Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nathan Bradford's Challenge

Enter and win!  Nathan Bradford's (psst, he's a real literary agent!) Surprisingly Essential First Page Challenge today (deadline is Wednesday 5:00 PM Pacific Time).  There are prizes, too.   Click on the link for more information.

Good luck!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

On Writing and Atonement (again)

I think Ian McEwan is a master. Whether you like his style or not, he knows how to write. Atonement is very much a story about storytelling -- from the first beginning (as Briony finishes writing The Trials of Arabella to the last scene), it's all about writing.

That's why I want to share with you Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing fiction, and see how McEwan fares with Atonement:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Arguably it depends on the readers. Some people think this book or movie is too slow, not interesting enough. Personally, I think McEwan engages us right from the beginning and makes us think about what we see and how we see things. The first half of the book or movie is very intricate and makes you wonder what happens next. And the ending. Some people may think they've wasted a few hours of their lives because of the ending (some feel that way about the ending of No Country for Old Men as well). To me, the ending brings everything together. I keep thinking about it, so it's definitely not time wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

McEwan's characters are so rich and wonderful. Yes, you may not like Briony or Lola or even Cecilia, but there are many characters we can gladly root for: Robbie, for one, and if he loves Cecilia, who are we to argue with him? Then there's Nettle, Fiona, the French soldiers, etc.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

I think that's where McEwan really excels. Every character wants something, and it's very clear what they want. They have very strong motivations through the end. And these wants and needs create so much conflict. Briony, Cee, and Robbie are strong characters because they have strong desires and needs. Even the peripheral characters want something: Marshall, Lola, Nettle, Fiona, Mrs. Tallis, etc.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.

Again, McEwan does it very well. His prose is very layered. Some may say there's no action but I disagree. His plot is constantly moving forward, even if the pace is slow, but at the same time, reveals much character. The film excels as well in that every frame not only reveal character, but also advance the story. Even if you think the plot is slow in the middle, it never really stops moving. You always wonder what happens next.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

This is very hard to judge. The story starts in 1935 but ends in 1999. But I think what Vonnegut meant is that start as close to the inciting incident as possible... what the story is really about -- and that would be the fountain scene. That's when it sets everything in motion up until the end. Even Briony's story is called Two Figures by a Fountain. Some argues that the story should have enough background about Cee and Robbie to make us care about them more -- I agree, but at the same time, I think the story begins where it should.  The backstories are filled in later.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Again, I think McEwan does it very well. The most awful things happen to the people we care about. And that's what makes drama so riveting. And I'm very interested in seeing the differences in reaction: Some people hate Briony, some think it's way too sad and depressing for them, some didn't really care -- I think that's exactly why it's such a great story, because it really does show us "what we're made of."

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

I think McEwan wrote this to please his wife, and it shows, and I don't think he strives to please everyone. That's why there are so many detractors -- people who hate epic love stories, for example. McEwan didn't write the story for them.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Now I don't agree with that. I think the rule I go by, as a writer, is this: Give your readers as much information as possible WHEN they're ready for it. I like suspense, and I think McEwan did a fine job creating suspense: What happened at the estate on that fateful summer day? What will happen to Robbie and Cee... and he kept the plot close to his vest. That's how I prefer to write as well. But I agree that when the time is right, you need to reveal as much as possible -- for example, the history between Robbie and Cee.  You can't hold back information from them to force "suspense." They need to know where and why, and what is going on.

Here you go, another long analysis about the film. :)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Movies, Literature and Politics

Oh right, like we're going to actually talk about politics. :)

But yes, I've been thinking (something I tend to do a lot). I don't know where to put this, but I think this crowd seems thoughtful and smart, and this relates to the film as well. So here it goes.

Obviously when Upton Sinclair, Cormac McCarthy and Ian McEwan wrote their respective books, they didn't have the Bush administration in mind (I'd say McEwan probably didn't even think about the US at the time). Still, the great thing about art and literature is that we can all take what we can and relate and associate them with our lives and reality, and they're so universal that you can apply to anything, including current affairs and politics. These three Best Picture-nominated films: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Atonement are all "thinking person's film." They are also adaptations from best-selling literature. Their meanings, to me, go deeper than the surface story. And that got me thinking...

The stories, even if they were written years ago (Sinclair's Oil, for example, was published in 1927), tends to have a strong relevance to our world today -- and it may be more pertinent as they are made by contemporary artists in the year 2007, when we're are deep in a war, in a state of paranoia, and with a volatile world economy. So where am I going with this?

First, in There Will Be Blood, the themes of oil, capitalism, greed, ambition, corruption and moral degeneration/spiritual dishonesty seem to really strike a chord with me about the current time. You may say, "Dude, those things happen all the time since the beginning of civilization." Still, I can't help but think about how it all relates to the current world, and if Paul Thomas Anderson is making an allegory of sorts.

As for No Country for Old Men, I think the message is even more obvious. It's not just about good vs. evil, but ultimately how unfair the world is, and that we're trapped in something we have no control over, violent, ruthless, and we're helpless. Even the good guys can't do anything about it. It's indeed no country for old men.

As for Atonement, obviously there's a great sadness associated with the war and suffering, deaths, and loss of innocence. But at the same time, I can't stop thinking of the central story: how a lie, however innocuous and righteous it may seem at the time, no matter how justified one feels about telling it, can indeed be wrong and can send people to war and peril, and ruin lives along the way. And how can we atone for that? Would we become so deep in that hole of denial that we just can't dig ourselves out? And even if we recognize the original lie, do we just shrug it off and say, "Well, the harm's already done. What can we do about it?" Or should we try our best to atone for it, to fix the wrongdoing? (You do know what I am talking about, right, as far as current affairs are concerned)

OK, I will leave now and we can resume our normal programming... unless anyone of you would like to comment on this. Again, I didn't mean to make it a political chat. Just some thoughts on the themes and relevance of the stories we read or see.


