The Altar of Alang
This is my entry to the first round of the NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction 2019 Challenge. This is a yearly competition for writers from around the world (over 3700+ of them) to create a 1000 word short fictional story in 48 hours based on 3 random prompts – a genre, a location and an object.
For anyone planning to take part in the competition, or just interested in the competition, I’ve included below a bit more detail of my experience of taking part.
“Only the foolish or the desperate would steal from the graveyard of the leviathans.”
Chandni watched as the setting sun silhouetted countless rusting hulks. Long shadows crept slowly towards her and she longed for their cool touch, a welcome respite from another day’s relentless heat. She had spent many an evening waiting here for her father’s shift to finish, back before the accident, back when these beaches swarmed with busy workers tearing apart the stranded vessels.
In its heyday, the Alang ship breaking yard had greedily consumed half the worlds unwanted ships, several hundred a year were broken and dissected on its altar in an endless cycle of destruction. Now its beaches and yards lay silent. A victim to indifferent global markets, its indigent workforce left with no choice but to seek work inland, unable to fish their now poisoned ancestral waters.
The problem was the ships kept coming, long after the yard had closed, they would arrive, either illegally or in the belief that the economics would improve. Year after year until a thousand ships filled every inch of sand and they stretched to the horizon far out into the gulf, a toxic rusting graveyard.
Those families that couldn’t relocate, scratched out a perilous living scavenging a modest income from the decaying fleet. With each passing year, the death toll soared as the easy booty dwindled until the authorities organised patrols to stem the embarrassing international criticism.
So it was that Chandni watched on from her hidey-hole as the last patrol of the day drove slowly past. This was not her first twilight foray, whenever the moon was full, the weather calm and the tide high she would drag her grandfather’s tattered canoe down into the oily black waters and steal into the night.
She knew the twisted labyrinth of waterways like the back of her hand and ably navigated the leaky canoe between the twisted wreckage. Her target for tonight the Majesty of the Seas. Once a luxury cruise liner it had sailed majestically through turquoise tropical seas until coming to languish in the middle of the Alang maritime necropolis. Deep within its bowels, Chandni had previously found several items of value and it had been enough to support both her and her mother for the last year.
She secured the canoe, grabbed her rucksack and scrambled up to one of the lower boarding hatches that became accessible at high tide.
The sun-baked ship was stiflingly warm as she worked her way through from the main concourse searching meticulosity for anything of value. She had to be careful, much of the interior had already been stripped leaving numerous fatal pitfalls and razor-sharp obstacles. She was nimble though and deftly moved from cabin to cabin.
It wasn’t going well she’d been searching for hours and all she had to show for her efforts was an empty battered jewellery box and a corroded smartphone. She was on edge, she was no stranger to the eerie echoing noises of dying ships, but the cruiser seemed unusually restless.
Exhausted, hot and frustrated she was desperate for some air and cracked open one of the cabin’s portholes. The cool sea breeze was refreshing, and she breathed deeply as she adjusted her sweat-soaked hair.
It wasn’t until the door of the cabin slammed shut that she realised it was more than a gentle breeze. Peering through the porthole she could no longer see the full moon or the bright stars, in their place angry grey clouds signalled a dramatic change to the weather. Her heart froze when she saw the choppy ink-black water, launching herself across the cabin she desperately fought with the stubbornly stiff door.
Falling into the corridor she dropped the torch. It spun across the floor casting flittering shadows before coming to rest and flickering out. In the total darkness, her heart raced as she scrambled headlong after the torch.
It started as a vibration, half felt half-heard and built into an ear-splitting banshee wail that reverberated down the core of the ship as if the Majesty had found a voice for its anger and raged against its undignified demise.
Chandni was in trouble, she could feel the ship moving, the deck tilting beneath her and somewhere down the corridor she could hear the torch rolling. Instinctively she grasped at the noise, her hands scrabbling over razor-sharp shards. Wincing she lunged again and felt the torch. Shaking and banging it with little success, she screwed the end cap back into place.
