We’ve completed eight Size Riot writing contests (as of this writing) in two years, and now we’re staring down the throat of 2019 and more of the same. Over the course of these eight contests, you—as a writer and competitor—hunkered down over four weeks of diligent writing and revision, turning in a piece of flash fiction with a solid idea, strong characters, and a plot that clips along.
Then came time for voting, where random readers were summoned from various social media channels to read a couple dozen fresh-from-the-oven stories, then rate them against each other in various categories. As three weeks passed, these anonymous readers weighed in on the stories that touched them (in the heart or lower), the characters that sparked their imagination, the ideas that allured them. Finally, the results were posted and people woke up in their respective time zones to pore over the results.
And maybe you didn’t do so well.
Maybe you didn’t even get a vote or a comment, which stands out to your view as the winners thrill to everything readers had to say about them.
“The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.”— Oscar Wilde
This can be crushing. You had a great idea, didn’t you? You could see the story play out in your head like a movie, all you had to do was record it. The characters were so clear, even writing your own sex scene got you a little frothy, but it looks like no one else bought into it. What went wrong? Should you definitely chop off your hands because you’re a terrible writer?
Hold up, step away from the wood chipper. Understand, first, the nature of the Size Riot contest structure. Readers can only comment on the story they vote for, and even then, commenting is optional. There are some readers who can soliloquize about their favorite stories or offer incisive critique, but there are those who aren’t trained in the ways of feedback beyond “I liked it” (or, more commonly, “I’m not into this”).
Note: The voting/comment structure has been changed. Readers now have the opportunity to offer comments on every story, instead of adding thoughts in each category. There are also fewer criteria by which the stories may be rated. There still is no way to force more people to read all the stories and provide feedback, but we remain hopeful.
Remember that a couple dozen people are submitting stories, while fewer than that are offering reviews. More may be reading, but the evaluation form is a tremendous hassle to them so they just show up for the free buffet and slip out before the check arrives. If 30 people submit stories and 20 people find the mettle to offer reviews, at least ten people are going to not get votes or reviews.
As for giving up, no. No one should give up on writing. But among those who continue, there are two types. One type is content with their skill level, can’t see their own errors and therefore believe nothing’s wrong, tell themselves people just don’t understand them, or they’re terrified of a critique (confusing it with a personal attack). They hope if they keep doing the same thing, over and over, something new will happen eventually. The other type is, at the risk of raw nerve endings, open to learning how to change and grow.
They may not know how to ask, however. It’s very difficult to ask for help. It’s hard to know who to trust, and it’s an admission that you’re not capable of everything at all times. Some writers have a certain quirk in that they believe they should be experts in the beginning of their career, and if they can’t produce a best-selling novel on their first try, they just weren’t cut out for this kind of creative expression.
I hope that sounds ridiculous, because it is. Everyone starts out knowing nothing, followed by practice, making mistakes, learning from them, and getting better. That’s how you learn languages, sports, and musical instruments: why should writing be any different?
Caveat: Some people make large enough mistakes that it kills them, and they die. If you are dead, stop reading now. You have experience far beyond mine and I have no useful advice for you. Also, you’re off the hook from writing anything.
So how do you change? What happens now?
There are several different ways you can go from here. If you’re an autodidact, go to your local library and ask your librarian for books on writing skills and composition, and read up on what the greats have had to say. Many writers feel great affection for some of these titles:
- Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
- On Writing, Stephen King
- Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
- Steering the Craft, Ursula K. LeGuin
- If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
- Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Adair Lara
- Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran
And lots of people swear by Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, but I would caution you on this one: these Victorian stuffed-shirts pulled a lot of these rules out of their asses, as they saw it as their opportunity to shape what language was supposed to look like, not reflect what people were actually doing in real life. Not to mention, when William Strunk died, E.B. White went back and rewrote a bunch of his edicts, which should show you how arbitrary these “rules” are.
