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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Ghosts For the Early 21st Century

I am preparing an collection of ghost stories. I wrote down thirty possible titles and from that number, selected the ones that would most intrigue the reader. I had to discard a title called 'Digital to Analogue' because I discovered that it is also the title of a 1991 short story by Alastair Reynolds. (By coincidence, both my planned story and Reynold's story mentioned Joy Division -  does this mean that great minds plan alike, eh? One day I'll sign a huge publishing contract too.)

There is no unifying theme to my collection because I hope to include a variety, like a tin of Quality Street or Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. "Ya never know what ya gonna get!". Consistent shivers are my goal. I noticed that most of my stories so far involve children as ghosts or as protagonists. This is not a coincidence. The bogeymen and spooks of yesteryear do not scare children these days but I'm not too sure how to write the lack of Internet connection as a major fright. 
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Tuesday, 29 December 2009

CPR For Fictional Characters

Lots of elements make up a story: Words. Sentences. Paragraphs (not necessarily in that order...) But there is no formula and no chemical equation:

Words + Sentences= WorSen

As listeners fixate on the lyrics of a song, readers tend to focus on fictional characters as a convenience. It's more accessible than waxing lyrical about plot mechanics and symbolism. The most common question is,'Who's your favourite character?'
Characters are assigned dimensions (such as E.M Forster's famous categorizations of 'flat' and 'round') tonalities (one-note) and shades ('dark', 'light') They are as diverse as people.
As I mentioned in my last post, characters are not people (Soylent Green is). As a writer, they come from you but they are *not* you. I'm not recommending you try spirit channelling as inspiration (Shirley McClaine went there in the late 1980's and wrote books about it) and this is not multiple personality disorder. Consider the following Zen saying:

'You are not the reflection in a mirror and yet, the reflection is you.'

When your reflection is all bad hair day and pimply eruptions, that is not the actual you, just an aspect manifesting at that time: ugly/beautiful, good/evil, etc....all the polarities are correct and present. Often too many words are devoted to physical description. Forget about outsourcing ideas at this stage, now focus on 'in'sourcing.

I am often asked how to breathe life into characters. (Due to my propensity for garlic bread,  I tend to nauseate mine). I never liked that image, as it conjures up dodgy images of life-size inflatable dolls. How do I make my characters stand out? Apart from making all the characters in my next novel, sore thumbs...

A revelation sprang from another creative craft - ACTING. The connection between writing and acting is not new. Shakespeare and Marlowe were actors. Rod Serling once observed that writers are frustrated actors. You may think Mr. Serling spent too time in front of the TV cameras filming 'The Twilight Zone' but he observed that a writer inhabits, 'The hidden auditorium of his skull."

If Serling's imagery sounds too mentally suspect, bear in mind that actors don't have the luxury of conveying the character's thoughts and emotions to the audience as words on pages.  Feelings must be conveyed through succinct action and speech. The message is clear to writers - move out of your characters' headspaces. Write less of "he/she thought/felt/wondered." and more action and precise choice of dialogue.

Watch serious interviews with renowned actors/actresses about their craft. I recommend PBS' excellent Inside The Actor's Studio series. But do not complain that the acting process is contrived. Well then, what are you doing creating people and worlds that don't exist?

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"Haunted House Hunting" mentioned in The Sunday Star

My short story, "Haunted House Hunting" was mentioned in The Sunday Star (December 27th 2009) and online at The

A summary of my story begins the article about the City of Shared Stories Kuala Lumpur website.

Ending 2009 on a small but glowing feeling of achievement.
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Monday, 28 December 2009

"What's On your Mind" Collage?

My collage of Facebook status updates.

Get this application on Facebook, it's called 'My Year In Status'. Don't worry, you can select the non-cringeworthy updates from your 2009.
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Sunday, 27 December 2009

My 'City of Shared Stories' stories

Suburban Guerrila

My grandfather often told me tall stories. Such as the clump of haunted banana trees at the garden wall. The trees housed the spirits of nine children who had died during a neighbourhood bout of botulism in the late ‘70s. There was a brick altar to the Earth God near the trees . At the back of our garden was a wire fence. Beyond this fence was the catchment pond. His latest yarn was of the elderly Australian corporal hiding in the thick undergrowth near the drainage pond for rainwater, still believing that the war was ongoing in Malaya. One Sunday, Grandfather left packets of imported Anzac biscuits and cans of Heinz baked beans for the soldier by the wire fence.
When the charade continued the following Sunday, I asked Grandfather, “Why doesn’t someone call social services? Surely this Australian has a family who are looking for him?”

“He has no family. He told me.”

“You spoke to him?”

“He’s not crazy.”

“Apart from the fact that he still thinks there’s a war?” I asked, “He needs to see a doctor. What if it rains? What about snakes and mosquitoes? What does he eat?”

“He’s a veteran at living off the land”

“What if he comes into our garden to attack imaginary Japanese soldiers?”
“ We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it-“

“No we won’t because he would have blown up the bridge. What if he comes into our house and scares Grandma while she’s taking a bath?”

“Anyone will surrender if they see your grandmother naked! Hahahah!” Grandfather found this image so funny that the Milo he had been drinking shot out of his nose.
Haunted House Hunting
"There's a haunted house nearby," I sometimes say to a friend in the car after a late night.
Depending on their spiritual beliefs or level of inebriation, most of them of scoff or make silly gibbering noises, but all of them indicate their interest, "Where is it?".
"Down a road that leads off this main road".

And we take the detour.

