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End-Of-The-Year Winter Writing Challenge

Feedback continues though the Challenge is now closed to new submissions.

2013 Spec Faith Winter Writing ChallengeWe started off 2013 with a Winter Writing Challenge, so it seems fitting if we close out the year in the same way.

Here’s the way this particular challenge works:

I’ll give a first line, and those who wish to accept the challenge will write what comes next–in 100 to 200 words–putting the entries in the comments section of this post. We’re not looking for a completed story, but rather for an intriguing opening of a novel or short story, though it is possible to write a piece of flash fiction within the word count, and any such entries will be accepted.

Visitors who read the entries will give thumbs up to the ones they like the most (no limit on the number of thumbs-up a person can give), and, if they wish, give a reply to the various entries, telling what particularly grabbed their attention. (Participants are expected to comment on at least three other entries).

After the designated time, I’ll re-post the top three (based on the number of thumbs up they receive) and visitors will have a chance to vote on which they believe is the best.

Once again I’m offering a $25 gift card (from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble) for the entry that receives the most votes (as opposed to the most thumbs-up). In the event of a tie, a drawing will be held between the top vote-getters to determine the winner.

Finally, those silly little details we all need to know:

* Your word count does not include the first line.

* You will have between now and midnight (Pacific time) next Monday to post your challenge entries in the comments section.

* You may reply to entries, giving thumbs up, this week and next. To have your thumb-up counted to determine the top three entries, it must be included before Monday, December 16.

* Voting for the winner from the top three begins in two weeks.

Feel free to invite any of your friends to participate, either as writers or readers. The more entries and the more feedback, the better the challenge.

[Edited: I’ve changed the font of contest entries to blue so readers/critiquers/thumb-givers can more easily find them.]

And now, the first line:

    All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices.

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Leah Burchfiel
Member

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. Almost no point in leveling up, especially with the reassignment, but the pay raise was nice. Higher quality vintages for the large wine slushie she planned on making for herself once this was over.
“So what’s this about?” she said unceremoniously as she was escorted into the command tent, with rows upon rows of monitors and sensors and communications.
The commandant looked her down and up from the ferrule of her cane to the “TOO OLD FOR THIS SCHEISS” on her T-shirt.
“I’m in research,” Gem said, sounding defensive even to herself. “Take it up with the Council that they use this rock as a retirement pasture.”
“You’re qualified for portals?” the commandant asked.
“Thoroughly. Is it smuggling?”
The commandant pushed her glasses up her nose. “Are you qualified for portals beyond the Pale?”
Gem’s grip on her cane tightened. “How much damage was done? Did they use standing rings or focus diagrams?”
“Unknown. Readings indicate that the source is also beyond the Pale.”
Gem took a breath. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were lying.”

Literaturelady
Guest

I like your writing style here: concise with good pacing. You’ve conveyed Gem’s age and character vividly through the action (something I struggle with, so I’m impressed by anyone who succeeds!). I did get a little confused near the end–it’s not clear what the standing rings and focus diagrams mean, or what the source has anything to do with the matter–but if this were a novel, I’d want to read further and find out!

~Literaturelady

Bethany J.
Guest

I like this too! I agree with Literaturelady’s assessment – this was instantly interesting, and you did a great job conveying Gem’s personality and age (and I love that she’s older…it makes her an unusual protagonist!). But some of the worldbuilding language was a tad confusing for the reader to have thrown at them right off the bat. I’m really intrigued, though! I’d read on!

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I like the idea of leveling up. I’m always a fan of works that try to bring MMO tropes into the real world, and gamer culture is a rich deposit of stories to mine. I also like the eccentric main character.

I agree on the worldbuilding. There are a couple of issues that are minor with it.

First would be that you could eliminate the “is it smuggling” and lose nothing. Since the commandant doesn’t answer the first part or react to it, nothing is gained by including it now as opposed to later.

The second is that while “did they use?” adds too much too quickly. If you take out that part and just ask “How much damage was done?” you get the same intent. If you wanted to establish it later, then you can expand it more organically with something like:

“Unknown. Readings indicate the source of the damage is also beyond the Pale.”

“Any signs of standing rings? Focus diagrams?”

…and then go from there. If Gem’s established to be flighty or jumping from thought to thought you can show it through the commandant’s reaction and keep both of these issues as is.

Great opening though, and I’d love to see more of it.

Thomas C Booher
Guest

I like the intrigue mixed with sassiness. Always a good combo. Don’t know if Gem’s temperament is easily inclined to it, but have to be careful not to be too sassy or constantly so. It would become tiring.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Great job, notleia. I concur with almost everything the others have said. I take exception to the comment that “Did they use standing rings or focus diagrams?” is a problem. You are solidly in the character’s POV, and if that’s the question she’d ask, it’s perfect. In _How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy_, Orson Scott Card calls this the principle of abeyance. I may not know what a standing ring is (though it conjures images of both standing stones and Stargate, so I like it!) but I’m willing to wait for the story to reveal that information. Honoring POV is more important than either explaining stuff or avoiding the proper name for a thing because its unfamiliar to the reader.

My only niggle — and this is really a puny, copyeditory thing — is that the list “monitors and sensors and communications” contains two concretes and an abstract. I want to change it to “communicators” or “communication equipment.” Or radio or telegraph or — you know, something concrete.

That’s one bitty nit to pick. It’s a great piece. Well done! 🙂

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Confession: I was totally thinking of a Stargate. Or those short-range transport rings. 😀

D. M. Dutcher
Member

It is the FARgate. From the makers of Findependence day. We are not getting sued.

http://youtu.be/uOd7HQoKxcU?t=50s

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Ugh, and today I find out videos are embedded in spec faith comments. Instead of starting at fifty seconds in on a link like I intend them too. Yeesh. Warning for language in the beginning there.

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

Creative! Rich vocabulary and snappy dialogue! We think of sages as aged then we clean them up as per our culture’s eternal youth fetish. Your realism is refreshing!

Literaturelady
Guest

I love these challenges, Becky! Thank you for creating another one!

Okay, here we go:

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. And for the unveiling of a statue, especially one of Lady Crystolite, a sage must be present. This custom merely flaunted the sages in the Lady’s service, for one who could afford these elite guardians for ceremonies was wealthy indeed.

Gem shook back her cavernous sleeves and beckoned a messenger. He sprang to her side. “Learn what delays Lady Crystolite. Do it quickly.”

The messenger ignored this last command. Gem surveyed the field of glowering faces, tapped her foot, and watched from the corner of her eye the path to the marble-pillared mansion.

“We won’t wait!” a man burst out. “This has lasted long enough!” The dam broke. Shouts swept the crowd like a windstorm. Gem flung out an arm. No one heeded. Probably, she thought as she seized her quartz staff, because the sleeve swallowing her fingers ruined the signal. She smashed the staff onto the platform, and the hollow boom overpowered the noise and settled it.

“Waiting for her is the least you can do,” Gem snapped. “You owe your lawmaker honor.”

“If you believe that,” a woman called, “thank her Ladyship publicly for her precious leadership!”

Gem flinched. That was a sacrifice indeed.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Cool idea. It’s traditional fantasy, but you set up some nice little hints about the world in a short space. Could easily lead into action too.

The messenger ignoring the command to act quickly needs a little justification. Does he not like Lady Crystolite either? Is he in her employ or not?

The dam broke needs some qualification too. I know you meant something like “dam of emotions,” but one of the things I learned was that sometimes people will take analogies as literal in SF and fantasy at first. They may look for a real dam breaking somewhere.

One last thing would be the second reference to sleeves is a judgment call. When you establish something once, there needs to be a reason to repeat it. Compare:

Gem flung out an arm. No one heeded. She seized her quartz staff and smashed it onto the platform. The hollow boom overpowered the crowd’s noise and settled it.

You’ve already mentioned her sleeves were long, and removing it doesn’t really take out much. If instead her aside shows information like how she hates the sleeves, or how Crystolite’s addiction to having her sages opulently clothed may get people killed, it adds something.

Some quality work though. I also like how you kept the gem theme, and for traditional fantasy it gets right to the point with direct language and action.

Literaturelady
Guest

Thank you for your critique! Looking over my submission, I agree with your points.

~ Literaturelady

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Very good writing, LiteratureLady. There’s a tad too much telling in the first paragraph. The writing is a bit overwrought, but maybe that’s your style. The conflict is incorporated well, and I love the circularity of the “sacrifice indeed” echoing the opening. Good job!

Literaturelady
Guest

Thank you very much!

~Literaturelady

Shannon McDermott
Guest

I like how you develop the idea of the sages – they’re “elite guardians”, apparently sometimes for hire, very involved in public ceremonies – even those (such as unveiling the statue of a lawmaker) that are not religious in nature. You also make Crystolite a strong character without ever having her appear.

