359. The Constellation Hunter, Aquila, and A Lot of Booze

When Aquila retired from Zeus’ courts to become the constellation in the northern sky, he imagined it would be an idyllic life full of pleasant monotony. Which was true, for the first couple of thousand years. Where he was stationed, there was enough alcohol for all the old gods of the forgotten pantheon; and since none of them were around, there was no obligation for Aquila to share any of it with them for old time’s sake.

Never would he have thought that he would find himself staring up at the pointy end of an arrow.

“Hi,” the Constellation Hunter said, grinning.

Aquila blinked twice. Thrice. Spilled his glass as he raised his hands in surrender. “Hi,” he replied.

The Constellation Hunter glanced at the alcohol cloud. “That’s a lot of booze.”

Aquila swallowed hard. “It is.”

“Care to pour me a drink?”

Alcohol coursing through his veins, Aquila’s brain was at least clear enough to know that he could not profit from defying the man who had the golden arrow pointed at him. He swirled the alcohol into a goblet made of stars and offered it to the Constellation Hunter. The Hunter did not receive it, keeping his bow and arrow trained at the spot between Aquila’s eyes.

“I know who you are,” Aquila said.

“Yeah?”

“You’re the death of the old gods. The collapse of stars. The darkness at the end of all things.”

“Oh, me? No, no,” the Hunter said. “You’ve got it all wrong. I’m just a hunter. Looking for good game, you see. What you’re talking about is the anti-life here.” He nodded at the bow. “This is the end of all things. I’m just here to collect the bodies for my gallery.”

“This is just a game to you?” Aquila said, straitening his spine. “Twenty-four of us you have hunted down. Tracked me all the way around the cosmos, searching through galaxies, only to find me here. You’re telling me that it is not for some grand purpose? That you’re not trying to blot the light of the sun? You’re just here because… because you think this is fun?”

“You can’t please everyone,” the Hunter said. “You just have to please yourself.”

“And when you have hunted down the last twelve of us. What then? Will that be enough for you, to have snuffed out the life of all constellations?”

The Hunter shrugged. “Maybe.”

Aquila doused the Hunter’s face in alcohol. It floated off his face in swirls of purple, orange, and pink. The Hunter did not even blink.

“You done?” the Hunter asked.

“Do what you must.”

Except Aquila never managed to finish his sentence. Somewhere towards the end of “what”, before he started to say “you”, the Hunter released the bowstring and the golden arrow split Aquila’s skull apart. Then Aquila was no more – one by one his light dimmed and died. On his split forehead, the star Altair went out in a brilliant supernova.

The Hunter checked his list. Next, after a crude drawing of Aquila, was what looked like a crab.

He can wait, The Hunter thought as he made himself a drink and took a long swig from the cup made of stars.

Advertisements

358. I Have A Quota To Fill

There’s 7 days left on this 365 project. Which is good. But when I start counting, there are only 44 Fiction Friday posts, despite my diligence in posting a short story every Friday.

52 weeks. 44 stories. It just doesn’t add up.

And if you’re friends with me on Facebook (that’s like, 3 of you), you’ll know that I’ve been celebrating everything I score another ten stories. The last one I did was not too long ago – about 4 weeks ago, when I hit 40 short stories published on this space.

So.

Because a 365 project isn’t a 365 project if you don’t stop at 365, I’m still going to stick to that. But at the same time, it would also be good to have a nice 50 short stories published here – because even numbers are nice to have. Especially those divisible by 10.

(although I think that somewhere along the lines, we got it all wrong, and the universe should really be interpreted in base 12 instead)

I am going to write a short story every day for the next 6 days, bringing the total number of short stories written here to a full 50, and then for post number 365, I will say my final goodbyes. It sounds good at the moment. And don’t look at me like that.

I have a quota to fill, dammit.

Since this is technically the second last post, perhaps a wrap-up is in place. You know, like the final shot of the superheroes after they have saved New York City (again). Before the denouement kicks in and we’re back to our normal lives. Or if you’re in a Michael Bay movie, the part before Optimus Prime delivers his at-the-end-of-the-day/happily-ever-after speech.

But screw that. It’s past midnight and I have been awake since 7A.M. God knows there are more important things than fulfilling a daily 500-word quota. Sleep, for instance. If there’s something I learned over the last 365 days, one of it is that sleep is important. Even if you can’t get the mandatory 6 hours of sleep, take what you can get.

