Better Writer Challenge
The Better Writer Challenge is a mid-quarter competition open for the first ten days in February, May, August, and November. Each challenge is carefully designed to test your skills across several core aspects of writing. You'll find the challenge details and submission button in the green box on this page.
This competition includes a $5 entry fee per submission. Enter as many times as you want per quarter; your entry fee adds to the prize pool. Winners receive feedback and a cash prize dependent on the prize pool in $25 (USD) increments. Prizes are paid through PayPal.
The author retains rights to their winning entry, published below. Better Writer subscribers receive an emailed voucher for one free entry per quarter.
Arial or Times New Roman, size 10 or 12pt, black text only
No extra spaces between lines or paragraphs except for scene breaks.
1" empty margins on all four sides
0.5" (12.7mm) or Tab indentations for all paragraphs
Do not use the spacebar for indentations
Empty line for scene breaks
Do not include your title a second time before your entry.
Entries must include the proper Title Information at the start of the document, aligned left:
Name and email
Title of Entry
Better Writer [month]
The Writer's Workout accepts these file types: .doc, .docx, .odt
Emailed entries are not accepted for this challenge.
Winner: EJ Howler!
You can read EJ's winning piece below.
Your character finds a place
they thought was a myth.
750 - 3,000 words
Deadline: May 10.
Submission fee: $5 per entry via PayPal.
Name and email
Better Writer [month]
Not the Kingdom She Expected
Echo chanced one last look behind her shoulder before swimming under the South Fallapaw current. The last thing she needed was one of her mother’s sharks tailing her along the waves. Thankfully, the only company joining her in this corner of the sea was a school of minnows. They paid her no mind as she swam past. Still, she did her best to give off the air of absolutely belonging in the Latchtos Deep to avoid any questions.
If Mother finds out about this, I’ll be stuck in Ferriden Bay for at least a year. She shook her head as she swam down towards a collection of caves. But it’s all right, because she won’t find out, and even if she does, it’ll be too late anyway.
The light filtering down from the surface dimmed with every swish of her tail, taking her deeper and deeper into the caves. There was a moment where the only light came from the small patches of bioluminescent seagrass growing in the cracks of the tunnel walls. Thankfully, it only took a moment for her eyes to adjust as she swam out of the way of a large craggy pillar and continued downward. She clutched at the small conch shell strung around her neck, running her thumb over the prongs on top.
“The surface world is too dangerous for the likes of us.” Her mother’s voice rang through her head, seemingly bouncing off the walls of the cave to come back and haunt her. “Absolutely, under no circumstances, are you to venture to the pools in Latchtos Deep. You could very easily end up in Shekaagow, and what would you do then?”
Despite herself, Echo paused. Stories of Shekaagow, the terrible kingdom where all the water was poison and filled with waste, had circled through Ferriden Bay for as long as she could remember. Her mother lulled her to sleep at least once a week with tales of the terrible humans from the jagged stone kingdom who tried to filet a young mermaid when she accidentally washed up in Shekaagow, only for her to be saved at the last moment by a prince who bravely followed her through the pools and weathered the terrible winds that whipped through every corner of the kingdom. Even if other surface kingdoms were fine, the fear of ending up in Shekaagow was enough to keep everyone perfectly content to stay in Ferriden Bay.
She’s just trying to scare you, Shekaagow isn’t a real place. Echo shook her head as she swam further. You’ve already come all this way and made an enchanted shell, you can turn around and go home now!
Finally, light filtered into the cave from an opening below her. Ripples of blue and green floated up along the walls as the gentle smell of kelp wafted up to greet her. Echo’s face broke out into a grin so large it hurt her cheeks as she sped towards the entrance. The tunnel opened up into a small room, no larger than the canopy in the coral reef where she and her friends used to hide to tell stories. Seven pools flickered and glowed, creating a menagerie of wave patterns along the ceiling. She swam over to the closest one, carefully resting her hands along the lip so that her fingertips were just inches from the water. At first, the surface was cloudy, with blues and greens swirling around with a few sparkles that were certainly the crystals underneath. She reached up and ran her hand over the conch again, studying the wave pool intently.
You can do this, there’s no backing out now. She took a deep breath as she reached out and touched the surface. Now, pools of the Latchtos Deep, show me the kingdom of Twilita.
