Short Story!

After being challenged to do so by my fiance, I began writing a short story about a kleptomaniac, here is the first part, hope you enjoy it:

 

Since he saw no actual logic to his compulsion to steal, he decided never to take anything useful, sensible, or desirable.

The hardest thing about it was avoiding those small, colorful cigarette lighters that always seem to offer themselves to the casual act of thievery. Instead, he had an assortment of old magazines “liberate” from various waiting rooms, one small empty vinegar dispenser, several dozen dessert forks, and a few light bulbs that did not fit any lamp in his house.

His friends, sister, former boss, and therapist called it kleptomania; he preferred thinking of himself as a modern day swashbuckler and scallywag. His booty could have been considered an impressive collection in the hands of an eccentric eighteenth century gentleman, but it seemed out of place in the possession of a twenty first century insurance salesman, and unemployed one as he was fired for stealing two boxes of light bulbs from the maintenance closet.

He saw nothing particularly wrong with taking those things he took. Those waiting rooms spread throughout the city could very much use an update in their selection of magazines; restaurants got those oil and vinegar dispenser at a dime a dozen at the cheapest wholesaler, and his former employer made ridiculous amounts of money for writing down people’s names in this list or that list, they could spare a ten Dollar box of 40 Watt light bulbs, even two.

So Robin made his weekly visits to the unemployment office, stealing toilet paper and paper clips more as souvenirs than even an appeasement of his almost officially diagnosed kleptomania. The weekly visits to his mother were much harder than the unemployment office. His mother was far stricter in pointing out the pitfalls of unemployment and his misadventures and failures or mistakes. He spent a lot more mental energy in defending his life choices and current status from his mother than from the might and indifference of the US government, or the Chicago municipal authorities, or Mrs. Lamb, his advisor at the unemployment office.

He did not take anything from his mother, though. No tokens or mementos were needed or wanted. He did take a shoe horn from his sister’s house the last time he was there, and a burst baseball from his friend John’s house. But there was something inherently frightening and unthinkable in stealing from his old, widowed mother. She was not the frail sort of old, nor the truly hard and frightening sort of woman, she was simply Mother. Mother, the disciplinarian, Mother, the giver of rewards, Mother, protector, Mother, avenger, Mother, the withholder of affection, Mother, the attentive ear, Mother, the spanking hand.

Weeks went on and mutated into months, which in turn aggregated themselves into a semblance of a year. Robin gave signs that he wanted to go into business on his own, but Mrs. Lamb advised against it, and so did his mother, sister, John, Steve, Allan, Beth, and his therapist. John, Steve, Allan, and Beth, his friends from Grimmley Insurance Inc., made attempts to cheer him up by telling his of the goings on in his former office, of the subtle, pointless intrigues, frustrations about Mr. Lye, the new floor manager, and the rapid loss of clients due to some bad publicity. They told him how much of a hero he still is in the office for his act of quiet, though useless, defiance in taking those light bulbs.

Robin listened half-heartedly, and manage to keep Beth from remembering to take her scarf on the way out, which he thought of as a successful scarf-robbery. He tucked the scarf away in a drawer, along with a pair of batman socks he took from his nephew’s room, and sat back down on his couch.

After a year or so of having only taken, but earning nothing, he felt less of an adventurous modern day scallywag and more of a free-loader. He started to feel guilty even for those magazines he took from his doctor’s office the week before. And as he sat and mulled over his acts of thievery and beginning to wonder if they were the acts of an eccentric gentleman of fortune or a degenerate loser with mental health issues, his doorbell rang.

Through the peephole, Robin saw Beth standing outside, looking through her purse and looking very confused, even through the distorting lens of the peephole. The lens made her brown hair look as if it cover most of her face, even though he knew she cut it to stay well above her eyes, which, through the peephole, looked like tiny beads and not their usual blue, almonds he secretly liked to stare at. The peephole also made Beth’s lips look strangely mannish, as they were transformed by the rules of optics into a thin line painted with a rather dashing shade between pink and red.

Robin saw her lift her arms and thought she is about to check the time on her watch, which he wanted to steal for over a month, but did not dare. Instead, she knocked on his door.

“Rob? I think I left my scarf in you apartment, can I come in and look for it? I’m late for work, so I’ll make it quick.”

