The feedback samples below are actual comments on submissions we have received, edited to remove any specific reference to the actual submissions or the submitters.
Basic Feedback (Basic feedback is written by two staff readers or one senior editor)
Submission 1, Reader 1:
Once this gets going it’s quite compelling. It’s a little difficult to get into because of the POV. You’ve taken quite a risk presenting this through a damaged robot/machine and her thoughts, but the dead child and the human soldier, and the tension of the situation, are enough to hold the story together long enough until the reader understands. I really like the “glitches” she experiences with language and memory, although I think there might be a few too many of them toward the end of the story.
The world of this story is well thought out and consistent. The dystopian battleground is not particularly new, but I do like the aspect of the child soldiers that’s added in.
There are a couple of places where I feel the writer is trying a little too hard to be literary, and the story lags there. Just remember to keep things moving forward. Ultimately I think this has promise, and with a touch of revision it may become something we might publish.
Submission 1, Reader 2:
I really like the world of this story and the approach to language it takes. While a bit slow to start, I appreciate that you allow the world around the narrative to build organically without diving into too much backstory or authorial intrusion.
The inclusion of the lieutenant is crucial to this story, as otherwise we’d have no mirror with which to reflect on this android’s mental state. It’s done so subtly and so expertly that I almost want to recommend the story on that relationship alone. But of course you’ve also got this really rich pathos with the dead child and the child soldiers that elevate the emotions of this piece.
The language, for the most part, really pops and it was a pleasure to read. I did find about a half dozen cases of prose that felt a little overwrought. I think another draft focused on thinning out some sentences to aid the overall momentum of the piece and add a little more clarity would really help the work become even better.
I like the story, but not quite enough to promote it to the next round. It’s beautifully written and very thoughtful, but what’s holding it back for me is it the lack of unique stakes. I’m five pages in and despite the excellent language and voice I can’t quite invest in the speaker’s situation. You’ve done a great job of creating an identifiable emotional state—one that readers can understand. But the motivation is a little lacking. Without that the speaker seems too ruminative, and that’s detracting from the forward momentum of the story. If the speaker had a more specific goal, perhaps a lifelong desire to go to a particular place, or a more specific reason for getting out of the current situation, I think it would help raise the stakes. Having something tangible, even in a story that is more abstract in its meaning, helps to focus the reader and makes the characters much more sympathetic.
Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo probably put it best in an essay he wrote a couple of decades ago. He said, “Writers have to recognize and accept an essential artistic paradox that the more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel.” I sense that you’re trying to say something universal with your story. But you’re trying to do it through a character who is attempting to be an everyperson, and by making the character’s personality so unformed, you wind up with a character who doesn’t have enough personality to keep readers hooked. We recently posted a blog on this very subject using the Russo quote as a jumping off point: https://orcalit.com/2022/10/05/write-small-for-a-bigger-impact/.
It’s a very interesting premise and it does have promise. But right away I’m noticing some distance between the main character and the story. The first page and a half is an overview of his character delivered by an authorial narrator. Although grounding the reader in the world of the story is important, the way in which a writer does it is equally important. With literary fiction, which is the kind that we prefer to publish, we’d much rather see the story grounded through the subtext of the action and dialogue. I would have liked to have seen this story start with the scene that begins halfway down page 2, so I can learn about the character and his associates through what they say and do. That would have allowed me to get closer to his character, and therefore develop sympathy for him more quickly. Having a narrator do it keeps me at arm’s length. Readers these days don’t like to be told what to think about characters. They’d rather make up their own minds based on the action and dialogue of the story.
But even when the scene starts I can feel the hand of the narrator explaining the meaning behind each action. “Yo’, my man,” he said as he sat at the counter and raised one hand. He was constantly my-manning and demanding high-fives.” That second sentence isn’t necessary. If the character has this habit, the reader will find out about it from the continuing action in the story. That will allow the reader to form an opinion about him, rather than be told what to think about him. One of the major differences between mainstream writing and literary writing is in the use of subtext. Subtext allows deeper meaning and psychological exploration to be conveyed without the necessity of authorial explanation. It allows the reader to immerse in the story and to feel as though she were part of it, walking alongside the characters as they live their lives.
