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Sunday, May 1, 2011

And the winner is...

For our initial challenge, we had an exceptional turnout! A dozen contestants submitted twenty-eight separate entries, five different individuals assigned numeric votes (some of them even used integers...), and everyone received a bit of potentially useful feedback. If any of you are able to take a second look at your own work, and see ways in which to improve the opening paragraphs so that they can be more successfully developed, the effort will have been worthwhile.

I am about to put on the “Editor Hat.” It's sort of like the “Sorting Hat” they use at Hogwarts (“Ooh! You're a slimy, twisted little story... how would you feel about Slytherin? You could be great!”), but a little more nearsighted. Remember, it can only see a maximum of 120 words.

Those of you who voted were given a range of “0” to “3” points you could assign, per entry. With twenty-eight entries, each voter had the option of assigning a maximum of 84 points. From the five volunteer judges, each story could receive up to 15 points.

(This is probably a good time to say that I tried my darnedest to make sure all the numbers wound up in the right spots! If any vote was incorrectly transcribed, you have my humblest apologies.)

Since challengers could not vote for their own stories, a bonus of 2 points was given to a participant's highest-ranked work, if that participant also took the time to vote on the other entries.

Since I am serving as the High Territory Marker, I get to use a different standard... but since this also serves as a precedent of sorts, I am setting some personal limits: Official judges are given a maximum of 30 points, to assign as they see fit. The only restriction is that at most, only half of those points may be given to any single entry.

Bearing in mind that I am relatively new to all of this, I solicited help from some others who are eminently qualified to recognize good writing. They have each done stints as editors, and have, between them, acquired almost every award that can conceivably be presented to a science fiction and/or fantasy author. Please welcome Joe Haldeman and Mike Resnick to The Friday Challenge; their respective 30-point spreads were apportioned on the strength of Mike's emphasis, and the depth of Joe's analysis.


Editor Bait (a.k.a. “The Good Friday 120-Word Page Turner”)

“Under the Gunn” by Al

Joe Haldeman: “Under the Gunn” is too familiar — starts out like a Raymond Chandler novel adapted to the Twilight Zone. No complaints with the writing, but the opening sentence is kind of a forced narrative hook.

M: I really enjoyed paragraphs three and four. Sadly, I'd have been tempted to stop after paragraphs one and two. There is probably an interesting story about how/why your unnamed agonist (prot? ant?) got the hardware, but nothing jumped out as a compelling reason to turn the page.

Arisia: 2 / Ben-El: 1 / miko: 3 / Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: 1
Haldeman: 0 / M: 0
Total: 10



“Late” by Watkinson

Joe Haldeman: “Late” is all right but needs something unfamiliar.

M: As a teen-anxiety setup it technically works, but the setup doesn't grab me. I've read — or seen — the same character go through the same motions enough times that I pretty much assume he'll have a few other snags with his car/technology/girlfriend/parents, and then he'll manage to do something to save the shrink ray/charity ball/universe/cheerleader, thereby making himself feel good about his existence until the next morning, when his alarm will fail to go off again.

Please tell me you were going to write a different story than the one I outlined above.

Arisia: 1 / Ben-El: 0 / miko: 1 / Ryan J: 1 / xdpaul: 1
Haldeman: 0 / M: 0
Total: 4



“A Liberating Delivery” by Triton

M: If this is going in the direction indicated, there is an entire section on Smashwords dedicated to your newfound genre. Giving a shout-out to Fabio was the coup de gr√Ęce.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: 0 / miko: 1 / Ryan J: 0 / xdpaul: 1
M: 0
Total: 3.5



“Book” by Henry

Mike Resnick: Worth a mention for one reason only: I had to keep reading until I found out who/what The Book Was. OK, I found out, and it's another wizard story.

Joe Haldeman: “Book” is probably a good beginning for readers who like fantasy. I hit “wizard” and my eyes begin to droop.

M: I like the idea of The Book, and The Book's silent anxietylogue. I like the lighthearted tone. I don't like the fact that the combination immediately felt like it was grasping for connotative association with The Luggage. Mentioning a wizard in the next sentence didn't help.