We’re all living in a material world, and I am a material…

Yes, Madonna, the pop-start, not the religious icon, is our point of departure today. No, we are not here to discuss has-beens, or people who were once great (and hot) and just simply lost it (and that, too…). We are here to use one of those rare times that pop music reflected a turn in academic thought.

It may have been delayed, but Madonna recognized in her song that we do, in fact, live in a material world. Now, while the song is about materialism and capitalism as a mode of thought and cultural driving force in on itself, I am focusing on the more general aspect of material things and nature.

Humanity lived in a world of things long before anyone thought of the word “capitalism”; it’s one of the things that separated humans from other, much cooler primates – our use of tools. Every human civilization, old, new, democratic, aristocratic, monarchic, theocratic, or whatever has had THINGS. These things tell anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians much about how the people of different eras lived. This, however is not restricted to the mere limits of their technology and how it effected everyday life. This include ideals of beauty (also of things and other people), ideas of success, ideas of peace, ideas of luxury, what values were important, what was considered “taboo”, and so on. This is what social sciences refer to as “material culture”, i.e. what do the objects circulating within a culture and the values attached to those object tell us about the culture.

To give a rather silly (but awesome) example, let me tell you about an example I gave in a presentation in a class on the works of the author J.R.R. Tolkien. In the book the Hobbit Bilbo and the gang stumble upon a group of goblins on their way to the Lonely Mountain and are captured by them. Upon a search of through the dwarves’ belongings, the goblins discover the sword Orcrist and are both enraged and terrified by it. Why? The sword was found in a troll cave far, far away. It has lain there for probably quiet some while, by which I mean a few millennia, and goblins aren’t really known to be scholars. Well, the answer is clear, the sword is legendary, even among them. Throughout the ages since the Goblin Wars (in the first age), stories of that sword were passed from goblin to goblin as they sat around the fire and ate some nasty dwarf, and so, the memory of the great losses they had suffered long ago remained in their cultural memory. It was thus, even by goblins who had never laid eye on it before, recognizable and terrifying. Values and stories and feelings were attached to a material object, which thus bears great significance for goblin culture in Tolkien’s universe.

This phenomenon is not limited to whole cultures, but can also be seen in small groups, or even individuals. We all know this instinctively, we associate certain clothes and accessories with a certain kind of person, we recognize Joe because he always wears a hat, or Sarah’s coffee mugs, even when entirely new, are always chipped in the same place and have just as many lipstick stains as they do coffee stains. We can learn a lot about a person or group by the object they keep or produce.

For a writer, this seems like a perfect tool to use for characterization. The reader will learn a lot about a character by reading about the objects they carry and use, especially since readers expect and anticipate the use of metaphors and parallelisms in their reading material.

Allow me to give an example:

The challenge was to describe a person by using their favorite coffee mug, either fictional or real (the mug, the person is definitely real):

“He had a cup, a permanent fixture on his desk in the teachers’ lounge. It was large, with a great capacity and was chipped in the rim and handle. It was host to an assortment of quotes by Einstein, Shakespeare and E.A. Poe, which were crossed out with a permanent marker, and he, with his chaotic, scribbled hand, attributed those pearls of wisdom to himself and his closest friends.”

Now, what do you think of this guy? Doesn’t this description tell you a lot about him even though it is, supposedly, only about his coffee cup?

Pseudo-mysterious

I have been toying with the idea of using a pseudonym since I wrote my first ever word meant to be an attempt at aesthetic pleasure. I was, at the time, not even aware of all the greats who wrote under a pseudonym, Lewis Carol, George Eliot, Mark Twain, Isaac Asimov, and the list goes on. I simply relished in the idea of being a mysterious, coveted secret, having thousands of readers all guessing about my identity.

A little research on my part would have revealed that “proper” writers have a reason for choosing a pseudonym, and it isn’t the literary equivalent of ordering a single malt scotch whiskey and sitting in a dark corner of a bar. Pseudonyms are a choice, like many choices in literature, bearing meaning. George Eliot (real name, Mary Anne Evans) was, either consciously or by trying to make her writing easier to market, making a point about women in writing and, by extension, in intellectual circles. C. S. Lewis wrote a book inspired by the death of his wife under a pseudonym to help him process the grief (A Grief Observed), and the rawness of the subject matter made him take refuge in a pseudonym to protect his privacy.