Explaining the actions and the characters the way you are doing so far, also makes me feel like the writer doesn’t trust the reader to understand. It’s that trust that is also a big part of good fiction. You have to convince yourself that readers will be able to figure out your meaning and your psychological depth from what you have written. That means that you, as the writer, have to have such a full understanding of the world of the story, and its characters, that when you present them to us it seems completely natural and it doesn’t need any accompanying explanation. This is not an easy thing to do, but it’s critical in order to hook the reader and get her to want to know what happens next. If you don’t do that the story tends to take on the feel of a documentary, rather than an entertainment.
This is why so many successful writers and teachers encourage emerging writers to search for a point of tension and conflict with which to begin their story. This even applies to novellas and novels. Give the reader some action or a tense situation with which they can identify, and which requires the character to move forward seeking a solution. And make sure that situation is sufficiently compelling. But on the top of page 3, all we have is: “‘What’s breakfast this morning?’ he grunted.” It’s another misunderstanding that emerging writers seem to have. In trying to ground the reader in the world of the story they tend to provide the mundane details of the characters’ days. Trust me, readers do not want the mundane details. Knowing the more compelling goals and desires of the characters begins to reveal what is motivating them, and character motivation is a key to creating sympathy. Simply put, character sympathy and rising tension are the foundation of successful fiction—characters we care for, facing tough decisions. So if you wish to consider revising the opening of this story, I’d suggest that you keep those things in mind. Get rid of anything that sounds like an explanation (as in show, don’t tell). Give your characters the spotlight and let them live their lives without interrupting. You’ll find that readers are much more interested when you approach a story that way.
So the main issue with your submission, at least in terms of what Orca is looking for, is your stylistic approach. Although that issue continues throughout the story, from this point on I will focus on other aspects in order to better help you improve the piece
So let’s talk about meaning and theme. I’m through 6 pages now, and it seems the driving force behind the story is the racial animus between the two main characters. My question is, is that enough? Stories about prejudice and racial hatreds, especially in America, have been written for a very long time, and are even more common today as we finally begin to address more seriously our nation’s greatest failing. But if you’re going to do that I feel that there needs to be more nuance and freshness in the approach. You’re making a social commentary, but with fiction you have to remember that it also is a form of entertainment, and by that I mean there must be reader engagement for it to be successful. Giving us a standard situation like this one isn’t enough to do that. The story needs more. More depth. More of a different kind of relationship between these two men in order to make it interesting for the reader. One suggestion that I have is to expand this world. You have these men on a ship and obviously there are many other people aboard. Bring them into the story. Each new character will add a dimension to the narrative. When people interact with each other, and when they interact with groups, they create plot possibilities. The more possibilities, the greater the chance the story will go someplace that you didn’t expect, and more importantly, that the reader didn’t expect. This is another thing that keeps readers reading. Most readers, by this point in the story, will have recognized what you’re trying to do. There are no surprises, then. Always keep in mind that every story, no matter what the genre, is actually a mystery. One of the goals is to keep the reader guessing right until the end.
And when I talk about theme I’m talking about the core idea behind the story. It’s the thing that keeps readers thinking about the story long after they have finished. That’s another reason not to explain everything. When you do you deprive the reader of the opportunity to discover the meaning for herself. You want to encourage your reader to ask questions. What if this had happened instead of that? Why did a particular character make his decision? What is the bigger issue that’s being addressed?
I think I have finally found it on page 13, with this line: “I didn’t murder her.” There’s the real story. There’s the psychological depth the reader is craving. But it’s on page 13, and there hasn’t been much that comes before that alludes to the main character’s emotional crisis. Here’s where you have to ask yourself very seriously, have I given the reader enough to get to this point? Will a reader read this far to get to the good stuff? You have some issues with too much explanation, not enough compelling action, and a lack of setup for the real story, so I would have to say the answer is no. I will say that the story gets much better from this point on, now that you have the big issue out there and the problems with the opening out of the way. So I do believe the story can ultimately work, but it’s going to take a lot of effort. Take my advice about trusting your reader. Eliminate all that explanation at the opening. Just describe the world as it is through your characters’ perspectives without telling us what it means. Focus on the actions and dialogue of your characters to do that. Get to the heart of the story as quickly as possible. Keep the tension high. Always keep in mind: what is the reader getting out of what I have written? Will the reader be compelled to go on?
