Category Archives: writing

A hilarious screenplay

A conversation between me and Seth:

me: seth
why haven’t we co-written a hilarious screenplay yet
i feel like we could

Seth: want to write a winter one-act?

me: i’d bring structure and anal-retentive detail
you’d bring hilarity
it’s perfect.

Seth: HA
truth

So I guess that’s in the works now?

(He also reminded me that NaNoWriMo exists, and I have come to the realization that this year is as good a year as any to attempt it.)

Dragons

(cross-posted on Parting Pigeons on 9/6/11)

Tonight, before I go to sleep, I will be thinking of dragons. I am twenty-two years old, graduated with a bachelor’s degree (with honors) from an excellent university this past June, spent the bulk of my day working on structural biology research on the protein dynamics of the beta1-adrenergic receptor, and for the last week I’ve been going to bed with visions of dragons.

There’s nothing strictly wrong with this. I’m entitled to draconine thoughts — although admittedly it’s more than thoughts, it’s something more closely resembling “worldweaving,” if you will. Dragons, dragon riders, dragon wars, dragon training, dragon etiquette, dragon politics… I’ve made up a lot of words along the way, too. This is what I used to do all the time — this is what got me into writing. I build worlds out of nothing. I make things up, borrowing shamelessly from the world I know. I turn experiences into story lines; I turn wishful thinking into alternate reality. I stretch my imagination, and sometimes people read what I’ve come up with and say hey, I really like that.

So what is it about growing up that makes me feel like this dragon-filled creation of mine doesn’t belong in my world? Because it’s high fantasy*. It’s something no one ever tells us we’re supposed to have outgrown, but one day I woke up and realized I couldn’t take myself seriously when writing a fantasy (or even science fiction) story. As Seth said the other day when we were discussing this, “I don’t get how Tolkein explained his books before everyone had read them. ‘Okay, so there’s this thing called Sauron, and he hates everything. And makes little mud elves to fight humans. All the humans don’t trust each other. So it’s up to these fat midgets to destroy evil.'” Whose first instinct is to take that seriously?

I’ve learned a lot over the years from fantasy and science fiction. I probably wouldn’t have kept reading after my plateau in reading level around 6th grade if it hadn’t been for A Wrinkle in Time and The Golden Compass. There’s a basic allure to fantasy and scifi, that escape from the world we’re stuck in, which readers like my adolescent self gravitate to. Maybe it stems from a lack of maturity, an inability to see the thrills and struggles of normal life and fiction compared to the epic conflicts that arise in fantasy. And those epic conflicts can (and do) tie themselves into the real world.  I’m not entirely sure which came first, but the life history of Bean in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow played some part in stoking my love of genetics. Philip Pullman explored some really interesting tensions and fallacies in religious text through His Dark Materials, Roger Zelazny dances around concepts of metaphysics (and relates technology and computer hacking to magic) in The Chronicles of Amber, and Orson Scott Card eloquently lays out some key bioethical issues in Speaker for the Dead and the Bean quartet (just to name some of the many topics these authors prodded with their writing). But who’s going to take you seriously if you write a dissertation on any of these themes?

My best guess as to why this stigma exists is this: in fantasy fiction, there is a fundamental disconnect with reality. That’s practically the definition. And yes, there are plenty of cases of people losing touch with what’s real and taking things too far. (I risk offending some people right now, but hear me out, I have redemption for you.) Cosplayers, fanfiction writers, Harry Potter unofficial online trading card game players, the people who contribute to and update the extremely detailed entries on Wookieepedia — I could go on. However, there’s a difference between productive hobby and unhealthy obsession. Some of the cosplay costumes I’ve seen are really impressive costume-making that perfectly normal people made in their spare time, and plenty of fanfiction writers have spun incredibly inventive, moving stories based on characters that someone else started. The difference is knowing your limits — knowing that okay, there’s a world separate from this fantasy. This goes for anything, really — plenty of us are wrapped up in completely fictional story lines (I’m looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy fans who had serious meltdowns after whatever season finale it was) or waste our time on the strangest things (watching endless animated gifs of cats?). The point is there are plenty of things we do to entertain ourselves that no one else — or at least, a select few — quite understands. But it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why the hell not?

In light of this, I have decided to take this tack: I spent the bulk of my day working on structural biology research on the protein dynamics of the beta1-adrenergic receptor. I’m a high functioning and contributing member of society. So you know what? It’s okay that right now I’m obsessed with dragons.


