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Writing diary

23 November 2010 Leave a comment

The manuscript that I began at the start of the month as part of National Novel Writing Month has pretty much ground to a halt at a touch under 17,000 words. My first week back from China saw me writing every day and producing around 2,000 words a day. But on Friday I reached a bit of a crisis, as I could no longer see where the writing was going. Since then I’ve been going back to the (now legendary) drawing board to lay the foundations that should have been laid earlier. Today I mostly completed a kind of potted history of the world up until the point at which my story starts. In the next few days, I plan to brainstorm more of the details that will go into the story’s background – and which I will then sweep away with the first words of actual story.

What I wrote up until Friday had definite merit. In particular, I created four characters with diverse personalities and personal problems. Unfortunately, the whole work just wasn’t quite what I’d intended to write. It happens sometimes that your imagination takes you on tangents that may or may not work out. Also, I think the first character I made – and therefore the first viewpoint character – was a little too YA for my taste.

I now have a firmer basis to continue writing – or, more properly to start writing again, this time on version 2. I have plenty of ideas about the plot, but they’re all either vague or disconnected at the moment. Setting down a real plot, a series of causes and effects slowly building in intensity to the story’s climax will be another important task I have to undertake soon. It’s vital, because I need to know what I’m writing towards in order to write. It’s also incredibly difficult.

I think that conceiving a short story is like trying to visualise a small group of objects, like five apples, or a moment from a film. Trying to conceive a novel, or, worse, a series of novels, is like trying to visualise a million apples or every moment in a film simultaneously. Caveat scriptor, indeed.

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NaNoWriMo update

8 November 2010 Leave a comment

I haven’t been writing much lately – the demands of travel in China and of simply being in China (Charlie told me that the pollution makes you tired) have drained my energy and taken up my time. I had a day of rest today and wrote about 1,800 words, which is my average daily target – but that does nothing to make up for lost time. I finished the first chapter and now need to think about the second, and my second viewpoint character.

Target word count: 12,600. Actual word count: 5,000.

Sick and tired

8 November 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday, I went to the Summer Palace, which just outside central Beijing at the end of one of the subway lines, with Charlie and Mark. The occasion was overshadowed by a couple of things: firstly, I’d been sick the night before so I was feeling a little tired and fragile of stomach; secondly, for the first time since I’d been in China, the weather wasn’t great – it was hazy and smoggy – it reminded me of my first day in India, although the sky wasn’t quite as brown as that.

Whereas the day before, I’d been to the Temple of Heaven and taken my time wandering around at will taking photographs of whatever caught my fancy, at the Summer Palace, with a couple of friends, there was a different dynamic. It was more about chatting than sightseeing, and with the weather as it was, the sights weren’t highly seeable anyway.

We had arranged to meet on the platform at Beigongmen Station in northwest Beijing (not the track, as Charlie had originally suggested – a suggestion that my inner pedant could not resist correcting), but I was fifteen minutes late, partly because I hadn’t set out early enough and partly because I got on the wrong train at first and went a couple of stops in the wrong direction. When I got there there was no sign of Charlie or Mark. I walked up and down the platform, went up the escalator, hung around up there for a minute, went down again, up again and finally sat down to read on one of the few benches on the platform. I was still suffering a little from the night before and was dehydrated because I had felt up to consuming anything.

I’d read a page or so before Charlie and Mark turned up, the former apologising profusely. We went out of the station and headed to a vendor of street food. Charlie bought a thing made of a large, thin pancake with a couple of eggs fried on top of it (maybe some other stuff – I can’t remember) then folded up and served in a plastic bag. I tried a bite – it seemed tasty, but I couldn’t really stomach food.

There was some construction or renovation work going at the palace, so shortly after we entered and we had crossed a bridge over a picturesque pool surrounded by buildings we were faced with a barrier. So we went round instead of going straight up to a temple on top of a hill looking over the boating lake. We didn’t go into the big temple just below it, but walked down to the lake. There were hordes of tourists walking along the lakeside. We walked round to a seventeen-arched bridge that led to a small island and then headed out – at an entrance at some distance from the subway station, so we had to walk a long way back. Whilst in the palace, I bought a deck of playing cards with Chinese emperors’ faces in place of the normal spades, kings etc.

