Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: July, 2010

Saving Face

Over at Third Level Digression, Yahmdallah talks about his misgivings about social media.  I think my own views are very similar.  So far, I’ve resisted signing up on Facebook, LinkedIn, and the like because those networks aren’t very amendable to anonymity.  And they’re also not as restricted as I’d like.  Let me give an example of what I mean: I think they can be used as a good tool for professional networking.  However, even if I had a professional profile with my resume and such online, this does not stop other people–say, people I knew in high school or random other persons who know me–from looking me up and trying to “friend” me.  I suppose I could institute a policy where I would only “friend” professional contacts or even “friend” no one at all, but that would hurt other people’s feelings.  And hurting other people’s feelings often translate to real world consequences.  Better, then, to not have a profile at all and sidestep the entire issue.

I think part of my resistance is also due to my own personality.  I’m an introvert and intensely private.  This might seem sort of silly since I have this blog and a Twitter account (which I treat like an abbreviated blog), but I view this space not as a place to show off (if I really wanted to show off, I’d have my real name in the about page, not a pseudonym) but rather a place to have my say.  Whether somebody else reads this or not is irrelevant.  It is the illusion that I have a voice in a democratic medium that counts. I know I am not completely anonymous.  My family knows I write in this blog.  Others know that this and/or my Twitter feed exists because at one time or another, they decided to search for me online.  But they don’t read this regularly or have lost interest because I’ve basically kept my posts about my interests rather than social drama.

While I might be interested in what other people have to say about certain issues and what other people might think about what I have to say about the issues, I am far more reticent about revealing anything about myself–particularly anything about myself going on now.  And while I’m not particularly keen about nosy people prying into my life, the reverse is also true. My inclination to look up old friends or enemies or crushes or whatnot is virtually nil.  If the thought ever comes up, “Oh, I wonder what’s going on with so-and-so,” it is almost immediately quashed because the question, “Do I really care what’s going on with so-and-so?” is invariably answered with a resounding, “No.”

I guess what it boils down to is, do certain social networks have any benefit to me?  The companies that run these social media would have obtained my information, random people could obtain my information and a peek at my private life, not-so-random people could also find out stuff about me, and the rest of the information on these social networks will be mostly useless to me because I simply don’t care.

While I suppose I could still do blog-like things on Facebook and the like, I wouldn’t be anonymous or even semi-anonymous while doing it.  I don’t particularly want someone googling my real name and retrieving a post ranting about chat speak and the decline of grammar, melancholy musings about certain things in life, or even about finishing a novel in a month.  Everyone thinks about random things or pontificates about their hobbies at one time or another.  But I think everyone would also agree that these things don’t necessarily define a person.  If I were on some of these social media as “the real me”, the minutiae of my life would be the first thing anyone would find.  And first impressions, more now than ever, are what others use to form their idea of you–even if philosophically, they agree that judging a book by its cover is wrong.  That’s why I’m not on certain social media.  Because what’s out there about the real me is already more than enough.

The End, the Beginning, and Everything in Between

In a Boing Boing interview, Ted Chiang talks about being a science fiction writer.

I found that his remarks about reading the Foundation Trilogy were really close to my own experience.  I was at a similar age when I found this science fiction saga on the library bookshelves.  I’m not sure how well Asimov would hold up to a reading now but I do remember how it opened my eyes to how much more sophisticated the genre could be aside from all of those Star Trek reruns.

What was really interesting, though, is Chiang’s writing process in which he writes the end to his stories before everything else.  This is not something that I have ever specifically tried.  I’m rather more linear in my writing.  On the other hand, my outlines are more vague.  The first iteration usually looks like this:

1. The situation is presented and characters introduced.
2. ???
3. Profit! The finale.

The hardest part is always the middle, because the writer has to figure out the most exciting path to take from A to B.  Taking the boring path is out of the question.  Not only will that bore the reader to tears, but it would probably drive the author into considering another occupation altogether.  I think there’s some leeway in a novel, but in a short story, everything should be, metaphorically at least, non-stop thrills in the sense that every word written should count.

However I’m currently working on a short story where I’m not quite sure where I’m going. The outline looks more like this:

1. The main character finds an interesting situation.
2. Adventures happen.
3. ???

I think that this came about due to how I thought up the idea in the first place.  I didn’t put so much emphasis on the plot as the concept.  Which is pretty much about nostalgia taken to the extremes.  So far, the protagonist–a roboticist recovering from an industrial accident–has decided to visit her grandparents who operate a love hotel on St. Lorenz, a cloud city on Jupiter.  It’s on St. Lorenz that she encounters a mysterious underground group called The Restorers.  After that, well, I suppose I’ll make it up as I go along.

