Category Archives: Writing

Short Story: Shadows in the Gloom (HSC English Extension 2 Major Work)

Last year, I completed the NSW HSC (finished Year 12 and graduated from High School). One of my HSC courses was English Extension 2, whereby I basically spent the whole year working on a single 8000 word short story.

At the beginning of the year, my English teacher told me that taking Extension 2 would be like falling in love: throughout the year — during school-term and holidays, in class and out of it — it would consume a huge amount of my thoughts and emotions and energy. Having finished the project, I can say that she wasn’t far wrong. There were times when the project was further from my mind than it ought to have been, but when you add up all the brainstorming, planning, research, writing, rewriting, re-rewriting, editing, polishing and reflection that have gone into this project, it far outstrips the effort I have put into any other of my pieces of fiction (even ones that were much longer).

Why am I posting it here today? My reasons are twofold. First: as always, I want readers of this blog (both regular ones and chance visitors) to enjoy. But second, I also want to post this for the sake of other students taking English Extension 2 who want to get a feel for what some of their peers have written. Personally, I loved reading the works of previous Extension 2 students during my creation of this piece, so I hope you enjoy reading mine now (but don’t plagiarise!). Also, if you’re trying to get a feel for the marks that short stories get: this one, together with my reflection statement (which I might consider posting if anyone expresses interest), got me 44/50 (43/50 internally, 45/50 externally).

Feel free to give me feedback — it will help my future writing, even if I consider this particular project finished. And please do also comment if you have any questions about English Extension 2 that you think I might be able to help with. Otherwise: enjoy!

******

I looked toward the bus, a dark shape against the hazy orange sunset. They had shut the hatch on the engine and a stream of insignificant figures, silhouetted against the sky, climbed, back-stooped, up onto the road and boarded the bus. It was finally fixed and we were to continue the long journey from Banlung, Ratanakiri province, to Phnom Penh.

It was dark inside as I climbed aboard. Seat-backs and passengers’ faces were black against the windows. I stumbled over cargo in the aisle. As I sat, I saw that the man in the seat next to me was awake.

He was a short man, with brown skin, brown eyes and a flattish nose. He was unshaven, but his beard was thin and he looked young. So far, he had spent most of the trip asleep, but now he was looking vacantly out of the window. Behind him, the orange haze had turned dull brown, and the rubber trees beside the road cast deep shadows. As the bus began to move, the shadows fell across his face like a shroud.

“Dark deeds have happened here,” he murmured, all of a sudden.

“What’s that?” I asked. He did not respond.

“You’ve seen bad stuff, haven’t you?” I asked at length.

“I have,” he replied softly, still gazing at the twilight.

“I know all about it,” I said. “I’m here because an NGO I sponsor has stuffed up.”

“NGOs, development companies… damn their lies and false promises. People are bugs under their feet, shadows on their land.”

“I try to change that.”

“Sometimes it’s not possible. Leave, cut your losses.”

“Tell me,” I said. “What have you seen?”

For the first time, he turned from the window. He looked at his feet. “It’s not a story that flatters me,” he said at length. “But I’ll tell you.”

Behind him, the sky was dark purple. A car sped in the other direction, no headlights on. The stranger began his tale.

 

 

My name is Dara. My parents were refugees from the Khmer Rouge. I myself was born in the United States, but I was Cambodian and I felt pride in my country, deep sorrow for its tragedies. I dreamed of returning one day and helping to restore Cambodia from the horrors of its past.

Last year, I heard about a Vietnamese rubber company operating here. Perhaps this was the way forward for the country, I thought. It would mean capital investment, exports, employment —  a way to finally ease Cambodia out of the quagmire. I applied for a job and was offered one as supervisor in Ratanakiri.

A month ago, I flew into Phnom Penh. I remember peering out the plane window to get a first glimpse of my homeland. I saw a patchwork. Squares, rhombi and trapezia, all different shades of green and brown, and then, in much larger patches, a tidy green sea. I would see plenty of that green sea at ground-level.

A week later I left Phnom Penh for Banlung; the first stage of my journey into the remote country. At dawn, the driver arrived in an old Mercedes van. He sprang out cheerfully, shoved my bag under a seat, and we were away, chugging off down the narrow street. Even at that hour, there were hundreds of scooters on the streets of Phnom Penh, weaving around the cars like water around so many pebbles. Lanes were disregarded, indicators given a holiday and traffic signs ignored, but everyone knew their place and ended up where they wanted to go.

As we left Phnom Penh behind, the flat ground began to undulate gently. Rice-paddies and marshes gave way to rubber plantations, that tidy green sea I had seen from above. It was after the lunch-stop, though, that the land changed in earnest. The previous undulations had been mere bumps, now the countryside rolled beneath us like waves. In the distance, I could see the forest, dark and ancient. We passed over bridges; crossed creeks, ponds and the great Sre Pok River, lying dormant like a monstrous python among the trees. There was a vitality in this land; the trees, the hills, the red earth throbbed with it. The waterways carried it like lifeblood. Perhaps in this rich land we would find the power to heal our scars.

An hour later I was standing outside the arched, steel gate of the company’s headquarters, trying to get in. The driver had wrenched out my bag, claimed his payment, and leapt back in to drop off the other passengers, leaving me alone on the roadside. Through the steel bars I could see the building; concrete, two storeys high and painted mustard yellow. In front was a gravel yard bordered by short grass, with a few scattered saplings standing in islands of bare dirt.

“Hello,” I called. “Anybody there?”

Nobody answered except three sturdy dogs, who had been sleeping on the porch. The largest, a black mongrel, barked at me with fury. People in neighbouring houses and roadside shops watched placidly. The sun beat down and sweat trickled from my armpits.

I yelled out several times before a man finally appeared, slouching up to the gate with a hefty bunch of keys. He was pimply, and wore an unbuttoned shirt which let his balloon of a belly march out in front of him.

“You’re the new fellow?” he asked, as he tried keys in the lock.

“Yes, I’m Dara.”

He yawned. “I’m Bunty. The Manager’s inside.”

He tried every key in the bunch, and some twice, before he finally found one that fitted, opening the gate a crack for me to squeeze through. As I walked towards the building, the big black dog followed, still barking. When Bunty opened the front door for me to enter, the dog followed me inside.

The room we entered was smoky and dim. In the middle stood a tremendously bulky wooden table, surrounded by several massive cylindrical stools. Each was crafted from a single piece of luxury wood and looked about as comfortable as a slab of marble. The only person in the room was a man in a shiny, black swivel chair. As we entered, he spun round to reveal a pale, narrow face, with ears that stuck out incongruously. He exhaled some smoke and dropped a cigarette butt onto his desk. I waited, hoping he would send the dog out, but he didn’t.

“Hello,” I said, to break the silence. “Are you the Manager?”

“Yes, indeed,” he murmured. “Manager of Ratanakiri branch. Prestigious branch these days.”

“Pleased to meet you, then,” I said. “I’m the supervisor.”

“Ah, good. Thought you’d be along one of these days.”

I was confused. I had emailed him twice, confirming the date of my arrival.

“I sent you my itinerary,” I said. “You didn’t…”

“Ah, yes,” he said placidly, “but you never know.”

My bag was getting heavy. Bunty slouched off to another room.

“Well,” said the Manager, “I hope you enjoy it here. Once you’ve settled in, you’ll visit a few plantations. Give them some tips. Then…” but his phone rang, and he answered it.

By now my bag was very heavy. I let it drop to the floor. Was there anywhere to sit, besides those great wooden stools? I dodged the dog as he made to snap at my ankle, and looked appealingly to the Manager, but he seemed not to notice.

“What was I saying?” he asked, when he’d hung up. “Ah, yes. You’ll go up to Ou Yadaw district, to oversee a new plantation. You may have to do some of the preliminary work there too.”

“I look forward to it,” I said. Actually, I looked forward to a shower and then bed.

“Yes,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “Well, that’s good, then.” He seemed to be done with me.

My enthusiasm was dampened by his lackadaisical attitude. If this man was to bring development, it would be a very lazy kind. Was I wrong to hope in this company? Was there no escape from the shadow of the past? But then, maybe this man was largely irrelevant. Only ordinary Cambodians could bring lasting change. They would bring prosperity to themselves, not merely have it granted to them by a man in a black swivel chair.

The next morning seemed like a holiday. I rose early, but nobody was about. The black dog lay on the porch and growled when I came near, so I meandered about the yard as far from him as possible. Finally, close to noon, Bunty rode in on his motorbike and offered to give me a tour of the town.

As we rode into Banlung, the smooth tarmac road widened before us into a grand dual-carriage way. On the right side of the road were tall concrete buildings, more impressive than any I’d yet seen. To the left, I could see a broad valley, thick with trees. Plantations or forests, I couldn’t tell.