(salvage sleep like how you salvage money through tax exemptions, basically)

While we’re on that subject: there’s a picture floating about the internet about how “no one remembers the nights they had enough sleep”. And while I appreciate the spirit of adventure, I think I’d rather choose boring and alive over adrenaline-charged but dead any day. Unlike Icarus.

So off I go to my slumber. God also know that I’ll more than make up for the lost words when I begin to write my stories.

I’ll see you again next week.

357. Black Humor

I think dark comedy is the greatest of all comedies.

See, the power of comedy is in subversion. Comedic timing is about delivery, so we’ll put that aside – when it comes to the heart of comedy, we’re talking about subversion. Something that comes right out of left field and catches you in the most unexpected way. A little bit like horror: if you can see it coming, it’s not going to be half as good.

(but some are just so good that even half as good as they should be, they still blow most works out of the water. We won’t go into that either)

Years ago, I went for a boot camp of sorts. The hardest thing we had to do was to stay awake through the night. The second hardest thing was something that happened during the marching drills.

We were lined up, all 20 of us, in rows of 5. We must have been about 30 or 45 minutes into the exercise. It was 3 or 4 in the morning, everyone was tired, everyone was on edge, and there would be hell to pay if we did not get our marching right. Limbs operating on autopilot, brains torn between screaming for sleep, hating the camp, and processing the commander’s orders… It was a very serious moment.

Then we were standing at attention while the commander inspected us. And then, from the back, one of the younger recruits said something to the tune of “Sir, permission to sneeze, sir.”

Held breaths all around. The commander looked up, all serious.

“Go on.”

Silence.

“Sneeze not coming sir.”

I could feel eighteen faces going blue trying to control their laughter. The commander made a small chuckle, and then said, “You all may have five seconds to laugh.”

The whole place erupted into roaring, knee-slapping laughter as the commander counted the five seconds. And at the end of it, the laughter stopped as suddenly as it started, like someone put a cap on it.

For my part, I have never needed to laugh so badly.

Ever played one of those party games where everyone is supposed to look as solemn as they can, while one guy has to go around and try to make someone laugh? Knowing that we’re not supposed to be laughing only makes it harder not to. It’s like the comedic equivalent to the forbidden fruit.

In 2012, I participated in the 48 Hour Film Project in Kuala Lumpur. The genre my team got, by chance, was Dark Comedy. After some back-and-forth concerning the lines that separated dark comedy from plain old vanilla comedy, we decided that we could safely define dark comedy as “laughing at things you’re not supposed to be laughing at”.

And this is why dark comedy is the greatest of them all.

Silly things are silly, and witty things are witty. There’s a higher calling, however, in making people say “Oh my God” and making them laugh at the same time. There’s no laugh track to tell them when to laugh. There is nothing outright silly, no clever punchlines to give them the cue to laugh. Your audience are trying not to laugh – this is serious, dammit! They are decent people, and decent people don’t laugh at things like that! You’re practically wrestling their laughter out of them, and you have to be pretty damn good at it to succeed.

My team didn’t end up making much of a black comedy as we did some sort of fantasy drama. But I’d like to leave that in the past.

Earlier this evening, as I wandered over to Reddit to avoid agonizing over what to write for today’s entry, I stumbled upon what might be dark comedy gold. I’ll spare you the details. I will, however, give you a few keywords to work with: yo momma, pigs, bestiality. For a good 15 minutes, I was convinced that I was going to laugh myself to death, at the same time feeling a repulsion like no other. It was like looking at roadkill, only funnier. Which somehow made it more disgusting. Which somehow made it even funnier.

(I don’t actually know how I’m going to end this post in a satisfying way. I’ll hate myself for doing this cliche, but it has to be done, for the greater good)

And you? What are your favorite dark comedies?

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.

355. Eunice Who?

Tonight I attended a concert. Of sorts. It was the first time I stepped inside The Gardens Theater (I’m sure there’s supposed to be an apostrophe somewhere in there, but I’m not entirely sure), and I walked right past it at first. Only realizing that I had walked past it because there was a signboard pointing the way I came from.

I found the name of the place printed in nondescript letters on an easy-to-miss glass door. I was also late. But good fortunes abound, the concert started later. The first reason I even went for the concert, I must admit, was because it was free. But following close behind the first reason is the second, which is because it was a concert featuring Eunice Hoo.

