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Monday, September 19, 2011

And the winner is...

Is your story good enough? Strong enough? Smart enough? Enough... to qualify?

Vidad wants to qualify. He wants you to qualify as well, and toward that end he proposed the following challenge: Write a story that is good enough to sell to one of SFWA's "Qualifying Short Fiction Venues."

Given the nature of the challenge, we decided to allow him to enter, rather than being relegated to the sidelines... but since he proposed the challenge, we are including his (non-High Marker!) scores and comments here.

Given the nature of the challenge, we also thought it would be fun to have feedback from a few editors! One of them is our own Bruce Bethke, and he has a little magazine called Stupefying Stories... you might have heard of it. The other is Samuel Montgomery-Blinn, editor of one of those SFWA-approved "Qualifying Short Fiction Venues," Bull Spec, where I made my own first professional sale.

Drawing from their feeedback, 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 be worthwhile.

Those of you who vote (including Vidad, this time!) 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 (BRB, Sam M-B and M) 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, and there is no requirement for a judge to use the entire 30 point allocation.

Ready? Let's get started.

Sneaking Killers through the Back Door

“A Beast War Story” by Bruiser Beast

Vidad: Bruiser Beast has dropped a smoking load of war on us. As advertised, it contains Hard Action, Big Guns and Bad Language. For some reason, these three always go together. Except for that one time I was running through the words with my .357, popping Grays as they converged on my farm. There wasn’t any bad language that time, unless the telepathic clicks projected at my mind were their form of profanity. I dunno, somehow “tik tik CLICKY CLICKY tik tik” just doesn’t have the same umph as F$%^$, S$%^, D$#%^%%& or B!#$%. Blame the rigors of interplanetary travel, I suppose.

Where was I? Oh yes, “A Beast War Story.”

I particularly liked this line: “As he fell away I discharged all 12 of my gun mounted grenades into the face of the man on the ladder below before slamming the hatch and leaping to safety.”

That sounds like the Pentagon must be funding this excursion. Do you know how EXPENSIVE grenades are these days? 12 for one kill... whoa. Maybe there were more people below the guy, I dunno. But 12!

The “Pirate Radio” angle is nice – the RIAA would probably enjoy this one. But why is the transmitter being defended by troops and tanks?

This feels like the middle of a story, even with its resolution. Not bad, but I wouldn’t buy it as is. But I’m just this guy, you know?

BRB: Too much like a media tie-in to some really violent video game for my tastes. And there are problems throughout. With the punctuation. I can see a 14-year-old boy really loving this one, but it just doesn't hold my interest.

Sam M-B: Some typos and capitalization issues ("..." We said; "plunged in an out"), but an ok little military SF story, though not really my cup of tea. Would have been a form rejection.

M: For a very brief moment when I first say this entry, I thought Bruce Bethke was sneaking one in on us. Bruser Beast... see why I was confused? When I started reading, it didn't take long to dispell that notion.

Although I enjoy good military SF, this didn't really feel convincing. Instead, it felt like it might have been an attempt to fuse the action of those early-80s Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons, but with more swearing and 'splosions. I never could get into those, either.

Arisia: 1.5 / Ryan J: 1.5 / xdpaul: 1
Vidad: 1.5
BRB: 1 / Sam M-B: 3 / M: 1
Total: 10.5

“Dear Manny” by Vidad

Vidad: I won’t comment on my own story, but I can tell you what my wife said.

“I can’t believe things like this come out of the head of the man I married...”

Of course, she’s helping edit my novel now – so many more revelations of this sort are likely to pop up. Also, if anyone doesn’t like my review of their story, please make nasty comments about mine. Reach out with your hate... strike me down... and my journey to the SFWA will be complete!

BRB: This one made me laugh, but I've a vague sense that I've read too many like it too many times before. Obnoxiously intrusive computer gets involved in trying to solve user's romantic problems? You've definitely taken this one up a notch, but it's still from a lineage that traces back to Kurt Vonnegut's “EPICAC.”

Sam M-B: I have seen this kind of thing a few times, but will say that the soap getting into the act was a surprise, and put me into a bit of a bizarro mindset. “Well, that was unexpected...” Didn't feel very tied together through the build-up to the climax, and the ending just felt off. Would have been a form rejection. Points for talking soap.

M: I liked the talking soap. I would have liked to hear more from the talking soap. The guy could even start carrying around the bar of talking soap, and periodically washing his hands when he needs “help.”

Of course, that would make it a completely different story! The problem is, I think I'd enjoy the resolution of that story more than I enjoyed the resolution of this one.