* It says something about me that I know the distinction between “high” and “low” fantasy. For those who don’t, think of fantasy as a spectrum from our world to a completely made up world:

**LotR is weird because Tolkien has stated that Middle Earth existed sometime in our past, so it falls a little closer to the middle than other high fantasy
**LotR is weird because Tolkien has stated that Middle Earth existed sometime in our past, so it falls a little closer to the middle than other high fantasy

Yes, I made you an explanatory diagram. There are nerdier things I could have done.

Some things on writing…

(A scattered collection of thoughts relating to writing)

First, I made the roughly-around-New-Year’s resolution to write 30 minutes per day, generally in some form of freewrite in a Word document on my computer. I’m at a point where I’m overflowing with story/scene ideas, and I can’t coherently extract a good story out of it without trying to write them out. I’m doing my best to post those on Parting Pigeons, my writing blog. They’re not all good writing (not by any means), but it’s an interesting experiment as I get into the habit of writing every day and spew out some scenes that have been hovering in my head for a long time. (However, I generally don’t post anything on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I have English191T, since we do plenty of writing in class.)

Second. This quarter I’m taking my first ever creative non-fiction class (English191T: Topics in Creative Non-fiction – Stories on the Air, aka writing for radio). It’s an interesting variation on creative writing — I’m used to thinking in terms of short stories and plot arcs and characters and scene, whereas non-fiction is a very different approach to a similar craft. We spend a lot of time in class discussing the ethics of non-fiction: how much is a non-fiction author allowed to embellish, edit, or flat out make things up? We never seem to reach any sort of conclusion, just observe how much we trust or distrust an author. The closest we’ve come (in my point of view) is saying that a piece should aim to capture the emotional truth of its subject, since any other measure of truth is subjective and hard to define.

Third, I am so, so lucky to have heard Tim O’Brien (author of The Things They Carried, which I read my junior year of high school) speak twice in the past day — almost three times, but I had to miss his reading tonight. I found it fascinating to hear his thoughts on writing fiction vs. non-fiction, and how his experiences shape the stories he writes and his political views on war. The ethics of war itself are explored in such an interesting way in his work (I say this, although I’ve only read that one book), but he mentioned that he aims to write human stories, not specifically war stories. This afternoon during a Q&A session, he said, “[I write about] the decision points in life that haunt us.” It struck me that his approach to writing such powerful stories is not to start with an engaging story and inject human meaning into it, but to begin from something with inherent internal conflict. He also had an interesting view of non-fiction: to him, the burden of providing the overall truth of an event is so difficult to achieve, and by labeling a piece as fiction, he frees himself to pare down the details and capture the emotional truth of something. He found this only natural; to free imagination, to let go of the literal, is a part of being human (paraphrased from his words).

Fourth and lastly, I just posted this sort of reflection on Parting Pigeons, but thought it was worth cross-posting while I’m on the topic of writing craft and process.

During workshop for the short story I wrote for English190, one of my classmates commented that JT and Charlotte obviously hooked up at the end of the second-to-last scene. “‘He wrapped her in a big hug and wouldn’t let go’? How did they not hook up?!”

I debated changing that line as I revised the story, but (as you can see from the version I posted on here) I ended up leaving it in. To some degree, it doesn’t matter what exactly happened after the scene break. The story works either way, and to clarify would be clunky. I like leaving that detail up to the reader’s imagination, to imply the relationship that is never spelled out explicitly on the page. Besides, the way I envisioned the story only makes sense in the context of my own experiences. JT Finnegan, in terms of the kind of person he is, the things that drive his actions and words — all that only makes sense given the people I know. And Charlotte doesn’t know what to make of him. She never really makes harsh judgments of him or questions his motives because she (like me, in her situation) doesn’t know what to think or how to react, and in fact isn’t even sure of how JT’s outlook and approach towards life differs from her own and that of her friends.

JT doesn’t have to be despicable, but he doesn’t have to be completely innocent either. I tried to make him a true-to-life character, and as such he is full of ambiguities and inconsistencies. So read that line however you like, and I won’t spoil your view of it by telling you exactly how I envisioned it.

That is all.

Clark S240

It’s the kind of place where you can sneeze and no one will say, “Bless you.” Some days it’s because everyone else is working from home, some days simply because no one dares disturb the silence. I spend all day with headphones in, living in my own little world filled with music and sound, wondering what would happen if I just unplugged the headphones and sent OneRepublic or Anberlin or Spoon spiraling over the quiet hum of computers and typing. But the air conditioning is cranked up so cold that it makes a fair excuse to wander outside at noon to thaw in the California sunshine over lunch.

