NYCM Round 2 Feedback, Dissected

Barely scraped by in third place in Round 2 of the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition, so I’m headed to Round 3. Between the start of April and today, I was offered a contract writing position and have been under pretty tight deadlines–all on TOP of my full-time day job–so this is an interesting week for writing and editing, especially since Round 3 is a strict twenty-four hour turnaround starting Friday night. By Sunday, it’ll be the most words I’ll have written in a single week: around 30k.

So, why not burden myself further and write a fat blog post? Makes perfect sense.

In all seriousness, I’m excited to dissect this feedback. It feels like I’m being served more criticism in Round 2, for sure. Some judgements felt like they didn’t “get” what I was going for, but, honestly? I sort of knew where I was going to take those hits.

Time to get nasty.

”The Green Prince” by J.C. Comstock

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

{1904} Many strong visual bits, e.g., heart knotted in worry, kicked off shoes, unending green. Loved the “so it is” call and response and how that tied the tale up at the end. The dialogue is effective at evoking a fairy tale mood, and it’s believable.

I’m happy this got called out. I had hoped that little snippets like this would pop off the page in an otherwise procedural fairy tale. Something like glass slippers or poison red apples. Nice to hear.

{1875} A well-crafted story that skillfully mimics the tone, structure, distant omniscient narration, simple and brisk prose style, and characteristic tropes of traditional fairytales to tell an original tale about how to create a good and fair society. The princess and the ranger are both strong, dimensional characters, and true equals in the story—both are moral, courageous, intelligent, and kind. Their relationship is well-developed and human, which gives this fairytale real emotional stakes.

“Simple and brisk prose style” was exactly what I was going for, so that’s a delight to hear! The majority of my more descriptive language got the axe in editing this story, which took about twice as long as the actual writing of it. I’m overjoyed that these characters were read as “true equals,” because that was exactly my intention… even if it’s not exactly true. More on that in a bit.

{1845} I loved the creativity of your story! And the relationship between the Bear and the Warden was strong and easy to root for. The ending was beautiful, and I loved the re-incorporation of “so it is you”. Nicely done!

Yay!!

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

{1904} The warden and bear relationship shouldn’t be set up…take each part of what is presented in that paragraph of exposition and show the reader throughout the scene of them talking.

If I rework this piece, and it’ll probably be a fair while before I do, this is something I think I’ll actually try. If anything, just to see how it reads. I like this suggestion, but I’m not going to pretend like front-loading my exposition was an unconscious mistake. It was a deliberately style choice derived from the way classic fairy tales start. But I appreciate the specific suggestion, and it seems reasonable enough to try.

No “__________” for the division is needed at all. The word choices are well made enough that you don’t need the exclamation marks.

I like this because it’s a compliment disguised as a criticism! Feels good. Transitions feel like my weak point, and to avoid overthinking them on a tight word budget I like putting in line breaks.

Consider capitalizing Blue Prince and Red Prince.

My first draft capitalized the princes, as well as the princess, warden, and king after consulting the trusty old Chicago Manual of Style. I changed it (actually waffling back and forth about three times) because I was going cross-eyed in editing deciding if it was “King” then should it be “King’s Wood” or “King’s wood” or “king’s wood”? Was the story still comprehensible if I just genericized all the characters and kept it all lower-case? I opted for consistency over customization, for sanity over misery. Conscious choice, and I stand by it.

Speaking of names…can the other characters have them, too?

No.

In all seriousness, I’m standing by this choice. This is a fairy tale, not a fantasy story–you get by just fine with the genericized character attributes. And the judge isn’t giving a reason why they should have names, they’re just asking if they can, and I’m saying no.

Yeah, I hear you: Cinderella, Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel… those are all names! Okay, great. Quirky names are given sometimes in fairy tales to the most interesting characters, or if the name has a specific meaning in the story, or if it happens to appear in a chant or a song in the story. If I was going to name anybody in the story, it’d be the princess, because she can turn into a bear. But it doesn’t serve a purpose. I stand by this choice.

