Sep 5, 2017

Tell Me a Secret

That one word always gets us.

Secrets.

It either strikes fear or curiosity in our hearts—depending on who we are. Some of us have secrets we'd die to keep, little guarded truths we'd cling to for life. And others, have secrets we're dying to know. Few words have the power to accomplish what this word can. "Secrets" can steal someone away, hide a big part of them, and force them to put up a front.

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash
At least, they can with me.

Growing up, I developed the habit of keeping secrets. There were many reasons why, but the main one was being too perceptive. I realised pretty early on that, in some situations, it's better to act dumb and detached than to explode in a fit of emotions. At a young age, I saw just how destructive those emotions can be. Instead of reacting in front of everyone, I'd curl into a corner, bite back my tears and turn up my music so loud that the vibrations through my headphones practically felt like another heart beat. I'd shut the whole world out and barricade myself with a fake front and a convincing smile.

I had to be the strong one for others. The person who'd pick up the pieces and put them back together—no one noticed the rest. No one saw that my broken pieces had never mended. To them, I was strong. So I became the caretaker so many times that I now mistake the sound of laughter for a chocked cry before realising that, wait, no, I was wrong and that everything was okay. I buried myself in layers of numbness, sealing my true feelings in a casket so no one would find out what they were and feel helpless beside me.

Secrets.

They're not just hidden truths, but scary habits we keep that hide stories of hardship and struggle. They expose us to our very core, where we're at our worst and most vulnerable self. Mine are like that. They may not be "big" and "worthy" secrets, but they're my weaknesses. The opposite of how everyone sees me: strong, independent, confident, compassionate ... they're more of who I am than I let on—shoved into a corner so deep for so long that they turned into shadows, darkening the edges of my mind and vignetting my perspective.

Because they're so deeply sown into our consciousness, secrets easily change us. We see the world differently. We see ourselves differently. But we also see the difference between who we are now and who we used to be. They integrate into our lives so well that we become them. It's a transformation that permanently alters our identity—defining us, whether we want to be defined or not.

And I'm no different.

I've moulded with my secrets so well that they literally feel like all I have of myself. The one thing I have left to really offer. The one thing that's entirely me. Raw and unfiltered. I see that as something beyond just "personal." It's revealing—the act of voluntarily sharing a bare part of myself. It's, well ... intimate. 

When you share something, you give partial (if not complete) ownership. And since secrets are so personal... it's like giving a part of myself away. I don't trust anyone to safeguard my secrets—to safeguard me. Having been disappointed by people enough times, I stopped thinking (maybe even hoping) someone would fully understand. That there would be someone who'd say and do exactly the right things.

But I also know I don't give people enough chances to really try.

I'm good at getting my hopes up and having them shot down. I'm good at following an impulse and getting caught up in the moment. I'm good at feeling an urge to share and have it quickly die out. But more than that, I'm good at feeling a creeping sense of disappointment each time I've risked that slight exposure. Emotions, by nature, are fleeting. They don't last long. So I've learned to never base my actions on them. After all, they can be destructive.

The subsequent regret can be crushing, and the sound of hope shattering right after can be so loud.

It isn't worth hearing over and over again.

I spent my childhood blocking that sound out, nearly going deaf in my vain attempts. I don't want to be the direct cause of it, too. My problems are my own. My struggles are mine alone. Obstacles I face are ones I'll learn to overcome by myself. It's stressful and confusing and scary. It's something I keep running away from, and something I know I need to face. It's a heavy burden. But it's one I'm comfortable carrying alone. I'm comfortable being the only one uncomfortable (if that even makes sense), lifting my own weight. I even grew to relish in that feeling of discomfort--of solitude.

No one else has to know.

No one else would really want to, anyways.

Not if they actually did.

These thoughts were so central in my head that I stopped feeling entirely "normal"—sharing anything became a big challenge. Things that weren't even important or private became things I guarded and hedged around until they were forcefully ripped out of me. My desire to feel anything was unceremoniously hacked down by numbness. My desire to learn was severely stamped out by a lack of will. My desire to write was, well, what went next.

Basically, my instinct to share anything just ... vanished.

I kept enough secrets to know that they never truly stay confidential. People share them so easily, either out of weariness from carrying such a weighted burden or out of sheer glee from sharing something so private. So I stopped believing in people who keep secrets... well, secret. That I wouldn't be "shared" around so easily through whispers and murmurs. That I wouldn't lose the part I gave away, somewhere in between time and a disconnected relationship. That, simply, I wouldn't regret sharing myself.

