365. Where The Road Ends

The last day of the year is a hell of a good day to wrap up your 365 project.

(I really took 519 days to get here; but give me a break, alright. It’s hard work cranking that many words out)

365 days. 500 words a day. That’s 182,500 words – probably the length of American Gods. Considering how some of the posts were much, much longer than the 500 minimum I placed on myself, I’d go out on a limb and say that the real number of words uploaded onto this space to be in the range of 200,000 – 220,000.


The last day of the year is also a hell of a good time to take a good, hard look back on the road and consider…

Consider what?

Consider the number of days that have passed? Or how, when I was slugging through the middle, I thought this damn thing was going to go on forever? Consider the milestones I’ve marked along the way? The successes – the disappointments – the days on which absolutely nothing of note happened?

Stuff happened. Yeah, I think that’s a good summary.

Over the last 519 days of this 365 project, stuff happened.

And I continued writing.

I think one of the important things I’ve come to realize is the need for patience. You know what I’m saying? I’m not going to go on one of those “In the age of instant things, we all want things yesterday” rants. But that’s what I learned: patience, indeed, is a virtue.

Whether it’s dressing a short story up or completing a 40,000 word novel (that’s Johann’s Fantastic Adventures Through TIme, which I am still working on, if you’d like to know), I have found that it’s almost always a bad idea to be overeager. Impatient. To be caught in the excitement of the moment, mistaking the heat for the spark of brilliance, and end up showing the world something half-baked. And it’s slowly deflating as the initial excitement escapes from it in hisses.

Impatience is what the older generation always fault the younger with, right? I’m reflecting upon my very first posts to this space, and I’m thinking of Past-Me… What an impatient little prick. Always rushing from one thing to the next.

I actually feel older now, 519 days later.

A little bit older. A little wiser. A little bit more patient with the world.

In many ways, I believe I have also matured with my writing. I have read more, experienced more… Learning to deal with disappointments and handling people. I’m definitely a lot better with rejection now that I was in July 2013. And yet, as a certain wizard in a tall grey hat would say… The road goes ever on and on.

I’m still young. 23 today. 24 tomorrow. Just beginning to scrape at a quarter of a century old. Even if I suddenly age 6 years, I will still be at the ripe young age of 30 – a good ripe age to begin doing something with me life. So I think I’m still good. 23 going on 24.

I have time.

I can wait.


354. Dealing With Disappointment

What do you do when you find out your story submission – that you have spent hours lovingly writing, editing, rewriting – is “not right” for the editors?

You disappear from your 365-day project and take a week off to wallow in self-pity, that’s what.

I don’t think I’m a person who takes disappointments well. It’s probably why I don’t think I’ll make a good parent. When disappointments strike and the sinking, bitter feeling bites in deep inside my guts, my immediate reaction is to lash out at whoever is available and willing to take my shit. I’m just lucky enough to have a precious few people in my life who are willing to take my shit.

(but not literally. Even I am afraid of my own shit. But diarrhea stories have their places to go, and it’s not here)

I’m not sure if it’s just TV, but it sounds like people generally turn to food when they’re disappointed/sad. Just begin to load that ice-cream, right? But that’s not me.

See, in my family, food is love. Food is life. You don’t put food and negative things together, because that’s not how things work in this house. Food is for celebrations, for happy things. It’s why, when I get particularly good results on an exam, I allow myself to splurge a little on a really nice, greasy burger or a chicken chop somewhere. When it comes to important celebrations, steaks are usually involved. It has already been hardwired into my head.

I read somewhere, though, that a craving for food is a natural reaction to negative emotions. Which makes sense – we feel good when our hungers are satiated. It’s just classical conditioning at work. But what happens when, like me, you just can’t bring food into the equation of feeling better?

You do all sorts of stupid things.

(it’s just part of the human condition)

When I received the news that my steampunk story didn’t make the cut for the anthology, I was at work. And a bad day at work, at that. The news, like a OHKO to my self-esteem, just crumbled whatever fight I had left to face the day. When I was grilled for not checking a copy right, I just took it. When the scoldings began, I just took it in, lumping it together with my general sense of disappointment, making this giant metaphorical lump of bad things.

Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show.

I suppose it was a good thing that I was at work. At least I had mundane things to do that kept my mind half-busy, or I would have sank into my bed and stayed there for the next 3 days. Being forced to swallow it in gave me time to get some perspective on getting rejected as well.

It was in this difficult time that the words of Mr. King (may he live ten thousand years) came to me:

…And if you’re not succeeding, you should know when to quit. When is that? I don’t know. It’s different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, nor after sixty.

I figured that as long as I have not hit sixty rejections, I’m still good to go.

