Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Your Signature

As a big fan of figure skating, I can't help but think of the connection between writing and this athletic and artistic sport. The two do share some similarities. For example, skaters hone their skills, so do writers. Skaters dream, so do writers. Some skaters, do one thing more than their fellow skaters - they have their signatures - which means they either make themselves a power jumper, or known for the fast spin at the end of his/her skate, or show their flexibility, or do a lyrical performance, to name a few. Their signatures do not only set them apart from the crowd, but also make themselves identifiable and memorable. I used to tell Wes that I missed the performance of so and so when that skater had retired.

What's your signature as a writer? With the arrival of the new year, spend a little time to think about it. It'll be the time well-spent.

Happy New Year! Have a productive 2015!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Own Favorite Poems III

Here again I would like to post some of my own published poems.

like a tray
of dry sand
the family I grew up in
has made me
an atypical loner

(GUSTS NO. 17 Spring/Summer 2013)

gravel path
I kick at the pebbles
so small
yet, quietly carrying
our weight

(GUSTS NO. 17 Spring/Summer 2013)

my first Thanksgiving
I'm having a feast at a friend's
don't worry about the snow, ice
and frost I face here

(Chrysanthemum 14)

All three tanka share one feature: telling a tiny story about me.

The first one says something regarding my character--an atypical loner. What has shaped me with such a personality? Apparently, a highly dysfunctional family. Moreover, the poem also hints at something deeper about me.

The second one implies that I am strolling alone--another way to say that I am an atypical loner. In addition, it suggests something about one of my character traits--a person who enjoys being alone and loves to meditate plus something deeper, which is unsaid.

The third one tells where I am, how I am treated by people in my adopted country and how I feel. I really like the mood of this tanka because it says a lot about my being so far away from home and being a new comer to a strange country. I am sure it resonates with quite a few people worldwide, who leave home for one reason or another. The experience is universal.

Story-telling is not only for novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters, but also for a tanka poet. So, what makes our writing intriguing is: story, story, story.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Figure Skating and Writing

I touched on this topic before. Today I look at it from another angle.

When a figure skater takes the ice, she wants to give a good performance. However, she doesn't nail her first jump that sets the tone for the whole program. She, of course, continues to either fight to pull it together or let it fall apart for various reasons. (Which is unfortunate.) The audience watches her till the end of her skate and applaud.

As a writer, though, we don't have that kind of luxury. I call it luxury because once a reader picks up a book and reads, if the story and/or writing fails to hook her, she will put down the book and go text-messaging friends, or Googling the Internet, or "working" on her iPhone. Those are a few of activities that are competing with people's attention, readers included.

After missing a jump, a figure skater can go on with her performance. After losing a reader's interest, we will lose her forever. So, hook the reader from beginning to end.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

All about Scenes

Scenes are the building blocks of a play, a screenplay, a short story, and a novel. There are various types of scenes; therefore, there are different words to describe them. Here are a few: scintillating, gripping, intense, memorable, funny, scary. What we as writers want to avoid is the scenes mentioned below:

1) a long scene
2) a talky scene
3) a static scene
4) a clichéd scene

I'd like to talk more about a clichéd scene. I have come across a lot of articles about avoiding clichés in our writing; however, I have seen many clichéd scenes in movies, TV series, and Web series. What are they? The first kind that comes to my mind is the car-chase scene. It has been overdone. What is the fix? It has been turned into a subway-chase scene. That, too, has lost its glamor. The second kind of a clichéd scene is the sex scene. Nine out of ten times, if those scenes were cut, they wouldn't hurt the story. Interestingly, although they are deja vu all over again, they haven't gone out of favor. What I have seen in those scenes is a lot of flesh but nothing fresh.

Yes, fresh. We should aim at writing fresh scenes.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Obligatory Scene

I first learned about this term in my playwriting class at graduate school. What is an obligatory scene? It's the climax. Every play, screenplay, and novel has this crucial scene. Someone has said, "If there is no obligatory scene, you don't have a story." This scene does not come from nowhere. To achieve it, we need to build it up. In Westerns, this scene usually comes when the good guys and the bad guys line up facing each other and pull out their guns. The final shootout.

Since the obligatory scene exists (it should be there) in every play, movie, and novel, it is easy for us to spot it. However, it is not easy to write it. It takes work.

Again, I'd like to repeat: in real life, we try to avoid conflicts as much as we can, especially the big one. In writing, we need it badly. Have fun with this final, big confrontation. Let your story shine.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Conflict, Conflict, Conflict II

In fiction, play, and screenplay, there are sub-story, sub-plot, and sub-genre. For conflict, there is sub-conflict. Sub-conflict can be very trivial. For example, Character A asks Character B to go out for a cup of coffee at Starbucks; however, Character B wants to have it at a cafe. It seems mundane stuff, but once we provide the reason why Character B refuses to go to Starbucks, it will not only create conflict between the two characters but also spices up the scene a little bit.

A scene with some sort of sub-conflict is much more interesting than a scene with no conflict at all. Look at the following scene I write as an example:

Time for a second cup of coffee. Let's go to Starbucks.

Okay, let's go.

A scene like this should be cut.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Conflict, Conflict, Conflict

In real live, we try to avoid conflicts, sometimes even at all costs. In writing, however, we welcome conflict, or rather, we love conflict. A scene without conflict of any sort inclines to run the risk of being boring, or at least uninteresting. Besides, conflict creates tension, reveals character, advances the plot and story, and many more. A question arises: Does conflict mean to have two/three characters argue vehemently about values? Not necessarily so. Here I'd like to quote my published haibun that shows conflict can be done subtly.

