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September & October Responses and Winners


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Thank you to each of our many entrants in this round! The judges were extremely pleased with your efforts, and though we had five judges for eleven entries(!), that didn't make deciding upon a winner any easier. But, just in time for Halloween, I'm proud to bring you the results of the "Run Shivers Down My Spine" Writing Challenge for September and October 2014!

Our winner, with his story "Heritage of the Lost," is the writer behind Nathaniel Wilmer! We have a rare situation with our runner-up: Our judges rankings' resulted in a tie, which means we have two stories and two writers who will share the honor: "The Touch of the Sleeper," by the writer behind Della Vetri, and "The Last Night on Lookout," by the writer behind Leland Bishop. Congratulations to these three writers and to the rest of our fine entrants!

I'd like to recognize my fellow judges for this round: the writers behinds Fleet Captain Toni Turner, Lieutenant Commander Sal Taybrim, Lieutenant Ren Rennyn, and special guest Lieutenant Commander Akeelah D'Sena. Each of them worked hard to make sure that their reviews were thoughtful and detailed and that their rankings were especially well-considered, given the number of stories, and that they were all submitted prior to Halloween. My thanks to them!

EDIT: Please also look out for our free, downloadable Writing Challenge collection, coming on Halloween!

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"The Last Night on Lookout"
Writer's Character: Leland Bishop
Judge's Character: Cassandra Egan Manno
Though its style is strong and it's exactly as long as it needs to be -- those qualities by which I usually form my first judgments regarding a story -- "The Last Night on Lookout" refuses to be so relegated. The morbid images, crafted so subtly by the author, are what stuck with me: Whether it's the final sentence of the opening paragraph that so wonderfully plays with language and image ("choking ... on Lookout") or it's the final line ("How sad it was that the poor man beneath him hadn't had time to shave"), this story refuses to sit down quietly and instead forces the reader to consider it head-on. That's really a fancy way of saying that I was hooked, so kudos there!
I expected this Challenge to be ripe with grit and horror, "The Last Night on Lookout" puts an especially terrible spin on things by showing them through the POV of a young Leland Bishop. There's a loss-of-innocence quality to the story, directly addressed within ("...he would never be called Lee again..."), though I don't think that's the story's primary throughline. Rather, this is a story about bearing witness: How does one see the truly awful and ever come away from it? It's a wonderful area to explore via writing, and given that this event is part of Leland's past, I would be very interested to see how he develops, both through sims and, hopefully, in future Writing Challenges! Show us, here and again (and again and again), how his life has been shaped by these events and the sort of daily witness he brings to bear upon his current life, and I think the result will be quite satisfying.
I would caution the author to dig more deeply into the story's statements of large, ephemeral concepts like "pain," "dark," and "forever." They're such absolute terms that they can often (though not always, of course) be hard to qualify, and I think this story is done a disservice by relying upon lines like "It was rewarded. With pain." I know -- I know, because the story has demonstrated it already! -- that it's capable of more, and while this particular instance of pain won't stick with me, that image of the unshaven man certainly will. Show me the specifics and I'll be with you all the way!
In the end, I'd call this a strong story that fixed its gaze on a terrible memory and refused to look away. Great, great work from someone who promises to be a new talent in the Writing Challenges!
***
"Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius"
Writer's Character: Idril Mar
Judge's Character: Sal Taybrim
This was a moody little piece; full of great imagery and a neat little folk tale tie in. I like the language in the piece. It had a nice, readable cadence and the easygoing style of a folk tale or a ghost story told around the campfire. Full of little details like the union jack on the uniforms, this was a fun piece that I enjoyed reading.
In the end I found myself wanting this story to be longer. While it was a solid entry, it did not put shivers down my spine because it didn’t have much suspense or build up. As a folk tale it works well, but as a scary story it needs to slow down and indulge in the fear of a massive battle against a vicious enemy. I also think this story could use more characterization. We know enough about the main character to like him – the little details draw us in and make him seem realistic. But he needs to face more conflict, get pushed to the edge of fear and still persevere. Make your reader’s heart pound a little, make them wonder if the protagonist will survive before the tale wraps up.
Again, a nicely readable little piece that could be expanded with just a little effort into an excellent stand alone tale. This one has a lot of potential and strength!
***
"Dawn’s Early Light"
Writer's Character: Hannibal Parker
Judge's Character: Sal Taybrim
This story is highly evocative in its scenic portrayal of war. The description is tight and the story flows smoothly. The writer displays a solid command of military knowledge and it reads like watching a documentary of a historical battle.
Unfortunately the greatest strength of this story also reveals its greatest weakness. The ‘documentary’ feeling allows an excellent overview of a battle, and a strong plotline, but along the way we develop no empathy for any of the characters. Usually the death of a struggling young Ensign would be a minor tragedy, and the heroic wishes of an up and coming Sergeant would be a building character draw. But both of these feel like footnotes to a history book rather than character revelations that draw a reader in.
This story displays a common problem with posts-submitted-as-stories: the reader is not given enough reason to care about the characters. I understand that players in sims care deeply about the characters they sim with because they have had months, sometimes years to form bonds with those characters. But as a stand alone story your characters are what will drive your readers’ interest. You must build empathy for your characters or you will quickly lose the reader’s interest no matter how evocative your settings are or how well constructed the plot is.
Strong characterization builds suspense and desire to keep reading – that feeling that the reader ‘has to keep turning the page.’ I found myself wanting a reason to root for the marines, other than the fact that ‘they were humans.’
This was cleanly written and the language was easy to read. I can see how it would make a strong game post for readers who were already deeply committed to the main character, but as a stand alone piece you need to reveal the thoughts, feelings, goals, desires and narrative of your main character so the audience has a reason to really be invested in whether or not he lives or dies.
***

