Wednesday, November 30, 2005

An Excerpt A Day - November 30

Time seems to slow down on this jagged bump of an island and fishing village southwest of Hong Kong. A mosaic of at least three hundred boats and junks, large and small -- their long masts and ragged, batten sails wavering about -- drifts in the sheltered harbor. The breeze is damp with the smell of salt and fish.

(from the novel The Pacific Between)

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Silly things

A. Do you know what I really hate? Those theft-proof plastic cases that come with cell phone chargers or PDAs or XM radio receivers or what have you. What's wrong with these people? It takes military weaponry to tear them open. Okay, maybe an ecto knife would work. But boy, those things, when ripped open, are dangerous. What are they trying to protect anyway? It's just as easy to steal the whole darn thing.

B. You know what's weird? And I think most people have done this at least once... I mean, you go to a grocery store or a supermarket thinking you're only going to grab one thing and leave, so you don't take a basket or a cart. Then you find something interesting in aisle 2, and something you like in aisle 5, then something you need but forgot in aisle 12. So by the time you reach the checkout line, you have 12 things in the cradle of your arms, dangling, falling, crinkling and crumbling. And you look ridiculous. Then you drop that carton of milk. Splash...

C. wlitvgeo -- whatever it means. It looks like it may mean something. Something TV Geo something. Wait... I see, it's just a word verification thingy for leaving a comment...

Silly. Silly. Silly.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

An Excerpt A Day - November 29

It used to be the much more obscure but busier entrance to the ER, where I more than once saw a pandemonium unfold -- fire engines, ambulances, and a cast of hundreds. Now it's hushed, like a midnight showing of Ishtar on Super Bowl Sunday.

(from the novel The Pacific Between)

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The Internet really is an interesting place. I've been on the "Internet" for a long time, probably longer than I want to admit. In college, I was very much into email, IRC or Relay chats, and online games. I even became a member of, I believe, the first online fraternity, the Zets. Then around 1995 the Internet exploded with the birth of Mozilla/Netscape and the World Wide Web. I wonder if any of the newbies know what "www" really means. Surfing the web was a big thing. And like everyone else, I had my own "home page." I bet I could still find it on one of these Internet archives.

I've always thought that I dealt better with people, socially, over the Internet. I felt that I could be more relaxed and open about myself. I was a total goofball. Now that I think about it, I realize it's not as if I am a different person. I'm the same person when I'm hiding behind a computer network. The fact is, I AM more relaxed with less inhibitions, and I'm more open about myself. Unlike in real life, I don't feel like I have to "watch what I say" around people (at least, not as much). I figure, if others don't like me or what I have to say, they could always ignore me or just skip my messages. I wouldn't know or care. It's hard to do it in real life when people physically avoid me! On the Internet, I feel free to open up and talk about myself and my life and what makes me tick. If people judge me, I don't know about it and I don't need to bother with it. That's pretty liberating.

Technologies changed over time, but the basic concept of online community is still the same. First we have the bulletin boards, then slowly they turn into online forums. Then we have email, and the concept extended to SMS, etc. Websites become more sophisticated and media-rich, what with video, audio, flash animation, etc. And chat rooms are alive and blooming like never before. Online/interactive games are much more powerful and entertaining.

Then there is blogging, which really is not a new idea. Online journaling is old news, but weblogs have created an easy-to-use environment for everyone -- now you don't need to be a techie to know how to create online contents. It combines the functionality of websites with the flexibility of email. It's a powerful concept.

Who knows what the Net is going to evolve to in the next few years. My thought is that it will continue to expand these basic communication ideas with better and easier tools and richer and more entertaining contents. Personally, I can't wait.

Monday, November 28, 2005

An Excerpt A Day - November 28

Fifteen. I was that age when I had my first kiss behind a rock at Stanley Beach. Her name was May. Or was it April? The kiss was urgent and wet -- I had no idea a good Catholic girl could kiss like that, her tongue wrestling mine. It was also the first time I kissed a girl's breasts. Hers were small but soft, fragrant like strawberry ice cream...

