Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rewriter's Block

Somewhere around the deadline for the last Fully Booked contest, I noted that I was leaving a trail of unfinished, unpolished, or otherwise unsubmitted stories behind me. While this was to be expected — I mean, what writer doesn't maintain an archive of unpublished works? — my practical side was telling me that these were all such a waste of words and filespace. Some of these things would probably be readable after a little waxing and buffing, after all.

Another issue, I think, were the technical limitations. I've had three or four computers conk out during my lifetime, for example, and I'm not in the habit of making regular backups of my stuff. That means that I've lost my full archives around two or three times so far, and there are some of those missing works that I'd like to have back, if only because I could have used them in one way or another.

The problem, however, lies in exactly how I expect to use them. The obvious answer involves rewriting, adjusting and submitting these... but would that compromise our drive for original works? I mean, any time I spend making changes to these old writings can just as easily be spent coming up with completely new ones.

So now I'm wrestling with quite a few questions: Is it logical, ethical, and practical to re-use old works somehow? Is there a limit to what you can do with these old works? Should it be done only within a certain frequency?

My submission to the last Fully Booked contest, for example, was a revised version of Mausoleum 618, which I had previously submitted to the yearly Philippine Spec Fic anthology over a year ago. For that purpose, I kept the original concept (as well as most of the first page that I posted), added a second voice narrative to flesh things out, put in a bit more research, pulled some of the more clich├ęd aspects, and basically doubled the length of the story. Despite the work, however, I'm not sure if it counts as a completely new story... nor am I convinced that I should have just left it in my archives to rot.

Some thoughts on the matter would be helpful, of course. This is a strong consideration for me right now, as there are some heavy deadlines coming up, and I know of at least two old short stories that I would like to put through the critical wringer. I'll still be coming up with original ideas from my end, of course... but I'd also like to know if it's honest for me to take a few things out of the attic and find some use for them.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

...And More!

And now, a rundown of literary deadlines that I will try to meet for the first half of this year:

Story Philippines / Philippine Genre Stories collaboration: No requirements outlined, no word limit given. While PGS has primarily been all about the Speculative Fiction, Story Philippines seems to take on literary works in general. The editors are Jade Bernas and Kenneth Yu. They'll be picking out about six to eight stories, although there's no word yet on what will happen when a paperback-sized digest meets a poster-sized magazine. (I assume that it's the same thing that will happen when an irresistible force meets an immovable object.) Deadline is February 28, 2008.

The Farthest Shore: Fantasy from the Philippines: Stories must be of the traditional ("high") fantasy or epic fantasy subgenre, maximum 7,500 words. An electronic publication venue is expected — works will be made available via PDF. Payment is PhP500.00 for each story accepted; The editors are Dean Alfar and Joseph Nacino. The lack of any page limits in the electronic world implies that they can pick out any number of entries that they want, if they don't mind a resulting filesize that makes servers cry. Deadline is April 15, 2009.

The 2009 Palanca Awards: They finally have a web site! No formal announcement yet, but we all know that these things come around in March or April each year. Stories must have been written in the last year, and must belong to one of their specified categories; if you've written something for Future Fiction, you're out of luck. Winners get their stories published... er... nowhere, actually — but they'll at least feel good about beating out almost every other writer in the country. No genre restrictions, no word limits, and no guarantee that they'll be generous enough to award first place to anyone. Deadline is unknown, but either March 31 or April 30, 2009 seems likely.

And now, a short glimpse of me panicking at the sight of three deadlines bunched closely together, especially with my current workload:

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AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA... *deep breath* ...AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
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AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!@#$%!

.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Written in the Stars

Today happens to be the last day of the year in the Chinese lunar calendar, which means that tomorrow is the first day of the Year of the Ox, the latest in a traditional twelve-year cycle of animal mascots. Tomorrow morning, in fact, is expected to bring a lot of events for the local Chinese population — probably involving dancing dragons, loud firecrackers, and rice desserts sticky enough to thicken your stomach wall by a couple more inches.

From a more personal point of view, I was born in the Year of the Goat, way back in 1979... which means that I turn 30 sometime this May. (Pity me.) My association with this unfortunate animal that eats cans and gives milk, moreover, means that its implications can be compared against the representation of the new year. I assume that this forms the backbone of the contemporary Chinese horoscope, and it supposedly tells me how I'm expected to fare in the coming twelve months.

