Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

the happy feet tales: baby steps

Once upon a time, in a big city on one of the big islands of a tropical archipelago close to the equatorial belt where the best coffee in the world grows, there lived a pair of feet.

They were happy feet.

The happy feet loved to walk. Oh, how they could walk! The right happy foot and the left happy foot would take turns being in front, one after the other, walking around the city, getting from one place to another, doing what they were made to do.

But the happy feet were attached to the ankles of a lazy writer who stayed indoors for weeks on end, her bottom growing roots into her armchair as she typed boring articles and surfed the Intarwebz for hours and hours.

The happy feet didn’t get to go out much. That made them sad.

One day the lazy writer’s doctor-classmate-from-school said: You must exercise. I recommend walking. Everyday.

But how, the lazy writer asked.

Baby steps, he said. Take baby steps.

One day, the lazy writer put on a pair of wooden sandals. They were also called “Happy Feet“. The lazy writer’s happy feet loved them because they were light, which meant they could move faster.

They were cool, so the happy feet would not feel hot even on a blazing summer day.

They were open, and the happy feet loved that best of all! Because that meant the happy feet’s toes could wiggle and jiggle and wriggle like toes love to do.

The lazy writer took a cab to work because she was late for a meeting, as she usually was. On her way back home, she remembered her doctor-classmate-from-school’s advice. Baby steps, she told herself. I will walk home.

The happy feet were so excited!

The right happy foot and the left happy foot took turns taking baby steps, one in front of the other, walking towards home, as their toes wiggled and jiggled and wriggled with joy.

They walked dusty gray pavements, but they didn’t mind; there were many things to see along the way.

The happy feet met a plant that grew close to the ground. Its stalk and leaves were very green and they reached out to passing feet. Clip-clop, clip-clop, went the happy feet in the wooden sandals past the plant-in-the-pavement.

Along the way there was a sign for the lazy writer’s favorite energy drink on the facade of a sari-sari store in an old house. Beside the store was an old church. It had red-painted walls. Clip-clop, clip-clop went the happy feet past the store-in-a-house.

When the happy feet first set out, the sun was hidden behind gray clouds. After a while, the sun came out. It shone on the lazy writer’s head. A tall tree’s leaves glowed bright green against the sun, making the lazy writer squint and blink. Clip-clop, went the happy feet past the tree-in-sunlight.

They passed the site of an old racetrack. Once there were loud fans cheering race horses on. Now there were no more fans, no more horses, and no more track. Big noisy construction machines had leveled the place into the ground. Clip-clop, went the happy feet past the once-a-racetrack.

The happy feet met another plant. It was growing in a large metal can that once held infant formula, but now had holes punched with nails all over its bottom while inside it was soil from the old racetrack. The plant was healthy. Its leaves were pretty. Clip-clop, went the happy feet past the plant-in-a-can.

They rounded a corner and saw a big concrete horse’s head. It once sat on the gate in front of the old racetrack. Folks had taken the head down, cleaned it, and put it on a pedestal covered with tiles. This was so that people would always remember the old racetrack. The happy feet knew they were near home. Clip-clop, they went, taking baby steps a little bit faster, past the horse’s-head-marker.

Before them was a long stretch of road. Green tricycles lined up under big old mango trees wrapped in a rainbow, waiting to take passengers where they wanted to go. The drivers asked the lazy writer if she wanted to take a ride. No, thank you, she said. I’ll keep on walking. Clip-clop, went the happy feet past the tricycles-in-rainbow.

At last they came to their street. Close to the corner were two fighting-cock farms. Inside the red gate and the blue gate were many scratch pens of wood, like triangles set into the ground. There were also tall fly pens of wood and plastic mesh. There were many fighting cocks, crowing tik-ti-laok. The happy feet knew they were very near home. Clip-clop they went past the cockpits-in-city.

At last the happy feet were home! The lazy writer was happy too. She had taken baby steps to exercise and it wasn’t bad. It felt very good. And she saw a lot of interesting things along the way. She decided to take a walk more often. The happy feet were glad they got to do what they were made to do. And the toes wiggled and jiggled and wriggled for joy.

~ The End ~

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advice fail

A can of Pepsi Max sits in front of me and gives advice.

“I know what you want,” it whispers. Beads of cold sweat roll off  its rouge et noir exterior. “I know how you can get it. Just do what you’re thinking right now. Go for it.”

I take a sip. ” It’s not a very good plan, and I don’t have a backup.”

“You don’t need one.” Chuckles coldly.

I turn Plan A over in my mind. It is possible it could work, like any scheme using brute force.  ”Perhaps,” I say.

