Archive for April 29th, 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 15 stories (40,000 words).

I have about 2 hours. Let’s see if I can make it through 8 stories.

Story 249 (3/9/2011 Science Fiction ? words)

Reader 1:  “This story has a lot of problems. The first is the use of second person. Most of the story is summary. There isn’t enough character development.” (plot spoilers removed)

I like the opening, strange but accessible. “When we ephemerals found the wrecked vessel, we were excited about meeting a new race and disappointed when we discovered that all but one of the crew of five had expired.” (if the author wishes me to remove this, I surely will). Notice that the sentence does several things at once. It first tells us we’re in an SFnal (possibly Fantasy) world with the reference to “epehemerals”, then it gives a very concrete context (finding the wrecked vessel), a motivation (looking for new race), and likely an inciting incident (one lives). I want to read on. I want to begin seeing the surround, I want to begin to understand what an ephemeral is, what race they’ve discovered, and what this fifth one will bring to the table.

I like the rest of the opening paragraph as well. Very concrete, matter of fact, true to the viewpoint (which is not second person, but collective first person, so far).

Okay, the second person comes in next. It’s not actually a second person viewpoint (not yet anyway) but collective first person talking to “me” who has become one of the characters. I dislike this technique in general. Will it work here?

Unfortunately, no. The story slips into a slog of background information I should already know (since I’m the character being spoken to). It feels artificial, forced. Plus the story has come to a standstill. The idea is being explained to me rather than lived. Dang, I’m sorry to see that.

As we move further into the manuscript, the viewpoint narrows toward a truer second person perspective, with all the flaws that generally brings with it. I get annoyed being told what I’ve done, what I feel, what I think. It’s an artificial technique that works only in very limited situations. Usually, such experiments attempt to paper over a lack of actual story.

There’s a valid complication, only it has no impact on me because, curiously enough, the one thing I haven’t been told is what I want or need. I have no real motivation, only duty. The actual story is superficial, a fairly typical tale of relationship breakdown and alien invasion. Before I would use second person here I would ask myself WHY second person is absolutely required to tell the story properly. Too often we settle for experimenting with technique in place of story rather than finding the best technique to support story.

Skimming… Same basic issues until the end. There’s a nice line at the end, but nothing really connecting me emotionally to the story. It’s a shame after that excellent opening. Second person is indeed an unfortunate choice here, but changing it to third person will not be enough; If I were revising, I would return to story basics. A motivated character meets obstacles, makes an important decision (at a cost to himself) and earns/deserves a new state of existence in the end. There’s not enough story arc here and certainly not enough character arc to carry this many words.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 An alien SF tale that examines human motivation through alien eyes. A lack of story and insufficient character arc hurt this one.

Story 250 (3/9/2011 Horror 500 words)

Reader 1:  “This short piece is too generic. The climax is off screen. ”

Dirt-soaked rain is either brilliant or misguided; I can’t quite decide.  It’s downhill from here, however, as we slip into a fuzzy overview of background leading to this. When you only have 500 words each one is magnified. Each one needs to compel me forward to the next one, the next sentence, the next paragraph, an ending that makes everything throb with meaning or emotion.

This is entirely summary of a story that has happened, rather than a revelation of story happening. Use this as an outline and tell the story forward instead. You’ll get a stronger sense of escalation and immediacy. I have a story coming out in Eschatology soon that tackles a (slightly) similar idea. I hope you’ll read it and pay attention to the difference in approach.  We have a tendency as writers, particularly early in our careers, to want to narrate a story rather than showing it. I guess it’s easier on our vocabulary, and it’s easier to control. It’s not usually the best approach.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A horror flash told mostly in retrospect. Lack of compelling forward movement and sharp, surprising detail, hurt this.

Story 251 (3/9/2011 Horror 1200 words)

Reader 1:  “Getting this kind of story right is a tough ask and the difference between this one and the other ‘literary’ submissions that I’ve read (all of which I thought were well written, though none of them seemed overly suited to the anthology) is that the imagery and writing is straining for effect rather than letting the observations and imagery arise naturally. For example, there are three similes or metaphors within the opening paragraph and, in my opinion, none of them were sufficiently striking to justify the dislocation from the narrative. This isn’t something I’ve felt with any of the other submissions that tipped towards the literary side of things. To be honest, I’m puzzled that this is a reprint and one that achieved a fair level of acclaim. I must be missing something here and that might be more of a reflection upon me rather than the story. There is a lot of purposeful withholding about key motivations behind character actions, etc. when clear, simple cause and effect would have helped greatly. From an exterior perspective, very little happens and I require *some* exterior stimuli-reaction to mirror and justify the interior changes that take place in a literary horror story. It also uses a flashback to answer the false mystery established in the opening and there’s no resolution, no sense of climax, just an obscure character summary without making me feel like I actually understood the protagonist to any great degree. ”

Reader 2: “A guy walks into a bar…but after that I’m not really sure what happened. I think he had a memory of trying to save a girl and the barmaid was involved somehow. Even after looking back to see if I missed something, I couldn’t figure it out. The dialog is okay, but the descriptive detail is too flowery and adjective laced.”

