Sunday, July 30, 2006


Now, if I were writing this up at three in the morning, then it would be perfect for putting my point across. But I suppose that I have to be satisfied with writing this article a little before midnight, because I don't know what time I'll actually be nodding off.

Insomnia, from a figurative point of view, is the inability to attain a state of sleep despite a need for it in the first place. If I were to subscribe to that definition, however, then I most likely wouldn't be an insomniac. Whatever I'm experiencing right now certainly seems like insomnia: It's clear, for example, that I've been dozing off later and later each night, and waking up later and later each morning. Sometimes I even miss lunch.

I wouldn't immediately blame my current state of unemployment for this situation. Part of it, I think, is due to the fact that I've made it a habit to write my blog posts late in the evening when nobody else is using the computer. That, and the lure of the SNES emulator has been pretty difficult to resist. The little stack of paperback books at my bedside might also be a factor for this one.

Of course, the irony of my recent job application is not lost on me, despite the fact that I still don't like my prospects of working a night shift. I haven't received an offer yet, though, and I find it unlikely. They probably knew how I felt about burning the midnight oil the moment I raised an eyebrow.

What's funny is that I think I've attained a state of jobless nirvana. Every morning I stagger around in a perpetual bad hair day, stare into the mirror and put off shaving for another time, gorge a little on Chinese peanuts, and open up the Internet to surf for porn. Well, maybe not porn... but at the rate I'm burning through web sites, I'll probably find myself woefully degenerated to that level again, any day now.

Any day now.

Any day now.


I suppose that my pesudo-insomnia might actually serve a purpose in this way: It effectively prevents me from taking a mid-afternoon siesta like many other idle hands do. The problem, of course, is that it leaves me in one of the most unproductive morning states ever experienced.

Sometimes at four in the morning, I stare into the darkness of the ceiling and wonder what it would be like to stay up until the rest of the household awakens. But I don't want to do that, if only because I might actually get used to it. I don't imagine that it's any fun, not being able to get a wink of sleep at all. The hallucinations would probably be entertaining, yes, but it wouldn't be any fun in the long term.

Come to think of it, I might have been wrong before. Maybe my current state of unemployment might actually be responsible for my inability to sleep. Assuming that we sleep when we're tired, a good logical assumption would be that I can't sleep when I'm not doing anything potentially exhausting. Makes sense, doesn't it?

But then again, I can probably just as easily say that I can't sleep because of all the adrenalin in my system after running one of those old SNES games. So, in a way, Link and Zelda are keeping me awake at night.

I don't know. Who does, anyway?

I'm going to stop writing now, and start trying to restore my old sleep cycles. It's a little before midnight as I wrap up this article, and I figure that that gives me about three hours to nod off before I conclude that I've really got it bad. Even if it's not insomnia, it sure as heck feels like insomnia, and it's not exactly the most comfortable of positions when you're constantly trying to think.

Pleasant dreams.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Peanut Detail

Some of you are probably wondering exactly what I've been doing in the month since I've disengaged from my previous job. For all you know, I suppose, I could be performing missionary work in southern Ethiopia, filming embedded journalists in Beirut, or modeling nude for a photographer in Marikina City.

I can tell you, however, that the truth is far more mundane.

I'm tracking peanut sales.

As some of you probably already know, my mother runs a small bakeshop with branches sprinkled around the Metro Manila area (three of them, to be exact). What you most likely don't know, however, is that one of these branches sells peanuts as a sideline. The peanuts come in two bottled varieties -- spicy and non-spicy -- and sell at a more or less regular pace, mostly to out-of-towners looking for a little something to chew on.

No, we don't make the peanuts ourselves -- we're a bakery, after all. Instead, we buy the product in bulk from somewhere outside Manila and sell the peanuts at a profit. What's weird is the possibility that the people buying them might even be the very same people who are growing them in the first place... but we try not to think about things like that.

The peanuts are still merely a sideline, however, and we watch their sales very closely in case demand suddenly starts to drop off for any reason at all. The last thing we need, of course, is a roomful of bottled peanuts that we can't sell. This close scrutiny, along with the fact that I'm not obviously doing anything at the moment, is what landed me my current role in the peanut detail.

What I do is actually fairly simple: The sales figures from the bakeshop's head office arrive every evening at around 9:30 pm. Somewhere among this mishmash pile of papers, greasy bills and petty cash vouchers is a sealed paper package marked "Peanuts", and every night I spend more than a few minutes looking for the silly little thing.

The peanut figures, of course, are nothing more than a hastily scribbled set of numbers detailing the day's sales and inventory status. Apart from noting the number of bottles sold for each type, however, they also include the monetary sales totals for the day, the quantity of products remaining in the current inventory, and extra notes with regards to customers or incoming orders. After a few days at the job, I found that the task didn't just involve copying numbers into little columnar notebooks; It also involved an eye for the more subtle tasks, like knowing when the branch needed a restock or predicting sudden periods of demand. (Any promo by the beer companies, I'm told, results in frantic requests for more nuts.)

After noting down the numbers in two different notebooks, I then proceed to weigh them against figures from the past few days, as well as figures from the same monthly period in previous years. In the event that something seems amiss or even remotely imminent, I'm required to write a short note and enclose it with my report for the next morning; For a small bakeshop, they're remarkably concerned about details in this regard. On the other hand, however, that's what I would probably expect from a sideline that has absolutely nothing to do with baked goods in the first place.

Now that I've described the entire scenario to you, I'll have to admit that I don't see myself working this detail forever. The possibility of working a nut-based sideline may cause your ears to prick up the first time you hear about it, but after a few weeks on the job, it becomes just another boring task that steals away fifteen minutes of your life each evening.

Don't get me wrong, though. There's probably a lot more to this aspect of work, and it's probably a lot more interesting from alternative points of view. When your duties boil down to writing down and comparing numbers on oily scraps of paper, however, then it's easy for the boredom to start setting in.

And of course, because this happens to be a family business, I'm getting little in the way of compensation out of the entire deal. That's quite a far reach for someone who was once pulling in five figures as a six-year veteran of project management.

All of that just goes to show you one thing, I think:

I'd rather not work for peanuts.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Review: Masks

If you haven't read the unpublished "Masks" yet, then I recommend that you do so before going over this article. Go on... it's not as though it's going to bite you or anything.

At this point, I would like to outline exactly why "Masks" never got submitted for the possibility of publication. While the comments on my previous posts were especially enlightening in this regard, I'll still need to explain the position from the writer's point of view.

I'll start with a bit of background: I wrote "Masks" a couple of days before the deadline for the Fully Booked contest, in a single four-hour burst of computer time. I had already established a couple of characters (Polonius and Moia) in a first attempt at the story the previous day, and came up with the rest of the cast during the actual writing itself.

Although it's not too obvious in the story, "Masks" follows the inner workings of a fictional imperial court. This particular court, however, is heavily structured to the point where each and every one of its courtiers, diplomats and ambassadors is required to wear a mask; These masks represent their respective positions, as well as their official tasks and duties. In a sense, these are like badges of office, and one can easily infer the local pecking order just by glancing at peoples' faces.

The description of various characters' masks therefore plays a prominent role in the story: Over the course of the tale, the qualities and duties of each character is tied to the features of his or her mask.

Etiev, the narrating persona, happens to be an imperial advisor. As a result, it is his duty to assess the Emperor's decisions and contradict them where needed, effectively causing him to be labelled as "The Emperor's Villain". For that matter, Etiev's job is made far more difficult by the fact that his master is a hedonistic, supercilious ruler... and that everyone else doesn't seem to mind. This causes him to see how everyone he knows has become increasingly absorbed into their own masks, and in the end Etiev eventually gets swallowed by the "villain" label he has obtained through a lifetime of honest duty.