The Completion of Julnowrimo

After passing 50,000 words last week, it felt somewhat anticlimactic when I finally wrapped up the story at approximately 69,000 words.  But at least it’s that–completed.  I think I feel more relieved than excited.  Creating something at a quick pace is mentally exhausting.  I definitely need the week to recover before I tackle next month’s project.

What’s unique about this particular project is that it had been almost entirely written using writing sprints on Twitter.  Sometimes others joined me on the sprints, sometimes no one did.  But I think what the writing sprints really did was to keep my mind focused on writing with minimal time wasted doing something else.  Another thing that kept me on track was planning, particularly the outline.  My outlines, invariably, come in different forms (this time, it was a map with arrows showing the journeys of each character), but they always tell what I should be writing next.  Writing blocks are close to impossible if you already know what’s going to happen in the next scene.

As a result, I find it very difficult to sympathize with people who fall behind because they don’t write.  There is a popular thread on the Julnowrimo forums on lagging behind.  I understand that every writer has their own method to writing.  Some people are just naturally slow writers and getting to the 50k goal in a month might be a little too grueling for them.  Others have very busy lives and something else might have happened to consume all of their time.  Maybe some writers found out about the challenge halfway through the month.  But if you’re spending your free time playing video games or twiddling your thumbs while staring at the ceiling rather than writing–you’re doing it wrong.

There were, of course, some points while writing the novel that I felt it was sort of pointless to go on.  It wasn’t that I had gotten bored with the story or didn’t know what to write next–it was more of the fact that I was writing this without any sort of feedback in the form of unconditional cheerleading.  I guess, after reading about other writers who had a gaggle of fans eagerly clamoring for the next chapter, I felt inadequate.  I’m too much of a control freak to let anyone else, reading audience or not, dictate how I write.  But if my writing was in any way worthwhile, wouldn’t I too have readers impatiently waiting to read on?

In the end, I suppose none of this matters.  The story is finished.  If anyone feels brave enough to wade through all the stuff I’ve churned out for Julnowrimo, you can either read Sign of the Wyrm as the entire novel or as installments.   It’s my take on characters in Norse mythology put in a Victorian-esque setting.  It was fun trying to fit bits of various Norse myths in–like Hel’s consort, how Tyr lost his hand, the raising of the cat, and Loki’s argument with Freyja.  If I were to write a sequel, it would probably involve Fenrir and the witch of the Ironwood.  I’ve hinted at some conflict between the two of them although they never appeared in a scene together.

Meanwhile, it’s time to finalize the outline for Pomegranate + Hellhound.

Closing In

That magic 50k word count will most likely come early this week as I’m currently about 3.5k away from the goal.  However, I doubt the story will be actually finished at 50k.  Since the month is not over yet, I will continue writing and hopefully wrap things up at around 60k.  For the curious, here are the proposed upcoming chapters.  Some things may change, get switched around, or consolidated while I write them, but the basic plot remains the same.

Chapter 27 – Loki shows up and Freyja’s plans are spoiled.
Chapter 28 – The Wyrm discovers a clue about Thor’s whereabouts but it’s a trap.
Chapter 29 – The main characters visit the opera.
Chapter 30 – The gypsy pops up again to cause trouble.
Chapter 31 – A train ride to Cark.
Chapter 32 – Arrival at Tyr’s country house and a game of archery.
Chapter 33 – Dinner and the Wyrm’s disappearance.
Chapter 34 – Flight to Scafell.
Chapter 35 – Thor’s devious plans revealed.
Chapter 36 – Endgame.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking up ideas for Augnowrimo.  So far, I have a sci-fi plot that will be done in first person that’s sort of inspired by an essay called The Lizard, the Catacombs, and the Clock.   I’m thinking about keeping the Augnowrimo project relatively low key.  Minimal planning.  No spamming of my twitter feed with writing sprints.  I will most likely not post it on my website as I have been doing with my other projects.  However, I may post excerpts on this blog if any of it turns out to be interesting.

