64. It’s Johann!

(let me just begin this post by saying promise: broken)

Everyone, I’d like you all to meet Johann.

Johann turns 11 this year, and she is going to be the heroine of the children’s book that I am working on at the moment. She doesn’t even begin to realize just how much she is about to be put through for the sake of the story. I can’t give too many details here, but I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Johann in advance for everything that is about to happen to her.

(and she thought that the flying cockroach in her room was bad)

I have been working on a children’s book since late August (actually late December 2012, if you count brainstorming as part of the process) for the Scholastic Asian Book Awards, and it is, at the moment, fabulously titled Johann’s Fantastic Adventures Through Time. This is actually the second incarnation of the story, which had first presented itself as Magic Market (which is a much catchier title than Johann’s Fantastic Adventures Through Time, I admit); really an expansion of the idea than a complete rewrite, as elements of Magic Market remains in a chapter of the story.

Today when I woke up (and realized instantly that I was late for the group meeting), a reminder awaited me on my phone: “2 weeks to scholastic deadline”. I have 14 more days to complete the writing of Johann’s fantastic time traveling, high adventure story so that I can have time to have it edited, printed, and mailed off to the Scholastic office in Singapore.

(God only knows how long it would take the manuscript to reach them if sent by snail mail. The current plan is for me to deliver it right to the receptionist’s desk in person. If you want to make sure something gets done, you’ve got to do it yourself, right?)

Out of the 7 chapters that I have outlined for the story, I have completed the writing for 1 of the chapters, and part of the writing for another 3 chapters, which doesn’t sound too bad, until you do the calculations and find that it means I have only completed 30% of the story over the past 1 month or so.

Ah maths, you never lie.

It is now October, and I have got to kick this writing thing into high gear if I intend to complete this manuscript and have it edited to be readable in time for the deadline. The trouble is that October also happens to be the month where deadlines of every kind comes together to mess me up really bad – kind of like a rave party, I guess. Except it’s more like a train wreck, because none of the partying is involved. No involvement of drugs either.

Today, I have just finished a mid-term paper (which was surprisingly easy, thank God). As I write this, I have 2 scripts to complete before I sleep; and when I wake tomorrow, I have a presentation to do and yet another script to complete and send out before the evening. I’ll manage to get some sleep after that until Wednesday, when I will have 2 video recording sessions; and before I can crash, I must remind myself that there is still another video recording session that demands my attention on Thursday.

Before I even realize it, it will be Friday the 4th of October, the day that will determine whether I will get to go to Manchester or not. Please pray with me that I will be able to go over there, and pray even harder that I will get to win the prize.

And in between all these things, I will continue to find time for Johann and the shaping of her story. Wish me all the best, and double of that for Johann, because we’re both in for the ride of our lives.

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63: 3510 Hours

(I am currently mentally exhausted after a long day of writing, and physically exhausted after a Planetshakers concert held at my church after said long day of writing. More on the latter in tomorrow’s post, or maybe the day after’s. I created this blog to write, not to make promises. So there)

“You should at least finish your degree so you have something to fall back on.”

It’s a sentence I heard for the first time when I was 16 or 17, and at that time, it made perfect sense to me. Yeah, it’s good to have a backup plan – what if I suddenly find myself jobless and unable to pay the bills? It’s probably a good idea to get a business degree.

Today, at 22, I want to go back and slap myself twice in the face.

It’s a sentence that I have been hearing repeated with alarming frequency. Every other person is saying it, and earlier this evening, I heard these very words repeated to me. What does it even mean, anyway? To get a degree to “fall back on”? It implies that the degree forms the solid ground beneath my feet when I exit academia. It implies that without a degree, there is only an empty chasm greeting me when my castles in the air vaporize into steam.

Really? Is that what everyone believes in today?

This is my final semester in university. From the time I began this journey in May 2009, I have spent 12 hours of week in class, and probably another 3 hours or so on class-related activities, for 4 and a half years. That’s 234 weeks. 3510 hours. What have I got to show for it? If you ask today, I’d say that the 3510 hours could have been spent on more profitable ventures. 3510 hours could have made a much better writer than I am today. 3510 hours could have flown me halfway across the world to carve out a living for myself in an unknown land. 3510 hours could have made me a millionaire.

