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13/06/21 - Fox - Soineya Kumiko (short) 5,400 words

Majestic Fox

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Urban Fantasy, short story, 5400 words.
POV character is Japanese with imperfect English (if you see a 'typo' it's probably intentional).
Self harm and suicide are mentioned but are dealt with respectfully.
Thanks for your feedback, it's much appreciated!
- Fox
Edit: Story is intended as a voice message. 
Edited by Majestic Fox
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Advanced warning: the school where I coach lost a student to suicide this week, and I have a number of close friends who have been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts through the past few months.  So this likely hit me differently than it would for others, and I apologize if any thoughts come across as a little more aggressive than I might have intended them. 

Also, I saw that you have been around a while ago and are checking back in.  Welcome back :)  Sorry that my first critique on your writing is a bit of a soapbox rant. *facepalm*

Also, also. Only saw the voice message note just now, as I usually copy and paste from a separate word document.  I'd have to think about how that might change any letter-format related thoughts. 


So. I like a number of things about this.  The setting is really cool.  I like meeting mythical creatures. I think describing creatures who emote differently and communicate and perceive emotions using senses/processes that humans don’t could be a powerful example of how people process and communicate emotions differently from one another. But you’d have to be really careful to make sure it’s not coming across as literally demonizing mental illness when the yokai are referred to as demons. 

Right now the portrayal of depression/suicidal thoughts/mental illness and most specifically, how to deal with them, is hitting as dangerously off-base.  For reasons I rant about below.

I like the narrator’s voice.  I think the imperfect English and it being written as a letter work well together and like the blended culture it implies for the narrator from the start. The writing itself is really well done, and I really love some of the descriptive lines.

I haven’t read too many modern stories written as letters, and I really like that idea here, but there are a few spots that seem to stick out as not quite fitting that setup.  I’m not sure where the balance is between letter format and visual/conversational specifics, but I’ve mentioned a few places in the LBLs where it seems closer to a more standard narrative style than letter-style.  I imagine this is a really difficult balance to meet, but really like how it is coming across here in the spots that hit it well.

I think one of the big things that jumped out to me is that any sort of precise descriptions of a specific event should come across as more distant summary to get the “reflecting back” feel. The description of Ei focusing on how she irritated the nurse works really well because it’s a summary of general behavior that gives an idea of the sort of behaviors Ei tends toward. The summary of Pg 4 events work well because the distinct things mentioned are sharp emotions and clear actions, and the bluntness fits a summary.  The pg 5-6 events seemed a little too detailed and in-focus to work quite as well. Pg 7-8 seems pretty detailed, but it being a first customer at the new place makes it more feasible that more of the detail was remembered. Opening that section with a “This is how things usually work.” Then leading into “This was a specific example I remember well because it was significant” works well.

Unfortunately, I think once we move to the main body of the story, it feels less and less like a letter, and the end feels a little tacked on when I was expecting more closure/payoff for the idea presented at the opening that she’s helping a friend who is dealing with difficult circumstances.

Pg 1:

The letter format lends itself well to the rather blunt reference to the narrator’s backstory.  I feel like it could be easy to fall into maid/butler explanations with a letter format, but this does a good job of using “remember this thing I told you?” and using that as a starting point to build off of in a way that feels natural.

Pg 2:

Is three years a normal amount of time to spend in a psych ward after a suicide attempt? That seems like a long time, considering my (albeit not extensive) knowledge of friends who have struggled with self-harm/suicidal thoughts and spent some amount of time in hospitals for it. But that could also be the American health care system being useless, which wouldn’t surprise me at all.

“Nurse was…corner.” I think this line fits the sort of reflective description of a letter really well. 

“British pixie” I like how this emphasizes that “This is not the mythology I grew up knowing about” feeling we get from the explanation of the yokai at the beginning.  

Pg 3:

The thought of someone who has spent three years in a psych ward jumping into this with both feet  after three years in a psych ward comes across to me more like a concerning coping mechanism after extended isolation than as a healthy pursuing of a vocation.  I can chalk some of that up to some sort of supernatural interaction with Ei, but pushing too far in that direction leads me to the idea that depression and mental illness can just be “cured” which is a whole other concern that runs into being dismissive of the long-term effects of dealing with mental illness.

“I kind of scared the manager” the “kind of” doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the imperfect English of the letter. Would this be a term the narrator would jump to?  I don’t know enough about the Japanese language to know what sorts of English crutch-phrases would become more instinctive for regular use.  This doesn’t feel like one, but that could just be my perception.

