In January, I entered an excerpt from my novel, Owe Nothing, in the 2010 ABNA Amazon Fiction Contest. I held no expectations of success - at least that's what I told myself going in. There were 5,000 entries along with me, in the General Fiction category - to me, it seemed like a big field.
In March, I learned that Owe Nothing had succeeded to the next round, along with 999 other contestants. I couldn't pretend that I wasn't happy about that!
The underlying question motivating me to enter a contest like this must have been " How good is my book, really?" I spent years writing it, paragraph by paragraph, with little to no outside input as the first draft came together.
I finally started getting feedback in April 2008, after Owe Nothing was finally published. I would never disparage the opinions of the readers who've been kind enough to offer me their feedback on it. They went cover to cover, as far as I can tell, and seemed to enjoy the story, and I appreciate that. Most of the feedback I've received has been enthusiastic and positive, and I must say, gratifying or even comforting. But, my eyes are open - Steinbeck, I ain't. I tell myself that I can see myself clearly, and that I'm a relative babe in the woods in the world of fiction.
All the same, I was a bit disappointed to learn in March that I'd not advanced to the next round in the ABNA contest. 500 writers advanced, and I was not among them. I shrugged this off, swallowing a tiny dose of disappointment.
To set the scene for the reviewer's comments, the excerpt I submitted was from the second or third chapter, where the main character, Jack, and his pal, Parm, have been called into their boss's office at the Paradise Car Wash. Their boss, Bill, wants to recruit them into a covert group of evening vigilantes called "The Insiders", who are engaged in spying and courier operations all over greater Vancouver. Parm and Jack are not convinced by Bill's offer, so Bill plays them a recording from a man called "Ed", who explains their mission in idealistic, somewhat moralistic terms that resonate with Jack more than Parm.
After this, Bill takes them out to his storage shed behind the car wash and shows them the bullet-riddled car that belonged to the last operative - a man who'd recently left his employ very abruptly. Bill might have been trying to discourage them with this evidence.
Later, away from Bill's office, Jack and Parm have a long discussion about the risks and benefits of joining the Insiders, and the possible motives of their handlers.
A few days after learning that I'd been eliminated from the ABNA competition, I received an email from the contest advising me that there were reviews written about my submission. I was curious to know what the judges or reviewers of the ABNA contests thought, so I went online to read them. Having been written by 'Professional Reviewers', I knew Iwould give their feedback some weight. Plus, I was waaaay curious to read what they had to say.
The first review from ABNA said that the "dialogue between the two individuals trying to figure out whether to take the vague offer to do the angel's work " was the strongest aspect of the piece, and that the weakest was "the recorded voice giving directions and reassuring the operatives that they're doing good", which was considered to be "very reminiscent of the TV show Charlie's Angels". This reviewer felt that Owe Nothing was "good, well-written" and "creates some tension, but I'm not quite sure where it is going at this point".
The second review from ABNA said that the excerpt "has trite dialogue with phony dialect and inflection", and felt that the story was unoriginal, too focused on the inner monologue of one character, and too derivative of "tough guy, private eye fiction".
The reviewer that gave the more positive review seemed curious about how the story would progress. The other reviewer was turned off, and not interested in reading the rest of the story.
Now, some personal admissions of my own:
- I have steeped myself in old-school "tough guy, private eye fiction" over the years, particularly the now dated, but undeniable masters of the genre, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
- Contemporary writers like Brad Smith and Elmore Leonard have also been influential.
- To a certain degree, I have consciously set out to write like them. Perhaps that's just a symptom of a novice in a beloved genre. It's fair to ask myself if this emulation serves the story or just serves my own personal enjoyment.
- I do indeed write to amuse myself, first and foremost.
I'm fairly philosophical about this kind of feedback. Some people dislike low-brow dialogue (or perhaps more accurately, dated, or poorly-executed low-brow dialogue), and some accept it. I really don't take myself all that seriously, but I'll admit that the first few chapters of Owe Nothing are written with less confidence and more self-consciousness than the rest of the book. Maybe I shouldn't try too hard to make characters (or the voice of the story) sound a certain way.
I pondered all this while watching "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid", Steve Martin and Carl Reiner's hilarious tribute to (and parody of) 40s tough guy detective movies. After I watched it, I did begin to notice that some of the idioms and colloquialisms uttered by Raymond Chandler's character, "Philip Marlowe", in his novels seemed a bit overdone, or too much of their time.
I think that all feedback can be potentially positive if you can learn something useful from it. I'm going to keep on studying, and keep on writing. Jack Owen has a few more stories to tell, and if he keeps at it, they will probably get better and better.