Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Don’t Monkey With the Monkeys!

Jason with monkeys at Penang Botanical Gardens
Recently while in Penang, we decided to play tourist with the boys and did the usual things, visited Penang Hill, posed with a python draped over our shoulders, road in a trishaw, ate a lot of food, and took photos of the monkeys at the Botanical Gardens.  The boys even posed by a band of monkeys that had spread across the road in front of us.  That’s when the trouble began.  First the monkeys scared off Justin, age five, and then one started to take swipes at Jason, age seven.  The monkey kept advancing on Jason and it got awfully close before I charged in to distract it, to allow Jason time to escape.  Two monkeys then charged at me.  

I wisely backed off and showed my empty hands.  I thought that was that.  But the monkeys kept lunging toward me, their teeth bared.  We couldn’t get around them since they blocked our path.  Jenny, realizing how dangerous this was becoming, urged all of us to back up and go another way.  The lead money kept lunging toward me, baring its teeth, and then the other would do the same.  I kept my eyes on both of them, as I carefully edged backwards, not trusting them, not wanting to trip and fall either. 

Finally we put enough distance between us.  When a sandal-clad, bear-size gentleman with a camera approached, I warned him about the less-than-friendly monkeys; his exposed toes looked like fair game.  He shrugged it off and thought the best advice would be to charge the monkeys to scare them off if they decided to attack him.  I told him that I tried that approach and they weren’t particularly fazed.   Following my advice he did veer away from the road and then found a bench to sit down on and proceeded to take their photographs.  The monkeys gamely posed for him.  They did the same for us, too, before they changed their mind and went after Jason.

Mother and baby
Later, at another section of the Botanical Garden, we came upon the same pack of monkeys.  They were easy to identify since there were seven of them, plus one was carrying a baby.  They were on a fence, and when they saw us, saw me and Jason leading the way, they started to climb down the fence and made their way toward us.  Why us, I wondered, and then I remembered that earlier we first came upon this batch on the other side of the gardens.  They were climbing down a tree on top a small hill.  Jason and I had climbed it to get a better look at them and snapped some photos.  They obviously got a pretty good look at us too, and maybe they wanted some payback so they decided to block our path.  Monkeys, I’ve read about on numerous occasions while living in Malaysia, have a good memory and they will take revenge out on those who try to disturb them.  They say making direct eye contact is not recommended.

Having lived in Penang for 21 years, never before had I had any real problems with the monkeys, but there is always a first.   Later, I found out they had become quite aggressive over the years and many of the monkeys had been moved out.

As we got in our car, the boys still wary of the monkeys, and several of the monkeys still straddling the fence watching us, we decided to have our own revenge.  We noticed that the monkeys were positioning themselves by a guard rail near the exit of the parking area.  We slowed down as we passed by, and from the safety of our car, we all made monkey faces at the monkeys.  They were not impressed.  Of course we were being silly.  Yet we had such a good laugh and were glad to leave the Botanical Gardens in good spirits.

Not only did we make faces at those monkeys, we also had the last laugh.

***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.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Creative Writing Workshop in Kota Kinabalu (Round Two)

Robert Raymer making a point
On Saturday, 13 August, we had our second creative writing workshop in KK, “Turning your Personal Experience into a First Draft of a First Person Narrative.” At the earlier Universiti Malaysia Sabah workshop we had an extra two hours but at the first SPArks workshop in April 2011 we didn’t have enough time to do the subject justice, so it was good they invited me back.

About half of the participants from the first workshop had returned including Tina Kisil whose book Footprints in the Paddy Field was nominated for 2011 Popular-The Star Reader’s Choice Award for nonfiction, Farida Shukoor, who initially contacted me in 2009 about coming to KK (I taught her son at USM), Jude Day who made the arrangements for both of our workshops, and Lo Sin Yee who again flew up from Miri and even brought one of his works for me to edit (as originally planned before we added a third workshop). There was also Mark Storey who had arranged the UMS workshop back in April.   Several others, however, missed because of either exams or Ramadan, something we failed to consider when we chose the date. Fortunately others filled the vacancies so we nearly reached our target of 24.

Making full use of the four-hour allotted time, we devoted three hours to the narrative that they chose to write, after generating 15 topics for them to choose from. For those who seemed to have forgotten that they had lived a full life of significant experiences, I read them something that I wrote for my creative writing students at two universities (and expanded it by a paragraph): 

Typical experiences
If you’re a typical student at a typical university, you’ve already accumulated hundreds of experiences that have made an impact on your life. You’ve made and lost friends; done things you’re either proud of, ashamed of, or regretted; been punished for doing things you weren’t supposed to; felt guilty over things no one knows about; been blamed or wrongly accused by a sibling, a friend, or a parent; been scolded (and punished) by a teacher for being late, not doing your home­work or being part of a noisy class­room; fought with siblings, friends, or enemies; been bullied by older or bigger children (including relatives); survived a crash in a car or motorcycle or bicycle; moved with your family to another house or lived away from your parents; been proposi­tion­ed by someone from either the opposite or the same sex; con­sider­ed running away from home (even if you only made it next door or to a relative’s house); taken something that didn’t belong to you (which you had either kept, returned or threw away); felt like you wanted to die because you were embarrassed or angry or frustrated; and grieved over the death of a pet or a relative.