As a contemporary person living in a scientific world, I don't place much stock in horoscope readings. They feel speculative to me at best, more like a series of very general predictions that only end up correct by means of random chance. In fact, given how my year is turning out so far, I'm inclined to think that nothing that the rest of the calendar year can offer could possibly get much worse...

This may not be as favorable as a year that you desire.

Whoa. What?

Coming off the year of the Rat, you may be seeking relief from the difficult year. Don't let up now.

Well... that's nice to hear. Even the horoscopes are against me, it seems.

It will take an extra effort to rely on the help of others to make it through these times, but if you keep a steady focus on your goals and display painstaking efforts, you will be pleased to see the fruits of your labor arrive next year. Don't fret, as you may learn a lot about yourself in the process. You may learn that you are more versatile, as well as resourceful, than you ever imagined.

Isn't this a bit of a standard template for Chinese horoscopes? I mean, regardless of what animal mascot dances over your star chart, you always get encouraged to work hard. I mean, you have to... otherwise what kind of world would this be?

If you don't make some changes in your routine, you may experience health issues this year. Watch what you eat, as this will go a long way towards living a healthier life.

Considering that I'm on a fair diet right now (involving abstinence from bacon, sausages and many, many other things that I'd love to consume without regard for the state of my arteries), this does not amuse me in any way.

But then, what does this mean, anyway? The last time I checked, I was a believer in fate as a non-entity, ergo, a world where each of us shapes our own destiny rather than having some outside omnipotent force lay it all out for us. A horoscope is a creative bit of writing, I assume, but nothing more than that.

Goats usually complain loudest in Ox years. the claim that they are being misunderstood by the powers-that-be. And they are. Goats don’t like to be told what to do any more than anyone else does.

Do... you... mind? I'm trying to write a blog post here!

Ox years are definitely not your favorites. Of course you have to work harder than usual which ordinarily you don't mind. You can work as hard as the next guy and for a far longer stint. It's the yoke that is so heavy and itches when it's hot outside. You hate to be dictated to, prefer to be left to your own creative devices and be allowed to get on with your own signature endeavors. If truth be told, deep down, you really wish you had a kindly venture capitalist camping in your backyard who would finance the rest of your unusual life.

Well... that part about the venture capitalist may be true (despite the fact that they would definitely not be camping in my backyard), but that doesn't change anything. Horoscopes are woefully inconsistent and highly prone to human interpretation, even if the same reference materials are used. And there's no guarantee that the reference materials may even be correct in the first place!

To be honest, I really see no reason to believe how a bunch of twelve animal representations can dictate what my life will be like within the next twelve months. It's the stuff of markteting and commercial promotion, really, not of faith and trepidation.

During the Ox year, [Goat] people need to be cautious and enjoy simple pleasures, rather than spending extravagantly or making huge changes.

That said, the unified prognosis is looking rather grim...

On and off, there’ll be tensions with other people. Stay tactful and diplomatic, but do stick up for yourself and express your feelings. Expect there to be extra chores and calls on your time.

Ugh. This is just reading worse and worse. It's time to close the book on this one and move forward with my actual life.

The Chinese horoscope isn't the only one around, of course. Most of us should probably be familiar with the traditional Zodiac-based horoscope based upon Western constellations. Curiously enough, this astrological practice eschews year-long predictions in favor of day-to-day reports for some reason; among such star charts and planetary alignments, I happen to be a Taurus. That means that...

Things will move in the career front in such a way that you will be able to experience intrinsic satisfaction along with materialistic progression in the form of increment in salary or status. However, increased work-load that makes it difficult to balance career and domestic commitments may leave some of you worried. Success comes to you only after hard efforts during this year – but that should be no reason to sulk for the hard-working Taureans, as hard work comes to you naturally!

...

...

...Maybe I should just go back to bed for the rest of the year.

*Sighs*

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Games People Play

I found myself laughing rather hard this evening.

