Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: February, 2010

I Don’t Like Yappy Dialogue

I had only taken a couple of creative writing classes as electives when I was an undergrad.  In one class, the professor warned everyone not to write about spaceships in any of our assignments because the department head was going to read all of our stories. And he (the department head) hated spaceships.  The professor didn’t like dogs–so writing about dogs was out, too.

I remember these restrictions time and time again whenever anyone remarks that they cannot read a book because it contains topics that they cannot stomach.  Everyone has pet peeves and blocks.  I haven’t yet discovered my own–at the moment, I still believe that a writer can write well about difficult and unappealing subjects.  The reasons why I dislike certain books are style and craft, not the topic.  It could be that everything about a book is great–except for the fact that an author’s stylistic choices on word and syntax leave me wanting to poke my eyes out with a pencil.  Other times, the problem is the craft and world building.  For example–I dislike many books which contain time traveling and/or scientists, not because there’s time traveling and scientists in the book, but because the authors fails to make either of these two elements seem plausible even within the constraints of the story.

With the notion that a good story primarily relies on being told well and not on the subject matter, it is a natural extension to say that one genre is not better or worse than another genre.  So I usually get annoyed when someone puts down an entire genre–even if it’s a genre I don’t read–as crap.

I was pretty pissed this morning when I read this comment:

I write romance, regency as a sub-genre, sometimes contemporary. I couldn’t, wouldn’t ever dream of writing anything that smacks of literary right now because I know I’m not good enough, and truthfully I don’t have the energy.

The comment implies that the author doesn’t have enough energy to hone her writing for the literary genre which is assumed to be “good”.  It’s implied that at the moment, she’s too lazy to put any work into her word-smithing and that the half-assed job she’s going to do might as well just end up in the romance genre which has historically been derided as trash.  Or, more likely, she’s just giving an excuse to write a romance because what “serious” writer wouldn’t write literary fiction?

I wish people would stop following the critics’ version of the serious writer.  A serious writer takes his or her writing craft seriously, not because there happens to be some literary motifs in the story.

There is writing for fun and then there is writing for publication.  I don’t think that one reason for writing is inherently better than the other–just as there’s nothing wrong with skiing as a hobby or skiing at the Olympics.  Heck, I usually just write for fun and don’t worry if the piece I’m working on is internally consistent or not–if I’m not planning on submitting it anywhere.  But if you’re going for publication, there’s no halfway shuffling allowed, even if you’re writing a romance, a hard-boiled dectective mystery, or a sci-fi thriller about Captain Fluffy and his sentient spaceship.  Subject matter is mostly a secondary concern; if your storytelling is gold, people will notice.

Because if you don’t put in any effort to write well, who is going to want to publish your story, let alone read it?

* * *

Addendum: Someone else has the same idea.  The Olympics must be saturating everyone’s brains–

But when it comes to writing, the stakes have to be high. For your characters, and for yourself as a writer. You’re always trying to achieve that next step up on the figurative podium, whether it’s your first sale, your first award, or your first best seller. So commit to the big ideas, and throw your heart into them.

They Need More Spaceships and Explosions

The Death of Fiction? (via edenza) is a misnomer.  If you think that “real fiction” is defined only as literary and not anything else, then okay.  But fiction encompasses a lot of stuff. It should be The Death of  Literary Short Fiction Magazines.  If it was really the death of fiction, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown wouldn’t be published.  Bookstores would be eliminating their fiction sections, Ebay flooded with Danielle Steel novels (if it isn’t already), and fanfic sites abandoned.

There is one particular statement which struck me as a bit elitist:

The reality is that not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a professional athlete, and not everyone can be a writer. You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can’t express your individuality in sterling prose, I don’t want to read about it.

I think that anyone can be a doctor, athlete, or writer.  But you have to work hard at it and not think that you’re entitled to all the rewards because your mother said you were awesome after you dabbled in it for about an hour.  Sure, talent is involved in writing, but like everything else, most of it is actually just doing the work.