For those of you who have taken part in extra-curri­cular activities such as sports, or choir, or belonged to some association or club, or have won an award, or have been praised for making something creative or for having a talent like singing or dancing or drawing, or have had the oppor­tunity to travel around your country or overseas, then you’ll have plenty more experiences to write about.

If you’re older than your typical student you’ve probably had jobs, been engaged or jilted, been married or separated or divorced, had babies, raised children, bought and sold or crashed cars, and even bought a house. Not to mention the thousand other life experiences you’ve had in your thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and do I hear seventies?
* * *
I then asked them to choose one topic that they’ll be working with for the pre-writing process. I kept stressing that they choose their topic carefully. A good topic often chooses you. Maybe there’s an unresolved issue from your past that needs addressing. Some topics, I told them, especially if they had a traumatic experience like a death of someone they were close to, or were molested as a child (which is, unfortunately, increasingly common), will not be easy for them to write, but in doing so, it would be therapeutic for them. Later, if they wish to share it or publish it, others can benefit from it, as I blogged about regarding a short story that I wrote based on one of my relatives.

During the pre-writing process, I gave them plenty of prompts to explore and flush out, not only the details but also people’s motivation and their emotional state. This forced them to think about, not just themselves and what they did or what happened to them, but also to consider why they did those things and why others acted the way they did. This was a real eye opener for them, to consider what all was going on in other people’s lives and their own, thus establishing a cause and effect relationship.

Later, I asked them, “Had you written off the top of your heads, would you have considered any of this? Therefore your narrative would have been far different, not as fully developed, nor as interesting for those who read it.” Before I finally let them write that first draft, when I had them raring to go, I asked them to outline the main points, which helps them to think through the narrative from beginning to end, thus improving its organization. This is often the stage that my students would back away from their topic, realizing that they chose one that really wasn’t all that significant. It’s always better they find this out before they invest several hours writing and rewriting. Even better, if they chose the right topic from the beginning! Sure enough one of the participants asked if he could switch topics!

After spending a full hour writing out a first draft (or taking it as far as they could), we took a break, then we dabbled with some fiction via the topic “They Found Me”, which is the crux of many short stories and best-selling novels, easily adapted into children stories, thrillers, sci-fi, and mysteries. Two of my recent blog posts, on The Shack and the short story “Mr. Penumbra” are essentially “they found me” stories. In The Shack (which I recently read and Sin Yee brought a copy with him from Miri) in more ways than one -- in the beginning and also at the end, a series of them!

Usually, when time is permitted, we’ll read samples, as we did for my two-day workshop with the Malaysian Nurses Association  But this time around we’re saving them for a third workshop in October/November. Two weeks prior to the workshop, the attending participants will be sending me a typed version of either their narrative, their “they found me” story, or someone they may have started and finished from the first workshop, then I’ll go over the first two pages as I did for the MPH-Alliance Short Story Awards workshops in Kuching and Miri when I was one of their judges (which I blogged about in the first workshop—this way I'll make sure I get only one from each!).

Later, if any of the participants are interested, I’ll be editing their revised post-workshop versions  at a special rate, something I highly recommend, something I did when I first came to Malaysia and wrote the short stories that later became Lovers and Strangers Revisited, now being translated into French. And did it again when I first revisited the stories, even after they had already been published, many several times in several countries. As a writer, we do have our blind spots to our own stories, even when those stories are close to our hearts—the narratives of our lives—like those that we explored in this second creative writing workshop in Kota Kinabalu.

*If you know of other organizations or associations in Sabah/Sarawak/West Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei that would be interested in having me for workshop, please contact me via my website:  Thank you!

** Here is a link for a blog post about this second workshop from one of the participants. 
***Here's another link from another participant
**** Here's the link to the third kk workshop. 22 October 2011! 

*****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.

*Announcement latest workshops:  Writing Your Life Stories Workshop—Kuching! 23 June 2012 (with links to other workshops and writing tips!) and also a workshop in KK on 17 June 2012! 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Month of August and my 500th Publication!

“Capturing the Spirit of Malaysia” published in the July-August issue of Senses of Malaysia, which I posted yesterday, is my 500th publication, and it falls on August, too.  I love August, my birthday month, which over the years has often been a good month for me as a writer.  August is a big month this year for Malaysians, too.  Not only is it the fasting month of Ramadan, but also its Hari Raya and then Merdeka! (Malaysian’s Independence Day).