Arisia: 2.75 / Ryan J: 2 / xdpaul: 2 (darn close to a 3)
Vidad: voted!
BRB: 2+ / Sam M-B: 3 / M: 4
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 17.75+ (and darn close to another one)

“Plague of Witches” (short story version) by Ryan J

Vidad: Ryan has a gift that must not go unpunished, er, unrewarded. Most witch stories tend to run the “oh, these poor folks are getting mistaken for handmaidens of the devil and burned by evil fundamentalists” angle, or the “wow it's really cool to worship Satan and witches are awesome and all my girlfriends are Wiccan” route - or sometimes a bit of both. In Ryan's world, I get a distinctly different impression. Multiple “gods,” some sort of a witch-hunting temple group that believes itself to be pure yet has no problem with sleeping with the village girls, etc. Intriguing. I get almost a bit of a Zelazny feel and wonder where it's going. I found out from Marc that this is part of a larger tale. Write it. Finish it. Don’t make us wait. This section may be publishable as a short story.

BRB: There's the core of an interesting idea here, but this story would need a *lot* of work before it would be usable. It suffers from Generic Magical Fantasy Malaise; there's no real sense of place, time, or culture, only the usual vaguely Medieval Europe vibe. The characters' names seem to be a polyglot of random syllables, and provide no clues as to when or where this happens. Javis, Jehannon, Gerrid, and -- Blacky? Real names *mean* something. They encode history. If you want to give your characters exotic names, it's perfectly acceptable to dig into, say, Magyar history, and lift a handful of names there.

Oh, and watch out for the tendency to use unnecessary capitalization.

The abrupt change in point-of-view character in mid-story throws everything off-kilter -- *especially* when your p.o.v. character is delivering interior monologues. The long flashback after Captain Austam's funeral oration arrests all forward momentum. If I were you, I would start over and rewrite this story from the beginning, sticking to Jehannon's point of view and telling the story in linear time.

“Jehannon was six years old when he first saw a witch burn.” That is a *great* opening line!

And that, my friend, is where your story begins. Start there; tell us the story of Jehannon, and how he grew up to become a great witchslayer, only to break faith with the Church of Gratuitous Capitalization and decide to let the young witch go free. Do *that*, and you've got a really strong story here.

Of all of these entries, this is the one I'd be most likely to send back with, “But if you fix these things, I'd really like to see it again.”

P.S. But if you do rewrite it, take a few minutes to learn something about sword-making. The business in the blacksmith's shop is all wrong.

Sam M-B: Good opening line; some of the ending exposition/backstory/etc. felt a bit over the line of infodumpy; some of the "witch-farmer" stuff confused me a bit — just call him a warlock again, ok? Felt unclear about what happened to Javis. Good, true-feeling ending. Would have been a rejection but would have included a small note of liking it and needing some tightening up, welcome to submit it again. By far the longest story — and also the one which most interested me.

M: I've seen more of the framework for this one than the others, so my expectations are probably a little different... but my first recommendation would be to leave the first half in the novel, and focus on the young Jehannon for the short story. Work in background and experiences that you wouldn't necessarily want to use in the novel. Spend words that you might begrudge in the longer setting.

Start with “Jehannon was six years old when he first saw a witch burn,” and keep him six years old for the rest of the story. Give him an earlier opportunity to not rat out a witch. Maybe let him make the wrong choice, and feel guilt.

A good excerpted short story can be a branching point, or background for the whole. Pushing it to incorporate too much of the larger picture is not always the best approach, though.

This one has incredible potential!

Arisia: 2.75 / Ryan J: voted! / xdpaul: 3
Vidad: 2.5
BRB: 8 / Sam M-B: 15 / M: 12
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 45.25

“Tem's Ballroom” by Van, the Quish

Vidad: Van’s writing is less comprehensible than my own. He has the unique gift of drawing someone in, then abandoning them in the wild like an unwanted kitten. If you took Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland and crossed him with George MacDonald, you’d get Van.

Far away, I hear the muted sobs of Joseph Campbell.

So... who is Tem? Why does he have hooks for a hand? Who’s the woman? Is the constellation Orion important? What’s the Jewish joke, and why would it offend the ladies rather than Jews? Why can’t Tem find his victim? Why does she tuck him into bed? Is Tem a robot? Is Tem a starchild? Am I Tem? OW MAKE IT STOP IT HURTS OHMIGOSH IM DYING!!1!1!!!1!

I want to know what in the world is going on in your head. Can you explain this tale to me in little words?

I’m giving you a 2, just because it’s highly engaging, if infuriating. Don’t spend it all in one place.

BRB: This is easily the most polished of the entries. It's got literary style and grace out the wazoo, and the story really pulls me in and keeps me reading. There are little bits of wordplay I really love all over the place; e.g., "The shiver reminds him of a saxophone he once heard in the war..."

What the heck happens at the end? I have no frickin' clue. But right up to that final paragraph, I'm entranced. For me, this one would not be a "must buy," but it's definitely a hold and read again, in hopes that it makes more sense the next time through.

