Tala’s Story – The Judgement

The judgement on Tala’s Story came in this week. Here is my analysis of the feedback the story received

The results of the First Round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge came in this week – just before Round Two was due to start. Sadly, my fairy tale Tala’s Story was not good enough to let me advance to Round Two, but it did get an honourable mention. I also received feedback from the judges, which I want to share here.

Of course I was disappointed not to go through to the second round, but even rejection is a part of the learning process. I received the judge’s comments on Thursday and on Friday (after sleeping on them) I made the following analysis. If you’re interested to read further, you may want to re-read Tala’s Story first, so follow the link in this sentence or the previous paragraph. They’ll open in another window/tab.

The judges’ comments came in an e-mail in a rather compressed format. So, for example, the comment that the story was “flawless” was immediately followed by a list of it’s flaws! However, I think I’ve teased out the comments and see they were written by at least three different people with three different reactions to the story. Here are the comments.

The Judges’ Comments

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

  1. So many compelling and atmospheric elements: the loveless marriage, the superstitious villagers, the exiled seer, the secret conception, the feral child, the kindly step-parents, the quest! I LOVE that the Seer doesn’t see any future as carved in stone, but gives power to individual choice in the flux of possibilities
  2. That was absolutely lovely. You understand the purpose of fairytales very well and honored the genre. Superb
  3. This has all of the elements of a fairy tale, with two powerful female characters, wronged by the word. The description of the brithmark felt very isceral [sic]

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) FEEL NEEDS WORK

  1. You need to reduce that convoluted and rambling synopsis to a log-line which will entice the reader without giving too much away. My biggest problem is with the ending: that the dead father emerges alive (how?) and asks for forgiveness, especially as he frames the request in terms of “us.” Who, “us’? He was never truly bonded with the mother and surely not with the villagers who marginalized and murdered him. And since the girl doesn’t know what she’s forgiving, it lacks gravitas, any moral weight or satisfaction. This incredible and weak ending is especially unsatisfactory after all the richness that precedes it
  2. This story is flawless. It touches the heart and doesn’t condescend to either nihilism, cynicism, or sentimentality
  3. This feels like 2 stories in one short story. It lengthens the story but does not heighten the conflict in any one place. What is the conflict or even the obstacle in the story? Is it about the daughter trying to forgive a people she doesn’t remember? If so, why should she care , except for a restlessness that she feels?

My analysis

Honored the genre

Clearly this judgement comes from (at least) three different people, one of whom seems to have unreserved admiration for the story, which is very, very gratifying. I was delighted with the comments that I had “honored the genre”, and that Tala’s Story “touches the heart and doesn’t condescend to either nihilism, cynicism, or sentimentality”. Also “I LOVE that the Seer doesn’t see any future as carved in stone, but gives power to individual choice in the flux of possibilities.” These things were what I was aiming for, so to have the judges recognise an achievement here is a huge affirmation. Thank you, those judges!

Confused ending

After taking a break from the story, and after reviewing some of the criticism I received on the public forum – long before the judges’ comments – I could already see the story was flawed. In its ending especially. The judges’ criticism helps point me in the direction of the most fundamental weakness: a poorly established progression to a somewhat confused ending.

The confusion at the end is exemplified in what one of the judges had to say about Tala’s father. The girl has two fathers. These are her biological father (the seer, who is killed by the villagers and whose spirit plagues them) and her legal father (who is the person responsible for turning her mother away and ultimately for causing her mother’s death). If the judge can’t tell which father it is Tala forgives at the end of the story, then obviously the story needs work to clarify that.

(I posted this analysis on the NYCM forums yesterday and this morning received a comment from another NYCM writer saying she doesn’t find a confusion over which of the fathers receives Tala’s forgiveness, so perhaps the judge was nodding.)

Two for the price of one

The second thing I take from the feedback is the comment that “This feels like 2 stories in one short story.” As the judge doesn’t spell out what they mean I am grasping after interpretations. I see that the story falls into two halves. In the one is Tala’s conception and birth and the deaths of the seer and her mother. In the other is the story of her own growth, her return to the place of her mother’s death and the forgiveness that ends the story positively. However, I don’t think that’s what the judge is reacting to.

I actually wrote three responses to the prompts (see here), abandoning the first two as I realised they were too long or too complicated. The final story inherited some elements from the earlier versions. The most obvious example is Tala’s relations with the wolves. Some true fairy tales do contain elements of other stories, hinting at longer, more involved versions with sub-plots that have been lost over the years. I thought the surviving elements from the earlier versions helped make Tala’s Story more believable as a fairy tale. I choose to assume this is what the judge picked up on and was uncomfortable with.

In retrospect I could have smoothed the story out by losing the extraneous inherited elements and perhaps given myself more room to focus the story better.

One inherited element that isn’t perhaps intrusive but would have been good to change is Tala’s own name. It would have been better to have given her a name that suggests the ability to heal. She got called Tala when she was one of three sisters with different magical/inherited powers. Her ability to speak with animals was, in the end, not very relevant.

