My World, my Muse

Believe it or not, the first time I’d really heard of the word ‘muse’ was from Neil Gaiman’s short story ‘Calliope‘ from his famous Sandman series.

Pencilled by Kelley Jones and inked by Malcolm Jones III.

For those who haven’t read it, Calliope is the tale of an unscrupulous author who, in a desperate attempt to cure his writer’s block, bargains for the muse Calliope of Greek legend. Instead of treating his muse kindly, the author abuses her. Inspiration strikes, and he churns out novel after successful novel.

Let’s just say the story does not end well for the author. What stayed with me all these years, however, was not the man’s gruesome fate, but how he was punished – when a flood of ideas began swarming his mind in a neverending stream. Babbling them aloud, he frantically tries to write them all down, in vain. And these are not substandard ideas, people! Some of the ideas Gaiman wrote were stunning enough to make me want to pen stories out of them myself.

I wish I could give a transcript, but I’d left my entire Sandman collection back home in Malaysia ;P

Since then, I’ve not given much thought to what inspires me. I’m pretty sure I pick up ideas like everyone else – reading books, watching a movie, people spying or watching the world go by on a bus. I certainly do a lot of that during the 50min bus ride to my place of work.

Some people might think an hour-long bus ride is torture (I have to run out of the house at least 80mins before my shift to comfortably get there on time). But this is just perfect for someone who probably stays home far too often. I use the bus rides to catch a nice power nap or take the opportunity to see the streets of Edinburgh, which to me remain exotic and deeply fascinating. Look at the shop signs all written in English, for instance, instead of the mixture of English, Malay and Chinese back home. And the roads with names like Rose Street, Niddry Wynd and Leith Walk, instead of Jalan Yap Ah Loy or Laluan Ipoh Perdana. And look at all the people! With hair frizzy or yellow or purple or dreadlocked, and dressed too in so many different ways to beat the chill of Scotland. The variety amazes me, the alienness incredibly exciting even after two years.

Chances are during these journeys, an idea would either creep up or smack me on the face. That’s when the writer is supposed to whip out their trusty notebook and jot down the ideas that would no doubt inspire their next bestselling novel.

Or you could be like me, notebook again left snoozing at home, and write those ideas on their mobile phones.

I just rediscovered two such ‘gems’ of an idea saved on my phone, which I keyed in months ago. Pleased, I reread them eagerly…only to end up squinting at the words: Tablet time capsule from future. Bus breathing like heart.

Please don’t ask me what on earth the ‘tablet’ refers to, because I haven’t the faintest idea. And as for the ‘bus breathing like heart’ bit, I suspect I was high on cider at the time, but I do like that bit of imagery!

Speaking of which, I must share this from the Oglaf comic strip! I won’t be providing a link, as this brilliantly funny webcomic is very NSFW. Those interested can google Oglaf, but for now, enjoy!

How about you? Is there any particular thing or place that inspires you? Gets your creative juices going? Any person who has become your Muse? 🙂

PS: Eeeps at the time. I hope to wake up in time to volunteer at the charity shop tomorrow! Runs off!

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Filed under Books, Charity Shop, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Malaysia, Novel, State of Mind, Writing

This is what November taught me

This is it. I am so pumped. After resting three days from my crazy NaNoWriMo + Malaysian novel + blogging scheme of November, I am finally going to do it.

I am going to finish the first draft of A Malaysian Dark by Christmas – after starting it as a creative writing sample for a university application in early 2009.

Finishing this has also become something personal, because someone once essentially told me this novel of ghosts and supernatural forces should not be written. That the themes are “dangerous” to touch on, culturally and mystically.

Perhaps it is. It doesn’t mean I am not going to dare the landmine. 

Up in the Clouds

Thanks to Limebirdbeth, I came across this lovely website called Wordle that creates a cloud of the most common words you use with a piece of text. You can even change the colours and layouts! Here is the wordle of my Malaysian novel first draft. Nifty, isn’t it? 😀

For me, the most important lesson I took from November is this – that under the pressure and struggle of daily life, it is possible for my procrastinaty self to write an obscene amount of words. November’s word count tally:

  1. NaNoWriMo – 50, 489
  2. Blogging for 28 days – 15,951
  3. Malaysian novel – 6,811

Now everyone has different ways and pace of writing, and this in NO WAY reflects on you.

But for me, this is a personal achievement because I felt my productivity could have been better the past year. True, my life the past few months has been wrought with house moves, job hunting, dramas and what not, but I felt like I was lacking the discipline and focus of the writing habit. I envy the authors who seem to so easily churn out the novels like matchsticks. How did they do it, I wondered? Apparently it gets easier with practice, which for myself who is easily distracted, means to never stop writing.