Opening drops me into character perspective and implies context. No motivation or genre yet, but I can wait a bit. The writing is interesting, but very much right on the edge of trying too hard.

Definitely trying too hard to impress. It’s not that I mind the actual lines, many of which are active and unexpected observations. There are simply too many of them strung together like a fish catch. One thing I’ve begun to learn in my own literary endeavors is that vivid images and unexpected sentences work best when contrasted with the concrete. If everything is special, nothing is, in a sense. I get that feeling so far here. Skilled writer working too hard to show off that skill.

But it’s not the writing that’s keeping me from buying into this; prose can be toned down or up pretty easily. It’s the lack of character motive. I’m waiting for a story to begin after 2 pages.

On page 3, I get the sense of withholding Reader 1 describes.  “I know you,” he whispered. This is good, but what follows is not his natural reaction to that stimulus (a memory, a feeling, an image, something that connects me to his experience) but a paragraph of continuing metaphor. I get some slick writing, but not what I actually want, which is WHY he says that or WHAT he remembers.  Rather than pulling me into character, the writer has stepped in to wow me with word craft. Granted that is something literary fiction does to a degree, but it works very much against genre principles, against getting us into a head and compelling us to identify.

What follows is certainly active and vivid, yet it’s also obscure. Murky. What is happening? I’m not quite sure, but it sure sounds interesting.

The reveal is good. It’s not story, however. The story happened in the past. What we have here is a man waking to himself. It’s a moment of transformation at the end of six pages of word craft. As literary fiction, this works well. The ending is emotionally resonant and justifies the slow buildup and answers the mystery. I do think the writing, particularly early, should be toned down in favor of a stronger, simpler connection to viewpoint.

Good job, but not what we’re looking for (as much as I loathe that statement).

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A vignette about a man remembering the defining moment in his life and the woman who guides him. Overly showy writing hurts this in places.

Story 252 (3/9/2011 SF 5477 words)

Reader 1:  “The protagonist in this story isn’t particularly likeable and there’s a lot of ‘As you know Bob’ speech. While there’s light amusement in the story and it could very easily trimmed underneath the word limit, there’s not enough to recommend it. The story is trite rather than a serious examination of the ideas it raises and I found the ending fairly predictable. ”

Well, I have to admit that I cringe when I see these longer stories nowadays. It’s not fair, I know, but they take so much longer to get through and I’m feeling pressured to “get through” the pile, y’know? Anyway, I’ll read this story like a “real” editor, and start skimming when and if it loses me.

I’m intrigued by “old world” in the opening sentence. In the second sentence the MC awakens. Interest lost. The image from the dream does kind of pull me back though (he admits sheepishly).  Phone call explains what has happened off screen. Then a paragraph of story background. Then a decent reaction from the MC.

This is told in the old pulp style, lots of summary narrative and dialogue that explains stuff to the reader. That’s not really our gig. We prefer the invisible narrator and close character identification. Still, if the idea is astounding, we could certainly make an exception.

I’m enjoying this, though it’s slow for the anthology. I particularly like the conversation on page 5. It feels like scientists flirting 🙂 By page 6 it has tipped over into infodump, however. Too slow for us.

I like this story quite a bit. I wish we were experiencing it more directly rather than through dialogue.  Great line on page 11 “… with his comb-over fluttering above his head like a dirty grey flag of surrender…” Love a description that does more than one thing at a time. This describes, characterizes, and echoes the story situation.

Great B-movie idea here, with modern sensibility. Good large-stakes climax, the world saved just in time. Wonderful image to end penultimate scene.

Nice ending. It feels like it deserves a book, however.  I read this as an homage to the old 1950’s SF movies, black and white and all. It’s really well done in that sense.  Unfortunately, that’s not really what we’re looking for in Last Contact. We want a more visceral reader experience and/or a deeper exploration of concept. I do hope this finds an appreciative home.

Interestingly, I don’t find these sorts of rejections all that difficult. Yes, I love being able to tell someone we’re going to purchase and publish their story, but it’s also a good feeling to be able to tell an author I genuinely enjoyed their story even if I’m unable to publish it.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A pulp-style SF adventure story that broaches the idea of mind control and scientific responsibility. Lack of character development and immediacy work against it.

