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Brian J. W. Lee is a writer. When he's not writing, he's plotting to plunge the world in a deep chasm of terror, darkness and screams. Sorry, did I get carried away?

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Let's Talk Writing: The Four Horsemen

As it is right now, I believe this period of time to be the most stressful for me where writing, publishing and my literary career is concerned. Every factor that could impede my progress seemed to have appeared, swarming me from all corners of the world.

I call them the Four Horsemen.

Not the kind of guests you'd want to bring home for dinner...

We all know the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Pestilence, War, Famine, Death. Those were pretty much the bane of human civilisation.

Now I assert that writers have their own Four Horsemen to fear, and they will usher in a dark age of no-writing if they succumb to them. These are what I am currently fighting against now, and my only weapon is my laptop, which lags sometimes when I play videos on Youtube or even open up LibreOffice:

The First Horseman: People

Astride a many-coloured horse with seven heads, People, the many-faced, many-limbed horseman of a writer's doom will watch you, follow you wherever you go, playing tricks on you rather than running you down outright.

While it might sound anti-social, yes, people do become a liability when it comes to writing sometimes, and it can get really bad if several of them decided to pile on top of you, knowingly or unknowingly. Bosses could hate you for the codes you live by, and berate you if you're not a robot but a human being who needs a break every now and then, and you happen to use it to put down a few sentences. Family and friends might discourage you from even attempting to write professionally. They might distract you, not recognising the writing space you need.

Then there's all that bullying and harassing and rapey and hurty and murdery things a select few of them loves to engage in. You certainly won't be penning down some words when you're stuck in some madman's dungeon.

You're not even safe from other writers. They will have their own agendas. Some might be over-competitive jerks who want to bring down the competition (read: YOU), while others will unknowingly destroy you with bad attitude when they thought they are helping when you wouldn't follow their prescribed path to success. In fact, writers are the worst of them if they choose to destroy you, as they will turn their mastery of the language against you, making sure that their words will cause maximum harm while the intention will be too well hidden from those not in the know.

Avoiding people entirely and becoming a monk on a mountain is not the answer, however. You'd have to use your discretion to avoid the People Horseman, while bringing those who are not affiliated with it into your circle.

The Second Horseman: Establishment

Clopping heavily to the forefront, man and horse completely encased in chain-mail and plates with crossbows and swords and lances at its disposal, Establishment looks on from a distance, waiting for you to wince or show any other signs of weakness. It will charge when you do.

It is a known fact that most governments, if not all, will never let anything that seeks to criticise it, or poke at it in any way, fly. But while the few hundred governmental bodies of the world are popular targets when it comes to accusations of censorship, they are by no means the only thing standing between the writer and his art.

Society itself has conventions, some right and there for a good reason. Others, well, not so much. And some of them don't like your kind snooping around their barns. The mere fact that your country may be inclined towards certain genres may be a problem enough, as it means you would have to write to that market or risk failure. But complementing these everyday folks, artistic conventions could easily limit writers just as much. Genres are as limiting as they are liberating - in my research, I see Christian Fiction as suffering the worst of it, but that's another story altogether, best exemplified by this article: 8 Problems in the Christian Fiction Genre (And How to Fix Them)

The point is, any establishment larger than any one person could spell trouble for the writer, especially when they are actively trying to stick their nose in your affairs when they know no better.

That said, an isolationist measure against the Establishment Horseman is not out of the question, and if you must write about the Establishment, the use of analogies, metaphors, ambiguous language, or being neutral are some of the best weapons you can have to stave off any attacks from them. Guerilla tactics in an asymmetrical theatre of war works for a good reason.

The Third Horseman: Poverty

Floating on impossibly thin legs, a starved horse came forward, bearing an equally skeletal-looking rider, gazing at you hungrily with eyes sunken deep and shriveled up, willing for you to join it. The ground moves forever towards it, and you have to fight to move away from it. Forever, and ever, and ever.

