Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Couple of Local Plugs...

All from The Spy in the Sandwich:

Call for Submissions to Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Literature Issue 3
Likhaan: The UP Institute of Creative Writing announces that it is now accepting submissions for possible inclusion in the third issue of Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Literature. Likhaan, the country's leading literary peer-reviewed journal, is funded by the Office of the UP Diliman Chancellor, and is published annually. The ICW fellows and associates take turns serving as its editor. The initial issue, released in December 2007 during the Institute's traditional Writers' Night was edited by Jose Dalisay, present ICW director. Issue No. 2, released in January 2008, was edited by National Artist Virgilio Almario, the present dean of the College of Arts and Letters, and a former ICW director. Likhaan 3 will be edited by Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, also a former ICW director and presently UP Vice President for Public Affairs. Associate editors will be Roland Tolentino (for Filipino) and Charlson Ong (for English).

The guidelines follow:

1. For its third issue, Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature 3, will accept submissions in the following genres, in both English and Filipino:

• Short stories ranging from about 12 to 30 pages double-spaced, in 11-12 points Times Roman, New York, Palatino, Book Antique, Arial or some such standard font. (A suite of short prose pieces will be considered.)

• A suite of four to seven poems, out of which the editors might choose three to five. (Long poems will be considered in lieu of a suite.)

• Creative nonfiction (essays, memoirs, profiles, etc.), subject to the same length limitations as short stories (see above).

• Critical/scholarly essays, subject to the same length limitations as short stories (see above)

• Excerpts from graphic novels, or full short graphic stories, for reproduction in black and white on no more than 10 printed pages, 6” x 9.” (Excerpts should be accompanied by a synopsis of the full narrative.)

2. All submissions must be original, and previously unpublished.

3. All submissions must be accompanied by a biographical sketch (no more than one or two short paragraphs) of the author, including contact information (address, telephone number, e-mail address).

4. Submissions may be e-mailed to likhaanjournal(at)gmail(dot)com, or posted to The Editors, Likhaan Journal, UP Institute of Creative Writing, Rizal Hall, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, 1101.

5. All submissions should be received (whether by e-mail or post) no later than May 31, 2009.

6. All submissions will undergo a strict pre-screening and blind refereeing process by the editors, and a panel of referees composed of eminent writers and critics from within and outside the University of the Philippines .

7. Writers whose work will be accepted for publication will receive a substantial cash payment and a copy of the published journal.

8. The editors reserve the right to edit any and all materials accepted for publication.

9. The editors may also solicit or commission special, non-refereed articles for publication outside of the aforementioned genres and categories to enhance the editorial content and balance of the journal.

10. Please direct any and all inquiries to the editors at likhaanjournal (at) gmail (dot) com.
Jimmy Abad Needs Your Help
Gemino H. Abad needs to contact the following authors (or their heirs) whose permission he needs to include their stories in his sequel anthology to Upon Our Own Ground, this time covering the period between 1973 and 1986:

D. Paulo Dizon
Lina Espina-Moore
Clovis L. Nazareno
Azucena Grajo Uranza
Jose San Luis
Alfredo O. Cuenca Jr.
Jose Ma. Espina Jr.
Mario G. Lim
Freda Jayme
Rosario A. Garcellano
Luning Bonifacio-Ira
Letty Salanga
Carlos Cortes
Maria Aurora Agustines
Fanny Haydee B. Llego
Eli Ang Barroso
Cesar Felipe R. Bacani Jr.
Dennis Arroyo
Mary Agnes P. Guerrero Levin
Hermel A. Nuyda
Armando R. Ravanzo
Rosa Maria Magno
B. S. Agbayani Pastor.

Kindly get in touch with Dr. Abad directly at his e-mail address at jimmyhabad(at)yahoo(dot)com.