Otherwise, the author does make a valid point that writers should write stories readers would like to read.  However, it also makes sense that the editors themselves make some changes rather than only blaming writers and university presidents who have to think about the well being of the educational institution as a whole and not just one department.  Writers may provide the creative material, but it is the editors who shape the magazine.  For example, maybe they could change their submission guidelines to request stories that are more relevant to the current cultural zeitgeist.  Or they could cull through their thousands of submissions and actually choose stories that are reader friendly rather than obvious navel gazing with big vocabulary.  Maybe then the lit mag can be saved.

Then again, lit mags seem like such a 20th century thing.  Times are changing and there are other outlets–other more widespread outlets–where so-called big ideas can be introduced.  It seems far more appropriate to propose the avant-garde with something that actually is cutting edge.  I don’t even watch the television or get the dead tree newspaper anymore.  Old media distributions are fading.  So how can booklets with tiny circulations even compete?

If You’re Headed to the Vancouver Olympics

1. Lines: The Canadian provinces, various countries, and corporate sponsors have set up “houses” in various locations around Vancouver.  If there’s one house you particularly want to go to, be prepared for long lines.  For example, get to the Royal Canadian Mint at least two hours before it opens if you want to see the Olympic medals.  Otherwise, you’ll be standing a couple blocks away.  Other really popular locations: the zip line at Robson Square, the Vancouver Art Gallery showing Leonardo Da Vinci drawings, and pretty much any place giving out free food. On the upside, people tend to do the wave to pass the time.

2. Pins: Fancy yourself a pin collector? You can get different ones at each house–for free.  But go in and ask the volunteers working at the house about the pins.  Some of the houses do not publicize the fact that they give away pins because of the crowds of people.

3. The Official Olympic store at the Bay: During the Olympics, it’s open until midnight on the weekdays and twenty-four hours on the weekend.  Every time I passed by that place, there were long lines.  If you want official merchandise, be prepared to wait for a couple hours just to get into the store.  Or you can get the merchandise at other stores instead (I suggest checking the shops at Granville Island or Robson Street).

4. Transportation: It was a good thing my sister actually lives in Vancouver and knew the bus lines, because at times (especially an hour or two prior to game times), there are long lines just to get into the Skytrain stations.  Although the buses are also packed to capacity, there are a lot more of them and taking one will actually get you faster to your destination than the newer Skytrain.  I suppose this would apply to any Olympics.  Keep in mind the alternatives before you go anywhere.

5. Tickets: If you have a ticket to an Olympic event, you don’t have to pay to get on the Skytrain or any of the buses for the day of the event.  Just show your ticket to the driver and get on.

6. Security: You are required to go through security for any Olympic event.  Pack as if you are heading to the airport.  Don’t bring any food or drinks.  There are two types of lines, a regular line where you will get your bags x-rayed and an express line for people who don’t have bags or just small purses.  However, note that if you do bring a bag (no matter the size) through the express line, they will manually check it. With a flashlight.

7. Curling: Be prepared to watch four games–at the same time.

8. Food downtown: Yes, be prepared to wait in long lines to get into restaurants and pubs.  It’s probably a better idea to get out of the city center to find some grub.  Because by the time you’ve advanced a couple feet in the line, you could have just taken a bus uptown and gotten seated at a cozy place frequented by the locals.

9. Some pictures:

From 20100220_Vancouver
From 20100220_Vancouver
From 20100220_Vancouver
From 20100220_Vancouver
From 20100220_Vancouver
From 20100220_Vancouver
From 20100220_Vancouver
From 20100220_Vancouver
From 20100220_Vancouver
From 20100220_Vancouver

10. Mukmuk: Want to get a giant stuffed marmot? Get it at the Vancouver International Airport and save fifty bucks.

From 20100221_Vancouver

Now Live in Vancouver Party Central

Well, after a morning of traveling, I got to Vancouver in the early afternoon and met up with my sister in front of Vancouver City Hall.  Tons of people wearing Canada gear.  And at night, lots of drunk Canadians celebrating on the streets–in a surprisingly orderly manner.  However the crush of people was worse than New Year’s in Toronto.  My sister and I nearly got suffocated by the crowd heading past Howe and Robson.  The official event we went to was the Victory Ceremony at BC Place.  People behind us were complaining that we couldn’t sing the Canadian anthem when the Norwegian anthem was played. Twice. The band Theory of a Dead Man performed after the medal ceremony.

