Dean Alfar talks about “Six from Downtown”

Awesome author Dean Alfar took time out from his busy schedule to spend a Saturday morning chatting with me. The products are two episodes, first this one on his own fiction, and then a lengthy geek out session about Locke & Key (which I’ll be posting soon).

You can listen to Dean talk about “Six from Downtown” here at the podcast page. Feel free to stream, download, and share.

Dean is an engaging speaker, as anyone who has met him knows. And those who haven’t yet will want to after hearing his great ideas about writing, the fantastic, and attempts at capturing the Filipino urban experience. This is a fun half hour where I pick his brain about this great story which has won awards and been anthologised.

If you’re interested in the story or Dean’s other work, you can find his stuff on Amazon here.

You can also get the collection at Flipreads here.

Thanks for listening to the podcast. Please tell your friends if you liked it, and if you’d like to help me keep the lights on and keep this thing going, please feel free to click that donation button and leave however much you want.

You Need to Read

The semester begins and with it I meet a new crop of creative writing students. The ongoing debate over whether creative writing can be taught is far from being resolved. I approach it in the same way that I think of sports talent. There will be people who will just never be able to grasp it, no matter how much work they put in. And then there are the Jameses, Bryants, and Durants whose skills seem innate, who would have been great through sheer talent and then took the time to hone their abilities. Both sets of people fall on the edges of the bell curve. The middle of the curve allows for people of varying skill and talent abilities, and within that middle, there is always room for improvement and development. And in the same way that one’s development in basketball relies on being on the court, so too does an aspiring writer’s development rely on spending time with the written word.  Read more of this post

Writing Tips!

I compiled these from notes made in the second semester of last school year. I would be reading student works and then writing notes like these, then presenting my notes to class for future improvement. But I thought that maybe this sem’s students would benefit from hearing these off the bad. And maybe other people online might get something out of it too. Anyways, here you go, a few tips on how to write better.

 

WRITING TIPS

  1. Show Don’t Tell.
  2. Why are you writing? What are you trying to say?
  3. Writing is an act of hubris. Live up to your hubris.
  4. Make the reading worth the reader’s time. With the ubiquity of content, attention is a scarce resource. Don’t waste it. Make things matter, make the reader care about what’s going on. Reward their attention.
  5. When you write about something, it probably matters to you. The challenge is to make it matter to the reader.
  6. Know how much of yourself to put into the piece.
  7. Set the table.
  8. Let your ideas develop. If you hit on something, take it as far as it can go. If it doesn’t work you can always edit it. But if it could have been good and you didn’t pursue it, there’s no going back to it.
  9. Try to have amazing story openings and endings. It’s like a plane ride, once you’re cruising it’s fine, but you have to make sure you’re really doing well when you take off and when you land because those are what people remember most.
  10. Don’t go for twist endings. Set things up right. It’s not surprise, but resonance we want when we walk away from a story.
  11. Stories are made of scenes.
  12. Make things happen! Events! Confrontations!
  13. Don’t avoid confrontations. Build them into your work.
  14. How do you build drama? How do you make something engaging? Technique. You start with ideas and inspiration, but it’s technique that makes the writing work.
  15. Hold back. Restraint makes things more painful. Don’t give in to the cheese.
  16. Have an awareness of other stories similar to the ones you are writing so that you can avoid cliches and put your own touch on your work.
  17. Establish transitional devices, physical and literal markers, items, etc, which enable flashback, jumping through time, and dream sequences.
  18. There has to be a reason for a character recollecting the past. Something must be at stake in the present.
  19. Character deaths must be earned. If you kill characters we don’t care about, then their deaths hold no meaning.
  20. The God argument invalidates everything in your story. Make your characters the agents of their destinies
  21. How many of you have ever told a complex lie? You have to build in truth, build in details, so that the lie is believable. It’s the same with fiction.
  22. Write with clarity. Writing is communication.
  23. Don’t waste words. Say only what needs to be said, no more, no less.
  24. Be precise in your word choice.
  25. You don’t have to use big or complicated words. This is creative writing, not academic writing. If you can say it with one syllable, why bother with a longer word?
  26. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Use nouns and verbs.
  27. Don’t rely on punctuation and typographical gimmicks, especially ellipses. Use the right words and the right emotions will be conveyed.
  28. If you say of your character, “You would never notice him/her…” or “He’s the typical…” then that doesn’t create interest. It’s not where the character is like everyone else, but how they are different that makes them intriguing.
  29. Why refer to your characters as normal, typical, or the usual (or geek or nerd)? These don’t create or unlock meaning. Choose details, work at illustration, and describe. If an artist doesn’t draw something, we can see that it’s missing. It’s the same thing with words.
  30. Dialogue should function first and foremost as dialogue. It shouldn’t be there for exposition, so that characters can explain things they already know to each other. It should sound realistic, sound like people actually talking. Good dialogue characterizes, pushes the plot, and provides information all at once.
  31. Have you ever watched dancers or actors who look bored while performing? No, because they know they have an audience, and they have to be at performance level. Writing is a performative act too. You readers can tell when you’re bored, lazy, or not into it.

