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The Keymaster by Rebecca Henderson

Featuring the accompanying case study:

How To Use A Short Story Critique To Get Published

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Introduction, by Chris Fielden

Rebecca Henderson is an American author and editor. Her story, 'The Keymaster', was published by BLYNKT in June 2017. BLYNKT is magazine founded by Carly Dee and Q. Lei who spend time working in China, Germany, Japan, the UK and the USA. I guess this makes BLYNKT a truly global publication.

BLYNKT

You can read Rebecca's story below as part of this post, but it is also available to read on the BLYNKT website.

In her post, Rebecca has written about her experiences of using Scribophile, a respectful online writing community website that allow users to critique each other's stories.

Scribophile

Rebecca shares some examples of the feedback she received after posting early drafts of 'The Keymaster' on Scribophile. She then discusses handling constructive criticism, rejection and how her positive attitude and perseverance lead to publishing success.

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The Keymaster

by Rebecca Henderson

A face full of whiskers and smudged with a lifetime’s worth of dirt peers back at him from the mirror-like finish. He smiles, revealing his yellowed teeth – dirty and distant neighbors – in a garish grin, the black orbs of his eyes twinkling back at the trinket in his hand. The cold metal jolts the nerves in his hands, tiny bolts of electricity spurring his heart rate.

Scurrying back to his overflowing cart, his tattered rags swishing along the ragged cobblestones, he opens a filthy box, once a rich purple velveteen treasure, and carefully places the key among a bed of hundreds of others. The gathered metal blinks up at him in silent wonder, and he can only return the awed gaze.

Keys

Black birds crow at him and hop along the industrial wires as he makes his way further along the street. He feels at home in the surrounding gloominess, the dark and decrepit buildings that still stand acting as the gravestones of their fallen brethren. It isn’t so much the people that he cares for, as they are as shady as the businesses that flourish in environments such as these, but rather the atmosphere of it all. He blends in as much as any man pushing a rather overweight cart does, but the questions that plague a figure such as his in any other place were left unasked here. Or rather, no one cared to know the answers.

As he makes his way towards home, the train station greets him as it always does; broken windows winking as he trundles up the gravelly path and the gaping hole left behind from the doors’ departure feeling like the biggest smile, welcoming him back from his day’s journey.

He brings the cart to a stop near one of the larger windows facing the tracks, the glass here aged yellow but still intact, somehow. Placing his face nearer to it, he lets out a heavy breath, the mist from his breath fogging the weathered glass. With grimy fingers he draws two circles, then connects them with a box. Crudely drawing in a triangle near the front, the point raking into space, he exhales once more near the top of the figure. Whispering to himself, though no one is around to overhear, he mimics the clacking and chugging noises of the great engines that once barreled along the tracks without, picturing their majesty in his head, much greater in his mind than what his fingers are able to distinguish.

Continuing to chatter along as if he were an engine himself, the chu-chu chu-chu resounds off the steel frames of the station as he makes his way towards the rear of the structure, almost to the tracks themselves. Resting once more on the concrete platform, he glances down at the tracks below, the neat gravel bed they lie in and the uniformity of their resting places soothing his mind.

He follows a route only known to him, his body urging the cart forward with the practiced ease of habit. Ramps form an intricate switchback, descending into the earth with the regularity of planning and design. With each turn, he begins to slip into whistling, quietly at first and then increasing in volume as he finally comes upon his destination.

The makings of a small camp lay before him; a small cot lies rumpled in the corner, propped against the firm walls of the station’s subterranean structure, its rough blankets illuminated softly by a glowing lantern nearby. The lantern crouches low on an old produce box, the ragged boards held together by a sparse number of nails. The floor is barren except for a pit which he had scratched into the surface, most of the job already accomplished by the weathering of foot traffic long since gone. It made for a wonderful fire pit, as evidenced by the battered pans that lay nearby, his favorite bowl, plate, and utensils their only company.

He drives the cart to a nearby wall, and lets it stop on its own as if it were a tired steed, wheels coming to rest in inanimate fatigue. Carefully removing the purple box from its perch near the handlebars, he opens the lid and peers once more down upon the mass of metal within.

As he begins placing the keys onto nails he had managed to hammer into the stiff sheetrock, his mind mulls over the events of the day. With each key placed on a specific rack, in a system only known to him, he remembers its story, the way in which it had come into his life and the feelings he had experienced in their meeting.

