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The Killing Machine · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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Fiddlers Three
The house sat back from the street, beds of hyacinth and garlands of ivy winding through and around its white picket fence. The branches of the ficus trees that shaded every cottage in the neighborhood seemed thicker here, and looking at the whole lilac-scented scene, Muffet couldn't help thinking of some enchanted dell from an old fairy story.

But then the huge, shiny black spider who squatted among the rhododendrons beside the house with her watering can and floppy yellow sun hat did have a green thumb. Muffet would never forget the incredible bouquets that had adorned their room more than half a decade ago when they'd decided it was long past time for them both to celebrate their sixteenth birthdays....

"Spiders don't have thumbs," that familiar clickety-clack voice called, and Muffet froze on the sidewalk, the spring morning breeze suddenly too cold against her sweat-dampened neck.

Sucking in a shaky breath, Muffet pulled back the hood of her cloak and ran a hand through her close-cropped blonde hair. This was a bad idea, the worst idea in a series of ever worsening ideas, as a matter of fact.

Not that she really had any choice. Reaching for the gate latch, she forced a lightness into her voice. "How do you always know what I'm thinking, Bitsy?"

"No." The spider looked over this time, those eight emerald eyes every bit as piercing as Muffet remembered. "You don't get to call me that anymore." She bent back to her gardening.

The breeze rustled the trees, and Muffet wanted nothing more than to blow away with it. Taking another breath instead, she focused on a nearby hydrangea. "Would it help if I said I was sorry?"

"Try it," came the reply. "Then we'll both find out."

Muffet had to snap her head up again so she could glare at her. "Bitsy—"

"No!" Bitsy sprang clear across the yard, the claws of all eight legs digging so deeply into Muffet from shoulders to waist that she could feel the sharp little tips through her cloak and tunic. The spider's face thrust into Muffet's, those green eyes now slitted, the points of her thumb-sized fangs glistening. "Not after you left me stranded like that! You can't even begin to imagine what I had to do to survive, so you will not be waltzing back into my life after six years and—!" Most of her eyes widened. "Gloriosky, Muffet! What did you do to your hair?" Her eyes narrowed again. "No! Don't tell me! I don't care, and there's nothing you can say or do that'll make me!"

"Old King Cole." For all that Muffet could barely get the words out past the clench in her throat, she could tell that Bitsy heard them from the way the giant spider went completely still. "He's called for his Fiddlers Three."

"I should've bitten you," Bitsy groused from just over Muffet's right shoulder, "soon as I heard you coming up the sidewalk."

Trying not to laugh, Muffet covered her mouth and pretended to cough.

Not that it mattered. With the market open today, both human people and non-human folks of every species were streaming into the capital, and the guards covering the western drawbridge were too busy pointing their check wands at the badges adorning the hats, vests, wristbands, and anklets of the folks to bother her. Muffet kept the hood of her mossy old cloak raised to hide her face, of course, but she'd discovered in the past few years that if she displayed her obviously human hands while staggering phonily under the weight of the peddler's pack she had slung across her back, the guards wouldn't give her a second look.

The mixed crowd of people and folks chattered and laughed together, crowed and clucked and whinnied straight up Market Street toward the city square, but all the activity, Muffet knew, just made it easier for her to slide unnoticed into a side alley. The midday sun cast nice, thick shadows down here, too, so reaching a sewer grating, she undid her pack, slung it off, and let Bitsy clamber out. The spider bent back the grating's steel bars and scuttled into the darkness; Muffet followed, dropped down the shaft on the other side all the way till she splashed into the chunky liquid at the bottom, then she tapped a quick spell over the palm of her left hand, the glow that expanded from it not just showing her the tunnel walls around her but also pushing the muck and the stink away. The handiest piece of magic Blue had ever come up with, she'd always thought.

"I could still bite you," she heard Bitsy mutter, the spider scurrying from the opening in the ceiling Muffet had just slipped through. "I'm retired now, Muffy. Or decommissioned. Or defrocked. Or whatever word they use to describe the old king's secret operatives when the new king takes over."

"The word you want?" came another familiar voice from ahead, and a tall figure shimmered into being at the edge of Muffet's light bubble. "It's gone rogue." The figure folded back his own hood to reveal a leathery but still boyish face, a stub of a beard at his chin and more lines on his forehead than when she'd last seen him.

