Confession: it’s the 9th day of NaNoWriMo, and I’m 11,000 words “behind” — SOUNDS LIKE A REASON TO PARTEH!!! Join me in a little cold, rainy November winners’ dance.
You won’t have to be nagged for very much longer on the below reminders; grateful for your patience:
- SO THRILLED at the judge apps that have come in so far for the season starting in November, but I still need a couple more of y’all to join us. Details here. Please consider it, and thanks!
- Thought for sure we were done with #Pyro after this week’s low turnout, but a couple of y’all showed up late to give it another shaky breath. Please remember that if this feature is useful to you, it’s up to y’all to keep it going. We’re about out of stories, though — please send me your flash! Free editing by people who are wild about flash? what’s not to love?
Many thanks to the indefatigable Dragon Team Seven, IfeOluwa Nihinlola & Nancy Chenier, for taking on this week’s tales. They say:
N: If my math is correct, this the second-to-last round for Dragon Team 7! I know many of the regulars are churning out the word counts over at NaNoWriMo. Even so, you dragons still managed to kick up forty-three little breezes that we can all give a damn about. Apropos of Gone with the Wind’s Civil War era, Ife’s and my initial short lists had almost zero overlap. Fortunately, our war was indeed a civil one, and as the report of muskets faded into the scarlet skies of evening, we managed to erect a wonderful winner’s podium.
I: Penultimate judging round. Phew! I’ll start loading up the comments for the final round starting today, so I won’t be as speechless as I am now. Again, many thanks to you all for writing, and to Holly Geely who stripped the stories for us, as she has done for the entire duration of this judging cycle.
Bill Engleson, “Betrothed.” —I: for an enchanting narrator—whoever heard of a slave being condescending to her master—and for the names: Miss Rebel Worthy sleeping in and almost missing a date with Master Lucius Callender
Becky Spence, “Low Burning.” —I: for wonderful imagery and staying true to its conceit: the story burns in so many ways.
Richard Edenfield, “The Whipping Song.” — N: for powerful imagery that captures pain, desperation, care, hope, triumph, and love in one intimate moment. The analogy of scars as a lines in a book or lyrics to a song is stunning.
Catherine Connolly, “Daughter Dark Heart.” — N: for taking a Gone with the Wind prompt and giving us Baba Yaga. You captured all her wild weirdness and equivocal nature—and even managed to work in Marinka. Bravo!
Stella Turner, “To Be or Not to Be.” —N: for my favorite opening line. Now there’s a sentence that accomplishes multiple tasks at once: introduces conflict as well as two characters (a frustrated speaker and his contrary-since-the-day-she-was-born daughter).
Foy S. Iver, “Under the Magnolia Tree, I’ll Keep Your Secret.” —N: for the intensity of the exchange. The presence of a bloody knife and the details of the action serve to heighten the tension throughout, despite the MC’s attempts to soothe her: blocking the door, “raked in breath”, “sobs decayed into hiccups”, “eyes, Georgia blue, scratched at my face”.
Michael Seese, “Perfect.”
I – It’s easy to fall for the illusion of perfection painted by this story. I know I did on the first reading. The imagery is precise in its presentation, with brand names and details that suggest extreme sophistication. Then the ending of the story disrupts that illusion and a reread reveals distortions in the perfect image that my eyes did not initially pick up. I should have caught the image of the booze and taken it as a foreshadowing of the end of the story. But isn’t that the point of perfection: to hide the booze.
N– The superficiality of perfection is so well-drawn here. I loved the capitalization of the tablecloth color. The tiniest mar in the facade appears with the parenthetical mention of locked away alcohol. Then, with the final line, the hidden-away human frailty is revealed—and even there, she finds no real release. The importance of appearances is relentless (making others jealous, impressed guests). The praise comes from without, as it must. One wonders when cutting won’t be release enough from the stifling world she’s surrounded herself with.
Michael Wettengel, “Better Day.”
I – “There could be a family, decades of history, in that space.” That is the line that stuck with me on my first reading of this story. This story of a family going about their lives as shells sound around them. This story of young ones playing dominoes as they waste away, of a wife actually wasting away, and a husband who seems to simply be waiting for when they, too, will exist in “that space.”
N– This one sets us up to examine the little disappointments that inflict our routines. It reminds me of the #firstworldproblems meme only the message delivered here comes in a more poignant package. The second paragraph draws me in with the admission that silence is worse than screams. Lines like “In their eyes, I see a graveyard” and “Stolen meds ring around her bed like roses around a coffin” drive home the deep desperation of the theme.
Craig Anderson, “The Path to Salvation“
I – If this story were an animation set to a Disney tune, it would start off with a zany beat, and happy brass sounds, chanting as the slave goes about his work with rainbows of confidence shooting out of his every pore. After all, he has built his legacy, the path, to be unbreakable. Then midway into the story, as his master shows up with his woman, the tune would take a depressive turn, with heavy strings, and crashing hits of the snare reducing the tempo until it’s nothing more than a faint heartbeat. For that is the sound fitting for a man who is made to take out his unbreakable legacy with his own hands.
N – Linking the path to the MC’s spirit in the first paragraph is what won me over on this one. It’s an interesting analogy on first reading and a heartbreaking one on the second, when the realization hits that he’ll be ripping up his own legacy and essentially breaking his own spirit. The mix of frustration and admiration in the Master is telling: though he appreciates fine work, he’s a sadist — and it sets us up for his cruelty at the end.
