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People-Watching

May 10, 2011

I continue to muddle along at the restaurant. On my last “training day,” I was paired with a server who actually took the time to walk me through things step-by-step, gave me opportunities for “dry runs” (i.e. practicing clearing and resetting an empty table in the back), and gave me her number to call if I got overwhelmed on my first solo shift.

Cue a huge sigh of relief.

With parts of my brain able to focus on things other than stressfearstresspanicstressohGodno, I found myself actually enjoying the work. Admittedly, last night was frighteningly slow, but I wasn’t complaining. In fact, I realized that working in a restaurant may “feed” into my writing.

People have always fascinated me. Who they are, why they act the way they do, what they’re thinking, what their lives are like. I’m the person that “reads” on the subway while secretly composing stories about the other passengers. Not in a creepy way, mind you. Just in a curious, playful way.

Restaurants are even better for that than subways.

Obviously, it’s not terribly polite to eavesdrop on your diners. Still, inevitably, you pick up scraps here and there. That’s actually better from a writing perspective, because you have to fill in the gaps yourself, thereby flexing your creative muscle and avoiding possible libel charges. Even if you don’t actually interact with a diner directly,  the mere sight of someone can spark something.

That’s particularly true of this restaurant, which sits at the junction between a few very different neighbourhoods. It’s within walking distance of the office tower crowd, the urban hippies, the university, a slightly “gritty” part of town, and Chinatown.

We attract a mix.

I have seen beautifully coiffed, older people who come in alone and savour every bite. I’ve seen couples gazing at each other across the tables. I’ve met the “regulars,” two middle-aged women who have a glass of wine and a long “girl-chat” every night after work.  

So much human experience. So many slices of life.

I may actually have another job offer at hand. But if it doesn’t work out… well, I have a feeling I’ll be all right here.

-Arvik

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Sharp Learning Curve Ahead

May 8, 2011

I like learning. Really, I do… Mostly when it involves books. And privacy. When I run off the rails of a sharp learning curve, it’s much better if not many people are around to stare at the flaming wreckage.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work that way.

Today was my second training day at my new job in a restaurant. Now, I’ve never waitressed before, and I don’t eat out a whole lot. Lots to learn? Oh my heavens, yes.

See, the first day actually went better. It wasn’t too crowded, and I followed the “real” server like a puppy, fetching and carrying and beaming when I did something right.

Today was different.

To start, it was much, much busier. There was a party of ten, and most other tables were filled. To make things even more hectic, this little bistro only has ONE server on at a time. You read that right. ONE. One to grab more dishes, serve, reset, bus, and train me.

Stress rose rather quickly.

Since it was so busy, my training devolved into crash courses. I thought it was okay at first, still glowing with confidence from the day before.

Then I broke a glass.

In front of my boss.

He was really nice about it, helped me clean it up, and told me not to worry about it. Which was good, since I was ready to cry.

Little did I know, things would get worse.

Apparently, I’d screwed up about half the credit card payments that night. And in today’s plastic world, that’s a lot of payments. They fixed it in the end, but it involved several phone calls, including one to the credit card company, a lot of impatient customers, and a tip pool that was certainly fudged.

All my fault.

I think the only reason the server on duty didn’t strangle me is because my scrawniness and wide-eyed innocence makes me look like I should be in high school.

Basically, I crawled home about ready to die. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to manage when it’s just me on the floor. I think I could be a busgirl or assistant, but a full server? I don’t know.

This is the part of the post where I would normally say, “But it’ll be okay, because I have a positive attitude and I’ll work hard!”

Maybe it’ll be okay. Hopefully.

I’m afraid. I am so afraid for when I’m working the floor alone. There’s one more training day, and that’s it.

Agents’ and editors’ rejection slips don’t look so bad now!

Arvik

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Ambiguity as a Tool

May 5, 2011

Do you know what’s really, really scary?

Uncertainty.

As you all know, I am a huge fan of fantasy. However, I also love the “fantastic.” Although the most famous examples (think Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood) are from the Romantic era, it really straddles genre boundaries. It’s not quite speculative fiction in the sense that fantasy, sci-fi, and horror are speculative, because the reader is never 100% sure whether or not anything supernatural is going on. In fact, as soon as you know one way or the other that the strange events either are or are not supernatural, it no longer counts as truly “fantastic.” That ambiguity forms its very definition.

And that ambiguity is terrifying.

We’re afraid of the dark because we don’t know what lurks within it. These stories are the literary equivalent of crouching by a fire in the depths of the night. You can see just enough to suspect something’s out there. But you’re not sure. And even if there is something, you don’t know what it is. With such limited information, you can’t act; you can only watch, and wait, paralyzed by anxiety and self-doubt.