The piercing light shone down a twisting turning corridor, darting shadows danced menacingly giving the illusion the ship was alive with shadowy people. She needed to get out, now! Grabbing her rucksack, she ran for the concourse and the exit while all around her the ship groaned and shifted in terrible anguish.
When finally, she reached the exit, she stared out on a storm fuelled maelstrom, the graveyard was alive a symphony of screeching tearing steel. The labyrinth she knew was gone replaced by a boiling ocean of titanic leviathans that crashed and tore angrily at each other and towering high above her the monumental leg of an abandoned oil rig loomed out of the darkness.
Pushed by the winds and waves the once majestic cruiser shuddered as it crashed into the unmovable rig, catapulting Chandni into the oily foaming sea. An acrid cocktail of industrial toxins stung her eyes and burnt her lungs as she struggled to stay afloat.
A deafening crack forced her to look up as a humongous crane toppled from the rig onto the cruiser sealing both their fates. The crane slammed down into the Majesty cutting through its rusted superstructure like butter, breaking its back.
Coils of iron chain rained down and Chandni fought with all her might to get out of the way of the heavy links. It was futile, and she was pulled under, dragged down and drowned. Her final thoughts were for her mother as she was pummelled into the polluted silt another sacrifice on the Altar of Alang.
Having seen some of the previous years prompts I was dreading that I would get an unfamiliar genre along with an incongruent location and object. Waking up Saturday morning I nervously read my e-mail – horror, a ship graveyard and a canoe and let out a sigh of relief. I couldn’t have been any luckier not only an object that was easily workable into the location but a genre I’ve spent some time on this year. I suspect I will not be so lucky in the next .round in September.
By midday, I had sifted through a half dozen ideas, thrown them all at Wen and received the raised eyebrow of approval or disapproval, it’s always difficult to tell. By the end of the day one, having completed my research I had the perfect location Alang and 300 words I almost liked. I had hoped to be further but I was confident the last 700 would flow.
Sunday I was out with the pup for a Golden Retriever meet up in a muddy ditch in the heart of Kent. Having bathed the dog I was back to it by 3pm. Two hours later I had the first draft. Weighing in at nearly 1100 words, there were several hundred of them I didn’t like. Every hour I’d check the twitter feed to see how my fellow writers were doing and it seemed to be a similar tale of carnage, everyone had a horror story on their hands, unlucky for those tasked with a different genre.
Some dinner and back to it. Another 2 hours and draft #2 at 950 words and a completely different ending it was better but still had (and may still have) some horrendous pacing issues, so difficult to nail in 1000 words. Worst I was having to cut into the only 300 words I actually liked to fix it. Another 3 hours and at 994 words, it was getting close or more likely I was losing the will to take it any further. So just past midnight UK time and with 7 hours left on the clock, I submitted it.
At which point I should have gone to bed, foolishly I decided to do some admin and back it up into google docs. Big mistake, Grammarly kicked in with the red pen and pointed out a whole load of issues Word has missed. Another hour and another submission, with slightly fewer howlers. One last check of twitter, omg there are people just starting to write their stories from mental/scribbled notes. It was definitely time for bed.
So here it is my entry for round #1 of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2019. I really enjoyed the challenge, especially the banter on social media, there’s nothing like a common problem to bring out the best in people. I’m under no illusions about its chances, especially given the calibre of the judges and the other writers. I’m really looking forward to reading the winning stories in the various categories and to the next challenge in September (please not Romance).
The most valuable part of my first NYC Midnight Flash Fiction experience has been the forums. After the submission deadline has passed everyone posts their stories into a forum for peer review. This does not form part of the judging for the competition, it’s purely for writers to review each other’s stories and provide feedback. For me, it’s been the best part of the experience. I’ve read so many stories and I’ve been amazed by both the amazing ideas and the writing skills of so many of the entrees. In addition, many people read my story and the feedback has been incredibly educational, so many things I didn’t realise.
I was tempted to edit the story and fix the issues that were pointed out (it doesn’t count in the competition). It’s probably far more useful however to provide a flavour of the feedback, starting with some general themes:
- The story obviously has some pacing issues. Not a unique problem, of the 20+ stories I read it appeared to be the single biggest challenge most writers struggled with. In my case:
- More action less world-building. Almost every reader wanted more of Chadni and less background.
