Day 1: Paris

Here’s an embarrassing confession: my geography stinks.

In school when national exams came up, I happily substituted geography for English literature even though NONE of my teachers taught it. With two months before the exam, I had to steal notes from my cousin’s literature class. For the first time, I found myself tackling the bewildering but fascinating language of Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and the Pearl. It was my first exposure to literature beyond the swashbuckling tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur.

I got a B for that exam. And as you can imagine, I couldn’t tell you where Germany is on the map and the only reason I know where Norway is is because I once tried to conquer it in the Crusader Kings war strategy video game.

Therefore it shouldn’t surprise you that I did not expect the ferry.

I honestly thought that one gets from England to France by a long, long BRIDGE. Hey, Malaysia has an island called Penang, accessible by a nifty 13km bridge. San Francisco, a beautiful windy city that reminds me of Edinburgh, also has a 2.7km Golden Gate Bridge.

Bridges are cool. Bridges are awesome.

Naturally there’ll be a bridge connecting Dover and Calais, right? Right?

“So ulu (backward) are you,” my mom remarked at me later, shaking her head.

This (supposedly artistic) picture just doesn’t do it justice. I can’t wait to get up close to the Eiffel Tower.

Plan for Day 2: Ditch the parentals to go on a solo Paris adventure :D

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Tag, you’re it!

I’ve been tagged by my friend Alison for The Next Big Thing. At first I wasn’t sure what this meant until a little digging told me it’s also called the Work In Progress Challenge, where you’re asked a few questions about the book you’re writing.

Sounds like fun, so here we go!

What is the working title of your book?

Taboos. It’s Book 1 of 7 in the Malaysian Dark series, but self-contained. I just completed the outline, and am now halfway editing/polishing Book 1.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It happened one night around 2008, when I was driving home and shedding my secret identity as a journalist. The idea beamed into my head: “Saaay, Malaysia has a ton of ghost stories. What if we had a team to deal with these cases? They could be experts in supernatural folklore from every race. That sounds cool! Like Malaysian Ghostbusters.” Little did I know I would soon be buried under an avalanche of research ;)

What genre does your book fall under?

Urban fantasy. Someone once described it as “supernatural thriller noir”.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have three major characters. The main character, Arshad, would have to be someone who can fluidly speak two to three languages and basically kick ass.

Looks-wise, I would love to have him look like the hunky Bollywood actor, Arjun Rampal. Hey, I can dream, right? ;)

(Photos courtesy of http://www.beritaduniaku.com/ and http://www.cinemamalaysia.com.my/artist/gallery/?id=Ida_Nerina_Hussain_3254)

The dear late Yasmin Ahmad, an amazing woman and talented director, would have been perfect for my other major character, Salmah. As it is, an older version of the super hot Ida Nerina works too!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

“A cursed man must save the world, threatened by demons and ghosts, by conquering his greatest enemy: himself.”

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Preferably through an agency, but I’m open to releasing it as an ebook if I cannot find representation!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Three loooong years. I was also doing my MA in between, tackling a massive amount of research and planning out the characters, plot and settings for the whole series. Oh, and generally trying to survive and earn a living. I felt better when I heard it apparently took J.K. Rowling five years to write the first Harry Potter, as she was sorting out the other books. (Not that I’m saying I’m J.K. Rowling ;D )

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Jim Butcher’s The Dresden File series. I was already working on the concept for my story when I picked up the very entertaining first book in his series, but Mr Butcher was definitely an influence. I would also compare my book to Vertigo’s graphic novel title Hellblazer, famous for its character John Constantine. (I still insist I enjoy Keanu Reeves’ portrayal of him in the Constantine movie. Hellblazer fans, don’t flame me)

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

I set out at first to create a fun, fantasy-filled adventure set in Malaysia. As I was writing, I also realised there were a number of socio-political issues playing in the background. You can’t help but notice them when the characters move around, trying to get things done. I love my country, but there are things about it that bother the heck out of me. However, the last thing I want is to hit readers on the head with a political message.