"A smile is full of teeth"

Writer's Character: Marcus Dickens

Judge's Character: Toni Turner

"A smile is full of teeth" is a fast paced, well-written story chronicling the study of a new reptilian species as it teaches its offspring the finer points of survival. (I'm putting that very mildly.)
Marcus draws the reader in on the premis that his Captain Rashuu is taking a team to make a diplomatic call on the species, but when he fails to introduce his security officer as such, he tips the reader off that something is amiss. And with that now firmly in mind the reader is reminded of the theme and anticipates the "chill" that they are suppose to feel when the punch line is delivered. For impact on the punch line, it may have been better to make the readers forget the theme, than to remind them.
As the team separates, the doctor and security officer go to view the offspring. The descriptions of the bloodthirsty varmints were vivid enough, and some what frightening. At least enough to make the medical officer heave the contents of his stomach onto the floor, and graphic enough to believe the host cleaned it up to study their guests which was another tip off to their fate.
When Marcus cut back to the Captain and the science officer who had gone with their hosts for refreshment, chills didn't run up my spine, but rather I had an overwhelming urge to burst into laughter.
Well done, Marcus! Very... um ... very entertaining story.
***
"Blunt Forces"
Writer's Character: Atherton Grix
Judge's Character: Akeelah D'Sena
This story evolving around Cadet Ellen Cain is something most Starfleet Officers have been through: the question if one is ready for this 'real world' out there on a ship or not. The doubt and struggle with the things that still have to be learned is easy to identify with. In addition, also picturing a scene that everyone, be it officer or not, will have to face: an obstacle that feels impossible to overcome and having no choice but face it.
Atherton Grix has done a good job trying to bring the main character of Ellen closer to the reader and sympathize with the cadet when she fights the overpowering enemy, gets thrown into duty to find a solution, while she is not sure she is ready for the task and to overcome her fears and set habits of action.
Commander Herodion on the other hand is more of a supporting actor. We do not hear much of her back-story other than she is an ex Marine Captain who constantly seems to save Ellen from being killed. It would have been nice to see a little more characterization of this character, to make her appear less like a holodeck character that only is there to give the story a frame.
I did enjoy the flashback in between to give us a little more background about what happened in the first part of the story, and will happen in the third. It gives the story a little more depths and gave Atherton the chance to describe the character, thoughts and feelings of Ellen a little more than it would have been possible in the action scenes.
I did have to read several parts a few times, because of very long sentences and very little punctuations. That made it difficult for me to really get into the story, because I had to think about the meaning of things depending on where I'd put a (missing) comma. Also the one or other word seemed to not be fitting, though could be guessed in context. Maybe with a little more experience in both of these areas it will be much easier to read and to follow without interruptions, which will make the story flow better.
While the story was set in a scenario every one of us might experience in either Roleplay or in the figurative sense in Real Life, it was more of an action and experience piece to me, than a chill causing one. But for the felt genre it has been a good story, that would make me curious what became of Ellen after she has jumped head on into her new experience. Especially the open end of the possible dangers still luring in the dark invites a second part to be written.
I have finished the piece with a smile, reading the little bantering between cadet and commander, showing that even in the fearful atmosphere we can find something to smile about.
***
"Her Greatest Fear"
Writer's Character: Rune Jolara
Judge's Character: Ren Rennyn
Rune Jolara's flashback to a horrible experience of her youth is a feast of horror for the senses.
The story makes no attempt to define its character or present location at the beginning. That became an asset. The language of the opening speech sets up the coming flashback and gives just a glimpse of how Rune feels about what she is remembering. The sense of dread felt by her 16-year-old self was obviously still felt years later, and as a reader, I felt it too.
That feeling continued to grow as Rune was subjected to shockingly extreme treatment. Every sense was engaged. As she felt, saw, heard and even tasted one awful thing after another, I felt it too. The entire experience of the attendants' attempt to break Rune down, to numb her, was described in one sensory image after another. It is beautifully described, and leaves a tangible impression of what she went through.
"Her vision exploded into a kaleidescope of colors and confusion." - That phrase in particular jumped off the page at me.
