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WRiTE CLUB 2020 - Preliminary Bout #7

For anyone just discovering us, WRiTE CLUB is a tournament-style competition that runs during the eight weeks prior to the DFW Conference (who is also a sponsor) and it provides writers the opportunity to compete against one another for a chance to win a host of prizes, topped off by a free admission to the following year’s conference. Our writers have submitted 500-word writing samples under pen names and they'll be appearing in head-to-head in “bouts”, with the winner of each match determined by you the reader—by voting for your favorites. Bout winners keep advancing until there are only two remaining and that’s when a panel of celebrity judges, who include well know authors, agents, editors, and other publishing folks, choose the ultimate champion.

Even though the contest is sponsored by DFW, anyone can vote (as long as you have a Google sign-in or verifiable email address), and when you do, we encourage you to leave a mini-critique for both writers. Oh, I forgot to mention that the voters have a chance to win a $60 Barnes and Noble gift card. Each time you vote in a bout your name will be placed in a hat and at the end of the contest, one name will be selected to receive the prize. And as an added incentive to keep readers coming back for more, we're upping the ante. Readers who place a vote in EVERY bout will have their names placed in a second hat and the name selected from that pool will win a $40 Barnes and Noble gift card. Double the chances of winning!

Even though there will be a different bout every day (M-F), the voting for each bout will remain open for seven days from the date I post it to give as many people as possible to have a say. Voting for today’s bout will close on Monday, May 18th (noon central time). To help keep up with which bouts are open, you can follow along on the WRiTE CLUB Scoreboard updated right HERE.

It’s that simple. The writing piece that garnishes the most votes will move on to the next round where they’ll face a different opponent. In case of a tie, I’m the deciding vote. I can do that because, like all of you, I do not know the real names of our contestants either (my wife processes all the submissions).

A few more rules –

1) One vote per visitor per bout.
2) Although our contestants are anonymous, voters cannot be. Anonymous votes will not count, so if you do not have a Google account and are voting as a guest, be sure to include your name and email address.
3) Using any method (email, social media, text, etc) to solicit votes for a specific contestant will cause that contestant's immediate disqualification. It’s perfectly okay, in fact, it is encouraged to spread the word about the contest to get more people to vote, just not for a specific writer!
4) Although more of a suggestion than a rule - cast your vote before you read other comments. Do not let yourself be swayed by the opinions of others.

That’s enough of the fine print. Here we GO!

For our 2nd bout of the week, we have Scottish on one side of the ring representing the Adult Horror genre.

The Puzzle 


The Tinker’s Damn was shrouded in gloom. Sunlight from the open door stopped a few feet within and would go no further. When old man Macomber entered the shop, he brought more gloom with him.

“Shopkeeper! Bring a lantern!” he shouted, unable to see what was on the shelves.

An old crone, her hair like spiderwebs crisscrossing her skull, appeared behind him. She knew who he was, the moneylender who held the mortgage on her shop. The interest was outrageous, damning her to poverty.

“No lantern today. Can’t afford the oil.”

“For heaven’s sake, woman!” he said, startled. “Announce yourself next time.”

“What are you looking for?”

“I don’t know,” he grumbled. “Amusement. Something to cure my boredom with life, and people, I suppose.”

 She disappeared for a moment, then returned with a black box.

“What is it?” he asked. “Am I supposed to guess?”

“Something from the orient. A magical puzzle brought to the continent by a ship’s captain in 1815, the very one he played with aboard ship. It will cure what ails you.”

“We’ll see about that,” he said, seeing hatred in her face. He wondered if he’d ever had dealings with her.


Later that night, Macomber examined the black box. There was no drawing or caption, no hint of the image. He dumped pieces of various colors from the box and spread them around the table. He found the edges, which was the easy part. The rest was maddening.

Many times, he started over and for many hours he worked. He forgot to eat and did not go to bed. Night became day, and he forgot his business and his many enemies. Absorbed by the puzzle, he worked in vain cursing the orient, cursing the crone, then cursing himself. How many times did he gather the pieces and put them back in the box? Many times, over many days. The compulsion to try again would force him to return to the table and lay the pieces out.  

The puzzle ensnared Macomber, and not until he was weak with deprivation, his mind shattered and his body soiled, did the image reveal itself. It was a grotesque hunchback in tattered clothing with the flaming red eyes of a demon, a mouthful of shark’s teeth, and the claws of a panther.

When the last piece was in place, the table began to vibrate. Smoke engulfed him, stinging his eyes. Macomber’s eardrums burst when the puzzle pieces exploded and the hunchback’s hand erupted through the table and grabbed him by the throat. It choked the breath from him and pulled him down into the underworld. Then the puzzle reassembled itself with the image of Macomber, his eyes wide with terror and his mouth open in a silent scream.

The old crone came through the door. She gathered the pieces of the puzzle and put them back in the black box, then returned to The Tinker’s Damn, quite contented.


On the far side of the ring, we have Annie Corvino who is representing the Adult Paranormal genre.