Story 253 (3/9/2011 364 words)

Reader 1:  “This story ends with: ‘Why am I falling asleep like this?’ I was asking the same question. This piece is more mainstream than genre, but the writing doesn’t carry it. ”

Sounds like reader reaction to my stories :-0  The opening is decent. Grounds me in a character perspective. First person present tense, but the scene itself is fairly static and uninteresting. In a longer story this wouldn’t be a problem, but in a microfiction every sentence has to carry me to the next. I do like the young day reference.

First person can be annoying. Nothing against this writer, who is at least above average in his/her word craft, but first person can be so relentless when the scene itself isn’t interesting. I do this. I do that. My finger feel this. Third person usually works better in this situation.

Now we have first person talking to second person (i.e. me). Another awkward technique in my book. It can work well, but more often is just a piece of tinsel hung on a bare branch. It draws attention to the lack of needles.

I like the unnoticed shadow reference. The ending pretty much baffles me (I’m easily baffled). I have to agree with the reader that the prose does not carry this piece. If I were revising, I’d definitely look at third person, which would likely force me to deepen the story logic and emotion and would offer greater opportunity for active prose, I suspect.

Re-reading this, I see (I think) the reason for first person and I do like the paragraph at the end of page 1 about father and monkeys. That seems the core of this piece, but I don’t quite comprehend it in the end. If I needed to keep first person I would work extra hard to make the first half of the story more active prose-wise. It’s too bland to hold me now.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A fairly obscure flash about sleep and self worth?

Well, I made it through five stories at least. I’ll try for a few more later tonight.

Story 254 (3/10/2011 Fantasy 999 words)

Reader 1:  “This is very short; under 1000 words, but there is no surprise. It ends as expected. ”

The opening drops me into scene. I’d like a specific detail to help the setting take form (“the curtain” is generic). I like the second paragraph better. Ooh, I like the third paragraph even better. Think about starting with a variant of that and then have the voice come in.

Then we have some withholding (false mystery). What declaration? Why might it be enough? For what? She knows all this; it feels artificial to think of the issue without any details. The writing is competent, but a little flat. I don’t feel the MC in the sentences. I don’t feel as if they’re colored by the way she sees her world.  Descriptive, yes, but they can be doing more than just describing. It’s all in the specific details, the active verbs. Rather than looking regal, she might note the way the crown’s gold draws eyes to her. Rather than vibrant curtains, maybe a tapestry quilted with golden thread; rather than beautiful paintings, may describe one. Don’t want to do all of those things, but rather to find the specific detail that makes sense in a given moment (e.g. the one she notices, the one that draws her eye, the one she thinks of when something happens).  It’s easier to say this than to do it, but I believe the secret is for the author to get out of his head and into the character’s to get “in scene” as I like to say. When a character is interacting with her surroundings and the characters in it, the scene becomes real. Until then there’s a sense of artificiality as the author moves the character around and puts words into her mouth. None of us does this perfectly, but that should be the goal for most stories. I saw a great blog a few months back by a well known woman genre writer (can’t recall who) talking about how a writer has to move between various “distances” in her writing. She has to be able to move close into the character’s perspective, move out to show the larger picture, move into the reader’s mind to gauge impact of a particular word choice or passage. I thought it was brilliant and now I can’t remember where I saw it. It’s a bitch getting old as they say.

On page 3 there’s a section of background. It’s efficient, but I wish it were broken up, maybe interspersed with the conversation (ideally the conversation sparks specific memories from this background; it then feels like the character reacting to stimulus rather than providing info to me).

The conversation on page 4 forms the heart of this story. I like the twist on the classic tale. The paragraph when the mirror breaks is nicely active (though “the” gashes is not so good; try it without “the” and you should see that it becomes more active).

Well, I do like where this goes, but it gets there too easily. The MC makes a choice and it does cost her, but we don’t really know why she makes this choice or see the tension leading up to it. It’s like a slap rather than a slow build of rage.  Think in terms of character change here. How is the MC different at the end of this story from who she was at story opening? Once you have that focus on the (inciting) event that causes her to begin this change, think of the tension she goes through as she’s forced to give in to this change. That is story. What we have here is an efficient plot outline with some nice moments.  Put the character more fully on the page, make her change, force her to change, show that conflict inside her, and this will work nicely as flash.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A classic fairy tale retold with an interesting twist. A lack of character development works against it.

