ASIM pre-slush workshop redux

Since we have come to the end of the slush workshop, I thought I’d share a few thoughts with readers and participants about the workshop, and about what we could improve.

I was happy that all submissions we received followed the guidelines. There were no huge submissions, no submissions with the author’s name accidentally left in, none in pink lettering and papyrus font, and none that were not speculative fiction. Kudos to you all.

Unfortunately, it seems that a few people submitted but somehow their entries didn’t come through. I have no idea what happened there, and I apologise to those whose submissions were eaten by the internet. If you have any idea on how to improve the process in the future, please comment below.

I do think this series has achieved the two things I set out to achieve: to show writers how important that story beginning is. In twelve of the fifteen stories, that editor would not have needed more than 300 words to reject the story.

The second aim was to show how, once a story has a level of competence, the individual slush reader’s opinion comes into play.

What lesson is in this for the writer?

As writer of short stories you must be able to write competently. It’s not just poor grammar and spelling skills that sink a story on the skill level. If sentences are unwieldy, long, hard to parse and verbose, that will probably go against you. If sentences are repetitive, that will go against you. If the narrative is distant, written in dry language, and describes events, rather than lets the reader experience the story, that will go against you.

Secondly, you must get to where the real story begins as soon as you can. If the character is bored, the slush reader may just be bored, too. If the character whines, the slush reader may just think he/she should put a sock in it. If the character does something that’s revolting, the reader may be revolted and may move to the next story.

So–is this what slush looks like from the receiving end?

Some days, it does, but mostly, it doesn’t. For some strange reason, slush quality comes in waves. Some days you’ll find two or three great stories, and other days you’re beating your head against the wall.

The workshop was like a good day. I think that is because all entrants came through from writing sites where people are working on their writing skills.

I’ve enjoyed this project, and at this stage, I think we will probably do this again. Meanwhile, if you appreciated this series, and you haven’t already done so, please support the magazine at the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine website. If you buy a PDF subscription for only $27 (four issues, more than 400 pages of fiction), you’ll get a free issue of your choice of the ‘best of’ collection of either Science Fiction, fantasy or horror.

ASIM pre-slush workshop post #15

Here is the fifteenth and last of the submissions. Please remember that this is the opinion of one editor. There will be others who agree, but there will also be those who disagree. In the end, what you do with your story is up to you; it’s your call.

If you appreciate what we’re doing here, please support our magazine. To coincide with the release of issue 50, we have a number of special deals. See the ASIM website.

Following this post, I will talk a bit about the project, about slush in general and about the magazine and myths that surround it in cyberspace [cue in mysterious music].

Original text:

Price of Allegiance

“Mr. Tobin, there is a gray Cicada here to see you.”

Alastair Tobin, Earth’s official ambassador to the Galactic Union, was more than a little surprised. In his eight years of service he could count on one hand the number of times anyone had visited his office on Union Central station in person. On a rare occasion when someone had any business to conduct with the humans, they just sent him a message. A member of the Union’s oldest and most influential species showing up at his door was unprecedented.

“Ask it in,” Tobin responded via the intercom.

A Cicada walked in, folding its wings. The alien was short, corpulent, and had thin, veined wings extending from its midsection. Its severe gray garb was in stark contrast with the rich, bright colors the Cicadas generally favored.

“Welcome, on behalf of humanity. I am honored by your presence.” A wall panel emitted a series of high-pitched sounds, translating the standard greeting into the guest’s native language.

“Thank you. On behalf of the Union, I am honored to be here,” said the Cicada.

_On behalf of the Union._ The visitor was indicating that it was here on official Union business, rather than representing the interests of its own species. Tobin motioned for the Cicada to take a seat and lowered his own armchair to adjust for the height difference between them. The Cicada acknowledged the invitation by leaning on the side of the chair, but declined to sit down. At least they were now more or less at eye level.

“Tell me, Ambassador Tobin,” said the Cicada without any preambles, “what do you think is the most important function of the Galactic Union?”

Uncertain of his visitor’s intentions, Tobin chose his words carefully. “The Union facilitates the exchange of art and technology among all the known intelligent species that are advanced enough to join in.”
Editor’s comment:

This sets the scene reasonably effectively, but it’s a rather static opening. There’s a hint of intrigue–something unusual is evidently happening, in the background–but after 300 words, we haven’t really arrived at anything that could be considered a narrative ‘hook’.

