NYCM Round 1 Feedback, Dissected

I can rarely get criticism. It’s not for lack of wanting; I just don’t have beta readers, I don’t have Twitter followers, I’m my own editor (and yeah, I know how bad that is). When I do get critiques on my work, I treat “don’t defend it” as best policy. Who doesn’t love staying silent while intensely personal parts of you are held up and picked at in the spotlight?

In all seriousness, the best feedback you can get is the kind you aren’t allowed to respond to. Provided that your critic isn’t just being spiteful or rude, once you get over how personal it feels just by nature, you realize that you’re getting valuable information from someone who best represents the average reader and owes nothing to you. Yeah, your mom or your friends might “get” what you were going for, but only because they understand your particular style, and because they love you. A stranger picking up your work with no prior context? That’s the person you need to be writing to, and when that person says something didn’t work for them, you need to listen seriously and think critically about how to fix it.

That said, I recently got feedback returned to me for round 1 of the NYC Midnight short story competition, and wanted to address my feelings on it (and humble-brag a bit) in my own personal space. I got mostly good feedback, and putting it on the forums–where I saw folks commiserating about some things their judges said–seemed like it might be unwelcome. I’ve decided instead to parse it apart here instead.

So here we go.


”Advanced Chemistry” by Julianna Comstock

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

{1854} Ha! This made me laugh. It’s great when she burns the house down. Great job.

What a start. What an encouraging and lovely gift to me, right off the bat. The warmth from someone telling me that words I wrote made them laugh could power my body for the next ten years.

{1597} I liked the originality in your form, structuring the story around a science experiment. I liked the idea of someone whose fetish is the accidental destruction of objects. I liked that they were able to work through their rough spot and stay together in the end.

Proving that you didn’t speed-read it–wonderful. And you liked the structure–you’re the first to say so! I appreciate your kind words.

{1742} I LOVED the pacing! I LOVED the characters! I LOVED the situation at hand where items were being broken! It was such an original, gripping, sensual read! I LOVED the breakdown using a term paper format to layout the story. I LOVED the resolution! I LOVED your description and ability to write dialogue that is convincing and real.

I LOVE you! Original, gripping, sensual? And you liked the term paper layout? Were I not wed, I would court you day and night, 1742.

Here’s the vindication: my story was blasted in peer reviews, I mean like, by nine out of ten people, for the term paper layout. It was practically the only criticism I got. At the time, it was like, okay, fair. Maybe it seems like a gimmick to people. Some said it was distracting–fine, fine. I did what I advised at the top and didn’t defend my choice.

But now, I’m gonna.

I mean, it’s not like I did it for no reason! When you’re strapped for word count, you have to get creative with giving up luxuries like transitions and physical character descriptions. I implemented the section breaks:

  1. to get around the word space I’d need to make transitions for time jumps (this wasn’t wholly successful, as you’ll see later)
  2. because I thought it was clever, with Mara being an undergrad in chemistry and all
  3. because I thought it was cheeky and fun.

My IRL partner would get mad whenever I read a peer review that critiqued the headings gimmick. I wasn’t mad, because I just… didn’t feel the same. I was at peace with it. I liked it, and it was just one baby I wouldn’t kill, despite everyone telling me not to.

So it felt good to get that back from the judges. Really good.

 

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

{1854} I thought the writing was really strong here – one thing I’d say is that there didn’t really seem to be anything keeping Mara and David apart – their relationship didn’t really ever seem to be in true jeopardy. Adding more conflict would take this to the next level.

Even the criticism still manages to say something nice about strong writing.

This is a valid critique, and something I didn’t spot myself when writing. My intention was to highlight, as I tried in a few passages, Mara’s insecurity about David losing interest in her–as he had with all his previous love interests to date. It didn’t come through as strong as I would have liked, and I can live with that. I’m glad to get feedback on it anyways.

{1597} One element of the story I think needs work is demarcating the passage of time. They get so far in their relationship that it seems to imply years together, and yet Mara is still an undergrad at the end of the story. It’s also hard to figure out how they could have kept their relationship a secret if they are living together. Another suggestion would be to have Mara’s friend from the opening scene reappear in the story somewhere – right now the couple seems a little too isolated and it’s hard to get a sense of how we are meant to see their relationship.

This was the second most common criticism in peer reviews–the passage of time. I didn’t give strong enough indicators, I just wrote and cut around what I imagined in my head: that Mara was still in school, but not graduated. Maybe even close to dropping out.

I’m a little tickled at the suggestion about bringing back Mara’s “friend” from the beginning. I can only assume they mean the nondescript lab partner, who had a bigger role in an earlier draft and was cut due to word budget constraints. I don’t take this as a serious suggestion, but it’s a suggestion none the less.

“Too isolated” feels valid, but part of my intention was to highlight the isolation. I clearly didn’t highlight this theme enough, but part of the reason David and Mara make it work in my mind is because Mara is effectively “ruined” too–she’s derailed her academic career for this relationship, she’s got little leverage with an unfortunate power imbalance stacked against her, and she’s highly insecure about David leaving her for someone younger, hotter, newer. Less damaged. Breakable. It’s capital-A “About” the nature of relationships wherein a person is trapped in a cycle of breaking and pulling themselves back together to be broken again, not even in an abusive sense, but in a “who am I really and what do I want” sense. That’s what worried me the most about trying to sell this story as a rom-com: to me, the dark nature stands out stronger than the comedic premise and few comedic moments. Romance is tragic and messy and weird, and that’s what I like about it. That’s what I like laughing about.

{1742} I have nothing to suggest. The story works like a well oiled machine. Nothing I can say could improve it as it is already at it’s best.
My advice? Write and make a damn fine living at it!

I owe my whole entire world to judge 1742. This is the kindest thing anyone has said to me about my writing, bar none. After a hard last month and a harder winter, I needed this. Somebody actually heard me. A stranger saw the genuine effort I put into this story and is lauding me for it with no ulterior motives. I sound like I’m bragging–I am, a little bit–but for depression, this is a big deal. This is a huge deal. This is my gift from the goddess in battling off my intense impostor syndrome vis-à-vis being a writer.

I have all this feedback taped in my physical pen-and-paper journal, and this is the piece I revisit at least once a day. Write and make a damn fine living at it. I’ve seriously considered getting a tattoo of it.

Well, huh. Maybe if I win round three.

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