Behind Muffet, Bitsy gave a clicking little snort. "That's two words, Blue. And maybe you recall how one of us got left behind at the end? How one of us had to become a public figure in the new administration and a symbol of King Charming's dedication to continue his father's peace and prosperity into the blah of the blah and the blah blah?" Leaping from the wall, she attached herself to his chest, the young man definitely not a little boy anymore. "I had to do paperwork, Blue! Had to take the rank of commander in the guard and get mustered out after standing there and smiling while the whole agency got folded up! Old King Cole's pipe, his bowl, all of it melted down or locked up in a museum!"

Blue touched a kiss to the shiny black area just above her uppermost eyes. "I've missed you, too, Bitsy."

Something twinged inside Muffet's chest. After growing up with these two and having the entire kingdom at their feet, the last six years had been—

Well, like being in exile. Self-imposed, sure, but still...

"So!" Blue waggled his glowing fingers, and Bitsy rose slowly away from him. "What's going on, Muffet? Why'd you put out that call? Our king's still dead, isn't he?"

Muffet swallowed. "Turns out he's got one last mission for us."

Most of the old secret passages hadn't survived the transition—King Charming liked to do things out in the open more that his father had—but poking around, Muffet had discovered three that still wound their ways up from the sewers into the palace. It helped that this particular one ended in Old King Cole's 'black study,' the room he'd kept just for himself and his Fiddlers Three.

"Wow." Blue took the little light spell Muffet had conjured, blew on it till it inflated into something that looked like a chandelier, and sent it drifting up to the ceiling. It made the place look almost like she remembered it: King Cole's desk sat over by the bookshelves exactly where it had always sat, the big map of the kingdom hanging on the wall where it had always hung, the black carpeting still as plush as always been even though it was covered with dust. And now that she had some proper lighting, she could see a few cobwebs she'd missed in the cleaning she'd done after finding that the study still existed two weeks back.

Blue grinned, the first trace Muffet had seen on that lean, tanned face of the exuberant boy she'd known so well. "Looks more like a gray study now, doesn't it?"

Up near the rafters, Bitsy was poking at the webs. "Strictly cousin work," she said with a sniff. "I'll bet no one sapient's been in here since the last time we all were." She spun a web of her own and dropped to the floor. "I'm guessing you found something, Muffet?"

She opened her mouth, but Blue cut her off: "Which reminds me." The expression that came over him then, all narrow-eyed and suspicious, was one Muffet was sure she'd never seen him make before. "What exactly are you doing in the capital, anyway? Wasn't the plan that I go west and you go east when His Brand-New Majesty put those thousands of soldiers out in the streets with their sharp and pointed invitations for us to dine with him the evening after Old King Cole's funeral?"

Bitsy gave a growling sort of sigh. "You guys missed an excellent meal, by the way. Of course, I had four sets of mage cuffs wrapped around my legs, but after I swore fealty to him, His Majesty had the front set taken off so I could eat..."

Her face heating up, Muffet wanted to look away. But she forced her glance to settle first on one of her former partners, then the other. "I know what we agreed to, Blue, and again, I'm really, really sorry we ran out on you, Bitsy—"

"I'm sorry about that, too." Blue rubbed the back of his neck. "Just so you know."

"And I did go east." Muffet couldn't help smiling at the memories. "When you're impervious to just about everything, it turns out the firefighting crews up in the mountains are so happy to have you join up, they don't ask too many questions. And being an itinerant deputy out along the frontier can get pretty interesting, too. But there was always this prickle, y'know?" She pressed a hand to her stomach. "Always this little clench that told me I wasn't where I was supposed to be. So three or four times a year, I...I'd come back here."

"What?" Bitsy waved her front legs. "You were probably in the city while I was standing trial in Parliament, weren't you? They nearly voted to have me boiled in unquenchable fire as a traitor to the crown!"

Muffet folded her arms. "They voted 49 - 28 to acquit you on all charges, Bitsy."

"Hmmph!" Being so close to the floor, Bitsy stirred up a minor dust storm when she blew out a breath. "Only because the King's Counsel kept spouting this weird idea that us folks are less sapient than you people! He convinced them I wasn't really any smarter than a human child, so I couldn't be held legally responsible for my actions!"

