before the story really takes off. Thus, while I admire the world building (great scope and history and the central concept is very good), I don’t feel caught up in the story. This is one of those stories I wish would have worked, but it just didn’t pull me in strongly enough. If I were revising, I would consider starting the story later, perhaps on page 5. The MC has a more concrete motive at that point, and this can become a springboard for additional complication/tension. The climax needs that tension buildup; too much of the story now is relatively flat (in terms of action and emotion).

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Strong world building and epic scope, but lacks sufficient character motivation/tension to work as well as it might.

Story 94 (1/17/2011 Horror 4000 words)

Reader 1: “The beginning is way too slow and doesn’t introduce concepts that are going to come up in the climax. The POV changes from the husband in the beginning, to the wife later at the critical decision point for the husband, and back to the husband.  I really like the middle of the story. There was some good tension there. But the rest falls flat.” (plot spoilers removed)

The first scene is nicely observational, with naturalistic dialogue. However, it lacks character motivation and contains no speculative element. Consequently, it doesn’t accomplish much (for us). It’s a nice day in the life sort of scene.  Second scene is more of the same until page 9, which the speculative elements comes on line and the story begins. Gets very interesting on page 12.  The middle of the story is tremendous, good tension, good dialogue, good differentiation from other stories of this “type”. The ending, however, does little for me. The action the MC takes at climax is startling and that’s good, but it’s not earned in the sense that we should see the potential for this action in the earlier story, and there should be a buildup of tension around this issue through the middle. It feels like a light switch now, which is too bad. Another story, I wish would have worked. If I were revising (for Triangulation) I’d cut the naturalistic dialogue in the first 9-12 pages and focus on developing the tension between MC and wife over their son. As set up now, the climax just isn’t supported well.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Great concept, excellent prose, but the story’s underpinnings are not well developed, leaving the end to try and generate emotion from a more generic place.

Story 95 (1/17/2011 Horror 2413 words)

Reader 1 was not favorable and I must agree. While there is some lively writing here, particularly early on, it was just too much work to inhabit these scenes for the payoff we get in the end. It lacks a deeper level that might have made the concept more interesting for me. The camera POV holds me at a distance and I’m left watching people do stuff and say stuff, with a bit of gore thrown in. If I were revising, I would focus on the psychological aspects of the initial “characters” and find a deeper meaning in these events to make them resonate beyond the story page.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 Lively voice and quirky situations mask a lack of story depth.

Story 96 (1/17/2011 Horror 5000 words)

Reader 1: “Twilight Zoneish story with no real character. He didn’t learn anything from the experience and the reader doesn’t find out why he’s in there. It might work somewhere at about a third of the length. It is way too long. I could skim at a pretty fast clip and get what was going on.” (plot spoilers removed)

This one comes from someone I’d love to publish, so I’m hoping my reaction will be more favorable. Shall we see? It opens with mystery, but also with someone waking up, which is usually a bad sign.  It’s handled well here in terms of establishing mood (definitely Twilight Zone), but the descriptions vary between just right and adjective heavy. The scene could use some sharpening.  I think what’s bothering me is that the viewpoint seems selected primarily in order to avoid the hard questions that would come naturally to the character.  This does generate a sense of mystery, but it also disorients the reader. There’s a real danger in that approach, especially at this length. The central conceit, however, is very good.

One example of my problem so far is: “Yet he has no memories leading up to this place.” The trouble is that he’s not really trying to remember, he’s casting about the scene as a person on TV might, fascinating to watch, but not accessible without a voice over. Here we DO get access to thoughts and motives from time to time, but they’re not really the thoughts and motives that should matter to this character. That’s where I’m having my disconnect. It feels staged rather than character driven.

On page 5 it begins to pull me in more fully. This suggests that if the opening can be condensed and shaped to focus on these sorts of reactions earlier, I might have a different reaction so far.

The second scene is effective. It escalates the character’s situation. He’s accepted this weird reality and begins to probe at it with greater purpose.  Scene three utilizes a technique I seldom find effective; it shows me something the character cannot see in order to advance my understanding of the mystery. It’s a good television technique, and it does match the vibe of the story as presented, but we tend to prefer stories that connect with a character.

Scene 4: It’s hard to believe he’s not asked for anything other than food. He seems to have accepted his role. This feels a bit staged.  His conversation is an interesting escalation, however. I can’t believe he hasn’t torn the closet apart by now.  The girl is very interesting.

