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Archive for April 27th, 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. My sincere apologies to those of you who have been waiting patiently for decisions.  At this point we’ve officially accepted 14 stories (38,000 words).

Story 233 (3/5/2011 Science Fiction 2000 words)

Reader 1:  “There’s some smooth writing here and some potent imagery, but there’s too much intentional vagueness and time-hopping for me to recommend it.
The opening scene doesn’t really present the character in the best light (though the reasons for her resentment do become quite clear), the protagonist has no very little impact upon what story events there are, and there are too many unanswered questions that are never resolved. The protagonist has no impact upon the key plot incident. A lot of the background detail is kept purposely vague and this withholding robs the ending of any emotional power it might have. This story would have been better served building the relationship through scenes. The idea is there and the writing is there, but it needs more development.”

Reader 2: “I like this a lot. It could use some trimming, I think, and [Reader 1] is right that the character is too passive, but I really like the slow unveil of what is happening. I think it’d be good with just a little bit of a rewrite.”

Reader 3: “I like this just the way it is. We are in the POV all the way. Even though she doesn’t understand some things, the reader can figure out what’s happening. The time shifts are a bit jarring at first, but once I saw what was happening, it worked for me. “

Interesting, and another evidence that tastes do matter. If one venue says no, even harshly, don’t stop believing in the story. If a dozen say no, you may want to re-evaluate; or if an editor provides feedback that makes sense to you (especially if it gives you an aha! moment), then certainly take time to revise before sending it back out. I know, I know, Heinlein said… From what I see, I’d say that we need at least as much practice revising our work as we do writing it. Revision should not become an excuse to avoid submitting work, but it can help to get a piece accepted. I’ve had several successes after midstream revisions.

This is a strong opening. A provocative hook planted in the opening line that does not feel forced, some specific detail context for scene, a sentence implying relationship and protagonist motive, then a nice resonance to take us fully in-scene. Really well done.

Second scene is very good too. The contrast between the emotional state we’re left in by the first scene and the emotional state here is startling–in a good way. I want to know how this transformation came about. I’m definitely on board so far.

I do not like the third scene, with its mushy omniscient viewpoint. In another story it would be just fine, but here, contrasted with the powerful opening scenes, it feels watery. For the moment I would want this in the MC’s viewpoint, perhaps opening with what is now the final paragraph, and using that as stimulus to introduce the other important background here.

Fourth scene escalates nicely. I like that we don’t get quite enough context in the dialogue to completely know the politics or even what, exactly, is happening. I like to be trusted as a reader and this story clearly trusts me.

Next scene builds relationship. There is escalation here as well, and a touch more revelation.

Next scene releases physical tension. Good. Complication overcome. Granted it’s through no effort of the protagonist beyond a simple sentence, but it works for me.

The next scene confuses me. It’s active and feels as if something important has happened. Because (and only because) the story has carried me faithfully this far, I’m willing to go one. I trust it to deliver context.

Final scene provides a solid anti-climax. The question for me is whether I’m content with this climax scene that leaves so much unsaid.  I’m a little dissatisfied on the one hand, but that I went back and reread the scene for clues I’d missed tells me that I was invested in the story. I think I would like just one more really concrete clue in that scene. As this stands, the actual climax occurs out of scene. We get the buildup to climax, no problem, but the actual climax is a single gunshot heard and an inference from reaction (and the context provided by flash forward scenes). I would like just one more really solid hint as to what happened, something to make this world totally real in my mind.

I believe we’ll take this one. I’ll ask the author to reframe the third scene and to consider adding a touch more specific context at the climax, but I really like this story and it does fit the theme well.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 An SF story about frontier hardships and familial love. The stakes are not huge, but they are enough to carry this length. A bobble in viewpoint and a slightly confusing climax muddy this a bit.

