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WRiTE CLUB 2018 - Bout #3

Welcome back to WRiTE CLUB 2018. Today is our 3rd of 15 bouts with a fresh pair of contestants ready to muscle their way into the next round. For those of you who might have just stumbled in, let me give you a run-down of what is going on here.

Weeks ago the submission window opened for this year's contest where we asked anybody wishing to participate to submit a 500-word writing sample – using a pen name. The sample can be from any genre, flash fiction or something from a larger piece of work, basically, anything goes except that it cannot have been previously published or posted on the internet. All of the rules regarding how to submit can be found here. After the submission period closed, we had fifteen judges (we call them our slush pile readers) read all 181 submissions from 132 writers and once all the ballots were total we narrowed the 181 down to the 30 that will be stepping into the ring over the course of the next three weeks. Today is the first of those bouts.

How this works – two anonymous (pen name only) writing samples step into the ring. Visitors to this blog (that’s you) read both entries and vote for the one that resonates the most with you. We ask that you leave a brief critique for both writers with your vote because that is one of the real values of this contest – FEEDBACK. Please be respectful with your remarks!

Even though there will be a different bout every day (M-F), the voting for each bout will remain open for seven days from the date it is posted to give as many people as possible to have a say. The voting for today’s bout will close on Tuesday, April 24th (noon central time).

It’s that simple. The piece that garnishes the most votes moves on to the next round where they’ll face a different opponent. Using a tournament style format, the 30 contestants will be whittled down to just 2, and the winner of that final bout will be announced at the DFW Writers Conference in Hurst TX June 9-10. You can follow along with all of the bout results right HERE.

In case of a tie, I’m the deciding vote. I can do that because, like all of you, I do not know the real names of our contestants either (my wife processes all the submissions).

Oh yeah – for every bout that you vote in, your name (see rule #2 below) will be placed into a hat for a chance for a $40 Barnes & Noble Gift card that will be drawn after the contest concludes.

A few rules –

1) One vote per visitor per bout.

2) Although our contestants are anonymous, voters cannot be. Anonymous votes will not count, so if you do not have a Google account and are voting as a guest, be sure to include your name and email address.

3)Using any method (email, social media, text, etc) to solicit votes for a specific contestant will result in that contestant's immediate disqualification. It’s perfectly okay, in fact, it is encouraged to spread the word about the contest to get more people to vote, just not for a specific writer!

That’s enough jibber-jabber…like the man say’s –

In the far corner, we have Stella Sterling representing the Suspense genre.

I sit with my butt planted in the sand and my back resting against the Joshua tree. People think I’m outta my gourd, coming all the way out here for a phone call. But that tired, dusty phone booth—eight miles from the nearest paved road and fifteen miles from the closest highway—it’s my lifeline.
               The phone rings. It’s a harsh, metallic sound. It’s out of place in this scorching stillness.
               I scramble into the booth. “Hello?”
               That rhythmic, beautiful sound.
               The call disconnects.
               Relief crashes over me in a welcome torrent. My chest heaves with elation. I return the phone to its cradle as if I might hurt her by performing the task carelessly.
               I wave goodbye to the woman who’s standing in a wide stance a few yards away, hands on her lower back. She tips her head in acknowledgement. I don’t know when her call will come, but I sure hope it’s before sundown. I hike back to my truck, which I was instructed to park at least half a mile away. Something about interference. I keep my windows down and drive for two hours, the smell of desert sage all around me. It’s dark out when I get home. As soon as I pull into the driveway, my wife yanks open the front door.
               “Jimmy…” she says, a look of tentative hope on her face.
               I don’t scold her for being on her feet, which is against doctor’s orders. For the first time, I know that everything’s gonna be alright. “I heard her, Annie,” I say, bringing my hand to my wife’s round belly. “I heard her heart beat.”
               My wife erupts into tears and shaky laughter.
               I hold her and press my lips to the crown of her head. “We won’t lose another, Annie. This time, everything’s gonna be different.”


And in the near corner, we have Richard Knight representing the Short Story/Fantasy genre.

The Various Wanderings of the Wondrous Wizard Rorr: The Ring
A slight breeze blew through the tower room.

“Sir,” Xed said, “might I reiterate that this is exceedingly dangerous?”

Rorr didn’t look up from the items in front of him. “Depends. Have you hit one thousand yet?”

“This would be warning nine hundred ninety-three, sir.” The thick book stood on the end of his worktable. It wobbled back, closer to the edge. Despite a lack of eyes, or a face, or any features to speak of, Xed looked worried.

Rorr didn’t blame him. One little slip up with such a powerful enchantment and he might well blow his entire tower to dust. Or another dimension. Or universe.

“Then you have seven more warnings to give in the next…” He glanced out the window. The sun would reach the midday apex any second. “…few seconds.”

“All right sir. I’ll save those in case you survive.” Xed lifted into the air and sailed across the room, landing on his back cover in the armchair by the fireplace with a soft thud.

Rorr raked the other bits and pieces he didn’t need off the table and onto the floor. He took a quick look around his tower. The huge single room looked as if a battle had been waged through it. In a way, one had.

