I suppose it’s good to submit a story fully expecting the publisher to say, “Good job.”
Last week I submitted flash fiction for Team PYP. I was sure that the lovely managing editor of Port Yonder Press, Chila Woychik, would be impressed – maybe even put my story in the top three for her contest. Heck, I thought I was being modest thinking it might fall as low as #3! Well, Chila didn’t place me in the top three. In fact, what she said knocked the wind out of my sails like only the Mighty Captain could. What happened in the few days following, however, has been a monumental lesson towards me earning my sea legs, and I couldn’t be happier.
“I can’t breathe.”
Those are the words that hit me like a sledgehammer to the gut. I suppose it could have been, “You suck,” but I know Chila’s more professional than that. After spending three months and countless drafts, 10-15, I thought for sure it was ready. I was already hearing it from people that were shocked I needed that many drafts, and one friend said they would have scraped the idea before doing that many. My mentor, Cathilyn Dyck, said it had the frame of a good story, and showed talent in setting she likened to Larry Niven, so I was pretty excited about the feedback once I polished it. In fixing some elements and rewriting the story per her last critique, I thought I had all the wholes patched and was ready to be congratulated by the Captain herself. Instead, what I got was, “Let’s start over.”
I guess it’s a good thing I’m learning this lesson in a flash fiction piece, huh?
Chila said that there was too much going on, she didn’t have time to catch her breath, and in the end she didn’t even know what the story was about. My thoughts as my sail fluttered to a limp cloth was that she just doesn’t get it. I’m not afraid – well, maybe a little – to admit this where she can read it, because it’s the truth, and I’m sure you all can relate. There’s a real lesson here and by no means am I belittling Chila for her professional evaluation. In fact, I came to agree with her…in time.
One of my biggest hindrances to writing well has been not having qualified feedback. Without that, I am just writing blind, hoping it will get better with practice. I’m going to put a pin in this before I get off topic and discuss how to balance your own style with professional criticism. But, that being said, Chila’s hand holding as I rewrote a new draft with an emphasis on clarity was invaluable.
She even sent my story to a trusted editor and their feedback was very similar. This editor said that the story felt like it was a piece of a larger project, and many parts were unexplained. This editor did flatter me a bit, by saying my writing wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t top of the line. At this point, I’ll take that. It means my editing is helping, because the first draft was bad. Chila helped show me what was unclear in my writing and what I needed to do to get to the base of the story.
As a result, I now have a clearer, stronger, more focused story with a little more room to grow. It is simpler, but that is better than trying to write better than you are able, and confusing the reader in the process. The meaning behind the story is a little more veiled this way, but that goes along with my goal of showing instead of telling, so that too is a good thing. I can’t say enough of how thankful I am to have my sail blown out in a flash fiction piece, where the advice is easier to apply. There is less turnover time in seeing improvement, and between then and now, I feel a ton better. Chila’s encouraging words about my newest draft have me eager to write, and brave the storm. The waters might be rough, but at least I’m moving.