Trying to Finish Books

Sometime in January, after having read Jay-Z’d Decoded I decided to start growing my hair and beard. In the book Jay-Z mentions that he lets his hair grow out when he’s making an album, and thus has a visual reminder of how long he has been working on a project. I thought to one-up his method by letting the beard and ‘stache go too. Which was not a very good idea. Read more of this post

Isn’t it All Fanfic?

I don’t know if this counts, but I like to think that it does. My earliest acts of fan-fiction were as a kid playing with my action figures. Like a lot of kids, I got toys from different franchises and pantheons and smashed them together. One of my favorite toys was B.A. Baracus from The A-Team, who, in my first act of creative crossover, I would have drive the KITT car from Knight Rider. And though the action figures we had ranged from Ninja Turtles to Ghostbusters to G.I. Joes to Transformers to X-Men and Visionaries and the now little-remembered Toxic Crusaders, we only had one backdrop for it all, The Ghostbusters’ Firehouse playset.

I, along with my brother and cousins, would construct intricate storylines bringing these characters together and creating plausible narrative devices which allowed for the crossovers. These stories we made would be serialized—once play time for that day finished we would try to remember where in the story we had left off so that at the following day’s playtime one of us would do a voiceover of “on yesterday’s episode” and then we would get back to playing. One of my cousins was smart, and a real smart-ass, and he was the self-appointed Consistency guy, always calling us out when we made our toys do things out of character.

It’s from this memory that I gather three things that are major elements of fan fiction: Love, Playfulness, and Creativity. We only want to spend more time with characters, only want to make more stories for them, because we love them, we are emotionally invested not only in the stories already created about them, but in the stories enabled by their character and our imagination. We are playful in that we take what’s there and we work with it not because we’re required to, not because someone has asked us to write a paper for a class and a grade, but because we find pleasure and fun in creating these new stories within the parameters set forth by the original creators. And we are creative in that we are engaging one creative act to produce another. So it’s creativity begetting creativity, one narrative giving birth to many narratives all joined by a collective kind of imagination and sense for story.

Fan fiction has become a topic for study in recent years because of its proliferation enabled by the internet. But I daresay that well before the internet age we were already constructing new stories for already existing characters, filling in the gaps of the shows that we followed or movies that we watched. The What Ifs which in my mind truly began with my first reading of a Marvel What If title, were what got me started reading and writing. Somewhere in a landfill is a notebook filled with my scribblings of What Ifs from the Marvel and DC universes.

I bring us then to the idea that fan fiction is not a terribly new thing, it is only relatively new in that it has been given a name and a classification thanks to its being observable and to its having a significant readership. And it’s here where we find the sudden struggle between our own literary/academic trappings of what is literature, smashing head on against the millions of fan fiction works of varying quality. I suppose that may be one of the things that the academe can’t stand, and one of the reasons for the insistence that fan fiction is not “real literature.” Yes, there’s so much bad fan fic out there. But hey, can we not also say that there’s so much bad literary fiction out there? So many bad CNF essays? So many bad poems?Sturgeon’s law is, after all, applicable. 90% of everything is crap, whether it be fan fic or high brow academic poetry.

The Academe (emphasis on the capital A) insists on its power to define whether something is Literature or not, and more often than not it believes itself to be the “Gatekeeper” of quality and taste. This leads to the exclusion of anything which does not fall into the leading academics’ paradigms (and these leading academics are not necessarily those who are most active, producing the most relevant work, or the most insightful, but usually those who have the most political clout in their respective departments). It has these academics casting themselves as the protectors of the good, trying to stop the entry of “unworthy literature” into the annals of academic study.

And so now we find ourselves in the curious struggle to convince our academic elders (especially because we often find ourselves in these institutions) that fan fiction is a legitimate form of literature. I’ll admit to our own attempts at this project many years ago when Adam and I were still active young members of the UPWC, when we released the Fan Fatale zine, which tried to show how Fan Fiction and literary writing could easily be one and the same.

But it’s clear to me now that this is a mistake. It is not for Fan Fiction to find a way to be elevated to the status of Literature with the capital L. Rather, it’s for us, who write, read, and engage in literature, to realize that all writing is in its essence fan fiction.