“I gave every…inner core” depending on what the key point of the letter is, this paragraph might go a little more in-depth on detail than I’d expect a letter to go.

Pg 4:

“normal guy just trying something out” like “kind of” above, this seems to stick out a bit from the surrounding text.

“took a knife…” I’m not sure how much of this is paragraph and the following bothers me because of its bluntness and the subject matter or how much of it is that it just seems like a strange way to go about attempting suicide.  

Pg 5-6

More specific descriptions here than I’d expect in a letter.  Especially conversational specifics.  I’d expect a rougher summary with a couple of specific descriptions that would have stuck with the narrator due to sparking a stronger emotional connection or striking them as strange.  Seeing the yokai in the lobby fits well. The bucket and leaky roof fit well, but the line by line conversation seems too specific to be remembered in that much detail.

Also, some of the dialog seems to jump out of the imperfect-English voice.

Pg 7-9

The idea of the narrator’s first customer being such a game changer for the whole establishment is a big disconnect for me.  They had done similar work before, and had seemed good at it, but we hadn’t gotten the impression that people were lining up at the door specifically asking for them. So to start at a new place and suddenly be dealing with creatures who emote via scents and telepathic images seems like it would be disorienting at the very least and would take a lot of getting used to, just to figure out how to process those different senses enough to respond to them.   Even dealing with people of different cultures can be tricky when mannerisms vary significantly between them. To learn how to repurpose senses seems like it would take a lot of work. 

I do think different creatures emoting through different senses provides a powerful image of how it takes different sorts of approaches to address different types of trauma or mental illness, but the fact that she doesn’t interact with this one through that sense language but instead goes a very human approach really oversimplifies it for me.  And runs headlong into the demonizing mental illness trap.

Pg 10-12:

I wonder how rock-crushing yokai toddler tantrums go.

Relatedly, how do they actually get him into the other room if he’s dripping lava all over the lobby and refusing to listen? Why’d he come in the first place if he’s so angry about it?  Why does moving to another room make him suddenly shift to grief? Do I know anything about this creature’s psychology? Nope.  But it seems like an odd progression from a human perspective. It’s often difficult enough to move an angry toddler to a location where they can sit down and process their emotions without physically picking them up and moving them.  How does one do that with an uncooperative mythical creature that drips lava?

I’m starting to disengage through here.  I could work with the assumption of “what if we shifted the timeline so that she’d worked hard to develop her skills in this and is now just really good at it because of a combination of hard work and natural ability.”  But going back to her leaving the psych ward and starting work at the soineya, the fact that none of her own past trauma interferes with her work here, and the fact that every creature she’s interacting with seems to be magically healed through her rather one-size-fits-all solution of being emotionally open to them is troubling to me both because it seems dismissive of how hard it is to overcome trauma and because any training in working with traumatized individuals is going to tell you to keep sturdy barriers in place in those relationships.

I’m not sure I like the idea of the magical creature soineya being turned into a sort of supernatural therapist or the idea that seems to be presented that being emotionally open to someone can quickly solve these sorts of problems. Does it help? Sure.  But presenting it as effective all the time and effective after a single short meeting presents huge red flags for me. 

As someone who has a lot of experience mentoring at-risk teens and a foster parent, seeing trauma presented as having an easy solution if you are just emotionally vulnerable comes across as both problematic and dangerous for those who are already not in healthy places emotionally and who are likely looking for quick, easy solutions to their problems when quick, easy solutions for these things don’t exist. 

Pg 13-14

The fact that she is unwilling to make herself more vulnerable than before seems odd since it is her tried and true answer to each problem she has come across in the past.  Maybe it’s more of a challenge, but if that’s her go-to method of dealing with the creatures she interacts with, and it worked with other creatures that she thought might end up killing her if she let down her walls, I’d expect her to push farther in that direction.

Pg 15-18

Also, for her boss to be so obviously disappointed when she has literally never failed before seems off. I mean. Really, she hasn’t been there all that long in the grand scheme of things.

The conclusion here doesn’t really hit as satisfying.  I’d expected from the opening paragraph that we’d get to some conclusion regarding why she is writing to Sarah, and why this story, specifically, is supposed to help Sarah through whatever she’s going through.  If she’s moved to the UK, I assume she is no longer working at the soineya.

Ultimately, I end up being unsure of what conclusion I’m supposed to be taking away. The rough message of “if you make yourself emotionally vulnerable, you’ll find your place in the cosmos” is the closest thing I can see to a takeaway, but that hits way off the mark to both my training and personal experience.

