Aug 29, 2013

Third Place: Don't Let Go by Meaghan Ward

I only remembered two words.  Everything else was a blur.  But those two words were all that mattered, right?  First I said them, stuttering and tripping on them.  Then he said them, firm, confident, determined. 
“I do.”
He didn’t kiss me.  And I didn’t think my father would add that important marriage bit to seal our vows.  

Romance was wasted on us. There we were under a cracked arch in an underground tunnel surrounded by the warm, somehow intimate, glow of a dozen candles, and yet all I could smell was damp earth and years of decay from the gaping black entrance of my ancestor’s catacomb. 
I didn’t need a man who would love me.  I needed a man who had a sword he knew how to wield and had made a vow he was honor bound to never break.  That’s all that mattered.  Because not only was I now my father’s only child, I was the only heir.

The tunnels were still and heavy with a thousand unspoken words.  I turned to my father.  His shoulders drooped, his head hung low, and he nodded.  “There’s not much time.  They may have broken through the gates already.”
 “Papa,” I choked.
“Hush, Ava.” My father said. He stepped closer and his hands cupped my chin.  “Don’t speak. You are all I have left.  If this is the last night I ever lay eyes upon you, let my last glimpse be of you heading to safety.”
“But Papa—”
“As your king, I order you to leave.  As your father, I plead with you to go. Promise me, Avalon… promise me…”

I nodded, not really knowing what I was promising.  Curse these tears!  The last few seconds I’d see my father alive and he was a giant blur.  I swiped them away with the back of my hand, willing his face back into focus.  He was looking over my shoulder now, staring down my knight husband. 
“If any harm comes to her, and I yet live, you will be a dead man.”
“If any harm comes of her, Sir, it will be because someone beat you to it.”

And my father smiled – a small, pained smile that thrust a dagger of pain through my chest.  He stepped back and spared me one last glance as soft as a caress.  “Never lose hope, Ava,” he said to me.  Then to my new husband: “Take her and be gone.”  He took another step back beyond the circle of light and the darkness swallowed him.

“Papa,” I whispered numbly as the world around me, that halo of light, was reduced to the flicker of a single candle, of fingers digging into my shoulder, and a deep voice that urged me to follow.
I was dragged down the tunnel. My legs felt leaden.  Not a word we breathed, and yet our silence seemed louder than words with the echo of his boots and the whisper of my skirts on stone.  Water trickled down the wall and dripped from the ceiling with a deafening, plop… plop… plop…  And above it all, somewhere beyond the layers of rock and dirt that entombed us, was the almost imperceptible clash of war and the final cry of a dying kingdom.

Ahead, dull grey light signaled the end of the tunnel and the beginning of the forest.  It was raining, and wisps of cool wind feathered against my brow.   Our light went out with a hiss. The candle was tossed aside.  It hit the ground, broke and lay bent at an odd angle, the wick the only thing holding it together.
“We’ll have to move quickly,” the man at my side said. His voice was soft and rumbly as his breath brushed against my ear. 
I shot the dark knight – my husband – a double take. I wish I could have read his face, but there was no expression, no feeling, nothing.  Just a mask.

He reached for my hand, gave my fingers a squeeze.  “Don’t let go, Princess.”
I nodded.  At least, I think I did.
Silently, we moved like shadows into the forest behind the castle.  Thorns ripped at my dress and pinged off his armor.  There was a nicker from the shadow of an oak. 

Before I knew what was happening, hands were around my waist, lifting me onto the back of a black destrier as if I weighed nothing, as if the horse wasn’t taller than him, and the knight wasn’t already weary from fighting hand to hand in the courtyard not five minutes before our impromptu wedding.
He mounted behind me. My back pressed against the metal of his breastplate, and it felt awkward – so awkward.

Who was this man I married? Who was this battle-hardened knight with the scar slashing across the side of his face who gently pulled my skirt over my knees and tucked it around my legs? I had to ask myself the question even though I felt all dead and empty on the inside - even though I didn’t want to think about anything or feel anything.  

He wrapped his arms around me to take the reins, and shifted uncomfortably. A click of his tongue and the giant destrier sidestepped and plodded forward with a snort. 
I sat rigid, every heavy step of the horse taking me further from the castle and jolting my spine.  Away from home and papa…  To disappear into the wilderness with a husband who had never really ever spoken to me except to say ‘I do’ and ‘don’t let go’…

“Don’t let go, Princess,” he said again.  The third time he spoke to me and he felt the need to repeat himself.  As if I could ever forget that he was my sole protector, and like the candle, the only thing that held us together was a vow woven in darkness.

And then it clicked.  He wasn’t good with words.  They came in short clipped breaths, but now I understood his meaning. 
Princess.  He’d called me Princess.
I twisted to peer behind us for one last glimpse of the castle I’d called home.  No.  It wouldn’t be the last time.

Don’t let go.
Don’t lose hope.
Because I was the true heir.
And this wasn’t the end.

Overall: 4 stars
This one wasn't an instant yes as the other two were, but the longer I considered third place, the more I came back to this one. I considered others, I vacillated, and still this story sat there, insolent and not caring what I thought. It was this self-assuredness that won me over. This story doesn't seem to need you to like it. It just is.

Concept: 3.5 stars
This isn't the most original concept I've ever seen, but my judgement isn't based on concept alone. I love how the author takes a classic, almost legendary, concept, and puts her unique voice and touch on it. From the moment we meet Avalon she has a strong draw that encourages us to look deeper than the fairy-tale veneer and imagine the real people involved.

Plot: 4.5 stars
The plot is one of the things that really shines in this story. The character arc and resolution are strong for such a short piece, stronger even than the two higher-placing entries. Like a candle in a dark tunnel, it pulls you on through the story, sticking you right inside Avalon's head and her adventure. I also love the mixed open/closed ending. There's a strong sense of closure but also what I as a musician call a "leading tone", a note that doesn't quite resolve the song, leading you on to the next part or just not concluding the song at all (those are The Most Infuriating Songs Ever.) And the fact that the last line is "this wasn't the end" is very, very clever - even though the last words are "the end", it again breaks convention by contradicting itself. To me, it's part of that confidence the story seems to have.

