NYCM Final Round Feedback, Dissected, and Why I Quit Flash

I only make these blog posts when I’m procrastinating on other work I need to be doing. It’s a tough habit to break.

Warning: this post is both long and a bummer. RIP

The Results

I was thrilled to see that I placed 8th overall in the final round. I was also very happy to see that “A Good Death” by Gretchen Hopkins ended up taking home the victory. I had the pleasure of reviewing her story on the forums and couldn’t say enough good things about it. It’s a spectacularly beautiful piece.

For my win, I’m getting $125 and a few different writing software packages, plus a professional ebook conversion service. Cool thing to have on tap for when I finally pen something that’s publishing length. I’m at least happy to have earned back my entry fee and then some, and I’m most happy that I penned three solid short stories that I’m really, truly proud of.

Feedback

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

{1846}  This is a great story. It features an excellent start that really does a good job not only setting the scene for the plot to follow but also begins to introduce the narrator, who I came to love in no time flat. The following lines, for example, do some heavy lifting for the story, providing background information in an engaging manner and also giving the reader some sense of the narrator, who is observant, intelligent, loving, and has a wicked sense of humor: “It was always about how much it would cost to get an x-ray and some amoxicillin at two a.m., and couldn’t I just be a big boy and get better in the morning instead? Less a guilt trip and more of a guilt vacation. Seemed like it was so easy for parents to make their kids feel like a burden for just being.” The dialogue throughout is well done and it’s not only a matter of what is being said that’s believable, it’s the manner in which it is said, and how you have a fine ear and eye for realistic and compelling interactions; for example, the following: [“Her what?” / “Obstetrician, son. Baby doctor.” / “She was on the pill.” / “I know.” Long sigh. Shuffling papers.] I loved the plot development, and how he follows the impoverished young woman’s location through the device, and how this resolves for the narrator. The final line is wonderful. 

So glad my main character came off as lovable. Describing him as having “a wicked sense of humor” just makes my heart absolutely sing.

I love him too, but of course, I made him. I know him. He’s a pastiche of people I’ve known. He’s me, in the same way that Cam is me, in the same way that the gravedigger’s daughter is me. And I liked him because he felt like he had a really strong voice, so… it’s just nice to hear that reflected back from someone else, is all.

{1825}  The story treats relationships, romantic and familial, in a way that really rings true. I love how the story weaves themes of family and deserving to exist throughout the narrative. 

Thank GOD somebody heard this in my story, and even more that they LIKED it. I could cry with relief.

{1686}  The tracker watch is a clever and effective plot device. 

thank you thank you thank you thanK YOU

{1832}  You’ve painted a complex portrait of love, despair, poverty and acceptance. This story is at once intensely personal and yet relevant to our broader social context. It’s excellent. 

“A complex portrait of love, despair, poverty and acceptance” is a hell of a pull quote, and probably one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about my writing. Seriously, it makes me weak in the knees.

Also glad that someone else picked up on the poverty angle. It’s an important facet of the character that I feel like informed a lot of his outlook and choices.

A quick aside about “broader social context”: I had someone in peer reviews on the forum say the following:

Your narrator also had a consistent tone and was well written. I really felt for him when he was told he wasn’t a close enough relative to visit her. Surely this wouldn’t happen in real life?

Which just had me laughing. Yes, this happens in real life, all the time! It was one of the biggest arguments behind legalization of gay marriage in the US. When someone says “immediate family members only,” hospital staff enforce that. They have every reason to. Someone without medical decision-making power shouldn’t be in a patient’s room making medical decisions. The trouble with that is that a long-time, live-in, same-sex partner doesn’t count as a family member with medical decision-making capabilities, even if the patient wants them to.

But Jules, you’re saying, surely they make exceptions—Let me stop you right there. When I was 22, I worked registration in a hospital emergency room that was under construction. For eight months, my desk was basically in what would eventually become the ambulance bay–which also meant that when EMS brought in a patient, they wheeled them right by the open door of the waiting room for all (and me) to see.

