Saturday, September 29, 2007

4 - 0

First of all, I left quite a few demanding clients behind when I left work on Friday night. (I finished what I could, of course, and set quite a few meetings for Monday.)

Second of all, I still have to finish editing one of my textbooks this weekend. (The editors have done everything but send the hounds after me, and I think it's about time that I cut them some slack.)

And third of all, I don't play Magic: the Gathering very often anymore. (The expense turned me off a long time ago, although it hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for games in general.)

Despite the above, however, I still attended the prerelease tournament for the game's new expansion set this morning. It's obvious that the days of my youth are starting to get behind me... I was no longer the young turk who strutted around like he owned the place; Instead, I was the one-time player, the experienced tournament-organizer, and the odd working-man who slunk around with a ratty black bag over one drooped shoulder.

The folks who make Magic: the Gathering, you see, release a new expansion set every three months or so. These expansions add a host of new cards to the playing environment, and basically give players some new tools to build decks with. A week before each new expansion releases, though, the stores will often hold prerelease tournaments -- events where players can first try out the new cards before they actually go on sale.

Prerelease tournaments are held differently from other gaming events. For one, players don't build decks at home and bring them to the venue -- instead, the players at a prerelease are given some sealed product (thus a random selection of cards), from which they need to build the best deck that they possibly can. With no buying or trading allowed, and with little or no prior knowledge of the set to begin with, the event therefore tends to be an exercise in serious analytical thought.

Then there's the payout. Each player gets to play exactly four matches with their patchwork deck, against opponents of varying skill levels. For each match a player wins, he/she gets to take home a booster pack (15 random cards) of the new expansion set. Players who manage to win all four of their matches earn a nice t-shirt. (And as you might expect, there are very few players walking around with such t-shirts.)

That's all there is to it, really. You'll find no championships on days like these; It's merely a question of trying to cobble together a logical deck of cards in fifteen minutes, surviving four matches against similar opponents, and picking up scads of new cards.

I find that I'm surprisingly good at this sort of thing. I don't mean excellent good, of course, but definitely good good. On average, my record has been 3 wins - 1 loss for each prerelease I've played in. Scratch that -- my record is always 3 wins - 1 loss for virtually each and every prerelease.

I have been chasing the elusive 4-0 for the better part of two years now.

I'm told that an 3-1 batting average is pretty darn good. I suppose that it is; Most players barely manage to split their matches in these tournaments. But as nice as a 3-1 average is, it's not a good memory to consider. Not when every single tournament has brought you exactly one single moment of grief -- that time when your deck refused to work properly, that time when you made that incredibly stupid mistake during a critical play, that time when an opponent lucked out at the last minute.

One hour after I finished stitching together my deck, I notched a loss from my very first match. Darn it.

And, true to form, I won against my next three opponents. Double-darn it.

I sold my winnings to a bunch of eager players afterwards, making up for my entrance fee and then some. I'm not in it for the money, and I'm not in it for the cards. I'm in it for the play, of course -- after three weeks of stress at work and life in general, the prospect of just sitting at a table and smashing face is quite appealing.

But mostly, I'm in it for the big 4-0. Unlike most players, I don't see it as four free booster packs and a t-shirt, much less a monetary equivalent or a prestigious deal. I see it as a perfect day -- an entire tournament where you manage to figure out the deckbuilding schema correctly, avoid any errors in judgement for four straight hours, and generally just do everything right.

There are many endeavors like this. Maybe you have obsessions with some of them, yourself. Maybe you're looking to play that one perfect game of badminton. Maybe you're striving for that one landmark piece of writing. Maybe you're pushing yourself to finish that one, perhaps even one business project without any hitches at all.

It's rare. It's difficult. But it's still there, and it drives you nuts.

I will have my 4-0. And darn it, I'm not even going to be satisfied with just one. Having just one of them doesn't just give you the exhilaration of finally reaching your goal... it also implies that it's possible to do it again.

We suffer. We stumble, we fall, and we crawl into the corner and hug our knees to our chests.

But we know it's there. We know it's there, and we know darn well that we're going to reach it one day.

I have some very demanding clients clawing at my feet. I have some desperate editors banging at my door. I have age causing the wrinkles to form at my brow and telling me that I'm no longer as young as I used to be.

But I still tried today. And in three months, I'll try again.

Will you?