Story 234 (3/5/2011 Science Fiction 4600 words)

Reader 1:  “The first 7/19 pages is spent describing [something]. The slow opening, lack of character identification and little plot makes this hard to slog through. It’s a reprint, so I don’t think we should consider it. “

Oh, our readers do get cranky. Can you really blame them? It’s not that the stories we see are bad, but there are just so many of them, and so many similar flaws, that it gets irritating even for the best of us.  This is unfair to the writer, who works diligently and mostly capably to produce a story, then sends it off to be evaluated by usually complete strangers. It’s a real risk of ego and takes guts to do this. Since my purpose in doing this blog is to give some insight into the slush process, I choose to leave most of these negative comments in place here. It’s not that I want to hurt writers (I’m careful to keep things as anonymous as I can in any case), but that I want to push writers toward that epiphany that helps them break through to the next level of their writing. “That’s nice, dear,” only goes so far after all. A real writer needs real, unvarnished reaction too. My job as editor is to varnish just enough to stay out of “mean” without pulling punches about effect, technique, etc.. At least that’s how I see it.

But I digress… Story opens with a character waking up. This is not auspicious. The hook is pretty static too.  It’s also telling on page 2 when a character asks, “Anything new?” and gets no as the answer. Your job (at least as far as our antho is concerned) is to start the story as close as possible to the inciting incident,  the incident that causes the story to begin. Think of this as the stone that falls upon a pond’s surface and breaks that placid status quo that existed before Story. The story is those ripples spreading out, rebounding, interacting. The climax is the point of highest tension between the forces unleashed in this process, and the anti-climax is that new status quo that takes shape after the climax has settled. In the process of reaching that new state, the character has been transformed in some important way and has paid a price to get there. That’s the pattern that has worked for thousands of years. Break it at your own risk, and for a good reason.

Until page 7, this is all background (status quo). The end of page 7 brings what could be an inciting incident (something unusual that breaks the day-in-the-life pattern). The writing gets nicely active at this point. I’m still not getting a sense of character motivation, however. Yep, I’m watching the MC do stuff, but I’m not getting a sense of rising tension or even why it matters in the larger scheme. This feels like novel pacing, some decent world building but no real rush to get to the actual story.

On page 14 I get some escalation and a sense of a new issue emerging. An interesting philosophical issue on page 16. Tension. A price, but it’s not the MC who pays it (at least his price is not as high as the secondary character’s). Very nice exchange near the end of page 18.  A nice ending that actually justifies the character waking in the opening scene. It’s rare that I’ll admit that, so nice job on that front.

Yes, the story takes too long to develop for us. The core idea is an interesting one and the scenario for exploring it makes sense. I didn’t really connect with the characters until near the end, however. If I were revising, I’d work on creating early scenes that get the story moving quickly and connect me more fully to the viewpoint. I’d amp up the tension revolving around the core idea through the middle, then work to create a climax that actually is a high point of tension rather than matter of fact observation of what happens. I think it’s partially there now, but I was skimming and may have missed some of the tension.

Decent story, but not for us, especially as a reprint.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An alien SF story created around an intriguing philosophic point. A very slow opening and lack of building tension through the middle of the story weaken it.

Story 235 (3/6/2011 Science Fiction 3500 words)

Reader 1:  “This story appeared in a program book, but I think we should consider it. It’s well written. All the pieces are there. The climax just needs some work. The emotional climax and physical climax do not happen at the same time. It makes the main character’s decision seem like an after thought. Other than that, it works. I suggest a revision.”

Reader 2: “I’m a bit meh about this one. I know it’s not meant to be hard SF, but the premise wasn’t really testing my limited intelligence. It is soundly written, but why Bonnie survived is left unexplained and the emotional climax isn’t tied into any decision. Most of the story was exposition central. “

The opening is efficient in setting a character in scene, with enough context to interest me, but it’s also a little flat. I’m okay with that, just not thrilled. The story will need to pull me in in other ways (which is fine, mind you – Gee whiz hooks are largely overrated).

I’m a little confused by the lucky fishing hat. If it’s lucky, why has catching fish been difficult this season? Has its luck run out? Just a niggle, but caught my eye.

Page 2 begins with a lot of background. There’s no story yet.  Ah, there’s the inciting incident near the end of page 2. This is almost too late, but not quite. Maybe trim the background a bit, or intersperse it later in the story?

