Archive for March, 2011

See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. We’re coming down to the wire now. There’s still some room in the anthology at this point.  Shall we see if we can fill a slot or two today?

Story 189 (2/19/2011 Fantasy 4700 words)

This comes from an author with significant credentials. I’m always just a touch more hopeful when I see that, but it’s the story that will decide the outcome as those of you who have been reading along well know.

An interesting opening.  It more or less commands my attention, delivering a character and enough context to set a basic stage in my head.  It’s a little coy for my taste by the end of page 1. We’ve got some evocative lines going on, but the false mystery is starting to interfere. I’d much rather know why he’s doing what he’s doing than hear the girl spout meaningful lines. I don’t mind the lines, but I do want the story to move.

It’s well written and interesting despite my quibbles. I do worry that we may not have much story here though. We’ll see. Great details of character and place (not so much of motive).

Second scene is very interesting. Third scene is too.

This is pretty amazing. I’m sold on it. The question will be whether it’s accessible enough for the other editors to sign on.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 9 A lyrical exploration of the child we never quite leave behind.

Story 190 (2/21/2011 SF 5600 words)

Reader 1: “This starts out with a promising premise.  The writing was good, but the story lacks escalation and focus. There’s discussion about [something], but it isn’t integral to the plot. There is no inner character conflict, no point of decision, no character change. Sorry I have to say no to this one.” (plot spoilers removed)

Another story from an author with strong credentials. This is an interesting opening. It reads a little flat for my taste, but is effective at establishing character (first person) in context with a speculative element. Good specific details. I’m a little hungry for motivation at this point (p2).

End of p3 offers motivation, only it’s not the MC’s motivation, but a secondary character’s. Is this her story or his? This is an effective opening scene. It’s a little heavy with information, but there’s also some authentic conversation and a hint of emotional thread. My big concern is motive.

The inciting incident appears in scene 2. Is this too late? I suspect so, especially since the story is pretty long (for us).  Okay, the end of the scene ties the first scene in. What would make this work better for me would be if this scene comes as a complication rather than an inciting incident. That is, if the MC were motivated in some other direction, only to have this event pull him back. Then it will feel more like a story experience.

This is a great idea. I can’t escape the feeling that I’m being told about it, rather than experiencing a story wherein it is essential. This MC is likable, but has no real stake in the issue (technically he does, but realistically he’s already cast his lot on one side of the issue; the story is not forcing him to question that or learn from it so far, it’s using him as a foil in a conversation to explain the issues).

Nice twist on the idea in scene that ends on p13. Again, however, the MC was a foil used to inform me of this. His stake remains minimal, though he is interesting.  The tension in the next scene (p15-) feels a little forced. I couldn’t tell if the MC was joking around or serious at first. We need a little internal emotion here, I think.

Next scene shows me another aspect of the core idea. Again, the MC is a foil to bring this information out.  Next scene reads authentic and is pretty touching. It’s just that this is a MC who is along for the ride and a secondary character who has no stake in the outcome. The story is MIA. What we have is an interesting logic problem so far.

Final scene is nicely active, but it feels kind of pointless in terms of the story arc. The MC isn’t changed; while he does make a decision it doesn’t seem to cost him much. His reward is not a culmination of the story events, but an extension of the opening scene. It’s a shame because the writing is very good, very active and sharply observant. There’s a good feel to this as well. If I were revising I would strongly consider telling this from the doctor’s viewpoint (or a soldier in the field who is faced with the choice). She has much more at stake here. Even so, there will have to be a decision that changes her life forever, and a cost for that decision. That’s not in the story at present.

A regretful no, I’m afraid. This may do better at Analog or similar venues that value idea over character arc.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An excellent SF idea strongly invoked within a story framework. Weakness in the character arc lessens its power.

Story 191 (2/21/2011 Horror 2800 words)

Reader 1: “This is a horror story about [something]. At the end the POV changes to the [secondary character] so we can’t see him. Nothing new here. Not much characterization. Mostly gore, no horror. And a stupid doctor.” (plot spoilers removed)

Some good credentials here as well. The opening paragraph is a bit overwrought. It does place me in scene with a character and an inciting incident. I’m not quite clear on the description of the thing. Is it a spot or a growth? Seems to vacillate. End paragraph on p2 works well for me. There’s some escalation.

Getting better through the middle here. Less dramatic prose, truer character experience. Escalation continues. Ooooh, great description of the thing on p6 (gross, but great).

I’m not buying the doctor’s reaction, not after that description of the thing. Is the narrator unreliable and this is just something mundane, or is the doctor’s reaction false? Well, this is an interesting horrific ending, but it doesn’t do much for me, I’m afraid. It hinges on the idea, not the character. I suspect this might do well in Necrotic Tissue, but it’s not for us.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 A horror story that delivers a daily dose of gory horror, but not enough character change or deeper meaning.

Story 192 (2/21/2011 Horror 3169 words)

Reader 1: “The ending isn’t related to the actions of the protagonist in any way. This is a story with an entirely passive protagonist and everything is forced upon him. There’s no speculative element and at no point does the MC make difficult choices. Instead, the story mostly happens in the flashback. There’s some nice use of non-visual detail to bring some of the scenes to life, but the story is mostly an info-dump and doesn’t emerge from the choices of the MC.”

Nice, effective opening. Smoothly written and puts me into the character’s mindset. The story is driven by true mystery (phenomenon the MC does not understand).  Good specific detail.  The conversation is a bit stilted. It’s not necessary to describe every evidence of emotion through a speech tag. Now we’re getting into back flash. The story’s momentum falls away.  Lots of back fill. No story movement. Some foreground conversation, then more background.

p8 brings a sudden, welcome escalation. The climax is pretty unbelievable, I’m afraid. And the reader is right that the story happens around the protagonist; he barely plays a part other than to absent himself at the climax, which happens off page.

I’d like to like this one, as the writing is smooth, but it just doesn’t do enough with the characters for me. I need the protagonist to act upon the story events, not vice versa.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A suspense story that delivers likable characters in a sympathetic situation, but does not do enough with them in terms of story development.

Story 193 (2/21/2011 Horror 720 words)

Reader 1: “This is only 700 words, but it’s too long for what it is.  It needs to be shorter and sharper to work.” (plot spoilers removed)

Looks like it’s an all dialogue flash. I admire folks who pull that off. It’s likely a tough sell to us, but we’ll see. The first four or five exchanges are interesting. It gets chit-chatty after that for me.  Some clever lines mixed in.

This is pretty good, a little long, but an interesting take on the situation. Unfortunately it doesn’t blow me away and that’s what an experimental story has to do to get a thumbs up around this place.  We would want more world building or character arc at this length. This is pretty much an extended set up for a sight gag (literally).

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A dialogue story about a dog. It’s a little long for what it accomplishes.

Story 194 (2/22/2011 Fantasy 800 words)

Reader 1: “Almost all of this story takes place within the MC’s head and consists of an extended flashback. It’s well-written enough, but nothing happens in real time. We move into purposeful withholding about what has happened to the MC’s girlfriend and some intentional vagueness about what caused the rift between the two. This lack of specificity is present throughout the story and is, in fact, purposely commented upon by the MC.
Essentially there is no plot and the ending isn’t derived from the MC’s actions. The ending is symbolic but it isn’t earned in any sense and sacrifices meaning for resonance rather than striving for both.”

An interesting opening paragraph. I’m in mid-scene and a metaphor is introduced to imply possible motive. Then we’re moving backward, into backflash, extending the metaphor, but not a story.  The metaphor becomes labored after a time. We have no story here, but an extended rumination about a relationship.

This changes at the end of p3, when events move rather forcefully forward. The MC is barely participating in this; he’s made a choice, but it’s not a very meaningful one in terms of character development or flaw.

Well that’s a strange little ending. I kind of like the concept, but it needs an actual story to go along with it.  This is the kind of story I like to refer to as an idea described. The character could be anyone, the choice doesn’t really matter. There is potential here, using this character and this idea, to create some real tension, a real climax, and a real resolution. The key will be to understand the character more fully (the parts not shown on page, the reason he needs this to happen, what he’s willing or forced to pay for it, etc).

As a writing exercise this is neat. Now, put some flesh on the bones and serve it well done 🙂

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An extended metaphor about a relationship. This goes to an interesting place, but gets there without sufficient development.

Story 195 (2/22/2011 SF ??? words)

The opening is summary and static. Not bad, but not compelling. The first page is entirely background. No inciting incident, no story movement. Forward movement starts in mid-page 2.  Still no inciting incident or motivation. More background delivered as conversation. Inciting incident on p 6 (depending on where story goes with it).

More background. We hear about a story in retrospect, but there’s no story here yet.

This is the prototypical “telling an idea” story. Lots of background about an idea and character, but no real story experience. No inciting incident or motivated character attempting to achieve (or escape) something, no rising tension or climatic moment where the character must change, no price for that decision. This is an interesting enough world and the character could be interesting, but we need a story. The story he recalls in summary would be a good one to show on the page, for example.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A solid, if unspectacular SF idea that suffers from too little story on the page.

Story 196 (2/22/2011 SF 3919 words)

Reader 1: “This story reminds me of the coneheads.  I sensed a joke coming at the end, and it does come. I think the story is way too long. It wasn’t my type of humor, but others may like it. I might have appreciated it if it had been about half the length.” (plot spoilers removed)

Begins with an exclamation. This is over the top for me.  Next paragraph does work well, putting me into a scene in mid-action. I have a character and a situation.  Not fond of the made up words. The prose itself is nicely active. The character is well portrayed. The preponderance of odd words and sentence structures keep me from identifying too closely. I kind of want it to be over, actually. Even though I like the flow and understand the character’s frustration. I just don’t want to have to work so hard for what appears to be very little payoff.

I think the problem I’m having with this is that I don’t feel compelled by the character’s situation. It seems to have no real motivation, the stakes seem minor, and yet I have to work through prose density to get at it. It’s an odd experience.

On p7 it gets more interesting. I’m getting a sense of need here, which helps.  It’s still pretty much a day in the life, however. It’s better on p11, where we get a sense of the character’s isolation. Maybe the story should start here.

The ending is relevant to the story theme, but pretty random too.  I don’t feel an emotional release or any great sense of loss, etc. There is a good story to be had here, but it’s not clicking yet.  Too day in the life ending in simple irony.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A social satire that suffers somewhat from too little satire and too much social.

Story 197 (2/22/2011 Fantasy 3300 words)

Reader 1: “There is no character change or realization. It would be better told in sequential order with her goal being [an event], not her life in flashbacks.” (pllot spoilers removed)

This comes from an author with strong credentials.  Opens in mid-scene, which is good, but an unnamed character, which is a warning sign to me. An archetypal character can work for us, but usually an unnamed character is not handled well. The thing that really bugs me, however, is the withholding of relevant knowledge. False mystery.

Then we’re off to back flash land. This deadens the telling. The prose itself is evocative and lively, but I’m not getting a sense of story (I’m getting technique). End of p3 gets interesting. We get motivation here. Character has been named now. Not sure why we couldn’t have done that in the first paragraph.

We return to the foreground story, which is static, then back to back flash, which is deadened somewhat by the filter of the MC’s recollection. Immediacy is difficult in backflash and memory. It can be achieved, but the question to ask is whether the price justifies the return. So far, I’d say not. This back flash is handled well enough, but I do not feel the immediacy of it. It feels too much like summary even though it is largely not.

The next flashback is more immediate. Then a return to the present, which remains static (a slow reveal of what she already knows).

Okay, so the prose here is very solid, even excellent, but it’s used to plaster over a lack of story experience. The story consists of a slow reveal of what the MC already knows. There is an interesting story here, but it’s already happened before the telling begins. This frame does nothing for me. I would have enjoyed reading the story forward, as the core concept is steeped in interesting mythology. I would like to see another layer of character complexity as well. Right now her motivation is pretty simple and the complications straight forward. The story is short enough that it can’t support too much complication. Maybe it should be expanded? And told forward rather than backward.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A myth literalized and updated. Strong prose is hampered somewhat by a lack of story immediacy.

Story 198 (2/23/2011 Other 8000 words)

Reader 1: “This is too long first of all at 8000 words. I really didn’t find a speculative element. It’s a historic piece about [something historic]. The first half is an introduction to the character. There doesn’t seem to be much goal here and I suspect that this might be the first chapter of a book because it ends with him needed to get to work on the problem. I don’t think it fits the theme either.”

Reader 2: “There’s a lot of things to like about this story (good POV penetration of a realistic character in the context of the imagined time period, good world building, some effective imagery), but at 8,000 words, this had to be pretty damn special for me to recommend it.  The start utilizes a novelist approach to world-building rather than getting straight to the inciting incident. The story doesn’t really start until page 8.  From page 8, the story meanders and it isn’t really protagonist driven. His actions reveal attitude and character, but they don’t actually involve the protagonist making a choice between clear and equally difficult paths of action. The scenes don’t really build towards the denouement in a significant way. While many of the scenes would probably be fine in a novel, they don’t really work here. In summary, I don’t think this has a dynamic enough plot to work as a short story. The world-building would probably work effectively in a novel (as long as there was a larger plot working in the background), but it’s not suitable for a short story. It worked in Heart of Darkness (a clear model for this story, in an acceptable way) but that had novel’s worth of words to make its point.”

I’m going to skim this because, well, how could I top that analysis? It’s definitely not going into the anthology, so I’m better off spending time on the next story, right?

Love the opening. I’m plopped right into the middle of a scene.

This is a very comfortable and interesting read. It’s too long for us, but I could see this being published in F&SF say, provided it delivers a payoff worth the investment.

It has a very good flow to it, and goes to an interesting place. It does meander too much for us and it seems (at skim speed) the protagonist is pretty much given his dessert without too much cost or character revelation. Still, I didn’t mind reading it quickly, which is a testament to its workpershonship.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A smoothly written narrative depicting an alternate history. The story suffers somewhat from a lack of escalation and character growth.

Story 199 (2/23/2011 Fantasy 1400 words)

Reader 1: “There are some nice observations and so weirdness in this story. It was difficult to read because of the sentence structure. I can’t figure out if the structure was on purpose or not. I think don’t think it’s strong enough to appeal to genre readers, and if we take the other story about [a similar topic], this one won’t compare.”

Reader 2: “I think this is striving towards the surrealistic nature of Kelly Link style-stories, asking us to ignore plot in favour of the larger story underneath the surface details. These sort of stories are very prone to legitimate misinterpretation and simply ‘missing the point’ by the reader, but I think this story is more shell-game than legitimate literary magic. It might work for a literary collection, but I’m not sure it works for a strongly plot-driven genre anthology. I wanted the surrealistic quirks to say something larger, to comment on something meaningful and I think this story is largely empty beneath the surface. Literary writing without plot can work, but I don’t think this has anything to offer beyond some nice style, quirky supporting characters and underplayed surrealism.”

This drops us neatly into scene and character. The language in para 2 is unnecessarily complex. The opening scene works to establish a motive and context.