I had a little bit of time between going out of the office and heading home (blowing off an ill-timed Friday night meeting in the process), so I stuck around the nearest mall and watched the first round of a Friday Night Magic tournament. There, a friend was playing around with a deck that had been cobbled together from some of the worst cards I'd ever seen... and he was dumbfounding some of the tournament-savvy veterans with more than a few unlikely wins. In what I assumed was the highest point of his evening, he took down a opponent's expensive deck in a single turn with three cards that probably cost him less than a single can of Coke.

It's difficult for me to describe what he did, because I have to assume that not every person out there plays Magic. Nevertheless, his little play went as follows:
With a 1/1 Manaplasm and a Crafty Pathmage(!) in play, he first taps the Pathmage to make the Manaplasm unblockable until end of turn. Then he proceeds to play Sangrite Surge on the Manaplasm, giving it +3/+3 and double strike, as well as an additional +6/+6 from its own ability. The result: a 10/10 unblockable Manaplasm with double strike, which dealt 20 damage to his surprised opponent and won the game in a single move.
I'm not sure if you understood that, but heck, I laughed. I laughed so hard that I had to move away from the crowd just to get some air.

And it's not just Magic, of course — it's the games. It's about how funny these games can get sometimes.

I remember a game of Cluedo played one boring afternoon many years ago, for example. I remember that the person in the lead was running Professor Plum up and down the board, pulling the rest of us into the mansion's rooms, figuring out what cards we had in hand, and filling out his notebook far faster than the rest of us. It was obvious that he was in the lead, and after a few more minutes he tossed down his cards and triumphantly announced that it was, well... Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with the Revolver.

He was reaching for the envelope when a tiny voice piped up: "But that's wrong."

"No, that's right. Why?"

"Because," said the astute opponent, pointing at said player's discarded hand, "you have Colonel Mustard among your cards."

I love unexpected comeuppances like that, especially when it gets the whole table laughing. And it's not even just the errant Colonel Mustard and his trusty revolver, mind you. It's a whole lot of things:

...It's that drawing in Pictionary that you and everyone else immediately associate with a horse, or a cow, or a bull... only to find out that it's actually the artist's best attempt at a self-portrait.

...It's that game of Boggle where everybody gets more words than you do, only to lose to some thirteen-letter monstrosity that you picked up while they were writing things down.

...It's that card shark who goes all-in on a pair of Aces into a full house, only to find out that you've been sitting on a straight flush.

...It's that four-year-old who uses the snakes in a game of Snakes and Ladders to move his token ahead instead of behind. (When we asked him why he was playing against the rules, he insisted that the snake was eating the token and then "pooping it out".)

...It's that game of chess where one of those little pawns manages to deliver checkmate.

...It's that row of hotel-lined properties — Kentucky Avenue, Indiana Avenue, Illinois Avenue — that you somehow manage to avoid for five straight circuits because your dice arm wouldn't quit.

...It's that five-card sequence in Blackjack where you keep screaming "hit me!", only to come up two points short of twenty-one.

...It's that little tile that you just know is going to knock the entire Jenga tower down, that you somehow manage to pull out anyway, leaving a rickety and unstable tower still standing after your miniscule transgression.

...It's that irritating guy who somehow manages to bogart two Triple-Letter Scores at once.

...It's that little airplane that nobody can ever seem to find on a Battleship chart... if only because you keep moving the darn thing around.

...

I suppose that if I look real hard for a reason as to why I play these sorts of things, I'll find it here. Hopefully it won't be too difficult to see.

:)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hey Hey, It's Your Birthday

No, things aren't too good on my side just yet.

For instance, I spent a solid two months telling myself that a certain birthday was coming up this January. At that point, one day after that birthday had passed, I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to remember the date, after which I spent the next ten minutes banging my head on the wall.

To be fair, that birthday came in the middle of a two-day training session for me at work. Moreover, this training session was particularly important for my office tasks, which meant that I struggled to stay awake throughout most of the two days. The fact that I'm still not getting much sleep at night due to recent events has not helped.

That's why I feel like an idiot right now. I know that the birthday girl in question is a forgiving sort when it comes to things like this (or at least, I hope that that's the case), but that still doesn't keep me from feeling like an idiot right now. Normally I'm pretty good at remembering things like these; I'm not sure why my mind decided to turn on me for just this one moment.