So yes, I think I have established that I was immature in my thinking. My thinking, though elaborate (I actually did come up with several possible pseudonyms), was not necessary. I was not escaping political persecution, I didn’t need to hide my identity, even if I felt embarrassed about my writing.

But let us not be overly dramatic, not all writers who use pseudonyms are facing firing squads or racial/gender discrimination. Some of them want to break into new genres (à la J. K. Rowling) or simply try to write with the thrill of pretending to be a new writer breaking the scene (I can only really come up with an example from Germany, Sebastian Fitzek who wrote, still in the same genre, under the name Max Rhode).

Why then did I come back to this idea now, after over ten years? My new project. My new book is an historical novel, about a Jewish immigrant from Germany, seeing the rise of Nazism from his “self-imposed” exile. This is, of course, heavily inspired by my own family’s history, who left Germany as things were getting very uncomfortable for Jews. The struggles of an immigrant the concerns about the crumbling “old country”, they are the same things my grandparents and great-grandparents experienced, which makes me feel I am speaking for them, telling their story (though a bit embellished and made more marketable). This brought me back to my first ever idea for a pseudonym, which as an Alias my grandfather used when he was wanted by the British police during the British mandate in Palestine. It seems like more than a gesture, or an homage, it seems like placing the voice where it belongs. It feels like making a connection between us for me to assume as my chosen my pseudonym his forced alias.

 

New project, new feeling

So, instead of a boring post about god know what, I decided to put up a chapter of a new story I am working on. I hope you enjoy it:

“Name?” The clerk spits out at me from behind a tiny desk and equally tiny glasses.

“Heim, Jakob Heim.”

“And how do you spell that, sir?”

“H-E-I-M. Heim.”

“Okay, origin?”

“Germany.” Now he looks at me suspiciously. As if it were a quiz and I gave the worst possible answer. The war has left scars not only on Europe. For the first time, America had to save Europe from itself, and now this young nation has no one to look up to; there are no longer any responsible adults in the world.

“Do you have family here in America?”

“Yes, a cousin, Eliza Smith, in Ohio.”

“Do you speak good English?”

“Yes, I believe I do.”

“Okay, please proceed to the health inspection. Here you go.” He gives me a slip of paper with “Jacob Heim” written on it along with the date and the stamp of the Ellis Island immigration inspection.

The health inspection is by far more intrusive than the simple collection of data done at the desk. We are stripped in groups and washed in case we bring something from the old world to infect the new, and then we get inspected. The doctor looks me up and down, and when he reaches down he asks me if I am Jewish, I answer that I am and he gives me what can only be called a conspiratorial look. Of course that despite what many in my homeland now want to think, Jews conspire nothing, but it is a constant to see Jews exchanging conspiratorial looks for some reason. As if our continued existence is the conspiracy the gentiles accuse us of.

finally get my papers cleared, for which I am sure that I have the doctor to thank, and leave Ellis Island in the direction of Ohio. I get placed in the train and set off, hoping to never see a uniformed man again.

The journey is going to be a long one, several days, and it allows me time to think. I wonder about what I have come to call my “self-imposed exile.” It is the third exile in total, I suppose, that I was subjected to. The first was before I was born, before Germany was born. It was when the Jews were exiled from their homeland. Technically, there were two of those, once by the Babylonians, and once again by the romans a few hundred years later, but they are both ancient history, so I count that as one. The second exile was from about five years ago, when my father tossed me out of the house. He said I didn’t fight hard enough, and that if all true German soldier would have fought to the death, as they should have, Germany would have won the Great War. I just told him I was hungry. He gave me a loaf of bread and told me to leave and never come back.

The third exile seemed like the next logical step. It was not brought by life in poverty-stricken Hamburg that I couldn’t take, it was the people. Everyone agreed that losing the war was disastrous for Germany, and they were right. We lost our holding the east, we lost our Kaiser, and we lost our pride. Voices started sprouting up, vehement, loud noises who claimed that it was us, the Jews, who conspired to humiliate Germany by having it lose the war. They claim that is why Jews did not answer the Kaiser’s call to arms, even though we did, most promptly, or they claimed that if any Jew did join the ranks of the Imperial Army, he did so only to sabotage the war-effort, and deliver Germany to the enemy.