(from the novel The Pacific Between)

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

An Excerpt A Day - November 27

The place is so packed and choked with smoke that there's no sanctuary even in this little corner. Fat asses bump into me as they grind through the narrow passage into the dark recess in the back. Some drunk babbles at me -- government conspiracy, lost fingers to a loan shark, some stupid shit. I just look up at the pipes on the ceiling and wish for death.

(from the novel The Pacific Between)

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Emotional Baggage

We all carry emotional baggages with us. Someone once said, "Our childhood experiences pretty much define how we're going to think and behave as adults." I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. Gawd, as well-adjusted as I'd like people to believe, I carry plenty of baggages with me. I try to explore these baggages in my stories, not as personal catharsis but, rather, as observations and universal themes such as "acceptance" or "respect" or "expectations." I think most people could identify with these baggages.

As a child, I always felt that I could never be good enough. I tried so hard to be perfect, so that my parents and my peers would like and even respect me. I beleived that love had to be earned, not given, and once you earned love, you had to keep at it because it was not eternal or unconditional. As a child, I felt that everything was based on conditions, whether they were good grades, nice manners or awards and honors. Kids like me competed in everything, and everything had a price, including love. When I was a kid, I didn't know or feel that my parents loved me unconditionally (I know better now). I was an overachiever, because a large part of me knew I wasn't perfect, and I had to compensate for that imperfection. I was never the brightest, strongest, fastest, most hard-working kid, and my parents always made sure I knew that. Whenever I fell short, I either had to try harder, or to lie and cover up. A lot of times, the easiest thing for me to do is to deceive my parents (because I was naturally lazy). My brother got disciplined all the time because he wasn't as smart or as (apparently) hard-working as I was. So, to avoid his fate (and the belief I had that he wasn't very well loved by my parents), I wanted to be everything my brother couldn't be. To earn their love, I'd do anything.

Now that I am an adult, I still feel that way, and this feeling extends far beyond my family circle. I continue to have a nagging feeling that if I'm not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, or nice enough, goshdarnit, people WON'T like me. And people not liking me would be the worst punishment in the world, sometimes worse than death.

As my first novel is coming out, this feeling continues to nag me. What if I'm not good enough? What if my parents don't approve what I'm doing? Here I am, practically a middle-age man, and I'm scared of whether my parents would still love me if they find out I'm a failure.

So why do we still carry these baggages with us if we recognize them? Why is it so hard for us to toss them over the side of the road and be rid of them? What does it take for us to stand tall and proud without the extra poundage? Does it involve years of therapy and/or mind-altering pills? What?

My stories explore these questions, and sometimes I present idealized answers. But in real life, I suppose I'm still searching for the real answers. And I can't wait to reach enlightenment. Some day.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

An Excerpt A Day - November 26

Something chirps in the tree. I walk toward it and look up. A cardinal roosts on a fat branch, praising the day. I pick up a camphor seed and place it under my nose -- its raw scent tells of a lost summer, rich and full.

(from the novel The Pacific Between)

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A Letter From Fany

Just when I was starting to slip under the spell of post-holiday blues, I received a letter from Fany, my sponsored child in Cameroon, Africa. She's fourteen now. Since Fany can't really write, Clement Ankouo, a children's club animator wrote for her. Here's what she says (translated from French):

Good day dear Raymond! It's with much joy that I received your letter from the hands of my coordinator. Thank you for everything you do for me and my family. This letter arrived when I was thinking of you and had a precious gift. It was a teddy bear, pack of 14 crayons which I will use in my drawings, to make them beautiful. How do you do? How are your activities? Plan organised sensification campaigns on AIDS and education in my community and everything went on well. That all for now, goodbye.

I'm so glad that my gifts finally got to her, even though it took months. It seems like Plan/ChildReach really does a good job taking care of these communities. Fany seems very happy and healthy. Her community seems to do well with clean water and school projects for the children. Obviously, I have no way of knowing if things are really going well there, unless I personally go to Cameroon. However, I have trust and faith in these organizations. It makes me feel good to be doing something. And it sure is satisfying to make a little girl smile.