Filipino Speculative Fiction 2009 Part 3

Publication: Rogue Magazine March 2009

"The Pillar" by Ely Buendia

There's a tendency to be either too critical or too lenient when a story is written by the rock star of the Philippines but my overall impression with this story is that it was fairly mundane. Ely Buendia's biggest asset is his readability and there was never a moment here wherein I was lost. In fact, this is a rather long piece for Rogue Magazine but Buendia managed to hold my attention until the end. What I didn't like however is how Buendia drops the ball around midway through the narrative. He sets up what I thought was a great metaphor for the Philippines and the condition of Filipinos such as his use of the term "brownies," but later the metaphor dissolves as we're dropped into the actual Philippines. From there, this becomes an action romp--and that's not necessarily a bad thing--but it's simply an adventure story with a blatant political slant towards the end. That's not to say this is a bad story; it's certainly better than most speculative stories written in the past three months, much less action/adventure ones, but it also lacks that element which might have made it striking or unique. For all my criticisms though, "The Pillar" is quite accessible.

March 31, 2009 Links and Plugs

I woke up at 3 am but the Internet at home went awry.

Soft Skull Publishing has been releasing some terrific books and it's not everyday that one of their authors drops by the Philippines. Check out Fully Booked's China Underground event with Zachary Mexico, this Friday at 4 pm. Entrance is free.

China Underground by Zachary Mexico

Interview: Susan Marie Groppi

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Susan Marie Groppi is a historian, a writer, and an editor, with professional experience not only in educational and academic publishing, but also in science fiction publishing. She is the editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! First off, when did you fall in love with science fiction?

I don't know exactly, but it most likely dates to seventh or eighth grade, when I first became aware of science fiction as a distinct kind of literature. I was a compulsive reader as a kid (I still am, for that matter!) and would read just about anything I could find in the school library. At some point I started to become aware that all of the books by the authors I liked the best--Lois Duncan, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Michael Crichton--had the same little rocketship sticker on the spine, marking them as part of the science fiction and fantasy collection. It wasn't a big epiphany, but I did start seeking out he books with the rocketship sticker, just to see.

Later on, in high school, when I started reading Ted Chiang and Greg Egan, more of the pieces fell into place--this stuff wasn't just fun to read, but it could open the door to all sorts of insanely beautiful science. And then, in my senior year of high school, my English teacher gave me a copy of Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, and that opened even more speculative doors for me. It was all very exciting.

What were some of your favorite books or who were some of your favorite authors?

I should have read this question before answering the previous one! Do you mean back when I fell in love with science fiction, who were my favorite authors? Everyone I've mentioned already, of course, and if I go back to thinking which authors were my favorites in late high school or early college, I have to add Nancy Kress to the list, along with Theodore Sturgeon.

Did you always know you wanted to be a historian/writer/editor (or that you'll be some amalgam of all of those)?

Yes and no? History in particular I came to fairly late, in that I didn't start thinking about becoming a historian until a few years after I graduated college. But being a writer or an editor, that I kind of always knew I wanted to do. When I was a kid, I wrote and published a newsletter for my neighborhood, and in high school I had a zine and ran the school literary magazine.

What was it like working for Circlet Press?

A lot of fun. It's a small company, and I was given a lot of responsibility very quickly, which was very rewarding for a college student. But mostly I just liked doing the work, and I liked the work environment. A couple of times a week, I'd go hang out in Cecilia Tan's attic office, playing with the cats and reading manuscripts and drinking tea. Sometimes we had other projects to do, and I'd be put to work writing press releases or shipping mail-order packages or drafting catalog copy, and that was fun too. Sometimes I feel like working for Circlet was one of the best things about my college experience.

What's one of the most important lessons you learned working for Circlet Press?

There are a lot of concrete and practical things I learned--the importance of organizing your files, or what makes a good catalog blurb versus a bad one--but, at the risk of sounding too self-help-inspiration-speak, the most important thing I learned there was to trust my judgment. I read submissions for Circlet for a couple of years, and when I first started, I was terrified that I'd say no to a story that Cecilia would have really wanted to publish. After I'd been doing it for a few months, though, I learned that I really could tell very quickly whether it was a promising story or just a bad story. But that leads to the second most important lesson, that tastes vary. Cecilia's opinion on which stories were the best in a particular batch would often be very different from my own opinion, and that didn't mean that either one of us was wrong, just that it's a very subjective decision.

In your opinion, how does one become an editor?

Oh, wow, I don't know. A little bit of practice and a lot of willingness to learn?

Could you clarify and expound on the various editor jobs you've taken (i.e. line editing vs story editing)?