I’d recommend you cut the sentence about the messenger ignoring “this last command”. It is a fun moment, and it ramps up Gem’s frustration effectively. We’ve all been there ourselves – in a hurry but other people won’t be, even when we tell them to.

Despite these merits, it doesn’t work in the broader context. In the previous paragraph the messenger “sprang to her side”, so his slowness at carrying the message is rather a shift. But more importantly, it undercuts Gem’s position as a sage that her order is flouted by a low-level messenger.

Still, that’s only one sentence. The whole is well-written and interesting. If it were the first page in a book, I’d flip to the next one.

Literaturelady
Guest

Thank you for your critique! And thank you for pointing out that inconsistency in the messenger’s action–I missed it completely. That’s what I get for writing at 10: 30 p. m. 🙂

~Literaturelady

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

You put our sage in difficulty, counter to our usual perception that they are omniscient and omnipotent. And she can be bought! I liked the cavernous sleeves and glowering faces. Good descriptions!

Literaturelady
Guest

Thank you very much!

~Litereaturelady

Paul Charvet
Guest

I love how you quickly establish a setting and the role of sages in a single concise paragraph, then jump into the action without unnecessary exposition.
Two minor critiques/comments:
Firstly, I found “the messenger ignored this last command” pulled me out of the story, trying to figure out whether he disobeyed the entire command, or obeyed but in a leisurely fashion.
Secondly, I was slightly confused at the line “the sleeve swallowing her fingers ruined the signal”; I wasn’t sure if you just meant that the crowd didn’t see/understand her gesture, or if there was some sort of magical ‘signal’ she was trying to send out (I assume it was the former, not the latter, but given a fantasy setting it’s a little tricky to tell).
All in all, though, I loved the great job you did with the setting and characterization of this story. (And the final line made me chuckle.)

Bethany J.
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices.

Blasted superstitions! She thumped her lexicon onto the table and skimmed the pages, pushing a frizz of hair behind her horns. Surely the book had a description of a storm-appeasing ritual she could muddle through – anything to prevent discovery now, right before her long-awaited opportunity.

“A quiet night at home? With a storm coming?” Farro chuckled from his armchair at the other side of the cave, his furred hooves crossed before the fire.

Gem glared. “You’re no help. If they realize I’m a fake, do you think they’ll let you go unscathed? Clearly we’re working together.”

Her fuzzy ears pricked to a distant sound – the clash of cymbals and wails of temple-satyrs audible over the howling wind. “Farro, they’re coming up the trail.”

He peeped through the curtains and looked impressed. “Fancy that.”

“I can’t do this,” Gem breathed. “What’ll happen now?”

“They’ll string you up. Food for the phoenixes.”

Despite his hyperbole, Gem’s heart jumped. She shook the lexicon at his suave figure. “They might! Even if we both escape with our heads…” Her mind rang with panic. “This will destroy any chance of infiltrating the academy and finding Mia. Please! Are you going to help me or not?”

These are so much fun! Thank you for another opportunity to write from one of these fun prompts. 🙂

D. M. Dutcher
Member

This one’s strong. It establishes a lot quickly, and gets personality across well. I really don’t have much to say on it except a short reason or hint why Farro is unconcerned about the potential of being strung up besides Gem could help.

Other than that well done. You manage to introduce a lot of concepts in a small amount of words and a natural voice. You should write the rest of this.

Bethany J.
Guest

Thank you! I do hope to write more of it sometime. This was fun. 🙂

Leah Burchfiel
Member

I like this new take on “The Man Who Would Be King” kind of thing. And I like that there’s another goal to motivate the sham, it makes the story deliciously complex.

Bethany J.
Guest

Thank you! 🙂 There’s definitely more story behind this, and just like the last writing challenge, I’m intrigued and might want to explore the story further someday.

Thomas C Booher
Guest

What follows the first line is an attention-getter, but I’m not sure how it fits with the opening line itself. It’s the ‘upper-level sage’ element that is unexplained, I think. But, maybe I’m just obtuse. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Bethany J.
Guest

Well, I was taking sage in the “wizard” or “guru” kind of sense. Gem is disguising herself as a kind of sorceress mystic, which in this world has tiers and “levels”. I’m sorry that wasn’t more clear! (But “sacrifices” I actually took literally…I see that most other writers took it in a different sense, but I went with actual flesh and blood sacrifices.)

Leanna
Guest

Yeah, I definitely didn’t read it as actual flesh and blood sacrifices (even when I read through yours the first time), I think maybe because of the “quiet night” lead in.
The first time through it was “food for the phoenixes” that was an instant like for me. But I like the whole thing more and more on subsequent read throughs. I would read this story. 🙂

Bethany J.
Guest

Thank you, Leanna! I’m glad you like it. Hopefully I can write more of it. An entire backstory and strong premise unfolded in my mind as I was writing it, so there’s definitely potential. 🙂

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

The writing is very strong, but I agree the character motivations and the literal sacrifice didn’t come through. Still a great effort!

Bethany J.
Guest

Thanks. I’m curious what you mean when you say the character motivations didn’t come through. You mean you’d like to know why she’s in disguise as an “upper-level sage”?

Kessie Carroll
Member

Okay, I really like this one. Some of the others I have trouble following, and this one is clear and punchy. I’d keep reading!

Bethany J.
Guest

Thanks!

heididrukortman
Guest

The two of them obviously have an uneasy working relationship. I wonder what his nefarious purpose is.

Zachary Totah
Editor

I like this one. Even though the conflict isn’t immediate, the potential is looming. Not making them human gave it a different twist.

It’s unclear what exactly they’re doing, and why they could get in trouble, so I wish that had been more developed. I guess that’s the price to pay for squeezing everything under the word limit.

The fact that Farro seems unconcerned while Gem is worrying makes me wonder if he’s really on her side.

There’s enough intrigue and questions that need answering to make me read on.

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

Intrigue and Opposition within and without! And a cave with hearth, comfy chair and curtains! Very creative to have an imitation sage….disclosure threatens constantly. Lots of suspense from many directions.

Leanna
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured to her six month old son, “mama has to leave again.” Bouncing him gently, she carried him to the main room where Leif was building a fire.

He took one look at the flashing tattoo on her arm and resigned disappointment appeared in his eyes. He wiped soot from his hands onto to his tunic. “Hand him here,” he said.

Gem bent over to do so and took advantage of the closeness to kiss her husband. “I’ll be home by dawn.”

“That’s what you said last time.” He hadn’t turned away but he hadn’t kissed her back either. “You should send a message to your sister in case whatever crisis the Council is in takes longer. The bridge has to be finished before snow sets in, I can’t stay home tomorrow.”

“Very well.” She pulled free the black quartz marking her rank from within her robe. It swirled with red fire like her tattoo of summoning. She tossed the stone into the fire pit and the fire sparked blue-black. “Farewell.”

Icy cold enveloped her and then she stepped out of the Sacred Flames in the Council Hall into a puddle of blood.

Thomas C Booherq
Guest

I see that you interpret sage her literally rather than figuratively, which is probably the way most are going to take it. And if so, I can easily see the connection with Gem. But “a quiet night at home” and “upper-level” sound like the jargon that might pass between members of a modern business, in which case sage would be figurative. That aside, you are setting the stage for the woman who does it all (motherhood, authoritative figure), albeit not in corporate America but fantasy land. It works well, I think. It seems to be the thing nowadays.

Leanna
Guest

I don’t generally consider myself a feminist but your comment bothers me. If the main character had been a man would you have said that the excerpt was about a man who does it all?

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

I consider myself egalitarian, and I agree, Leanna.

That crack about authoritative maternal figures being “the thing nowadays” belittles all the great authoritative maternal figures of the past, like, I dunno…Deborah? Boadicea? My grandmother? Just to name a few…

Thomas, the whole point of a writing prompt like this is that we will all read totally different things into each word. That’s what makes it fun. Every writer takes the starting point and goes in a totally different direction. It’s not fair to criticize a piece just because it’s not done the way you would do it. Each piece has to be judged on its own merits, in view of the storyworld the writer creates.

Thomas Clayton Booher
Member

Leanna, I am sorry the comment bothers you. It was not intended to bother anyone, and it was not a criticism.

Kristen, what crack? I was relating what is true. The role has switched from what it was twenty, thirty years ago. You see it in TV serials, movies, books. Therefore, I would expect it to work well. It fits in with the going thing. Tomorrow it may be cowboys, or waitresses, or computer programmers, or circus clowns.

Why would either of you see this as a criticism?