Things are unfolding too gradually, in my assessment. Part of the problem is that you’re offering too much explanation: while the second sentence suffices nicely to telegraph that this is a SF story, rather than fantasy (for example), it provides too much of the wrong sort of detail: Tobin is Earth’s ambassador, he’s held the post for 8 years, his office is on Union Central station. These are things which are certainly relevant, but they’re not engaging: they don’t encourage the reader to identify with the central character.

This needs more tension, it needs a stronger sense of intrigue, and something dramatic or at least ominous needs to be waiting in the wings.

ASIM pre-slush workshop post #14 – another yes

Here is the fourteenth of the submissions, posted here in no particular order. Please remember that this is the opinion of one editor. There will be others who agree, but there will also be those who disagree. In the end, what you do with your story is up to you; it’s your call.

If you appreciate what we’re doing here, please support our magazine. To coincide with the release of issue 50, we have a number of special deals. See the ASIM website.

Original text:

Lady Serpentine

She walked into the shop and the first thing I should have noticed was that she was bald, her scalp shining under the lights as if it were polished. But I didn’t – I noticed her eyes. Her gleaming, chromoluminescent eyes shining artificially, a badge of sponsorship. Somewhere out there someone paid this girl’s salary in exchange for the rights to her corneas, her follicles. Her eggs, if it came to it, but it didn’t always. Sometimes a kidney, for a higher price.

I reached out over the counter and offered my hand. It was an old-fashioned gesture, more intimate than a casual retail exchange should invite, but I wanted to touch her. She took my hand without hesitation and said “I know your work. I’m here to see if you’ll work with me on a project.”

“A project”, I repeated, not releasing her hand.

She took it from me anyway. “A body suit. You gave my friend Janey the copy of the Modigliani on her hip. I’m looking for an artist who’ll work with me on a body suit”
“For you” I asked.
“For me” she nodded, her skin clear and untouched, her face open and unsmiling.

I lifted the countertop and beckoned her inside. “Let’s talk. I’ll show you more of my work.”

I knew before she followed me down the hall that she wasn’t eighteen yet. She looked sullen instead of confident and it was no mask for her vulnerability. She’d never been in a tattoo shop before, I could tell.
The smoking room was empty, Dwayne must have been in the back taking in a shipment. I left the door open on purpose, so she wouldn’t be nervous, but she closed it herself and then slumped into one of the armchairs.
Editor’s comment:

This is a very appealing opening snippet. It has a powerful sense of tension, a hint of danger or desperation, and a solid sense of cyberpunk. It feels natural, and it invites the reader to visualise for him/herself the scene as it unfolds. I’m definitely interested in seeing more of this story.

(it needs a good cleanup in the dialogue punctuation department, though)

ASIM pre-slush workshop post #13

Here is the thirteenth of the submissions, posted here in no particular order. Please remember that this is the opinion of one editor. There will be others who agree, but there will also be those who disagree. In the end, what you do with your story is up to you; it’s your call.

If you appreciate what we’re doing here, please support our magazine. To coincide with the release of issue 50, we have a number of special deals. See the ASIM website.

Original text:

For the next few days I’m stuck on Earth. The place is an oddity. Their species have just two sexes, male and female as they call them. While there are a few other scattered places like this, almost everywhere else there are three sexes.

Normal planets have randos, sproils and lackos. My name is Jek, I’m a lacko. The rando is sort of like an Earth female, the sproil a male, except the sproil sex organ is not self-supporting. That’s where lackos come in; we act as a kind of bridge between rando and sproil. I will get no more graphic. The intergalactic web has millions of videos showing the details to anyone curious.

We landed here two days ago, after almost an Earth year in space. My crew is just a rando and me. Not that it would have been wild if we did have a third. My co-pilot is married. When three entities find each other and agree to wed, that’s serious. Cheating is pretty rare. It takes us too long to find our two soul mates.

Third Wheel

Me? No commitment anytime soon. I just want to see the universe and have some fun.

There doesn’t seem to be many off-Earth entities where I’m at, a city called Shanghai. Space travel is very long so entities don’t just flock here. In fact, Earth is a fluke destination for me. I doubt I’ll ever be back, so I’m in my hotel’s bar looking at tourism holo-disks of sights I can see.

