19 November 2008

entry #2

Thanks for all the great entries and keep 'em coming! And now, for our second victim brave participant.

KEEPER

Confidently spinning a massive, double-bladed broadaxe along its hardwood handle axis, the Stradix warrior strode toward its quarry, a seeming rotund, little man squatting beside a shallow brook in the rocky terrain, filling his water flask. Moving surprisingly quickly and quietly for one of such incredible bulk, it swiftly swung the weapon over its head and delivered the blow with so much force the blade cleaved through the small man's skull and all the way down his body, to lodge itself in the hip bone.

Expecting a gushing torrent of blood and guts, the warrior could only stare, stupefied, as the parts of the man it had just struck a dead blow on fused back together, in a flash of emerald light, killing the self-satisfied smirk on its hideous face.

Its fingers let go of the axe, and the victim was whole again before the strike was completed.

The crouching man turned slowly to face his attacker, calmly picked up the would-be killer's axe where it had clattered to the ground, and quickly sliced through his enemy's knees with a fore swing, and as the creature rocked on the bleeding stubs where its feet had been, the last thing it saw was the arcing swing of the blade just before the back swing sliced through its neck, killing it instantly.

First, a word on genre. If you'll notice, our sword & sorcery tends to have some overarching theme. It makes a statement -- something well illustrated by the S&S genre. Now I like me some magic and swords (as Lesley will no doubt point out, I like them wielded by hot, bare-chested guys). However, Electric Spec might not be the best market for your basic, all-action, no theme S&S. (It's too early to judge theme is in this piece, so that's a statement on genre, not on this story.) There's that nasty "subjective" issue rearing its ugly head again, but what's an editor to do?

Now onto the page itself.

I did a quick count of 10 adverbs--about 5% of the words. In fact, the story even starts with an adverb. I'm not sure why this writer is so dependent upon adverbs, because the verb usage is strong in this piece

Adverbs do two things: they tell and they clutter. My advice is to write with no adverbs at all and then go back and add them if you really can't think of a better way to express it. (I actually removed the adverbs from this piece as an experiment and it felt much stronger.) Granted, some people may lurve them some adverbs. This editor is not one of those people.

Also, writing-wise, we got some long sentences.
The last sentence on this page is a whopping 72 words. Break those puppies up! I also see some word echo and choreography issues, but those are minor fixes.


Dude. I have no idea where I am! Assuming your world is unlike any other--and it had better be if you want to sell the story--consider me lost. The first page can be a roadmap into your world. Setting details are like landmarks. Give us the name of the place, maybe, and some distinct, unusual details. Re: the brook in rocky terrain. I live near the mountains in Colorado. I see brooks in rocky terrain all the time. Shoot. That could be my neighbor's back yard water feature. Give me the most important setting detail(s) about your world as soon as you can.

I like that the guy is cleaved in half and comes back to life. That's an interesting take in a violent scene. But I need to care, and to do that, I need to know who the players are. So, along with putting your reader in place, tell me who the story is about. I don't know these folks like you do. Take the earliest opportunity to personalize your characters so your reader has a reason to care about them. For instance, this piece started with the Stradix Warrior, with a brief foray into his POV--the last thing it saw was the arcing swing of the blade--and then he promptly dies. Oh no! I'm lost, and now my tour guide is dead!

Pet peeves aside
(POV characters dying onscreen), I'm wondering who this story is about. The little rotund man? If so, then we should be in his head, or at least in the head of some other lug who's hanging around.

Finally, what's the story problem? The best advice I ever got about the short form is that the story problem can appear on page one and can be wrapped up on the last page. Deceptively simple, eh? Consider that short stories (and especially first pages) should rest on a three-legged stool of plot, character, and setting. You'll notice I had concerns with all three in this piece.

Unfortunately, based on these issues, I doubt I'd keep reading.

Thanks so much for having the courage to put your stuff out there! I hope this helps you and other writers. Part of Electric Spec's mission is to give a voice, make a place, for unpublished and newly published writers. This game is part of realizing that mission, but just like how the magazine can't work without our slush, the game can't work without you. Keep 'em coming!

addendum: I agree with Lesley in comments. I think I am harsh in this critique. I want to explain my method because I do A LOT of critique through various places and I don't usually hurt feelings. Hopefully I didn't do that here. But in this game I'm also trying to think it through as an editor, as well as show our authors and participants what is going through editors' heads as they read slush. I also am always happy within the game to take a look at rewrites, if anyone's interested.

9 comments:

writtenwyrdd said...

This is a strong scene, but, like Editor Betsy says, it's not as accessible as it could be. Trimming the adverbs, omitting alliteration and giving just a tiny bit of anchoring description would be great. I didn't mind what I felt was an omniscient pov, though.

lesleylsmith said...

Ouch, Betsy.

Kudos, "Keeper" author for volunteering. You're a good sport! Generally, I thought this author knows how to write. :) (Obviously!)

I thought the emerald fusing light was original, so I would keep reading.
There's that subjective aspect:I love original stuff.
(I also sort of like adverbs; Editor Dave hates them.)

Along those lines, however, we tend not to get very original fantasy stories. I'd love to see traditional sword and sorcery with something else. This also relates to what Editor Betsy was getting at with theme. Excellent short stories should utilize multiple devices. For example, the protagonist should at least have an inner struggle/plot arc to go with the outer struggle/plot arc.

A note on pov: the most common pov in short published genre fiction today is 3rd person, followed by 1st person. An omniscient pov is a tough sell.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I didn't really consider this an omniscient piece because we only get vaguely into the Warrior's head, not the rotund man.

Omniscience is a tough sell. I could write a thousand words on it, but basically it's because savvy readers want to watch the action as it unfolds and make up their own minds about the whats and whys of a story.

David E. Hughes said...

I'm in agreement with Bets on this one. And, Lesley is right, the adverbs turned me off right away. Two additional thoughts come to mind. I see a number of submissions that start with action such as a battle or a fight. This may result from a mistaken understanding of conflict. When a writer hears that a story should start with conflict he or she thinks of a good fight, but true conflict involves introducing the character, the character's goal, and the obstacle preventing the character from attaining that goal.

Another challenge for writers that this story introduces is describing an interaction between characters with no names. It is hard enough describe a scene between, say, a limited POV character and a stranger, but when you have two nameless characters, it can get downright awkward. As an experiment, this author could try naming one of the characters to see if the scene flows better.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Based on an email I got from the writer--and again I applaud the courage--s/he mentions that neither character in the scene is the MC and wonders if s/he should rewrite and start with her?

In a word--YES!!

writtenwyrdd said...

I've always understood that when an sf story begins with a non-protagonist, it is usually in a prologue (which, although I like them, seem almost universally despised) or the character is shortly to die.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I generally like laser focused short stories. Only use characters that directly relate to the plot, that sort of thing.

six blocks east of mars said...

I like alliteration and I don't think we see it enough in spec fic, but it can be overdone.

Even if this scene and these characters may not be the best way to open the story, a spinning broadaxe about to cleave a body is a cool way to start the action.

laughingwolf said...

yes, it is the prolog to the nanowrimo challenge, hence as much verbiage as i could add ;)

but thought i could do a short from it

i'll submit the protag pov piece, once i hone it a bit

thx for the kind comments, btw