“Let’s go down to Lake Konsaeng,” said Bunty. “Have a beer.”

This was the life; sitting in the shade sipping beer, across from the smooth, blue lake. Across the road, a few people had spread out mats right on the lake’s edge. Cars purred by; a Lexus, a Hilux, a Prius. Young people rode past on scooters in convoys, chatting with each other; the passengers texting on smart phones.

On the way back we passed a magnificent house; huge, with tall, marble gate-posts and a uniformed security guard sitting behind the gate.

“Who owns that?” I asked, in awe.

“New governor,” replied Bunty.

“The governor? Fancy that. He any good?”

“A wise man: doesn’t interfere much. Open to investment.”

The company’s headquarters, asleep when we left, was wide awake when we rode back in an hour later. The gate was thrown open, two cars parked in front, and half a dozen men were hanging around in the yard. The Manager was on the porch, his phone glued to his ear.

“Yeah, we have a problem,” I heard him say, as I approached. “Didn’t clear the village … Tried to stir up an uprising … Got someone to replace him.”

He hung up, and started slightly when he saw me.

“A few… troubles, up in Ou Yadaw,” he said. “We’re leaving now. Get your things.”

I went off in a daze. The morning had been so relaxing I’d half-expected the afternoon off as well. When I got back, the Manager informed me that we would travel separately. Bunty and I would stop at a few places along the way, but tomorrow we would meet up in a remote Jarai village.

“Wait in the car,” he said. There was a shiny gold Lexus and a rusty grey Camry. He pointed at the Camry.

I waited in the hot car for half an hour before we left. Bunty had ridden home to pack his bags. As we drove out the gate — Bunty and I in the Camry; the Manager and the others in the Lexus — I realised I hadn’t been told what to do at the “other places” we would go to first. I tried to phone the Manager, but he didn’t pick up.

For the first part of the trip, we sped along the smooth tarmac road with the windows down. No air-con, but the breeze was okay. We glided up and down long hillsides, where tall, swaying rubber trees peopled the slopes. Gazing into the plantations was magical. Sunlight struggled through the leaves to form dappled patterns on the ground, dancing as the branches swayed in the breeze. As we sped past, the rows of trees flashed by like snowflakes; each was similar to the last, but not identical. Occasionally a bird would fly through the trees keeping pace with the car, weaving its way amongst the trunks, continually disappearing and re-emerging.

Before long, we turned onto a side-road leading into the plantation itself. We were arriving. Suddenly there were worms wriggling in my belly, rats gnawing at it. The people here would assume I knew my job, but I had no idea. I’d look like an idiot.

“Time for you to do your stuff,” said Bunty.

“What the hell is ‘my stuff?’ The Manager didn’t tell me anything.”

“Just give them some tips,” laughed Bunty. “Tell them about plantation maintenance.”

I looked at the trees. This was a young plantation; the trees were already tall, but they still had light bark and sparse branches. I supposed I could “give some tips”. A group of workers and supervisors assembled and I found myself standing before them. So I gave them some tips. I started falteringly, but soon gained confidence and regurgitated all the things I’d learnt in Plantation Management.

The group sat in silence while I talked. When I finished, they came alive. A few disappeared and came back with two large pots and some firewood, and they began cooking rice and a stew. It smelled delicious and I sat down, faint with hunger.

A young man sat beside me. I asked him his job.

“Labourer.”

“Pay good?”

“Decent, five dollars a day.”

“An improvement from what you did before? You have a field round here?”

“An improvement,” he said. “But I’m not from here. I’m from Kandal province.”

This surprised me. Did the company have far-reaching impacts, providing jobs for even those from other parts of the country?

“Are there many, like you, coming for work from other provinces?”

“Yes, lots,” he said. “Lots from Vietnam, too.”

It was late afternoon by the time we set off again. Already it felt like a very long day. The paved road gave way to a path of fine, red dust, inches thick. We rolled up the windows, but the sealing had long since worn away, so the dust still came into the car like so much water into a leaky boat. It was a long trip. We sped through the dust for half an hour before turning onto a smaller road, so rutted and pot-holed that the bottom of the car kept scraping the ground. We were jolted like popcorn on this road for another half hour before we finally pulled up outside a small, brick company building just outside a village.

The village was fairly typical. Fifty or so huts thrown together randomly, some of them wooden and more imposing, while others were thatched bamboo. There were a few trees, and clumps of weeds and bushes in places, but mainly it was bare, dusty dirt with plastic bags, bottles and wrappers scattered across it.

It was the forests, though, that made this village different from the others I had seen along the way. They loomed behind it, reaching full thickness only a few hundred metres behind the last huts. Mighty trees, black against the darkening blue sky.

This time I succeeded in ringing the Manager for instructions.

“Do a bit of a survey. Ask our man there, he’ll tell you what to do.”

“Our man there”, the company official in that village, was a quiet, mouselike fellow. He found it hard to believe my job description was as vague as I claimed, and he strung up hammocks for us to sleep with a face immobile and grim. In the morning, though, I set his mind at rest. We surveyed the area so thoroughly that I had the impression he’d never seen such expert preparation.

Our work took us out to the edges of the forest, down small roads and tracks, and on one occasion some way into it. But going in with my colleagues, focussing on our work, the cool, dark, ancient feel of it was reduced. Afterwards, though, I went in alone to relieve myself and to look around.

The forest was thick. I waded through grass, ducked under the tall shafts of bamboo, and hoped that none of this nature, which pressed tightly on all sides, was hostile. I thought of malaria. But malarial mosquitoes only come out at night. No, a bigger worry would be snakes, or even those hairy caterpillars….

The trees came in all shapes and sizes. There were behemoths towering forty metres above my head. There were medium-sized trees; narrow, upright youths, children of the ancient towers — and also, occasionally, more leafy, spreading fruit-trees. And there were saplings, small, yet seeming to say ‘One day I will loom above you too’.

The forest had a timeless aspect. Surely it was as old as the earth. It had stood, just thus, when mankind landed on the moon. When the atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima, not a tree was disturbed. Even when Marco Polo passed near here, centuries and centuries ago, these forests already stood, as ancient then as they were now.

That was when I spied the plastic bag. A regular, clear, flimsy plastic bag, snagged on the tip of a bamboo stalk. Were these forests really so unchangeable, so eternal? They might have been as old as time, but they weren’t going to last much longer. Even now they were being polluted by plastic. And soon: fire and chainsaw. I would bring the fire and the chainsaw — I and my company. These dim, ancient forests would be razed — and in their place? A new forest; an artificial one. A forest all in rows, so neat, so orderly. As you drove past in your car, the rows would flash by like movie frames, or like letters spelling the word ‘MAN’.

We pulled out of the village at noon; the final stage of our trip into the remote north had begun. What would we encounter, at our journey’s end? What were the “difficulties” that the Manager had hinted at? I pictured some wild beast coming out of the forest. Perhaps a tiger, orange stripes glowing like flames, striding to and fro in the dark night, paralysing everyone with fear.

We came to the banks of the great Se San River. There was no bridge, so we eased the Camry onto a little boat and began the precarious crossing. A careless movement by any of us could have capsized the boat and sent the car to the bottom of the river.

The road on the other side had not been built for Camrys. Often I could have walked faster than we drove, as we pushed through the tall, dry grass; thumped the bottom of the car on the uneven road; and purred cautiously across tenuous bridges. Frequent clearings gave way to thick forest; but the dust remained thick, and the car would slide, as if on ice. We spewed great clouds of dust into the air, befouling the cool, dark rainforest, turning green leaves brown with the hue of imminent death.

Abruptly, we rounded a bend and before us was a little village. The forest came up close to it on several sides, leaving only enough space for a few small fields and vegetable gardens. The huts in this village were mostly thatched bamboo. A few women walked ahead of us wearing back-baskets, and an old man sucked his pipe as he watched our approach. In the midst of this, the Manager’s Lexus was parked; a spaceship from another planet.

His driver was squatting beside the car when we piled out.

“What’s happening?” asked Bunty.

“We’re waiting for the police. Things got worse.”

“Worse?”

“He’s shut himself up with a gun. Won’t come out without a fight.”

As they discussed the situation, I gradually guessed at what had happened. The mysterious criminal was in fact an employee of the company whom they had posted to this area to do some job. Instead of doing it, he had pledged allegiance to a self-proclaimed “King” of the Jarai people, and set himself up as the King’s envoy.

“He’s raising money for the King’s independence movement,” Bunty told me. “Or so he says: I think he spends it on his house.”

“Independence?” I asked. “Who from?”

Bunty didn’t answer.