I hope you find these comments helpful.
Thanks for trusting us to provide comments for your submission. The first thing I noticed was in your cover letter, when you said you had not been published previously. So I’m going to approach this critique with that in mind. Probably the best way to start is to offer some insight as to how editors look at submissions. We get hundreds of submissions each month, so our default mindset is to look for any reason at all to decline. Personally, when I see three of those reasons within a couple of pages I typically pull the rejection trigger. So here’s what I see at the opening of your submission:
First is that the story is over 7000 words. Right away I am wondering if it needs to be that long. The opening paragraph talks about what the character listened to on the radio during the drive. My sense is that this has little or nothing to do with the actual story you are about to tell. I’ll give it a couple of pages to see if that thought comes back, but if it doesn’t then I know my question about the length of the story is justified. What it tells me is that the writer is including extraneous details in an attempt to create character depth. But character depth, what Kurt Vonnegut calls “what your characters are made of,” comes through their actions and dialogue, not through background information. It’s how characters act under stress that gives a reader insight.
As I read the second paragraph I see that the narrative has started moving backward. What editors, and most readers, want is to see things moving forward. In fiction, especially in literary fiction, one of the primary goals of a story opening is to establish a point of tension and then move forward from it, revealing background information in a subtle way, through the subtext of character action and dialogue. What you’ve got for the next couple of pages is a distinct lack of tension, with information divulged not through action, but through narrative exposition. In other words, this is the writer providing backstory. The problems associated with overt backstory are many. As it happens our latest blog discusses these issues in depth. Here’s a link, and I hope you will take a look: https://orcalit.com/2023/02/01/a-deep-dive-into-backstory/.
I also can’t help noticing the large number of authorial asides in these opening pages. All that information placed in parentheses is another reason the text has a very heavy-handed, authorial feel to it. Basically this is what could be considered a lecturing approach. The writer is acting as teacher. He wants to make sure that the reader understands everything. He also wants to make sure that the reader appreciates his writing. Certainly what you want to say in fiction is a big part of why you write. But it’s just as important to understand fiction from the reader’s standpoint. What does the reader hope to get from a story? Is it the writer being clever and impressive, or is it more like having the opportunity to experience the world of the characters and the problems that they face? Good fiction is a balance between what you want to say and what the reader hopes to see. From what I’ve read in the first three pages I am only getting the first half of that equation.
It’s critical that writers understand reader psychology. That’s why most creative writing mentors stress certain attributes about fiction. Begin at a point of tension. Move the story forward, not backward. Include only the information that is absolutely critical to the reader’s understanding of the story’s plot and theme. Write using subtext—provide clues to character motivation and background through what your characters do and say in the present action. Don’t explain. Trust your reader to be able to figure out what’s going on. In fact, readers get a much greater impact from a story when they feel empowered to be a part of the action and come to their own conclusions about what happened and what it means. Whether those conclusions are right or wrong actually doesn’t matter that much as long as they get that feeling. They don’t get that if the writer continues to tell them what to think and what everything means.
Aim to increase the tension as the story continues toward its climax and resolution. Here’s one of the most important keys to successful fiction: Many inexperienced writers approach a story with a single point of conflict in mind. So they tend to save it for the end and populate the bulk of the story with mundane activity in the hope that the reader will hang on until things get more interesting. That never works. As a writer, you have to trust your ability to take a tense situation and continue to build on it, increasing the tension. This creates character sympathy, the desire of the reader to understand the character’s situation and want to know how it is resolved. That’s what gets readers to turn pages. Just describing daily activity does not.
How does this apply specifically to your story? The story doesn’t really start until the bottom of Page 3 when the protagonist discovers the paper in the coat pocket. That’s what your story is about, and that’s what readers would be interested in, so that’s where it should start. Just as important, trim off all the excess. Write the story from the characters’ perspectives, not yours, and it will seem much more realistic. Focus on events and your characters’ perceptions of them.
Finally, as much as possible remove the author from the story. Trust me, the ability to do this effectively takes a long time to learn. But if you want to be successful in the world of fiction you have to learn it.