The day’s first memory is of the last key he had found, and as he continues, the day moved backwards in his head, sometimes crossing time past as he picks up keys found before and after another. Made recently, as he could tell from the lack of discoloration, the latest key he had found that day deserved to be hung from a nail farther up, above the dirtier and older keys. He made no other distinctions between the shaped metal, but somehow it feels right to privilege the cleaner ones, their finery setting them apart from the rest.

After placing the last key and emptying the purple box, he closes the lid and steps back.

Before him, a wall of metal rises, glinting in the dusk. Hung in inarticulate rows alongside, above, and below one another, the keys trace their own lines in a pattern of jagged edges, rounded tops, and pressed bellies. He marvels at the designs of each, as even though they looked similar and performed the exact same function, their qualities set them apart as if they were living, breathing organisms, finally coming here to return back to their natural state.

His steps measured and graceful, he moves tenderly towards a dingy bag that hangs from one nail by a drawstring, the black nylon sheen feeling slimy after the cold yet firm surface of the metal hanging nearby. Removing it from its resting place, he walks back towards his rows of findings. One by one, laying each within the folds of the bag with the care of handling a new-born child, he places the keys together, filling the bag until it was obese with metal. Drawing the strings closed like a seal, he lays the bag down below the now-empty grouping of nails. He looks back at it fondly as he moves towards his living quarters, not without a mix of trepidation, anxiousness, and sadness. Patting his stomach as it growls for attention, he thinks to himself.

It must be done. Their sacrifice for my life.

Colourful Keys

The weight of his precious metal is the only comfort for him this day, and he feels slightly angry at the thought. The emotion is soon replaced by purpose and he lowers his shoulders somewhat, giving in to the inevitable. Soon he will be back where he belongs, the comfort of his home and familiar surroundings distant and altogether like an imaginary land compared to his current location.

The sun shines jubilantly above him, its blinding rays forcing him to gaze down at the street that lies perfectly before him, each stone seemingly carved into the land like the intricate scales of an ocean fish. Looking to his sides, he knows he will find buildings and structures, statues and signs that exemplify the same minute and deliberate attention to detail. In a world of perfection and sanitary divinity, he is not only alone in his expression of dynamic life, but avoided for his very antonymic existence.

Devoid of any expression of liveliness except for the looks of consternation and horror thrown like protective shields before him, the people that walk around him – and they do walk around – are no different than their creations. The sterile beauty and porcelain figures that glide along the well-kept streets elicit in him no recognition of the likewise-animate, only the disturbing lack of originality and disconcerting thoughts of possession or something of the like. Hefting his bag closer, he clutches it to his chest like a dying loved one.

His distress only heightens as he finally arrives at his destination. Two enormous and altogether menacing doors bar his way, and he feels extremely dirty, almost unwelcome by their pristine handles as he pulls one towards him. This metal does not speak to him in the way the tiny little jagged figures nestled between his beating chest and tense fingers do; instead they resist his touch, almost recoiling as if in disgust and horror.

“What in the – ahem . . . what are you doing here?” The man, if you could call the suited and groomed automaton that marches before him that, practically spits in his face. Perfect white teeth, stationed like soldiers in neat ranks around a pink tongue bristle as the man continues to stare with alarm at the abject wretch of a person before him.

He only holds up his black bag, as if, like a mediator, the presence of an object between their worlds might act as translator.

The man spins and gestures for the security guard with a swift flick of his manicured fingers, the hardened gaze returning as he speaks once more. “Your kind are not welcome here. If you ever come–”

“Reginald, please. This man is my guest.”

A well-dressed older gentleman appears from within, and with a sigh of relief, he finally allows the door to shut behind him, thankful that he can let go of the lifeless metal. Reginald, as the man must be called, gawks as the security guard, who had been strutting towards the entrance with purpose, now eases back into his post with military-like efficiency.

“But, sir–”

“Please, allow this man to enter.” The gentleman nods in dismissal and Reginald retreats with one last backward glance.

“Now come, my dear sir, please.” The man smiles and though the results are similar to the visage presented to him not moments before, a warmth of caring softens the man’s features. “I have been expecting you, Master.”