Story 255 (3/10/2011 SF 3200 words)

Reader 1:  “The entire story is basically a man saying over and over to [someone], you are a murderer. This story is confusing at first because of lack of scene setting. There is [someone], [someone]  and prosecutor on page one. A person named [name] pops in on page two. It’s difficult to tell who he is. I thought maybe he was the prosecutor for a while. On page 9/17 it says he’s a prisoner. At the end he has a gun. On page 3 there are two paragraphs describing [someone] by [someone], and two paragraphs describing [someone] by [name]. On page 4 there is a backflash in [name]”s POV so he becomes the POV then. I thought [someone] was the POV at first. The next five pages is an info dump that summarizes [someone] destroying cities. From page 12-17 is a discussion about whether [someone was] wrong or not. I guess [someone] decides they were, because she lets [name] shoot her.” (names hidden to protect the innocent)

Normally I would remove most of this plot info, but I thought it might be useful to show an example of the sort of detailed feedback I often get from our readers. They do read these stories carefully and with sincere attention. In this particular case, I also wanted to show how important it is for us to focus our stories. A strong viewpoint character, scenes that connect logically, that sort of thing. It’s really easy to lose a reader once focus wavers. Story is more than an idea or philosophy.

The story opens with an unnamed character. It’s actually justified here (she has no known name). The situation is intriguing. I’m pretty clueless as to where we are or why we’re here, etc., but the opening has bought just a little time for that by being intellectually interesting. After a page, I’m no longer willing to wait. I don’t have a sense of where we are, what anyone or anything looks like. It’s all in the head so far.  I’m not attached to a particular viewpoint (let’s call it omniscient at this point because we do touch on peoples’ thoughts). Omniscient here leads to a scattering of focus, which works against bringing me into the scene.

One character is inferring meaning from another’s facial expressions, which I think is pretty cool. The problem is that he doesn’t SEE her face, much less her expression. A scene cannot become real without some specific detail (ideally more than one sense even). I’m experiencing this story as a fuzzy conversation on a blank stage. This is not bringing me into the scene, not involving my senses or my passion. The ideas expressed are interesting, if a little vague, but they are not story.

At the end of page 2 we get a very nice description of the focal character. We then get a full page of additional description from various viewpoints. I understand what the author is doing here, but it’s a technique, not story. It’s also a way of scattering my focus rather than honing it.

It’s an unnatural experience to be told about reading facial expression and seeing glowing gowns, then actually seeing the source of them a few paragraphs later. Move this to the beginning of the story to help ground us and it will work much better. If you want to use different perspectives to make a point, focus us on a particular character first, then observe. Ideally the observation will be a reaction to something that happens in story (reaction to stimulus) rather than a device to tell the reader about a concept.

By page 5 I’m getting weary of hearing how the character on trial “killed” without understanding what that means. This is a sort of false mystery. Each of these character’s knows what they mean by what they say. Since this is omniscient viewpoint then so should we know it (if it’s relevant, and it is). Withholding the details for some later reveal is artificial. True mystery is generated by showing what a viewpoint character does not know, not hiding what he does.

We get two pages of background on one of the characters. I’ve not identified with any of them, so I basically skim this. It does seem like there’s some interesting background here. Make me care about it and it could work well. Some nice writing too, by the way. The event horizon metaphor is cool. More discussion of the theme. Some science talk (glad to see it, but it’s not connecting with me since I don’t know why any of this is happening in the first place).

On page 10 we find out what was meant by “murder” earlier. It’s a lot late. Some discussion of the moral dimensions of it. Seems pretty much like earlier discussion, only more specific.  More explanation of idea via dialogue. A summary of what happened between the murders and now via soliloquy.  The first story action occurs on page 15.  On page 16 we get justice and symbolism and the story ends.

It may sound like I didn’t care for the story, but that’s not quite true. I actually think this idea has tremendous potential. It’s an interesting future, a meaningful issue, an interesting resolution. It is the execution that underwhelms me. If I were to revise this I would go back to story basics. Who is the character who will be changed by this story? Who has the most to gain or lose by it? Focus on him or her, tell the story from his or her perspective and show his/her emotional journey in the process of paying the price and changing. This will require finding an actual story framework to illustrate this theme and these ideas. Something with forward action and complication and climax (there is a climax here, but it’s pretty superficially arrived at). I don’t think the current scene has much potential for dramatic execution of the idea. It’s static. If you insist on a courtroom drama, it may take a few scenes, the climax during the trial, the complication as the prisoner is confronted in a cell or maybe in interview. I would stick to one viewpoint at this length (a longer story could accommodate more perspectives).  Anyway, while I admire the ambition of this concept, I’m not yet impressed by the storytelling. I do want to encourage the author to work on that aspect of the craft and continue being ambitious. There is an interesting mind behind this.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 An SF story about gods and ethics and perspective. Lack of focal viewpoint and a scatter shot approach to story work against it.

