Sunday, August 27, 2006

How to edit a story?

Writing stories is not an easy task -- not everyone can do it, and certainly not everyone can do it well. It doesn't mean the first draft has to be perfect, though. As author James D. MacDonald said: You're allowed to write badly. First drafts only. As the cliche goes: Most stories are not written; they're re-written.

After the first draft, check for the following problems and fix them:

1. Starting with descriptions of place or person with no dramatic tension

2. Starting with a big bang. Then the rest just frizzles, or we don't really care because we don't know the players yet

3. Failure to put a character in a situation or present a problem or conflict or dilemma

4. Lack of suspense or momentum -- either everything has been laid out in the beginning, or nothing is revealed through the piece or at the end

5. Cliches -- characters ("the beautiful blonde debutante" or the "tall, dark, and handsome ranch help"), dialogue ("Go ahead, make my day!" he bellowed), phrases ("I have frog in my throat" or "it sent a shiver up my spine"), plot (boy and girl meet cute...), purple prose

6. POV problems -- head-hopping, random POV shifts, subtle POV violations -- that shows the lack of knowledge and control

7. Pacing -- too snappy (too much dialogue and no descriptions) or too slow (too much detail)

8. Overuse or misuse of dialogue tags (he screamed, she laughed, they responded, she retorted, he reported, she smiled...)

9. Illogical or awkward flow -- the story doesn't flow well; the sentences are choppy or overwrought; the paragraphs don't make logical sense, etc.

10. Redundancy -- dialogue ("I'm tired," he said, yawning, "I'm really tired. I worked sixteen hours today so I am tired."), prose (do we need to hear you describe how tired Mr. Smith is, three times?), adjectives/adverbs ("she was beautifully radiant, absolutely gorgeous" or "It's as clear as the summer sky in July")

11. Too much internal monologue or thoughts -- it's not particularly interesting how the person thinks or feels, especially without a real situation or problem or conflict; but if you're showing his reaction to a conflict, sparse use of internal thoughts may add to the character's depth. But please, don't overdo it

12. Poor mechanics -- grammar, spelling, punctuation, overtly long sentences, too many fragments, too perfect, too sloppy, etc.

13. Info dumping

14. Bad dialogue -- cliched, stilted, info dumping, too long, too grammatically correct, talking head, trivial dialogue...

Things I (don't) need to do before I die...

1. Getting published by the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly

That's every (ok, almost every) writer's dream to be published by these giants in the literary-journal world. Being published in them may lead to bigger, better things or, if nothing else, at least validate me as a worthy writer. Does being published by TNY or AM really means I'm a great writer? Not necessarily. But many great writers have been and will be published by them, so I'll be in great company. Truth is, I am not totally impressed with everything that has ever been published there. I'm sure the editors see the pieces they publish as worthy and wonderful and even trendsetting, but it all comes down to taste. Art is about taste, and sensibility. If a writer happens to strike a chord with an editor, and as long as he or she can put grammatically-correct sentences together (and sometimes you can even skip that step because they have copy editors), it's payoff time. Some may argue that TNY or AM are elitists, and they encourage literary elitism; and judging from some of their "cutting edge" stories and poetry, it may not be too far from the truth. Then again, it may just be sour grapes. I'll probably think differently once I get published -- if I ever get published -- by them. In the meantime, I am not holding my breath. I'll buy the champagne if I need to.

2. Traveling around the world on a private yacht

It's a nice idea, especially when I'm independently wealthy. But then there's sea-sickness. Watching me puke my face out would not be a pleasant experience, and I WILL make you watch. Just take me on a huge ocean-liner -- the bigger the better.

3. Hang-gliding across the Grand Canyon

I'm perpetually afraid of height. I'll try anything at least once, though, and I've flew (flown -- these pesky past participles) in airplanes many, many times. You can take me up in the air with an aluminum triangle with a canvas smaller than a personal camping tent, and I won't scream bloody murder. I'm adventurous. Just make sure I can cross the entire Grand Canyon in less than five minutes, okay?

4. Dating a supermodel

It's 4:44 A.M. on Sunday and I'm not fully awake yet. Cool?