"Yeah." Blue wiggled his fingers at the two chairs and the big cushion against the wall; they rose, the dust vanished from them, and when they settled back to the floor, Blue went over and sat in one of the chairs. "What's that all about, anyway? When I was working as a trumpet player in the theater orchestra out in Red Bluff, they had a couple folks on the town council, but they had to resign when the royal edict came through saying that only people could vote anymore!"

"That...umm..." Muffet brushed at the back of her hand. "That's kind of why King Cole called us, I think."

Bitsy blinked. "To deal with non-human voting rights?"

Blue rolled his eyes. "What did you find, Muffet? His secret diary or something?"

"Something." Muffet stepped toward the desk, the stirred-up dust scratching her throat when she swallowed. "He...he left a—"

The tingle that rippled through her took her breath away as usual, but this time, she heard the other two gasp behind her. A cloud formed above the desk and condensed into the unmistakable figure of Jolly Old King Cole. "Ah," the wavering apparition said, its voice like a breeze through dry branches. "Little Miss Muffet, Little Boy Blue, my Itsy Bitsy Spider: this is costing me the last of my strength, so I'll keep it brief."

"Your Majesty?" Blue's voice squeaked, suddenly almost as high-pitched as Muffet remembered it. Motion to either side of her brought him into her field of vision on her left and Bitsy on her right: their old standard formation, a part of Muffet's mind noted.

The figure's mouth went sideways. "And no, Blue, I'm not a ghost. It's a recording spell. I swear: I never knew a sorcerer as squeamish about the undead as you are!"

Glancing at Blue, Muffet couldn't help smiling as his face turned red. "Of course," His Former Majesty went on, "that means I can't actually respond to you. But I'll set a message to play if it detects one or two of you in my study, then set this message to play once all my Fiddlers Three have assembled."

Muffet swallowed again. She'd triggered that first message at least once a day since stumbling in here just so she could listen to the warm, rumbly sound of his voice.

"As I said in my previous message," King Cole continued, "I know that I'm dead, but I also know that Charming's enough of a twit that if he's on the throne for more than a month, the kingdom will collapse lock, stock, and barrel. So now that you're all here, I'm charging you with this final mission." His misty chest expanded. "Kill Charming. Since he's shallow, too easily swayed, surrounded by sycophants, and a menace to everything we've built, it's the only way civilization will survive. I love you all. Farewell." And the cloud king vanished.

"But," Blue said for the ninth or tenth time since the message had ended—unlike the other message, this one had played only once, then had disappeared along with the first one—"Charming's been king for six years now!"

"He has." Bitsy had spun what Muffet thought of as one of her brooding webs in the corner of the study and was hanging upside down from the middle of it. "And yes, some things have gotten stupider for us folks, but it's pretty much the same for you people since Old King Cole died." She shrugged. "Or look at me. Charming knows how dangerous I am, but instead of wasting the couple dozen guards and suits of mage armor it'd take to kill me all the way dead, he gives me a nice house in a nice neighborhood with a nice pension. And I'm not the only non-human living there, either." She folded half her legs across her chest. "So I can't say I've really noticed civilization collapsing lately. How 'bout you guys?"

"The same." Blue slumped in his chair, then sat immediately forward again. "And think about it! What would've happened it we'd gotten this message right after King Cole's funeral? If we'd killed Charming back then, who would've ascended to the throne? Neither of them had any brothers or sisters of cousins or anything, and the Queen's whole family got executed after we killed her when she tried to assassinate the king! I mean, would Parliament have taken over? Would the guard captains have fought over it? What kind of world do you suppose we'd be living in?" All of a sudden, he looked ten years old again to Muffet, a kid wearing his father's clothes. "And besides, I always thought King Cole liked Prince Charming!"

Bitsy made another of her snorting noises. "Liking or disliking someone didn't have anything to do with killing them as far as Old King Cole was concerned. He went fishing with the Queen's father the day before he signed the execution order, and how many people and folks did he have us kill just after he'd hosted them to a state dinner?"

"That's different!" Blue did his impersonation of Bitsy snorting. "That's politics!"

"What?" All Bitsy's eyes went as wide as Muffet had ever seen them. "Blue, we did some horrible, horrible things! When the Parliament put me on trial, it took them two solid days just to list all my crimes! I'd never even thought about it before that, but after? I—" Her words choked off, then came back a lot quieter. "I would've voted to kill me after that..."