Well, I’m not sure about the ending. I thought it was leading me toward a human nature revelation, but it settles for a clever twist (Twilight Zone, or The Prisoner perhaps). What I’m missing is the inner psychology that could make this really special. I have to agree that the story as written should be quite a bit shorter or else buttressed with a deeper understanding of the character. The idea is intriguing and can support maybe half this length, I think. Because we don’t really gain insight into the character, I don’t think it can carry this word count. The observations are well done, particularly in the middle portion of the story, but I need more. I won’t be surprised to see it published because the writing is active and the idea interesting.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 Vividly and actively told Twilight Zone story with an intriguing premise. The psychological exploration of the theme is less compelling and the ending, while clever, is not a big enough payoff for the time (word count) investment.

Story 97 (1/17/2011 Fantasy 9900 words)

Reader 1: “First of all, this story is way over the limit at 9,900 words. Over all, this is a why-use-one-word-when-you-can-use-500 story. There a lot of sideways movement that gets no where. I’m not sure this would even work as a mainstream story because it’s soooo long and ponderous. We don’t even get to the crux of the story until page 13.”

Ouch, right? So why do I include this here? Two reasons. First, the writer has been to Clarion and they have likely learned to value honest criticism, even if it is blunt;  I doubt they’ll wilt and give up writing. Second, I think it’s really important that we pay attention to our word count. Does it match the story payoff or are we allowing ourselves to run off on tangents (I was guilty of this when I started out)? Are we letting story dictate pace or are we falling into the trap of “voice”? And, even more important, are we paying attention to the guidelines for the markets we submit to? We take stories up to “around” 5000 words.

Now, to read some of this and see if my guess is correct.  The first scene sort of oozes around me. The prose is solid to strong, the viewpoint okay (after the unnecessary opening setup), but there’s no central motivation and no speculative element. It’s a day in the life. There’s nothing to compel me through it.

Scene two is more character/family background. It’s interesting as such, but not story.

Scene three feels more like story, though I’m pretty much skimming by this point. This is written with novel pacing rather than short story pacing. There are many good details and solid observations and the dialogue feels natural, but the story is not pulling me through.  Skimming to end.

This gets pretty wild as we go on.  I’d have to say that I was at least partly wrong with my guess. The prose is effective, unpretentious, especially after the first scene or two.  It’s not a matter of giving in to “voice”. However, it’s true that the story shows us way more than we need in order to fulfill its contract with us. We need very little of the first third of the story at all. It should begin with the little man to pull us speculative readers in, then it should focus on the main plot thread without going off on tangents that explore characters and relationships unless they’re explicitly required for the story to build tension and deliver resolution. The actual ending is pretty simple, certainly not deserving of 9900 words of buildup. It’s a good ending, but not for this length.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 The prose is good, the characters well observed, and the speculative conceit, once it shows up, is interesting. The story suffers primarily from having too many words; they get in the way of plot and character development too often. The effect is to dilute the story’s impact.

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See my previous post for disclaimers.

Story 86 (1/14/2011 Horror 1000 words)

This gets a Maybe from our first reader: “I think this would work if it was a stronger POV story. As it is, we never get into the POV’s emotions. So when the ending comes, which I do like, there is no power behind it.  I’m not sure she would be able to handle the rewrite that this story needs.”

Normally, I wouldn’t include that last sentence here, but it raises an interesting point. As editors we’re charged with putting together the best anthology we can manage on our budget. This often means working with authors to shape up a manuscript that is solid but has some technical flaws or has potential with some plot or character tweaks. The question inevitably arises as to whether we’re confident the writer can manage the changes. We usually don’t have a lot to go on unless it’s someone we’ve worked with before or the author has credits that suggest a track record.  One could argue that we should just give the benefit of the doubt to the author and ask for rewrite. The last thing we want to do, though, is request a rewrite, especially a significant one, then have to reject the new version. We have done it and we will do it if it’s in the anthology’s interest, but we’re writers too; we don’t like to scar our colleagues, especially a newish writer. So we try to judge as best we can, and will generally err on the side of caution (NOT request a rewrite unless it’s pretty clear to us the author will appreciate the points we raise and have the confidence/skill to revise accordingly).

I haven’t even read the story yet; it may not even be relevant here, but the comment raised an opportunity to explain the issue from our perspective. Hope it makes sense.

I don’t like the opening sentence, which is trying to paint a picture through inference rather than detail. Viewpoint is mushy. Sequence of reaction/observation is off a bit.

Omniscient viewpoint doesn’t really serve this piece; it’s used too often to avoid observation and specific detail, particularly emotional detail. Gets interesting on page 3.