Bring in a few more rich details, such as how the suitors are dressed. Also weave in some well-chosen scents, tastes, textures, and sounds to enrich the whole. The reveal goes almost too quickly…bring in a few more hints of princess/bear conflation.

Insert generic defense of word budget here.

No but I agree, the reveal does go too quickly. So quickly, in fact, that the last judge got completely lost in the woods. You’ll see.

{1875} The story doesn’t convincingly explain how and why the princess takes on bear form, and who grants her this magical shape-shifting ability. A wish, a witch, a curse?

I knew even before peer feedback on the forums that this was going to be an issue, but I was a hit I was willing to take. I’ll say more about it in a second.

In the end, it becomes a lynchpin of the plot, when the princess trades her bear form for the ranger’s life, so it’s important to work out the logic of her magic power in the plot.

Real quick: is it? Is it important? Why does the carriage turn back into a pumpkin at midnight? How do Rapunzel’s tears heal her prince’s lost sight? How “logically” does true love’s kiss wake someone under a curse from a spinning wheel or a poisoned apple? Just saying.

The princess’ shapeshifting is also an opportunity to develop her characterization and backstory. How is she different in bear-form than in her human incarnation?

She’s not. That’s kind of the point.

Why does she “pray” to become a bear? So she can roam her kingdom freely, escape the confines of the palace? Because she longs for freedom and independence? So she can speak to her subjects as an equal instead of a superior, and develop true connections, like her friendship with the ranger? She explains she takes bear form to “escape her vile suitors”—why? What is it like being stalked by fortune-hunters?

One more quick aside: It’s “pray” because that’s how you ask for things in fairy tales. Especially things that you have no hope of getting on your own, like a way to go to the ball, or a way to have a child though your wife is barren, or a way to save your seven brothers who all turned into swans, or the cape as red as blood, the cow as white as milk, the hair as yellow as corn, the cape as red as blood…

So, what 1875 is hitting on here feels like something I was self-conscious about throughout the writing process that I refer to in conversations with my partner as the “Wyldstyle effect.” In The Lego Movie, the character Wyldstyle, AKA Lucy, is highly competent, creative, funny, cool–everything that the main character, Emmet, isn’t. She’s better than him and more interesting in every possible way, so why isn’t she the special one?

This is far from an uncommon trope in popular media. Trinity, Princess Leia, Katara, Gamora, Peggy Carter, JL’s Wonder Woman, Hermione, Hope Pym… pick any female deuteragonist (thank you, Lego Movie wiki for teaching me this cool word) and she likely outclasses and out-cools her male lead counterpart by leagues. And yet the story’s never capital-A about her. If you’re the kind of writer who gives a shit, you get wise to trying to avoid this trope where women can be the smartest, coolest, most interesting person in the story but still not be good enough to be the hero. Once you’re wise to this trope, it’s exhausting even to write about because it’s just such a bummer.

So, you’re me. You have this kind of reverse Beauty and the Beast idea for a character that’s inspired from this Italian fairy tale called “The She-Bear” with a dash of the royalty-in-disguise intrigue you’d find in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. You create this princess who can turn into a bear and knows she’s going to rule the kingdom someday but doesn’t get much of a choice in when or who she marries. She wants to be a good ruler someday, but was raised in isolation and doesn’t know the first thing about connecting with her subjects. She’s conscious from the leagues of men her father has tried to set her up with that people see her as a princess first and a person second. Also, she’s developed feelings for a guy who only knows her as his friend, the bear. She’s afraid of what he would think of her if he knew she was the one responsible for his sister’s struggles. She interests you immensely. You’re conscious of the trope. You start to sweat.

What does the princess also have? Something the warden doesn’t? Well–a lot of things. A castle, money, servants, job security… That’s right, folks! She’s got privilege! She’s also not the main character of a classic fairy tale, so she can also have *jazz hands* flaws!

