Friday, October 31, 2008

"The Watcher": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

After my first Chinese New Year in Malaysia, unable to sleep that night because of all of the fireworks, I went jogging the next morning and the stench of charred gunpowder was everywhere, as were the red remnants of the fire crackers, some strung from the roofs of many of the terrace houses the previous evening. Discarded red ang pow envelopes were being pushed across the road by a breeze. I wrote these details into my journal, knowing that they would eventually end up in a short story --the third in this collection that began that way, a bunch of jumbled ideas. Later, when I began to write about it, after reading some firsthand accounts of the Japanese Occupation, I thought I could combine the two.

Having no one person to base my character on, as a model, which I sometimes do, I had to come up with my own unique characters (though based loosely on a composite of several people I've met over the years), an elderly Chinese man, still embittered about the war, and his two granddaughters and their respective husbands. For their children, I used my observations of my neighbor’s children, who every Chinese New Year, would huddle around their respective gates and launch fire crackers. I tried to mimic their actions, including the non-Chinese neighbors who would watch and react vicariously.

I also imagined I was Yeoh, who was watching them and wondered what they would think of me, someone so old that they could no longer relate to. I’m sure they would have a nickname for him and eventually I came up with “the one who watches”, or “the watcher” which then became the title of the story.

As with many stories that I begin to write, I’m not all too sure about the ending. I knew it would involve sparklers, which I had recently played with during Hari Raya at my ex-wife’s kampong. I tried to capture that sense of rediscovery, that child-like feeling of pleasure, of wild-eyed wonder and passed it on to my Chinese characters, both the elderly man and his great grandchild.

In Lovers and Strangers, I originally named the main character Yeo, but later I discovered that the spelling of the name, without the ‘h’, lives in Singapore. So I added the ‘h’ and he became a Penang Yeoh. I had also changed the great grandson’s name from Kim to Andrew. In the first collection, I also made a careless error by referring to the boy as his grandchild, when in fact he would be the great grandchild. I was surprised the editor I was working with or the proofreader never caught it. I don’t know how I missed it either. Sometimes you get so close to the story it’s easy to overlook obvious details.

For the setting I used the terrace houses where I then lived, which made it convenient. We had a cushioned bench in front of our house where we would sit to put on our shoes, so this was where I had Yeoh sit (though I took away the cushion) as he watched the goings-on of his neighbors, the children in particular, because he knew they were always up to something; and with fireworks, they were utterly reckless. A disaster waiting to happen. In the distance I could see some hills, but these weren’t apart of Penang Hill (in the center of the island at Air Itam), just hills that served as a backdrop and as a catalyst for his memories of hiding in the hills during the occupation and how some of his children had died before they could learn how to walk. A common occurrence. My former mother-in-law lost five children, some miscarriages and others from lack of food and nutrition.

Over the years, the story did not change all that much, just moving from general to more specific details as in all of my stories, and the beginning and the ending. In the early drafts I started the story with an elaborate, overblown description of a sunset. I was trying way too hard. The description seemed to go on forever. Then I toned it down and began the story with a line about Yeoh. In the second paragraph, I added in the sensory details that I had mentioned earlier, about the smells and seeing the firecrackers and the discarded ang pows.

Later, while revisiting the story for the Silverfish version, I realized that the sunset was too rushed, introduced too soon. I needed to get a fix on the main character first, anchor him in the story. So I rearranged the opening paragraphs. I kept the opening line, but all that followed now came from the second paragraph, and the sunset was placed in the middle of the new second paragraph, so it flowed better. I also tied it to his lighting a cigarette, which I felt was more effective. I also fixed quite a bit of the actual details.

Compare the first published version of the opening of “The Watcher” and the final MPH version where I delayed the sunset:

1) Yeo stared at the surrounding hills like he was searching for a way to escape. Suddenly, the sky erupted into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as though illuminated by a torch. The colors grew in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk on this first day of the New Year. The first, and the last, if Yeo had his way…

He coughed and spat and ground out his cigarette as the smell of incense and charred gunpowder came on strong. A scraping sound soon caught his attention. Two small red envelopes were being pushed along the concrete drive­way by a persistent breeze.

2) Yeoh stared at the surrounding hills of Penang as though searching for a way to escape. The pervasive stench of incense and charred gunpowder were everywhere. He could even taste the bitter dryness on his lips. A soft scraping sound caught his attention. Two palm-size, red envelopes were being pushed, stubbornly, along the concrete driveway by a persistent breeze.

Sitting on an old wooden bench in front of his granddaughter’s terrace house, Yeoh coughed and spat and ground out his cigarette. He lit another as the sky erupted into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as if illuminated by a gigantic torch. The colors grew in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk, the first evening of the Chinese New Year.