I remember turning at the flashing of lights and shouting one night. The patient was CPR-in-progress. Two people wheeling the gurney, one straddling the patient and administering. I’d never seen ribs bend like that before.

The patient’s sleep apnea mask had slipped off that night. His long-time live-in girlfriend had woken up to find him unresponsive (one of my biggest fears) and called 911. He didn’t make it. Now, normally there are special family rooms in hospitals for delivering news that someone didn’t make it. But the patient’s girlfriend wasn’t family, so the chaplin decided to break the bad news to the girlfriend in my otherwise empty waiting room.

This happens. All the time. It’s relevant to broader social context, and I’m so glad this judge recognized that.

{1789}  A well done piece. Excellent job of naturally weaving a lot of complicated backstory into the present and interspersing with a nice balance of dialogue and exposition. Strong character development and consistent plot development as well. 

*Thanos voice* Perfectly balanced, as all things should be…

{1955}  You’ve written a strong introductory paragraph that pulled me in. And up until the line, “We didn’t have a kid,” I had a good sense of the emotional state of the main character. The character interaction is realistic, and the action moves along nicely. The dialogue is natural and gave me a good sense of the main character and his background/upbringing. 

Is this backhanded? I can’t tell. I don’t care. Glad you enjoyed it.

{1788}  The tracker watch served as a wonderful and unique  emblem, tying the characters together while emphasizing the theme. While a mundane possession, the author stressed the meaningfulness  of the object beautifully throughout the plot.

The central relationship was well-crafted, exposing the couple’s flaws and their individual ambitions. Their romance may’ve ended in tragedy but their long-lasting connection sticks with the reader after the final page. 

I was so shaky on this story. Getting comments like this made me feel arms-spread-in-the-pouring-rain levels of validated. Like the way the Shawshank Redemption poster looks–that’s how validated I felt hearing these things.

Also, props for using “may’ve” in a somewhat natural way. I’ll start peppering that into my dialogue immediately…

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

{1846}  In terms of revision, there were just a couple places I felt maybe a little confused. For example, why would she set a timer for 5a.m. if she’s only going to go back to sleep? Why take birth control so early in the morning? I actually loved the following lines on page 3: “I had a kid. We had a kid. / We didn’t have a kid. ‘We’ had an empty bed and a payment plan for Cam’s discount burial befitting my delivery driver salary.” I was so taken aback at first—like she was pregnant when she died. Was she pregnant when she died? I couldn’t figure that out. Also, what’s going on on page 4 with the following: “How’d we miss it? Did she know? She couldn’t have known. Was she running from it? Was this all some elaborate conspiracy against me?” Is this also a reference to her pregnancy, and perhaps not taking the birth control pills but she says she does…but then he sees her take them every morning, so I don’t really understand what’s going on. 

Fair enough.

SparkNotes/Author’s intent: Cam was pregnant when she died. She got pregnant when the antibiotics she took for her UTI interfered with her birth control, thus fulfilling the “side effect” part of the prompt. I wanted to keep it subtle, especially since extensive research showed that the whole antibiotics interfering with birth control thing is actually highly uncommon. No, I didn’t lose sleep fearing that someone would call me out for that in peer review/judges’ feedback. Why would you ask?

The lines mentioned from page four were meant to inform my main character’s deteriorating mental state in the wake of a tragedy, and his inability to process a loss of something he never really had. Something something word budget something something clarified in a longer piece, etc.

As for the alarm: she wakes up at 5am on weekdays. They sleep in on weekends. She wakes up and takes her birth control and goes back to bed because that’s what I used to do, and I’m sure other women do it too, since you’re meant to take it at the same time every day. If you wanted to call me out for the alarm, a more valid criticism might have been, “You said Cam is a cashier, so how the fuck does she ever get a weekend off if she works retail?” (And no, I didn’t lose sleep over fear of that criticism, either! Mind your business.)

