"Thousand Words" Contest Results
Because this page is somewhat lengthy, I've inserted hyperlinks so that you can jump to any section of interest.
The concept behind the "Thousand Words" Contest was simple: given that "a picture is worth a thousand words", I presented the contestants with the following image and asked them to write a story about it that was at least a thousand words in length.
Picture by Jonathon Earl Bowser
We had six entries by the end of the contest, which is a pretty good degree of participation for this sort of thing. The prize for first place was a gift certificate from Amazon.com or CDNOW (winner's choice), and the top three entries will receive permanent enshrinement here at Raven's Lair.
Let me say, first off, that I have not read any of the feedback or replies that other people have posted to these stories, so as not to corrupt my own judgments of them with anyone else's thoughts. What you see in the following text is entirely my own opinion and analysis.
The stories were judged in five categories, on a letter-grade scale of E through A (1-5 points, respectively). Scores midway between letter grades were ranked as a "minus", so, for example, a B-minus was worth 3.5 points. The categories were then weighted by a multiplier based on how important I thought that category was to the overall quality of the story.
The categories were as follows, with the multiplier in parentheses:
1.) Spelling (x1): This one is self-explanatory. A careful writer screens his work for typos and makes sure that the words he chooses are the correct ones.
2.) Technical (x2): How well was the story written from the standpoint of grammar, syntax, etc.? This doesn't take into account how well the story conveyed things like emotions or mood, just the writer's grasp of the technical side of the English language.
3.) Creativity (x3): How original and interesting were the writer's ideas?
4.) Artistry (x3): How well did the writer execute his ideas? This includes all the intangibles of writing -- mood, ambience, characterization, and the writer's ability to evoke emotion in the reader.
5.) Applicability (x1): How well did the story fit with the picture?
The maximum score a story could achieve was 50 points. Keep in mind that there's some rounding inherent in this system: any letter grade assigned to something implies a range of performance, so someone need not be 100% perfect to get an "A" -- one just needs to hit that nebulous "95% or better" mark. A score of "A" in any category means that the story achieves everything that could be expected of it, and would be worthy of an "A" if I were grading these stories in an academic setting. A "B" indicates something good, but which did not really fulfill its true potential. A "C" indicates average -- not bad, but not really all that remarkable or inspiring. A "D" indicates subpar performance, and an "E" is something that is rife with errors and problems. (Nobody got less than a C in any category, so this is a mark of the overall quality of the submissions for this contest.)
Contestants who wish to know the breakdown of their grades can receive them by emailing me in private. For this email, however, I will only list the overall point totals for the top three. Also, if any of the authors desire it, I will send them the blow-by-blow feedback on spelling, sentence structure, and other detailed observations that I took note of while I was reading through their stories -- just email me and let me know.
In the following paragraphs I will list each of the top three, counting down from third to first place, and give my analysis of each story and what I liked and didn't like. You can just click on the links to read the stories for yourself.
THIRD PLACE: "King of India", by Jacob Fox -- Final Score 43.5
A cool story, Jacob! The scene where Cecil has his epiphany is a little confusing -- not surprising, given the subject matter. Still, it may be possible to present this sort of abstract, dream-like imagery in a way that is a little easier for the reader to follow. As an example, you might refer to the penultimate scene in Phil Geusz's "The Edelweiss Killer", in which Bronski confronts the demon imprisoned in the government base; though the scene is filled with madness and chaos, the reader himself is able to keep track of what is going on, and to acknowledge the dreamlike insanity of Bronski's vision without losing the narrative thread in the process. This sort of stuff is tricky, though, and takes practice; touching the Numinous, either in the form of Good or Evil, is never an experience that is easily described.
Nice ambience in the story, colorful characters, and generally well-written, apart from a few awkward bits of phrasing. The story was also just about the right length for the tale you were telling, which is always a good thing.