Eunice Hoo. Where should I begin with the wonderful Eunice Hoo?

We met through a mutual friend. He was recording songs and putting them on YouTube. She was recording songs and putting them on YouTube. I could, to a certain (read: low) capacity, make videos suitable to be put on YouTube.

It was the beginning of 2013, a couple of days before I fell sick with high fever and tonsillitis. I just came out of writing/directing a 5-minute musical to review the church’s journey in 2012. It was a video shoot we have been planning for a while, and sleep-deprived on account of the short musical as I was, I was still excited to be a part of the whole project.

Our friend Stephen was the director of the shoot. We met Eunice for the first time on the first day of the shoot, which was New Year’s Day. She was bubbly and sprightly and all smiles. There was an aura of simple joyousness radiating from her that time and tiredness could not dissipate, which, I think, was what kept us going despite the incredibly tight schedule and the even more incredibly unforgiving weather.

I have never seen anyone so young carrying so much talent and grace at once.

She was a joy to edit, which is more than can be said for the many, many others whose video I edited before. She carried herself through the shots with a silliness only possible in youth, yet her antics were somehow just right for the video. The pieces fell right into place, and no one’s name had to be cursed as I edited the videos.

Being late, I was shooed away from the VIP area and into the second level of the 200-seater hall. Out she came, as charming and as chirpy as could be, dishing out number after number despite her obvious nervousness. Sometime in the middle of the performance, my friend beside me screamed, “I LOVE YOU, EUNICE!”

We all cheered. Because we would have all said the same a thousand times.

When I walked out of The Gardens Theater later that night, I stopped to admire a bunting that the organizers had set up outside: a decidedly unflattering larger-than-life photo of Eunice squatting and looking straight into the camera, a red apple inexplicably in her mouth. Her name was printed somewhere above her head, along with the title of her album.

It was a ridiculous photo, but it was somehow just right. There was joy, pure and simple, emanating from it: one that time and tiredness had not worn away.

And if there’s something our weary world needs, it’s more joyous people spreading it around like Eunice Hoo.

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.

353. The Waiting Game

Almost a month since I sent off my 6 story submissions, 2 of them have been sent back to me, rejected. Again, my name will not be among the roster of writers for the Short+Sweet Festival (Kuala Lumpur) and the KL Noir series. I’m a little more broken up over the latter, knowing that this coming edition will be the last in the series.

But life goes on. 2 out of 6, 4 to go. 4 to go…

If I could push a button and know immediately if my submissions are going to be accepted or not, I would. Even at the risk of the collective heartbreak killing me (or sending me into a week-long depression). If anything, the waiting is more unbearable than the actual news. It’s like what the eminent Mr. Hitchcock said, concerning guns in movies:

There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.

And I wish all these editors will just pull the trigger and have it done with. I can then lapse into my week-long depression, then come out at the end of it to resume living my life. Instead of checking my inbox day after day, waiting for the news that might or might not come.

Luckily, there are a number of things holding my attention while I wait for the results: 3 more submissions due early to mid-August, work in general, and books to read. But that’s like trying to do your revision while the TV is on: it works for, like, 3 seconds, and then you’re anxiously watching the TV waiting to see what happens next.

(if I could, I would crown myself the king of analogies. Just earlier this evening, I likened a conversation crasher to an automobile accident at a cross junction. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude; but it was also incredibly entertaining)

I’m sure the editors are busy with their lives and other works that they have committed themselves to. They are, after all, human (I think), and are subject to all the necessities a human might need. They have other stories to write, lectures and workshops to conduct, interviews to attend, a family to spend time with, shows to watch…

If I were an editor, I think I’d just email all my contributors saying, “Thanks for your submission! Please consider your work rejected unless you’re informed otherwise. Happy carrying on with your lives!”

God knows it would save a lot of people a lot of suspense and subsequent agony.

But this is the way the world works. When you go out on a date and hit it off, you wait 3 days before calling your date again. When someone comes to you with a delicious project proposal, you tell them that you need a few days to think about it. When you interview someone looking for a job with your company, you thank them for their time and assure them that you will get back to them “soon”.

(just for the record: Jesus said that He is coming back “soon” too)

And editors, after receiving your stories, will take anywhere between 2 weeks and 6 months to get back to you.

God, I wish they would just get it over with. And quickly.