Books older than the tower’s stones lay scattered everywhere. Bits of parchment covered the floor like stale snow. In the center of it all Rorr stood over his infusion table. He stared down at the six-pointed star he’d drawn on the flat white surface with an aeonic crystal. At each point sat a different item for the ritual. The top was an angel feather, light and pure. Given as a gift. To its right an air crystal plucked from the forehead of a griffin. Next a mote of fire. At the bottom sat a frozen black soul, the remains of a clumsy necromancer. Next a stone heart once belonging to the earth elemental who lived in his garden. Last, a kraken’s tear in a tiny vial. He’d almost drowned getting it.

In the center of the star sat a ring of solid omnium. The silver-white metal glinted as the sun moved into alignment with the hole in his roof overhead.

“Little bit more,” Rorr whispered, watching the beam of sunlight move onto the ring.

The beam hit the center of the table. A web of blue lines on the table lit up like lightning. Runes carved along the edge glowed so bright they stung his eyes.

“I’d step back if I were you sir!”

Rorr took a step back as energy swelled along the table’s crystal network. The swirling energy glowed brighter than a star. Rorr stepped back again. No such thing as too careful.

He reached into a pocket of his robes, took out his obsidian tinted goggles, and pulled them over his head. With a black tint over the world he could watch the enchanting process at work.

Leave your votes and critiques in the comments below. Again, be respectful of your remarks and try to point positives as well as detractions.

We’ll be back tomorrow with another bout.  See you then.


  1. In the far corner, wearing the dust-brown trunks and weighing in at just over 300 words, it's the Sultana of Suspense, Steeelllllaa Sterling!

    And on this side of the ring, looking fetching with his star-spangled trunks, wizard cap, and first name that totally-isn't-a-phallic-reference, Riiiiiiichard Knight!


    Straight off the bell, the Starry Knight swings hard, setting up a dangerous situation for his tower-locked and therefore not-wandering Wizard Rorr, and certainly leaving us hungry for more information about what's going on.

    The Sterling Avenger bobs and weaves, not letting any blows hit, crafting an evocative setting and keeping us guessing what is going on in this fight -- and this extremely short story. But the setting be enough to keep her going strong until the end of the round?

    Knight swings and kicks, lacing his tension with humour, but leaving this commentator a little confused. I need to reread before I realise the second character, Xed, is in fact the book. This clashes with my first, and perhaps too hasty, visualisation of Xed as an apprentice magician, given the context. Probably this commentator's own problem -- one too many blows to the head in the ring -- but it certainly led to some confusion and detracted from the strength of the blows.

    Going into the middle of the bout, Sterling keeps weaving her suspense, and keeping us guessing -- perhaps a bit too much. If the main character "was instructed to park at least half a mile away", then, beyond the touch of passive voice, I want to know by whom, and where? Suspense is one thing, but I still want a rounded-out story. There's enough left open and mysterious with the second person standing there, waiting for their own call.

    Nice touches of worldbuilding from Knight, through the elemental/planar foci of the ritual. He looks in great form going into the final seconds of the bout, but just doesn't seem to stick a solid blow to end it all, not answering anything about what is actually going on in the story, what the point is -- whereas Sterling, after having floated like a butterfly all bout long, finally delivers the visceral sting her narrative bee has been building up to throughout the whole fight. A solid strike for anyone who has experienced the emotional roller-coaster of parenthood, and even more so for those who fight for that privilege.

    It's commendable that Sterling was able to deliver such a blow in just over 300 words.

    A round is never over until that final bell rings, sports fans. For me, it's one point to Stella Sterling!

  2. I'm going to have to throw my vote to Stella Sterling.

    For as short an entry as she made, it somehow managed to pack in the punch needed to leave me on the floor, begging for more. The setting is well-constructed and mysterious. Who is the caller? Why won't they answer? Why do people warn the MC against going out to a payphone? What rhythmic sound did they hear?? And who is the woman standing off to the side? So many questions building up great tension. The fact that he is happy about his less-than-engaging call only adds to the mystery. And the final line brings it all together, and still manages to leave us salivating. Good show!

    Knight's entry just.... confused me. From start to finish. I have to admit I eventually just started skimming the passage, which means I was definitely NOT engaged in the writing. It feels very manufactured, without emotion, and made me reread some bits which is never good. The writing itself isn't bad it was just not hooking me.

  3. Gotta go with Stella. Even though it was less “action packed” it was more emotional and so kept me interested. Knight’s was good, but I wanted more info about WHY our wizard friend had all these crazy ingredients. What was he hoping to achieve? Stella’s told us the purpose of the phone call; Knight left us guessing why the magic was being done.



  4. My vote is for Stella. I just really loved it...and that ending...So great.

    I gave Richard's piece two reads (a couple hours apart from each other) to see if my feelings changed. I felt like in some places the writing was really clunky because of so many prepositional phrases (and in some cases awkward placement of them).

    Example: Xed lifted into the air and sailed across the room, landing on his back cover in the armchair by the fireplace with a soft thud.

    By no means do I think this was bad, but it just didn't read as smoothly as Stella's piece.

  5. Such different stories. I love the way Sterling's story unfolds. That first paragraph just reaches for you and pulls you in. The story lags a little in the middle, leaving a lot of questions to be asked.

