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Sunday, September 12, 2010

And the winner is...

In the matter of the 8/27/10 Friday Challenge, "What I Did Last Summer," the judges, after much interference from Otogu, report the following results—

But before I get to that, I just want to say a few words about the process. This time around, Kersley was nice and punctual, as usual, and sent in her comments right away. The rest of us were at Dragon*Con, though, so Henry convened a meeting in his hotel suite, at which, over food and drink, Bruce, Mrs.Brb, Arisia, M, Leatherwing, and BWWB discussed the entries at considerable length. Arisia took copious notes and posted a summary, but the discussion continued in the site Comments for a few more days afterward. So what you're about to read is a sort of interpolated reconstruction of a lengthy, vigorous, at times quite heated, and yet most pleasurable discussion.

Turning to the entries, then:

The Bandit, "Summer of My Dreams"

Kersley: There’s something really freeing about seeing the name of the author and knowing you’re going to enjoy the story. The flow, the imagery, the resolution are all what I’d expect of you. Strangely enough, the writing needs a bit of work. It’s definitely story-teller stuff, but not yet writer stuff. One for instance: “Sprinting down the stairs, I burst out the front door.” Unless the door was in the middle of the staircase, this ain’t happenin’. A once-over with a fine-toothed comb and this will be ready to go.

Miko: Fertile premise, and good progressive use of his dream-journeys; nicely fleshed out with identifiable details; I really like that the ending has him acting for real outside of dreams; but, did the dream on the hammock have any effect on Becky? - I would have preferred something about this in place of the burglar part; what seems lacking is a reason for his change of tack - something within the story that shows us why - something that lets us identify with his motivation for abandoning the dreaming - the friend thought it was creepy earlier, but that didn't seem linked to the change of heart - maybe this could be solved by adding the effect-on-Becky part; "Incubism is a perversion of the gift." - yeah, I hear that all the time.

Arisia's notes: Believe it or not, we felt this should have been much longer. It seemed under developed in places, especially for the character of Becky Lou. We were left with questions in several places. Or, we thought it should have been shorter, ending with the kittens, and chopping out a lot of the middle. Also, we thought it was too chaste for a teenage boy's thoughts, and the church sign was unlikely. Someone said the book in the story made it a new age Beverly Cleary story. It was an enjoyable story with an interesting idea.

M's further comments: Bandit, you can blame me for that "New Age Beverly Cleary" comment. In a way, that's a compliment, because I loved her books when I was in elementary school. Lose the dream book subplot and develop the story, and you could have a bestseller.

Bruce's final comments: We poured a lot of time into discussing this one. The general feeling was that we liked it a lot, but it either needed to be much shorter—ending, say, when he discovers the kittens—or else considerably longer. We were uncomfortable with the idea that he seemed to be able to enter Becky's dreams but that it drew no reaction from her. She remains an inanimate object of desire throughout the story; if you really want this one to be this long or longer, she needs to be a more active player. Actions, even purely astral ones, should have consequences. Show us how his relationships change as a result of his actions.

Miko, "Daysh's Homework"

Kersley: The Creature turns nine as I write this (Friday), and I can kinda hear him in this. Mendacious must have a really good heart, though, because the Creature would have been…let’s just go with frustrated with friends leaving and groundings from bikes.

Arisia's notes: You caught the inner voice of a ten-year-old boy very well. Even though it was written just as a boy might have written it, he unknowingly let slip a lot of his feelings -- he was lonely, poor, and sad. This was written with an economy of words but packed with the expression of the boy's life and his feelings about it.

Bruce's final comments: We all really liked this one a lot, and as a result, didn't actually spend much time discussing it. You convey a tremendous amount of information about this kid and his world with a remarkable economy of words. I.e.,
"When Mama found out I was riding to the quarry she got mad and locked up my bike. It didn't matter because then Bud went on a trip too just him and his dad. I tried to wonder what it would be like to go on a trip just me and my dad but I don't know him so I couldn't."

Arvid, "The Holm of Abhorrence"

Kersley: Cute twist at the end. Confusion in the middle! They’re in a swamp, the bodies have been dead for quite a while, but you can still smell them? Still tell they’ve been eviscerated? Wouldn’t the flesh have been rotted away and/or eaten by bugs? (Part of me can’t believe I’m having this conversation.) How did he access the spires from the third floor? What did he jump down onto? But I still like the twist about the bartender.

Miko: Two awesome titles for a novel: 'Holm...' and 'The Bethel...'; great depth of vocabulary - I had to look up a couple words; well-paced and vivid action; cool, calm hero comes across loud and clear; I was all-in up through "Finish It!", then I cringed at "brave adventurer" ... until the big reveal; I'm not sure how I feel about the ending - the lead-up made me want there to be something at stake - but the wisecracking ending was true to the character; "The world really is out to get some of us." - yeah, I think that all the time.

Arisia's notes: This was wonderful description, but confusing in several places. We weren't sure how he climbed up the spires or why his magic worked sometimes and not other times. However, it was not balanced, being all action and description, and no character development or motivation or plot.

Bruce's final comments: A pseudo-Medieval magical world, and yet he says, "This wasn't my first rodeo?" Nothing shakes the reader out of a story faster than a jarring anachronism. Don't do that. Just, don't.

Arvid, "The Maze of the Sapphire Sun"

Kersley: You write descriptions of exotic places pretty well, and you write pretty good action scenes, but I get confused when your character interacts with his environment. Did the ladder go down to the sapphire wall? Where was the labyrinth in relation to the wall? Looking forward to reading more stories about the adventurous Arvid and his adventures!