Characters: 4 stars

Avalon is a strong character. You can see that from the beginning. Placing her in a crisis was a good move. Whereas All My Tomorrows begins with a character comfortable in her setting and The Magpie begins with a character in his element, Don't Let Go begins abruptly, almost rudely, with Avalon's world ripping apart at the seams. Takeover, death, marriage, escape - all huge blows Avalon takes admirably. But each one chips away at her mask, showing us a little more of who she is, all in a very short time. Again, there is only one named character. The knight and Avalon's father remain secondary, though important, and that's just as it should be.

Execution: 3.5 stars

The strong voice is another of my favorite parts of this story. It's also one of the few entered that I couldn't justify suggesting that it be trimmed. This story is tight, each detail in its place, each sentence bursting with character. Not only Avalon's, but the author's as well. I've read enough of her writing to appreciate her strongly developed voice. It's actually similar to mine, since I've mistaken her writing for mine a few times. I've suggested swapping scenes before - giving her the info on one of my yet-unwritten bits and taking the info for one of hers and then each of us writing the other's scene. She has yet to take me up on it. Bummer.

Technical: 3.5 stars

As in most of the submitted pieces, I would like to see less passive voice. (I'm starting to sound like one of those rule-pounding editors. Heaven forbid. Let me say here and now that passive voice has its place. It just doesn't fit well here.) The mix of short, strong sentences with the unneeded passivity is slightly grating. Let me assure you, however, that it's nowhere near as bad as some of the drafts I wrote. Maybe I should post some of those on here sometime so you can all laugh at me.

That's it for the top three! Come back next week for the first of five runners-up. Title and author are secret until then. ;)

Aug 27, 2013

My guest post at Alyson's blog is live!

I don't have time for a "real" post (since I'm motivated again and I don't want to waste it) but I'm featured today over at Alyson Schroll's blog, answering the same questions she answered about our respective conferences.

My guest post here

Alyson's guest post here

Rest assured I have some more "real" posts in the works, and I think they're going to be fabulous. ;)

Until then,

Aug 22, 2013

Second Place: The Magpie by Kitra Skene

Caeldrin pushed back his hood and examined the necklace in the moonlight.  The jacinths of Lady Ellendor reflected the full moon more softly than they had the candlelight.  They now looked a soft brown rather than sharp orange.  He shoved them back into his pocket and peered out of the alleyway into the empty streets.  The Ellendor Mansion was only a few streets behind and his stage was set.
He slinked across the street and behind a wide building.  Every building here was made of even blocks of stone; much easier to scale than the wood of some towns.  Caeldrin slowly slid his fingers along the edge of a stone before gripping it with both hands.  His feet found similar grips so that, with thought, he easily reached the rooftop.  Now he had but to wait.

He leaned against the parapet and emptied his pockets onto the roof in front of himself.  Brooches, bracelets, rings, diamonds, pearls and jades were laid out in front of him.  He straightened them out and examined them one by one.  Here was an emerald bracelet.  He had been Cantor then.  A pink diamond ring; Tavin.  Caedrin fondly turned over a tiara set with fire topaz.  There he had given the name of Draen.  As he took each one, he recalled a name.  Shatar, Jorin, Ral, Vern, Sorvin; each piece came from a different city and a different identity.  None of them had ever been known to be stolen by a young name called Caedrin, and Caedrin wasn’t sure any ever would.  As he carefully put each piece back into the pockets in his cloak, he came to the jacinth necklace.  He hadn’t given himself a name for tonight yet.  He stowed it as well and imagined how the events of the morning would turn.  He grinned as he recalled the incredulous or angry faces of guards whenever he made himself known to them, hearing the shouts as he made his getaway, and one last look from far off at another city he had once again escaped.  The memories led an amused smirk across his face.

Sounds of distant distress began to rise.  Caeldrin turned his head lazily and listened.  It certainly was coming from the Ellendor mansion.  He didn’t bother getting up right away, the guards would take their time looking around near to the mansion before venturing further down the streets.  He didn’t move until he heard someone run by on the cobblestone street, then it was to peer over the edge of the parapet.  A guard had indeed gone down this street.  They would be keeping an eye out on the roads.  Now was the time.

Standing up quietly, Caeldrin took a clay bottle that had been left on the roof and dropped it into the alleyway.  Instantly he heard the sound of footsteps and soon saw the guards who made them.  He tried to look startled by his apparent mistake, but couldn’t suppress another grin.
“This will not be the last time you are baffled by the cunning of Peridan Nomar!” he called out mockingly.  

They shouted for reinforcements as Caeldrin took off over the rooftops.  Inwardly, he was disappointed.  He had gone by Ral Nomar before and it was the first time in his five years of theft that he had repeated a name.

He led the guards along the streets until he decided to lose them, which he managed as easily as ever.  He doubled back over a few buildings before turning and heading toward the arch at the edge of town.  The eastern sky was turning grey when he reached it, though the moon was still bright and at its zenith.  He began to climb the same even stones of the Arch quickly.  If he was above the rooftops when the sun rose, he would be well hidden in its rays.

He was right.  The sun crept over the horizon just as he reached the level top.  In a moment, he would be lying atop the arch and pass the time eating the food he had scavenged and stolen throughout the past week until he could safely escape the city.  There were a few armor clad feet to be heard below, so Caeldrin gripped the stone foot of one of the gargoyles and turned to look over his shoulder to see where they were.  

He had barely turned to look to the ground when he was nearly scared out of his skin by something cold and hard gripping his wrist.  He whipped his head back around to see the fore claw of the gargoyle latched around his arm, its empty eyes were fixed on him and the same hungry grimace was frozen to its face.  Caeldrin could barely breathe from fear but he struggled hopelessly to free his wrist without losing the grip that his feet and free hand still held on the side of the arch.

The gargoyle stretched out its other stone claw and tore Caeldrin’s cloak from his neck.  It then pushed the first claw quickly toward the struggling Caeldrin and dropped him.  He screamed as he fell all the way past the rooftops and crumbled into the merciless cobblestones below, but no one that heard him could see what had caused his fall.  

Several guards were present at a moment’s notice but, though they searched his body and the cloak that fell after him, all they were able to recover weere some biscuits and sausages that had gone missing yesterday morning.  This was the last time anyone was baffled by the cunning of Peridan Nomar, and it cannot even be called the first time that anyone knew a lonely young man called Caeldrin.

