As the ice rain falls outside, I turn to the slush in my computer. We hope to make a dent in the backlog this week.
See my previous post for disclaimers.
Story 51 (1/2/2011 Fantasy 5300 words)
This comes from an up and coming writer. Opens with an epigraph proverb that I could probably do without. Nice opening. It opens in the middle of an action, establishes viewpoint and immediate purpose (the genuine mystery, i.e. the element that is mysterious to the viewpoint character hooks my interest). I’m not particularly fond of the page of back fill that follows the opening. It’s nicely descriptive, but stops the story dead in its tracks. I would like some forward momentum before we move backward. This first scene takes too long for my taste and it ends on a false mystery. The character knows what the “one thing” is, yet we’re left to infer it from his subsequent action. If the story ends on a reveal of this item, I will not be happy. I do like the actual final paragraph of the scene, which opens an emotional thread.
Second scene works well. There’s no reveal of the “false” mystery, but an escalation of it. Nice. I think the opening scene could be mostly eliminated, which would get us to the actual inciting incident more quickly and allow the story to have forward momentum more quickly.
Third scene is really rocking along until page 9 when it stops to explain the spirit world in dialogue. I do need the information, but am not fond of the way it comes out: “Tell me about the spirit world.” It would be more compelling if these items come out in response to stimulus within the scene. The scene ends well.
Fourth scene works well. Story continues to move forward and there’s an escalation of tension. It’s still a fairly low grade tension, but I’m okay with that for now. The cultural elements are nice.
Ah. On page 18 the price of admission increases. Nice. Good twist on page 21. Protagonist’s plan to gain the outcome he wishes fails. His enemy is strong. Nice emotional crescendo on page 23.
Very nice ending here. It pulls together various threads dropped earlier in the story and makes a pattern of them in an active scene that could easily have gone Hollywood, but didn’t. Nice restraint, good emotional resonance in that final line. I like this. I do think it takes too long to get to the meat and would want to see that fixed in rewrite, should the other editors agree. Passing this one along.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 A rewarding tale with unique cultural elements. It’s slow to begin and could possibly use a little more protagonist action through the middle, but otherwise nicely done.
Story 52 (1/2/2011 Horror 3223 words)
This is a reprint, which raises the bar significantly, especially as it originally appeared in April 2010 in an anthology. First reader had this to say: “There’s some nice writing here, but the story is dull and [author] doesn’t do anything really new with the old ghost tropes.” My take on this is that the story is probably too literary for us.
It’s an effective opening in terms of setting a character in scene. The writing is really strong. By page 3 it’s pretty clear that nothing much is happening. There’s a lot of background presented and just a touch of physical forward movement, but no real sense of character motivation or obstacle. Seems a character study so far. More background. No forward story movement. The writing is outstanding, but I’m getting hungry for actual story. Page 5 brings the first story movement. Page 9 brings a speculative element (close enough, anyway). Creepy stuff through page 13.
Well, this is a little gem of a story. It’s not really the sort of story we look for, but if it were not a reprint I would certainly advocate for it. I’m not sure the opening half works as well as it could, but the overall story works wonderfully for me. I will pass it to other editors, but I’m not hopeful. Still it’s a great literary horror tale for my money.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 9 This is a great literary horror piece. The opening might be a little long for the payoff, but the prose is wonderful and the payoff works well.
Story 53 (1/3/2011 Fantasy 4300 words)
Intriguing opening. Opens in summary, but the prose is active and establishes a sense of the fantastic that pulls me on. It seems to be taking a long time for the MC to climb a hill. Seems more an excuse to give me background than to advance story. I would consider opening with middle of page 2, with the house stretching before him. I don’t need the background, I need something to interest me in the story.
Page 3 moves forward, but then we’re getting background disguised as dialogue. The story is moving too slowly for me. Where is the obstacle to his goal, the tension? By page 5, I’m seeing that this is a telling of story that occurred off the page. Gets interesting again at the end of page 6. They’ve finished discussing the background and are moving forward. The prose is good. By page 8 we’re getting some more background as dialogue. I suspect I know how this will end.