    Knight's story does a great job of worldbuilding but some of the wording had me confused about the characters involved.

    Bright gems both, this round goes to Stella Sterling!

  6. Stella... I don't really understand what's going on there. Maybe hearing from a baby in the future or something? Or a kidnapped child? It's interesting, but also confusing.

    Richard Knight ... Interesting. I'm not sure I fully understand what's going on here, either, but in a "fantasy world-building there's more to come" kind of way. So you have my vote because I'm hooked enough that I'd read the next part.

    Good luck to you both.

  7. Wonderfully descriptive, beautiful prose with each entry. But ultimately, the prose must be clear to achieve the best storytelling. I had to re-read each entry to "get" some point.

    With Stella's, it was the part about hearing the heartbeat over the phone. I wish we could have sat in that moment a tad longer for the dramatic effect it deserved and to make it clear to this reader that it was, indeed, a heartbeat. There's holding back information for the sake of mystery and suspense, and then there's holding back too much so the reader suffers whiplash and says, "What did I miss?" The impact would have punched me straight to the gut had this been more clear, especially when Jimmy places his hand on Annie's round belly and we learn the significance of the heartbeat. Kudos, though, for such clean, descriptive prose.

    Which brings me to Richard's entry: again I had to backtrack. Xed is the book? How clever. Wish I didn't have to re-read to discover. The magic intrigued me. Good buildup, kept my interest, but after the line, "No such thing as too careful." I expected something big. Instead of "he could watch the enchanting process at work," dozens of opportunities exist that would have grabbed us by the throat and made us beg for more.

    Since Stella Sterling ends on such a gut-wrenching note, my vote goes to her.

  8. Stella Sterling is the winner for me this round. I need to know what happens next!

  9. Both strong entries for sure, but my vote goes to Richard.

    Stella's piece did build up suspense in a fine fashion, but some of the MC's language was internally inconsistent. I had a hard time reconciling someone who uses the words, "butt", "outta my gourd", "yanks", and "gonna" with someone who would think, "Relief crashes over me like a welcome torrent. My chest heaves with elation," all of which was a bit overdone. I also had a hard time with the concept of needing a phone connection to hear a fetus' beating heart (from whom is never explained). Wouldn't a stethoscope be sufficient? Another thing that bothered me was the implication that the MC had done this before ("--It's my lifeline"), but then he goes and answers the phone with the conventional "Hello" greeting. Didn't he know that the beating heart wouldn't need a greeting, and/or wouldn't answer in kind?

    I loved Richard's description of the infusion table, the items on it, and its awakening by the shaft of sunlight. I agree with other commenters that he could have done a better job imparting the concept that Zed was a book. I had to read it three times to figure that out. He could have economized words from the one-thousand-warnings discussion and devoted them to the Zed-is-a-book thing. And the slight breeze through the tower room became a hook unused. "Xed looked worried" was telling not showing, but all in all, Richard captured my imagination more than Stella.

  10. There were lots of questions left by Stella's piece, but they were the good kind of questions. You get some random snippets of the world and what's going on, then this emotional ending that hints at the reasoning for the beginning. That is very well done.

    The second, Richard's, was kind of flat. I didn't feel any suspense there and it might have been better to focus on the interaction between the two characters or perhaps the suspense, but the paragraph listing items required for the spell seemed unnecessary and really pulled back on the pacing.

    My vote is for Stella.

  11. I would enjoy the elements of Richard's world but I didn't feel pulled to find out about the enchantment process. Also when he was describing all the material around him, I got bored and skimmed.

    I think Stella's first line can be redone for effect. It took the paragraph to get into it but by the end of the phone call I was interested. What I like most and why my vote goes for Stella is after he(?) got home and I find out the call was a heartbeat I wanted (and did) reread the passage again. I loved the woman standing with her hands on her lower back :D If a premise can engage me enough to go back and find the clues, I'm in.

    Stella is my vote.

  12. I'll go with Stella here.

    I felt more involved with the character. I do agree with other comments that it was confusing. I initially thought he was relieved because there was no one on the line, and he got to put off the inevitable a while longer. Then I was confused about the other woman and her call, because he was hoping she got something he was putting off. Had to reread. Pausing a moment on that heart beat would help.

    That being said, Stella's was more tightly written than the other piece, and infused with the character's main desire, which unified it.

    For Rorr's piece, I need to know what Rorr wants, his emotional pulse, to get into the scene. But Richard's world-building and details were pretty cool.

  13. I'll pull out my best Marlon Brando impersonation: Stella!
    The twist at the end pulled it altogether for me. It leaves me questioning what kind of strange, twisted world this is we're reading. It was a question that made me want to read more to find out the answer. Also, will the woman waiting get a phone call as well.
    Unfortunately, I didn't connect with the second. The first line and opening is a bit soft. I was lost in all the detail and zoned out part way through. It read better the second time and held my attention more, but overall, this isn't a genre I read much, so that may influence me most. The talent of the author is clear, but I would need either a stronger character build or a bit more action to keep reading.

  14. These were both very good and very interesting. Description was great and despite the short pieces, I got a feel for the characters.