I sit at the entrance to the pod, facing a blank expanse of whiteboard marred by the faint, unerasable remnants of protein binding interaction diagrams, reaction free-energy coordinate plots, and Big O notation. Some day I’ll bring a dry erase marker with me to work and draw a porcupine dubiously eyeing O(n²). Maybe someone will notice. Not that they’d say anything. I could take over the desk behind me (the one with an extra monitor and shelves) and face windows instead of this whiteboard, but somehow there’s a sense of security in facing the same direction as the post-doc who’s overseeing my project. He never really turns around, yet I’d prefer that I see him on Facebook than the other way around.

I start each workday the same way. Before sitting down, I stow away my keys, pull out my laptop and charger, set my work notebook and a pencil down on the desk, plug my laptop charger into the outlet in the floor then my laptop, and put my backpack on the ground. Then I spend approximately the next 8 hours wondering if anyone can see my feet from the hall, and why I’m here instead of modeling this beta-1-adrenergic receptor from home. I guess something about the silence makes me feel obligated towards productivity.

So here’s to another day at work.

Thoughts on isolation

Sometimes when I’m around people, I want to be alone, but nowadays it’s more often that I’m alone and wishing I could be around people. Now that I am home for the first extended period of time for Thanksgiving break, I can’t figure out what to do with all this silence but fill it by singing out loud, blasting music, cooking, wandering, and turning things on and off. My parents have been in San Francisco since I got back, so the house is extra quiet. I love it like this–the darkness I haven’t seen in months, the stillness of a night in my hometown, and the ease with which I can find the familiar constellations in the sky. But at the same time, I crave the rambunctious mayhem caused by college students living in close quarters with one another.

Another weird thing about being home is the way I have to rein in the college me just a bit. I definitely got more vulgar in the last couple months… not entirely sure why. But in any case, I’ve got to tone that down at home. Then there are the things that have nothing to do with me, but I should be careful anyway. For example, at the moment, I have Daniel’s pantry key with the rest of my keys, and it’s attached to a crappy little bottle opener that says COLLEGE TONIGHT on it. Therefore, note to self: DO NOT LEAVE KEYS LYING AROUND. I don’t use it; I don’t need it; it just came attached with the pantry key, but my parents will probably throw a fit if they saw it. Then there would be a big production of arguing and explaining that is completely unnecessary. So. To avoid such a production, I’ll just keep my keys in my pocket or in my room under a book or something.

This blog needs a green layout. I have just decided this.

Taking 20 units this quarter was probably a really bad idea, but I’m pretty sure I’m getting A’s in at least 2 of my 5 classes, so maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. In any case, this break comes at a very opportune time, for more reasons than academics. To keep it cryptic, obsession doesn’t suit me. A week plus lack of proximity is a good thing.

Shippo is coming back SOON. So excited!!!

A quote from some recent writing, mostly because I promised:
“His father frowned. Kenneth Simmons was an associate professor of chemical engineering at Penryn University, a leading researcher in oxygen generation, and an old-fashioned father. He expected nothing less than perfection from his firstborn, and the fact that he’d arrived to find his son flailing around on the floor of Penryn Central while his sisters watched on, bemused, was not something he would stand for.”

Inspirations

I completely and genuinely hate it when I get into this mood. What mood? Well, this mood where I’m so antsy and desperate to do something creative, but find myself stuck somewhere in the land of inspiration, without a pen or something to write on.

It’s a good feeling, in some ways. It usually comes from reading a lot, listening to fantastic new music, discovering a new author on FictionPress, or watching a really good movie or TV show. Of course, this time, I was brilliant and managed to do all of those, within the last 4 days or so–needless to say, I feel like any minute now I’m just going to eject out of this seat and go flying across the room.

I’m in Meyer Library at Stanford, where I was working on some animation work for my job with the Psychology department. I say “was” because I can’t get anything else done today, and I’m waiting for my boss to send me some files anyway. I think me having a fit of I NEED CREATIVE OUTLET right now would be a bad idea, it being 3:00PM on a lazy Friday afternoon.

I’ve been reading Guns of Avalon, the second in the Chronicles of Amber series by Roger Zelazny (thanks Shippo-chan). The world is so versatile and fantastic and I love it. In other news, Corwin is an awesome name.

That’s got reading covered. The new music is actually snippets from my sister’s next album. Hearing so much new stuff, really exciting stuff that I really really like is making me even antsier, and reading my sister’s blog and her bits about the creative process aren’t helping. Then, my friend told me today that she finished the first draft (MANUSCRIPT!) of her book! I’M SO EXCITED. As my parents say in Chinese, miau bu ke yian (excuse my inability to write in pin yin), which means “too good to describe with words.” I’m inspired. Then a few days ago, I got bored and started watching Gilmore Girls and One Tree Hill. Weird mix, I know, but it was better than watching The West Wing again and picking up their fast-paced and witty conversational style again. Oh, and I made jello again.