It's probably the stress, and considering the symptoms that I've observed recently, it's become quite obvious that my personal stress is affecting my movements.

When this happens, I usually look for a release — perhaps a project or a diversion of some sort, so that I can absorb myself in some constructive activity until it passes. The difference here is that I'm left lethargic enough to do nothing but lie in bed and doze off; while that would be good under some circumstances, it doesn't quite hold against my preferences.

No, I'm still not good right now. I feel a little like the guy who missed out on the fried chicken dinner, and only got to the table in time to get the bones.

If you're reading this, birthday girl: I wish you a Happy Birthday. I'm sorry that I couldn't remember to mention this within the proper time and context, but I can't take back the past no matter how much I'd like to right now.

If anyone needs me, I'll be back in my cave, sulking.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Business Math

My family's bakeshop used to have three branches. I mention this because, until recently, the third branch ran for almost thirty years beside an auto-mechanic's garage somewhere on the edge of the Sta. Mesa district of Manila.

Last December, however, the new owner of the lot decided that they would no longer renew our rental... so, sometime around the first week of January, we finally shut down the place. In retrospect, this made for some interesting timing, as my mother had been wondering how to adjust the direction of her operations for some time now.

At the moment, the bakeshop is in negotiations for a new concessionaire in the heart of one of the local malls. Normally this would be quite simple — we'd just go to the mall owners, work out a rental arrangement, then set up shop on a given date. Instead, we've found out that the concept of "fixed rent" is apparently a thing of the past: Rather than pay a fixed amount per month, we're now being asked to provide a certain percentage of our gross sales (in addition to the standard utlities payment) in exchange for the space.

This brought up some interesting questions for my mother: Was this a good deal? Would the bakeshop be able to absorb a proportional share of its sales, rather than a given fixed amount? And if the offer was open to negotiation, for what percentage value should they negotiate?

And, because I was the family mathematician, all this landed on my table one evening sometime in the middle of last week. The worse part was that it was hard to resist a good math problem regardless of how depressed I felt about my current situation.

So I had a mall agency asking for a rental rate of N percent of our gross sales each month. I had a fixed amount of utilities charges, and I not only had a question of how to perform the negotiations, but also a question of how the stall was supposed to operate under these conditions.

The first thing I did, therefore, was to take a look at one of the bakeshop's two other branches. For its part, this one was located in the middle of a supermarket, and was my closest comparison to a mall concessionaire that would conceivably pull in at least the same number of customers each day. Said supermarket stall averaged about S pesos' worth of sales each month in 2008.

Now I needed to figure out how much profit we made from the supermarket branch; this would be our minimum target profit from the mall concessionaire. The way I figured it, I had the equation:

Ss = Ms + Rs + Us + Es + P

Where:

Ss = Gross sales of the supermarket branch per month;
Ms = Material cost for the supermarket branch per month (i.e. raw materials);
Rs = Rental for the supermarket branch per month;
Us = Utilities for the supermarket branch per month;
Es = Other expenses for the supermarket branch — such as transportation, payroll, spoilage, insurance, and zombie repellent — per month;
P = Profit (!) per month.

Given this, Es + P = Ss - (Ms + Rs + Us). I had figures for everything but P and Es, but the value of (Es + P) at least gave me a base idea of how much money we wanted to make as profit from the mall concessionaire.

Now it was a question of following a similar equation for the mall concessionaire:

Sm = Mm + Rm + Um + Em + P

Except that, since the rental value Rm would be N percent of gross sales, I could easily do a replacement here:

Sm = Mm + (N/100)Sm + Um + Em + P

I knew what our raw material cost Mm was, what the mall's utilities charges Um would be like, and I knew what profit P we wanted, based on the supermarket branch. The only value I didn't have was Em, so I had to assume that we had an equal amount of expenses for both branches. Thus Em = Es, and therefore Em + P = Es + P, and I could get the value for Es + P from my earlier calculations.

As a result:

Sm = Mm + (N/100)Sm + Um + Em + P

Sm - (N/100)Sm = Mm + Um + Em + P

(1 - (N/100))Sm = Mm + Um + Em + P

Sm = (Mm + Um + Em + P)/(1 - (N/100))

For the mall concessionaire, given that I had an estimate for raw material costs (Mm), its utilities charges (Um) and an idea of how much money I wanted to make (Em + P), I could easily calculate the needed mall sales Sm from there.