To wit, it’s love, playfulness, and creativity. And are these not among the things that drive us to try to contribute to literature? Are not these things catalysts, impetuses which drive us to write? These are definitely things that drive me. I believe too that these are the things that have driven writers, artists, musicians, and other creatives since art began. We draw inspiration from what is around us, and thus, we are practicing fandom and attempts at replicating and expanding that by our own engagement in these things. Sure the definition of fandom is constantly changing, but can we not point to significant works that would justify this assertion?

Off the top of my head are Louise Gluck’s poetry collections, like The Garden which draws upon the story of the Garden of Eden, or Meadowlands which takes from Greek Mythology. In an ultimate declaration of fandom, Dante casts his literary idol Virgil as his guide in Inferno. Shakespeare wrote his historical plays based on various sources such as Plutarch. Allen Ginsberg hangs out with Walt Whitman in “A Supermarket in California.” Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution is a Sherlock Holmes novel (and there are so many Sherlock Holmes stories all over). Alan Moore takes Victorian public domain characters to make his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Scott Edelman takes Of Mice and Men and turns Lenny into a zombie going after George. LA Noire: The Collected Stories is a short story collection based on a game based on a film genre based on hard-boiled crime novels. These are just overt examples.

But all work seeks to contribute to the dominant mythologies of its time. References to the monomyth may be applicable here, but I do believe that at any given time there are many different mythologies and belief systems that one can subscribe to. And inevitably, all literary work falls into one system or other, whether it be the nature-moralist mode of contemporary Filipino lyric poetry, or the middle- to upper-middle class domesticity-drowned-in-irony tendencies of Filipino literary fiction, or the fact that the majority of our novels attempt to replicate the Noli Me Tangere. Attempts at subverting the dominant modes are, in doing so, creating their own alternative mythology.

The difference isn’t the attempt or the intention, it’s the approach. Where all of these different works of writing are driven by love, a desire to contribute to a mythology, and an outpouring of creativity, one kind of writing (literary) takes an approach accepted by the dominant academic/literary institutions and publishing models, while the other builds itself around online communities of sharing run voluntarily and with passion by enthusiasts.

I personally attempt to navigate these various monomyths in my own work and because of my own background. As a product of the undergrad English and MA Creative Writing programs, a member of the English Department faculty, and a person who works in publishing, I am aware of what the dominant modes of thought and writing are within these institutions. At the same time, my own writing, literary production, and reading, seek to move beyond what is prescribed by the formal literary institutions.

The fiction that I have produced is always playing on a motif, an element, a trope, or something from a story or novel I’ve read, a movie or TV show I’ve watched, or some other cultural input. I will never try to call my fiction wholly original. Conversely I will ask my readers to identify the cultural touchstones upon which I have drawn.

As if the referencing and drawing from other works were not enough in my short fiction, the project of my second novel will be as a piece of extended fan fiction. The main character, Carljoe Javier, unable to cope with the real world, plunges into an existential coma which can only be worked out of by passing through various fandoms. So each chapter of the novel will be set in a specific fandom, with the character trying to navigate through that world and understand the real world through the experiences in each fandom. This allows me to play with What Ifs that have been in my head for a long time: what happens when Skynet attacks the Philippines? What would a Pinoy do on the Nostromo? How could we as Filipinos tell a Replicant from a real person? Where in the Firefly ‘verse would we be? What happens when the TARDIS lands in Kamuning?

The project of writing is a large one, and the project of the academe to understand what is labeled Fan Fiction is only beginning. What we have to do, as readers, is to break down the barriers which prevent us from reading and critiquing. We must move beyond prescribed notions of what is and isn’t literature. In effect, I’m saying, Fan Fiction isn’t fan fiction, it’s just Fiction. Our question when reading it should not be whether it’s appropriate for us to use these characters or settings, or whether this mode of writing is literature or not. What we should ask is always whether the writer is successful in his/her project, ask how the writer has utilized the tools that are available, and if the writer has made a contribution to the literature that s/he is trying to write in.

As writers the questions are similar. Have we written well (in terms of aesthetics and technique)? Is what we’ve written worth reading? Does it contribute to the mythology? To the larger projects of Philippine Literature and Literature in general? Have we imbued our works with enough love, playfulness, and creativity to bring them to life?

 

The Literary Career

Jonathan Lethem wrote, “I was what I would be if I wasn’t a writer.” He had been a bookstore clerk before attaining literary fame. This idea made me stop and think about my own career trajectory and whether I wound up where I should be, and what I would or could have been.
After all, good friend Ken Ishikawa once told me, “You know Carl, you don’t really spend too much time in any one job.” This I thought, was being adventurous, trying out new paths, expanding one’s horizons and capabilities, and a way to stay excited about work, by keeping it varied and always new. Apparently it could also be misread as lazy, easily bored, and unable to hold down a job. Read more of this post