August 1961, Turkish coast

In the darkness beneath the Aegean Sea’s surface, Jillian Ames adjusted the air-lift hose sucking sand off the Byzantine-era shipwreck as the outline of narrow-necked amphorae came into view. An underwater camera tower would record the artifacts' position. Her job was to clear them of sand and the encrustations of centuries of marine life and move them to the basket at her feet to be lifted to the barge waiting above.

She ran a hand carefully over the amphorae—ancient clay jars—that had once carried wine intended for an emperor. But instead of reaching their destination, the jars had gone down with the ship that carried them. The thought of the sailors who had also met their deaths here gave her a shiver of unease. Or was it that she had a sudden sensation of being watched—and not just by the camera?

A small octopus burst from a hole in one of the wine jars. She swallowed a giggle as the turbulence of its escape left her bobbing in the water, its ink blurring her vision. Something had been watching—that inquisitive octopus.

But as the cephalopod's ink cleared, she realized it hadn't been the only watcher. A man appeared from the clouded water, barreling toward her, arms gesticulating, his face, bare of goggles, distorted in evident anger. Shit, the guy must be one of the rare free divers who depended on their own lung power instead of compressed air to make their dives.

Still holding the air-lift hose with one hand, she waved the man away with the other. His mouth was open now, lips moving. Was he crazy? Free divers were famous for their ability to make long dives without an artificial air supply, but he couldn't possibly hold his breath with his mouth open. He slammed into her, tugging frantically at her scuba gear. Oh, God, he was drowning and in his terror, he would drown her as well.

She kicked, webbed flippers meeting solid flesh. Then nothing. She swiveled, searching. There was no one in sight. The diver was gone as suddenly as he came. He must have realized his only hope was to head for the surface. If he didn't reach the top in time …. She swam to the underwater phone booth installed for emergencies to alert the barge crew to the man’s peril.

"Jill?" Tom Belasarian, the expedition leader aboard the barge Trident. “You OK?”

"There was a sponge diver down here, a free diver. Must have run out of air. Tried to grab my gear. Have you seen him?"

"Jill, you need to get out of the water. You know the procedure."

"But the diver—"

"Come on up, Jill.” Very calm, very deliberate. "I checked the camera feed. You became agitated, tried to rip off your own gear. Thank God, you headed for the booth."


"Now, Jill. There's no sponge diver. Nobody down there but you."


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

Before we sign off I wanted to address the issue a few readers are having with not being able to post comments, or having those comments show up as UNKNOWN even though they have a Google Account.  There are several things at play here. First, if you are using the Safari or Chrome browsers they have a known problem with Blogger and you have two choices. Switch to Firefox as a browser (I've never had a problem using it), or change the setting on Safari as illustrated below.

The other problem is Blogger not recognizing you when adding a comment and therefore designating you as UNKNOWN. This could happen if the reader is a Blogger user themselves and they have not changed their settings since Google + went away.  To do this, follow these steps:

Go to Blogger dashboard.
Set User Profile = Blogger (instead of Google +)

Hopefully, that will resolve everyone's issues and let the votes/comments reach our contestants. If you missed the first two bouts because of one of these issues, remember the bouts remain LIVE for a week so you can still go back and let your choice be known.

We’ll be back on tomorrow for another exciting bout. Please help all our writers out by telling everyone you know what is happening here and encourage them to come vote.

This is WRiTE CLUB—the contest where the audience gets clobbered!


  1. Both stories are very interesting, and I enjoyed them both. So I guess my vote will have to come down to technicalities.

    In the first piece, there's a bit of head-hopping. I think the story would work better in omniscient (which a lot of horror is written), with a "narrator" of sorts telling/showing the story. It was close here, but not quite there.

    In the second piece, I have a little problem trying to understand what an underwater phone booth is (how does one TALK into it?), but other than that, the story flowed well and the POV stayed true. My vote goes to Annie Corvino.

  2. I wish these weren't pitted against each other, because the writing in each of them blows away the competition so far (at least for me).

    VOTE: Scottish (but Annie is a strong contender for me for Save Week).

    Scottish: Macomber's voice is very strong, and your writing has a great sense of atmosphere and style--it very much combines the feel of classic turn-of-the-century ghost story (I couldn't help thinking of The Monkey's Paw) with more modern elements. One thing that didn't work for me was the hunchback. I'm assuming this was a reference to the devil (who is often depicted this way), but I feel like it would have been more powerful if we'd seen hints of this figure before. Maybe, for instance, it's the shopkeeper, or a long-dead relative of Macomber's who he reflects on early in the story (just as two possibilities that wouldn't add too much to word count).

    Annie Corvino: You have a deft hand for description--I felt I could picture everything very well. Occasionally I was taken out of the story by the interjections explaining certain elements of diving culture in the setting. I sympathize that this was likely done to keep the word count down, but I think certain of these sentences could be reworked to read more smoothly. E.g. "Shit, the guy must be one of the rare free divers who depended on their own lung power instead of compressed air to make their dives." - That one read as slightly awkward and authorial to me (the dreaded, "As you know Queen Elenora, the countries of X, Y, and Z that border our nation of Q have . . . ."