As an example, let's suppose that we used up about Php 40,000 in raw materials each month for a given branch, that the mall would charge us 25% of all gross sales per month as rental, that the mall utility charges were Php 2,000.00 a month, and that the profit + additional expenses from the supermarket stall that we wanted to make was Php 50,000.00. That meant:

Sm = (Mm + Um + Em + P)/(1 - (N/100))

Sm = 40000 + 2000 + 50000/(1-0.25)

Sm = (92000)/(0.75)

Sm = 122666.6667

...Which means that, under those circumstances, we would need to attain gross sales of about Php 123,000.00 a month to make about the same profit that we were getting from the supermarket.

That left the question of how far we could negotiate the percentage rate of rental. To find that, I just assumed that our gross sales for the two branches would be the same, and calculated the corresponding percentage based on that:

(1 - (N/100))Sm = Mm + Um + Em + P

1 - (N/100) = (Mm + Um + Em + P)/Sm

1 - ((Mm + Um + Em + P)/Sm) = (N/100)

100 - 100((Mm + Um + Em + P)/Sm) = N

...Where Sm = Ss.

For another example, let's suppose that our supermarket gross sales were Php 100,000.00 a month. Let's also assume that our raw material cost held steady at Php 40,000 a month, that the mall utility charges were still Php 2,000.00 a month, and that the profit + additional expenses from the supermarket stall that we wanted to make was still Php 50,000.00.

100 - 100((Mm + Um + Em + P)/Sm) = N

100 - 100((40000 + 2000 + 50000)/100000) = N

100 - 100((92000)/100000) = N

100 - 100(0.92) = N

100 - 92 = N

N = 8

...Which means that any rental rate lower than 8% would have been better for us. Thus we would have started somewhere around this area — perhaps 5%, with the intent of maxing out at around 8% or so.

As it turned out, however, the rental rate was non-negotiable. The space was still attractive, however, and the additional sales we would need to make didn't look much higher, so we elected to plan it out further. As I write this, we're now in the middle of acquiring better expense data in order to improve my calculations; this should give us a solid sales quota per month that we can target.

Eventually we'll have to watch this as time goes on. Our initial sales are likely to fall short of target, for example, as people get accustomed to our presence. Then, once we get a small but steady group of buyers, we need to track whether or not we're gaining back our losses, or possibly check the rate at which we're gaining this per month. From there, it'll be a matter of sales charts, business forecasts, and other possible logical progressions.

Today, however, it's just about the theoretical algebra. And that's what I do, really.

News from the Depths

Last night I dreamt that I had lost an entire hoard of cash.

I used to have this little envelope when I was a kid, you see. It was one of those business-reply envelopes that magazine companies usually send out whenever they want to encourage people to send a response. This one in particular was self-gummed and didn't need a stamp; I probably asked for an envelope one day, and was given the first thing in hand.

I put my pack-rat tendencies to good use and kept my savings in that envelope. I didn't spend a certain portion of my allowance, and I could never pass by a bank on a regular basis, so that little white envelope became my financial storage bin for a couple of years. I don't think that I ever had more than two thousand pesos in that envelope, but I only kept it around till I was about thirteen or so.

In this dream, however, not only was the envelope apparently still around, but I imagined that there was a good seventy-two thousand pesos tucked away inside. And it was missing from its usual hiding-place underneath an old dresser drawer, so I was tearing up the entire house looking for it.

I remember going through some very extreme measures. I was interrogating some faceless family members about the money, for one. I was tearing open the pillows, smashing the cabinets apart, even pulling down doors in case somebody had the foresight to hide the envelope in their frames. I was somewhere in the middle of sifting through the resulting wreckage when I finally woke up, sometime around noon on a fair Saturday morning.

As is usually the case with my most vivid dreams, I glanced at the Internet for some answers. This one caught my attention in particular (from Dreammoods.com):

To dream that you lose money, signifies temporary unhappiness in the home and a few setbacks in your affairs. You may be feeling weak, vulnerable, and out of control in your waking life. Additionally, you may be lacking ambition, power and self-esteem.

