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This year I’ll be first-reading about 25% of submissions and reporting the process here in the blog. Please remember that these comments reflect my reactions as an editor for the anthology. The Slush-o-meter (patent pending) attempts a wider interpretation, in that it seeks to understand what the story is attempting to do to my mind and gauge how well it succeeds in that worthy ambition. Please note the preponderance of terms such as “attempts” and “seeks” in the above, as the Slush-o-meter (patent pending) is no more a perfect device than yours truly. I mean well.
Shall we begin?
Story 1 (12/1/2010 SF 7500 words)
I like that this begins by dropping me into the middle of an action. It efficiently introduces a character in context and incorporates sound and sight and internal thought. The prose is unadorned and admirably clear. I am, however, disoriented by a lack of a greater context, in particular I have no idea how this character came to be here or where here actually is. Or why it should matter. Certainly I’m not expecting a character motivation in the first sentence of a 7500 word story (I wouldn’t mind that, but it’s not expected), but I am expecting somewhere concrete to put my feet before I start exploring. This opening disorients me enough that I’m not identifying with character and I’m certainly not getting a sense of the stakes involved. And, so, while I like this prose very much and the character seems nice enough, I’m already skimming by page 2. Not because I think this is unsuitable for the anthology, but because I’m looking for the point at which it engages me fully. I already know that we will not take the story with this opening, but we might request a rewrite if it develops and ends well.
For a little over two pages, I’m simply watching a character extrude herself from a tight place. It’s perfectly clear what she does and how, but not why or what it means. In other words, I’m not getting a sense of story yet. On page 3, we get the first concrete connection between this situation and the story title. My interest perks at this point. Some interesting (and unobtrusive) character development holds me. We get some backstory. I like that it’s not info-dumpy, but delivered as internal thought in response to the character’s situation. I do not like how simple the back story turns out to be. Basically, the character got here almost by coincidence. This does nothing to allay my concern that the story is not “important” enough to carry 7500 words. I’m getting little in the way of escalation yet.
Page 4 brings some escalation of the situation. Good physical description of action. I’m still not getting a sense that this really matters (beyond the character’s immediate welfare). We get an effective description of aliens. So much is done well, yet the story is reading flat. I am a little annoyed by the repetition of a certain character trait involving numbers. That gets old quickly (at least for me). Ditto the exploding head concern. I actually like that a kid would fixate on such an accessible catastrophe, but I’m wishing we could escalate the overall emotional stake, and this occasional repetition reminds me we’re not.
Ah, page 8. We get an abrupt confrontation and I feel engaged. The next scene is charming. However, there’s really no escalation of emotional arc, rather an exchange of information. It never quite becomes info-dumpy, but is close to talking heads at one point. I feel as if the scene is provided to give me information rather than to escalate story.
Protagonist joins the aliens and uses her talents to save them from a threat. This is all fine and delivered cleanly, but it’s a fairly superficial story event that barely changes the protagonist’s perspective. That is, the story isn’t really important in the end. It’s a transition in the character’s life. Which is why it reads like a chapter from a longer work rather than a short story. For this reason, I don’t think a rewrite will be in order. Certainly, I’ll encourage the writer to submit again, as the writing is exceptionally clean. There’s a nice balance of introspection and action and the prose never drags. Unfortunately the story never quite grabs me either.
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 6 If this were a novel chapter the rating would be more like a 8 or 9, but as a short story that seeks to engage me, it only partially succeeds.
Story 2 (12/1/2010 Horror 1900 words):
Story begins with dialogue. This can be an effective technique to drop us into the middle of a situation. It works well enough here, identifying the protagonist and a secondary character efficiently. The dialogue snippet also hints at motivation, which is good. The following lines, however, read very flat. The conversation feels chit-chatty. “Hi, how are you?” “Oh, I’m fine. You?” “Not so bad.” It’ s not really that extreme, but I’m no longer feeling intrigued by the opening line. It also does not help that we’re not engaging with the character’s perspective, but are seeing this from a camera POV. One character walks in, sits at a table, the other brings a plate of food. They say words. There’s no sense of a protagonist reacting to his surroundings or of his emotional state. How would I fix this? I would tell it from inside the protagonist rather than outside. I would have him think something relevant in that first paragraph and have him react internally to the other character’s response. Rather than establishing his schedule through dialogue, I would establish his priorities through internal thought, in response to dialogue. The purpose of this opening should be to get us to identify with this character, to see this world through his eyes and emotional state. Right now the entire opening scene does not advance the story any further than the first sentence did. That’s a problem.
The second scene brings us into the protagonist, which is good. The writing deteriorate s a bit, however. Too many “as” and a telling of emotion (he raised his eyebrows in disbelief). These are elements that pull us out of the character and remind us that we’re reading a story rather than experiencing a situation from within the character. Having seen this problem so often, my emotional attachment to the character fades quickly. Some stories can overcome such technique flaws (good story can overcome a lot), but these sorts of flaws can drag a less than stellar story idea down fairly quickly. The pacing is a little quick through here, but we do get a complication and that’s good.
The prose is adequate, but tends to lapse into passivity, which makes it read flat. As one example, consider a sentence such as “The fluttering sensation was no longer occurring.” Rather than using sensation to connect us to character, this sentence settles for telling us about the sensation in passive terms. “The fluttering in Joy’s stomach stopped abruptly. ‘Thank heaven,” she gasped.” This second version may not be great writing, but it does invite us into the character rather than pushing us out.
The remainder of the story reads in this same flat cadence. There’s definitely an escalation of situation and emotion, but the actual revelation isn’t all that fresh. I’ve read something similar in Necrotic Flesh recently. The device does work and is certainly creepy, but the story itself doesn’t compel me. We publish very little outright horror in the first place, so this becomes a definite no.
If I were to advise this author, I would recommend working on writing scenes from inside the character. A nice place to start is Writing The Perfect Scene by Randy Ingermanson. In particular, I like his take on the micro elements of scene (Dwight Swain’s concept of Motivation-Reaction Units).
Slush-o-meter (1-10): 4 This is a decent small press horror idea and there’s a definable story arc, but the delivery lacks the visceral emotional reaction such horror should convey.
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