We get external conflict on page 10. The problem is that it seems “on cue”. She’s finished her part, now the conflict to remove her comes on stage. A longish conversation ensues, delivering more background. There is some tension, but it’s slow. Yes, it ends pretty much as expected, though there’s an add-on anticlimax that does add a dimension I didn’t expect. The trouble is that I’m not really emotionally invested in the MC. I don’t feel like he’s struggled in this story (before the story, yes, but his power is simply handed to him in this story and he wields it without problem).
It’s an interesting concept and I do like the world building. The story falls flat for me, however, despite perfectly competent writing. If I were to revise, I would probably start the story earlier, show the off-stage conflict on the page, make the MC work to get to this place, and make him choose to accept his power at a significant cost to himself. It’s all a little too pat now.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 There’s some nice world building here, but the story is too static and the protagonist too easily transformed for the ending to have the power it should.
Story 54 (1/5/2011 SF 2790 words)
First reader had this to say: “A reasonable premise, but doesn’t quite work for me as a story. MC-1 isn’t particularly likable and not enough time is spent with MC-2 to appreciate him (a lot of his “on-stage” time is taken up with description). While I like the world building, I would have preferred the author stick with either the problem from MC-1’s POV (how to get to Earth) or MC-2’s problem (how to tell his granddaughter the truth) as a *starting* point and then have complications occur from there.”
It opens well enough. Hooky opening line, followed by efficiently delivered context. Nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t really grab me either. Then we’re walking backward through time in order to provide background to the reader. We see this so often. The entire opening scene is background. Second scene is active, but seemingly unrelated to the opening. Third scene is active, but seemingly unrelated to opening. Feels like background being delivered via dialogue. Where’s the story complication? Viewpoint shifts on page 9. MC-2 has a more viable story goal, in that there’s tension inherent in it (he opposes MC-1’s desire). Page 10 explains the complication to MC-1’s goal.
The main problem is that I have no real emotional investment in MC-1’s ambition. She seems pretty superficially focused on a particular goal, then we learn that her underlying motivation was based on a lie. I just don’t care all that much, unfortunately. The scene between the two MC’s has some good tension. I wish the story had a clearer focus and stronger identification for me to latch on to. Even then, though, I’m not sure there’s enough depth to the reveal to make it work (unless I’m REALLY identified with one of these characters to the point that I feel their pain as my own). It may be hard to pull that off with this material. I think it will need more development, an additional complication.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 The story relies too heavily on implicit emotional identification rather than building reader identification with characters. Viewpoint shift is problematic as well.
Story 55 (1/5/2011 Horror 2800 words)
First reader comments as follows: “I was confused most of the way through this. It might be an unreliable narrator and I just didn’t catch something, but I don’t think that was the case. I guess I’ll list it as horror, but nothing really happens. ”
Okay, I’m already confused after opening paragraph. I can accept the first sentence as an intrigue (what color?). The rest of the paragraph seems to convey bleeding, infected flowers and false rubies. That’s pretty surreal, but I don’t believe it was intended.
By page 2, I’m wondering where stuff is and how it works. I don’t think it would take a lot to make this scene come into focus, but it’s a haze right now. The language is interesting, but I can’t ground myself to appreciate the scene. End of page 3. Huh? What’s going on here? What’s the character’s goal? Is there a complication or obstacle?
The dialogue has a nice texture to it. If I had any clue as to what any of it meant, I’d be more attached to the story. Skimming. Dialogue remains interesting, though I continue to feel there’s a context that just isn’t coming through. Neuro-tech on page 7 seems to send us in a new direction. The we get some explanation of idea. What I’m missing is story movement. Motivated character meeting obstacles, rising tension, climax; that sort of thing. Religion appears on page 10. New direction or complication? (of what?)
I really like the resonance of the ending. I don’t feel it achieves its full power because the husband was never really central to the story (mentioned, but I didn’t really focus on him). This is an intriguing idea and it has some emotional resonance, but the story elements need work. Can this idea be turned into a story with motivation and complication and climax? I suspect so. It may do well enough as is in a literary horror journal, or as literary SF. In either case making the scene and character state of mind more accessible early in story will help.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 This is an interesting idea and builds some emotional resonance, but the setting and character are too obscure for their own good.
Story 56 (1/6/2011 Horror 2556 words)
First reader said: “Writing is okay. Story is bland and doesn’t build very well. Ending is more confusing than surprising. It doesn’t seem to be a last contact story.”