Yet I have spent most of that 3510 hours with my eyes glazed over and waiting for the next break, or for the class to end.

I don’t believe in getting a degree. I believe in getting knowledge. I believe in learning. I believe in coming alive so that I can become the best possible person that I can be. Say so, what is the use of getting a piece of paper that will only get you as far as the next entry-level position, where you will push paper all day long in a pigeonhole?

If all I wanted was a career, I wouldn’t want one that puts me in a sterile environment and makes me go through a mind-numbing routine day after day in exchange for money. If all I wanted was money, I wouldn’t be in university to begin with. I mean, have you seen the average pay for fresh graduates? No. What I want is to grow. To feel alive. To create. To make dreams come true. I would go and become a bar singer. A street-sweeper. A coffee brewer. A struggling writer.

But I will not be average.

62. Disaster

I have always thought that I was a pretty okay kind of singer. Like, I won’t be selling any albums, but my singing voice isn’t unbearable either. I mean, I sing for church – how bad can it be, right?

So yesterday night proved me wrong.

I had the opportunity to put a performance together with 3 others for a church (not my own) event, and all they asked was that we prepared 3 songs to sing for a 10-minute slot, and 1 more for an encore if they called for it. So we had rehearsed our parts, getting together to match voices and tones 3 times before the actual performance.

The last rehearsal ended on Thursday night at 10P.M., and it was revealed that the event organizers invited us to go over “anytime in the afternoon” to get our sound mix done. The event starts at 8.30P.M., so we agreed to go at 5P.M. It’s just a simple sound check to get the right mix – can’t take too long.

I guess that was where all the trouble began.

Because at 4.30P.M., I was still figuring out how to convert the video files into mp3 so that we could fit it into a flash drive. Then halfway to the church, I received a call telling me that the church did not have a USB port, so I had to turn back and get my laptop so that they could get the sound through my laptop’s audio output.

I eventually arrived on location at 5.30P.M., which was when I found out that the final member of our group was running late, and she showed up at approximately 6.30P.M. By that time, another group was running through their performance, so we had decided to be polite and let them finish. By the time it was our turn, it was about 7.15P.M., and so we thought that we’d do a quick run-through for the sound man.

We picked up our mics and sang.

And it was horrifying.

It was at this time when I recalled the words of Ms. Suwito, who had said concerning the art of singing together, “If you’re going to sing together with mics, practice with mics, because you’ll sound very different singing with and without them.” Our rehearsals so far had been done without any sort of audio equipments, and we had relied on natural acoustics in the shaping of our tones and voices.

But dear God, when our voices came through the sound system and out through the speakers, it sounded like the wails of demons echoing up from the pits of hell. It was too sharp, too bassy, too muffled, too loud, and too soft all at the same time. I don’t even know how it was possible to sound that bad – but that was how it turned out.

Also around this time, the event organizer came and requested that we keep the volume down, because there was a service going on in another part of the building, and the sound might interrupt the service. Running out of time and in desperate need to salvage a show, we had to quickly shuffle things around – if we’re going to sound bad, at least we don’t sound TOO bad.

A few other things happened after this, including awkward stares from the people on the floor, and a particularly nasty white-haired man. Details I’d rather not go into (because it would make my blood boil), but to put it in a few words: the actual performance was really no better than the disastrous run-through. The crowd (which mainly consisted of men and women in their 60s and 70s) just stared on at us, wondering whose idea it was to invite us over to perform, as we sang the best we could.

I won’t try and pinpoint what went wrong with the performance, because this will only lead to massive arguments and finger-pointing; but let me just say that it was one of the worst experiences I have ever had singing.

(the worst was when I was casually singing to a song that was playing, and a fan of the song told me to shut up because I was ruining the song for him. This happened twice within the span of 15 minutes, from the same person)

It was awkward as hell for the entire duration on stage, and I was really just glad to leave the place without having to talk to anyone after our segment was over. I really, honestly have never felt so crushed as a singer, to have to look upon the disapproving faces in the crowd, and even some smirking ones.