Arrgggg I’m getting jittery again. Don’t mind me, I’ll find some way to get it out of my system without exploding in the middle of the library. I wish I could blame someone for this, but really it was all my fault. Damn. WHEEEEE. Okay, who slipped me sugar at lunch?

Time, Writing, and Eldest

And so I find myself in the midst of July. I’ve always had the mentality that July is the middle of the summer, but I did a quick calculation in my head during the typing of the last few words, only to realize that July has never been the middle of my summer. It’s in the middle, but the exact middle fell somewhere in the last week of July (back when school ended in mid-June and started again at the end of August). And this summer, like last summer, July is nowhere remotely near the middle of the summer, because school doesn’t start until late September. Funny how this quarter-system school ends up like that.

In any case, time seems to be fleeing away in all directions, sucked up by the dull, day-to-day quality of having a full-time job. I haven’t done most of what I’ve wanted to do, partially because I was never entirely sure what I wanted to do, and partially because my brain has been thinking it’s the midpoint of summer already. I’ve been at work for almost three weeks, but I feel like I’m only just settling in… then again, I’ve been at work only three weeks and what the–I’m settling in already? Time keeps playing these tricks on me, see.

Part of it is the fact that I’m not the only one who’s busy this summer. For me, hanging out in high school was hard enough, when I saw the people I wanted to see on a regular basis and tried to make time for them away from school. Now I realize it would’ve been a piece of cake to get everyone (or at least some people) together, since now it’s a matter of rounding up people who work on the weekends, and trying to meet up with people who work weekends on weekdays. It’s a huge complicated affair.

In any case, this weekend is one of those crazy weekends where I try to get a bunch of immediate stuff done, but will probably end up feeling very incomplete by the end of it. The incompleteness will come from the panic-inducing realization that long-term projects are quickly becoming short-term as their deadlines (most of them self-imposed, but deadlines nonetheless) come sprinting over the horizon. I guess in any case, 48 hours from now it’ll just be another weekend come and gone.

My dad and I had a discussion today about my writing. It was a weird conversation to have, probably because I get jittery trying to summarize stories to other people when I’m not really sure what the story’s about yet, and I haven’t hammered out all the details yet, either. Eventually my dad picked up on that, though, and let me sort of wade my way through the ideas that have been floating around for the past couple months–years, even–until we got some sort of coherence out of the discussion. I guess in some ways I’m still a little kid, casting around for my dad’s approval.

After that discussion with my dad, I’m starting to see why I’ve been struggling with my writing in the past year or so. The more I study literature and philosophy, the more I want to put that into my writing–I’m not a high schooler anymore, and there are certain expectations that come with that. In some ways, what I wrote in high school strove to do that, but kind of let it take a backseat, and what I’m trying to do now is find some way of incorporating all the ideas I find interesting into a coherent story. The lack of coherence stalled pretty much everything, except Erica-Derek writings, since the episodic nature of their story lets me write short bits without worrying to much about the whole. But now that I’ve recognized this, I can work on plot and shoving everything together, taking my time before the actual writing. Overall, though, I still keep worrying about what makes what I’m writing interesting. Why should anyone else care what these characters from the depths of my imagination do? Half the time, these characters were created for my sake; how on Earth are they anchored in anyone else’s life? I guess I don’t have an answer.

Ironically enough after so much thinking about writing, when I stopped by Barnes and Noble after dinner, I saw a display advertising pre-orders for Christopher Paolini’s third book in his Inheritance series, Brisingr. Yes, I know how to spell it. I say with some pride mixed with disdain that I’ve read Paolini’s Eragon and Eldest. The online writing community has lashed out against him so strongly that I almost fell victim to their pompousness; the truth is, I don’t think half of those people who scorn Paolini’s books have even read them (just like a fair number of the Harry Potter haters haven’t read those either). I did decide to read the books, and here’s why I think what I think.

Paolini wrote Eragon when he was fifteen and sixteen years old. I was around that age, maybe a little older, when I read it. My Sutton-trained eye picked up on the inexperience in his style, but once I got over his weakness there, I found I liked the story he unfolded for me. I saw a shadow of my own stabs at writing The Gathering in his book, the mind for story structure and high fantasy that I hadn’t quite worked into my story yet. So I admired his work and his perseverance, but I didn’t see the book the way I see books written by adult authors. I think that was the first time I learned to be critical of a book I had enjoyed–I’d read it like a writer, and I saw room for improvement. But I liked it.