I’m liking much of this, but I’m also feeling a little adrift. There is a good bit of either unreliable narrator or magical shifting going on, but I’m not able to get a sense of the why of it. He either forgets or is transported. And? For me, it’s like a plotted story that ends without resolving the plot. Here we glimpse a bit of white, but whether it’s a skeleton or random noise, I’m not sure.  I want more context here. It has  a very nice flow and an enjoyable protagonist (though the language feels inappropriate in places) and the ending is certainly resonant, but of what? It’s a regretful no for me.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 A surreal fantasy focused on the boundary between imagination and desire. The story suffers somewhat from loose tendons and missing teeth.

Looks like tomorrow will bring the vaunted 200th slushy. Yay tomorrow!


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See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. I’ll try to get through a bunch of these today.

Story 174 (1/30/2011 Fantasy 4300 words)

First Reader: “The prose is decent, but the pacing is too slow and there’s too much exposition before the plot gets started.”

This begins with attributed dialogue. It works to drop us into mid-scene and provided speculative context. It’s not a tremendously interesting opening, but works.

The companion is large, but what does he look like? We see a lot of this description by inference rather than direct observation.  There’s a fine line between providing necessary specific detail and providing irrelevant detail, but in general it’s best to provide enough for the reader to get an image in his mind that will not contradict future specific details. For example, I’m picturing a bear at this point, since I have nothing else to go on.

This conversation is difficult to parse. Since the companion has said nothing, it’s difficult to give much credence to what the MC is saying. The more important point is that none of it advances the story action. It’s chit chat.  I’m to p5 and there’s no sign of a story yet. It’s basically characterization and a small amount of background so far. There’s no inciting incident, no complication.

Some nice details of surround on p6. I still have no details of these characters beyond that they are some sort of creatures with paws and haunches.  We find something interesting on p7, but there’s still no sense of story. I’d say this is unfolding at novel pace, rather than short story pace. Skimming.

The story begins on p10. The sudden recognition seems a little forced, but it does generate an inciting incident and complication. I have no idea why the secondary character wants to protect this. We’ve had 8 pages or so to characterize the relationship and yet this comes as a surprise to me. There was no hint of this tension between them, this difference in perspective toward the unknown.  Then we’re back in chit-chat mode with the two characters bantering. So, basically, 1-2 pages of actual story movement so far.

On p14 we get history that makes the earlier reaction sensible. This comes too late. It’s basically characters sitting at a campfire to explain their reaction, rather than showing their reaction to stimulus and working motivation into that.

And on to the end. Nothing actually happens here. There is some tension between characters, but the plot is almost nonexistent, certainly not enough to support 20 pages. I do like these characters and I like the central theme. If I were revising, I’d create story action (physical complication/escalation/climax) to carry the word count and weave the character thread through that action.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A fantasy scene that pits two interesting characters against each other. The lack of plot action weakens the story significantly.

Story 175 (1/31/2011 SF 1300 words)

First Reader: “I like the emotional core of this, but even though it’s short, it’s still too long for its substance. I was thinking it might be worth a rewrite till I got to the end, then the whole thing falls apart.”

This opens with attributed dialogue. It works well enough. The first paragraph provides some context, but not enough to actually establish the surround. No motive or speculative detail yet. This is omniscient viewpoint, which makes me a little leery.

Where are we? I thought we were on a sidewalk in a crowd. Now I’m thinking an office with a secretary. I shouldn’t be reinventing the stage in my head. It distracts.

Ah, we are on a street, but with a secretary. Probably just need to establish her presence initially. I’m glad my first impression was right.

Second scene justifies the omniscient approach.  I’m not sure I need the first scene, however.  The second scene is sluggish until the network kicks in. It gets interesting then. It also makes me want that opening scene even less. It adds nothing to this.

I like the way it ends, though I do not like the advanced AI section, which feels like an info dump inserted to try and add import to the story. For me, the story is not about the idea, but the unexpected emotional connections presented in the network. In particular, the idea of the order to wipe, the concept of personality, etc. I do not think the ending falls apart so long as the story remains focused on the emotional elements that give such an ending power. It does fall apart if the story is meant to resolve the idea concerning AI’s place in society (been there, done that). I’m also not fond of this title.

If I were revising, I’d cut this to a single scene (the second one) from a close third viewpoint (the robot’s) and focus on the interesting stuff (the network conversations), using the opening paragraph to simply establish a context. This should work at about 750 words. I’ll reject this, but would be willing to take a look at the shorter, sharper version should the author wish to undertake it.  Keep in mind, it will have to also please the other editors, so I can’t promise success, just a stronger flash piece.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 An interesting idea bogged down by a sluggish opening and unnecessary details.

Story 176 (1/31/2011 SF 1300 words)

The first reader voted No without comment.

The opening works to establish a character in context. It’s pretty good.  The writing is good, but there’s not really a sense of story at this point. Mystery, yes, story no.  It’s observational.

Story movement begins on page 3 (of 4).  Viewpoint shift on p4 is convenient. Avoids the story experience in favor of a cheap reveal.  This is too gimmicky for us.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 An observational fantasy with a twist ending. The lack of deeper context hurts its staying power.

Story 177 (2/8/2011 Horror 1000 words)

First Reader: “Second person doesn’t work for me here because it’s not inviting me in with common experiences, but rather subjecting me to people I don’t know and actions I would never contemplate doing. There’s not a single person in this story to like and when I’m being placed in the shoes of the victim like I am in this story, I need to feel some sliver of recognition. I’ve seen 2nd person that works, but it’s rare. This isn’t that story and it wastes some nice opening lines about who [MC] is.”

The opening is a nice character description. First page is a character sketch. Story begins on p2 by inserting me into a situation that I should already know about. Okay, I’ll go with the shock of it for now.  I don’t like me very much.  I’m on p4 and the story hasn’t advanced past the initial tableau. It’s all internal (all about me, only this isn’t me).  The repetition of the gun line works, but the story overall is leaving me pretty unmoved. It feels a little like an exercise in second person.  Gotta say that it would fit the theme, though.  The writing is lively, the situation tense. My biggest issue, as it was the first reader’s,  is the viewpoint choice, which adds nothing substantial to the experience and actually subtracts a deal from my identification.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 Second person flash with active prose and a tense scenario. The story does not evolve much past a static setup, however.

Story 178 (2/8/2011 Other 1500 words)

First Reader: “This story is mostly told rather than shown. While the telling is actually fairly well done, any possible tension was drained from the story because of it. The ending came out of nowhere and recast the main character in an unsatisfactory light. There was a big POV switch late in the story and there is no speculative element at all in the story. The build up should have been effective, but it wasn’t.”

Nice opening line. Places me into a character efficiently and suggests tension. This flows smoothly and I like that the story title plays into this on page 2. That gives a seemingly innocent action some darker overtones. Unfortunately I’m thinking about an Everybody Loves Raymond episode at this point, which could detract a bit. Nice dark moment on the heals of good observation at end of p 3. So far I’m enjoying this, but I am not getting a sense of “speculative” yet.  By the end of p3 I am beginning to tire of the summary nature of the story. It’s good that we move in-scene on p4. That may be too late, however.  We haven’t really escalated beyond the opening premise at this point. Some dark hints have been nicely interjected, but the actual story tension remains about the same. In other words, this is taking too long.

The conflict at end of p5 is oddly devoid of emotion. I feel like a plot point has been delivered, but I don’t feel the emotional tension of it.  Then back to summary, which, while it describes escalation, does not add to the FEELING of story tension I want.

Viewpoint shift on p7 is distracting. We’ve invested in the MC and now that we may be getting close to emotional escalation, the story shifts to a new character.  The climax on p8 is curiously devoid of emotion as well. The intellectual delivery of plot works well enough, but we’re not getting the emotional band. That’s hurting the experience for me.

The ending shifts to omniscient and delivers a logical ending w/o emotional impact. I think the secret to making this work will be to tell the story from within discrete scenes. This will require getting in touch with the characters’ emotional states and escalating the tension between them in increments as the plot progresses. And I’d also want to make sure that the plot progression escalates from lesser tension to greater tension. I’m not sure that it does now; the conflict shifts from topic to topic, and there is certainly some escalation between characters, but as the first reader said, I’m not getting the sense of growing frustration/desperation in the MC as these issues advance from one problem to another. They seem roughly equal in weight, giving a sense of repetition rather than true escalation. Also problematic for us, the story does not contain a speculative element.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A mainstream story that delivers an intellectually satisfying resolution but lacks a significant emotional thread.

Story 179 (2/12/2011 SF 5150 words)

First Reader: “This one starts with an extensive info-dump/description and starts well before the true inciting moment. There isn’t a lot of scene building happening here and the loss of POV control happens quite early. Without a fixed POV or true omniscent POV, the tension is achieved through a form of witholding rather than any concern for a particular character. The resolution of the story wasn’t achieved by any action of the main character, but rather through other players (and it is a blatant form of witholding that the future teller knows what will happen but does not reveal so during the time we are immersed in their POV).”

Okay, I have a problem with body parts acting of their own volition, which is how this one begins. I have no solid frame of reference. It does drop me into mid-scene; there’s no solid viewpoint, however, and no sense of the overall surround.

As we get rolling there are some nice world building details. I’m not getting much sense of character, however. It feels like background for a novel at this point, rather than an actual short story experience.  Is this Captain the same as the old one in the opening paragraph? Apparently not. We’re in his viewpoint now. We learn two paragraphs later that he’s humanoid.  This causes me to reinvent him in my head.

Is the Fortune Teller the same as the old one in the opening paragraph? I think so. The Captain proceeds to explain to the Fortune Teller what he/she/it surely knows already.  More background information. Not sure what the motivation is, or what incites this story to begin here rather than last week. The world building is pretty interesting, but I’m not getting a story experience so far.

An interesting complication at about the halfway point (no page numbers, which may be due to the uploading process – also single spaced).  Ah, the old prophecy that tells us everything except the detail that matters. That’s okay as long as I come away thinking there’s a valid reason for this withholding.

This story provides an interesting “teachable” moment. The prose here is clunky and often painfully pulpy, yet I get a feeling of story movement even when there’s very little. I get a sense of characters interacting over matters important to them, of stakes larger than the story, of a world beyond the page. Contrast this to the large number of stories we’ve seen with wonderfully smooth prose that leave me wanting for a sense of story movement. I come away from this story with a stronger sense of satisfaction because that part of me that craves story gets something despite the ineffective prose techniques. Our ideal submission combines this story’s sense of “happening” with other stories’ technical craft. I’ve known since page 1 we would not be accepting this story, yet I’m more fond of it than many I’ve had to reject.

On p5 of 7 (according to my wp – single spaced), we get a really interesting tidbit of background that fundamentally changes everything. Why this didn’t come up earlier is beyond me, but it’s a cool concept (the clause in the war contract).  This is unfortunately followed by a monologue wherein one of the combatants delivers his history.

Well that was a way to let the protagonist off easy. Story ought to be about a protagonist forced to make a decision, not let out of making one by the actions of another.

Well, I don’t regret reading this. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on. It’s largely buried in some fairly amateurish writing (too many adverbs/adjectives, talking heads dialogue, imbalance between showing and telling etc), but with some pruning and sharpening, and a real viewpoint, this could be quite a satisfying read. My guess is that it will need to be longer in order to play out the various complications more concretely, but it’s an interesting world. Most likely this is from a world developed for book length projects. Nothing wrong with that as long as the story functions as a story too. Here, it doesn’t really.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An interesting fantasy conflict played out with intriguing characters. The pulpy prose and lack of viewpoint work against its power.

Story 180 (2/11/2011 SF 1256 words)

First Reader: “I didn’t think I’d like this one, but I did. The premise isn’t especially profound and the dialogue verges on the info-dump, but I liked the sad, unfinished nature of the last line. The one thing that was probably missing from this story was any hint of choice/conflict for the protagonist or anyone else in the story. It is an observational story with a passive protagonist, but despite this, I think it worked. I liked it.”

This opens well, putting me immediately into the MC’s thoughts and providing basic context. The opening scene does a nice job of establishing character.  This is day in the life stuff, but the observations and culture are just out of the ordinary enough to hold my interest. Shuttle? Do tell. I like the way the larger world bleeds into interstices in these daily interactions. It keeps me reading.

Nice back and forth about the (imagined?) larger conflict from a boy’s perspective. This has such a “real” feel to it.  Great ending. This is a nicely minimalist slice of life story that works even for my speculative reader side. Who says rules can’t be broken? Most of the time they shouldn’t be but there are exceptions. I’ll send this around to the other editors, but am hopeful.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 9 A minimalist SF tale that delivers a much larger world than the plot would suggest.

Story 181 (2/15/2011 Horror 3600 words)

The opening is solid. I have a character in context and a bit of true mystery to pull me in. The infodumpy description of place on p2 doesn’t work as well; for instance what triggers him to think of grass mowing when there’s snow on the ground? It feels staged for my information rather than through the character’s perspective.

By the end of page 3 this is too day-in-the-life for me. There’s no real speculative element, no real escalation of tension, just observations of a character going through his day. It’s interesting to compare this story to the previous one, which was also observational day-in-the-life, but held my interest. It’s largely in what details are presented and whether or not they pull me closer to character identification and hint at larger issues, or simply inform me.

At end of p4 the wife begins a conversation for which I have no context. It’s confusing rather than interesting as a result. I don’t mind that she starts in the middle of it (that’s natural) but I need him to think something that provides me with a context. Otherwise, I’m the stranger nodding politely while people gibber.

Why hasn’t he thought about the no return issue on p6 before now? While the prose carries me along without effort, the story feels very long. This usually indicates a lack of story movement (i.e. escalation and complication). We’re still basically exploring the same mystery as on p1. There has been some family tension resulting from it, but that doesn’t pull me in. The story is focused on the mystery, not the family.

The brains line gave me a chuckle. On p12 we get some escalation. My interest perks a bit. Then we enter fairly predictable terrain. Viewpoint shifts in final scene to show the reveal. The main problem here is that the story simply does not move quickly enough or develop the emotional thread well enough to make me care. At half this length, with an indication that the family friction is actually important, this might work.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A fairly predictable horror tale. The prose is solid, but the story is very slow to develop and ends with a simple twist.

Story 182 (2/16/2011 SF 845 words)

First Reader: “This story doesn’t have any real technical flaws, it just doesn’t offer anything new to the genre.” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening provides context efficiently. It does nothing to pull me into scene or character but works well enough.  Lots of dialogue here and very little physical detail (some inference, such as the beard that is not seen, but inferred in thought). I’m feeling talked at.  The conversation itself is fine, just not terribly compelling to me, the reader.

A strange little complication. The snap decision that follows is the right decision, but I find myself totally apathetic. The story lacks an emotional thread that might make this work for us. The message is pretty trite at this point, which would make even an excellent execution difficult to sell to us.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A fairly predictable SF tale. A lack of emotional escalation and a too-easy ending work against it.