We had driven to a nearby mamak to have a drink to chill after hastily leaving the premises, but when I had parked my car, I found that I couldn’t find the willpower in me to step outside of the vehicle. I just needed some time to hide in the shadows and just be alone for a little while. I just couldn’t face the outside world at that moment. Just couldn’t.

It is said that we learn much more through our failures than our successes, so I guess a diplomatic way of concluding the matter is to say that it has been a great learning experience. Except that nothing about the experience felt great, and the last thing on my mind was to learn from it. What I want is for it to be erased from history, for the performance to have never happened. For the invitation to have never reached me, to begin with.

One day I will look upon this event again with clearer vision, through the lens of retrospection – but all I can right now is that I will never want to have an experience like that ever again.

61. Kopitiam

The world has moved on.

The sound of the silence being broken by the clatter of ceramic cups being set upon cream-colored saucers and the occasional flipping of the newspaper page had long been replaced by the sounds of automobile engines whirring, buses blaring their horns, and the sounds of pedestrians – walking, talking, shouting – outside the kopitiam.

The world has gone mad, that’s more like it, Lim thought.

The third successor of the family business closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. Maybe this time when he opened his eyes, the noise would be gone and the world would set itself in order.

He expelled his breath and opened his eyes, and saw that nothing has changed.

“Boss! Another coffee!” called the elderly man seated in front of the table fan. He was probably seventy, old enough to have all the time in the world, but not old enough to have his children spend the time with him. The old man had come here every morning almost religiously – first as a greying businessman starting off his day, then as a fresh retiree looking to catch up with old friends, and now nothing more than a relic of the past: full of memories and experiences, but of no practical use to the busy, busy world out there.

Lim turned to his son, who had been seated by the wall, engrossed in his mobile phone.

“Son, get the man another coffee,” he said.

The young man glanced up at him with disinterested eyes, then lazily – reluctantly – got off his chair and went into the back room. Things hadn’t been the same ever since Lim rejected his idea to go to university. “Everything you need is here,” Lim had told (or scolded? He couldn’t remember) his son, “A job, a steady income, a future. Why waste our money on things we don’t need?”

The Lim family had owned this lot for almost a hundred years. Before there had been television or air-conditioners or buildings that reached up into the sky, this building and the land it stood on had been their family’s property. From time to time, some well-dressed man would come in and try to talk Lim into selling the place over to some big corporation, but he had turned down every one of them. The money they offered could feed him, his children, and even his children’s children; but to own the shop meant that they could feed the family for a hundred generations more. Where were they to go, without the kopitiam? What were they supposed to do?

His son emerged from the back room with the elderly man’s coffee in hand. As the coffee was set upon the old wooden table, Lim thought he caught sadness in the young man’s eyes. No, not sadness – despair.

“What are we to do without the kopitiam?” his son had said (or shouted), incredulous, “Move on! Find something else to do! Anything that isn’t sitting in a dingy old coffee shop doing the same thing day after day, month after month, year after year! There’s enough money there to let us do whatever we want, and you’re happy to continue doing what you’ve been doing all your life?”

Move on. After a pause, the young man said, “The world is changing, pa. We cannot continue living like it’s the 60s.”

Lim’s reverie was broken when his son dropped the coins for the coffee into the copper tin, and then went back to his seat by the wall to resume his activities on his mobile phone.

It was quiet inside the kopitiam as the world raged on around it. Lim pulled open a drawer and saw the letter inside, exactly how he had left it for more than a week now. It was a lot of money, he thought. More zeroes than he had ever seen, or will ever see in his life.

“Son,” he called, and the young man looked up with a weariness in his eyes that had come fifty years too early, “Come here.”

He got up from his chair and dragged his feet over to where his father sat. Lim took one last look at the letter before closing the drawer.

The world has moved on.

Perhaps it was time for him to move on as well.

60. Likeable Protagonists

At about 11.30A.M. today, I found myself at the Maxis Center in Sunway Pyramid waiting for my number to be called so that I could pay for my bills.

(as it turns out, I’ve accumulated RM133 in phone charges in the month of August alone. RM133! How in hell did I manage to use that much of credit?)

The man at the counter, while handing me my ticket with the number printed on it, said to me, “You may have to wait for a little bit.”