From 20100219_Vancouver
From 20100219_Vancouver

Rubber Balls Are Attracted To My Head, But Not By Magic

I’ve never been into sports.  I’m still not.  In some cases, I’ve had an antipathic relationship to it.  Maybe it’s due to my experiences.  I was that kid who always got picked last, who took too long to run the mile, who could barely even do one chin-up–on a good day.  Middle school was in some ways hellish because jocks made fun of me.  In high school, I managed to avoid them in all my classes, but they got the last laugh anyway because as a band nerd, I was forced to watch their games–pouring rain or not.

Tomorrow, I’m heading to Vancouver to watch some Olympic games. Strangely enough, this is not dinging my antipathy meter.  All I can come up with is that these are winter sports and I don’t have any particularly bad associations with them since my adolescence was spent in the south where there were a dearth of hockey players desirous of lodging pucks into my forehead.  Well, except for figure skating–but for a totally non-athletic reason*.

I suppose I will enjoy these games, as a spectator, but I think I’m going to be more interested in the whole experience rather than outcomes of individual games.  I will only be one among thousands.  No one will care or notice that I am no sports fanatic.  And that’s how it should be.

*Figure skating is just one of those things that competitive Asian parents make their children do.  Like violin lessons and medical school.  And it’s a reminder that I have to get away from all of this stereotype (because in many ways, my childhood was an Asian stereotype) and just go my own way.  I could say more, but I should leave this for another post.

Whatever You Do, Keep Wondering

Nature has recently started publishing a series of Q & A sessions with writers who write science books for a different, non-expert, audience.  In this Thursday’s issue, David Brin is interviewed about fiction writing (subscription required).

I always find myself interested in what other scientists have to say about fiction writing–particularly since most scientists I encounter are not very interested in writing fiction (although they may be avid readers) and most writers are not particularly keen on the science (although they might be pretty intrigued with lasers and black holes).  One writer I once met seemed absolutely amazed that I could do science and writing at the same time–as if they were mutually exclusive tasks.

I find myself, well, feeling a bit left out when all the other writers claim that writing is their passion and that they want to do it all day to the exclusion of everything else.  And I am very reluctant to disclose to anyone in science that I write–for fun.  Because for a lot of people, these things are an either-or proposition. Brin, however, has a slightly different take on it:

You have to love it as a hobby, develop your skill and not give a damn when [getting published] will actually happen.

This is pretty much how I view writing: a compulsive hobby.  It’s something that I love but not so much that I’m going to quit grad school in order to live the carefree life of a wastrel scribbler wandering the hinterlands.

Unfortunately, the interview was too short to go into any philosophical questions on why a scientist would end up writing fiction.  While people might jump to the conclusion that writing fiction and science are two totally different things and that anyone who would want to do both are crazy or brilliant polymaths–I would suggest a much simpler and mundane reason.  Both science and writing ask questions that the curious mind would inevitably posit.  Except that one is about reality and the other is about the imagination.

Pacioli’s Treatise Never Included Time Management

Are you a procrastinator or an incubator?

Why do I have the feeling that this is just another flimsy excuse for procrastinators to feel good about themselves?  I’m an incubator! an apparently lazy person might claim. I wait until the last minute and produce superior work! Maybe, maybe not.  But it does make one sound like a large, unwieldy appliance that isn’t entirely practical for most people.

I do not miss deadlines (or ask for extensions–ahead of time or not), but I admit that I am sometimes a procrastinator.  It usually depends on what the task is and my frame of mind when I’m given the task.  My parents are not procrastinators–which usually became a source of conflict for us when I was still living with them.  When I was in high school, I put a lot of my assignments (and studying) until the night before it was due.  My parents would bang on my bedroom door and berate me on my poor study habits and loss of sleep while I was burning the midnight oil.  In retrospect, I probably should have stuffed towels into the bottom crack of the door so that the escaping light wouldn’t have annoyed them.

In college, I typically started working on problem sets from science and math courses on the day that I got them.  Essays and papers for humanities classes?  The actual writing began the night before they were due because I never felt the pressure that I was going to turn in poor or even mediocre work.  To be honest, though, the genesis for those papers began earlier.  When a paper assignment was announced, I would check out references from the library, read them, and then let the books collect dust in the subsequent weeks.  This is also what happens a couple months before Nanowrimo in my “preparatory phase.”

