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.