Sam M-B: The opening really left me going into "skim/scan" mode quickly before getting back on the horse. Couple of monster-wall paragraphs, and... this is a story I just didn't get. Would have been a form rejection. Points for the nice image of counting the stars, though.

M: Short, enigmatic stories can have a powerful impact. I keep feeling as though I've missed something in this one, though. The prose was fun, and full of style... but in the end it felt as though there wasn't really anything at stake, and that Tem would be switched on again the next night, only to relive the same autonomously frustrated mission.

With a more compelling dénouement, it would get bumped out of the slush and into the “hold for consideration” pile.

Arisia: 2.25 / Ryan J: 1.5 / xdpaul: 3
Vidad: 2
BRB: 9 / Sam M-B: 3 / M: 7
Total: 27.75

“The Unmethoding” by xdpaul

Vidad: (Note to self: do not drink straight warm vodka while reading xdpaul’s stories. You’ll just have to read them again in the morning with an even fuzzier head.)

I got confused counting the headaches in this one. The repeating “woman’s hair continually snapping hair ties” meme is one of my favorites. It made me laugh. I love it when dames can’t control their hair.

Let me back up and do the math on headaches again.

At the beginning, he has a headache in his head, along with two additional headaches involving numbers being off. That’s three headaches, though you tell us he has two. In section two, he gains another headache by losing a friend. That makes 4, right? In the last section, his head is hurting yet again. Is this the same headache, unvanquished, from the beginning? Or is this another headache? If it’s the same, the count remains at 4. If it’s a new headache, that brings us to 5. Of course, when the 4’ spark fountain appears, I would say that compounds the headaches by a factor of 10, making the actual number of headaches in this story either 40 or 50. I would put that in scientific notation, but I can’t figure out how to do it on my keyboard. Add another headache for that.

The story builds, we find out there’s something terribly wrong with Teeter, and then the protagonist is apparently burned up in an Alka-Seltzer-induced spray of fireworks.

My guess is that you’re implying that the laws of physics got a headache and gave up?

Work on this a little, add a bit of clarification, make me care more about Teeter, then sell it to Bayer. It has the skeleton of a good tale. I can feel it in there, inside my pounding skull.

BRB: As a story, this one really hangs together. It doesn't have the surreal elan of “Tem's Ballroom,” but it's got a nasty realism.

In fact, that's the problem for me. It's *too* realistic.

“Yeah, about that. We maybe want to look at limiting the sample of the second data set, and expanding the margin of error.”

You've worked with government scientists before, haven't you? Scary, innit, how you can completely change the results of a study just by changing the parameters of a single Fourier transformation?

This would be another “hold and read again,” but mostly because I'd want someone else to read it and give me a sanity check. It makes perfect sense to me but I don't know whether it would make sense to anyone else.

Slight edge to “Tem's Ballroom” for style.

Sam M-B: OK. This is a strange one to consider. I might have form rejected it near the mid-way point, as some dialog issues and lack of any SF/F elements I could sink my teeth into... the ending image though was very well done, and I was left not really knowing what I'd do with it. There wasn't really any SF/F element (the throw-in "gene therapy" is both currently done — though rare — and not developed as an element) but the topic is an interesting one and there was that last image. Would have been a rejection, but I would have said thanks for the incandescent alka-seltzer.

M: Likewise, I had a bit of trouble sinking my teeth into this one. Everything about it felt a bit like you were dancing around the story, rather than giving us the story itself.

Story trumps everything, and there wasn't enough of one for my taste... and yet... and yet... that was a beautiful image at the end. The biggest question in my mind was whether or not, as an editor, I would have stuck it out until the end.

Arisia: 2.5 / Ryan J: 2.5 / xdpaul: voted!
Vidad: 1.5
BRB: 9- / Sam M-B: 5 / M: 6
Participation bonus: 2
Total: 28.5-


What a spread! What fierce competition! What advanced math it took to tabulate all the scores!

Without further ado, here are the results:

5th Place: 10.5 points — “A Beast War Story” by Bruiser Beast

4th Place: 17.75+ (and darn close to another one) points — “Dear Manny” by Vidad

3rd Place: 27.75 points — “Tem's Ballroom” by Van, the Quish

2nd Place: 28.5- points — “The Unmethoding” by xdpaul

1st Place: 45.25 points — “Plague of Witches” (short story version) by Ryan J

Congratulations, Ryan J! As a previous challenge winner, you have the option of proposing another new challenge, scheduled to be announced the morning of Friday, 23 September 2011, or passing the “Editor Hat” to the challenger of your choice so that you may more quickly participate again.


So what was the point of this challenge?

Vidad: Congratulations to all who entered. May you all end up published.

M: What Vidad said... because with persistence, you all very well may.
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