I felt that the first draft of the story succeeded in some ways, but failed in a number of others. In a way, it had reached the "rewrite or no?" situation, in that it was able to tell a legible story but needed a number of serious improvements. My basic pros and cons went as follows:

Pros: I liked most of the descriptive text in "Masks", given that I don't usually work much of it into my pieces. It was supposed to blend physical appearance with mental impression, and although I don't know if it succeeded in doing that, I still found it interesting to read. I also found myself satisfied with Etiev's ability to try and put readers in his shoes, which was good for a first draft.

Cons: "Masks" felt a little too drawn-out. It dwelt on no less than seven separate masks (Etiev, Stanislai, Polonius, Moia, Vykos, Tatien, and The Emperor), and I was concerned about losing the readers' attention right in the middle of the whole thing. If this story had reached a second draft, it would have seen the possible removal of Vykos and Tatien, as well as a significant shortening of Stanislai's role. While the ending had been planned early on, I also felt that it was too much of a shock in its current incarnation -- it left the reader with few ties to Etiev's "villanous" reputation in order to work. Again, a second draft would have left more numerous and subtle clues as to Etiev's actual plans.

Both the pros and the cons seemed logical, and the story could have gone either way. What finally forced me to shelve it, however, was the realization that I had written it as a submission to the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards -- which required all prose submissions to be in the genre of science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror.

"Masks" definitely does not belong in either science fiction or horror; Fantasy was about the closest it got in terms of being a legal submission to the contest. I figured, however, that "Masks" would not be read along the standards of fantasy literature despite its imaginary setting. If it had been touted as a work of speculative fiction, then I myself would have been colossally dissatisfied because it simply did not read as one.

In that respect, I feel that one of the measures of speculative fiction is this: Can you theoretically rephrase the story in a contemporary context without using any of the fantastic trappings? I felt that "Masks" could indeed have been phrased that way, and therefore made for a poor fantasy submission.

And so I threw the story into my archives for possible rediscovery one day, and proceeded to work on an even poorer submission for the Fully Booked contest.

Of course, having re-read the story some months later, I do find myself wondering if I should have just set the latter thoughts aside, constructed a second draft, and eventually passed a more refined version to the contest organizers. The story might have performed better, but I would still have maintained constant doubt over its fantasy qualifications. No... if anything, I probably left this work out of the running because I didn't feel that it fit the right standards.

Yes, sometimes that happens. Sometimes the judging has to take place even before you let the story out of your hands.

A writer, however, can always take comfort in the fact that he'll be writing other things. And if attitude is anything of a consideration, then a writer should always expect these other things to be far, far better than the ones that came before.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Fiction: Masks

Sean's Note: This is an unpublished work, posted here for your consumption. I have no intention to submit this for consideration in any form of media, although there was the possibility of tweaking or rewriting this for other purposes. My reasons are explained here, along with the exchange that led me to posting the entire story in this entry as an exercise in literary analysis. In addition, I may be posting further notes in the Comments section below.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the story:

The mask is made of steel, forged in the fires of the Emperor’s second year and polished to a fine reflective sheen. Its eyelids are slanted long and low, allowing its bearer to look upon others without their being aware of the act. And its mouth is a mere slit that barely mars the smooth metal surface, as though any whispers that issue forth would gain the sharpness of the molded flame.

“It’s a little tarnished,” Stanislai says, dabbing at it with oiled cloth.

“It’s polished enough,” I tell him, prying it gently out of his hands. Stanislai, true to his form, is remarkably obsessed with detail. Such qualities, I suppose, would be advantages in an Imperial scribe.

“I’m serious, Etiev,” he says, still holding the cloth. “You can’t go into the Emperor’s presence without a perfect face. His majesty won’t stand for it.”

I stare into my reflection in the metal’s cold depths. “He’s seen this mask often enough, Stanislai. He won’t notice it any more than he normally does.”

“That’s the point,” Stanislai says, throwing his hands up in frustration. “What if the Emperor spots some glaring flaw in your face, hmm? What if he realizes that he can’t see his eminent expression in your left side? What if he points you out in front of the entire retinue? You wouldn’t be able to show your face in court for weeks!”

“It’s only a second face, Stanislai,” I tell him, turning the mask over and over in my hands. “The second face doesn’t mean anything. The only thing that matters is the true face underneath.”

“You try telling that to the Emperor,” Stanislai says, taking the mask back. “You may still think it’s that simple, Etiev, but you know that it isn’t. Not anymore.”

“His majesty should learn to look at hearts and not at faces, if you ask me.”

“Who are you to say what his majesty should do and what he shouldn’t do?” Stanislai admonishes.

“I’m an Imperial advisor, Stanislai. I can actually do that sort of thing.”

“You,” Stanislai says, gesturing with the cloth, “are the Emperor’s villain. You are a cruel, black-hearted man who disagrees with everything he says.”

“That’s because the Emperor is a frivolous fool.”

“Don’t say that!” Stanislai says, staring at me in horror and almost dropping my mask in the process. “I… I… well, I’m not saying that you can’t think that,” he says, “but for Aquan’s sake, don’t say that out loud!”

“Why not, Stanislai? You did say that I was the Emperor’s villain.”

“Yes, but there’s a fine line between being the Emperor’s villain and getting your nose cut off by the Praetorians.”

“All right,” I concede, “all right. No insulting the Emperor.”

“That’s right,” Stanislai says, handing me back my mask. “No insulting the Emperor. Not today. Not now, not ever.”

“Can I insult Lord Vykos and Lord Tatien, at least?”

Stanislai shrugs, although he still looks more than a little doubtful. “Go right ahead,” he tells me, “but it’s your skin there.”

“Why not, Stanislai?” I ask, putting my mask on. “They’re advisors too. We’re all in the same boat together.”

“It’s your game, Etiev. I’m just a scribe. They’d fall all over each other to have me fed to the ravens.”

“No,” I assure him, “they’re already too busy falling over each other to lick the Emperor’s boots.”

“You see?” Stanislai sighs in a gesture of defeat. “That’s why they call you the Emperor’s villain. You start arguments. You throw insults. You get on the nerves of every mask in the court.”

“Even yours?”

Stanislai gives me a withering look. “Even mine, Etiev. Sometimes even mine.”

“At least I’m doing my job well, then. How do I look?”

Stanislai gives me a short, critical inspection. “As well as you could hope to look, I suppose. The steel doesn’t suit you.”

“It suits me fine, Stanislai. The Emperor gave it to me himself.”

“As much as I may admire his majesty’s choice in décor, I must admit that I don’t understand the significance.”

“Neither do I, my friend. But then again, no one ever accused his majesty of being easy to understand.”

* * * * *

Stanislai’s mask is made of soft, smooth wood. He is, unfortunately, not familiar with its origin. As far as he is concerned, it could have been cut from the forests of the Imperial domain, or carved from driftwood found upon the Emperor’s shores. What matters most to him is that the mask is a mark of his place in the courts, and a symbol of the position he has worked long and hard to obtain.

“That’s quite a lot of people, Etiev,” he says.

We look upon the grand ballroom of the Emperor’s summer palace, a massive chamber with high vaulted ceilings and lavish crystalline furnishings. What looks like the entire Imperial entourage is already here, their light conversation adamant above the colored lights and the festive music.

The masks are everywhere. They hold fixed upon the faces of every man and woman who attends to the Eldest of Elders. They are masks of wood and porcelain, masks of metal and cloth – for every mask a purpose and for every purpose a mask.

“Too many masks,” I tell Stanislai.

“You see them all the time, Etiev. There’s nothing wrong with the masks.”

“They’re masks, Stanislai. They’re empty faces. I’m not comfortable speaking with empty faces.”

“You seem comfortable enough in court,” Stanislai points out.

“I wear this same mask to court,” I tell him under the glare of steel, “and it’s remarkable how many emotions this second face can hide.”