I looked up at the number on the electronic display, which was 1010, and then down at the number given to me, which was 1011. “A while”, sure. I think I have the patience to wait for 1 number.

And then I ended up waiting for 30 minutes before my number was finally called.

Within the 30 minutes of waiting, I had the opportunity to read an article that was shared on twitter by the NaNoWriMo folks, which had two authors discussing (in separate sections) likeable protagonists. Mr. Hamid, one of the authors, basically said that there is no reason why protagonists MUST be likeable, citing Humbert Humbert, the unstable, pedophile protagonist of Lolita as an example of one such protagonist.

His writeup was followed immediately by Ms. Heller’s thoughts, where she showed the not-quite flip side of the coin, talking about how people (especially those into “serious” literature) tend to criticize people who, well, liked likeable protagonists. It seems that such people assume that if you need a likeable protagonist to draw people into your story, you don’t really have a good story going on – which she thought of as “faux-highbrow nonsense”.

I knew that I just had to make a blog post concerning my thoughts.

I’m not so sure about the universal standard of protagonist likeability, but for me, it is crucial that I, as the reader, like the protagonist, and even more so if I’m the writer.

This is not to say that I detest villain protagonists or mentally unstable ones – no, far from that. I think that a character’s nobility of virtue or heroic nature has little to do with their likeability. If you asked me to define what exactly is a likeable character, I’d tell you that it’s a character that you care about.

Xander Bennett, in his book about screenwriting, talks about the story as a game between the writer and the reader, where the writer has to work his hardest to make the reader give a damn about the story. The same applies to characters, I think – if the reader has stopped giving a damn about your character, you have pretty much failed at the writing of the character.

Note that “giving a damn” doesn’t equate to “having affection for”. Those of you who are watching Game of Thrones want King Joffrey to die a slow, horrible death – that’s giving a damn. Those of you who have been left hanging at the end of Sherlock (BBC)’s 2nd season want to know HOW IN HELL DID SHERLOCK DO THAT? – that’s giving a damn. And of course, to give a more conventional example of a likeable character, those of you who have seen Wreck-It Ralph wanted Ralph to get his gold medal – that’s giving a damn.

I have come across many a character whom I tried giving a damn about, but failed to midway through the story. One of them is Emperor Jagang from Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth series – when is that bastard going to finally die? The length of the story gave me reader’s lethargy, and I’ve stopped reading the books midway through The Pillars of Creation.

Another character whom I’ve stopped giving a damn about is Connor Kenway from Assassin’s Creed 3. The brutal, inelegant combat mechanics of the game aside, I actually found Connor’s stubborn naivety repulsive. You know there are some serious troubles with your video game protagonist when I’m screaming at the screen, “THE TEMPLAR HAS A POINT!”

But that’s my point of view – someone else might find Connor Kenway charming, and Emperor Jagang an interesting foe for the New World. The point is, though, when you write your character, make sure that somewhere out there, there’s someone who would give a damn about him or her.

The bottom line is: I need to care about the characters in the story for me to keep reading. I need to care about what happens to the protagonist if you want me to keep turning the pages.

So if you’d ask me if I think it is important for a protagonist to be likeable, to that I say yes, yes, and yes.

59. Cancerous Writing

I may have to cut out about 1,700 words from the story I’m working on for the Scholastic Asian Book Awards.

Actually, I already know that I will have to cut it out. It will be the most painful thing I’ve done, but it will be necessary for the story to progress.

All sorts of writers have all sorts of clever analogies, illustrations, and metaphors for the process of writing. Just yesterday, I heard of the process of writing being like the building of a house: the first thing you need is a killer concept, but after that, it’s hard work and perseverance until you get to see the finished product. Stephen King’s personal take on writing is that it’s like making salami – he just hacks away at it and something comes out in the end. But he tries to make good salami.

So I’m here to add another citizen to the already-overpopulated land of writing analogies.

You see, writing is like the organic growth of a body. It starts off with one cell – one idea – and that one carries the potential for a fully formed, fully functional being that is capable of working wonders. It always starts with one. As the cell, or the idea, grows from one to two, two to four, four to eight (and you can do the rest of the exponentiation on your own), sometimes something creeps in. Something that looks like a cell, but doesn’t do what a cell does. Something that looks like an idea to break forth into more ideas, but in the end causes grievous harm to your writing.