I told everyone I knew how ridiculous it all was. I asked why on Earth would I have joined, and fought, were wounded, captured, escaped, starved alongside my fellow Germans only to sabotage the war. They said they didn’t know.

Eventually, I decided that Germany can no longer be my home, so I came here to America with what amounted to three hundred dollars to my name and a small suitcase that contained everything I owned. And with those, on February twentieth, 1923, I rang the doorbell of the Smith family, in the aptly named city of Columbus, Ohio, hoping they have gotten all my letters.

Chapter one:

I start feeling rather stupid for not having called ahead. Eliza is my Aunt Dagmar’s daughter. She is three years younger than me and we were very close as children, which is why I thought she could help me, but in all the time between my first letter eight months ago, no reply came.

Dagmar came to America right after the war. She was heartbroken when she found out my uncle Reinhardt had died in France just a month before the end of the war. Nothing could console her but the idea of starting fresh, away from the country that took away her precious Reinhardt. Of course she took her daughter and son to America with her, and the next we heard of her was a letter from Eliza telling us her mother and brother died in a train accident. We did not attend the funeral.

Finally, the door opens. It’s Eliza’s husband. He’s a good looking man of about my age, with blonde hair and harsh cheekbones. He looks like a Bavarian, or maybe Austrian. This is the first time in my life that I am seeing him. Eliza wrote that Smith is an assumed name, not the name he was born with. He assumed the name out of the assumption that a good, Christian name was good for business, even if its holder is a Jew, so the name Feuerwarth was abandoned.

 He looks at me and smiles in this open, American way, and when he sees the suitcase his smile changes and becomes more artificial.

“Sorry, friend, I am not interested in buying anything right now. It’s my wife who buys everything for the household anyway, I just pay for it, you know who it is.” He smiles again, and starts to politely close the door.

I almost panic, but gather myself, and, politely as I can, I reach for the door to stop it from closing. The husband looks at me with a surprised gaze.

“No, sorry, it’s me, Eliza’s cousin from Germany. Jakob. I wrote you that I am coming, I did, asking if I could stay a while. I know this is a terrible imposition, but I have no other choice.” I always considered my English to be very good. I learned English in school for four years, I have read English novels, I learned English from the British guards when I was captured, but when I hear how easy, smooth, and melodic this man’s English is, I become ashamed of every syllable that leaves my mouth.

He looks at me for a moment, rather surprised, but not at all bitter, and slides aside to allow me entry to the house.

“Oh, of course! You never wrote when you will be coming, so we didn’t expect you today. Come in, make yourself at home.” He leads me to a nice living room, where I sit down on a nice sofa and he sits in front of me on a fine-looking settee. There is a long silence that follows as neither of us know how to start this interaction. I only got as far as the introduction in my head. I assumed Eliza would be here to drive any conversation, and remove any awkwardness with stories of our antics as children.

“Oh, that’s rude of me, would you like something to drink? Something cold, perhaps?” I simply nod and he leaves the room, giving me an opportunity to better look at it.

It is quite large, around thirty square meters, I suppose I will need to start learning what that is in feet. The center of the room is occupied by a very cozy sitting arrangement comprised of the sofa, on which I am sitting, the settee the husband just left, and two small chairs. In the center of that arrangement is a large table on which books, magazines, and glasses are arranged. Behind the two small chairs in a large radio set, atop which sits a gramophone. All the walls, besides the one blocked by the sofa, are hidden by large, oak bookshelves, which are in turn filled with books in both English and German, a few are in French.

Mr. Smith comes back with a bottle of black, bubbly liquid, which I think is Schwarzbier, and am eager to taste. My disappointment must be readable on my face, since Mr. Smith grimaces at my expression. The liquid is sweet beyond belief and is definitely not any kind of beer.

“So how was the journey? From Germany, I mean.”

“Oh, alright. Long. I left Hamburg about two months ago, you know, stops and such.” Our conversation is in danger of becoming more polite than cordial.