Here's Fany from age 10 to 14. Isn't she beautiful?

Friday, November 25, 2005

An Excerpt a Day - November 25

Next to that is a high-contrast portrait of an old, diminutive Chinese lady, sitting on a foot-high three-legged stool in a small stone-paved alley, her face dry like a shriveled prune, laden with deep, crisscrossed lines of life's rich tales. Her eyes droop with sadness, as if she has been waiting for something or someone for most of her life. She's still waiting.

(from the novel The Pacific Between)

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Lecture and Discussion -- Passive Protagonist

Not all protagonists are active heroes. The protagonist could be passive, but only for so long. Eventually he must choose to act. Conflicts are always about choices, and action or non-action comes forth from these choices. "Not doing anything" could be a viable choice. Also, even if the protagonist is reactive to everything that happens to him, he still must have a strong desire and want for something. Without this desire, your protagonist would be dull and weak. But "passive" doesn't necessarily equate "dull or weak."

  • Passive not= dull/weak
  • The lack of strong desire and wants = lack of conflicts = dull/weak
The protagonist must have strong desires or wants, and perhaps struggle with that internal conflict, even if externally he's passive. Let's say, Hamlet. "Not doing anything" is a choice, too. But the reason for "not doing anything" must be a strong one, and Hamlet's full of these strong feelings and desires and wants. That makes him a fascinating character, even if most of the time he chooses not to do anything.

Eventually, the protagonist must choose to act. It's true even in literary fiction where most struggles are internal. Characters are defined not solely by their desires and wants, but also by their actions with regard to these desires and wants. Again, what I'm suggesting here is to make your protagonist's "non-action" a strong, valid choice. It could work in literary fiction, and it could work in genres such as romance, thriller, mystery, etc.

For example:

Pride and Prejudice (literary, romance): Both Elizabeth and Darcy are rather passive in the beginning, both choosing not to act on their attraction to each other, or rather, to act by running away from their feelings. Again, the reasons are very strong. There comes a point in the story they must act to resolve their conflicts.

The Da Vinci Code (techno thriller): Langdon is very passive in the beginning, reacting to almost everything happening to him with confusion and inaptitude. However, there comes a point when he must act to save his own life PLUS satisfy his desire to find the truth.

Misery (horror, thriller): while Sheldon's very passive, he has strong desires, too -- to be rid of Misery....

I think opening a novel when a protagonist must do something is a viable choice, but not always necessary. The idea of hooking the readers in the beginning can be achieved in many ways, most importantly by creating a problem for the protagonist. But IMHO, it's not necessary that the protagonist must take action immediately at the beginning. However, give him a real, strong motivation to act (active) or not act (passive -- maybe based on fear or trying to protect his family or whatever), and your readers will be hooked.

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An Excerpt a Day - November 24

Happy Thanksgiving, by the way! To keep with the day's theme, here's today's excerpt:

Patrick returns from the kitchen with a turkey the size of Gibraltar. Must be at least twenty-five pounds. I gawk. There is karma involved, eating this bird.

Might as well.

(from the novel The Pacific Between)

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Black Friday

Oh my! I opened my email and there were like two dozen ads from different vendors on their Black Friday sales. Sometimes I'm just so tired of this barrage of commercialism in the world. Buy, buy, buy. You won't be happy until you get this thing you absolutely want but ultimately don't need. Buy, buy, buy. Makes me yearn for the quiet country where life is simple. No malls. No ads. No traffic. No Black Fridays.

Except, I've got to have my unlimited broadband Internet access!

(what are you laughing at?)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An Excerpt A Day - November 23

I, too, step forward to the center Buddha, then take an incense stick from the hand of a young monk and kneel onto a crimson praying pad.

Before the golden Buddha, I make a wish.

