356. The Sheer Dumb Joy Of It

Today, on the way to work, while stuck in a jam that had inexplicably materialized on the other side of the LDP toll, I thought of what I’d say to aspiring writers when the time comes and I find a microphone pointed at my face:

Start writing your stories. Finish writing your stories.

It’s classy advice that I like to think of as words Mr. Gaiman never said. Or have not said yet.

I’m not sure about you – whether you’re the same type of writer I am, whether you’re a different sort of writer, a reader, or none of the above at all. For me, I struggled with two things: starting and finishing my stories.

When I was 16 and just starting to write, I had troubles starting. Not that I found it mentally or physically taxing, but I was simply overcome by a fear of inadequacy: I’m just a newbie writer, and this idea that I have is gold. Pure gold. I’m not nearly good enough a writer to take this on. I should keep it away until I get good enough to write it.

Some of those stories are still locked away in a notebook after 7 years.

When I evolved out of flash fiction and moved into the realm of short stories, novellas, and full-length novels, however, I found myself faced with the problem of finishing.

(I hope it doesn’t become a problem when I get married)

Put one word after the other, Mr. Gaiman advises, until the story is finished. It’s simple enough instructions. But being the easily distracted person I am, I usually get carried away by another shiny new idea before the first one full materializes. It’s a problem that has plagued nearly all my longer projects to date. A Song For The Rain still sits at the 30,000-word mark even though I have known, since about 3 months ago, what should happen next.

I have time, I reason. There’s no hurry.

When I was 16, I was concerned with writing the important stories. The big stories. The earth-shaking stories. Now that I’m 23, I’m concerned with writing the stories that gets into magazines. That brings in the check. That puts my name on the map.

Then there’s that self-aware part of me (that I suspect comes from the future – Future-Me, if you will) that is shaking his head at the two of us, Present-Me and Past-Me. You can’t write to change the world, he says. You can’t write to get rich, or get famous. The only thing you can write for is the sheer dumb joy of it.

More and more I’m realizing that this is true.

Despite the rejections, the disappointments, the lack of critical acclaim, the lack of dough rolling in by the sheer force of literary merit, I’m still writing. Starting more stories than I care to finish. Putting one word after another. I wonder why sometimes. It’s like a compulsion, as subconscious and as sensible it is to scratch an itch.

More and more I’m realizing that after all the reasons I give to people about why I write, only one holds up against the test of time and failure: I write because I like writing stories. And I don’t think there’s anything in the world that I’d rather be doing.

I’m not sure if you’re the same kind of writer that I am, or if you’re a writer at all. Maybe you’re just rolling in green because of the words you sell. Maybe your walls are decorated with medals and trophies and newspaper clippings singing praises for your works. But if you’re like me – just starting out, hopeful, a little jaded, but still young and full of energy, I only have two advice to offer:

Start writing your stories. Finish writing your stories.

And let whatever else is supposed to happen, happen.


348. Writing Badly

I plopped my ass on this chair some 3 hours ago. In that time, I’ve added a total of 600 words to the story I’m working on, so on average, I’m producing 200 words per hour. Or 1 word every 3 minutes.

It has been a slow night.

With the deadline coming up in a little more than 10 days, I’m only human to grow nervous with each day that ends without the story being completed. But for some reason unfathomable, the story seems to have stopped dead in its tracks like a stubborn dog since last Tuesday, refusing to move forward to matter how much or from which direction I prod at it.

It is in these dire times that I remind myself to Dare to Write Badly. Just put one word in front of the previous one until the story is done. You can always come back and edit it later, once you have the full picture. Just put one word after another until the story is done.

But God, it is painful to write badly.

I retire to sleep now after a horridly unproductive night in front of my laptop. I think the past few days of playing DotA has dulled my brain some. Hopefully, when I arrive home from work tomorrow, I’ll be able to begin writing, and keep writing, whether well or badly.

Goodnight, all.

343. Transcending Genre

A while ago, I asked the local literati gathered in the NaNoWriMo Malaysia group: what separates the writers who are simply “good” or “talented” and elevates them into the “great” territory? What is the mark of distinction of a great writer, rather than just an amateur, or average one? What makes writing, in short, good?

There were a number of responses. But I’d like to immortalize the opinions of the esteemed Calvin Wong here (with his brother Marvin’s comments added in. Neither one of them knows that I’m writing a blog post based on this):

Consistent, disciplined, accepting of his/her own failings, ability to put aside ego, well-read, sensitive, observant, have a wide understand of many subjects of study, a strong sense of love & compassion. And Strong understanding of field/medium.

Talk about a detailed answer.