The Moleskine chimes in. “Wait,” it says in a rustle of paper. ” Have you thought about the consequences and possible scenarios?”

The Sheaffer Balance makes marks. Numbers, words. “Holes in the plan,” it agrees,  ”here and there, where the mission could fail.”

Another sip of Pepsi Max. “You’re right – Plan A lacks finesse. And Plan B does not exist.”

The drink rallies. “Unnecessary, I swear.”

Anxious looks from the Moleskine and the Sheaffer. “This is too important to trust to chance. Preparedness is key to achieving the desired outcome. Remember how it hurt when you smacked concrete after jumping from a plane without a parachute? You need an improved Plan A. And a Plan B. And C, and D.”

I think of what I want and how badly I want it. The prize is worth waiting for.

I drain the drink. “But…!” it squeaks. “Think instant gratifica…!” I crumple the can and toss it, open the Moley, take up the Sheaffer, and think.

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on writing

Someone once asked me, “What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?”

I couldn’t think of anything else I would rather do.

I grew up in homes full of books. Wherever we lived, there were always bookcases stuffed to bursting with my mother’s self-help books, collection of hardbound classics, and mystery, fantasy, horror, and science fiction paperbacks, or low shelves on the floor with my father’s choices in literature – Somerset Maugham, Gore Vidal, Sholom Aleichem.

My parents never consciously encouraged me to read, but surrounded by books and little else to do, I gravitated towards the shelves that were always open to me. I thrived on a literary diet of Enid Blyton and Louisa May Alcott, Nancy Drew and The Bobbsey Twins, Bulfinch’s Mythology and old-fashioned poetry, the rhyming kind like Gunga Din and The Ballad of Sam McGee.

In time, words and the putting together of them in sentences to convey meaning came as naturally to me as breathing. In school, my favorites subjects were the ones that used a lot of words – English, Social Studies. Math was anathema. In college, I took up Journalism. It was either that or English Studies, and I figured I’d have a better chance of earning through writing if I were a journalist, although my mother always said that there was no money in writing.

Today I make my living from it.

Often people ask, “Can you teach me how to write?” It’s a difficult question to answer, because the process is different for everybody. Some say that the talent is inborn. Perhaps to some extent that might be true; I believe some inclinations come naturally to people, like musical talent or athletic ability. But writing is also a skill that can be learned and cultivated, and anyone can do it. For the philosopher Jean Jacques Rosseau, “However great a man’s natural talent may be, the art of writing cannot be learned all at once.”

Some thoughts on writing that I’ve formed over the years:

1. Writing is a form of communication, just like speaking. Having problems starting your piece? Pretend you are talking to someone about it. Write it down that way. Then go back over what you’ve written and edit.

2. Writing uses language. To write effectively, you must know the language and its rules. Words are the construction materials, grammar the nails and mortar that hold them together. Immerse yourself in the language to build up your vocabulary. Even if you are writing in your mother tongue, don’t take it for granted that you know all the words or even enough of them. Read books and magazines. Watch television shows and films. Listen to native speakers and soak up the rhythm of their speech patterns. Choose a usage and composition guide – I was introduced to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in my freshman year of college, and have adhered to its tenets ever since.

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3. Less is more. I’ve always clung to Strunk’s Rule Number 17: “Omit needless words.” Bombarded as we are on all fronts by information vying for our attention, why make it harder for your reader to decode your message? Related to this is White’s advice: “Avoid fancy words.” If there exists a simpler word that conveys the same meaning and nuance, use it. But in the end, always go by your ear – use whatever sounds right. As Matthew Arnold said, “Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” The exception would be if you were deliberately using the fancy word or words to achieve a certain effect.

4. Organize, organize, organize. I believe this is the most important part of the writing process. It doesn’t matter that you can use big words like venustation or ptochology if you can’t put your thoughts and facts down in a sequence that will help the reader understand the message you wish to convey. Pay attention to the flow of your ideas; for your piece to be effective, it has to make sense, one thought leading to another in a logical manner.

5. Practice, practice, practice. Writing is a skill, like bicycling or blacksmithing. Write something everyday. Said Doris Lessing: “You only learn to be a better writer by actually writing.” Or take Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” It takes discipline, but it pays off, I promise.  Take advantage of today’s technological advances and the myriad means of self-expression. Write your feelings down in a journal, or publish your opinions on a blog. One of the easiest ways is microblogging using applications like Twitter. If you can text, you can write!