I call these little demons cancerous ideas.

They look good at first. Somewhere along the writing of Act 2, as you’re in the zone, creating content after content, suddenly something shows up that doesn’t quite look like the rest. An extra idea pops up that didn’t exist in the outline. But at this point, you’re pretty tired of tasting only one flavor of writing, and this interesting difference is a welcome change of pace, and so you pursue it. I mean, you’ve made it this far and you’re doing great – how bad can it be, right?

Very, very bad.

Because the moment you begin feeding the cancerous idea, it grows and multiplies like the other healthy ideas, and it grows into cancerous writing. Then into a cancerous plot. When you realize how badly it’s harming your story, it’s already too late – it has eaten into the main storyline, fusing into it like some ugly, festering parasite on the trunk of a growing tree, killing it slowly from the inside. But what is there to do? You have come this far, you may as well finish it, cancerous or not.

But you will come to realize that all these cancerous writing do not beget good ideas, or good writing of any sort. Your story, which had started off so beautifully and had made it into its adolescent phase full of energy, is now this mutated disease-ridden thing that looks like something that had walked right out of Chernobyl, dripping radioactive goo where it steps and poisoning the air itself with every chill-inducing groan.

The only thing you can do is to shoot it in the head, bury it, and pray for no one ever has the misfortune of ever seeing its ugly face again.

Which is precisely why it is so important to recognize cancerous ideas, or cancerous writing early on in the writing process, especially if you’re going for a long-runner (starting from novella length). I should have seen this coming a week ago, but I hadn’t – and it’s time for surgery, however painful, before it gets any worse.

Be careful when you begin your descent down the rabbit hole. You may not be able to find your way out.

58. Copywriting: The Good, The Bad, and The Really Embarrassing

No “real” post today, just going to share some stuff that I’ve written yesterday and today. One is a copy for a church event, and the other is a candidate for “worst copywriting blunders in history”.

I received the request for a short copy (1 sentence) for the church event about last Saturday. Being me, I thought I’d let the thought marinade for a little bit, and the next thing I knew, it was already Tuesday. So after a class test (which did not turn out as well as it could have due to a number of factors, which all can be traced back to the main cause, which was my dad taking my car to Malacca at 5A.M.), I found myself at McDonalds in Kota Damansara having lunch, and there was still some time to spare before I had to go over to church for the content creation training scheduled at 3P.M.

It was a good time as any to get actual work done, so I had written this. Being me again, I demonstrated a complete and total inability to follow basic instructions, and had come up with an epic copy instead of the requested 1 sentence (which was specified to be no more than 10 words long).

For The Takeover 2013 (a youth/young adults church event):

All your life you’ve been waiting. Learning. Getting ready for that one day when the ball would be passed to your court, and it’d be up to you to make the game-changing difference. All your life you’ve told yourself, “soon”. Not today, “soon”. Not tomorrow, “soon”.

To-morrow, to-morrow, and to-morrow. Life is far too short to be spent waiting. For that one event. For that one chance. The rest of your life begins today. It begins now. Now is the moment you’ve been preparing for. It’s time to step out into the arena. Time to show them what you’ve got.

The world is watching. Ready or not – it’s our turn now.

I found out about 15 minutes ago that these words do not translate too well into video format. Guess there’s always more things to figure out. I told the publicity team to just pick whichever line they liked from the wall of text I gave them (more choices is better for them, right?), but they’re not having any of that.

Except for the event organizer himself, who thinks it’s bleeding genius. Who am I to say otherwise?

YESTERDAY

I was writing a copy for a milk brand’s print ad, and I thought that I’ll write something that identifies with its audience (women professionals aged 25-45). And so I had come up with a headline which I thought fit the bill. After I had written it, I sensed that something was wrong with the copy, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I stared at it for about 5 seconds before I realized exactly what was wrong with the words that I had written. The headline read:

“Healthy, simple, and easy – just like you.”

IT WAS AN HONEST MISTAKE. I SWEAR.