Sure, this sounds like incubator-like behavior, but I’m still calling myself a procrastinator.  Why?  Because it’s more acceptable to be self-deprecating and doesn’t overly inflate expectations.  Calling yourself an incubator, however, is tainted with arrogance.  And you sound like a supermarket rotisserie chicken stand.

*Luca Pacioli and double-entry bookkeeping

We Need Skydiving with Microscopes

In a recent conversation, a post-doc expressed her disbelief that our boss’s kid was extremely upset after a sports injury when she was majoring in something completely different at college.

I explained: “When you can no longer do something that you love, of course it’s going to make you sad.”  If something that you enjoy for fun is no longer accessible to you, wouldn’t you fall into a depression, too?

The post-doc didn’t get it.  In her thinking, the kid should have been relieved that the injury wasn’t so serious as to prevent school work from being done.

This got me thinking about different mindsets.  There’s this saying in academia about “working hard and playing hard.”  People do both, but it seems that they only truly care about one or the other.  For one person, career and academics are the only important things.  Everything else is extraneous, a way to let off steam, or merely a means to an end.  Dividing one’s attention is deemed frivolous and unfocused.  For other people, passions aren’t restrained to any one thing.  Spreading it out, for them, is evidence of a full, well-rounded life.

People can be successful with either mindset.  Yet I find myself wavering, in limbo.  To the singularly focused, I may seem like a dabbler.  Some find it abhorrent that I’m not chained to the lab bench 24/7 let alone frittering away my time scribbling in this blog.  And then there are others who are too polite (or not) to tell me that I’m a dud for not taking advantage of every  weekend to go skiing, paragliding, or even attending stamp collecting conventions.

In either case, I kind of feel bad for not being driven enough to suit certain tastes.  Or not interesting enough to be bothered with.  But there’s nothing I can do about it.  So I’ll just keep trudging along, as I am.

Any Idea on the Price of a Mass Market Paperback?

I am minding my own business at the grocery check-out line (except for overhearing a cashier blabbering about the crazy crowds he saw eight days before the Super Bowl stocking up as if Armageddon was right around the corner) when the older lady in front of me suddenly turned to me and asked:

“Do you know how much a stamp costs?”

“Er, thirty-nine cents?” I reply.  I had no idea.  The last time I bought stamps was before the last price hike–and yeah, like those crazy Super Bowl fans, I had stocked up on Forever stamps like there was no tomorrow.

“No!” She crowed.  “They’re forty-four cents!”

“Oh.”  Really, there is nothing more to say.  Trying to excuse myself would only make me look more ignorant, so I feigned sudden interest in the celery going down the conveyor belt.

But then the lady leaned over in a confiding manner.  “You should marry my son,” she said.  “He also thinks stamps cost thirty-nine cents.”  She seemed quite earnest and for a moment, I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

Besides, even if she wasn’t joking, you can’t base a marriage on stamp prices.  Book prices on the other hand…

On the Bright Side, You’re Not a Hairy Monkey

Today, I noticed that someone had scribbled “You are beautiful!” in chalk on the campus sidewalks.

I do not know who the message is aimed at.  But being the pessimist that I am, it struck me as all wrong–especially if it was aimed at everyone.  Because whatever your definition of beautiful is, not everyone is beautiful.  (Heck, I’m pretty sure nobody would use the adjective to describe any aspect of me.  I might be quirky, though, on a good day.)  It’s like being in a self-esteem class where you’re forced to feel good about yourself.

I’m most bothered by the fact that it’s just a throwaway compliment.  Some people find it easy to tell everyone that they are beautiful or smart or any number of things just to make other people feel good.  However, if making people feel good is your goal, bake cookies (or give away chocolate–that seems to work like a charm 99.9% of the time) rather than say things that you don’t mean.  Otherwise it cheapens words and sentiments until they’re nothing but empty consonants and vowels.

Or maybe this is just me.  I’m extremely stingy on the compliments.  But when I do happen to give one, you can be sure that I really do mean it and not flattering someone just to get into their good graces.