Story 183 (2/16/2011 SF 4550 words)

First Reader: “The first 3 pages is a hanging-out-at-the-bar scene (oh no, not another bar scene!).  There is no drama in the climactic moment. The POV’s job is not clear.  The problem is pretty vague. The POV’s history comes in too late. The story doesn’t escalate very well. Too much confrontation is off screen.” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening provides context, but it’s a little difficult to parse (minor tense confusion). It feels informational rather than placing me in scene.  This continues for a couple page. I’m being told information, being told about a story happening rather than being involved in its happening. This summary approach seldom works for us. I’m getting only a superficial connection to the MC even when this does shift in scene. I feel like the conversation is aimed to provide info to me rather than two characters interacting.

Inciting incident at end of p3. I’m not sure what the MC is attempting to do here or why it matters. I’ll trust this will become evident soon.  Okay, I’m still clueless at the end of the scene. I feel like the story is taking pains to show me stuff that doesn’t really matter while avoiding the stuff that does. What is her purpose? How does this work? Why is it necessary? What would happen to the woman if she failed? Too much effort is being directed toward keeping the mundane (to the MC) mysterious. It’s a form of false mystery in effect. Which is a shame, because if I get this, the idea is pretty cool.

Second scene presents a second “case” (of what?). This leads to a sense of day-in-the-lifeness rather than one of escalating story tension. The story is reading flat so far.  Ugh. Some lines that sound nice but fall apart upon closer inspection. Sanity takes its rightful place? What does that show me? Trembling essence? Ditto.  In most stories we should avoid settling for evocative sounding description in favor of actual description that evokes things larger than the thing described. So, rather than a trembling essence, perhaps we see the air (or brain waves) shimmering, trembling, on the verge of coalescing into a form, a face, two eyes, an open mouth in mid-shriek.

Illusive from sight? What does that convey? Same deal. Describe concretely, think abstractly. It can make a huge difference to a reader’s experience. Skimming. I have too many stories to read today.

I’m wondering if the story should begin with Sparky. He’s what makes this day different for the MC. The other stuff was day-in-the-life. This has the potential to be story. This scene is way too easy for a climax. The MC makes no real choice, pays no real price for it, and her problems go away.  I do think a story that revolves around the issues raised in this final scene could be effective.

This author has purchased a full critique, so I’ll bring these issue to light in much finer detail there. There is an interesting idea here and the character should work fine.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 An interesting concept that develops too slowly and abstractly to reach its full story potential.

Story 184 (2/16/2011 Horror 3000 words)

First Reader: “This is a strange little tale about [something]. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it at first, but it grew on me. I think it might be a bit too long, but the narrator is unreliable without a doubt. Very strange.” (plot spoiler removed)

Interesting opening line. Inverts expectation, characterizes and gives just a hint of context. Nice, active prose. Especially like the fourth para on p2.   This scene ends well too. I like a story that plays with my expectations to build something new.  I think I’d like just an occasional snippet of concrete detail in the here and now, maybe something of the socialite’s features (perhaps mutated by his perception, but real). I like the surreality of the musings, but am missing a contrasting concreteness just a bit.

The scene on p6 (end) is nicely described. It would feel even more effective, I think, with some concrete detail in the prior here and now scene. We don’t actually know which is real, but they are connected through his experience. Since he’s all over the place in his head, one way to separate the time lines (so to speak) would be to concretize the here and now elements enough to subtly set them apart from memory. Hope that makes sense. It’s not a huge deal; I’m still enjoying, but I do feel just a little (artificially) adrift.

I like this. I like the way it ends, the ambiguity of it.  I’ll send it on to other editors to see what they make of it. Probably a 50-50 proposition at this point. I’m a little concerned about it fitting the theme, but I think a justification can be made.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 A bizarre SF tale featuring an unreliable narrator who just might be saving the world, or not.

Story 185 (2/18/2011 SF 1385 words)

First Reader: “I really liked the idea behind this, but the writing isn’t quite there. There’s too much over-written description at times, not enough character development, and the escalation is uneven. I was let down by the ending and not sure what it meant. I wanted to like this story, but it never quite made it. It’s not really a last contact story.”

A vivid opening line. It gives me a bit of setting and a sense of genre. I’m interested after the first page. I do worry about the crowd gaping in shock. Herd behavior bothers me. Interesting, until the MC realizes what the items are. At that point my interest falls. If he knows, I should too. This is false mystery.

Second scene is similar. Interesting, but a bit frustrating with its withholding. It bothers me that we have all these items, yet we’ve not seen any details of what they contain, even though the characters keep looking at them.

On p4 does the couple literally materialize out of thin air? Why does this not surprise MC? On p6 the woman’s appearance and demise feels staged. The love interest is not well set up, making this emotional ending less powerful than it should be.

An interesting idea, but the story doesn’t do enough with it. It spends too much time hiding the obvious in order to create an atmosphere of mystery. It spends too little time exploring the concept and what it means, especially emotionally, to this character.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 An SF story revolving around a clever concept. A lack of emotional development and too much withholding rob it of some power.

Story 186 (2/19/2011 Horror 100 words)

First Reader: “This is only 100 words long. It doesn’t do anything for me.”

This relies on a twist, but the twist doesn’t make immediate sense to me.  Is her husband a crematorium operator? Too many words spent on telling about emotion and frantic flailing. A few could be used to better set up the situation. I’m not sure the twist would be enough for me even then, unfortunately.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A microfiction horror that suffers from an obscure punchline.

Story 187 (2/20/2011 Horror 2470 words)

First Reader: “There is mostly over-written descriptive detail here. No story to speak of. It’s in first person and the character has no past.” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening is a bit clunky. It’s in the mode of a narrator telling me a story, which is okay, but the language doesn’t really grab me. The opening page is a breathless rendition of events. I want to tell the author to slow down and show me. Page 2 brings some nice details of place.  The writing is a bit excessive, emotionally speaking. Borders on purple prose. I’m finding it very difficult to connect with this character. First person is not helping that process.

The basement is full of dead animals? Isn’t that a bit strange? Okay, this is a creepy scene. What I’m missing at this point is a sense of purpose/motivation. Why is this character here? What does he hope to gain or achieve? Why is he not surprised by this? I’m being given a tour of a horrific idea rather than experiencing it through a character.

Well, I’d say this is mainly gratuitous gore. It has a dreamlike feel that’s kind of interesting, but there doesn’t seem to be a deeper layer of meaning or a moral beyond the obvious. The character had no motivation and was simply there to become fodder as best I can tell. If I were revising, I’d start with this basement and work outward to a motivated character with a reason to go there and make him work for whatever he gains or loses as a result. I’d also switch to a close third person viewpoint.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 Gratuitous horror with a dreamlike quality. The lack of a motivated character hurts this.

Story 188 (2/20/2011 SF 1800 words)

First Reader: “This has several problems. The protagonist doesn’t do anything; it’s [another character] who’s making the choices. The POV has no goal or much history. The scenes are mostly talking heads. There is no character change. The story doesn’t have much resolution.”

This opens in attributed dialogue, but the speaker is non-specific (“one of the guys”). The line is a hood, for sure, but I have no sense of place. There is a speculative element. Overall, it’s pretty good. Who is the ambassador? Concrete detail would help here.

It would help to SEE the suits before learning about them. To SEE the other characters before inferring something about them. Stimulus then reaction is generally the best choice. It connects us to the character experience more tightly than if we’re filtering everything through his thoughts.

Okay, I like the scene that’s being set up. The problem is that I don’t have enough context for it to matter to me. Why is this time the time that matters? Why extinction? How pressing is this? Too much false mystery (stuff the viewpoint knows but doesn’t reveal) gets in the way of the true mystery (stuff the viewpoint doesn’t know). I’m left feeling disoriented rather than curious.

What had happened to the ambassador? It would help to SEE the mechanized suits before we hear about them. I’m forced to reinvent the scene in my head.

I do like some of these lines. The MC is likable and possibly noble.  I suspect third person would be a stronger viewpoint choice here, but first person works pretty well.  On p4 we get the context we should have gotten in the first scene.

What does a misshapen head look like? Human? At this point, the MC is being rescued. Until now he’s been passively waiting. Some lively thoughts and language.  I’ve had to reinvent the stage again. Didn’t know we were on a ship. Didn’t know we were heading for a planet, etc..

Okay, this settles for clever in the end, which is unfortunate in my opinion. I would much prefer a richly portrayed story based around this basic concept. Here we have a quipping MC passively being processed through a story arc. It could be so much more.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A quirky character confronts a quirky concept. The story is hampered by a lack of concrete detail and a passive protagonist.


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See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. I have time for a few before bed.

Story 171 (2/8/2011 Horror 3700 words)

First Reader: “The story doesn’t begin until page 2/12. There is no set up [for the payoff]. There is no character change. The writing is okay, but there is a lot of repetition throughout.” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening is summary, but it’s handled well. Nice first line brings us into a character and we get context after that. Second paragraph starts out strongly, moving us closer to the MC, but it goes on too long and loses sharpness by the end.

The second character is introduced as an inciting incident, but the focus shifts away from the MC at this point, as if the MC was just an opening act.  There’s some good back and forth on page 3. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this is a lot less compelling than I thought it would be. The MC has morphed from someone I had sympathy for to someone who’s just here to observe for me (at least that’s how it feels to me, like a sour note, but I’m not quite sure why).  The offer at the end of p3 seems pat. I think my problem is that I signed on for a character story and I’m getting plot at this point. I do want plot, mind you, but it feels like the story has shifted gears rather than deepening.

I like the concept here, but I’m not feeling the vibe. This is a story about music and authenticity, yet we’ve heard/felt no music, which makes this claim of authenticity a bit hollow. I need to see this dude doing his thing in an authentic way; he needs to deserve this change in his life.

Some heavy stuff on p5. It comes out of nowhere for me. There’s an attempt to frame the second character as larger than life, but it’s just the MC telling me about his perception. I wonder if this would work better if we saw the MC play as the story opens and gained a feeling that HE is in touch with something larger than himself when he plays. There is potential power in this idea, I just don’t feel it coming through.

Some nice lines on page 5. Not too many such that they overwhelm, but a few gems scattered to draw my eye. Nice. Good setting details on p 6.

On p 8: “When I play everything’s connected.”  Make me believe that by seeding evidence of it early in the story and I will feel the power of this line. Right now I feel as if I’ve been told a clue.  Some mystery on p10 that is pretty cool. I’m not really getting the power of it, because I’m not really attached to the MC as I should be, but it’s a neat idea.

On p11, I would be happier if I’d had clues for this end of the world vibe. There were images and word choices, but I didn’t noticed anyone actually acting on this impulse earlier, so it feels flat here.  Then, “Everyone knows the sun is dying.” I didn’t. Yes, it was described in a way that might be interpreted this way, but I had no real impetus to do so.

Interesting idea here, potentially quite powerful. It didn’t sell me on the unreliable narrator, however. I think the key here would be to have the MC play in that first scene and see how the world changes (for him) when he does, how it connects him to everyone and everything and just keeps growing inside him until he can’t bear it and must stop. Then, in the end, he doesn’t (stop). Something like that. It’s certainly worth pursuing this one. I won’t ask for a rewrite because it’s going to take too much of a re-envisioning of character and scene to satisfy me, but I’d certainly take another look at this if the author felt moved to try a revision.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Nicely observant character story that suffers from a too reliable unreliable narrator and insufficient setup of the core concept.

Story 172 (2/15/2011 SF 5000 words)

First Reader: “After three pages of this, I couldn’t take it anymore. It appears to begin in third person, but then becomes first. I think it was always first person, I just couldn’t tell because of the writing. It’s so busy trying to be cute, that it interferes what what story there is, which isn’t much in the first 3 pages (single spaced).”

I include this as a glimpse into a slush reader’s mind set.  The single spacing could be an artifact of the upload process, so we don’t pay particular attention to that (it does make it a bit more difficult to read, however), but a reader cannot help but to look for reasons to say no when he/she has to read so many stories.  The more difficult you can make it for us to say no early in the story, the better chance you have (once we’ve invested attention and time, we’re more likely to keep reading).

Anywho…  This is first person, but we don’t discover that until the end of the opening scene. Imagine a reader hovering outside a scene waiting, waiting, waiting to figure out who he should pay attention to. This story appears to be aiming for humor, which can mitigate the need for close viewpoint identification. However, the humor isn’t all that funny, I’m afraid, relying mostly on wordplay and slapstick at this point. I can’t imagine 5000 words of this working particularly well. We’ll see though.

Second scene is much stronger. Third scene is better yet. I’m enjoying the flow of this now. The underlying satire is interesting without becoming overbearing. Still, 5000 words?

Nice observational humor. One small nit is that there area  few too many speech tags. Not every line needs a speech tag. It’s a minor thing, but the dialogue will flow better with a few fewer of these where it’s abundantly clear who is speaking. And, please, limit the “I go” to one in a story; “said” is such a dandy way to say “said”. Some fine belly laughs along the way here.

Damn right, 5000 words. A very nice job here. The pacing is good, the ending escalates it from a simple joke to a meaningful tale. I’ll pass this on to the others, but don’t hold your breath. Humor is so danged subjective. You’ve already lost one reader and it’ll take a strong yes from the rest of us to overcome that. At least know that you’ve entertained one of us.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 9 Sharp social satire with a snappy plot and cookie cutter characters (just as a story like this requires). A slapstick opening weakens its appeal somewhat.

Story 173 (2/11/2011 Fantasy 2100 words)

First Reader: “I like a lot of this, but it needs work. It’s a bit sparse in places, needs line editing, and needs to tie the themes to each other a bit more. If other people like it, I would like to see a rewrite.”  (plot spoilers removed)

The opening is a bit static, but quite effective at setting a character in scene. The prose works, but I do see places where moments should be played out just a bit longer and where language could be a little sharper. Enjoying so far.

The info dump on p2 is clunky. I need a bit more sense that he’s reacting to stimulus (beyond just seeing this odd thing – I would think his initial reaction would be disbelief or denial, not a rehashing of a legend he knows).  Yes, this is a good example of a story that is working too hard to give information to me rather than developing it through the character. The character identification elements are actually very strong – I felt like I was experiencing the scene through his senses until the info dumps came in. All that’s needed is to find stimulus/events that cause the character to need this information so that he’s accessing it for himself in a manner that addresses his needs, not mine. In other words, I probably don’t need ALL this information, at least not here and now, but I can envision this character recalling the more important parts of it that relate to his immediate situation. So it’s not a true info dump problem, but one of character involvement.

The wife comes in at just the right time. This is an example of doing it right.  The conversation with the creature should escalate, not repeat.  Starts at too high a point of tension to do this.

This is a difficult one. I like the story that is being told, but not so much the way it unfolds.  For example, the climax occurs maybe halfway through the story, which leaves us with pages of anticlimax. A better structure would build the tension through the next-to-final scene and force the MC to make a choice at that point that causes the final scene to more relevant to his decision. He needs to pay for this choice (more than a casual reference to the money he gives up).  Nor is the wife used to build tension in the latter portion of the story. Missed opportunities weaken this substantially.

I’ll ask the others to read and react. We may ask for a rewrite, but I’m betting not. Too much to be done, I suspect. It’s another story I would not mind seeing again if the author were moved to take on a significant revision.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 A fantasy story based on Chinese legend. This is timely and interesting. Less than perfect story tension weakens it somewhat.