Friday, September 28, 2007

You Can't Win 'Em All, I Guess

The notice:
Thank you for your interest in Philippine Speculative Fiction

We regret to inform you that we are passing on your story this year. We enjoyed reading your story but had to make hard choices.

We hope to read more from you in the future.

Dean & Nikki Alfar

The response:
> We enjoyed reading your story but had to make hard
> choices.

Er... surely you didn't enjoy reading it. Even my instincts screamed that my submission this year was terrible. :)

Ah, well... till next year, then. Good luck with the new


Sunday, September 23, 2007

On Being Nationalist

Hi, everybody. My name is Sean, and I'm a Filipino writer.


That sounds kind of wrong, doesn't it?

I mean, I obviously don't fit most standard stereotypes of a "Filipino writer". For starters, I don't write in Tagalog, much less in any of the other dialects scattered across seven thousand islands. Moreover, I don't carry a Filipino ethnicity -- I am a pureblood Chinese, descended from an intellectual refugee of China's cultural revolution. I don't even have much of a Filipino upbringing to speak of -- I was born and raised in an upper middle-class family in the big city, and I attended a private sectarian Chinese school for half my life. I don't even like Filipino cuisine all that much.

Now, despite this kind of background, you might expect that I attempt to bring a Filipino "theme" into my short stories. In truth, however, I don't usually do that: My stuff is heavily plot-driven, wild-idea conceptual, and not specifically Filipino-oriented at all. I wait for something interesting to come to mind, and then write about it. If it has something to do with the Filipino context, then so much the better; If not, then it simply doesn't.

In short, if you want to be all technical about it, then my only claim towards being a "Filipino writer" is by virtue of my citizenship. I mean, nothing else that I do, say or write seems to be exclusively Filipino anyway.

But I don't particularly advertise myself as a "Filipino writer", much less a so-called "writer of Philippine Speculative Fiction". That first line of this post is the only time I've ever said something to that effect. I have a hard enough time being a plain old "writer" without any constraints of nationalism or patriotism bearing down on me.

I mean, you can't expect me to write in Tagalog (or any other local dialect) without grammatically shooting myself in the foot. My Tagalog is terrible, even compared to the hordes of casual speakers out there. In addition to this, I've found the language to be inadequate when dealing with technical or fantastic terms... and I deal with a lot of both. I simply express myself better in English, regardless of what anyone might say about the language requirement for Philippine speculative fiction.

You can't expect me to write from an effective Filipino background either, because I have little or no exposure to one. I live among a traditional Chinese community of closed associations and significant income. I get much more things like Buddhist rituals, dragon dances, and mooncake dice games, and much less things like Santacruzan gatherings, Holy Week pabasas, and walks along Luneta Park. And even then, my nontraditionalist streak means that I don't deal with the former very well.

I suppose that anyone who attempts to put together a clear identity for "Philippine" speculative fiction has the genre's best interests at heart. I do think that; really, I do. But what makes me scratch my head and start whacking away at my keyboard is the notion that "pure" Philippine speculative fiction is something that we want.

Under what circumstances would we want to exclusively read "Philippine" fiction, anyway? Do we have some strange nationalistic hunger that we should constantly feed, or something? I mean, it's not as though we've been able to pinpoint a specific quality or characteristic of Philippine fiction that makes it unique from international literature.

In fact, I think that it's the other way around -- we're in the process of producing a Filipino literary identity to begin with. To me, that implies that we haven't pinpointed a unified nationalist aspect yet. And to me, what that means is that we don't have a clear purpose in demanding tangible standards behind "Philippine" fiction, much less "Philippine" speculative fiction. At least, not yet.

I don't want to read good Philippine fiction... I just want to read good fiction. The last time I checked, that form of art was supposed to be free of international boundaries.

Under the same logic, I just want to write good fiction. Whether the results turn out to be good Philippine fiction or otherwise is completely up in the air. I don't care about nationalist standards or background or identity or other stuff like that. I just write.

To you, I might just be an immature conceptualist who has a lot of growing up to do. For all I know, there's a complete world of distinctions out there that I should be schooled on. Say what you will, I suppose. I'm willing to consider any number of viewpoints on the subject as long as they have perfectly valid arguments.

But I will say this right now, and I doubt that this statement's going to change much in the future: My name is Sean, and I'm a writer.