“And from New York? You must have come from New York, everyone does.”

“Yes, I did. The men on Ellis Island were nice enough, but I think the clerk might have been illiterate, spelled my name wrong.” I show him my provisional papers, where the German K in Jakob was replaced by a C.

“Well, that’s how it’s spelled in English.” I knew that, I was trying to make a joke, but telling him that might be too pathetic.

“And what do you plan on doing here?” He asks.

“Oh, well, I was told America is the Land of Opportunities, I suppose I will look for mine.” I smile, hopefully cordially.

“Good, yes, in what? Do you have a profession?”

“I fought in the war.” I tell him, like it explains everything there is to say. I fought in the war, so I couldn’t really find work later because I couldn’t really do anything but fight. I fought in the war, so the only way I could survive was by hoping an employer would take pity on me and hire me on the back of my service to the Fatherland. I fought in the war so I can’t make sense of my life.

“And besides that?”

“Well, I thought about opening a business.” I say.

“Good! That is a wonderful idea, that’s what I did. Keep the wheels of industry turning, America loves that.” America is said to love lots of things. Freedom, immigrants, money, itself.

“I was thinking less of industry, more of something else.”

“Like what?”

“Food, a restaurant. I read that many immigrants open restaurants.” Mr. Smith looks doubtful.

“Yes, Italians, Spaniards, the French have their bistros… Even the Polaks have their bakeries… but… Is German food really that enticing? As delicious as Bockwurst and Schweinebraten are, would they sell here?” It was a good question and I don’t know how to answer it. America is the Land of Opportunities, but not necessarily the land of successes.

“I suppose.” I said, and I probably look a bit dejected because I can see some guilt on his face for so quickly stomping out my idea.

“Where is Eliza?” Mr. Smith perks up as his wife’s name is mentioned. Finally, common ground for us.

“She’s with our oldest daughter, gone looking for a new dress. She’s four, and growing very fast. If she plays or moves too wildly, she rips her old dresses.” He smiles as he thinks of his precious daughter, which endears him greatly to me.

“It must be wonderful seeing your child grow up before you. You have another child, a son, am I right?” Eliza wrote me when her children were born. She never sent pictures, claiming that by the time they would reach me the children would be so far grown that I would not be able recognize them anyway, so I must come and look for myself.

“Yes, want to meet him? He’s asleep, but I am sure he wouldn’t mind.” We get up silently and move to a corridor, at the end of which there is a door painted in a bright green with a train painted in red and grey. Mr. Smith opens the door and we peer inside onto a small toddler of about three years sleeping soundly in the knowledge that he is safe and loved by his parents. He is the most beautiful child I have ever seen. He is perfect. He is here, in America, and he can be anything.

Literary fidelity, is it really a thing?

First, let me start by clearing something up: What on Earth do I mean with literary fidelity? I suppose there are several ways of understanding this phrase:

a) It could refer to that age old discussion on whether art should imitate life, i.e. represent life as it is, you know… realism. Wiser men (and women, of course) with much more impressive beards than my own (I suppose some of those women too…) tried to answer questions on whether art, and literature and an artistic form of expression, should strive to imitate life or to show what reality COULD/SHOULD be. I am not going to get into that (though I support the second view).

b) Literary fidelity could also refer to loyalty to a certain genre or style. From a reader’s point of view that might sound boring (imagine reading only one genre your entire life… oy vey…), but from an author’s perspective, it just… feels natural. A writer writes what a writer writes, right? Well, sort of. It is inevitable to develop a certain style and staying true to it through your career, it’s like talking, everyone develops their own idiosyncrasies, it’s unavoidable. It is possible, however, to develop that style over time and improve it, adapt it to your narrative and overall message; even when you are writing int he same genre. Of course, many writers, especially the really good ones, also “jump genres” or play with genre conventions. Take Stephen King, he didn’t only write IT and the Shinning, horror novels, but also the Green Mile and the Dark Tower series (according to many, his Magnum Opus). Other writers stick to something they know, which is fine, and play with it a little. Terry Pratchett, about whom I talk rather a lot here, started out with science fiction, moved to fantasy (both of which are in the fantastical literature umbrella genre) and even went as far as contemporary fantasy (like New Omens, which is getting a series staring David Tennant! How exciting). My own opinion is that writers should be free to jump genre, change style (hopefully for the better, as this will keep them fresh and relevant) as a way to express themselves. But frankly, that isn’t my business what they do in this department and this is not what I mean.

