Writer November Brown ’23 Announced Finalist of the 51st Nick Adams Short Story Contest

May 19, 2023

Yesenia Mozo

November Brown ’23, an English and psychology double major, was announced as a finalist for the 51st annual Nick Adams Short Story Contest. Sponsored by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM), the short story contest was created to encourage the creativity and talent of fiction writers across the consortium of schools. Brown’s short story, “Soft Machines,” was among the thirty-five short stories submitted to the contest.

According to Brown, “Soft Machines” was born in a Fiction Seminar course taught by Rachel Yoder last semester. “You knew everyone wanted to be there because it was a Monday night [class from] 7–10 p.m.,” Brown laughs. Brown says that the support of her fellow Grinnellians, along with her other writing courses, has positively impacted her writing pursuits. “It’s amazing to be a part of a group that’s invested in each other’s work and is willing to give critical feedback to make stories better.”

Brown has aspired to be a writer ever since she began crafting complex backstories for her Barbie dolls as a kid. So, when she was deciding on a college, Grinnell’s workshop-based creative writing program caught her eye. “As a prospective student, I was able to sit in on [Associate Professor of English] Dean Bakopoulos’ Craft of Fiction class and speak with him afterward. Between that experience and Dari Barn’s ice cream, I was sold!” 

Brown reads in a hammock while a student passes her in the background.

A Peek into “Soft Machines”

“Soft Machines” is a beautifully detailed story set in space, shadowing a nameless Intergalactic Educator who cannot shake her commitment to “duty.” The story lures you into a reassuring feeling of warmth, showing the main character’s immediate attachment to a small metal box that emits musical sounds akin to a piano. However, the warmth unsettlingly depletes as the story unveils a disturbing system that sacrifices young girls.

Brown brilliantly slings the reader between moments of her character’s upbringing — shaped by her cold, focused mother, an Intergalactic Educator herself — and her desperate moments for warmth, craving it after hearing the piano-like sounds. “Even though the main character’s family life is not the most supportive, she still craves that warmth — so when she finds it in this piano box, she’s desperate to hold onto it and replicate it,” Brown comments.

A portrait of November Brown sitting on a stone.
The creative mind behind the brilliantly told short story “Soft Machines.” Brown plans to attend an MFA program in creative writing within the next couple of years.

As the system erases her feelings of warmth, the main character’s alarm bells ring as much as the readers’ does, but it is too late. The system goes haywire when Heath, an earthling in charge of launching young girls into space, accidentally presses the wrong order of buttons. As a result, he ships a girl to a Trapped Dimension, where “one minute you’re sitting in your bedroom, the next, you’re drowning in a Neptunian tsunami.”

The main character realizes that all her students — girls who have acquired extensive skills and knowledge — have doomed futures, no matter the destination. Instead, the girls’ bodies, skills, and knowledge are consumed to “supply energy to other dimensions and planets” as a part of a contract with the Grand Celestials, a force that controls the dimensions. Heath chillingly states, “The more skilled the girls are, the more energy they provide.”

Brown executes the realization brilliantly, detailing the main character’s deepened connections to the girls and highlighting the roaring of her discomfort as she realizes her complicity as the girls’ unquestioning Intergalactic Educator. Suddenly, the reader is thrust into a whirlwind of anger, and as a reader, we can only hold our breath.

“There has to be some sort of breaking point in every story, especially in short story form,” Brown says. “The more I got into this story, the more I became fascinated with the idea of exploiting art for corrupt purposes. The change [the main character] ends up going through is really like a rediscovery of sorts — it asks what it means to experience art and music in a world that has no use for it beyond power and gain.”

Life After the Short Story

Brown sits at a table in front of a laptop. She types in front of the HSSC building.
“My writing process often comes from a spark of an idea, an intangible feeling or mood that I can then start to flesh out on a page. The best and most consistent advice I receive as a writer is to read and read widely.”

“Soft Machines” also won second place in the 2023 Henry York Steiner Short Fiction contest, hosted by Grinnell every spring. Brown’s piece received high praise from the judges, remarking that “this writer showed real savvy about the speculative fiction genre, giving us a new take on familiar themes to reflect on concepts of sacrifice and what it means to be human. The expert pacing and detailed world-building give the surprise ending an extra punch.” 

Though it is Brown’s first year entering writing competitions, she offers some advice for Grinnellians who hope to compete in the writing world. “[There’s] that voice that tells you a piece isn’t ready, or that you don’t have time to get it ready. I’ve learned that this voice is often wrong; don’t listen to it! One story that resonates with one person might be dull as dirt to another. Keep a tough skin and keep writing!” 

Her best advice, though? “Read and read widely. I run a book club at Grinnell, Overbooked Book Club, and that does a great job of expanding my reading repertoire and exposing me to books I wouldn’t pick up otherwise. Reading a variety of books puts more tools in your tool-belt as a writer.” 

Read an excerpt of November Brown’s “Soft Machines” below.

About the ACM Nick Adams Short Story

The ACM Nick Adams Short Story was judged by Lan Samantha Chang, award-winning author and director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Carling McQuinn, from Macalester College, won for her short story “Phantom.” Chuck Lewis, professor of English and director of the writing program at Beloit College, and Ben Farrer, associate professor of environmental studies at Knox College, served as initial faculty readers for the contest, selecting six finalists from the thirty-five stories submitted through the English departments of ACM campuses.

An Excerpt of November Brown’s “Soft Machines”

Everything has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Heath is saying behind me, but I am not hearing him. “It’s okay. It’s just one.”

From the very center of my boiling insides, a small voice cries.

The brown-eyed girl will never create gardens with her hands.

“Don’t let this get you in a fuzz,” Heath continues. His hands are on my shoulders—the same hands that tiny sprouts poked through moments ago. “They all die anyway, right?”

It’s enough to retract my attention to him. The shouting, the boiling, they quiet, wanting me to hear this moment. I glare over my shoulder.

“Same result, different place, no?” he adds.

“We train them to survive as long as possible—” I say. I almost tell him what a waste of valuable resources his mistake has cost us, but I realize that is not what I feel. The hot rage at my core is what I feel, is what speaks.

The orange-haired girl will never use all six languages.

The brown-eyed girl will never create gardens with her hands.

But I trained them to do these things.

“Clause 137,” I snap. Arguments Lesson Number One: offer what you know. “Gifting women, properly skilled, to the Grand Celestials is imperative for the continuation of societies across time and space.”

Heath’s face melts into a different kind of confusion now, a softer kind: he’s like a piano himself, except untouchable. His brows un-scrunch and he looks at me with an expression that in many languages is described as “pity.”

“The girls,” he says. “They get consumed. Their bodies power the Grand Celestials so they can supply energy to the other dimensions and planets. The more skilled the girls are, the more energy they provide.”

You trained them to die.

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