Here is what November also taught me:

  • That you can always slip in an hour or 20 minutes of writing before rushing off to do something else. During a lunch hour, for instance, or after you crawl home from work.
  • That during a crazy writing bout, you must take care of your body – eat fruits, vegetables and supplements to boost your immunity. Wine probably works for those who like alcohol. I’m more a cider or ginger beer gal 😉
  • That it is useful to appoint something that will put you in the Writing Mood. Like putting on a special hat, or playing a certain kind of music, or unplugging the internet (“Noooooooo!”)
  • That when you are on the edge of exhaustion, and your body cries out for sleep, you can keep writing with this magical phrase: “Just 100 more words”.
  • That the quality of your writing improves substantially with sleep or a power nap (Duh).
  • That you can start a novel with no characters, no plot and no direction. You will naturally spin up a wonderful story in no time, if you trust yourself.
  • That it is perfectly acceptable to take a break from your writing now and then. An overworked writer is a broken writer capable of banana homicide.
  • That if you tell enough people that you are going to finish a 50,000 word novel in one month, then by golly you better get off your duff and do it unless you have bigger stones than mine 😉
  • That a NaNoWriMo novel is substantially different from a novel you want to take time and care to craft (Malaysian Dark). A NaNo novel emphasises on quantity, not quality. But when it comes to quality, it is perfectly okay, even advisable, to go slower. It takes time to craft something with skill!

I probably can think up more, but I must rush to work now! 🙂

PS: There’s the first thin layer of snow outside my house!

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Filed under Books, Fantasy, Malaysia, Novel, State of Mind, Writing

Victory, or Day 30 NaNoWriMo

I did it! I did it! WOOHOO!

As of 9.30pm, I wrote 5,118 words today for the grand total of:

50489 / 50000 words. 101% done!

I had to summarise entire scenes so I could type the words THE END (which was deeply satisfying, I have to admit). This month-long exercise has been interesting – Young Adult is a genre I don’t usually write, but it has turned out to be quite fun.

I cannot wait to write THE END for my Malaysian novel next month.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s a rough blurb and an excerpt of my fantasy YA novel which I had to submit to the NaNoWriMo website for validation. Mind you, it IS a first draft and needs much more work. I would love for any feedback. (And yes, I know there are heavy shades of The Neverending Story here : )

THE BOOKSHOP APPRENTICE (working title)

Benjie has lived and worked in Bluebell’s Bookshop ever since he was abandoned on their doorstep. Now 14, he is determined to achieve his ultimate goal – to earn the Heart of Books. This gift will not just elevate him from lowly bookchild to a Supervisor’s position, but grant him something usually restricted to the nobility: the ability to read. Fate, however, has other plans. When famous bookhunter Jacobus St Cier recruits him as an apprentice, it is the beginning of an adventure that will throw him against bullies, dragons, bloodthirsty soldiers and tyrant gods, all in the utter confusion of growing up and enduring the determined attentions of an alluring, infuriating nobleman’s brat.

Excerpt

A guttural voice echoed throughout the passageways:

WHO DARES INVADE OUR SANCTUARY?

The corridor widened into another cavern where the row of pillars ended in giant statues of wolfentae guardians. Crouching as if to pounce, the two monsters stood at the entrance of a mighty doorway, their bristling fur captured in marble. As guardians go, these looked suitably decent for the job. Furry tails ended in teeth, claws dank deep into the ground, and currently their three eyes were narrowed in baleful red lines. One could see the reason why.

From behind a pillar, Benjamin St Cier watched with detached interest as a company of Southern Knights charged the gates of the Inner Caverns. Beyond those gates, he could see the unmistakable glow of the Scholar’s treasure – the culmination of a thousand years of civilisation, the storehouse of their wealth and knowledge.

The knights’ mounts thundered down the hallway to crash past the wolfentae guardians. Their bright banners danced in their wake.

“For the White Kingdoms!” the lead knight bellowed. “For Queen Edora! For brave Prince Byron!”

Hot white beams shot out of the guardians’ eyes and turned the entire company into an explosion of chopped body parts and ash. Limbs flew. Armour clattered to the ground. Elk mounts shrieked; one of them shot past Benjamin screaming, its great hooves thundering in the other direction.

The beams flashed again, and the air went sharp with ozone and other things wet and metallic.

Benjamin gave it a few minutes, to let utter silence descend and for the red mist to settle. Then he stepped out from behind his pillar to approach the guardians.