What I’ve found is that the first 24 hours or so is the worst – I’m talking about soul-crushing, future-obliterating bitterness. Here’s some advice from one disappointed soul to the next, if it pleases you: don’t do anything stupid. Go have ice-cream. Steak, if you want to. Wallow in self-pity. Cry. But don’t, like I did, take it out on people close to you – if they’re still sticking around even as you’re radiating toxic energy into the air, you’ll want to keep them around.

After 24 hours, you’ll still feel bad, but it’ll be only half as bad as you felt the day before. More or less, you’ll see. In this time, take it easy. Do something fun. Watch TV. Play Skyrim. Dance naked in your room to bad rap music.

When your head is settled after the 72nd hour, chances are that you’ll see it’s not so bad. And with a more-or-less clear head, now you’re in a better place to make decisions concerning the future.

Myself, I’m sweeping off the dust that had settled on Johann’s Fantastic Adventures Through Time, and I’m paying an old friend a visit. Who knows? We might even find new things together along the way.

Wish me luck.

336. Today, The Kitchen; Tomorrow, The World!

I successfully made mashed potatoes today, and ate it all for lunch without suffering any noticeable side effects. I daresay I have this cooking thing pretty much nailed.

Remember that time a few months ago when I said I should learn how to cook? Well. I did. And it wasn’t because I put my mind to it, focused my efforts, and worked towards my goal. No.

I was just desperate.

See, when I stopped working at the end of March, the money also stopped flowing in. But that’s alright – I have a couple of freelance projects, I still have some stuff left in savings; it won’t be too long until I find work to do, right?

Except no. Work (that I’d like to do) turned out to be the hardest thing to find. And by the time May rolled around, I realized that I will be out of money in the middle of June, if I keep up my spending habits. What is there to do? To have a decent meal outside costs at least RM10 (that’s about $3.50), and going out means consuming petrol, and might even mean paying tolls. The only solution was to be at home.

And cook.

I started with the basics: I could light a fire and make toast on the skillet. Then with the help of a friend, I also learned how to make scrambled eggs (which makes for a pretty good snack). Sausages and various hams were provided to me, and they weren’t too difficult to cook: just toss them onto the skillet with a little bit of oil and I’m set, as long as I don’t leave it there and wander off.

(God knows I do)

But mashed potatoes, man. I tried making it earlier this year, for my church’s Easter picnic. But before that story is told, we must go back to an earlier story: one that begins in December last year.

Last December, for a Christmas party, I promised I’ll make potato salad. I got all the right ingredients together: potato, boiled and peeled; eggs, hard boiled and diced; mayo, a whole tub of it; and enough coarse salt and ground pepper. I mixed it all together, and for reasons unfathomable, it turned into mashed potato. The several of us gathered looked at the mashed potato apprehensively before trying it with a little bit of the turkey gravy.

And good lord, it was the most glorious thing ever.

I figured that if I could accidentally make mashed potato, how difficult could it be to make it intentionally? I put the ingredients out, attempting to recreate the happy little mistake I made last Christmas. Except what came out didn’t even resemble potato.

“What is this thing?” somebody asked at the picnic.

Putting my last-minute copywriting skills to work, I told him, “Potato and egg medley.”

He seemed to buy it.

But this morning – this day of all days – I managed to create proper mashed potato. And the secret ingredient, I’ve discovered, is not eggs. Or mayo. Or any of those things.

It’s just butter, plain and unsalted.

I have never felt more accomplished.

329. Deadlines, Datelines, Dead Lines, Date Lines

At the time of writing, I have completed 5 of 7 submissions. Out of the 2, I only have time to develop 1, and that’s if and only if sudden inspiration strikes.

(where’s the bus?)

While the mystical public bus of inspiration does not show up, I still have pressing matters at hand: a 5,000-word report that needs to be submitted tomorrow. Out of the 5,000 words, I have written… Oh, 2,000. Not too shabby. But remember: due tomorrow.

As much as I’d like to adopt a first-in-first-out system for dealing with deadlines, human nature dictates that I put everything off until the last minute, and then binge-complete all the things that I have to do within the last 3 days in a panicked frenzy. It has happened before, it will happen again.

There’s just no helping it.

A dateline is what you’d see at the beginning of a news report, or an article. It’s the time stamp that tells you when the essay was published. In my case, if by some miracle my lecturer decides that my work is somehow publication-worthy, everyone would be able to see that there were only 2 days between the date of writing and the research dateline.

It’s not a very pretty thing to show, but I can only give what I have.

1 out of the 2 submissions that I’m not likely to complete is called “Mary Marcel’s Magic Mirror”, a tale about a woman… and her magic mirror. It doesn’t get any more creative than that.

These are the days when I wonder if I should just pack and pursue my childhood dream of being an accountant in a bank.