Find Kitra Skene at

My thoughts:
Overall: 4.5 stars
When I got this entry, I thought, Yes. This is the one. It remained in first place until Grace Pennington's entries came in, and even then I was hesitant to knock it down to second. It has the same bittersweet quality as All My Tomorrows, but is less emotionally engaging and more factual. All the same, it grabbed me when I started reading and didn't let go even after I closed the doc. I sat there for another two or three minutes and thought about it. Then I read the name again and realized how it tied in, and then I sat and thought about that for another two or three minutes. It's subtly unusual and I like that.

Concept: 4 stars
The solitary perspective character, comfortable setting, and straightforward language make this another simple story at heart. But I love the intricacy suggested by the gems spread out and twinkling like memories on the rooftop. This is a well-rooted character, even though we only get to see his life for an hour at most. This faux-depth is a technique I've seen taught in drawing, where if you have a scaled animal you can draw scales around a few prominent edges and your brain will fill in the rest.

Plot: 3.5 stars 
This is a quiet plot. It sneaks around in dark clothes in the shadows and pretends not to be there. It's also unsatisfactory, and that's part of why it stayed as high as second place, and part of why it didn't take first. (I mean, why did the gargoyle grab him? And where are the gems? Did the gargoyle take them or what?) I have a love-hate relationship with open endings. (Inception, anyone? Yes, I know some people claim it's not really open, but let's not listen to them. I'd rather rant about it the way it is.) It also has a surprising but compelling amount of monologue. Since this story clocks in just under 1000 words and we have so little time to get to know the character, him reminiscing about his past thefts works. In a novel I would insist on more gradual backstory reveal. See? I'm learning. I knew this contest would be good for me.

Characters:  4 stars 
This is one character I would probably read a novel about. He reminds me slightly of Kelsier from Mistborn: The Final Empire. The laziness, the ingenuity. I'm also fascinated by his motivation for stealing all the jewelry. It obviously wasn't money, since he hadn't sold any of them - was it only attraction to shiny things, as the title suggests, or something more? I also love the way the author didn't try to add interest by shoving another few characters in. For a 1,000-word story, a strong character like Caeldrin fills it nicely.

Execution: 3.5 stars
This one wasn't as polished or punchy as All My Tomorrows, which is another reason it took second. The passive voice and comma splices bumped it down a couple stars, unfortunately. The author struck a good balance between thought and action, though, that kept me interested without dragging things down or speeding them up too much.

Technical: 4 stars
This didn't require much editing and is solid except for a few easily-overlooked mistakes. The pacing is decent, could possibly use some tightening, but is acceptable with the introspective tone of the story. Excellent, interesting, and poignant work.

Check back next week for the third place story, Meaghan Ward's Don't Let Go!