Poverty, or even the effort to avoid poverty, has never been buddies with writing, or anything resembling art and science for that matter. It's a story as old as humanity itself. When your stomach is rumbling and your mouth parched, all you'll be able to think about is food and water. When the day that you'll begin starving is just around the corner, you'll feel just as threatened. There's no denying it; this is how we're programmed, and we're animals first and humans second.

Heck, by the end of my tenure in my telco company, I'll probably have around $2,400 saved up. That's not a lot, not by a long shot, but it does allow me to survive for 4 months if I stretch the money a little.

In the modern world, this is complicated. For me, I've still got my educational debt to worry about. I've got the economy to worry about, and I have to keep hoping that it won't cut off my income stream from whatever day job I've chosen. In pursuing writing, I'm spending money too. I have to read and consume as much, if not more than anyone, and that costs money. Being a self-publisher, I have to spend hundreds, thousands in the long run, to have even the remotest chance of success.  And there are people worse off than me - the fact that they could write and self-publish despite suffering such colossal headaches is admirable.

It is still not enough to stave off the lingering, animal feeling of survival first, thinking later. Writers will have to fight this all the time, and avoid the temptation of giving it all up for a stable, if uncompromisingly anti-art job. And there are people worse off than me.

The best advice I can give is to identify the best job that will give you maximum salary for minimal participation in terms of time. This is not to say that you should slack - no, hard work and smart work is a must. For me, I will be embarking on a career in tutoring and freelancing in T-minus 3 weeks, which will reduce time spent on work by nearly twice, or at least 33% if counting in commuting time. I targeted tutoring because the hourly rate is high, and I seem to be good at it.

Financial management is an important tool too. Minimise your spending. Don't buy unnecessary things. Don't be one of those guys who would spend nearly all of his paycheck per month. On my side, my monthly expenditure is around $800 at most, against a monthly income of about $1800 after deducting social security. That leaves much for investing into my books, amongst other personal things.

The Fourth Horseman: Self

A sickeningly beautiful and dazzling steed meandered on a bend of the road towards you, carrying a person in silver armour. His face is obscured by a great helm that he wore, an ambiguous metal face halved by comedy and tragedy where his true face was. Riding right up to you, he dismounted, and lifted the mask, showing a face truly terrible.

Your own.

He pulled his sword out of its scabbard, but you are unwilling to draw yours.

In the end, your greatest enemy is yourself. It is a common saying, and I fancy that it is as old as dirt. Save for the gravest and terrible of dangers in the flesh, you will ultimately be responsible for some of the pits you fall into, and the biggest problem is... Well, you can't run away from yourself. You can cut off your limbs, shave off your skin and remove all your organs, but even if you're just a brain in a jar, you'll still be with yourself.

See, there are so many things you can do to yourself that would hinder your writing. A moment of laziness at night while you're supposed to be writing could lull you to sleep. A moment of overconfidence could breed a whole slew of mistakes, and they will crawl all over your books like worms and flies and other unpleasant pests and parasites. Dismiss a mistake or a flaw, and it could snowball into a bad review, which would then snowball into poor sales, and then a failed book - which could end your career. A slippery slope, I know, but even a tiny chance of career ruin should have deterred you from any moments of weakness - except it just doesn't happen away sometimes, because we are flawed human beings.

People could let us down, countries could fail us, and the economy could crap on us, but when you give up because of one thing or the other, you'd have stuck the final nail in the coffin yourself.

Discipline, discipline, discpline. That's the main tool you've got against yourself. Be a bit masochistic. Hell, strip yourself naked in an air-conditioned room and write while you're standing if that's what it takes. Ernest Hemingway did that, and it works for him.

Develop a routine that's hard to break. Psyche yourself up everyday, remind yourself of what's at stake. At this, I've gone a bit too far, as I promised myself that I'd kill myself if I've run out of money and couldn't make anymore. That's a great motivation for writing, I guess. Yeah, maybe I'll go see a psychiatrist.


So there you have it - I've been running from four Horsemen who've been chasing me around everywhere I go, and it's been especially pronounced for these past few weeks.

I'll have some important news after a few days.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Brian Reviews #3: Alien: Covenant

Disclaimer: I'm going to spoil everything I can, and you can't stop me! Muah hahaha!