(excerpt from the novel, The Pacific Between)

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I Wish to be In Los Angeles

OK, I don't necessarily love living there -- the house prices, the traffic... oy! But the weather is generally nice. It's next to the ocean and near the mountains and deserts. And so many fun and hip things to do. For example, next week, Rob Marshall is going to be at ArcLight showing and talking about Memoirs of a Geisha -- how cool is that? If you're into movies, LA really is the place to be. I'm not talking about having "stars" in your eyes. I am talking about meeting interesting people and being close to the industry and learning things about it. Like last month, I met a really cool couple. The husband works as a set designer for TV shows and the wife works as a product placement rep. They are wonderful, friendly people. We had dinner, then they got me to the taping of Will & Grace as a VIP. They didn't even blink. I'd been trying to see the taping for years. It was so much fun. Only in LA do I have that kind of opportunities. I've also met people who have worked on shows and movies that I adore, and sometimes they take me to the set and it's really interesting. I'm such a movie buff that it really means a lot to me to be able to walk on the set and talk to the actors and crew. That's something I really like about LA.

It's Snowing

It's frigging snowing, and it's not even Thanksgiving yet. I love snow, but I don't love what it means. An early snow like this means it's going to be a long, cold, hard winter. It's going to mean getting stuck in 3' of snow having to dig my car out. It means skidding and sliding on the road, endangering myself and everyone around me. It means delays and flight cancelations.

But it also means skiing season. Beautiful wintry landscapes. Fireplaces.

And it's getting closer to my book's release.

I guess I should be happy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

An Excerpt A Day - November 22

... I remember this space. I must have gone up and down these stairs a thousand times. The harsh florescent lights feel oddly comforting, and the hollow echoes of our footsteps conjure nostalgia of flirtations and secret handholding.

(from the novel The Pacific Between)

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Pray For Our Children Lost

Read this story and weep for our children lost. Lost in a culture where guns are as readily available as a pack of gum. Lost in a culture where love is easy and lives are cheap. Lost in a world where the gap between a parent and child is defined by the amount of TV, video games, and violent movies that romanticize dangerous love. Lost in a society where children or their parents are not "responsible" for what they do to others. Lost in the clean, neat suburbs where pain and secrets lurk behind the white picket fences and three-door garages. Lost in a culture where meanness and vengeance are glorified on reality TV. Lost in a world where values are set by money, not by heart. Lost in a place where parents are kids and kids are parents. Lost in a reality where sex is about power and not about love.


Monday, November 21, 2005

A Novel Excerpt A Day...

Let's try something fun... I'm going to post one excerpt from my novel every day, and see if I can keep it up. Hopefully, you'll find them interesting (and completely out of context!). Later, when the book is finally out, I might turn this into a contest. Stay tuned.

Today's passage:

It's time to tell the lawyer the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. She listens intently, her expression impossible to read. The rabbit slumps in the crook of her arm, relaxed and entranced. I lean over. She's so close I can almost touch her. But I know not to come any closer.

Self medication anyone?

Just read the paper and there was an article talking about self medication. No, it's not about taking vitamins and an occasional dose of Tylenol. It seems that among the computer-savvy, college-educated 20-something crowd, self medicating with and sharing of prescription drugs is becoming very common. Ritalin is one of the drugs of choice, especially in college and the work place. While Ritalin helps people become highly motivated, energized and focused, Ambien represents the other end: it calms and sooths and gives the young ones the sleep they crave. Anti-depressants are also popular part of the arsenal.

According to the article, these young people share their prescriptions, go to multiple doctors or manufacture symptoms to get their hands on these drugs. They are not doing it to get high, though, unlike high school kids, and they don't abuse these drugs. The reality is that with the use of the Internet, they've equipped themselves with the knowledge of healthcare and legal, prescribed drugs. They're confident enough to diagnose their own or their friends' problems and self medicate without ever going to the doctors. They don't believe in HMOs. This is the generation that takes matters in their own hands, including their healthcare choices.

