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 sincere apologies to those of you who have been waiting patiently for decisions. I had several issues come up that had to be dealt with. Hopefully I can get through the remaining slush stories in the next ten days.
Story 200 (2/22/2011 Fantasy 4400 words)
Reader 1: “First of all, this isn’t a genre story. It’s first contact and not last contact. The writing deteriorates and the voice of the character changes as the story goes on. It’s a bit too long and repeats thoughts in the first half. That could be trimmed. There needs to be a hint that the experience in the woods isn’t real. I couldn’t find anything. I suppose if this was a mainstream story, the fantastic elements toward the end would be the clue, but they come in too late. I liked a lot of this, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for the anthology.” (plot spoilers removed)
Good, crisp opening line that pulls me in. Second paragraph is a mixed bag for me. It established character, but confuses me as far as time line goes. Nice observational details here. I’m not getting a sense of story yet. Character is not motivated at this point, though there is a hint of motivation top of page 2. I’m leery that it’s actual motivation, however, rather than a character trait. We’ll see.
I’m not sure why the tense changes on page 2. Is it a clue? Tense shifts back and forth between present and past in a mostly chaotic manner. It’s a little disorienting. The larger problem, however, is that this is entirely observational so far. There’s no story yet. It’s a ghost story? The timeline is not clear enough for me to be sure. Nice observations, some good writing, but too many confusions. I imagine the story actually starts with the ghost’s appearance.
Okay, not a ghost. This seems like an intriguing idea with a nicely quirky character and interesting situation, but the story itself is jumbled. Okay, I see an ending coming on page 8 (of 14). Am I right? No, I’m not, which is good. However, the story is way too long for what actually happens in it. It takes on the feel of an extended monologue that traps me inside the character’s head. Yes, it’s not a genre story, nor does it fit the theme. More importantly, the story feels unshaped, a series of observational details woven around a very simple plot line. There is a climax, which feels artificial given that it occurs in a dreams state. If I were revising this, I would go back to story basics. Motivated character meets obstacles and overcomes them. MC is just carried along here. He makes a decision in the end, but it’s not as big a change as a short story of this length can carry. Story should begin with the inciting incident, where the everyday changes, then move forward. This pseudo-framing device mainly works to diffuse any tension we feel early in the story. That said, the actual prose is good, though watch the unintentional tense changes.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A mainstream story about a quirky character making a life changing decision. A general lack of clarity and slow pacing work against it.
Story 201 (2/23/2011 Horror 4700 words)
Reader 1: “This story didn’t work for me despite some nice writing. In the end, the story itself is pretty cliched and the use of various devices (transcripts, discovered notes, etc.) to build tension actually have the opposite effect. By taking us away from the MC and providing background, they don’t give us time to get into the MC’s head. As a result, when the MC undertakes the climactic action, it comes out of nowhere and doesn’t really have an emotional impact. The dread in this story should come from the MC’s descent into madness, but it’s being relayed to us second-hand via transcripts. This device might work in a novel, where there’s time devoted to characterisation, but it’s ineffective here. ”
I like the opening quotation, which evokes a moment of eloquent dread. The first paragraph efficiently sets us into scene (though not character). It’s a descriptive paragraph that reads a little flat after that resonant opening. Not great, not bad.
Nice observational details and a possible motivation by page 2. Good. First scene works well enough. I’m not getting a strong sense of story yet, but it’s enough.
Section 2 begins with a diary entry. It’s suitably creepy and promises something to come. I do like what follows it. Nice little scene here. I don’t like that the words the voice says are hidden from us. That pushes me away from character identification. Still, a creepy scene — would be even better with the words on the page, I suspect.
Viewpoint shift in section 3 throws me. I’m just getting into the MC and then I’m having to reorient. Then another viewpoint shift at the end of the scene. The entire scene seems to be here just to present evidence for what we already know/suspect. I don’t think it adds much to the story (in a longer work, yes it could, but here it diffuses my identification with MC).
Section 4 returns me to MC and is nicely written. I’m missing something here. This SHOULD be escalating, but I’m not feeling it. I think it’s because even though I’m inside the MC, I’m not really inside her experience. So much of what she experiences is left to inference that she feels manipulated in a way.
Section 5 switches viewpoint again. I’m not invested in any of these characters fully enough to appreciate the tension here. I do like the section lead-ins. Very clever way to introduce background and the quotes themselves are really evocative. The story itself, however, feels kind of flat despite some very nice writing.
Section 6 remains in viewpoint I haven’t identified with. This is the physical climax of the story and I get no sense of an emotional climax because we shift outside the MC to observe rather than feel.
Section 7 explains everything. It’s a clever device, but doesn’t really do much for me emotionally (or even intellectually as I have no real investment in the whys or hows).
The final section could basically stand alone. There is a very good core here for a character driven horror story centered on the initial MC (or even one of the other viewpoints), but we end up solving the puzzle of the situation rather than experiencing the story of it. It’s a shame, because the writing is spectacular at times.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 An SF ghost story that delivers an interesting situation and character, but does not provide enough emotional investment to reach its potential.