It was Vesak day when I finally decided to go to the movies. The last time I'd done that was when Life came out for a week or two. That was at least a couple months ago, I think. Why have I been depriving myself? Well, I guess that's how it is when you're a working adult with two jobs (three, if you count writing).

So, when I go to the movies, I wouldn't do so lightly. And as a man aspiring to master horror, it would definitely be to watch horror movies. Previously, it was Life. More recently, just three days ago, it's Alien: Covenant. Here's the trailer in case you missed the movie:

Couldn't get blogger to list the official trailer for some reason, so here's the second best thing.

Rating: 3.0 / 5.0

So the plot of the movie is simple: Crew is on a colonisation mission, they pick up a signal, changes course to a planet on the wayside, discovers odd things on said planet, encounters alien stuff, then actually encounters the titular Alien and things go bad. Sounds familiar? You bet it is.

Yep, the plot is very similar to the very first Alien movie back in 1979, in which... Crew is on a cargo mission, they pick up a signal, changes course to a planet on the wayside, discovers odd things on said planet, encounters alien stuff, then actually encounters the titular Alien and things go bad. Oh my!

But here's the surprise: I'm not bothered by this. The Alien franchise has been switching up its general plot structure every other movie, that I think it's time we go back to the original formula again, the formula that made Alien as big as it (still) is now.

In Aliens (1986), our intrepid space marines doesn't so much as 'stumble' upon the Aliens unprepared, quite the opposite. They go to LV-426 as prepared as they can be, in full knowledge that they are going to encounter something.

In Alien 3 (1992), Ripley is marooned on a prison planet with the Alien with only prisoners and guards for company.

In Alien Resurrection (1997), Ripley IS an Alien. LOL (Sorry, can't help it). But the rest of the plot has humanity trying to weaponise the Aliens and it all goes south. It bears elements of the previous two incarnations in that most of the characters are prepared for trouble when they come in, and Ripley is trapped in a location with Aliens.

Prometheus (2012) is like Aliens (1986) without the space marines nor the aliens.

I believe the plot is sound, and I was very much interested in it from the start to the end. I love how they bridged the gap between Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, and I love how there's this evolution subplot that concludes what is started in Prometheus, how the bioweapon evolves from little more than deadlier snakes to Neomorphs and finally, the Xenomorph.

What I dislike is the execution. First of all, there's this obsession with guns that recent filmmakers seem to have. Aliens (1986) have tonnes of it, which is fine, since it's a military horror sci-fi. It all started with Alien Resurrection, I guess, but Prometheus is where it gets out of hand. Apparently, people are expecting to shoot a lot of things when they explore an apparently lifeless universe. In Prometheus, we have a science mission while Alien: Covenant is a colonisation mission. Yet, people are bringing lots of guns into space!

I mean, sure, you might want something in case of the odd dangerous wildlife, but assault rifles? Seriously? This takes away most of the horror, I feel.

Your characters won't be as helpless. Me being a writer, I have the benefit of being experienced in this matter. At the very least, I have the decency to completely deprive my characters of ammo until the halfway point, leaving them with only rifle butts and bayonets, and even when they've been furnished with ammunition, they don't get a full magazine of rifle rounds and maybe two clips for their pistols - try going up against supernatural creatures that simply can't die with those, hah!

But besides that, there's this whole subplot with the androids. David wants to create, and destroy while Walter wants to protect to protect the crew. I think they've taken David a little too far - he's essentially a one-man civilisation machine! Apparently, he has no trouble doing everything every genius artist, engineer and scientist could achieve despite being one of the earliest model of androids in the Alien universe. The whole Skynet-will-destroy-us-all idea feels like it's been shoved in for no reason.

And then there's the idea of the Alien's origin. I don't quite like how it's done. First, there's the fact that it's merely been glossed over. It's basically just been explained that it was David who bred them in the first place. Second, there's what it meant. It means that we're back to the whole Frankenstein kind of plot, just slightly less direct this time. Man creates Androids and a particular Android creates Aliens. We've committed a hubris and we pay for it. Too much has been explained and as it turns out, humanity brought it on themselves.