I can try! There are a lot of different types of editing. Being a fiction editor has a few different components. The highest profile one, and the one that takes the most time, is choosing stories, but in a lot of ways that's also the easiest part of the job. It's not just a question of choosing what you like best--there are other factors to consider, like story balance and budget and audience appeal--but that's all very easy to pick up. Once you've chosen stories, though, the actual editing begins.

At Strange Horizons, we do a fairly significant amount of copy editing and line editing on stories we've accepted for publication. That involves things like making sure all of the punctuation is correct and the verb tenses match, but also involves occasionally tweaking sentence structures or word choices, and checking for consistency. Some of that is done by the fiction editors, and some of it is done by our stellar team of proofreaders. What I think of as "story editing" is something we do very infrequently, which is a more involved kind of editing, working with the author to adjust pacing or scene structure. I've done some of that work in other contexts, though, like at the Online Writing Workshop or the Wiscon Writers Workshops.

There's a wide range of other work that gets called editing, though. I recently finished a year-long gig as a freelance developmental editor for a textbook company, and developmental editing includes everything from "check this section against our style guide" to "write a two-page feature on the constitutional role of the Vice President."

How did you become involved with Strange Horizons?

In the fall of 2000, I had just moved to California and started graduate school, and I was feeling a little bit adrift when a friend of mine forwarded me an announcement she'd seen on a website somewhere, that a new online magazine was looking for a fiction editor. And thus history was made. :)

What's your criteria in picking the stories for the magazine?

It's complicated. There are three of us involved in the selection process, Karen Meisner and Jed Hartman and myself. (Well, more than that, now, since we've just brought on three editorial assistants, who help us read through the submissions.) Submitted stories are read by one of the editors (or editorial assistants), and if we feel the story is worth another look, it gets passed up to the next level, where all three of the editors will read the story and then discuss it. The criteria for getting to that level are pretty straightforward--a well-written story that does something interesting in terms of either plot or character.

Past that point, it's hard to say. We have to like the story, which as I've mentioned can be very subjective, but that's just the start. In any given week, we're looking at probably ten or fifteen stories in our editorial meeting. We like all of them, but we're only going to buy one or two. If one of us feels really strongly, that helps the story. We also think a lot about story balance--if we've been buying a lot of fairy-tale retellings, then we're less likely to buy another one, no matter how much we like it. But if we've been buying a lot of fantasy and less science fiction, we'll look more favorably on the science fiction stories under consideration. It's really kind of idiosyncratic.

What do you think is your greatest asset as an editor?

That's a tough question. The thing I work hardest at, as an editor, is seeing the story that the author wanted to write, rather than the one I expected to see. This makes a big difference in editing and critiquing stories, if not so much of a big difference in selecting stories for publication. I don't know how successful I've been at it, but I do keep trying.

In your opinion how has the Internet affected the industry?

Another tough question! I think if you look at the broader trends in media industries in general, what new technologies (including the internet) have done is fragmented the media market by broadening content offerings and options. The obvious example here is television, because everyone is familiar with this fragmenting as it affects television. We have so many programs to choose from, and so much choice over when and how we watch them, that the model for the relationship between audiences and programs has to be different. So where twenty years ago everyone you knew was watching The Cosby Show on Thursdays, now some of them are watching Battlestar Galactica and some are watching Two and a Half Men and some are watching Jon and Kate Plus Eight. And not only are we watching different shows, we might watch them on laptops or iPhones instead of on the television, and even when we're watching them on the television we're watching them at times that are convenient for us, and without commercials.

The analogy to science fiction publishing isn't perfect, but there's an underlying similarity in the situations. What the Internet has done, mostly, is opened up the options for genre readers. Where we (where "we" is the community of people interested in science fiction and fantasy) maybe all used to be reading Analog or Amazing Stories, today some of us are reading Fantasy and Science Fiction while some of us are reading Ideomancer and others are watching The Guild or reading The Non-Adventures of Wonderella or just spending all year looking forward to binging on Yuletide fanfic. The internet has given our reader base more options, which means that we can go two ways. If we want our standard publishing venues to succeed, those venues have to really step up their game in terms of attracting and keeping these readers, because the readers aren't a captive audience anymore. That's one way. The other way is to embrace the fragmentation and accept that we can all be niche markets.