Miko: Hello, another awesome title; 'Truncatis' doesn't sound like any place I'd go; "red and yellow starved stones" - ooh, I like that: an *un-description* - don't be surprised if you find me doing that at some point(!); I liked the climbing with no progress but here's something I don't understand (*not* a criticism): once magic works (e.g., levitation, jump spells) it seems arbitrary when magic doesn't work (e.g., against the ladder) - is there a rule or something?; "'...will be remembered.' Figures." - yeah, we get that all the time.

Arisia's notes: Very similar to your first entry, but less confusing, although there was still the question of why his magic only worked sometimes. Same thoughts about being all action and description.

Bruce's final comments: We were all generally in agreement that you sketch out strange settings very effectively and write a heck of an action scene, but you do so at the absolute expense of characterization. There is just no sense of this P.O.V. character's ever having had a past, a motive, a destination, or any more than an utterly superficial reason for being wherever he is at the moment. He just enters a scene, gets into a fight, kicks some magical arse, and then exits. We split on whether this style of writing was more suggestive of a level in a video game or an episode of a Japanese animated series. I argued for the latter.

To reiterate, your action scenes are very good, but the one thing they seem to lack is a sense of risk. This is why the style reminds me of Japanese animation. There is never any question of whether the hero will win; it's just a matter of how long it will take him to discover the enemy's secret weakness and the particular combination of magical moves required to attack that weakness. Stories in which it seems the hero might actually lose—and worse, suffer terribly for having lost—tend to sink a stronger hook into the reader's emotions.

And with all of that said: it occurred to us that you might be just the person to write the next "Icehawk the Barbarian" story. Think it over. Have your people get in touch with our people. Let's do lunch.

Watkinson, "Summertime on the Peninsula"

Kersley: Very Passinthrough. Here, the Saturday night pub-crawl is often punctuated with shots fired or a small riot. Makes me want to go to Australia.

Miko: Busy, busy, busy - you do more in a weekend than I do in a year - good on you - life is for the living; the simple sentences are well-suited to a casual feel; the offset of seasons between North America and Down Under adds a touch of the unexpected - a longing for summer to come; "They all complain about it.... But they all go back." - yeah, we do that all the time.

Arisia's notes: Good slice of life feeling. Poetic, descriptive, made us experience the the setting and scenes. We agreed with Miko that it was like a Passinthrough story.

Bruce's final comments: ...and it made me thirsty. Which is amazing, considering that I don't even like Foster's.

Carmine Vrill, "Ephemera"

Kersley: This is the part where I say I’m not a fan of gratuitous swearing and I lived in Colorado Springs when Columbine happened. But the truth is, I don’t really have a problem with swearing when it’s true to the story, and, good grief! who hasn’t felt this way? Short and sweet. In a movie, it would have been followed by, “I opened my eyes and she was still in front of me, cackling…” I also like the ambiguity—would Ephemera have pressed the button if Lois had kept her mouth shut? We’ll never know.

Miko: Fine connection to the Challenge theme; whew, now, Lois is a "despicable" character; in two little vignettes your characterizations made the revenge entirely believable; "FRONT TOWARDS..." - uh oh - I like how this tells us instantly about serious violence to come without describing it - leaving it to our imaginations; "...and pressed the button." - yeah, people wish that all the time.

Arisia's notes: Well written, good characterization and motivation. We knew exactly how she felt and wanted her to get her revenge. However, we really didn't like the topic. We had a moral objection to a story so much like a Columbine event.

Bruce's final comments: Here's where I have to put my editorial foot down. Considered purely as a story, this is a great story. Strong writing. Very powerful emotional hook. This really plugs into the core appeal of the angry adolescent revenge story, and the whole teen-angst fantasy of going out with one final, defiant, suicidal, homicidal, premeditated act of rage. We spent a lot of time debating very vociferously over this one, and trying to figure out how the story could be salvaged.

But in the final analysis: no. There are certain ideas I find so morally repellent that I will not promote them or even give them shelter and encouragement, and this is one of them. If you need me to explain further I will do so in the comments, but for now, suffice to say: no sale.

And the winner is...

Kersley: You guys should make this easier. Like last week. Last week was pretty easy. The only saving grace about it all is the assurance that voting is subjective. That rankles the engineer in me, but soothes the Irish Catholic guilt that lurks somewhere in my ancestry. That said, not even my subjectivity can choose between El Bandito and Carmine. Hopefully the other two-thirds of the troika and the rest of you fine hobbitses in Atlanta can make the tough call.

Miko: Lots of things done well in this group. I vote ... the bandit.

M: Arisia took notes during the discussion, and I didn't... but I recall my vote being split between Miko (for perfectly capturing, in dialogue, voice and content, a believable account from a young protagonist), and Watkinson (for a the nostalgic evocation of poetic color). While I thought Carmine's piece was an accomplishment, and I could argue for it on artistic merit, it wasn't one that I would ever want to see in print (at least not with that ending!).

Arisia: For my vote, I chose The Bandit. I will let the others add their votes if they want.

Watkinson: My vote is for Carmine. Firstly because I know it's like to get picked on and you got me hating Lois very quickly... and secondly because its Monday... and I really could do with one of them today.

Bruce's final comments: We ended up with three strong contenders. Carmine's entry was vetoed because of the moral implications: teens don't need any more encouragement to think that going out like a jihadist is somehow romantic, dramatic, and cool. The Bandit's entry provoked the next longest discussion, but in the end, we (collectively) agreed that it needed a lot more work before it was really ready for the world. In the end, we agreed, with some arm-twisting, that "Daysh's Homework" did the best job of communicating a fully developed story, as told by a consistent and fully realized voice. So Miko, come on down, because you're the 8/25/10 Friday Challenge winner!

And everyone else: thanks for entering, and remember, the deadlines for next two Friday Challenges are 9/16 and 9/23, respectively!
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