Last week, in jest, I posted about Helena Bonham Carter’s mismatched shoes at the Golden Globe Awards. This week I invoke HBC again, because her daring choices remind me of a nugget of writing advice that has both bothered and benefited me. It came via an anonymous judge for a writing fellowship, and I keep it posted on a yellow sticky note stuck to the side of my desktop:
“This writer should resist clichéd thinking that forces a story into a contained shape.”
The judge elaborated to say my story suffered because I had wished for a happy—or, at least, tidy—ending. In addition, after noting that my project proposal was to write a story collection based on family events, she said I should resist writing homage and write unique stories. She summed up by reiterating that I should push traditional thinking and allow the story to form itself.
The critique disturbed me profoundly at the time. In total, the advice was a fancy way of saying that I should think outside the box. Until this judge said it, I didn’t know I was writing within a box, but I often struggled to tie up all the loose ends of a story. I wasn’t a must-end-happily-ever-after writer, but I did like to shape neat endings, even when neatness didn’t best apply. The judge was right. I forced my stories into shapes that didn’t fit. I was writing in the box. Guilty as charged, your honor.
The blow of this stunning revelation was softened by the fact that I was awarded the fellowship. (I know! After reading the critique, I was shocked, too!) I was stymied until I realized that the judge’s critical comments didn’t mean I was a bad writer; they meant I could be a better one. Her critique had included praise—“An accomplished piece…fine prose…strong sense of scene…writing has profluence…”– but of course I ignored that and obsessed about the negative comments. After all, don’t all writers focus on the one bad sentence in a sea of good ones? But the judge’s comment did its job. By obsessing over it, I changed the way I saw endings.
This incident left me with another profound and valuable realization. Praise is great, but criticism is useful. I exercise this realization daily in my editing job because I know, from painful experience, that being criticized made me a more daring writer.
Since I’ve hung up my professional editing shingle, I no longer enter writing contests, but in a few weeks, I’ll be judging one. Several published authors will select a winner of a short story competition sponsored by Out & About magazine and the Delaware Literary Connection. In preparation, I’ve been asking both judges and writers about their contest experiences. While it’s great to get feedback on a story you’ve entered, it’s even better to find out what makes a winning story before you enter. Right? So below are some comments first from judges, and then about winning stories.
From Ruth M. McCarty, who has judged the Al Blanchard Award contest for the New England Crime Bake conference: “When judging stories for the Al Blanchard award, I look for a great opening line, fully developed characters, a sense of place and, finally, a satisfying ending for the reader.”
From KB Inglee, who judged the 1000-word category for the Short Fiction Mystery Society’s Derringer Awards for two years: She noted that maybe half of the stories she read should have been in the 2000-3000 word category and had been shoehorned into the smaller size. “Write to fit the story, not the word count.”
From Ann Charles, comments regarding her mystery novel Nearly Departed in Deadwood, a 2010 Daphne du Maurier Award Winner – “Love your dialogue! Your narrative is short, but I felt like I knew what was going on at all times, and got a good picture of the town and characters.” -
From Leslie Pietrzyk, regarding my own story Trust, the Short Fiction Winner at the 2008 Writers at the Beach Conference – “The undercurrents of tension between this married couple were subtle and powerfully drawn; the prose was clean; the beach setting was integral to the action of the story; the characters were complicated and nuanced.”
Not all judges agree on what makes a great story. After all, our friend Helena consulted a stylist and designer before she appeared in that outfit and looked how that turned out. In the fashion press, some are calling her daring, and others are saying she was a hot mess. Either way, she got noticed for being outside the box. In The King’s Speech, the movie which earned her nomination, the king learns a lot about being in a box, and stepping out of it when he must.
For a writer, it can be just as tricky. Sometimes your work will be praised, and sometimes it will be criticized. One is good, but the other can be better.
Has a contest judge ever left you with a helpful piece of writing advice? Do you have a stinging sentence posted as a reminder of a writing flaw? Tell me about it.