And so, I lost faith in truth.

Instead, I turned to intrigue and mystery. I'm drawn to things that scream bad choices and people who so obviously make them. It's a mixed feeling of admiration and magnetism. I look at them and think of how badly I'd like to lose myself and make those bad decisions, too. To get out of my head and get lost in it at the same time—to forget and remember simultaneously. I think of tricking myself into making them—but I'm too clever to fall for it.

Sometimes, anyways.

No one could really tell just how deeply they should be concerned.

Or worse, how unconcerned they should be.

So I hide behind small truths, little warnings conveyed through hints and vague answers. Maybe that bit of honesty is my excuse. Maybe I'm clinging to it to avoid facing something else—my real problem. Maybe I'm clinging to the pain and the hurt I've saved up over the years as a distraction from that something.

Maybe that "something" is just... nothing.

And "nothing" scares me.

It's hard to express that feeling—being lost, confused, scared, and a little bit hopeful (despite everything). But the lyrics in "Prey" by The Neighbourhood does a good enough job:
Something is off, I can't explain
You know what I mean, don't you?
Something I saw, or something I did that made me like this
Could you help me?
We need to fly ourselves before someone else tells us how
Something is off, I feel like prey, I feel like praying
Something is off, I feel like prey, I feel like praying
So, in the end, I'm left with stolen moments where I could be myself. And those can be easily ripped away—by interruptions, by questions, by expectations. Whatever it is, it's about honesty and my lack of wanting to stick to it. I'm still human. I still want to share my burdens. But I'm too cautious for that. It's a struggle for me to fight that small voice in the back of my head that wants to cave into instinct and just be human with someone else. To fight my "vagueness," which is enough to tell people that, no, I'm not okay but I'll pretend to be anyways. I hide behind the implication of "please don't ask" and despite that... I find myself wanting to find someone who would. Someone who would get up and say something.

I'm looking for someone who'd care enough.

But I'm always surprised when I find them—and then, like a backslider, I step back, run away, and lie. Because, really, I'm not ready for it. I'd rather go back to my own little corner, huddled quiet and hurting. If someone asks, I'll get up, hide my secrets, and smile.

That's the image anyone would need to see.

So my secret?

It's that I don't have one.

Not one for you.

Not for now.


Jan 20, 2017

Writing Differently for Fiction—An Exploration

For any serious writer, improving their craft is a never-ending desire. As one myself, I've picked up on some tips that I think many tend to overlook. Writers often stick to what they know, writing in one field until they master it. But really, I don't think that's how it should work. You learn more (and better) when trying out different things. The same goes for writing. 

You write better when you've tried writing different things. 

Words by Rich Mason

In this post, I'll be sharing some personal insight. I'm not a particularly wonderful writer, but I have been writing for nine years now. So, I like to think I've progressed quite a bit over the years, and that I'm credible as I write this. My advice covers different types/ forms of writing, but is given with novelists in mind.  


POETRY:

Even if you're not a poet, there's a lot to learn (and love) about poetry. As you try it out, you'll notice that you'll start focusing on word choice. Things like rhyme and rhythm start to matter a lot. You want your words to evoke emotion, imagery... something.

Poetry pushes you to break the rules of typical writing as you begin to learn how to paint with words. The more you write poetry, the more descriptive and aware you become of the "showing not telling" concept. In some ways, poetry is all about what you don't say as much as it's about what you do

Writing fiction is a lot like that, too. Novel readers need proper pacing, steady rhythm, and effective word choice to stay gripped in a story. So, poetry is a good place to start practicing. 


SCRIPTS: 

If I were to describe scriptwriting, I'd say it's an odd combination of poetry and prose. A script's layout looks a lot like a poem from a distance. Paragraphs of action are broken up by centered dialogue—and it has to flow and engage the viewer.

Like writing fiction, scriptwriting tells a story with basic elements of plot, character, and setting. Unlike novels, scripts are written for staff and actors. Not the audience. Descriptions can't be vivid and flowery. Action should be simple and direct—no insights into the character's thought process. What you get is what you see, so everything has to be clear and natural.

Scripts force a novelist to limit and filter the flowery prose, and get to the heart of the story. Each page is a minute onscreen—and no minute should be wasted. 

