The online fiction magazine, On The Premises, has a contest every few months based on a specific premise that must somehow be incorporated into the story. As I discussed in a previous post, the first time I entered one of their contests (the premise was 'Innerworkings'), I didn't make the final round of judging and opted to pay ($15) to have my story critiqued.
I seek out critiques of my work and comments as much as possible because for all the research on 'how to write effectively' I could ever do, the only way to know if I'm succeeding is to hear what people think about my final product. Preferably people who aren't too close to me to be honest, and who are better writers than I am (which I admit may be a lot of people, but not everybody). Getting feedback from editors who have seen a lot of good and bad writing come and go is very useful.
Unfortunately, most ezines I've encountered don't provide feedback unless they accept your story and the expected editing process begins. OTP, however will critique any entry if asked, and the contests themselves are great writing prompts. If you're looking for feedback on your writing, it's worth considering OTP as a place to submit your work. The feedback I received the first time around was thorough and helpful, so I decided to give it another go.
This time the premise was 'Instructions'. Stepping away from my usual sci-fi/speculative comfort zone, the story I submitted was a WWII, historical fiction narrative inspired by some letters my grandfather wrote from 1944/45. I kept the historical details as close to reality as I could, putting my protagonist in the times and places my grandfather would have been—give or take—but all the characters were fiction.
I didn’t win a prize this time either :( but I did make the top ten :) and as a reward received my critique for free.
The thing about critiques is, well, they’re critical. In this case they did start by saying: We consider “Letter From Your Girl” one of the ten best stories that we received for contest #21. You might be able to sell it to another market without changing a thing.
This statement should have made me feel wonderful and put me in a mind set to take the subsequent comments in stride, and it did—for about ten seconds. Then I went on to read about all the weak sentences and confusing points they found in my story, how they had trouble feeling the emotions of my protagonist, and so on. The knowledge that a) they liked my story better than most they received, and b) I asked for this feedback, became totally irrelevant while my guts were being gouged out by a carefully-sharpened pencil.
Was that a bit dramatic? I thought so too. So, I took a deep breath and realized, a) most of their observations were not that bad, certainly not impossible to fix before I send the story elsewhere, and b) they were right.
However, there was one thing in the critique I took issue with. You can make your own judgment about what it says about On The Premises staff (or about me). And feel free to comment and tell me I'm making an issue out of nothing...or that I'm not.
Here are some sentences taken directly from the story:
“...sharing the New Brunswick birth place had created an automatic bond between them.”
“The troop train rolled into the Moncton station...”
“...he was sure he could hitch a ride the rest of the way to Saint John.”
“Someone who’d been back in Canada for some time, no doubt.”
“...celebration at the sight of the Canadian troops and tanks.”
Here are some sentences taken directly from the critique of my story:
“Why this family decides to adopt an American soldier...”
“...when he gets back to the USA...”
Do we see a problem here?
I can understand how the mention of two Canadian cities might escape notice. I can't claim to know the name of every American city. I could even let the misunderstanding of New Brunswick go. It is one of our smaller provinces, and there does happen to be a city called New Brunswick in New Jersey, as well as a Brunswick, Georgia. There were also multiple mentions of the Staghound armoured car used by commonwealth forces (not US forces) during WWII, but that is a reference I probably would have missed myself until recently.
However, I have some trouble reconciling that I could refer to Canada directly twice—and we're talking about a short story here, not a novel—not to mention, the abbreviation 'cdn' appearing about half a dozen times in letter excerpts throughout the story, and yet the judges for On The Premises made the assumption that my protagonist was American. Maybe I'm just nitpicking, but it's hard to believe my work was being given even a fraction of the reader's full attention.
Actually, on first noticing this oversight, images of my story being read at two in the morning while working on bottle of wine number two ran through my head. My impulse was to be incensed. Why should I listen to what they have to say about my writing when clearly they weren't even awake when they read it? Do they even know there were countries other than the USA in WWII? I wonder if they’d be shocked to learn the war started before December 1941.
Oh dear, being dramatic again. I took another deep breath. This lapse does not mean their other comments on my writing do not deserve my full attention. For now I'm putting both the story and the critique aside. Sometime later, I will read them both again, fix my story as best I can, and submit it elsewhere. In the meantime, will I enter the next OTP contest? Probably not, but maybe the one after that.