Instantly allowing his tense posture to relax into a close resemblance of familiarity at the mention of his title, he follows the older gentleman as they move towards the back of the business. Master cannot resist looking into the large, clear, glass cases that hold metal of all shapes and sizes. These too, however, hold no interest for him, as they are even more lifeless than the handful of salesmen standing at attention behind them.

Opening a door, the glass frosted window reading 'Mr. Owen Johnson, General Manager', the gentleman places his hand out, palm upward, fingers pointing towards his enormous desk and the chair resting before it. Master nods his thanks and shuffles within, gently placing the sack of keys upon the richly-upholstered stool. He watches as Mr. Owen strides around the desk, and clasps his grimy hands before him in wait. He had made every effort this morning, before setting off, to scrub them of the dirt that seemed to cloth his exposed skin, but no amount of elbow grease and soap suds could wash away the years of living.

“Are you sure you won’t sit?” Mr. Owen knows the answer, but it feels wrong, what with the modicum of respect expected with his usual clients, not to ask. Even though he shares a small part of the clerk’s opinion, Mr. Owen has taken a liking to Master.

Master shakes his head, then inclines it towards the resting bag. Knowing his part in the silent act, Mr. Owen has already readied his scales and a waiting bag of his own, the stark differences in quality not unlike their respective owners. As Mr. Owen gestures to the waiting scales, Master moves to heft the nylon bag once more, his shoulders slumping a tiny bit as he does so.

After weighing and relocating handfuls of keys at a time, Master finally sets the last one down upon the pile, the break in contact between the piece of metal and his skin like the last kiss of a lover before parting. He steels himself; though they will be leaving his presence, their future does not end in the hot cauldron of the forge. They are to be reborn into a new life, new circumstances, and possibly, just maybe, into another experience where they meet again. Mixed together as they are, he can never know which key it is that returns to him – changed – but the prospect of a future reunion eases the grief.

After all, it is with their sacrifice that he is afforded a future, a gathering of days extra as he searches them out, again and again.

“I don’t know how you do it, Master. It is quite amazing.” Mr. Owen interrupts his reminiscences, but Master only nods. “Where do you find all these keys?”

Master shakes his head slightly. Mr. Owen, taking this as a dismissal of sorts, concedes. “Ah, right, if you told me then we wouldn’t be in business together, right? I could just find them myself, melt them down to make my own jewelry, and not have to pay you.” He chuckles, unsettling Master. Holding out his hand in the universal form of expectation, Master peers over at Mr. Owen and nods once, swiftly. As Mr. Owen places a $100 bill in his hand, the green crisp rectangle looking as if it had fallen upon bare dirt, Master speaks.

“Thank you.”

Mr. Owen watches him leave, Reginald joining him. 

“That’s all he ever says, Reginald. He brings the keys, I weigh them, and he gets paid. Always the same weight, no matter what. Amazing really. Only ever says, ‘thank you,’ and I don’t see him again until he comes up with that same amount. Exactly. Quite a thing of curiosity if you ask me.”

“Why do you call him ‘Master'?”

Mr. Own shrugs, inclining his head towards Reginald. “He’s the Keymaster. Calls himself that and I see no sense in changing his mind.”

An hour later finds Master settled in his makeshift home, laden with nourishment for the next few months and the loss of the only thing in his life that brings him happiness.

Countless rows of nails hang unfettered, silently awaiting their more dazzling companions.

THE END

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Rebecca Henderson's Biography

Rebecca Henderson

Rebecca Henderson

Rebecca Henderson is a professional editor and a published author. 'The Keymaster' is only the latest in her list of publications. She has also been published in The Looking Glass, 30N, Pure Slush, Adverbially Challenged Vol. 2, Nonsensically Challenged Vol. 1, and Short Story & Flash Fiction Society. She is also a staff writer for Newfound: An Inquiry of Place.

When Rebecca’s fingers are not striking her keyboard, they are tightly wrapped around the steering wheel, with her foot planted firmly to the floor. Loving the smell of old books as much as she does the tinge of burning rubber, Rebecca continues to write daily. She hopes someday to put her Masters in German to use by publishing a book on learning the language through fairy tales. In the meantime, she offers her editing and proofreading services for those looking to publish their own works.

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How To Use A Short Story Critique To Get Published

The Key to Achieving Writing Success: Mastering Failure

For eight months, magazine after magazine rejected my story, 'The Keymaster', claiming it was 'not selected at this time', or 'not a right fit'. I struggled with myself. Should I revise or completely overhaul the entire story? Something in me stuck to my written words and pushed me to continue submitting. I knew deep down that I had something unique; I just needed to find the right shelf for 'The Keymaster' to call home.