Instead the problems will rarely be addressed as I focus on telling a (hopefully) Damn Good Story. It helps that I have a main character who might represent the apathy, the silence, of many Malaysians about these issues. If you know what Malaysia is like, you’d understand there are a lot of things the authorities don’t want you to bring up as it might offend the so-called “sensitivities and feelings of the other races”. And so a number of us has grown up, I believe, tolerating the way things are, simply because we don’t know any better.

To be honest (or long story short) I would never have finished the book if not for my friends and the lecturers of my Creative Writing MA programme. They actually believe I had something to my crazy story!

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s got kickassery. Banter and bumblings. Malaysia. Characters I will put through the meat grinder. Gangsters and goons. Malaysia. Spooky shacks and haunted highways. Ghosts and scares. Did I mention Malaysia? ;)

Anyway it’s time to tag others and pass on the Luurv…

…Actually, I was supposed to find five people to tag about their Next Big Thing, but could only find the awesome bloke Jon Jon Fagan at http://deadsaukko.wordpress.com/

I ran out of time before having to rush off to Europe (I wrote this post early and set it to post on Wednesday. Sort of like writing a love note to Marty McFly in the past… or was it Back to the Future? ;)

Anyway, tag, Jon, you’re it!

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Day 0: London

Damn, London is wet.

But the air is cool and refreshing on top of a moving bus! In Malaysia, you’d be promptly baked in two seconds if you were to try this under the blazing sun.

Why would anyone sit and look at London through the rain-blurred glass of a window? I’m beginning to wonder if the water here has stripped the tourists of their sense of adventure…or if it’s simply that I am a loon.

Tomorrow, Paris.

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Off to Europe I go!

It has finally happened. After a year of planning, I am actually visiting Europe! I’ve been in the UK for three years now, and as much as Edinburgh is gorgeous, I have also wistfully eyed the magical-seeming lands of Paris and Switzerland, and clung to the tales of seasoned travellers.

And now it’s happening. My parents and family friends have landed in Edinburgh, and in two hours we will be making our way to Glasgow, and on to London where our month-long coach tour will begin. I wonder what will happen?

Will I see Italian hunks as beefy as Scotland’s?

Will I stalk the flowers of Florence and the stems of Slovenia?

WILL I GET TO HUG A GRECIAN COLUMN?

Time will time! Seriously, I don’t know how the coach tour guides do it. After only two days of showing my parentals around Edinburgh, I am dead tired. And I hardly did anything but point them to places and utter, “This historic. This pretty. Take pictures of it.”

I don’t plan to be idle on my Europe journey, however. I’ve got my novel simmering in my netbook, and I hope to tinker with it, editing-wise, in my spare time.

(What’s that? Are those knowing snickers I hear in the background?)

Onwards and upwards!

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Once More for the Skies, Dear Friends

Pretty in spring

I’m back. Again. Hello, anyone!

A lot can happen in six months. Or seven. I can’t believe how quickly time has passed. And when the days fly past, part of me can’t help but feel guilty on days when I’m not squeezing every drop of creative brain juice possible onto the page by the time the clock hits bedtime.

But as a friend pointed out, I need Sanity Breaks too!

I’ve needed a lot of Sanity Breaks this year.

Here is a quick summary – Good and Bad – of what’s happened/happening since February.

  • I had the most amazing time in Texas – yay!
  • I returned home safely to Edinburgh (I swear!)
  • I had one  short story published in an anthology
  • I’m halfway to editing my Malaysian urban fantasy novel (faster! *cracks whip*)
  • I’ve been frantically planning a trip to Europe this month with my parents – woo!
  • I’ve been working full-time in a clothing store since April – double yay!

Yes, after months of agonising, dread and drama, I finally chased down that most elusive quarry – a permanent full-time job in the UK. Pity it took a year before I could corner it, but better late than never, at least!

A summer view outside my window

The sad thing about it? My visa expires this year on Dec 10, and that means I must go home to Malaysia, leaving behind a gorgeous city and amazing, amazing friends. And because I’d be disappearing the whole month of October for my Europe trip, I had to resign from my job end of September. No company was going to let me beam off the planet for a month and take me back another month, only for me to disappear into the Delta Quadrant when December hits. Unless you were a Very Nice company.