I'm not necessarily a Filipino writer, or even a Filipino speculative fiction writer, or even a nontraditionalist Chinese-Filipino speculative fiction writer/conceptualist/twinkle-toed ballroom dancer, mind you. I'm just a writer. I'm just a *plain*, *old*, *writer*, darn it. Life's complicated enough without being forced to drill that down any further.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's about time that I got back to work.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Third Year's the Charm

And just like that, this blog is three years old.

It's not exactly three years old, of course. "To the Tale, and Other Such Concerns" turned three years old on September 13, 2007, at a time when I was out of town on a company teambuilding activity. By some strange coincidence, I've missed every single one of these anniversaries -- for the first two years, I assumed that I kicked things off on a September 18 instead of the actual date. Now I know better, but it seems that I still can't keep a proper timeline.

As of September 13, my post count stood at 494 -- just a shade below the magical 500. That counts every article I've started up over the past year, whether I actually published it or let it remain a draft. For a month-by-month breakdown:

September: 8 (out of 17 total)
October: 10
November: 10
December: 12
January: 12
February: 11
March: 10
April: 10
May: 10
June: 10
July: 10
August: 11
September: 7

That's 131 total published posts over the last year... which is actually less than my 135-post output in Year Two. My new work life has hit my blogging habits quite hard... but ever since I imposed a ten-posts-per-month quota on myself, I've managed to regulate my writing somewhat. Nevertheless, a lot of my recent posts tend to go up at odd hours of the night.

I'm honestly not sure how I managed to sneak in that extra post last August, especially considering my current workload. Maybe something misfired somewhere. I suppose that I'll only be able to make conclusions once I see how the numbers for September come in.

The last year also saw quite a few posts that I started writing, but never finished for any number of reasons. These drafts usually remain in limbo until such time that I look through them and decide to resurrect one or two old ideas. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I did just that over the past year... only I can't remember which posts were the results of my misplaced nostalgia. I do know that I now have the following on "incomplete" status, though:

- The first draft of "The Final Interview" (which I promptly forgot about, and thus rewrote completely from scratch for submission to Philippine Genre Stories);
- The lost third installment to my series of writings on Talecraft, as well as two pieces of fiction written for the game;
- One piece of Antaria fiction;
- One piece of independent fiction;
- A essay that questioned why we bother separating "classy" highbrow writings from "peasant" lowbrow writings;
- Two scripts for short comics. To be honest, I'm still wondering who I intended to contact for artist duties here, if I was planning to contact anybody at all.

There's a lot of fiction up there, and it reflects my habit of leaving drafts alone to fend for themselves. In fact, I don't even have any intention of finishing some of the pieces of fiction up there -- at best, I'll probably post excerpts of them in later writings. For now, however, I simply have other things to write.

So now I'm entering my fourth year. I honestly didn't expect to make it this far, but I suppose that I couldn't have done it without the support and criticism of anyone who's ever read through this blog. Now I thank everyone for any number of things -- I thank you for being patient enough to put up with my wordiness, I thank you for being nice enough to tolerate alternate periods of depression and utter insanity, and I thank you for taking the monthly disclaimers seriously despite knowing how silly they are.

Now I have to get back to writing. There's still that 500th post to put together, I think. And after that, there's the question of surviving long enough to reach my fourth year. And even then, the spectre of work and life constantly lurks behind everything, waiting for the first uncertain glance, or the first false move.

Darn it, the keyboard's stuck again...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Backburner Feed

Nope, no posts as of late. This is because I've been to an out-of-town company offsite activity, had to write for a really fast deadline, and then found that my home Internet connection had suddenly stopped working.

This is a shame, because this blog has just passed its third-year anniversary. But more on that later; I'll give it its own post.

I'm caught up in work right now -- both inside the office and out in the freelance world -- and I'll have to straighten out my priorities for the meantime. I'll get back to blogging eventually, and when I say that, I mean that I still have a ten-post quota to fulfill for the month.

As you probably expect in my situation, the writing will always find a way.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

One More Day

Having had to plan for a company offsite for the past couple of months in the midst of work (and having had to do constant editing for the preschool textbooks again), I found myself with much, much less time to write an entry for Dean Alfar's Spec Fic Anthology this year.

Specifically, I had exactly one day to squeeze a piece of fiction from the depths of my soul.

This is how that one day turned out:

8:00am: I wake up, and find out that I'm supposed to do the family bakeshop's accounting early this month. Apparently some financial consultant is going to be abroad for the next few weeks, and so I need to rush the darn documents to her before Monday. I frantically start crunching numbers and fiddling with printouts.