The reasons for Rune's rough treatment at the Attitude Readjustment Center become apparent when, at the end, we learn where she is in the present, and to whom she is relating this disturbing memory. This was a perfect bookend to the suspense of not knowing who she was talking to at the beginning of the story.
As a self-contained unit, the story might have been improved by spending a little more time describing the reason for Rune's "adjustment," how she feels about it now, and perhaps giving a little more explanation of Rune's relationship with Dura Refa, and Refa's motivations for turning on Rune.
As a feast for the senses, the story touched on every nerve, and succeeded admirably in conveying the feelings of pain, panic and more.
***
"The touch of the Sleeper"
Writer's Character: Della Vetri
Judge's Character: Cassandra Egan Manno
This is a solid story, a double-braid that considers two archaeotechnology specialists on the one hand and their subject on the other. Perhaps it's the theme or the time of year, but I saw this as a nice riff on Frankenstein's basic territory, and it was a pleasant little riff! There's a good escalation of tension throughout the piece, and it's handled well: I felt the sort of full-body realization of my heartbeat that means that what I'm reading is doing a good job of scaring me -- or at least signaling to me that it's about to do so. The exposition was handled well, and the proportions of the braids seemed appropriate: It was much easier for me to get into the heads of Helena and Yuri than to connect with their subject (who I shall call, as in the title, "the Sleeper"), though I also applaud the choice of the braid, as knowing the Sleeper intimately was something I was privileged to know as a reader and it helped round out a story that might otherwise have otherwise revolved around the scans of the two scientists. By the end, I'm ready for the Sleeper's revelation in the final section, and I was pleased with that end.
My major quibble with this story is that it didn't end there! The last part of that final line -- "...but there was no hint of anything but almost mindless dedication to the task at hand and a total disregard of the fact that simply fulfilling their assigned role was going to leave almost the entire population extinct" -- is the sort of existentially terrifying (literally!) line that I thought this story was going to end with, but then we came back to Yuri and Helena one more time. In my mind, the story really belonged to the Sleeper; Yuri and Helena were really devices by which the story explored it, and even though we spent less time in the POV of the Sleeper (which, as above, is a choice I applaud), I was certain that this story was going to end me with the Sleeper. For future stories, I'd challenge this author to consider what the story's accomplishment and focus would like to be by its end. If, here, those were answered by the story of Yuri and Helena and the Sleeper was secondary, then the return to their braid was a good choice -- but if the Sleeper was the stronger presence and its awakening was more central, then I would abstract that into a general guideline to end with the strongest character.
One more small note: Yikes! Science fiction racism! I'm always a little uncomfortable when Federation members (especially leading Daystrom scientists!) begin speaking in this way (with regard to the Ferengi), as it strikes me as something that would have been left far behind us. My advice here: Don't do it.
Again, I thought this was a really solid story with some excellent tension, a strong choice for its structure, and a compelling throughline that kept me fully present in its world. Excellent work, and I look forward to reading more!
***
"Horrifying Flashback"
Writer's Character: Gwen Gardener
Judge's Character: Cassandra Egan Manno
This story is a good example of flash fiction, which some might define (rigidly) as a story of less than 300 words. Though "Horrifying Flashback" clocks in at just over that (343 words), I'd still call its intent that of a piece of flash fiction: It's attempting to tell a full story in a very limited space. It succeeds there, because it packs a whole lot of time, action, and events into its 343 words. However, in this case, I would have recommended a longer story to give this narrative the space it would seem to deserve.
"Flashback," as a term, does connote something brief, perhaps instantaneous, and I congratulate the author for extending that idea into the story's brevity. I wasn't convinced that there was anything more flashback-like about the story, though, and I would challenge the author to especially consider the senses: What did Aurora see? What could she touch? What did she hear, taste, smell? Then, move beyond that: Does she remember a particular flash of a pain (and if so, describe that moment!), or perhaps a scent that seems incongruous given her incarceration and reminds her of something beyond the cage (and if so, what is it? What does it remind her of?). Put me more in those moments, and the experience of the story will ultimately be more gratifying.
