Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cross-Country Trip: Introduction

A couple weeks ago, just under 20 days after getting my driver's license, I finally set out to move to California. I decided to drive for a couple of reasons: I had just gotten my first car and the shipping costs would be ridiculous and I thought that a cross-country would be a good way to get used to driving. I felt that I needed to learn--and learn fast--since the goal is to live in LA....and I've heard LA driving ain't no joke. I must admit, I was pretty apprehensive about the trip. Just try to put yourself in the shoes of a 22-year-old who'd just finished college, had never sat behind a wheel prior to two months ago, and had 3,200 miles of unadulterated road ahead of him with the heavy burden/worry of not crashing the car that's supposed to last you the next few-several years (oh, and let's not forget the chance of dying part). Scary, huh?

I set off Thursday night/Friday morning at midnight from Washington, DC with my girlfriend. The itinerary took us to Chicago to Mt. Rushmore to Yellowstone to the Bay Area over a span of four days. I want to spend a blog post for each day--pictures and all--because I think it is deserving of such. Tomorrow will be the first, chronicling the overnight drive to the windy city and a great, if not tiring, all-day stay. This post is just a place-holder and a motivation for me to get these posts in sooner than later, so check back tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Misery by Stephen King - Review

Am I twisted if I finish a book like this and then think: wow, that was a fun ride! Some might say that I am, but I just like to think of it as recognizing a brilliant creative mind when I see one. Throughout, this novel was classic King, with all the twists, bloody details, and character development expected from the master. It was also interesting to read this after having watched the movie in the past. I thought the Annie in that was a psycopath, but King's original character takes the insanity cake, licks off all the icing, and then spits it back out before serving it to her guests. I don't know if I have ever encountered a crazier character, written or acted, than Annie Wilkes.

King decided to present this story through the perspective of a writer, something he has done in other novels (The Shining, The Dark Half, Lisey's Story, etc) with great outcomes. Misery is no different. Throughout the novel, King explores what it means to be a writer, from dealing with motivations to writer's block to pushing past the slush and the frustration to break free into the land of the wonderful. He does this through Paul Sheldon, a famous author of the Misery books, a romance series based in pre-colonial times. He owes his fame to these books, but he is also trying to escape them and write that novel to become known as a more 'serious' author. After completing the first draft of this savior novel, he takes it upon himself to celebrate and the next thing he knows he is drugged and in a lifetime of pain in the home of Annie Wilkes: he had been in a near-fatal accident on a snowy, windy road in the dead of winter. By chance, luck, or some strange fate, Annie had been the one to find him. And Annie is his biggest fan. And Annie is crazier than a pitbull with hot sauce on its nuts.

The rest of the novel focuses on Annie and Paul's interactions. We slowly, but surely, see her psychotic nature unfold as she first becomes furious at Paul for killing Misery Chastain at the end of the last book in the series that just came out and later forces Paul to burn his new manuscript and write Misery's Return in its place. I'm not going to give away the details of her grand displays of dementia, but King does a great job of creating a desperate and bone-chilling environment for the duration of the reader's stay.

This novel only contains two main characters and one setting. And even in that one setting (Annie's house), we are mostly limited to one bedroom. This allows a greater focus on the development of these two characters. We learn what makes Paul Sheldon tick as a writer an, in turn, some insight into the mind of King as well. One thing that stuck out to me was Paul's recurring question of Can You? He uses this as motivation to get past his writer's block, to tell himself that he can create worlds and characters that people can relate to. He has a lot of time to think in this book--about life, mortality, writing, and the f'ed up situation he's found himself in--and this is one of his answers to his own infamous question:

"Can I? Yeah. You bet I can. There's a million things in this world I can't do. Couldn't hit a curveball, even back in high school. Can't fix a leaky faucet. Can't roller skate or make a F-chord on the guitar that sounds like anything but shit. I have tried twice to be married and couldn't do it either time. But if you want me to take you away, to scare you or involve you or make you cry or grin, yeah. I can. I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle. I am able. I can."