5. Join the Polar Bear Club

You know, those crazy guys who do winter bathing, sometimes naked, and sometimes actually in the North or South Pole. Sounds really cool... I mean cold. BRRRRRR. Maybe I'll do it when I'm 85 so if I died from pneumonia, at least I'd be old.

More to come...

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Thinking of them...

I was a little sick in the past few days and I slept quite a bit, and had a lot of dreams. For some reason, I got really nostalgic in my dreams -- many people from my past appeared in the dreams and many lost opportunities to get to know them better ... it was very bitter-sweet, except when I woke up I got really sad and I just crawled back in bed and thought maybe I was dying and now my past was playing back like a movie. And I realized, in the past few years I haven't really fully engaged the people in my life as much as I did in my 20s, because I was afraid that one day they would be gone, just like the people in my life in my 20s, and I will just wake up one day a lonely old man with nothing but his memories. As I looked out the window and watched the street lamps flickering in the early morning mist, I'm I am so eager to see my parents again, and soon they, too, will be just part of my memory. And I should cherish every moment I have with them.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Amazing Race

So, on the newest incarnation of the Survivor, they're going to team the contestants by race: white, black, Hispanic, and Asian. Interesting. I wonder whose brilliant idea that was.

ABC said the casting decision was to answer the criticism that the show didn't have enough diversity. While I applaud them for including more minorities, I just can't understand the purpose of pitting the contestants against each other along racial lines. Why? Are they trying to make some kind of a statement? Are they trying to show racial empowerment? Or are they just interested to see if the racial myths are true, that one race is stronger than the others, whether physically, intellectually, or spiritually? In a way, I think it's interesting, because the Survivor has always been a fascinating show for observing social, political and cultural dynamics, and one can argue that racial issues are some of the trickiest. Perhaps the producers are on to something here.

Last season they pitted the men against the women, at least initially. I didn't watch the show; I don't know how well that went and what they learned from the experiment. NBC did the same thing with the Apprentice as well.

On the other hand, real life doesn't reflect that kind of divisions. Men and women work and live together. People of all races do the same. It's 2006 and we should be talking about integration and racial harmony, not segregation. I seriously hope that the Survivor would handle this twist with sensibility and heart, and not for "entertainment value" alone.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Favorite places to write

I used to love writing at Starbucks. The lattes are good, and the vibes are excellent. But it is a little noisy, and you have to pay for wireless connection -- these days, who would PAY for wifi? I still like Starbucks, but now I have other choices.

Book stores are good alternatives. Many chain stores have coffee shops and they are good places to chill, read, and write. Most people who go to book stores love books, so they don't tend to bother others while they're browsing. Besides, it's nice to be able to get up and grab a reference book or a dictionary from the shelves when I need them.

Independent coffee shops are catching up. I still prefer the overpriced fraps and lattes at Starbucks, but there are many things I like about small indies. They're usually quieter and more comfortable, with better background music. Many writers and artists tend to hang out at indies so you get a really nice mix of creative types. The Bohemian crowd can be very entertaining. Also, there's something good about supporting your local businesses. Many indies now offer free wifi, so that's a big plus.

I also enjoy Panera Bread. I like the idea of having food and drinks (and free refills) close by and I can write all day. They also have free wifi, so I can just grab a cup of tea and a croissant, and stay there for a while. Lately, though, parents have been taking their kids to Panera because school is still out and they have no babysitters, I suppose. There's nothing more annoying than trying to work while a baby is screaming from three feet away.

I tend not to like libraries. They're often too stuffy, too quiet, and too... weird for me. I don't know why, but I just don't seem to be able to focus in libraries. They kind of spook me. Besides, food and drinks are not allowed in many areas except the cafeteria, and I like to stuff myself while I write.

I can't write at home either. I get cabin fever and I need to surround myself with people, even if they're strangers. Writing at home seems like a dream to many writers, but to me, it's a prison. There are too many distractions and I usually just end up surfing the web or taking a nap. Whenever I see a movie or TV show in which the writer is comfortably writing at his or her home office, I'll go, "Good for you, but it sure ain't working for me."

Hotel rooms are okay, but then the cabin fever sets in as well. I end up just want to get out and do something instead of sitting at the desk and write.

I did my best writing at coffee shops, and I don't see how that's going to change any time soon.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Jokes Are Funny Things...

Jokes are funny things, and I didn't mean it as a pun.