Interesting concept. I have to agree with the reviewer that the lack of solid viewpoint and emotional impact work against it. I also have to agree that I don’t feel confident the author will be able to revise successfully, at least not in one revision. I certainly would not mind seeing a revision of this if it can be delivered with greater emotional resonance. The viewpoint will be tricky, as it will be tempting to try and hide the reveal (the purpose of this ritual), but that would be a false mystery. If I were revising I would try it differently; establish the viewpoint strongly, establish the purpose of the ritual almost immediately, and build tension through the resistance of certain children to cooperate and the MC’s own guilt about her sister. It may take a few more words this way, but will be a more effective piece with some additional depth beyond the reveal.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 It’s an interesting idea and this is a good length, but the lack of emotional resonance and a strong POV diminish its impact.

Story 87 (1/14/2011 SF 4800 words)

This comes from someone with an impressive track record. Unfortunately, the first readers have not been positive. The consensus so far is that it’s an interesting idea, but takes too long to develop and does not escalate well (or escalates unevenly).

The first page is background information. Interesting information, but not story. Story begins in middle of page 2. It’s presented as dialogue describing an event; this places a filter between us and events. It can work, but is not a particularly compelling technique. Part of this may be an intentional choice to evoke an earlier time (circa 1900). Unlike much steampunk, however, the language so far lacks the sort of energy that draws our interest despite this filter. Some tension on page 4. This is good.

This gets better as the MC descends into a mine. A few too many adjectives keep the language duller than it could be, but the action is interesting and there’s some mystery.  His reaction, however, feels too unemotional. Simplistic.

I’m seeing the readers’ main points. This stuff is intellectually interesting, but I just don’t care enough about it. The story is not working, even though the idea is.

The writing pulls at my attention on page 19. Much more involving. The ending is too simple for this wordcount. It’s a really neat idea, but the characters are not strong enough to balance it out, I think. If I were revising, I would concentrate on developing the MC, particularly the reason he needs this story. He’s coldly intellectual now, and while the encounter does touch a lodestone of emotion, we have not been set up to understand why this is important to the MC’s journey. Story events should also be reshaped such that each scene escalates in some manner, with an emotional thread balancing the plot thread and climaxing in the final encounter.  I actually think this story will need to be longer in the end, with a much greater development of the character arc.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 Very interesting SF idea, but the story elements do not escalate well, leading to a flat resolution despite some nice, active writing at that point.

Story 88 (1/16/2011 Horror 1000 words)

First reader: “This isn’t really a story.” (plot descriptive portions withheld)

I’m struck by how seldom this issue has come up this year. We’ve had a lot of stories begin too slowly or use a problematic frame structure, but we haven’t had a lot of them that do not function as story in some sense.  Let’s see about this one.

Well, I like the opening paragraph. This is flash, so I don’t necessarily expect a full-fledged story experience (typically, flash limits itself to one complication and the resolution relies on resonance or a twist or both).  The language is lively and I like the MC. It’s a strange situation that fits our theme. The song is well placed.

I like this one. I’ll send it to the other editors. More proof that editorial taste plays a part in story selection. Don’t use that as an excuse not to consider editorial comments carefully, but don’t take every comment as gospel either.  This is horror, so I don’t know what the overall reaction will be, but it’s a solid little flash in any case.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 9 An engaging character placed into a strange situation, ending in emotional resonance that fits the character.

Story 89 (1/16/2011 Fantasy 2650 words)

First reader: “As a non-American, perhaps the mythic elements were a little lost on me, but this didn’t work for me. With a fairy-tale type structure, I’d probably like a little more darkness and strangeness (a la Theodora Goss or Margo Lanagan) whereas this was pretty straightforward. There’s some cleverness in the reversals of fortune, but the other elements don’t quite compensate for me.”

Well, the opening line is too clever for my taste. My suspicions engage. The opening presents an intriguing situation, but utilizes too much cleverness. I feel as if I’m being set up for a punch line (not a ha-ha but an ah-ha).

Too much false mystery here. He knows these three, why are we left to guess them? I don’t see the benefit of that, unless it’s to hide a lack of story. Another iconic character arrives to explain the idea.  The contests is a good concept, however.

All of a sudden we know who everyone is. As I’ve related before, the stranger the subject matter the more important it (usually) is to provide a concrete place for me to watch from. All these unnecessary mysteries do nothing to get me into the story. Better, I suspect to clearly relate who is who and start where the story begins (with the arrival of the new one) and move forward.