The police — one in an immaculate full uniform, one wearing his police top over a pair of knee-length shorts, and one wearing only a pair of old trousers, but each carrying AK-47s — rode in on one motorcycle late in the afternoon. The Manager came out and shook hands with the shirtless policeman, the most senior of the three. I expected him to explain the situation to them so they could immediately arrest the Envoy (as we took to calling him). Apparently, though, there was business to attend to first.

“It will be more expensive,” said the shirtless policeman. “He has a gun.”

The Manager stared at him icily, and they spent the next few minutes haggling over the price. It seemed a strange concept, to me, paying the police to do their job. Something about it was out of place, almost disturbing; like hugging your parent for punishing your sibling.

As the policemen prepared to arrest the Envoy, a small crowd of villagers assembled in a wide arc around his tall wooden house to watch. They were a motley group, short and thin but muscled and tough, some wearing traditional, centuries-old dress, while others wore jeans and T-shirts. I waited by the car, where I could see the villagers, but not the police. I had no desire to witness the arrest, much less to be caught in the cross-fire.

The villagers stood stock-still, passive and unblinking, until the guns went off in a series of deafening cracks. At this, several young children, who had been standing in the front, ran, squealing, behind their parents. One elderly woman stumbled backwards, twitching and wheezing, and as she tried to get away, she fell to her hands and knees in convulsions. I thought of my parents: the nightmares, the spasms, the shortness of breath. The scars from deep wounds take a long time to heal.

I didn’t stay after that. I decided to wander down the road by which we’d come; I’d return when it was over. As I walked in the dappled shadow of the trees, I wondered what the villagers would do now. Would they fight to free the Envoy of their King? Or would his arrest convince them that the hope he promised was false? In any case, it would be our job to show them that hope lay in unity, not independence. Their best chance at happiness would be development… but would it be worth the loss of the forest?

By the time I returned, the police had apprehended the Envoy. It had grown too late  to take him to the police station, so they had simply tied him up and thrown him into the corner of his house.

That night, we slept in the Envoy’s house. He himself was a tall man, dignified, almost noble, even as he sat in the corner, bound hand and foot. He would be uncomfortable, spending the night in that position. The policemen, by contrast, slept in luxury on his soft double bed, cradling their AK-47s like teddy-bears. I, the Manager, Bunty and the others strung up hammocks.

Sometime during the night, when all was as black as prehistory and only starlight shone through the barred window, I awoke with a full bladder. I groped my way down the stairs and wandered a little way beyond the house to where I watched my urine form a pool on the ground which reflected the stars in all their majesty.

As I re-entered the house, I heard a stir in the corner. It was the Envoy. Instinctively, I made my way toward him. I tried to make out his form, but it was too dark to see even his outline.

He whispered to me. “Hey there.” His whisper was deep and enchanting. “Dara, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I returned, my own whisper flat and powerless. How did he know my name?

“Can you untie me? I need to use the toilet.”

I moved forward, under the spell of his voice, but then checked myself. “Untie you so you can do a bunk? I don’t think so!”

“Dara,” he murmured. “I fight for a just cause.”

“Extorting money and spending it on your house?”

“I take voluntary contributions!” he whispered menacingly. “For the independence of these people. And a worker is worthy of his hire.”

“You’re mad. You’re ruining these people.”

“You’re the mad one,” he returned, “if you think it’s better to force them off their land into poverty. You’ll destroy the country.”

I wondered if what he said was true. But then, hadn’t he himself worked for the company, before he switched to something that paid better? This man was just a voice, an idea. The idea sounded good, but it was hollow; a balloon that would easily pop.

It was only then that one of the policemen awoke. He growled at the Envoy and must have reached out of bed and lashed him across the head with his AK-47. At any rate, there was the sound of a blow and my interlocutor whinnied in pain and fell silent. I slunk back to my hammock, but spent the rest of the night turning over the conversation in my head.

I rose the next morning to the droning of chainsaws. The hut was deserted, except for Bunty, who was snoring loudly in his hammock. I barely noticed him; my eyes were drawn to the corner from which that compelling whisper had emanated during the night. It was empty. There was no sign that anyone had been there.

Though it was still early, the village was like a disturbed ants’ nest. The two younger policemen strutted here and there, shouting at people to stir themselves because it was time to move. From out in the forests came the buzz and whine of chainsaws, accompanied at intervals by the crash of trees falling to the ground. Birds flew, squawking, over the village, fleeing their felled homes, and all around dogs barked, disturbed by the activity and needing to make some noise.

In the midst of this, the Manager stood in the shade of the Envoy’s house, placidly smoking a cigarette. I moved over and stood beside him.

“What’s my job here?” I asked. “It’ll be weeks — months — before they finish cutting the forest.”

“You’re to go to a village further along the road. Get the people to move out.”

I was annoyed; this hadn’t been in my job description.

“They’ll leave willingly?” I asked.

“Don’t give them a choice.”

The next village appeared to be the final frontier. It was the end of the road, surrounded by the forest like an overshadowed cul-de-sac. People looked up in surprise to see the car approaching; some seemed vaguely apprehensive, others merely curious. Small children scampered out of view to peer at me shyly from behind the posts of their huts. They were an isolated people, untouched by society. It would be a difficult time for them, regardless of what benefits we might deliver in the future.

A man came out to greet me as I pulled up in the rusty Camry. He was short but well-muscled, and his face had a solemn, intelligent look. He introduced himself as Kroh, and agreed to take me to the village Chief.

The Chief’s house was smaller than the Envoy’s, and fashioned from bamboo rather than wood. It was cool and dark inside, and a breeze rose through the spongy floor. Hammocks were slung from poles, mats were spread out on the floor and a small pile of traditional tools and artefacts lay in the corner.

The Chief himself was a tiny man. He was sitting with his back to one of the poles supporting the house and weaving what seemed to be one of the back-baskets I had seen the women wear. As I entered, with Kroh, he put his weaving aside and rose to greet me, shaking my hand with both of his. With regret I informed him of my errand. His face turned grave, and he sat down again.

“You cannot do this,” he told me. “Without the spirits’ approval, you will fail.”

I asked him if the spirits would really disapprove. “Development is good for the country,” I said. “It will be difficult at first, but in the end, you’ll be better off.”

I didn’t sound convincing. To him these were lies, false assurances. He could not imagine that the destruction of the forests could bring about anything but evil. As I turned to leave the hut, my brain was seared by an image of his face, a picture of hopelessness and sorrow. Perhaps my father had worn the same look forty years ago, when he learned that his village had been burned by the Khmer Rouge.

As we left the Chief’s hut, Kroh invited me to stay with him. I accepted, with a word of thanks, but inwardly I was disappointed. How could I tell him to leave after sleeping in his own home?

An hour later, I was seated to dinner on the springy bamboo floor of Kroh’s house, surrounded by his extended family. All of us ate in silence: myself, Kroh, Kroh’s young wife and child, his parents-in-law and his parents-in-law’s unmarried children — ranging from a bearded young man down to a nappy-less youngster who pushed his plate away in favour of his mother’s breast-milk. I wished I could push my plate away too. This was the last food these people would produce on their land, and I shouldn’t have been the one eating it.

Midway through the meal, Kroh addressed his family. “Do you know,” he said (in Khmer rather than Jarai, clearly for my comprehension), “that this man has come to make everyone leave the village?”

Evidently they didn’t. Their faces tightened.

“But,” he said, “Mr Dara says he is doing it for the good of the country.”

“Absolutely,” I said, trying not to wither under the hard stares. “Look, I understand this is very difficult for you all, but in the long run it’s for the best. You’ll get jobs on the rubber plantations. You’ll have shops here selling all sorts of things. And medical facilities. It’ll be great.” It sounded hollow.

Kroh looked caught between a laugh and a grimace, but he quickly turned grave.  “None of this will happen,” he said. “The best jobs are filled by people from other provinces and by Vietnamese. And shops,” he looked at his father-in-law. “What is our shop?”

“The forest is our shop,” said the old man. “We get everything we need there, for free.”

“Tomorrow, I will take you to the forest,” said Kroh. “You can see for yourself.”

The next day, Kroh and his father-in-law took their crossbows and we headed for the forest. I was struck, more than ever, by how overshadowed this village was, how hemmed in. It was the final frontier. The forest surrounded it like a great cloud of fog, broken only by the road heading back the way I’d come. A few thin tracks seemed to disappear into it, like cracks in a concrete wall. But were they made by men or by squirrels? And did they lead anywhere, or were they a trap, drawing you into an inescapable maze? We followed one of them now, pushing through like ants into the towering forest. It was dark in here, ominous. What would we catch, I wondered? Would anything catch us?