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Because the way it was phrased … “motherhood, authoritative figure … seems to be the thing nowadays” makes it sound like a passing fad — a bandwagon the author is jumping on — instead of an ancient truth that resonates deeply.

Thomas Clayton Booher
Member

Kristen, I see what your point is. I doubt it will be a passing fad. But an ancient truth? Not sure what you mean by that. The motherhood/authoritative figure complex is the exception rather than the rule in the Bible and world history as well. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the idea of a woman who is both a mother and an authority in a professional field (with the exception of a pastor/elder – hopefully you would agree on that one; there may be other exceptions, but they would all have to fall under Paul’s qualifications for elders and any legitimate application of that). I had a battalion commander who was female. No problem with me. I have had women professors/instructors. No problem there either. Department chairs, governors, senators, CEO’s, CFO’s, managers, etc, etc who are also mothers are okay with me, as long as family has the priority. (Same for men.) How that looks in real life will certainly be different from case to case. Again, they have been the extreme exception in both redemptive and secular history. In novels, TV Serials, and movies they are the thing nowadays though unfortunately, for whatever reason (secular feminism perhaps), the idea is often promoted in such a way as to degrade the male/father role, making him look stupid, bumbling, negligent. A story that biblically builds around such a woman would be agreeable to many, especially Christians. I think a super story could be written though it would probably take a woman to write it – she has the inside scoop.

Leanna
Guest

My question was an honest one not a rhetorical one if you don’t mind giving me an answer. Thanks. 🙂

Literaturelady
Guest

What I like most about your entry is the personal stakes for Gem. “Sacrifices” obviously refers to losing a quiet night, but also, possibly, an estrangement from her husband.

And I love the way you’ve shown her love for her child. It makes her very sympathetic, especially considering that all the sages and variations I’ve read in fantasy tend to be single or evil. Great work!

~Literaturelady

Bethany J.
Guest

I like this! It’s such a sweet family scene – I instantly liked Gem and Lief and at the same time I can see there’s some conflict between them, so I’m engaged and anxious for them. The flashing tattoo detail is really neat. And then at the end – BANG! – a puddle of blood. I want to read more. 😀

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I think this one out of all of them needs more than the 100-200 word limit. A good-sized chapter about Gem’s cozy domestic life would work well, especially since you manage to put some nice details about it in the tiny amount of room that you have. It doesn’t have to be to the level of Tolkien talking about the shire, but mundane fantasy is wonderful when it’s slow, rich in detail, and builds up to the “world in peril” incident.

It works very well, make it longer!

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

I agree!

Leanna
Guest

Thank you all so much!

I realized after I started that the scene I’d chosen wasn’t going to work well for such a short excerpt but decided to keep with it anyway. 🙂 There were a lot of other details I would have liked to fit in (particularly a name for the baby!) but had to sacrifice for brevity. I might try expanding it into a short story (like 10k or so). I have way too many novel bits floating around between brain, notebook and word processor and short stories are an art form I’d love to gain some skill at.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

This is fabulous. Really. Character, sensory detail (the soot from his hands!) the affection contrasted with conflict…excellent work.

There are some tiny little copyediting errors: e.g., six-month-old should be hyphenated as a compound modifying son. But I hate to nitpick when this is such a well-crafted scene. And the puddle of blood … way to raise the stakes! Brilliant!

Shannon McDermott
Guest

You have layers of tension here: the tension between Gem and Lief, between Gem’s desire to stay with her baby and her need to go, and the tension of whatever crisis is summoning her back.

The flashing tattoo and the magic portal are nice bits of world-building. My only suggestion would be to clarify the last sentence a little. At first reading it can be interpreted different ways – she stepped out of the Sacred Flames into the Council Hall, or out of the Sacred Flames that are in the Council Hall …

But that’s a minor point. Strong opening, Leanna.

Suz
Guest

I already see the hints of discontent and immediately want to know how the conflict started and how it will be resolved, or will the chasm grow to the point of no return? Is the tattoo a remnant of a job he doesn’t approve of, or a past she has been reluctantly pulled back into, perhaps?

I see a dichotomy of the motherhood obligation and struggling with another duty, an easy one for me to relate to in my life.

The puddle of blood pulled me up short and now I want to know what’s going on outside!

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

Sages are human! Forget all that magic stuff, they have babies and longings and unspoken regrets and unclarified conflict with soul mates. Warm flesh and blood walks beside the paranormal with regrets. What better way to define ‘sacrifice’?

Mirtika Schultz
Member

I upthumbed this because it has various things going on–internal and external– and establishes that there is already conflict, with more to come. Yay. It has some awkwardly worded phrases and sentences (resigned disappointment; the sentence where she pulls out the black quartz). Aside from parts that need smoothing–and that’s easily done in revisions for flow–it works for me in terms of creating the ambiance and setting up multiple conflict lines. Plus, hey, puddle of blood. Good job.

Teddi Deppner
Guest

This one tugged at my heart immediately because of the mom-thing. I’m a mom and immediately could relate.

The conflict between work and home life is common to most families today, so even as a fantasy novel in a strange world, again I could relate.

As a busy modern-day mom who works from home, I have less patience for stories that build up a huge world with long, rambling introductions. Writing like this immediately pulls me in without giving me too many unfamiliar details and then sets the hook with the puddle of blood. The light conflict with her husband’s disappointment and who will babysit suddenly becomes life-and-death danger. Good job!

Audrey Sauble
Guest

I would agree with the other commenters that this has a lot of a good deal. My question, though, was did anyone else connect the flashing tattoo with the Death Eaters?

smaelquil
Guest

Nice leave. really nice.

Thomas C Booher
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. The snow had begun to fall. The street lamp caught the flakes falling topsy-turvy, much like the way she felt right now. Mr. Sohnberg would be there, for sure, eyeing each of them through that absurd monocle. Jason, too. At least there would be something to look forward to. They would need him to access the box behind one-eye’s desk to get to the real box that was causing this stink. She had seen it only once, three months ago, when she was first called up. Horrid looking thing, she remembered, black and oily and smelly too, like an outhouse in a fish market. They said it was the world’s hope. That was three months ago.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Hmm, interesting hook! It’s kind of confusing, though. Is she walking down the street? Riding in a car? I’m not feeling any connection to the scene.

Thomas C Booher
Guest

Kessie are you really confused – or impatient :). I don’t think it’s necessary to cram everything in the first few paragraphs at once. The mystery of the mode of travel can lend to the mysteriousness of the looming crisis back at the office (or wherever it is she’s going). But I wouldn’t want to let it go unanswered too long. It could lead to a mood of frustration, which does not bode well for keeping your reader. When the writer does resolve the question (is she walking or driving) the reader will become content, and contentment is always a plus.

Bethany J.
Guest

Hmm. I agree with Kessie. Very confused here. You have some intriguing elements! But it would be helpful if we had more of a visual of the scene. We don’t know what Gem is doing – personally I didn’t get the sense she was traveling at all. There are too many vague, unknown elements here for the reader to be gripped by the story right off the bat. I’m interested to know what the world needs saving from, though!

D. M. Dutcher
Member

You’re trying to do too much in a limited space. You’re right about not needing to understand everything in the first few paragraphs, but you need to pace introductions slowly and only bring in elements one at a time.

One example is where is the “there” Mr. Sohnberg and Jason are at? Is it Gem’s home, or the location she is hurrying to? one-eye is Sohnberg? Gem is walking, driving, using a carriage? What is the sacrifice Gem is making? You’re terse to the point of creating confusion.

A tip I was told is that you can use the physical environment as a spur to introduce information. You have a great image in Gem hurrying through the snow, and you can add information gently by tying it to that scene.

“The snow was falling. By now Jason would have given up on shoveling the walk and Mr. Sohnberg would be watching the topsy-turvy flakes through the window of the office. At times Gem felt like she was one of those flakes, trapped under the cold glass of his monocle…”

If you focus on a single element and use that as a framework, it can unify a lot of information. I like the cool, winter, Dickens flavor of your idea, and it just needs a little more time and space to develop.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

I like the way you’ve tied the snowfall to the character’s emotion. But there’s nothing happening here. Just a character thinking about other people. She’s not actually acting on anything at this point. I have to agree with the others; there’s not enough here to hang on to. The concrete details you give are excellent: the street lamp, the black oily smelly thing — there are just not enough of them. The contrast of the horrid smelly thing being the world’s hope is a great twist.

heididrukortman
Guest

Outhouse in a fish market. Now That’s an olfactory description.

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

When you wrote ‘stink’ I thought, ‘problem’. Then you turned the tables and shoved that problem up my nose! You created a very novel threat and then called it ‘the world’s hope’. The ideas break rules and up end conventions,which is very desirable in Speculative Fiction.