HALT, they said.

The young man kept walking, unarmed arms at his side, eyes on their stony faces. Years ago, the stare of those eyes might have paralysed him. Now he could not falter. He stepped over some knight’s helm.

WHO DARES INVADE OUR SANCTUARY?

He lifted a hand to slip it into his coat.

PREPARE TO DIE, THIEF–

“Oh, shut up,” Benjamin said, loud enough to carry to the ears of the guardians.

That silenced them a moment.

“I am not a thief,” he added, wondering if it was possible to hurt the feelings of a stone guardian. “I’m not here to steal your treasure.”

NOT…STEAL?

They seemed to have some trouble comprehending this concept.

Benjamin found his notebook in the left inner pocket, plucked it free, flipped open the pages. “According to our records, the Scholars of Pandora borrowed this volume – I Lost my Horn: A Unicorn’s Story, hardback, non-fiction – eight hundred and sixty seven years ago from the Library of Mt Crescent.” He tapped a finger on a particular page. “To our knowledge, that book has not been returned. I, Benjamin St Cier, official representative of Bluebell’s Bookshop and Acquisitions, am here on behalf of the library to collect this overdue volume which I understand to be somewhere in your treasure horde.”

COLLECT…A BOOK?

The guardians sounded almost cowed.

“And to collect on the fine, of course.” Benjamin nodded, one hand snapping shut his notebook before reaching into his other pocket. “We have taken the liberty of calculating the amount, which Bluebell’s – taking into consideration the Red Wars and two Ends of the World – have agreed to reduce to the amount of coin only required to fill one sack. We are not unreasonable. Here is my badge.”

He held out his forged badge of office while the guardians appeared to stare at it. He flipped it closed three beats later.

“Now. May I pass?” Benjamin said in a calm tone.

…YOU MAY.

Nodding gratefully, the young man began sauntering forwards. His heart pounded as he stepped over the remnants of bones recently scoured of their flesh. He kept his eyes on the golden glow of the room ahead.

To his left and right, the guardians watched him, almost as if they were trying to decide something about him.

Ten more steps to the door.

Four more steps.

Two.

WAIT, the guardians boomed.

End of Excerpt

Now I shall go crash a hundred years 😉 Night, night, all.

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Filed under Books, Fantasy, Malaysia, Novel, State of Mind, Triumph, Writing

Almost There, or Day 28 and 29 NaNoWriMo

This is it! The final sprint! I have officially 24 hours to somehow type 4,629 words to reach the 50,000 for NaNoWriMo!

God, hope I can do it. No thanks to an error by Open Office, I learned to my dismay that it had overcounted my novel by over 1,700 words. Thus leaving me with 4,629 instead of a comfortable 3,000.

Bah! Open Office, I spit on thee! Now I must run like the chicken, be the bunny on speed, fly like the wind! 😛

(Actual) NaNoWriMo wordcount

45371 / 50000 words. 91% done!

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Filed under Books, Depression, Fantasy, Malaysia, Novel, Photography, State of Mind, Writing

My Liebling, or Day 27 NaNoWriMo

Now it’s my turn.

A dragon-sized Thank You to Limebird Writers and J.C.V for nominating me just days apart for a Liebster Blog award! I don’t think you can receive the award more than once, but it’s a great honour nonetheless.

Now I hope Limebird Writers don’t mind, but I am going to shamelessly steal their definition of what this award is 🙂

“The Liebster Blog Award is given to bloggers who have less than 200 followers, all in the spirit of fostering new connections. Liebster is German and means ‘dearest’ or ‘beloved’ but it can also mean ‘favourite’ .”

It seems I now have to nominate my “top five” picks, which I presume means my favourite writerly blogs, and let them know by leaving a comment on their site.

Apparently this includes then “basking in the love from the most supportive people on the Internet – other writers”, and most of all, to “have fun and spread the karma!”

Fun, I can do. I am not very good at basking. Which reminds me too much of basting, as in the basting of turkey, a word I just learned last month and which sounds to me like stewing in your own grease and sweat while an editor skewers you with a Death Star glare. (Can you tell NaNoWriMo is eating my brain?)

But anyway! On to my five picks, which was very hard, I can tell you. So many blogs to choose from!

I hemmed, I hawed, I headbanged and curled up in a foetal position on my bed. (Nicholls, I noticed you were nominated too, so I got to pick another one 😉

So here they are in no particular order! Go check them out, because I find them particularly inspiring, uplifting and even soothing after a long, hard day.