Of course, no one's figured out yet how to make money as that kind of niche market.

What's the charm of short stories for you?

They're beautiful! Short stories are the perfect vehicle for playing with ideas, whether they're science concepts or character sketches.

How did you get involved with Twenty Epics? Did you and David Moles pitch it to All-Star Stories or did they contact you?

I really liked the first All-Star Stories book, All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, and at some point I told David that if he was interested in doing another book, I'd love to be involved. (It helped that David and I are good friends--a project like Twenty Epics kind of has to be a labor of love.) There wasn't much pitching involved, since All-Star Stories is basically just David. We initially had a small press publisher lined up for the project, but they dropped us (and most of their other titles) from their spring lineup just before we were ready to go to print. I mean, we had page proofs back from authors, and suddenly no publisher, so we decided to publish it ourselves through a print-on-demand house. I wouldn't say I regret that decision, since I don't know that the book would ever have seen print otherwise, but we did end up having some sales and distribution problems as a result.

What's it like collaborating with David Moles? What were your criteria in choosing the stories there (i.e. both of you had to like it, etc.)?

David was great to work with, and the whole process was a lot of fun, even if I wasn't sure it was a great idea to announce the title Twenty Epics before we were sure we'd have twenty good stories to publish. For choosing the stories, our first priority was that the piece fit the theme of the book--we turned away some good stories that both of us liked, just because they weren't a good match for what we were trying to do. Past that, I remember that we spent a lot of time shuffling manuscripts into different piles and negotiating about the final lineup, but I don't think there was anything in the book that we fundamentally disagreed about.

Who came up with the idea of paying more for less words?

I don't remember who came up with it first (probably David!), but we both felt it was a great way to enforce the micro-epic nature of the project.

Does your academic life ever cross with your science fiction life?

Sure! Not a lot, but sometimes. The biggest way at the moment is that I'm co-organizing the academic programming track at WisCon this year, but it's also intersected with my teaching at points. I taught a seminar course at UC Berkeley that used science fiction as a lens for looking at the relationship between science and society in the twentieth century. We did a unit on the culture of fear surrounding nuclear weapons, one on gender and technology, one on changing perceptions of warfare, that kind of thing. I've also used science fiction in teaching my history of science courses; in a survey on pre-Newtonian science, I had them read sections from Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt, and for a course on science in modern America I assigned Ellen Klages's The Green Glass Sea. Both books resonated really well with my students and gave them a good perspective on the work of science.

Since you have a history of teaching, what's one of the most important lessons you've taught your students?

When I was teaching at Berkeley, I mostly taught history of science courses to science students, and I always felt that the most important thing I could teach them was that science isn't some magical infallible thing, it's a process with human factors and human biases just like everything else. Now that I'm teaching high school students, I feel like my most important job as a history teacher is helping them build skills in critical thinking and analysis. It's not as glamorous, but I think it's really fundamentally important.

I love your voice and the Strange Horizons Podcast. Will we be seeing the return of the podcast some time in the future?

Thank you! I love doing the podcast, and I'd love to get back into it. I even have interview guests lined up! It's just been hard to find the time. I'm hoping to give it another try over the summer.

Advice for aspiring writers?

The advice here is the same, mostly--read a lot, and a lot of different kinds of things, and every so often try to spend some time thinking about what differentiates the stuff you like from the stuff you don't like. Also build social networks! This is all lonely work, you know? Having a good community makes the difference between being happy with your own work and being frustrated with the bad days.

Monday, March 30, 2009

March 30, 2009 Links and Plugs

It's already Monday here...

Here's something different from your norm:

New Ceres Nights edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Tehani Wessely

Book/Magazine Review: Fortune's Lover: A Book of Tarot Poems by Rachel Pollack

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
Just as you'd expect from the subtitle, Fortune's Lover is a poetry collection with a tarot theme, each poem (save for one) named after one of the major arcana. While the book might have a central thesis, the poems are actually quite diverse. "Emperor" and "Hanged Man" for example have a narrative structure attached to them while "Tarot Pi" is best performed out loud. Then there are the poems in between, such as "World" which conjures images and showcases the power of names, or "High Priestess" which has a certain beat.