Sometimes I feel like an old fart next to a 22 year old. But as far as self medication is concerned, I feel like I'm on the same wavelength. Lord knows when's the last time I went to the doctors. Personally, I don't take any prescription drugs (Claritin is now on the shelves), and I don't need Ritalin to give me a boost or Ambien to help me relax and sleep. I do take herbs and supplements, just nothing that needs a prescription. I can certainly understand the allure of self medication.

The fact of the matter is, I don't trust doctors. At the office, they'd look at me for 5 minutes and pretend to know my entire medical history and my body. Then they'd prescribe five or six drugs with names I can't even pronounce, all with side effects and long-term damages to the liver or heart or kidneys. Excuse me? It has nothing to do with professionalism. I'm a computer professional and I would never pretend to know my client's systems by looking at it for 5 or 10 minutes.

Most of the time, I feel like a sheep being herded through the maze of the doctor's office. "The doctor will be with you," the cheery nurse or nurse's aid would chirp. Then I'd sit there in my nakedness, a silly cloth gown barely covering my genitals. And the doctor would finally come in and only give me his or her precious 5 to 10 minutes. That's all. That's it. 10 minutes. And I'm supposed to believe that the doctor knows everything about me and care about whether I live or die the next day?

Nope. Welcome to the world of HMOs. We are sheep. The only person who really cares about my well-being is me. In the past few years, I've only gone to the doctors three times, I believe. Two general checkups and one time due to a broken hand. Even with the broken hand, the doctor didn't do anything. They took some X-Rays and put a cast on and that was it. Oh, and a small pack of Tylenol. They didn't check back on me or ask me how I was doing. I was on my own. And that's okay. I can take care of myself just fine. My health insurance is just that -- insurance. Just in case I have an accident and end up in the hospital for a fractured skull or ruptured spleen or something. When I get really sick (such was the time when I got really sick in California last month. My digestive system just shut down. Fortunately, my mom gave me some of her pills and I was good to go in a few days) I do need medicinal help. But as far as maintenance and everyday well-being are concerned, I'm on my own.

And you know what? I feel great. I eat well and exercise moderately. I try to get as much rest as possible. I relax and de-stress. I take vacations. I drink a lot of water and stay away from pops. I don't drink or smoke. I don't need anti-depressants even though I do feel like crap on certain days. Every time I do go in and get my regular checkup, I come out with flying colors. It's not about genetics. It's about lifestyle choices. The mind is a very powerful thing.

I think most people in the world are so heavily medicated and dependent on their doctors and pharmacists that they don't know how to take care of themselves anymore. If their doctors tell them to take X, Y, and Z, they do, no questions asked. Granted, some people need these medications. My parents need their pills for high blood pressure, cholestorol, diabetes, etc. etc. Watching them taking handfuls of pills with every meal, I wonder: Would that be me in 20 years? I know I won't be young (relatively speaking) forever. My age spots will show soon, and my hair would fall out, and it's very likely that my body would need some synthetic chemicals to help it function. Still, I want to delay that process for as long as I could. And perhaps I should really look into the whole thing about holistic healthcare.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

What Did My First Novel Teach Me?

Now that my first novel is coming out, I get to think about what lessons I learned from it, and how I benefited from them no matter if the novel is being published or not.

One of the biggest revelations was that I could actually finish something as complex and daunting as a full-length novel. Several years ago, as much as I toyed with the idea of writing a novel, I never thought I could pull it off. Even halfway through writing the novel, I didn't think I could finish it. Then something clicked. I realized I must finish it. It was a quest, a conviction, something I'd known I must start, then knew I must finish.

Because I had a good story to tell. And good stories deserve to be told.

Now the learning curve was rather steep. Prior to starting the novel in November 2001, I had taken creative and novel writing classes at UCLA, so I'd learned techniques such as character sketches, dialogue, conflict, plot development, etc. at workshops. I'd also tried my hands at writing a serial for a few months. These exercises were helpful, but nothing really prepared me for the actual novel -- my very first. What I learned along the way was invaluable, and it's not just about grammar or style or word choices. It's about storytelling. Skills that have not much to do with prose, but everything to do with telling a good story. It's about the fictive dream, how to help the readers reach that state, and how to keep them there.