Story 256 (3/11/2011 SF 3200 words)

Reader 1:  “The story seems to spend more time with the secondary character’s story and doesn’t examine the POV’s needs and wishes. It’s too simple of a story for the idea. There is no real climax and no cost for the characters that I can tell. The ending is abrupt and unclear.”

I love this opening. Concrete, yet evocative. It places me into a character’s perspective, in an unusual context, and provides the inciting incident in the space of a couple sentences. Well done.

The first scene works well for me. Nicely emotional without becoming sappy or overplayed. Intellectually interesting as well.

Second scene works also. I like this understated approach. No overarching metaphor or character angst, just a story playing out on the page in discrete scenes.

Third scene is very nice.

Fourth scene is elegant. Simple, but deep.

Fifth scene is okay.

Sixth scene is very good, very personal. There’s a confusing pronoun bobble that throws me out, but I think that’s just a typo.

Seventh scene is strong.

Eighth scene is interesting.

Final scene is cool, though it may be just a touch abrupt.

This is a story I would like to publish. I’ll see if I can convince the other editors, who are sometimes not attuned to my vast wisdom. In any case, author, know that you have greatly pleased at least one reader. Nice job.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 8 A quirky SF story about the bridge between dream and reality. Deftly delivered in simple, discrete scenes.

Story 257 (3/11/2011 Fantasy ? words)

Reader 1:  “This is a summary of [something]. No real story here. No character realization to speak of.” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening is good  in that it provokes a response from the reader. It’s summary, however, and not story or situation. We do get characterization. My concern is that I’m about to be treated to a lecture rather than taking part in a story experience.

Yes, it’s a narrator telling me about his past. The events are interesting, but hearing about them is much less interesting than experiencing them, I’m sure. The voice is smooth and assured, which carries me a ways at least.

I would say that first person works here, because it’s the telling that carries me, the voice and perspective, rather than objective plot elements or story arc.  Some nice moments here. The long view of life, before writing, before God… nice.

I really like how this ends. This is another story with a simple telling that hides deceptive depth. It is not particularly engaging as story, but it works for me. I’ll pass it along for additional input. I’m not as hopeful for this one as the last, but the author should know that I did appreciate the story at least. I’m just not certain it’s “the one” for the anthology 🙂

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A reminiscence about eternal life, reincarnation, and true love. Voice carries this one to a satisfying ending.

Story 258 (3/11/2011 Fantasy 2094 words)

Reader 1:  “This story starts out with a very mundane restaurant scene and doesn’t quickly present us with any kind of conflict or turning point in the protagonist’s life. An omni POV is used here, but it isn’t used with any particular finesse and the resultant loss of character intimacy is a problem. There’s no one to care about in the first few pages and none of the characters come across particularly well. The dialogue is very, very stiff and there’s very little trust of the reader. This is evidenced by a large amount of telling of emotional states and the allergy to letting the dialogue speak for itself (excessive use of adverbial dialogue tags). In terms of structure, the central couple drive none of the action. The events occur to the characters rather than the characters causing the events. ”

The opening is weak. Uninformative dialogue with adverbial speech tags. By this I mean that the dialogue doesn’t really provide story context or a sense of motive or characterization. And anytime you find yourself using an adverb or modifier in a speech tag (he said excitedly; she said with trepidation) question it. There are times where it’s justified but much more often it’s a sign that the dialogue itself could be stronger. We ought to be able to infer how a character says something from what is said and the context in which it is said.

Well, this is almost entirely people chatting about stuff. I don’t get a sense of story at all and the viewpoint is so diffuse I can’t connect emotionally with any character. I remember a critique I got once for a story that I thought was pretty good. “Where are you telling this story from?” I had to do a double take. She’d nailed the problem right on the head. I hadn’t established a context (time/place/perspective) for the reader to settle and feel comfortable. Consequently, the character’s experience, which everyone agreed was really interesting, felt distant to them. I fixed that issue and it made an amazing difference (to the point that I know have to revise following scenes to hold up that first one).

The second half is stronger in terms of story. We have an objective, a complication, a climax of sorts, and a resolution. I was skimming pretty quickly by then, but I didn’t really see any character change or great lesson. When I read a story like this one, which isn’t all that often, I think of how modern writing is less about controlling every aspect of a story than participating in one with the reader. This story feels like a one side conversation, with the author patiently explaining everything to me, rather than asking me to participate and challenging me to think for myself. It’s quite a different experience.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A cozy mystery about a group of friends who experience a strange happening. Lack of character identification and development hurt this one.