We walk through the animated throng, our eyes registering the expressionless features around us. Some seem in a genuine celebratory mood. Others seem in a place and time not of their choosing. All of them look the same.

“The Praetorians,” Stanislai points out in a matter-of-fact tone. I cannot see his face to be certain.

“Yes,” I tell him. “The Praetorians are always here. They are always everywhere.”

They walk among the crowds, fearsome in their crimson robes and their leather expressions. Their swords wear masks as well, sleeping in silken wrappings until roused by the merest hint of disturbance. None dare to cross the Emperor’s bodyguards.

And then one of them approaches us, the redness of his uniform whispering about the marble floor. He walks with the measured cadence of his training, yet with the casual stiffness that accompanies years upon years of service. The Praetorian approaches, and the crowd unconsciously parts before him.

“Etiev?” Stanislai asks in an uncertain tone.

I shake my head, and turn to meet the officer as soon as he extends a hand in greeting.

“Good evening, Lord Etiev,” he says. “Good evening, young Stanislai.”

“Lord Polonius?” Stanislai asks. There is no mistaking the relief in his voice.

Polonius appears perplexed for a moment. “Is something wrong, young man?” he asks.

“Everything is all right, sir,” I tell him.

“It’s just that,” Stanislai adds nervously, “when a Praetorian walks up to you in the middle of a gathering like this, you think, well… you think…”

Polonius laughs, his voice muffled by the thickness of his mask. It is a dry, almost bitter laugh that betrays his old age, but it is a very genuine sound in a room full of false faces.

“You’re jumping at shadows all of a sudden, young Stanislai,” he says. “I don’t suppose you’ve done anything wrong, have you?”

“Ah, er… no, sir. Not at all. I haven’t done anything at all.”

Polonius sighs. “If you didn’t take after your father so much, Stanislai, then you would have been immediately suspicious to me.”

“He’s a scribe, Lord Polonius,” I tell him. “He listens to so much intrigue that you can see it coming out of his ears. You could convict the Emperor’s subjects on what he knows.”

“All scribes are like that, Lord Etiev, to the point that I sometimes fear for my sanity when dealing with them. Isn’t that right, Stanislai?”

“I, ah… I think I see some of my colleagues over there. Ah… please excuse me, Lord Polonius. Please excuse me, Eti… I mean, Lord Etiev.”

Stanislai scurries into the thickest part of the crowd. Polonius and I watch his earnest departure.

“You must forgive him, Lord Polonius,” I tell the old Praetorian. “He’s…”

“He’s just like his father was, Lord Etiev: Nervous as a hunted rabbit.”

“He hasn’t done anything wrong, of course. You cut a very intimidating figure, Lord Polonius.”

Polonius gives a dry laugh once more, but this time with a very skeptical undertone to it. “Was that a compliment, Lord Etiev?”

“You might say that, yes.”

“Strange words to hear, from the Emperor’s villain.”

“I may disagree with the Emperor from time to time,” I answer, “but I find it best to stay on the good side of the Praetorians.”

“Excellent insight, yes,” Polonius remarks, “although you must realize that your disagreements with the Emperor do mark you as a man to watch.”

“I’ve grown used to that,” I tell him, adjusting my mask. “Fortunately for our august Emperor, I am a loyal servant of his great Empire. We may disagree on many matters, but I assure you that it is all for the best.”

“Wise words indeed,” Polonius muses. Years of experience allow him to easily hide the expressions in his voice.

“On a more serious note, however,” I tell him, looking towards the dais where the Imperial party is seated, “I am afraid that I must attend to the Emperor’s needs at the moment.”

“The Emperor’s villain would start an argument so soon?” Polonius replies.

“It keeps him sober,” I answer. “After all, we wouldn’t want him making any important decisions while he’s drunk.”

* * * * *

Polonius’s mask is the same as that of all Praetorians: soft white leather, distinctive enough to be identified across entire rooms. The eye-slits are covered over with thin black cloth, with painted blood-red teardrops underneath each one. Unlike ordinary masks, it has no open area for the mouth – the Praetorians tend to let their blades express any disapproval they feel.

“I thank you for the escort, Lord Polonius,” I tell him.

“Think nothing of it. I would do as much for any esteemed Imperial advisor.”

“Lord Vykos and Lord Tatien don’t seem like the appropriate sort.”

Polonius gives me an odd glance. “Your feelings for Lord Vykos and Lord Tatien are no secret in the court,” he says, “but must you mention them so much?”

“They’re rats, Lord Polonius. They’re toads. They exist only to lick the Emperor’s boots so long as they can gorge themselves on the Imperial coffers.”

“You’re fortunate that they’re not here to listen to you, then.”

“I’ve called them worse names to their faces. You know what they’re like, Lord Polonius. Your Praetorians service them as well.”

“That is true,” Lord Polonius says, his expression unreadable. “But it is not a soldier’s place to question his leaders, much less an old soldier.”

“Not even mine, I expect. Not even the Emperor’s villain.”

Polonius gives me another sidelong glance. “That mask suits you very well, Lord Etiev,” he says, after what appears to be a great deal of thought.

I raise one hand to the smooth reflection of my mask. “What makes you say that, Lord Polonius?”

“Your mask is made of steel,” he says. “I understand that the Emperor finds it most appropriate.”

“Indeed,” I tell him. “But what of steel?”

Polonius’s voice feels distant, as though behind a mask of its own. “Steel moves without shifting. Steel bends without breaking. You adjust to the Emperor’s policies, yet you do not fall under his spell.”

“Sometimes even I cannot stop the Emperor from making the most foolish decisions,” I admit. “In those cases, I find it best to simply move on… and discourage him from making them again.”

“Yet the steel is also what makes a fine blade,” Polonius says, placing one hand on the hilt of his sword. “Every soldier, every guard, every Praetorian knows that their four feet of steel must be wielded in a controlled manner. It cannot merely be drawn at the merest sign of adversity.”

“Steel also makes a prison, Lord Polonius. Steel makes an unbreakable prison. And a man behind steel walls has little to offer but the sound of his voice, and the fire of his statement.”

“Dangerous words from the Emperor’s villain,” Polonius says.

“Would there be any other kind?” a sweetened voice interjects.

The lady stands before us, resplendent in a dress of blue and violet. Where the color of Polonius’s mask would promise grave threats, the form and feature of her mask would promise even graver consequences of a subtler sort.

“Moia,” I say, leaning forward to kiss her outstretched hand.

“Lady Moia,” Polonius says, refusing to move even one inch.

“You promised to send me a message,” Moia says accusingly, enclosing my hand in hers.

“The Emperor’s villain has been quite busy,” I tell her.

“You’re my villain, too,” she says.

“I find it very, very difficult to serve two masters, Moia – one a fool and the other a temptress.”

“You didn’t find it such a difficult decision two nights ago,” she says, pressing herself against my side.

Polonius clears his throat. Moia laughs, her voice sounding through the silken folds of her mask.

“I’m sorry, Lord Polonius. Am I making you uncomfortable?”

“It’s nothing I’ve heard before,” Polonius says, waving the matter away with one hand.

“So,” I begin, looking into Moia’s sparkling blue eyes. “What would such a charming courtesan want with an Imperial advisor?”

“Satisfaction for a lady’s curiosity,” Moia says, winking at Polonius. “Are you up to anything in particular?”

“Lord Etiev will be meeting with the Emperor,” Polonius answers. “It is the place of an advisor to remain at his master’s side, after all.”

“Do you have to, Etiev? Our dear Emperor has been having so much fun.”

“He needs something to temper his evening, Lady Moia,” I tell her. “If he insists on playing during his statecraft, then I can show him that he can just as easily work during his leisure.”

“You’re lucky he hasn’t asked Lord Polonius to kill you yet,” Moia says.

“I might have tempted him, though,” I say. Polonius’s mask, of course, is as expressionless as it looks.