    I would also recommend fiddling with your opening line, as it was challenging to parse.

    A very good piece though! One of the best in the competition so far. You showed off some real writing ability here.

  3. Annie Corvino, I liked yours, and my vote goes to you. I don't know a lot about diving, but the underwater phone booth confused me. A real thing? Could you accomplish the same thing and have her come to the surface first? A small thing.

    As for The Puzzle -- I like the story overall, but I think I would've been pulled in more if the story had simply begun with the puzzle itself. You know, creepy designs, etc. I found myself wanting the story to begin with these lines, “Something from the orient. A magical puzzle brought to the continent by a ship’s captain in 1815, the very one he played with aboard ship. It will cure what ails you.”

  4. Two strong pieces.

    Scottish - The smoother read of the two. I didn't mind the head-hopping, especially in a 500 word piece. The MC had solid motivation. I may have hinted that the ship's captain had been cruel or evil as well, although I did find the twist a bit cliche and easy to see coming. In terms of a mysterious puzzle, it seems that many end summoning a devil (or with evil consequences), so that actually fell flat for me in terms of originality.

    Annie - A better twist. Once we get past the opening paragraph, the story gets into its rhythm, but that opening sentence is a mouthful, well, mindful. I might consider revisiting that. The underwater phone is a bit tough to comprehend as well as "swallow a giggle" while underwater. The detail of the scene is crisp and vivid. It was easy to see the happenings.
    No matter who comes up short here, I believe they will have a legit shot at the save.

    Even though the twist may have fallen short, the writing & flow in Scottish's work is solid from start to finish and the story left no questions.

    Scottish gets my VOTE

  5. Scottish -- Excellent setting of the scene -- Sunlight from the open door stopped a few feet within and would go no further. -- That tells us all we need to know, and makes it feel like it's the sunlight's decision to stop there. The omniscient narrator worked for me, and that's hard to convey with only two characters. The figurative language was nice, the spiderwebs crisscrossing her skull. Would have liked a little more, but a solid piece.

    Annie Corvino -- Great premise, and it's obvious you know the world you're writing in. I like the visual of the ending, and can imagine it in a film. The knowledge of the world didn't all need to be passed on to us, though. A lot of words went into explaining what things are, the amphorae, the skin diver, the expedition leader and the name of the barge. All of that could have been left on the cutting room floor for the one thing you don't do, which is describe the water. For those of us who've never been on a dive in the Aegean, I would have liked the imagery to be focused on that.

    Vote goes to Scottish.

  6. Woo-hoo! Congratulations, contestants!

    Scottish: I had to read that first line a couple of times to make sense of it. What is a Tinker's Damn? At first I thought it was some sort of maintenance shack. When I kept reading and realized it was a curios shop, things flowed a bit better for me. Macomber's voice is strong, but I stumbled again when he registers her hatred and wonders if he's ever had dealings with her. Of course he has. He's her landlord. He probably comes by monthly for his payments.

    When the old lady brought out the puzzle box and described it as having been played with, I assumed it was more of a logic type puzzle. It wasn't until Macomber dumps out the pieces and finds the edges that I understood it was a jigsaw puzzle. And maybe it's just because of where I was raised, but I have never heard of anyone "playing" with a jigsaw puzzle before. I've heard "working on" "doing a" and "putting together", but never "play with". Once I understood it was a jigsaw puzzle, I knew what was coming next, but you did a fantastic job of it. I loved, loved, loved how the puzzle became an obsession and then an addiction to the point of not eating or bathing. I wasn't confused by the demonic image until Macomber's own image took its place. Does that mean that a shark-toothed, demonic hunchback was the last to solve the puzzle before Macomber? Will the next user see Macomber's image or the demonic guy? Over all, Even though I wasn't surprised, I enjoyed the hell out of this story. It feels like a classic ghost story or even an old Twilight Zone episode.

    Annie Corvino: I'm not sure the date at the top adds anything. Maybe it's because I know zilch about underwater excavation, but that date didn't orient me to the technology in play. And knowing I was reading a paranormal story, I'm willing to suspend disbelief enough to say "sure maybe this isn't technically factual, but I'll go with it."

    I assume Jill is a professional who knows exactly what she's doing. As such, one disbelief I had a hard time suspending was why she was so jittery and flighty. Presumably, she spends lots of time around shipwrecks where people have died, so she'd be used to it. It made her seem like kind of an airhead instead of the scientist she is. I think this could be helped by her scolding herself or mentioning somehow that no matter how often she vacuums up shipwrecks, she always feels a pang of grief for the dead.

    I love a good swear much more than many people, but in this case, "shit" didn't work. It was meant to be either emphatic or impressed, but it just felt out of place here. The line after "was he crazy?" could be tightened. Since you had already described the feats of a free diver, there's no need to waste words on repeating that information. I loved the final twist that nothing was down there with her.