No page, either.

And that's a very important lesson for a writer. One that people easily overlook or undermine way too often. Scriptwriting helps a novelist understand how to link individual scenes into an action sequence. 


ARTICLES: 

Although it sounds completely unrelated, non-fiction writing is pretty instrumental to a novel. Voice is something that either makes or breaks a story. To better understand and "hear" a character's voice, the writer should be able to know their own. When writing articles, the writer has to overcome the distance between themselves and the reader—something main characters do all the time in prose.

It's also important to know when a voice is genuine and when it's being forced. Or, occasionally, borrowed from the author themselves. 

More than just voice, non-fiction teaches a novelist how to make prose interesting. Boring facts become interesting anecdotes or valuable information. This transformation isn't an easy one to master, but writing articles is a good way to start.

Ever tried writing a lead? In thirty words or less, you have to write an attention-grabbing first sentence. If you fail, then your entire article is deemed unworthy. That's a lot of pressure. But books work the same way, too. 

It's not easy, but it's definitely valuable. 



In General:

I used to consider all these different types of writing as ... well, different types of writing. But they share a lot in common—despite their differences. There's something in each form for any kind of writer. By trying them all out, a writer grows and is able to approach the task of writing with more tools at hand. It's just advice in the end, but I think it's worth more than cursory consideration.

After all, learning never ends. 

Jan 2, 2017

Abnormal Summit— A Good Korean Non-Drama

I'll admit, the title is a bit misleading. This show isn't just "good," it's up there in my Top 5 Favourite Shows—a list reserved for truly great shows. And here, I'll explain why.

Many people hype about Korean dramas and music, but most forget that regular Korean TV shows can be just as great. They're a solid, practical way to understand and learn about Korean culture. Especially when these shows are relatable, fun to watch, and culturally accessible to (almost) everyone.

Abnormal Summit's Official Logo by JTBC
And Abnormal Summit (비정상회담) is all three.

The show is hosted by three Koreans who invite around eleven international, yet fluent Korean speakers, to a mock UN table where they discuss social matters and news. It may sound a bit dull, but it really isn't. Multi-ethnic perspectives and a lot of (good-natured) laughs are constantly exchanged.

The current season is so diverse, with representative speakers from: Mexico, United States, India, France, Pakistan, Switzerland, Canada, Germany, Italy, China, and Japan. The show opens up with a discussion of some current global news before introducing the main topic through the guest speaker. Each episode is packed with interesting topics and gripping conversation—with guests being musicians, actors, and even psychologists (among so many other careers). 

You get all their insights—as well as comparisons to different cultures—in a convenient package that is highly-entertaining, highly-educating, and well-edited. 

And if it's your first time watching Korean TV, then here's a heads-up: there's a lot of post-production editing. 

The screen easily fills up with superimposed text and images. Though it may be distracting at first, you quickly get used to it. And eventually, you'll start looking for them, expecting them, and maybe even missing them in other shows. Korean-style TV editing is by far more engaging than others I've encountered—and definitely more "language learner"-friendly.

By reading the text on-screen, you can pick up on dialogue faster than you would in dramas. The conversation, in a way, would be more realistic and genuine as people speak their minds—people who are actual non-native speakers. It's pretty inspiring to see a panel of foreigners speaking a foreign language, too.

It may not turn out to be your thing, but it's certainly worth a try. In 129 episodes (thus far), it has everything good going for it: comedy, culture, language, news, and the surprise element of a refreshing guest.


Dec 25, 2016

Dangal—Review

Dangal ("wrestler") is one of those films that you can watch with just about anyone—making you smile, laugh, and even cry while loving every bit of the experience. I went in without even knowing what the film was about, having no expectations, and came out with a huge smile and some happy tears. And honestly... I can't help but feel that it has been a wonderful refresher from all the recycled films made by Hollywood.

Movie Poster (Bollywood Hungama)
It's a family movie that, although long, is consistently gripping. Thus far, Dangal (starring Aamir Khan) has many positive reviews, earning raving comments and lots of buzz. And personally, I feel that this response is well-earned. The movie is by far one of my favourite bollywood films. It made me enjoy a biography about wrestling—something I didn't even think I'd like, let alone admire.

And admire, I did.