Jokes are funny (or not) very much dependent on the mood of the person who hears or reads them. Most silly jokes are funny because they tickle us in a very basic, universal way. "One peanut says to the other, 'I am a salted.' " That's cute.

Then you have the blonde jokes, the men or women jokes. Well, they are funny in a broad, generalized way but are they really? It's not really that funny if you're a blonde and you've heard one too many blonde joke. Or a man who hears another penis joke. Or a woman who hears another PMS joke or "why women can't drive" joke. We chuckle and brush these jokes off because, well, they are pretty funny, and in general, they don't mean any harm. They are more like social commentaries. The "men vs. women" jokes are funny because in a very twisted way, they speak the true about gender differences and the on-going battles of the sexes. These jokes are considered funny and less offensive because they carry a small nugget of truth, even at the expense of the targets of their ridicules.

Politicians, celebrities and public figures are open for the season. Paris Hilton must have skin as thick as her makeup (ba da bing). * my apologies, Mr. Hilton *

Gay jokes are considered a no-no now, unless told by gay people and their friends. Jokes about disabled people are also considered bad taste. Fat jokes are also a taboo. So what's left?

And how about racial jokes, or jokes about a certain nationality. We've all heard them. Polish jokes. French jokes. Asian jokes. Black jokes. Muslim jokes. Are we too desensitized about them? Is it really okay to tell yet another "Koreans eat dogs" joke? Are those people offended by them too sensitive, and should they just get over it?

I am good natured enough that I don't mind an occasional Chinese or Asian joke. Many of them are funny, in a non-malicious way. "Chinese people name their children by dropping silverware in the sinks." HAHA. Personally, I avoid telling any racial jokes at all, and when I do tell a Chinese joke, it's all done in a self-deprecating, shrug-it-off way. Much like gay people calling themselves "fags" or black people calling themselves "n***gers," in a way, it's a way to reclaim our dignity and identity and brush the hate away. Say what you want, but I don't give a damn.

But there is a line. And don't call me "sensitive" when someone crosses the line and I feel offended. Because these jokes, however trivial we think they are, are still hurtful to some people. And done in a malicious way, they are doubly hurtful.

Recently, someone online posted a supposedly funny joke entitled "Nuke and Eat a Cubie." While not many people thought it was funny, not many people challenged it either, even after they realized "Cubie" means Cuban. The word that bothered me was "nuke." To me, that hints as something malicious. While some people might think, "Oh, the guy's just playing with words and the situation about Cuba and its nuclear weapons," for some reason, I just found it offensive, and I am not even Cuban.

I mean, imagine a line like "Nuke and Eat a Jewie" and you will see people up in arms calling it anti-semitic. What offended me was that, somehow, "Cubans" are fair game.

Then the person made another off-colored joke about Koreans eating dogs. That was the last straw for me.

Perhaps I am having PMS. Perhaps I am having penis envy. Perhaps I am actually a blonde. Or Polish. Or "retarded" (oh, that's the word you can't even use anymore, but somehow, it's okay to keep saying "but don't you Chinese eat dogs?"). Maybe the guy just caught me off guard at the wrong time. My sensitivity meter is way off the chart.

What disappointed me was that people I respected and liked also didn't think it was such a big deal. Instead of saying "it is really in bad taste," they just say "Oh, Ray, you're just being sensitive." Excuse me? It is fine if you personally don't find the joke offensive, but when someone does, please at least try to acknowledge the issue and not brush it off as "Oh, you're just being sensitive." I feel like I can't even challenge something that is offensive to me. That, somehow, if I openly criticize the person who made the joke, I will be seen as unreasonable and silly and, worse, a crybaby.

That's the worst feeling, to feel that you're alone, and the whole world is laughing at you because you're "too sensitive." That even your friends don't care because, well, they haven't said a thing about it.

It's hard, sometimes, to tell where that line is. A joke is funny until it's not. What I'd like for everyone to understand is this: if someone tells you the joke isn't funny, and that it is offensive, take it back and think about it. Perhaps they're wrong. Perhaps they are right. But don't just brush it off. Be mindful that there is a line somewhere, and maybe you really have crossed it.

Humor is a personal thing. And when it gets personal, "sensitive" is not a dirty word.