The good news for "Horrifying Flashback" is that, as it's presented, it's a good summary or outline for the true story. Expanding upon what's here, engaging the senses, and really capturing the reader on a visceral, emotional level will be what really make things work here -- and I think that a retelling of these events, greatly expanded in those ways, would be a fine entrant in a future Writing Challenge!
***
"Heritage of the Lost"
Writer's Character: Nathaniel Wilmer
Judge's Character: Toni Turner
Mr. Wilmer's story was one full of sentences that kept the reader anticipating what would be in the next. Dropping the descriptions of Charlotte Farnsworth's life in between the the status of the antiquated house played well throughout the story, and made the reader want to know more about her, and of her mad grandfather.
Wilmer's strong command of the English language, grabbed this reader's attention and never failed to deliver the unwritten promise of the drama and suspense of Charlotte's heritage, and when the end came, all he had written came to life all over again. “Trelane.” Charlotte choked on the name. “Your name… is… Trelane….” And there was no question (or question mark) or doubt as to the identity of the specter who dwell within the pistol.
Very well played! An excellent read.
***
"Dressed to Kill...Part Two"
Writer's Character: Hannibal Parker
Judge's Character: Akeelah D'Sena
This story reminded me of a female version of a bigger and badder version of James Bond, from the get go. Kamela is sexy, confident, focused on her job and deadly. She has a plan set in mind, and did not bat an eye to go through with it, after all it was her job.
It was an easy read and did flow from start to end. The choice of words and structure made it easy enough to follow the story and dive in without the need to stop and wonder or sort out things oneself.
Hannibal did a great job with describing the scene, locations and atmosphere. I could see it all in my mind, imagine the details, the loud music and lights, even the ugly pig like face of Treudeau, who is the archetype of the disgusting dealer, from his attire, over the women surrounding him to the bad breath and his believe he gets whatever he wants, because he has the money to buy it. The story succeeded to activate the mind-cinema and pull me along the story-line.
That being said, I did not have any chills reading the story, apart from the thought of being in that cold water in the night. To me this story reads more like an action flick. The perfect secret agent movie with a little twist of a rarely seen female action hero.
I would have wished to see a big longer part about Kamela finishing her actual job, which to me looked more like a side note than the highlight of her task. Though just when I thought that this had been too easy, and that she was being too sure of herself with too little problems in the execution of her plan, Hanniball threw a curveball, and the well laid out plan of escape was destroyed.
I did enjoy the twist, when Kamela suddenly had to cope on her own fearing for her life. I would have enjoyed feeling a bit more of her fears, though. She obviously had those, but were a little too superficial for my taste. Exploring on those a little more through the whole story would have helped to be pulled into the story a little more.
***
"Dust in the Wind"
Writer's Character: Irina Pavlova
Judge's Character: Ren Rennyn
I always thought I wanted to go to Ba'ku. This story may have changed my mind.
Pleasantly disturbing imagery runs through this tale of dashed hopes and spoiled plans. The descriptions - those descriptions! - of Irina's body decaying around her certainly Ran Shivers Down My Spine. This month's contest theme was certainly exemplified in this story.
Body horror is the use of graphic images to describe anatomical decay. The idea is to make the audience imagine what it would be like if that happened to them. This story succeeds by showing the destruction of Irina's body from her perspective, right down to the bones. Instead of watching this process from an external vantage point, the reader is part of Irina's terrible experience.
Another benefit of this story is its setting. This horrifying event takes place in a well-known paradise. The inclusion of Irina's young daughter as a witness clinches the terror. The story was chilling.
There are a few typographical errors that could have been corrected before submission. These are minor. The story itself is a strong example of using an established character to tell a stand-alone story. All elements of Irina's past that needed to be understood for context were explained within the story.
The science fiction elements at work here really cemented this as a Star Trek story, much to my delight. The events of Irina's life are inextricable from the universe we write in, and the story derives from elements - transporters, Ba'ku - that are unique to Star Trek. This is a strength I would look forward to seeing more of in future entries.
I will add that I leave this story with a slight fear that the cones in my eyes will be fused by radiation. That is another shiver down my spine. Well done!
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Congratulations Nate, Leeland and Della. It is well deserved :)