Yup, that sounds about right.

I've already mentioned that I'm going through a rough patch at the moment, although I'll spare everyone the sordid details. It's partly emotional, partly social, and partly psychological, if you must know, and if that doesn't make sense at all, that's because the cause is a conflux of different events happening at around the same time.

Times like these usually drain me of the desire to write. Fiction in particular becomes quite difficult to work out, although it makes a useful outlet for my frustrations. With that said, however, I'll still try to put together a few essays. Writing, after all, is a matter of scribbling things down, even when you're going through the blockiest phases of your life.

Let's not raise any illusions in the meantime, though: I'm not in a good turn right now, and it'll probably show. But the thing about all downturns is that there's likely to be an upturn somewhere — in this case, it'll just be a matter of time before I work it out.

Till then, however, may you all stay safe and happy out there.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fiction: Temperature

It is twenty-one degrees in Manila, and the monitor hums in the dead of night.

Somewhere in the metropolis, a young woman lies back against her pillow and closes her eyes. The movies play in her mind then, still images cast upon sharp silver screens. Laughter and sorrow come at the same time to the depths of her eyes, and she breathes them into the dust of dreams, to play across shades of gray while the moon casts its smile about her form.

She reaches for her dresser, serendipity guiding her touch, and finds the book. It is both new and old at the same time, and she feels the scent of words upon hundreds of pages. Now she smiles at the memory of its arrival, remembrance fallen tightly against her heart... and she sets the story aside for a different occasion. Perhaps there shall be a different place, and perhaps there shall be a different person, his image burned against the parallax of her thoughts. But it is now night in the metropolis, and such matters are best kept for another day.

She returns the book where she found it, its pages crisp to her unhallowed touch.

A little while later, she turns off the light.


*


It is twenty-one degrees in Manila, and the wires clutch against the carpeted floor.

On the twentieth level of his office, a young man stares into an infinite array of letters and numbers. On the soft white screen before him, twos turn into baleful threes and fives turn into larger successions of random variables. Behind him, the living entity of business slithers throughout its day, leaving trails of paper for the interns to find.

He nudges a cup of coffee, half-full and cold with the tenets of idle philosophy scattering in the breeze. The plate-glass windows cast long shadows across his desk, pale and sunlit with empty promise, and for a moment he closes his eyes, wondering what lies beneath the thin veneer of charts and keywords and empty suits.

Later that evening on the same day, he will walk across a pitiless driveway into a nameless white car, and there he will sleep. The images in the fog shall dance before his eyes, those stories of trust and nobility, of subversion and satisfaction. But in the merest of hours, the mastery of the schedule shall remain dominant, and for this fantasy he is content to wait.

Now the force of the deadline looms, and he returns to his work. Some small part of his mind yet remains, wandering like a mote of dust through the ancient environment, pausing at the faintest hint of sound in the distance.


*


It is twenty-one degrees in Manila, and the keyboard chatters upon the squalid air.

A thousand miles away, a young woman remembers what she has lost. The tears stream from the corners of her eyes, faster and faster until the torrent threatens to drown the world, and she stills herself so that she can breathe.

Now the lid of the little plastic bottle is open, and now she crams handfuls of swollen yellow capsules into her mouth, spitting and swallowing and crying at the same time, not caring what they are or who may find her in her last hours. The world is a fine blend of darkness and mist, and nothing she knows can show her the light.

She drowses after a while, and the bottle falls from her hand to spill its remaining contents on the floor. There is a bed behind her, soft brown sheets that cradle her hair as it frames her face. She can see beyond the ceiling from where she lies, past the roof and past the sky to the moon and the boundless shining stars.

She holds her dreams close, those shards that lay scattered upon the golden surface of existence, and realizes that slumber now lies waiting.

Now she closes her eyes, and suddenly she is among the stars.


*


It is twenty-one degrees in Manila, and now the computer dies. It settles, copper and silicon running in veins to rest in their homes, and it waits for the endless toil of the next day.

The young man pushes back the chair. The headphones feel heavy against the sides of his face, and he pulls them off. The table is filled with countless objects, all carried there and ignored, and he sets a few aside.