In the first version I didn’t even mention that he was in Penang or whose house it was, or whether he was standing or sitting. I even gave it away that he was going to die with that big, clumsy hint. I was also not very specific about which New Year and the time reference was wrong, calling it the first day when it was already evening. Careless minor slips often cause needless confusion, so I was glad I had the opportunity to get the details right. Notice that I also changed the word “small”, a relative term, to “palm-sized” which is easier to picture.

In the early drafts, I ended the story with both Yeoh and his grandchild playing together with the sparklers. I wanted to add some tension at the end, so I had Andrew wander away and then Yeoh noticed that the child is gone and that the other children had left the gate open. At the end of the MPH version, I reversed the final two paragraphs so the focus doesn’t shift to Andrew, but remains on him until the very end. By mentioning the hills, I also tie the ending back to the beginning.

While revising this for the French edition, I kept stumbling and it didn't feel right until I tried switching it from past to present tense, to give the story an immediacy that seemed lacking in the past tense.  It was the only story that was significantly changed.

* Here is a link to the new revised version.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

**Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited in Air Asia Inflight Magazine: Are You Judged By The Company You Keep?

If you're judged by the company you keep, then I'm quite happy to have the review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited in Air Asia's Travel 3Sixty, October issue. Not only is the review good, I'm surrounded by bestselling writers. Stephen King is on my left and on my right Jude Deveraux and John Grisham!

In case the print is too small to read:

Lovers and Strangers Revisited
Author: Robert Raymer
Genre: Collection of short stories

Raymer has travelled extensively in Asia and lived in Malaysia for more than 20 years. This absorbing collection of short stories is borne of his observations of experiences with life in Malaysia, its people and culture. Not always flattering but not really judgemental, his stories offer a different view on issues that locals may long have gotten used to.

If you happen to catch other reviews please let me know! Better still, send it to me! Thanks!

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Symmetry": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

The idea for “Symmetry”, my shortest story at 950 words and the second story that I wrote for this collection, began when I went upstairs to work and found a dead cockroach in a cup of tea that I had forgotten from the previous evening. Once I got over my initial disgust, I became fascinated by the symmetry of the cockroach, with its three pairs of legs of varying lengths spread out and the antennae fanned in opposite directions around the contour of the cup.

The writer in me saw the potential, so I put myself into the viewpoint of a female Malay child, who overcomes her initial fear and becomes fascinated by this dead cockroach “floating in someone’s neglected tea”.

For the setting of the story, I used the kitchen of my former in-laws kampong house in Parit, Perak since I knew it so well. In fact, I used this setting in several of my kampong stories like “Smooth Stones”, “Home for Hari Raya” and “Mat Salleh”.

In order to capture the child’s innocence while she observes the cockroach inside the cup I had to become an actor and acted out the part so I could physically describe her. I tried out several positions before I settled on the final version:

“The child pulls up on her batik sarong and sinks into a squat before setting the plate down next to the cup and saucer. She hugs her knees – chin nestled on top, arms braced underneath – and rocks back and forth in a slow rhythmic movement, her large brown eyes opened as wide as possible. She draws in her breath and takes another peek. Not satisfied, she leans closer. Finally she hunches her body forward, knees and palms to the floor, her long black hair, held back at the top by a purple plastic barrette, flows like twin waterfalls against the sides of her face. With her head now directly above, mere inches from the rim, she peers into the cup.”

In the first version that was published by Teenage in Singapore in 1991, I did not give the plastic barrette a color, but by the time it was published two years later in Plaza (in both English and Japanese) and Foolscap in the UK, I added the color blue. I changed the color to purple for the MPH edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. Subconsciously, perhaps, I saw her as wounded by her father’s absence (which I also added in the final version); thus the color purple is symbolic of the purple-heart given to American soldiers wounded in action; in fact, her brother even threatens her with a knife.

For me, this story has always been about lost innocence. The brother’s violent use of the knife to taunt her and to chop the dead cockroach underscores this. This child will never be the same. (She will always be afraid of cockroaches, too, but that’s a minor point.)

When I revisited the story for the Silverfish edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I began to play with the wording to make it more specific, thus in the opening sentence, “dishes” became “plates and saucers” and “wood” became “plank”. I also changed the story from past to present tense.

For the final edition, after some prompting by my editor at MPH, I added a new element to the story to make it fit better with the themes of the other stories in the collection. In the opening paragraph I wrote, “unlike in the past when her father was still living with them…” Then a couple of pages later, I made another reference about the father’s absence, “[the brother] would only boss her around or torment her, which he has been doing ever since their father went to live with that other woman.”