{1825}  What exactly does the narrator mean by his and Cam’s “cocktail of our genetic fuck-ups”? I assumed that they both have some kind of genetic disorder or illness, but that subject never comes up again. What exactly is wrong with these two that they don’t want to pass on? 

Yeah, this wasn’t explicitly stated and is a result of me being in my own head about this kind of stuff, so I can see how it was missed.

The part of this that drew from me personally is that I have a lot of invisible things wrong with me–familial history of depression, familial history of cancer, anxiety, asthma, high blood pressure, poor immune system, allergy of sunshine, terminal bitchiness, tendency to cop a fuckin’ attitude, etc.–that I wouldn’t want to pass on to an unwilling recipient. That’s where this came from.

I don’t have a genetic disorder or illness, but it’s still worth thinking about what you’d potentially pass to your children that would affect their quality of life. I think the sentiment is shared by many other childfree-by-choice folks as something that just makes sense.

{1686}  The fiest sentence feels a little rambly; it might have more impact if divided into more than one. E.g. “Cam was always freaked out by hospitals, but I never was. For her, they were associated with her dad’s heart attack and her mom’s chemo. To me, hospitals were those…” 

Noted.

{1832}  The opening paragraph could be tighter, a bit more concise. There is some lack of clarity about the girl at the end, the gravedigger, and how precisely the activity tracker was transferred to her. I infer what happened, but it was a bit confusing. Some of the attempts to use colloquial language are not effective; for example, “I swallowed my cotton-coated mouth.” Really, each of these are minor uneven spots in an otherwise great story. 

I agree with everything above! Even the part where it’s an otherwise great story. Sincerely good feedback.

{1789}  Overall I thought the piece was very strong with not a lot of need for improvement. There are areas where things feel a little overly summarized, and where, if turned into dialogue and scenes instead (even if in flashback), they would serve to pick up the overall pace of the piece, which can feel a bit slow at times. Just a thought to keep the characters accessible and the tone more in line with the context of the piece. 

That this can “feel a bit slow at times” is actually really surprising to me! Even reading it today I feel like it’s rushed. They even use the phrase “overly summarized” which I think is a legitimate criticism and also reflect my personal feelings of the piece. Interesting thoughts.

But I’m not doing a flashback.

{1955}  When the main character finds out he and Cam had a kid together, and the story talks about Cam’s discount burial, I didn’t get a good sense of his emotional state. I can understand if he’s distancing himself from the pain but consider deepening the range of his emotions (those five stages of grief). For instance, when he says part of him wished she’d wanted a service or cremation, how does that make him feel? 

Oh, 1955, so it WAS backhanded!

Kidding.

I don’t have any defense of the criticisms above. All valid. Author’s intent: ya boi sad and confused. That’s all I could possibly even think to say, and if it didn’t come across, then it didn’t come across.

{1788}  The gravedigger doesn’t make as much of an impression as the other secondary characters, particularly the daughter and even the nurse.  He makes the grave, which is a definitive moment in the story, but he’s also the only one at the graveyard for Cam’s burial. Consider describing his facial features or letting him talk more with the narrator while performing his task. Since he’s referenced later in the story, it’s worth making him more memorable in his single appearance. By doing so, he’ll stand out just as much as the other minor characters.

Agree. Say it with me, folks: Word! Budget!!

“Shared Locations” excels in several noteworthy ways, including strong characterization for its protagonist and a resonant theme. Once the author enhances the gravedigger’s single appearance, it will reach its full potential.

I love the definitive way this is stated: It WILL reach its full potential. I am just the author! I have no say in the matter.

The Contest Overall

One thing I’m sore about regarding this contest is that I feel like I went out of my way to participate on the forums, offering feedback, kind words, and congratulations as much as I could. It was my first contest, and I’d only discovered it because I’d wanted to take steps putting my writing “out there” more in the first place. I’m a fledgling writer, so I know the difference even a tidbit of feedback can make. And not to be completely vulnerable on main, but I wanted to make friends.

