Book Talk | Magonia, a Good Story Trapped in Bad Writing

A well written book isn’t the same as a well told story. That’s the first important lesson I learned as a writer: the distinction between writing and storytelling.

Now that I’m both a reader and a writer taking a shot at fiction, I value story and structure more than writing style because the former is a tad more difficult to master than the latter. I don’t judge books on the simplicity of writing but instead focus more on how well it draws me in and how good its story is.

When I read Magonia, I realized that while a great writing style may not redeem a bad story *cough Daughter of Smoke and Bone cough*, bad writing can doom a potentially good story on the very first chapter. 

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Book Talk | Ruthless Magic Pt. 3: Conflict, Plot Devices, and a Coda on Theme

Part 1 | Part 2

Nine years ago, I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the first book of the genre-defining trilogy. It was one of the first YA dystopia books that I’ve read and arguably one of the best. Well, I’m remembering the book with nostalgia glasses on so, naturally, I only recall the good. But I digress.

Although it’s been a decade since I read that book, I still distinctly remember its incredible finale. I remember how my heart stopped when, after defeating the last Tribute with the promise of both Katniss and Peeta winning together, the Gamemakers amend their their previous rule change just to squeeze in one last dramatic twist to the Hunger Games. I remember the gut-wrenching visual of Katniss and Peeta looking at each other, realization dawning on them of what the Gamemakers were telling them to do. And I remember that absolutely victorious moment when the two characters force the Gamemakers to take back their amendment by choosing to commit suicide together than kill the other. Say what you will about the trilogy but that right there was some straight up tremendous writing.

That ending worked so well because the conflict between Katniss and the Gamemakers (and, in a way, the totalitarian government of Panem) was steadily brewing all throughout the story. Katniss’s provocations against the Gamemakers grew bolder and bolder, culminating into the ultimate act of defiance. Certain scenes even foreshadowed the ending. The Hunger Games was skillfully crafted to have achieved such a powerful conclusion.

I will always remember that ending no matter how many books I read in my lifetime because there’s just something so poignant about a young girl whose entire life was governed by a power she could never hope to fight back yet actually triumphing in the end. 

Ruthless Magic, in comparison…. well, let’s just say that even though I reread it just recently, the ending is already swimming out of focus and I have to consult my timeline notes to jog my memory.

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Book Talk | Ruthless Magic Pt. 2: Characters, Variations on Theme

Part 1 | Part 3

In the first part of this Book Talk, I went on a lengthy diatribe about how Ruthless Magic‘s story and structure did its theme absolutely no service though it had every opportunity to do so. Narrative decisions and worldbuilding concepts did little to assert the book’s moral argument – the story basically just meandered in a contrived direction, clumsily handing the reader hints of what it was trying to say at some point in the journey, until eventually it reached an unsatisfying end.

The first part discussed the book’s inefficiency at themes on a general level. Now it’s time we talk about the book more in depth. As I mentioned in the first instalment, there are different ways of applying the theme in the story, mainly by relating it to the story elements. One particularly effective way to do this is by designing characters as variations on the theme.

Ruthless Magic’s theme is harmony so it shouldn’t have been too difficult to write characters who had varying and contradicting approaches to that idea… right?

Well.

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POSTMORTEM: Why I Failed NaNoWriMo

Yes, I am fully aware that NaNoWriMo ended more than a month ago (last year, if you want to be cheeky) but I can’t seem to process anything properly without writing about it ad nauseam and posting my feverish ramblings on the internet for all to see. So I’m going to try and analyze exactly how I failed the online writing contest so catastrophically. I’ll review my tweets that November, cross reference certain good days on my NaNo stats with diary entries/tweets (Twitter is my diary now) and my actual novel-in-progress, and fathom the cause of long stretches of inactivity. Perhaps with this “comprehensive” investigation, I’ll be able to form a better response to my NaNo failure than a simple “I just couldn’t do it” because that is a shitty excuse and I refuse to accept it because fifty thousand words aren’t that impossible to write goddammit.

Let’s begin.

So my earliest tweet about my NaNoWriMo progress was on day 2. Let’s take a look at what tweeted at half past eight in the evening after presumably a whole day of fruitful writing:

Oh.

Yikes.

Looks like I was doomed from the start. I mean, with optimism like that, is it really any wonder why I couldn’t even hit the halfway mark? Case closed, right? No, no, let’s dig a little bit deeper. I’m sure the story’s much more complicated than this. I definitely remember going through several hurdles. Or at least trying to.

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Writing Impasse

(another repost from my Tumblr. I wrote this weeks ago but I feel like it’s still pretty relevant to me and I’d like to share it in this blog.)

Looking back, it’s been nearly seven years since I started taking a serious interest in writing. Plus it’s been nearly four years since I started writing for an actual audience (in our school publication). With almost a decade of writing, I can honestly say that I’ve made little to no progress at all.

While it’s true that I’ve learned to construct sentences more coherently and organize paragraphs logically, I still feel like I haven’t grown much as a writer, in that I still associate my writing – and my love for writing – with shame. Yes, even until now I still feel… embarrassed of my writing. Particularly my creative writing. It’s stupid and ridiculous, I know, but all the years of actual writing hasn’t really done much to help me grow out of this immaturity.