    Both of these stories were superb, and frankly, I'm salty af about having to pick one of them. I really understand what agents mean when they say "writing is subjective." I love both pieces, so I just have to go with the one that somehow feels right to me.

    Scottish gets my vote today.

  7. Well done to both authors for their good work getting to this stage of the competition.

    Scottish: For me, the POV in the first scene was confusing, jumping from one person's head to another. Initially we were in the store before Macomber entered, then he tried to look around but couldn't see, then the crone recognized him and thought about the interest he was charging, then he was startled, and so on. Once I got into the second scene, though, things solidified. The image of the puzzle ensnaring his mind and finally the man himself was as creepy as one could want. A nice bit of comeuppance in a neat package.

    Annie Corvino: The first sentence was a long one I had to climb over to get to the rest of the story. After that point, though, it progressed smoothly, with a nice sense of spookiness. A couple of details did trip me up. First of all it is quite possible to hold your breath with your mouth open. Second, is there such a thing as an underwater phone booth someone in scuba gear can use? Does it have an internal air supply so she can remove her face mask and breather to speak? If so, isn't that something a drowning free diver could use? These thoughts made it harder for me to appreciate the real fear the story otherwise created.

    This is a tough call. Both stories have strong elements, both have some weaknesses. In the end, I choose Annie Corvino's tale, though I may come back to Scottish in Save Week.

  8. Scottish:
    great imagery, love the descriptions and atmosphere. very creepy. would have worked well on one of those Boris Karloff horror stories.

    Annie Corvino

    like was mentioned above, too much time on descriptions that don't set the mood, would have loved descriptions about the water, the wreck, the ghost. otherwise a good story.

    my vote goes to Scottish

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I liked both entries, but my vote goes to Scottish.
    Scottish's piece set the tone and atmosphere from the beginning and sustained it until the end. Nicely done!
    Annie Corvino's story is interesting, but I felt the first sentence with all the adjectives and description was a bit long and complicated. I had to reread it to make sense of it. Despite all the description, I feel your story could benefit from using sensory details to take the reader to the sensation of being in the water, and encountering the "merman". With a few tweaks to go right into the action, it could be a solid scene.

  11. Scottish -- Such a great, atmospheric story. You did a wonderful job showing your MC's descent into madness until he was finally killed.

    Annie -- I loved the unique setting in your piece and the octopus made me giggle. I would've loved to have seen a bit more interaction with the ghost, but I know that's difficult to do in so few words.

    My vote: Annie

  12. The Puzzle by Scottish might be the best story yet. Wonderful dialogue and tension. So complete and contained in 500 words. Kudos.

    A big check in the box for Scottish.

  13. Scottish: a fun piece that kept me guessing. There are several phrases - “unable to see the shelves,” “damn her to poverty,” “seeing hatred” - where you could instead show him squinting, or her tattered clothes - give a more sensory description, don’t just tell us. The word “many” is heavily used in one paragraph. Why didn’t the shopkeeper give the creditor this puzzle a long time ago? Love the detail at the end, that his face becomes the puzzle.

    Annie: nicely atmospheric. It was hard to picture because I kept getting stuck on the fancy words and long sentences. “Amorphae” isn’t defined until the second time it crops up. You might want to keep jargon and uncommon words to a minimum, especially in a short piece. Otherwise, you risk losing the reader. I saw the twist immediately, but enjoyed it anyway.

    I vote for Scottish. Nice work to both!

  14. My vote today is for Scottish.

    I wasn't sure about the name of the shop, it was kind of confusing to me, but I really enjoyed this story and felt it flowed nicely from beginning to end. I felt the dialog was believable and I loved the twist of the image of the landlord replacing the image of the hunchback. What I want to know is, did the hunchback get out when the landlord was pulled in? *rubs hands together*

    The second story had some great imagery but I was a little confused about some of the wording. Overall, it just didn't flow as well for me as the first story. As a scuba diver, I did enjoy the premise of her seeing something that wasn't really there. It was spooky and I did wonder what happens next.

  15. My vote goes to Annie Corvino. An easy read that drew me in. Paranormal isn't my usual read, but I loved the historical aspects, and exotic locales are always a plus for me. Scottish was intriguing -- puzzles are very topical now -- but a little too much telling, and no characters, not even the old woman that I could relate to.

  16. Scottish- This was a nice, rather self-contained story that could also double as the introduction to a larger tale. It did a good job of establishing the characters, mood, and tension within the confines of the word limit. A couple of nits- I don’t think you need the “her” in front of “hair like spiderwebs”. That it is the crone’s hair is clear from the prior sentence and the fact it is crisscrossing her skull. Also, generally speaking, pre-20th Century, money lenders knew to whom they lent money. So, Macomber would almost certainly know the Old Crone owed him money.

    Annie Corvino- while this was billed as paranormal, it read more like an adventure piece. I think that sort of diminished the twist of the sponge diver not really being there. (The underwater phone booth threw me. I was picturing the type Clark Kent would use but forty feet below the water) That said, as an adventure/general fiction story, it was well written and definitely made the reader want to know what was happening and why.

