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.