It’s been an incredible experience nonetheless, these past few months, working in the clothing store. But that’s a story for another day.

The Bad News

The downside? Let’s just say I’ve had a bit of an emotional crisis. The kind that involves family, challenges your sense of identity and esteem, and bitchslaps when you choose to butt heads against walls people have built an entire lifetime. The kind of crisis that makes you want to curl in bed and give up.

I have to admit: May, June were tough months. It was hard to concentrate. I had the emotional equivalent of train wrecks stuck on Repeat in my brain. I spent months questioning who I am, what I am, what I should be.

Even now, with the Europe trip of a lifetime about to kick off in just four days…well, some days are hard.

But guess what?

I’m still here, still writing, still living and reaching for the Dream.

I am Rocky Balboa. I am Jean Grey. I am hunger and anger and joy and pain, and I am NOT giving up. Blue skies, ahoy!

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Keeping me Weird

Hi everyone!

Man, didn’t mean to drop off the face of the earth, but I had two (well, maybe one) good reasons!

First of all, once again jobless. Despite the hope I’d be asked to continue at that supermarket I did a Christmas contract for, I’ve not heard a lick of a word from them. But perhaps that is a good thing! Perhaps this is a sign from On High that I should get off my butt and submit (yet again) applications more relevant to my degree and work experience.

In the meantime, what have I been doing ever since I finished my novel?

Skyrim.

Yes, this fantasy video game has utterly swept me into its snowy world and done a damn good job of helping me forget the pain/depression of losing a stable means of income. But I would also be fooling myself. If I wanted to, I could always go back to that dishwasher stint, or head out there and perform the same old rituals of the (job) hunt.

I just chose not to. For over a month and a half, I chose to – for once – have FUN. I chose to lose myself in Skyrim. And oh, has the obsession been sweet.

God, this is a beautiful, beautiful game. Words just can’t describe it. These past few weeks, I felt like I could do anything – slay dragons, wrestle giants to the ground, and tackle most obstacles merely by poking it with a sword and castle-sized stones. No messy job hunts. To earn money, all I had to do was to raid tombs and rob the dead, or help a girl find love in a small town, or reunite ghostly lovers searching for each other on an ancient battlefield.

I could go on and on about the game, but let’s just say that Skyrim is the reason I disappeared from Facebook and much of social life, leading people to actually wonder what happened to me! In fact, I played this game so much the fingers of my right hand swelled up, requiring me to drastically realise that, okay, perhaps I should ease back on the 12-hour, bladder-tightening gaming sessions.

But in the end, when it comes to my prospects, it’s just as Paolo Roy says about unemployment: I have to figure out how to live on my own terms.

Hack and Polish

It has not all been fun and games! I have actually started the editing process for my novel. This requires me to print it all out, as having it on paper makes it much easier for me to spot the minute and structural details I should fix.

And what a whopper the novel turned out to be! At 14-font and single space, the manuscript was a murder weapon-worthy 258 pages.

With my muse dragon, Fangthorn, and Fuzzy Red Hat of Inspiration.

Now that I gave myself a month to let the novel ‘rest’, I could start rereading with a fresh mind.

Good news, at least. So far I’ve gone through three-quarters of the manuscript and it isn’t as bad as I thought it was. There are two, three chapters that need serious reworking but otherwise…it could work. I just need to get to the ending before I can get down to the serious rewriting.

PLANE HOPPING

But there is, also, another reason I’ve not bothered job hunting the past month. February is when I fly to Texas for an exciting month-long vacation I planned half a year ago. And after a whale of preparations, I am finally here!

Austin's motto, seen on a colourful row of T-shirts at the airport.

That’s right. I’m in the US of A, and so far my holiday is fantastic :D

I’m come across a customs official who tawks ta me in dat distinctive Brooklyn accent, spotted people in Amish-like robes, and eavesdropped on Americans who chatter straight out of all those US telly programmes I grew up on back in good old Malaysia.

It’s a surreal feeling, and I must stop acting like such a tourist and stopping every five steps to take photographs! I have a feeling people will not look too kindly to me stalking them with a camera.

