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 267 (3/13/2011 Horror 2500 words)
Reader 1: “In the story, the POV is meeting up with [someone] in a dream. There is a lot of descriptive detail in the first scene, but it’s not very compelling. There is no sense that anything is going to happen. The first paragraph is rough and is difficult to read. The second scene flashes back. It’s all summary and I didn’t get the feeling that they liked each other until I was told on page 7. The writer needs to be more in the character’s head. Even though this is first person, I am having trouble identifying with the POV. At the end, the POV is confronted by [something] and runs. This should be the climax and pivitol decision point of the story, but it’s flat and has no emotional impact. ” (plot spoilers removed)
There’s some solid description in the opening scene, but no story movement. What’s missing is a motivated character. Instead we have a character going through the motions of story, without a particular reason/goal/need. Sure, you say, but dreams are like that. Sure, I say, but stories aren’t. I wrote a literary story that took place within a dream recently and would encourage this author to have a peek at it (“An Afterlife” at State of Imagination). Notice the contrast in motivation. It makes all the difference in how compelling a scene feels.
Basically, here we have four pages of motion until the big reveal, which is false mystery anyway, since we’re in the guy’s head and he knows the reveal already (he knows where he’s going since he tells us in the opening line). Sometimes you have to pull back from the “feel” of mystery and ask whether it’s true mystery or an attempt to disguise a lack of actual story.
Second scene has some strong writing as well, but I don’t sense any character motivation here either. It’s explaining the background for the reveal in the first scene. And I will say that first person does this story no favors, at least so far. I understand why it’s used, but not why it’s the best choice here. The drawback is that everything gets filtered through the viewpoint. We lose immediacy; it’s more difficult to identify with the character in his larger context (i.e. in the world he inhabits).
Third scene is kind of interesting. It’s curiously flat, emotionally, but some interesting twists on the usual story. Imagine if the story started here and moved forward. Where would it take us?
There’s a hint of Lovecraft here, but not nearly enough strangeness to make it Lovecraftian. The prose itself is unadorned and effective. Now we need a story.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A horrific dream encounter with a few interesting concepts. The story suffers from lack of character motivation and dramatic tension.
Story 268 (3/13/2011 Horror 4816 words)
Reader 1: “The science is so bad in here that I started to skim on page 3. The story is all summary with a bit of uninteresting dialog thrown in here and there.” (plot spoilers removed)
This seems to be another case of a story written by a skilled literary author that falls short of genre expectations. I know for a fact the reader didn’t even look at the cover letter until after their analysis, so it wasn’t bias on that level. Let’s see if my take is more favorable, since I tend to publish more literary flash than anything these days.
I’m not a fan of this opening paragraph, which is panoramic and fairly generic. No character, no issue, no motivation. It delays the story in other words. This continues for a couple pages. The writing is labored as well, which is odd given the author’s pedigree. So far no inciting incident, no motivated character; it’s difficult to ascertain where the story is being told from as well.
Ah, the inciting incident, told in passive prose. This reads like an idea for a story rather than the story itself, at least so far. We have a page of prose about a character who can’t decide what to say. That’s delaying the story.
I’m struck by how passive this prose is. The scene remains static. There is some motivation now, but no protagonist action to speak of. I’m also struck by the sheer number of adjectives. That runs counter to most literary (and modern SF) “rules of writing”. Mainly it deadens the experience, dulls the nouns.
We do get some tension on page 7. We’re still dithering over what to say, but another party has pressed the issue at least. The issue itself is superficial unless I’m missing something. We get escalation on page 9 (the science is questionable, but I’ll ignore that). We’re told the secondary character’s motive rather than seeing his actions and deciphering it (lack of trust in the reader). There is a bit of drollness here and there which is kind of nice. It’s more obviously meant as satire later on. Satirizing what, exactly, I’m not sure. Ah, on page 15, there’s a hint this is about polarized politics on some vague level, then class warfare and maybe bad budget policy. It seems to be shifting to another topic by page 16. To be truthful, I was kind of hoping it would end.
