An Exam Called Life

THE LAST EXAM

Up until my high school days, I hated almost all my exams. I hated the competitive ones and I hated the non-competitive ones. I hated them just religiously, without any discrimination. And I hated them because I thought exams were a discrete hammering on a child’s natural intellect. But as the numbers on my age changed, so did my views and beliefs.

Surprisingly over the last three years at college, after sailing through a university level of education and a gruelling series of examinations, almost on my own, I have understood one simple thing; exams are more than just a reality check. Exams are actually the stimulants that trigger your intellect and enhance your ability to cope with the real world. It helps you deal with the insane amounts of difficulties that you face ahead in your life.

My under-graduation is nearing an end. Only a few of months have passed since I have last written an exam and I am anxiously waiting for my results. I don’t even know if I will pass, but trust me, I don’t hate exams as much as I did some years ago, (though I am still not too fond of them).
A clichéd saying in my country goes; “An engineer might not have studied for an entire year, but s/he will still be a master of his subject on the night before an exam!” And I am proud to certify the above statement to the fullest of my beliefs.

It was a rainy night in the serene town of Vellore as monsoons had just touched upon the sea shores in the southern parts of India. I had just one exam left and it was the most difficult one. And I remember calling upon every friend of mine over the phone, inquiring about their progress with the syllabus and irritating them over and over again. I knew I was being moronic but trust me, this is the only anti-depressant available to a student at such a strenuous time. If friends are behind you in the race to complete the syllabus, you man, are safe!
But, I was lagging behind!
I instantly realised that I have to spend another sleepless night or I might completely screw up in the exam the next morning.
I wanted to cry over my fate.
I wanted to go and kill those teachers.
I wanted to run far away.
I wished I had studied this before.

But amid all of this, a strange realisation took place in me.

I curated a bunch of previous year exam question papers. I called up a few (trustworthy) friends and inquired from them about the important questions that the teacher might have unwantedly spelt out in the last few classes.
Having gathered all these things, I started to prepare, ‘just to pass’.
And I kept on studying, desperate not to fall asleep at any cost.
But life happens.

I woke up at eight in the morning, cursing myself, and found my books lying on the floor while my pen and notebooks were pressed under me. I got up with a jolt and hurriedly began revising all that I had studied the night before and eventually went to write the exam, leaving the burden of my fate on the shoulders of the almighty (though I was not a believer of god back then, hardships and struggles can always do the impossible, they say!).
I came out of the hall, thirty minutes before the exam was actually over and surprisingly I was unimaginably optimistic about the exam. I didn’t know whether I did well or not but I knew one thing. I did my best. I gave in more than I actually could.

It is today that I suddenly realise that exams are an exact analogy of life, scaled down to a hundred and eighty minutes (or however long an exam is). Whatever I did for that exam that day was actually a teaching in disguise. It was a lesson of what I should do again in the future if I faced something deadly in my life.

THE BEAUTIFUL ANALOGY

For anything deadly that might collide head on with me in my life ahead, I should trust my past experiences (curate a bunch of previous year exam question papers).

Then I should call my friends for help or pray to god for the right direction (inquired from them about the important questions that the teacher might have unwantedly spelt out in the last few classes).

My priority should always be to just ‘survive’, (start to prepare ‘just to pass’).

And the last thing I should do is to leave the result in the God’s will (write the exam, leaving the burden of my fate on the shoulders of the almighty).

I am sure I will come out as optimistic as I did in my exam that day.

So you see? Exams are much like those vaccines that we used to get injected with in our childhood. We all know that vaccines of a particular disease are nothing but the disease itself. But this disease instead of harming you actually sets up a system of immunity within your body. It helps your body fight against the real disease which you might face someday.
Actually, exams are just an emergency algorithm to life’s problems.

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The Blog I never wanted to write.

Why the title? Well first off, this blog is about reviews and the effects they can have on a writer’s craft and confidence.