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6. Edit, edit, edit. Few, if any, first drafts are perfect. Go over what you’ve written and clean up typographical errors, spelling and grammar mistakes, factual inaccuracies, conceptual inconsistencies, and sequence flow. Science fiction writer C. J. Cherryh asserted, “It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly.”

7. Be yourself. In the beginning, writers tend to copy the style of the authors they admire. But the most natural and authentic voice is your own; have confidence in yourself. Said Bill Stout: “Whether or not you write well, write bravely.”

8. Write from your heart. Whether you seek to persuade or inform, the reader responds best to pieces that are sincere and honest.

Winston Churchill, one of the best statemen and writers that Britain has ever produced, once declared, “Writing is an adventure.” It is a journey anyone can take. May yours be filled with the thrill of discovery and the joy of creativity!

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khaled hosseini: the kite runner

Catching up on my reading, I finally got a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. I consider myself remiss if a movie comes out before I’ve read the book! Which is what happened with this one. Here’s a cliched platitude to bring about closure – umm, “Better late than never” do ya? – and let’s get on with the review.

For a first novel, it’s extraordinarily well-written and the pacing is fine. I couldn’t put it down – always the mark of a good read for me. Set in 1970s Afghanistan, before that country’s revolution and its occupation by Russian forces, the narrative revolves around Amir, the privileged young protagonist, and his responses to the events that shape his life.

Enchanting descriptions of traditional activities like kite-flying, woven in with bits of history, opened their world to me in a way that a non-fiction work wouldn’t have been able to do.

From the communication perspective, there are interesting insights on inter- and intra-cultural communication, as well as interpersonal communication – between family members, friends – illustrating Afghan communicative behavior.

I don’t put spoilers in my reviews of fiction, and I won’t do it here. I’ll just tell you that this work tackles the universal themes of love, friendship, and loyalty, bound up with cowardice and self-preservation, until sacrifice brings redemption in the end.

It’s inspiring.

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kathy reichs: devil bones

If you’re into forensics and criminal procedure and psychology and watching the television show “Bones”, this book and the others by the same author will give you what you want.

Kathy Reichs is a practicing forensic anthropologist, a university professor, PhD graduate of the prestigious Northwestern University, and, in her spare time, a best-selling novelist and television series producer. Over-achiever.

Yes, but how great is that? She’s doing what she loves, both as an occupation and as a hobby, and getting paid for it. Now that’s the life. Is she a Gogirl? You bet – classic textbook definition of.

Dr. Reichs’ books are loosely based on her own experiences, with the central character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, a forensic specialist like herself. Plots and characters come from incidents and stories from her own life and practice. The books are fascinating for this reason – because they could actually have happened. Thus they aren’t as far-fetched and suspension of disbelief is easier to achieve.

The books have spun off into a television series, ”Bones”, starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz (both of whom are excellent actors and deserve more opportunities to display their talent). In the timeline of Tempe’s world, the incidents in the TV show take place at an earlier time – decades earlier – than those of the book.

Devil Bones, set in Charlotte, North Carolina (Reichs’ home state), revolves around grisly artifacts found in a forgotten cellar, used for strange religious rituals. But for what? and by whom? Thereby hangs the tale.

It’s got many of my favorite story elements – anthropological observations, police procedure, a brainy scientist, and a handsome detective. Add a sprinkling of gore and a dash of suspense, and you’ve got a summer-read salad that’s perfect for whiling away those hot lazy afternoons.

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salman rushdie: the enchantress of florence

It’s been a while since I blogged about books, any book. Blame it on school. I’m in my first semester of PhD studies, and am feeling my way back into the social sciences after a twenty-year hiatus.

But with the sem winding to a close, and with my requirements done – well, mostly done, except for a couple of papers that just need finishing touches – I’m ready to hunker down for some serious reading. With that end in mind, I hit Fully Booked last week and carted off several inexpensive paperbacks, among them Salman Rushdie’s 2008 offering, The Enchantress of Florence.

I have admired his work ever since reading his The Satanic Verses, in 1998, which so offended the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Ayatollah’s regime slapped a fatwa on him for offending Islam, put a price on his head, and had every Muslim out for his life, forcing him to go into hiding for ten years. Nothing like notoriety to bring an author to the top of the bestseller’s lists! That and the scandal of a bald, aging writer mysteriously attracting the most gorgeous women on the planet. You have to wonder – what’s he got that isn’t obvious? Maybe if we read his books, we’d find out.

The Enchantress of Florence is pure Rushdie –  masterful use of language, deft story-telling, plots within plots. This novel is well-researched, mixing, as it does, the history of Renaissance Florence and the Mughal Empire in a rollicking tale featuring a European storyteller calling himself “Mogor dell’Amore” (The Mughal of Love); Akbar the Mughal Emperor; and the Enchantress, whom Mogor claims is his mother.