That’s it for tonight. More tomorrow.

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See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. I have time for one or two before I lay me down to sleep.

Story 165 (2/12/2011 SF 3424 words)

This opening has a nice feel. I’m put into mid-scene with a clear context, implied genre, in a  character’s viewpoint. Intriguing hook as well. A hint of motive, but I’m slightly worried that we may not get an inciting incident in this scene. Just a hunch. Hope I’m wrong. The writing is lively, which compensates to a degree, but I do want a story to begin soon.

On p2 we get a possible inciting incident (the reason the story begins here, not yesterday or next week).  Nice observational writing. I’m not feeling story movement after 2 pages though. The inciting incident is a red herring so far.  Story could start on p3. This feels more like story. It’s been background to this point.

Or it could start on p4.  Nope. It’s very good writing, but there’s no real story movement yet. It’s a day in the life, interesting, but not compelling. Good background for story, but not story itself.

Or it could start on p8. Definite story tension here. It would be a nice complication for a motivated character, but we don’t have a motivated character so it comes across as just another event in the day in the life.

It’s a shame; I really like the writing here. It’s unpretentious and effective at conveying scene and character. What is missing is a compelling story to carry the prose. Without that skeleton it doesn’t really connect with me. If I were revising, I would go back to story basics. Establish a protagonist (done) with a clear motive (not done) who encounters obstacles (not done) that complicate his journey and explore story theme simultaneously. Come up with a climax (the active scene should work for that) that pushes tension to its highest point and make the character decide. Make him risk something important, pay something important to earn the ending.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Well written SF concept that delivers interesting characters doing mostly interesting things. The lack of a meaningful story arc weakens it.

Story 166 (2/12/2011 SF 2600 words)

Nice, efficient opening. Drops me in the middle of a scene, in character, and a hint of genre.  The third paragraph is unnecessarily disorienting. Which “she” sits and how does she have a new couch HERE if it’s the old one?  I get what is being said, but have to stop and think it through. I shouldn’t have to. When what is being described is unusual, prose clarity becomes a prime currency.

No reason to hide that she’s the daughter initially. This is false mystery rather than true mystery. Careful with the references. With two women, rapid fire “her” can be slippery.

I’m on p3 now and I’m having a similar problem here. What is the MC’s motive? Why does the story start here and not later or earlier? What’s different about this time? Some nice writing; good observations. At the end of scene 1 I ask, “Why?”. I know that she wants this, but why? This is false mystery rather than the true mystery that could better compel me (what does she NOT know about the device and her daughter?)

I like the opening of scene 2. I continue to want to know why this is important however. This is closer to explanation of an idea than story at this point.  More false mystery here. What she does is interesting, but why does she do it? She knows. We’re in her perspective.

The character line on p7 strikes home with me. It should likely be earlier in the story. Too much of the story so far has relied upon false mystery, too little on true mystery (things she does not know herself).  Consequently it “feels” mysterious, but is not mysterious (it’s manufactured).  Good complication at the end of this scene.

With the scene on p8-9 we begin to get story tension. On p10 we get the core issue. It’s a good core issue; it’s what should be driving this story, not the false mystery of earlier scenes. This scene is dragging, however, as it explains the device and the story concept. Dramatization of this material will be more compelling.

I’m not fond of the final scene, which is basically a flash back to explain the genesis of the story. The genesis ought to come at the beginning of this story. If I were revising, that is what I would focus on. Begin with the inciting incident, which makes clear the core theme and motivates this character. Move to the complication of not wishing to save experiences, complication with spouse and money, increase the tension to the decision she makes in the end, with a clear indication of what it costs her.

This can be a very good story. Right now it’s a neat idea and a cool device.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Well written SF concept based on a timely theme. The lack of a strong story arc weakens it.

Story 167 (2/12/2011 SF 200 words)

This is interesting, but doesn’t quite work for me. I like the language and the basic concept, but I come away with a bit of a “so what” attitude in the end. I think that’s because, while I understand the general concept here, I don’t understand the specific. In the 70’s I suspect this would have worked very well for me; this issue was everywhere then and I would have leaped to the conclusion required. Now, not so much, unfortunately. I’ll pass it on to another reader to make sure it’s not just me.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Interesting concept delivered in solid prose. The lack of a specific focus at the end damages its sharpness somewhat.

Story 168 (2/13/2011 Fantasy 3475 words)

The opening sentence has an unnamed character. Not a major deal, but does not draw me in. Opening paragraph establishes a character and a hint of context. I like the second paragraph. Story concerns a writer, which is usually problematic. Usually these stories tend to be too internalized and/or dreary.

Literally vanished? Because he doesn’t even react, I read it as a literary device.  Good observational details. The story is very internalized at this point. Okay so far, but I am getting hungry for some external action. Why doesn’t he react to the knocking? Okay, end of p2 makes that question go away. Nice.

I’m at the end of p3 and this is beginning to feel repetitive. Very internalized. P4 begins external movement. Good complication. We probably need to get here quicker is all. More internalization. Not so good. The appearance of the device is welcome, but it’s taking too long (more internalizing) to get to it. More internalizing.

More internalization. So far the story arc has consisted of walking to a door and not opening another door. This, in 9 pages.  I need a better balance of internal and external story. Scene beginning on p10 is more active. Good details, good balance of internal thought/external action. Then a backflash. This is more effective that much of the prior internalization. Good tension in this backflash. We’re SHOWN many of the characteristics we were TOLD ABOUT in the opening scenes.

Page 16 begins the reveal. The story does require this reveal, which is clever enough, but it only works because we weren’t told this information initially. In fact we were lied to in the opening line. In effect the story becomes one of those mysteries you can’t solve because the butler’s sister did it and we didn’t even know he had a sister until the reveal.

If I were revising this, I would try to begin with the backflash scene (NOT as a backflash), ending with the MC losing consciousness. When he wakes, the assumption can more logically be that his wife left him. Then onward through the early scenes, ending with the final reveal. I would definitely work to pare down the internalizations; they won’t be needed as much with the active scene up front anyway. I would instead focus on his confusion, his residual anger giving way to forgiveness. I think this is yet another example of story being told inside out. It seldom works as well as a story told forward, because the power has to rely on artificial mystery and literary tricks rather than the story tension and climax. I’m not going to suggest a rewrite here, but this is a story I would be happy to reconsider if the author took it upon themselves to revise. It has some definite strong points.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A clever Fantasy premise that ends with a nice resonance. The lack of a solid story arc weakens it.

Story 169 (2/14/2011 SF 1900 words)

This was published in another language, which means I’ll treat it on par with original subs for the anthology.

This opens interestingly with a character in context and a suggestion of genre. The writing is simple and effective and the setting a bit bizarre.  I’m a little too disoriented to care a great deal, however. Interesting picture. An inciting incident. But when anything could become anything, it’s hard to get too worked up about it.  This is breezy, but the humor feels superficial to me so far.

On page 3, there’s a hint of larger issues that opens my reading eyes. There’s also a lot of gobbledy gook place names that clog up my ears. This becomes a little more concrete on p4, but it’s too late for me. Some nice lines in the dialogue. It devolves into an extended discussion of politics (satiric, yes, but not really story).

If this started closer to the complication on p8 I would likely be more interested. Some funny lines and a good ending, but the problem for me is that this is basically an extended discussion of idea dressed up as a story rather than a story built around an idea. Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy worked well precisely because Douglas Adams focused on the story and worked his satire onto the page as reaction to story stimulus. We identify with the character (whose view is quite concrete, note) strongly enough to buy the bizarreness of everything and everyone else because HE does. He struggles against it, is changed by it, etc.. Same with Catch 22.

There are markets for this type of story, I think, but we’re not one of them, unfortunately.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A sometimes funny satire focusing on a timely topic. The lack of story arc undermines it to a degree.

Story 170 (2/14/2011 Fantasy 3635 words)

The opening is fine, but a bit static. It drops me into scene and character and genre, so nothing wrong with it. I’m just not excited yet. I’m worried by the tendency to explain emotion in speech tags rather than showing evidence of emotion. This is a sign of an author standing in the way of the reading experience. Lord knows much of this technique gets printed, but it’s one more small way to weaken a story experience.

God bearer? It’s not clear without re-reading why he thinks this. What is his task? He knows. It is false mystery to withhold that from me. There seems to be a mix of false and true mystery here. Veiled references to relevant events and motives rather than a clear delineation of them. I would much rather be focusing on the true mystery of the situation (i.e. the stuff the viewpoint character does not understand) rather than parsing through false mystery (the stuff he does understand, but does not think or say in order to keep me “hooked”).  P2-3 is basically people explaining things to each other that they should already know. There is some good tension near the end of this scene.

Scene 2 has some nice observational detail. I’m much more firmly in scene here. I still don’t know what the MC intends to do (except in general terms). This keeps me from feeling compelled to read on, but I probably would keep going for a time. He keeps thinking about saving a city, but why should he think he can? What exactly does it mean? Does he have a plan?

There are some nice details of process here, but the story lacks much emotion or even physical sensation. It’s very intellectual, which keeps me from investing much in the character. A story like this will live or die on the strength of its idea. A story that balances idea and character has a much better chance. Much more difficult to write, of course, but you get what you sweat for.

As an example, consider: “Around him were hoots and jeers. These filled him with anger that let him rise, revealing himself beyond doubt as…”

Note the passiveness of the stimulus (around him were hoots and jeers – he’s interpreting this intellectually, but not hearing it). His reaction, too, is very intellectual, described from outside his experience rather than inside it. There’s noting wrong with these sentences as prose, but they do not achieve what the story requires, which is reader identification with character experience.

“A peasant hooted, then another. Soon they were all jeering, the noise pounding at him like fists. Anger rose through him, a mist becoming steam, fogging his thoughts. ‘Behold!’ he screamed, and he rose to his full, majestic height, revealing himself as…”

I don’t mean to suggest this to be the actual wording (it’s not my world to describe) but as an example of a different technique wherein a character experiences stimulus, experiences a reaction, then fosters an intellectual/physical response. It’s a more natural sequence and will generally pull readers into a character’s experience pretty quickly.

The long paragraph on p8 works nicely for me. I feel closer to the MC. The conversation, however, feels like more information delivered for my sake rather than the characters’. I feel as if the story is still being set up. We should be at the complication stage here. Certainly there was a complication earlier, but this section feels like a repetition of an earlier scene explaining the world situation rather than a reaction to the complication.

Why didn’t he try this tactic first? Maybe I missed something. I do have to read pretty quickly to get through so many stories. More explanation of situation. I do think this scene could be powerful if set up better. Ooh, I do like the lady under the wrap.

This seems easy enough. Overall, the story is pretty flat, I’m afraid. I don’t get the kind of rising tension and climax I look for in fantasy. The world seems pretty interesting. If I were to revise this, I would return to story basics and focus on developing a more specific motivation for the MC, a greater sense of tension through the complication, and a more costly climax/decision for the MC. This reads like a part of some larger work, which makes it difficult to generate the sort of power a short story requires.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An interesting fantasy world and character. The lack of story tension through the middle and a too-easy ending work against it.

I got more done than I thought I would. Hopefully more tomorrow.

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See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. Where does the week go?

Story 163 (2/9/2011 Fantasy 5541 words)

Reader 1:  “The beginning is two pages of [event] in present tense. Then there is 4 pages of back fill telling the reader about [event]. Then we are back to the [event]. The remaining 20 pages are an interview. I skimmed over most of it. I’m not sure where the goal of [doing something] came in. Maybe somewhere in the interview, but I didn’t see it until about page 26 of 27. It didn’t seem like a last contact story either.” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening drops us into mid-scene, which is good, but the writing is pretty generic (as opposed to specific). Not great, not bad. Third paragraph introduces MC with some good specific detail. The omniscient viewpoint holds me at a distance. It’s an observant scene, but I don’t understand why it should matter to me. There’s no motivation, no character identification. The scene feels dramatically empty as a result.

Second scene begins in summary, but it’s more lively than the first scene despite that. Still, it’s not giving me a sense of story motivation or character arc. Interesting information, but I’m hungry for a story to begin.  At the end of p4 we finally get what seems to be a story opening. The scene is more active, but the writing seems to dull a bit, with more adjectives and adverbs than the previous prose.

After a couple paragraphs of forward motion, we shift to summary narrative. This deadens the momentum for me. On page 6 we’re back to story action. I still have no sense of motivation. Why is this character doing what he does? What does he want or need? We see him doing it and we can infer what it means in a larger sense, but that larger sense is nothing I’ve not seen a dozen times already. What makes this character different, this specific contract more important?

We switch to narrative summary and social satire. The story seems to be shifting gears. We seem to be starting again. I’m seeing a lot of adverbs and adjectives again. I’m also being held at a distance from the action. On page 9, we shift into the MC’s perspective and begin to learn about his emotional past (though not his goal in this story). It’s more involving, but represents another gear shift. Skimming.

The next several pages appears to be information disguised as dialogue (true, it’s an interview format, but I feel very much as if the information is being delivered to me, not the audience). More background information. The MC still has no goal that I can perceive.  On p24 we learn the MC’s motive. This is far too late to generate any dramatic tension.

That’s it? This ending might support 1500 words or so, but not 5500. It’s a simple twist on previous stories of this sort. If I were revising, I would very much focus on the MC, his need, the complications he faces, the price he pays, how he is changed by that payment. Right now this is 90% background and 10% story.  There’s not enough complexity, especially character complexity, to support the word count.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A fairly standard story with a moderate twist. Lack of character motivation and complication against an overabundance of background weaken it.

Story 164 (2/9/2011 Horror 2400 words)

Reader 1: “The POV doesn’t really have a goal or do much protagging. The idea isn’t very new. Parts are over-written while other parts are too simplistic. There is no character development. The idea isn’t very new.” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening is imprecise. There are lots of names for colors. What foreign presence? The colors? Why are dark colors foreign to clouds? It would be better to start this in the MC’s viewpoint rather than working so hard to make the scene mysterious. What you’ll find is that if a reader identifies closely with a character and the character finds something mysterious, the reader will as well. If the mystery is presented first, the reader is likely to feel as if he’s watching from a sort of limbo, without emotion, without investment. Once we do drop into the MC’s viewpoint, we’re presented with false mystery. He obviously knows more about this stuff than he’s letting us know. I feel manipulated.

Scene 2 starts in false mystery. Lots of innuendo about this mysterious thing that he obviously knows more about than I do. No reason he shouldn’t think about what he knows. I’m feeling lost and a bit frustrated.  Impact? The colors?  He has a family? Fallout? I thought we were talking about dark colors.

“Humanity was ready for humanity.” Be careful with lines like this, which sound kind of neat, but say nothing clearly. I used to fall into this trap a lot. I would have these wonderfully evocative sentences that parsed well and felt good on the tongue, but when I actually looked more closely said nothing coherent. I’ve since learned that a clear, declarative sentence can work rings around these sorts of statements. These are a sign of a writer working too hard to sound “writerly” rather than striving to clearly communicate the image, characters, and actions.