Good descriptive opening. This line, however, works against my interest: “Tonight would be different – like previous nights had meant to be.” Is this just another attempt then? That seems to lower the stakes a good bit. What is the inciting incident (i.e. the thing that makes this night different – show me that instead and I’m more likely to stay on board). We get a page of background information at the expense of story movement.
Shift to flashback. The foreground story has not hooked me, and now I’m having to go back in time to get more information. Piece of advice to writers (like myself): When you find yourself constructing scenes, paragraphs, dialogue to deliver information to the reader, it’s almost always better to step back and ask whether the protagonist needs this information now (i.e. whether it’s a response to story stimulus). If not, the reader likely doesn’t need it either. You’ll be amazed at how much this can help you to build and maintain story momentum as well as character identification. It’s a lot harder, of course, but if writing fiction were easy we’d all be doing it… er, well you get my point. I don’t mean to come down hard on this particular story – it’s done as well as most stories I see.
Page 4 offers up some background disguised as dialogue. Scene ends neatly, however. Then back to the flashback. Some explanation of the idea on page 7. Since it’s flashback the scene has less immediate impact than it might. Skimming.
Back to the present (mostly static) frame on page 10. Resonant ending that isn’t fully deserved. I cannot help but to imagine this story told in foreground, the meeting, the scratching, the creepy reveal. Then a shift forward in time to the final scene. We would have so much more emotional investment in that case. Back flash largely kills that here. The foreground is static and reflective, the flashback active and interesting, but lacking immediacy. I don’t actually know that there’s enough here to carry a full story, but it could work as flash. It could also be expanded into a really neat historic-horror piece I suspect.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 This evokes a decent mood, which is essential for such stories, but the lack of immediacy works against it.
Story 57 (1/6/2011 Fantasy 3600 words)
First reader says: “This has a great beginning. The story itself isn’t really that new. Too bad he didn’t do something really unique with the idea.” (I removed plot details) This is a writer I’d like to publish, but it sounds like a rewrite request at best. Shall we see?
Opening establishes speculative element and first-level character motivation. I’d like to see just a little more detail of the cars or the lot to make the scene real to me. Picks up nicely once the dialogue begins. Very interesting concept. I’m beginning to feel this is just a neat idea without a story until the line about “saving” at the end of page 3. Still, my patience is a little thin. Protagonist seems unmotivated. I wonder why she doesn’t react to his talking to his car. I do like her high-maintenance request of him.
Story is drifting. Dialogue is fine, but what is missing is character motivation. Without that, there’s no complication to create story tension. I like Bethel. Explanation of idea on page 7 (via dialogue). I pick up on the computer line right away; it would be a complication in the larger picture, but I doubt it’s really going to be a complication in this story (nor should it at this point). Shows how hungry I am for story tension. I’m not getting the right vibe from MC. He seems genuinely disinterested, even hostile toward the woman rather than shy or socially clumsy. What does he want?
Page 10 brings a somewhat trite complication (but to what?) She’s too accepting of his gift, I think. Where is the tension in this story? We’re more than halfway through. This herd concept seems just thrown in, yet I suspect it’s important. Why doesn’t he think about that when freeing Bethel rather than the chit-chatty stuff? That might give the MC a sense of purpose that would go a long way toward creating story tension.
Boyfriend returns on cue and his reactions seem cardboard. Fight scene is good. Follow up seems a bit scripted. The ending makes logical sense, but I’m not emotionally invested. This is an idea that deserves a deeper exploration, I think.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An excellent idea that is somewhat squandered in a by the numbers story. It’s not bad, but not really compelling either.
Story 58 (1/6/2011 Fantasy 5673 words)
First reader says: “At the beginning of the story, the POV is on the run from her people who think she is cursed. After about 10 pages she escapes and later finds a man left behind. The POV has no goal to overcome and there is no character change. The story isn’t really hers, but it [belongs to] the man she meets. He’s the one who needs to make a choice. She mainly reacts to circumstances.” (plot details removed)
Given the length and first reader reaction, I’ll just do a quick read of this one. It opens actively in the middle of a chase, which can be good so long as it doesn’t devolve into back fill. First scene remains active, with bits of background worked unobtrusively into it. That’s good. I’m not terribly invested with the MC as I don’t know what her purpose is.