So, I guess I really have to set some deadlines if I'm going to get things done. The reason why I am able to write the weekly reviews is, well, it's weekly. There's a deadline, and I somehow meet that every week. The trick to find make it fun so I don't feel like I'm being pressured. That's what I need to do with my other writing:  I have a few other reviews to do; I've promised a magazine editor an article; and I'll be working on some copy writing assignments soon. Not to mention my novel needs a "THE END." I'd better shape up, suck it up, and get down to work and set myself some deadlines. Or else, I will never get anything done.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

It's Been Ten Years!

Yup, it's been ten years. It was 1998 when I started to have that nugget of a novel in my head and I decided that I wanted to write it. It's been ten years since I took my writing classes at UCLA. And it's been ten years since I started on my first attempt (which was abandoned after the first few chapters). 1998. That was when it all started. I'm proud to say that I've achieved what I set out to do ten years ago -- that is, to finish writing a complete novel. Back then, I had no aspiration of getting published. I didn't even know what it entailed. Heck, I didn't even know if I had what it took. Over the following three years, I let a few ideas stew in my head, never quite followed through. But it all started in 1998.

What would I be saying in 2018?

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Power of Words - Atonement

First of all, let me just say Atonement was one of the best movies I've seen in recent years. OK, I'm biased. I love period drama with a romantic core, and I love beautifully shot movies. The book is rather beautifully written, too (although long on descriptions and slow in pace). Since I've been writing a period drama with a romantic core myself, needless to say I was very interested in reading and seeing the film. There's not much in common between my story and Ian McEwan's best-seller, and I can't pretend to think that I can write like him. Still, I was impressed.

The film itself was scrumptiously produced, brilliantly acted, and incredibly intelligent, thanks for the original material as well as Chris Hampton's faithful adaptation, as well as Joe Wright's meticulous direction. What impresses me the most are the layers and complexities in the story and characters that leave a lot of room for interpretation, study, and debate. I love movies like that, movies that not only entertain and enthrall, but also leave you thinking about it for weeks on ends, questioning everything you just saw, and everything you think you knew about the human condition.

Most of all, it is a movie about... WRITERS, and writing. Words. Fiction. The writer's imagination. The writer's God-complex. The writer's inability, sometimes, to distinguish between truth and fiction. The writer's need to hurt or heal through words. It's amazing.

Here's what one reviewer said, and I particularly love this paragraph -- because she got it:

But you can call Atonement a romance only if you take it out of the larger context in which this relationship we see onscreen exists. It serves a much larger purpose, both within the confines of the story onscreen and outside it: Atonement in that larger context is about the power of fiction, the honesty of fiction, and -- ironically -- the dishonesty of fiction.

I think some people who saw the film missed this very important aspect of the story, while talking about Atonement as a "romantic story." It really is larger than that, and it's all about words -- fiction or otherwise. The power of words, from the C-word (had Robbie Turner used a different word such as "lips" or even "breasts" the impact wouldn't have been so potent), to the letters Robbie and Cecilia shared to sustain their love for each other, to the lies Briony told, to the finale, to those incredibly powerful words: "I SAW HIM." It's a story about words. It is amazing to see a film so transparently and yet succinctly speak of the power of words. For a writer, you can't ask for anything better than that.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Are Some Writers Too Good For Their Readers?

Do you think some writers (maybe including yourself) and their works are too good for their readers? Too complex? Too deep? Too layered? Too open for interpretation?

This is an opposite phenomenon to the one where the readers find hidden meanings/layers of which the writer wasn't even aware.

I'm asking because I recently had a discussion with some people about a book and it seems to me a lot of people who have read it missed many of the layers and complexities the writer put into the story. No, I am not talking about obscure symbolism or hidden messages or even themes. I'm talking about subtexts, things being said without saying, character complexity, even narrative structures, etc. It seems to me, from the discussion, that a lot of the readers either didn't pay attention (the writers clearly put the information in there), or they chose to believe certain things despite what the writer wrote -- meaning, they've already made up their minds from the get-go.

Through the discussion, I got a little impatient and frustrated, muttering to myself on some occasions: "Why, aren't you just dim? It is so much deeper than that." I know, I know. It's not very nice, but I honestly am baffled that some people seem to have just skimped the surface and not really gotten the true meaning of the story, which isn't really "hidden." The writer was very clear about it -- I can even quote passages that the writer specifically wrote -- but some people may have ignored or missed them?

And when I mentioned them, these people snapped back and said, "I read the book, too. And that's how I interpreted it. So there." To which I started to say, "Well, apparently the writer is too good for you."

Or is it the writer's fault? That the writer didn't effectively communicate? That not enough time or effort are spent on explaining certain things? That the writer relied too much on the readers' intelligence to "get it"? Or is it just a matter of reading comprehension? Some people get all the details and think about what they read, and some simply skimp/quick-read to get the gist of the story?

I certainly have come across my own readers who, while appreciated my book, didn't exactly get everything. I didn't really mind, but at the same time found it interesting that they would have missed certain things. And I would start to question: What did I do wrong? Was I not clear enough?

So, when you write, what kind of readers do you write for? And how do you manage to communicate what you want, effectively, to those readers?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

It's that time of the year again. I'm going to keep them simple this year:

1. Finish the novel (yeah, I've been saying this for two years now... let's see if I can do it this time)
2. Keep healthy
3. Spend more time with friends and family
4. Have a better, more relaxed attitude about everything