On p3, more tantalizing hints of what we should know. “It happened…” What happened? On the third day something happened, but what? We’re in summary mode at this point, which makes the story seem distant. Telling this scene from inside the MC would be much more effective. Try to use more specific details and fewer broad generalities as well. Specific details, specific characters with specific problems and specific strengths and weaknesses, make a scene come alive. General overview of actions and character motives, etc. hold the reader outside the scene looking in. While this technique is sometimes useful, it’s much less compelling. This story is crying out for reader identification with the character’s situation, but we’re seldom, if ever, actually inside his experience.

Well, it definitely fits the theme, which is to the good. However, I’m not sure I understand what actually happened any more clearly at the end of the story than I did in the beginning. I don’t really understand the character or why the story should matter to me.

If I were revising this, I would return to story basics and push this idea until I had something less general and a character who needed this to happen to him. Then I would decide what his goal is, what obstacles stand in his way, how he fails/succeeds in overcoming them and what he gains or loses through this process. I would choose a tight third person viewpoint and tell the story from inside that character’s experience, rather than from outside it. For this story to work well, I need to identify emotionally with this character. Intellectual summary of events does not help that process. On the technical side, I would focus very tightly on weeding general language and images out and replacing them with specific language and images that clearly show what is happening as it happens. Even if I had to use all subject-verb constructions, I would do this, just to get the story onto the page as clearly as possible. Then I would work on mixing up the language a bit in revision to vary cadence and keep the prose active.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 2. An apocalyptic story that suffers from a distant viewpoint and imprecise language.

That’s all I have time for tonight.

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See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. My goal today is to get through 15 stories.

Story 151 (2/5/2011 SF 1600 words)

Reader 1: “The start was well written and interesting but unnecessarily elusive. Unfortunately, this occurred throughout the story. There were a lot of elements I really liked in this story, but as a reader it was frustrating to see what wasn’t done with the world. I’m not a fan of the direct missive to another character style either.  I really liked the voice and the world that was hinted, but there’s no story here. It’s mostly description of an interesting world and a character with an interesting background, but there’s little else to hang onto. There wasn’t conflict and little hint of why ‘you’ was important. This sort of story I find frustrating, because there’s so much that could have been done with it.”

Interesting opening paragraph. It lacks clarity, but hints at an interesting world and character. As hook it functions well; as context not so much. The upshoot is that I’m immediately hungry for concrete context. The second person viewpoint anticipates this, by having me ask for clarification. The narrator response with additional hints of an interesting world and just enough clarity to keep me reading. The problem by p2 is that this has become a talking heads story, with the narrator explaining story concept to me (literally me in this case) rather than pulling me into a story experience.  Much information is delivered, then the typical backflash to the real story. Not terribly immediate told from this perspective. Skimming.

The paragraph ending p5 is intriguing. The viewpoint device makes it clumsy, but it does raise the story stakes. Then we’re into the typical awkwardness of second person. I generally despise an author telling me what I think or do. Many readers share this dislike, thus the cost of this viewpoint choice is high. What does it ADD to the telling here? Enough to justify it? So far I would say no.

I do like the final paragraphs; it does justify the viewpoint. However, it didn’t really overcome the negatives for me. I would prefer to read the story that is back flashed here, perhaps it could flash forward to this ending, but as it stands, I’m not involved enough in the telling to get to this ending with much emotional investment. As a thought experiment it’s interesting.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 An interesting world and intriguing character. The lack of compelling story arc makes this more effective as a thought experiment.

Story 152 (2/5/2011 SF 2787 words)

Reader 1: “There is some okay character development and some tension at the beginning of the story, but it becomes confusing. In the end, the world is on fire or something.” (plot spoilers removed?)

This drops us into the middle of a situation. We have a character in context, with motivation provided in the second paragraph. It’s a little intentionally confusing for my taste (verging on false mystery), but better than a static opening. End of p1 IS false mystery, lots of innuendo about this thing he’s done. We’re in his perspective, tell us already. Then there’s a flash of description he does not see. I’m not all that bothered by it– it’s a common technique–but it doesn’t pull me into character, for sure.  By the end of the first scene we get more concrete details and another veiled hint at motive. I do like the freckles, but the rest seems a bit dire. The payoff to this mystery must be huge to justify such an approach.

Scene 2 is pretty much a repetition of the first in terms of technique. Drop us into a (false) mystery, provide hints of motivation, sprinkled with the occasional effective line or observation. There’s nothing wrong with the actual prose, but it’s trying too hard. I think there is real mystery to be had here, but the false mysteries get in the way of appreciating it. False mystery is info known to POV which is made mysterious to the reader via technique. True mystery is that which is mysterious to the POV.

I’m getting confused on p6. Scene 3 opens in confusion (for me). Some definite true mystery at work in this scene. I’m too disoriented to appreciate it (i.e. I’m not firmly in the character’s perspective, to actually understand what’s going on – when everything is mysterious, it’s hard to care much about solutions).

We shift to back flash to explain some of the prior false mysteries. Meanwhile the true mystery is shoved to a back burner.  By scene 4, I’m not really paying attention. There does seem to be an interesting idea behind this, but I’m tired of trying to get my footing.

My advice to the author would be to simplify this and focus on the true mystery of it. Likely this will mean beginning the story earlier, with the discovery of the concept, or later with the final complication (likely flash length in this case).  There’s some good writing here; trust it to carry the story forward rather than trying to keep me hooked with false mysteries along the way.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 This is a time travel story with an intriguing twist. The story relies too heavily on technique and false mystery, rather than story complication and escalation of tension.

Story 153 (2/5/2011 SF 2100 words)

Reader 1: “This seems to be a mainstream story.  There isn’t enough character development and I’m not sure what’s happening at the end. The POV never has any realization and rarely thinks anything.” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening paragraph is descriptive. The cadence is good and the opening line suggests motive, so it works reasonably well. Third paragraph disorients me. The dialogue works well and I like the minimalist approach, though I do want a speculative element soon.

It’s kind of a catchy little thing, bordering on surreal, but I’m not sure whether the effect is entirely intentional. The title suggests it is.  The next scene does as well. I like the pacing of this piece, the way information kind of trickles out of it.

Okay, so this is post-apocalypse.  That’s cool. A stronger hint early would help.

Interesting ending. Very literary, and evokes an emotional reaction from me. The author selected a full critique, so I’ll take the remainder of my comments off line. Passing it along to other editors for a read.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 A post-apocalyptic tale with strong literary technique.

Story 154 (2/6/2011 Fantasy 1994 words)

Reader 1: “The idea is not particularly compelling. There is no character development. There is little tension. The dialog doesn’t escalate the story.” (plot spoilers removed)

Opens with clear context, but static. Omniscient viewpoint and past-perfect delivery deaden this for me. Story starts in summary of past events, rather than moving forward. Emotions are being told to me (shook head in disbelief, clutched gut in anguish). I feel no connection to these characters and the events so far are mundane. There are some good observations here and there and the dialogue is mostly good. It’s easy to read this.

Interesting development in next scene. It does make me wonder about the time frame, however. On page 7 we learn the year, which we should already know (maybe not exactly).  The core concept is interesting, but I’m just not invested enough in either character to care.  It’s kind of a telling of idea for me at this point.  A Twilight Zone ending.

This isn’t bad, but doesn’t really scratch beneath the surface of an intriguing idea. I didn’t identify with characters, which left the idea to carry the story, and it just kind of sat there in the end. It would make a neat Twilight Zone episode, I suspect, though we’d need more depth of characterization even there.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An intriguing idea that plays out somewhat predictably. Flat characterization limits emotional investment.

Story 155 (2/6/2011 SF 500 words)

Reader 1: “There is too much repetition for a 500 word story. The POV ends up being an [censored?], which just isn’t that awe inspiring. I really can’t think of much else to say about this one.”

Interesting opening line. There’s no movement, just static description. It reads long for its length. Some movement mid-page 2. Writing is somewhat flat. This could work, but requires exceptionally sharp observation and prose to pull it off. Right now it’s pretty much a one-liner stretched to 500 words.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An interesting idea. Lack of sharp observation and prose dulls the payoff.

Story 156 (2/7/2011 SF 8100 words)

Reader 1: “This is 8,000 words. Too long in more than one respect.  I had trouble keeping track of what was going on in the story. I think there were alternating scenes between the MC and something else, like sex topics. It was just too difficult to follow. I quit at about page 8. ”

While we don’t have a “hard” limit on word count, we have yet to buy a story much over 5000 words and it would take something amazing to make us break that trend. Because I’m running behind on submissions, I’ll read this until it’s clear we won’t take it, then skim to the end.

Neat opening quotation. First scene lost me pretty quickly. The past-perfect tense and awkward speech tag work against holding my interest. The actual content is intriguing.

Next scene opens smoothly. Character in context. Writing is elegant, if a bit overwrought.  Page 2. Literal zombies? The prose is being too clever for me.  False mystery abounds at this point. By page 4, I’m tired of reading. Part of this is the sheer volume of stories I must read for this gig, but mostly it’s the overabundance of clever prose dancing at the edge of actual meaning. Do I like this story? I don’t know; I can’t get past its telling. Skimming.

Well, I missed a lot, I’m sure, but I saw enough to know this is an ambitious story by a more than competent writer.  What I didn’t get was  a sense of story arc. It read more as a diatribe or philosophy turned into a series of set pieces. There was dramatic portrayal to be sure, and the satire is sharp, but I just couldn’t get into the story itself.  This is the sort of thing I might have expected to find in Ellison’s Dangerous Visions series (though it would likely need a stronger arc even there), but it won’t fit well into our antho, I’m afraid. Maybe I’m Parked?

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An ambitious SF satire. Lack of strong story arc lessens its appeal to general readers.

Story 157 (2/7/2011 SF 4075 words)

Reader 1: “I made it through 4 pages of this before I quit. It is almost entirely dialog with a little bit of action detail. I have no idea where, or when the story takes place. There is no character development.”

I included this comment because this is indeed what we writers are up against. If we can’t grab a reader’s attention quickly and hold on to it page by page, they do have better things to do.

The title’s kind of neat. Opens with unattributed dialogue (words from an empty stage).  Door button? Is he/she ringing a doorbell? Inside the bar? Where? Lift? Where? Why is he unnamed? Does she not know him? They’re in an elevator? I’m very disoriented.

Playing her part? What part? Why? What would they suspect them of? Why? I do like the minor injury twist. Didn’t expect that.  What is annoying here is that I can’t see anything, can’t get my bearings. I feel as if I’m hearing about this from inside a black box, with voices conversing just outside. Sometimes they tell me something useful, sometimes they don’t.  Set the scene. Inhabit the characters. I feel like I’m dangling in ether at this point, even though I suspect something interesting may be going on if I could only understand what.

Page 3. Why? Why? Why? I get all this info, but no context to place it in. It’s like this. If you overhear that my wife is a brunette, you think nothing much of it. If you overhear my wife is a brunette after learning that a brunette just killed the mayor who lies bleeding in your arms, it changes your attention to that detail. Establish context and present true mystery within that context and you’re much more likely to hold my attention. Right now I’m impatient and have already decided this story is not for us. P4 brings a lot of background information presented as dialogue. There’s no rule against presenting some or all of this as internal thought. That would more closely connect us to the POV character. Skimming.

On p6-7 the story moves forward. I have no idea about motivation at this point so I’m kind of clueless as to who to root for or why I should care.  I feel as if I’m reading an explanation of an idea rather than actual story. Events are happening to the protagonist.

This ends with an emotional scene. I think there is a decent story at the core of this, but as told, it relies too heavily on dialogue and lacks a real story arc.  I never really understood the MC’s motivation or what she got out of this or what decision she actually made. If I were revising, I would go back to story concepts. Motivated character with a concrete context, an inciting incident (the one portrayed could work), complications that make her work to achieve (or fail at) her goal, a climax where tension is highest and she must choose something and pay a price. Some of that is here, but not forcefully and not in a good order.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A time travel story that relies too heavily on dialogue and lacks sufficient motivation to carry the action.

Story 158 (2/16/2011 Fantasy 3500 words)

Reader 1: “No real story here, no sense of conflict from the beginning. Things happen, then more things happen. No resolution, no sense of who the main character is. He is not driving events, the events are forced upon him. There is some effective and writing description here (and a nice lightness of tone at times), but not enough to hold my interest.”

The opening is intriguing. I don’t care for the title–too glib for my taste. There’s some good writing here, but also some smarmy glibness that feels wrong for the story (to me).  Page 4 gets interesting, though the end of that conversation takes me back to glib dismissal again. I can’t get a handle on the tone of this one. P6 kicks in my interest again. I’m not breathless with anticipation but it’s at least a somewhat different take on things.

On p7 I realize there’s not likely going to be any escalation here. The story is feeling flat at this point. The mystery that interested me turns out to be less interesting than I hoped. If the story began on p6-7 my reaction would be different. The mystery could escalate rather than deflate.  I do like the passage on p8 about a good view. The sinking concept is nice. If this could be integrated better with other story action (so that we have an escalation of physical and emotional in tandem) it will feel more powerful.

The story reads longer than 3500 words. It feels ad hoc in as sense, in that it starts us moving in one direction, then shifts gears, then shifts gears again, leaving us uncertain as to which story has been resolved in the end. This is a very nice concept in actuality, but needs a tighter integration of its parts and a sense of the protagonist being motivated and facing complications rather than simply being there when stuff happened.  Definitely worth working this one out, but it’s not close enough to suggest a formal rewrite. These ideas need to steep a bit, I think.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An intriguing concept with characters that feel dimensional. The story elements are not well integrated, leading to a less that optimal resolution.

Story 159 (2/6/2011 SF 6300 words)

First, this is longer than our guidelines suggest (5000 words) so it will have to be amazing. Second, it begins with unattributed dialogue. Words from nowhere, with no context. Then unnamed characters.  Not an exceptional start.

First person viewpoint does not bolster my confidence. I’m not finding a concrete place to put down my feet in this story. Lines like “Better, I stopped myself, better,” do not help. I have no idea what this line means to suggest, which adds to my early confusion. We do get an SF element which is good. The final paragraph on p1 is effective context.  It’s back flash, which is problematic, but maybe the story should begin there and move forward to present? We’ll see. The question is what is the inciting incident for the story? What happens to cause the story to begin now and not yesterday or tomorrow or three years ago? So far this is day in the life stuff and not very interesting. It delivers information, not story.

Is this second scene happening in the same place as the first? The scene is set more clearly here, but I sense it’s a different place/time. I’m not sure why the scene is important. It’s mainly background information and day in the life stuff rather than story. I think the problem here is that this is unwinding at novel pace rather than short story. Skimming.

Third scene is more day in the life.  Some word play in the next scene. A complication, but of what? I don’t really know the MC’s motive (other than his day to day life).  The writing in p12-20 is solid. It feels more like a story experience. I still don’t understand motivation, but it’s interesting.