Let’s see, the wrinkled guy is telling his friend that he’s a loser? You go first because you’re a loser? That doesn’t seem right.

These parables aren’t bad, but they don’t seem to escalate (the stakes do, but I don’t feel like the contests themselves are leading to an important realization). I do like the ending; I would want the buildup to match it, however. It needs to deserve its power.

This is an interesting idea and I do think it could work, but it needs a stronger focus, a stronger sense of progression from small to large in the contests and stakes. I’d like to see this reach its potential, but it’s not clear to me exactly how to get there.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 A serviceable fable that makes a few good points, but does not yet rise above its cleverness to the true power it needs.

Story 90 (1/16/2011 Fantasy 1900 words)

First reader: “I like the feel of the story and hoped all the way through that things would become clearer. they never did and then it ended. Maybe if I read through it very slowly, I could figure out what was happening there.” (plot descriptive portions removed)

This comes from an up and coming writer, so I’m hopeful going in.  The first sentence is a little awkward (prob just needs a comma), but the real issue for me is a lack of concreteness. We’re dealing with a strange situation, which (usually) makes it even more important that objective details are made utterly concrete. Strangeness is best observed from a safe perch. This opening paragraph requires me to infer the fundamental element in it. The only thing this adds to the experience is unnecessary confusion. The transformation would be just as intriguing without this.

Lack of concrete detail is holding me just outside this scene. Neighbors? In houses next door? In the next cell? The larger question for me right now is: what is the MC’s motivation. The escape seems a mere excuse to tourguide us through the idea. Consequently, while this is nicely strange, it’s not particularly compelling yet. The lack of motive is also forcing the language to carry more burden than it really should. Page 3 begins a more motivated section. I would consider moving this desire to the first page and giving some tension to the MC’s emergence from prison.

It feels a little problematic that he goes to the girl, returns to his home, then is told to go back to the girl’s. It seems like backtracking rather than true complication. We’re also edging into false mystery by this point. I like that we’re dropped into the middle of an interesting situation and that the MC doesn’t think a bunch of background because the author believes I need it (a common flaw), but when the character begins to think things like: “Yet, after all that had happened…”  and I have no idea what events this refers to, I begin to feel manipulated in a different way. Legit info is being withheld. This tends to frustrate rather than intrigue me.

I like where this ends, but not how it gets there. The ending is not well set up by the opening and escalation is somewhat haphazard. Rather than reinforcing the emotional arc, the strangeness seems to compete with it for attention until the very end. With some reshaping and a stronger sense of motivation, I think this could be really good. I’m not sure it’s special enough for a rewrite request though. I’ll pass it to the other editors.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 The core conceits are very interesting, but they do not support each other well enough yet. The story opening and ending do not fully mesh and story escalation is uneven.

Story 91 (1/16/2011 Fantasy 4600 words)

The first reader was not complimentary. Too much “talking heads” (literally, it turns out), too many characters, an unmotivated MC.

It’s a good, provocative opening. Interestingly, it suffers from the same problem as the prior story. We’re entering strange terrain without a really concrete perch. I’m mildly confused at this point. “I could prove I was him…” Who??? And it’s not clear what incites the following conversation or who is speaking to whom at first. There’s no reason not to be clear and precise. The situation will be equally intriguing; I’ll simply be less confused.

Again, I do appreciate being dropped into the middle of a scene; what I don’t appreciate is being dropped in without an up or down or somewhere to put my feet. The writing is very good in general; one gets a sense of a wider world and politics, good stuff. One does not get a sense of the here and now and why of this protagonist’s journey. WHY is he doing this? To explain the world to me through inference and memory? I’m annoyed because I’d love to like this; it has a wonderful texture. It is annoying when the MC does things with great purpose, but without ever thinking of what that purpose is. It comes across as false mystery when a character should think thoughts but doesn’t in order to keep me suspensed.

Well, I’m on page 7 and there’s been some action, some nice thought, a good sense of world, but I’m persistently at sea when it comes to understanding this character’s motives. I think I’d like to read the book this is taken from, but the short story is failing to pull me into the protagonist’s perspective fully enough. I feel I’m being led through events rather than sharing his motivation. It’s a strange experience, to be truthful, like watching an almost good movie where you can’t quite put your finger on why it’s not working, but you know it’s not.

page 12. This is a woman? Maybe I’m reading too fast, but was there a single clue before now? It’s not good when I have to reinvent a protagonist near the story’s end.