Thomas Clayton Booher
Member

To all – admittedly exactly how does the snowing and Gem fit together is not clear at this point. Perhaps a line like, ‘Gem stepped off the curb; the office was just across the street;” or, ‘Gem dropped the curtain. It was going to be a long night.” Would that have resolved all the unknown elements? Hardly.

Is it really necessary to say anything about the snow just yet, or give a sense of where Gem is, or how she’s travelling. Do you really need to place Gem in a specific locale, yet? Doesn’t a black, oily, smelly box that is somehow the botched hope of the world provide enough intrigue to keep the reader because he wants to see what in the world that is all about. A malodorous box, a monocled guy, and an attractive office mate load the story with potential and intrigue. Isn’t that all we are tryting to do right now? It’s a hook.

How about these? Instant intrigue and mood (without any dialogue to boot).

———-

The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

———-

Special Agent Nathan Donovan lifted his tray table and peered down at the small plastic case wedged between his feet, just as he had done a hundred times before. It was a beverage cooler, really, nothing more, the kind he might have smuggled into a Mets game or taken to the Jersey shore. The simple red lid was unceremoniously duct-taped to the chalky white body, giving it an altogether unassuming appearance–as though it might contain nothing more than a frigid six-pack or a picnic lunch for two.

———-

The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut-tree into the middle of the road. A violent yellow sunset was pouring through a rift in the clouds to westward, but straight ahead over the hills the sky was the colour of dark slate. Every tree and blade of grass was dripping, and the road shone like a river. The Pedestiran wasted no time on the landscape but set out at once with the determined stirde of a good walker who has lately realized that he will have to walk farther than he intended…

———-

“On a post. In a pond”
Delaney said the words aloud, not becaue anyone could hear him but because the words needed saying. He wished his small declaration could create a bit of sympahty from a crewmate, or a native, or even one of the cutthroats who had left him here. But he was alone.

———-

Janner Igiby lay trembling in his bed with his eyes shut tight, listening to the dreadful sound of the Black Carriage rattling along in the moonlight. His younger brother Tink was snoring in the bunk above him, and he could tell from his little sister Leeli’s breathing that she was asleep too. Janner dared to open his eyes and saw the moon, as white as a skull, grinning down on him through the window. As hard as he tried not to think about it, the nursery rhyme that had terrified children in the land of Skree for years sang in his head, and he lay there in the pale moonlight, his lips barely moving.

———-

Mr. and Mrs. dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

———-

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting aloine in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind. He was waiting for a call from the President of a far distant country, and between wondering when the wretched man would telephone, and trying to suppress unpleasant memories of what had been a very long, tiring, and difficult week, there was not much space in his head for anything else. The more he attempted to focus on the print on the page before him, the more clearly the Primer Minister could see the gloating face of one of his political opponents…

———-

Mark was eleven and had been smoking off and on for two years, never trying to quit but being careful not to get hooked. He preferred Kools, his ex-father’s brand, but his mother smoked Virginia Slims at the rate of two packs a day, and he could in an average week pilfer ten or twelve from her. She was a busy woman with many problems, perhaps a little naive when it came to her boys, and she never dreamed her eldest would be smoking at the age of eleven.

Audrey Sauble
Guest

I think you’re right about having a lot of good elements–the problem may be that you have too much in the hook. A smelly box involving the hope of the world is intriguing, but even before readers get to the box, they have to sort out 3-4 characters, plus jump from the idea of sages making sacrifices to a snow storm to someone without a concrete frame beyond a few snow flakes to give her character or meaning. To take from your examples above, the Prime Minister doesn’t need much explanation–everyone knows about Prime Ministers–so readers just need to see what he’s doing, which in turn gives him a very solid setting. No one knows about the Dursleys, though, so they have to be introduced, focusing on the contrast between solid and normal vs. the magic world about to be introduced. Your story seems like it could have a lot of good depth as well, but the major players need space to spread out and become themselves.

Mirtika Schultz
Member

I upthumbed this because I liked the imagery given, and because the writing flowed. Yes, there is confusion, BUT, I wanted to read more. And that’s key. I felt like this could be a steampunky thing. I could envision it in 19th century somewhere. Monocles and boxes and desks and streetlamps and outhouses and fish markets and snow and capes and dark doings and magic. Good job.

Thomas Clayton Booher
Member

Mitirka, thanks. A lone friend among wolves (just joking everyone!!!). I note that you also used the word confusion like many others. If confusion means perplexity or bewilderment, then I think it is too strong of a reaction. I don’t think you meant it that way, given the context of your comment. If confusion means lack of order or distinctness, mmmmmm, I guess so, but not because of a lack of order. Lack of distinctness would mean I haven’t tied things down yet to anything specific, which is true – and intentional. Too much, too soon I don’t think is good. Too little too late is worse, but I don’t think that’s what I have done. After all, we’re talking about the first 100 – 200 words. The point was to put enough mystery and intrigue into it to make one want to keep reading, as you experienced. Frankly, I’m not sure where it would go. It would be like unearthing a fossil (to use Stephen King’s analogy). You begin to work at it but until it’s uncovered, your not sure what your going to get (except maybe the general notion that it’s going to be a dinosaur). The 19 Century is a really great idea, though. That idea ups the potential more than a 21st Century setting, I think. Thanks, I really appreciate your thoughts.

Thomas Clayton Booher
Member

Mirtika, sorry. The least I could do is get your name right.

Paul Charvet
Guest

While there are some really interesting elements hinted at here, I think there’s basically three things that made this disorienting to get my bearings in your story’s world:
1. I don’t know where Gem is (all I know is where she wants to be – at home), whether she’s looking out a window at the street lamp with snow, or walking down the street, or travelling in a vehicle, or standing in an alley. I don’t have a sense of her physical location relative to the things you’re describing, which prevents me from getting a strong visualization of the scene. Withholding details like that, which are important to the reader’s ability to grasp what’s going on, detracts from the story. A simple sentence to establish that would make everything else much easier to follow.
2. “Mr. Strohnberg would be there” — I don’t know where, or even what sort of place, ‘there’ is. From context, I’m guessing it’s not the street lamp or her house, but they’re the only actual locations mentioned, so I’m forced to assume it’s one of those, which doesn’t make sense. I need some sort of place I’m supposed to be visualizing in order to fully engage with the story.
3. And lastly, a very minor nitpick: “At least there would be something to look forward to” — is this referring to the previous sentence (ie she’s looking forward to seeing Jason), or to the next sentence (ie looking forward to accessing the box)?

Apart from those (which are all fairly simple fixes), the other elements of the story look fascinating. As an aside, I wasn’t bothered that you haven’t explained to us the connection between higher-level sages and what’s going on immediately; I’m sure you’d explain that in the next page or two.
I thought you did a great job on the initial introduction of Mr. Sohnberg and Jason, you set up to introduce the story’s conflict, and your closing metaphor was brilliantly vivid.

Kessie Carroll
Member

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices.

So when someone pounded on her front door at 2 AM, she rolled out of bed without even swearing. She grabbed her official black robe and pulled it over her pajamas, ran a hand through her bristly black hair, and rushed into the living room. “This had better be important.”

She peered through the door’s peephole. After all, this was Phoenix, Arizona, and there was no point in getting mugged.

A dragon stood on her apartment’s doorstep.

She heaved a sigh and closed her eyes, composing herself. At least it wasn’t a mugger. She pulled the door open.

A young man stood there, clad in a tattered t-shirt and denim shorts, despite the chilly desert wind. Heat rolled off his body, and his eyes glowed yellow. “Are you the Arch-Sage?”

Gem forced a polite smile. “Yes. How may I help you?”

The dragon-man grimaced. “My sister’s been kidnapped.”

Bethany J.
Guest

Love it, Kessie! I’m tickled by the fact that she is afraid of muggers but not of dragons. And a dragon’s sister has been kidnapped? Is she a dragon too? What does this mean? Why would someone kidnap a dragon girl (if she is one)? I’m full of questions – in a good way! I want more! 🙂

Shannon McDermott
Guest

The hard thing about this opening line was that it combined high fantasy (sages) with a modernistic phrase (upper-level). And you managed to keep that combination: dragons and muggers, an Arch-Sage in Arizona. Nicely done.