After taking the subway a couple of stops, we got out to take a taxi to one particular university in an area of universities. At this university we went to a Muslim restaurant – only it wasn’t there because the building had been demolished. After making enquiries of passersby (a large proportion of which were young non-Chinese – all students here studying Chinese, probably) we found the restaurant in a nearby building – the university dining hall, in fact. It was called ‘Muslim Restaurant’ – which may not have been a direct translation of the Arabic text above the door.

The food there was OK – the roast chicken and lamb shish kebab were very tasty, and there was some delicious bread. I could feel as I ate, though, that it wasn’t such a good idea for me to eat so much. And indeed, later that night, I developed a bad headache and threw up a couple of times.

I slept to nearly midday today, deliberately giving my body some much needed rest. The rest wasn’t very consistent, as people in my dorm were coming and going all evening and morning, but it seemed to do the trick. During the day I went to Starbucks for a tea and did some writing then came back to the hostel, watched some Prison Break and did some more writing. I had dinner at a bare little restaurant that I’d noticed on the main road near the hostel and that is often full of people. I ordered a stir-fry and a bowl of soup that was much larger than I’d expected. The stir-fry was tasty, but very greasy and rather salty, and it started to make me feel queasy. The soup wasn’t great.

Today, I also signed up for a trip to the Great Wall. I’m to be in the hostel’s bar/restaurant at 7:15 tomorrow morning – which means I should probably get ready and go to bed.

NaNoWriMo update

3 November 2010 4 comments

Yesterday, the first day of National Novel Writing Month, I only wrote 600 words of my 1,800 target. Today, however, I made up some ground by writing 2,000 words – 700 in the morning, 1300 in the evening, after dinner and sightseeing in the Forbidden City in Beijing. What I’ve been writing has flowed quite smoothly. My first character has turned out to be a resentful, but spirited coward. The story has a natural opening, although I’m not too sure of exactly what’s going to happen next. I think I’ve made a good start.

Target word count: 3,600. Actual word count: 2,600.

Free at last

25 October 2010 2 comments

My last day at work was Friday. I had thought it was going to be today, which is the day I agreed to finish working, but I was told that I didn’t need to work on the Monday – which I forgot and had to be retold on Friday. Min-seon, the office manager, who I used to give lessons to, took me out for lunch and said that she’d miss me – not sure I believe that.

The previous night was supposed to be a leaving meal for me and Andrew, the Korean guy who also taught at EducaKorea and managed the Learning Center. Having very little work to do I was ready to go at the official finishing time of 6 o’clock, but Andrew told me people would be leaving at 7. So I left anyway and went to roleplaying. Probably not a very nice gesture to my colleagues, but the prospect didn’t fill me with much joy. Besides which, the night’s roleplaying session was an important one and it overran by an hour.

It was also my last roleplaying session for a while, as I’m heading to China on Thursday for a couple of weeks.

I haven’t blogged about my life recently, so here’s an update of the last few weeks.

Korean drivers aren’t held in high esteem by foreigners. I think Koreans just take them for granted. In some ways, though, Korean drivers are very tolerant of pedestrians. If there’s a small road joining a main road and there are no traffic lights, I’ve found that drivers, while they will certainly try to squeeze between people crossing the small road, they will also wait patiently if there are no gaps in the flow of pedestrians.

A while ago, walking back to the office from my Starbucks writing lunch, while crossing one such road an Audi saloon came towards me too fast. Already halfway across the road, I was confident that it was stop, but it came close to hitting me. I was holding my travel cup at my side, so I accidentally on purpose let it clunk against the car’s bonnet. The man inside honked his horn and shouted something at me as I walked away. I took no notice. From the amount of time it too the car to drive past me up the road, I’m sure he got out to check his paintwork. I wonder what would have happened if he’d seen some damage.

I’ve been wanting to get into hiking again – especially since I bought a new pair of hiking boots over the summer – they cost 150,000 won – about £75. A few weeks ago I went to Namhansanseong by myself on Sunday – it was a location that had been suggested by my friend and avid hiker, Botond.

There was a scary moment on the subway train. I was sitting there reading and there was a loud cry – pretty much a scream – from somewhere on my right. A young chubby guy ran down the carriage shouting wordlessly, holding something in his hand, apparently nothing wrong with him. When he got to the next car he stopped. Completely random and very unnerving. I had felt the adrenaline fountain inside me in a split second, and it took a while for my system to settle down.

The hike was pretty pleasant. After a bit of trek through the town, past all the hiking gear shops, you get to the foot of the hills and trudge up the hillside past a few small temples and plots of short towers made of piled rocks – many of them improbably slender. Then you reach the South Gate of the fortress.