Some big lessons I learned:

- How to begin a story: I admit I didn't really know what I was doing when I started writing the novel. I had a decent style, and my command of the language wasn't too bad either. But I kept starting the story at the wrong places. I wrote chapters after chapters of character development and settings and back stories. I started the story WAY before the inciting incident. I think that's one of the problems many novice writers like I was faced early in their careers. The early rejections I got were some the the best things that happened to me as a writer. These rejections had similar themes: "The story starts too slowly. Where is the plot? While the characters are interesting, not much is happening in the beginning." My beta readers had said the beginning of the novel felt somewhat slow, but they never told me that was really a problem for them. As painful as these rejections were, I felt fortunate that some agents were honest enough to tell me what they thought was wrong with my manuscript. During the fifth draft, I cut about 15,000 words from the top, moving the beginning of the book closer to the heart of the story. I learned to ask this question: "What is the story really about?"

- Pacing: pacing is about guiding our readers through that fictive dream state. There are times when we should slow down and let them smell the roses and feel the grass and taste the rain and experience the emotions. There are times when we should zip along and create movements and suspense and momentum. As writers, we need to learn when to speed things up and slow things down. When to linger in narrative and descriptions to introduce the world. When to move things along with lively actions and dialogue. When to stay with the characters and understand their wants and needs and conflicts and struggles. When to show and when to tell.

- Dialogue: I've learned a lot about writing natural dialogue. Dialogue doesn't just tell the story. Dialogue, together with action, also tells us about the characters. What makes characters come alive is not how we describe them, but how they speak and act. And it's a skill to have, to know how to create natural, intimate dialogue while conveying information and moving the plot along.

- Self edit: I learned how to edit my own work objectively. It's not easy to do, to step back and evaluate our own work objectively, and to cut, prune, move, alter our own golden words as if someone else had written them. But it has to be done.

There are many other lessons learned as well. Some big, some small. I think that's what makes novel writing so interesting and exciting. I always learn something new. Writing and finishing my first novel made me realize how much I still had to learn, and what wonderful process creative writing is. It's exciting, frustrating, even infuriating. But it's all worth it.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005


This is simply H I L A R I O U S.

Brainy Women Can't Find Dates?

Let's try something a bit controversial, especially after we talked about Pride & Prejudice...

Do brainy women have hard times finding dates?

Some of my thoughts on the "alpha women" -- you know, the types you see on the Apprentice:

Why would a man, after a long day at work dealing with aggravating personalities, want to come home to an alpha woman who treats him like he's beneathe her? And why would a woman, after a long day at work dealing with aggravating personalities, want to come home to be treated like a little woman by an alpha man?

It's not to say beautiful, successful women all have attitude problems. But men do get intimated, because of the perceived problems with dating a woman like that -- first, she's beautiful, so unless I'm equally gorgeous, I'm not worthy or I'm going to have a lot of competition; second, if she's also successful, then I'd feel inferior to her unless I'm also very successful.

But when a man is both handsome and successful, he probably doesn't have problem getting dates... Interesting, isn't it?

Our society seems to have a double standard. When the man is the bread-winner and he's smart and successful and the woman is just a backdrop to his glory -- the supportive wife behind a successful man -- all is well. But if the table is turned (say, Hilary Clinton or Martha Stewart), then the woman is viewed as a bitch, a siren, a man eater... etc. etc. At that level of cultural consciousness, I think it's very difficult to change people's minds.

Thus this advice from mothers, no matter how sexist and misogynist it sounds: If you want to catch a man, dumb it down. And NEVER correct his grammar.


Saturday, November 12, 2005

Classics and Movies

I don't get it. Pride and Prejudice, the new film with Keira Knightley, is out in theaters this week. Don't get me wrong, Keira is stunning in the film and the cinematography looks scrumptious. But how many times can we remake the same story? TV movies, mini series... Just last year there was the "Bride" & Prejudice remake with the equally gorgeous Aishwarya Rai.