Arisia: 2.5 / Ben-El: 1 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: 3
Resnick: 2 / Haldeman: 1 / M: 2
Total: 16.5



“Charles and the Apocalypse” by Rich M

Joe Haldeman: “Charles and the Apocalypse” is a good opening situation. The diction is kind of anachronistic, but okay. It ain’t rocket science.

M: Nice coloration, and the mental image of your characters is very interesting. I hope that's not just because I like stories about crippled astronauts with motorcycle fetishes. This one could be excellent! It could also crash and burn, depending on what you do with it... but I'd turn the page.

Arisia: 1 / Ben-El: 2 / miko: 3 / Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: 2
Haldeman: 2 / M: 3
Total: 16



“Dawn” by Triton

M: Vampire stories lose me. Polidori wrote a good one, and so did Bram Stoker. Somebody else probably did too, at some point... maybe. I tried to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my wife this summer, and couldn't get past the first few episodes. It probably got much better as a series, but I've got too many other things I'd be more interested in watching, or reading.

Arisia: 2 / Ben-El: 1 / miko: 1 / Ryan J: 1 / xdpaul: 2
M: 0
Total: 7



“Down in the Hollow” by Triton

M: I could see Henry using this as the introduction to a Fountain of Youth story, in one of his storytelling gigs. It rolls pleasantly off the tongue, and there is enough room for vocal inflection to give your characters some recognizable quirks and physical prompts. So, I would happily listen to this one, even though as a written hook it feels weak.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: 0 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 1 / xdpaul: 1
M: 1
Total: 6.5



“Geek, the Game of Champions” by Arisia

M: I've never understood video games. Might be because I was never any good at them... but I was never interested in becoming good at them, either.

By the same token (pun intended), I am not particularly interested in reading about them. Giving the setup from the perspective of a character in your game is okay-ish, but by the first “clank!” I'd be looking for a pinball machine, instead.

Arisia: voted! / Ben-El: 0 / miko: 3 / Ryan J: 1 / xdpaul: 2
M: 0
Total: 6



“Guardians” by Arisia

M: Your opening paragraph is lightly poetic, and would probably be something I'd be perfectly happy for my kids to read before bed. White cats, deer... sleep and slumber, and pleasant dreams.

If you made the bit about “color seeds” the first line of your story, I'd find it a lot more interesting.

Arisia: voted! / Ben-El: 1 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 3
M: 1
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 11



“Man Versus Machine” by Rich M

M: I love this one. I want to see where you are going with it. If the entirety of the story is similar, I hope you kept it short enough to sustain the punch. Good, but I'd (probably) have to dock it a couple of points for being too short for an easy sale to a professional market.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: 0 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 1
M: 1
Total: 7.5



“Myrmidon, first version” by Ben-El

M: A long paragraph of interwoven observation and introspection might not be the best opening gambit, if you want to hook an editor. I'm not sure, though... I'll have to think about it some more.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: voted! / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 1
M: 0
Total: 6.5



“Myrmidon, second version” by Ben-El

M: I thought about it. It's still the wrong choice.

Arisia: 1 / Ben-El: voted! / miko: 3 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 2
M: 0
Total: 8



“Soul Cutting” by miko

Joe Haldeman: “Soul Cutting” is too familiar and somewhat overwritten.

M: I really hope this isn't one of your most cherished, carefully guarded, deeply intrapersonal pieces. I'd like to believe that, just as every new market receives a flood of trunk stories from otherwise good writers hoping to cash in, you scrounged up an unwanted fragment to sacrifice it upon the altar.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: 0 / miko: voted! / Ryan J: 0 / xdpaul: 1
Haldeman: 0 / M: 0
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 4.5



“Novel Opening” by topher

Mike Resnick: The only one where I was truly disappointed not to read more.

Joe Haldeman: “Novel Opening” starts out pretty well, a mystery being demonstrated and danger on the way.

M: You could get a lot of mileage writing this one for the adolescent market, if you can sustain the feel and give a sufficient payoff. My only real objection is that “Bosin” sounds like he might be related to “Boutell” of the clanker; the entire last half of that sentence made my inner editor hiccup.