Muffet couldn't help wincing, and Blue was staring at Bitsy like she'd grown a couple extra legs. "But," he said after a moment, his voice very small in the silence, "not all of it was horrible, right? And besides!" Jumping to his feet, Blue kicked a cloud of dust from the carpet with his boot. "It was the king who told us to do it all! He even just told us to kill his only son when there's no one else to take the throne except maybe—" Sparks leaped from his fingers, all the dust in the air around him bursting like tiny kernels of popcorn. "Muffet! You don't think he wanted us to take over, do you?"

Unable to settle in her chair, Muffet had been pacing slowly along the study's back wall since the recording had ended, her mind spinning furiously. But at this, she had to stop and laugh. "Blue? Of all the possible things he could've meant, that isn't one."

"Oh." His shoulders drooped. "Well, we can't just kill Charming now, can we?"

"Sure we can." Muffet started pacing again. "The question is: should we?"

Blue waved his hands. "That's what I meant!"

"I know." With a sigh, Muffet looked over toward the web. "Bitsy? You can get word to King Charming that we're turning ourselves in and get us an audience, right? He'll trust you since you swore fealty to him and all?"

"Probably." Bitsy made some quiet chittering sounds. "But he knows I'm one of King Cole's Fiddlers Three before I'm anything else. Always have been, always will be."

"Yeah." Muffet began walking up the dust-free path toward King Cole's desk, but no message popped into the air this time. When she turned, though, she saw her two best friends in the world looking back at her. And as much as she didn't like it, she knew exactly what they had to do. "You're right, too. We are the Fiddlers Three. That we stopped being them after King Cole died is the worst mistake any of us ever made, but we've got another chance now, a chance to do what we should've done six years ago." She held out her right hand. "Are you with me?"

"You bet!" Blue jumped forward and placed his hand on hers just as Bitsy did the same with her right foreleg.

"Gracious!" King Charming didn't fill the throne with his physical presence or the throne room with his metaphorical one the way King Cole had, but Muffet didn't mind that at all. In fact, she found him to be just as, well, as charming as she always had.

Still, the three dozen guards in full mage armor lining the walls seemed a little excessive. Knowing what she did about King Cole's final order, though, she decided not to take it personally. Like Blue had said, in the end, it came down to politics: either he was going to order them killed, or he wasn't. Still, she did her best to look as harmless as she knew how when she, Blue, and Bitsy all bowed to him.

"Can it be, Commander Itsy?" His Majesty steepled his fingers. "Do we have the distinct honor of seeing Little Miss Muffet and Little Boy Blue presented here before us?"

"In truth, Your Majesty," Bitsy piped up in that scratchy voice of hers, "it's my colleagues who are honored to present themselves to you."

"Indeed?" His Majesty had aged the same as the rest of them, of course, but Muffet thought the years looked better on him somehow. One arched eyebrow, though, was all it took for her to see the new king behind the old charm, a sudden and slightly alarming resemblance to his father coming over him. "And to what end do Old King Cole's Fiddlers Three present themselves in our throne room after what some might term a rather suspicious six year absence?"

Muffet spoke up, and Blue joined in exactly as they'd rehearsed it: "To swear our fealty, Your Majesty."

That got both royal eyebrows to go up. "Well! I'm guessing this is then either a joyous day for our kingdom, or my final day on the planet."

Blue made the choking sound of a hastily stifled giggle, and Muffet had to force her chin not to drop. He'd not only made a fairly insightful joke, but he'd done it in the first person singular. And the guarded hopefulness that then entered his face forced her to tighten her jaw muscles even further. "Your open appearance here," the king was going on, "leads us to believe it's the former rather than the latter, but I fear that in the end, I must leave the final decision on that matter in your capable hands."

Something tickled at the edge of Muffet's perceptions, but tapping into the detection magic radiating out from Blue, she couldn't feel any traps or hidden wizards—or things like her and her friends—lurking anywhere within the immediate vicinity.

And that wasn't right at all. "Your Majesty?" she asked, going off script. "Where's your court sorcerer and your advisors?"