“Why don’t I bring you to the Emperor, then?” Moia suggests. “I’m sure he’ll be simply ecstatic to see you. Let’s not get him angry at poor old Polonius here.”

“What about you, Lady Moia?” Polonius asks.

“He can’t stay angry at me forever,” she lightly tells the Praetorian. “I’m too good for that.”

* * * * *

Moia’s mask is made of the purest silks, spun in the great Eastern lands and layered in a design exclusive to the Emperor’s courtesans. It lies draped across her face, highlighting the distinguishing feature of her eyes and obscuring a smile that would make men fall to their knees in supplication. And as she moves, it whispers the tantalizing secrets that only the courtesans may freely encourage.

“Would you?” she asks me.

“Would I do what, Moia?”

“Would you?” she asks again.

“Would I do what?”

She presses herself against my shoulder once again. “You know, Etiev.”

“Perhaps, Moia. If my duties to the Emperor end early tonight.”

She purses her lips. “For a villain, you follow the Emperor around relentlessly,” she tells me.

“That is the role of a villain,” I tell her. “Where would the Emperor be without me?”

“More likely somewhere in his bedroom, rolling around the sheets with four or five young women, bestowing imaginary baronies upon any name that comes to mind.”

“Exactly,” I tell her.

“Do you really believe that the Emperor would be so incompetent, Etiev?”

“So do you, Moia. You’ve told me so.”

“Yes,” she says, considering the matter for a moment. “But I’m a courtesan. I tell stories. I spread rumors. I can say or think whatever I want because no one would take me seriously.”

“I know,” I say, looking into her blue eyes.

“But you’re an advisor,” she points out, her silken mask brushing against my steel visage.

“I know.”

“You go as far as to insult them to their faces, and they brand you a villain for you disagreement.”

“False faces, Moia. Masks.”

“You’re being very mysterious today, Etiev.”

I think for a moment. “Do you think, perhaps, that the masks hide who we truly are?”

She smiles at me. “No I don’t,” she says, attempting to see into my hidden eyes. “I don’t think that at all.”

“Then what do you think, Moia?”

“Look around you, Etiev. Everyone wears a mask. The silken ones imply the courtesans, the white leather faces belong to the Praetorians, even you know that your friend Stanislai the scribe owns a wooden face. If anything, the masks show who we are.”

“And me?” I ask, smiling at her.

She smiles back. “You’re a villain, Etiev. You’re the most fiendish villain I’ve ever known.”

* * * * *

Vykos’s mask could hardly be called a mask. It is a mottled white design over a transparent monocle that covers a single nearsighted eye. Vykos is a wrinkled man whose face gives the impression of great age and wisdom, yet as an advisor, he is perfectly content to sit back and listen to the Emperor’s wanton pronouncements.

Tatien’s mask, on the other hand, is fashioned from black porcelain, and covers his face from forehead to chin. Diamond dust surrounds his eyes, with sapphires in the center of each cheek and ruby shards ornamenting his lips. The mask otherwise distracts from Tatien’s corpulent figure, grown fat on his overwhelming support of the Emperor’s decrees.

Masks or no masks, none of them are happy to see me.

“Nothing else to do tonight, Lord Etiev?” Vykos asks.

“I was about to ask you the same thing, Lord Vykos.”

“What are you here for, Etiev? It’s not as though you’ll find any matters of government policy here.”

“It’s still a party, Lord Vykos. Don’t I get a chance to celebrate along with the rest of you?”

“Oh, do leave him alone, Vykos,” a familiar voice says.

I step back into a florid bow. “Good evening, your majesty,” I finally say.

* * * * *

The Emperor wears no mask.

Each eye is dyed with inks of blue and white. Each sleek hair upon his brow is clearly outlined. Each wrinkle, each imperfection upon his skin has been brushed away with the finest flesh-colored powders.

The Emperor wears robes of gold and green, cunningly tucked and folded to hide his growing paunch. He carries an extensive train of silk and lace, all the more to conceal his diminutive stature. He gestures with white satin gloves that cover hands so soft they would bleed at the slightest blister.

He wears a construct of gold and diamonds upon his head, although every single courtier knows – much to the Emperor’s detriment – that the wig is obvious, and that the baldness is already in its advanced stages.

In a sense, the Emperor is his own mask.

I smile. Underneath the façade, the Emperor is just an ordinary man.

“I haven’t seen you smile in a long time, Etiev,” he says.

“I haven’t had reason to smile in a long time, your majesty.”

The Emperor nods. “Another snide remark regarding a recent development, Etiev?”

“On the contrary, your majesty. I have never been in greater agreement with you… or with the rest of the court, for that matter.”

The Emperor looks confused. I am familiar with the expression, having seen it mostly during his ill attempts at statecraft.

“Well… that’s good, Etiev.”

“I am the Emperor’s villain,” I say, giving him a florid bow once again.


“We wear many masks, your majesty. The masks make us who we are.”

“I don’t see quite where you’re going, Etiev.”

I smile at him. “You’re just an ordinary man, your majesty. Underneath all the posturing, underneath all the positioning, underneath all those uncomfortable robes… you’re just a man.”

He stares at me for a moment, wondering what to make of my statement. Then he laughs.

“How droll, Etiev. You are most certainly a villain.”

“And you, your majesty, are most certainly just a man.”

And I thrust the dagger into his heart.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

What Hunts the Hunter

It's been a month since my actual resignation from my former company, and a large, well-established corporation seems to be interested in acquiring my services. I've got over twenty other pending applications to other companies at the moment, but these people have the distinction of being the first ones to reply.

The good news:

- It's a relatively high-profile position. If I don't come in as a project manager, I'll be performing similar duties and will probably receive extensive training for actual project management tasks.

- I appear to have experience in most, if not all, of the tasks of my expected position. This is a huge leap ahead of any other applicants, and my writing skills look like they were a definite factor in my consideration. (Not to mention the possibility that they're probably looking at this blog, too. Hi, guys.)

- The compensation package looks pretty good. I named a relatively high price range for my services, and they don't seem to be hesitating at the numbers.

- I'll only have to work four days a week.

- The job will involve international travel, and feedback from the company's other managers is that this makes for a good amount of R&R as well as business exposure.

- The office location is well within my convenience.


Sounds pretty good so far, right?

Now, the bad news:

- Two words: NIGHT SHIFT.



Darn it. Decisions, decisions...

Monday, July 17, 2006


Back when the deadline for the Fully Booked contest was looming over hundreds of unfortunate writers out there, I wrote a short story entitled "Masks" in the course of a single night. I originally meant for it to be my submission to Neil Gaiman and the other judges, but a re-reading of the story left me feeling empty and dissatisfied. So, as with every story that doesn't meet my personal standards, I tucked it into an archive folder and forgot about it for the next few months.

Now, with both the Fully Booked contest and the recent Sci-Fi/Fantasy Convention behind us, I ended up digging through my cobwebbed works and rediscovering my working draft of "Masks". While I still feel that the story isn't fit for publication, I've found a strange attraction in most of the descriptive writing. "Masks" was meant to be an outline of the underlying plots behind a fictional imperial court, and as such, it contained heavy amounts of visual reference.

My favorite excerpt from "Masks" follows. I find it odd that I fixate so much on this piece of writing, especially for a story that doesn't seem too good to begin with.

The Emperor wears no mask.

Each eye is dyed with inks of blue and white. Each sleek hair upon his brow is clearly outlined. Each wrinkle, each imperfection upon his skin has been brushed away with the finest flesh-colored powders.

The Emperor wears robes of gold and green, cunningly tucked and folded to hide his growing paunch. He carries an extensive train of silk and lace, all the more to conceal his diminutive stature. He gestures with white satin gloves that cover hands so soft they would bleed at the slightest blister.