Another element going for Rachel Pollack is that she often takes the indirect route with her poems as she is less literal in her usage the major arcana. "Empress" for example draws upon Jewish lore and if you're looking for an actual woman in the poem, you'll be disappointed. Instead, what we get is this metaphor that feels quite apt by the time we reach the end and there's this reader interaction between title and content.

Pollack is also quite accessible as her poems could be read on the literal level and it'll still work, whether as simple stories or verse with rhythm. What I liked about Fortune's Lover is that it's relatively short and can be read in one sitting without distorting the impact of the various poems. The value of re-reading and pondering their alternate meanings is still there but this is relatively light and is neither overwhelming nor intimidating.

Book/Magazine Review: Grendel by John Gardner

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
While Ulysses and Lolita are both novels rich in allusion, the biggest difference between the two is that it's nearly impossible to get past the first page without taking that layer into consideration when it comes to the former while the latter is digestible without consciousness of the complexity that is Nabokov. John Gardner's Grendel is deceptive in the same way that Nabokov might lull unperceptive readers as the text works on multiple levels at the same time working just as effectively on the most basic of readings.

On the surface, Grendel can be read as prologue to the Beowulf myth but what resonates more is its use of the antagonist's point of view--a decade before Mists of Avalon and its ilk. Unlike such retellings, Grendel remains a villain through and through, although what differentiates him is that Gardner portrays him with a certain humanity and more importantly, possessing a keen mind as opposed to the childish beast that is typically how he is characterized. It's not that readers are rooting for Grendel but we understand his motivations and we're hooked by the narrative. Admittedly, Grendel has a brutal and slow opening chapter, but events pick up as we progress through the book.

A deeper awareness of the text however excuses any perceived flaws as they are all intentional. Gardner attacks from several directions that I don't know where to begin. On one hand, there's the philosophical themes tackled in the book, especially Grendel's solipsism. There's also elements of metatextuality with the inclusion of the Shaper, a bard, and how Grendel's existence defines the heroism of protagonists. There's also the use of modern concepts and cliche, especially during the chapter in which Grendel holds a conversation with the dragon, in addition to various experiments in form and structure. There's a lot of commentaries that Gardner manages to sneak into the narrative such as the role of politics and religion but citing them all seems like a masturbatory exercise on the part of the reviewer. Suffice to say, it's all there if one cares to peel the many layers, and I'm sure I've missed a couple.

Suffice to say, for its length and scope, Grendel is ambitious yet accessible. It's a competent narrative if one reads it with the training wheels on but there's also a rewarding experience of interactivity when one rereads and pays a closer attention to the text. It's literary and fantastical and metatextual all at once, and unlike James Joyce, won't break or intimidate new readers.

A Time for Dragons Book Launch

Here's a couple of photos from paparazzi Kenneth Yu of the A Time for Dragons book launch. Special thanks to Gwen Galvez and Karina Bolasco of Anvil Publishing.

The contributors lined up for the firing squad.
The editor Vincent Simbulan and his dragon familiar.
The fey-like Cyan Abad Jugo (left) with Anvil Publishing's Gwen Galvez
Elyss Punsalan who was once picked up thrice (did I get that right?) in Paris
Alexander Drilon couldn't be there so he sent a representative.
Dean Francis Alfar (who is not the dean of any university)
The other Alex in the anthology, Alexander Osias.
Paolo Chikiamco-Recio just wants to say that he first got accepted into the anthology before getting published in Philippine Genre Stories
Elbert Or likes to sing karaoke every weekend and once considered applying to Philippine Idol.
Joseph Nacino who's not afraid to wear pink (he missed the memo that said contributors should be wearing black).
Gabriela Lee couldn't join us from Singapore so meet her dad.
Kate Aton-Osias was just a Kate Aton when her story initially got accepted.
Oscar Alvarez, who doesn't have a blog because he forgot his password.
Yvette Tan, freelance writer and part-time model. She prefers pineapple over steak!
Charles Tan, clueless as ever.
Andrew Drilon happens to have a twin brother who looks like him...
Bonus photo of Jade Bernas, publisher of Story Philippines. Can you count the number of Xaverians in the photos?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Couple of Book Orders That Arrived...