Cecil is an amusing character to use as a protagonist, since he's so utterly full of himself in that classically British way. ;) I would note, however, that there are a few places where the narrative seems to "step back" from Cecil, seeing things through the eyes of an omniscient observer rather than from his perspective, and this hurts the reader's immersion in the tale. The strongest case of this is in the paragraph where Cecil is described as "the living embodiment of what future generations would call fascism"; it may be accurate, but that's not the way that Cecil would see himself. It's better to show us the way *he* thinks of himself and those around him -- his arrogant, superior mindset, the attitude of the "white man's burden" that Rudyard Kipling so eloquently (and appallingly) expressed -- and let the reader draw the conclusions that he is a bigot and a tyrant on her own. Similarly, when the tigress circles the "foolish lord", that's not an opinion he would have of himself.
The last quibble I'll mention here is that I completely missed the significance of Cecil's rant about coffee and Americans, since neither coffee nor Americans appear in the story. :) His rant was amusing, but I couldn't figure out what it had to do with any of the rest of the tale.
Anyway, nice work, Jacob -- it's really remarkable how far you've come from just a few years ago when you first joined us. I'm proud of you!
SECOND PLACE: "Master Made Me", by Michael Bard -- Total Score 47.5
*Very* cool story, Michael, and well-executed. Your artistry, the way in which you translated your ideas into story form, was nearly flawless, and your ideas were darned good, too. There were a few logical quibbles, though (How could the jungle plants survive under the harsh glare of the blue-white star, when it was too great for a tiger-woman to bear? Why didn't either Josephine or her master make use of the weapons in the torture chamber during their battle? Why did she smile in the midst of utter rage, as she was drawing blood from his chin?), and a few places could have been fleshed out a bit more.
Josephine's internal emotional battles are well-portrayed, and overall the description of the scenery and action is very good, but Josephine's interrogation of her master is less than coherent -- it's hard to figure out what she really wants to know. (Lines like "Where's your conditioning now?" and "You depended too much on your scent, didn't you?" sound like challenges or taunts, but Josephine immediately follows them up with demands that he "answer her", even though the questions themselves seem more rhetorical than anything else.) The fact that her victory turned to ashes in her hands, though -- that her revenge was ultimately empty and bitter -- was very good, and a very perceptive portrayal of what usually happens when we strive to avenge ourselves.
Good stuff, Michael, and a neat setting you've placed it in -- the idea of FTL-capable corporations preying on distant colonists far beyond the reach of any controlling legal authority is an intriguing one, and probably has potential for more good stories. Josephine's last lines, about the corporations being damned to "an everlasting cleansing fire", also hints at some intriguing possibilities for the current state of the Earth -- given the religious overtones of her thoughts, it seems likely that Earth is now being governed by some sort of militant theocracy, which could be an interesting entity to set against the secular robber-baron attitudes of the corporations. The soldiers of a fundamentalist regime can make for intriguing characters, both as heroes and as villains; this could be a setting where nobody is completely in the right -- common in RL, but rarer in speculative fiction of this sort. I sense much potential for cool follow-ups here. :)
FIRST PLACE: "Lovers in Flux", by Bill Kieffer -- Total Score 49.5
What *didn't* I love about this story? :)
I will start out by saying, Bill, that you have an amazing talent for evoking empathy, something I have seen matched by relatively few writers -- either on the list or in professional, published novels. You really make us identify strongly with the characters, get inside their skin and their hearts and *feel* what they're feeling. We share in Maria's suffering as she looks on the shell of the man she fell in love with; we feel gut-wrenching horror and pity at the fate of Mike's children; we feel the heavy burden of despair that threatens to smother this whole team, as their efforts at saving the human race seem doomed to failure. Most powerfully, we fully understand and identify with Maria's struggle over whether or not to kill Mike -- we can understand her longing to do so, but we also understand why she does not -- and we are grateful that she chose to spare him, to choose hope over despair and life over death, however slim the hope may be.