He wears a construct of gold and diamonds upon his head, although every single courtier knows – much to the Emperor’s detriment – that the wig is obvious, and that the baldness is already in its advanced stages.

In a sense, the Emperor is his own mask.

Why do I post this excerpt here? I don't know, really. Maybe I just like this little bit of writing *that* much.

I remember typing this part of the text at a fast and regular pace, as though I already knew what the Emperor character looked like. I think I got my primary references from Samurai 7 (an animé by Gonzo Digimation, based on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai); the Scorpion Clan from Legend of the Five Rings; and Hotep and Hoy, the Egyptian priest characters from The Prince of Egypt.

I believe that I worked my reflections from a certain ethical standpoint into "Masks", which got frustrated when I deemed the story too low-quality to publish. This probably got me writing a blog post some months later: As a result, "Faces in the Crowd" holds many of the themes that "Masks" was supposed to produce.

I find it funny that we can somehow do something right, even when we did it wrong to begin with. This episode actually has me wondering why I didn't just try to salvage the work instead of hiding it in a pile of old junk for me to unearth five months later. I'm not proud of the short story as a whole, mind you... but I'm proud of writing this particular excerpt, as I am with a few other bits and pieces of the draft. And if I'm proud of something I've made, then I believe that it at least deserves to see the light of day.

That's why this excerpt is posted here, far from any notions of Neil Gaiman or a prize of thousands of pesos, far from any prospects of awards or convention notability. This excerpt is posted here because I decided that I liked this set of five paragraphs after all. Hopefully, you'll agree with me.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

That Demon Drink

It's midnight on a lazy Saturday, and all I can think about is why writers seem to drink a lot. That is to say, I'm sitting up late, doing nothing but wondering why beer often seems to figure into the local literary scene.

Aw, come on. Surely you've noticed it: Any high-profile gatherings of writers (particularly writers' workshops) always seem to involve the consumption of egregious amounts of the demon drink. Some contemporary writers' habits are so synonymous with drink that their personalities are inescapably associated with particular brands of beer (the late Nick Joaquin being identified with San Miguel, for example). And should we be surprised that Fully Booked decided to spring for more than a few cases of Red Horse during its awards earlier this evening, despite the possibility that not all of its attendees might have been of drinking age?

Of all the things, why alcohol? Is it because the notion of malt liquor figures heavily into our national culture and social consciousness for some reason? Is it because we have to find some way to keep the stress of our lives from killing us where we stand? Or is it because we figure that we all tend to have splitting headaches in the morning, anyway?

As you've probably concluded by now, I'm not a drinker. I don't touch the stuff, primarily because it usually gets me spilling out whatever I have in my head at the moment, and it's bad for my work as a result. I don't even drink socially; The best I ever do involves a decanter of champagne at high-class weddings and a glass of red wine every New Year's Eve. I have no physical means of empathizing with people who do drink, and that's why I don't quite understand how beer and literature seem to fit together around here.

Or maybe there's no link between them at all, and they just look related to each other once we're six cups deep and starting to see things. I'm still looking for enlightenment in this regard.

Under normal circumstances, I'd probably dismiss drinking as a weakness. After all, how articulate could a man possibly be when he's far more light-headed than usual, plastered enough to forget the alphabet, and probably in the grip of faint hallucinations? You'd hardly expect much of an effort from such a person.

Except that Edgar Allan Poe reputedly wrote while he was drunk. And Mark Twain seemed to know enough about the prospect of drinking to write about it. And of course, there's the fabulous example set by Nick Joaquin and a bunch of other distinguished Filipino writers, all of whom found nothing wrong with opening a few bottles and getting soused.

I strongly suspect that the true skill lies in being able to hold your liquor. That way, the drink doesn't make much of a difference -- all it'll probably end up doing, after all, is clear your head long enough for you to write the stuff you want to write. If this were the case, then the drinkers would definitely have an advantage over the rest of us poor, abstaining sods.

It doesn't do much to clear up the issue for me, though. Whether it does clear one's thoughts or otherwise, I don't think that that constitutes much of a link between drinking and writing. For that matter, why bother with alcohol in the first place? We could theoretically replace it with Far Eastern meditation, hypnotism, cocaine, or even that ultimate whiteboard eraser itself, a good night's sleep.

Okay, so maybe beer is a little easier to procure than any of the above. Whatever. It's still difficult for me to figure out exactly why it seems to have a prominent place in the local literary gatherings.

It's altogether possible, I suppose, that a lot of amateur authors out there can't break into the big time simply because they either don't drink yet, or because they can't hold their liquor just as well. Think about it: It's easy to visualize the current roster of outstanding Philippine writers as a "big boys" club of sorts, all sitting together at the same bar. If you want to be able to join such a club, you'd have to wait for an empty seat at the counter and throw back a few shots along with the rest of them. Literally.

Yes, that was an exaggeration. Again, I have no idea what it is between writing and drinking. I have no plausibility with regards to these instances, and you shouldn't listen to me at all.

But on the other hand, does that mean that I'd be far more believable if I decided to engage in drinking along with the rest of our fair literary crowd?


If you think I'm going to start emptying the local liquor supplies anytime soon, you're sadly mistaken. I have enough problems writing as it is, and once or twice I've even encountered people who asked me if I was drunk when I wrote some work in question.

I suppose that, given the circumstances, I should really start looking upon those comments as compliments. Or not.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Review: The Peoples' Choice Award Entries

So here we are.

I've finally finished reading through each and every one of the shortlisted entries for the Peoples' Choice honor in the First Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards. Contrary to what some people may think, it's been more of a chore than anything else. These entries, no matter what Fully Booked would have us think, are still not in their final form... and I can assure you that they're far from perfect.

Taking into account that people will be voting on these entries this Saturday, I figured that it might be best to look over them anyway. I wanted to see what was good and bad about each one and see how it would apply to both my style of writing and my approach at critiquing. I wanted to write down what I wanted to see in a good story, and perhaps make sure that I applied the same lessons to my future works. That, and I wanted to make sure I was voting for the best one, too.

Before I proceed with my comments, I would just like to note that I have a particular approach when performing critiques. My viewpoint is that any short story will have some good aspects and some bad aspects -- the good aspects being those redeemable parts of the story that can be used for other works, and the bad aspects being those flaws or failures that need to be corrected or taken into account. Sometimes one side overcomes the other, giving us what we think are "good" and "bad" pieces, respectively, but the two aspects always exist in each work. With each review below, I ask myself what I think is good and bad about each short story, and tie that in to the opinion as to whether or not I like the final result.

The following entries are reviewed in the same order in which I read them. For the sake of some of the more traditional readers, I have also refrained from mentioning any "spoiler"-type details that may intrude upon their literary experience:

The Great Philippine Space Mission - I give this work points for the title alone; That was the reason why I read it first.

With that said, I feel that "The Great Philippine Space Mission" is a magical realist story in the guise of science fiction: It starts off technical and realistic (not to mention frank), but it eventually mutates into a strange combination of the two genres. As I read it, I couldn't seem to shake the feeling that it was supposed to be a completely logical story despite the fact that absolutely unexplainable events were occurring. Considering that gossip is a central theme to the piece, the two of them resemble each other in that regard: They both use information that might not really be information in the first place. They both feed us stuff and expect us to take it as it is. It's a good parallel.

The main problem I have with the story, however, lies with the social context. It's not likely to reach many international readers because it depends on details that are only familiar in a Philippine-based perception. (And despite the author's well-crafted setup, I have a hard time believing that more people gossip about Kris Aquino than they do about Tom Cruise.) Apart from this, the author has problems with grammar and verb-tense consistency in quite a few areas, and I feel that the ending is too wide open in order to work properly. (This goes in line with the work's focus, yes, but I believe that it could have been done better. At the moment, it gives me the impression that the author simply ran out of ideas for resolution.)