The story ends in an interesting manner. I wish it had more emotional impact on me, but I’m not invested in this character, unfortunately.  I suspect that all this really needs is a really strong identification with the protagonist. I can see that transforming my experience completely. If I were revising, I would try it in close third person viewpoint. I would also focus on establishing a strong motivation in the opening scene so that we have a sense of purpose and something to create meaningful tension when the obstacles arise. This motive should set the ending up as well (i.e. reveal some need or want that makes the ending resonate). Some good writing here and I think the idea is strong enough to support the length, though it needs a stronger setup.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 The world building is strong and the prose is sharp, but clarity is an issue and the story arc is not constructed for maximal effect. In particular, motivation is an issue.

Story 92 (1/16/2011 Horror 4990 words)

This opens pretty well. I’m in mid-scene, in character, presented with a genuine mystery. I won’t say it grabs me by the eyeballs, but it works. The opening pages are a bit languorous, with some repetition (e.g. sees man, describes why he can’t see much detail, then explains same to wife in dialogue).

Ah! Escalation on page 4. Seems like I’ve been on escalation withdrawal tonight. It’s also good that I’m getting background when it becomes relevant to the MC, not before, not after.

Again, on page 7 we get the MC explaining something to his wife that he’s already thought through on the page. Repetition. Gets a little lecturish on page 8 (e.g. “As humans are wont to do.”) This pushes us away from the MC the story has thus far been pulling us into (another way to view this is as authorial intrusion).

The wife couldn’t call the cops? I don’t buy that. Interesting development on page 15. It’s taken too long to get here though.

The main problem is that the story seems to shift gears on page 15. The opening 14 pages are a sort of detective story centered around the focal element, then it shifts to a speculative device (which is interesting, but not particularly well set up) and the story’s end revolves around that. As a much shorter story focused on this later device, this could work. As it stands, it takes too long to develop and there’s no speculative element early on.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 The story is comfortable and mostly interesting, but takes too long to develop its speculative element.

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Write1Sub1 Week 7

Week 7 begins in a mild depression. I think this is mostly a result of disappointment in myself for not working harder these last few weeks. I have so many projects hanging over me. Rather than diffusing my effort, this should inspire me to be more efficient with my time. I’m floundering, for sure.

Saturday: For Week 7  I’ve chosen to go into my really ancient story files and re-approach a character I wrote about some twenty years ago. I still recall him and I don’t quite know why. The story was not terribly memorable.  For the market, I’m targeting one of the Holy Grails of my journey: Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

In general, we’re looking for “character oriented” stories, those in which the characters, rather than the science, provide the main focus for the reader’s interest. Serious, thoughtful, yet accessible fiction will constitute the majority of our purchases, but there’s always room for the humorous as well. Borderline fantasy is fine, but no Sword & Sorcery, please. Neither are we interested in explicit sex or violence. A good overview would be to consider that all fiction is written to examine or illuminate some aspect of human existence, but that in science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the Universe.

Sunday: I worked primarily on last week’s story. Still no ending.

Monday: I talked about my story idea for this week with Sue and she had a good tweak that pulled my thoughts on it into a neat line and turned it from Dark Fantasy to SF, which I much prefer. This has real potential if I can summon the skill to write it well. I don’t actually think it’s a one week story, so my goal will be to get the bones of it onto the page this week.

Tuesday: I wrote my literary fiction for the week and worked through some Triangulation slush.

Wednesday: Today I plotted the first half of the story and worked through major setting and character details. Turns out the only thing I’ll keep from the original story is the character that initially interested me. NOTHING else is the same. I suspect that’s a good sign.

Thursday: Happy to report I sat at the keyboard this morning and banged away for a good 3-4 hours. Churned out 8 pages single-spaced background notes for this week’s story and finally got through chapter 6 of the fantasy rewrite. Tonight I did my first open mic reading in Youngstown (at least of my own work). Glad to say the microfictions got a nice reaction, with one person seeking me out later to say how much he liked them. That felt good, but to tell the truth I didn’t get a buzz from the stage stuff. I like listening to others, but all that attention does nothing much for me. I must be strange that way. Sue, on the other hand, eats it up (she’s great up there on stage). Her satiric poems had the crowd rolling in the aisles.

Friday: I worked for 3-4 hours again today, mostly on the fantasy novel. I also wrote a new literary flash (200 words). I’ve got a sense of the Asimov’s story, but not that crucial first sentence. I subbed a story to Allegory, and several micros to literary markets this week, so I’m technically on tack for W1S1.

Saturday: I wrote flash fiction and worked through edits of a story from earlier in the week. I also worked on Triangulation submissions lest I fall too far behind.

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