Okay, there’s an interesting story here, but it’s not shaped well. The opening does not set up the ending, nor does the first third or so do much to keep my interest. If I were revising, I’d go back to story basics, in particular the inciting incident. Maybe a paragraph depicting the MC’s status quo as the story opens (his perceived motivation, maybe a hint of his flaw), then the incident that forces him out of that status quo and changes his motivation (or makes him more immediately needful of it), then the complication or two that stand in his way and a climax where he must make a decision that costs him everything and the anticlimax that shows his new status quo at the end (this final section would work for that purpose). Too much to be done here to request a formal rewrite, but I wish the author well.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 An interesting take on a love story in a fairly basic SF world. The story arc is not well formed.

Story 160 (2/6/2011 Fantasy 6500 words)

Another story that is too long. Must be something in the air.

The opening is information heavy and static. Not auspicious.  The first page depicts an event I’ve read about and seen many times. It adds nothing new. What I need at this point is motivation/purpose and scene setting.

Some basic grammar issues as well. “I haven’t eaten in days, and my stomach ached with hunger.” The tense mismatch is one of a few in this early going.  While a few mistakes won’t sour me on a story, they do raise my suspicion that the author is not up to delivering a complete story experience. This is okay as we all have to go through this learning curve. One of my hopes with this blog is that I can help at least one or two folks bend their curve just a little steeper and shave some time off this progression.

The story moves slowly, but the scene with the man does have a story feel to it. Good. There’s not enough tension, but it does escalate.

There are some pretty big issues with logic (do they fear humans or not? Do they hunt humans? Why do they wear clothes if they avoid humans?) and the story is far too easy on the characters, but it IS a story and that’s good.

It’s taking too long to get to the (most likely predictable) ending. Story should probably be about half this length so far.

Final scene did not go where I expected. Excellent. It did force the MC to choose and did cost her a significant price. Nicely done. The attack, however, was kind of pat. For me the story spent too much time on the romantic interlude and too little on developing the culture and resulting tensions that makes the ending meaningful. There’s an interesting story here. It mainly needs some pruning and reshaping. Start with the inciting incident (the sighting of the human) rather than a page of background and stuff we’ve seen a hundred times. Then develop the emotional arc for the MC within her tribal situation and the nuances of attraction between species. To much of this is too easy now. On the plus side, this has a definite story arc, and that’s something we don’t see often enough.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An unusual romance. A strong story arc is marred by simplistic back story and emotion.

Story 161 (2/7/2011 Fantasy 2300 words)

This drops us into the middle of an action, which is good. I get a character in (an odd) context. What I don’t have is motivation. I also don’t have a  sense of strong emotion, which is odd given the circumstance.

Turns out that the lack of emotion is a clue, which is okay. This does have me feeling as if I’ve been manipulated, however (false mystery). He knows what’s happening. Do this again? Do what? Why? Why walk the line between death and life? What does that even mean? Second attempt at what? By this point I’m frustrated more than curious.

p 3 brings a back flash to explain the false mystery. Too late and too static.

All this veiled reference to events and people he knows intimately. I’m always suspicious when I see this technique that a lack of story is being papered over with false mystery. That does appear to be the case here.

The final scene is effective. The rest of the story doesn’t really add anything to it. If I were revising, I would either cut this to flash length (1000 words) focused tightly on this final scene with just a few snippets of background for context, or I would begin the story with the bonding event and move forward from there to the final scene, developing the relationship through a story arc (with complication and climax of both physical and emotional threads). The idea can support either length. This hybrid doesn’t work for me.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A twist on a typical fantasy idea. An abundance of static background dilutes the power of a solid ending.

Story 162 (2/7/2011 Fantasy 3700 words)

As you who read this blog know, I’m not keen on second person technique. Too often it’s used to divert attention from a lack of story. This attempt opens smoothly. I’m still on board after the first paragraph. Clever to get the gender in as well as some characterization of “me” (ugh, but I’ll go with it for now).

I’m still on board after 3 pages, though I’m getting a little impatient for the story to become relevant.  I will give credit for making the technique work to this point. Nicely conversational approach keeps me from getting too hung up on having character traits and motives forced onto me. P7 gets too explainy for me. This is an idea being explained to me rather than a story experience being related.

This goes to an interesting place. I think it takes too long to get there, but it’s certainly different.  I don’t think it’s going to make it into the antho, but it’s good enough I should ask other readers to vote on it. The second person approach is justified here.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An interesting take on gender issues. This goes to an interesting place. The story reads long for its word count.

Well that takes me through 2/7/2011, so a good place to stop. (Jamie has a couple stories prior to this date, so don’t read too much into this dear authors).

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See my previous post for disclaimers. Wherein I continue to advance through the ranks of hopeful stories for possibly inclusion in Triangulation: Last Contact. My goal today is to get through 25 stories. Will I make it? What will be left of me if I do?

Story 127 (1/28/2011 Fantasy4000 words)

Reader 1: “This is a reprint. I read the first 5 pages and felt very disoriented. [Author] doesn’t set the scene and all these people and terms are sprinkled about. The story is almost totally mostly banter that doesn’t move the story forward.”

This certainly drops us into the middle of an intriguing situation. That the story then spends effort keeping me intentionally in the dark works somewhat against it. In general we’re better off looking for interesting ways to reveal true mystery than creating false mystery through withholding details artificially. This is a really interesting example, so I thought I’d use it here (sanitized to protect the innocent):

As the body materialized on the slab, [MC] clapped [SC’s] massive back.
“Betcha it‟s a [term],” [MC] said.
[SC] shrugged off the hand. “Bite me, [MC].”
[MC] smiled. “Just saying we haven‟t had a misplaced [term] in a long time.” [MC] had told [someone] he could just call [SC] if and when a [term] appeared, but[someone] wouldn‟t budge. Protocol demanded they both be present. That, and [MC’s] previous…indiscretion.

Notice how we’re plunged immediately into a scene we don’t understand, in a way that makes us want to understand. The opening line works well.  Second line establishes character and relationship effectively. It introduces a term they’re familiar with in a way that feels natural. Good. Third paragraph establishes character relationship and sense of tone. For me, it’s less effective, because I now begin to expect a banter story, wherein clever chit chat is substituted for story. I’m not fond of those, especially 4000 words worth. Fourth paragraph gives me hope that I’m wrong. This gives me context for a situation with depth, using terms that make sense in context. However, that final line, with its veiled reference to an indiscretion the MC clearly knows all about, worries me again. Here is the first blatant false mystery. It’s a new clause in the contract the writer is establishing with me: I’m going to be coy here; I’m not going to reveal true mystery, but rely on cleverness to hold your interest. That’s not usually a contract I’m willing to sign off on. However, the opening salvo has enough genuinely interesting stuff to keep me going for now.

Scene 2 continues with this mix of clever banter and genuine mystery. It’s pretty good so far, but I can’t help feeling it’s a bit padded. Clever banter tends to do that for me. I like sharp, but even sharp gets dull without story movement.  I’m onto the basic idea by page 3 or 4. That’s not a problem so long as the story does something with that idea. In a lesser writer’s hands I would be pretty certain the story would settle for a reveal of idea for its payoff (ineffective at this word count). I have more faith here.

P7 reveals the underlying idea in an effective way. I think I would have preferred this a few pages ago, however. The explanation goes on a bit long as well.  By page 9 the story is beginning to develop a more story-like feel. I’m seeing the potential here. I do wonder at this point what the MC’s goal is. So far it seems to be to explain the story concept to me. That’s not so good. On p10 we learn what the “indiscretion” was. It feels staged to me; we’re back to clever rather than substantial. p11-12 is a flashback that reveals what was withheld earlier. It’s character background, but I still don’t understand WHY the MC is motivated to do what he does. Good tension in 12-13. If I felt more connected to the MC this tension would be well done. Because I’m still not sure what tone the story intends, it’s not as effective as I would like. P15 brings a real escalation. Because I’m not sure why the MC has done what he’s done, it’s not really working for me now; feels a bit ad hoc.

An interesting final scene that doesn’t really feel earned. There’s a really powerful story hiding in here. It’s a great idea and the writing is nicely energetic. I really wanted to like this one, but it ends up feeling a little too disjointed and tone-uneven for me to sign on. If I were revising, I would return to story principles, particularly character arc. We do learn what this character wants/needs, but it’s never set up early in the story, and the clever banter of some sections work against the more serious tone of the ending. The banter is fine as characterization, but we also need a stronger sense that the banter papers over a very real want/need and that subsequent scenes provide legitimate complication/exploration of the theme and character issues.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Excellent idea and some energetic writing. Story and character arcs are unevenly developed, sapping the ending of some of its power.

Story 128 (1/28/2011 Fantasy1400 words)

Reader 1: “Nicely deadpan, but I’m not sure it’s a great fit. It’s kind of cute, but there’s not really much story in a traditional sense. In the end, I’m not sure it fits the anthology, though I do like how po-faced the story is. I like it, I’m just not sure i like it enough to recommend it.”

The story begins in mid-scene, which is nice. Definitely quirky idea and a nicely mundane MC to contrast it. He’s reacting to stimulus and thereby exploring the real mystery of the situation. Nice.  My biggest problem is that I can’t quite picture what is being described. The initial description is intriguingly bizarre, but it quickly devolves to a more mundane description that makes it difficult for me to understand that first image. As if that opening line is ONLY a hook in retrospect. I’m liking this, but it feels a little flat all the same.

My interest perks when the doctor arrives. This takes me to a more surreal place that seems to better fit the opening image. The wife’s reaction in mid p3 doesn’t strike me as genuine enough to keep the tension between surreal and mundane relevant. p4 I don’t really get the sense she IS wondering. She feels like a set piece to me, which isn’t helping the story generate tension.  Great deadpan about waking up with a desire to orbit. Again, the wife’s reaction does not work for me.  The transformation on p6 is nicely surreal, but feels rushed in this context. There’s no push back from the wife or his own reaction. It just is, which leads to a sense of flatness for me (ironic given the story’s content).  On p6 the character story develops legs and starts moving forward. Too late. We seem to move to a second story on p7. This goes to a good place, it’s just not shaped well to earn that ending. If I were revising I would begin with story basics, set up the relationship discord in scene 1, use the first signs of transformation as a complication, escalate through the doctor, then develop actual tension between MC and wife and make the actual transformation play out through the climatic scene. Right now it’s as if there’s this really neat idea, but the story can’t quite decide where to go with it.  This will be a good one if you persist.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 Intriguing idea that goes to an interesting place. The story  lacks optimal shaping and focus, leading to a sense of flatness and shifting gears.

Story 129 (1/28/2011 Fantasy ?? words)

Reader 1:  “Oh man, I really like this, but I’m not sure it quite works. But then, maybe it does. This is more literary than most people will like. I wish there was a bit more of a fantasy element. Hmm.”

Reader 2: “I wanted to like this a lot more than I did in the end. When it started, I gave it a big thumbs up because the voice/style is very, very strong, but by the end, I had grown a little bit tired of its elusiveness. While I can live with a fair bit of style over substance, especially when it’s as well-written as this, the protagonist needed to be more reactive to [someone]. When a story is as well-written as this, I don’t think there needs to be a huge amount of plot, but externally, this is almost a still-life. I’d recommend it if the author is willing to make their protagonist work a little harder to achieve their interior change.”

Sounds like I’m in for a treat. Shall we? Very nice opening. Evocative and efficient. The prose glows (unlike that phrase).  The first two paragraphs on p2 are evidence for Reader 2’s reaction. They’re nicely observed, but do not really move the story forward. Even sharp will become dull after a while. I’m losing a little steam. End of p2 jolts me back to attention.  On p3 “To remember what?” This works IF it’s a genuine clue to the story’s payoff. Otherwise it’s just a counter beat to keep me interested at prose level. That’s not enough for the anthology. Let me repeat that I love this on a prose basis. The language is lively and wonderfully observant.

The character’s explanation at top of p7 seems pat, especially since the MC has just thought the same thing. The story had better have a little more to offer.  Alas, it settles for resonance. The idea is very simple, perhaps too simple. The complication is wild and wonderful, but leads us back to the same place we started in a sense. I need more character complication and, particularly, investment (i.e. cost) in her decision. Right now she’s acted upon by the universe to achieve something she already knows intellectually. That could be all right if the story punched me in the gut with why knowing and feeling a thing have different values (subjectively). But it doesn’t.

I’ll send this one over the Jamie for the final vote. I definitely need a bit more character accessibility here. We are a speculative fiction anthology. Lovely writing in support of that mission is perfect. Lovely writing without a relevant spec fic element becomes a more difficult sale. Here there is a hint of magic realism, but it could just as easily be the character’s mood motivating the payoff.  I do think this should be published. The question is whether we should take it for the anthology. It doesn’t actually fit the theme as it stands, but a simple tweak at the end would fix that.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 9 A beautifully observed interaction between characters.  The story lacks an accessible speculative element and is not clearly appropriate for the theme.

Story 130 (1/28/2011 Horror 5500 words)

Reader 1: “I liked this one, though to be honest it’s mostly coasting on voice and character. The plot itself is pretty standard, but it’s well written. What concerns me here (which, obviously is a big problem in my own writing, so maybe this is a bit of projection) is clarity and specificity of motivation. The first diary entry sets up a whole bunch of questions that are never answered, so we’re left in the dark as to the crucial motivation that gets them to the setting.  The most important question is only hinted at. While it’s clear that the most important motivator is to gain an understanding of [someone], the specifics  are unclear. Everyone in the story knows why they are going, but the reader doesn’t. It should be a pretty easy to clarify why the expedition is happening and what the protagonist (and other characters) hopes to gain from this trip. If this isn’t supplied, then it’s simply a well-written example of Victorian-era explorers going through the jungle and meeting a Lovecraftian end. Supplying motivation would also help with the foreshadowing that is needed in this story.  I like the writing enough to suggest a re-write.”

Need I say more? I guess I’ll have to read the story to find out. This begins with a diary entry that establishes setting and character in an interesting manner. Difficult to pull that off. Nice.  This rolls along nicely through 5 pages. I’m a bit concerned that we’ve already accepted one epistolary piece. A second might overbalance the collection. Depends somewhat on where this goes.

I have to agree that I’m hungry for story motivation by p8. The where’s and what’s are nicely deserved and the voice pulls me right along. Good light and dark moments, but I’m still waiting to find out WHY we’re undertaking this and what we hope to gain through it. There’s the hint of a mystery that has always surrounded a key character, but no speculation as to what it might be. It’s offered as a given. I want more than that; I want a character who wonders, who seeks and sacrifices. She’s going through the motions of an adventure at this point.

On p8 for example, the MC is given a chance to turn back; she makes the right choice in going on, but WHY? What does she hope to gain? At the end of p8 we get the mundane explanation, but not the emotional one, the REAL one that drives our MC.  At the end of p12 we learn again the MC is unwilling to give up, but not WHY, not what she needs from this experience; she’s obviously willing to risk a lot, but why?

A very good Victorian adventure. The element I’m missing is the main motivation for this undertaking. If that is wound through the journal entries, I will be much happier.  Without it, this feels a bit like a (very good) exercise in period writing. I’m inclined to agree about the Rewrite, but will see what the other editors say first.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A very good Victorian epistolary featuring a good variety in tone and journal entry length and a strong sense of rising tension. Character motivation is curiously lacking.