Aug 14, 2013

First Place: All My Tomorrows by J. Grace Pennington

It was Misha’s first day minding the shop, and already she’d broken the fifth rule. Always lock the door immediately. When you had the most valuable merchandise in the universe, you had to take the utmost precautions.
She hadn’t meant to disobey. It was just that when she had walked in she forgot everything and stood for a full five minutes just inside the door, feeling the lights and colors reflected in the expression she felt on her face. She knew it by heart, but never had it been hers, to care for and manage and watch over.
A jolt shook the entire shop, causing her to stumble and clutch at one of the file cabinets for support. It seemed to jolt her memory as well, and she jumped as though she’d been slapped, and double bolted the rusty metal door shut.
The rumble subsided, and quiet settled upon the shop again. Turning back around, she saw that the drawer she’d gripped to stay upright had come open slightly, and she pushed it closed and latched it. It was one of the older drawers, and the latch was brown and gritty feeling, and when she pulled her hand away, there was a film of orange rust on her fingers. She started to wipe it down the front of her dress, then stopped herself and just rubbed her fingers together to brush it off.
“That one must be almost gone,” she murmured, and then listened to the very faint echo of her words. She’d never been alone here before. Turning her head, she surveyed the long rows and columns of drawers, reaching far into the darkness, everywhere except where the thick aluminum silicate glass window spanned several feet of one wall, looking out into space. Drawers everywhere, each barely bigger than her hand, reaching so far and so high that she had no hope of ever seeing the end of them. Some of the cabinets were so rusty they were crumbling, and some were still the dull but polished maroon that was standard for the GCC. On each drawer was a name, burned into it by the computer system, and the words ‘Galactic Cabinet Company’ with a phone number. Her gaze followed the sturdy black cables that connected every single drawer to the processor far above her on the ceiling. She couldn’t see where they were plugged in, it was so high up that the darkness hid it, but tiny lights from the computer sparkled like stars.
Once as a child, she’d tried to describe the shop to a friend, and the friend had commented,
It sounds terribly dull. Then, she knew she’d never try to describe it again.
No matter how tight the GCC made the cabinets, they couldn’t keep the colors, the light, the darkness, the smells, the temperatures, the tastes, the emotions, and the sounds from escaping through the cracks. There was no greater thrill than walking by a drawer and feeling a sliver of anger escape, along with a slight scent of roast beef and a dash of warmth. Sometimes she’d catch a snippet of wonder and beauty, tinted with purple and flavored with mint. Other times, a shiver would shake her, and she’d find that she was cold, and would look to see a dark mist seeping from one of the drawers, along with a stench that tasted somehow hollow. Better yet was when a sudden burst of every color would flow freely and sparkle up to the ceiling, accompanied with every feeling that existed all rolled into one. Those moments were always Misha’s favorites, because they were so beautiful. Then her father had explained that that meant someone was dying, and it made her sad, too, but still happy, because it was the best thing in the universe.
And then it would be time to replace that drawer. New people were always being born, and an old rusty drawer would be shipped out, and a new maroon one would come in, ready to be burned with a new name, and filled with new files. Except sometimes, a maroon drawer would go out, and that made Misha sad, because somewhere, somehow, someone had lost their child.
Slowly, she unwound her scarf, keeping her eyes on the cabinets. Wisps of color escaped and floated up to the ceiling, and she caught sight of a hint of green. Tossing scarf and cap on the floor behind her, she darted forward. Green was her favorite. Green was fresh and clean and open and rested, and it usually meant peace. Dodging the other colors, she reached it just in time to let it brush the tips of her fingers. She grinned. This one was a childhood memory, she knew it was. She smelled wet grass, and felt a burst of contentment.
She sighed as it floated away. That was a good one to have caught. She was glad for whoever was remembering it right now. Her father had told her that when bits showed, it was because someone was remembering. Looking at the name on the drawer, she read ‘John Fillmore Tucker III.’ It was still red, with only patches here and there that were just showing rust. John Fillmore Tucker III was a middle-aged man, by the look of it.
She touched the latch, and it slipped out easily. Driven by curiosity, she pulled the drawer open with one finger, just a crack. Green spilled out into the air, and she felt a full blast of the day. It was dew, and a shirt not buttoned straight, and sharp, crisp, open air, and not thinking about anything, and all the smells and sounds of morning. She was there, she could see the overcast sun and feel the childlike dreams and plans and lack of fear.
Closing her eyes, she slammed the drawer shut and replaced the latch. The click echoed in the room, and she felt shame burn her cheeks. Rule number four broken. You weren’t supposed to open the drawers unless there was a technical difficulty. Otherwise, the computer handled all the files itself.
She scurried to the window and settled herself into the swivel chair at the terminal. The terminal, because even though there were others they were rusted over and no longer functioned. Only one had been kept working, because these days only one was needed. In the old days, the shop had been kept busy from morning until night, but now it had been relegated to the stuff of legend, until only a determined few ever came to the out-of-the-way asteroid asking for an exchange of days. Misha remembered when there had been two terminals open, and her father and grandfather would work them, but she had been only seven then. Now things were quiet, Father was getting older, and all her brothers and sisters were grown and had left the asteroid and the shop. Things were so quiet that Father deemed an only-just-sixteen-year-old girl qualified to run the shop now, while he helped her brother move to a planet.
Leaning back in the chair, she looked out the clouded glass at the stars and other asteroids. A piece of rock hurtled towards her and struck at the base of the shop, causing another jolt to rifle through the asteroid. She clutched the arms of the chair to steady herself, feeling the cracked leather pinch her fingers, until the quivers passed.
It wasn’t nearly as interesting over by the terminals. There was nothing to look at except space, and glass, and cobwebs, and the old, brittle copies of the manual for the computer system. She didn’t dare touch the books, for fear they would crumble at a single nudge. And there were no smells except rust and musky leather, and there were no sounds except when a rock hit, or the creaking of the chair if she moved even a centimeter. And there was rarely any emotion to experience except boredom.
She had no way of knowing how much time passed as she sat there. The system would shut itself down when work hours were over, and then she would go home. Until then, she was just to sit there in her best dress and wait, maybe for nothing. She peered back over her shoulder at the colors escaping from the drawers. No one was coming. She’d heard her father say that they only had customers once a week these days, sometimes less. What would it hurt to explore, just a little?
The shop shook again, and she gripped the arms, waiting for the world to stop shaking. But this time, it didn’t keep on trembling. It gave a tiny heave, then paused, then seemed to rest. She knew that feeling, and she felt another grin shape her lips as she turned to the window, straightened her collar, leaned her elbows on the desk, and looked as professional as not-quite-sixteen can.
At the end of the long dock that stretched out before her was a speeder. It wasn’t one of the rusty old buckets that usually stopped there, it was--the only word that flashed into her head was fiery. It was yellow, with streaks of red licking towards the shiny cockpit. She sat up even straighter and watched, trying to keep her mouth set in a firm, business-like line.
The door of the speeder opened upwards, and a man stepped out. It was too far away for her to tell more than his gender and the color of his clothes, which were also red and yellow. He closed the door, pushing it closed instead of slamming it. Then he straightened up, and walked up the long dock and towards the shop.
Misha’s mouth kept threatening to grin, and she pinched the back of her hand to force herself to remain serious as he approached her terminal, every step measured and firm. Her first customer! A real customer, coming to buy a day from her!
As he came to the glass, he reached out and polished a bit of it with the back of his sleeve. She watched as the thin layer of dust peeled away to reveal his features one by one, the brown hair falling over his forehead, the handsome, middle-aged face, the tired, blue eyes. The eyes looked right at her as he tapped on the window with his knuckles, and she gave a polite smile, and spoke into the intercom.
“Hello, and welcome to the Shop of Yesterdays. How may I help you?”
For a moment he just looked at her, his listless eyes seeming to bore through her and ask her a question that she did not understand. His clothes seemed much too young for him, she noted then, as if he were playing dress-up as a twenty-five-year-old when he was really forty. And his eyes looked more than tired, but she didn’t understand it. It was something she’d felt sometimes, from the drawers, but she didn’t know the word for it, and she had an impression somehow that it was a word she wasn’t old enough to know.
“It’s real then,” he said.
“The shop? Yes sir, quite real indeed.”
He rolled up his sleeve, and she flipped the identification switch in front of her.
“Press your wrist to the red light so the system can read you, please,” she instructed, and he obeyed, laying the front of his wrist against the light that blinked on the glass. Old tattoos traced up his forearm and into his sleeve, and she wondered how far they went, and then felt her cheeks grow pink. She looked away.
The red light flashed twice, then vanished, and the computer whirred as it identified him. It only took three seconds for the name to flash on the desk before her, ‘John Fillmore Tucker III.’
She jerked her head up to his face, allowing her surprise to show for a moment. Then she looked over her shoulder at the drawers. The one she’d looked into earlier was illuminated with the white light of the computer.
She looked at him again, lost in her own thoughts for a moment. This wasn’t the kind of man she’d imagined. Somehow what was in his eyes didn’t match the morning she’d felt in his files. Then she blushed yet again. You were never supposed to go silent when dealing with a customer. You were just supposed to serve them efficiently.
“What can I get you today, sir?” she asked into the intercom.
Again, he was silent for a moment, and when he spoke, she felt surprised by the fact that he had. “How much does one yesterday cost?”
This she also knew by heart. “One year, sir.”
His expression didn’t change. She was used to eyebrows raising. It did seem a steep price, three hundred and sixty five tomorrows for a single yesterday. But that was only if you didn’t understand how priceless yesterdays were. They weren’t like a can of beans or a new pair of trousers. A yesterday was time, and memory, and life, and senses, and heart, and knowledge, and ideas all rolled up into one. They were expensive to catalogue and keep and transfer, and Misha’s family were the only ones in the entire universe who knew how.
But he didn’t widen his eyes, or even move a facial muscle. He only said, “I see. I only have two hundred.”
Without another word, but still looking her straight in the eyes, he rolled down his sleeve. Then he turned around and took a step.
She remembered the dew, and the green, and the fresh smell of morning, and called out, “Sir?”
He turned around, looking exactly the same as he had before.
Don’t engage the customers in personal conversation. Rule three.
“I... I’m curious.” She stammered. It wasn’t professional to stammer. “What is important about this day?”
He stepped back towards the window again, and studied her face for a moment. Then he said, “You’re too young to understand.”
“Try me.”
A beat of silence drove the nervousness further into her, and then he relaxed his posture, and allowed one corner of his lips to turn up softly. “It was the last good day.”
“Because the day after that, I learned something I wasn’t ready for.”
Misha recalled the empty child-mind, and how relaxed and trusting it had felt when she’d sensed it for a moment. “What happened?”