“We cannot catch the big game anymore,” Kroh had told me. “Leopard, gaur… tiger. My father caught them. Now they don’t live here. I can only catch squirrels, civets, snakes.”

Even so, as we pushed aside bamboo shoots and draping lianas, I imagined facing a remnant tiger. Would we win or lose? Were a few crossbows any match for the largest of the cat-kind? Almost as terrifying would be a snake. A snake wouldn’t fight like a sportsman, it would leap out and strike the heel, injecting poison and death.

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice that the others had stopped silently, bows held in both hands. I blundered past them and tripped on a concealed root, falling heavily.

“Sshh,” hissed Kroh. “Get up, quiet.”

I rose and scanned the foliage. I couldn’t tell what they had sensed, but they were tensed, ready to fire. Suddenly a blurred shape burst from the trees, squawking. Kroh and his father-in-law both let fire and the creature fell to the forest floor with a soft thud.

“What was it?” I asked.

“Monkey,” said Kroh.

And so it was. A large, male, golden-furred monkey with one arrow in its leg and another in its chest. Kroh pulled out the arrows and put the kill into a plastic bag. He looked satisfied. This was meat; this was nourishment.

I thought we would return to the village after that, and I wasn’t sorry; the forest was tall, dark, powerful. I could understand why these people believed it was the abode of the spirits. It didn’t strike me as a resource so much as a force to be contended with; an entity, sublime and threatening. People talk about the sea like that, but what’s the sea, really, except a body of water? The forest is different: the forest is a living thing. The forest breathes. It grows. It lives. It dies. The forest is powerful. And yet… it would be no match for 21st century man. The thought was somehow terrifying. Even if I didn’t believe in the spirits, it was impossible to stand in the forests and not fear the supernatural. What punishment would there be for a man like me, helping to destroy these mighty palaces?

We didn’t go back to the village. Instead, we turned another way, coming to an area of sparser forest where the trees were younger and smaller.

“This area was cleared for rice,” said Kroh. “Eight years ago. You can tell from the growth of the plants.”

Kroh’s father-in-law began examining one of the trees. There seemed to be some sort of resin covering the branches. He took hold of something stuck in the resin, and began carefully working it free. It wasn’t until the last bits of the sticky substance were pulled off that I realised what the thing was: a bird! They had smeared some sort of glue on the tree to catch it. These people were resourceful; they might not have cars or factories, but they had the wits and the know-how to survive.

On the way back, Kroh stopped to pluck some little black berries from a plant on the forest floor.

“A medicinal plant,” he told me. “Good for bronchitis.”

It seemed to me that the forest was good for everything. It was like a mother for an infant child. Its milk was so rich, so nutritious, these people didn’t seem to need much else. Maybe we should all start to rely more on the milk of the forest, I thought. Enough of turning its trees into chairs and beds and massive cylindrical stools. Enough of razing the leafy palaces to plant a bit of rubber. Why should the healing powers of the forest be extinguished like a candle? The berries were good for bronchitis. What else might they be good for? Swine flu? Dengue? Cancer?

The sun had sunk low by the time we returned. Kroh’s wife and mother-in-law took the kills and began skinning and plucking off feathers. Kroh and I sat down inside.

“We need the forest,” he told me. “Without it, we’ll be digging for gems that aren’t there, or looking for jobs where there are none. Our women will work in karaoke bars in Banlung, and even those who don’t will have to be careful…”

“How so?”

“My sister lives near where rubber workers have quarters. She doesn’t dare go far alone anymore.”

“Can’t you protest?” I said at length. “Fight back?”

“People don’t realise what’s happening. They’re given some money for their land, so they accept it, buy a motorbike. But the main reason is,” he said softly, “they’re afraid.”

The room suddenly seemed much darker. Outside I could see the flame of the cooking fire through the cracks in the bamboo walls. People moved in front of it, silhouetted eerily against the flame.

I left the hut. I wanted to get away from these people. I didn’t want to feel their problems. There was an old radio in the boot of the car; I pulled it out and called the Manager.

“Hello, it’s Dara.”

“What do you want?”

“Supposing there’s a protest? A lot of people aren’t happy.”

“Is there a leader?” he asked.

I paused. “Yes.”

“Then, we arrange for him to disappear.”

I stumbled through the darkening twilight. A cacophony of cicadas started up in the trees, each one mimicking the Manager’s words. Their raucous chirps ricocheted through my brain: “we arrange for him to disappear”, “for him to disappear”, “him to disappear”.

Goosebumps erupted on my arms and I shivered; my hair stood on end. Before me, a shadow flitted through the trees — perhaps a person, perhaps a dog. The people were nothing to the company, they were merely shadows in the gloom beneath the trees. They might as well be dogs as people; they were to be shoved aside, stuffed in a corner, while the great work of fattening one’s wallet went on. The forest, the lifeblood of the people — it was an un-liquidized asset, waiting to be liquidized. An asset to be sold, expended without thought for those who’d come later. This was no vision for a greater Cambodia; for a return from the years of ignominy. Each person’s grand plan was to look out for himself, fill his own belly, enlarge his own purse.

As I wandered back into the open, the dark blue sky began erupting into stars. This calmed me. I returned to Kroh’s hut as the waning moon began to rise, blood-red, over the pitch-black treetops.

Somehow, I slept. I lay down on a mat on the floor of Kroh’s hut and was soon dead to the world. I dreamed, that night, of whispers. Powerful whispers. Whispers like the Envoy’s, telling me secrets of wealth, power, satisfaction. Grand, wonderful secrets they seemed, but were they true? For in wakefulness I could never remember what they were.

As I slept, the powerful whispers morphed into flat, weak ones. These whispers told no wonderful secrets. They sounded anxious, fearful, overwhelmed. It took some time to realise I was awake. People were hurrying to and fro across the hut and the thatched bamboo floor bounced gently beneath me. I saw Kroh standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the stars.

I half sat up, but then lay down again. Whatever the problem, I would be unable to help. I closed my eyes. The whispering of the household and of the chill breeze rising through the floor merged gradually back into the whispers of my dreams.

When I woke the next morning, the family, plus some extra children, were seated around the fire where Kroh’s wife was cooking rice-porridge. They all looked bleary-eyed and weary. I asked what had happened during the night.

“It’s the chief,” Kroh responded. “He was sick. Mad. We brought some of his children and grandchildren here.” He nodded at the extras. “It was disturbing.”

Kroh’s mother-in-law said something darkly in Jarai, looking at me angrily as though she thought me responsible.

“He’s still very bad,” Kroh said, ignoring her. “We will sacrifice a buffalo and ask the spirits to relent.”

I’ve never identified with animal-rights activists — I love meat of all kinds — but that sacrifice was sickening. The buffalo whimpered, it grunted and finally it screamed out in animal agony as they jabbed it again and again with their instruments of torture. It was as though the more pain they inflicted on the beast, the more the spirits would take notice and relent. I wondered why they did this, rather than use their forest medicines. Surely that would have been more effective, and substantially cheaper? But a deep-seated fear will breach all reason.

I saw many emotions in the villagers that day. In the eyes of the Chief’s family: fear and pain. Across the faces of the slaughterers: determination and even fury. But when the beast finally died, its great carcass stretched out on the blood-soaked dust, and when they began to carve it up and light fires to cook the meat — then I saw something else: hunger.

How often did these people eat meat? Undoubtedly they were better fed than my parents during the Pol Pot years. These people weren’t subsisting on milky water, eaten before and after a gruelling day in the fields. But they were thin, they were short, they were clearly undernourished. And my company would send them from their lands, from the source of their food supply. I didn’t feel I could eat. Until now I had eaten their food, slept in their beds, drunk their water. And in return, I was driving them out. Now that misfortune had befallen them, I couldn’t feast on their meat.

Then they brought out the wine. Rice wine in tall, narrow gourds with bamboo straws sticking out the top. The orgy of eating became an orgy of drinking. Villagers congregated in two or three huts where they sucked at the straws with gusto.

“Dara,” called Kroh, spying me from a hut. “Come and drink with us.”

The wine was strong. I gasped for breath after my first sip, and the liquid remaining in the straw slid back down with a plop. I sucked again, this time prepared. It still burned my gullet as it went down, but in a pleasant, distracting way. I could forget myself, drinking this. I could forget the misfortune I was bringing to these people. No doubt they could forget themselves, too; forget that within days they would leave their home, their forest, their livelihood.

Some of the men began to sing. One brought out a strange stringed instrument, fashioned, seemingly, from a gourd. I listened for a while, sucking on the bamboo straw, the music flowing over me like warm sunlight. Then I sat up and began to sing too. I didn’t know the words, but that was immaterial. I hardly knew the tune, but that didn’t matter either. What mattered was that we were together, unified, fighting misfortune.