I should start by saying (hopefully non defensively) that I have developed a thick skin and I value critique that I can learn and improve from. On my soon to be closed (March 22nd) favourite writing site WRITEON, I have enjoyed interacting with close to a hundred other writers – Since joining in August 2015 I have got into the habit of writing something every week, mostly through the weekly writing challenges WO does/did. I got so much from them – not just a disciplined routine but valuable critique and people pointing out where I missed commas or typo’d a word or three. I always appreciate that.

My writing philosophy on there was to always comment on the stories/chapters that I read and saw merit in – sometimes I would encounter a story that I just couldn’t get through. In that case I stopped reading and said nothing. My mother always taught me if you can’t say anything nice, say nothing – but honestly 95% of the time I found stories I could say something constructive about and as a qualified teacher, I believe in helping people to better themselves and accentuating the positive. So if I saw a good idea but the writing wasn’t too hot, I would compliment on the story and offer some constructive critique on the structure. Most people have the ability to improve and in my experience on WriteOn, I never saw anything to contradict that, when a writer was willing.

This brings me to Amazon where my philosophy was the reverse. On Amazon it’s a case of who is reviewing my books and good or bad, my policy is to not reply. If I thanked all the 4 or 5 star reviewers (which might sound egotistical) then I would have to also respond to reviewers giving me bad reviews and there is no capital in that, especially if you get (which I did) a one star review saying ‘I didn’t like the sound of this book so I never read it.’

What can you say to idiocy on that level? That was for my book FOREVER TORN and it got lost in dozens of good reviews so I shrugged and moved on, after briefly contemplating that ‘there is always one.’ Actually Amazon is rife with trolling – sometimes it appears if a very well received book (I’m talking about other authors, not mine – I still haven’t topped 60 reviews on my most popular book) has mostly 4 or 5 stars, some … individual will feel it their troll’ly duty to ‘take them down a peg or two.’ – I have seen one star reviews stating that although the book was good, Amazon delivered it late so they were reviewing it with a one star! That is among the most sane and non malicious one or two star reviews.

Many writers (I’ve seen them on WriteOn, other writing sites and Amazon) take even well meaning constructive reviews very personally. Some rant and respond to even the most well intentioned critique and are hurt, pissed off and dejected by this. I myself have a much thicker skin but on a very few occasions when my replies get a bad reaction (on writing sites. On Amazon my rule is never to give a review unless I can give a 4 or 5 star) I’ve backed away and left those writers to their own devices.

However the bulk of writers know they can only improve from getting help and advice – but there is helpful critique and there is mean spirited critique. As Amazon is mostly readers leaving reviews rather than the workshopping of sites like WriteOn, there are many thoughtless or even malicious reviews left.

My own rule of thumb is that if a reviewer leaves me a 1-3 star, explaining why they didn’t like my book, having read the entire work, I just shrug it off. After all not everything is for everyone and sometimes my non linear narrative techniques don’t appeal to people who like a more straight-forward read. That’s not to say that I use these techniques all the time but I do in several of my books such as THE UNSEEN MAN. Set in a superhero universe it’s told almost entirely in flashback and there are flashbacks within flashbacks as the universe is established. The narrator is in a situation in his present day – injured and speaking of having ‘hours to live,’ he records his story, first talking about his world, then his origin and bringing the reader up to date. The final chapters lead up to the events that put him in his predicament and it’s a pretty epic read – one I am very proud of. It’s followed by another hundred or so pages of annotations which explain a lot of the references and influences – there is a lot of comic book/pop culture within the pages of The Unseen Man and it’s part comic nostalgia and part adult (non sexual) sci-fi/fantasy epic.

Up until a few days ago it had two reviews on Amazon.com. Both 5 stars. Then a third person reviewed it and gave me a one star review. If he had read the book and explained why he thought it was bad, then fair enough – though my rating is now 3. something and therefore the book will be harder for people to find on Amazon – well thems the breaks.