“Learning wasn’t enough. I went looking for more, and nobody knew about it except me.”
“Did you find it?”
“Yes. But then, looking once wasn’t enough.” He stopped, closing his mouth firmly as if to keep any more from escaping. But when she prompted “What then?” he continued.
“Then, I met the woman I wanted to spend my life with. I didn’t tell her about the things, thinking they would go away, when I had her to fill me. For awhile they did. But then they returned, and I couldn’t hide from her forever.”
As he spoke, Misha glanced down at his left hand, and detected a band of slightly paler skin around the base of the third finger.
“She told me to leave, so I got on my ship and never came back.”
She looked back at his face. It was a strong, right face, except for the dull eyes. “Why do you only have two hundred left?”
This time he hesitated. He focused behind her, at the drawers, expression not changing, and then ran the tip of his tongue between his lips and took a breath. “It dragged me further down, and moved from my mind into my body, until I’d lost count of the people who had shared it, and it drove me further and further into the pit until it claimed my health. And that, child, is why I have only two hundred tomorrows, and it is also why I’d trade every last one of them for a single day of how things used to be.”
Misha knew that he didn’t expect her to understand, but she’d been around every yesterday in the universe too long not to grasp what the loss of innocence and the spiral into darkness felt like.
Rule number two was never to negotiate price with customers.
“I’ll take two hundred.”
“You don’t even know what day it is...” he protested. As if any day could be worth such a small price.
“I think I do.”
She reached forward and pressed the transaction button, and a message flashed in red on the desk. ‘Error. Insufficient tomorrows remaining.’
Rule number one was to never override the system.
Without so much as a shudder, she pressed the override button, stood up, and turned towards the only illuminated drawer in the room. It was oozing green now, refracting off the air like light through the surface of the water. She unlatched it, opened it, and closed her eyes for a moment as the freshly cut grass and the pure contentment flooded into her. Then she opened her eyes just a crack.
The array of colors felt as though it would blind her, and the incense of darkness, despair, hope, falling, flying, pleasure, pain, guilt, and loss slapped her. She was afraid, she felt dirty, everything was confusion and needing to find someone to share her, and feeling empty and dark. Forcing herself to weather the storm, she scanned the files for the brightest and last spot of green in the horde of days, and reached in to grasp it. It burned her hand, and she screamed, then she managed to yank it out, and slam the drawer shut before collapsing to her knees, panting.
She breathed as her head cleared, hardly feeling the spot of light in her clenched fist. She was herself. Misha. She was home, she was in the shop. She was only-just-sixteen, she loved colors, she was young, she was happy, and she was safe.
The buzzing in her ears cleared, and she heard a faint pounding nearby. Over and over. Then a voice, a man’s voice. “Little girl! Little girl, are you alright?”
She stood up, her legs wobbling like the preserves that mother made. The day burned in her hand, but it didn’t hurt anymore. Looking down, she saw that green was shining between her tightly-clenched fingers.
The man stopped pounding his fists on the glass as she stood, and wobbled towards him. Still keeping her hand closed, she eased into her chair, still panting. “I’m fine,” she answered, realizing only then that she hadn’t responded to his question. She managed a smile. “I have what you wanted.”
She took another deep breath, and this one finally filled her lungs, making her feel strong again. “Put your right forefinger in the hole, please.”
He stuck the indicated finger into the tiny gray hole in the glass. She brought her fist close to the capsule on her side, and uncurled her fingers to reveal the day, a small, green particle, in the center of her palm. She picked it up with her other hand, and slipped it securely into the capsule, glad she’d watched her grandfather do manual transfers many years before.
Taking another deep breath, she pressed the send button, and watched his face wince as the day pricked into the tip of his finger. “It will activate at midnight, and last twenty-four hours,” she said, forcing her voice to be steady. “I hope it’s all you wanted.”
Those eyes bored into hers again, but all he said was “It will be.”
He turned without another word, and strode back towards his speeder. He pulled open the door, slipped in, and flew off, giving the asteroid another jerk as he disconnected.
Misha watched as he disappeared into the stars. The shop was silent again. The colors went on dancing out of the drawers, and she sat in her chair until the lights flickered off. She got up, felt her way to her scarf and cap, and put them both on. Then she unlocked the door, opened it, and gave the shop one last look.
Then she closed the door and locked it.

Find J. Grace Pennington at

My Thoughts:
Overall: 5 stars
I can't help but give this five. If I tried anything else I would be lying. It just fits too perfectly - the wonder, the innocence, the regret, the bittersweet ending. Like a life full of yesterdays, it has everything.

Concept:  4 stars
One thing I adore about this story is its simplicity. The shop is complex but plain in its idea. A futuristic store on an asteroid where people come to buy back pieces of their past? Sounds pretty complicated. But really it's very simple: the desire to re-live. Misha's character also displays this paradox. She's human, she's unpredictable, she's interesting - but in the end she always comes back around to one or two themes. The one thing I would suggest for this concept is to make it a little more consistent. I couldn't decide whether the shop was futuristic or outdated at first, and showing a little more of its wear and tear first thing might have made things clearer. But overall, that's not much of a hole. And I just noticed the correlation between the stars in the picture and the asteroid - very well done.

Plot: 4 stars
This plot...this plot is soft and beautiful, drawing you into its thrall gently with a hint of suspense. It's a little slow near the start, could possibly use some trimming. Once you're in, though, you stay, because this little beauty tugs on your heartstrings. Pulling you deeper and deeper into the shop, into Misha's mind, into her dilemma. Soft and subtle and unforgettable.