THIRD RUNNER UP
Marie McKay, Untitled
I – From the first line to the last, this story was clear about its intentions: to pile image upon image in a heap of detail that would leave the reader filled with enough to form a large-enough picture, like that a collage made from small individual paintings. There’s also an urgency to the story, which seems to have been caused by the verb starting sentences that read like an instruction manual: “Draw Close the blinds,” “Cradle the darkness,” “Choke on the stench,” “Pull the white pall.” The story then, propelled by a baby’s shriek from steel lungs, the story switches gear and hurtles to the end twists, heart, and all.
N – Fabulous raw imagery opens (and carries through) this one. The misdirection here is just brilliant. The first half seems to be telling of a stillborn birth with all the complex emotions that might evoke: shame, blame, offense, shattered expectation, rot. The revelation that for these parents, having a girl is just as bad (worse!) than having a stillborn child bowled me over. And, as with every strong twist, the hints are there before the reveal: baby blue (the color for a boy), the reaction of blame and shame sets in before the mourning. Rereading it makes it all the more tragic: the transformation of the line “unable to nurse” is wicked: first reading, my heart went out to the poor woman whose inability to nurse seemed external, but on second reading, I wanted to slap her for her internal rejection of the living babe.
SECOND RUNNER UP
Bill Engleson, “Scarred”
I – If humanity’s real self is revealed in war, then this story comes as close as any in showing that that real self is: callous, violent, selfish. But even in that, there’s still the sense of a need for companions, of sticking with our own, even when they think we’re “gormless bastards”, and drive home their points by slamming a rusted tire iron on our arms. We are always searching for an ‘us’ even in ruins, and with the us, we would do things, even those we’re not comfortable with, to keep them close. That’s a lot of solemn thought (pathos like Nancy aptly describes) for a story that reads like it’s straight out of GTA4.
N – I love how this could be the aftermath of any recent war as easily as it could be an apocalyptic future (how this SF-fan read it the first time). What a ruthless contagonist in the person of the MC’s “friend”, who doesn’t seem the type of person to be anybody’s friend; however, that’s about all the MC can hope for in a world that can no longer be considered a civilization. That the MC has qualms sneaks in through the paragraph about the smash and grab. There’s a hint of pathos toward the “stupid grocer who barely has a pot to piss in”, but, then, the MC works himself up with a bit of victim-blaming antipathy, thus justifying going along with the racketeer of the tale, becoming part of “us” with her. The final line reveals that in contrast to his partner-in-crime, he has a conscience, though it, like the sky, is choked in smoke.
FIRST RUNNER UP
Colin Smith, “War-Torn.”
I – This story shows the devastation a war wreaks on the emotional landscapes of people who live through it. It does this by embedding the banality of war with memories of a life past. Here, by the contrasting of the past and the present, we’re confronted with the violence of the things traded off in battling others: Love of a brother for the firing of rifles, memories of childhood for horrors of death.
N – This one adeptly shows one of the devastating aspects of civil war: that the enemy may well be someone you know personally, even someone from your own family. The interchange of the present-time assassination with the recalled voice of the enemy twin is particularly effective. First off, the voice is distinct and engaging. Secondly, we get backstory that enhances rather than interferes with the tense action happening in the now—it’s appropriate because these are precisely the things that would be running through the mind of someone about to kill his twin brother. The pacing is excellent as the fond reminisces of mischief become clipped and strained by the memory of the painful words of parting (perhaps the last time these two have spoken). The echo of “Why, Billy?” brings together the past and the present, sure to haunt the MC to the end of his days.
And now: for a smashing FIFTH win, it’s this week’s
I – This story transposes the effect of a war of a certain kind onto another in a way so fitting I had an “Oh!” moment when the real setting of the battle was revealed. The story builds up, transitions and ends with such finesse, every detail an important part of the story. Moments like the narrator drinking the “dram of will in the bottom of his whiskey glass,” him being the enemy breathes life into the character in a way that would otherwise take whole paragraphs. The upbeat voice of the narrator also masks the horror of the situation in which she’s found herself. She commits one last act of war, and this story ends flaming hot. Perfection!
N – This one has so much in it. In 160 words, we have a full story, complete with immediate conflict, misdirection, a struggle, a reveal, tension building, and a powerful close. The first two paragraphs misdirect the reader with its martial imagery, introducing our war-weary MC. The power behind the second paragraph is the ambiguous way it builds hope — sort of. The war will end, but does that really make it the lesser of the two evils? There’s a reveal in the third paragraph when the blitz/barrage is linked to Peter’s fists. And yet at that point, the story is far from over. The dialogue exchange behind superficially innocuous words—two simple lines packed with the long years of tension. The ending, then, just knocks me out. Her look over the battlefield contains all the wistfulness of that of a defeated general. Her limited agency leaves her both victor and vanquished. She doesn’t surrender herself to him: she surrenders the two of them to death, perhaps trading the old war for a hope in hell.
Congratulations, Michael! Couldn’t be happier for you, and for SUCH a story, my goodness, in which we have deaths (though not terribly many this round, I must point out). We’ve updated your winner’s page; your winning tale can be found there looking all sparkly. Please watch your inbox for instructions regarding your interview for this week’s #SixtySeconds! And now here’s your winning story:
The blitz began anew. The corner offered cold comfort, though Colette realized it was only a wounded facade. Safety was an illusion held desperately despite the destruction that littered the remnants of what she once had called her life. Another strike would shatter the final vestige of hope she’d manage to cling to all these long years.
Someone once said, “War is Hell.” He was wrong. Hell is eternal. War will end. There will be a victor. And there will be a vanquished.
The barrage ended. The room fell silent. Peter had finally put away his fists.
“I’m heading to bed. I’ll be waiting.”
“I just need to clean up.”
Colette swept up the broken dishes, her grandmother’s wedding china. She found a few drams of will in the bottom of his whiskey glass. Drinking it felt like victory. She took one last look at the battlefield, turned on all four burners, and joined the man she loved.