What annoyed me is that this person got barely into it (my chapters are very short so it doesn’t take long to get to the meat of the story) and gave up. Again that’s fair enough – I’ve occasionally not been able to get into a book though generally I do give it at least 50 pages or 3-4 chapters whatever comes first. I know as a writer that it sometimes takes a while for a book to get going and some of my best reads were ones I felt had confusing or luke warm starts – I’m the same with tv shows. At least 8-10 episodes. My brother who is more impatient told me FRINGE was crap – I found the first 13 episodes solid but not great, but then after that it was one of the best shows ever – but not if I’d bailed during the set up/world building. Believe me THE UNSEEN MAN gets rolling a lot faster.

So why did this particular review prompt me to break my dignified review silence that’s been in place since 2013? Well, not only was it overly harsh for not even barely scraping the surface of a book (Fair play – you don’t like the start of something – walk away or give a 3 star to indicate mediocrity.) but it affected the ratings which affects the ability of people to see this book which means I lose money. Most of all its the principle – I have become heartsick of online message forum trolls in the last year or two and while I personally believe in my path to being better known and that one day THE UNSEEN MAN and other works will make it, it’s the principle of the thing.

Not every writer (and I know hundreds – there are millions) can take a mean spirited unnecessary review with thick skinned minor annoyance at best. Some will despair and give up or it will affect their bottom line. Imagine if someone walked into a cafe, sniffed a cake and started screaming ‘Don’t eat here – it tastes disgusting and will probably poison you.’ Then imagine the person screaming that was there constantly and you couldn’t remove them.

We writers tend to discuss these things from time to time and we know that a bad review has a lasting effect – it can drive a writer to up their game if the critique is constructive and well intentioned or it can ruin confidence or sabotage the future of a good book, all because of thoughtlessness or malicious intent.

‘If you can’t say anything nice (or helpful) don’t say anything at all.’

Jason Greenfield

The Solitary Nature of Writing

I’ve been sitting at my desk since early morning. The sun came up but stays hidden behind the clouds. My back hurts and I’m getting hungry, after too many cups of coffee. I need to stand up and stretch.

But Noah, the protagonist in my story, won’t let me take a break. He is trying to find some closure and I don’t know if he will. His stubbornness is making me crazy. Why are you such a blind fool? I yell at him in my mind. My phone buzzes. Again. Finally, with a great wrenching, I pull myself back into the “real” world. I hate to leave Noah and his problems alone. I’ll be back, I whisper.

The life of a writer favorably compares to that of a hermit. Someone who enjoys spending hours cut off from reality—and other humans—is predisposed to being a writer, in my opinion. The “civilians” in our lives may try to understand our compulsion to create settings, characters, and twisting plots, but most never come to grips with it. Small children, of course, are exempted from being expected to understand.

Is there a way to do both? To write prolifically and maintain an active social and interpersonal life? I admit to often being torn between the two. Although getting words down the way I want is incredibly rewarding, I treasure my time with family and friends. A balancing act is required. Writing is not like other jobs; it can take over one’s life, especially while in the midst of a project. Taking a break means having to review and basically start over on return. And far too often, when I do return, I stare blankly at the screen, finally write a few words, read them, and give up in disgust.

When I first discovered online writing communities, I didn’t think I would get too involved. I’ve never been much of a joiner but thought I could use some exposure. Within an incredibly short time, I was hooked. I read literally hundreds of stories in a variety of genres and writing styles, filled with wit, wonder, and wild imagination. I met people from all walks of life, from around the world; their comments and support of my writing gave me new motivation and joy in the craft.

Now my favorite site is shutting down. Yes, there are other sites where I have been lurking around in the shadows, but I’m not quite ready to commit. It’s too soon. I must grieve for a while first.

In the meantime, I am back to my solitary writing habits: bursts of crazy fluid energy followed by long dry periods of doldrums. At least now I know I’m not the only one who does that.