Interesting complication on page 3.  On page 4 we get an unexpected new issue that feels like the opening of the story. I’d prefer this to be set up, or even for the story to begin with her appearance. I feel like I’m starting again now.

Yes, I think the first couple of pages could simply be cut and we would have much stronger momentum for the story. I don’t need that background until the MC does (which would be now as he is confronted with this complication). Writers work so hard to give me the background they’ve so carefully researched/invented (I’m guilty of this as well) when they should be paying more attention to the protagonist. The key to getting me to identify with a protagonist is to get me to accept his reactions as natural. Thus, when he comes up with blocks of background without stimulus that might make him do that (i.e. when he doesn’t actually need that background in order to cope with what’s being presented to him), my identification lessens. This story seems a great example of how less background can be more. Not only will I be less “meh”, but I’ll be drawn closer to the character as HE requires the background to cope with this complication.

I like that she invades his boat. Tension. This is mostly philosophic discussion, but I like that it is intermingled with the everyday fishing action. The conversation feels real even if it is loaded with information. I do worry that the story itself may not deliver a climax/resolution, but only an idea. We’ll see.

You might want to use “tipping point” rather than “critical mass”. More trendy.  By page 10, the conversation is beginning to wear thin for me. Even with some action, this is getting info-dumpy. I need something to happen in the foreground story too. Maybe another scene even.

The out-of-the-boat twist seems a little manufactured.  I do, however, like what you do with it.  The final scene is sweet, but goes on a little long for the story’s length. It puts the structure out of balance. For my taste, I’d prefer to see the middle filled out, with another scene or two, depicting the MC’s struggle to accept the unavoidable implications of the inciting incident. I’d like to see him struggle more, pay a real price. It’s that middle that’s bogging this down now. Too much information, too little story complication/development. We need tension to build both in the abstract and the real. We need the climax to feel like a culmination of the tensions between them rather than a happy coincidence (in retrospect). I do like the hat, and I do like the daughter. They deserve an even stronger story.

Because this will take some significant work, I’m going to pass on it, but definitely invite this author back  next year.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An SF story that explores a timely issue. A mostly static midsection info-dump works against it.

Story 236 (3/6/2011 Science Fiction 4100 words)

Reader 1:  “The opening scenes of this one are completely static and I didn’t really buy a lot of the conversation…while it’s a nicely effective set-up and a reasonable idea, I needed a problem a lot quicker than I got it. A lot of the conversation only worked as an info-dump. The story could have also started a lot later. This is a nice concept, badly told and without real psychological realism and there’s no real reason for a lot of the story events. There’s no sense of events occurring as a result of protagonist or antagonist interaction.”

Again with the harshness?  Can you tell we’re getting deep into the slush pile now? Patience wears thin. This story received an honorable mention in Writers of the Future. I like that contest because it gives real encouragement to writers, especially early in their career. The judging is anonymous and sincere. So, yes, I do expect to find something of worth here. But this is tempered by the realization that even the grand prize winners at WOTF are typically mid-level pro stories. That said, it’s impressive how may WOTF winners go on to substantial careers. They’re clearly doing something right. So, what’s up with this story?

The opening paints a picture, but gives no real context. I’m also leery about “could feel”, which generally indicates the writer is not actually in the character’s perspective. Why not “felt”? Why the extra filter. It’s a niggle, but also a red flag.

We move into MC’s perspective pretty effectively after this. The next red flag is the old false mystery bugaboo we see so often. Two characters making veiled references to something they obviously know about. Since I’m in one of their heads, I should know too, right? False mystery is generated by the author hiding the obvious artificially. True mystery is generated by the character exploring something they do not understand.

The opening scene is basically delivering background information (without delivering the most important piece of it). Static, yes. There is no story yet. The dialogue seems intended to explain background to me rather than to address the characters’ needs/wants.

Page 5. A cure for what? What handicap? What did she used to be? This is all false mystery. There’s no story yet.

On page 6 we finally get the key.  What sort of world had they been brought into? What did they used to be? False mystery.

