February Recap

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Mar 4, 2010 in Reviews |

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This month, I sifted through over a dozen stories from pro Fantasy/Science Fiction magazines and presented those with the best opening sentences, paragraphs, and scenes, so let’s see what we can learn from them collectively.

First, a recap of February’s reviews:

Review # 8: After the Dragon by Sarah Monette The sole survivor of the latest dragon attack deals with her emotional scars as well as her physical ones.

Review #9: Cory’s Father by Francesca Forrest An exiled mother with five baby-daddies makes a deal that leaves her unable to see one of her children.

Review #10: Stranger by Patricia Russo An old, useless woman scrambling for shelter from the coming storm meets a stranger with a different perspective on the value of life.

Review #11: The City of Unrequited Dreams by Claude Lalumière A lovelorn teen sets forth on an adventure to a fabled land for the chance to reclaim a missing piece from his past.

Review #12: The Economy of a Vacuum by Sarah Thomas An astronaut on a moonbase faces isolation after a war on Earth cuts away all ties to her humanity.

Review #13: Non-Zero Probabilities by N. K. Jemisin A woman arms herself against the improbable when a string of freak occurrences threatens to derail her life.

So what made these stories catch the reader’s eye? Each story worked differently — some were high on concept and others deep with character, while tone varied from somber to reflective to humorous. There’s obvious overlap in the qualities that pulled me in: rich details, urgent problems, and burning questions, but above all, these stories presented the reader with the unexpected.

Tantalizing Details
Short stories need to be compact, but that doesn’t mean sacrificing detail for a slimmer word count. In After the Dragon, the visuals of the dragon’s quartz and obsidian remains were vivid, specific, and haunting. There’s a lot of words dedicated to this description, but there are a couple big payoffs for the reader — one, it grounds us into this reality by touching our senses, and two, it gives substance to the hideousness vs. beauty theme that runs through the piece. Non-Zero Probabilities starts with an odd mash of personal details and humorous parentheticals to quickly paint a character. In the span of a paragraph, we learn about Adele’s ancestry, religion, past relationships, shopping habits, and her preference in undergarments as she prepares herself for what we expect will be one interesting day.

Urgent Problems and Burning Questions
These two qualities cause a buildup of internal pressure within the reader’s mind that keeps us turning pages (or scrolling down as the case may be.) In Stranger, quiet tension builds on the eve of a savage rain storm while an old woman’s fate depends on a distant family member taking her in. She faces a life or death situation, but customs prevent her from pestering her family members. In The City of Unrequited Dreams, we’re sucked in by questions — what happened to Vittorio, and what is this fabled land of Venera? These questions don’t get fully answered, but we’re taken on a thrilling journey that makes it worth getting strung along. Cory’s Father also uses questions, keeping things vague but interesting. We never get to know what’s over there, though the snippet of story we get is satisfying and hints at a bigger, richer world.

The Unexpected
A woman donning ragged panties in preparation for battle, fantasy inducing chocolates, a mother who can’t see one of her sons, and a young woman flamed down by a dragon on a Oregon beach. It’s hard to be original these days, but introducing the unexpected into a story makes them feel fresh. For example, After the Dragon could be the story of any survivor, take away the dragons, but build the world around those dragons and you’ve suddenly given it new life. When I encounter the unexpected, I sit up and take notice, suddenly my nose is three inches from my computer screen and I’m engaged in the story. What makes the unexpected unexpected? One element is the juxtaposition of the two things you’d least expect to find paired together, like battles and panties.

This month’s Must Read goes to the story that took the unexpected to the extreme: Non-Zero Probabilities by N. K. Jemisin.

Go read it now, before a window A/C unit falls on your head.


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