Key to Success

My 30-Day Challenge

Birthed during a month of writing – a challenge to my writing self – 'The Keymaster' started out short and half-formed. Known then only as a date-titled document, it was an idea I’d subconsciously been mulling over for some time: keys find their way into a lot of stories, whether it’s through romance (the key to my heart), mystery (the key to solving the crime), adventure (the key to the treasure chest), or many other examples. Conversely, I wanted to consider the function of a key. How many times have you lost your keys? Or made keys at the local hardware store for your apartment, garage, or storage space? Similar to the way we imbue money with meaning, I saw keys as holding those meanings with which we associate them. As soon as they lose function, however, they are useless.

In my writing journey, I’d hoped to give 'The Keymaster' meaning by publishing it. But like keys, stories have a way of taking their own path. I just needed to find the lock that paired with my key.

The Search for A Home

To be on the writing up-and-up, I’d subscribed to a multitude of sites that sent out emails to inform their readers of submission calls and prompts. I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon BLYNKT, but I was a subscriber to Cathy’s Comps and Calls, an amazing resource that lists contests and submission calls by month. I’d also copied down every journal I could from Writer’s Market and generally kept my eyes open as I perused other writing websites. If a call caught my eye, I’d note that in my system, remarking upon a relevant story to submit.

I submitted 'The Keymaster' to four other journals before it got accepted by BLYNKT. In fact, I had submitted 'The Keymaster' simultaneously to another journal, hoping that I could at least score one out of the two. I had chosen BLYNKT based on their prompt for the issue: 'Individual/Society'. Knowing that my story’s viewpoint juxtaposed one man and the society he operates in, I eagerly submitted, hoping the editors would pick up on this interplay.

Master: The Man Behind the Keys

I think in a lot of ways my main character, Master, embodies a sense of tension between the individual and society. I never necessarily pictured him as a vagrant or mentally unstable, but when compared to the jewelers, he is in effect jobless and homeless. He has no real companions other than the keys he finds, and even that relationship is one of value: i.e., the keys’ monetary contribution to his continued survival. Master must contribute to society (via monetary exchange), but at the same time he is aloof and physically apart.

To say I wanted to explore this dynamic and wrote the story thus is untrue. That March day, in the writing session, I had only let my inner creativity meander as I followed Master on his escapades. There was much ground to cover between the words I typed that day and the ones you see on the BLYNKT website.

For starters, I had joined a writing website called Scribophile and posted 'The Keymaster' there. A lot of critiques from other members centered on my abundance of description, the unique personification of the keys, and the point of view necessary to evoke the most emotion in my readers. Here are some of their comments:

I like this story a lot. It's a solid character study, reinforced by some limited social interaction by the character, giving us a hint of the wider world.” (Jer Hurdis)

As with the first paragraph, in general I think you could lose some adjectives from this description as it does read a little bit cluttered. If you haven't already you could try reading it out loud, this usually helps me to decide what to keep and what sounds too overdone.” (Emily Ives-Keeler)

Master recalls nothing of the past. He never uses his voice except at the end. He has no hopes, no aspirations, no desires, and very few feelings. Until you start to make him human at the jewelry store, he read to me like an automaton.” (Gordo Zim)

Right now, you've got a really interesting glimpse into a guy's world, but I think for it to read as a character piece there needs to be more incorporation of his motivations, his view of surrounding society, or past experiences that provide some why for what he's doing.” (C.E. Miller)

Constructive Criticism

It was hard to read some of the comments, but I did know that they were all trying to help me polish the story, and nothing of their critiques was aimed at me personally. I think a lot of times as authors we tend to take criticism personally, as the words upon the page represent our inner-most thoughts, but by taking a step back and understanding the intent of the critique, authors will not only learn a lot, but improve in their writing as well.

I had posted a few works before and since 'The Keymaster', but it was probably the one I got the most feedback on. It is one thing to return to your own story and attempt to clarify and polish it for future readers, but quite another to be able to see what people are thinking as they read through your story and how they are interacting with it. I think through this resource I was able to hone the message of 'The Keymaster' and bring the piece to where it is today.