I kind of liked the whole 'alien' aspect better, you know, like how the Alien is named? You crack open the door too wide on the monster, and soon enough, you'll notice the zipper running down its back. I prefer it when the origin of the Alien isn't explained too much.

But the whole zipper thing leads me to another point about the movie. The special effects. The Alien feels a bit wrong. There is a lot of shots where the Alien is in full view, lots of action action showing it off. And it is far too obvious that it's CGI. The Alien works better indoors and around tight corners - if you don't show too much of the creature, you won't see the zipper running down its back (it's a saying by Stephen King, by the way). That's how the first Alien movie became so convincing and thus scary.

Then there's something else that I feel is missing, and it began with Prometheus. The whole retro feel is gone. I like the whole 80s kind of feel, and I find that that's what helped define the Alien franchise. It's connected to the whole debacle about the guns. When everything is so shiny and convenient and ergonomic, you don't feel afraid, because it subtly hints that everything would be so convenient and ergonomic for the characters. There's no element of danger in the environment.

When everything is clunky and blasting off steam, you do get a sense of vulnerability, because it conveys a sense that things could just stop working at any moment, much to the advantage of the Alien. It's sad that it took a videogame to do this right after the original Alien (1979) movie. Yeah, I'm talking about Alien: Isolation. Check it out if you haven't.

There's still a lot of details that don't quite sit well with me. The plants from Earth aren't very well explained - how did they get there? No one knows. How on Earth do you bio-engineer Xenomorphs into being with little more than classical antiquity equipment? God knows! Why are there still Engineers running around in robes after millions of years, shouldn't they have ascended or evolved or something? I don't think even God knows. Apparently, they have no orbital defense systems nor control over their own airspace despite having a space station floating as if with anti-gravity just hundreds of metres from the centre of their city.

That said, there's still some redeeming factor to this movie, well, other than how I'm fine with the overall plot structure.

I absolutely love the ending, even if I could spot the twist from a click away. Good guys don't get to win all the time, and I'd say that the way the good guys lose this time is shocking to good effect and awesomeness - second to Life's ending. From here, I love to speculate how we can get to Alien (1979) with just one more movie. (My idea? Those colonists are material for the eggs somehow found on LV-426.)

I think the characters are pretty well done, even if I can't remember most of their names. They are human enough, and I can empathise with their situation and losses, their decisions and mistakes. That said, I still think that more could have been done - not all of them are memorable enough the way the crew of the Nostromo are.

All in all, I think this movie is watchable, and even enjoyable, but it's not going to be a classic or a hit. It's something I might rewatch once or twice, but never over and over throughout the next few decades.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

An Except of 'A Model Son', Interquel to 'The Keeper of Pulau Purba'

Disclaimer: Brian J. W. Lee will not be responsible for any injuries, loss of sleep, limbs or sanity as a result of the following story except.

Also, the following is just draft 1 and does not represent the final product. Have fun:

A form, grey and barely human at first because nearly no light could reach it. For a split second, he took him to be one of his lost colleagues, but that perspective didn't last very long, for the form from the shadows came closer.

And he could make out a helmet, tank goggles, and an armour vest otherwise known as an LBV. From grey, colour filled it as more white light bounced off of the marine. He became green, and black, and mud brown as he should be. And he had a rifle in hand, holding it by the muzzle, dragging the SAR-21's butt on the ground.

Details unheard of from before darkness fell came into the picture. The lenses, no, windshields more appropriately, of the marine's tank goggles had shattered some time ago, leaving sharp edges around the frame. This… Thing that used to be a soldier blinked with shredded eyes. Boon Teck could see glass shards sticking out of its eye regions, its eyeballs a mess of blood, cuts, and glass. Blood that pooled in the water-tight space between windshield and flesh had overflowed long ago and the remainder dried out.

Boon Teck froze, for some reason hoping, despite all that he saw, that there had to be some mistake, that there were no monsters coming out of the absolute dark, that this marine was just a wounded man in need of medical attention.