    It’s a toss up but my vote is going to Scottish.

  17. This is a close one. Both premises are intriguing, both are well-written. Scottish's "The Puzzle" seems self-contained, and the ending is satisfying, but I'm going to hand my vote to Annie Corvino. I want to know more about this one!

  18. I'm going for Annie Corvino today. A little heavy on description for my liking, but I loved the setting and the eeriness of being alone (or at least possibly) alone at the bottom of the ocean.

    Scottish, great work in getting a complete story in 500 words, but the head hopping in the first section, and the speed with which the story resolved didn't really work for me.

  19. MY VOTE: Scottish

    In Scottish's story, I was a little thrown off by the POV choice. The reader is initially set up for it to be Macomber. Then, for a few lines, it changed to the store keeper's POV. I wasn't, as a reader, sure who I was supposed to connect to, and therefor had too much distance from the story. I wish the author would have stuck with Macomber and stayed with him through the end. It would have tied the piece together quite nicely. Additionally, I took issue with the surplus of exclamation points, and then was told the speaker was shouting. Example: “Shopkeeper! Bring a lantern!” he shouted,..." I see by the ! he's shouting, no need to point it out. It draws too much attention to the author.

    In Corvino's sample, I felt myself wanting to skim ahead. Maybe a little more of a set up to make the reader feel like they were being watched. The reader was told instead of being allowed to feel it. I'm a sucker for "feeling the words". The writing itself was fine, but the stage they presented on felt a little unfinished.

    I read each of these stories twice. In the end it came down to personal preference, and I love me some horror. Tough vote.

  20. My vote goes to Annie Corvino. It was a fun, interesting snippet that I felt could easily lend itself to a much larger story. I liked Scottish's story as well but I just didn't feel the tension as Macomber became obsessed.

  21. Both stories are well written, but I didn't quite connect to any characters.

    Scottish: Excessive use of passive voice and repetitious words didn't bring me in close the way I would have liked. You captured me, though, with the puzzle and description of Macomber's downfall as he tried to solve it, and the ultimate horror of releasing the monster within. A slumlord getting his just due and the victim coming to collect cinched it for me.

    Annie Corvino: You give us a unique setting and descriptions, and the prose flows easily, but for me, it's not personal to Jillian. The passage is too pedantic in the beginning and could use emotion to deeply connect the reader to Jillian. I want to care about her but I don't. The story ended on a cool note (I love a good paranormal tale) and gave me shivers, so kudos there.

    My Vote: Scottish

  22. My vote goes to Annie Corvino. I loved the writing and the concept of an underwater ghost is fascinating to me! I enjoyed the submission by Scottish as well but I felt Annie's concept was more original and the writing stronger. Both excellent jobs!

  23. Scottish - It's a good story. There's something about your third person POV that felt a little off to me.

    Annie Corvino - Interesting. An underwater phone booth is new on me. Did the MC encounter a merman or gone mad from the deep? A cover-up? Seeing into another realm? So many questions! You get my vote because I want answers.

  24. My vote goes to Scottish.

    Scottish I love stories that give characters comeuppance, especially when they deserve it. The spiderweb hair was a great visual. The fate Macomber suffers is played it in a fun way. However, I feel like more examples of his greed or behaviors would make his fate hit harder. Additionally Tinker's Damn did not immediately come across as the name of the shop. Word limits are hard but if this is part of a larger story, a mention of peeling paint or rotting wood would fit right in.

    Annie Corvino the story setting is interesting, and the idea that disturbing relics could wake a watery specter is something I've rarely seen in the stories I've read. I like how from the outside it looked like she was ripping off her own gear. These individual pieces however were lost in the pacing, some sentences ran a little long and that broke the tension for me. Also the octopus felt a bit like a jump scare that could have been replaced with sensory details. The constant hiss of oxygen from her equipment, the cold of the water, or the physical pressure of the water. Any of these would have pulled me more into the moment that she uncovers the past as it reaches out to her and touches her mind.

  25. Voting for Annie Corvino! Love the chosen setting, and the mystery of what's happening with the diver...

  26. I really enjoyed both entries, but my vote goes to Scottish. I enjoyed the whole part from beginning to end...and horror isn't always something that I enjoy. Annie, I generally love paranormal and I think you've done well, but ultimately, it was the use of unfamiliar jargon that tipped the scales toward Scottish. I would have liked the explanation of amphorae with the first usage...or better yet, not to even have used that word. You don't necessarily have to dumb down your work, but when your reader has to work to understand the words, it's a risk that they will tune out. Still, I enjoyed the story. There's so much potential with it.

  27. Annie has my vote. I love the action. Sounds like an episode of Supernatural.

    The other was good, but didn't feel as original to me.

  28. My vote is for ANNIE it is more interesting, but neither really grabbed me.

  29. Both settings were interesting and I wanted to find out more.

    But Scottish gets my vote. Dusty second hand stores are so much more interesting than the brightly lit super chains of today. I can visualize the black box laying in wait to snare its next victim.