    My vote goes to Stella, however, because I got emotion from the characters. In Richard's piece I would've liked to see morenof that. Were they fearful at all, excited, anxious for some reason? With all that is going on, and clearly dangerous, I only felt as if they were merely curious.

    My vote is for Stella.

  15. Stella Sterling
    I enjoyed this piece for its vagueness and simplicity, but there were a few times where I was confused. Why was there a phone booth all the way out there? I didn’t get that the sound he heard was a heartbeat until the end. I have no idea who the woman at the booth was and why. And lastly, if this is a magic phone booth, why wasn’t there a line? I love stories that are short and to the point, but not at the expense of story. I think those remaining 200 words could have gone a long way to explaining this world a little better.

    Richard Knight
    This story was interesting and engaging (great job with description) but we don’t know what’s at stake. We know he has seven more tries before something terrible happens. My advice is to start on try number 999. Make this his final chance before it’s all over. Also, we need to know what he is going to accomplish with this spell. Just a little more motivation would really help this story shine.

    I hate picking favorites, but my vote goes to Stella Sterling.

    Thanks for sharing!

  16. I vote for Stella. The story is very concise and leaves the reader to think. I do think Perrin above made a good point though that the "rhythmic sound" being so vague actually hurts it. At least some description so we might GUESS what the sound is (I actually wasn't entire sure the second "Hello" was the main character until later - it could be someone on the other end of the line). So a little too much mystery, but well written and keeps it moving.

    With Richard's story, I was COMPLETELY put off as soon as I read the first line (the title). It's just so over-the-top, and indeed the story itself is more of that, with all the super-exotic ingredients and brief descriptions of how they came to be. This is more my own personal issue, but such high-high fantasy is just so silly to me, I can't really appreciate it. It is well written though, there are a lot of evocative descriptions in it.

    993 warnings is also outrageously excessive. Think about just the raw time it would take to say that sentence 993 times. That book would be thrown out the window 900 warnings ago.

    Incidentally, like someone else previously, I had a really hard time understanding that Xed was the book. Looking back, I can get it, but since we don't expect a book to be a character, I think we needed more there, like "Xed riffled his pages at me" or some such thing.

  17. Vote: Stella Sterling

    Stella left me with questions and I have a hunch it could just easily be classified as a Sci-Fi or Fantasy as a Suspense based on the few details we know so far. The biggest suggestion I have is to check the voice of the character. He came across a bit young for me. I wasn't picturing someone old enough to have a wife.

    Richard's writing created a picture, but I didn't connect with the character because I didn't know his motivation. Why is doing this dangerous thing? I need a hint of why, or for that matter what, he's doing. The talking book was a nice touch though.

  18. So difficult to pick only one, but I have to side with Stella.

    I'm left with questions, but they're questions I'd love to read on to get answers for. I'm clear on several things going on, but unclear on others (who's the person in line of the next phone call, for example) and I'd keep reading to get those answers.

    I also had questions reading about Rorr, but they were more from a confusing standpoint than a curiosity standpoint. I'm sure I'd get to curiosity, but I'd have to get more firmly planted in story first.

    Congrats to both of you for qualifying.

  19. Stella Sterling gets my vote! Great submissions from both!

  20. These are both really nice pieces. Congratulations to both of you.

    For Stella's piece, I liked it a lot, but I wanted to know more. For instance, what people thought it was nuts to drive out to the deserted phone booth? The reason this is relevant is that it seems like a secret mysterious thing, but if everyone the MC is acquainted with knows about the phone, then it's clearly not a secret. Then when we get to the sounds he hears on the phone, even if you don't want to disclose yet that it's a heartbeat, I'd like a lot more here -- more description of what he's hearing, and more important, what he is feeling about what he hears. A clue that he is a he would be good too, and a little more about the phone booth -- how does it even work if it's out here in the desert with nothing else modern around, so maybe just a mention of the phone pole and line, just something. I also agree that the voice shifts from very casual speech to something more formal. More visceral wording would work better when discussing his relief. All this is picky stuff, however, because I loved the piece right off the bat, didn't have to read it twice to get it, and it left me wanting more. When he gets with Annie, that part is so tender it really grabbed me. So great job. I'm all about the emotion when it comes to what I like to read.

    For Richard, I also liked it, but I didn't get at all that Xed was a book until I read other critiques, so I was left wondering why a book moving on the table was relevant and why it was called "the" book. Also when Xed landed in the chair, I couldn't picture the landing from the description and just found the thing about landing on the cover odd. I wasn't keen on calling the necromancer "black" because I first thought it was the color of its skin, then I thought it could be construed as a tad racially insensitive. Why not "dark"? And I agree that we needed a little more sense of stakes, and Rorr's emotions. The iterations of warnings was kind of confusing, leaving me calculating time. Clearly the seven seconds have elapsed while Rorr is inspecting the table and we're getting the description. So I would simplify the number of iterations and give it more time, like a minute or two left to go at the start. Then the ending could have had a bit more punch, but if this is a snippet of a larger piece, then I get that it can't always end on a suspenseful beat. Even though fantasy is not my thing, I would definitely keep reading this. All my comments are picky points. I don't mean to discourage because Richard clearly has talent.

    Once again it's a close match, but I'm going to go with Stella.