Kroh’s wife appeared in the hut. I thought she had never looked so beautiful. But when she glanced at me her face showed disgust. She marched over to her husband and grabbed his collar. He rose to his feet and struck her across the face. The wine turned to acid in my stomach and I burped into my straw, feeling sick. Was I dividing even families? Everything I touched was falling apart.

I rose. It was time to go. I wouldn’t help the company any longer, but neither would I stay and fight it. These people would do better without me. I would go away, instead, and tell the world what the company was doing. And if that didn’t work… well, maybe I could try something else; unleash the mother’s milk. The forest was good for more than just rubber…

On the homeward journey, the tree branches encasing the road melded into a woven blur above my head. The constant thumping of the car over the bumps became a sort of static, the humming of a radio. I opened the window a crack and the wind whispered, enticingly, into the car.

A shadow appeared on the road, coming the other way. What was the shadow? Perhaps a motorbike, perhaps a dog. But no, I thought, it simply was a shadow, nothing more.

Suddenly I felt drawn to the shadow; I twisted the steering wheel toward it. As I passed it by, I heard a thump. A loud thump. I felt it, too. It couldn’t have been the shadow, I thought — shadows don’t make thumps. I looked in the rearview mirror. There was a motorbike overturned on the road, its rider stretched out in the dust. That was strange: I didn’t remember seeing him as I drove past. I didn’t stop, though — the shadow wasn’t there. I kept driving, jolting under the woven blur of the treetops.

I woke slowly the next morning. I was sprawled across my bed at the Company Headquarters. I remembered: the shadow. I rose to my feet. What should I do? If I confessed to my crime, I could never say a word against the Company. They would have it in for me. Better to leave quietly, pretend nothing had happened. Hopefully the motorcyclist would be okay — and later I could go back, make it up to him.

But just then there was a knock at the door and I opened it to find the Manager. One look in his face told me he knew everything.

“He’s been paid off,” he told me, and left.

My heart sank. I was in their debt. One word against the company and it would all come out. What was the point of trying to do good? It always got twisted. I’d do evil without meaning to, hurt the people I was trying to help. I’d do better not to try, to keep myself to myself, mind my own business.

 

 

He fell silent. Cars flashed by, some like black wraiths, with no headlights, others blinding us with full beam. The glow of the city rose before us; soon we crossed the Japanese bridge, passed over the murky waters of the Tonle Sap River.

“Dara,” I said at length, “don’t give up now.”

“There’s no point. I tried to build up Cambodia, I joined hands with those pulling her down.”

I was silent. Outside the window, neon lights flashed. Towering billboards displayed girls talking on mobile phones and men drinking beer. Shop windows gleamed.

“Think of the forest,” I said. “Think of the people of the forest.”

The bus pulled up in the station. We stumbled down the aisle, tripping over cargo and suitcases. A crowd of motorbike-taxi and tuk-tuk drivers gathered round the door of the bus, but we pushed past them and stood together on the dim side-street. Deep shadows lay across the road.

“I’m calling a friend to pick me up,” I said. “Want a lift?”

Dara didn’t answer. He was gazing into the shadows, lost in thought.

“Ancient forests,” he murmured. “Been there since the beginning. Millennia ago there were people, wading through the grass, pushing aside the vines. They caught fish in the  bubbling streams; used their crossbows to shoot sugar gliders and their traps to catch tigers. The trees, the behemoths, towered over them, dark, ominous — and yet kindly and wise.… And medicines,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “Medicines. Europeans were bleeding themselves to death trying to get better, and all the time these people had medicines.”

He looked up at me. “Before … the accident, I was beginning to think a lot about the medicines.” He paused. “Why is everyone going after rubber, or just logging for wood — why don’t they go for the medicines?”

“You could go for the medicines.”

We stood together in silence. Dark buildings loomed around us, a concrete jungle. Ugly brick walls surrounded every dwelling, their tops lined with jagged glass. In the gutter, bulging plastic bags shone dully; further along an old man in tattered rags lay curled up asleep.

“Wait here,” said Dara at length. “I need to buy a bus-ticket.”

Is this what dying feels like?

On Wednesday, I wrote a short story for a past exam paper question, in preparation for my end-of-school exams in October. The goal was to practice quickly writing a good story, as well as to produce something I might be able to adapt for my actual exam. The story I wrote, however — together with a Quora answer I read yesterday — did more than that. They taught me something very important about changing between points of view in a story, and about story-telling in general.

The question I attacked on Wednesday was this:

“Romanticism — a revolutionary search for feeling.” Using two imaginary voices, illustrate this concept.

Can you imagine opening your exam paper and finding yourself with just one hour to come up with a story for that question? Fortunately, for this practice, I was able to spend a good deal of time thinking about my story before I actually sat down to write. Nevertheless, I ran across a difficulty I had not anticipated. I found that changes in viewpoint character are really, really hard.

Before I tell you how I found it hard, let me tell you about the story I wrote. My story was set in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars (at which time the country was just a collection of un-unified states). A father and his son are passionately nationalistic and want to fight, not only to expel Napoleon, but eventually to unify all German-speaking peoples. However, a problem arises. Just as they are about to leave, the son falls very ill. The father leaves without him, and the son is left ailing at home. The story switches back and forth between the two characters (who take turns narrating in the first person) as they struggle to come to terms with the fact that the son won’t be able to fight.

So: how were the POV changes hard? Well, they were hard in that I found it very difficult to keep the story flowing through the changes. With each change, the story seemed to grind to a halt. There didn’t seem to be much reason for the narrative to keep moving.

Let me show you how I ended the son’s first turn of narration, and see if you agree:

“For now [for the time-being], I would observe the subtle beauties of the German country, and feel the pain, as great as the pain in my chest, that I could not fight for its unity.”

Now, leaving aside the fact that it’s a terrible sentence — really sappy, and clichéd, and boring, and all the rest of it — what’s wrong with that? Well, to me it sounds like the end of a story. It smacks of resignation. Everything has happened that will happen, the character has made all the actions he can make, and now he’s just resigned. Nothing is happening. There is closure.

That, I think, is exactly the problem — there is closure. The fact is, there shouldn’t be closure at this stage in the story.

There should always be unanswered questions, or problems that require not resignation but an active response. Resignation might be an alright emotion to finish up with (depending on the story), but it’s not an alright emotion to leave a character with if you ever mean to come back to him. If you want to come back, there has to be something happening for you to come back to.

So: right before you change POV, make sure something happens to your viewpoint character — something that demands a response. Don’t leave him sitting quietly in a garden.

Now, that would have been the extent of this post, if not for a brilliant answer I read on Quora yesterday which suggests that this applies much more broadly than just to POV changes. The question (which can be found here if you have a Quora account) was “How does one become a better story-teller?” and the brilliant answer I read was given by one Marcus Geduld. He gave many different tips in his answer, but two sections in particular related quite specifically to what I’d been thinking about. The first section was entitled “What happens next?” and the second was “Keep the mystery ball in the air”.

In “What happens next” Geduld points out a critical ingredient in story-telling — an ingredient that novice story-tellers (including me) often leave out. That ingredient is the creation of questions, and the delayed revelation of answers. To illustrate this concept, let me quote a section of his answer:

The number-one ingredient for a story is the tension of an unsolved mystery. Stories set up questions and delay answering them. The simplest example is a question in the first sentence with the answer delayed until the second sentence:

“You know who Bob’s favorite singer is? Meatloaf!”

That’s not a very interesting story, I know, but compare it to this:

“Bob’s favorite singer is Meatloaf.”

The first version evokes (just a little) tension. The second doesn’t.

Just a short snippet there, but the implications for story-telling are profound. It causes me to think, really, that the word “story-telling” is one big misnomer. You are not, in fact, telling the story — at least, not in the plainest, most straightforward manner. You giving the reader teases, little bites — inviting them to question what happens next. You are making them interested by not telling the story, and thus arousing their curiosity.

In his next section “Keep the mystery ball in the air”, Geduld expands on what he has said. This questioning, this evasion of directly telling the story, should continue throughout. From beginning to end, the story-“teller” has to engage the readers’ curiosity. So with every question that is answered, a new question must be asked. With every POV change, a mystery must be created surrounding the character we just left. With every moral dilemma solved, the character must be presented with a new moral difficulty. When there are no longer any questions, the story is over.

Going back to my practice short story — I was so disgusted with my first attempt that I went back two days later and tried again. This time, I mostly remembered to invoke questions at the POV changes. It’s still not a great story (and I was yet to read that Quora answer at this stage), but it’s an improvement. And I think the biggest improvement is the POV change I showed you before. The second time round, rather than having the son sit resignedly thinking about nature, I had him set off to join his father — despite his sickness. This is how I ended the segment the second time round:

“My breath comes sharp and painful. The ground swings crazily up to meet me with each step. My vision blackens. What is this? I wonder. Is this a weakness that can be overcome? My vision blacks out totally. Is this what dying feels like?”