It’s also intriguing and quite well-written – altogether a good job.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

It’s cool. Well done, to the point, gets the feel of paranormal/rw down right, and hits all the right buttons. The only issue I’d have is that it’s a little generic; paranormal fantasy or real-world fantasy is such a crowded genre that increasingly people have to add stuff to set it apart. That’s why we have instead of normal werewolves, gay cowboy werewolves from Arkansas. Not that this a good thing, but you may want to put more of your own style into it if you want to run with the idea.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Fantastic work, Kessie! I love the combination of sages and dragons with muggers and T-shirts. Note that the T in T-shirt is capitalized per Merriam-Webster. You didn’t expect to escape without a nit picked, did you? 😉

The suspenseful ending is incredible, and I love your humor! 😀

Zachary Totah
Editor

That was brilliant.

She lives in Arizona and wakes up to find a dragon outside her door at 2 a.m. Awesome. What’s even better, she doesn’t seemed shocked at all. The dragon turning into a man was a great twist. The descriptions of heat and glowing eyes helped solidify the fact that he was the dragon.

One thing that caught me was the description of her hair. Unless she was actually thinking of it as bristly and black, it seems like a POV error.

I would read this story in a heartbeat.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

About the hair: There are two schools of thought regarding whether people actually think about these things. One school says that we don’t think about our own selves this much, so it’s cheating to write a sentence like that.

The other says we are self-aware and do think about our persons, and so a phrase like “ran a hand through her bristly black hair” is an efficient way to deliver a visual of the character while remaining in her POV.

I would add that since she is running her hand through it, “bristly” fits perfectly because it’s a tactile sensory detail. The former school would call adding the “black” a cheat because she’s not looking at her hair, but come on…she knows what color her own hair is. (Can you tell I subscribe to the latter school?)

Thomas Clayton Booher
Member

Kristen, I agree with you and the second school of thought. It’s not a big deal; the POV is Gem’s is it not? Like you said, she knows what color her hair is, and now, so does the reader. We can get bogged down in a lot of POV minutiae.

Suz
Guest

I love the matter of fact way the dragon is placed, as normal as the world around us now. She seems put out by him instead of in fear of him and I like her confidence. I was lost at the transformation from dragon to man the first time I read it but, the second time through, it all came together, I was just reading too fast to soak it all in. 🙂

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

Instant and solid scene setting! Sages wear pajamas and rush through living rooms to peer through magic peepholes! The juxtaposition of ordinary modern Phoenix with scaly kidnap victims creates that flesh and magic tension Speculative readers crave.
I would have her don the cape after she peeps, after she decides she won’t get mugged by the dragon.

Teddi Deppner
Guest

Kessie, your fan fic background just shines here. You know how to throw some great contrasts together into candy for my imagination. Black robe over pajamas. Phoenix, AZ and a dragon on the doorstep at 2 AM. A dragon is better than a mugger. And the dragon needs her help.

My head spins in delight at these unexpected twists and I feel like I could let the story carry me along, enjoying every step along the way.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. So she let her mother in.

“Upper-level sage!” Mama moaned as if Gem were doomed. “You’ll have to move to the capital.” She threw her cloak over the chamber’s lone chair. “We’ll never see you again.” She dabbed a handkerchief at nonexistent tears.

Gem hung the cloak on a peg near the door.

“Hundreds of miles, across the mountains…Your father’s poor health will prevent his ever making that trip.”

“True.”

“You won’t be permitted to leave, either.”

She nodded. Papa was fading fast. It pained Gem to think she wouldn’t be there at his end. But she’d worked fifteen years toward this advancement—half her life—knowing what it entailed. The arduous journey to the capital, the rest of her life in the king’s employ.

A suite in the palace instead of a tiny room at the abbey. Days on end of pure study. No more kitchen chores, no more…

“How can the king take away my child?” Mama wailed like a mourner.

Gem patted her shoulder. Gem’s superiors required that she spend her last night in the abbey with Mama. For the chance of escaping to the capital, Gem gladly made that sacrifice.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Haha, I’m imagining the mom as the mom in Tangled. I’m interested to know why she wants to escape so badly, but given the way her mom’s acting, I have a clue. 🙂

smaelquil
Guest

“So she let her mother in.” Love that.

The ending was a little weak though. I didn’t really get why this was a sacrifice.

Teddi Deppner
Guest

I like the classic fantasy beginning here, the young person setting off on their own to find their destiny. The clingy mom she wants to escape, the ill father she wishes she could stay with — while stereotypical, there are times that’s exactly what I want. A classic fairy tale. And there’s plenty of room to turn those things over into something more surprising later, in a full-length story.

It took me several readings, though, to pick up on the subtlety of your opening and last sentence — that spending her last night with her mother was a sacrifice. Nice way to bring it back around.

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

Great use of dialogue to set the scene and inform the reader. The family tension resounds throughout. If the superiors know about Mama and have set her as an initiation trial how will she factor in the rest of the story? I don’t think she’ll be left behind!

Paul Charvet
Guest

I love how this flows smoothly and concisely, and lets us get to know a lot about Gem in just a few paragraphs – the general setting, her relationship with the members of her family, her age (very elegantly done, by the way; better than a lot of published stories), her goals and dreams, where she’s headed, even where and how her past few years have been spent. Each detail made me relate to and understand the character more. … I really have no critiques. I would keep reading this story without hesitation.

Shannon McDermott
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices.

She counted steps as she ascended the staircase that looped the tower walls in slow, great spirals. Chill, empty air filled up the tower, from its roof to the floor far below. No rail guarded the staircase. The Echelon was not for those who stumbled, nor for those who feared.

At the hundredth step, she stopped and glanced behind her at Metal. The gray of his robe would have melted him into the gloom, but for the glints of gold, like captive rays of sun.

Above Gem stood Water, her resplendent blue robe flowing into a train behind her. Beyond Water, Earth gripped his wooden stave.

Across the tower, Air perched on the wending stairs. The white hem of her robe spilled over the staircase to sway in the currents of cold air.

If Gem were to crane her neck, she would catch a glimpse of Fire—on the highest stair, draped in his red and gold.

But she did not look.

Gem held still, adding her silence to that of the others. The days of privilege under the bright sun, of power in the city, where no door dared close to her—she paid for those days, in nights like this.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Hm, interesting! I like how all the mages are elements. The first couple of sentences seem a little rambling–I think you could tighten it up a bit. I don’t get where the conflict lies, but then it’s hard to pack that into 200 words.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Wonderful atmosphere. I agree with Kessie that the first couple of paragraphs are a bit rambly, and there’s not a clear sense of purpose. Love the names and the hint of remorse in the last line.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

The thing with the names is clever, though now I’m taking it too seriously and wondering what the difference between Gem, Metal, and Earth are. Now I’m wondering if Earthbenders could bend gems.
My only problem is that it’s a lot of introduction and buildup with specifics, and yet the threat is vague. Like, really, really vague. There aren’t even enemy soldiers or angry peasants or the sun being eaten by darkness. Tease us all you like, but tease us with *something.*

Bethany A. Jennings
Member

This is one of my favorites. I like how each sage is an element, I like the very subtle conflict hinted at (is Gem afraid of Fire?) and I love the last sentence that implies there is something to be dreaded about “nights like this”. I’d read on!

Leanna
Guest

The spiralling staircase is fabulous. 😀 I really like the idea of this one but the description of the mages’ robes was too repetitive to really pull me in.

Zachary Totah
Editor

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices.

The door to her cottage banged open, admitting a gust of snow and a tall man wearing a fur cloak. “You have been summoned.”

Gem swallowed. So soon? What did they want? Biting her lip, she donned her coat and followed her escort into the night. Not surprisingly, he took her to Leron’s quarters in the Hall of Reckoning. He nodded at the door and stood aside as if to prevent her from escaping once she entered. After reciting her favorite verse of poetry to calm herself, she strode in.

A roaring fire warmed the room, but she shivered. Leron heaved his balding frame from his chair and cackled. “I’m glad to see you haven’t gone against custom.”

“I live to obey.” But did she?

“Good. Obedience is your only chance.”

His words stung her ears, and she suddenly became aware of the shadows lurking in the corners. She wanted to run, but her legs wouldn’t respond.

Leron circled her, gaunt eyes gleaming. “Two kinds of people reach the rank you attained yesterday. The ones who die because they can’t keep secrets, and the ones who sell their souls to stay alive.”

He stroked her hair. “Which one are you?”

That was fun. I’ll have to do these prompts more often.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

OK, that guy creeps me out. Could have used some more visuals, but the snow and fire were excellent sensory details. Good job, Zac!

Leanna
Guest

Why not start the story at the door to Leron’s quarters? There’s nothing said in the preceding sentences (summoning, snow, fear) that couldn’t be conveyed from that point. As it is the initial paragraphs read to me like one of those movies where the director won’t stay with a single camera angle for more than a few seconds (keep in mind, this is just my perception).
Also, the villain seems like a caricature: cackling, words stinging, circling, eyes gleaming. It is just a short excerpt but I’d be more interested if there was something more to him, or even if it was a little clearer what the threat is (selling one’s soul isn’t usually meant literally but if it is literal in this case then I’m definitely curious to read more of the story). The caricature-ness works well to make him creeeeepy. But why is such an obviously creepy person in such an authoritative position?