Story 259 (3/11/2011 SF 1100 words)

Reader 1:  “It’s short-1000 words, but there’s too much of an info dump in the middle. It’s the usual problem, start a story with a catchy hook and then backflash to let the reader know what’s going on. This is a one-trick- pony story. the voice is good, but it’s not that interesting of a concept. ” (plot spoiler removed)

I’m not fond of the opening, which strikes me as “clever”.  I don’t like stories that rely on the cleverness of the narrator at the expense of story development. Clever WITH story development is a different matter. Now we’re moving backward, same clever voice without the distraction of forward story movement. I’m not compelled.

The background isn’t bad. I wouldn’t mind reading the story that’s not here. A clever ending. Who would have guessed it? 🙂 I wrote my share of these stories when I was a young hot shot. They weren’t very good (this one is better than mine at least). They didn’t stretch my craft. They were about voice and glibness and clever ideas that I didn’t have to develop into story structure. They were about writing in first person so I didn’t have to get into someone else’s perspective or learn how to convey emotion through objective cues. I got over it eventually. I hope this author will as well.  He writes smoothly and isn’t afraid of science. Encouraging.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A dark SF flash. A lack of story and character arc weaken it.

Story 260 (3/11/2011 Fantasy 1450 words)

Reader 1:  “This story is very simplistic, doesn’t really feel like it’s in a [particular] POV, and hinges on the joke ending which isn’t very clear. ” (plot spoilers removed)

The opening drops me into scene very economically. It establishes a viewpoint, some context, an inciting incident, and a tone. No genre or  motive yet, but I can wait a bit.

Three paragraphs of background and aside delay the story. I don’t mind a little of it to establish the character, but this is more than I need or want.  My interest picks up on page 3 (don’t get me wrong, the prose is smooth and entertaining; it’s just not advancing the story for a page or so).

The voice, which is strictly summary narration with forays into the MC’s thoughts and feelings, holds me at a distance. The story feels kind of sterile as a result. I feel like I’m learning a lesson rather than experiencing a story.

Well, this is pretty good for what it is, but it’s not really what we look for. We’re more into character identification and story arc. I do think I might like this story if it took a more immersive approach. As it stands, the prose flows well enough, but I can never forget that it’s an author telling me his clever tale rather than involving me in an experience. Kind of the difference between a documentary and feature film. Both can be good, but they appeal to different audiences, with some overlap.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 An interesting fantasy tail about courage and loyalty. The narrative voice limits it somewhat.

Well that’s going to do it for tonight. Pretty good night at that. A couple of candidate stories, my Pirates actually won a game, and I just checked over at Show Me Your Lits and my literary flash was voted best of the best this week. How’s about that? I get to pick the prompts for next week. Yay me! (It takes so little to encourage us writer types).


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I am Slushy

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 15 stories (40,000 words).

Story 244 (3/5/2011 Science Fiction 4480 words)

Reader 1:  “The writing is good and establishes an interesting mood. The story has too much descriptive detail at the beginning and not enough story movement. There’s a bit of a clue on page 3/21 that something is happening, but the inciting incident doesn’t happen until page 12. There is a second story line–his relationship with [someone]. That starts earlier, but it’s not clear what’s happening between them. The story would be better if it started earlier and if the [main] pert of the story was interwoven with the relationship.”

This is a reprint. Thus the bar is set higher.

The first paragraph establishes a character in scene very directly, adds a hint of context, and a touch of mood. Strong opening. The writing is evocative and active, but I’m not getting story movement. The character isn’t motivated in a story sense. Then on page 3 we get false mystery. She was scared. They all were. Of what? I ask. I’m in the MC’s head after all. It’s far more effective (at least for us) to draw a reader on with story than with false mystery. You risk frustrating him with the latter. There’s no rule that says a story can’t have story arc AND mood, right? Rather than papering over a lack of story with false mystery and mood, consider stepping back to view the plot and see whether there’s been an inciting incident, motivated character, etc..

More false mystery. How the world used to be. He knew what was coming. These techniques work superficially, but not on a deep level, where story and character arc reside. These techniques pique a reader; strong story compels.

The opening scene doesn’t really move the story forward. It provides limited background and lots of mood. I do like the mood, but I’m hungry for story by this point. Skimming. Second scene is well written, but I still have no idea what the MC’s motivation is. Third scene is background. An interesting event on page 9. Stuff is happening to the MC at this point. Motivation at the end of page 9. The MC has a goal now.  Section V brings a true mystery. Another complication happens to the MC.  He makes a wish and it works. The story ends with a hopeful scene tinged with doubt. I do like the subtle twist that doubt represents.

Overall, I’d say the writing here is very professional and engaging, but the story is largely absent. If I were revising, I’d look first at the character’s motivation (in this story) and craft a plot that challenges him and gives him an opportunity to risk something for what he wants/needs most.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A well written SF story about loss and second chances. Lack of clear character motivation and a weak story arc work against it.