Characters: 4 stars
You don't get much time to develop characters in a short story, so every sentence, every bit of dialogue, has to count. Misha isn't overly described, which is another of my favorite things about this story. Her personality describes her, even though we never (IIRC) get a touch of outward description besides the scarf and hat. This is a good trap to avoid, especially in third person. (In a novel I would expect or even require outward description, but in this particular story, or even in this format as a whole, it doesn't seem to matter.) The description of the only other character, John Fillmore Tucker III, is also selective and adds bit by bit to his persona. By the time he climbs back into his speeder, I feel like I know him.

One other thing I love is that the author doesn't complicate things with names. Throughout the story, Misha is referred to as "she" and John as "he". It's another nod to simplicity, and it works well.

Execution: 5 stars
I think the execution is one of the main reasons this story works so well. If it had been done in any other style but the gentle, poetic voice full of curiosity - for example, someone cynical, or flippant, or even apathetic - I think it would have flopped. It's Misha's innocence, her love of the shop, even the slow beginning that made this story strike me so hard. I couldn't stop thinking about it after I finished. It was one of those few that was an instant "yes".

One thing I would suggest  is to strengthen the writing a bit. The passive voice wasn't overwhelming, but there was quite a bit of it in there. Use more interesting verbs, fewer crutches like "felt" (a problem I'm struggling with at the moment, myself.)

Technical: 4 stars
When I got this story it required a lot of editing, but that was no fault of the writer. I suspect it had been done in one program and pasted into another, so I had to weed out a whole bunch of question marks. The program seemed like it was asking "What goes here? I don't know what goes here. Do you know what goes here?" That's just a lesson to me to specify the entering requirements more clearly next time.

All fun aside, this was a very clean story that didn't detract from my reading with a lot of sentences that were the same length or a ton of passive voice. It's unobtrusive writing that gets out of the way and lets the story tell itself.

 Congratulations on first place, Grace! (Hey, a rhyme!) Check back next week for the second place winner: Kitra Skene's The Magpie.

Aug 12, 2013

Contest Results AND Guest Feature Alyson Schroll!

I'm doing a double today - combining my contest results with a fun interview featuring Alyson Schroll from over at Pages From My Journal, a fellow teen writer who attended the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writer's Conference at the same time I attended Realm Makers.

So, first, the contest results, since I know you're all dying to hear about them. I had a total of 28 entries - eight more than I hoped for originally! - from 15 different authors. I never understood the whole thing about contests being so hard to judge until now. Thank you for making it nearly impossible.

But, I still had to choose a winner. Much as I hated to. As much as I would love to give you all the prize you deserve for buckling down and entering such amazing stories, the random number generator (a.k.a. my mom, who had no idea what was happening) has spoken, and the winner of the drawing for the (now signed) copy of Plot vs Character is...

J. Grace Pennington!

Grace, who not only entered the limit of five times, had the first-place entry and one runner-up that I couldn't bear not to post. I was very glad the random number machine a.k.a. mom picked her, and I felt wonderful about packing up the book today and scrawling her address on the front in Sharpie. Fantastic job, Grace!

In addition to the winner of the drawing, the three winners are:

1st: J. Grace Pennington - All My Tomorrows
2nd: Kitra Skene - The Magpie
3rd: Meaghan Ward - Don't Let Go

I'm going to publish these, starting with the first-place winner and going down, once a week. In addition, there were five runners-up I couldn't bear not to publish, so I'm going to go through those in no particular order. Those are a surprise; you'll have to wait and see whose are going up. ;) See, I really am the Queen of Torture. (I'm going to soften things a bit, though, and email the person whose entry is going up so they don't miss it.) I'm also going to critique every entry using my book review system, saying what worked for me and what didn't. So keep a watch out for Grace's All My Tomorrows and my critique sometime between tomorrow and Friday. I can't wait for you guys to read it!

And now, Alyson's interview. (I will also be answering the same questions, except about the Realm Makers conference, soon, except on her blog, so look out for that too.)

1. What made you decide to attend the conference?

I had heard about the conference through an author who had attended it and suggested I go to the teen day. Many people told me that going to a conference was the best way to get an agent or editor to read my work, so when I had a full novel ready, I chose to attend the entire conference.

2. Meet anyone special?

I met Ruth Samsel, who is a fellow agent with Rachel Coker's agent. Rachel and I have met and keep in touch so that was special. I also met Dina Sleiman who works for Whitefire Publishing and has posted on Go Teen Writers a couple times. It was nice to have connections with some of the people.

3. Did you do anything embarrassing?

In one of my appointments, I met with a man who didn't take fiction. This was embarrassing to me because I spend hours doing research and overlooked that major fact. But, I am very proud of myself that I didn't get lost. I am directionally challenged.

4. Were you as exhausted as I was?

I commuted to the conference, so the early mornings and late nights made me very tired. The first day was the day for teens and there were nine lectures right after another not including the morning and evening keynote.

5. Are you an introvert, and did that affect how you interacted with the people there?

Depending on the people I'm around, I can be very shy, but my confidence got a huge boost. Once I had my first professional conversation, I was good. I asked God to give me courage to talk to people about my story, and he did. I think I told my mom after that I didn't know where the extrovert in me came from. It sort of just happened.

6. Did you come home with any special encouragement or insight into your writing?

Many people complimented me on my professionalism, how prepared I was, and how I presented myself. One editor loved my writing style and one said that I communicate my ideas well. I was able to take their tips and immediately formulate a way that I would apply it. I think that helped. Agents and editors are looking for people who are teachable, and that's what I presented myself as.

7. Did you take lots of notes?

I took notes in every class. Some on my laptop, and some on paper.

8. Can we have a sample? ;)

One thing that really struck me as interesting was when an author explained the strategy behind length of paragraphs. When you begin every chapter with short paragraphs and slowly move into longer ones, the reader will begin to read it and then get hooked into reading the rest. I had never thought of it like that before.

9. Was there an assumption about conferences you had prior to going that was proved right or wrong?

Going into the conference, I had assumed that everyone was there to get their book published. I had not thought about the people who were there to learn how to write a book to begin with.

10. Would you go again?

I would love to go again. Hopefully, next time, I'll attend as an author.

