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Sunday, May 22, 2011

And the winner is...

Our fourth challenge provided some interesting entries, with four very different approaches to the process!

If any of you are able to take a second look at your own work, and see ways in which to improve a concept so that it can be more successfully developed, the effort will have been worthwhile.

Those of you who vote are allowed to assign a range of “0” to “3” points, per entry. Since challengers may not vote for their own stories, a bonus of 2 points is given to a participant's highest-ranked work, if that participant also takes the time to vote on the other entries.

Official judges receive a 30 point allocation, 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.

miko is about to put on the “Editor Hat.” It's sort of like the “Sorting Hat” they use at Hogwarts (“Let me ask you this, Harry. Do you feel... lucky?!”), but a little more nearsighted. Remember, this time it can only see a maximum of 250 words.

What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

“All the Luck” by WaterBoy

miko: The story opens with directness and then proceeds to deliver on its promise. It describes how things came to their present state, but I think being largely historical, it loses some immediacy.

I definitely like the speculative SF angle and the idea of a proactive approach to chance.

I also like very much that the final utterance invites several interpretations: this gives us a reason to keep the story alive in our minds even after it has ended.

On a quirky note, the second paragraph has a sentence structured like this: “Through creative application..., he discovered that... J was able to...” It sounded like “he” and J were different people but “he” is J. It sounded to me like the narrator was conveying J as thinking of himself in the third person! I can’t say what (if anything) might be grammatically wrong with this but it somehow struck me weirdly – it’s probably just me.

The title - and the phrase "favorable, at least, to J" - makes me wonder whether the protagonist is (or would be accused of) taking luck away from others, consuming the good fortune in events to the exclusion and detriment of others. This suggests there's more going on than we've heard so far.

And that makes me wonder about the reactions of others. My guess is that they would be suspicious and resentful, and he would eventually be barred from many venues. I suspect he'd become reviled and hated. Rather than exhibit envy, I’d expect the commissioner to sneer through a fake smile, “Sooner or later, we’ll figure out how you pulled this off, and then you’re going down...hard.”

I think this opportunity for conflict already present in the story could allow this piece to expand into a deeper and broader story.

I think the strength of this story is in its potential because it opens up a range of possibilities for exploring perceptions about luck, for conflict, and for cool plotting based on the manipulation of chance. The word count pens it in, but I wish there had been more of such conflict and immediacy, and maybe a bit less of the history.

The story seems to say that luck is mere chance, and then imagines a future wherein chance could be corralled and manipulated. This would seem to so alter our perception of reality that there must be a deep vein to mine here. I like that, but the fun stuff was left for the sequel.

(good literary score; low challenge score)

Arisia: 2 / Avery L. Maxwell: 2 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 3
miko: 5
Total: 14

“Luck” by Watkinson

miko: This story is sly. I admit that I started getting impatient with the mental soliloquy (that’s funny coming from me, right?), and I was tempted to jump the gun and start arguing with the protagonist's bald assertions about what luck was, and what it could never be.

But then the last line took the mickey out of me; all my pent-up frustrations were disarmed, and dissolved into satisfaction. Yes, I smiled in utter bliss.

It was very clever to set us up by having it all be a helpless, flailing rationalization. He’s trying to convince himself (not us), and he fails. Much like a Judo flip, the ending puts us on our back, but it does so in the gentlest possible way: by touching a universal chord. How can we not all identify?

But(!), I think your editor needs to pay better attention. Some kind of punctuation is needed in the first line after P says, “is lucky as” – it causes the reader to stumble. There is a typo: “back at back at”.

I think the third paragraph sounds more like narrator description than the protagonist thinking to himself. Maybe these details should come out as observations relating to himself: something like, Look at that guy! I've got that same H-R-T tracksuit lying under my bed.

Also, I think the "voice" has to be more consistent throughout: phrases like "understandably", "what is it that this man", "implies", "tangible", "which they work on" - these don't sound like they fit. I think the language should be more consistently "regular guy", everyday talk used for regular-guy, everyday notions. Rationalize? Definitely. Philosophize? No so much for this character.

The story seems to say that luck is undeserved, yet ultimately asks, ‘And how come I don’t deserve that kind of luck?’ By setting up a rationalization and then knocking out its pins with a feeling, the story shows us that emotions tug at us harder than thoughts. It's all so very...human - hopelessly human – and might be what luck is really all about at its core. The writing requires more attention, but the idea – I think you nailed it, mate.

(low literary score; high challenge score)

Arisia: 1 / Avery L. Maxwell: 2 / Ryan J: 1 / xdpaul: 1
miko: 6
Total: 11

“No luck. Only skill.” by Ryan J

miko: I like the intro: it sets the stage, gives us an image, creates tension, and even hints at its own resolution.