  21. Stella gets my vote. I love the mystery of it all, and I'd definitely keep reading!

  22. These were incredible - kudos to both writers! There was much to love in each. I particularly enjoyed the humor in Richard's piece as well as the descriptive details of the items for the spell (particularly "Last, a kraken’s tear in a tiny vial. He’d almost drowned getting it.")

    For Stella's, I'm drawn to the mystery of that out-of-place phone booth. I got a "Matrix" type feel immediately and knew something strange was gonna happen, and happen soon.

    In the end, my vote goes to Stella, but I want to say that's ONLY because of personal preference - I enjoy suspense over fantasy, and thought both pieces were excellent.

  23. Both stories confused me in the first read-through. I had to re-read both to understand what was going on. I don't think that's such a good thing.
    But of the two, Stella gets my vote.

  24. Richard Knight, hands down. I was confused about Xed floating through the air. Is he a bird or something? If so, that should have been mentioned. Overall, though, the story was captivating. The description of the spell setup was a bit long-winded, but the build up of tension on the consequences of botching the spell was done nicely. For Stella, the story was intriguing, but there was too much of the major points left unexplained, and so the story made no sense to me. A phone call in the middle of the desert to hear the heartbeat of the baby in his wife's belly at home? And who was the chick standing near the phone booth? Is this an alien planet or an altered earth? Again, too confusing, but what I could garner was interesting.

  25. Kudos to both pieces for making it into Write Club!

    Honestly, these were both really hard to critique, as they were both just so good! At the end of the day, though, if I have to narrow it down, there were a few grammatical errors in Richard Knight's that pulled me out of the story a bit. I loved the whimsy, I love the tongue-in-cheek feel to it, but Stella's piece... I hesitate to say 'flawless', but... , man. Had me completely hooked from beginning to end.

    My vote goes to Stella Stirling!

  26. Close call today.

    Stella, though painting a bleakly beautiful setting, perplexed me with both the situation and the anonymous narrator--hard to identify with, and the many questions raised confusion more than suspense.

    Richard fully grounded me in the scene, gave me two fun quirky characters (I got that one of them is a book) but then let the excitement and tension dissipate with an extended description of the various tokens. But Xed's voice clinched it for me.

    Today's vote to Richard Knight.

  27. Stella Sterling kind of confused me. I like Richard Knight's fantasy story more, so that's my vote.

  28. This is a close one! Ultimately I'd have to go with Stella simply because I typically prefer contemporary, and this sounds more matched to my reading preferences. Both are deserving of a win, however, and it'd be very cool if one could be brought back in the save round!

  29. As much as I like fantasy, I prefer Stella in this match up. With only 500 words, I got lost in the minutia of ingredients.

    However, I would say that I would prefer to know more about the main character sooner. I was expecting a woman, probably because I am a woman, and there was another woman waiting at the phone booth. I was disconcerted when the character was male. That would be the only thing I would fix. I want to know more

    vote: Stella

    JoAnne Turner

  30. Stella Sterling gets my vote today!

    My favorite detail of the whole piece was how the woman waiting for the booth had her hands on her lower back. Anyone who has even been pregnant or has loved someone who has been pregnant knows that posture. It's the posture of being completely exhausted but unable to rest because there is too much to do, regardless of the life you're growing in your own body. That one woman with her hands on her back waiting for the phone gave me all the information I need. This is some strange new world where babies are scarce and women who bear children are somehow safe from the horrendous rules of the land. This partner who has waited in the phone booth has received word that his baby and his partner might live to see another day...all from one 30 second phone call.

    Richard Knight's world wasn't giving up its secretes so easily. While I don't mind having to work for my reading, I felt too out of place to be able to piece together a context for this world. I was vaguely reminded of Doctor Who, but it was all very tenuous and not at all clear.

    I truly appreciate both pieces, but Stella Sterling was able to pull me into their world more completely.

  31. My vote goes to Stella Sterling!

  32. While both stories have some wonderful details, I felt more grounded in Stella Sterling. Also, Stella more clearly used only the descriptions necessary. Richard Knight's had some unnecessary movements depicted that made it more difficult to focus on the actual story.

    My vote is for Stella Sterling.

  33. For Stella, a suspenseful moment was glossed over. When there was static, then hello, followed by 'That...' I thought the that was referring to the static. This sped things up and made it unclear that a rythmic, beautiful sound beat in the protagonist's ear. I'm guessing the point was to not give it away but it really wouldn't be obvious because reader doesn't know what's going on yet and glossing over it makes reader have to go back to re-read. Other than that, I loved so many details of this piece from the immediate voice in the first lines to the interaction with the waiting woman, the mystery of the instructions to park far away, the sage smell, to more mystery surrounding the phone call on the closing lines. Good job!

    For Richard, I really enjoyed reading a book character and I immediately got that Xed was a book. However, I would have liked small hints that it was a book earlier(“Sir,” Xed rustled- just as an example) so that when it was stated it was a book, it would've felt more like an 'aha!' moment, instead of a 'wait a sec' moment. Hope that makes sense :) There were too many things that held confusion for me. I wasn't sure what the 'one thousand' was referring to(days? spells?). What are these warnings and why did Xed fly across the room? When it got to 'He stared down at the six-pointed star' all the way up to 'stung his eyes', there was so much description going on that my mind wandered. If more of the 'why' things are happening and more emotions(which often help clarify why something is happening) are added in between all of this description, it would help this piece a lot as it has a lot going for it.