Sure, I’m perfectly fine with objective writing (news and feature articles) since I don’t need to put much of myself into those type of write-ups but when it comes to literary writing I grow cold and rigid. Even my literary articles feel superficial, the kind of stories that I don’t invest any heart into. Somehow I’m still terrified of people reading my stories, or even just knowing that I write stories (for fun… even though it involves a lot of suffering). I put a little bit of myself in my stories which is why I feel vulnerable and unsafe whenever someone I know in real life stumbles upon my writing. Not to sound cliche here but I do kind of put up a highly impenetrable exterior so having someone read my stories is like giving them complete access to my heart and soul and basically telling them to destroy everything in sight. It’s melodramatic and unreasonable but try telling that to my anxiety.

Let me try to explain this.

Writing, for me, has always been a solitary endeavor. I write, I post what I write somewhere that no one really cares to read it, then, eventually, I read what I write. Rinse and repeat. On the rare instances when someone actually reads what I’ve written and even reacts to it, I’m genuinely shocked. And after the initial shock comes the low key panic. What did they think of my writing? Are they silently judging my writing and, in turn, judging me? And more importantly, why on earth would they read my writing in the first place?! Questions like those haunt me every time I get a review or a comment and somehow it never gets easier even as the years go by.

Even though most, ok, all of the reviews and reactions I’ve gotten over the years haven’t been “bad” – some could even be classified as “good” – I still cannot wrap my head around the idea that actual people chose to read what I wrote. It makes no sense, it never has. Doesn’t matter if it’s a good or bad review, the fact that there’s actual proof that someone read my story baffles me. In fact, it baffles me so much that I refuse to believe it, which is why I’m only slightly encouraged by feedback.

Unlike other writers, like my best friend Lyssa, I can’t even bring myself to ask someone to read my stories. Not even beta read just… read for any type of feedback. It feels wrong to me. Like it’s something that I shouldn’t do. Like I shouldn’t ask someone to subject themselves to my stupid ass writing.

You see what I mean when I said that I haven’t grown at all as a writer? I still don’t have any confidence in my writing. I’m still so terribly insecure of myself that I don’t even have the guts to make myself be better. And if there’s one thing I know a writer needs to survive, it’s guts. I keep saying that I love and respect writing but I don’t even care a fig about my own.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: if you’re this self-aware, why not actually do something about it? Why not be braver and bolder and actually improve yourself as a writer? Why not finally believe in yourself and in your capabilities?

Short answer: It’s not easy with my perpetually wavering self-confidence.

Long answer: I’m simultaneously idealistic and cynical when it comes to my writing. I know that I’ll never stop growing as a writer but I also know that everyone – including and especially me – has limits and I’m terrified of one day facing my limit and having to bitterly accept my capabilities. I know that I have friends online and offline who I can probably ask to read my stuff but I also know that that they’ll probably – knowingly or not – filter their feedback because of our friendship. And I know that writing is the only thing I know I can do passably well but I also know that, in the long run, that doesn’t matter at all.

It’s my contradicting feelings for writing that have kept me from progressing all these years. It’s because of them that I can never truly put my heart in a certain story because a part of me is always yelling that no one really wants to read that and no one would ever really like it so why bother? I’m constantly just limiting myself and I HATE it so much. I hate it even more because I’m so aware of it. My idealistic side and cynical side are always at odds with each other and, as a consequence, has kept me from really moving forward.

I feel like I’ve been stuck in a stalemate for all the years and I don’t know what to do about it. Actually, I do know what to do, it’s just that I can’t do what I need to do because of my contradicting ideology. Either I accept that I will always just be this mediocre writer who can probably churn out a decent sentence or two once in a blue moon or I do something drastic to free myself of this deadlock and finally – FINALLY – take a step forward.

I really… really… want to be more than just mediocre.

Alternately: 5 Things I Learned from Stephen King On Writing

You know what I love more than talking about books I’ve recently finished? Lists. I love lists. I live for them. They’re simple and compact but still so beautifully prolific. And writing them is just so fun, especially when you have a habit of jumping from one topic to another with barely held constraint, like I do.

So instead of writing a review or a mere blog post about Stephen King’s book about writing/mini-memoir, On Writing, I’m going to write a list about the key things I got from the book. Initially, I wanted to list down 10 things – as a homage to a similar feature section of my university’s magazine – but then I realized that the other five I had already learned from reading about writing online or from experience. Stephen King merely delivered them much more elegantly.

Without further ado, here’s 5 important things to remember on (creative) writing:

1.) Door closed. Door opened.

I think this one’s the most important thing to remember out of all. King basically suggested – since it’s worked for him all these decades – that you should write the first draft of your story or novel for yourself and yourself alone. Don’t think about your possible readers. Don’t think about what they might or might not like. Don’t think about pleasing anyone but yourself on the first draft. Keep the door – the metaphorical and the literal door since you kind of need to concentrate too – firmly closed. Write what you like, not what anyone else might like. It’s your work, after all. No one and nothing should dictate what you write on your first draft.

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