On page 7, it feels like the story is beginning. I’m not sure yet, but we have forward action and motive. The next scene begins to explore the true mystery. It’s more interesting for sure. I suspect the story could begin here and work in just enough background as it’s required by the MC (and avoid false mystery at all costs).   Lots of dialogue. Feels a little unbalanced.

Physical escalation is good. This scene is brisk. Good complication, good climax. What’s missing for me is the emotional escalation the sense of the MC making a choice here that will cost her something important. It’s sort of here, but I don’t think I understand the character well enough for it to impact me. Feels like a nice action scene. That’s not enough to justify 20 pages of prose. Then we’re back to the end-frame, which matches the opening frame. We see a lot of frames. Most of them do little for the story. This is no exception. I do see how a frame could be used here, but why? The actual story is much more interesting, moving forward. It could still end with this final scene, actually. If I were revising, I would begin the story with their decision to break in and steal what they need, then move forward from there, inserting background ONLY where the MC requires it to deal with story stimulus (or react to it). For example, seeing the secondary character’s handicap might trigger a thought about his operations or what he used to be or what she used to be or what he or she thinks caused the decline. When characters react to story stimulus they draw me in. When they seem planted amid pools of background information, not so much.

This ends up being a pretty interesting story, but I probably would never have gotten there if I were the “typical” editor. I would have stopped reading pretty early or skimmed the ending.  Potential here, but it needs work.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 An SF story that catches a fairly trendy pop wave and rolls with it to shore. A static opening and false mystery detract from it.

Story 237 (3/25/2011 Horror ?? words)

This one has not been pre-read, so the burden to get this right falls on my narrow shoulders.

The opening is solid, though there are too many adjectives. Find strong nouns instead and the cadence will be cleaner, the images stronger. This is a distant third person perspective, which keeps me from identifying closely with the protagonist. I’m always leery when body parts act of their own accord. Even in distant third person it’s usually best to say “he touched” rather than “his hand touched”.  I suppose if the viewpoint is intentionally trying to keep me from identifying with the character the second works well, but not in general.

Nice complication, then an unexpected twist on that. That’s good. I would probably trim the opening couple pages a bit to get to this quicker though.

I’m having a hard time following the conversation in the next scene. Who says what? Is the vulture talking? That’s not clear until later. I don’t believe vultures have lips.

Okay, this is hinging on false mystery now. The distant viewpoint makes the mystery possible, but it’s still grating at me. These two know what they’re talking about. Why not let me in on it? Stringing me along artificially frustrates. There’s some good dialogue here, but it seems mainly intended to feed me hints of background. I can’t really say it’s cheating since the viewpoint is distant, but it feels as if the story is waiting to begin, or being explained to me in its own time.

Okay, on page 5 we get the start of a story. Gets intriguing on page 9. They’re still dancing around telling me what they both know, but it’s getting clearer and I like the relic.  At the end of page 7 we get the reveal of what we should already know. It’s not enough. I want an actual story, one that moves forward and involves the protagonist making a decision. He sort of does here, but it doesn’t matter much to me because I don’t understand the stakes or the cost until afterward.

The vulture’s speech at top of page 7 really interests me. Not being in the protagonist’s head really diminishes its power, because I have no sense for his need or why he’s searching for this or what he thinks it will bring him, etc.. I’m being shown an essentially emotional story from the outside in, rather than the inside out. Fix that and I think this will work. Do away with the reveal (make it clear on page 1 what he thinks he’s searching for and why and how the vulture is relevant; use the vulture’s reluctance as a complication to build tension, a showdown between them, the vulture agreeing in anger, the reveal of what the MC doesn’t know instead of what he does).

I like this ending. It will work very well with what I describe above. I do need to understand how the MC serves his master. Right now that’s a generic given. I need to know that it’s a real price for the MC and that when he makes this decision he thinks he’s freeing himself from the price.

Overall, there’s potential here for a really good story.  Too much work to request a rewrite, and I don’t think it quite fits the theme either, but good start here.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An interesting take on “be careful what you wish for” with some nicely dark twists and an interesting premise. Slow development and false mystery weigh it down.

