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.