Story 202 (2/24/2011 SF 4988 words)
Reader 1: “It starts out okay, but the first half of the story is about [something]. There is no main character even though the story focuses on the friend most of the time. It is all external with no character development or realization. There are too many characters bouncing in and out to keep track of everyone, especially at the beginning. ” (plot spoilers removed)
This one comes from an author with substantial credits. Makes me hopeful. The opening sentence is a little forced for my taste. It’s meant to provoke my interest, but mainly feels (for me) like it’s trying too hard. Second sentence is solid.
End of page 1 annoys me with its withholding. I’m worrying that this will be about technique rather than story. There’s a genuine mystery here, yet we’re focusing on false mystery instead. The prose is nicely active and the characters feel lively. What I’m missing is what I need most at story opening. A sense of place and time and motivation. Rather than describing the central mystery, I’ve spent two pages inferring evidence of it. That’s not story.
How wide is this thing? How deep? What’s the big deal with the husband? Who should I identify with here? The central mystery isn’t enough to hold me since it’s not even concretely described. Finally, on page 3 we get some context for the situation. Page 4 clarifies further. I don’t so much mind that we begin with characters interacting, but because none of them stand out, I feel adrift, and since there’s no concrete surround, I feel more adrift. By the time I get my feet on the ground, the story has lost me.
Now we’re basically moving backward rather than forward. I’m on page 6 and there’s been only one forward movement to speak of. Page 6-7 settles down to a single MC. This is welcome, but the story itself is moving very slowly. We’re pretty much rehashing the same issue we started with. To be fair, there are some really nice lines here, a few smiles and such. At the end of page 10 we get a direct statement of motivation. With motivation, complication becomes possible. The way the story plays out now, it just kind of meanders through situation to this point, then throws a complication in that’s not really a complication to the main issue. Scene ends with a new situation.
Page 12 brings an intriguing development. Without a strong character identification it’s just an intellectual curiosity for me.
This ends interestingly. The idea is very good and could (probably should) support a longer treatment. At this length there’s not enough room to develop the characters well enough to carry their end of the bargain, leaving the idea to swoop in at the end and attempt to rescue the story. I’ll be very interested in reading this once it’s fully developed. As it stands, it doesn’t really deliver enough facets of the idea to compel me.
Was I extra tough on this one? I suspect so, mainly because it’s clear the author is very good and I had high expectations going in. In the end, I think the main problem is that the story probably started as a quirky idea and developed into something more along the way, but without a really strong setup for that payoff (i.e. motivated character who needs this to happen, various facets of the idea explored scene by scene), it’s just not working yet.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 A very interesting concept that goes to a good place. Slow, uneven buildup and too many characters too fast work against its potential.
Story 203 (2/25/2011 Fantasy 5000 words)
Reader 1: “The writing is clunky and very little of it is grounded in genuine character emotion or difficult choices. It runs straight into action without context and it takes far too long for genuine choices to emerge rather than disconnected action. This wastes some interesting world building by using generic characters. ”
The opening does a good job of painting a scene. It opens in mid-action and provides some context. No motivation yet, but that’s okay. Second paragraph isn’t as effective. Mundane action written large.
I’m losing interest now, as the characters basically explain what has happened to each other. It’s an interesting situation and it’s not info-dump dialogue as they do actually speak to each other, but it feels unbalanced to me, as if the story action has stopped for the talky part. Page 3 brings a complication. It feels kind of random though.
An active action scene. Refreshing to see actual action in a story. It’s kind of by the numbers though, and feels disconnected from the character. One clue that the story’s telling has slipped out of character is the moment on page 5 where it lumps the characters together (I call this herd behavior). “and in the couple’s moment of surprise, slashed them deeply across their torsos”. Basically, this removes and identification with a single character and pushes me into a mushy frame of thought. It feels lazy (to me), which is why I always look for it when editing my own work.
Another somewhat random complication. The story seems to be creating itself as it goes. I could be wrong about that, but it doesn’t feel well thought out, at least from a surface (i.e. slush) reading. Are there any rules to this magic?
I’m glad to see the randomness of the earlier event acknowledged in scene 2. This gives me hope that there’s a reason for it in the end. Page 9 brings another somewhat random complication. By “random” in this context, I mean that stuff is happening just to happen rather than as a result of motivated character meeting obstacles related to his motive/quest. He can fly? How? Why?
Some more semi-random complication. This is related to the earlier scene, clearly, but the underpinning comes out of nowhere for me. This deathbed dialogue is not convincing. An unwilling student isn’t worth the bother? Then why bother with the MC, who is unwilling too?
The ending does not work for me. It renders the story’s power (yes, there is some power in this choice) impotent. She could have done this in the first place and it wouldn’t have mattered to the outcome.
This is a particular type of action adventure story and it’s done reasonably well in that regard. There’s an audience for this, I suspect, but we are not it.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 An action adventure fantasy romance with some good active scenes. Uneven character development and simplistic plot devices work against its potential.
Well, it’s late and I’ve got a novel to work on tomorrow, so lights out for now. Hopefully I’ll make a larger dent tomorrow.