Obviously, this still isn’t perfect. You can still tell that I’m writing at top speed, and that the story really lacks polish. But don’t you think it’s a much better way to leave my character than sitting resignedly in a garden? Which segment-ending would you rather come back to?

So story-telling, I think, is largely getting your reader to ask one long series of questions. Engage their curiosity. Ask: “You know who Bob’s favourite singer is?” “Is this what dying feels like?” Don’t give them closure until you’re done.

Talkies, Part 1

In the late 1920s, the talkie films were born. This was the new age. Suddenly, many of the old great silent actors couldn’t compete — all that miming and slapstick wasn’t much use any more. Others, who may not have had Charlie Chaplin’s propensity for silly faces, could now charm the audience with the power of their voice.

Dialogue is a tricky thing. Some people get it, others don’t. And it’s not just a challenge in talkie films, it’s a challenge in fiction writing.

Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about dialogue. What role should it play in my writing? How can I get it to play that role? If I want to write good talkie novels (which I do) it’s essential that I get the hang of this. Today I’ll focus on that first question: “What role should it play in my writing”. Here are some of my thoughts.

To start with, I’ve realised that dialogue needs to serve a purpose. Well, duh, you say: everything should serve a purpose. And yet, too often, my dialogue serves no story purpose at all.

So what’s the goal of dialogue? I don’t want to box us in and create imaginary rules, but it seems to me that most of the time, dialogue serves one (or more) of three main objectives: to portray character, to advance the plot or to create a certain effect.

  1. The importance of dialogue to portrayal of character is difficult to overstate. In a well-written story, a character’s speech tells us so much about them. For one thing, their accent and grammatical choices can tell us about where they are from and about their socioeconomic background. We’ve got characters like Hagrid in Harry Potter whose accent tells us that he is rustic, outdoorsy and perhaps hasn’t had a high level of education, which seems to fit perfectly with his role as Hogwarts gamekeeper. (And I’m sure someone with a greater knowledge of Britain’s accents would be able to more accurately place his geographical heritage). But dialogue can be used to show so many other aspects of a character. Are they outgoing or shy? Are they smart or foolish — or smart in some areas and foolish in others? Are they friendly and caring for others or are they selfish? Are they “talkers” who say things they don’t really mean (think Isabella Thorpe, in Northanger Abbey)? Do their actions contradict their words (think Brutus, in Julius Caesar)? Do they have superstitions (think Basta, in Inkheart)? All of these aspects of character, and more, can be shown effectively through dialogue. So when you write dialogue, don’t let it just be random words that could have been said by anybody — use it to create a powerful image of a particular character.
  2. Dialogue can also be handy in advancing the plot. This is usually because it allows the characters to discover new information — information that radically alters the course of the story. Think of Radagast arriving in An Unexpected Journey and telling the company about the evils in Mirkwood. Or Gale’s words to Katniss at the climactic close to Catching Fire, providing the plot-twist that catapults us into the final book. If you can advance the plot through dialogue, do so. (Nevertheless, not all plot advancement needs to — or indeed, should — be precipitated by dialogue).
  3. A final purpose of dialogue is to create or perpetuate a particular effect that the author wants their story to possess. In some stories, this is a sober, chilling effect — think of the The Dark Knight Rises: “it will be very painful… for you”. In other stories, the author wants to go for a humorous effect, and dialogue is an important means of creating that humour — think of Harry Potter, where jokes told by the likes of Fred and George go a long way to providing welcome laughs in a pretty dark story.

These three objectives are each, on their own, very important in a story, but dialogue can be used most effectively if it helps us meet multiple objectives simultaneously. Sometimes, the sole purpose of piece of dialogue is to develop character, or advance the plot, or create humour. Most great dialogue, however, will do two of those, or even all three. If you’ve read Catching Fire, think again to the ending: that last piece of dialogue doesn’t just catapult us into the final book, it also shows something about Gale’s character — and it perpetuates the grim, suspenseful tone of the series.

Now — and this, I’ve realised, is important — though dialogue should always serve a purpose, the fact that it does serve a purpose doesn’t meet it belongs. Sometimes, all of the things accomplished by dialogue can be accomplished even better without it. I learned this lesson in the short story / novella I wrote this year. At one stage, I tried to introduce a new character, together with an associated plot-point, through dialogue. The dialogue served the purpose of character development and plot advancement to an extent, but after a while I realised it still wasn’t the best thing to do. In the end, I decided to use narrative exposition to introduce the character and the situation, both because it would make things clearer for the audience and because it would contribute to the darkly reflective tone of the story.

In the end, then, for dialogue to be successful, it needs to serve a purpose and it needs to serve that purpose better than straight-out exposition, or any other means. This seems like a no-brainer, but I think too often I rush into writing dialogue without considering whether it’s necessary. My goal is to be more discriminatory in my use of dialogue, and while this won’t happen overnight (certainly not in my first drafts — and I’m okay with that), hopefully in time I’ll perform this discrimination subconsciously. Talkies are tough, but I don’t want to be a silent actor.

This has been Talkies, Part 1. Come back in a week or two for Talkies, Part 2.

 

Time-saving Tips, Post #1: Outlining (and Black Riders)

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of posts aimed at helping me (and you) to save time. I fully realise the irony of world-class time-waster Leinad writing this series, but really what I am doing is trying to identify my own bad habits so that I can correct them. If someone else can benefit too, that’s a plus.

Today I want to talk about the dangers of writing overly thorough outlines. I am not talking primarily about writing outlines for works of fiction (I suspect, with fiction, the “correct” amount of outlining varies incredibly from person to person and from story to story). Instead, I am talking about writing outlines for school essays, blog-posts or whatever else you may be writing that requires a structured and logical approach. The common advice we hear is that we should outline so that our writing is structured and logical. But like so much good advice, taken too far to the extreme, this is bad advice. I have a tendency to take it to that extreme.

A typical two page English essay, for me, might take somewhere around 4 hours. This would be taken up by:

  1. thinking about the question
  2. jotting down points that could be used to answer the question
  3. trying to think how best to organise these points
  4. writing a brief chronology (one point per paragraph)
  5. writing a very detailed outline
  6. following the outline to write the essay
  7. giving the essay a quick edit (but only a quick edit because by this stage I’m running behind on my schedule)

In the end, my four hours gets me a pretty average essay. Not only does everything move slowly but, because everything moves so slowly (ostensibly for the sake of increasing quality), my mind has time to wonder to other matters, not related to the essay, slowing things down further. Two important things have to change.

The first thing that has to change (this is before I even begin) is that I have to move more quickly with my thoughts. Go into brainstorm mode. Don’t sit placidly waiting for the profound thought to come to you, chase the profound thought over hedges, through weeds and into ditches and don’t stop till you catch it. If you wait for profundity to come to you, you’ll be swamped by irrelevant and dangerously unproductive thoughts. (Think of Frodo: if he goes on to Rivendell by himself, he’ll find Gandalf — if he waits for Gandalf, all he will get is Black Riders)

The second important thing is not to write an outline which is a “For Dummies” book about my essay. After all, am I such a bad writer that I cannot write a good essay unless I’ve already half-written it in the form of the outline next to me? In practice, what this means is that I should vastly truncate step 5.

In September, for pretty much the first time, I had to write several essays in exams. In each of these essays, I wrote only an extremely brief outline (basically the brief chronology mentioned in step 4). Did this cost me dear in the quality of my essays? Not at all. I received full marks on the essay in my History exam, for which I had 60 minutes to handwrite probably 1200 – 1300 words. This was significantly better than I had scored on other history essays during the year where I had spent many, many hours planning, researching, outlining, writing and editing. Thus, while some kind of an outline is important (depending somewhat, even in non-fiction, upon your personal style), the actual writing is of far more consequence. We know how to write, so all we need is a brief reminder of our topic and of the main points we will use to support our viewpoint on that topic.

This is probably all complete common sense, but believe it or not I have got it wrong again and again. Maybe you don’t have the same problem as me. If so, don’t take this post as a warrant for stripping back the time you spend outlining if you don’t need that. Too much planning and you waste time, but no planning and your essay could turn out as long-winded and unfocussed as this post. The moral of the story is not “plan less” but “plan the right amount”. Usually I plan too much; for this post, in an attempt to shrug off all hypocrisy, I didn’t plan enough.

Also, beware of the Black Riders.

Unrealistically boring characters

I think sometimes we over-fictionalise fiction.