"Haunted? By what? Who?" my friends launch a volley of questions, fired off by sudden curiosity.
"I'm not sure, " I say, "but a friend knew one of the previous owners and that owner calls it, 'The Vampire House.'
"Really?". I always detect slight disappointment in their tone. No ephemeral ladies in white, knockings or footsteps. Just vampires. Nocturnal haemoglobin addicts watered down and romanticized by mainstream popular culture.

"Here!" I declare and slap the dashboard. My friend normally pulls over to the roadside. We're before the house. Low garden walls, empty driveway,overgrown grass and shuttered windows. The windows are the eeriest - are the shutters meant to keep something in or out? The 'For Sale' sign affixed to the front gate, and the contact number is long faded. We wait. My friend dares me to get out of the car, or I dare them. Once I'm out, I always walk up to the gate and knock. On occasion I pretend to knock and shake my fist at the gate. We scramble back inside, my friend locks the car door. Sometimes, my friend drives away, frantic and yet grateful for the free thrill.

But I've been lucky so far: one night I'll knock and I may get an answer. From the current unseen occupants.

Hard Labour, Tough Medicine
The signboard read, 'Lourdes Clinic'. But I was not looking for a miracle as I pushed the door open, I just wanted a half a day off work. I leave my company's name with the receptionist and sit down on the blue plastic seats, rubbed shiny from heavy use.
The two construction workers sat across from me. Hard hats resting in their laps and overalls streaked with paint and dust. Both coughed as if they had inhaled rusty nails and their swollen eyes threatened to pop out of their sockets. They still wore their laminated ID tags, "PJ Suites". I knew their worksite, I could see it from the window in the waiting room. In one year, men and machinery would finish scouring the section of roadside next to my office block, and assemble piles of steel rods and cement bags into a framework of metal that would resemble the oasis of urban living and retail as depicted in the artist's impressions.
I moved to the next row of seats, and looked out of the clinic's window. I frowned at the site as if I were the foreman, spotting a distant infraction. Even through the walls of the clinic, I heard the thumps of incessant piling, almost obscene in its steady rhythm. A rundown bus parked at the entrance to the site, unloading the next shift of construction workers. The door to the doctor's office opened and a nurse ushered the two workers inside. When workers are part of a relentless machinery, medicine cannot cure all of their occupational sicknesses.
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Saturday, 19 December 2009

Nobody You Know: Snappy Answers to Questions About Character

I've never done those stereotypes attributed to writers: I don't chain smoke at my typewriter, have crazy hair, take long brooding glances out of my study window or start fights in literary cafes. But I may have to resort to fisticuffs if a particular trend keeps persisting - I've had to tolerate silly questions about character.

 It is vaguely insulting to assume that a writer's fiction is confined to his/ her experiences - Did Agatha Christie write about murder by going out to commit a few? Did Ray Bradbury make any trips to Mars? Has JK Rowling ever run a school for wizards? Did Philip K Dick converse with sentient beams of pink light? (hmmm, perhaps PKD is not the best example...)

 This assumption especially applies to the issue of character. "I don't put people into my books", Evelyn Waugh once wrote, "they *take* themselves out." meaning that someone, somewhere may take a shine to your work and claim that character A/B/C resembles someone they know. Hence that useful disclaimer on the inner flap of your work, "any resemblance in this work to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."

There are courses, manuals and dissertations on how to create characters, but I assure you, a writer does not sit in Starbucks all day with a sketchbook and pencils, transcribing other people's conversation and sketching their likenesses. A story may shape the characters, not vice versa

In short - a writer has no control over his/ her characters. In the initial planning stages, characters flit around like ghosts and if you're lucky, they may relay to you some clues about the purpose of their existence. Nor does a writer have any control over the responses to the characters. In that respect, let me help you answer the following awkward questions:

1) Is Character X/Y/Z based on anybody you know?

Give me more credit! I don't actively people my fictional worlds with people I already know. What a total mismatch. It would be like pasting newspaper clippings onto a fresco.

2) Is Character X/Y/Z based on anyone *I* know?

Print out and hold your Facebook friends list next to the character description and draw your own conclusions.

3) Did someone piss you off and you put them into nasty situations in your stories, to get back at them, if only in an imaginary sense?

Wow, what a twisted question! (Writers of horror fiction are especially afflicted with this question.) All fiction is about pain and conflict. If you want to read about hearts and flowers, then go buy a Hallmark card.

4) Is the protagonist based on yourself?

This question is probably why I've shied away from using first person in my published work. Or even worse, if the protagonist is a male : "Is the protagonist a male version of yourself?" I don't conceive of male versions of myself unless I want a very specific type of cheap operation performed in Thailand...

5) Miss Lee, is male character X/Y/Z based on any of your exes?

Now its getting too personal. Stop your prying, my handheld bowel-disruptor is set to 'Unspeakable Gut Horror'. Fiction is not a confession, and I'm not trying to get onto Oprah's Book Club shortlist by splattering my guts on the page.

6) Are the parental figures in your stories based on your own experience?

Hahah, a question that springs from the assumption that all writers must have had horrid childhoods. Some early history of trauma or tragedy, because artists seem to suffer for their work and if there is evident pain then the work is deemed 'genuine'. The proliferation of all those child abuse memoirs lining the shelves these days only proves the commercial viability of this flawed thinking.
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Thursday, 17 December 2009

City of Shared Stories

As an analogue to their London site,  Spread the Word and The British Council Malaysia have set up City of Shared Stories Kuala Lumpur . You write your story and get to mark the locale of the story on a map of Kuala Lumpur with a cute red flag. As of now the map is starting to look like the planned manoeuvres of an invading army.

 I have already contributed two short stories ( really really short, the limit is 1600 *characters*. 'Lean and mean', people, keep your pieces lean and mean...)
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