The story is about a Mahavir Singh Phogat, a father and wrestling nationalist, who raises his two daughters to be international gold medal-winning champions. Throughout the film, you get to witness how these daughters grow—under strict training in a culturally-rich environment—until you feel like you're practically part of the family, too.

The film doesn't waste time on cringy Bollywood dance numbers, love stories, or objectified forms of "beauty." Instead, it focuses on the raw potential of dreams and family. On the power, strength, and capability that these women have been born with and continue to maintain. It's a long, hard journey—but definitely one worth watching all the way through.

The payoff is so worth it.

All components of the film work nicely together. The writers did a skilful job with the script, with the lines being realistic and well-timed. Nothing felt out of place since it was such a perfect balance of serious, sad, and funny. The actors executed the script just as well. Everyone, from the child actors who are now amongst my favourite young stars to the adults who managed to build upon the characters' growth, did a great job. And then there's the director, Nitesh Tiwari, who shows the audience exactly what needs to be seen—nothing more, nothing less.

Although I loved the movie, not everybody feels the same way. Some negative reviews claim that Bollywood is sexist, and that this movie is no different. Instead of focusing on girl power, it focused on one man's "ego."

But I disagree.

The story isn't about a man's "ego," but about his dream—which he says repetitively in the movie. "Girl power" isn't the main focus here, because (let's face it) the women aren't the main characters. They're father is. Geeta, one of Mahavir's daughters, becomes a wrestler not only to fulfil her father's dream, but to earn his pride. Meaning: it's not a male-female dynamic, but a father-daughter relationship. And though the father is stoic, you see some of his defences crumbling when he interacts with his daughters. Especially since his inner turmoil (as a character) is deciding between being a father and being a coach.

In sum, the soundtrack is charming, the characters feel real (and in this case, they actually are), and the setting is well-established. But don't just take my word for it, watch the trailer and decide for yourself:



Dec 24, 2016

Common "Religious" Arabic Phrases Used Culturally

Some phrases, that when translated to English may sound over the top and archaic, are so common they're practically expected to be said in other languages. Because I believe language is an insight into culture, I came up with six different scenarios and their consecutive phrases. This post will be dedicated to the Arabic language and culture—and in them, religion plays a big role without even having to be involved.

Image by: Saad Mahmood

Below is a list (of sorts) that includes all major religious phrases used all the time without any religious context for them. For anyone learning Arabic or is new to the culture, they're important phrases to understand. Plus, they'll definitely make a strong positive impression on a native speaker.

Although this is a somewhat extensive post, it doesn't cover half of all the sayings in this rich language. Nonetheless, it's still a good phrase-guide for what to expect in certain situations.


1. Greetings & Thanks

In English, people often greet each other by asking, "how are you?" And if we're being honest, they're excepting to hear "I'm good/ fine/ okay" in return. It's the same in Arabic, except instead of replying with any of the above, people almost always say "Alhamdulillah," ("الحمد لله") meaning "Thank God." The logic is that you're already doing well—and because of that, you're thanking God. So in a sense, you skip the "I'm good" part and immediately go into being grateful. I've never heard this question answered otherwise in Arabic.

When saying thank you, there's the standard "shukran" ("شكرا") that everyone uses. But there are also stronger phrases to convey just how thankful people really are. Saying "Baarak Allahu feek," ("بارك الله فيك") meaning "May the blessings of God be upon you," and "Jazak Allahu khairan," ("جزاك الله خيرا") meaning "May God reward you with fortune" are some of the ways people do so. They're reserved for "special thanks," but are commonly said as a way to show gratitude for small yet touching gestures done for the speaker.


2. Daily Life

A good example to share and explain for this section is sneezing. When sneezing, the sneezer would say "Alhamdullilah"  under the logic that their body has gotten rid of bad bacteria through sneezing and, therefore, they're thankful. Anyone in the vicinity would reply with "Yarhamuka Allah," ("يرحمك الله") meaning "May God have mercy on you." You can easily think of this as the Arabic substitute for "Bless you," except... the dialogue is not quite over. The sneezer, after hearing that, then says "Yahdeekum Allah wa yusleh balakum" ("يهديكم الله و يصلح بالكم") meaning "May Allah guide you and fix/ purify your condition." It may sound complicated, but the exchange is so natural that it's done routinely.