Lessons learned: Writing is an isolated pursuit, but taking the leap to put one’s self out there can bring many rewards. I feel privileged knowing the people who have devoted time to the One Million Project. And I am honored to write this blog. Even though I pulled my hair out doing it. Thank you and good night.

The Accommodation Scene for Foreigners in China

I’ve now returned to Xi’an, the capital of Xaanxi Province, China, where I’m currently living and working. Oh! and a happy Chinese New Year, by the way; celebrations which are still going on. Most businesses are closed for at least a few more days as Chinese get together for a catch-up with distant family members. The university campus where I’m teaching, and usually swarming with students, feels like a ghost town.

I must say I’ve had a really enjoyable, and somewhat adventurous time, spending most of the Chinese New Year holiday staying with a couple of foreign teacher friends, a husband and wife, to celebrate Christmas who I met while teaching in Wenzhou, a long way to the southeast of here. Then I went off to hang out in two of my favorite Chinese cities, Hangzhou and Chengdu, because of the rich cultural diversity that can still be found in those places. However, the time with the foreign friends was not without drama, and you have to spend some of the travel time making sure you don’t lose your passport or your wallet – or else you’d be sunk. That goes without saying! After returning and unpacking my stuff, I found a metal backscratcher I took with me – something I was fond of – had gone missing.

Since China opened its doors to foreigners thirty to forty years ago, it has made significant inroads, making them feel welcome as guests and also to come here to work. However, this is not without shortcomings or contradictions. As Nancy Ps Hopp pointed out in her blog Post Inauguration Blues – Despair  VS Hope, we can’t escape from the fact that we continue to live in a divided world.

The foreign friends wanted to take a trip to spend a day or two with another friend they’d made a few years ago while working in another school in another area of China, as they hadn’t seen her in awhile. The wife got one of her Chinese assistants who helps her do tutoring of children’s classes to book a hotel for a couple of nights. I was quite happy to tag along with her and her husband, and the hotel booking went smoothly – no questions or implications were asked.

Until we arrived at the hotel reception where we were frankly told we couldn’t stay at the hotel! Naturally, we were shocked, stunned, and couldn’t believe it. My hands started to shake, then we kicked up a fuss – at least the wife did. ‘Why did you process our booking and take our money?’ ‘You knew by our names we weren’t Chinese!’ ‘We don’t smell. We’re clean.’

The hotel management wouldn’t back down and were awkward about refunding our money, and told us to go to an expensive hotel (because we were foreigners). I was beginning to think we’d end up on the streets at this point. The wife was convinced that the attitude by the management had been a scam to make us pay more. Anyway, after an unpleasant confrontation in which she went into tears, she got the police and the immigration authorities involved. After a tortuous dispute that took a few hours, characteristic of Chinese, we finally got our rooms. When getting back to Wenzhou, the wife said she curl up in front of the hotel entrance until something got done.

But the fact remains, how do foreigners know which moderately priced hotels in China accept foreigners and which don’t? It seems like a lottery. This is the first time I’ve had this problem here because I’ve always traveled cheaply, staying mostly in international youth hostels which have to accept foreigners in any case. But whether staying in ‘international’ accommodation or not, Chinese should accept foreigners wholeheartedly in all their hotels or not at all.

However, I need to end this on a positive note. Although there are problems, as there are everywhere, and that incident at that hotel might indicate otherwise, I don’t wish to detract in any way how Chinese can be the friendliest and hospitable of hosts anywhere on the planet, as borne out by being invited to partake in two Chinese Spring Festival (New Year) meals at a hostel in Chengdu where I stayed. As the premises includes Chinese-style dormitories and teahouses, I found it to be one of the warmest, relaxing, and uniquely Chinese places to accommodate anyone. And although the security was lax, no one stole anything.

How inconsistent and how ironic

David Butterworth