He smiled. "When I received your offer to turn yourselves in, I informed the lot of them that I wished to meet with you alone. That they agreed to this, I think, shows you how much they care for me." His smile faded. "I just wish I could tell Father how right he always was about those who've been calling themselves my friends for all these years."

"Excuse me, Your Majesty." Bitsy jerked a foreclaw toward the guards standing thick against the walls. "But when you say you wanted to meet with us alone...?

"Who, them?" King Charming flicked his fingers. Muffet felt a fairly powerful cloaking spell fall away, and Blue's detection magic began reporting—

"Empty?" Muffet and Blue said, once again speaking at the same time.

His Majesty nodded. "Wonderful stuff, mage armor. Magical, one might even go so far as to say."

"But—" Blinking up at him on the throne, Muffet couldn't find any other word to say.

King Charming sat forward. "If you will honestly swear fealty to me, I swear to you that I won't use you the way Father did, murdering his way through every difficult situation from an international monetary crisis to a hangnail. I'd seek to use you more genteelly." His frown belonged to a much sterner person than Muffet had thought he was. "My advisors and certain members of Parliament, for instance, keep insisting on the necessity of further restrictions upon our non-human citizens. I for my part would like to see a great deal of opposition organized to this idea so that I might rule against it with the loud and assured support of the populace." His frown wavered, and everything about him became much less self-assured. "Might that be a project you'd be willing to take on?"

Silence filled the room for a moment, then Bitsy and Blue spun toward Muffet, both of them looking more like puppies than anything else.

And that pretty much clinched it. She still didn't like thinking that Old King Cole maybe hadn't been exactly a good king, but then she didn't have to think about that right now. All she had to do was hold out her hand.

So she did. Immediately, Blue's sparkling fingers and Bitsy's sharp foreclaws touched it on either side. Smiling, Muffet met King Charming's gaze. "From now on," she said, "all Your Majesty needs to do is call for your Fiddlers Three."
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#1 · 2
I had a hard time to start off with - that second paragraph threw me hard. Coming back after reading the whole thing, it was fine, but the first time around, it stopped me in my tracks. And you never do answer that little 'how do you know what I'm thinking' line.

That said, the 'real fairytale' setting is interesting and works well here. The characters seemed distinct. Blue could've been more developed, but Bitsy and Muffet had some depth, which is two more than I usually manage.

The plot was decent. You did particularly well in making the merits of their competing options ambiguous. I wasn't sure which way things would end up going right up until the very end.

A good story overall. To improve it, I'd mostly advise giving the intro some TLC.
#2 · 2
Nice way to begin with my slate. Vivid descriptions, interesting world-building and a moral dilemma that isn't as clear cut as one may tempted to make it, which is probably the strongest quality of this story.

I really don't have much to say. While the beginning may seem slightly confusing, context is given in a couple of sentences, which transforms it in a good opening. The story itself is complete even if it could be expanded indefinitely, and the characters are interesting and well distinguishable.

My only real critique would echo what Ratlab said, Blue is a bit underdeveloped, but that could be probably easily fixed by you (considering the quality you already delivered) in a future version.

Great job.
#3 · 2
Echoing above this was a fairly nice story built around a more serious take on a fairy-tale kingdom. I actually got a bit of a Shrek vibe from the setting, what with the conflict between magical creatures and humans being a key conflict of the story. The background details are great and I liked how Charming and the Old King reverse as villain/hero as you learn more about them and their actions.

I feel my biggest criticisms come in plot and character. Plot is okay, its a reasonably interesting point of conflict but I felt the whole showdown was quite a weak moment overall. The stakes for the main characters are really low and they struggle to find anything to define themselves for or against. In part that's the whole rub, but I feel it worked against the piece overall. The story might have been served better with one of the Fiddlers working against the other two, giving a solid antagonist to bounce off of before the unification at the end, but that's just throwing ideas out there.

The characterization was the hardest part for me, which is a shame as its the bit I tend to focus on. While their characters were okay (Blue disappeared into the background a bit, I'll agree) the primary problem was a lack of hook. There's an old Hollywood truism that the hero has to save a cat within the first ten minutes and while I don't expect anything that literal, there needs to be some moment to connect to the characters' struggle to really drive things forward. The world was very interesting and kept me engaged through the beginning, but without a hook to draw me into the character conflict this interest waned by the end and left the resolution unsatisfying.