Last August Cha: An Asian Literary Journal accepted my 100th short story sale, “On Fridays” and even linked it with the blog, The Story Behind the Story.  Most of those short story sales have come from Lovers and Strangers Revisited (the French translation is due out very soon, originally slated for August, though it’s looking more like September), including my last short story sale “Home for Hari Raya”.  Just in time for this year’s Hari Raya.

In August 2009, I had a short story, “The Merdeka Miracle” (written with Lydia Teh and Tunku Halim) published in the August issue of Going Places, an article “Becoming Malaysianized” in Pop Club (Popular Books), and then I won the 2009 Popular The Star Reader’s Choice awards for Lovers and Strangers Revisited—a rather nice belated birthday present.

Of course for reporters and those who write weekly newspaper or online columns, 500 isn’t such a big deal.  They’ll reach that in 10 years, assuming they write nothing else.  My friend Mary Schneider, who I just met with in Penang and who writes for The Star (and has a birthday in August) has already passed her 700th column!  (Not easy to come up with all those ideas, she tells me.)  So I have a long way to catch up to her and I began publishing years before she did.  Hmm, perhaps I should look into writing a column of my own. . . . My 500 total, by the way, doesn’t include the 224 blog posts.  Many in fact are actual articles that have gone onto being published elsewhere.

“Capturing the Spirit of Malaysia” will also be repeated in the August issue of The Expat (still awaiting my copy).  I have another article or two that should be coming out this month (not confirmed), plus this weekend I do have a creative writing workshop in Kota Kinabalu (if you haven’t signed up, or know someone who may be interested in KK, please contact the organizers).  Already this August is shaping into a pretty good month (we even spent my birthday in Penang) and there’s still 21 days to go! Of course my birthday wish this August is an agent and a book contract for one of my novels (two did rather well in the recent Faulkner-Wisdom novel contest). That would make this particular August absolutely divine…

***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.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Capturing the Spirit of Malaysia-Senses of Malaysia July-August 2011

*Here's a link to Table of Contents and sample pages with more great photos (taken by others!)

** Here's the link to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and the French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited Trois autres Malaisie.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mr. Penumbra--Another Writer Creates His Own Publishing Break

I love it when writers—instead of complaining about the state of flux the book publishing industry is and worried about where it’s going—create their own breaks.  Recently I blogged about the amazingly swift ride of The Shack from a homeless, self-published book to 15 million sales.  Then today, following a lead on a publisher that still accepts unagented novels (hey, I got two agents reading two of them right now but it could takes months before they decide!), I came across Robin Sloan’s short story "Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store".  I dare you to read it right now and see if you’re not impressed and richly rewarded—it’s a fun read (you're pulled in fast), topical, mysterious (sorry no sex but it does lead to chance encounter that does lead to an actual date—we can imagine the rest), with plenty of clever wordplay by someone incredibly talented and confident and can pull it off.  If you like books and bookstores this is for you.  If you like what they do at Google (or have no idea—it’s scary), that’s in the story too . . . . Even Sherlock Holmes buffs will get a kick out of this – check out the buttons on the coat!

Robin Sloan not only got the short story selling on Kindle, he put it on Kickstarter (if you don't know what that is, check it out; a great concept like a start-up company with a guaranteed market-in-progress), and that led to an agent and a novel deal with Farrar Straus Giroux.  I’m thinking, how he do all that so fast?  This is like finding your way around one of those brick walls designed to stop people, as in Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture.   If you’re over 30 like me (inside joke from the story), it’s about time we learn from those under 30 who are doing some amazing things on the internet and are getting their books published (and not just online).  If we can’t beat them (we’d look pretty silly trying), then join them.  It’s about time . . . before we get even older and start to all look alike (again from the story).  This is also a way for us to achieve a type of immortality—yes, from the story.  What can I say, been thinking about this story all day long and it’s been a really busy day because tomorrow I’m going on vacation for a week! 

So have fun, read it, read some of the comments, too (plenty of encouragement and helpful critiques), and start thinking about all the possibilities in your own writing.  It all begins with a good character and a good story; and yes, just maybe the internet will help you achieve your dreams.  But first, you got to do the hard work and write and then market what you write.  (If no one is reading it or even knows it exists…) Learn from Robin.  That’s what I’m planning to do right now, starting with this blog post.  (See I'm helping him out all the way from Borneo-- that's the internet!)  He did get a book deal, right?  And it’s only the beginning for this story-cum-novel.  It can be turned into a series, even something interactive. . . .There’s only one way to find out what you can do with a good idea… let your imagination run with the possibilities for this story and your own.  Let's see where you end up.  Just maybe you can join their club and have your own published novel...
***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.