See, what’s the alternative? Let’s say I’m sticking to my traditional Grimm-style piece, and suddenly she’s the main character: she’s a fairy tale princess so she must behave virtuously, she must have a golden heart and no flaws, she will get batted around the story like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White and wait for some other agent of change to “save” her.  Snore. Hard pass. None for me, thank you.

So I made her the flawed one, the agent of change. She wants to do good, but she has no idea what sacrifice means because she’s never had to give up anything for anybody–until she has to give up her powers to save her best friend. Growth! It’s been known to happen.

My personal feelings are I’m a tad disappointed my subversion of having the male main character be the good, true-hearted, virtuous one go completely overlooked. Who are boys and men usually in fairy tales? Rogues, tricksters, shitty fathers, idiot kings. Or princes, and you can flip a coin on if he’ll be a good prince or a bad prince. I made my warden as virtuous as a good prince with none of the sway or privilege. He’s a victim of circumstance, but still tries to do good, and his place in the story is to instigate growth for the flawed but ultimately well-intentioned character of the princess by setting an example of sacrifice, and he’s rewarded for it. Generic, broad-strokes themes of good being rewarded and evil being punished. Or something like that. I don’t know. I just wrote the damn thing.

ANYWAY, my view of it is: this isn’t her story, it’s their story, they save each other, and I’d say they get equal amounts of background. I’m trying not to get defensive, but like, really, questions like this:

Why does she “pray” to become a bear? So she can roam her kingdom freely, escape the confines of the palace? Because she longs for freedom and independence? So she can speak to her subjects as an equal instead of a superior, and develop true connections, like her friendship with the ranger?

It sort of seems like 1875 answered these questions… while asking the question. Like, yeah. Yes to all of those. You’re correct. Somehow you managed to glean as much from the story, so why are you asking me?

And then, there’s this one:

What is it like being stalked by fortune-hunters?

Not… fun? Like, maybe this is a stretch, but I think I develop that the red and blue princes are shitty enough that you could reasonably see why being hunted by dudes like that would be not fun. Show don’t tell, right? How much more did I need to show?!

She explains she takes bear form to “escape her vile suitors”—why?

I dunno, why does a witch live in a house made of candy? Why does Cinderella want to go to the ball? Why does a wolf dress up as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother when he could have just as easily eaten her in the woods? Do you need to look up the word “vile?” When was the last time you actually read a fairy tale? I’m doing it right, I swear!

{1845} This is a small detail, but I would bring the bear in one last time at the very end. He played such a large role in the story, that it would be very satisfying for the reader to read about the bear in that last “happily ever after” sentence.

1845… where did we lose you, buddy? I literally wrote the line:

It was difficult to believe that she and the bear had been one in the same.

Jokes aside, this only illustrates 1904’s point about the reveal going too fast.

Otherwise, this was a joy to read from start to finish.

… Alright, I’ll allow it.

Hits I Expected That Never Came

  1. The sister…? Come on. The sister! I can’t believe that not a single judge brought her up, though many peer reviews did as being underdeveloped. Again, insert generic defense of word budget here. I agree, she’s underdeveloped. I needed her for the warden’s motivations, but also couldn’t lend her that much space. In a rewrite, I think she’ll be the one at his bedside when he first wakes, and then give his debrief with the princess a little more breathing room.
  2. That there should have been a third evil prince. I even got this as feedback from my partner when reading the first draft: it’s a fairy tale, so things should come in threes, right?
  3. That the twist was too obvious. A couple people in peer reviews were like, “It’s easy to see the twist but I think it works well anyway” which is generous. Writing this and knowing the twist felt like it was just SO OBVIOUS, there was no way that anyone could be surprised by it, but a few people said they were. The actual twist for me was that one of my professional judges would miss it completely.

Overall, good fun! Gotta go now and quietly lose my absolute shit about Round 3.

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