All in all, I think it's a good attempt at an experimental work... but it doesn't quite strike a chord with me. It's okay, I think. It's "okay", it's not quite "good", and I don't think it's certainly "great".

A Strange Map of Time - This, I feel, is definitely a strange one. It's polished, but it's not quite polished to the level of perfection. It belongs firmly in the realm of the fantastic, but whether it can be classified as fantasy or science fiction or some relatively unknown genre is really up in the air.

To be frank, I like the story. It starts off vague and confusing, but then irons itself out in the course of the tale - which is probably what it intended to do in the first place, in order to mirror the main character's journeys. It'll probably take the average person a couple of reads to understand everything completely, but in the end, everything fits together somewhat neatly. Everything eventually makes a kind of sense, as long as one has the patience to figure it out.

My primary concern with the piece is that the various stages of the main character's journey don't seem to be treated equally; Some areas get more screen time than others, and I find it difficult to see why. I believe that the story also needs to work on its setting and background descriptions a little bit, especially in the first parts of the work; The only indication I found that the main character was moving around in a future Philippines, for example, lay in an off-hand mention of hoverjeepneys in the sky.

It's a nice work, though - one of those things that you wish you had the patience and planning to put together yourself. It got me thinking, at least.

A Song for Vargas - I remember quite a few scenes from the screen version of The Last Unicorn, one of them involving both fine wine and the power of memory. I get the feeling that this author happens to be familiar with the movie as well.

"A Song for Vargas" strikes me as more of character study than a story; Not much of a plot occurs, and whatever background detail I get has more to do with events surrounding the main character's history than anything else. With that said, it's an interesting narrative rife with extensive descriptions. I particularly like the characterization of the summer wind, as well as the author's concession that a man's personality is also reflected in the view that other people take of him.

The problem I have with description, however, is that I don't like encountering too much of it in my readings. There's an oft-repeated saying that goes "show, don't tell", and I feel that whatever time spent visualizing the characters and their surroundings would be better used to advance the plot a little further. In fact, despite the richness of the background and the situation, I finished the story with a lot of questions that were never satisfactorily answered: Why is Vargas perpetually haunted by his ghosts? Does he ever find what he is seeking? What eventually happens to the island? That's not exactly the kind of closure I like to see.

Still, my quibbles could just be more of a personal opinion than a proper literary critique. If you hold more faith in description than you do in plotting, then you'll probably be fine with this story. Unfortunately, I don't... and as a result, I'm not.

Stella for Star - The idea for this story is hardly a revolutionary concept. I feel that it's been done before, although no specific examples come to mind at the moment.

Some strange voice inside my head tells me that this piece could potentially be a good one. "Stella for Star" takes a perfectly ordinary plotline and throws in a few elements that aren't quite mundane. (I'm impressed with the involvement of a contemporary gay couple, an aspect that leads to some fairly good possibilities.) These elements fit together better than expected (I particularly like the tabloid headlines), and the resulting story is entertaining enough for a quick read. To be frank, I find this to be the fastest read among all the pieces so far.

If "Stella for Star" fails in anything, however, I think it's in the pacing. I think that the work makes a significant attempt to build suspense, but that the sections read alternatively too slow and too fast. One moment we're breathlessly overseeing the interaction between Dorian and Stella, and the next, we're needlessly listening to Paco complain about his career. I feel that the character of Sophie, in particular, is wasted - she walks in for a single scene near the climax, and then we never see her again. If there's anything that I think the story needs, it's some lengthening; That way, all the folds and creases of the pacing can be smoothed out.

Basically, I'm getting the impression that this piece needs a bit of work. It's interesting, and I think it's right up my alley, but it needs some spit-and-polish before I can say that it came out right.

Atha - The author of this work and I apparently share a certain quality: We both like writing really, really long sentences.

"Atha" feels like science fiction, but it's a "dreamy" sort of science fiction - it reminds me of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil", for some reason. It's a post-apocalyptic setting where the sense of post-apocalypsis isn't too overbearing, and that's pretty rare. For that matter, while it does hover around the idea of man repeating his past sins, I believe that it also concentrates on the alternative viewpoint: That man can't help but do it, for reasons only he can understand. I find that a fresh take on an old approach.

Despite its high points, however, I think that the story actually needs some work on its setting. I spent most of the story assuming that Conrad and the main character were the only humans around; The sudden appearance of other people in the ending seems to undermine the story. For that matter, I fail to see how gunpowder-based cannons could possibly still exist there, especially when their weights and trajectories in the story feel a little too unrealistic. Some elements such as these just feel weird... or perhaps these were meant to have a slight unrealistic feel in the first place? I'm not sure in this case.

With all that said, the story feels good to me. It's a good take, although you'll have to consider things a bit in order to understand it. While I think it needs tweaking, I also think that it's quality work. It's certainly good enough to get me reflecting on it.

Monstrous Cycle - Ever gone through a short story and exclaimed "THAT'S IT?" at the ending? It can be a good or a bad indication - either the story captured your attention to the degree that you didn't expect the sudden ending, or the story didn't get enough of your interest in the first place. Whatever the case, an abrupt ending isn't a very good sign.

I like the idea behind "Monstrous Cycle". The notion of a supernatural being entering the world of show business opens up a huge can of worms: What movies would he/she make? What product endorsements would come knocking at their door? How would they compromise their usual supernatural habits? The story takes this unlikely situation into account and touches on each of those. In a sense, it makes the concept believable - I was entirely willing to accept the possibility of a winged freak of nature doing shampoo commercials, the way the work presented it.

The problem, however, lies in the "setting-story" distinction. To me, "Monstrous Cycle" doesn't tell a story as much as it presents a setting, and as interesting as the setting might be, it ultimately doesn't mean anything when it gives no substance to the events of the story. We read that something happens, and then something happens, and then something else happens, but we never see why. I feel that the result doesn't transcend anything, really. It tells me of the events that occur in the story, yet somehow doesn't make me feel as though the experience was worthwhile. It caused me to ask what the point of the entire exercise was, and that's definitely not a good sign.

Right now, I'd rank this the worst of the eight shortlisted entries. Yes, it's got some definite redeeming values, and yes, it's certainly better than a number of other pieces I've read. But I think its greatest problem lies in the fact that it needs more of a story to go along with its development, and it's a really big problem in that regard.

The God Equation - It's got shades of Dan Brown, and images of divine beings doing God's work on earth, a story idea that's been approached and used many, many times in the past.

I find the style of this story to be excellent. It reads in a far more coherent manner than any of the other seven shortlisted entries, practically to the point where it can be read aloud to a group of eager listeners. The dialogue is done well (albeit long and overbearing), and the exotic references subtly noted. There are even a couple of extremely creative touches: the systematic nature of celestial operations (which works a little like international relations), the manifestation of divine agents into human form, and the strange involvement of ice cream in the narration. It has virtually all the elements of a good piece of fiction.

Yet, for all its advantages, I don't like the short story. "The God Equation" may have the style and panaché to carry things through, but it seems to concentrate too much on the nature of its own subject matter to make for a good tale. Whole pages are spent detailing technical details that have little or nothing to do with the plot itself, and after ten pages of this or so, I was skipping over all the mentions of prime numbers, of Mandelbrot, and of Leonhard Euler. The characters feel anything but "human" to me; While they are supposed to be celestial beings, I was unable to feel the slightest empathy for what was them, or for what was going on. I got the impression that the story was both preachy and distant, and those are a couple of qualities that it really shouldn't have.

Don't get me wrong... "The God Equation" has style, rhythm, and class. I just think that it needs to get its head out of the clouds and become a lot more appealing to the average reader. What significance does a "God Equation" have, after all, if no one cares about it?

The Omega Project - I've worked with cockroaches from a literary standpoint before, although this treatment is quite new to me.