    For this I pick Stella Sterling.

  34. Two great entries here. Congratulations to both contestants for getting into the ring. Stella Sterling had me wondering what the heck was going on, but the tight POV kept me engaged. Good sensory detail. If I had one suggestion, it would be to spend a few more words describing the sound of the heartbeat in vivid detail, to contrast it with the harsh ring.
    Richard Knight's piece is right up my alley. I'm not clear on what kind of flying creature the sidekick is, but I like the item based magic system. My main critique is this: not enough happens. I want to see the deadly magic in action sooner.

    Well done, both of you. My vote goes to Stella Sterling.

  35. Stella - Some lines could have been tighter. ("My butt wiggled deeper into the sand as I scratched my back against the trunk of the Joshua tree," or "The phone rings - a harsh, metallic sound, out of place in this scorching stillness," as examples.) I agree with others that you might have invested a few more words in "that rhythmic, beautiful sound" to draw out its significance, but I can't tell you how much I love the understated elegance of choosing to "return the phone to its cradle, as if I might hurt her..." and the woman with her hands on her lower back. These clues, sprinkled with such ease into the narrative... Well done. I have questions, but the sample leaves me with a sense of trust that the author will reveal all in due time, and I would keep reading.

    Richard Knight - Your writing is solid, but the piece felt like a lot of build-up with no real delivery. The warning from the book, the arrangement of the items, the beam of sunlight, the obsidian goggles... and for what? Maybe with a few more words, something significant would have happened, but we didn't quite get there. If you make it to the next round, consider how you can deliver a complete scene in 500 words. You might need to pare down to the bare essentials in detail and voice -- don't neglect either, but think about what's really necessary vs. what you can omit for the sake of having enough room to round out the scene. I could be wrong, but I suspect entries fare better when readers experience the satisfaction of a completed scene or a dramatic cliffhanger vs. say, a chill magician putting on his shades to watch an unspecified enchantment unfold.

    My vote goes to Stella today. Best of luck to both of you!

  36. At first, Stella Sterling's story seemed kind of WTF but once the phone call came, the story took an exciting turn that raised more questions than it answered, justifying the "suspense" category. Richard Knight's story did not really grab me until the last six paragraphs but then yowza, I wanted to read more!

    It's a hard call, but Stella moved her story along much more quickly and effectively, I think. So my vote goes to Stella Sterling.

  37. This is a tough one. Richard Knight's tale gave me a laugh and pulled me in with a fun and intriguing tone. Stella Sterling made me sit forward and ask myself what was going on. Then it hit me and I thought "woah, I want to know more about this world." So my vote goes to Stella Sterling, though it wasn't an easy choice.

  38. My vote is for Stella Sterling. Her story sucked me in just with its strangeness while Knight's story didn't draw me in as much. I had to read both twice to fully understand them, but Stella's was out of making sure I had read it correctly and Knight's was because I thought I had missed something, which I had on the first read.

  39. What a difficult choice! These two were SO good.

    I liked the concept in Stella’s and definitely felt the emotion at the end. But I also liked the action in Richard Knight. And there was a talking book involved! Who doesn’t want a talking book in their corner?:)

    In the end I just had to choose the story I want to keep my vote goes to Richard Knight.

  40. Vote for Stella. Both writers are talented, but I leaned just a bit toward Stella.

  41. My vote has got to Stella Sterling on this one. The tension, the mystery, the concept that an ethereal heart beat ensures the birth of a baby and over an aging phone booth in the middle of the desert to boot. Priceless imagination and great execution. My only question is whether or not the story has legs or is a single stand-alone piece nearly perfect as it is, loaded with so much information in just a few short paragraphs that allows the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps.

    Richard Knight's entry is a formidable foe though and one that may have more story behind it. However, I find it to be a bit cluttered with mysticism (i.e. floating, talking books) that detracts a bit from the magic at hand. Would like to see this be a bit more raw, the magic a bit more fantastic or unique within the landscape of the story. This would provide more tension.

  42. I feel like I should apologize here, because both of these entries left me confused. Take that or leave it--if other commenters are saying the same thing (I don't read other comments first), you may want to look through for places you can clarify. Or maybe it's just me...obviously the early readers chose these two entries for the contest. There's good writing in both, but it could use some grounding and explanation--in my opinion.

    All that said, I'll vote for Knight's piece, because it had me laughing at the beginning!

  43. Stella's world was fascinating, but the inconsistency in the language of the protagonist took me out of the story. Smooth that out and it's a good scene. I'd read more just to learn about the world.

    The Knight's piece kept my interest and made me want to read more. The long paragraph in the middle describing the table would be better in show versus tell approach in my opinion. Its all good stuff, but I skimmed to get to the action.

    Overall I vote for Knight's piece. It was internally consistent and fun to read.

  44. Stell Sterling gets my vote. There's an air of mystery built in the few words, and I want to know what it's about and where they characters are. Richard Knight's piece is intriguing but the careless tone does not make me want to delve too deep.