But hey, at least I brought my homework – the manuscript which I saved on my thumb drive and plan to edit when I get some free time at night.

And in case people are wondering: No, this vacation will be, for once happily, Skyrim-free.

Will update soon, I hope! :D

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A Christmas Memory

Merry Christmas, everyone! Sorry for dropping off the face of the earth, but a lot of things have been happening the past few weeks.

For one thing, I finished my first novel!! :D

After starting it in March 2009, with a Masters in between, I have finally hit the finish line at 97,800 words on December 20, 2.20am (yeah, nice number ;) ). In the words of my former mentor, I have SLAIN THAT DRAGON!

Now I am letting my dragon roast and cool for a while to clear my mind of doubts and second guesses, before I start carving–I mean, editing the novel in January. It still needs a lot of work, but at least the story is not irredeemable, I hope.

How do I feel? Excited, relieved, a bit emotional too to tell the truth. Since I first started writing the novel – back when I was a journalist in Ipoh, Malaysia – so much has happened. I flew across half the world, met amazing people, and became blessed with good friends.  In these two years, I also lost my grandmother who was taken away so suddenly. And I tried not to miss Malaysia so intensely.

What Christmas Means to Me

Christmas always makes me think of my grandmother. My Poh Poh would cherish those rare times I’m home for Christmas, and on the eve we would go for midnight Mass together with my brother. Not being much of a churchgoer, I could never understand why people would turn up several hours before a midnight Mass.

Once, we’d turned up five hours early for the midnight service! I remember, deep down, of feeling resentful of having to go so early. Despite arriving at 7pm, every seat inside the church was already taken and people were filling the rows of plastic chairs outside on the church porch. Sitting beside my Poh Poh, I’d hold the thin white candle that scalded my fingers with melting wax despite the manila card ‘hilt’. I would spend those hours praying, reflecting on my life, playing with balls of wax and trying not to wish for a music player.

Time passed faster than I thought, as I had a lot of people to ask God to look after, there was plenty of things to reflect on my life, and soon enough I’d find myself daydreaming (nightdreaming?) about some story in my head. In the landscape of my mind, characters played out betrayals, dramas, fought, schemed, and were made to not swear so much (‘because you people are in church, darnit!’)

And then the moment came in the Mass to stand and wish Peace Be With You, where you are supposed to nod or shake the hand of your fellow Christians. I am ashamed to say this is the part I always, always hate most about Mass, because I would cringe at having to do this with strangers. I can’t help it, I’ve always resented it. It’s like a teacher forcing you to sing the national anthem, or your friends egging you into sticking your tongue against a lamp post in winter.

Once that Peace Be With You business is over however, my tensions about the whole Mass dissolve. I could relax like normal people.

Which is why it’s ironic that when I hurried into church this morning for Christmas Mass, late as usual, I flopped myself onto a wooden seat…only for the priest to call, “Now let us make to each other the Sign of Peace!”

With a gasp, I hopped back up and dutifully clasped the hand of the man beside me and the people around us. (Speaking of which, this is amazing to me: I come late and I can still find plenty of seats at the St Mary’s  RC Cathedral. I presume there are not many Roman Catholics in Edinburgh!) I waited for my insides to squeeze with anxiety when I had to meet their eyes, or for my heart to pound when I shake their hands…nothing.

Perhaps it’s because I was already breathless from rushing here, perhaps I didn’t have to wait in dread anticipating that feared moment of the Mass. Instead, I felt almost…calm. The Mass went on, and it was only when the choir launched into a noel that I nearly broke down.

The main reason I came to church was to light a tea light candle for my Poh Poh, as I’ve done for her last Christmas mass. I’m sure she would have preferred I go for Mass every Sunday, just as I’m sure she must have hoped I speak to her more when she was alive. In 19 months, I’ve had time – and good people – to help me deal with the grief and the guilt, to make me understand it’s absolutely normal to feel regret, as long as I don’t let my life be ruled by it.

As long as I live my life without fear.

Today, at least I could place the candle in its holder and say: Hello, Poh Poh. I’m here. And I’ve done it.

Merry Christmas!

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