It started raining pretty heavily while I was having a break there, so I put on my newly purchased rain jacket and headed off into the downpour while Koreans huddled under the gate’s roof. Not too long afterwards the rain stopped and the clouds cleared away leaving bright sunshine and good visibility. This latter was important because from some parts of the walls you can see all of Seoul to the northwest.

As I got to the west side of the fortress, having gone anti-clockwise around the perimiter (apart from one shortcut), it got more crowded with non-hikers – people there just for a short jaunt out to some historic buildings and who lack all the expensive clothing and gear that marks the serious hiker (and there are lots of these in Korea). As I headed wearily back to the South Gate, going downhill much of the way, my boots began to feel uncomfortable, my toes pressing againt the fronts.

Two weeks later I went back with Habiba and her colleagues June and Aiden.

In between these two hikes (if memory serves) Habiba, her friend Jessica and I went to the Busan International Film Festival (known as PIFF because it was established back when people used the older McCune-Reischauer system of transliterating Hangul into Roman letters). We saw three films on the Saturday but none on the Sunday.

The three we saw were all interesting in various ways – Honey was an understated Turkish film about a boy whose father has an accident while out collecting honey from his hives up in trees in the forest; Portraits in a Sea of Lies – the best of the three – was a moving Colombian film about a withdrawn young woman who goes on a roadtrip with her cocky cousin to find the deeds to a plot of land; and Viridiana was a strange 1950s drama by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel, about a young woman whose uncle tries to seduce and then commits suicide, apparently forcing her to live on in his mansion and take in a load of troubled homeless people.

The blurb about this last film promised cannibalism, so we were all disappointed when it didn’t materialise – blame Korean translators. Actually, no – blame Korean managers: some PIFF bigwig probably just went to someone in their office and said, ‘Here, you speak English: translate all this by next week.’

Some time ago I went had some problems with my shoulder. I first went to what I think was a Korean acupuncture clinic and when this didn’t do much I went to an orthopaedic hospital that seemed to do the job. I went back there more recently with pain in my left hip. It’s a feeling I get from time to time, especially after playing guitar. This time, however, it was completely random and about the sharpest it’s ever been.

I had more physiotherapy of the heat, ultrasound and electric kind, plus some medication, and that helped a lot. I also had a few X-rays (you can’t go to the doctor in Korea without getting a handful of X-rays done), which showed that there’s a slight problem with my L4 vertebra, near the base of my spine. There’s a little extra space where the disc is, implying, I think, some inflammation. The doctor said it wasn’t anything serious, just a sign of getting older, and he recommended that I strengthen my back muscles and don’t sit at a desk too much. I should get on that – at least the first part: you can’t be a writer without applying the seat of the trousers to the seat of a chair.

I’ve been working on my writing and trying to set things up to help my writing goals. I started a new blog, for instance – this one to be a ‘public’ one, while I think Infinite Probability should be a private record of my personal life. To this end, I think I’m going to transfer some things from here to there – namely my book reviews and Lexicon. I also rejoined Critters – and have found that it’s recently been renovated and looks like a fairly contemporary web site (the old one was very basic). I’ve already had some feedback on one of my stories (‘The Green Marble’) that all makes good sense and that I want to incorporate into the next version of the piece. I just need to get down to the hard work of rewriting. I’m also intending to take part in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) in November and see if I can’t write 50,000 in 30 days.

I’ve also been putting a lot of work into a roleplaying game system. It’s very hard work, though. Every decision you make for how things should work have repercussions pretty much throughout the system. Even my goals in creating the game are difficult to balance – part of me wants simplicity, part of me wants realism. Still a fair way to go with this project, but I think a lot of the fundamentals are in place now.

Now that I’m not working, I should have more time to work on the things that are important to me. Sightseeing in China might get in the way for a bit. Natural laziness might get in the way full stop.

Resigned to my fate

6 September 2010 Leave a comment

I resigned from my job the week before last. My last day is scheduled to be Monday the 25th of October.

About time, too. I haven’t been happy there for some time. One of the things that attracted me to coming to Korea in the first place back in 2006 was the hours. Before Korea, I’d worked in offices doing administration work, and even with flexible working hours – getting out of bed and to the office on time was a hell of a struggle. Plus, sitting in front of a desk all day when you haven’t had enough sleep is one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done.