And it is fun, isn’t it? 😀 A single sentence prompt and entire worlds spill forth into imagined reality! Mwahahahahaha…

Leanna
Guest

Colouring the entries blue is very helpful. Thank you! 🙂

heididrukortman
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. Too bad the sacrifice included the sole of her left boot. Its condition was a measure of the major’s disdain for sages since the scientist from Racor had come to town. He’d cut sage wages twice, to pour funds into an improbable sounding super weapon. She pulled the split boot over her heel and let it fall to the rushes.

The coin pouch she hid in the wall flapped like the wattle on a turker, and the two bellen pips inside slid against one another. Not enough to mend the boot. Gem triggered her torch to inspect the damage. This time, glue wouldn’t do.

She threw the boot into the corner. “Up the flank of the volcano,” she said, as she shook her head. “Any three-year-old has more sense,” any three-year-old, but not the major’s niece. Nine hours she’d scrambled across fractured obsidian searching for the undisciplined chit.

The witless girl had protested her rescue during the entire descent. “I ought to have let her slide down face first.” Gem let the other boot drop. “Fool’s errand. Kajeeri fern hasn’t grown there in a dragon’s age—it’s overrunning my garden.”

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Hilariously specific sacrifice. +1

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Wow — there’s a rich storyworld here, but it’s almost two much in a short space. I think if it were expanded it would read better. The problems of a word count constraint. I like the conflict with the major, but the niece’s motivation seems artificial. Again, that’s a problem of the constraint. The writing is very strong. Good job!

heididrukortman
Guest

I seem to habitually cram the beginnings of stories with what readers say is too much. It may be a result of spending a number of years writing haiku poetry before I dared to branch off into fiction.

Thank you for saying the writing is very strong.

heididrukortman
Guest

The most recent three pieces of fiction haven’t been color-shifted.

Krysti Kercher
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. In the small hours of the night, her new medallion vibrated with a priority summons from the Lord Steward of Jirin.

Closing the Book of Lives, she stood and pushed the small button pinned to her tunic collar.

A window opened in the air before her, revealing the lord of Jirin standing in his workroom before an enhanced view of the desert night.

“My lord?”

He indicated two clumps of glowing specks moved across the viewer, drawing toward him. “A group of Plainsmen seek the chasm gate pursued by dragon warriors.”

“How soon will they–”

“Before dawn. Master Giles is with them.”

Giles! She’d missed his ugly face for the past five years, but the city had been barred to the Plainsmen for over five hundred. He wouldn’t enter without them. Without refuge, their pursuers would have him–and them!

“My lord, what do you intend?”

“I’ll stop the dragon warriors. You’ll give the Plainsmen sanctuary.”

Her stomach did a flip. Break the cardinal law of Jirin! “Does the prince consent?”

He gave her a look. “No.”

She swallowed. “Very well, my lord.” For Giles, she would risk the prince’s wrath.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Interesting. I think the intro paragraphs could be tighter, but I don’t have specific suggestions for that.
One thing that puzzled me was the use of titles. I’m sure you meant “lord of Jirin” as in a generic noble of Jirin, but “lord of ___” usually means the ruler of the place. So then you throw in a prince, and I had to stop a second to figure out the chain of command. That’s what I get for reading Tolkien so soon before these flash fics, isn’t it.

Krysti Kercher
Guest

And what I get for writing a scene related to other writing I’ve already done. 🙂 There is back story here, but it wouldn’t be fair to the other participants to go into it now.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Good stuff, Krysti! Some rich world-building going on there. And you said a lot about the relationship between Giles and Gem in just a few words. Love the line “She’d missed his ugly face…” Well done!

Krysti Kercher
Guest

Thanks! 🙂

Zachary Totah
Editor

The thing I love about this is seeing all the different stories that emerge from the same first line. It goes to show the vast creativity and uniqueness we each have as writers.

I really enjoy reading through the entries. It helps stimulate the imagination.

Teddi Deppner
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. Nobody mentioned that the sage’s bond-vessel would be required to make them, too.

Gem sighed as she hurried to her master’s chamber door. Was this really better than living on the streets? Warm fireplace, thick blankets, stew in her belly, yes. Yes, it was. And it was definitely better than being burned at the stake.

She cleared the frown from her face and the irritation from her mind and knocked at the door, sending her thoughts past the door and into the mind of her master, Revick. Master, wake up. A messenger from the Council. Will you see him?

The Council! A sharp burst of fear, and then eagerness, poured into her from Revick. Already! Prepare yourself, girl. You must receive all that you feel from me without giving it away on your face. Do it right this time!

Yes, master. Gem sighed again.

A minute later, Revick swept from his room, smoothing the long folds of his robe and looking her over with narrowed eyes. He scowled. “I told you to cut your hair.”

“I was going to do it in the morning.”

“That does us no good if the Council sees you tonight!”

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Whoo! That is a great scene. Personality, setting, dialog, conflict…all very well done.

That phrase bond-vessel gives me the creeps. Vessel for … what? I hope that’s what you were going for. 😉

Teddi Deppner
Guest

Oops. I tried to edit the comment to add the blue color, but seem to have somehow instead repeated the first sentence. Now it won’t let me edit, so maybe a site editor can fix it later. Ah, well.

Suz
Guest

I am always instantly intrigued by silent communication of any kind, and I want to know what she screwed up before this time? I enjoy reading a name I haven’t seen before as well, Revick sounds familiar yet, unique.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

I think you mean “bond-vassal,” not “bond-vessel.” The curse of homophones strike again!

Teddi Deppner
Guest

Nope. I meant vessel.

However, good point that it could be confusing to folks who are familiar with the term “vassal”. Could try “bond-chalice” instead, but that’s too technical, likely unfamiliar and would carry its own confusion issues. If this were a real novel, definitely an issue I’d have to wrestle through. Thx for the feedback, notleia.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Granted, “bond-vassal” is a bit repetitive. But now I have to ask why vessel instead of vassal, since the latter is already a word about socio-political bonds between people. The semantics puzzle me. I’m guessing you mean that Gem is the holder/keeper of the bond between her and her master, but doesn’t the master likewise hold a bond to her? There’s a degree of mutuality there that I don’t think the word choice lends. Is she the keeper and/or object of a bond between her master and someone else?

Teddi Deppner
Guest

Part of me wants to let the mystery remain until the contest is over, but I suppose there’s no reason to play coy here. The nature of Gem’s relationship with Revick would become clear in the first page or two if this were a novel.

Just as a bondservant is bound to serve, a bondvessel is bound to serve as a vessel for a high-level sage’s magical purposes. A bondservant is a physical slave, but the bondvessel is a spiritual one. Gem’s soul is at the mercy of her master, to receive, store and return whatever emotion, power, memory or other intangible soulish thing he gives her. It makes it possible for him to do more powerful magic than a single soul can handle.

Kristen’s response earlier (that the term gave her the creeps, making her wonder what Gem would have to serve as a vessel for) was exactly what I was going for. Just imagine what it would be like if you had an irrevocable mental/emotional bond to someone? Forced to carry their thoughts, intents, emotions and memories? What if you found out too late what they were really like, on the inside?

Thomas Clayton Booher
Member

I really like the serious thought you have put into the concept of bond-vessel. Like you say, it would be better for the meaning of this to enter the story in spoonfuls. Weaving the bond-vessel concept into the story in the way that I think it would have to be done would be intellectually stimulating (for both the writer and the reader).

Mirtika Schultz
Member

Upthumbed it. Flows really well. The first paragraph–where you follow the initial prompt line, is the smoothest transition I’ve seen so far, because it continues the thought and ADDS so that we begin to see the fantasy world. Yep. Like it. (How’d you do italics? I tried to do them for my entry, but it came out regular type. Bummer.)

Teddi Deppner
Guest

I used html tags. Remove the spaces from the code in the following example (hope this works for demo purposes):

Italicized words inside the opening tag and the ending one.

Paul Lee
Member

I used html tags. Remove the spaces from the code in the following example (hope this works for demo purposes

Whoah, the comment plug-in is apparently being too smart. It must have deleted the spaces and still rendered the italics, so it doesn’t work as an example!

So let’s do a link to a great HTML resource instead: http://w3schools.com/tags/tag_i.asp

I’m curious about how you guys are setting blue text. Maybe you’re doing what the first example on this tutorial page shows: http://w3schools.com/tags/tag_span.asp

CSS is a little hacky for just commenting!