Now, this is going to feel a little silly, but if you really want to critically examine your own work, here’s a trick professional writers and editors use. Set it aside for two weeks and don’t even think about it. Work on other stories, or focus on reading instead. Then take it out and read it aloud to yourself. Yes, seriously, read it aloud in an empty room or read it to a patient friend. Don’t just quickly mumble through it, enunciate clearly as though you were recording an audiobook. So many errors will leap out at you once you break away from seeing what you expect to see and start listening to the story outside of your own head.
In fact, I know of two editors who will read copy back and forth to each other using ridiculous, terrible accents. One will affect a Texas drawl, for example, and the other will do their best Monty Python voice. This helps to jar the mind out of what’s expected and read/hear the copy with fresh eyes/ears.
If you work better with a little guidance, think about reaching out to your fellow size fantasy writers. Look through the stories and writers of past Size Riot contests and find people whose style you admire. We are a community, after all. Approach them politely and ask if they’ve got time to work on this with you. There’s no need to be shy: I’m betting most of us in the size scene are friendly and accessible; I’ve only encountered a couple real shits. Ask them for a thoughtful review of your story: Were the characters believable? Were their actions reasonable? Where did the plot drag or move too quickly? Which details were important, which were missing? Most importantly, have them underscore what they liked about your story, the things you did well. That’s as important to be aware of as any potential shortcomings.
Two of the largest obstacles any writer has to overcome are: 1) giving themselves permission to write crap, and 2) learning to take criticism. The first point just means not to expect perfection or even anything good on your first try. Look forward to making mistakes (hopefully new ones) that you can learn and grow by. The second point means divorcing yourself from your work: when someone points out a grammatical error in one of your sentences, they’re not saying you’re a stupid idiot who doesn’t deserve love. They’re just pointing out something that needs fixing, and the correct response is to be grateful and fix it. Otherwise, you’re likely to commit the same error over and over again, and you’ll feel much worse with the more time that goes by before you twig what’s going on, because then you’ll have this entire oeuvre of literature with the same basic error in every piece of work. And people will be like, “Seriously, just fix that simple mistake,” and you’ll be all, “Are you calling me fat?”
Reach out to another writer, or solicit for a beta-reader in your social circles. A beta-reader is someone you hand your work off to in the early stages of completion. They’re not a professional, so they’ll be reading your work like any other casual reader, but they’ll give you feedback based on their impression of your story. As they do so, you have to know the difference between their tastes and what you’re hoping to achieve. Weigh their response accordingly, but also act on their criticism if they bring up things you hadn’t thought of. And if your tastes aren’t compatible with that person’s, find another beta-reader, especially if they’re another writer you can provide this favor for in turn.
In the meantime, READ READ READ. One of the best ways to learn how to tell an effective story is to read your ass off. Take note of all the things that bother you about the story, pay attention to all the things the author has done well. I have two favorite authors, and I have a collection of nearly everything they’ve written. When I have a specific question about how to manage a certain characteristic or storytelling technique, I reread parts of their novels and look for how they handled it. I’m not trying to imitate their style: these are professional, career novelists who have encountered exponentially more problems than I have, and they’ve surpassed them all, so I’m learning from their experience.
Listen to an audiobook: that’s still a story, despite some people’s preciousness around ink on wood pulp. A good voice actor can cast a refreshing new hue upon a story you thought you knew. Watch a movie, attend live theater: those are definitely stories. Play a video game: yes, stories revolve around games. You can make up your own fanfic about the characters, in-game, or just pay attention to the conflict, climax, and resolution of the game’s story arc. It’s my personal conviction that Ernest Cline played so many goddamn video games, the roots of essential storytelling were imbued within him by proxy and that’s what made Ready Player One un-put-downable (if not actually good).
You’ve got lots of free resources within reach. If you want to break out of your old habits and move up to the next stage in your writing, act on it. Find writing guides in the library, talk to your fellow size fantasy writers. Don’t be afraid to ask for a favor or for help. And read everything you can get your hands on, from size fantasy porn to an automotive parts catalog. Everything written down has a lesson in effective writing for you.
You are a writer, so honor that.