Another notable term that is so very common is "Inshallah," ("إن شاء الله") translating into "God Willing." It's a very flexible term used in varying contexts, mostly in a paradoxical sense. People often use it when they're looking forward to an event happening—but it's also said as a way to lightly reject an offer or a planned occasion. The phrase is so common that I've even heard non-native speakers using it in their own daily lives to imply that something won't happen. For example, a speaker can typically say "I will go, inshallah" and that can either mean they plan to go and are looking forward to it, or that they don't plan to attend at all. The secret to knowing the difference lies in the body language and context.

"Salam" Image by: Cisco Lightpainting

3. During Sickness 

It's commonly known that people greet each other by saying "al-salamu-alaykom," ("السلام عليكم") meaning "peace upon you." But the root word used here (al-salam) is worth a short tangent. This greeting is often shorted to simply "Salam" as a casual greeting and even a goodbye from the original form "Ma'a al-salama" ("مع السلامة"), meaning "With peace." The key word here is "Salam," ("سلام") which literally means "peace." It comes in a variety of forms and carries all sorts of grammatical nuances. For example, the word "Istislam" ("استسلام") is often translated into "submission," but is more like the verb form of the word "salam"—turning "peace" into an action. And some of its other forms are even used to talk about health.

When someone is sick, people would often express their concerns by saying "Salamat" ("سلامات") or "Salamatak" ("سلامتك")—kind of like saying "Get well soon" in English. The sick person would then reply with "Allah yisallimak," ("الله يسلمك") roughly meaning "May God keep you safe."


4. When Scared

When getting spooked, a common first reaction (in-sync with jumping all over the place) is quickly saying "Bismillah," the shortened version of "Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem," ("بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم") which means "In the name of God, the Most Gracious and Most Merciful." And some even say it before shrieking—it's that well engrained into their minds. Another phrase is "A'outhu billah" ("أعوذ بالله") meaning "I seek God's protection/ refuge" as a way to confront the fear while making the speaker stronger. Although they sound long, both are very common that they don't need to have a religious aspect to their fear to be said. They're just said whenever the speaker is suddenly confronted with something unexpected (in a passing moment).


5. When Angry 

A lot of people curse when they're angry, but other sayings are just as common, lighter, and more socially acceptable. For example, "Allah yehdik" ("الله يهديك") means "May God guide you," and it's used under the assumption that the instigator acted improperly— thus needing God's guidance. Or, by saying "Allah yesamhak," ("الله يسامحك") meaning "May God forgive you," the speaker is basically giving a quick (yet bitter-ish) prayer to absolve the instigator from their wrongdoings (that angered the speaker in the first place).

In a way, saying these phrases implies that the speaker is benevolent and that they're not really that angry—they're not actually cursing the instigator.


6. When Happy 

In English, saying "Oh God" often implies a problem or a confronted issue—but it's the opposite in Arabic. By simply saying "Allah" ("God") the speaker's tone changes, and they sound more pleased than before. The word is often said when looking at something beautiful, or admiring personal/ others' accomplishments. An even more popular phrase is "Mashallah," the shortened version of "Mashallah tabarakallah" ("ما شاء الله تبارك الله") that roughly translates into "What God wants to happen, God is blessed." It's said when the speaker wants to express their amazement. So basically, it's like saying "wow" in religious terms.


Disclaimer: 

Some of these phrases aren't "religious" in the sense that they must be said during these situations. Instead, the aim of the post is to show how these religious phrases are used in everyday life, without religious context. They're not always expected to be said out of devotion, but are just so common that not hearing them said is just ... odd. In a way, this post shows how religion and language play a role in shaping a culture.




Dec 7, 2016

Novel Like Manga—Laying out Your Story

I'll be honest: I know nothing about drawing manga, but I do know a thing or two about writing. As a longstanding manga fan, I feel like I owe it to the industry to understand how it works. And while thinking about it, I discovered a lot of connections between manga and books—some similar, others admirably different.

Image by: Stuart Rankin
Manga is a unique storytelling platform—one that relies on art instead of prose. Like any fictional story, good manga has to have an established setting, a developed plot, and relatable characters. But the added element of "art" changes the playing field. In order to maintain the important concept of "pacing," mangakas (Japanese manga artists) lay out their art through a carefully planned out process: panelling.

Typically read from right to left (up then down), manga forces readers to reconfigure their reading habits. In my case, it helped me learn that the way things are placed changes how they're perceived. The pages of a manga usually include different paneling styles and dialogue breaks—all of which are placed so that the "story flow" can grow naturally. And in good manga, it does.