So what do I mean with literary fidelity here? Well, very simple, staying loyal to your story; is that a thing? I set out last November to write my first ever historical novel, and I am at around 120,000 words and almost done, but it took forever. My original plan was to finish it by June, so… six months ago. I kept getting distracted by things. Besides other, more personal things, it was also other stories. Short stories, a new novel idea, stuff in general kept distracting me, and my historical novel starting looking a bit neglected. I abandoned my own rules about how to get back to it and simply left it for younger, more attractive projects, and that was bad. Now I find it rather hard to resume where I left off and I wonder if I should have shown more loyalty to my story, i.e. fidelity.

So that is the question of the day, should I have abandoned those new ideas and kept my head down and written this novel? Or was it a good thing to branch out and pursue different ideas? In the long run, who knows. All I know is that when a new idea comes to me, I get an irresistible urge to fill it with words. A new idea and inspiration comes in the form of not only an outline, but as what it could mean, as wording (mostly clever) and that excites me. I get distracted by the potential of that new idea.

I believe that might be a weakness every creative person faces. Creativity is something that sparks your mind and enables you to see things differently, and sometimes you need to give into it and let it guide you. It may sound silly and a bit like a cliche, but there is a lot to it. I really believe in every thing I put to paper, which motivates me to pursue every idea and every new direction my mind comes up with, in part, out of fear of it disappearing before I could get to writing it. Of course, one thing that does get lost is the original thing, even to the point that I thought about giving up on it (but after 100,000 words… it would be easier to just push through).

If you are like me and do get distracted, I just want to remind you of my points from a few months ago:

  • Set a daily, or weekly, goal. This could also be overall goals (before September, up to June…). You should also write them down, even in the form of a step-wise plan (first this has to happen, after that, in the next chapter…). This would make long pauses between writing sessions less of a hindrance.
  • Moderate your distractions. Yes, this includes other stories. If you have eight different ideas all at once, maybe start writing one (the best one) and just jot down the other seven in a notebook somewhere and get back to them when you are done with other things.
  • Start your writing session by rereading the last bit of your writing.  When the distraction is over, you need to get back to it, and this will certainly help you get back to where you left off.
  • Take notes. The human brain has a limited storage capacity for stuff. This is seven times more true for really cool stuff. So if you get ideas about your current, long story, write them down, because you might find that this story will be in hiatus at some point and that cool plot point you thought of three months ago is all but gone from your head.

Also look at what I wrote in June about “Getting back in the metaphorical saddle”.

 

The etymological Frankenstein’s monster that is the English language

If Latin is the esteemed matriarch of many of Europe’s language, English is that too friendly daughter who constantly looses herself in the woods with one companion or another. A slightly less romantic metaphor is the one brought up in the title to this odd post; the image of the patchwork creature known as Frankenstein’s monster, Adam.

English, like Adam, is a construct of many components coming from different sources, all of which had some role in shaping the language into what we know today. Latin, old Norse, Norman French, even Celtic, all gave English this or that, words, grammar rules, or what have you. This is one of the reasons English, as a whole (not any one standard of English) probably has at least twice as many lexemes in its lexicon than less… inclusive languages, such as German or French.

For English, this created a rather interesting and useful phenomenon: stratification. To give an example of stratification, consider the words “ask”, “question”, and “interrogate” (this was my linguistics professor’s favorite example). They all basically mean the same thing if you think about it, present a question or a series of questions to someone, but they don’t, do they? “Ask”, a word of Germanic, old English origin, is the most basic one, you can ask someone the time, or ask them to leave, or ask for a cup of sugar. The theory is that because it was of Germanic origin, it was the most immediate word for simple people in the middle ages (when Norman French began influencing English after the Norman conquest) and simple people (uneducated farmers) would discuss simple things. “Question”, a word originating in French, is a bit more complicated (as a verb). You can question conventions, you can question authority, you can question a witness, you can’t question for a cup of tea. This, theoretically, is because, as the Normans brought the word with them to the aristocracy, it was a word almost exclusively used in government, academia, religion (which at the time WAS academia), or philosophy, which led for the word being reserved for more sophisticated, higher matters. Last but not least, “interrogate”, which comes from Latin, is highly official, as can be seen by its use predominantly in legal matters. Latin was a language spoken only by the educated elites, who had higher functions in government, law, religion, and finances. This led to the word, and many other words stemming from Latin, to be highly “regulated” in its use.