Two Queries: One Acceptance

I sent my story to BLYNKT a few days before the end of 2016, with hopes that my subject material would align with the issue’s theme and thereby gain me greater favor in acceptance. I woke up one Friday morning in early February to an email from Carly Dee, one of the founders of BLYNKT:

Dear Rebecca

Thank you for submitting your piece 'The Keymaster' we really enjoyed it and would like to include it in Issue #2 of BLYNKT Magazine if it is still available. Is the piece still available?

If so, please let us know and then I can update you with further information on the progress of Issue #2.

Thank you for sharing your writing with us, we look forward to hearing from you soon.

With best wishes,

Carly Dee

Editor

I replied immediately with gratitude, excitement, and confirmation that yes, my piece was still available to publish! I could not contain the joy I felt and barely had the presence of mind to withdraw 'The Keymaster' from the other journal to which I had submitted.

It was some time before I heard anything more from BLYNKT in regards to publication, so in March I sent a brief email to Ms. Carly Dee, asking for a progress update. She was very welcoming and provided me details of the next steps in the process. I remained patient with BLYNKT during the process of publication and finally, on June 3, I received the following email from Carly Dee:

Dear Rebecca

I hope this e-mail finds you well, I am writing to let you know that we will be featuring 'The Keymaster' on our Facebook page www.facebook.com/blynkt on Thursday 22nd June. Please do follow us and look out for your piece.

If you would like to share your work on your own channels before then, a link to your piece can be found here: http://www.blynkt.com/current-issue/the-keymaster-by-rebecca-henderson

Thanks again for sending us your work, we really enjoyed it and look forward to sharing it again.

As quick as possible, I followed the link to my story on BLYNKT’s website. I marveled at the picture chosen for my story and appreciated deeply the respect and recognition it afforded my piece. The mood of the picture matched my tone of my piece so well that I knew then 'The Keymaster' had truly found its home.

Master of Rejection

The process of submitting is never about the wins, but rather how you overcome the losses. Writers often talk about their works as if they are progeny, and while some new-borns meet the world with heaving screams of life, others need more care and attention after exiting the womb. Developing your story takes time and effort; some require more than others. The ultimate test? Finding which slot your work fits into.

Throughout my journey I’ve learned a lot about the writing world:

  1. Always be gracious and polite; no one likes a pretentious author;
  2. Choose journals wisely and always follow submission guidelines;
  3. Stick by your work’s side and be confident in your message;  
  4. Your piece was rejected; you weren’t.

Dead ends serve to narrow down the right paths to follow, so treat each rejection message as a nudge towards ultimate publication!

I also need to thank everyone on Scribophile who critiqued the piece. Unfortunately, I am not a part of any local writing groups, but having the Scribophile community to interact with was priceless. I think in many ways being before the writer as you critique their piece – or speaking to them about your comments after the fact – holds a certain amount of tension or expectancy. The online medium allows others to interact with my piece without me there, thus decreasing any formalities that might hinder the process. Responses nonetheless have a source, but the emphasis of the site is on improvement and community. Without the brisk but well-meaning comments and suggestions from my fellow Scribophile members, 'The Keymaster' would probably not be published.

My final piece of advice? Networking is crucial to the writing business. Recognition, respect, and notoriety are the key to mastering the process of publication and success. Just because your key doesn’t open Door #1 (or #2 or #3 or #4, etc.), doesn’t mean it’s useless. You just haven’t found the right treasure chest – yet.

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Big Thanks To Rebecca

Sharing critiques is a brave thing to do, but others can learn so much from it. I'd like to thank Rebecca for sharing her experiences so candidly. Her words are wise:

  • 'The process of submitting is never about the wins, but rather how you overcome the losses'
  • 'Your piece was rejected; you weren’t'

Adopting this mind-set helps a writer overcome doubt, keep submitting and, ultimately, enjoy success.

Have you had a short story published? Would you like to write about your experiences for my website? If the answer is, "Yes," please review my submission guidelines and then get in touch.

How to Write a Short Story book ad

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David F
Thanks for sharing this so candidly, Rebecca. Very helpful indeed. I've been thinking about trying Scribophile and now feel inspired to give it a try.

Rebecca H
You're welcome, David F! Scribophile is an amazing site, and definitely worth a look. If you do sign up, look me up there and I'll take a look at your posted work. Thanks for reading and responding!