A normal hagwon job sees you working something like 2pm to 9pm and on your feet talking to your students much of the time – it requires more energy, but is somehow less tiring.

My current job is not a normal hagwon job. While I’ve made a good fist of getting up at 7:30 to 8 every morning, I can’t go on with it any more. Especially since my non-teaching workload has dropped off to practically zero the past couple of weeks. Even when I did have other work to do – mostly proofreading – it proved utterly infuriating. While the women who work on the Contents team writing the workbooks my company sells speak good English, their written English leaves a lot to be desired.

Their work is full of basic mistakes like using ‘the’ in front of proper nouns, or missing articles where they’re required (for example ‘The Sean bought cup of tea.’) – errors that one would expect of an elementary school student. Even more enraging is when they pick out a vocabulary word and give it the wrong definition (such as where the vocabulary word is ‘bright’, the example sentence is ‘John was a very bright boy’ and the definition is ‘having a strong light or colour’). And then there are those instances when I just don’t understand what they’re trying to say.

The one thing I like about my job is the teaching. I have very small classes – I also have a lot of control over the curriculum. Although we’re supposed to do a certain number of books per term, effectively, if I want to spend two months on one book because that way I know the students will be reading it all and getting the most out of it (and I’ll be able to read the whole thing, too), I pretty much can.

My colleague Andrew, the Korean guy whose role is to manage the Learning Center as well as teach, has also not been enjoying his job, so, while I don’t think there’s any real problem between us, we end up not communicating much with each other.

I’d be happy to continue working part-time just teaching, but our bosses don’t want that. Partly, I believe, because of Korean business culture of screwing every last bit of usefulness out of every single employee; partly because the management don’t really believe in the Learning Center and would happily close it. Which is probably what’s going to happen when I leave.

My plan is to find a few private classes to keep my finances in the black and, once my E-2 visa expires to leave the country briefly and come back on a tourist visa. If my employer doesn’t say anything to Immigration, then I’ll need to do this a couple of time before Habiba and I are ready to say goodbye to Korea – according to our current plans, anyway. This is not strictly by the book, but not an uncommon practice.

I’ve been trying to up my writing game over recent months and there is a work-shaped ceiling beyond which I can’t reach at the moment. Although I still find writing extremely hard work, I’ve been thinking more and more about what I want to write about, about what I want to achieve. Recently, I’ve written more than I’ve ever done before; I’ve rewritten more than I’ve ever done before. Although, naturally, I am inclined to give myself as easy a life as possible, what I’m proposing is not that I exchange my current job for a life of loafing, but that I exchange it for another job – writing. Once I leave Korea for good, I may not have another opportunity to dedicate myself whole-heartedly to my vocation – until I actually start to get paid for it.

I only wonder why I didn’t resign before now – or why I even took this job in the first place. Money, I suppose.

Stephen R Donaldson on writing

Stephen Donaldson answered another one of my questions recently. I asked:

You’ve answered lots of questions about the challenges of writing, but I don’t think you’ve ever said whether you actually enjoy writing. (I’ve just done a search for ‘enjoy’ and, although I didn’t read every answer, the closer I found was an answer to one of my earlier questions in which you said you didn’t enjoy rewriting.)

So – do you enjoy writing? And, of course, I mean enjoy in a broad sense – I don’t mean ‘Is it fun to write?’, but is it broadly a pleasurable experience? Are there certain things that are more enjoyable to write than others, or does it depend on your state of mind at the time?

I did creative writing at university and I remember one of my lecturers saying something along the lines that if writing is fun, you’re probably not very good. Is that something that rings a bell with you?

He replied:

“If writing is fun, you’re probably not very good.” I can’t speak for anyone else. And in any case, the assertion is too broad to be useful. But it sure rings a bell for me.

I would never use a word like “enjoy” to describe the experience of writing. I call it “wrestling with the Angel of the Lord”: it’s always arduous, painful, and frustrating. In fact, whenever I’m writing easily, I know I’m doing something wrong. Which explains, at least in part, why it takes me so &^#$% long to produce a book.

So why do I do it? Why do I bother? Well, this is the work I was born to do. I’m more consistently alive when I’m writing than I am under most other circumstances. Writing makes me–for lack of a better term–a bigger person than I could hope to be otherwise. So it’s hard. So what? Name something that you consider worth doing on a profound level; and if you think it’s easy–or even fun–I’ll be inclined to think that you aren’t putting your heart into it.

Source: Stephen R Donaldson Official Website.