In conclusion, Misery is a great ride. Even if not a horror fan, anyone who has any interesting in writing should try to stomach the grotesque and the terror for some damn good commentary on what it means not only to thrive in this art but to live it to its fullest.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Three Day Novel - Metro84


That was my first response.

Total and utter exhaustion.

That was my second.

Surprisingly, though, I couldn't sleep right after. Despite multiple times in those 72 hours where I'd be typing at a sluggish, zombie pace one second and dreaming about God knows what the next, I just could not sleep once it was all said and done. Part of that is most likely attributed to the pure fact that it is always easier for me to fall asleep when my goal is to complete some other task (like reading or writing or schoolwork--but let's never speak of that latter again: those days are over) than when I am actually ready and willing to enter slumberland. And even after a 3-day marathon of typing, thinking, and wishing that the time would go by faster but dreading just that because the story wasn't anywhere near being done yet, the adrenaline of finishing made it hard for me to take what I had been craving for so long when I drew all the curtains, flicked off all the lights, and curled up under the sheets when midnight finally came..

On top of that, I just couldn't stop thinking of the story.

Let me backtrack a little so that I won't lose you. There's this contest (3DayNovel.com) that has been going on for thirty years or so that challenges authors to write a full novel in 72-hours. You can plan all you want beforehand, make an outline, meditate, go on a journey around the world for inspiration, as long as the actual writing is done within the 72 hour time frame. How do they hold people to this little detail? Technically, they can't. They don't have anything to go on besides people's words that the manuscripts submitted were written following the rules listed on their site. Of course, they would be able to tell the difference between something written marathon-style over the course of a weekend and something that someone has been working on for the last three years. They encourage that contestants submit their work right after they are done, typos and all: it's what they expect.

The winner (announced every January after the September deadline) gets their book published (no worries, the book is edited professionally after it is picked) while the two runner ups get cash prizes. While I am not naive enough to bank on this contest as my ticket to fame, the contest had special appeal to me because of some of the limiting factors of my current work. Both of my first two novels are about 150k words in length and both may suffer from over-description (although this term is very opinionated...what may be over-description to some may be just right for others and, even still, too bland for those special people out there) at times. While there are published works out there that display these same characteristics and published authors that live by them, as an individual seeking first-time publication, these can be limiting. I saw this contest as a chance to focus on the story, get out all of my thoughts in a short amount of time, and potentially create something that is shorter, more stream-lined, and, ultimately, more appealing to publishers. In other words, even if I don't win the contest, I'd have created something that I could use towards future publication.

And, of course, I could now say that I've written three full novels.

I didn't create an outline beforehand. In fact, I didn't think about the story much at all prior to sitting down at the chair that would be torturing my hind quarters for the next three days. About a day or so before I asked a couple of friends if they could go through my short-story tweets and see which ones could be potentially expanded to something longer. People gave me a few ideas and I pondered over a few, but not much more.

I ended up using this idea that I've been wanting to do for a couple months now. Monday, June 22, 2009, my mother and me were on the D.C. metro, going to see the movie 'Up,' when the train broke down in the tunnel. We were there for maybe an hour or so and I remember the metro attendants speed-walking up and down the aisles, in between train cars, and one time even going out into the tunnel (my mother said that she had never seen them do that before). Finally, we had to be pushed to the next platform by another train. Coincidentally, later that day the fatal train collision at Fort Totten occurred. It was unrelated to our train, but we were on our way back home when it happened.

While being stuck in that tunnel my imagination went wild. What if this were the cause, or that, or if this happened when he opened the door to the tunnel, or that person went crazy, etc, etc, etc. I knew a short-story had to come out of it. But I had other projects that I was working on and wanted to not half-ass it, so I put it aside.