"The Omega Project" has good style and narration - not perfect, but good enough to make for a fast and entertaining read. It has good flow as well, in that it is able to alternate between two different points of view while keeping the story running. This interplay allows the story to slowly unfold, although most of the revelations appear in the first half of the piece itself. I particularly like the closing paragraphs, in that they provide excellent closure; It's been a while since I've read a satisfactory ending to a story.

For a science-fiction-centered piece, however, the "science" needs a lot more development. The story left me clueless as to how the setting came about or how the ending came to pass; There are a lot of logical disconnections in the course of the tale. There are a number of areas that seem far more developed than others, but these areas always seem to receive little more than a partial mention in the story. I constantly had the impression that something was left out of the telling, and I believe that, if there's one major flaw in this work, it's the fact that it fails to emphasize details that really should be emphasized.

In hindsight, however, that's perfectly attuned to the reality of a cockroach: Always there but hardly ever raised to anyone's attention. At least until we squish it, of course.


That's it, ladies and gentlemen. That's how my comments go after a single read through each and every one of the eight shortlisted entries.

You may fully agree with some of my writings as featured above. You may vehemently disagree with them, or you may violently object to my opinion and immediately start plotting to kill me. I suppose that that's fine. We're each entitled to our own opinions, after all.

If you have any points to raise that require my attention, however, feel free to leave a comment below. I'm open to discussion regarding any or all of these stories, much more so if we can trade ideas about the whole review thing. The more people join in, after all, the more subjective our collective opinions can get.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


It's about two in the morning, and I've read through three straight pieces of short fiction tonight. Along with the two works I went through yesterday afternoon, that means that I've got critiques for five of the shortlisted entries in the Fully Booked contest. That also means that I'll definitely be placing my notes online within the next couple of days.

It's struck me that this move could be somehow controversial -- after all, I'm a relatively unknown writer without the same level of writing chops that some of the more established people hold. These eight entries are presumably the best works submitted to a single national writing contest, possibly by big-name authors with credentials longer than my outstretched arms. What right do I have to suddenly go through them, and tell people what I think?

The answer, I suppose, lies in the fact that I'm a reader. And if anything, it's really the reader who has the last say in determining whether a work is good, or bad, or otherwise. It's the readers who curl up with your book in their hands and a bag of chips on the side, it's the readers who drive sales and put your name on the bestseller lists, and it's the readers who'll ultimately stop you in the middle of the street and tell you how much your writing affected their lives.

I find that last point important. I want to read these shortlisted works, and I want to write down what I think of them. My reviews may end up being good, or they may end up being tyrannical and scathing, but I'll have them down on (virtual) paper, and that's really all that I want to see.

It's not as much fun if I'm doing this alone, though. I invite any other readers out there to have a look at the same set of short stories, and post their thoughts on their online journals, just so that we can have a better, more subjective view of things. We can even go around and trade ideas on each of these pieces; Reading, after all, is a matter of sharing views as much as it is deciphering words and letters on paper.

That, and there's less than a week before everybody goes off and votes for their favorite author or short story at the Rockwell tent on Saturday. So if you're going to put up an opinion on something, then you'd better do it soon.

On my part, I'm going to be posting mine within the next few days... and maybe cutting some barbed wire and caltrops while I'm at it. I still don't know what the real critics out there will think, but I might as well be prepared.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

...And the Short of It

It appears that Fully Booked has set up a Peoples' Choice category for the First Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards. They've made the shortlisted entries for both categories available to the public here, and are encouraging people to vote their favorites on Saturday, July 15. (Ironically, this means that the winner of the Peoples' Choice award will be decided only by those people who happen to be in town next weekend, but I suppose that that's better than exposing it to the security loopholes of Internet voting.)

I'm fully expecting to be shut out of the competition on this one. While I did submit an entry, it was a modification of a four-year-old unpublished piece that should never have seen the light of day again. I'm also aware that quite a few other established authors don't seem to be proud of whatever they handed in, for some reason. Put that together with the sheer number of entrants to the contest, and you get what looks like a real horse race here. (That's literal, by the way; I actually have a running bet that the eventual winner will be a complete unknown.)

What I really want to know at this point, however, are the identities of the contest judges. It's difficult to put together a plausible writing competition around here, much less one that concentrates on fantastic fiction. Works that delve into social realism have been the bread-and-butter of Philippine fiction for decades; I'm not sure if I can trust these writers to judge the more "experimental" forms of literature if they haven't tried it themselves.

Yes, I know that Neil Gaiman is most definitely one of these judges, and he's certainly qualified in that respect. I just hope that he's not the only one; Otherwise, we all should have aimed for something closer to his personal tastes.

Whatever the case, I fully expect quite a bit of sourgraping to take place in the months after the final announcement. Despite the fact that I don't consider my own statements here to be sourgraping in itself, you're welcome to tell me otherwise. I can tell you, however, that if I wanted to whine about all this, I know of far more direct methods to do so.

With that said, I'm looking over the shortlisted entries for the Peoples' Choice award to see which ones make for good reads. I don't know if these are the shortlisted entries for the actual winning piece as well, but at least we get to see what a few other people put together for the contest. If everything goes as expected, I'll probably find a story that is far better than all the others on the site, and I can put in a good word for it on the fifteenth.

Seeing that I have quite a bit of free time on my hands, I'm also planning to jot down my initial impressions about each of the shortlisted entries (and possibly put them up on this blog). That way, I get to try out the old critique muscles again after months of atrophy. I'll also be able to reassess what I want to see and what I don't want to see in my stories as well, and if anyone's crazy enough to read through eight different works of fantastic fiction along with me, then we can have a nice little discussion on the matter, too. (I'd go through the shortlisted comics submissions as well, but it would probably make my dial-up connection cry.)

So you probably know that I'll most likely be hanging around the June 15 Fully Booked event, and I'm probably enough of a sucker for punishment to attend the Science Fiction/Fantasy Convention the next day. Next weekend's definitely going to be a busy one, yes, but I suppose it could be worse. For all I know, some weird Games and Puzzles Convention might pass by someday...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Premise Without Plot

I believe that one of the aspects of writing fantastic fiction lies in the fact that you often have to conjure up a setting to go along with it. While setting-creation does provide another means by which you can stretch the fantastic element of any story, I figure that it simply allows us more room to fit the more integral elements that we want.

That is not to say, of course, that we have to create an appropriate setting for each instance of fantastic fiction we write. If we can write a novel about a young magician student and set it in the modern world without changing any of its current aspects, then so much the better. What I say, however, is that such a story will most likely be enriched by the addition of background elements: a hidden wizards' academy, a dark sorcerer villain who killed the protagonist's parents, and an invisible Platform 9 3/4 at the local train station.

You can think of it in terms of a playground, if you may: We can probably house a bunch of kids inside a small two-story house, but they'll probably be better off in a large sandbox somewhere, pushing each other off the swings and twisting themselves into pretzel-like shapes on the monkey bars.

Tabletop Role-Playing Games (RPGs) are probably the best testament to this subtle form of inspiration: They give you the setting and the background events, then invite you to supply the characters and the stories. You can pass on the same setting to thousands of RPG players in this way, and literally get a unique experience from each and every one. (Of late, computer games and interactive novels have also experimented with this ability to have readers create their own sequence of events.)

The importance of background and setting has increased significantly in the past few years, if only because there are now so many forays into the fantastic that each of them has to be distinct from all the others. Settings help make a difference there: a coming-of-age story in a medieval fantasy world will most definitely be distinct from the same relative coming-of-age story in a post-apocalyptic "Mad Max"-type scenario.

This situation has raised some odd problems with writers, I think. I feel as though we're depending more and more on setting and background than before, if only to provide a sort of logic to a story's events. Sometimes the setting even goes beyond that, and ends up being absolutely relevant to the given tale. And sometimes the story doesn't even come to fruition at all, leaving us with a beautiful, well-thought-out background that has absolutely no use anymore.