The use of Latin American characters is an interesting choice, and one that you follow through on completely. These are not generic Americans with ethnic names; they're people from a different culture, with a unique sort of mindset. This is most powerfully represented not just in Mike's Hispanic machismo, but in the fact that Maria *admires* that attitude and mourns for the fact that he has lost it. We Americans tend to look on machismo as being something negative and degrading towards women, but we forget that Latin American women see it very differently -- this most stereotypical form of "guy-ness" is not something that they ridicule, as we do, but rather something that they celebrate as a true expression of manhood. The moment where Maria contrasts Mike's machismo with the typical North American "arrogance" did more for me to define Maria's character than perhaps any other single moment in the story. *Very* nicely done.
Technically speaking, the story was almost flawless, though there were some typos. The only flaw I found in the logic of the story is a small one, but one that bugs me nonetheless: If Maria is still reproductively viable, as everything stated in the latter half of the story indicates, why would the nipples shrivel up and become numb and useless relics of her former humanity? It just doesn't make sense to me, and it seems like it doesn't really add anything to the story.
Anyway, apart from that quibble, you have a really great story here: very cool, creative ideas -- both in the larger setting, and in the predicaments of our two focal-point characters; strong characterization; powerful emotions; and wonderful execution. Beautifully done!
THE RUNNERS UP:
These are the remaining stories in the contest, listed in alphabetical order by author. They will be posted here at Raven's Lair for a limited time.
Untitled Story, by Aaron Cayhill:
A fun twist at the end, Aaron -- definitely not the sort of magic we were expecting! Still, it raises some logical questions: why did the powder not make Katherine into a full tiger? One possible reason I can think of is that this "small" tiger was a former royal pet that had escaped or been released, and had thus developed an attachment to the human form that combined with its natural attraction to the females of its own kind. You could hint at this by giving the cat a jeweled collar. Another logical question that crops up concerns Katherine's behavior: if the magic was supposed to make her the beast's "perfect lover", why was she annoyed with its affections? One would expect the spell to make her feel a strange sort of pleasure when the tiger touched or licked her -- something she wouldn't quite be able to understand at first, but which would slowly become clearer to her as the magic continued to take hold of her mind...
A nice story, but it could definitely be improved by fleshing it out a little more. Lines like "She really needs the money ... so she's crying in frustration" could be better portrayed by using a combination of internal dialogue (writing out the actual thoughts that the character's thinking, like *Oh, gods, what am I going to do now? This was my best shot at getting the money I needed for the winter...*) and description of her actions ("She sank slowly to her knees and buried her face in her hands, trying to hold back the tears of frustration that welled up in her eyes..."). The first encounter with the tiger would be helped greatly by drawing it out more: Let us get a feel for the predatory menace of the tiger, the fear that Katherine feels when she first sees it, the tension in the long moment while she wonders whether or not it's going to strike, the sudden terror when it finally does ... and the utter confusion when its attack turns suddenly to affection. Show us the cat's body language; describe its appearance to us; let us get more of a sense of the majesty and power and terror this creature carries with it. All this will help get the reader into the story.
Don't be discouraged by the above comments. Knowing when to add details and when to gloss over things is an art that can only be developed with time and practice. You've got a good base here for an interesting story, but it has the potential to be a lot better. Flesh it out, expand the action and internal dialogue where appropriate, and fix up the spelling, and it'll be pretty darn good. :)
"Dance of the Tiger-Woman", by Volk-Oboroten':
An interesting adventure, Volk -- and it's nice to get a real victory for the good guys in one of these Giantdowns stories, where the heroes and villains are so often hard to tell apart. I found it to be quite well-written on the technical side, though there were a few sections where the action that was taking place was a little nebulous and hard to follow. Your artistry has also much-improved over previous stories, but it's not quite at the level yet where it can really evoke strong emotions or sympathy from the reader. I liked the characters, though -- Bertolf is amusing in his role as the somewhat-clueless co-conspirator caught up in Ulthenia's mission, and Ulthenia herself comes across as a sensual woman driven by her emotions, who is willing to do just about anything to get back what belongs to her people -- an appropriate personality, perhaps, for a were-tigress. The ceremony of the Malachites was suitably creepy, although for some reason it didn't quite achieve a level of menace that really sucked me in and made me feel Bertolf's fear.