Now it’s getting just plain silly.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 2 A jumble of pulp SF concepts and unwieldy satire. A lack of clarity and purpose hurt this.
Story 269 (3/14/2011 SF 2500 words)
Reader 1: “This is straining for an emotional ending, but we’re kept on the outside by info-dumps and lack of scene building. We needed to be inside[MC]’s head for the duration of the story and the scenes of friendship should have been built between the two, so that the ending had the desired poignancy. Instead we were given facts without much emotional resonance and, in the end, the story was pretty cliched.”
Reader 2: “The story starts out well enough, but bogs down because of the backfill. The story is the MC’s, but there is no emotional climax for [them]. [They] just begin to ‘feel’ after the fact.” (plot spoilers removed)
Well, this starts out pretty well, though it seems like a somewhat familiar topic. It spends a scene introducing us to characters. There is no real motivation, just ideas and some decent writing. The second section gives us salient background, which also seems a little familiar, and the final section completes the moral of the tale, with a vague Oz overlay. There’s nothing terribly new here, I’m afraid, and while the writing is fine, there’s really very little escalation of situation, character, or emotion. Not enough story to support the word count.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A somewhat familiar tale of human-mechanical interaction. A lack of character motivation and escalation hurt this.
Story 270 (3/14/2011 SF 700 words)
Reader 1: “This is a short post apocalyptic story. There is something going on with the relationship, but it’s so vague, I don’t get anything out of the ending.”
The opening is efficient, but the prose is a bit confusing. It’s not always clear who is being referenced by which pronoun, which leads to a kind of blurred stage in my mind. The prose moves pretty well, but it’s not as sharp as I would want at this length. Images are blurry, there’s a few too many adjectives, that sort of thing. For example, we never actually see anything specific about this stranger, leaving him a vague presence. The only really sharp detail I have at this point is the guy poking the flower.
Yep, the ending doesn’t work because I’m not invested in these characters yet. In fact I’m not really certain which one is supposed to gain my sympathy. They seem nearly interchangeable to me. It’s an interesting idea for a flash, but needs more work, I think. Sharper, more specific. It’s not a great fit for the theme, in any case (more of a first contact, at least where the story ends now).
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 An SF flash about personal space after the apocalypse. This one is dulled by a lack of specific detail, both in images and character.
Story 271 (3/14/2011 Fantasy 700 words)
Reader 1: “This story is very hard to follow. It’s all summary. There is no point of view. It was very difficult to slog through the writing to try to find a story so I quit after 3 pages (single spaced) into it and skimmed. ”
The story opens like an essay. Summary narrative and a bit soap boxy as well (i.e. standing on a soap box to deliver “message”). Anyway I’m leery.
Some nice imagery here and there, but it’s mainly a lecture. The actual story (yes there is one) begins about a third of the way in. This is too late. A little Kafke-esque, though without the immediacy of voice and character motivation. This seems purely observational in that regard, though I do like the dreamlike quality of the actual transformation. Skimming through the mating ritual.
At the end of page 7 I feel connected to the character for the first time. It’s too late. I don’t know how many words this contains, but it feels like 10,000. It’s actually an interesting surrealist concept, but the deadening narrative of it pushes me so far out of story that I don’t really connect except in little bursts. If I were revising, I would go back to story basics: motivated character, inciting incident, complication, climax, resolution. Then overlay the symbolic, the surreal. Unless the story gives us someone, something to identify with, to experience with, we’re going to stand back and watch the words flow past. The more surreal the experience, the more concrete the details should be (in general). Some of that is here, as well as a decent action scene, yet it’s buried beneath words at present. Dig that story out and it could work.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A surreal fantasy about losing and regaining identity. A lack of character identification and overuse of narrative weaken the experience.
Story 272 (3/14/2011 Fantasy 1700 words)
Reader 1: “I was disappointed to see this one after the poignancy and almost there nature of the last submission from this author. This one is predictable and the conceit isn’t that interesting. The fact that the story is in letter form also drains it of any tension.”