Zachary Totah
Editor

This is really good. I was immediately drawn in. Gem weighing her situation (which she’s obviously not thrilled about) against where she might be created sympathy. Especially the possibility of burning at the stake.

The end was kind of weak. It didn’t give the same punch the beginning did, and I found myself wishing the last couple sentences were stronger.

The idea of a bond-vessel was fascinating and gave the story an original feel. I’d love to learn more about it.

Audrey Sauble
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, maybe even some tea and that new book on light heraldry, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. She had made it as far as her front stoop, though, before she felt the buzz from her chain calling her.

With a sigh, Gem flicked back the latch—anyone with basic telekinetic training could break a regular lock—and pushed through into the warm hallway.

The buzz repeated, and Gem turned to her cabinet. As the door swung back for her, the mirror inside flashed static, and Gem touched one finger to the lower corner. Her supervisor’s face appeared.

“Sir—” Gem started to say.

“You didn’t have permission to leave, Inspector. Something’s come up—a crisis with the mines. They want to talk to you.”

Gem frowned, but her supervisor was already reaching to deactivate the mirror. “Be quick, will you? I can’t leave until you come.”

As the glimmer faded, Gem closed the cabinet.

Then she stood a moment, before crossing the hall to the bathroom. The mirror on the back of the door was dark, but when she touched it, the rim began to gleam. No one, Gem thought, had ever bothered to check a bathroom mirror for transmission signals. It was too obvious.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Audry, this is a good piece of writing. The setting details are a little too sparse, though. That’s probably due to the word count. I like the front stoop and warm hallway, but then she turns to the cabinet, and it seems like a thing that should be really important, but it’s glossed over.

I’m having trouble identifying what it is about this that holds it back, and I think it’s personality. We get a glimpse of the supervisor’s personality — brusque and a little grumpy — but not Gem’s.

Good hook with the second mirror. Definitely piqued my curiosity. I would keep reading! 🙂

Audrey Sauble
Guest

Thanks! I had too much fun with this, and my original post was about twice as long, so I had to remove most of my setting details.

smaelquil
Guest

i was torn over this. great story potential but was confused as to the cross over from sage to inspector. I’m curious though to see what is next. great leave.

Suz
Guest

Ugh, I think I scrolled through too fast and missing the comment part here, just put my story in the suggestion box instead. Way to pay attention, sigh.

Suz
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices.

Collapsing back into her ivory chair to await judgment, she was grateful her chair was made comfortable by the fur lining of her first hunt. This was a luxury afforded few in her newly acquired position, and she pushed off with one green foot, swiveling around and around, letting her signature, silver and white streaked hair fly around her until with a jolt, it came to rest on one shoulder as she slammed her feet down on the cold, glass floor, her long, thin tail coming to rest alongside her agile body.

Who were these sages anyway?, she thought, gazing down through the transparent floor beneath her to the brown, stained, downtrodden masses below, so unlike herself yet, of whom she had been an integral part of since being found as a newborn along the river Korinder.

No one ever saw these creatures of power. She, like every other serf, spent her life in blind obedience out of fear and habit, knowing only they did not wish to disappear as seemed to happen when anyone had an independent thought, however small.

The crystal had saved her and she knew not why or how, only she was grateful for a new life, another chance beyond the first one granted by her rescue. A sudden high pitched whistle left her grabbing her hair over her ears in an attempt to lessen the volume, as she was summoned to the arena.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Suz, there’s some great world-building here, and I like the subtle details that show Gem’s some kind of reptilian — the green foot and the tail. But with long hair. Interesting!

There’s a lot of rumination and backstory, though, and that slows things down. It diffuses the suspense of awaiting judgement.

The next-to-last paragraph is a bit of a muddle. I’m not sure what you’re trying to say there. Otherwise the writing is solid. I’d love to know what happens next. 🙂

Suz
Guest

Thank you. I had an immediate caste society fill my head with all sorts of contradictions and requirements for those living within it and, I may have been a bit vague in some of my descriptions. I think I’d like to follow this story through and see what happens!

I wasn’t thinking of reptilian, more a smooth flesh like ours, just a different tone, and a few extras as well. Guess that needed a little more description, too. It’s amazing what happens in my mind and what gets missed from brain to paper, or screen, in this case. 🙂

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices.
Her molecules regathered and reacquainted themselves with electromagnetic force – distinguished themselves from the seat cushions of her favourite chair. Assembled air hissed from her lungs. A brief foray into the 10 053 savage minds sharing her world on this portentous night revealed mass hysteria.
The eclipse of their beloved sister planet by two moons threatened supernatural evil that must, of savage course, be countered by bloody sacrifice. Gem had given up explaining about gravity and tides and the resilience of their world’s atmosphere. Let them run amok! She had more important things to do.
“Dossep.” She touched the navigation wand to her feet. Mistakes with molecular transport had cost dearly at the beginning…For eons measured only by the Creator she traveled the celestial zephyrs with the Host, surfing the wake of Dark Matter and extrapolating the myriad dimensions with sister and brother ‘high-levelers’.
After her conversion…her arrival in alien form she struggled with coalescing molecules and the segregation of her thoughts. Whoever arrived tonight would gain from her experience.
Searing agony…
Catastrophy…
Low trembling through her consciousness…moaning.
Fundamental Emotion bombarded her thrashing particles.
Dispersion!
Eternal….
Bliss.
“A quiet night.” she dreamed.
“At Home.” smiled the Beloved.

heididrukortman
Guest

Is Dossep a place, or the Beloved’s name?

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

I imagined the place she expected the new arrival to land. I didn’t think she expected to meet the Beloved.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

This is a really interesting story that needs about twice as many words to make it clear what’s going on. It seems very literary and experimental. I’m not sure whether that’s the mood you were going for. I have to point out that “smiled the Beloved” is not appropriate as a dialog tag. Other than that, I love the ending.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Intriguing. And ethereal. I like the half-poetry, especially the last two lines that introduce the Beloved. If you did want to continue this, I’d suggest interspersing the poetry with something more (literally) prosaic, to make the contrast sharper and the poetry have more impact. Or, alternately, you can do the entire book in half-poetry if you wanted to go for a more Faulkner feel.

Mirtika Schultz
Member

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices.

She’d given up hometown, first love, and fertility for rank. Now, her treasured privacy awaited death at the hands of this boy filthy as the gobgoats feasting on the trash heaps of Sagekeep. Standing outside her doorway, he disturbed her peace with defiant eyes.

“My new apprentice, you say?”

The Proctor of Wisehall nodded and shifted away from the youth rank with sweat and ill-repute, homeless since his master—a mid-level—went mad.

Gem initiated sagethought. Ponder: nature of event. Assessment: punishment, warning. Options: none but obedience.

She’d sworn to Mastermage that, in return for her unprecedented promotion, her upstart powers would sleep for six moons—a small sacrifice for a large reward.

Miscalculation.

Corrective: turn the tables. Method: misfit magic. Tool: the brat.

She’d use well the six months to shape him into her sharpest dagger. Gem prayed for the rumors to be true. Be ruinous, bedraggled boy.

“Apprentice Geeter, you enter only after I accept your vow to obey all I command, by mouth and by pen.”

The boy, crossing his bony arms in an unseemly fashion, smirked. “I vow nothin’. You got no choice but to be lettin’ me in, High One. Stuck with me, ain’t ya?”

Suzan R
Guest

Nice, I like this one a lot.

Audrey Sauble
Guest

I like this one too. The stand-off with the boy is a great touch, though the concept of sagethought was a bit confusing at first. I thought perhaps she was using telepathy to talk to the Proctor, before I realized she was working through a sort of protocol.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

This is fantastic. Personality, world-building, dialog. All very good. I appreciate the terseness of her thoughts, because that is the way we think. But it’s a little too terse for fiction, because it doesn’t transmit everything we need to know to understand her. Love the kid’s attitude. I laughed out loud. 🙂

smaelquil
Guest

Stuck with me, ain’t ya?

oh what fun these two will be.

Teddi Deppner
Guest

The makings of a great pairing. You got a lot more imagination-provoking happening about their future into the 200 words than I did with my two characters. Nice job!

The info-dump at the beginning was a lot to take in — the implications of giving up fertility had my brain barking “Squirrel!” and wanting to chase off in that direction for a while. Had to jerk the leash and process the next sentence, which also had a LOT in it. How would this boy kill her privacy? What are gobgoats? What do they look like feasting on the trash heaps?

Sagethought took some getting used to, but I think I’d like it in a books. I’d get used to it. Appreciate it as mental shorthand. Very nice. So rich. And such a stand off. Great job, M!