Plug: Clarion South Needs Help

From Clarion South:
Clarion South is a non-profit initiative which supports emerging writers. The workshop is run by volunteers and relies on grants and the generous donations of past participants, tutors and the general public - you! - to keep it going.
They need $4,000 by the end of the month so donations are needed, quick!

Reviewing the Philippines Free Press Fiction March 2009

Neither the March 14 nor the March 28 issue included short fiction.

March 7, 2009 - "Homecoming" by Ricardo Suarez Soler: There's a rough quality to this story although for the most part, this is passable. "Homecoming" is rich in details and while the subject matter or its ending isn't particularly original, there's a certain competence that can be observed. What would have made this refined is the deletion of the husband's point of view. This is clearly the story of the wife and everything from the conflict, the motivation, and the ending supports this. Soler betrays his weakness because he never returns to the husband's perspective after its inclusion in the opening paragraphs and this would have nonetheless worked without it. Sure, you're missing out on some vivid descriptions but they're extraneous details that ultimately pad the story rather than enhance it.

March 21, 2009 - "You Know I Love You" by Sasha Martinez: I've honestly been trying to like the stories in The Philippines Free Press but a lot of them seems to have an element or two that needs fixing. "You Know I Love You" is one of the exceptions that I can read and finally relax. Martinez follows a more literary aesthetic, if literary for you means "no plot but lots of character." However, the lack of plot does not necessitate a lack of conflict and the author manages to subtly inject it into the story, insinuating it and teasing readers. What I was impressed with is that there's a sensual aspect to the piece without being blatantly porn. Martinez manages to describe more with less, whether it's the descriptions or the underlying theme.

March 27, 2009 Links and Plugs

I just want to remind Filipinos about the A Time for Dragons Book Launch this Sunday (I feel like a fraud, having written an essay and sitting side by side with *actual* writers).

Now available!
Blood of Ambrose by James Enge

Top 10 Best-Sellers as of 2009/3/22

From USA Today's best-seller list (you can find out their basis here):
  1. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  2. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  3. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  4. Twilight: Director's Notebook by Catherine Hardwicke
  5. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
  6. The Shack by William P. Young
  7. Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by Steve Harvey
  8. Max: A Maximum Ride Novel by James Patterson
  9. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney
  10. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Thursday, March 26, 2009

March 26, 2009 Links and Plugs

Can't wait for the weekend...

And another reprint goodness:

Inferno edited by Ellen Datlow

2009/03/26 Tabletop RPG Podcasts

Every Thursday, I post links to various podcasts that deals with tabletop RPGs.

Tabletop RPG (Mostly)

General Discussions/Reviews/Everything Else

Actual Play Sessions

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

March 25, 2009 Links and Plugs

It feels like the start of the week...

  • Over at the Nebula Awards Blog, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz interviews John Kessel.
  • Hathor Legacy interviews Pat Cadigan.
  • Cemetery Dance interviews Ellen Datlow (scroll down or better yet, use the search function).
  • Jason Henninger interviews John Scalzi.
In line with my last link, now out in trade paperback:

Essay: Falling in Love with a Phantom

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

While I don't believe in love at first sight--at least not love in the context of commitment or a conscious choice--there's something to be said about the experience of having a crush or feeling infatuated with someone. If unconsummated, that is the other person remains forever an elusive object of interest, the entire process is what I would refer to as courting a phantom.

Let's start with the initial contact. It could be a seemingly random encounter with a striking woman (or man, depending on your sexual orientation and gender). As an aside, the attraction is not necessarily physical: it could be her scent, her voice, or perhaps a certain way in which she moves. You could be in a bar, in a party, in a bus, or some other social context in which you're strangers to each other. This is probably the first turning point: either you ask her out, get her phone number, etc., or you give up then and there. It's the latter that I'm concerned with. You secretly hope that you see her again and for brief period of time, you occasionally remember her. But after awhile, you forget and move on with your life.

Then the second phase comes in. You run into your crush again. The situation might be identical: the same restaurant, an event held by a mutual friend, etc. Or it might be an entirely different context; perhaps you ran into her on an elevator, on a trip out of town, etc. Again, either you do something about it or you don't. If you do nothing, the situation might repeat, either by sheer coincidence or because you find yourself returning to the place you spotted her. If she's the one who finds you, it's called a haunting. If you're the one intentionally looking for her, it's called stalking.