But then Goggles-Marine pulled his gun up. The technician's eyes widened at the gesture. In the bright gaze of Will's L-torch, he could see through the magazine's shell, which was made of translucent polymer. Years upon years of experience flowed through him from mind to eyes, and he saw: there were bullets in the magazine.

Without thinking, Boon Teck gave a shout, more frightened than brave, and charged forward with his own gun up.

Goggles-Marine had meant it, he was pointing his SAR-21 at him. With just mere metres between them, and this soldier slowed for some reason, Boon Teck was able to cover the distance and-
Explosions cut into his ears, deeper into his left than right. He could feel his body shake from the shockwave alone.

But the old man had swept the changed marine's gun aside with his left forearm, and on summoning perhaps what remained of his strength from his youthful days, drove his bayonet one-handed into the kidney of Goggles-Marine.

Silence, dreadful silence; Boon Teck's ears had gone deaf, where he had thought he couldn't be anymore hearing-impaired. The hostile marine had ran out of ammunition, Boon Teck knew this for sure. The magazine was nearly empty before he unloaded, from the explosions he heard, everything he'd got.

The technician kept pushing, driving his bayonet deeper in. The rot-eyed soldier wasn't discouraged, quite the opposite. He'd squirmed, tried to push him away with his elbows, and yet was fighting to maintain a grip on his emptied rifle. With the way Boon Teck had wrapped his right arm around the rifle, with it going underneath his armpits, there was no way the changed marine could wring his gun free.

But Boon Teck's grip and strength were failing. He knew this, and so he drew back his bayonet. With a shout, his voice broken and wavering between high and low, he thrust his rifle upwards, through that sweet spot between chin and neck. With no stab-resistant material to go through, the blade had plunged deep, all the way to the point of the muzzle of his gun pressing into the pale flesh of his opponent.

He's supposed to die. He's supposed to fucking die! Boon Teck could not help but to curse inside, with a swear word of the ang-mohs he hated, when Goggles-Marine would not stop.
The soldier, a conscript from his age, continued squirming. The only thing letting up was his attempt to elbow him in the chest and solar plexus, to gain back control of his rifle. In fact, his arms had become useless, flopping sticks of flesh.

For how long they had stayed in that position, Boon Teck did not know; with him pushing his rifle upwards and deep, twisting and thrusting his blade and maintaining his advantage, while Goggles-Marine was trying with futility, with pitiful stubbornness even, to retake even a shade of the power it had when it used to have five bullets more than the old man.

Both their strength diminished, but the marine more so. There was little room for Goggles-Marine to get free, especially with that spike of a bayonet buried into his lower jaw. His head had been tilted upward, he couldn't even see what was happening. Seconds passed, each feeling like a minute, and the changed marine could only jerk against the bayonet in him.

Soon, the soldier went limp, and even then, it took a further few eternity-seconds for Boon Teck to withdraw his blade, and let his body fall backwards.

The old man stepped back, still gasping for breath, his entire body feeling weaker as adrenaline left him. Taking a look at the fallen soldier, he thought that he looked somewhat like Stefan, might even actually be Stefan. Thinking back, he had been about the same height, towering over him, half a head taller. The chin was round, lips soft. Limbs toned but not too muscular. Shades of femininity, which Boon Teck hated.

The corpse had looked too much like Stefan. Boon Teck's eyes remained fixed on the face; he thought it to be uncanny. If only I can see his face… he thought, and that thought was quickly translated into action.

Getting down on his knees, the aging technician laid down his rifle, had to pause for a time. He had come up close to the Goggles-Marine (or his son) before, and he didn't really want to do it again. The smell of death, of rancid rot and dried blood wafting up to his nose while they struggled against each other wasn't pleasant, and there was something else. Something Boon Teck could not quite put. He thought that the marine was a revenant, a Ziangshi that would keep rising up; he'd appeared before him all wounded, and what was supposed to be an instantly fatal stab took far too long to put him down…

But I have to know…


Boon Teck reached for the fallen marine's goggles.

Took hold of one side of the frame. In his obsession with the identity of the marine, he'd slit his finger upon the broken glass. But he wasn't going to be distracted.

With a quick tug, Boon Teck pulled the tank goggles off.