Midpoint and Such

The “halfway point”, the 25,000 word mark, for my Julnowrimo project has come and gone.  Hopefully I will reach 30k by the end of today.  However, I’m still not quite sure what to make of my characters.  I just write and see what comes out–which so far is still quite mysterious.  I’m on track plot-wise though I don’t know about the time line.  It’s been blown to smithereens a while ago since I haven’t been keeping track of what day it is in the story.  Which is sort of strange as the concept of time is beginning to become a theme.

There was a thread in the Julnowrimo forums inquiring about narrative, dialogue, and description–specifically how to tell how much of each of these the writer needs to add to the story.  I personally don’t think there is a right answer to that question.  How much narrative, dialogue or description to add depends on the story and the writer’s style.  But what do I know?  I think I’m still learning the storytelling craft.  Trying to get story pacing right is partly reading other writers to see how they do it and reading your own stuff to see how it flows.  For me, a lot of it is also intuitive.  At any point in a story, I have a gut feeling as to whether narrative, dialogue, or description works best.

Gut feeling probably best describes how I go about doing any sort of writing.  I just do it.  I don’t analyze what I’m writing while I’m writing.  I guess that’s why I find it sort of hard to talk about my own writing process–because much of it isn’t really a conscious process despite how many background notes I make or how well I describe the characters.  All of this is happening somewhere in my mind while I’m typing.  Objectively, the workings of mind is not exciting stuff.  And the more I think about it, I wonder if all this pontificating about process is just pointless.

So pontificating: which brings me to videoblogging about writing.  To be honest, I think vblogging about writing is even more pointless than blogging about writing.  At least with blogging, you’re actually writing.  Making videos is like talking about writing a novel someday rather than writing it.  The last time I checked the Julnowrimo vblogging thread, only a few of the vbloggers were even on their word count targets.  Is this the case of people taking the easy route of blabbing rather than writing?  Maybe.  To be fair, I’ll withhold judgment until the end of the month.  But in general, I have very little patience with talking.  Because if you’re calling yourself a writer, then for goodness sake write rather than talk.

Those Who Don’t Even Try

Yesterday, I read an article on picky eaters which sounded more like an article on people with a very particular form of mental disorder.  This was more in line of people who wouldn’t eat anything except foods A, B, C, and D rather than people who would eat anything except A, B, C, and D.  The former group has a serious problem.  The latter are either just picky or have health reasons for banning certain foods from their diet.

I like to think of myself as a person who would be willing to eat anything at least once.  I grew up in a household where eating out was rare but homemade meals were never dull.  Dinner was almost always something Asian, sometimes Western, but never the same.  Secretly, I couldn’t understand why my classmates only ate spaghetti or a hamburger every night.  I did, however, have a quirk when I was younger. I disliked sauces, particularly salty ones.  While my sister drenched her food with soy sauce or fish sauce when the occasion warranted (or even when it didn’t), I used these sparingly, if at all.  My parents thought I was a culinary dunderhead for wanting to eat plain things.  I argued that I actually wanted to taste the food and not the sauce.  Fortunately, my parents had let me be rather than forcing me to chug a gallon of Kikkoman.  Nowadays, I’m somewhat neutral about it.  Unless you’re literally bringing a soup made of broiled soy sauce to the next potluck, I’d say–whatever.

More adventurous eaters would probably roll their eyes at picky eaters and demand in ringing tones what was the matter.  I know how my parents would react–they’d just shake their heads and say that the picky eater didn’t grow up with foods A, B or C cooked how they would have cooked it since my sister and I pretty much ate everything we got served.  At first, I thought that maybe they were right–maybe other people’s parents were bad cooks.  But then again, maybe it was just a subtle comment about what they perceived as the deficiencies of other people’s parenting.  From the point of view of my parents’ generation (and myself–I don’t know about other people my age), the child is hopelessly spoiled if he or she is the one dictating the menu rather than the parents.

As for adults who are picky eaters–I say nothing at all, even if I do think it’s crazy that people avoid tomatoes, cucumbers, or cheese just because they don’t like it.  If they want a monochrome diet supplemented by nutritional pills that aren’t regulated by the FDA, so be it.  They wouldn’t appreciate a lecture from me and I doubt I’d change anyone’s mind no matter how many words and statistics I spouted.  The opposite is also true.  I would find it immensely annoying to find myself eating lunch across from someone who would immediately scream “Ew, ew, ew! Gross! I can’t believe you like that in your sandwich!” and makes gagging noises to emphasize their picky preferences.