That brings me to the question: Why do people keep adapting the same classic novels to the screen? Are some stories more cinematic than others, or are filmmakers so out of ideas? Or do people simply love these stories so much they don't mind seeing new productions with new actors -- kind of like how different orchestras play the same pieces of classical music? Or are these stories so popular that the films are guaranteed to make money?

And what are some of the most adapted-to-screen stories out there? lists at least 8 or 9 Pride & Prejudices. A few weeks ago Isaw a remake of Oliver Twist. I think they're remaking To Kill a Mockingbird now. Of course, there was the Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds and Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this year.

I wonder, when will they start making my novels into movies over and over and over and over again? How long do I have to be dead first?

Or when will they remake Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? Hopefully after Daniel Radcliffe becomes a juvenile delinquent first.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Electronic Paper

Remember the scene in Minority Report, in the subway, where Tom Cruise's character was reading the headlines of a man's electronic version of USA Today? How cool was that. Well, perhaps we don't have to wait until 2025 for it.

Thanks to Jill, I came across this article about the eInk technology. I've been hearing and reading about electronic paper, on and off, for the last few years. What's amazing is that the emerging hardware/software technology won't limit application to print media only. Powered by wi-fi, it could become the next wave of mobile devices -- Internet, IM, calls, even interactive media.

How exciting.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Are We Ever Good Enough?

I was talking to a friend this past weekend, and he showed me something he wrote on his experience at the Burning Man Festival. I was in awe with both his genuine style, details and the experience itself. Definitely made me want to go.

Then he said something to me that made me ponder: "I don't feel like I did a good job writing it. There were just so many things I wanted to say, so many experiences I wanted to share, and so many feelings that I can't find words to describe. I feel very frustrated."

Trust me, my buddy, my pal. I know that frustration.

I think that's the writer's curse. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try and how well we write, we still can't convey to others all that is in our minds, hearts and souls. We can't help but feel handicapped, impotent, or inadequate. We so desire to express ourselves, but somehow we feel that our thoughts and experiences get lost in translation.

But this is what I told my friend:

It's okay.

It's not our job, I think, as writers to brain dump everything to other people. We are communicators, not engineers or data processors. What we are doing here is to lead and help other people to experience and feel what we, as humans, do.

Our lives here is to experience life, and a lot of times, it's okay to keep these experiences to ourselves. We don't have to share everything, and there's no need for others to "get it" completely.

There are two sides of this literary coin.

On one side is the writer. Writers experience life, and indulge themselves in all kinds of thoughts, emotions and experiences. We could experience these things through our imaginations, or actual, physical, mental or spiritual journeys. Then we communicate -- we build a window, so people from the other side can get a glimpse of what we've just experienced.

On the other side is the reader. Through the writers, the readers get to experience these thoughts, emotions and experiences, and if they're lucky, they get to go on these journeys as well.

A writer must remember that it's impossible for a reader to ever experience everything a writer does. Impossible. And that's okay. The idea is not that a writer must be able to share everything with the reader. The idea is that the writer helps the readers on that path of that discovery. Give them a glimpse and a taste of what is possible, stir their imagination and their soul. If only just a little.

I told my friend: As much as you think you've failed to express every thought and share every experience, you have succeeded in bringing me into your world and I appreciate that you let me take a glimpse and experience even just a small part of what you did and went through. What is important is that you have allowed me to walk next to you and see what is possible. You've succeeded in stirring my curiosity and my senses -- and suddenly I am there, through my own imagination and my own filters and experiences. You've allowed me to create my own reality. After reading your writing, I want to go there and experience it, first hand. And that is power. The power of provocation and evocation. The power of ideas. The power of imagination.

And that's the power we should cherish as writers.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

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Dawno just informed me of a free service called Feed Blitz. You can now subscribe to my blog and get email updates whenever I update the blog. Cool?