My best advice is to keep writing, keep practicing telling different kinds of stories in different kinds of settings. As I said, this story is much improved over your previous ones, and it held my interest from beginning to end; keep working, and I have no doubt you'll get even better and reach that point where you can really stir the reader's emotions. Also, beware of "talking head" scenes -- long sections of dialogue with little or no description in them. Characters don't just trade lines in a vacuum; they move around, they show facial expressions, they use body language, and they do other things while they're talking. When you have an extended bit of dialogue to write, picture how the actors would behave if this were a scene from a movie, and describe what they're doing in between the lines of speech. It will help break up the monotony of the quotes and immerse the reader more fully in the action.
Finally, while this story was effective and fully appropriate within the bounds of the MK universe, it would be quite difficult for someone with no MK experience to figure out. As such, it suffers a bit as a standalone story, which has affected its ranking somewhat in the contest.
"Taste of India" by Xepher:
When you submitted this story, Xepher, you mentioned that it was a lot shorter than you would have liked. Your gut instinct was correct: it's a fun story, and one that leaves us feeling good at the end, but it's too short for the tale you want to tell, and as a result it all ends up feeling rather rushed.
The best advice I can give you is the old writer's mantra, "Show, don't tell." In many places throughout the story, you step back from Johnathan's perspective and give us "god's-eye" information that we would really be better off not knowing, or discovering more gradually through the words and actions of the characters. When you write, "Sometimes, things are exactly as they appear, and Johnathan is being called by a woman resembling a tiger", it all feels too much like the ancient Greek chorus. Don't tell us! We don't need to know -- so keep us wondering! This is the sort of thing you want the audience to discover along with the protagonist; otherwise, you're basically giving away the ending when the story has barely begun.
Similarly, when he finds himself in what he "eventually learns is a spaceport" -- don't tell us that! Describe it to us -- show us the hangars for the flying saucers, the customs stations, the control towers, and whatever else this spaceport holds. And don't call them by those names, either, at least not right away: instead, tell us what Johnathan sees and hears, and then let him figure it out while we watch. (E.g., the control tower -- assuming that he's already seen a hangar: "They passed through a chamber filled with control panels and large, round screens. Long, slit-like windows looked out onto several huge cylindrical chambers like the one he saw earlier, with more of the silvery-white ships parked inside. Johnathan guessed that this was some sort of control room, like the towers they used at airports to direct planes during takeoff and landing.")
The dialogue came across as fresh and "real", for the most part -- I liked the snide back-and-forth zingers between Johnathan and Milo, and they pretty much talk like a couple of twentysomething guys -- but you'll want to be careful to avoid "talking head syndrome". As I told Volk, picture how the actors would behave if this were a scene from a movie, and describe their actions, facial expressions, body language, etc. Also, don't be afraid of the word "said" and its synonyms -- you have some *long* stretches of dialogue where there's no indication of who's speaking except that they're taking turns, and it becomes difficult to remember who's who after a few lines of that. Generally, "said"-less quotes should be reserved for very quick exchanges of short dialogue ("Wait, what'd you say?" "I said the Earth is round. No edge.") or small bits of witty banter where you don't want to break the momentum between the straight lines and the zingers ("I'm buying tickets." "I rescind my previous comment on your sanity."). The rest of the time, use "said" and its synonyms, and use the space in between lines to tell us about their emotions, expressions, internal dialogue, body language, and/or actions.
I wish I could have given you more time to work on this story, Xeph, because it has a lot of potential. If you were to start over and unfold the story a bit more slowly and dramatically, give us more time to see the aliens' world and piece together their story without having it dumped on us en masse at the end, and generally observe the rule of "show, don't tell", this could be a really good story. You have some neat ideas; now the tricky part is figuring out how to execute them, and that comes only with time and practice.
Well, that's it, folks. Thanks to everybody who sent feedback to our intrepid writers -- it's always appreciated, I know. Finally, thanks again to everybody who participated -- I hope you all had as much fun as I did. And stay tuned for another "Thousand Words" contest, coming your way soon!
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