Story 238 (3/6/2011 Science Fiction 400 words)

Reader 1: “This is a 400 word piece about [something]. I kind of like it, but I’d like to see what others think. I give it a maybe. ” (plot spoiler removed)

The opening effectively drops me into a situation and character perspective. I’m not blown away by it, but it works pretty well. Interesting SFnal premise.

Some nice prose. Nothing showy, but the occasional unexpected turn of phrase. I’d like a little more movement, but it’s working pretty well.

Very nice ending. I’d like to see it set up earlier in the story, however. Right now it comes as almost an afterthought shortly before the ending. The prose could use some trimming as well, so maybe trim a bit from the opening, plant the clue earlier, and onward to a satisfying ending. I’ll pass this along.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An intriguing SF flash piece about AI and spirit. It reads a little long and the setup comes late.

Story 239 (3/6/2011 Science Fiction 3000 words)

This opens effectively. This is an interesting premise, but the first couple pages amount to background. It’s interesting, but not story.  Story begins on page 3.  I do need some of this background, but not such a big chunk. Pieces of the remnant could be worked into the story as (and if) needed later. Actually, I could see this opening with him paging through the phone book, looking out over his yard and thinking snippets of relevant background that result from that stimulus. It would get the story moving much quicker.

The second scene is engaging. Nice bit of foreshadowing (I’m sure). I’m leery that this is going to be a simple twist story. Hopefully it will have more depth that that.  The next scene twist is good insofar as it goes beyond the obvious, but not so good in that we’ve had no setup for it at all. Still, it may work, depending upon the ending. I’d say a vague reference/thought early in story  of a childhood sweetheart, someone he could’ve shared his fortune with and maybe prevented his current obsession would be enough to set this up.

The buildup is backward, I think. Rather than seeing the girl then getting the warning, it would be a stronger escalation to get the warning (nebulous and not unexpected) to seeing the girl (totally unexpected and powerful).

His choice to confront the girl doesn’t seem natural. It seems necessary to plot, not character. Interesting development thereafter, though.  I like the climax. The final scene goes on a little long for me, though. It’s sentimental and all, but that sentiment only started building toward the end of the story. Had it begun in the beginning, there would be so much more to be released here, right?

This one is kind of tough. It’s a really different idea and executed well for the most part, but the shaping doesn’t seem quite right yet and it hasn’t grown into its power yet. I’ll pass it to a reader for more input.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 An intriguing and timely SFnal premise cleverly handled. Uneven development hampers it.

Story 240 (3/6/2011 Science Fiction 5900 words)

Reader 1: “There is a lot of nice world building and ideas here, but the story doesn’t escalate. It feels like snippets from a book pieced together over the life of this character. There isn’t a pivotal event that changes his life. A lot of it is summary. It just didn’t keep me interested even though it had some interesting ideas. “

This comes from a well established author. It’s a little long, but if it’s great, that’s fine.

The opening feels deliberately obtuse. The writing is smooth and lively so I’ll give it a chance, but I do want somewhere to put my feet down soon.

Well, it’s an odd experience. The story seems insistent upon not showing me what I want to see, not explaining what I want explained, and expecting me to go along with it on the strength of a good voice. I’m too tired for that, I’m afraid. As strong as the voice is, it’s just to much work to make sense of a whirlwind. The last straw is when we finally find the larger than life creature and we look right at it, we touch it, yet we don’t SEE it. We get a few nasty details, but the rest is left to our imagination. Okay, I’ll imagine a bunk bed with claws.

Ah, I think I’m catching on to what “it” is that’s keeping me from enjoying this as much as I feel I should. Again and again I’m told about details; they’re interesting, quirky details, but I don’t see them, touch them often enough. It’s like there’s a gauze between me and this interesting world. Ironically, I feel the same gauze between me and the MC’s motivation. I know intimately what he does and how he does it and what he thinks about, but I don’t see why he does this or what he wants.

Lots of neat concepts here. Interesting development on page 13. This is true mystery.

On page 19 we find out what the mysterious creature we saw but didn’t see actually is. It’s a fairly mundane revelation. I would have liked it early in the story. Here it seems anticlimactic.

The ending is nicely sentimental, but I don’t feel the sentiment has been earned. It took me too long to get close to this character, to understand what he needs from this story and what he gets.