Story 131 (1/29/2011 Horror 2300 words)

Reader 1: “The issue with this one is that any promise in the set-up isn’t fulfilled because it doesn’t use a clear structure to drive the story onwards. The protagonist is mostly telling the story in hindsight and there isn’t a clear conflict, inciting incident, etc. Things happen to the protagonist, but he isn’t driving the story. He is essentially a passive character and does very little to overcome the obstacles that are placed in his way. Furthermore, I didn’t buy the character motivation throughout the story and there was a fair bit of telling about the protagonist’s emotional state rather than letting us infer how they were feeling.”

The story opens with somewhat generic overview. The first sentence is a “hook” in that it states an interesting premise, but it doesn’t place us into mid-scene. The opening paragraph pretty much explains an idea and a character.  There’s no immediacy and the voice isn’t compelling enough to carry me through the summary. It’s not bad writing, just not as strong as it needs to be for such an opening to work.

p2 begins to show us what we were told about on p1. Feels repetitive rather than escalatory. The last paragraph on p2 is a great example to illustrate the concept of natural character reaction. I’ll post a bit here (to be removed if author wishes).

They weren’t pretty. (intellectual reaction PRIOR to stimulus, i.e. he concludes before seeing evidence; this is unnatural sequence) I didn’t know why, but only their top halves were visible. (same problem) Either they were levitating or I just wasn’t ready to view them in their entirety. (same issue) Their features were identical besides a few subtle variations. (seeing similarities before we see specifics) They appeared to be about the same size of an average adult human. (this is the stimulus; it’s good to begin with the overall shape as this does)  Their skin was dark gray and covered with tiny bumps, it reminded me of a rhinoceros. (zooming into detail; this is a natural progression)  Those pink sunken in eyes never left me. (this is a conclusion prior to evidence; eyes never left me, but haven’t seen the eyes yet) They never blinked. I wasn’t sure if they had eye lids. And if they had pupils I wasn’t able to tell. (the details are fine, but it seems unlikely a person would pay attention to this AFTER focusing on the eyes that never blink and stare relentlessly – in other words, the character is not reacting naturally, the author is describing for my benefit).

The more I read slush, the more I come to realize that the difference between me feeling involved (in-scene) and distant (hovering above scene) is in how a character reacts to scene stimulus. When that is natural, i.e. stimulus->physical/emotional reaction->intellectual synthesis, I feel connected to a character in-scene. When it is not natural, I either feel trapped in a head or as if I’m hovering above a scene. There are times when either technique is useful, but it’s best to have a good reason to employ them. Do you want the reader to identify closely with a character’s situation, or do you need him to assimilate the larger picture? Each has benefits and costs in terms of reader participation in your story. For a cogent discussion of this idea see Pepper’s Blogs, which also reference the original article about MRU (motivation-reaction unit) theory.

This particular story opted for a full critique, so I’ll take the remainder of my comments off line rather than duplicate effort. In general I’ll spend between 1-2 hours on a critique. Right now I’m running pretty slow with them, but I do try to be helpful. The main problem I see in this story is that it’s not really a story, but an explanation of an idea. There is some story movement beginning on p5 and the core concept has potential. I’ll focus on that in my critique.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 2 An interesting concept. Story and character arcs are largely absent.

Story 132 (1/30/2011 Horror 2000 words)

Reader 1: “This story is about [stuff]. It seemed very long for 2000 words. I think that was because it didn’t really escalate in tension at all and was repetitive. If the POV was an unreliable narrator, it’s difficult to tell. If its an actual being, the consequences of anyone else contacting it are unclear. Overall the story was too vague for me.” (plot spoilers removed)

This one also begins in summary. The language is more involving, but I’m already hungry for story after p1.  Second scene is also distant – this is told in the form of a journal or diary entry (if you read this…), an intentionally distancing technique. It can certainly work (see story 130), but more often it simply makes a relatively uninvolving story that much less involving. I’m getting that sense here. There’s nothing specific, just a general warning of direness. Mostly I’m being told everything except the relevant details (what happened, where, why it matters). False mystery. There is also true mystery, but it’s not really being explored so far.

Thirds scene is more inward rumination on everything except what matters most. Background, sure, but where is the story? Fourth scene is more of the same, though we’re gradually homing in on the why’s and what’s and maybe where’s.  Generally that’s where a story should begin.

On p7: “I attempt no description of the thing I have seen, I know now that not all things are understandable.”

And therein lies the main problem with this story. It’s spent six pages philosophizing and setting up background only to tell me that I can’t see what is mysterious and can’t understand the point.  The story ends with an interesting premise. I feel as if I’ve read an idea here, rather than a story.  Unfortunately, I have not identified with this character other than in a diffuse intellectual manner that does not generate the power this ending requires. If I were to revise, I would return to story basics and tell the story forward. What is the character’s status quo at story opening? What is the inciting incident (the think that disrupts this status quo and forces the character to strive/change)? What complicates his journey (in a manner that explores the story’s theme and adds tension to the character’s journey)? What is the climax (point of highest tension)? What decision does the character make and what does it cost him? What does he earn or lose? Why should this matter to me?

This journal device only emphasize the problems we see in most idea stories: a lack of emotional identification with character and a lack of story arc.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A solid, if familiar, idea that lacks story arc and character identification.

Story 133 (1/30/2011 SF 4000 words)

Reader 1: “This is a good story, but I think the opening needs a bit of trimming because it repeats the same idea several times. I also think it could use a bit of editing. Overall I like it.”

Reader 2:  “There is a lot of good writing here. The opening feels a little awkward to me, and I feel like the character’s decision to abandon his principles comes a little too easily. Also, I would like an indication that the character is a guy earlier in the story. It jarred me a little bit. It’s way too bleak for my taste, but it’s good and it fits the theme.”

Reader 3: “I think this one needs some minor re-writing, but I like the world-building and premise enough to recommend. The central conflict needs to be closer to the front and complications ensuring from thereon. Too much time is spent on background details of the world and hinting at the protagonist’s choice when it’s clear what they will/will not have to do in order to survive. Some of the writing at the start is a bit clunky.”

Sounds interesting. I like the opening in that it sets us down in mid-scene and evokes a sense of the exotic. I do think it could be a little more concrete, however. It suffers mildly from unnatural progression (in a couple places we get intellectual reaction prior to stimulus, which leaves me feeling “blind” for a beat). Once the details do come, they’re good, solid details.

Gets stronger on p2. Nice situation; good tension. P3 has some background disguised as dialogue. There’s no reason not to use some internal thought here, especially in first person. p5 has a good example of world-building through internal thought. This is an interesting world to be sure and relevant to us in the here and now.

Yes, I agree with the other readers here. This is a strong story that needs just a little restructuring and some minor editing. I believe we’ll take it contingent on a final edit to address the problems we see.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 A strong SF story with solid world- and character-building. The opening section is flabby and the middle does not quite escalate cleanly.

Story 134 (1/30/2011 Fantasy 2200 words)

Reader 1: “While I ended up liking this story more than I thought I would from the start, there isn’t enough complication and revelation to make this one fly. I like the core idea, but there isn’t quite enough done with it. For a fairly short story, the opening domestic scene is too drawn out and once the [thing] is revealed, there aren’t enough set backs and complications on the way to the end.”

The story begins with summary and there’s an uncomfortable (and technically incorrect) tense issue in the first sentence.  We then move to backflash. I just don’t understand why we feel so compelled to utilize unnecessary frames. Telling a story forward is perfectly acceptable, honest.  The first couple pages is mainly chit-chat (dialogue that doesn’t do more than show people talking).   I’m confused by the lack of reaction at the end of p2. People walking five miles is not surprising?

What the characters do is interesting, but the total lack of a reaction from the MC really keeps my from identifying. I’m just watching stuff play out on a stage, essentially. It’s not very involving at this point. It’s interesting reading this. The MC goes through the motions of an emotional reaction, but feels nothing internally. Nice line to end the scene on p5.

On p6, the following: “I heard her grunt, growl and groan.” This may seem like nothing, but it’s actually a symptom of the story’s major problem. It’s being written from OUTSIDE the character rather than within. Note the difference when you read: “She grunted, growled, groaned.” The second version does away with the redundant filter “I heard”. It becomes immediate and puts me inside the character sensing out, rather than outside hearing about her senses. Obviously it’s not enough just to change the language, but my point is that when you find yourself using these sorts of phrases (“I heard” “She knew” “He realized”) it’s often symptomatic of the fact you’re not inside the character in that moment.

Since character identification is the largest problem I’m having here, I thought I’d raise the issue. Nothing against the particular sentence in this story.  Interesting phenomenon going on here. I just don’t care about it as I would if I empathized with the character.

I feel as if I’ve read an idea. The story does attempt to engage me with a likable character, but I never really connect with her. This is another case where first person probably hurts the story much more than it helps. If I were revising, I would definitely cast this in close third person. I’d also flesh out the character and her family in my mind so that I can better bring out what she needs/wants from this story and what it costs her emotionally to make her decision in the end. This is a good basic blueprint for a story (though I would do away with the first paragraph “frame” and just tell it forward), it’s just not doing enough to pull me into character or build story tension (a related issue).

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An interesting idea, bordering on surreal. Flat characterization works against a powerful resolution.

Story 135 (1/30/2011 Fantasy 4293 words)

Reader 1: “While I liked the world set up and a lot of the prose, I don’t think there’s enough of a story. There should be a great story here but there isn’t; it doesn’t take advantage of a set-up ripe for conflict, nice characterization and a poignant ending. I like the Handsmaid Tale type stories, but there’s a huge amount of unnecessary back story and the story starts before the true inciting incident. If you strip out the backstory, there’s not enough meat in the plot IMO.”

Joy. The unnamed character strikes again. I’m confused by the first paragraph. Is ‘he’ her husband? If so, why the opacity? If not, why the opacity? It would be easy to make this clear rather than obscure. Second paragraph, ditto.  The prose is evocative, the scene being painted not so much. Third paragraph, ditto. What can be said clearly in one sentence is taking three or four.

This is a great example of what I mean by our desire for stunning language “in service of story”. Here, the entire effect depends upon language. In story terms the opening scene has one story movement (MC wakes) and 2 pages of sparkling, if somewhat overworked, prose. As a speculative fiction reader, I’m much more interested in story momentum.

There’s some decent world building in the second scene, though I have the same difficulty here as I did in the previous story. I’m not seeing this through character, but through a filter imposed by the author. In this case the filter is language and image.

Third scene is almost pure background. It’s much more accessible and suggests an interesting world, but it’s not moving story forward. Fourth scene is closest so far to actual story complication. Mainly I wonder what the character wants/needs. She seems here simply to show me around the story world at this point. That can work, especially with an interesting world, but it’s more likely to work at novel length, where sharpness is not at such a premium.

Here’s a good example of my problem with this story: “We shrink from the tick of minutes…”  Does this actually get me inside the character’s perspective, or is it showing me the character’s reaction from the author’s vernacular? In isolation, a sentence like this can stand out in a good way; when it’s one of many such sentences, it’s simply more language to work through in trying to visualize a scene or identify with a character.

Some good details in next section. It remains mostly summary, rather than story movement, however. Ah. On page 10, we have an inciting incident, I think. This is where the story will likely begin. Sort of. Still a lot of summary and background. It’s an interesting dilemma, though. An outside entity swoops in to give the MC the right answer and save her from destruction. What was the price of this decision for her? Nothing, I think. How did the first 10 pages set up this ending? This is where I would focus were I revising this for a speculative fiction market. I would greatly simplify the language and move inside the character’s perspective as well.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A really interesting world and a meaningful issue are largely obscured by overemphasis on language and technique.

Story 136 (1/30/2011 SF ?? words)

Reader 1: “I don’t know what to say.  Thankfully, it was only 4 pages.”

I’ll be this is a humor piece. When I write humor I get the same sort of response.

Well, I’m dropped into the middle of a scene at least. I’m not exactly compelled by the opening, but it’s okay. And we’re heading backwards again. Why? Why can’t we begin with the first incident and move forward instead? The writing is a bit rough, e.g. “[character] commented on the amount of times [someone] used colors in his writing.” Amount of times? Seriously? Let’s just tear down the school system and start over.

To balance things: “I could see past her teeth into her mouth and down her ruby red throat where her uvula danced.”  This is effective, though the “could” is optional for my taste.  This is yet another story that manages to write from outside the character despite utilizing a first person viewpoint.

Yep, humor. I think (hope?). It doesn’t really work for me, but stars for effort. Some pretty bizarre bits in here. And it is short.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 Humor is subjective. Life is too short.

Story 137 (1/31/2011 SF 2100 words)

Reader 1: “The middle of the story is summary. It is not clear what the POV’s goal is. Most of the story is summarized back flash. In the end, I ‘m not sure what [MC] accomplished by doing all this.”

This begins in mid-action, but then spends a paragraph on static backfill via internal thought. The only thing I don’t learn from inside the MC’s head is why he/she is doing this.  On p2 I learn it’s a he. This is not too late. The scene is not clear. I’m on a high summit, yet I seem to see hills and rodents. Where? How?

Speculative element shows up near end of p3. This is too late, particularly since we still have no indication of character motive. What we’ve read so far is background and scene setting with some character internalizations. Story is absent so far.

More background. Memories. Very slight forward movement and not motive yet. I think there’s some potential here, but the story reads like an explanation of an idea and world rather than a story experience. Skimming.

Interesting concept at the end. I would very much like to read a story that actually utilizes this concept. I’m not sure what form it would take, but this idea definitely deserves a story or several. If I were revising, I would start over, I’m afraid. An inciting incident (probably lost in the background here), a character moving toward a goal/need, encountering obstacles, overcoming them, earning this ending.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An interesting concept. The story reads more like an explanation of idea than a story experience.

Story 138 (2/2/2011 SF 4500 words)

Reader 1: “The first third of the story is the POV complaning about everything from nuts to bolts. The second third is reminiscing. I don’t see a story here, not even in the flash backs.” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening establishes character and implies situation in an interesting Catch-22 sort of way. I’m hoping this is not going to be 4500 words of satire. There aren’t many Hellers out there.

The writing is lively, the voice consistent. It’s beginning to read like a monologue by p3 however. The writing is good, the character believable. I would like some actual story to go with this. I’m on p5 and I’m still hashing out the same basic issue. It’s all background at this point. And voice. Story is AWOL.  P6-8 is given over to a reminiscence. It’s interesting in the abstract, but not as story. First full paragraph on p9 grabs me. Great line there. On to more background. On p11 we’re back to ruminating on the same topic we ruminated on in the opening pages. Full circle does not equate to story experience.

That’s it? This is definitely a case of a story reading like an explanation of idea rather than a story experience. I would very much like to read a story set in this world, involving this character, but this is not it. Perhaps a flash version of this could work.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An interesting situation and well developed world.  The piece reads like a very cogent explanation of concept rather than story experience.

