The Atlantis Short Story Competition: Should you Pay them for Feedback on your Short Story?
For $25 you can not only enter the Atlantis Short Story Competition but also receive 1-2 pages of detailed feedback on your work. But is it worth it? In this article I am going to share the feedback I received when I entered, as well as linking a copy of the story I submitted, and talking about where, how and if I found that it useful. It should give you a good idea of whether you will feel it worth your while to enter, as well as giving you some idea of what sort of things make useful story feedback.
This article is a companion piece to the one from March, explaining why you shouldn’t waste your money paying the Writers’ Village Short Story Competition for Feedback on your short story. You can read that here, but you don’t have to read it to follow this piece.
Writers’ Village was one of two competitions I entered at around the same time offering paid feedback, the second being Atlantis. Now, I would generally suggest saving your money to spend on more paper and more coffee – there’s nothing that will get your more bang for your buck (or pound or euro) than reading more and writing more. But sometimes the feeling of casting your work into the bottomless void gets to you down and you need a little more than encouraging words from your spouse/best mate/mum.
Atlantis offer three tiers of entry; standard entry, where you only get feedback if you’re a winner, tier 2 feedback for $15 that will arrive after the winners have been announced and tier 3 $25 feedback that comes within one week of submission. I paid for the tier 3 feedback, but “express” turned out to be a misnomer – it took them a couple of months to get back to me.
Happily, when it eventually came, the feedback from Atlantis was fantastic. Not just because they liked the story (Writer’s Village also liked my story, I think – not being sure whether they even liked it was part of the problem with the feedback!). More importantly then whether they liked it or not, Atlantis also made suggestions about why my story worked, and things I could try to make it better. But don’t take my word for it. You’ll find the feedback they gave a little further on down the page.
Before reading the feedback, however, you might like to read the story as submitted to the competition. Putting Out Fires was the very first story I wrote last year, when I decided I wanted to start writing fiction again. The version I’ve put here on the website is exactly the same as the version I submitted to Atlantis, warts and all. I kind of want to get all defensive now, but that’s really boring, so, here’s the link, make of it what you will:
Naturally, the review contains spoilers for the story.
Title: Putting Out Fires
Form: Short Story Pages: 7
GRADE: GOOD / 84%
- ORIGINALITY: 12/15
- PLOT/STORY LINE: 16/20
- THEME: 7/10
- CHARACTER: 10/15
- SETTING: 9/10
- LANGUAGE: 10/10
- PACE: 10/10
- FORMAT: 5/5
- STRUCTURE: 5/5
- TOTAL 84/100
What I really like about your story is the fictional world you have created. The setting is gripping and dramatic. As the plot advances, the action is really palpable and the final sequence (I dub it “Kendall’s silent death”) is memorable as well as captivating. I like the metaphor of “putting out fires” and the way how Jack interprets that. There is definitely a lot of drama in this narrative and the reading experience is smooth. The story’s deliberate pace demonstrates the author’s skill in creating a plot that emphasizes relevant beats of the narrative. Well done! There are still ways to heighten and improve the suspense, though. While the story’s setup is captivating and original, the beginning is too clear-cut and the characters are not explored enough. Firstly, try to give your readers a sense of the setting first before revealing where we are situated and what is going on. Spoon-feed exposition on a need-to-know basis in order to ensure that your readers are continuously curious and engaged. Secondly, the relationship between Kendall and Jack remains an enigma in most parts. Readers notice the tension between the two and Kendall’s death works somewhat as a climax, however it would have been very gripping to watch a confrontation between the two staged before Kendall’s death. Let their ideologies clash. Do also make sure that we know what it is that motivates Jack to put out “fires” in the first place. Why isn’t anyone else doing? What is Kendall’s point of view here? A story is only as good as its antagonistic energy, so that should definitely be given more attention in a rewrite. You can also reveal much more nuances of your theme through your characters. All in all, this is a gripping story with a strong sense of place and tone. Kudos! Consider implementing the above mentioned points when writing on this work of fiction or other pieces. atlantis-shortstorycontest.com
OVERALL SUGGESTIONS: (1) Work on your story as outlined. (2) Great story. Keep writing!
So, why was the feedback good?
We start with the ubiquitous pseudo-objective marking scheme. I’ve talked elsewhere about why I hate these. But the difference between this and the one I castigated from The Writer’s Village is that the marks here clearly demark what the judge felt were the strengths and the weaknesses of the story: they liked the pace, language and setting, but they felt I could have better developed the characters. So even the stupid made up numbers at the beginning of the review give me something with which I can work.
But it’s the detailed qualitative feedback that is really useful.
There’s a classic “shit sandwich” – they start and end with something they like, putting constructive criticism[i] in the middle. This makes the feedback easier to swallow. Furthermore, identifying things you like about a piece of work is at least as important as saying what you felt didn’t work – I won’t make you more chocolate cake it you don’t remember to tell me that you really like chocolate!
Turning to the criticism in the middle, there are two substantive parts: speed and quantity of exposition, and development of antagonism between the two central characters.
I’ve struggled with the stuff about setting and I’m not sure I understand how the story is both under-explained and too clear-cut. Of course, it is hard taking criticism of your work (that’s why the shit sandwich helps), and easy to get overly defensive. As the writer, I know full well that I had greater exposition and establishment of setting in earlier drafts that I ditched in order to get into the action faster and, frankly, to meet the word limit – would keeping it in have helped or made things worse? There’s a difficult balance to be met between maintaining pace and not losing the audience, and in a short story I’d rather get on with the action. But what the feedback does make clear is that the balance still isn’t there in this story and I need to keep on experimenting.
Then we get into the fabulously interesting stuff about clashing character ideologies, and the killer line “a story is only as good as its antagonistic energy.” For me, this ends up bringing me back to the first questions: what do we show and what do we let the reader decide for themselves? If the nature of the antagonism between Kendall and Jack had been clearer, would that have made the whole story easier to access? Would a clearer setting have given the audience more freedom to speculate about the central conflict, allowing me to leave the reasons a mystery[ii]? When do you explain the mystery and how much else do you need to explain if you want to leave the mystery unsolved without just being confusing?
A reader’s feedback can never answer all the questions about your writing, nor can they give you a cast-iron roadmap to improvement (and even if they did, you’re a writer, you’d just ignore it and do your own thing). But what this feedback does do is open up lots of interesting ideas and questions, all of which are clearly related to my story and not just generic writing clichés. I came away not only encouraged that they had enjoyed the story, for all its flaws (deeply pedestrian language aaargh!), but also filled with ideas for things I could try in my next story. I’m deeply grateful to the judge for their hard work and thoughtfulness.
I’d be interested to hear what you think about the story and the feedback. I’ve written a lot of other stories since Jack implemented his murderous little plan, and I like to think I’m getting better, but I still have a soft spot for that first bit of writing I did sitting outside the McDonalds in Le Kremlin Bicetre. It was my first little step on a long journey.
Meanwhile, this year’s Atlantis Short Story Competition is open and the deadlines for submissions is 30 November. You can check out the website here. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
[i] Or, the shit bits.
[ii] Actually, the clues are there if you look. But giving good clues is another thing that’s hard to do. Figuring stuff out for yourself is fun, but failing is dull; so how big do you make the clues? When do you need to spell it all out? I have no idea! Actually, I have plenty of ideas, but I don’t have any answers.