Arisia: 2 / Ben-El: 0 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 1
Resnick: 15 / Haldeman: 2 / M: 2
Total: 26



“Old Secrets” by Triton

M: Jimmy was tasked with smuggling Smaug's treasure out of Afghanistan, and after he tells the tale he'll probably slip a ring onto his finger and vanish. I might turn the page just to see how far my guess missed the mark, but unless you really wowed me at the top of page two I'd probably put it down.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: 1 / miko: 3 / Ryan J: 1 / xdpaul: 1
M: 1
Total: 8.5



“Really Big Islands” by Michael D
Joe Haldeman: “Really Big Islands” has a promising image in the first paragraph. Have to see what he does with it.

M: Interesting metaphor. I'm not hooked. Not not hooked, either. Can you get 90,000 words out of it, work in an illicit romance, some sort of social stigma and at least one traumatic hospitalization? (If you can, I am still not hooked... but you'll probably have a much better chance of selling it to someone who would be.)

Arisia: 1 / Ben-El: 0 / miko: 1 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 1
Haldeman: 1 / M: 2
Total: 8




“Return to Earth” by Ryan J

Joe Haldeman: “Return to Earth” is a good beginning. A menacing and sciencefictional mood, with something bad about to happen.

M: I've already told you that Baen has an open submissions policy, haven't I?

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: 2 / miko: 3 / Ryan J: voted! / xdpaul: 3
Haldeman: 10 / M: 5
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 26.5



“Scout's Honor” by Henry

M: Since your character is calmly post-analyzing the computer's incomprehension of sarcasm, I feel no tension in the moment. I wish I did, because he's about to eject from an uncharted wormhole, and nobody should face that sort of uncertainty alone.

Strong candidate for a rewrite, but no hook... yet.

Arisia: 2 / Ben-El: 1 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: 2
M: 1
Total: 11



“Suckering the Nazis” by Triton

M: “Sergeant Haldeman of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops”? Joe, I swear I didn't tell any of these bozos you were going to be here.

I know about the Ghost Army. If I was more interested in historical military literature, I'd probably pick the book up on the strength of the subject alone; there is so much fascinating material upon which a good author could draw. The problem with this opening is that it feels like the not-a-commercial they'd show on PBS, to get you to watch the documentary.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: 0 / miko: 1 / Ryan J: 1 / xdpaul: 2
M: 0
Total: 5.5



“The Guitar” by Arisia

M: If the names sounded a little less contrived, and if that bit about the king in the second paragraph didn't feel like it had been tacked on, you might have something with this one. With a few tweaks it could even be the story of how Jimi Hendrix was born in a humble manger, sent to be the savior of Rock & Roll.

It's not there yet.

Arisia: voted! / Ben-El: 1 / miko: 1 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 1
M: 0
Total: 5



“The Invisible Mark” by Arisia

M: Nice narrative flow. Feels... sort of like the way a lot of people really live, every day? All right. There is a market for this, although I wouldn't have any idea what to do with it. Not hooked.

Arisia: voted! / Ben-El: 2 / miko: 1 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 1
M: 0
Total: 6



“The Unseen World, first version” by Ben-El

Mike Resnick: Nice description.

Joe Haldeman: “The Unseen World” starts out well — the table, the duffle bag, the dark and shining city — they all combine to make the reader want more.

M: The small folding table and black duffel bag are nice attention getting devices, and I already wonder about them. Deftly planted details. In a few sentences you've already given me a respectable tour, and I'd gladly go a little farther.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: voted! / miko: 1 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 2
Resnick: 5 / Haldeman: 2 / M: 2
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 17.5



“The Unseen World, second version” by Ben-El

M: You revised from that, to this? I am afraid I can't see why; the first version held compelling details, but this version is overwhelmed with the noise of a crowd.

Arisia: 2 / Ben-El: voted! / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: 1
M: 0
Total: 8



“The Watchmakers Gift” by Rich M

M: Dead critters reincarnated via clockwork? Cool idea (if that's what it is), but I think I'd like the opening a lot more if you hadn't explicitly said that the narrator is a turtle. Maybe it could be a gradual inference, as the old lady strokes the edge of his shell, or feeds him a bit of lettuce? He might even see relatives, locked in a quest to get across the road before being flattened by Granny's roadster, as he watches with a resigned stoicism... too slow to shout an effective warning.

