No two critiques will ever be alike, though there are usually threads of things you can garner across several critiques: A character voice that was enjoyed, a lack of a clear timeline, interesting use of story elements and so on.
What was unexpected, and extremely confusing to me was being told that I didn’t have the prose for the story I was trying to write.
In 2019, with the encouragement of a friend, I submitted a story to the Armadillo Con Writer’s Workshop. I hadn’t published anything at this point. I wasn’t working on my creative writing. I had several stories I’d written a decade earlier sitting around my computer collecting digital dust. At that point, I was a technical writer and editor for an online community. My creative writing was, at best, underdeveloped.
When I submitted my story, I selected it for it’s provocative nature. It was about a happily married couple that accidentally found a kind of “fountain of youth” in a bubble bath, that had dire consequences. I grew up with stories from “Tales from the Darkside”, “X-files”, and so on. It could be classified as speculative fiction, horror, or erotic horror even.
I didn’t expect much from that writer’s session and went into it with a general mindset that people might find a few things interesting but in general, probably wouldn’t like my story.
I was never so happy to be very wrong. Not only were the instructors encouraging, they pointed out critical things that would enhance the story. My fellow authors gave me excellent feedback and also pointed out things to work on. I was encouraged, and giddy even. While the story needed some work, it was generally well received for its concept, plot twist, and on page sex scenes. I was encouraged to seek out romance and speculative fiction writers to better understand my potential audiences.
The rest of the weekend was a blur of panels, workshops, chatting with peers and general camaraderie. I looked forward to the next one and hoped I would have something new to present to my fellow writers.
While the pandemic entered the picture, and Armadillo Con was canceled for 2020, I and my fountain of writing ideas were not. I found a cross-section of writers to converse with and for the first time in my life, wrote a very bad first draft of a book that represented my queerness. Then as I struggled with that massive idea, I started writing flash fiction as a way to take breaks, then stumbled on another massive idea that became a fully formed world with queerness and myths as its base.
Since then, I started working on what it meant to market my writing. I created an author Twitter, and Instagram, queried to agents, and editors. Received personalized rejections from a few indie pubs, and Laurell K. Hamilton’s agent.
When I thought I would burst from not being able to share my stories, I found web serialization platforms and other creators that shared my passion for unique stories and voices.
As of today, I have two completed web novels, and three more in progress. Two short stories which will be published in an anthology, and I’m preparing to self-pub my first novel. None of that would have happened without that 2019 writer’s session at Armadillo Con and my friend’s encouragement.
So when I signed up to attend 2021’s Armadillo Con writer’s workshop, I had high hopes of the same encouragement and experiences.
I worked on the short story I submitted. Edited it several times and it was read by several other authors as well. Was it perfect? No. Did I ever expect to be told that my prose were not good enough for the story I was trying to tell? Never.
Was it an ambitious story? Yes. It had a strong romance element, with modern fantasy, and horror. I was trying to invoke several layers of thought around the actions of the characters. On the surface, it’s a love story, but with the fantasy and horror elements it has a more desperate undertone, and even a subtle taboo or creep factor.
Instead of encouraging help or ideas on how I could better execute on what I was trying to do, I was told by an instructor, point blank, my prose were not up to the job.
Great – I’m a shit writer – got it. Brains have a very funny way of narrowing down to the most negative aspect of something in the moment. The feedback I received on paper was mostly in the helpful category. I gathered the threads of that feedback and applied it where appropriate.
What I couldn’t let go of was how I felt afterward. I was extremely unsettled and discouraged. After nearly two years of progress, and learning, I called into question all the accomplishments and milestones I made. Was I fooling myself this whole time?
To add to that, I was visiting a craft artist friend in the vendor room and found myself in a conversation about artist undervaluing their work. I pulled out my phone and showed the cover of the book I’m hoping to publish sometime next year, and said that the artist had undercharged me for it, so I made sure to tip the artist more. When someone in the group saw the cover, they asked if I was planning on self publishing and I said yes, and they made a noise in the back of their throat, then proceeded to talk about spending $5,000 for a book cover and $18,000 in development and publishing costs. The implication being that my book was only worth the money I put into it, and my cover was lacking.
I went home Friday evening, and didn’t return for the rest of the weekend.
I followed up with my critique buddies, and even my editor. Explained what had happened, and they were a bit shocked, and supportive. See, they read the same story – and their responses to it were exactly what I had expected for a story of that nature. Sadness, empathy, and a subtle creepiness.
Maybe my audience isn’t at Armadillo Con any longer. It could be that because I have stronger romance elements, some readers are unable to see past that. It’s possible I am a shit writer, and my story will never strike the right notes I’m hoping to create.
Whatever the case may be, I am saddened and disappointed that Armadillo Con likely won’t be in the highlights of my author journey. I had encouraged other writers to submit based on my previous experience. Maybe I was lucky in 2019. I know for a fact, if what had happened this year happened to me then, nothing I’ve written to date would exist.
I wouldn’t have sought out groups like the Inclusive Romance Project or networked with other writers across Twitter and Instagram. I would not have continued trying out alternate writing forms, like flash fiction, or web novels. My short stories would have stayed in the digital closet. I would not have grown as a person and a writer.
My suggestion to Armadillo Con – you might want to take surveys of your writing workshop participants. If you care about how you’re helping the writing community and future writers grow, understanding the potential impact you have could make all the difference. Also, if you have instructor guidelines for critiques beyond what the submitted authors receive, make those visible to everyone.
I didn’t show up to be coddled. I needed critical feedback and left with discouragement instead of direction. It makes me wonder how many other writer’s were similarly discouraged.
If you’re at all interested in anything I’ve written after this long blog post, you can check out my stories here and judge for yourself. Feel free to DM me your feedback on Twitter or Instagram.
*image is a Pencil with Sharpener and Notebook – image from Pixabay