1) The Canary – This group of writers and editors have been churning out a massive amount of exciting content, from reviews of YA novels and literary titles, to brutal yet fascinating dissections of book blurbs.

2) Wife and War – I’m not very good at appreciating poetry but I find Amalie Flynn’s poems to be haunting and utterly mesmerising. This blog is about her coping as a military wife and reconnecting with a husband returning from war.

3) Deb E – Her tagline is ‘Writer, Illustrator, Mum’ – and it is debatable which job is the hardest! I love blogs about writers working on their novels, and there’s something about her fiction and art I enjoy.

4) Ika Writes – It’s not often you find another Malaysian who writes fantasy, much less someone so committed to getting her work out there. (I plan to attend Worldcon too, Ika!) She’s rewriting her fantasy novel with an eye to getting it all shiny and polished next year, last I heard.

5) Blood on Forgotten Walls – I find Ever Dundas’ stories somewhat dark and disturbing – and I like it! Her art is also amazing, and I could lick her name cards.

These stood out for me, and I wish I could choose more! Gute Nacht, everyone 🙂

NaNoWriMo wordcount

46453 / 50000 words. 93% done!

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Understanding a Little Better, or Day 26 NaNoWriMo

I should have remembered word travels fast.

The only person I’d told was the restaurant manager. But it didn’t take long for the kitchen staff to wander in my direction while I hovered somewhat uncomfortably over the too-low sink, my hands flying over dishes that hectic Saturday night. My last night there, for a while.

It started with: “Would you like this pancake?” one of the girls asked me in Mandarin, by the grilling stove. “I’m afraid it’s a little burned but it should still be good.”

I smiled. I’d love to have it. This was the same girl who’s passed me a mandarin orange and once a Hershey chocolate – both welcome little surprises in the midst of intense dishwashing.

Then one of the cooks passed by my sink and chirped, “So where are you going?”

I said I had a temporary Christmas job at this supermarket. When I told them the name, they said, “Wah! Can I still apply?”

“Any more jobs for me?”

“I should apply!” one of the newer cooks said, a lanky handsome bloke peering in on the chicken in the deep fryer.

“That place has long hours, you know!” the girl at the grilling stove agreed.

Lanky sighed, stirring the chicken. “Ahhh, all I know is cooking anyway.”

I’m used to being in my own little world when I do the dishwashing. While my mind passes the time lately by replaying Skyrim theme music over and over, I’d be conscious of the cooks bustling around the kitchen and bantering with each other in Cantonese.

During less hectic moments, more than one would always burst into song. I can never understand the words, but I could tell by the way the boys poured emotion into the soft, wistful words that it would be something about love, about finding that Someone to end their loneliness. The best Chinese ballads usually are.

Then when I had about an hour to go on my shift, one of them again wanders in on me. Alan is a longtime restaurant staffer who usually does waiter duties. When the orders come flying in however, he’s been known to step into the kitchen and whip up a mean stirfry.  He’s also cocky and cheeky, and I’ve learnt to take everything he says with a pinch of salt.

Two weeks ago, he must have seen how much I was struggling with the dishes, back when I had yet to develop a system for doing it efficiently. He’d said in English, “Aiyah, come! I help you! Very easy! Very fast!” And he proceeded to demolish the mountain of dishes while I watched…and learned.

That night when I was about to leave, Alan had said, “Hey! You owe me ten pounds! I helped you!”

“I’ll give you a foot massage later!” I’d retorted, playing along with the jest to the amusement of the kitchen staff.

But the next week I baked brownies for Alan and other restaurant people, as thanks and also to spread some goodwill among the staff. The manager – who’s worked in an Italian restaurant and baked cakes for them before – paid me the highest compliment when he said the brownies were beautiful and evenly cooked.

Alan, however, said: “Your cake, ah, not good! Not enough chocolate! Put milk in next time. You still owe me ten pound, ah, I help you!”

“He’s just joking,” the manager told me later. I nodded. It’s how Alan is. Alan, in my mind at least, exemplifies what many Cantonese are like – rough and gruff but actually possessing deep layers of kindness inside.

Last night, Alan again said, “Come, I help you!”

I didn’t really have many dishes left to wash, but I let him anyway. He did the soaping while I rinsed and put away the drying plates. And he fell to talking. Boy, could he talk, jabbering in an amusing spatter of English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Malay.

“My Malay not very good, let’s practise!” said the boy from Seremban, Malaysia. I wandered away to put away the dishes and came back to find him reenacting how he might order something in a typical Malaysian coffee shop. It translates to something like: “Hello, I’d like to order your roti canai, kopi ping and–what’s chicken wings again? Can you give me discount? Thank you, good bye…”

“You are very funny,” I said in English.