Trauma and mental illness just aren’t overcome by a single event of shared emotional vulnerability.  It might help in small doses in some cases, but thinking of my experience working with the kids I coach over this past year, even those who don’t regularly struggle with depression struggled with covid isolation.  Being open and honest with them was often helpful, but even on that smaller scale of just going through a rough patch instead of something more serious, what they needed was helpful, supportive, community, feelings of purpose and direction, and grounding in the world around them. 

For those who do struggle with more intense mental illness or depression, that’s only the beginning, and even there it takes time and dedicated, regular effort.  The moments of emotional breakthrough are great, sure. But the long droughts of slogging through stretches where there doesn’t seem to be any improvement or where some outside influence tears down a bunch of progress NEED to be addressed in anything that tries to address these things to any extent.


Sorry again for the soapbox!  Should you want to chat about any of the things I mentioned or want thoughts on avoiding some of the more concerning pitfalls, feel free to send a message!

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I really liked this, and didn't have a lot of comments while reading. There were two main parts that I had a little bit of an issue with, similar to @C_Vallion above:

1) There was no backstory or anything to address who the recipient of the letter was or why the MC was writing it. Had something changed in her life to write this story now? The ending suggests she's lived many years after the story's setting, so I wonder what is changing

2) I want a little more emotion from the MC as she tells her tale. In the action is very poignant and moving, but then we don't get a lot of resolution for how it affects the character. I think this ties in to the issues @C_Vallion brings up with the suicide aspect. The MC never really deals with that part, and doesn't pause on the greater affect it had on her life. She just keeps moving farther into the yokai realm. The end gives a little more description of how this affected her life, but even though she said it's not something that would "heal" her, it's not clear what effect it actually had. More just an acknowledgement that she had an inspirational moment.

All in all, I really liked this. It drew me in and didn't seem as long as it was while reading. Very nice story!


Notes while reading:

pg 6-8: the imperfect English mostly disappears when the MC is speaking with the owner of the yokai establishment. It threw me out a little because this is in an epistolary format, so I was expecting it to also be transcribed imperfectly.

pg 9-11: the pace drops some in this section, and I think there's probably some explanation that can be cut down to make this flow better.

pg 13: I really like the revelation with the mountain yokai, but because of the way this is told, it sort of sucks the emotion out of the moment. I would have liked a little more revelation after this encounter but it mainly just describes the physical and monetary effects.

pg 18: the theme of acceptance is really good in this story, and I like that it does get turned back on the MC as a "final confrontation."

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4 hours ago, Mandamon said:

1) There was no backstory or anything to address who the recipient of the letter was or why the MC was writing it. Had something changed in her life to write this story now? The ending suggests she's lived many years after the story's setting, so I wonder what is changing

This was a thought I'd had as well, though I didn't entirely put my finger on the specifics of why it bothered me until later.  I really liked the sense of cross-culture communication that the imperfect English showed.  It seemed to intentionally show that the narrator isn't in Japan anymore. That something has happened to move her away from home, and that there's something about the culture that she grew up in that is going to be valuable to this friend who she's writing to. But I think that loses a good deal of its power if there isn't a clear reason for it.  

Plus, I tend to really like stories about communicating across cultural lines, so I was really hoping to see that here and it didn't quite hit what I was hoping for at the start.

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I was really hooked for the first six pages, after which I felt like things fell apart. I'm not sure the ending really made sense, and it didn't give me a sense of completion. I think the middle dragged. I think I'm on the same lines as @C_Vallion and @Mandamonthat if we got more emotions and more backstory on the suicide it might make this journey with the demons make more sense.

Your writing, as always, is solid, and a pleasure to read. I'd love to see this short cleaned up and submitted somewhere. I think the premise is really strong.


As I go

- pg 6: she takes that demon news in stride. I expected more emotions about that

- pg 8: yeah, I really fell out of the narrative with how well she deals with demons actually existing. Up to this point I was well hooked

- pg 10: I feel the narrative is starting to wander. What is the arc? Where are we supposed to be going?

- pg 12: yup, lost forward motion in the narrative. I think a lot of this area could be cut to streamline things

- pg 14: I don't understand why the matron was upset. Didn't she want our MC to hold back? And then out MC does and the matron is upset?

- pg 17: been ripped apart by my mother’s suicide, my father’s cowardice, and the whole uncaring mass of modern civilisation that wanted to squeeze every drop from my soul and discard my body in landfill.  <-- authentic as they may be, this is over the top for me as a reader. I need more lead up to this, also it seems like a lot. The mother's suicide is, for me, enough trauma to drive the narrative, especially with the father's internet problem

- I don't think the narrative loop closes sufficiently


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