  30. Scottish: I like the concept and the way everything unfolded, but it was hard for me to believe that she knew who he was, but he didn't recognize her. If he's a greedy moneylender, it doesn't make sense that he wouldn't know who owes him how much and where. I agree about the head-hopping and also wonder if omniscient point-of-view would have worked better. For instance, you might show Macomber straining to read labels rather than telling us he couldn't see what was on the shelves. For that matter, because your first paragraph established the gloom, he could have simply called for the lantern.

    Annie Corvino: Very well done. The writing is clean, and the language is elegant without being pretentious. You create a quiet, rolling atmosphere, much like I would expect on a dive, before increasing tension, relaxing it, and then bringing it home with the real danger. I'd read on. (And for those who wondered, I googled undewater telephone booth and found this:

    My vote goes to Annie!

  31. Both today's entries are very strong, I'm really impressed with the quality! I'm going to vote for Scottish, purely because I think the horror elements are done really well, and I like the emphasis on the character's interiority.

  32. Ooh! Quite enjoyed this match-up. Lots to like here.

    First, dig the name Macomber! Unique without being distracting.

    Second, I think you were quite effective at creating characters I want to learn more about in such a short space. The dialog, intriguing setting, and good character details ("hair like spiderwebs crisscrossing her skull") bring an invigorating level of intrigue.These felt like two full people, and I especially appreciate that your few physical descriptions emphasized character and reinforced tone rather than being bland or expected. On the note of character, I also wanted to know about that ship captain!

    Actually, that does lead to one of my beefs with the piece: If the puzzle morphs to match Macomber's end, why was the previous image not indicative of the ship captain's? I love the theme, but am annoyed that it's not consistent. If you still wanted to end up with the final puzzle image on the menacing hell figure that drags Macomber off, but keep that transformative aspect, why not have part of what makes solving the puzzle so challenging be that it shifts? Like the initial images that Macomber starts to see DO show the captain's demise. But as he works on it, the image seems to change. That may introduce another nice creepy element, keep both themes without inconsistency, and be an extra element fueling Macomber's obsession/madness.

    "The Tinker’s Damn." I'm not opposed to the name, but like others, it did make me pause and have to scratch my head a bit.

    "The interest was outrageous, damning her to poverty." I don't dislike this line, but I'm not sure it's needed since the shop owner says right after revealing Macomber as her mortgagee that she can't afford the oil for a lantern. That, I think, implies the situation nicely.

    I got confused on the spatial relation between Macomber and the shopkeeper. He enters the shop, calls for her, and she appears behind him? Was it implied with his inability to see what's on the shelves that he had wandered further inside? I didn't get that. Might want to make more clear how far in he's ventured before having the shopkeeper materialize behind him.

    I am also confused as to how he doesn't know he holds her loan. Is he the head of a bank, so not an individual lender? Or does he just hold so many he doesn't remember which faces match what names?

    "Something from the orient." Ugh. "The orient" tends to be the mystical catch-all for horror stories/movies. Why not pick something more specific (e.g. Cambodia, Mongolia, Tibet, etc...) or geographic (e.g. The Alps, the shore of the Yangzi river). Would make it more unique, allow you to introduce a particular artistic style based on the originating country, and avoid shallow racism (just going off of how "the orient" has historically been used/viewed by western cultures).

    Strong dialog overall! Though it does make them already sound familiar with each other.

    As a horror fan, I was super confused as I thought it was a literal puzzle box a la Hellraiser at first. So I did not understand what " hint of the image" was missing. Might want to make clear it's a jigsaw puzzle right when shopkeeper hands it over.

    "How many times did he gather the pieces and put them back in the box? Many times, over many days," struck me as funny. It kind of feels like a little kid's book where you ask the kid, "What sound did the piggy make? A big oink sound the piggy made!"

    I'm sad this is a complete story. The ending feels really rushed and the perspective isn't as close and immediate as would heighten the terror in a bid to get it in. I'd have been super intrigued and hooked just to see Macomber start to work this puzzle with hints at its evil nature. You do such a good job of introducing an interesting setting and full characters that I want this to be part of a larger work.

  33. Annie Corvino
    "August 1961, Turkish coast." This intrigues me! One, I super love that you gave a definitive location, and one I've not seen often in stories (off of Turkey). Makes the setting immediately more interesting. Two, in the 1960s. Ooooh. That has big implications what kind of scuba gear Jillian has on aka old school giant mono-goggle. That introduces a nice tone and unique visual.

    You already know that first line is way too unwieldy. Consider breaking after "shipwreck." Could probably shorten that initial prepositional phrase, also ("Beneath the Aegean Sea"). You can work in some of the other description (how dark it is) a little later.