We observed Earth for a long time, but it’s been less than one hundred Earth years since we introduced ourselves, so there is still some catching up to do on technology. The disks are the old kind, like my grandparents had. You have to place them flat, touch to power up, and then manually scroll the images.

Editor’s comment:

This piece has no title, but I’m wondering if the Third Wheel in the middle is the title. I’ve copied it exactly as the entry came in, but the Third Wheel in the middle doesn’t seem to belong there.

OK, the general.

I hate talking about show vs tell. It’s vague terminology, it’s overused and isn’t as important as some people make it out to be.

That said, I think my main problem with this story excerpt is that it’s all told. We have an alien narrator who lectures at us in the same way I could imagine a teenager in the US would write an introductory letter to another teenager in China as part of a correspondence program (remember those?).

The problem with that type of narrative is that it’s not very interesting. This piece touches on too many things too briefly. We don’t see the start of a story. There is no tension.

ASIM pre-slush workshop post #12

Here is the eleventh of the submissions, posted here in no particular order. Please remember that this is the opinion of one editor. There will be others who agree, but there will also be those who disagree. In the end, what you do with your story is up to you; it’s your call.

If you appreciate what we’re doing here, please support our magazine. To coincide with the release of issue 50, we have a number of special deals. See the ASIM website.

Original text:
All We Know of Heaven and Hell

I didn’t want to leave my husband to die alone, if it came to that.

Things went wrong at Hex 3. Something always went wrong fighting the golems. When our chopper docked back on ship, I shucked the torso straps and was the first one off, pushed the other Marines out of my way to be the first one on the tarmack.

Master Guns Mackey was on the deck between the remounted choppers, shouting and gesturing to order the chaos. I covered the ground between us in a few long strides and grabbed the sleeve of his jacket, dragging him to face me. The expression he gave me was cutting. I released his sleeve.

“Rex is back there. I have to get on one of the choppers going back.” I said.

“Report to your team,” he said.

“I have to go back for my husband.” I took a step back, feeling for the rumble of chopper engines in the grill beneath my feet. They had to send someone back for Rex and the rest of the platoon.

Mackey’s hand closed around my upper arm, hard enough to bruise. “Pull yourself together, Corporal,” he said. “We don’t have room in the Corps for your emotional antics.”

“That’s my husband,” I said again.

He pushed me away as he released me. “Then stay the fuck out of my way so I can bring him back.”

He stalked off, shouting orders. Sergeant Lang grabbed my shoulder. “Report to the ready room.”

“Rex—”

“They’ll send choppers back,” she promised, short dark hair falling around her face. “We take care of our own. Just go.”

In the ready room for our platoon, tensions were high. The other Marines were bantering. They always had something smart to say, sounded like a bunch of kids to me.
Editor’s comments:

This throws the reader straight into it, which is generally a good tactic: it sets up plenty of tension right at the very beginning. My main quibble would be that our experience of the husband, as a character worth investing emotional concern in, is thus far based entirely on hearsay. It might be advantageous to move the action back a short interval, to actually encompass the moment when the protag gets separated from her husband: if doing this provides a hint of detail on the husband (without, I guess, giving away too much), it could serve to raise the stakes for the reader.

This aside, there’s a good, gritty, hardboiled sense to this. It doesn’t waste time.

ASIM pre-slush workshop post #11

Here is the eleventh of the submissions, posted here in no particular order. Please remember that this is the opinion of one editor. There will be others who agree, but there will also be those who disagree. In the end, what you do with your story is up to you; it’s your call.

If you appreciate what we’re doing here, please support our magazine. To coincide with the release of issue 50, we have a number of special deals. See the ASIM website.

Original text:

Shuffles and Liars

If I were to list the three places I’d least like to be on earth, Kanti Advancement Nanopharmaceuticals would’ve been first and third with a black hole in second for variety’s sake. But I was broke, and we don’t always get what we want.

A shuffle led me to the director’s office. I hate shuffles. The brainless creep me out.

Across a monolithic desk, the director sat in a leather throne. He was old, bald and lined like squeezed clay, but still fit as a marathon runner. “I’m glad you could come,” he said. “I’m the director of KAN. And you are, I presume, the detective?”

“Mr. Maury,” I said. We didn’t shake hands. A quick probe of the place’s electronics showed me that, if the director didn’t feel like letting me go, I wasn’t getting out of here. This stuff was state of the art, and that’s not an easy confession coming from a guy with a spacer-given implant. Then again, this was KAN. Word on the street was that they were developing everything from poison gasses to immortality. “What did you want to talk about?” I asked.