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

I agree, literary and experimental. It should have been a poem.

smaelquil
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. Not that she wasn’t used to making sacrifices but too much was really too much.

Why had Celeste been called in the middle of the night without Gem? Sages never left their familiars behind.

Gem padded back and forth in front of the door, anxiously listening for her mistress’ foot steps. Gem’s nose itched. She reached with her paw to lick and swipe at the insistent irritation. Her nose warned of something amiss but, with the door closed, she couldn’t venture out to investigate.

Glancing around the room, Gem noticed the cloth on the table by the corner move where it reached the floor.

Creeping to the movement, Gem sniffed. Cool air and the sent of wood burning from the fireplace in the main room.

Edging closer and peering around the end, she spotted a broken board in the wall. Yes! Gem dashed through and burst into the hallway, crossing in front of a guard standing by the door.

“Hey! Stop! Come back here!”

Gem meowed and dashed down the hall, following Celeste’s scent. Nope, not stopping.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

What a great twist! Very imaginative. Good job!

smaelquil
Guest

Thanks. 🙂

Bethany J.
Guest

I like this one! And usually I don’t enjoy reading books with animal narrators/protagonists. But I found this interesting anyway – I’m wondering where Celeste has gone, and whether she is in danger? My only complaint is that the “Nope, not stopping,” seems like a very modern kind of phrase and doesn’t quite fit the fantasy feel of the story. Good piece of writing!

smaelquil
Guest

Yes, i was tight on words and had to find a good way of saying that. My first two attempts were not quite right either. Maybe if I had a few more words in grace. It’s hard to write that tight. Whew! Thanks

Literaturelady
Guest

Gem is a cat! What a unique take on the prompt! I like the way you wove in this information through Gem’s actions.

However, I was a little confused by the two paragraphs in which Gem finds the opening. It was hard to picture what was going on, and I think the difficulty came from the number of prepositional phrases. But I liked this entry; you did a great job!

~Literaturelady

smaelquil
Guest

I was hoping not to be too confusing. I had to take out a few words and I tightened the story there. I think I did myself a disservice but I will try something different next time. Thanks.

Mirtika Schultz
Member

(I don’t know if there is a one entry limit, but I didn’t see that, so here goes #2)

“All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. Nightly sacrifices, without fail, during this period of the sister moons, lest the powers of the twin shadows rush out of control.”

The two inquisitors, Valden and Elda, loomed over Gem’s corpse, silent and attentive, as Goffrid testified to the night’s events. The Sacristy of Sages had recorded no homicides since the depraved era of the Heretic Regent. They would prefer to keep the record pure.

Goffrid continued, his voice as lifeless as Gem’s body. “She delegated the evening sacrifice to me, entrusted the implements and the map to the wandering stones. I warned her. I had only watched, never performed the mysteries. It was her duty, not mine. But she insisted.” Goffrid ‘s tears fell on the carpet and on the corpse of his superior. “She was weary of the blood rites. Then…”

“Then?” Elda asked.

“I made a mistake.”

Valden spoke. “How does a sword mistakenly strike off the head of a sage?” He instantly regretted the note of sarcasm that violated his training. But Gem had been his nursery mate. Self-control—the prime requirement of the inquisitor, moreso than perfect recall—came hardest with tears forbidden, yet begging to flow. “Respond, suspect.”

“I called the wrong god.”

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Great twist, making the story about Gem instead of from her POV. There’s not a strong sense of setting, but the great dialog pretty much makes up for that. This is a fabulous entry. 🙂

smaelquil
Guest

ouch. sounds like a big mistake. Nicely written but I was a bit confused with the second line. Actually, I still am. it didn’t flow with the next paragraph. But a great ending. nice leave.

Emerald Resonance
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices. So she bundled herself in her heaviest cloak and made her way to the small stone listening hut on the hill above the village. Perhaps spending the night listening for the buzz of strange minds beyond the village wall was better, after all, than only barely sleeping, thinking about tomorrow and what she wanted to say to Marianne as she sent her off.

Gem opened the door of the hut to find a small fire already lit in the center, with Marianne kneeling on the other side. The young woman smiled up at her as she entered.

Gem raised an eyebrow. “You ought to be in bed, young lady – tonight of all nights.”

Marianne chuckled. “The prefect sounded jumpy in his message. If something is afoot, I don’t want you up here alone tonight.”

Gem knelt next to Marianne.

“And,” Marianne continued, her tone softening, “if this really is my last night as your apprentice, I’d rather spend it with you than alone in my bed, not sleeping.”

Gem blinked back tears, reached for Marianne’s hand, squeezed it tight. “Is it selfish of me to say that I’d rather send my right arm to Renvale than send you?”

Krysti Kercher
Guest

I like how you developed the character of each of these two women, and made us care about them both, and the fact that they’re going to be separated from each other, and don’t want to be.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Oh, this rocks! Setting, personality, dialog, emotion…all really well done. The relationship between the two women is built so solidly in such a short space… Love it!

Paul Charvet
Guest

All Gem wanted was a quiet night at home, but she’d been warned that upper-level sages would have to make sacrifices… and her brother would become a master sage that night, the note jammed under her windowsill had further reminded. She needed no master’s wisdom to grasp the anonymous warning: what better sacrifice for Jerek to prove his commitment…?
Gem pulled a black cloak from the closet and wrapped it over her shoulders. A careful check in the mirror confirmed that it hid the two lines, crimson and blue, that traced intricately from shoulder to wrist down her left arm. She vaguely remembered Jerek coming home with those marks, his first visit after he had become a novice…
Her mistress’s permission to visit home must have been planned, a way to take her quietly away from the tower’s other novices. And as long as her parents didn’t know of the warning, of her escape, surely they wouldn’t be harmed.
She snuffed out her bedroom lamp and clambered out the window. Pack bouncing between her shoulder blades, she slipped into the darkened alleyway behind the row of cramped houses.
With each step, her fear grew. It was too simple.
A hand descended roughly on her shoulder. She bit back a startled gasp, and looked up into Jerek’s dark, cold eyes. “Running, sister?”

Bethany J.
Guest

Oooh, lots of intrigue here! I did not expect Jerek to be the one coming to kill her (or is that take her magic? – from the entry itself I assumed her life was in danger), so that was a thrilling twist at the end. 🙂 I do wish you had shown us more of Gem’s feelings beyond “her fear grew”, and the part about the marks on her arm was a bit confusing and could have been more clearly put, but overall this is a great entry.

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Paul, this is a great bit of storytelling. Unlike Becky, I have no problem believing a brother might put his work above sister. Guess that says something about the relationships we have with our brothers…I love the twist that she is the sacrifice. The backstory is loaded a little heavily, and some of the sentence structures are a bit awkward, e.g., “…her brother would become a master sage that night, the note jammed under her windowsill had further reminded.” But overall I love the mood, the intrigue, and the glimpse into their relationship. Well done.

Zachary Totah
Editor

This was really intriguing. Echoing Kristen, I liked the twist that she was the sacrifice, and I’m assuming Jerek meant to kill her and not just take her magic away. The quick introduction of conflict and a character goal (escape) was well done. The ending was the best part.

The wording was odd in a couple places, and I didn’t get why her parents might be harmed. I’m also wondering who gave her the note. I assumed it was another sage, but why would someone be helping her? However, I didn’t have trouble with the tattoos. I got right off that they were on her arm, so that didn’t confuse me.

It was a really strong scene that would absolutely make me keep reading.

Zachary Totah
Editor

For some reason, the thumbs aren’t showing up. I can’t vote, and I can’t see who I’ve already voted for.

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest

I’m having the same trouble as Zac. Maybe that saves me the trouble of deciding which entry to vote for. 🙂
Some comments that have drifted through my mind during these last 2 weeks:
Winter Challenge is more demanding for me because I work in the winter, not the summer. I didn’t have the time to play with this challenge the way I wanted to. I made time to read what others invented and am grateful to Rebecca for all the hard work in running it. My life is richer by being here.
Writers are good sports. None of us complained about the extreme word count limit. However, the readers almost all complained. Therefore, please may we have more words to play with ? 300-400? Please. Pretty please with sugar on top?
How wonderful are the imaginations wandering around inside this community! Brilliant! Surprising! Intriguing! Mystifying! I thoroughly enjoyed every new twist on the opening line. Not one seemed like a repeat of others. Well done everyone!
For me, God was missing from most entries. If we are Speculative we should have the paranormal and I believe we had that in spades. If we are Faith…. God should be hinted at in the first 200 words.
Thanks again! I look forward to reading the winners tomorrow.

shae
Guest

i can’t find the link to part 2 of this. how do we know who won?