Story 245 (3/7/2011 Horror 1406 words)

Reader 1:  “I don’t feel like there is anything new here.” (plot spoilers removed)

A diary entry format. The writing is lively, which helps offset some of the distancing effect of diary format. It’s a little breezy for my taste, but carries me along. I like the explanation of “them”.  However, we’re not entering info-dump mode and it no longer feels so much like a diary as a way to convey information to me. Losing interest.

There are some strong moments in this writing, but by and large it is a description of idea rather than a story.  Imagine the story that is described being shown on the page. I suspect it might still be too commonplace, but it would be a great deal more active and visceral. That’s what I would do were I revising this, in any case. I don’t see what is gained by the diary format and quite a bit is lost.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A fairly common horror idea with some clever touches. Lack of immediacy works against this.

Story 246 (3/7/2011 SF 4700 words)

Reader 1:  “The writing is good, but I had trouble paying attention. I think it needs some work. First, we need to be more in the POV’s head. There is a big info dump on pages 7-8 and at the same time, I’m lost when it comes to the political situation. I think it needs to come in more slowly to digest it. This isn’t my kind of story, so I’m going to give it a maybe. I think it might interest others. ”

This comes from an accomplished writer/editor.  The opening paragraph establishes a character in scene, a genre, and a potential inciting incident. It’s solid, though I don’t feel fully connected to anything for some reason. Not sure why that is.

Same reaction to the second paragraph. Well written and advances the scene, but I feel curiously detached. It may be because the things I want to understand and see are not the things I’m presented with. Instead I get broad concepts suggestive of context, but not very specific. In a sense, I feel as if I’m in a gurgleflurb heading for Sonaly One. Looking at the prose, it doesn’t seem as if I should feel that way, but I do. Maybe a few concrete details would help set me straight. It is difficult to balance being true to viewpoint and bridging the gap between a reader’s experience and a remote story world. I certainly don’t begrudge this story’s approach; am just reporting my reaction so far.

I love the MC’s thought when the visitor goes to one knee. Priceless. This does reinforce my issue though. I had no idea he was wearing a hat, or that he was actually from off-ship or that the ship had been waylaid. These are the details I want to know when entering a scene (unless the MC doesn’t know them, of course; then it’s more difficult).

I do like where the first scene ends. Nice tension; good characterization. We have story here.

Second scene complicates the story. Dark shifts toward light. Very nice. There’s a slight tendency to over describe, especially character reactions, but it’s solid stuff.

Drat. The next scene lost me. It’s an info-dump of epic proportions. The author steps on stage to deliver a description of concept and world history lesson. Certainly the MC will need some small part of this in her actions/reactions to story stimulus, but I certainly don’t want it now. Save it for the book 🙂 (And, yes, i do grant that complex SF ideas do require some info-dumping, but this one seems self-indulgent rather than necessary to my appreciation of the story at hand).

Next scene is very good. Another complication. Next scene opens with unattributed dialogue. Not a fan of that; I’d much rather see the speaker and get a sense of his place in the world rather than hear his words in a vacuum (false mystery). The conversation that ensues is excellent.

The gender issue needs some setup early in the story. It comes out of left field here. The scene around page 17 is going on too long for me. The scene around page 20 is going on a bit long for me. This reads like anti-climax and, as such, pushes the story structure out of balance.  Ah, it’s actually climax. Focus on the tension rather than lack of tension when she makes the announcement, maybe on her own uncertainty. Something to build this scene toward the climax. Her enemy should probably put up more of  a struggle just before, as well. This feels too easy now.

It’s kind of a trite ending. I don’t mind it so much, but it could be shortened since I’ve seen it many times before.

I have not seen the story proper before though it’s slightly reminiscent of Foundation. Overall, I like this a lot. It can be shaped a bit better to deliver a cleaner climax and to better focus it on the gender issue that becomes important. The writing can be sharpened a little here and there. I think this could find a place in the collection with some revision. I’ll pass it along.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 7 A complex political SF story about empire and personal power. A weaker than optimum story arc weakens it somewhat.

Story 247 (3/8/2011 SF 4334 words)

This one opens with dialogue, not unattributed, and a character waking another character up. It’s mid-scene and establishes a character, but feels a touch overwrought. I recall James Gunn’s advice to me after I opened a story in a moment of high tension. “There’s only one way to go from there.” That’s the danger.

Second paragraph establishes that the person speaking is NOT the MC, the person being awakened is (and first person to boot).  These are all red flags for me, unfortunately. I’ve had to shift the protagonist; the first person filter is in place, and now I have an awakening MC (usually a sign that the story is not ready to begin). Red flags are not always right though.