There are about 3,300 written words so far, and I honestly have no idea where the story is heading. I only wish I could be like Mr. Gaiman, who takes his sweet time with every story – some even taking years to complete – but I am only mortal. So the pages are filled with lines and lines of dead words, which pretty much adds up to paragraphs and paragraphs of dead lines. Lines that stay as pretty words strung together, never quite having the energy, or life, to leap up from the page and into the reader’s mind.

I try not to write dead lines. A doctor also tries not to kill his patients. We will both fail.

The international date line is the line that runs from the North Pole to the South pole along the latitude line, and is found between the United States and Russia. This is useful for a number of reasons:

  1. It tells us exactly where does a new day begin, which happened to be Phileas Fogg’s saving grace in “Around The World In Eighty Days”.
  2. It tells us where to split the globe for a 2D representation of the world map, establishing our notions of what is “East” and what is “West”.
  3. It helps the United States stay as far away as they possibly can from Russia. Only virtually, but as they would have you believe it, it’s the thought that counts.

Get it right.

317. Music Theory

Circle of fourths. Circle of fifths. Flats. Majors. Major chords. Minor chords. Augmented Chords. Diminished chords. Roman numerals. Scales. Tones. Semitones.

I’m hardly there, but I’m getting there.

After many years of fooling around with music, I thought that it was a good time to get serious and start thinking about our future together.

I’m not like my elder sister. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that she’s a demigod who inherited all the godlike powers, leaving me with crumbs. She started learning how to play the piano when she was 4, and I swear that when she plays the piano, it’s like she grows extra fingers.

To put it simply: she’s Michaelangelo, and I just chipped a vaguely square-ish block of marble out. And it’s falling apart in my hands.

On account of my elder sister being the maestro of the family, I pretty much resigned to the fact that I’ll never be the best musician in this house. It’s probably a good thing, or I might not have ventured into writing. But still, it’s hard to resist the allure of being able to speak the language of the soul.

I sort of learned some piano tricks via visual osmosis when watching my elder sister play, and I had a couple of good friends who were willing to teach me a couple of things on the guitar. But these things were mostly just for my own enjoyment. I would not, no matter how drunk, think that I am anywhere near good enough to perform before an audience, much less charge them for it.

But then a couple of weeks ago, a musician friend of mine – a real hardcore, gig-playing, wedding-singing, piano-playing, guitar-strumming, drums-crashing, bass-thumping sort of fellow – announced that he would be having a little class of sorts for us church musicians, where he will be teaching music theory.

Why, I thought it was as good a time as any to learn some basic vocabulary.

Yesterday was the second class out of four, and we talked a little bit about the construction of chords and how to translate from one key to the next. If there’s anything surprising so far, it’ll be that I’ve never expected music to be so mathematical. I’m practically doing rapid calculations in my head to figure out the 1-3-5 of different scales and going up and down semitones, all the while visualizing the black-and-white keys in my head. I’m beginning to learn that music is not so much the language as it is the arithmetic of the soul.

But in the end, it’s all interlinked, isn’t it? Music. Maths. Words. Our songs and equations and novels are, in the end, part of our never ending quest to make sense of this strange world that we live in. I’d like to think that at the end of all things, the world does not fall into oblivion: back into the darkness before creation. No.

I’d like to think that the world comes into completion. When the last equation is solved and the last note is sung and the last word is written. I’d like to think that, like the hands on the clock returning to twelve at midnight, it is hardly the end.

It is only the beginning again.

310. PSA: Pseudointellectuality

Fact: adding -ism to the back of any word automatically makes it sound bad. Follow it up with any flavor of “is negatively affecting our community, and is something we must look into” will immediately turn readers/listeners to become antagonistic towards it.

“This culture of digitalism is ruining our youths, and is something that we must pay serious attention to.”

Pseudointellectuality. It’s the longest word I can type that I can still immediately understand. It is also, in all likelihood, a word I just made up on the spot.

(a quick Google search tells me that there is such a word as “pseudointellectual”, and a word as “intellectuality”. Take that, spellcheck!)

When a friend of my dad, many years ago, introduced a “quantum shield” over breakfast, I thought that it was dodgy at best. Full of passion, he talked about how our everyday electronics – from our mobile phones to our TV sets – all emit cancer-causing radiation that will kill us in our sleep. But thanks to the miracle of technology that is the quantum shield, we can be safe from these dangers, because the quantum shield will soak up/block (depending on who is explaining) the radiation, making it totally safe for us to use.

Let’s first get this out of the way: quantum science does not work that way.

(also, radiation shielding does not work that way. Pro tip: whenever someone begins to talk about the applications of quantum science in everyday life, it is safe 99.9% of the time to completely ignore them)

We live in the information age. Which is to say, the more information-savvy you are, the better off you’re going to be. It also means that, more than ever, we’re going to have some very convincing conmen running about.