Though long-dead, she captures the imagination of Akbar and that of the populace of his city of Fatehpur-Sikri so intensely that she acquires a life of her own that makes her even more real than the other people in the book.

Indeed, the insubstantial ghosts of women are more important than those of flesh-and-blood. Akbar’s favorite queen, Jodha, is imaginary, created and sustained by the force of his will, inhabiting his palace like a shadow. Yet the resentment of his other queens against the phantasm is all too real. Later it is directed against the “Enchantress”, Qara Koz (“Black Eyes”), the sister of Akbar’s ancestor Babar, when she gains a life of her own.

Stripped of its flowery language and convoluted storyline, the novel centers around an impossibly beautiful woman and her magical effect on the men around her. Like la belle dame sans merci, she loves only as long as she wants to, but her men love her forever.

One wonders – was Rushdie inspired by a real woman – someone, perhaps, like his fourth wife, actress Padma Lakshmi, from whom he was recently divorced?

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Having lived with such glamorous arm candy for three years, it isn’t far-fetched to speculate that here is Rushdie’s “Enchantress” in the flesh, and the novel, his tribute to a stunning woman who captured his heart, his fancy, and his imagination.

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they called me “walking encyclopedia”.

I was called this in high school, along with worse names. It had something to do with my love for books, how I would rather curl up in the stacks in the Pasay City Adventist Academy library, reading what were called “mission stories”, ’50s books on feminine deportment and hygiene with quaint sketches on how to properly put on a brassiere, and everything that I could find on ancient Egypt, while my classmates were playing volleyball and gossiping and forging strong relationships that for some remain to this day.

I’ve always been a loner. I’m not anti-social – I have hundreds of acquaintances, a great many friends, and a few very close ones. But I often preferred to spend my time reading rather than doing something else. My relationships were with fictional or historical characters, with facts and romance and adventure, and with the fancies of my own imagination.

Here are some of the books on my bedside table. Most of them I read in 2008.

They shouldn’t be stacked up on my night stand like this. They should be in the bookcases in the living room. But there isn’t any more room on the shelves, where books are crammed two-deep. Others are piled against the wall.

The books used to be in the living room, but now they have invaded my bedroom, sprouting against the walls like fungi.

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This stack rests under the a/c in my bedroom. Another stack is by the long mirror next to the closet. A third one is…hmm, I’d better stop here.

Do I mind the disorganization and chaos, like a bookshop exploded in my home? No, because (one) I made the mess myself; (two) the books make me feel comfortable and somehow safe. A house without books will never be a home for me. When I enter other people’s residences and I cannot find a single codex or publication, the hairs on the back of my neck and arms rise. I am not kidding. I cannot imagine how one can live without reading. For me is essential and necessary to sustain life, like eating and breathing.

Yes, I exaggerate somewhat. But I think of my worst nightmares, my greatest fears, and living in a world without books is close to the top of the list.

We are fortunate to live in a country where the press is (relatively) free and the Internet is uncensored and there are many bookstores that offer a wide assortment from around the world. There are places on this planet where there are no books, or what they have is heavily censored and many other titles are suppressed, where the Internet and publications are fiercely monitored by state-appointed censors who block websites or black out nude people’s private parts on magazine pages with a marker.

There are places on this planet where women are not taught to read.

There are places on this planet where no one can read.

Let’s not waste our freedom to access information.

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on books being necessary to sustain life

They say Filipinos are not a reading people. We get our mental stimulus primarily from television. As proof, look at the tremendous popularity of the sensational evening news programs, prone to exaggeration, and the fantasy telenovelas that feature mestizo actors and actresses, many of them as pale-skinned as radishes through artifice (glutathione, anyone?).

Yet there are still many of those who read. There are those who crave the feel of a book in their hands, a construct of paper and ink, upon the pages of which letters crawl to form words that are portals into other worlds.

Wall art on an upper floor of Fully Booked bookstore, Bonifacio High Street, The Fort.

The local market is not large enough to fully support a healthy publishing industry; I know of several publishing companies that were born in hope yet died in time when buffeted by economic and social realities.

Still, the major chain bookstores thrive. They derive much of their revenue from imported reading material and ephemera, but at least they are around, to provide the necessities to those of us who cannot imagine living in a world without books.

