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Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but Words...

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

So starts the old nursery rhyme, used by millions of children across the world in the flaming cauldron of pre-teenage existence. Words will never harm me. Oh yeah? What happens if you grow up to be an author?

It's an occupational hazard I guess; write something, publish it, critics circle and feed. We all pretend not to care about reviews (after all, we all write for ourselves, don't we, people?) but all fall into the same trap that shows our true colours. Four or five star review? Shout it from the rooftops. One or two star? Well, clearly that reviewer is a nut-job/jealous/illiterate/having a bad day (select all that may apply).

I've tried to dissociate my emotions from ratings, telling myself everyone has an opinion, they're entitled to it, and (until the revolution comes) they can voice that opinion. It's worked, to a degree, but I make the mistake of reading what's said and, as Seinfeld once protested to George, I just can't unsee it. Although my hide's thick enough to take it, one tiny comment stuck in my dinosaur brain festering away like a month-old bottle of milk in the sun: "I don't like Ish's story because I don't like made up words."


Made up words? I never knew the English language (or any other for that matter) was handed down by the almighty on stone tablets, immutable for all time (I think the French may hold to this myth, but I love them just the same). Everything is made up, everything comes from somewhere, somewhen, when somebody wanted to express themselves and managed to get further than ‘nnngghhh’, ‘urrrggh’, or a quick swipe across the back of the head with a club.

Take the latest discussion at Chez Soledad - zugzwang.

I, in my usual style, announced that in the latest fight along the multilane parking lot laughingly described as a freeway, I had forced a particularly aggressive driver to zugzwang. Greeted by derisive laughter from my wife who ridiculed my imaginary word, I had the satisfaction (brief as it was) of informing her I had stolen said word from the world of chess, which in turn had stolen two words from the German language (Zug and Zwang), which in turn had lifted them from Proto-Germanic which, more than likely, appropriated them from some poor sod who originally created them as he exclaimed in triumph when blocking a fellow cave-dweller getting to the best hunting grounds. Made up? Of course. Valid? Absolutely. Beyond a critic’s remit to fault? I’m surprised you have to ask.

My point? Language in novels, particularly in fantasy and science fiction, is an absolutely wonderful, fertile ground to exercise your lexicographical prowess. Every single word you have uttered in your life, from ‘dada’ to ‘deconstructionism’ has been made up, so there’s no possible, plausible argument against ‘imaginary’ words. Enjoy yourself, flex your minds, create with abandon, but always with some consistency, some small shred of why, underneath it all.

So, I’ve purged the critique of ‘made up words’ from my system and, with renewed vigour, promised myself to create more. Want proof? Wait until Descent: Diaspora. And with it all, I’ve re-learned my lesson. Sticks and stones may break my bones (and probably more effectively as age and osteoporosis tighten their grip), but words are there to be disregarded.

And my reviewer and their comment?

I’ve a special copy of Sha’Kert I’m going to send them one day far, far in the future, one they’ll have absolutely no quibbles with; a cover, signed, and 275 blank pages. Critique that!

Editor's note: Book 1 of Descent, entitled 'Death' is coming in 2024. Click here or click below to familiarise yourself with Ishmael's Ditmar-nominated debut novel, Sha'Kert: End of Night.

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