The trouble with most of us is this: the moment something gets too complex, our brain automatically shuts off. Whether it’s a researcher who had put in serious work and hours into his study, or a con artist spouting technobabble, our brains are conditioned to shut off and shelve away the noise as “science stuff”. And this is a bad thing, because now we can’t tell the difference between intellectuality and pseudointellectuality.

(I realize that writing such long words to explain big concepts to the common man is a counterintuitive exercise. For future reference: “pseudo” means “fake but convincing”)

Listen. This is important: Get Educated.

Don’t look up stuff on Wikipedia unless you’re already adept at mental acrobatics and navigating compound sentences. Get the smartest person to explain science stuff to you in the simplest way they know how. Find out what is a “credible source”. Buy them lunch for their troubles. Learn how to ask incisive questions. Know when to call bullshit. Don’t buy anything from anyone who doesn’t understand the science behind the product, or cannot explain it to you simply. In this way, you won’t eliminate, but you will at least minimize the chances of you getting duped.

There are many pseudointellectuals out there. Some of them don’t know half as much as they think they know. Some of them are fully aware of their own nonsense, but will not hesitate to bust out their technical vocabulary if it means squeezing some dollars out of you. Be on your guard, I say. The smarter you make yourself, the better equipped you will be to survive the information age.

And when someone tries to sell you a quantum shield that blocks/soaks up radiation, do me a favor and punch them in the face.

267. Disappointment

The shortlist for the 2014 Scholastic Asian Book Awards had been announced a couple of hours ago.

Johann’s Fantastic Adventures Through Time did not make the list.

But you would’ve guessed that. Otherwise, this post would be titled very differently, wouldn’t it? We’re smart people. We know how to make educated guesses based on past experience and the limited knowledge that we have. When every person’s intelligence and focus can only go so far, it’s really a wonder how far we have come as a species.

We’re smart people. We know whether the odds are in or against our favor. When I was hacking away at the words and scenes for the story, putting in the hours and the concentration to make it work, I thought that my chances were pretty good. I thought that the sentences flowed well, that the story was solid, that it was overall a good piece of writing. I thought that the odds were in my favor – I might be bestowed the honor of winning the award, but I might at least have a shot at the shortlist, right?

But I guessed wrong.

It’s part of life, you see, this business of making mistakes and being wrong. Sometimes, you get it right, and it’s all fine and well. But most of the time – the times you wish the world would just crumble and disappear away – you get it wrong. Most of the time, things don’t turn out the way you want it to, and you begin to wonder what gave you the audacity to hope for so much.

It’s one of them moments. I’m wondering what made me think I stood a chance against the great writers of Asia, when I’m not even a contender in the local scene. But that’s foolish thinking. I’m not sure why it’s foolish, but I’m sure it is. There’s a gap of information there just waiting to be filled, but maybe another day.

So yes, disappointment. I know its bitter taste. I’m familiar with the dull pang deep in the center of my chest. I felt it in 2008, when I flipped open the school magazine’s pages and didn’t find my story inside. I felt it in 2012, when my script wasn’t selected for the Short + Sweet Festival in Kuala Lumpur. I felt it last year, in 2013, when my short story didn’t make it into the Manchester Fiction Prize’s shortlist. Eh, I felt it earlier this year, when not one, but 2 of my stories didn’t make the cut into 2 different anthologies.

Mr. King, ever a source of good writing advice, told of his first rejection experience: he wrote the rejection down on a piece of paper, hammered a nail into the wall, and stuck the paper onto the nail. He did this for all his subsequent rejections. By the time the rejections were so heavy they took the nail right off the wall, he was already making good headway as a professional writer.

See, I don’t think disappointment should ever be a reason to stop hoping. There are some who would believe that. They’ll tell you that when you expect nothing, you don’t get disappointed with anything. But I think that’s a terrible way to live: what is there left when you have nothing to hope for? Disappointment is a byproduct of it. It puts a real dampener on your mood, yes, but I think I’d rather continue on hoping.

If you’re going to get disappointed 9 out of 10 times, let me tell you this: when that one time comes that your hope actually pays off, you’ll realize that the 9 disappointments were really just potholes along the way. No one, I think, have ever reached the finishing line of the marathon and told themselves that the last 42 kilometers wasn’t worth the triumph. In fact, they’ll tell you that pride comes from overcoming the obstacles. We love the light because we know the darkness. We rejoice in victory because we know the taste of disappointment.

What I do have now is a 42,500-word manuscript just waiting to be polished up, and I think it’s plenty good for a manuscript submission somewhere else. Maybe not Scholastic Asia – they’ve already made up their mind. But so many people out there – I’m sure someone would appreciate it.

As for myself, nothing I can do but keep writing.