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stephen king: just after sunset

From the haunted imagination of bestselling novelist Stephen King comes Just After Sunset, a collection of thirteen tales that explore the dark side of the mind. These spine-chilling stories tackle themes of obsessive-compulsive behavior, explorations of the nature of the afterlife, and the tangibility of guilt.

As a lifelong fan of “The Other King”, I believe the height of his mastery was during his earlier days, when he churned out supernatural chillers like Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, Christine, and It. His last short story collection, Everything’s Eventual, was written in 2002. That was a batch of underbaked literary cookies that left one dismayed over the decline of his inventive powers, a slide most noticeable in the potboilers Gerald’s Game, Rose Madder, Dolores Claiborne, and Dreamcatcher. His latest novel, Duma Key, was such a disappointment that I wondered if King had lost his mojo for good.

Just After Sunset is a more satisfying box of “poisoned bon-bons”, as he calls them, and marks a return to the old Stephen King who wrote terror-filled tales that kept you up at night and would not let you visit the bathroom alone.

The master’s magic is back – good news for all his admirers.

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write a novel in thirty days…?

Yes, you can, this November with NaNoWriMo!

National Novel Writing Month is an organization that encourages people all over the world to unleash their inner creative writer by writing a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. The scribbling frenzy starts November 1 and ends before midnight of November 30. Participants sign up at http://www.nanowrimo.org. The site tracks word count and issues a certificate at the end of the month to successful writers.

Quantity, not quality, is the mantra. The goal is output. About 2,000 words a day should do it.  Just get what’s in your head down on paper. Don’t spend too much time on polishing. Your inner editor will balk, but there is no perfect first draft, is there? Editing is for December!

I learned about NaNoWriMo in late November last year, when it was almost over (sob). I vowed back then to join this year. Having waited an entire year to do this, I signed up five days late. Sigh.

But as they say, “better late than dead!” so here I am, computer fired up and fountain pens inked. This year is the project’s tenth anniversary. What an auspicious moment for me to join for the first time. It’s meant to be.

Here’s more on NaNoWriMo, from their website:

National Novel Writing Month: The Largest Writing Contest in the World Turns Ten!

Oakland, Calif. — There are some who say writing a novel takes awesome talent, strong language skills, academic training, and years of dedication.

Not true. All it really takes is a deadline – a very, very tight deadline – and a whole lot of coffee.

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, a nonprofit literary crusade that encourages aspiring novelists all over the world to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. At midnight on Nov. 1, more than 100,000 writers from over 80 countries – poised over laptops and pads of paper, fingers itching and minds racing with plots and characters – will begin a furious adventure in fiction. By 11:59 PM on Nov. 30, tens of thousands of them will be novelists.

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2008 is the ten-year anniversary of NaNoWriMo, founded in 1999 by freelance writer Chris Baty. In its first year, NaNoWriMo had just 21 participants. In 2007, over 100,000 people took part in the free challenge, making it the largest writing contest in the world. And while the event stresses fun and creative exploration over publication, 24 NaNoWriMo novelists have had their NaNo-novels published, including Sarah Gruen, whose New York Times #1 best seller, Water for Elephants, began as a NaNoWriMo novel.

Around 18% of NaNoWriMo participants “win” every year by writing 50,000 words and validating their novels on the organization’s website before midnight on Nov 30. Winners receive no prizes, and no one at NaNoWriMo ever reads the manuscripts submitted.

So if not for fame or fortune, why do people do it?

“The 50,000-word challenge has a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creative potential like nothing else,” says NaNoWriMo Director (and nine-time NaNoWriMo winner) Chris Baty. “When you write for quantity instead of quality, you end up getting both. Also, it’s a great excuse for not doing any dishes for a month.”

At the website, participants can fill out their profile, check out their word count meter, and join groups based on geolocation. The Philippines is represented by 510 affiliates so far, “doing NaNoWriMo the Pinoy way.”

With writers from all over the world, shouldn’t the contest be called WoNoWriMo – World Novel Writing Month? GloNoWriMo – Global? PlaNoWriMo – Planetary?

While we work on finding a better name for the contest, go write down that recurring dream you have about orangutans beside your bed eating muffins and tomato salad. Anything goes here; claim the freedom to expound on whatever you want. Don’t worry too much about it. This is, after all, the activity that birthed the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, which advocates “low-stress, high-velocity” writing techniques, and the ‘plot ninja’, “intentionally vague” ideas that jolt your story when it’s stuck in a rut or has painted itself into a corner.

You read the magic words – “novel”, “deadline”, “coffee”, “not doing dishes for a month”. Now go sign up, break out your dictionary, thesaurus, and ten-gallon percolator, and write!

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