I also mention that the brother is having disciplinary problems at school. In an effort to calm down the crying child near the end of the story, “[mother] even assures her that her father will return home and that everything will be just like it was before.”

We know that is not likely to happen. It’s too late. Her innocence is lost. She, too, no doubt, will develop disciplinary problems at school as she faces a brother who’ll become more brutal at home while living in a harsher, fatherless world.

Ah, it's so nice to have an editor who pushes you to improve a story in unexpected ways!

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Novel Project: The First Five Pages

Knowing that novels live and die in the first five pages (or even on that first page!) and that writers are often blinded by their own work since they’re too close to it to be objective, I offered to swap the first five pages of The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady (*now The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady) with two other novelists whose novels (and short stories and poems) have had some success in the last two Faulkner-Wisdom contests.

Despite my novel’s recent success, placing fourth in the 2008 National Writer’s Association novel contest (16th draft) and “almost-finalist” in 2008 Faulkner-Wisdom contest (the 17th draft), and having just completed the 18th draft (editing it once again on paper and correcting on computer), I wanted to see if there’s room for improvement. I wanted the critical eye of other novelists to read it cold, without any preface as to what kind of novel it is, or knowing anything about the plot. I wanted to see if those five pages could stand up to scrutiny and do what they were meant to do – pull the reader quickly into the story, have them identify with the main character, have them care about whatever problem he’s facing, and have them want to read more…

Also, those opening pages should, ideally, contain a clear setting, a consistent viewpoint, apt descriptions, nice turn of phrases, zero grammar mistakes (including punctuation), no trite expressions or clichés, and no red flags either. A big red flag: am I starting at the right place? Is the pacing too slow or jerky? Does the novel sound like what everyone else in the world is writing? Is the writing too heavy-handed or the opening scene utterly forgettable? Too many red flags (even small ones) will convince agents and editors that despite some obvious merits, to pass. They know from past experience, it’s just not worth their time, unless, everything else is exceptionally brilliant or riveting.

This is also about networking with other novelists, so my living in Borneo doesn’t feel so remote. Besides getting valuable feedback, I also get to scrutinize the other novelist’s first five pages and catch their blind spots, which are often easier to find than my own. Finding these always make me think about my opening pages (this and other novels). Am I unwittingly sabotaging the chances of my own novels? More important­ly, by fixing those five pages, and carrying it to the end, I often fix the whole novel, something I did for the 16th draft, when I decided to write in the first person, present tense. A lot of work, but I was glad to do it, because it takes my novel closer to publication.

Right away, I find several problems in the first novel I read. He’s starting in the wrong place, in the wrong country (after one and a half pages, the entire novel appears like it’s going to be a flashback in a different country); he shifts viewpoints so I’m confused as to who is telling the story (some sections I have to read twice to figure out who’s describing whom); he introduces far too many characters who I know nothing about – are they throw away names, or will they be major players? And he has some logic issues. I’m big on logic. Would a character in that situation logically do something like that, and if so, why would he? What’s driving or haunting him?

I made several suggestions, including where to start the novel (and why) and how to overcome the logic problems so the character’s actions seem more plausible by inserting in his thoughts so we can see where he’s coming from.

In the other novel the main character’s age isn’t clear right away (the dialogue and some book references are sending mix signals – is she 13 or 16?); too many boys are referenced too soon (are they boyfriends, brothers, or brothers of friends – I’m confused); a dated reference (more suitable to the writer’s age, perhaps, than the lead character), and some description juxtaposing two seasons and creating needless confusion. All minor stuff, but they got in the way of some rather fine writing.

For my novel, both writers like what I was doing and can easily identify with the character. A big relief. Nothing major. One of them, however, felt that I should avoid using Ca-bri-na Cha-val, which I did more than once, because readers will think of Nabakov’s Lo-li-ta (so I quickly eliminated it). Also, I should cut down on my overuse of italics as a method of emphasis, which I’m considering.

The other writer suggested I avoid the waking up in bed opening – boring. I had a problem with that opening too, but since I want to start the novel with him dreaming about Cabrina Chaval, that created a problem. After I took a shower, the solution came to me – a lot easier to mend than I had anticipated, too. I could open up in the bathroom by having Jonathan Brady look at himself in the mirror as he reflects on the wonderful dream he just had.

That’s why it’s good to exchange novel openings with other writers. My novel improves and that gives it a better chance to stand out in the crowd of manuscripts piling up on someone’s desk. I want those five pages, those first three chapters, or the entire manuscript to stand out above all the others. No red flags, either.

*Update: The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady just advanced to the Quarterfinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012!  It was also short listed for 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Award.

**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.