I am not talking about our tendency to write wholly outlandish or unrealistic stories. I am not bashing high fantasy, or science-fiction, or Roald Dahl. In fact, I am not talking about ways in which we try to make our stories too interesting by forsaking reality, rather I’m talking about the ways in which we let our stories become boring by failing to capitalise on the amazing things that happen in real life.

Specifically, today I want to talk about this in relation to characters. I’ll tell you straight up: I write terrible characters. Nearly all of my characters seem, to me, to be flat, boring personas who walk around saying obvious or irrelevant things and who can’t so much as crack a joke. I have never succeeded in writing a Dustfinger or a Boromir or a Neville Longbottom — not even a Fred or George Weasley.

Why is this? I expect there are many reasons, but I think a major reason is that I have failed to appreciate and to capture the wonderfully wide variety of characters I have encountered in real life.

You may feel like you have had a relatively dull, uninteresting life. But when you think about it, you will probably find that you can tell far more interesting stories, far more fascinating pieces of information about your life, than you thought you could. They may not be stories which will change your listener’s life, but if you tell them right, they will certainly keep people interested. What about the fascinating people you have met? How many interesting people are there in your life?

What about the man you’ve met who knows at least thirty languages, possibly closer to fifty? What about your friend who was deposited out of the window of his car when it flipped over several times, but was unhurt? What about the pastor of your church who came third in a beer brewing competition?

You could get even more basic — rather than thinking of the fantastic accomplishments or fascinating stories, think of personalities.

What about the lady who always seems to be talking? If you tell her a story, she’ll always have a similar story or experience to tell straight back to you. Or what about your grandmother who feeds you nonstop every time you go to visit her? Every time she sees something she thinks you’ll like “on special”, she’ll buy it and send it to you — though you live thousands of kilometres a way. Or what about your grandmother’s friend who is equally generous? She is very old and overweight, has multiple joint issues, a weak heart, and yet continues to cook “Meals-on-Wheels” for people frequently. And, interestingly, she drives pretty fast. (contradictions are key to interesting characters)

All of these are people that I know, despite the fact that I used the second person, but I’m sure you can think of just as many fascinating people with fascinating stories that you know. Now that I’ve got started I can think of so many more.

Once you realise the rich reality that you are faced with, you may be able to better incorporate that into your fiction. As David Corbett says in his article “How to craft compelling characters”, “the best inspiration often comes from within us—and from our experiences with people in our lives”. In other words, take all those fascinating people, those wonderful idiosyncrasies, those fantastic stories, and use them to inspire your fiction. Give your imagination some material to work with — use your imagination to aid and abet and transform the rich experiences of real life into something new, but something just as authentic and exciting.

Just as we should take advantage of those wonderful real-life characters in order to inspire our fictional ones, so should we take advantage of our own real-life thought-processes and emotions in order to write realistic and powerful thought-processes and emotions for our characters. In the same article, David Corbett says “It often surprises me how frequently writers, especially young writers, fail to explore the rich veins of emotion they possess in their own lives, so they can translate that to their characterisations”. He recommends thinking about important emotional experiences we have had so that we can create them more effectively in our characters. For example, think about your “moment of greatest fear”, your “moment of deepest shame” and your “worst failure” — and think about more positive emotional experiences too (if you plan to give your character any). It seems to me that even if the low-point that the character in your novel experiences is wholly fictional, you can make it far more powerful by thinking of your own feelings during similar (if much less severe) situations.

So I think there are two applications of this post for me. Firstly, I want to take greater note of the personalities, the idiosyncrasies, and also the stories of people I know. Possibly I’ll write portraits describing them or even short stories involving them. In this way I will become keenly aware of how fascinating real-life people are, and I can build on that to make far more interesting and realistic fictional characters. Secondly, I need to think more about how I would feel in my characters’ shoes. More specifically, it would be good to think of situations that I would find very difficult — very shameful, very fear-inspiring, or whatever — and try to put my characters in those situations. Show no mercy to your characters. The day when my reader’s gut is wrenched because they actually care about my character, and the things my character suffers actually means something to them — that day I will consider myself to be a half-decent writer.

I hope that this post is as useful for you as it has been for me. For some reason I have written it predominantly in the second person, even though these are ideas for myself more than for anyone else. If you have any thoughts on this, please do comment. You may also like to read the David Corbett article, linked to both here and above, which I found quite useful even though his commonly used Blanche Dubois illustration fell flat, me never having read the book.

Disaster and Dilemma

The other day I received a piece of advice which has made the world so much simpler: all novel-scenes should be either a disaster or a dilemma.

A disaster-scene is one where something goes horribly wrong for the hero: for example Mrs Baker the nefarious teacher who hates our hero’s guts, condemns him to spend wednesday afternoons with her while the rest of the class goes to Catechism or Hebrew class.

A dilemma-scene is where the hero must choose between two terrible alternatives: does she apologise to Mrs. Lynde, or does she spend the rest of her life in her bedroom?

This simplifies things marvellously: all we need to do is pick a disaster or a dilemma and build a scene around it. If there is no disaster or dilemma to base our scene off, then that scene probably doesn’t belong in the novel at all — or maybe it should be merged with another scene. The obvious exception is the falling action and denouement at the end of the novel where there is little conflict.

Dilemma scenes are always followed by disaster scenes, because dilemmas force the hero to make a bad choice — a choice that ends in disaster. If John’s dilemma is whether to care for his sick wife, or to go to work to earn money to buy medicine for her, then whatever choice he makes, the result is her death. If his dilemma is whether to eat a durian given to him by a potential sponsor — just before his fund-raising speech — then he either offends the potential sponsor by not eating the durian, or he eats it and as a result wretches so badly all through the speech that nobody sponsors him.

Scenes can have history, or humour, or other non-conflictuous elements, but the centrality should be the disaster or the dilemma. If this is not the case, I believe the scene is more of an intermission — and gripping novels don’t have intermissions.

Who takes one year to write a novel?

One day, when I was nine, I felt inspired. I decided that it was time I wrote a novel, so in a short space of time I thought up a world, developed a very general storyline, and got going. Eight months later: ta-da! I had my very first completed novel. Since then, I’ve done it about four more times. Each time, I’ve been relatively spontaneous: I may have picked a general setting and story-line up to a few weeks beforehand, but I didn’t do much pre-planning. And other than NaNo WriMo pep-talks, I certainly had no novel-writing instruction. But now for the first time, six years on from that first attempt at glory, I’m going to do it differently: I will take lessons on how to do it. I’m going to do the One Year Adventure Novel.

Compared to the NaNo WriMo, this thing is so different. The NaNo WriMo is to get people to sit down and write: you “win” if you achieve your word-count goal; quality doesn’t matter. So you churn it out. When I did the NaNo WriMo last year, I wrote 32 k and I’m sure I didn’t spend more than 30 hours on it in total. For the One Year Adventure Novel I’ll probably have a similar word-count, but there are 3 lessons of about an hour each (a bit more for us, because my sister and I tend to chit-chat…) for about 30 weeks. That makes for nearly 100 hours. Where do the extra 70 hours go? Into planning, planning, and more planning.

Another way in which this differs greatly from the NaNoWriMo, is that the story options are limited. Rather than being allowed to write anything we want, Daniel Schwabauer, the video-teacher, tells us things that we can and can’t do with our novel. This is supposed to make things easier, based on the quote “boundaries inspire creativity”. The three major restrictions that we have so far are (1) the story must be of the “Heroic Quest” genre:  such as, for instance, The Lord of the Rings – rather than “the Man who Learned Better” genre, like A Christmas Carol, or “Boy gets Girl”, like Pride and Prejudice. (2) The hero must be roughly my age. (3) It has to be in the first person.

These restrictions are in place mainly to make it easier for beginning authors to write – and to write something good. I had no problems with doing a Heroic Quest novel, and the protagonist probably would have been close to my age anyway, but having to write in the first person seemed at first to be a stringent limitation. But I am trying to reconcile myself to the idea: having written five novels in the third person, surely it is time to try something different. Thus so far, none of the restrictions have been strict enough that they seem like a real drawback to the program. And you learn so many awesomely helpful things!

Yesterday’s lesson was on five elements that I should have in my novel(s):

(1) Someone to Care About.

(2) Something to Want.

(3) Something to Dread.

(4) Something to Suffer.

(5) Something to Learn.

