Parch – Day 3

It’s actually the fourth day, but I didn’t receive any subs for a day, which gave me a bit of a break. Batteries recharged, here we go with three submissions today.

Story 1.

This is a rewrite of a prior story. That it arrived barely a day after I asked for fairly extensive changes is a red flag.

Professor Cornelius stroked the crop of the bright golden bird perched on his arm, admiring the shine of the one hundred degree sunlight on its feathers. He heard fast hoof beats and through the shimmering air he saw four men approaching. He put the bird back in the cage and set it inside his Arapaho Miracle Cure wagon. The fact that the men were driving their horses too fast in the heat and they were coming from the last town he’d sold his goods in, made him nervous. Maybe he should have put a few more miles between himself and Farmdale before stopping for the night.

The sweating and scowling men rode up and eyed Cornelius as the Oklahoma dust settled around the horse’s feet. Professor Cornelius had learned to leave a town before people had a chance to examine their snake oil purchase and experience buyer’s remorse, but his product wasn’t expensive and no one had ever came after him.

I asked for five changes. First, correct dialogue punctuation. The new version still has mistakes in about half of the dialogue tags. Second, add just a touch of detail in the opening to help me feel the parched landscape. The new version basically adds an entire paragraph of detail before the action begins, which deadens the aspect of the original opening that I liked. Third, I suggested that too much is withheld from the reader, particularly the golden bird and its function in the story. This version does insert the bird prominently, but doesn’t really help me to sense it will be important. The rest of the story explains more, but reveals about the same level of deeper meaning, so some slight progress. Fourth, I found a logical issue with the doctor’s assertion about something. The author did address this, but continues to withhold the key understanding, which leads to a fairly superficial decision on the doctor’s part. Finally, I suggested there was too much coincidence pointing us in the wrong direction (red herring style). The author fixed this nicely.

The story is marginally worse for wear, because while it does address surface issues and reduce the number of false leads, it does not get us deeper into this character or make his decision more emotionally meaningful. I can definitely see this story working out, but only after some serious reworking. Do I have the time to pursue that course with this writer? Does he or she possess the craft skills necessary to carry this off? A couple years ago I worked with a youngish writer on a steampunk story that was hopelessly tangled in the initial draft, but wonderfully engaging overall. The writer took a few weeks and sent back a revision that really sparkled. We worked through some additional revisions and the story became one of the best in the anthology. I don’t get the same sense of dedication from this writer. It may simply be that boundless enthusiasm we all feel as we begin this journey, but the story isn’t worth taking that chance. I hope to see more from this writer, but I also hope to see craft progress from him/her in future submissions.

Story 2.

Nothing focuses the mind like a live hand grenade.

The gray cylinder spun on the glasstine table; the little object had become the center of Sergei’s universe.

At focus: the bomblet, spiraling outward in gyroscopic precession. Next, two drinks: his, grain alcohol and juice; hers, ersatz beer, brewed for human clientele.

A strong opening, though the technique does age a bit by the end of the scene. Here’s the thing about these sorts of stories that open with a bang. The immediacy and action of the scene really sucks me in, and it promises to take me on a ride. What I see again and again, however, is that the writer then pulls back into back flash or summary to explain the world and character background (how we got here). This sort of dead information kills a story in general, but it’s particularly deadly in a story that opens with a whiz-bang. When we start at a high point of tension/action there’s nowhere left to go but down (James Gunn explained that to me in one of his workshops). These openings can work fine if the de-escalation is relatively minimal (a lull before the next storm), but when we take time out to explore background details, the fall from excitement is very noticeable indeed, and I mean that in a wilted-souffle way.

Rant over. It turns out that I like the vast majority of this story a lot. I probably need a little more context in a few places (I get confused easily) and the ending feels a little episodic for the anthology, but the story overall is engaging. Except for the second scene, which is almost entirely backflash and background explanation to bring us up to speed. If the author is willing to cut that entire scene and work in just enough of the really necessary background into subsequent scenes, I’m happy to have this for the anthology.

Story 3.

The first thing Marlen became aware of when he regained consciousness was the taste of dirt in his mouth. He tried to move his head and was enveloped by nauseating swirls of dizziness.

The next time he regained consciousness, he lay motionless, then opened the one eye that wasn’t pressed against the ground. Daylight, pale, yellowish dirt with strange looking bugs running around in it, and his arm out in front of him was all that was visible from his face down position. He tried to spit the dirt out of his mouth, but couldn’t come up with much saliva. He kept going pfft..pfft..pfft with his lips and tongue until he could get rid of most of it.

I’m always wary of story that opens with someone waking up. It’s usually a sign that the writer is only beginning to wake to the potentials of the story. It’s also done way, way too often. When the second paragraph, which has some solid specific details, adds that he cannot recall how he got here, I’m ready to stop.

Of course I don’t. Sometimes weak openings are overcome, or trite openings actually prove to be justified. In this case, I’m afraid that is not the case. We basically observe a passive character being rescued through an ironic coincidence. That’s just not going to cut it for a Triangulation anthology, though another editor may snap it up. The writing is observant, though there’s too much summary for my taste.

Well, one for three today. Not bad. Tune in next time to see the slush process in action. I hope it’s actually worthwhile to you writers and readers out there.

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About Stephen

I live in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania with fellow writer, Susan Urbanek Linville, and a herd of reformed feral cats.
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