Forgiveness

Two of the judges picked on a third problem. One judge writes: “…since the girl doesn’t know what she’s forgiving, it lacks gravitas, any moral weight or satisfaction.” Another writes: “What is the conflict or even the obstacle in the story? Is it about the daughter trying to forgive a people she doesn’t remember? If so, why should she care…”

These go to the story’s fundamental problem. I see now that I have not satisfactorily anchored the conclusion – Tala’s act of forgiveness – earlier in the story. Just at the moment I don’t see how I might have done this, but it’s a challenge to take away and think about.

Synopsis

All NYC Midnight stories had to have a synopsis. This was the one I wrote for Tala’s Story:

Couched as a fairy story, this tells the story of Tala, a child born with a birthmark whose mother, desperate to save her marriage, enlists the help of a seer – a psychic, but the seer is murdered, the mother and child turned out and the village cursed as a consequence. Tala grows up in ignorance of her origins but eventually returns to the village, she may perhaps raise the curse if she can find it in her heart to forgive the villagers.

My first reaction to the criticism I received over the synopsis was dismissive. I know it was poor, and part of the reason was that I didn’t understand its purpose when I wrote it. I thought I was supposed to be identifying the prompts in the story I’d written and summarising the story as an aide-memoire for the judges. Once I realised the synopsis is actually intended as a baited hook to get a reader into the story, I knew I could have made a better job of it. But by that time I’d uploaded the story and though I had some time in hand, I didn’t think it was possible to make a change.

In conclusion

Overall, it seems as though I have achieved a positive and persuasive effect with my writing. None of the judges criticised my language and at least two praised me. (“Superb”, “richness”.) So my ability to write is not an issue. The problem lies in my ability to construct the story. Looking from the side, as it were, with the judges’ comments to hand, I think that if I can lay the ground earlier to establish why Tala would forgive her (legal) father – and what she thinks she is forgiving – then I will also be able to overcome the confusion and strengthen the ending. I think that would probably give me the material I need for a decent synopsis too. I hope eventually to re-write the story to make something more satisfactory out of it and submit it elsewhere.

Watch this space!

Tala's Judgement featured image

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

The last week I have been very taken up with the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I came across it for the first time last year and decided to give it a try. I haven’t participated in a writing competition since – well, a very long time. Probably not since I was a teenager.

If you are also in the same state of ignorance as I was before I stumbled on it, the competition is organised as follows. First you register to take part and pay an entrance fee ($55, or $45 for early registrants). Then you wait till the contest starts – at midnight on a certain day, New York time. (This year, for me, that was 6 o’clock in the morning on 23rd January.) You receive an e-mail placing you in a “heat” (group) with 34 other competitors. The “heat” is assigned a genre, a subject and a character and you have 8 days to write a 2500 word story that fits the genre and includes the subject and character assigned.

My “heat” was number 21, the genre was “fairy tale”, the subject was “a birthmark” and the character was “a psychic”.

I wanted to ask what “a psychic” was doing in a fairy tale, but after checking in a dictionary and on Wikipedia I reasoned that I could probably get away with having a fortune-teller, oracle or seer. The first story I came up with felt quite good, but after sleeping on it I decided it was a fantasy (or even a satire) rather than a fairy story, so I ditched it, sat down and thought again.

My second idea I wrote very nearly 3000 words for, before realising that:

  • not only was it way over the limit, but that
  • it was too complicated
  • and I really didn’t know where I was going with it

So tossed that one out, slept on it again and toyed around with different ideas before coming up with something I thought might work. By now we had passed the half-way mark. On Thursday and Friday (28th and 29th) I wrote and re-wrote, counted words and shaved, and eventually had a story finished by Friday evening.

Mrs SC read it and approved, so I slept on it again and on Saturday morning I finished it off (2495 words), uploaded it 19 hours before the deadline, and heaved a sigh of relief.

Now, the story as submitted, although it is couched (stylistically) as a fairy tale, doesn’t begin “Once upon a time”, doesn’t end “happily ever after”, isn’t really suitable for children and doesn’t have much in the way of magic. (It does have some, though.) Beyond that it doesn’t actually use the word “birthmark”, and my “psychic” is a seer who refuses to tell the future because the future is still undecided. I’m not at all sure how the competition judges will react, but I’m really satisfied with the story. Obviously, I’d very much like to be one of the five competitors whose story is judged of sufficient quality for us to move on to the second round. But even if I don’t get that, it will have been worthwhile taking part for the story I wrote – and for the experience of course.

If I’ve understood things correctly, the story will be available for general public appraisal on Tuesday 2nd February (72 hours after the first round closed), and if so I’ll post a link to it here and on Facebook and Twitter. The results (winners, runners up, honourable mentions) will be announced at midnight NY time on 10th March.

Assuming the story passes, then Round 2 will run for just three days between 18th and 20th March. (That will be a maximum 2000 word story.) Round 3 takes place over 24 hours on 30th April when the challenge will be to write a story of max 1500 words. Round 3 clearly drifts into the world of flash fiction – but why not? There are prizes also (see here), but really the experience is the big payoff.

4th February. “Tala’s Story” is now posted on my Articlations website. Here’s the link.