This is an intricate and compelling world. Drop a motivated character into it and give him an actual story arc and I suspect I’ll lap it up. As it stands, this reads (for me) as something of a tour of the idea. It does feel worthy of a book.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 An intricate SF premise with epic sweep. Lack of character motivation and minimal story arc work against it.

Story 241 (3/6/2011 Science Fiction 900 words)

Reader 1: “This was short and pretty incomprehensible. ???? I have no idea what it was trying to say.”

Well that’s a new one. The story begins interestingly. It’s a clever idea, really, but too abstruse for me to fully appreciate. It has a nice resonance in the end and does come full circle in an interesting way, but it went on a little long for what it accomplished.

I dunno. I’ll pass it on for another opinion. I’m not jumping up and down about it, but it is clever.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A quirky SF concept turned into a quirky SF flash. A little too much opaqueness and lack of motivated characters weakens it somewhat.

Story 242 (3/6/2011 Fantasy 3400 words)

Reader 1: “There is a story buried in this manuscript, but it’s disjointed in so many places that I can’t tell what’s happening part of the time. It’s an interesting folk tale. I couldn’t keep track of where or when I was half the time. The story skipped around too much. The line by line writing is good and the descriptive detail is good, but there isn’t enough coherence to hold everything together. “

Seems like a motif tonight. Weird how that seems to work.

Love the opening line. Makes me want to read on for sure, and places me into a character perspective.  The opening paragraph covers way too much territory, too many concepts. It feels breathless. At least break it into a few paragraphs. Or, better yet, start the story moving forward and work necessary background into it as required by the characters. I wonder if this is from a book. That opening feels like a plot summary.

Some clever writing I must say. Good specific details.  This is entertaining. It ends well. The problem is that it doesn’t feel structurally sound yet. If the point is the internet thing (which is cool), the setup should emphasize the grandmother’s obsession with collections. I don’t need all that history in the first paragraph, I need the grandmother’s key trait and a sense that it will come to something. I would try to begin this in-scene as well, with the MC tapping the jar in the first or second sentence and move forward from there. First memory of Grandmother would be of her collections. This seems a classic case of a story morphing into something else as it proceeds. Fix that and this will be a winner.

I’ll pass it on to another reader to see whether a rewrite makes sense. I kind of doubt it, but I really do like what this story is trying to do.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A clever modern fantasy with an active heart. A lack of overall cohesion hurts it somewhat.

Story 243 (3/7/2011 Fantasy 3230 words)

Reader 1: “This story started out pretty well and the writing was good. By the time they got to the [destination withheld], it was losing its punch. The character is pretty flat. He makes no decision the whole story.” (plot spoilers removed)

Opens with a dream. It’s not a bad opening, but I’m leery. First person. Dream. Is this going to be a trapped in the head story?  Nope. Second scene is well framed and active.

Falklands War reference has me wondering if this might be a trunk story? Not a huge deal, but unless the time frame is important to the genre aspect of story, it’s dated. The writing pulls me right along. The crash probably happens to quickly. It doesn’t connect me to the character as it should (especially emotionally).

The scene on 7-9 just seems to go on. I don’t feel escalation. I should. On page 9, the explanation of concept begins. That’s not what interests me. What interests me is the story built around the concept.  Concept explained by page 12. Where do we go from here? The character has not motivation, so it seems likely the telling will stall here.

Well it does escalate a bit on page 14-15. That’s good. I still feel as if I’m touring an idea rather than experiencing a story, but it’s active again. Revelation on page 16 is cursory. Like a light switch rather than a discharge of tension built up over time.

We end with a full circle frame. It’s a decent enough device for this story, but the middle is the problem. I don’t feel the power of the character’s transformation or the stakes of the story, leaving me lukewarm in the end. He gets what he needs, perhaps, but why did he need it? What was he lacking in his life or soul? What was the price he paid? It’s all too easy here, I’m afraid.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A fantasy that comes full circle. Lack of character development and emotional escalation hurt this.

Well, that’s it for today. One more story officially purchased, another couple sent for further consideration.

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