It’s one thing to cook a limited number of foods for yourself.  Eating what you’re offered in the presence of others is another matter.  I consider it a politeness issue on both sides.  Never having tried a kind of food before is not sufficient reason to decline an offer. In fact, the only acceptable reason for declining would be for health reasons.  As for the person doing the offering, if someone declines, then don’t make a big issue about it regardless of whether or not it was for health reasons.  While rejection of your food may seem like a rejection of you (in many cultures, it seems, sense of self is tied to food), I doubt that is truly the intent of the rejector.  After all, if someone is offering you food, your first thought is generally not that the other person is offering themselves up to you for acceptance.

I suppose the bottom line is: I will never say what I think about the eating habits of the picky to their face.  It reeks too much of confrontation which I generally try to avoid unless the subject under scrutiny is of grave importance.  I think picky eating just for the hell of it is silly.  And perhaps a little dangerous, too.  Oh, not dangerous in the matter of health–anyone can take vitamins to make up for deficiencies–but more in the pattern of thinking that pickiness reinforces.  Being content with just a handful of foodstuffs and being hostile to anything new–is that not the same thing as a person never wanting to see the world outside of their hometown?  Is it not a symptom of something more serious–the choice of the comfortable over new possibilities that might lead to something better?*

This reminds me of the futurist notion of the meal in a pill.  Most science fiction writers seem to tout this as a good thing–after all, it would free us from the shackles of food production and the waste of meal times so we could concentrate on more Important Things.  Picky eaters, I’m sure, would probably rejoice because it would mean they wouldn’t have to put something else in their mouths.  But I’m beginning to think that the meal pill is really more of a dystopian device.  Converting all of our food to a pill is to consider us machines that need to be refueled rather than humans that have needs to be satisfied.  Food, throughout human history, have strengthened cultural bonds and given us pleasure in addition to providing sustenance.  Culinary variety is not unlike music or painting.  While it is not necessary–after all, the picky eaters, the tone deaf and the colorblind can lead perfectly good lives otherwise–it doesn’t mean that we should live on only the necessary.

*Don’t even try to convince me that eating [Insert Your Favorite Food Here] every day will be in any way better than a varied palate.  Ever heard of having too much of a good thing?

Starting the Story

The first scene of a story is almost always there in my mind before I write down the first word.  Having the first line is another matter entirely.  Sometimes I have the first sentence figured out.  In the case of Sign of the Wyrm, this year’s Julnowrimo project, I wasn’t quite sure what my first sentence would be until I actually started writing.  I had a somewhat vague notion of what was going on, but I didn’t know what to focus on until I decided to make the opening easy–primarily a simple and direct sentence with little to no ambiguity setting up a situation that the reader might find intriguing.

This particular project is a fantasy story.  Perhaps it is far closer to “traditional fantasy” than any of my other projects (except my very first non-Nanowrimo novel which will never see the light of day).  While a lot of traditional fantasy begins with a prologue detailing background, history, and mythology, I did not even consider this type of beginning.  For one thing, as a reader, these types of prologues bore me–they are but thinly disguised sections of info dumping that do nothing to further the story.  I am one of those crazy people who like being plunged straight into the action.

Another type of opening I am not enamored with is the omniscient opening.  I dislike omniscient openings where the first sentence is a description of the weather, part of the scenery, or something in the distance.  The problem with this is that there’s nothing happening, nothing engaging the reader’s mind.  While the description may be prettily worded, there is a certain distance with this panoramic view.  It’s like a Thomas Kinkade painting.  It might scratch the artist’s or author’s ego in constructing the thing, but the audience and reader find it no more substantial than cotton candy.

While an opening with dialogue may seem to solve the problem of distance, I don’t find this ideal either.  Beginning with speech without any description of the speaker gives one the feeling that there is a Voice in the Void.  I admit, while I did not technically start this project with dialogue, I did have dialogue in the second paragraph without describing the speaker first.  This would probably be the first thing I’d fix once I get around to the editing phase.

But as to beginnings on a whole, well, it’s a bit slow going at the moment. I’m still feeling out the characters which I had not defined during my planning stages.  Hopefully this will get easier as I go along.  For tone, I’ve decided to aim for amusing adventure romp.  While any serious meaning and symbolism might sneak into the story, it will definitely not be deliberate.  I want the story to be fun and entertaining.  Most of all, I want to have fun writing this.  I have other things in real life that fulfill my quota for tediousness.