This is the idea that stuck with me when I sat down for the 3-day-novel. It started off with a single father, Jake, and his nine-year-old son, Thomas, who barely make the train: they are going to see a movie, a Disney/Pixar collab, no less. From then I let my memory guide the first chapter of the story, incorporating how it sounded when the train stopped, or people's reactions, or how the urgency behind the attendants' strides made everyone uneasy. Then, as I expected (or maybe hoped is the better word), things started taking a life of its own. I wrote about one thousand words per hour and, with random 1/2 hour naps, eating, and small procrastinations, averaged about 10k words per 12 hours. In fact, soon it became my goal. At any upcoming noon or midnight I'd know that I had to press to complete that 10k. With my thousand word/hour rate, if it was 10 am and I had 38k words, then I knew I'd need the full two hours to complete my goal: the break would come after noon. In the same light, if I was at 39k, the next two hours could be a little more forgiving. I'd read that the average submission for the contest was about 100 pages, typed, double-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font. Well, that's about 30-35k words, which is more a novella. I wanted something that I could also use outside of this contest, and I knew that after the story-arc was written and compeleted, fluffing it up for the sake of more words would just mess up the flow. So, despite the nagging feeling that the unusually length of my work might raise suspicions of its validity in the scope of the 72-hour contest, I stuck with my mid-daily goals when I saw that it was achievable.

After a while (and this part is really amazing), I felt less like I was writing a story and more like I was reading one. Or watching a really long movie, or watching a regular movie really slowly. I don't know exactly when, but at some point I was writing out of curiosity of what was going to happen next, rather than out of necessity to create, if that makes any sense. I always knew that the story would be some kind of horror and deal with some kind of 'evil' lurking in the tunnels, sparked by the attendant opening the doors (bred by the what ifs I experienced when it was actually happening), but it formed itself into a story about religious faith, judgment, and the personal struggle of a man (Jake) dealing with his failures in being a father and a husband. All of the other main characters also have their own demons to deal with.

The basic plot of the story is that a group of people are stuck on a train and all of a sudden find themselves at the mercy of some greater force that will judge them for their sins. And people do get judged. And people do die. Without giving too much away, I'd like to say that some of the judgment deaths were quite disturbing, but not as much as some of the sins that went with them. There is also a lot of questioning of religion and, while I'm no expert or scholar, I try to treat these in a fair way and utilize some of my own understanding of God from my own faith. In the end, I think the characters shone through and offer very real perspective and pasts. A lot of elements I took from my own life, whether from things I've experienced firsthand or have heard or have seen happen to other people. I even include a fictionalized version of myself and my mother on the train to pay a sort of homage to the situation the story sprang from.

I think one of the things I was surprised at the most was the lack of loss of motivation. I just kept typing and typing and typing. Sure, there were times when I just wanted to sleep, or when I was unsure about where to go next, but outside of the small breaks, I was always typing and the story just unrolled itself like a red carpet. I slept about a total of 8-10 hours during the whole ordeal and by the last 12-hour stretch, I was laying on the floor in front of my laptop, pecking away, in and out of sleep. When 10 came, though, I got my 'second-wind' (which might have been my fiftieth by then) and finished the story. It was a great feeling. There were some things that I had to rush a little bit or I felt could have used a little bit of fleshing out, but I had finished the story-arc. It had a beginning, middle, and an end--and damn good ones, if I may say so myself. The final word-count was around 58k and about 180 pages. I've mailed it in and everything and haven't even gone back for typos or plot-holes or anything. I plan to do that later, but for now, that's what they asked for and that's what they're going to get. Besides, I need any proof I have that I didn't cheat on the time-limit.

For about a day afterward, my mind still felt connected to the story. You ever watch a movie that shocked you or left some kind of impression (anyone remember the ending of The Departed? yea, something like that) and it's still on your mind in a hazy, floaty kind of way for a few hours afterward? That's what I experienced after finishing Metro84 (oh, btw, that's the name of the book). I'm sure it was highly exacerbated by my lack of sleep, but I felt a deep impression for some hours afterward. It's hard to explain, but it was weird. I also kind of missed the feeling as time (and sleep) helped it to slip away.

Needless to say, I am excited about the future. I am still working on my other two novels, but I think that Metro84 may be easier for publishers to swallow, especially for a newcomer like myself. I have to wait until the January results before seeking publication elsewhere (or else I would be disqualified), but after that, if I don't win I can do with the manuscript whatever I want. Would I do this contest again? Probably not next year. Maybe not ever. But I think I would use some modified version of it for my own creative adventure and to keep this writing thing lively and interesting.