“I not funny, but I’m funny! You know what I mean?”

“That you’re kay poh chee?” I deadpanned. I don’t think he heard me calling him a busybody.

Then for some reason we got to talking about his time in school, which made me realise that I knew very little about him or even what age he was. He looked like a teenager but acted like a world-weary veteran of the restaurant scene.

“My Malay teacher, ah, I ask him if I can pass this test. He say, Caaaaan! I can pass with flying colours! Flying colours all red down the paper! Then when exam time came, I got 100 percent mark. You know what I do? When I pass up the papers, I put ten ringgit money there for the teacher, all pass!”

Then he started giggling and chatting with the other cooks in Cantonese, saying certain choice (and I suspect raunchy) words that made one nearby waitress – who was from China – blink and quickly tell me in English, “You don’t need to know what he said!”

Alan, back to me while he heaped in another pile of dishes, “In my school, there was one Indian girl. She, ah, the most beautiful girl in class! Everything she do, she do better than me. I get B, she get A. I get A, she get A plus! My school got a tennis team and we only need her, one!”

My leaving was with relatively little fanfare. The kitchen staff had whipped up some “really nice” dishes for supper, said the restaurant manager, which I suspected was because of me. However because I was given some extra greasy grilles to wash, I didn’t have time to sit down at the table with them. They made sure however to pack me a takeaway before I had to rush for the bus.

“Keep in touch,” the manager said to me. “Just give us a call if you want to come back.”

I nodded.

NaNoWriMo wordcount

43000 / 50000 words. 86% done!

To recap: my mission this month of November – to do NaNoWriMo novel by day, my other Malaysian novel by night, and blog about something vaguely interesting every day of November.

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Filed under Books, Fantasy, Food, Malaysia, Novel, Photography, Skyrim, State of Mind, Triumph, Work, Writing

Things that Burn, or Day 25 NaNoWriMo

I set fire to my jacket yesterday.

Which was, probably, a silly thing to do.

It was my favourite house jacket, the one I like to zip up and sleep with over my two or three layers of shirts in ‘sunny’ Scotland.

It all started, ladies and gentlemen, when I wanted to grill some sausages for breakfast. But because the kitchen was warm and I didn’t like the sleeves obstructing my hands, I took off my jacket…and for some reason tossed it on top of the stove. Maybe I was still suffering from sleep-dep, I don’t know.

Now, see, naturally I thought the hob was switched off when I cheerfully ripped open the plastic bag and shoved frozen sausages into the oven. But I still shouldn’t have put my jacket there in the first place!

I closed the oven door, only seconds later to detect this horrible smell. Thinking a bit of plastic had somehow been left in the oven, I opened it, checked the ice-caked sausages, but no, it looked okay. Back in they went, and that horrid smell returned. I checked a second time.

That’s when I noticed smoke emitting from my jacket.

Ahk! Ahk! No! Bad fire!

I rescued my jacket – it hadn’t burst into flames. It was still usable and one side was slightly burnt. The zipper had gone all twisted. I will definitely not be able to zip it up again.

But what was more alarming was the horrid stench that still lingered, and for a moment I feared I was inhaling something dangerous. I threw open the kitchen window, then the garden door in the living room. I felt better.

Later I learnt that my jacket was 70% acrylic, and that burning acrylic apparently releases “oxides of nitrogen” and frickin’ hydrogen cyanide.

Holy bovine! I was inhaling cyanide?

There is No Kettle

This is worse than the time I accidentally set fire to the kettle years ago. Now, now, the kettle thing wasn’t actually my fault! It was my parents’ and it looked like a normal kettle which you put over the fire. I didn’t notice the plastic bottom it had.

How was I supposed to know it was an electric kettle!? Electric kettles should not be masquerading as kettles. The humble non-electric kettle gets enough grief as it is, having those fancy doo-dads stealing their thunder.

Flames leaped from melting plastic, and I don’t know how I did it, but I grabbed that kettle and set it down on an old rug. The fire went out, and I stared woefully at my parents’ kettle glued to the rug with gooey plastic.

My parents still tease me for wrecking their new kettle, while I tried not to hide my burning face in my hands. You can certainly bet that story will be whipped out and passed around the relatives for special occasions, down to every obscure branch.

Lord, that was scary. Must not put jackets on stoves! 😛

First night of work went well yesterday. Tonight is the last of my kitchen job, at least for now.

NaNoWriMo wordcount 

42103 / 50000 words. 84% done!

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