Now, what does this mean for writing, you ask (assuming you haven’t fallen asleep from my ranting)? Simple, we are spoiled for choice. I recently had a lively conversation with my sister on the topic (she writes fan-fiction for anime shows, good ones, not the dirty kind) and she asked me about choosing words. She herself chooses her words in the moment, moving fluently through her writing, while I painstakingly stop and think about the precise meaning of the word and its connotations for up to several hours (not literally, I would continue writing and get back to that pesky word later). Of course I don’t mean every word, “the” is simply “the”, but sometimes I can’t help but think that there is a better word out there, something that expresses exactly what I mean without needing to elaborate on it or needing to waste a whole sentence on something that can be expressed with a single word.

My own example from my writing would be my use the word “atavistic” to describe fear as opposed to “primal” (look it up). I suppose this is also a bit of a way to show off one’s impressive vocabulary, but more than that, it’s economy in words and creating the right impression in the reader’s mind.

It doesn’t have to be obscure words that have fallen into disuse in the mid 1800’s, knowing which word to choose not just for its bare, lexical definition, but for its social, cultural, and historical significance is a tool any writer should be able to use, especially those writing more condensed genres such as poems, flash fiction or short stories.

The only real way to acquire this skill is to read, a lot, and the right things. Read the classics, read writers of more literary novels or short stories. A little shortcut can be the use of a good thesaurus or an urban dictionary (depending on what you’re writing). But a thesaurus only gives you synonyms, not their exact meaning. It is your job to find the one that you need. Don’t be ashamed of looking stuff up, that is how you better yourself. One thing a friend of mine used to do (she is my age, her 30’s) is a “word of the day” type thing, or write down words she’d read somewhere and needed to look up, so that she could add them to her vocabulary.

Deconstructing criticism

If you are anything like me, which, for your sake, I sincerely hope you are not, you are/were terrified of feedback about your writing. I was writing for over 6 years before the first human being saw anything I had written (it was a collection of poems and nonsensical rants given to her as a farewell gift), and I was terrified showing it. There is something incredibly intimate about showing someone your writing, like stepping naked onto a stage. You are afraid of a cold, objective eye dissecting all those things that are, in fact, a part of your innermost core because that will essentially be saying “something is very wrong with you.”

This is much more true to beginning writers, those who have not yet gathered any experience in dealing with that cold, scrutinizing glare of someone else. That is very natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Beginning writers tend to not cover their personal truths in their writing with layers and layers of fiction (A.K.A bullshit) which makes them feel all the more exposed.

It hardly gets easier the more experience you gather, and rejection, critique, even praise can get you down in the dumps for a week or so. Following a few rejection letters from magazines and such for two short stories, I felt like talking about the topic of feedback.

Anyone who has been in any kind of situation where they were being evaluated (yes, school counts) knows about constructive and nonconstructive criticism, but those are not the only types of feedback. Those are overarching categories, maybe, but not an exact and all-encompassing categorization of feedback. And every writer who has ever workshopped their writing knows that what really counts is how you approach said feedback; that is what determine if it will hurt your writing or hurt it.

Here are some forms of feedback that I put together along with tips on how to handle them to help improve your writing and confidence.