On page 5 we begin to learn purposes. Technically, this is done well, but I’m not really investing in the character. Not sure why not. Maybe it’s the lack of a larger purpose than escape. Page 7 gets interesting. I wonder if the story could start closer to this point, perhaps with the discovery of the man. The opening scene is active, but it feels like empty action to me even though it’s technically done well. I’m not getting drawn into this character quickly enough.
I like this setting, by the way. I’ve not seen this culture all that often. Another chase scene. This scene takes too long for what it delivers. She’s saved like previous times? That ratchets the stakes down a notch. All of a sudden this savior becomes important. Story shifts here. Story ends in episodic fashion. It feels like the beginning of something larger. She seems unchanged by this journey. If I were revising, I would begin the story later and make certain that it belongs to the woman (i.e. that she is the one with something to learn or discover and she is the one who overcomes obstacles and pays a price for her ultimate choice). While I thought the story was technically well written, it felt overlong and a bit flat to me, largely for the reasons expressed above.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Good cultural details and lots of action, but too little character investment and no real character change or price paid in the end. May be part of a longer work.
Story 59 (1/6/2011 SF ??? words, 2 pages)
First reader comments: “The balance of showing and telling isn’t quite right here and it would also benefit from a more-traditional structure of using an inciting incident/problem to kick off the story. Most of the story is telling us about [MC], operating inside his head instead of having him interacting with the world and implying his characteristics. The story doesn’t take advantage of some nice description and an interesting character.”
Yes, I agree. The entire story is essentially character background, with a flash of emotional discharge at the end. It’s interesting background, but doesn’t really carry the story for me.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A nice bit of slice of life in the future, but it’s too far immersed in the MC’s head to be as effective as it might be.
Story 60 (1/6/2011 Fantasy 4298 words)
First reader comments: “The opening just didn’t grab me like it should have and I think it starts too early. The exchange between the protag and the wife doesn’t ring true to me and the discussion between the doctor and the protaganist didn’t convince me as natural conversation. It should be a really interesting story, but I couldn’t connect with it. There are interesting ideas here and an interesting setting, but it didn’t hold my interest.”
I admire many of the sentences, but I’m not really getting a picture of the scene. There’s a filter of words between me and the concrete details of place and people. As one example, consider: “Soon the sun scorched down on those waiting outside her hut.” Nothing wrong with the sentence itself, but it’s not connecting us to a character by having him or her react to the scene. Rather it tells us about what we’re about to see. It’s coming from the author, not the protagonist. If the goal is to attach me to the protagonist, it doesn’t work.
I’m also kept out of the protagonist’s head. We watch her go through the motions of her life, and get obscure beats of summary implying what she’s up to, but we’re missing the directly accessible thoughts and senses she must possess. Again, if the objective is to connect me to the protagonist’s point of view, it’s not working.
Some nicely observed details in the next paragraph. Again, they do little to connect me to the protagonist’s perspective. I suspect this is why the first reader had difficulty. I am as well. Skimming.
Here’s another example: “Horrified by the man‘s bizarre death, those who had come to see [MC] fled.” Notice that this simply tells us the herd’s motivation rather than showing it and interpreting it through the protagonist’s perspective (i.e. showing her reaction to stimulus). Another opportunity missed to connect me to the character.
Second scene shifts to another character. This one is more accessible, which may be intentional, but then why lead with the inaccessible one if the goal is to keep us reading? Second scene does hold me. “It’s gone” (what is? – I can infer, but why hold back that concrete detail?)
The idea is interesting. It’s just taking too long to develop. It’s a little bothersome that this is not a new phenomenon. That lowers the stakes of the story I think. Page 6 is back fill that is more interesting than the foreground story. Page 9 gives us emotional background more interesting than the foreground emotions.
In the end, I believe there’s a truly excellent story at the heart of this, but that the telling avoids that heart in favor of two characters talking and thinking about it. I’d much rather read the story that is implied here. The prose is good, though that first scene remains problematic for me.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Really interesting idea that is only superficially explored here. The main character is solid, but the lead-in character remains out of focus. In the end I don’t care as strongly as I would like to.