As soon as her finger touched the water, the pool began swirling faster. Echo’s eyes widened as she saw the colors shift from blue to green to violet to pink and back to blue like the anemone outside of her room when the currents grew stronger. After a moment, the murkiness cleared. In its place, Echo saw a beautiful castle with white marble towers and bright blue tiles along the roof. Rivers and streams flowed in and around the structure, gently falling down small stone waterfalls trailing the sides of the castle. The clouds were white and puffy in the pristine blue sky above, lazily floating by along the gentle breeze. Echo’s smile grew even wider as she saw shadows of people wandering from window to window. She grabbed her conch necklace and held it tenderly, not unlike the way her nursing maid would cradle her head when she was just a baby.
“You have to be careful with magic like this,” the kindly sea witch explained when she brought the conch to be enchanted. “It will give you legs and lungs like a human, but it’s not a permanent transformation. If you don’t soak yourself for at least once every seven days, the effects will wear off for good.”
“Is there any way to make the effects permanent?” Echo wasn’t exactly sure if that was her final goal, but she thought it would be helpful information in case she enjoyed Twilita far more than she was expecting to.
“Like most of our magic, emotions are a far more powerful source than we could ever make on our own.” The sea witch’s eyes were not unkind while explaining it, but Echo certainly heard the tremor in her voice. “Should you find true love on the surface and act on it accordingly, then your legs will become permanent. However, it would mean that you would never be able to return home.”
Echo stared down at the pool for what felt like hours, watching small flocks of birds fly across the castle. She even managed to catch a squirrel scampering across the grass (or at least, it was a creature she believed to be a squirrel). Her gut tied itself into an agonizing knot as she thought of never coming home, of never seeing her mother’s face again. The faint sound of birds chirping wafted up from the pool, and she shook her head once.
It’s not permanent, she reminded herself. You’re just going to explore the surface, see a kingdom, prove that humans aren’t as scary as everyone says they are, then come home. You’ll never get another adventure like this: may as well enjoy it while you can.
With one last deep breath, Echo blew on her conch necklace. The small pores and openings started to glow a gentle lavender that pulsed in time with her heartbeat. She took one last look over her shoulder, braced both her hands against the lip of the pool, then dived down in.
I do sure hope this works. Echo closed her eyes and let the warm currents brush over her face and through her hair as she felt herself get swept away. The lights grew brighter, eventually engulfing her, and she couldn’t help but grin. Twilita, here I come!
The first thing that struck Echo was a horrible taste in her mouth, worse than the one time she agreed to lick the underside of an old barnacle on a dare. The second thing was the presence of something in her lungs and throat that felt thick, intrusive, making it difficult to breathe. Her whole body shook with coughs as she struggled to clear the blockage. Her vision was still hazy, not quite able to focus but able to pick out a mixture of grays underneath her. It was until she coughed up enough slimy fluid that she realized her tail felt strange. For one thing, it felt much, much lighter. For another, when she went to move it, she found there to be a small delay between one half and the other.
Wait, then that means…it must’ve worked! Despite the wave of dizziness it brought, she propped herself up on her elbows and looked back. Sure enough, once her vision cleared, she saw that her violet-scaled tail was replaced with a pair of human legs. A string of giggles escaped her mouth as she practiced lifting them up at the knees one at a time, then spreading them apart far wider than her tailfins could ever go.
Oh, oh this is amazing! Then I truly made it! This is Twilita!
Echo turned back around to gaze upon the glistening towers of the Twilita castle. Instead, her eyes found a jagged horizon with dark gray towers piercing the sky, cutting through the hazy gray cloud cover. Every so often, red lights would blink through the structures, whether from fire or a beast within Echo wasn’t sure. Instead of the gentle sounds of birds chirping or streams bubbling by, sharp metallic screams and an incessant rumbling needled at her ears so hard she nearly pressed her hands against them to cover the noise. The wind picked up, pushing against her shoulders and making her shiver. Even the ground underneath her was far from the white sands she envisioned, with dark splotches and tiny bottles littered all the way down to the water’s edge.
Perhaps this is just a darker corner of the kingdom. Echo’s brows furrowed as the thought danced around in her mind, desperately trying to convince her that it was a viable option. You just need to find the castle, that’s all.
“Hey, uh, you doing okay there?”