  45. Once again both of these are stories that make me want to read the entire book. Congrats to both on being selected and put into the ring.

    Stella's story is well "Wow" about sums it up. 300 mere words and yet I hung on every single one. The thing I liked best it was like a gift that keeps on giving. The story reminds me of the film "The Usual Suspects". You can watch that film over and over and still find clues you missed during the previous viewing. I re-read Stella's story at least 4 times, and it just kept giving. Some have commented about the phone, and why he says "Hello" if he expects a heartbeat. I loved that moment as when individuals are faced with big emotional events we cling to what we know to cope. I once lost a dear pet and insisted we bring a blanket to the Vet's office so she could stay warm and comfortable in the area they store pet's bodies until the funeral home arrives. I knew she was dead but when faced with such emotions we cling to what we know. Here our MC says "hello" as that is what we do when we answer a phone, even if we know or expect the call to be a miracle event of something bigger. I can't get this story out of my mind and absolutely my #1 top favorite thus far in the competition!u

    Richard Knight's piece is cute and I loved the book as a character but agree fluttering his pages or like descriptions would be words better spent than all the interesting ingredients. We needed to know more about the big event and maybe even experience it. It would have been better to use the words spent on the ingredients to give us the epic event. That said, very lovely story and I wish I could read more!!

    My vote is for Stella Sterling!

  46. Not much in it, once again, but Richard’s little world had me wanting to know a lot more, so he gets my vote.

  47. Stella drew me in. Making my mind start trying to put the pieces together. I found I was rereading to make sure I hadn't skipped something important.

    Knights piece has promise. This scene is scattered a bit, and make me wonder when the story would start, but I kept reading to see where was the magic we haven't seen before about to happen.

    Vote for Stella.

  48. Although both were great in terms of pacing I preferred Stella's character and ending were what swayed me to give my vote to Stella.

  49. Stella: Amazing opening! I loved the sparse voice, the present tense, how she painted the character, who I immediately could feel from his voice. It's intriguing immediately e.g. I wondered why interference was a problem. Then I loved the big reveal, it was a big surprise. Great mystery set up leaving just enough unsaid. Cool concept. I REALLY wanted to read on. Wow!

    Richard: I liked the little bit of humour near the start. I think it would be worth saying more in those first lines about what the 'items' really are. I'm also an idiot, but it took me some time to realise Xed's a book. I was just confused. I didn't really feel the danger - lots of telling rather than showing that what he was doing was dangerous, but if more internal sensations were used (e.g. see the Emotion Thesaurus), it would draw me in. I felt like a distant spectator. I think the phrase 'lifted into the air' could be used more effectively by using a verb which explains how it happened (drifted / floated/ thrust).

    Overall: Big vote for Stella.

  50. Throwing my vote for Richard.

    Stella, I enjoyed the evocative settings and the weirdness of it had me asking good questions, but if this is the end of the piece then I don't know what to think. I'm not able to make the connection between this weird telephone booth and a baby about to be born, but I do get his desire to drive so far just to hear it. Wondering if you can give us some more solid pieces to grab onto.

    With Richard's I wasn't grabbed right away. I felt the dangerousness of the situation through Xed's reaction. I liked the magic and the history behind some of the items you listed. But maybe figure out a way to hook the reader right away without spoiling the surprise of what this enchantment will do? Because I'm curious what's going to happen next, but I think you want that curiosity to pull me in right away.

  51. Stella. What a wallop in such a small excerpt that ends on a satisying note. She gets my vote.

  52. This is a hard comparison to make, since (if I'm reading them right) Stella's piece is a complete story, while Richard's is an opening to a longer piece. This automatically gives Stella an edge, since there's such satisfaction at the end, while an opening piece by definition is unfinished. The main problem I had with Richard's piece, though, is that it feels like familiar territory. The wizard is setting up a dangerous spell, hoping to accomplish something we don't know about. There are a few new elements, from the minor (the star has six points instead of the more traditional pentagram) to the surprising (the secondary character is a book), but overall it doesn't draw me in. I think it would help to give me a sense of what Rorr's goal is and why it's worth the risk of blowing himself up. When the event finally happens, there's no actual cataclysmic, threatening event that we see.

    Stella's story makes me hear Rod Serling's voice inviting me into the Twilight Zone. There are a host of unanswered questions, and some mysteries that are unnecessarily mysterious (I didn't actually figure out who the other woman at the phone was until I read the comments), but overall it builds to a satisfying emotional climax. I don't need to know why an impossible phone miles from any road is needed to relay a fetal heartbeat any stethoscope could pick up, or why the existence of a heartbeat today guarantees a successful birth in the future. It's magic, and it made me catch my breath at the end.

    I vote for Stella.

  53. One more vote for Stella Sterling. It felt like Breaking Bad! Though I did love the descriptions in Richard Knight.

  54. My vote is for Richard Knight, but it was definitely a close round.
    in Stella Sterling's has great presence in character and immediacy, there's a lot of questions, and history that's hinted at. In some ways, that gave me a lot of suspense and curiosity, and in some ways I felt like I didn't have enough information, but overall it was a very smooth piece.
    For Richard Knight, the characters were really vivid for me, especially the book. I would have liked to know some of the stakes, what happens if it doesn't work, what happens if it does.

