Sunday, January 18, 2009

And the winner is...

Zoinks. We've had some difficult-to-judge Friday Challenge's in the past, but the 1/9/09 Friday Challenge was exceptional. Reading, discussing, and picking a winner from amongst the many excellent entries received this week took us all of a bottle of Carmenère and the better part of a bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and we still weren't ready to hit the Publish Post button before midnight. Without further delay or ado, then:

WaterBoy: Your little story about Winnie-the-Pooh, Eco-Terrorist, was just absolutely brilliant. As someone who spends a lot of time getting in touch with his inner Eeyore, I still cackle when I re-read this one. The pacing is perfect; all the clues to the characters' true identities are there and yet you still manage to spring the punchline at the end as a complete surprise. Very nicely done.

Ben-El: I'm not sure what to say about this one. I absolutely loved it and laughed out loud while reading it, but Karen didn't get it until I explained a few bits. Then again, how do you explain this one other than to say it's H.P. Lovecraft meets Monty Python? In the end — particularly when put up against this week's tough competition — the joke ending undercuts what was otherwise a very strong story up to that point, though, so just as Brave Sir Robin almost fought the Giant Chicken of Bristol, you almost made the final cut.

Al: I like the framing device, the structure, the story. I balked at "nozzle" only because I happen to know that it's called a mouthpiece. This is the story that really got me wondering whether I'd underestimated the potential in this source material, and whether you were just scratching the surface of a much larger story. I would be interested to see what you and Lady Quill working as a team could come up with to expand upon this story line.

Snowdog: This one really packs an extraordinary emotional impact into 500 words. You do an excellent job of making a human of the alien; of putting the reader in touch with the feelings of a dying honeybee; of making the death of a honeybee seem tragic. This is another one we kept coming back to as we whittled the field down.

Bandit: Hmm, how to say this politely...

Please don't be offended, but this story has me wondering who you really are, because I felt like I was reading the work of a seasoned pro masquerading as an amateur: say, Darrell Schweitzer, or maybe Esther Friesner. Did you really write this in a week? If so, I'd love to get a guest column on your writing habits and method, because frankly, I don't think I could write something this good that fast. The story just plain works; the character of Emrys is neatly drawn and fleshed-out and wonderfully irritating. I've worked with this guy.

To be honest, if I were you, I wouldn't waste this story on a small-potatoes writing contest. I'd change the title — I don't know to what, but the current title doesn't grab me — and probably rearrange the first five paragraphs. Opening with a quote is confusing; it's not readily apparent that "Emrys" is a proper name and "episkopose" seems like a made-up word, unless you meant "episkopos," in which case you misspelled it and it's still obscure enough to be confusing. I'd keep the information in the first eight sentences, but rearrange the order: most likely starting with the cell phone ringing, Matt grabbing it and seeing from the caller ID that it's Emrys and therefore deciding to take the call (and also thereby establishing that Emrys is a person), and then the three lines of dialog. But from "Twenty minutes later" to the end I wouldn't change a thing, except to make sure that it is formatted to standard specs, and then I would try to sell it, starting with Stan Schmidt at Analog.

Why isn't this one the winner this week? That's difficult to nail down precisely. It's a great story, well-written, with a strong flow from paragraph 6 to the end. It's clever and entertaining, but it just doesn't engage us emotionally. The narrator, Matt, is strangely vacant. At the very least, when he and Emrys form A-1 Radiation Diagnostics and go around bilking people for the fake radiation test, it should occur to him that what they're doing is fraud and could easily get them arrested and jailed.

In any case, while this is a very strong story, in the end, there can be only one, which leaves us with the entries from Torainfor and Vidad.

We split over these two and debated their respective merits and flaws until nearly midnight. Torainfor's story shows an encyclopedic knowledge of all things faerie and is a charming tale all the way through to the end — where I felt it weakened, and Karen thought it was brilliant. To me the ending seemed rushed and the magical creatures' motivations for their final action inadequately explained. If this is all because they're nurturing an embryonic dragon that will in time hatch and shatter the Earth like an egg, you'd think they'd have some misgivings about what they're doing. I felt the ending needed more work; Karen thought it was perfect as-is.

Vidad's story, on the other hand — well, I don't normally go for veiled rewrites of Revelations, but in "The Whore of Beebylon" — er, "The Number of The Beest" — please stop me before I hurt myself — we learn the answer to the question, "What if C.S. Lewis had decided to work with bugs instead of lions?" This story is an entire epic in 15 pages; Vidad creates a complex culture complete with history, myth, prophecy, and heresy, and a compelling villain in Occkzzzilla (okay, maybe the names are a bit awkward), and an ecological catastrophe leading up to a final, spectacular climax and resolution — and does it all in 15 pages. Wow.

I don't think Pixar will go for this one because of the religious subtext and I'm sure Glenn Close will insist that Occkzzzilla be rewritten so that she isn't so clearly an argument for Proposition 8, but I want a piece of the animated film deal. Just a small piece will do.

Ergo, by the barest of margins — the width of a bee's whisker, the weight of a few grains of pixie dust — "Then The End Cometh" beats "Ley Lines" and is this week's winner. Vidad, come on down and claim your prize!

The only other thing I have to say is: Whew! Picking a winner this time was work!

I need a vacation...