10:00am: I arrive with the rest of my family at our grandmother's place for the traditional Harvest Festival dice games. This is supposed to take place on Sunday, but for the reason that some family members are heading away on the same trip abroad, we were forced to move it one day early. I seethe at the fact that my schedule is being compromised by multiple events at once.

12:00nn: I'm still seething. Lunch is going sloooowly. It seems to me that everybody is engaging in idle talk despite my pleas for some time to work.

2:00pm: I find out that 1) The TV is busted, and 2) We're going to have to send it to the shop today. I spend fifteen minutes lugging an ancient 29-inch TV down two flights of stairs, wrenching my back in the process. At this point, I'm already getting ticked off at everybody. They can't seem to figure out why.

4:00pm: I escape to the mall with my laptop for some "alone time". Instead of setting up my laptop in a single solitary place where I can write, it takes me hours to calm down enough to get my thoughts together. The fact that I run into some friends and spend some time entertaining them (because I don't want to be any more impolite than I've been so far) doesn't help.

6:00pm: I go home for dinner. I'm feeling much calmer at this point, although I haven't written the story yet.

8:00pm: I open up my laptop and start a draft.

9:00pm: The first draft starts boring me to death, and I decide to start over.

10:00pm: The second draft is a bust. I start a third draft, telling myself that it's now or never.

11:00pm: I hit one thousand words, and am hitting a fast pace. I have my doubts about the plot development, but I have little time to think about it.

11:30pm: I hit two thousand words on the third draft.

11:40pm: I get stuck somewhere around 2,300 words. I start wrapping up, praying that the ending will miraculously come to mind.

11:45pm: I can't decide on an ending. I write random sentences, erase them for varying degrees of triteness, and write random sentences in their place.

11:50pm: I wrap up the last words and perform a spell check. I do the final word count. I open up Yahoo! Mail.

11:55pm: I start writing the cover letter for the submission.

11:57pm: I waste time editing the cover letter. Old habits die hard.

11:58pm: I send the stupid piece. I'm pretty sure that I submit this before midnight, but by now I'm too tired to pinpoint the correct time.

12:09am: I write this blog post. Seen that, done that, got the t-shirt. I'm not sure if I even have a prayer of making it into the anthology at this point.

Now I just have to worry about Philippine Genre Stories' October 5 deadline, and after that, it's Fully Booked's October 31 deadline. And even then, my textbook publisher is still breathing down my neck.

*Sigh* What a life.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

When the Skull Speaks

More than a year after the original contest, Fully Booked has finally announced the release of its Graphic Fiction Awards compilation. This anthology is set to feature the winners of the competition, from both the prose and comics categories.

I'm honestly not very excited about picking up the book, because I've already read and reviewed each of the finalist entries for prose fiction. At the moment, I don't feel the need to pick these up again at what's likely to be an overinflated price tag, just because I want the volume on my bookshelf. The way I see it, I've read these works already, I've made my feelings known, and I've moved on to other upcoming pieces.

All things said, however, I am curious about one thing.

Somewhere in the middle of my reviews and many others' analyses, it was found that one of the entries -- "A Song for Vargas" -- had lifted some of its lines from the The Last Unicorn, a Rankin-Bass movie based on a novel by Peter S. Beagle. These were some classic lines, no doubt, for them to stick to peoples' heads; They involved a talking skull and its desire for an empty bottle of wine, noting to a startled audience that it remembered the now-nonexistent liquor inside.

In The Last Unicorn, the talking skull serves as the informant for a distinct plot point. In "A Song for Vargas", the talking skull is held as one of the secrets of a mysterious captain. It is precisely this difference that prevents me from automatically assuming that this is a case of plagiarism. Instead, I find myself suspecting that the lines in question just stuck to the author's mind and emerged at some unlikely moment.

In any event, the lines are there, and the uncanny relationship between the short story and the movie is too prominent to be ignored. Anybody who's seen the movie will almost certainly recognize those lines, and I find myself wondering as to what their reactions will be like.

I'm not certain if "A Song for Vargas" will be included in the compilation. Fully Booked's announcement enumerates five of the finalists (including "Atha" and "A Strange Map of Time"), but doesn't mention "A Song for Vargas" in any way. Did they remove it from the running? Did they edit it for better public consumption? Or do they plan to release it as it was submitted, with the dubious lines intact?