Now he catches his breath, the sensation of air filling the knowledge of his universe and the strangeness within. Now his senses go slack and float away. leaving only the faintest memories of time and sorrow.

And now the dim light of sleep comes into his eyes, and he marvels at how the remnants of his mind so resemble motes of dust.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Hot Off the Shelves

For the last five days, Banzai Cat has asked: All things being equal, would you pick up a copy of Pelevin, or a copy of Pynchon?

While I'd like to give him a straight answer, I admit that I'm not advanced enough to know who Pelevin and Pynchon are, much less what their writing style is like. All things being equal, I'd just flip a coin and walk away with a random volume... and I'm pretty sure that he wouldn't appreciate that kind of wishy-washy answer.

His dilemma did get me thinking, however: Just how do we pick out books from the shelves? I mean, there's got to be a psychological system in there somewhere; otherwise I would barely be reading or exploring stuff in the first place. Such a system wouldn't guarantee that one would pick the best books, of course, but I imagine that there should be some sort of logic behind our selection process.

For starters, let's assume that we have a "random" bookstore: It should contain a collection of books resembling what you might find in a contemporary place of sale (i.e. not a library, for reasons that will be important later on), which means that everything available there should reflect whatever is also available for sale at this current period of time. Its collection should be properly divided among a number of atypical genres (e.g. "General Fiction", "Mystery", "Horror", and so forth). The shelves should be arranged with the various works by various authors in alphabetical order. And finally, let's assume that we're loose inside such a bookstore, free to pick out whatever you want and bring it to the checkout counter.

Given this hypothetical scenario, to which section — and which books — would we gravitate? What would our probable path look like? And most importantly, what are we most likely to buy?

While the answer would definitely be different for each individual, I know that I have a personal "system" that I invariably follow. From first to last:

1. Section. I think that a lot of people go through the various genres in some order; I usually go through Magazines, then Fantasy, then Science Fiction, then the Graphic Novels. From there, it's invariably the Hobby and Reference books, then the Young Adult section, then perhaps the New Releases and General Fiction areas. (Mystery and Horror are saved for the book sales.)

The first few sections obviously reflect my personal interests: I look for plotlines with interesting premises, or at least some quick reads. Then I look for anything that rewards analytical (but non-speculative, non-abstract) thinking. Beyond that, it downgrades into a search for "interesting-looking stuff".

2. Author. People probably have a tendency to look for familiar authorship. If you've read and enjoyed a given work in the past, then you're likely to hold that author in higher esteem the next time you pick out a book. If anything, it makes them a better prospect than the rest of the faceless crowd.

I've already mentioned that I tend towards Terry Pratchett, Lillian Jackson Braun, Roald Dahl, and Stephen King's short stories... but I also work up the urge to pick up George R. R. Martin's books, and browse through anything by Clifford Pickover or Martin Gardner. Dr. Dennis Shasha is probably the newest addition to my list here, and I add a new name about twice a year or so.

3. Placement. Assuming that I don't find anything interesting from a familiar author, I proceed to scan the shelves. Space is usually tight in large-scale stores like our hypothetical one, which means that bookshelves are usually packed from top to bottom. I feel that this provides an important make-or-break scenario, because casual browsers are more likely to check the upper rows than the lower ones. (A person who squats down to look at the bottom row is either a voracious reader, or is looking for something really specific.)

4. Title. A strange-sounding or interesting-looking title is usually enough motivation for me to pull a book off the shelf and thumb through it. Enough said, really.

5. Cover Illo. There are a number of things that turn me on about certain covers. I like hand-painted fine art, for instance, or at least some sort of filigreed design that indicates that somebody put a lot of work into the cover. If a book is part of a series, then some progression on the part of the cover illustration is attractive to me.

I usually don't pick up minimalist cover designs unless the title is really strong; these place a lot of pressure on the book's contents in order to hook readers, but if the writing style is slow and deliberate, then I don't think that a casual glance through the book will be enough for a trip to the cashier. I also avoid covers that depict full-blown stereotypes (e.g. killer cyborg robots hunting a man with a really big gun and a woman wearing a loincloth), because those aren't good testaments as to what lies within. And as a rule, any cover where the author's name is in a larger font than the title should be avoided like the plague.