  55. My votes goes for Richard Knight

  56. My vote goes for Richard Knight.
    This was an extremely tough choice - I read Stella's and instantly thought, This has my vote. Even the small amount of world we see is fully thought out, including little details like he was off his gourd. The suspense to know what the call was about was fully built up to the reveal, and it left me intrigued as to "who" told him to come, and "who" told him to park so far away to avoid interference. The other woman in the field actually confused me a bit - how did he know the phone call was for him, and not for her? Perhaps, it just made me even more curious about this interesting world Stella has set up.
    Richard Knight's piece has the feel of a perfect opening scene. I get a snippet of both characters, how they interact, and that there is something very dangerous afoot. I will say it took a moment to realize it was a book speaking, though once that was cleared up I thoroughly loved the idea. I also felt the banter about the number of times the warning had been present a bit laborious, but not enough to stop my enjoyment of this piece. Great description that really made me feel like I was standing in the room too.

  57. Stella Sterling- Well written, but I am so confused. Why is there a phone booth 8 miles from anything? Aren’t they usually at gathering places like honkey tonks or gas stations in the middle of nowhere. What phone company is going to lay out a line to a booth that far away??? Also, why doesn’t he just go home to hear his baby’s heartbeat? This reads more like scifi to me than suspense since it was like he was calling his unborn child from a payphone. The woman with him is standing with her hands on her lower back which says pregnant woman to me. So maybe she is waiting to call someone and let them listen to the heartbeat of her unborn child? Also, once again, I thought the main character was a woman until his wife called him Jimmie. This also appears shorter than 500 words which could have been used to clear up some of the confusion.

    Richard Knight-A bit confusing? Is the book talking? Is the book Xed? If he is a book he has features, and he must have a mouth to be talking. Otherwise I as picturing a robot or something, no eyes, or face, or features. If the MC is a high level sorcerer, he probably doesn’t need to be told to step back from the crazy magic taking place. He would know better. The description of the star/runes was a bit wordy, but I liked the last bit where you hinted at an adventure where he almost drowned to get the kracken’s tear. This gives insight into your character (he didn’t just hire someone to get all the items for him, he went out and risked his life to do it himself). Tinted goggles brings to mind steampunk. Is this steampunk fantasy?

    My vote goes to Richard Knight for being less confusing overall.

  58. Stella Sterling is overwritten. Richard Knight gets my vote.

  59. Stella Sterling gets my vote, though I wish we'd gotten closer to the 500 words. Being able to get so much said into those 306 words means some more clarification that I would've liked. But I was sucked in and wanted to know more.

  60. Another interesting round without a clear winner ... until the second read.

    Stella Sterling, your piece feels like good bones without a layer of muscle to give it definition. We don't know your character is a man. We don't know much about the setting or how he's feeling sitting there. Has he been here before? Has the phone rung, but without sound on the other end? How does he know this call is for him and not the other woman standing there? You could ground the reader with a little more information and not give away the fact that he's somehow hearing his baby's heartbeat.

    Richard Knight, the POV seems at first to be Xed's, so when Rorr first is mentioned, it's a bit jarring to have the POV seem to switch. (After re-reading I realize it wasn't a switch, but that was my knee-jerk reaction.) The first read I didn't understand Xed was a book. I believe I would have been less confused if you'd started with a sentence that clearly was in Rorr's POV. ie: "The midday sun slanted through the window warning Rorr he had minutes to be ready" ... then begin Xed's dialogue, perhaps having the pages flutter as he spoke, immediately making it clear to the reader that the words are coming from the old tome.

    Because there was more description and making the entry less confusing, my vote goes to Richard Knight.

  61. This round is very hard for me, because while fantasy is my genre of choice, I certainly had an emotional response to Stellas piece. The fantasy genre was certainly very well represented in Richard’s piece, and I would love to read the rest of his story. Ultimately though, I am going to vote for Stella, for making me feel something...thank you both so much for sharing!

  62. Stella: You had me at hello.

    To be sure, I had to read it twice to get there. But once I knew about the results of the phone call, I was all in. The pregnant woman waiting for her call was a lovely touch. And “we won’t lose another,” rang for me personally. It left me with questions and made me want to read more.

    Richard: I’m sorry, I didn’t connect as well with this piece, and I love fantasy. I had to read a few times to realize Xed was the book, and there are several places where you find echo words (ie energy swelled & swirling energy in the same paragraph) and the list of items became just a list of things, making it less interesting. Maybe he could place each piece or touch it, or have some emotional reaction to it.

    For me, this one was Stella by knockout. (Sorry, Richard!)

  63. Stella had me hook, line and sinker. I want to know more.
    Richard, I think your story is wonderful but I need a little more umph.

  64. I had trouble following what was happening in each of these. I think that was just a product of the submission length but without context, I struggled. Stella probably has a fantastic story, but I can't tell what I'm looking at without more. I get the gist of Knight's tale, but I don't follow the stakes. I vote for Stella, but I'm guessing this would have been a very different experience if they had been thousand word submissions.

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