Manga vs. Novel: 

In writing, the illusion of passing time is done through paragraph breaks. But manga expresses time through panels—the ultimate foundation of its pacing. By using long panels, mangakas are able to "draw out" an instance and give readers a better chance to fully take in the moment. Consequently, shorter and smaller panels make time pass faster in a manga—the eye doesn't linger nearly as long. Because there is no art in (most) novels, novelists do this by carefully crafting short paragraphs and standalone sentences. And while they might be read quickly, these short text breaks create a stronger impression of a defining moment.

Sample Manga Page Image by: Kasuga

Panel layout and design are instrumental to a story's flow, making variety an important concept. I've never realised before looking into it, but different manga genres can even have different panel templates that get used more often in one genre than the other. In a way, manga becomes a lot like film—with frames and shots getting produced by the mangaka's art instead of a director's vision. But the challenge with manga is that you can't feel and hear the dialogue the way you do in a film.

Sure, you have visuals to fill in the context for the actual text, but structure is just as important. So in addition to using longer panels, mangakas strategically transition between panels to include more intricate details. And a well-designed, well-placed dialogue bubble is one of the ways that does this best. There's interaction happening in between the panels—the same way that prose and dialogue interact in between the lines. This level of cohesion reminds me just how important it is that every scene has a purpose and a reason for being.

Mangakas have to visualise the flow of each page to control how readers go through the panels (essentially, the story)—and that's something I believe all novelists can benefit from doing.

Image by: Neitram
There may not be any art to direct, but basic text serves the same purpose. Focus on the scenes of your story and visualise how dialogue connects with prose on a micro level. It's hard work, but the payoff is definitely worth it. Think of the lined pages as panels and see how different your writing becomes. Experiment with dialogue as if it's in a bubble instead of quotes. Envision a blank page as a panel template sheet, and see how you'd fill it up.

Every medium has its different approach to storytelling ... but in the end, it's still telling a story. When getting stuck in a scene, a lot of writers suggest changing approaches by using a different character, a different point of view—a different story element. But what if, instead, you use a different format?

It could all be done in your head, by using the power of imagination if art isn't exactly your forte. The idea is to play with something new, to start "noveling" in an innovative way that might actually help better lay out your story.


Extra sources:

If you want to find out more about manga layout and what actually goes on behind the pages in more detail, then check out this post on Panelling, Pacing, & Layout in Comics & Manga #1 and #2 (written by an actual professional who knows what they're doing).


Nov 3, 2016

NaNoWriMo Tips from Someone Who Won and Lost


November is upon us once again, and that means another year of NaNoWriMo is underway. As someone who both won and lost the write-a novel-in-just-a-month challenge, I feel entitled to share some words of wisdom. Mainly, ones that came out of anything but wisdom—technically words inspired by a long chain of trials and errors. So, here I'm sharing the top five things I've painstakingly discovered along the way so you don't have to:


1. Know the Kind of Writer You Are

It took me years, and two NaNoWriMo challenges, to finally figure out how I write—or rather, how I write well. Think of NaNoWriMo as a science writing experiment. There's lots of hypothesising. Lots of testing and observing results. Lots of time needed to form conclusions. And NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to do all of it. Example: are you a planner or a pantser? You can figure it out by putting both to the test. 

Now, I'm not a planner—far from it since I procrastinate my way through life. But I'm beginning to discover that I'm a "writer who plans.I would have never known this had I not forced myself to actually plan this year's story. After five straight hours of story developing and facing my plot issues, I finally came up with an outline that was more than a few sentences and some margin doodles. It may not sound like a big deal, but this outline (I'm hoping) would help me sculpt my story into something formidable. So that next time, when someone says they would love to read the novel they just found out I wrote, I wouldn't have to reply with a panicked "Um, no. You really don't."

Also, don't be afraid to try out new things. You might discover that writing in third person works best for you (or the story) instead of your preferred first person. You might change tenses before settling on what you decide you're comfortable with. You might even find a better hidden story within the one you're currently writing. Whatever it is, NaNoWriMo gives you the chance to discover your style—all you have to do is track your changes for future revision. 