Echo’s head shot up as the voice managed to come through over the endless barrage of noise. A young woman stared down at her with one brow raised but little malice behind her eyes (as far as Echo could tell, that is). In her hands she held a small silver pole that stretched upwards and splintered off, keeping a polka-dotted tarp together in one dome shape. Her cloak was long, stretching down to her knees where the hem just barely missed grazing her long boots that squeaked when she rubbed them together. For a long moment, Echo simply blinked up at her, taking in every detail. The girl simply stared back, her eyes briefly venturing down Echo’s back before quickly snapping back to her face. The girl cleared her throat and brushed some hair behind her ear.
“You, uh, weren’t swimming out here, were you?” Echo found her voice to be pleasant, rumbling similarly to the way the ground did every few seconds. “The water’s pretty gross in Navy Pier. And, uh, it’s pretty cold to be doing it in the buff.”
“Navy Pier…” Echo couldn’t speak without a brief spat of coughing, but at the very least the words sounded intelligible to her ears. “Is that in Twilita?”
“Um, no…” The girl looked around for a moment, then began undoing the buttons of her cloak. “Here, at the very least put this on. You’re gonna get in trouble if you just walk around naked. You, uh, aren’t from around here, are you?”
Echo carefully grabbed the cloak as she rose to her knees. It was not as soft as she was hoping her first encounter with human fabric would be, but it was warm as she slipped her arms through the sleeves. “Thank you.” Being as careful as she could be, she rose to her feet, teetering on her new legs. “I am looking for Twilita, would you happen to know where that is?”
The girl grimaced as she watched Echo sway and stumble. “No, can’t say I do. Look, here, do you need me to call you a cab? I can help you get home.”
The sky rumbled overhead, causing Echo’s head to snap up. As the wind picked up, a foul scent tickled at her nose. She briefly looked back at the shoreline, which sported far more bottles and scraps than she remembered seeing the first time. Her eyes trailed over the horizon, jumping from tower to tower, listening to the rumbling and metallic screams that echoed from stone kingdom above them. A shiver ran down her spine as the wind gusted a bit stronger.
“Is…is this Shekaagow?” No, that’s absolutely ridiculous, that’s just a place made up by the adults to scare us from exploring. There’s no way it actually exists. “Is that where I am?”
“You…you mean Chicago?” The girl frowned a bit deeper as she offered her hand. “Here, why don’t you come back to my apartment with me: we can get you warmed up, get you some new clothes, and we can call someone for you, okay?” Her eyes trailed to the sky as it rumbled louder. “It just sounds like it’s gonna rain again, and you’re gonna freeze if you stay out here.”
“The humans in Shekaagow will filet you alive if ever given the chance.” The words of her mother rang strong in Echo’s head, and initially she flinched, taking a step back. She looked over her shoulder again to the shore. However, as she watched the waves lap against the lackluster sand, the foul taste found its way back into her mouth and refused to die down. She turned back to the girl, whose frown was replaced with a soft smile.
“Don’t worry about the storm, my apartment’s just a block over from here,” she said. “We’ll be inside and dry in no time.”
I should not be doing this, I should try to go home, or find Twilita again. Echo clutched at her necklace, and to her surprise, found it pleasantly warm against her palm. Under the shade of her hand, she could see the pores glowing a faint blue. She looked back up to the girl, who giggled nervously, a sound that wasn’t wholly unpleasant to her ears.
“Though I guess stranger-danger is a real thing, especially in a big city.” She scratched the back of her neck. “Sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself: I’m Flora.”
Despite the continued warnings bouncing around in Echo’s head, she smiled and took Flora’s hand. “It is nice to meet you, Flora. I am Echo.”
“Echo, that’s a pretty name.” Something akin to the luminescent sparkle of a school of fish in the middle of the night flickered in Flora’s eyes. “Well, if you’d like to join me, let’s go home.”
Echo smiled despite herself as a raindrop fell on her nose. Her eyes darted to the Shekaagow skyline one more time, the red flickering lights a much more pleasant green as they blinked down at her. Though her deep breath in was nowhere near as fresh and tasty as she was hoping, it still filled her with an excitement as she followed Flora away from the beach.
Perhaps this won’t be so bad. She slipped her hand in Flora’s as they walked, making sure she avoided stepping on anything too sharp. After all, this is still a human kingdom. And if I have already made a friend, then perhaps this will be a good adventure after all.
This work by EJ Howler is published as received.
Look for the next Better Writer Challenge in August.