“KAN has a new product coming out. It’s going to change the world.”

“You already used that in an ad,” I said. “Maybe you could make it a series and do: It Will Change the World – Again.”

“Very funny,” the director said in the manner of a patriot at a flag burning. He took a yellow pill out of a bottle labeled ONE FOR LIFE and chewed it. “One of the project’s lead men was a Mr. Lindle,” he said after swallowing. “He vanished two days ago.”

“And you want me to find out where he ran off to?”

“Not quite. Mr. Lindle didn’t run. You have an implant, correct? Open the file.”

Editor’s comment:

Judging by this section, I would think that this is the introduction to a detective story.

There is a standard situation: a detective meets a client in an office. Cliché, maybe, but I honestly can’t see how a detective story will work without it.

He finds out that the company is working on a big project, and that the person responsible for the project has gone missing. All good things.

This, for me, falls in the category of ‘almost there’ story starts.

I dislike the first paragraph. The first sentence is horribly long and convoluted. It makes an attempt at being funny but falls flat towards the end. The second sentence doesn’t flow from the first. And what detective doesn’t need money? Doesn’t that go with the meeting client in office cliché? I’d delete the entire paragraph. It’s doing the story a disservice, exposed as it is.

The shuffle is interesting, but I’d move him elsewhere in the story. Perhaps he can lead the character away from the room instead of into it. He really needs more elaboration and description than this one line gives him, and at the very beginning, you want to get to the problem as soon as possible (unless shuffles are part of the problem or resolution in which case I’d have the full-on creepy red-eyed zombie glaring scene right here).

If not, I’d start the story in paragraph three. All the tech detail in the fourth paragraph is a bit unfocused. I feel this paragraph squeezes in a lot of different concepts without giving the reader the chance to comprehend. I’d focus on one tech aspect, implants probably. The gossip about the company, too, feels too broad. This is a chance to clue the reader in on what sort of company this is. Poison gases to immortality doesn’t so that for me. Is it a pharmaceuticals company? A bio-computer company?

Similarly, I’d give the project the missing person works for at least a name, and hint at what it does. Being specific is your friend in cases like this, because it convinces the reader that the author knows his or her stuff.

ASIM pre-slush workshop post #10

Here is the tenth of the submissions, posted here in no particular order. Please remember that this is the opinion of one editor. There will be others who agree, but there will also be those who disagree. In the end, what you do with your story is up to you; it’s your call.

If you appreciate what we’re doing here, please support our magazine. To coincide with the release of issue 50, we have a number of special deals. See the ASIM website.

Original text:

Please Step Aside

The soft sounds of music filtered in through gauzy curtains to the
sunroom of the Cultural Director’s office suite. As far as Rezin was
concerned, it could just filter right on out again, through the
gracefully arched windows and over the soft green lawn to the shimmering
lake in the distance.

He shifted in his chair, tired of the being softened up. He wanted this
over with.

“What exactly do you want from me, Director?” he asked impatiently.

“Call me Artok,” the Director said gently, for the third time in the
past half hour.

Rezin sniffed contemptuously.

“What do you want, Director Artok? You know as well as I do that I’ve
fulfilled all current requirements. Let me go, and we can both get back
to work.”

Artok sighed, thinking back to other difficult meetings with the same
man in the same room.

“Yes, Rezin, I know you’ve met the requirements. I know you don’t want
to be here, that you were assigned to the Attendant program
involuntarily. And you’ve done everything we asked of you.”

“Then let’s go. You want me to work, I’m ready to work. Let’s get on
with it.” Rezin allowed the tone of aggravation in his voice to rise.

“Rezin,…” the Director paused. “The Observatory exists to witness the
birth and death experiences of the galaxy’s cultures. That’s what
Attendants do. They observe, but do not interfere. And even though
most Attendants join us after a thorough psychological evaluation,” a
tone of vexation crept into his voice, “they find death to be a wearing
experience. That’s why we have the ‘two births, one death’ rule.”

“So what are you complaining to me about? I’m helping you out.” Rezin,
full name Rezin Patience Miller, mixed in a little exasperation.