2. Do Some Recon Work

It sounds like military tactics, but doing some reconnaissance definitely helps in writing, too. Read what others write and listen to what those around you have to say. Be open to new ideas, and actively seek them out. Inspiration is like an urban legend—don't fall into believing it happens to everyone all the time (like I did). Instead of waiting for it, go lurk around enemy search engines and start researching. Your findings will ultimately count as necessary intel as soon as you start your writing mission. They will help you establish the right atmosphere for your characters and even for yourself.

My first NaNo story was a 100% pantser-creation. I went in blind, barely knowing how my setting worked and how my characters behaved. I figured it would all come together on the page. It didn't, and I had to improvise a lot of eyebrow-raising scenes. But since I reached the desired 50K, I didn't mind much. It gave me the confidence I needed as a "successful" novelist. And so, I recycled my methods for my second NaNo story... which did not work out so well for me. That was when I realised why soldiers do recon work—and a lot of it. In November, you're not just a writer. You're also a soldier (of wordwars instead of the actual kind). 


3. Do Not Lose Momentum

This one sounds simple, but is probably the hardest step of all. NaNoWriMo is a writer's marathon, and a writer who takes a day off is akin to a runner who stops running. It can get hard to continue running in top shape after a long break leaves muscles inactive. Same with writing. That is why warming up your "Writing Muscles" before NaNoWriMo really helps with getting a head start and an early practice. Runners do these warm-ups to avoid pulling a muscle—which, for writers, is equivalent to the dreaded Writer's Block.


But that doesn't mean that writing should take over your life in November. Set a habit or a system that works for you—a daily word limit, a magic hour, or simply just coffee. My personal one is aiming for 2000 words a day. It might sound like a lot, but I would push for at least 500 words in really tough times. I try not to skip a day because even if I could afford the word gap, it will live to mock me the next morning. Like chess pawns that reach the opposite end, these 500 words are game changers for me. They give me the strength to sort of "honor" the effort I made by making up for the resulting gap with renewed drive. Even if it sounds stressful, trust me, it's so much better than skipping a day of writing. At least you wouldn't also lose your momentum. 

My second NaNo story was a failure because I turned into a backslider. My word count kept decreasing, and I kept getting demotivated until I eventually stopped writing. I realised I was going no where, and just gave up because I lost that push to get something done. One good way to avoid becoming a cautionary tale like me is to "always end a writing session only when you know what's next" (—S.B. Roberts in an article by Jessica Strawser). I'm following that advice this year, and it's been working so far. 


4. Foster Support

Because science and the questionable food industry managed to trap energy into drinkable cans, it no longer becomes an issue of great concern. Besides, there's always coffee as extra fuel. But motivation isn't as simply cured. Having a network of equally frustrated yet inspiring writers though, makes a big difference. People are great motivators, and fostering that sense of community goes a long way towards a sustainable writing future. Even if you're not joining the traditional NaNo challenge, take advantage of the productive atmosphere. Drink up the November spirit—it only comes once a year. Why not even use it for your own personal projects?

If you can't find a community, then make one. Help writers gather together and bounce ideas or, better yet, writing anecdotes. Join write-ins or chat rooms, and interact with both budding and veteran writers—they both offer something new to learn from. Who knows, you might even make lifelong friendships. At first, my NaNoWriMo experience was daunting, but getting to know the writers in my region and arranging for meetings and write-ins literally became the highlight of my NaNo lifestyle. Remember that even though November ends, writing doesn't. 

So take this chance to build something long-lasting. 


5. Have Fun 

For many of us, writing is a hobby. For others, it's an occupation. Whatever it may be, writing is something we choose to do because we (most likely) enjoy it. NaNoWriMo shouldn't be an overwhelming challenge, but a fun experience. Don't get too caught up in tracking word counts, but remember the reason you started in the first place. It's easy to get caught up on the "what," but it's more worthwhile to remember the "why." 

If, as the creator, you can't get excited over your own story... then chances are that prospective readers wouldn't either. Don't try to enjoy writing, but actually do. Listen to music and jam out mid-writing session. Carve out intervals between long writing periods for a fun activity of your choice. Or come up with something entirely different and refreshing. If for some reason you still can't enjoy writing, then that's an early sign for you to tweak some concepts or test out a new story altogether. 

When I was writing my second NaNo novel, every chapter felt like a life sentence where time behind bars somehow evolved into words on a page. I loved my idea and I adored my characters—but it wasn't enough. Writing their story just didn't "click" for me. I realize now that I was too overwhelmed and, more frighteningly, falling out of love with writing. After some much-needed time off and a revived need to write (that I doubt ever went away), I'm making my comeback. 