Not that I'm trying to disparage anyone in any way, but I fear for the compilation if the latter case is true. This book is supposed to represent the winners of a high-profile writing contest sponsored by Neil Gaiman himself. How is an audience supposed to feel if one of the stories inside showcases a set of lines that were "borrowed" (deliberately or unconsciously) from an existing work?

I'm still not planning to pick up the book. But you can bet that I'll be sneaking a look at some of the copies, if only to see how Fully Booked decided to handle the matter. In the meantime, though, I'll be hoping that somebody doesn't do something that might turn out to be a huge mistake.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Fiction: Tech Support

(A note from the author:)

Twenty-two hours after I originally posted this short story, I received a request to have it optioned for publication. Given this arrangement, I feel that it would be disadvantageous to the publisher if this work was still available online. I have therefore removed it from availability.

I take this moment to apologize to anyone who expected something to read here, and I fully intend to make up for it with further works. In the meantime, I thank everyone who managed to catch the story during its brief stint online.


Monday, September 03, 2007


This weekend came and went in a blur, a corrugated sheet of gray speckled with rust from the recent rains. On Saturday I sat down and wrote a monthly disclaimer in a bid to lift my troubled spirits... but then I read it again, and I saw exactly how far I had regressed.

I spent Sunday in a daze, as though I wanted to drink myself under the table, imbibe vast quantities of non-prescription drugs, and jump off the edge of a building all at the same time. It was my diet that ultimately saved me -- I haven't had a dose of Mountain Dew for months now, and I'll be damned if I go to that great editorial desk in the sky without having soused myself silly.

It is at points like these that I have to distract myself. I had a lot of alternatives for this in the past -- sometimes I could play a few games of Magic and concentrate on game strategy rather than the events of a turbulent life, or sometimes I could busy myself with running a tournament and shut all other concerns from my mind. Sometimes I could even read -- yes, reading helps -- but after a while it becomes just like that medicine you've been taking since you were a child: Cheap, overused, and completely ineffective.

I am now left with two options. The first is work, and I suppose that it's inevitable. Work tends to drain all personal thoughts from my head; My nine-to-five hours on weekdays are a constant struggle between making my customers happy and getting my colleagues satisfied. Work leaves me with little regard for my own well-being, so short of being discovered dead at my own desk, it probably counts as a definite distraction.

The other option involves writing. No, posts like this don't count; I refer to short fiction, the demon that sits continually on my right shoulder. There are suddenly so many deadlines and so little time -- Dean Alfar's deadline is on September 15, Fully Booked's contest runs until October 31, and Philippine Genre Stories has a Christmas special in the works. You'd think that, with so many months to have filtered plotlines and written drafts, I'd already have something in mind for any of these contests. You'd be wrong, much to your chagrin and much to my desperation.

And now I'm even afraid to sleep. My dreams have colored themselves the same shade of rust-spotted gray.

When life brings you low, it doesn't just bring you down low; It kicks you to the curb and stands there, watching your blood run cold into the gutters. Sometimes it laughs.

Somewhere in the rain, the crows are watching. They're waiting for an old storyteller to pound the pavement and give up.

Somewhere in the crowd, that same old storyteller looks up and feels the rainwater running down the sides of his face.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Disclaimer: September 2007

Sean I be.
Sean I be.
I am just me,
Yes, Sean I be.

I write my posts
Both here and there
I write my posts
Most everywhere

I'd say I write them
In a box
Or say I write them
With a fox
But I don't write them
On a boat
And I don't write them
With a goat
No, I am not
No Doctor Seuss
I'm just a Sean
And that's obtuse.

But I did write these,
Sean I be.
I wrote these posts,
As you can see.

Not all the stuff here
Is of mine
But I say where these came from
All the time.

I hope that no one
Takes this stuff.
I spent time on it,
Work enough.
I wouldn't like it,
Sean I be
If someone takes it.
They're not me.

I did not write them
In the rain
I did not write them
On a train
I did not write them
On a house
I did not write them
With a mouse.
But I still wrote them,
As you see.
And I should claim them,
Sean I be.

If you want something,
Let me say
That you should make it
Your own way.
Don't put your name
On someone's stuff.
They worked hard for it,
Worked enough.
Don't say you wrote it,
That's too much.
You know you did not
Do as such.

And maybe someday
You will see
You'll write much more
Than even me.
You'll write much better
Perhaps more skilled than
Sean I be.

So Sean I be,
Yes, Sean I be.
I wrote these words.
Yes, Sean I be.