Since this is the Internet, we don't need to limit encounters with her to real life. You might have seen her picture in a friend of a friend's Friendster/Multiply/Facebook page. Or if you managed to catch her name, perhaps even Googled her and sought a webpage or a blog.

Again, you're given multiple chances to make something more out of the relationship. And maybe you do but she gently rebuffs you: not rejecting you outright but giving enough hope that maybe you'll catch her in a better mood and she'll say yes. At this point, it's already too late. As far as you're concerned, there's already a tether between you two. The Japanese believe that a red string, neatly tied around one's fingers, connects two lovers and you imagine this is the case. Why else have you been meeting, even if you have no relationship whatsoever with each other?

What one doesn't realize that the tether isn't attached to her. Rather, it's your image of her, what I'd refer to as a phantom. You already have your sleepless nights thinking of her, waiting for her to show up in your designated location (be it an actual place or something as virtual as a chat room or a message board). And just when you think you're over her, she reappears and renews her hold on you. What I want to analyze is the attraction.

Here's the thing when you're attracted to a stranger. You can only fall in love with their physical qualities because that's observable. Everything else is imagined and manufactured. What are their interests? What are their foibles? What are they like when you're are alone with each other? These are details you'll only find out when you get to know a person better, usually through a lengthy period of time of chatting and simply being exposed to each other (either that or you're trapped together in a life or death situation for 24 hours). For all you know, she might have a habit that terribly annoys you. Or maybe you have completely opposing paradigms and morals. But guess what, when your imagination fills in the blanks, you don't fantasize about these things. Your imaginary simulation is about how perfect and pretty and talented she is, even when she's rejecting you in the fantasy. And how can you blame your creativity? You want to dream of pleasant things after all so why would you consciously create traits that are repugnant?

As long as you don't get to know your crush better, there'll always be that phantom of hers which is what you're actually attracted to. Oh, and it only gets worse as you settle for selective information. Selective information can be anything from what an acquaintance tells you about her, something you observed from a distance, or perhaps what you glean from monitoring her online presence. Her handwriting is cursive and so you start generating all these baseless conclusions about her personality. Or you catch her watching this movie and you immediately think how great a pair you'll make because you loved that film. These are herrings that make you think you're closer to knowing her but they don't. In the movie example, for all you know, she might have actually disliked the experience (that's why we go to theaters after all, to judge if the film is great or not).

For me, it's like the concept of your unwritten story. Until you actually get to writing that piece, the potential for greatness will always be there, but it's never real. It's only concrete when the story is actually written down. Sure, there's a chance that it's utter crap and you failed to capitalize on what you imagined it to be, but there's that tiny possibility that it's greater than whatever you originally conceived. For example, the fact that this essay could be a metaphor for writing and your muse is purely coincidental.

Essay: Advantages of Analyzing Stories

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

A friend had a recent blog entry on how irrelevant critiques are to a writer's craft. On one hand, he's right. You don't need to develop a critical framework to write stories. You don't need to be able to analyze stories and pick them apart in order to be a good writer. My perspective on things however is that I'm not a genius. I'm not that talented writer whose first draft is prize-winning and ready for publication. I have to work at stories and continually strive to become better. And one of the ways I accomplish that is by analyzing stories.

Before I go on, I'd like to clarify what I mean by critiquing and analyzing stories. If you're in a book club, the questions you'll probably be asking is what are the themes and motifs of the story and applying Formalist/Marxist/Feminist/Post-Modern readings. As a writer, I'm not interested in that line of inquiry as much as the technique. I won't be asking whether I liked this or that character but rather what makes the character compelling. It's not about whether I agree with the author's agenda but rather how the agenda is delivered and whether it's subtle or heavy handed. Everything's still subjective of course and there is no objective answer to these questions given a particular story, but that's the kind of analysis that I pursue, as opposed to the scholarly approach to criticism.