Story 139 (2/2/2011 Horror 2640 words)

Reader 1: “Parts of the story are unclear. The POV has no past to speak of, and there’s no reason for us to like or identify with him.” (plot spoilers removed)

Story begins in summary. Not compelling. It does deliver context and a character and an inciting incident (though it’s happened before, which makes it less dramatically appealing than a new development). A good active line at end of second paragraph. Other than that, the story is being told from well outside the character. I’m not identifying, which turns this into a largely intellectual exercise. More summary background. Summary foreground. Consistently passive language further dampens my interest.

More summary. Scene on p5 is the first specific, forward moving scene. I’m closer to MC here, but it’s way too late. His decision feels distant, however. Once again I’m outside looking in. Gets a little interesting on p7. The following scene is much livelier. I’ve seen it before, however.  The ending is certainly a twist, but does it explain why the antagonist resisted the MC’s efforts in the first place? If the author reads this, I suggest reading a short story called “Dry Scalp” in the most recent issue of Necrotic Tissue. It’s similar to this story only told much more actively. I thought that story went on too long for its payoff, but the writing was often very sharp and I certainly identified with the character.

There is an interesting horror story here, but the current treatment deadens the immediacy too much through an excess of summary and background and passive prose. The final few scenes are strongest.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A fairly typical horror story burdened by too much background summary and passive telling.

Story 140 (2/2/2011 Fantasy 1149 words)

Reader 1: “This story is too disjointed for me. This may be some sort of experimental writing style. I can’t tell. I don’t really understand the ending either.”

The story opens on the strength of its sharp observations. Camera POV yields a sense of true mystery (since we’re not in character POV and cannot understand motivation). The drawback is that this POV will keep us from identifying with the character to any great degree. So far so good, however.  Okay, this is not strict camera POV, but a loose omniscient that gives access to his senses, but not his thoughts. That’s okay as long as it is consistent and serves the story purpose. Some great prose. This is the way I prefer it, simple, effective prose with solid observations, peppered with occasionally brilliant moments (a sense or image delivered in an unexpected way, a flash of metaphor). In this way the moments shine rather than being lost amid so much glitter.

Nicely surreal moment on p2.

Overall, I like this. Unfortunately, it’s really not accessible enough for the anthology. This is a sharply described, magical moment and (I suspect) a metaphor, but it is not enough of a story for us.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 A beautifully observed moment of surrealism. The story arc is minimal, though there is a sense of cost to the resolution.

Story 141 (2/3/2011 SF 3400 words)

Reader 1: “During 7/8 of this story the POV is being chased. There are some extra names at the beginning. I think author might have changed the POV’s name and didn’t catch it everywhere. We have no idea what’s happening. It suffers from clarity problems, the POV not telling us what he’s thinking, false mystery, poor understanding of cosmology and overwritten descriptions in many places.”

Ouch. My guess is I’ve been assigning too many stories at once to the readers. Or maybe this one just grated a bit. Anywho… the story opens with a poem. I get a sense of pretentiousness. That’s okay if it’s a tour de force, not so much if not.

First paragraph is overwritten (for us). A simple image described abstractly (which is okay since it sets a tone), then described again for good measure (overdone). Character is introduced at end of paragraph. That’s fine, but it does place him subservient to image and language. Since we prefer story and character arc, I’m not hopeful.

Second paragraph pretty much rehashes the first, but takes us into the character’s knowledge, except for the one item that really matters. That is withheld to create false mystery.  P2 brings us the obligatory backflash. Apologies to this author. My reaction is not so much to THIS story as to the gazillion stories we receive that utilize this technique. Hook us with action, then devolve immediately to (usually uninteresting) back story. Character does seem to change name momentarily. The backflash is short and active, so better than most we see.

Another backflash snippet. These snippets are inserted a bit clumsily, I’m afraid. Background. Foreground is active and we get a complication. Good. Nice to see taste invoked. We often forget to utilize senses other than vision. Why is the MC doing this? Why is there only a half hour? Surely the MC knows. It’s false mystery. More background. We learn that he’s solved a mystery, but not what the solution is. False mystery.

The final scene reveals the false mystery and dually resolves the false character mystery (why he’s doing this). In that sense it’s effective. However, the basic theory behind this concept is simplistic by today’s standards and not well thought through. (See Einstein, 1930, though more modern string theories have indeed revived the concept, albeit in a very different manner from that described in the story).  In a story that did not depend heavily on the reveal of this idea, I would not have a major problem. It could be the “one given”, but when the “one given” is all that makes an ending work, the story is not strong enough.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An active story with solid descriptions and characterization.  The story depends too heavily on false mystery and an outmoded cosmic theory for its impact.

Story 142 (2/3/2011 Fantasy1300 words)

Reader 1: “I like this unusual little fantasy.”

Sounds promising. Drops me into mid-scene with a motivated character in (a rather surreal) context.  I am enjoying this, but the writing could be sharpened a bit. It is accessible but not escalating quite as well as I’d like.

I like where this ends. Nice turn of events and very resonant ending that fits this character’s nature well. I’m torn though, as I think the writing needs to be sharper throughout. I’ll send it on to another reader for input.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 9 A nice parable told reasonably well. Great ending. The language can flow better.

Story 143 (2/4/2011 Horror 2437 words)

Reader 1: “I like the idea here. This almost works for me and I’d like to see what others think.”

Very good opening. I have a motivated character in context and a great hook as well. I’m not as fond of the rest of the page. The second paragraph saps some of the power of the first (I don’t need that nuance yet). Then the friend appears on cue, which feels a little artificial. Still, I’m interested in seeing where we go; it’s like a roller coaster clicking up that final span to the top.

Breezy intro to characters is fine, but story is rehashing, not escalating by p3.  For example, what does he SEE? Anything at all? Use that to escalate tension in a small way at first.  The description in mid-p3 would work better for me on p1, maybe instead of that second paragraph.

The middle is reading too much like an explanation of the idea. I do like the information and it’s good to use secondary characters as foils, but I need the foreground story to escalate through here as well. I’m losing momentum.

On p7 it gets interesting. Stays interesting through the ending. I like this story, but the buildup is not working well enough yet. I’d suggest a rewrite, but we’ll see what others say first.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A creepy tale that earns its ending. An uneven escalation works against the story.

Story 144 (2/4/2011 SF 4200 words)

Reader 1: “I am going to give this a maybe, but it didn’t keep me that interested. Others may like it better. This story is very predictable and straight line and seems like a bunch of movies I’ve seen before.” (plot spoilers removed)

This drops us into the middle of a scene with characters interacting and a context. Motivation is not yet clear, but that’s okay. Succinct, effective prose, good descriptions. A paragraph of background on p3. It’s triggered by the character reacting to previous paragraph, which feels very natural.  Nearly a page of background on p4. It’s integrated with foreground movement, which keeps me from feeling dumped into info mode. Nicely done so far.  On p6 I would prefer to see the drawing before the character analyzes it. That would feel more natural. As written I feel “blind” for a few seconds between the conclusion and description. p12-13 are beginning to sag for me. I don’t feel escalation at this point, but more of a rehashing of prior points.

The ending seems doesn’t seem to resolve the opening particularly well. There’s something missing here. It’s well written and nicely observational, but the ending just kind of shifts to a typical outer limits ending without resolving the story setup particularly well. I’ll send this to another reader.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A solid SF idea effectively written. The ending does not seem quite appropriate for the setup.

Story 145 (2/4/2011 Fantasy 2496 words)

Reader 1: “This story wasn’t compelling. It was mostly dialog. There was very little tension. Some of it is unbelievable. I didn’t feel that I knew the characters. The MC didn’t have anything to lose, but then he didn’t take any chances either.”

This opens in mid-scene with a character in context. Motivation is not clear yet, but that’s okay. I don’t see the surround (or secondary character). It’s a blank stage other than the gruel in his hands. On p2, we get a good bit of implied description, but very little direct observation (i.e specific details). This keeps the scene from coming alive for me.  I do feel as if the scene is written in-character, however. Inner thought is effective and not overused. Description at end of p2 has specific details, but the order isn’t quite natural. Rather than seeing the person and reacting, he reacts, then sees. It’s not bad because he does see her distinguishing characteristic before this, but it doesn’t feel quite spot on.

I like the sword demonstration. Their dialogue is good at this point. But now (p4) we’re devolving into an explanation of idea through dialogue. Which reminds me that I still have no sense of the MC’s motivation. Is this his story or is he an excuse to tell me about the idea?

The ending has a nice resonance, but I’m not sure this is the MC’s story. He risks nothing for this ending. The complication with the prince seems a bit forced. In the end it feels as if I’ve read a philosophy rather than a complete story experience. I recall seeing an earlier version of this story somewhere. It’s better now, but still lacks sufficient tension to reach its potential. There is a moment when the MC meets the second character where the dialogue works very well, but it doesn’t really grab me after that.

This idea reminds me vaguely of Holly Phillips “The Oracle Spoke” in Clarkesworld. That would be a good story  for this author to read. The telling in that story was more dramatically satisfying and the tension higher. It might help to frame this story more effectively.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An intriguing fantasy concept and likable characters. The story lacks sufficient motivation and tension.

Story 146 (2/4/2011 SF 3513 words)

Reader 1: “This is a unique story. I like the idea. I think it needs some work to focus the idea a bit and probably a bit of trimming.”

Not fond of opening with an unnamed character. It also bothers me that the opening is presented as mysterious when the MC knows exactly where he is. Not an auspicious start. Page 2, however, grabs me by the eyeballs. It’s interesting to contrast this lively story with Story 138 above. Both feature a character in isolation, with no one to interact with. The first story suffers for that; this one takes full advantage of it. The character is borderline bonkers here, but definitely motivated, and very real. He’s mainly shouting and singing to a photograph at this point, in entertaining fashion I add.

p5 brings a lump of backfill, but I’m ready for it at this point. The story has interested me and made me wonder why the MC is here. He knows why and he’s telling me in his own tangential way, but I want to know the why-why at this point. Yeah, he’s doing this thing in space and that’s his motivation and he’s really keen on getting ‘er done, but how did it come to be? That’s where this concrete backfill comes in. It’s breaks the “rules” of writing in scene, etc. but it works.

P7 brings an entirely ludicrous complication. Love it. P13 tops it. Commie rappers. And the ending tops that. I laughed out loud (which was a pretty damned mean thing to do on my part, but hey…). I’ll send this to the other editors. Hope they like it as much as I do.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 9 An over the top SF tale told well. Convincing viewpoint and just enough sense to make it work.

Story 147 (2/4/2011 Horror 1700 words)

Reader 1: “This is a horror story with no building tension (until page 7/9) and little horror. Page 9 ends with everything up in the air. This seems to be more of a first contact than last contact story.”

Opens in mid-action, but it’s fairly mundane. The writing is solid, but the scene is not particularly compelling. Good observational details.  Second scene is equally well written. There is some escalation. I’m still waiting for a speculative element. I’m not getting a sense of a motivated character. The dog seems like it should be a complication, not the main focus here. Page 5 brings a speculative element. This is late. Radio as infodump, a tried and true, but hardly new, technique. Story seems to be shifting gears (or maybe starting) now.

End of p7. Huh? This is too simple, I think. If you think about it, this device allows the character to be rescued rather than solving anything herself. I suspect the story would have more tension without the trip to the vet and the ensuing phone call.  The end resolves nothing, though I suppose it could have something to do with the husband.

There’s a very good, tense story to be had here. The basic idea is fine, but the execution is too easy, too pat. Rather than forcing the MC to face complications and risk herself, she’s handed the answer and reacts in knee jerk fashion. Unfortunate.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A fairly typical story told competently. The resolution leaves too much up in the air to be entirely satisfying.

Story 148 (2/4/2011 Horror 2400 words)

Reader 1: “I liked the way his perspective changed as we moved backwards in time and gained more information about the relationships. I would have liked a stronger plot and a stronger threat to act as a counterweight to the true core of the story. It’s fairly light-on for plot. In a way, the end was predictable. I’m a bit of a sucker for sentimentality and this had a strong emotional background, but I’m not sure whether this will fit with the anthology. Maybe as a counterweight to some of the plot-stronger stories? I’ll put a cautious maybe on this one, but probably not.” (plot spoilers removed)

Reader 2: “I’m not sure what to say about this one. I was intrigued by the idea.  It think it seems disjointed. I’m giving it a maybe because I think it needs to be read by someone else to see if its worth a revision.” (plot spoilers removed)

An interesting opening. Context and character and a hint of motive. The opening scene is intriguing.  Second scene loses me a bit. I’m not sure how it fits or why it matters. First person present tense begins to grate as well. I suspect the story does require it though.

Third scene is interesting. I’m enjoying this story line more fully than the other so far.  Well, I cant’ really say much without getting into the stuff that makes this story unique enough that I shouldn’t share it publicly. I agree that the idea is very interesting, but I’m not leaving the table feeling full. There’s something not quite working yet. If I can figure out how to suggest a fix, I’ll consider asking for a rewrite. I’ll share it with the other editor in the meantime.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 An interesting idea/metaphor handled fairly well. The story suffers from a slight disconnect between its parts.

Story 149 (2/5/2011 SF 1300 words)

Reader 1: “Given this is a reprint, I don’t think there’s enough here to recommend it. This one relies on withholding for the first few pages and there’s no real conflict at all. The MC does have to convince [someone] of what he’s seeing, but this isn’t presented as genuine conflict with a set-back for the MC; he does end up believing what he’s seeing. This story relies on a fairly tired conceit as the central plank of the story without anything to back it up. Sometimes this is enough for a near flash-length story, but not in this case.”

This is a pretty obscure reprint, so I won’t count that too severely against it. The opening is not particularly engaging. Character in context, but it’s not very dynamic (i.e a passive situation).  The story seems to be taking a long time to make a fairly simple point. At flash length this can be deadly. Definitely some false mystery going on. MC knows what she’s found, yet it’s being withheld for a few pages. Reads flat.  Page 4, the withholding continues. What truth? What’s the big deal? What do they look like? I’m frustrated at this point. On page 6, we get the reveal. A punch line? Sigh.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A competent story that ends with a punch line. The set up is overly drawn out and relies on withholding.

Story 150 (2/5/2011 Fantasy 2400 words)

Reader 1: “I really liked this idea, but I don’t think the author did enough with it. The writing is a bit clunky and telling and the MC is unnecessarily passive. Most of the story happens to him.  I’m voting no, but perhaps this could be a re-write request?” (plot spoilers removed)

A solid opening. It’s summary, but works to set up a character in context and sets a good tone for the period. Viewpoint shift at end of scene 2 is somewhat troubling. It adds a twist, but at the expense of character identification.  And since the following scene SHOWS us this twist, it’s not really needed.  Good escalation of obsession. The dialogue is very good, and mixed well with internal and external passages.

A very interesting idea. I’m left a bit disappointed by the ending, which isn’t quite set up by the story. I do think this could be a good addition to the anthology if this problem can be sorted out. It deserves an ending that really works. I’ll pass this on to the others for ideas.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A very well realized period story with an intriguing speculative element. The ending is not as strong as the setup.

Well it’s 2:30 and time for bed. I made 23 stories, which is pretty good. Hopefully the comments remained cogent as the night wore on.

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