I've run into the latter situation numerous times, and the situation always transfixes me. What does one do with a perfectly workable setting idea that doesn't have a story to go along with it? Is it plausible to write it down, register it for copyright, and then file it away in hopes that we'll know what to do with it eventually? Or does it make more sense to disclose it to other people and expect them to visualize the tale themselves? Interesting ideas are something of a premium nowadays, and I think I'd like to see more exchanges like this.

Something in me, however, loves nothing more than to throw a little doubt into the equation: Are we, perhaps, placing too much emphasis on background and setting? After all, a number of critically-acclaimed works openly exhibit fantastic stories without bothering to make any effort to explain them. More than a few authors, for example, have thrown their efforts into the realm of "magical realism". Maybe the need to introduce logic into a story is more of a human failing than it is a step in the right direction. Or maybe the critics simply have no idea what they're talking about, and maybe the general public really can't stand the notion of fantasy without logic.

Hmmm... "fantasy without logic". That sounds all too ironic, doesn't it?

What I do know, however, is that you either have the logic, or you don't. Explaining some aspects of a fantastic story while purposely leaving others vague, for example, doesn't seem to work. It's as though the presence of logical explanation in some areas magnifies the lack of plausible reason in others, and you end up with a work that only confuses the reader. Either everything has to be logical, or everything has to be familiar enough to seemingly work without logic.

Am I making sense here? I'm starting to lose track of what I'm talking about.

Contrary to popular opinion, that happens a lot more often than people expect.

While the setting/no-setting distinction may or may not actually be a matter of introducing logic into a story, I feel that it's the only possible explanation as to why fantasy writers seem to come up with a lot of new realms off the top of their heads. What I fear, however, is the possibility that it may be a wrong direction to explore. Do readers look for logical stories? Is plausibility an important factor with regards to the quality of a tale?

The most frustrating part, perhaps, is that this could be more a question of mindset than it is a question of taste. We either notice some underlying order within the world, or we simply don't. In addition, the consideration of mindset would most likely cause additional problems for writers who are willing to experiment: How does a logical man, for instance, find a way to write a story that keeps logic loose and capricious? I think that it would have to require a massive amount of effort, or the equivalent of an existential lobotomy.

Yes doctor, I do think of stuff like this in my free time, thank you very much.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Unclean! Unclean!

About an hour ago, I received official word that I may have been exposed to a highly contagious virus as of sometime last weekend. I am therefore posting this warning on my blog as a public service, in light of the fact that I was up and running about like any normal idiot over the past couple of days.

I have been notified that the symptoms of the virus include spot formations around the arms, legs and stomach (although never in the facial area), occasional itching sensations, feverish indications, and uncontrollable flatulence. If you exhibit any of these symptoms (particularly the flatulence), it is important that you do not panic. Feel free to visit your doctor for confirmation, and remember to consume your daily recommended portion of Vitamin C.

I assure you, by the way, that I am not making this up. (Okay, maybe I made up the part about the flatulence, but everything else should be accurate.)

Again, please do not panic. We are told that this virus is relatively harmless in nature (although it most definitely won't do wonders for your social life). I will most likely be visiting another doctor for a second opinion on the matter, so hang tight.

For now, we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Disclaimer: July 2006

If you're new to the blog, then you must know that I'm writing these monthly entries because of the plagiarism issue. I may not compare in terms of quality to most of the other writers out there (yet), but I'd at least like to know that I've got such a situation covered.

The plagiarism issue, of course, does not imply that certain people hold a monopoly on certain ideas or executions. Let's take philosophy, for example: Anyone is welcome to write about philosophy in general, or about their own personal philosophies, or about their own take on other peoples' personal philosophies. For that matter, anyone is welcome to write about more specific topics such as existentialism, or hedonism, or nihilism. Heck, we can even say that anyone is welcome to write about how nothingness relates to nihilism, or how religion relates to nihilism, or how bananas relate to nihilism. Ideas, topics and approaches are fair game that way1.

What flies in the face of fair game, however, are those incidences where entire articles or selections are appropriated by misguided individuals. I can write a short piece that somehow relates weasels, lemon meringue pie and deep holes in the ground to the notion of God as a cosmic entity, and you're probably welcome to do the same if you're crazy enough to try it. But if you copy the article virtually word-for-word and substitute your name for mine in the hopes that you'll be recognized for it, then you're definitely doing something wrong.

Plagiarism is the name that we give to this theft of time, effort and creativity. It is wrong because it causes significant damage without providing any long-term benefits. A plagiarized writer loses his work to an offender who may be seen as more believable or more powerful than him, whereas an offender loses the knowledge and experience that would have been gained if he had just done the work himself. A plagiarized writer ends up questioning his motives in coming up with new works, whereas an offender reasons that he can get by without coming up with anything on his own.

To put it simply: Plagiarism punishes dedicated effort, and rewards idle laziness.

This is hardly the sort of value we want to see among the general population.

International bloggers have seen quite a number of copyright issues over the last few years, most of them owing to people who see weblogs as convenient resources more than they see them as good reading material. One particularly prominent case, for example, notes the Associated Press copying excerpts from a weblog article, and later stating in their defence that bloggers do not need to be credited as references. It was a foot-in-mouth declaration as only a large corporate entity could possibly put it.

It was the John Wiegley case, however, that convinced me to continue enforcing my stand against plagiarism. Sometime in late 2004, Wiegley discovered that one of the essays published on his blog had been appropriated by a high school student and submitted in an obvious effort to claim the work as the student's own. Incredibly, however, the school defended the plagiarist's "work", stating that electronic logs dated his writing before Wiegley's. Unable to respond with any substantial "evidence"2 of his own, Wiegley consequently shut down his blog.

Fortunately, Wiegley had enough of an encouraging reader base to restore his site a few days later. He did, however, leave a lasting reminder of exactly how it feels to have your work stolen from you, much less have the act supported by an educational institution.

And all this finally brings me to my disclaimer. I post a facsimile of this every month, and maintain a Note of Ownership on the right-hand column just to emphasize matters. I'm glad that I was able to take some time to explain the issue once again, and hope that everybody came off with a bit more understanding on the subject.

The articles on this blog are all original writings as composed by Sean, with select exceptions where noted. All exceptions in this manner are clearly labelled or linked to their original sources so as to give credit where credit is due. These should give their authors, creators or originators the proper acknowledgements; In the event that I have failed to give the proper references for an article, please notify me and I will correct the error.

Any person who wishes to quote or reference any item in this blog is free to do so as long as they give the proper attributions and/or links. If you haven't realized it yet, I can tell you right now that I don't like people who copy my work and try to pass it off as their own. While I probably won't shut down this blog in response to their theft, I will still most likely come after them with any manner of torture implements (long needles, spiked gloves, bullwhips, Barry Manilow CDs3). I don't write these entries just so that they can be stolen, you know.

Finally, if you have any further issues to raise regarding plagiarism, then I'd be happy to discuss them if it means better information for all of us. Just put up something in the Comments listings, and I'll get to you as best I can. This is the kind of thing that should be taken more seriously than the rest of the world does at the moment.

After all, there are certain values that should be promoted among the general population, shouldn't there?

1 This is a debatable point, I'll have to admit. There are more than a few people out there, for example, who feel that the definition of plagiarism should extend to ideas or approaches: I shouldn't be able to toss an idea to a media executive and allow him to make a new TV show without my proper acknowledgement or compensation, for instance.

2 I note "evidence" subjectively here, as it's relatively easy to fake electronic logs if you know how. Unfortunately for Wiegley, however, electronic logs seemed to be the primary exhibits of proof in his case.

3 I have nothing against Barry Manilow, mind you. Please feel free to insert any other artists' names here: Right Said Fred, The Spice Girls, Britney Spears... whoever you love to hate at the moment. You know what I'm saying.