I sent off a story of mine to the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize last year. It’s a rather prestigious little number with a hefty prize (and price tag) attached. I decided to pay the extra fee ($99AU in total!!!) and get some feedback. (If you are ever offered to opportunity to do this, do it. Otherwise you might wait years for an editor to be kind enough to give you even vague feedback.)
The price tag was worth it. I was rejected for a winning place or short list but the feedback I received was adequate compensation.
The judge gave an overall critique of my story which is in the whole positive. The two part structure is working and the voice and story of the character is strong. It’s emotionally engaging, an ambitious tale, with the potential to be a great story. In some parts I pull it off and the story shines.
She then went on to show me specific examples of where the story was not working, giving me precise advice of what I could do to make these small sections work better. It echoed much of what my uni lecturer had said about it (sort of like a second opinion from a doctor!) especially in regards to clarity – I knew what was going on all the way through the story but my readers didn’t.
I received this before Christmas and I’ve been mulling over the feedback since then.
Today at my writers’ group, alone in attendance but nonetheless productive, I set to work remedying my story. I fixed a few word choices and clarified a few points, adding extra details where they were needed, fine tuning here and there, as you can in a short story.
But on one point I am stubbornly resisting.
There is the use of the word ‘pound’, which was criticised for being repetitive. I’ve used it in reference to a waterfall, a rape and feet running through the jungle. I’ve also used the word ‘warm’, to describe the character’s wife, her smile, their bodies, and the moon.
I’ve stuck to my guns on this for several reasons.
Firstly, the man is an African in the 1800s, taken from his home lands to slave in the Potosi silver mine in Peru. It’s deathly cold where he is, and as he mulls over how he landed there, the mistakes he’s made and what hell he now exists in, he is beset by the terrible cold, high on the mountains, far from his tropical home. He aches for the warmth of his home, and he longs for the warmth of his wife, who is now dead and long since turned to cold earth.
Secondly, he pounds rock in a dark tiny hole, and I never use the word ‘pound’ in context of his present misery. He is echoing in his mind what his body is doing, even as his mind revisits the past where he can no longer be. It simultaneously reminds him of what was and what is, and how he is trapped in both the tyranny of the past and his wretched life now.
The use of repetition with both of these words is metafiction, and I want it there. It tells a deeper story, it gives the story another layer.
Lastly, and this is the most important thing, he comes from an oral culture: this is his voice. Oral cultures tell stories differently from the way written ones do, and while this story does exist on the page, the character in it is a man who never had a concept of a page, whose stories were told and passed along, with repetition in them and repeatedly passed along, transposed to memory. This is how he thinks, how he lives, how he exists. This is who he was. Fictional as he may be, he represents a true human being who was silenced.
I’ve read somewhere that taking editorial advice is a good skill to have, but knowing when the advice will kill your story is also a skill, and one that should be defended to the death.
I’ve never felt like this about a story before. I’ve usually taken editorial advice, but this is something else. This is how his voice came into being; it is the aliveness of my character, and I won’t take it away from him.
The story is finished and is ready to be sent.
I will keep putting it out there, until some savvy editor gets the point of that in the story and publishes it. (With a handsome pay check attached to it of course.)
Now it’s just up to me to find the right market.