There have been some really great stories and I was excited to read them and how you brought the theme to life. Such a fantastic round :)

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Congrats, Della and Leeland! Flat out your stories were awesome. Great reads for Halloween!

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All of your stories were great! It was a extremely good competition this time around! My hat's off to all of you for a job well done!

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Congratulations on the winners. I didn't know that it'll sound fun the final act as I understood that it'll both send the image that they're being fooled while their crew was in danger and/or could send the message that the fresh appetizers could be something related to their comrades. I was trying to portrait a civilization with a predatory skill that allowed them to put smiley faces while they are planning to get on you. Obviously I failed at that! Will try next time better.

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I don't think you failed at all! I also smiled at the "twist" ending as it seemed like a bit of macabre humor, but it was definitely unsettling! Great title, by the way!

Edited by Rich
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I really enjoyed all the submissions! Apparently I'm supposed to be judging the next round??? I should totally sober up.

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Congratulations on the winners. I didn't know that it'll sound fun the final act as I understood that it'll both send the image that they're being fooled while their crew was in danger and/or could send the message that the fresh appetizers could be something related to their comrades. I was trying to portrait a civilization with a predatory skill that allowed them to put smiley faces while they are planning to get on you. Obviously I failed at that! Will try next time better.

You didn't fail by any means, You created nervous laughter. As I said you did a good job, Marcus.

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