Rabbit chasing. The last sentence of the page un-built a lot of the pent-up potential, so it lost me.

Arisia: 2 / Ben-El: 1 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 1
M: 0
Total: 8



“Timeline” by Arisia

M: The problem with alternate Messiah stories is... well, there are several. If you are brave enough to be controversial and divorce yourself from all dogma, you might wind up with something worthy of an award, assuming you can get it published in the first place. If you do it really, really well and don't deviate from the approved constraints, you might find steady sales, albeit among a limited demographic. But if you do it poorly, your stuff will be discussed in the same breath as Captain Rah-Rah-Jesus, The Most Awesomest Super Hero Ever™!

I wouldn't take a chance on knowing which one this is, from a first page, if my salvation depended upon it.

Arisia: voted! / Ben-El: 0 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 3
M: 0
Total: 7



“To Save an Ear” by Triton

Joe Haldeman: “To Save an Ear” is an old sf clich√©, but I love it because I know the story of Jenkins’s ear, and so my curiosity is instantly piqued.

M: I'd like to see you tackle this one as a full-scale exploration of consequences. Be prepared for a lot of work, because if you have a single cut nail out of place on deck, you'll encounter enough chrononautical engineers to float an armada. As turning points go, though... wow.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: 2 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: 3
Haldeman: 11 / M: 3
Total: 25.5



“Wreckage” by Arisia

Joe Haldeman: “Wreckage” starts out with a strike against it. Alien names are a difficult challenge, and “Vorxchee” sounds too random. The telepath on a train, trying not to hear the people around her, was a central motif in Silverberg’s Dying Inside — even if the author has never encountered the book, the familiarity is off-putting.

M: Vorxchee, Gesundheit (Gesundheit, Vorxchee... pleased to meetcha!). As names go, I might have gone with “Lewis” or “Bob” instead. Pleasant enough narrative, otherwise. This one has potential, but you should probably change the setting because... well, I didn't catch the similarity as soon as Joe did, but I should have.

Arisia: voted! / Ben-El: 2 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 1
Haldeman: 0 / M: 1
Total: 8



“Zombie Funeral” by xdpaul

Mike Resnick: Intriguing title, intriguing description.

Joe Haldeman: “Zombie Funeral” might have something; not enough here to tell. Zombie stories are usually pretty boring, but Rhonda is a promising character.

M: How many times have you heard me say that I absolutely despise zombies? I know I've mentioned it on more than a few occasions. Admit it, you wrote this just to force me to admit that a zombie story could be compelling.

I want to hear Garrison Keillor read this one aloud.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ben-El: 2 / miko: 2 / Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: voted!
Resnick: 8 / Haldeman: 1 / M: 5
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 24.5


Wrap-up...

Lotsa numbers! What would each judge select, if doing so was an independent decision?

Mike Resnick: The best opening — for me it's not even close — is NOVEL OPENING. Second is ZOMBIE FUNERAL. Third to UNSEEN WORLD (first version). Fourth to BOOK. Let me know if Joe agreed with it, or if we have to defenestrate him.

Joe Haldeman: These were very good, except for the nine or ten that weren't. My favorite is “To Save an Ear,” about tied with “Return to Earth.”

M: I like “Return to Earth” as my first choice, because is it such an interesting hard SF setup. Surprisingly, and despite my avowed dislike of all things related to the undead, I have to give a very close second to “Zombie Funeral.”

Such a narrow gap separates the top four slots (!) that each of them deserves recognition. Good thing Arisia skewed the results with all her fractional voting, or we'd be facing a deadlocked jury.

4th Place: 24.5 points — “Zombie Funeral” by xdpaul

3rd Place: 25.5 points — “To Save an Ear” by Triton

2nd Place: 26.0 points — “Novel Opening” by topher

1st Place: 26.5 points — “Return to Earth” by Ryan J

Congratulations, Ryan J! As winner, you are hereby invited to propose next week's challenge, scheduled to be announced the morning of Friday, 6 May 2011.


Afterword...

So what was the lesson of this challenge? Strive to hook your readership at the earliest opportunity, and allow them struggle on the line if necessary, but do not allow the readers to placidly swim away. If the start of your story is merely inoffensive, it is probably also ineffectual.
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