6. Synopsis. A synopsis can make up for anything as long as it's written right. The most prominent experience I had here involved a certain copy of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which, despite its humdrum impression and mundane cover image, nevertheless got me taking it home in a paper bag.

I feel that a good synopsis has to follow a number of unspoken rules: First, it shouldn't give away any critical plot points. Second, it shouldn't bombard the reader with technical terms. Third, it should raise at least one point of interest, some compelling reason for a person to open the book and find out what happens. (As you can probably imagine, mystery novels are good at this sort of thing.)

I find that I tend to get bored by synopses that focus on themes that I see explored on a regular basis (e.g. "save the world" scenarios, poor-boy-and-princess stories, anything involving dragons). In addition to that, I feel that character names are just as important as a first impression — I can never relate to any synopsis that features what seems like a silly-sounding name to me.

7. Price Tag. I'm a cheap man. If I feel that the book isn't worth the price tag stuck to its back cover, then I put it back on the shelf. It's for this reason that I almost exclusively pick up paperback volumes, and even then only if they're somewhere around Php200.00 or so. (I'm willing to pay up to about Php500.00 for something that's hard to find, though.) Graphic novels often bear the brunt of my irrationality here — I usually don't feel that a 120-page collection of art and dialogue has enough repeat value to justify a Php1500.00 price.

8. Coin Flip. When all else fails and I'm down to picking out one of many volumes, I flip a coin — literally. I've had salesladies give me amused looks while doing so.

...And that's why, if it were to come down to Pelevin and Pynchon where all other things are equal, I'd pull out my wallet and see if I have change.

The system is probably different for each and every one of us, but I hypothesize that we hold one thing in common: The lower the distinction goes on the list for each book that we pick out, the greater the chance that we can just chuck it away before we reach the counter. That means that if we ever run into circumstances where it's practical to pull something out of the basket and deposit on an idle shelf (such as insufficient funds or a long line at the cashier), it's most likely something of low hierarchy that we leave behind.

I would be greatly interested to find out (or figure out) if anyone else uses such a system, and if so, the degree to which it resembles the one I have here. Over twenty years and some good exposure to some noble "pack rat" tendencies, this usually results in a lot of books... as well as enough idle time to come up with strange analyses like this.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Disclaimer: January 2009

Happy New Year, everybody.

I'd post something more substantial with regards to the transition from one year to the next, but I don't feel like doing that at the moment. The last couple of days have brought about a few... surprises... for me, so to speak, and I'm still going through the adjustment phases. Maybe after I finally manage to get a picture of that cow bank I got for Christmas...

For anyone who's just recently joined us, I post a little disclaimer at the start of every month. While it's somewhat unnecessary due to the Note of Ownership and the Creative Commons License noted on the sidebar of my main site, I feel that it's best to have a constant reminder that's accessible through the front page. Over the years, it's evolved into a little creative exercise — each month, I try to present my legal terms without crossing the line into near-incomprehensibility. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it does work more often than not.

Regardless of the month, however, there are some primary elements that are common to all of these posts:

1. Establishment of a base statement of possession: "I am the originator of each and every post on this weblog. I therefore own each such post as an original work."

2. Note of exception and acknowledgment of external sources: "Some items in these posts reference the works of other creators. In these cases, acknowledgment is duly given to these creators."

3. Active monitoring of acknowledgment: "In the event that proper acknowledgment is not sufficiently provided, I will remedy this situation upon notification in a non-hostile manner."

4. Guidelines for fair use and treatment: "If you want to use anything from this blog, you only have to ask me. I reserve the right to ask for compensation, although this is likely to be trivial (such as a link or a byline of sorts). You must not quote any such material out of context, or use it specifically for harmful purposes."

5. Mention of Creative Commons License: "This blog is an adherent of the Creative Commons License, a link to which may be found on the bottom sidebar of the main site."

6. Formal statement against plagiaristic threats: "Do not plagiarise any content from me, or I will print out multiple copies of the work in question and feed it to you bit by stolen bit. It will amuse me greatly to do so, and that's not even considering the legal options."

And with that, another year is now upon us. Stay safe, everyone, and don't forget that you can make a masterpiece of your own as long as you set your mind to it.