Overall, a strong entry but I don't think the central plot is framed as well as it could be to engage the audience.
#4 · 1
Gonna have to echo the 'shrek' vibe.

The opening threw me a bit, with the spider, but I was able to cue strongly enough on 'Muffet' that I re-oriented pretty quickly. I'm not sure how you could open that better; throw in some more obvious fairytale stuff sooner? A gingerbread cottage might go a long way.

The setting and characters here did grab me quite well. I'd have to say that the plot, however, seemed a bit... jerky? I think starting it sooner and examining what's really going on in Muffet's mind more extensively might help with that. As it is, it doesn't really start kicking until we see the recording, which is a good ways in, and then it wraps up really fast with Charming. I liked it, but couldn't help feel that it didn't get the same amount of love that the characters and setting did.

I do appreciate a fairytale ending. I'm not sure if that's a subversion or not, but I'm annoyed when people take bright, sparkly things for children and smear grimdarkness all over them.

Oh, and my Dad's version of the poem:

"Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider and sat down beside her... and she smashed it with her spoon."

#5 · 1
· · >>CoffeeMinion
Enjoyed! Read. Fiddlers Three - A+ - Not just from the Shrek vibe either. Everything as I was reading just clicked into place, from the characters to the scenes to the events. I was reading this one earlier this week and it stuck in my head enough that it was the only one I tried to explain to my wife (If you knew her and the way she rolls her eyes when I talk about writing stuff, you’d understand) Then I found it in my review slate and could not help but smile.
#6 · 1
· · >>CoffeeMinion
And my top slot goes to the story that turned "The Killing Machine" into a fairy tale, with no mechanisms of any kind anywhere. (I think I see it, though: the Fiddlers, as secret police, were the "machine".)

There's a remarkable amount of premise and theme overlap here with the Fable series of graphic novels -- though I should note that this goes enough in its own directions that there's no question about originality. And I enjoyed what this did with the premise for the same reason that I enjoyed Fable: the fairy-tale remix effect. There was clearly a lot of thought put into how the various nursery rhymes used as sources all interlinked, and the core plot conflict (and its slow reversal) was well-handled.

The ending clearly is opening the story up for more in a way that might lead to critiques of this being unfinished, but for me, this felt like a complete story -- just perhaps the first story in a bigger series. We get plot and character arcs that cleanly close, and a big decision and its big consequences. I'm rooting for the characters, and their moral decisions feel satisfying; in an odd sort of way that makes this feel more pony than many pony stories I read. I want more of this, in a good way.

Tier: Top Contender
#7 · 1
· · >>CoffeeMinion
Fiddlers Three

The introduction here is pretty good, but I can feel a noticeable drag from the numbers of extraneous details, often crowded into adjectives and adverbs. Regardless, we progress quickly, and the conceit makes itself clear: A nursery rhyme subversion. Well, okay.

“I'll keep this brief,” says Cole, then proceeds to dump some exposition on us about how he's set up the recording spell. Which brings me to another realisation at this point: Almost all the dialogue so far has been exposition. Okay, so it's somewhat natural; it's not As-you-know-ing. And yet it stands out because there's so damn much of it, and so little else.

Charming had been on the throne for six years? Hm. I see a reversal lurking in the distance.

And then all of a sudden, Itsy starts feeling guilty? Well, okay.

… And finally we hit the ending I was, more or less, expecting.

Okay, so, for final thoughts, I'm going to skip over the nursery-rhymes-crammed-into-le-Carre aesthetic. I found it sickeningly precious, but I guess that's just a matter of taste.

No, my real problem here is that nine tenths of this story is talking-about-action instead of action. (Not action in terms of fights, just action terms of important stuff happening.) That made it a slog to read. It was rather like watching a clip show for a show I haven't seen, but with all the clips edited out.

Really, why not show us these events rather than have the characters discuss them? Wouldn't that be so much better?

On the plus side, the story that's hiding behind all the chat is a pretty good one, even if the twist if predictable. It just needs to actually happen rather than be recounted. That would require a complete rewrite to fix, but you already have your outline place.

And, of course, with this in place, we'd be able to spend a little more time with the characters being characters, which would fix the other big problem: Lack of character empathy stifles the importance of this ending.
#8 · 1
· · >>horizon >>Cold in Gardez
I'm running low on ready-reviewy time, so I'm crawling across the finish line with brief thoughts here.