Editor’s comments:

I’m copying this directly as it came from the site (as I have done with all other pieces), and I am sure that there are some problems with the formatting of this piece, namely that all the lines are cut short and don’t wrap. You may want to check your settings, because something inserts hard returns in every line. Hard returns are only for new paragraphs. Whatever inserts hard returns needs to stop doing that, because this will look horrible in a real life submission. Just the pain of having to edit out all hard returns may cause some people to reject it. Don’t allow formatting to detract from the piece. It may well be that software is doing it, but you’ll need to find out why this happens and fix it.

About the piece itself:

This is space opera. Two men are sitting in an office discussing something. They’re either impatient or bored.

As another editor mentioned earlier, there is a danger with starting a story with a character who is bored. You need to engage the reader and boredom is very catching.

A rule I apply to my own fiction: do not—ever—make your characters sigh unless you want them to sound annoying and pedantic. I think sighing and whining are two things that make readers to lose sympathy for characters.

A lot of words are spoken, but the two men not all that specific about what is going on. I’d like to know what the main character’s challenge is.

Who is the main character? The sentence starting with ‘Artok sighed’ is in Artok’s POV, while the rest of the piece is in Rezin’s.

I also think the narrative text is fairly wordy. The story doesn’t start until the characters start speaking. The first paragraph is very, very dense. Too dense, in my opinion. I had some trouble understanding the second sentence. It has too much information and becomes unwieldy.

ASIM pre-slush workshop post #9

Here is the ninth of the submissions, posted here in no particular order. Please remember that this is the opinion of one editor. There will be others who agree, but there will also be those who disagree. In the end, what you do with your story is up to you; it’s your call.

If you appreciate what we’re doing here, please support our magazine. To coincide with the release of issue 50, we have a number of special deals. See the ASIM website.

Original text:

Pyre Fly Away

Namtar stood with one hand in his pocket and the other stroking his favorite charm: a small sundial he had owned since the beginning. Its intuitive function was useless to him at this time of night, with the moon approaching the zenith of its path. Regardless of the time, the markings around the gnomon didn’t indicate hours; they were much more important.

So many centuries had passed since his master had given it to him. Millennia on top of millennia. It was his last physical connection to his people–a tribe long forgotten by the chapters of history.
He ground his toe in the moist soil. Bits of grass lay flat under the force, stuck in the mud. It was good digging ground.

Thigh-high obelisks lined up neatly to his left and right, and in rows both before and behind. He stood dead center in the graveyard, staring down with a new sense of finality at the marker directly in front of him. Poor Doctor Kennor had been moved long ago, but the headstone knew no different.

A firefly landed on the front of Namtar’s button-up shirt and he shooed it away. The warm, humid air of late June, combined with the knoll’s tall grass, attracted a swarm of them. They blinked at each other slowly, like dying embers waiting for a bellows. They bobbed from knee height to shoulder height, illuminating the names on the tombstones far better than the sliver of moon overhead.

He looked at the sundial, keeping it cupped in his hand, as though hiding its face from the curious bugs. The engraved markings–unreadable to all but the scholarly few these days–glowed subtly with a yellow-green radiance. All but the last few were alight.

“Nearly there,” he said to the grave. “I’ve almost got them all.”

Editor’s comments:

I quite like the atmosphere described in this beginning. There is a sense of place, and a sense of mystery. There is a sense that the author has done some interesting worldbuilding. I had no idea what a gnomon was, so, like a pedantic editor, I googled it. It’s the triangular blade on a sundial. We’re in a graveyard and the character is doing mysterious things. All good.

That said, I think this piece needs severe trimming. Overwriting is a term that means using more words than necessary, often dramatically so. I think this piece is overwritten. This is very likely to be a problem in the entire piece.

I dislike re-writing other people’s prose, but I’ll give some pointers here as to what I think should be cut.

The first sentence should end after the word sundial. The rest is not important, because you’re not specific. Non-specific language is blah. Blah needs to be cut.

The second sentence: all you need is: It was useless to him at night. You don’t need intuitive (doesn’t mean anything here). You don’t need the bit about the moon. You might say something about moonlight, for setting’s sake, but I’d make it a visual image.

The third sentence is telling, and you probably need something about the markings, but I would make it visual. Could you tie it up with the moonlight perhaps, like describing the mysterious markings in moonlight. Maybe he was using the moonlight instead of the sun? The scene is powerful. Give us something visual.