If you're just a casual reader, you don't need to develop this skill set. In fact, such critical thinking can hamper your enjoyment of certain stories as your awareness develops. It's akin to a member of the audience learning the tricks of a magician. When it's performed in front of you, because you're familiar with the sleight of hand and the position of the mirrors, it might appear dull and formulaic. That's not to say this is without its own advantages. When you do come across a remarkable story, the reward is that much greater as you're conscious of the intricacies of producing such a text. Even better is the narrative that's so effective that it causes you to momentarily forget all that you've learned and simply appreciate the story for what it is.

Likewise, if you're a "writer," this isn't a requisite. You can simply write your manuscript and submit them to wherever you feel appropriate. The editor certainly doesn't have a checklist asking whether you're capable of analyzing and critiquing stories. All they care about is your final output--the text--and whether it's up to par with their standards or not.

So if analyzing stories is "non-essential," why bother? For me, it's about improving. This is actually a two-step process. First is the analysis. Why is it important for you to be able to analyze stories and observe what works and what doesn't? So that we can improve. Why is it that one of the most common writing advices out there is to read a lot, whether those in your field or those outside of it? It's the polite way of saying "read this and learn!"

Simply reading a book or story however is how your mind learns unconsciously. Analyzing stories brings it to the fore, so that you're aware of your own processes: Maybe this story is great because of the dialogue. Why is that? How can we replicate it in our own stories? What are the pros and cons of such a technique? That's not to say you can't learn the same things through simply reading it. One of the habits I unintentionally picked up from reading Tom Swift novels was the inclusion of adverbs such as "he quickly ran" or "she defiantly shouted." I had to unlearn them in college and trained myself to settle for more appropriate nouns. Which just goes to show that you can learn the bad along with the good.

Theoretically you can attend a class or get a mentor to teach you these things formally. Well, aside from the cash flow problem, you need to look for such a teacher and the problem with some teachers is that they won't always have identical aesthetics as yourself. Maybe you both agree that establishing good characterization is the key to an effective short story but your teacher might not appreciate the fact that you plan on writing genre literature. Or maybe he or she thinks that one of your favorite authors is trashy and not worthy of respect. Face it, each writer has his or her own set of values and you'll have to discover yours on your own, either consciously or subconsciously. When you encounter the question who your writing influences are, you're facing this dilemma head on.

It's also in your best interest to be more conscious of your tastes and aesthetics because it's about training yourself to be observant. When someone asks you why do you like this story, you can shrug or give them a detailed explanation as to why you enjoyed it. This experience is like being attracted to someone. Your friend might ask why you like that particular girl or guy and it's your option to simply shrug and tell them "just because." Or you might wrestle with your feelings and discover it's because you have a fetish for their eyes, because they resemble your ex, or because they remind you of your mother if you want to get Freudian about it. You can certainly go with your gut feeling but that's living an unexamined life. And the same goes for writing. You can simply enjoy a story for what it is but you're missing out on how it can help you improve.

Granted, analysis isn't as easy as it sounds. It takes time to develop and you have to wrestle with yourself and ask questions. You might even have to reread a story multiple times in order to discover why it appeals to you. You need to practice and continually develop this skill but it's not impossible to learn. I've had lots of awkward moments but after numerous attempts, I'm getting better.

And then we enter the second step of the process. This is the part where we actually talk about the parts of the story we liked or didn't like. It's one thing to be aware of them, it's another to be able to express them in words. It can be summed up as articulation and if you're a writer who doesn't know how to articulate, well, you might want to try a new career. This is what writing is all about after all, conveying the ideas in your head to another person by making yourself understandable and citing specific examples.

Again, like analysis, this isn't easy for some people. It takes time and practice to develop. I write book reviews and this is where articulation comes in. I can't simply tell my readers "I liked this book, you should go buy it, period." I need to focus on what worked, what didn't work, and why. In the process, I'm expanding my vocabulary, learning to use the appropriate words, and finding more effective ways of communicating. Occasionally, I even find an apt metaphor to supplement my examples.

There are two process involved here. One is becoming conscious of your thinking process and the other is being able to verbalize it. Being competent in only one of them isn't enough, you need to be effective with both, at least if you plan on improving as a writer. Granted, each one's writing process is unique and some people are better off absorbing details through the subconscious, but if you're like me who wants to be pro-active when it comes to the craft, the ability to analyze and break down stories is one of my assets.