I honestly tried putting that positive energy out into the forums. I don’t feel like I received it in return. I understand people have a lot going on… I just thought that maybe just one person would recognize my name or story and send me a quick congrats. Hell, I did for the names I recognized. I feel like I’d have done that even if I hadn’t placed. Isn’t that the point of all this?

I feel like one single person in the forums wishing me “congrats” isn’t asking for a lot. One single person could have just bitten the bullet, “Congrats, Cryptid!” and saved me this entire whiny blog post. From my view, if nobody on the forums was telling me I did a good job, it means these people just saw me as an undeserving faker. A fluke win from the judges whose opinions are so skewed and subjective anyway because they didn’t advance that one popular five-star-ranking author from the forums whose story they really liked. The whole experience just left me feeling harshly alienated. Mystified, even. I’d just wanted to make friends.

Why I Quit Flash Fiction

Earlier this year, my partner and I watched this musical on YouTube called The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals. It’s made by the same folks of Twisted and A Very Potter Musical fame, so I don’t have to tell you that it’s spectacular. The main character, Paul–the titular guy who doesn’t like musicals–is rigid and set in his ways, which is what makes it great when things start going crazy in his town of Hatchetfield. There’s a part at the beginning that does a lot for informing us of Paul’s character where a girl in his office is trying to get him to join the company softball league.

“No,” says Paul, as nicely as possible.

“Well, it might be fun!” says Melissa, who is also very cute. There’s every reason for him to join.

“Yeah,” says Paul, really taking the time to seem like he’s thinking about it. “I don’t want to, though.”

Paul’s rigidity isn’t necessarily portrayed as his most likeable attribute. It’s not displayed as a characteristic that is ideal for a person to have. But ever since I saw that show, Paul’s attitude toward just saying “No” to shit he doesn’t want to do has stuck with me. It’s a sentiment I brought to therapy, one that’s helped me process some of my rougher patches of the last year. It’s helped me realize how many situations I’ve let myself be in where I could have just taken a leaf from the book of Paul and just been like, “No.”

After the final round results, my disappointment with the forums after a modest victory persisted through the weekend, through when I received my Flash prompts (mystery, a dog show, a stethoscope–basically an underhanded softball of a prompt). I penned a pretty ambitious first draft with a good outline and solid mystery, and hit the hay.

When I woke up, the thought of finishing a story in 36 hours just to submit it on the forums and get no meaningful feedback and make no meaningful connections over the course of the next six months made me feel nauseous. I’d checked in on those forums pretty religiously during short story, craving that next hit of feedback, waiting for people to reciprocate, waiting for any kind of interaction on the non-review boards… for next to nothing. Solidifying disappointment.

Flash was just going to be more of that. More eagerly refreshing my email to see if anyone had talked to me. Yeah, I had the judges’ feedback, but that would be between these long stretches of intense craving of any kind of validation. I was looking at the promise of basic disappointment if I was eliminated by the judges, and worse disappointment if I passed the professional criteria but was ignored by my peers in the forums again.

Then again, my place in the contest was already bought and paid for. Might as well try, right?

“It might be fun,” Flash says to me. “It might be worthwhile!”

Yeah? Might it? Am I gonna hang my hat on “might?” Aren’t there a million better things I could be doing than trying to make friends on a forum where I once saw a popular male reviewer advise an author to include the specifics of an implied scene of sexual assault because “it would be more fun to read” and nobody even called him on it? Couldn’t I spend my time doing something, you know, not even necessarily worthwhile, but just something I LIKED?

“No,” I say to Flash, as nicely as possible. “I don’t really want to.”

And then I make like the extremely wise skeleton in the, no joke, life-changing meme below and miss my Flash submission deadline. On purpose. No guilt trips this time.

https://66.media.tumblr.com/f36fd81a37d0975f51242ed8ece913db/tumblr_p6hpmhNNYj1rh1v81o1_500.jpg
My second tattoo is going to be “If it sucks, hit da bricks!!” because I literally say it all the goddamn time now.

Thanks for the laughs, NYCM, but I’m out. Peace.

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