Reader 2: “This is marked fantasy, but I think it’s supposed to be horror… even though it’s not very horrific. I just couldn’t believe the premise. This might have been a try at humor, but if it is, it didn’t work for me. ”
Well, it definitely begins on a droll note. I like the energy of the first page, but my interest switches off as soon as I read, “You deserve an explanation” on page 2. No, what I deserve is a story 🙂 Now we’ll go into a section of less than exciting backfill in order to bring us back to the framing device of the opening paragraph, right?
I’m happy to report the backflash is much more interesting than the usual exemplar of this technique. It moves forward, utilizes dialogue and sentence variety and light/dark moments (mostly light). Unfortunately, it’s still backflash and it’s in first person POV, which further distances me.
I don’t understand it folks. Why are we so resistant to simply telling a story forward? Isn’t that why we write? To tell a story? Most of these frames fail miserably to add anything to the story beyond a convenient way to make it “feel” as if it’s come full circle. Usually, what it’s done is remove any tension since we already know how it will end (at least in broad scope). Plus it almost always requires backflash that is, by nature, less immediate than simple past or present tense. This particular backflash is pretty well done, I will say, but the frame didn’t add anything for me. I would have preferred to see these events actually play out and wonder what might happen next (funny or not).
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 A fairly fluffy fantasy with a decidedly odd premise. A clunky framing device hurts this one.
Story 273 (3/14/2011 Horror 3173 words)
Reader 1: “I think this is a story about a man being replaced by [something]. I’ll list it as horror, but it avoided any possibility by skirting around what actually happened to the guy. The story changes POV all the way through. I think this was the author’s way of trying to keep the outcome mysterious. Instead, it seemed too forced. I figured out what was happening on page one when the guy saw [something]. In the end, him being replaced by [something] didn’t seem to make any difference.”
Good opening line, but it gets a little disorienting after that. The time frame is muddled and pretty much all context must be inferred. We infer that he’s left the city for the country because he talks about city sounds; we infer that he’s returned to his childhood home because it says the house is different. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with asking the reader to infer parts of a story or motive, but when nothing is stated directly it’s like spreading vasoline on the camera lens. It would be far better to establish a specific time and place.
This is a new twist on talking heads. He speaks to himself in order to provide information to me. Much more efficient to access his direct thoughts. The speaking to himself is a good characterizing detail, but not if it becomes an infodump.
An interesting twist on a passive protagonist too. He’s excited to tell someone of his discovery so when someone calls him (not vice versa) he works it into the conversation, which becomes an infodump for my benefit. An active protagonist would DO something, not have it done to him.
Second scene is new viewpoint. That’s difficult to support in such a short story, but it can be done, provided there’s an important need for the device. I suspect it’s mainly used here to avoid having to show us what happens to the prior viewpoint character. In which case, I wonder why we bothered with the prior viewpoint. We could as easily begin with this one and have her call him and hear what he tells her. Also, don’t use quotation marks for direct thought. Either use italics or simply regular text. Like this, I thought. Really? Like this? It’s traditional to show italics as underlined text in manuscript format. That’s changing somewhat with online publications, but unless a pub’s guidelines tell you otherwise, underline for italics.
This character also talks to herself in order to give me information. Avoid this. Use direct thought instead.
A new viewpoint. It’s very difficult to identify with a character (i.e. care about them) if we keep shifting viewpoint. The benefit has to be worth the cost. In this case, I suspect the viewpoints are shifting simply to hide what happens to these people. It would be far more horrific to experience what happens and might generate some emotional investment by the reader. Here it feels as if we keep avoiding the story.
On page 10 we get an explanation of the idea. The ending doesn’t really do anything for me. I don’t feel particularly close to any of the characters, unfortunately. I’m not even certain what happened, but that’s likely my skimming through the middle.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 3 A story about the high cost of pursuing a dream. This suffers from a diffuse narrative structure and lack of character identification.
Well, that does it for today. Tune in tomorrow for more Slushy shenanigans. No keepers today.