But Eldest enraged me. I loved that Paolini’s writing style had improved by leaps and bounds, and some of the scenes really made me think (I almost wrote an essay for a summer program using the book), but as a self-proclaimed writer, I felt betrayed by Paolini’s choice of plot point halfway through the book. To me, he had broken a major rule of character development: having his character’s physical/mental barrier magically disappear without any sort of revelation on the character’s part, which happened to be one of the main points of The Gathering. I’m trying not to give away too much here, just in case anyone ever wants to read it (which I would encourage with a spoonful of caution), but whenever I think of that book, I cringe a little inside.

I pride myself in having real, tangible criticism of Paolini, unlike the rest of the online writing community who just seems to hate him for doing what they’ve never accomplished–finished writing a book. I all truthfulness, I don’t hate him. I admire his storytelling and inventiveness, and I applaud his success. I just don’t agree with him.

Anyway, today (or by now, yesterday–goodness how the time flies…) has been quite a day for thinking about writing. And writing. I mean seriously, when’s the last time I wrote a blog entry this long?

From NYC

Hello from New York! I’m on the craziest nonsensical sleeping schedule. Here’s an approximate summary of my sleep since last Saturday night: 7 hours (decent), 4 hours (lay in bed for 7 hours, which is the worst way to get very little sleep), 9 hours (sleeping on 107’s couch is amazing), 4 hours (lay in bed 6 hours this time, woke up around 6:30AM and couldn’t fall back asleep), 4 hours (on an airplane). Then I slept 9 hours this afternoon. I took the red-eye flight to NY (TiffHu is very much a fan of this) and got in at around 7AM, whereupon I spent the next 5 hours trying to procure breakfast foods with my sister (my eating schedule was way off, too, because I was in a rush for dinner before my flight and ended up eating microwaved canned soup with a tall glass of ice water–my stomach did not thank me for this). Then we got back to her apartment (WHICH IS AMAZING, maybe more on this later) and I fell asleep for the next 9 hours. Not sleeping well all week because of finals and stress and being uncomfortable finally caught up to me, so it was nice sleeping so much earlier today.

Nocturnalism is actually really good for me. I’ve needed some alone time just to think about everything that I’ve wanted to during finals but couldn’t because of finals. Now I’m done, it’s summer, I haven’t started work yet, and I have time for myself. I’m actually in NY for my cousin’s wedding in Ithaca on Saturday (tomorrow, but right now I’m thinking of “today” as Thursday, not Friday because I slept through most of Thursday XD). A family wedding means a lot of seeing relatives and being sweet/social, so I’m seizing the chance right now to just hang out with my brain. A weird concept, but that’s what it is. My brother and his fiancé are asleep on the futon, my sister’s getting ready for bed, and my other cousin kind of conked out on the floor up in the loft, so I get to sit in the dark here and just kind of spew out everything I’ve been contemplating.

The main thing I’m working on right now is organizing all my notes on my writing. I’m still hesitant to start writing for the Jade League again until I have a really solid plot, so I just keep doing character development until some good idea pops up. It’s a little frustrating, but to me frustration is a part of the creative process. In the meantime, I’m also doing a lot of planning stuff on Erica and Derek’s school (see Parting Pigeons for evidence). Apparently I like planning. A lot. Hee hee. Erica and Derek also make me really happy, although I can’t really explain all the reasons why.

I’m posting one of the short pieces of Cyfarwydd that I particularly like. I still need to finish that story, among others. Well, that’s what summer’s for.

The Grove

The cyfarwydd lived in a grove of trees. They were thick, bulky sentinels of the beach, far from the dunes where their stunted brothers grew. Together they stood, unchanging despite the passage of time. Except at sunset. At sunset the slanting light shone through the carapace of sea salt surrounding each, and set aglow the cyfarwydd’s quiet grove with each ray of sunlight refracting over and over again through the crystals lining the leaves and branches and trunks and roots. Then the sun disappeared into the ocean, and the grove froze again in time, lifeless yet utterly alive.

The trees offered the cyfarwydd shade, and in return he fed them words. They took his iambic pentameter as readily as his stumbling ums and ahs, all tumbling from the cyfarwydd’s lips like the succulent fruit of life itself. Yet they were not his students, for days and days passed, then years and years, and they could only whisper back when the wind slid through the leaves.

So the cyfarwydd waited, and spoke aloud to the nothingness of his everything.