My days of NYC Flash Fiction writing are over for this year. I didn’t make the cut for the final round. Didn’t even get so much as an honorable mention.
But that’s okay. What I did get from the contest was equally valuable to a win: I received valuable critiques of three stories. Call me weird, but I love getting feedback. And while I appreciate the words of encouragement and praise that I typically get from friends and family (seriously… never stop, guys… ever), I very much value honest and even brutal critique.
And one of my judges for round 3 of NYC was brutal. Here is the entirety of my feedback:
”Prism” by Shanan Winters (Story is linked)
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY
- Judge 1: The grounding in this is excellent, and in addition, it establishes mood, tone, and atmosphere. We’re also given a sense of foreboding and mystery which draws the reader forward. The begging from the lab is spine-chilling, and the finding of her father is justified as it’s casually mentioned earlier that her father had left….The opening was excellent – snappy, engaging, and poetically-constructed. There are some really great classical horror elements that really elevate the story. The small snapshots of character background that you include are interesting and develop the characters well.
- Judge 2: Intriguing story. Highly imaginative. Flawless writing.
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK
- Judge 1:The moment at which Samantha discovers all the atrocities in her mother’s lab is a little off — yes, she reacts appropriately, but as a small girl wouldn’t she be terrified and run? She still seems rather calm. Perhaps having her turn away, ready to run, and then hearing the pleading voice again at that moment strengthens her resolve. Right now her reaction still seems a bit unnatural, but adding that bit would solve that problem. The “eyes roiling like seeping lava” is a complicated image which doesn’t quite work. The ending seems to wrap up a bit too quickly and doesn’t quite work, probably because we don’t see Samantha’s internal reactions to what’s happened. She also doesn’t get a moment with her father; we see her external reaction, but not her internal one. A less definitive ending — such as her reuniting with her father and her mother entering the room at the end without the reader seeing the consequence of the action — would work better….I think delving into Samantha’s psyche more would help round out the ending. Throughout the story you reveal that she has a disturbing family situation, but we don’t see, either through her actions/words/thoughts, that she has any lasting damage. At the end, when she gleefully imprisons her mother in a jar, it came as a little bit of a surprise.
- Judge 2: Nothing to dislike here
Thank you for the vote of confidence, Judge 2, but based on Judge 1’s extremely detailed response, I think I have to disagree with your assessment of my story. In reading what Judge 1 wrote, I felt as if he or she put a lot of thought and effort into me as a writer. I agree so much with most of the points of critique, and I also appreciate the detailed response in terms of what that particular judge enjoyed. Taking just the response from judge 1, I could (if I wanted) turn this story into something amazing. If I just went with Judge 2, I might be tempted to peddle a story that doesn’t live up to my full potential.
So I have to hand it to Judge 1. He or she knows what makes for good, solid critique. For all of us who participate in writer’s groups, knowing how to give decent critique is essential. Practicing critique also helps hone your own writing skills, because you instinctively look for specific problem areas, inconsistencies and weak points in your own writing.
1) Avoid being a grammar Nazi
When you’re critiquing someone’s work, you can red-pen the grammar points, but don’t belabor them while giving verbal or written feedback. You can make a quick note of “grammar issues are marked throughout”, but then leave it at that. We all know we make stupid grammar mistakes while writing, and we all know that we also catch those errors in the editing stage. So, be like Elsa in Frozen, and just…. let it go….
2) Keep your eyes and ears open for inconsistencies
Did the main character state that he is allergic to strawberries three pages ago, but just ordered up a strawberry shake? Is it a plot device, or is it an inconsistency? Those types of errors are things that we as writers may not realize slipped in there. I love it when someone catches my inconsistencies. So pay attention to the little details, and when something seems off, flag it for discussion.
3) Be specific in your feedback
If you see a place where the author is telling, but could show what is going on, give an example. Don’t just say, “You’re telling, rather than showing.” Say something like, “In this scene, I want to know how Jenny reacts when Johnny turns into a werewolf. Rather than telling me she’s scared, describe her internal and external reactions. Does she shake? Does she try to run? Does she scream? Is she curious? Is there conflict in her emotions?” They may or may not use your exact wording (if given), but your idea could become a catalyst for an entire scene built with rich detail.
4) Find what works
If a phrase, scene or piece of dialogue jumps out and catches your attention, call it out! Tell the author what works well, and again, be specific. It’s not just a stroking of the ego. Giving specific, positive feedback alerts the author to styles and devices that are engaging and compelling, and they learn to hone their prose around the positives. It also gives the writer a place to reach for when attempting to clean up the clunky parts. During the editing stage, if a writer relies on his or her own positives, the resulting piece will be consistent in his or her strongest possible tone and voice.
Equally important is knowing how to eloquently receive feedback. It might be uncomfortable for someone to point out inconsistencies, flaws and stumbling points in your writing. That’s okay… you’ll get used to it. But keep in mind these few pointers.
1) Keep your ears open and your mouth shut
Don’t argue with your critics. Just listen to what they have to say. If they are giving good critique, there will be some positives in there, too. And even if they just belabor what they didn’t like in your writing, still just smile and nod. You can do this, because….
2) You don’t have to take every piece of advice offered
Just because someone doesn’t like your main character’s name doesn’t mean you have to change it. Your group might point out that one of your characters uses way too many adverbs. Maybe that’s just her style. You love the line that you wrote to end that chapter, but someone in your group felt like it was melodramatic. That’s really okay; they have an opinion. At the end of the day, it’s your story to write as you see fit. Take what you want, and leave the rest. Not everyone’s opinion needs to be applied to your final draft.
3) Be honest with yourself
When you go home, and you sit down to edit, you might admit to yourself that your beloved chapter-ender was a touch on the overly-romantic side. With a slight wording change, it might come across with more strength. Maybe that person whose advice you wanted to ignore was on to something. If you’re not certain, walk away from it for a day or two and then come back and reread it. Sometimes we want to cling to something we felt was clever or insightful, but then we find it falls flat when taken to a larger audience. That doesn’t mean you have to scrap it and start over. Sometimes, just a little honesty, a touch of grit and some dedicated work can take your polished stone and turn it into a glittering diamond.
4) Be thankful
Someone took the time to read your story and offer sincere guidance. They did more than just say, “Oh, I loved it!” That person deserves a medal. Or a cookie. Or something. Remember that people who offer critique are a gift to us, because they help us become the best we can be. Make sure to thank them with a smile.
5) Be fair
When someone critiques your work, make sure you return the favor with every bit of effort they gave you, and then some. Writing isn’t a competition; you only stand to make yourself a better writer by helping your fellow authors. There’s enough publication space for everyone, so go out there and give your best critiques.
I wish I could thank the judges who critiqued my NYC Flash stories, but it’s an anonymous process. Maybe they’ll stumble across my blog some day, and they’ll recognize the stories they read. If so, and on the off chance they see this, I want to say how much we all appreciate their efforts. And I’m equally grateful for all of the forum critiques I received. The participants in NYC Flash are an amazing group.
I feel like the NYC Flash contest helped me grow as a writer in ways I never would have imagined, and I encourage any aspiring writer to give it a go! You’ll be glad you did!