    Agreed that I need the definition of amphorae right up front. Breaking that first sentence will allow you to pull that description from the second paragraph up to the second sentence. Then lead into what she's doing with these things. I think that ordering is better, too, because since I didn't know and couldn't visualize what an amphorae was right away, when she said her job was to transport the artifacts, I was like, "What?" as I thought she was initially referring to the actual shipwreck itself.

    "But instead of reaching their destination, the jars had gone down with the ship that carried them." Total waste of a line. We know that by virtue of that fact that it's a shipwreck. Would rather see this be devoted to visceral imagery of being underwater (e.g. how in shallow waters, it's clear, but if you're next to a deep area, it drops off into blackness really fast). Or something here about how silent it is underwater (unless you're near parrot fish, which are stupid loud when they crunch on coral with their teeth). On the whole, I don't think the setting/uniqueness of scuba diving is being taken advantage of. Bring us into what it's like to be that far underwater (e.g. cold, quiet, still, with life forms moving in and out).

    Love the octopus!

    "Shit, the guy must be one of the rare free divers who depended on their own lung power instead of compressed air to make their dives," feels clunky. And since you re-emphasize what a free diver is later when switching to calling him a sponge diver, repetitive. You could just say something like, "He had no tank on his back. A sponge diver." And leave it at that. We don't need a textbook definition to follow. Just mention what he's lacking and connect the word and we'll get it (I find it also makes writing seem more authentic and seamless if jargon is used how someone in a given field would use it with contextual hints at what it means rather than outright explanation. If I really want to know more, I'll look it up). Further, pick free diver or sponge diver, not both. There's nothing gained by the double jargon and only introduces the further need for explanation.

    Given that she's using this sand hose and they struggle, I would expect there to be some crud in the water so that she can't just easily see everywhere and determine he's not there right away. Let the sand and bubbles impede her vision a bit. Let her thrash in terror and try to swim a ways to be sure he's gone. A guy just appearing and going for your oxygen is terrifying! The abrupt "he's there then not" completely destroys all adrenaline of that situation.

    I'm also totally thrown off by this phone booth. I don't think that's was a thing in the 60s. Have her keep looking around and someone tug on a line she's attached to. This could be used to halt her panic. Get that to force her to surface and when she's trying to ask why, have Tom explain he was watching the feed and saw her trying to tear her own gear off out of nowhere.

    Good match-up! I'm going with Annie Corvino because I think it's a more original setting, part of something bigger that could be waaay cool, and for the specific details on time/place, making it feel more engaging.

  34. My vote goes to Scottish. I love the story. I get pulled into puzzles so I get the concept.

  35. Congratulations writers on getting through - makes you both winners. Be proud.

    Scottish, I was very intrigued by your story and read with much interest, even though I am not usually a fan of horror. The whole puzzle concept felt creative and I was very curious to see where the story would lead. Unfortunately, I got a little bit lost about midway through and once lost didn't really find my way back. Huge points for an original idea though. Well done.

    Annie Corvino, like other reviewers I did struggle a bit with your opening. Simple language can go a long way when written well, and will allow a reader to flow with your writing, rather than stumble. I don't really like it when I'm reading and an author has to take me out of the story to explain what something is. If there is a simpler way to explain something you feel may trip most readers up, it's probably better to choose the simpler language. Simple can be beautiful. Here you would have saved a few words too that could have been used elswhere.
    The scene reminded me a bit of a scene from Jennifer Egan's, Manhattan Beach. I think it is clear you know your subject. Your setting is unique and often that is important in keeping a reader's attention. I think with a slight rework of your opening and some simpler language your already very good piece wold be elevated further.

    This bout my vote goes to Annie Corvino as it was the their story that lingered with me the longest after I'd read both pieces several times.

    Good luck.

  36. My vote is for Scottish.
    Scottish - Cool idea. I liked the feeling you created as he was obsessing. The opening dialog could use some tweaking.

    Annie - I got lost a couple times at the beginning and did not get a feel for the set. The action was exciting and written well. As a diver, I did not know why your character wouldn't first think to offer their secondary and the underwater phone booth lost me entirely.

    1. I thought the same thing initially about the secondary mouth valve. But then remembered this takes place in the 60s. Were secondaries commonplace then?

  37. My vote is for Scottish.

    Scottish: I like your folkloric voice in this, and an evil toy in the hands of a vengeful person is a solid premise. There are three things in it throwing me off:
    1) The scene-setting didn't work for me and I was left confused. I didn't understand that Macomber was bored with life and had chosen a curio shop to look for entertainment. I didn't know it was a curio shop so was puzzled as to why a hardware store ('Tinker') stocked a demon puzzle. I like your oblique descriptions like 'he brought more gloom with him', but they need to be grounded in something more. Perhaps we see him going dully along the road, spotting the shop, taking his gloom indoors.
    2) If I were Macomber I wouldn't be buying a plain black box from someone who appeared to hate me, especially without a clear explanation of what it was, or at least a convincing lie. I'd expect a moneylender to be rather more canny, demanding.
    3) I don't understand the hunchback face on the jigsaw puzzle. I love the idea of the image being the previous victim, but the hunchback demon is surely the puzzle's underworld connection rather than a victim. Should it not be the Captain, or some other human?