Finally... 

Do what you want to do. You can listen to these tips or choose to ignore them—maybe even make your own. Whatever the case, do what feels right for you. And always: Happy Writing!


Oct 24, 2016

Perpetually Dreaming — My Reality

As the saying goes, there are always two kinds of people. They are always doing or being two different kinds of things. To be honest, that always bothered me—two is never an accurate number. But I keep (hypocritically) dividing people in two groups myself. In my mind, people are either dreamers or doers. And I'm a little slow for only figuring this out now, but I'm a complete dreamer.

"Sweet dreams" by Muxxi
I always have been.

The thing about always dreaming is that you're never awake—even when you should be. In my case, well... I never truly have been. I've been avoiding real life for as long as I can remember, but I only just realised this now.

Fantasising and daydreaming are like second nature to me— if not first. As a kid, I constantly played with my dolls (yes, I was that girl who had a favourite doll) and imagined scenarios that made me lose myself in possibilities. I'd create a world where the protagonist (yes, that same doll from above) was actually extraterrestrial with super powers and a mission to save the world from, like, a really bad guy. I'd make playlists as I was discovering new music, losing myself in the lyrics and creating new stories inspired by them. I even got the "Most Likely to Get Lost in Her Own World" superlative back in High School (which isn't really that big of a deal, but still). Back then, and even now, I'd look out of windows with glassy eyes thinking of my future. Not about having a job or a family, but about accomplishing great things. About breaking records and proving myself and everyone who ever doubted me wrong, while also making those who didn't very proud.

I've never felt more alive than when I wasn't really living (in the real world). In some ways, being immersed in a story was almost always what kept me grounded in reality. I would count days by anticipated book releases or updated manga chapters. I would look forward to the next year just so I could finally find out "what happens next." I would always be reading books. Or watching movies. Or living in songs. The point is, everything that wasn't a story to me felt like a chore—something I needed to get out of the way.

It went beyond the boundaries of escapism.

But I never really minded because life seemed better that way—even if it wasn't really living. I was happy making my own worlds, and just as happy living in them as whatever I chose to be: a bystander or a queen. Those worlds were my refuge. And they're responsible for making me who I am. I learned so much from researching and world building. Languages, trivia, life skills... I've gained so much from "escaping" that it felt wrong to stop. 

My problem wasn't avoiding life, but avoiding wanting to live. I developed a love-hate relationship with hopes and dreams. I wanted to stop hoping and dreaming of coveted futures and impossible expectations because they've been shot down too many times before. I've been snapped back to reality in sudden jarring ways that I stopped believing in what I dream. But in the stupid way that brains work, I couldn't make the dreaming actually stop. So in a way, I've developed a seriously bleak view on life. 

All of these thoughts have been running in my head lately—especially after listening to these lyrics from the song "Patience" by Bad Suns:
All my dreams have been weighing me down
Like an anchor to my bed
I can live my life instead
I've been writing my thoughts down
To clear my mind
To try and figure out my brain
To confront and set aside my pain
And I've been searching for meaning
In a blood red field of
Wasted dreams and wasted breath
Baby, wasted dreams, that's worse than death  

But I can't really live my life—not yet. So I use these stories, these made-up realities, instead. I write characters that express my emotions for me. Characters that do what I've always imagined doing, go where I've always wanted to go... ones that simply live the way I always thought of living.

And I'm okay with that. Because of these characters, I got to live different lives. Become different people. Learn different lessons. It made me realise that while some people dream and others do, I get to do both. By dreaming, I am doing. And I can live with that—dreaming, I mean.  

I figure it's a fair trade, anyway.

This is all pretty raw for me, but it feels right. So I'll end with another song lyric that had me really thinking— "Ask Yourself" by Foster the People:
You're coughing blood again
I know 'cause I clean up the mess every now and then
Fold the line along the seam
Force a smile and never say what you mean
You're in the promised land in someone else's dream
If you want more, and you'll get there
Throw in a quarter in the well
It's okay, you're fine, ambition's not a crime
And you say that dreamers always get what they desire
Well, I've found the more I want the less I've got
Is this the life you've been waiting for?
Or are you hoping that you'll be where you want with a little more?
Well, ask yourself 

So... is this the life you've been waiting for?