Ho's Conversation with Mao

In a dark place only they know where, Ho Chi Minh says to Mao Zedong: "Comrade, look at your capitalist country. How do you like it?"

"I hate it!"

Ho laughs. Mao frowns, "Hey, look at your Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Isn’t it soaked in capitalism?"

"My followers follow your footsteps."

"Not my footsteps!"

"You talked to President Nixon, didn’t you?"

"That’s history. Let’s return to change things back to what they were." Mao extends his hand to Ho who hesitates.

"You go first," Ho says. Mao stares at him.

ebb tide
empty shells
on the sand

(Contemporary Haibun Online, January 2013, Vol 8, No 4)

See what I mean? Conflict can be done in a subtle way. Since conflict is so important in story telling, I'll discuss more on conflict in my next post.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Who Is Your First Reader?

Steven King's first reader is his wife. According to him, she is quite helpful in terms of giving him feedback on his finished novel. Some people, though, think it a bad idea to have comments from your spouse, family member, or a good friend, because they tend to say good things about your work, trying not to hurt your feelings and at the same time trying to give you encouragement. Here is my thought:

1) If he/she says, "It's very good." Ask him/her, "What is good about it? The story? The theme? The way the story is told? Etc."

2) In my case, I show Wes my tanka and ask him to rate them: Great; Good; Problematic. Interestingly, those he rates "Great" are also the ones that I like. And, nine out of ten times, those poems get published after I submit them to journals. As to the "Problematic" ones, I ask him what the problems are and later, I rethink them and fix them.

3) Your first reader doesn't have to be a writer. Wes is not a writer. But he is a reader who reads widely.

So, when it comes to showing your finished work to your first reader, be creative and open-minded.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Story, Story, Story

When I read a novel, a memoir, a biography, an autobiography, and watch a play or a movie, I look for a story. Usually a good one. From all that I have read and seen, some stories are good, even great; others are so-so. We all love stories, don't we? And as writers, we want to tell stories. We can tell them not only in the above-mentioned forms, but also in the shortest forms, such as a haiku and a tanka; especially when they are written in a sequence.

Here is one of my tanka sequences, published in Atlas Poetica No. 15, which tells my story. I am going to quote the first poem and the last one. Together they tell a mini story about me,

"My Fist Visit to the Vietnam Wall"

being built
when I was cut off
from the free world -
I pay the soldiers tribute
with my words

time to say goodbye
I tell the soldiers:
I took refuge
in your country,
you suffered . . . I endure

After reading these two tanka, you know that I lived behind the Bamboo Curtain for years. Finally, thank Heaven, I got out. Meanwhile, you get the idea of how I feel about the war that has had a tremendous impact on both Americans and Vietnamese Americans. In my case, Chinese-Vietnamese American.

We certainly can write stories not drawn from our own experiences. Stories are everywhere. The key is that we know where to look for them.

Monday, March 31, 2014

To Plan Or Not to Plan

When it comes to writing, fiction or scripts, I am a planner. I don't plan everything, but enough for me to go by as I am in the process of writing. In other words, I know where my story will go. For me, it's like driving. If we know our destination, we can take as many detours as we want and will get back to where we want to go. Otherwise, once we are sidetracked, we'll get lost, wondering whether we should continue on the current route or we should return to where we come from and keep on going. That's where a writer's block sets in.

As far as I am concerned, I have not run into such a problem: because I know where my story will go and how to get to the endpoint. That's right: endpoint. While writing, I have made some changes here and there as I see fit; however, I have never lost sight of my story's endpoint taking a detour or detours.

I have come across quite a few articles in writing journals about how to cope with a writer's block. Fortunately, I haven't had any since I started writing. The reason? I always plan my story, but just enough. Planning too much would stifle our creativity and spontaneity.

My conclusion: know thy endpoint. That is my "weapon" to ward off a writer's block.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Structural Problems

Every form of writing has its own structure. Say, for example, haiku has a phrase and a fragment, and tanka has a lower verse and an upper verse. A stage play, a screenplay, and a novel? They have a much more complicated structure.

I always think of writing a long work the building of a house. With the foundation, which is the story idea, we build a play or a novel. In the building process, we might be blind to the structure. That happened to me while working on my memoir. Rewrites, which I did more than twenty times, did not help. Finally, I put it away for a while. Then, I looked at it again. Aha, I saw the big problem! Its structure was not sound--alas, I'm not Bill Clinton, but I'm writing an autobiography. And it's too colossal a building to tear down and to rebuild. I decided to save the material for a novel, or novels, I will write someday. It won't be an autobiographical novel.

It is a lot of headache and heartache to tear down the "house" and rebuild it. However, it is worth the efforts.

How to detect the structural problems? Simple, set the writing aside, whatever it is, for at least a couple of months. Then, look at it with a pair of fresh eyes. Yes, fresh eyes. I touched on this topic before.

You may argue that you don't care about structure when you write. That is fine, too. However, look at all the significant buildings in the world. Don't they all have some sort of structure? Even non-structure does have structure.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Beginning and Ending

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year of the horse; also, it's the end of January 2014. The beginning and the ending fall on the same day. I found it interesting and thought-provoking. It seems that beginning and ending are two separate things. But, are they? Anyone who has paid close attention to nature knows that they are two-in-one and one-in-two. It's a very profound concept. A concept that I come to understand deeper and deeper as I grow older.

I will make this--beginning and ending--a writing prompt for myself. Wait a minute. Didn't I say earlier in my blog that I seldom write to writing prompts? This one is created by myself, so I should be able to write something about it.

What comes to your mind when you think of a horse? Kentucky Derby? I've thought about it, too. And, of course I've thought about all the Chinese sayings about a horse.

Have a happy Year of the Horse! Hope your horse will get you to the finish line fast!