The initial assertion about luck v. skill nicely foreshadows a resolution, but is it in the voice of the narrator, or of D? If it is D, then I have a slight problem because it is not in quotes as dialog, but neither have we yet gotten any solid cue that the scene is supposed to be D's POV, so it was unclear (to me) that this would be the narrator conveying what D is thinking. Were it merely the narrator telling us something we’re supposed to accept, that would be the weakest alternative. I think it would work best as quoted dialog from D because the foreshadowing would then also serve as characterization by being an evident boast and therefore an overt challenge to S.

I like when the assertion is later repeated: it works nicely here as narration rather than dialog because by now we know more about D and can easily recognize this as what he would be thinking amidst the action he is taking. The echo of the earlier boast now becomes narrative fact. Cool.

The characterization of a confident, skilled warrior is well accomplished by the action of making his own luck, playing on his own terms, and changing the rules of the game while fully expecting his opponent to not only take it, but to like it.

We have typos – “are the gods are”, “Sten” – plus the unclear (to me) attribution above, but overall, it’s an effective scene that very naturally ends with what is skillfully both a satisfying resolution and a transition to what might follow.

The story seems to say that luck is preparation meeting opportunity, despite the vagaries of chance. This being a view held by a successful few, one wonders about the degree to which they are indeed correct versus merely being set up to learn a stiff lesson later.

(good literary score; good challenge score)

Arisia: 2 / Avery L. Maxwell: 3 / Ryan J: voted! / xdpaul: 3
miko: 8
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 18

“The Moon's Last Gambler” by xdpaul

miko: The writing style is crisp and evocative. I'm impressed by the economy, amping up the intensity with a focus on close, intimate details. I think this story is the best-rendered bit of storytelling here.

I like the subtle counterpoise of the random chance of gambling with the not-so random possibility of human fallibility in the launch of an engineered machine. That one cancels out the other is a crafty commentary (even if unintended).

The tale shows us luck as being arbitrary, yet to our judging minds, luck appears ironic. It is common to portray a devil as a trickster; it is not so common to likewise portray the creator of existence itself. I like this very much.

I'm slightly torn, though, by the situation: on the one hand, I can imagine people throwing away all they had since it would be no further use to them, but on the other hand, would the gambling really compel that much interest in a fated group's final hours? On the Titanic, I imagine some panicked, some sought solace in final tenderness with their families, and others preserved their dignity (“the band played on”). I wonder whether so many would choose one last gratuitous indulgence in vice as the last act of their existence.

Then again, a radio wise-guy spoke this morning about how the end of the world would be a golden opportunity for endless orgies, and then after popping in my Soulfly CD, I was treated to songs such as “No Hope = No Fear” and “Karmageddon”, so the “warrant” of your story would seem better supported than I might suppose.

The story seems to say that luck is arbitrary, and that this fact torments our judgment, but it also hints (I think) that some of what we perceive as luck comes to us by our own (or each other’s) hand. This seems like a mature and sober assessment, and too bitter a pill for most to swallow. Applied to our own lives, the notion is haunting – but hopefully liberating.

(high literary score; good challenge score)

Arisia: 3 / Avery L. Maxwell: 1 / Ryan J: 3 / xdpaul: voted!
miko: 11
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 20


Based on the numbers, our winner held a decisive lead, with a strong showing by this week's runner-up:

2nd Place: 18 points — “No luck. Only skill.” by Ryan J

1st Place: 20 points — “The Moon's Last Gambler” by xdpaul

Congratulations, xdpaul! As winner, you are hereby invited to propose next week's challenge, scheduled to be announced the morning of Friday, 27 May 2011.


So what was the lesson of this challenge?

miko: Each story had different strengths, and each one answered the Challenge in an interesting and worthwhile way. I did some nit-picking in my role as editor because that (so I understand) is what editors do to our submissions. My opinions on the story content or style are just that – opinions. There’s no particular reason you should take them seriously – your writing is your own expression. I just felt obliged to be honest and complete.

I was torn between granting points based on literary accomplishment or how well I thought the Challenge statement (show the nature of luck) had been addressed. On the first criterion, I might have chosen xdpaul; on the second, I might have chosen Watkinson. But I had to weigh both criteria because neither good writing that doesn’t accomplish anything, nor an awesome idea that is poorly delivered, is likely to meet with success.

I had as much fun as I could hope for seeking the meaning of luck in all the entries. This Challenge suggests two things to me. First, abstract ideas can usefully serve as themes or motifs that underlie a story, but, second, the most compelling stories are the most human ones, where we can identify with the characters and imagine it could have been us in their place. Because that bypasses our forebrain, when it hits us, it comes not as thought but as emotion - and being human, that's where we have no defenses.

That doesn't mean pandering or being maudlin - it just means being real.
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