It’s a question that I have been wrestling with since the beginning of the year. Beyond a basic knowledge of grammar, syntax, and sentence structure that allows one to create readable sentences – what are the things that makes a story good? Is it voice? Imagination? Density? Exploration of theme? What?

These days, I think an essential part of good writing is in the transcendence of genre.

We’re very comfortable with genre. We know pretty much what to expect from a Western: power struggles, intense gun moments, tough-talking cowboys; we know our Romance: personality clashes, learning to see one’s own flaws, learning to see another in a new light; and oh, do we know our Disney: lots of nice songs.

(most of the time, anyway)

We expect it of these movies. We expect an action-thriller to be, well, thrilling. With action. We expect mind screws from our psychological dramas. We expect an examination of the human condition and the ties that holds us all together in indie drama flicks. When we see a superhero movie, we know that things are going to get smashed on an epic scale.

But not always.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along and blows everything we know out of the water. It’s everything we expect of it… and some more. The Dark Knight, while an excellent superhero action-thriller, also explores a Jodi Picoult-esque moral dilemma. Minority report is a high-octane thriller with themes of predestination running through it, but also a subtle jab at the innate selfishness in all of us. Les Misérables (the novel) is a heartwarming tale of redemption and the struggle of grace versus the law… Also a sappy love story, social commentary, a treatise on early 19th century argot within the French underworld, and (the musical) a pretty kickass musical.

After many thousands of years, the power of a great story is still found in the same thing: in its capacity to surprise. To give its audience a little more than what they expect. To transcend beyond the boundaries that people might set up around it, beyond the box that people try to fit it in.

In a word, I think we can call this phenomenon of a story transcending genre as the “breadth” of the story: the grounds it explores, that sometimes go beyond traditional boundaries.

(but that will be for another post – me discussing the length, breadth, and depth of story)

So by all means, if you would write a Film Noir, a Buddy Cop movie, a B-grade SF flick, or a disaster movie, hold nothing back: dish out all the punches you have. Exhaust the list of tropes familiar to the genre. And then, just when your audience and your critics think you’re done, hit them with something straight out of left field.

They’ll never see it coming.

335. Encouragement For A Writer

The first page-turner I’ve read, I think, was Contest by Matthew Reilly.

I saw my friend reading it in class one day when I was 15. The cover featured a Library of Congress-esque building being blown apart by what looked like a giant frickin’ laser from space.

Who can resist?

Over the years, Mr. Reilly has been a constant source of breathtaking entertainment and provider of really good quotes, when they do crop up. In Scarecrow, he quotes John Dryden saying, “Beware the fury of a patient man” – a line I take to heart whenever I deal with people. The truest and most profound thing he has ever put onto paper, though, isn’t found in any of the written texts.

It’s found at the back of his books, in the Q&A section. Mr. Reilly says:

To anyone who knows a writer, never underestimate the power of your encouragement.

Let’s face it: writers are neurotic. I’m neurotic, and if you’re a writer, you’re probably neurotic too. We all dance along the edge that separates sanity and madness, peeking over one side so that we can reenact the grotesque view to those whose minds are not quite equipped to deal with chaos.

Some of us fall over the wrong side and find genius waiting. Mr. Moore of Watchmen fame, for example.

We’re all manic and depressive and prone to bouts of extreme obsession. And all for what? So that people would read our stories and be entertained, amazed, disgusted, inspired – so that people would feel something. But God knows that half the people we know are not half as interested in half the things we write as we’d like them to be.

It’s a lonely, lonely craft; and chances are, the only people who will read your short story are other writers who are in need of affirmation that, even if they think their writing sucks and no one would read their stories, they’re at least better than this dude over here.

Readers are rare enough as they come by. I’m fortunate enough to have a handful of people I can force to read my stuff. There’s nothing, however, like the feeling of someone finding out that you’re a writer, and ask to read something you’ve written.

That happened to me earlier today. I was in class, waiting for the class to start after the break, and I was drafting a short story longhand. He took one look at my scrawling script and said, “That’s some cool shit, dude.”

I looked up. “Really? It’s just a story I’m working on.”

“Can I look at it?”

What was I going to tell him, no? “Here you go. Just follow the page numbers on top.”

He read, but didn’t get very far before the lecturer decided to carry on with the lesson. Even then, he stole a couple of peeks at the written lines in between the lecturer’s sentences. At the end of class, he was only about 2 pages into the story, but he handed the loose sheets back to me.

“That’s a —-ing good story bro.”

I smiled. “Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.”

Inside me, it was like I had died and been given new life.

330. Writing Longhand

I’ve been drafting my stories longhand lately.

Or to be accurate: I’ve been going back to drafting my stories longhand lately. It was only when I got my laptop in 2009 that I started storing ideas electronically and typing them out digitally. Before that, the earliest stories – be it fanfiction for Red Alert 2 or short stories I wrote when I was 16 and 17 – were all written on foolscap paper, and then later transferred onto the screen to be edited.