I’d delete the entire second paragraph. You probably need this somewhere, but here isn’t the place. It clutters up the beginning.

Keep going with the visual cues. The obelisks, the graveyard. End the first sentence of the third paragraph after ‘rows’.

Words like ‘before him’, ‘from behind’ and other place markers are what’s sometimes called ‘stage directions’. Important if this was a screenplay. This is not. Delete that stuff unless it’s vital. This piece has a lot of those descriptors: dead center, the front of his shirt. Delete, delete. If he can see the fly, it’s obviously not on his back. It doesn’t matter where in the graveyard he is.

What matters:
He’s in a graveyard (describe it in a suitably spooky way)
He’s got a weird thing (describe it, never mind how he got it—that can wait)
He’s going to do something with it.

ASIM pre-slush workshop post #8

Here is the eighth of the submissions, posted here in no particular order. Please remember that this is the opinion of one editor. There will be others who agree, but there will also be those who disagree. In the end, what you do with your story is up to you; it’s your call.

If you appreciate what we’re doing here, please support our magazine. To coincide with the release of issue 50, we have a number of special deals. See the ASIM website.

Original text:

The Sneeze Hound

Shawn Pavlovsky pulled his mail from the box, hoping Mr. Tadwill had responded with an update on his model ship. A freshly crushed lilac petal was stuck to the top piece – a sweet scent.

Shawn sneezed.

Facing the mirror, Shawn saw two loose sacks of skin, wrinkled, with mismatched nipples that both pointed downward. Age-spotted hands rose to cup each breast, pushing them upwards and inwards. The old woman hummed off-key through cracked lips as she prodded her breasts into different positions, then released them to pick up the pamphlet on the counter. Dropping onto the toilet seat, she flipped the pamphlet open and looked at the series of breast implant before and after pictures as she started to piss.

Shawn’s nose was smashed into the tile flooring, his mail scattered beneath him. Mrs. Herringbone again, he thought, shivering in disgust. He started to push himself up.

“Stay still,” a woman yelled.

He heard heels clicking down the stairs.

“You’ve had a bad fall. When I found you, you were unresponsive. The cell reception here’s atrocious, so I ran upstairs to try to find someone to call 911. No, stop! You could be badly injured.”

Shawn pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, then stood up and turned towards the woman. She appeared to be in her late twenties, and pretty despite the blue streaks in her hair. “I’m fine. I have these epileptic fits sometimes. Once the seizure wears off, it takes me awhile to regain consciousness.” It wasn’t true, but it was a lie he had told often. He wanted to pick up his mail, but the petal might cause him to sneeze again, and he didn’t want to have a second episode in front of her. He didn’t want to have a second episode at all.

Editor’s comment:

Technically, there is little wrong with this piece. It also creates a good question: why does Shawn have fits and what does it mean?

I’m wondering if the mention of Mr Tadwill and models in the first sentence is needed. It sets me off on the wrong foot, but thinking that this is going to be a story about models and all the while the fit is happening, there’s a little annoying voice in the back of my mind that keeps going ‘but what about the models?’. I think it would be better to raise the subject of models at a spot where you can actually elaborate. No big deal.

OK, now we come to my problem with this piece: the eew factor. Honestly, I don’t think anyone would like to know how many slush submissions pass my computer screen where I feel compelled to wash the screen afterwards. Guts, blood and vomit, all in the first few paragraphs. An old, wrinkled woman squishing her breasts and peeing isn’t by far the worst thing I’ve seen, but I am going eew in my mind. Meanwhile, I know nothing about this character so don’t yet feel any sympathy towards him. This combination of the absence of redeeming features for Shawn, and his vision, makes me wonder why he has to see this toilet scene in particular. It then combines with the mention of the neighbour as ‘pretty despite having blue streaks in her hair’ and my red flags are up. I’m wondering whose judgement this is. I think the story had better make it clear that it’s Shawn’s judgment that older women are gross and people with blue streaks in their hair are ugly. In which case, I won’t have any sympathy for him, because he’s sounding like an opinionated you-know-what.

I think it would be safer to allow the reader to gain sympathy for Shawn first before starting on the gross scenes. Personally, I would change the vision to something more benign, and ideally something that raises a question or two related to the plot. I would concentrate on the vision and the mystery. It seems this is a story about sneezing. Develop that right from the beginning. You don’t really want the slush readers to be icked out before they get to the plot.