Another red flag. The MC is not explaining something to the other character that they (presumably) already know. This is a dialogue info dump and a sign that I’m not quite in the MC’s perspective, at least not yet.

There’s a paragraph of background information. This is okay since it’s internal thought, but I’m not sure why the thought is triggered here. The previous reaction to the other character’s prodding works, but this further elaboration seems for my benefit, not the character’s. Beware whenever you find yourself striving to provide background information to me. If it’s important to the story, the character will need it, not me.

There are some nice details here. I like the feel of this world. Page 3 brings a potential inciting incident. I’m not sure it actually motivates the MC in a story sense. Seems to happen to the MC. The end of scene is pretty good. This could be the beginning of a true mystery. I don’t understand what the MC wants or needs though, which limits my appreciation of the stakes involved.

Next scene is a card game. It’s not moving the story forward. The story hasn’t really begun actually, since we haven’t got a motivated protagonist yet. We do have a strange incident but we also need a character who reacts to it and pulls us in. This scene feels very day-in-the-life so far. Another potential inciting event. I would call it a complication, but I don’t know what the goal is that it complicates.

We get some world background. A conflict between parties. No motivation for the Main Character yet. Story really hasn’t begun yet.  Some nice tension in this scene. The MC is a spectator. A tense standoff. Some character tension. This provides a momentary motivation, but what is the larger motivation?

On page 12 we have a nice decision point. It feels like a climax, but it’s not as powerful as it should be because we have not invested in the character’s larger story. Good action though. On page 16 we get the answer to the mystery earlier in the story. The trouble here is that we haven’t even thought about it since then. It comes across as convenient rather than substantial. Then we get explanation of background.

The story seems to be starting now.  Another action scene. It’s done pretty well. If I were intensely identified with the MC it would be even stronger.  The ending comes mostly out of left field. It wasn’t set up until midway through the story (unless I missed something earlier, which is possible).  The actual ending has real potential. The story needs to focus on this issue from the get go and develop around the MC’s desire to see something like this happen, complicated by her friendship with the secondary character. What if the injections happened on page 1, for example, and the MC took this as evidence of government abuse or disrespect? In reacting to that impulse, we could get some political background that is relevant and some setup for this ending. The mystery would need further development through the middle so that the revelation of the answer doesn’t seem so random (MC ought to be actively seeking an answer to the issue). Mainly, I want a motivated character faced with these events, rather than a character whose primary function is to show the world to me.

I should also mention that while first person is handled just fine in this story, I don’t think it’s the best choice of viewpoint. A close third person will almost certainly work better to draw the reader into identification with the MC. There’s something about being trapped in a character’s head that weakens reader identification. First person is usually best used when the perspective itself is an important part of the story’s effect (say a quirky character voice, an unreliable narrator, or a character who views the world in some particularly interesting way that is relevant to the story resolution). Where a character’s context (how he fits into the world) or objectivity is important, third person is usually the better choice. Which is a perfect opportunity to share a quote from a fellow flasher at Show Me Your Lits (who teaches creative writing), Cat Carlson: “We struggle to get in[to a character’s head], but the really beautiful writing comes when you make it back out. ”  This is her comment on the tendency of her students to write first person narrative at first, then third person as they become stronger writers.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 5 A military SF tale with a political undertow. Lack of a motivated protagonist and a slow opening detract.

Story 248 (3/8/2011 SF 1500 words)

The opening places me in scene. The second sentence goes on too long for me. It tries to jam too much information in too quickly. What I need is a sense of stage, how this character fits into it. Then the smaller details can pull my focus to her. I would keep the breasts, but delay the other info just a bit.

Unfortunately, the story starts out moving backward. There’s no inciting incident, no motivation, just background to get us up to the opening image. Much like a framing device, which we all know I’m not a big fan of because it’s so often used to paper over a lack of actual story.

I’m through four pages and its’ all background, with a few flashes of back flash. The result of this approach is that I feel no immediacy. Rather, it’s as if the story is being explained to me rather than experienced. Imagine showing this story on the page instead? Forward movement, character identification, rising tension, mystery as to how it might end. Much more interesting than investing a half hour finding out why the MC is crying in the first paragraph, no?

Around page 5 it begins to feel like forward movement. More interesting here. A suitably sad ending, yet imagine how much power it would have if we didn’t already know something like it was coming? This is the cost of a framing device. Too many of us choose this device without really considering why. It’s an easy way to give a story that full circle feel; more often it’s just a way to sap tension and immediacy from it. Every once in awhile we see a framed story that works really well for us, but it’s pretty rare.

Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 An SF love story with an alien twist. Lack of immediacy and forward movement hinder it.

Well, that’s it for tonight. One more candidate story.

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