- Build the world and characters in parallel not sequentially will make the story flow better.
- Outline the story (even in a 1000 words) to make sure you get the balance right. i.e. the ending feels rushed, I’d have been better taking a few paragraphs out of the first third and using them in the last third.
- Own the genre (i.e. horror). Especially given it’s a competition. You need to ensure the judges are left in no doubt. About a third of readers wanted to see more horror elements given the prompt.
- Punctuation! Believe it or not, there is no full stop/period/semicolon limit. Shorter lines are easier and quicker to read.
- Treat adverbs like there is a limit, sparingly and make them count.
Some more specific gotchas:
- I referer to the cruise-liner as a cruiser. A cruiser, of course, being a warship not a short form of cruise-liner. I know this but I did not pick it up in my endless proofreading.
- I ran foul of the differences in UK/US English (divided by a common language). A flashlight in the UK is typically just called a torch. A bit confusing given a torch can also be a burning stick. Which is what most US readers envisaged, leading to some confusion when she screwed on the end cap.
- The mention of Chadni’s father needed better handling. Some readers wondered why it was mentioned. In truth, it was because of a different ending in the first draft. But I left it in there to try and imply it was just Chadni and her mother now. The problem was I didn’t tie it up in the end – i.e. her last thought was who would look after her mother”. Dropped a stitch.
Having developed software for many years, one of the things you learn fairly quickly is to take your ego out of your work. Whether it’s writing code, poetry or prose the truth is far more useful than a bruised ego. Accept that nothing you’ll ever do is 100% perfect, but if you seek out feedback, listen and learn you stand a far better chance of getting close to it.
The judge’s scores! I’d totally forgotten about the competition having somehow convinced myself it was the end of September. So, drum roll, I came 13th out of 30 – scoring 3 points. As my first competitive effort, I honestly didn’t expect to make the cut. Only the first 15 places get points (1st = 15pts -> 15th = 1pt) so to get 13th from my perspective is fantastic.
The best part is all the great feedback means I know what worked and what didn’t. Even better I’ve been able to review many of the stories that ranked well and learn some valuable lessons there as well. So, all in all, I’m really happy with the first round.
Judges Feedback (12/09/2019)
Here’s the feedback from the judges, it’s all spot on and echoes that of the community.
WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY
- I liked Chandi as a character and I liked how you established her as very familiar with these surroundings. I liked the description of her grandfather’s canoe and her first moments in the water. I thought you did a good job describing the Altar of Alang.
- The setting, action and Chandni’s emotional journey is captured nicely in the story. It is interesting how the hunt for treasure could end up to be someone’s final moments.
- Really. nice exposition, setting up the situation and the place. Strong word choice throughout.
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK
- I think the opening of the story could be trimmed back somewhat – the story really gets going once she puts the canoe into the water, and we should start closer to that moment. It’s not clear to me why this is happening on this particular night, especially if this is a ship she has visited many times before. At the end, I think we could spend longer with Chandi in her struggle so that we really feel it when she is dragged under and drowned.
- The final moments of Chandi are intriguing, especially since she thinks of her mother. Give the readers some insight on what exactly the thoughts of her mother are and how that makes her feel.
- Might benefit from some dialogue to build out the character. Perhaps a flashback to detail motives.
The problem is, with my skewed dates that means round 2 starts at the weekend. It’s going to be a long weekend.
Cover image courtesy of Maxime Horlaville
28th July 2019 at 10:47 am
I think this is a jolly good story. An unexpected ending as I thought she would survive.
2nd August 2019 at 11:06 pm
Sorry, I’ve only just seen your comment (it got incorrectly flagged as spam). In the original draft she did survive! The story also had a more supernatural feel but ultimately she was a victim of a brutal 1000 word hard limit.
11th August 2019 at 7:48 pm
Killed by an arbitrary limit . . . a metaphor for life! I enjoyed it anyway. Thanks for following my blog.
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