Thanks so much, Alyson! (See, my first guest post and my first contest - I didn't do too bad, did I? ;)

Aug 8, 2013

Day 3

Left to right: Me, Meaghan, and Kathy Tyers.

The next morning, I cry for no reason.

"Okay, what's the matter, kiddo?" Kaitlyn asks. Even this early after a 1 AM bedtime, she's jaunty as ever.

I could say it's my nausea or my nerves or my lack of sleep or my fried brain. But it's not. "No reason," I whimper. "I'm serious. There's really no reason. I just felt like I needed to cry."

I skip breakfast, wondering if it will help. It doesn't. By the time we pull out of the parking lot on the way to the conference center, I think I've composed myself enough to get through the day, but the sight of a gray Honda van puts me over the edge. I sit in the backseat and snuffle, half-hoping they will notice me and half-hoping they'll leave me alone. Because it really is ridiculous that a van that looks like ours would make me bawl.

Inevitably, Kaitlyn wants to know what's wrong.

"There was a van -- l-like ours in the parking lot." I swipe at the tears gathering in the dark circles under my eyes. "I'm sorry. This is stupid."

Kaitlyn takes a deep breath and snaps into tirade mode. Or maybe it's a pep talk. I'm not sure at this point. Perfectly reasonable is the running theme. Because it's perfectly reasonable that I should be a tear-stained mess this morning. I happen to disagree, but the glimpses of Kaitlyn's dramatically black-outlined eyes in the rearview mirror hearten me a little.

"But it shouldn't have to make my face look so awful," I manage. I hope it won't still look awful for my mentoring appointment with Kathy Tyers this afternoon.

"Oh, honey, you should see when I cry."

Funny. I'm usually the one calling people pet names. And this is the part of the conference I was dreading, and it really isn't that bad. I think I can make it.

Then I go into the conference hall. Almost everyone is there. I walk by Kat Heckenbach and poke her in the arm. She whirls around and the first thing she wants is a picture.

I hold up my hands. "No, not now," I protest, trying to laugh. "I look awful - I've been crying. Homesick."

"Aw, I'm sorry," Kat says, her eyebrows furrowing and her lips drawing together into something that is part grimace and part smile. "Later?"

"Yes! Definitely, I want a picture later. Just not now."

Kaitlyn makes me sit in the front row. I hold my head in my hands while Bryan Davis prepares his slideshow and think about how ridiculous it is that I can cry on command just now. If Meaghan told me to start sobbing, I would. For no reason.

I've never been this exhausted.

But as Mr. Davis starts talking, my pencil scribbles draw my attention. At the end of a particularly fascinating class about the hero's journey and some sudden insight about my main character that I hope I can thank him for later, I realize that I'm fine. Though the morning's escapades seem no less pathetic.

I sit through the next few classes with Meaghan on one side and Ness Treskillard on the other. We're all wearing plaid and we tell Kaitlyn she missed the memo. Kat gets the picture she wanted at lunch. She seems so approachable and I sit at her table through the rest of the meal, surprising myself with my boldness. Yesterday it was Bryan Davis and Jeff Gerke, today it's Kat and Grace Bridges and Robynn Tolbert.

Grace says she didn't expect me to look so young. "Really?" I ask, longing to imitate her accent - a round, slippery kind of sound like a greased rubber ball, sliding out of my mouth as easily as it slides in - but not sure if mimicking your international acquaintances' accents over lunch is something that will gain you friends or lose them. "So is the food much different here than in New Zealand?"

"Yes," Grace says, going back to her broccoli.

Beside her, Robynn bursts into laughter. "Now, see, I'll show you. You can't ask open-ended questions; you have to say something like, 'Now Grace, tell me about the different food in New Zealand!'"

"Ahh." I grin. Grace doesn't look offended, just smirks at her plate, then looks up and tells me about the fish and chips shops. She sounds a little more like me than I expected.

I get jittery when we leave lunch to return to the conference center. At 2:45 I have my appointment with Kathy Tyers, and it's one thing I've been looking forward to, not dreading. Back in class, I watch the clock and doodle flames at the top of my schedule page. I'm almost falling asleep - by no fault of the teacher, because even though I don't write comic books, Matt Yocum is fascinating - but because exhaustion always seems to catch up with me about 1:30 PM. I finally understand the cliche about eyelids being too heavy to keep open.

When I take another look at my schedule, trying to remember how long the class runs, I jump. Meaghan looks over at me, baffled. "My appointment," I whisper-hiss, since we're still in the front row. "I missed it. I had one at 2:45 with Kat yesterday - the one for today was 2:15, not 2:45, and I missed it!"

Once the comics class is over, I pace the hallway, regretfully missing the presentation on Splashdown Books, occasionally looking into the room at the end of the hall where Kathy is now busy with another girl. I find Becky in the bookstore and ask if Kathy has any more slots open today. Becky says she does, but the mentors work on their own schedule so she might have filled them up again already. Pace, pace. I read everything on the bulletin board twice and sit for two-minute chunks on the sofa in the sun at the other end, so I won't look too anxious.

Finally, I look back into the room and she's talking to Bryan Davis. "Mrs. Tyers?" I venture. I can almost feel the enormous weight of the Firebird trilogy in my arms. She turns. "I, um, missed my appointment because I mixed it up with the one yesterday, because I had one at 2:45 and today's was at 2:15 -" I really am babbling. I shut up.

"You want to come in now?" she asks, looking up at me from behind the rims of her round glasses.

"Oh - yes! Just let me get my notes." I race back down the hallway at the fastest allowable pace, hearing my mom's voice in my head about not running in the house. Meaghan, sitting on the sofa in my place, raises her eyebrows.

"YES!" I scoop up my notebook and pencil. "She's open for an appointment now!" Without waiting for a response, I dart back to the room and slide into a chair opposite one of my favorite authors.

I had a list of questions, but somehow they get buried and we just chat. She talks about her book. I talk about mine. Kathy is intense but funny, seeming interested in everything I have to say, and very flattered when I drop a hint about how much I love her books. She strikes me as someone who really loves her work. Not only as a writer will love it, but as a mother will love a child. There's a sense almost of detached pride when she beams and thanks me for telling her.

At the corner of my mind I see that Jeff Gerke is sitting across from us. When his client gets up to leave, I glance over and find him looking at me. Very slowly, as if it's the most normal thing in the world, he makes a face at me.