I won’t go into them in detail, at least not today, but it is very useful to have all these things in mind while you are crafting the story. In the past I haven’t thought about these things as I wrote; so some stories didn’t have all thee elements. Probably the element I struggle with most is “Someone to Care About”. Most of my protagonists are to be fairly average Joes, but adventures just happen to them. This time I want to make my story more character driven: I want Joe (actually his name’s Alan but anyway…) to make a conscious decision to face danger — otherwise we won’t be that likeable. He doesn’t even need a stereotype brave guy — he could be like Rowan of Rin — he just needs to face his fears. On the other hand, I don’t want to make Joe  too perfect, because then I’m afraid he won’t learn anything. At the moment I’m trying to think of a good flaw to give him so that he can overcome it…

Indeed, today is when I will get the chance to sort these things out — because today’s lesson is “Someone to Care About”. So I’ll think of these things while I do science. I don’t know how writing in first person will affect this though — it might make it harder. One would think it would be easy to be intimate with the protagonist in the first person, but paradoxically, the opposite sometimes seems to be the case. The main character often becomes more of a lens through which you see the rest of the story: and you don’t focus on the lens, the lens helps you to focus on everything else.

Anyway, hopefully this newfound knowledge will translate into a good novel; but it’s entirely possible that I’ll drown in it all and write a shocker. I think what is most likely to bring me down, however, is the fact that I don’t know what I’ll learn, or what I’ll be told to do or not to do. Because of this, I’m more detached from my novel than usual, mainly thinking about it during lesson time — rather than when I’m having a shower or washing up. On the whole though, I’m pretty optimistic about this — and after all, I’ve got a whole year to do it. That should help shouldn’t it?

A Prize for Nothing!

And now, thanks to Liam, Head Phil, I have my very first blog award. The Fantastic Blog Award. I hardly feel that I deserve it, as all I have done is post sporadically on generally dull topics over a period of just a few months. But I have been a half-regular commenter on Liam’s blog over the same time-period, and Liam’s blog is over-flowing with awards: so I guess he has to siphon them off somewhere!

I probably should have written a couple of educated-sounding (and funny) posts immediately after Liam nominated me, but I have done nothing – not even accepted his award – until now. So all the extra followers that I might have hooked will have visited, seen that my blog was profoundly boring, and moved on. Never mind.

Now it is time to answer five questions that Liam has asked of his nominees:

1. Say a letter was mailed to you one day– what would you wish to be in it?

Most of the exceedingly few letters I get these days are from the library, telling me that a book that I’ve requested is ready to be picked up (and that’s only when I’m in Australia). So perhaps a long and interesting letter from a friend (preferably with hand-writing that I can somewhat decipher). Or… let’s be fantastical. Perhaps a letter saying that I’ve been picked to compete in some athletics meet!

2. Say that same letter was incinerated before you read it– what would be your reaction?

If I knew that it was a letter I was dearly hoping for, I’d be pretty mad. If it was from the athletics meet people, I’d probably ask them to send it again. If it was from a friend… I don’t know. You can hardly just re-write a personal letter.

3. If you could abolish one day of the week and everything that happens on it, which would you choose?

Probably Monday. Monday is tough, because after having a ball on the weekend you plunge back into reality: for me, study, and when I get older, work. Not that I would wish not to have an education – or not to work – but plunging into it on Monday isn’t that fun for some reason. But then again, if I abolished Monday would Tuesday become the new Monday? I don’t see that being any better.

4.What was the last piece of music you listened to?

That makes me think…. I had my Shuffle in my pocket all the way from Sydney Airport to Kualar Lumpur Airport to Phnom Penh Airport, but I don’t think I listened to it once. My Kindle – in the other pocket – was the more privileged entertainer. Turning on my iPod and triple clicking – to find the last song played – I got Rotting on Remand, by Billy Bragg. So that’s probably the last thing I listened to – except for the sound-track of Brave, which I watched on the plane.

5. What is your favo[u]rite regional accent?

As I just said, I watched Brave the other night, and I love the Scottish accents in that movie. So Scottish may well be my favourite accent. Kiwi is not bad either.

Now I get to ask question of you! And here they are:

  1. What is your favourite board game?
  2. What, in your opinion, is the best blog-post you have written?
  3. What is your favourite sport (either to play or to watch, or both)?
  4. How do you like to get around: by car, bicycle, bus, legs, motorbike, oxcart…?
  5. Do you prefer to live in the mountains or on the flats – and why?

And now I am meant to give this award to five lucky people! I only really comment on two blogs, though, and one of them is Liam’s. I would feel a bit silly giving it to somebody whose blog I never comment on. So I will give it to the one other blog I sometimes comment on:

The Zebra Clan, by Hithere298.

And now for the rules:

  1. Thank the person who gave you the award.
  2. Answer the five questions given to you, and ask the next person five new questions.
  3. Award five people.
  4. Post the rules.

And that’s that!

Inflation

Prices are eternally on the rise. Ten years ago, a loaf of bread may have cost $1.50; Today it costs $2.20; in ten years time it will probably cost $3.00. House prices are rising too — probably faster than bread. And don’t even mention oil.… But things aren’t too bad, really, because while I might not be able to get a carton of eggs for a shilling any more, at least I am paid more than £94 a year. I don’t know exactly why prices (and wages) are inexorably on the rise, because I don’t start studying economics until next year; but one thing that (I think) I realise is that inflation is not necessarily the value of goods increasing, it’s more often the value of money decreasing.

Today, though, I don’t want to talk about monetary inflation (any more than I already have), I want to talk about the increased use of exclamatory punctuation in writing. In the past, when you wanted to express that something was exciting, amazing, or simply very joyful, you put an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence: “I must tell thee, that today my dear sister Elizabeth arrived!”. (at least that’s how I imagine people used them, although since I am what hithere298 calls a “00’s kid”, my memory doesn’t go that far back). Today though, you very often see at least two exclamation marks: “liz flew in today!!”. Some people might even capitalise it: “LIZ JUST GOT HERE!!”.

Indeed, if you want to see a lot of exclamation marks (or a lot of Capital Letters), take look at the live comments on any AFL match. I sometimes wonder whether “GOOOOO BULLDOGS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” is more merit-worthy than a more humble, “Go Bulldogs!” — because you see both. Neither seems to me very profound: I mean it is rather obvious that there are going to be a lot of Bulldogs fans out there, so why do people have to clog up the chat thing with generic comments? Surely they could think of something more educated to say? But at any rate, even if it doesn’t have any other virtues, surely this growth in the use of exclamation marks means that the world has become a more exciting place?

Actually… I don’t think so. I mean, it is possible that the world has become a more exciting place: more bestselling books are coming out each year, each Olympics is bigger and better than the one before, roller-coasters have been invented…. But I don’t think the increase in exclamation marks is because there is more excitement: I think it’s because exclamation marks are losing value. Just like when, in Zimbabwe, they started printing far too many bank-notes and a hyper-inflation started, people have now started using multiple punctuation marks for emphasis, and now we’re are going into an exclamatory hyper-inflation.

Today, most people writing short pieces, such as comments, online, end about three quarters of their sentences in an exclamation mark. Most of the other quarter end in ellipses or question marks. They do this to makes sure that they don’t sound disinterested or half-hearted; with punctuation cheap, they don’t need to worry about sounding overly zealous. And when I say “people” and “they”, I am probably one of these people.

There are occasional people who don’t end 75% of their sentences in exclamation marks, however. Liam, Head Phil, is an example of a person, I’ve noticed, who goes rather under-par. But he gets away with this without appearing disinterested or half-hearted. So perhaps it doesn’t matter whether you put an exclamation mark at the end of all your sentences, or only the ones you feel strongly about. Maybe you just need to be consistent, and then your readers will adjust to your stronger currency.

In which case, why bother using a lot of exclamation marks? You can’t control how exciting a fact is by how well you sign-post it. If you try to do that too much, your punctuational currency will simply lose value. So basically you can do what you like, you just need to be consistent. But personally I think I will try for a stronger currency: it is tiring to be eternally excited about nothing.

If what I’ve just written sounds like a load of rubbish, it probably is.

Spoilers

We all hate spoilers. They are my pet peeve. Once I was at a dinner and an eight year old kid was trying to tell me about major events in Harry Potters 6 and 7 (I was reading 6 at the time). I try not to be rude, but I ended up muttering songs with my fingers in my ears until my sister could get him to be quiet (I feel sorry for her though — she’s only read the first 3, and now she probably knows the whole series).

Well the point is, I will be writing reviews on this blog, and reviews often contain minor spoilers. If you’re not sure if you want to read a post for fear of spoilers — don’t. Or you could comment on the post without actually reading it, to ask whether or not you should. Generally I will keep major spoilers out, but my reviews contain more spoilers than I would want to read myself. I’m the kind of guy who often doesn’t read the back of a book in case it gives away something (I know, it’s a bad habit… and I’m slowly changing), but I don’t expect that everyone else is like this. (otherwise why would they have stuff on the back of the book?) Which is why I write reviews.

And I realise I have been a bit quiet for the past week or so. I’ve been busy. A review should appear tomorrow.