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Thanks to Joanne I suddenly realized how many books on my nightstand I still have to finish reading. Yikes. Can I have another 5 hours in a day?

So, here was the meme:

1. Take first five novels from your bookshelf.
2. Book 1 -- first sentence
3. Book 2 -- last sentence on page 50
4. Book 3 -- second sentence on page 100
5. Book 4 -- next to the last sentence on page 150
6. Book 5 -- final sentence of the book
7. Make the five sentences into a paragraph.
8. Feel free to "cheat" to make it a better paragraph.
9. Name your sources
10.Post to your blog.

Here are my results:

Marla started going to the support groups since it was easier to be around other human butt wipe. Then the class captain would blow his whistle and we'd march in a single file to our classrooms, longing for winter already, greeted instead by the specter of yet another long school year. "Marguerite..." he whispered. I listened as he moved away and then I went back to sleep. From up here, a half mile above the Earth, everything looked perfect to me.

(I changed one word, from "looks" to "looked," to keep with the tense)



Aloft by Chang-rei Lee
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Five People You Meet In Heaven
by Mitch Albom
True At First Light by Ernest Hemingway



On Character Descriptions

I think the problem with novice writers is WHEN to describe your characters, if at all. It sounds really stupid when a first-person narrator stops in the middle of a scene and says, "You know, I am blonde with blue eyes and a really good-looking guy with dimples to spare." Why? If it's important information then the readers should know as soon as possible, but when? In the middle of what scene? Why does the narrator stops and talks about his looks?

Even if the narrator only "refers" to his looks as in: "I washed my face and noticed a tuft of my thin, blond hair in the sink," we still wonder -- why is the narrator mentioning "thin, blond hair"? Why not just "tuft of my hair"? Most people wouldn't say things like: "I noticed my jet-black, wavy hair." It just sounds very stupid.

However, there are clever ways to describe your narrator without breaking POV or sounding stupid. For example: "She kept staring at me, and I suddenly became self-aware of the pimple on my face, and the thinning hair on my head." The point is, keep with the scene, action, and characterization.

Third-person narrative has similar issues. When does the narrator stop and describe the character's look? And why? And if it's close 3rd person, then the author has a POV issue:

Mary brushed her fingers through her dirty blond hair.

Bad writing notwithstanding, there's a subtle POV violation, even though Mary KNOWS she has dirty blond hair, because she isn't really looking at her hair and noticing: "Ah, my hair really is dirty blond." Descriptions like that work better if the narrator is clearly separate from the character. In a "close" 3rd person narrative, where the narrator's voice is the same as the character's, the author must take care not to violate the POV by observing characteristics that the character won't.

Avoid cliches such as looking at a reflection in the mirror or a pool of water. There's nothing inherently wrong with the mirror device, but cliches are always boring and, sometimes, laughable -- reminds us of the cheesy B-movie moment when Frankenstein's monster looks into the river and goes "Errrgghhhhh!"

Some other neat tricks to describe pertinent information about a character:

- Use action for characterization: I slid my palm over my face, grazing over the long scar on my left cheek. The scar my father branded there. The scar that seared not only my flesh, but also my soul.

Use other characters or dialogue: She noticed the long scar on his face, and wondered what had happened to him. "You hair looks very nice today," he said nervously, "like ripples of sunshine."

On Rejections

Take the "awful writers who will never get published" out of the equation first. Given that your book is indeed good, I truly believe that the more you submit, the better your chances of finding the right agent or publisher.

Every one of my rejection helped me move forward toward acceptance. Either I improved my queries, or updated my ms. based on repeated suggestions, or I learned to target the market better. Also, it made my skin so much thicker. By the time I accumulated 25 rejections, I was submitting like clockwork, efficient and without any kind of "oh geez, they really don't like me" self-doubt. I also learned to look for the right agents and check all the guidelines. By rejection #40 I was a lean, mean submission machine. And by rejection #65, I got accepted.

It could happen to you.