TBH, I feel like a schmuck panning this when both >>georg and >>horizon gave it high marks, but I think >>Scramblers and Shadows summarized my thoughts best:

No, my real problem here is that nine tenths of this story is talking-about-action instead of action. (Not action in terms of fights, just action terms of important stuff happening.) That made it a slog to read. It was rather like watching a clip show for a show I haven't seen, but with all the clips edited out.

I mean, the writing is good--no question--but I found myself wishing it was over, and waiting for the action and/or tension to start ratcheting-up, and it just didn't. Even the ending just kinda happened.

Author, I'm sorry to dump on you; ordinarily I would try to highlight more of the story's positive elements, even if it didn't work for me. But in this case, you've got both >>georg and >>horizon on your side, so I figure you're in good shape. :-P

Almost There Needs Work (sorry author; demoted following reflection on my earlier star-struck-ness).
#9 · 6
· · >>CoffeeMinion >>Baal Bunny
If anything, maybe this round can remind us just how fickle the professional market for fiction is. Pretend for a second that, instead of authors reviewing each other's work, we were all editors reading through slush piles to pick stories for a magazine or anthology. Which of these entries (not just finalists -- entries!) might get picked up for sale? A surprising number of them, if they land on the right desk!

Even in rounds where there has been remarkable consensus on story ranking, there are a number of readers who rate the gold medalist at mid-slate or below, and individual readers' favorites can come from anywhere in the list. (And it's generally far from clear-cut! Almost all rankings' comparisons with their neighbors are within the margin of error.) A submission to a single story market is basically like rolling the die on a random Writeoff reader and asking if they'll like it (and if it's what they're looking for at that time); the better you score in general, the quicker you'll find a hit, but there's no way to write a story good enough to guarantee a successful submission. And contrarily, just because a few high-profile people like it doesn't guarantee it's good; a flaw that affected your reading legitimately is dragging the story down for you and readers like you.

"But horizon," you may cry, "It's all well and good to pretend that we've all got equal credentials for assessing story quality, but you're like some master reviewer dude with good opinions and stuff." Well, as it happens, we do have a Writeoff alumnus that is demonstrably professionally saleable, because it was professionally sold -- and it is literally impossible to have been more wrong about that than I was! While it sailed to a medal, I scored it at the very bottom of my finals slate.

So anytime you're tempted to apologize for disagreeing with me, or thinking that your opinion is any less professional than mine, remember that my track record as a professional oracle is currently 0%. Yes, I do occasionally say some smart things in story feedback -- but we all look for different things in stories, and when you disagree with me it just means you're seeing things in my blind spots.
#10 ·
Duly noted, and you are too kind. :-)

...except I feel like I should disagree with you on principle now, given what you just wrote. :-p

I'm so confused!
#11 · 2

Gonna agree with Coffee here. 90 percent of this story was exposition in the style of "Hey, you remember the time we..."
#12 · 2
Thanks, folks!

And congrats to the other medalists. After nearly two years of entries, I now have one of each medal!

As for the story, one of my constant problems in first draft--and even after two years, I'm still unable to come up with anything but a first draft in three days--is starting the action later than I should. It's an adage of short story construction to start as close to the ending as you can, but I tend to take that way too far.

In the rewrite I'm working on now, the first scene is the night after King Cole's funeral with Blue and Muffet on a hill overlooking the capital city--and I really need to come up with a name for the capital city. That way, I can get all that backstory covered "in scene" just before the two of them leave, pretty sure that they'll never see Bitsy or each other again. Then we cut to six years later, and the story can carry out without a bunch of the current expositing. I'm also aiming to make Blue much more pro-King Cole and Bitsy more anti with Muffet steering the middle course between them.

Oh, and a needlessly persnickety point of correction: "The Procession of the Equinoxes" wasn't technically a professional sale, >>horizon. Gods WIth Fur paid half a cent a word, and SFWA defines that as semi-professional: it's gotta be six cents a word or more to rate as professional. But your point about finding the right editor is still very true--I'm convinced the only reason I get a story into the Sword and Sorceress anthology every year is 'cause Elisabeth Waters has a soft spot in her heart for squirrels. :)