(I don’t know why it’s called foolscap. I feel only slightly insulted every time someone calls it that, especially when I’m using the paper in question)

I don’t know why I fell out of the habit of doing it. Perhaps I was getting more environmentally-conscious and decided to save a couple of trees. Perhaps I was getting more used to drafting digitally because my fingers can type faster than they write, closing the gap between my speed of thought and my speed of transcription.

Or maybe it’s just harder to lose things that are stored electronically.

When I was 16, just beginning to write, I read The Lord of the Rings, I read the behind-the-scenes story of how he crafted a whole world for his languages to live in – and from the looks of the pages of Elvish poetry, he loved his languages a lot. Being the pretentious little writer that I was, I decided that I shall emulate this esteemed fellow and create a language or two on my own, basing my conlangs on a language Mr. Tolkien did not have the good fortune of knowing: Chinese.

Again, being the pretentious little writer that I was, I called my conlang “The Language of The Nova”, who, in my fantasy world, were a race of guardian angels who took their places in the skies as stars, communicating in runic characters and music.

I don’t care what you think. In my head, it’s still beautiful.

I was using this varicolored notebook at that time, but after a while, I filled the notebook up and it fell out of use. My notes and characters created for The Language of The Nova was kept in it, just inside the back cover. And I don’t know where it is anymore.

Now contrast that with random ideas that I got in 2009, which I can access in a grand total of 5 clicks.

But there’s just something about writing longhand that gets you in the flow. You write at about a quarter of your typing speed (I type up to 120wpm), but it’s the lag that allows your ideas and sentences to fully form before you even reach them, helping you to flow with the words, instead of building them as you get ideas, like Wile E. Coyote building tracks from the front of a moving train.

The first half of Dirty Fellow, my submission to the KL Noir: Yellow anthology, for example, was drafted longhand. It’s the most glorious 2,500 words I have ever committed to ink. Earlier today, I began writing another story in class, titled Paper Airplanes, and before the class ended I had about 2.5 written pages, which is about 1,200 words.

We’ll see where this goes.

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.

328. Cut!

It’s the most simultaneously painful and necessary thing you’ll ever have to do, whether you’re a writer, a film editor, or a person who believes in auto-surgery.

(“auto” referring to “self”, not “automatic”)

It’s what I have been doing since Friday. I’ve learned that Mr. King’s sagely advice of “Draft 2 = Draft 1 – 10%” is much, much harder than it sounds – I’m not sure if it’s because Mr. King is a verbose first-draft writer, or I’m just being an egocentric little scribbler who needs to kill his darlings.

From an excerpt from Johann’s Fantastic Adventures Through Time and a short story I wrote early in January to the steampunk story involving coffee-delivering zeppelins and a hilarious play concerning an elephant in the room, I edited them all. Along the way, I have lost sleep, cancelled appointments, walked out of meetings because they were wasting my time, killed trees, spilled ink, attended class, and I have come out the other side.

(not really. There are still 2 incomplete submissions, 1 due in 10 hours’ time, and another in 34 hours’ time; but, as always, sleep comes first)

I find, though, that the longer a story is, the easier it is to find materials to cut. From both the excerpt from Johann’s Fantastic Adventures Through Time (9.6k words) and the steampunk story (10k words), I have managed to cut the mandatory 10% that Mr. King requires of me; but from the short stories (2.4k words and 4.9k words), I have shaved off like 7 or 8 percent before throwing in the towel and concluding that if I cut anymore, it would be the literary equivalent of an amputation.

(“Literary Amputation” should be a thing)

It’s the same thing with humans, I guess. The bigger you are, the easier it is to take away 10% of you. Heck, some corporations make good living by promising to take away 50% of you. But the leaner, thinner, shorter you are, the more difficult and closer to amputation it is to cut you down any further. I would say that the same thing could be said for our egos, but I think I’ll revise that and say we should just amputate our egos off and lump it in with the 10%.

But here’s the thing about cutting, even if you don’t hit 10%: just by trying, you are already making it better. In my quest for the elusive 10% cut, I have spotted more redundant words than my egocentric little scribbler’s heart would dare to recognize, and I have mercilessly cut them down.

Some of them have evaded my gaze and are still in hiding; but I bet with more time, I would be able to weed them out one by one.

I’ll say that I’m proud of what I’ve done. And with (most of) the submissions out of the way, the waiting game begins, and I’ll be doubling back to my email inbox multiple times daily to see who liked me enough to pass me on for publication.

In the meantime, there’s a couple more call for submissions due in August. I already have a few ideas floating about for them.

But before any of that… sleep.