I burst out laughing mid-sentence.

The rest of the day somehow seems perfect. Even after I miss supper, lock myself out of my room, and aim a good-natured barb at L. B. Graham, which gets uproariously laughed at. The book signing downstairs has a slightly sad air to it - it's the last time we'll be together for at least a year. No one knows. I lug my copy of Firebird around until Kathy is free, then introduce her to my mom and plunk the huge trilogy down on her table for her to sign.

She signs it To E.

Aug 5, 2013

Day 2

Day 1
Day 3

It's 9:09 AM. Meaghan and I are running on 5 and a half hours of sleep and the streaming adrenaline. Kaitlyn is running on chocolate-covered almonds.

I keep looking around for people I know, but the nametags are mostly hanging below the level of the tables. I get an idea for the first line of my blog post and write it on a mostly-blank advertisement in the handout. The conference room is cold and I'm made of nervousness.

But I know the keynote speaker. I've looked up his website three times in the last six months just to read through the beautiful requirements for submitting. So eloquent. fitting of his vision. And I have so many connections I'm buzzing to explore.

Jeff Gerke - Jeff Gerke himself - starts walking by the tables and handing out shiny pamphlets with newsletter information on them. He reaches our table and says in a casual way, "I'm looking for the young author who drew a picture of me on their blog. Did any of you..."

I shake my head, thinking of a pencil portrait or something. Then I see out of the corner of my eye that Meaghan is pointing at me. "Wha -"

"You did it?" Mr. Gerke asks, his eyebrows rising in light brown half-circles.

"No," I say, jerking my head back and forth. I'm jerky when I'm nervous. "She's making fun." I shoulder Meaghan. "Stop it."

Mr. Gerke moves on. I turn to my quietly mischievous friend. "What was that for?" She shrugs, grinning.

Then my hands fly to my mouth. "Wh - um - I think - did he mean my stick figures?"

Kaitlyn shakes her head, vaguely. "I don't...think so."

I see him coming past our table again. "Mr. Gerke!" I call. The clamor of voices buries mine like dirt over a seed. Oh well. Just the thought of yelling over that crowd makes my heart rate spike.

Becky Minor traipses up to the front of the hall in a geometric purple dress. She looks a lot like she does on Facebook. I'm wishing I hadn't eaten so much breakfast, even though I didn't eat much at all. After the opening announcements and her acknowledgement that we're pioneers (I'm a pioneer in a different way - the hermit converted) she gives the mic to Mr. Gerke.

Practically the first thing he asks, after the perfunctory welcome, is for whomever drew the picture of him on their blog to identify themselves.

My right hand comes out from under my leg and creeps up on its own, barely to the level of my face, the cold air buffeting it and making my fingers tremble. My hand wants to be seen, but the muscles of my arm keep it low, hoping it won't be.

Mr. Gerke must have sharp eyes. "You did it?" he says, incredulous, holding his hand out to me.

"Th-the stick figures?"

"Yes! But you said -" He gestures to Meaghan in confusion.

"I forgot!"

People are starting to chuckle. My head whirls, but my breath is coming surprisingly clear, tinged with sharp adrenaline like the sparkle in mineral water.

"Well, she said her mental image of me was in a suit, and -" he looks down at his slacks and his Marcher Lord Press T-shirt, eliciting a real, full-out laugh from the audience. "But you guys should go see it, or we should post it for everyone to see. But later she's going to pass out business cards and everyone's going to be like this." He crouches on the floor in an imitation of the frightened stick figures.

By this time my face is hot and I'm laughing with the audience, harder than I can ever remember, except that time at Thanksgiving dinner when, giddy and full of food, I lay on the floor and laughed so hard I knew I would fail if I tried to get up. The lack of sleep is probably contributing. Not now. Please, don't let me end up on the floor.

I cover my face with my hands and try to compose myself. Fortunately, Mr. Gerke soon moves on into the rest of his speech, with no further mention of the stick figures.

I scribble my way through two more classes, determine to write a flash fiction entry even though I'll most likely have to do it at midnight, which is probably when we'll get back to our dorm. I've never written at midnight and want to try it.

Then, lunch. Kaitlyn drives us back to Provincial House. The topic of the stick figures is unavoidable.

"Your face got so red," Kaitlyn says, stopping at yet another of the unnecessary stop signs.

"It did? Oh, no."

Meaghan turns around, her hair swinging against her chin as the van jolts forward again. "I thought you were going to pass out."

I lean forward, gripping the seat handles. "Seriously?"


We enter the cafeteria. Kaitlyn and Meaghan head for the table where we ate breakfast, but I hang back, scanning the room. I'm not sure I can do it after this morning. I'm not sure I can do it anyway. But my feet, propelled by the threat of regret and Jill Williamson's limitless wisdom, creep toward Jeff Gerke's table.

The published authors seem to group together. Not through any desire to exclude us, I'm sure, but all the same it's daunting to walk up to Bryan Davis and ask if he minds if I join them. Bryan Davis.

"Sure," he says.

I walk around to the only empty chair at the table. Right across from Mr. Gerke. I shut my eyes briefly. Really, God? It would be so much easier if there weren't any chairs empty or - something! 

I sit down. From Mr. Gerke's smile as he looks up from his conversation, I can see he recognizes me. "So, you going to give me a business card?"

Something takes over from there. To my relief, it's something calm and rational, something that knows the lines I rehearsed much better than most of my brain does. Something that steadies my voice and my hands as I reach for the business cards in my pocket and say "I wanted to ask, you gonna let me make my dream come true?"

I hand it across the table. He takes it and tosses his arms up. "There! Now you've fulfilled your comic!"

The rest of lunch is a blur. I eat flavorless green beans and don't notice. We talk about my book and the conference and middle names. When Kaitlyn leans over the back of my chair and says it's time to go, I realize I've eaten almost nothing but green beans. "I just - have a few more bites," I protest, realizing I probably didn't spend as much time eating as I should have. How could I? I was busy with more important things.

We file out of the lunchroom with a trickle of other late attendees. A wave of warm, humid air envelops me as we walk to the car. Meaghan and Kaitlyn look at me expectantly.

"He has my business card." I clench my fists and grin, so hard my face hurts. "Jeff Gerke has my business card! I am so freakishly excited!"