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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Josephson

Writing Pride Before the Fall (and other Mixed Metaphors)

Yum, yum this humble pie is so tasty.

A few weeks ago I shared that I was participating in a short story writing contest that would include three rounds of peer judging; the entrants read and score 18 stories (blind) or their piece isn't considered for future rounds, publication, or the $1000 top prize.

I didn't expect to win, but I thought I had a reasonable shot at top 30 (the cutoff for publication), and I was expecting to at least make the second round (top 30% or so). The short story/narrative fiction form is new to be but I have been writing plays for some time, fairly successfully, and in particular my short plays have done rather well. I liked my story idea and I showed my first draft to Katy and she'd tell me if I were a crazy person to think there was merit, so I felt I was on the right track.

Of the 214 entries, 50 writers didn't read and score their 18 stories - so all of their stories, and their scores, were thrown out. That left 174 valid entries.

My story ranked 144 out of 174.


I did not make the second round, not by a long shot.

My composite average ranking was based on only four valid scores - every story is supposed to get six first round scores but two of my readers didn't complete their 18 by the end so their scores of my story were thrown out. But even if I got perfect scores from both, I wouldn't have moved on to round two. But I did get some written feedback from the four folks who read my story and completed their overall submission.

A quick thing on feedback from submissions....

One of the craziest parts of this whole write, submit, write, submit situation is that we submitters almost never get feedback on our work, and that's true of plays and stories, same as auditions or spec scripts or submitting proposals or resumes for creative projects. We offer ourselves and our work and if it's a "yay," we get to celebrate and if it's a "nay" we just get to wonder why. I've submitted to something like 1,200 opportunities in the last 15 years (which is not a lot, I know several playwrights who submit 400+/year). Of those 1,000 submissions I've received written feedback something like 30 times. One of those instances, a short play festival in the Midwest, my play This Hungry Churchyard got a 96/100 from one reader and a 64/100 from the other (the second reader gave the piece a 0/25 for producibility). There was no third reader tie-breaker. I wrote to the festival producers and they said something like "yeah, sorry - a third reader would have been a good idea." I don't submit to that festival anymore. Anyway, I submitted to this short story contest because part of the deal is that every writer got to see the written feedback from each person who scored their story. Here are those scores and that feedback (I won't include the name of the person who left their feedback as I don't have their permission to do so): The highest possible score a story can get is a six, the lowest is a one.

Score: 1/6 Feedback: ":)"

That's is. The reader just left a happy face, and a nose-less happy face at that. Like not only was my story not worth an actual sentence or two, it wasn't even worth the additional keystroke of an emoji nose. I wrote over 2800 words of feedback across my 18 stories, but hey - that's me. Anyway, first score down. Math-wise, with four scores, even one score of "1" makes it nearly impossible to advance to the next round. But that wasn't my only "1."

Score: 1/6 Feedback: "Well written, but unfocused and lacking substantive character or plot progression. Full disclosure, I am biased against cutesy stories about children. I don't find these stories interesting unless there is a clear through-line and meaning behind characters or plot progression." I appreciate that the reader acknowledges their bias, I'm just not sure how that helps me (or is in the spirit of the contest).

The conceit of the story is that that one kid in our protagonist's 4th grade class has been missing for a few weeks, and now that he's back, he's gone from being a bully to the sweetest, most helpful, giving-away-his-Oreos type of kid ever, and it's really freaking everyone out. He never tells anyone what happened or why he was gone, but our protagonist gleans that perhaps he should be a little more patient, a bit more forgiving, because whatever he's got going on, it must not be as bad as whatever happened to this other kid.

The story is a 4th grader-POV riff in the world of a truly fantastic short story The Mysterious Card by Cleveland Moffett - in that story there is an image on a card that the protagonist can't see but everyone he shows it to calls him a monster and demand he never speak to them again... and he never finds out what's on the card (there is a follow-up to that story that Moffett wrote that I think ruins the whole thing - my advice is to NOT read The Mysterious Card Unveiled). I love that story and I just had this other idea after spending time with my 4th grade (at the time) nephew, and there you go. So this reader didn't like it. But he's biased - but he's entitled to his opinion. And he's right, the story does not have a propulsive plot nor character arc - it is not prototypical and he didn't like it. Fine. Here's another score: Score: 5/6 Feedback: "What a great coming-of-age story set in the 4th grade. Such a mystery, I hope this is part of a longer story...a novel."

So what the shit? Did I write an unfocused cutesy kids story or do I have a great seed for a novel? Clearly I did both, all in the eye of the beholder. The person who gave the "1" didn't have his name or bio public, the person who gave the "5" has self-published a bunch of novels and has had several short stories published over the past few years - does that matter? The person who gave the "1" clearly didn't get what I was going for - am I way off track? The person who gave the "5" clearly did - so should I just say screw the other guy? Whenever I give feedback to playwrights, and I often do, as part of my writers group, as part of the artistic team for my theatre company, as a reader for many different contests and competitions - I always lead off with this sentiment:

"This is one guy's opinion - take what's helpful and ignore the rest."

So maybe I'll try taking my own dang advice. I think the story works, and it can work for the audience whose willing to go on the ride that I'm setting before them. I don't know that it will work for enough people to get published or appreciated, but I feel like this told me that it can. And that's helpful, so I'll take it.

And maybe I'll post that story here sometime - it's called If Only, a Tale From a Thursday.

(... and if you were wondering, my final reader gave me a "3" - "well written, but..."

So it goes.)

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