    I like this premise and your voice, so you get my vote.

    Annie Corvino: the deep sea is probably the least-understood place on Earth, and ripe for fictional exploration. I would love to be taken on a virtual underwater ride and experience a diver's emotions and challenges. I didn't really feel any connection with this story, however.

    1) Simple difficulty reading it. I struggled to parse your first paragraph, eg 'adjusted the air-lift hose sucking sand' - that's just a series of nouns at first sight, confusing. That particular sentence is also rather complex. Quite a few dangling clauses in that paragraph, eg 'But instead of reaching their destination'. I had to read it all several times to break the sentences in the right places.

    2) It didn't ring true. I know zip about diving, but if an octopus burst out of a hole and sprayed me with vision-blurring ink, I'd be concerned, not giggling. I'm not convinced by a man who can slam bodily into her yet not be detected on camera, and her physical displacement by him undetectable too. If she is actually mentally ill...well, then, she's seriously mentally ill - this isn't just thinking you spot Santa Klaus in a vase. She shouldn't be down there in the first place. 'Underwater phone booth' seems to have been invented to serve your plot - that's okay, but then it needs to be woven in earlier - e.g. they discuss a sand-sucking method over the phone.

    3) Style inconsistency. It shifted sharply from quite formal in the first paragraph to very informal/chatty for the rest of it. There's nothing wrong with either of those, but I found the steep change distracting.

    I'd be interested to see where this ghost story goes.

  38. Both are good stories, I enjoyed reading them and congratulations to both on being selected.

    My vote in this bout goes to Annie Corvino.

    Scottish - Good use of dialogue to move the story forward and reveal character. The switch of POV in the third paragraph threw me off a little, as did the sentence where Macomber wonders if he's seen the hag before. She's described him as her landlord, so of course he would have seen her. Unless she's transformed herself into someone else to greet him? Loose some of the "manys" in the paragraph where he's trying to complete the puzzle - they're distracting. The ending was satisfying - but perhaps a bit more detail of some of Macomber's bad deeds would have made it even more satisfying when he gets his just reward.

    Annie Corvino - Great description of the underwater scenes. The details draw the reader into the story. The first paragraph would benefit from varying the sentence length. I felt a bit out of breath reading the whole thing. Good set up with the jars, but a little more tension, another close call maybe would have heightened the suspense. The detail with the underwater phone booth seemed out of place - is this a real thing? Wouldn't she have a headset in her diving gear instead? I'm no expert but the "phone booth" seemed out of place and distracting. This piece was a good, complete story in 500 words, and also would serve as prologue to a longer piece. I'd love to read more about the shipwreck and the main character.

  39. My vote goes to Annie Corvino. Love a good mystery!

  40. Wow, congratulations! Both of these are so good, it’s way too hard to choose one.

    Both had clearly-drawn, creepy, atmospheric settings. Both used engaging descriptions and vivid imagery. I liked the twists in each story.

    Neither was technically perfect: Scottish had a few repetitious words, too much telling awkward phrasing, and slip-sliding POVs. Annie Corvino also used some awkward phrasing and included unlikely elements, like an underwater phone booth or a basket at her feet.

    But, still, two of the best stories I’ve read here. This is by far the hardest choice for me, so I’m going to go have lunch and think it over…

    Okay, I’ve decided. My vote goes to Annie Corvino.

  41. Congratulations to both writers!

    Scottish: I appreciated the premise - how boredom and his own meanness led to his own demise. There’s also some wonderful descriptions - including how the sunlight barely made it into the store. I think you could expand this to more words for the same amount of story so you would be able to show instead of tell more. Macomber probably wouldn’t admit to being bored with his life, but maybe something more like needing something to fill his evenings.

    Annie Corvino: What a wonderful idea to explore under the sea (literally and literature-ly). I thought the octopus was very cute - I expect an experienced diver would expect to see unexpected sea creatures from time to time. Unfortunately, the shock of the reveal didn’t make its mark on me. Maybe, with more words, the suspense of it could have been pulled out a bit.

    In a really tough decision, my vote goes to Scottish.

  42. Such a tough bout!

    Scottish - I really appreciated the tone you set with this piece. I felt rooted in the scene and wrapped up in a sense of myth and folklore. And who doesn't love a tale of a miser getting his comeuppance? I agree that the narrator needed to take a step closer so we were grounded in Macomber's POV, so you'd need to rethink how you introduce his relationship with the crone.

    Annie - I loved the action in this scene that successfully kept the reader immersed (oh, puns) the entire time. The writing was clean, but the supporting details often got in the way of the mood for me. That moment with the diver should have been terrifying, but I got distracted by the background on the free divers. I wanted more of Jill's emotions and fewer of her observations.

    Hard vote, but I'm going with Scottish.

  43. My vote is for Scottish. Great story!!

  44. These were two great pieces. My vote is going to Scottish, though. I loved the atmospheric element of it.




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