  • “I liked it but…” – Feedback that starts with this sentence may seem like a good reason to roll your eyes at the forced and feigned politeness, but I believe they are rather sincere. Whoever says this is trying not to hurt your feelings, but feels that your writing can be improved, which implies that they gave it due consideration and thought. Best thing to do is to listen and ask that person to expand on those flaws they believe they found. Don’t try to explain those flaws away, maybe it makes sense to you since you constructed the story, but may need to be explained better for all those people who can’t read your mind.
  • “Oh my God, it’s all so good.” – Ironically, that is one form of feedback I have a problem with, sort of. Yes, it’s nice to hear I am awesome, but I need a little more than this, and I don’t mean praise, information. No book is really “all good”. Every story has plotholes, inconsistencies, pitfalls etc. This is the sort of feedback a child might get from their mother (which is good, children need encouragement), but as an adult (who does still wear Batman pajamas) I need to know more. The impression I am left with from this sort of feedback is that the story was not given any real thought. Now, since the giver of such feedback is obviously trying to complement you, don’t be rude and demand more specific criticism. Ask them questions about what they liked, maybe ask about certain flaws in the story you know about or parts you are not comfortable with, encourage them to say more. It may be that they do start pointing out segments they found problematic, or that they tell you what they liked in more detail, which is just as helpful.
  • “Please understand that this is not a critique on your writing(, but it is, though).” – A sentence that is often adjoined to the end of rejection letters, this is supposed to make you feel better, despite being rather sterile and impersonal. Well, it doesn’t. I don’t blame those publishers or magazines that use this ubiquitous sentence, it’s probably in their email template, but it is rather irritating. So, first thing first: the actual feedback here is the rejection by the publisher/magazine, which is okay. The rejection could be the result of any number of reasons, but the publisher/magazine doesn’t have the time (or the people) to give a personalized response to every submitter, which is fair enough. Never expect more from a publisher before you locked them down in a contract. It isn’t their job to give you detailed feedback (assuming they respond at all). The real thing to do here is not to be discouraged, and as a preemptive measure, don’t send anything to the publisher before it was read by a friend/partner/coworker/that homeless guy down the street; they could give you much more detailed feedback.
  • “It just didn’t do it for me.” – This one is a tough cookie. You can’t please everyone, and it is possible that the person you gave your work simply isn’t a part of your target group (giving your WWII veteran granddad a love story about a teenage girl and a sparkly vampire might not be the best idea). It is, however, fair of you to expect them to at least give any sort of honest comment on the logic, language, or structure of the story. They may not have been swept off their feet by the plot, but they can at least tell you if you overuse metaphors, rash the pacing, or forget plotlines. The best thing for you to do is, once again, ask questions and get them talking, primarily about more structural and formal aspect. You could also use their their “outsider view” to the genre or premise and ask about the characters and how believable or likable they are.
  • “Don’t quit your dayjob.” – That’s just being mean. Ignore this person as he/she doesn’t respect you enough to even try and give you constructive criticism.
  • “But is that what would really happen?” – Personally, I think that is a moot point, but for many readers, it isn’t. They need the story to make sense, even within the framework of having elves, orcs, and dragons around. They are talking about a logical chain of events and believable characters and character behavior. It could very well be that you are making your characters or event irrational on purpose, in which case you can say so and gauge your interlocutor’s response, but be aware that you are thus making your story a niche story for those who are looking for more literary fiction, which is, once again, your prerogative. Consider changing a few, small things about the story to accommodate those mortals who do not constantly dwell on the metaphysical aspects of whatever, though; there’s a reason your friend/partner/coworker/that homeless guy was confused.
  • “I found it rather trite” (in a fake British accent). – That is another tough cookie, but one that might be worth cracking (though, who cracks a cookie?). This will always come across as condescending, and it is often meant as condescending. This often comes from the mouth of someone who is indeed well-read, often a classicist who would rant at length some panegyric for Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy and talk about how terrible modern society is (you may roll your eyes). This person would be well-educated and they’d want to assert this position buy flaunting their literary knowledge (whether actual or imagined by the force of their education, which may also be in mechanical engineering, but they would still claim to know everything about the life of William Shakespeare or Wordsworth… roll eyes again). It might be tempting to tell them to shove it, but listening carefully (you may imagine telling them to shove it) and gleaning out those details, about which they will go on at length, that are actually constructive could provide you with some useful tips. Try to remember that if this kind of person was your target audience, you’d be talking and acting like them, i.e. like a condescending @sshole, so don’t expect them to praise you too much.

One last comment before I leave you. Feedback, any feedback, could both be a challenge and a blessing. Even if the only thing it does is show you who isn’t your audience. The most important thing is to remember that art, whether visual or written, is a subjective experience, and different people will see it in different light. Don’t let one bad review get you down.