Left to our own devices, we come up with uniquely frightening things. Think about the Boggart in Harry Potter. It never had a shape of its own; it became whatever you feared most, and that was the source of its power. No monster is as frightening as that which we craft for ourselves.

Obviously, too much ambiguity isn’t ideal; readers will get frustrated, and frustrated readers don’t tend to hang around long. But… if you can provide enough detail to offer a hint of the shape in the shadows, while leaving the reader to fill in the specifics with their own imaginings and fears, well…

 You’ll have something pretty scary and pretty suspenseful on your hands.

-Arvik

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Reliving my childhood

May 3, 2011

The desire had been gnawing at me for some time. Especially since I have a bit of free time on my hands; I need books from the library to do some research for this new novel, but they’re not going to be in for several days. I tried to ignore my urges, but my eyes kept drifting to the basement. My fingers itched, aching, longing, until at last I could stand it no more.

I descended the narrow stairs into the darkness. Dust bunnies clung to my socks; old cardboard left a musty smell on my fingers as I shifted boxes. Finally, I found what I was looking for.

Several hours later, I’m taking this break to ease my back and write this post (while I am chronologically and, evidently, emotionally young, I have the back of a ninety-year-old). Honestly, I’d forgotten just how awesome LEGO is. I’ve found a few half-broken creations that I can remould into interesting new things (mostly spaceships). I’ve remembered that feeling of designing, testing, and building that always made me feel like a ship’s engineer.

And best of all, as I unearth old ships and minifigures, the stories are coming back.

LEGO sparked so many stories for me. Sure, some of them had their roots in the “official” story LEGO was using to sell this set or that set, but an awful lot evolved into totally new stories. Example: I had Martian and Atlantis LEGO sets. I got around this apparent discrepancy by deciding that the “Atlanteans” were actually Martians who had crash-landed in the oceans and rebuilt their civilization underwater.

And remembering all this made me think: toys were better, back in the day. Yes, even in my day. I don’t want to sound too crotchety, but the old toys made you think, and imagine, and problem-solve. They made you figure out how to share, use your words, and wait your turn. They unleashed the stories waiting inside of you.

Newer toys don’t do that as much. If a puzzle piece in a real puzzle doesn’t work, you turn it over, rotate it, feel it in your hands. Maybe you work through the puzzle with a friend. If a puzzle piece in an online puzzle doesn’t work, you click a few times, and discard it. I just feel like there’s something missing there. I feel like it’s a lot easier to buy into the “official” story of whatever game you’re playing.

Now, I have a lot of faith in the power of imagination. I’ve worked with kids for years, and I’ve seen that they’re still capable of grabbing some stuffed animals and making up a story. Imagination is a huge part of being human. I don’t think it’s going away.

But I wish we allowed it more space to breathe.

-Arvik

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What are you learning?

April 30, 2011

Sometimes writing is hard.

“How hard can it be?” people ask. “You’re sitting there typing! How is that hard?”

I try to ignore those people. Singing in my head usually helps. Singing out loud helps more, but then I get weird looks.

We all know why writing is hard, but an excerpt from the list  includes:

  • Rejection
  • Self-doubt
  • Writer’s block
  • Making the committment to finish what you’ve started
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Missing out on other things
  • Guilt
  • Frightening, disturbing, and icky characters/plot threads
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Hermitage

And so forth. Luckily, the list of why writing is awesome is so long, I don’t think I can fit it here (not today anyway, but that’s an idea for the future).

Getting sidetracked. When I’m struggling, which happens fairly regularly, I find it helpful to ask, “What am I learning from this?”

Someone’s interrupting my writing time? I’m learning patience and tact.

Harsh criticism? I’m learning to take it and thicken my skin.

Feeling like I’m secretly a talentless fraud and I’m doomed to live in a pizza box shack? I’m learning persistance. Also, probably that I should think about dinner.

It works for other things too. When I look back at other writing I’ve done over the years, I can see that a lot of it is… well, let’s say, “not very good.” However, what my fledgling efforts do have going for them is that I can track what I’ve learned. It’s like tracing evolutionary trees:

With enough perspective, you can see the changes over time. Knowing how far you’ve come and realizing how much you’ve learned is hugely motivating, because it hits you: whatever rough patch you’re facing is one more step along the way. And if you can learn something from it, you’ll be back on the road that much sooner.

What are you learning?

-Arvik

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An Intergalactic Dictionary

April 27, 2011

Beta Reader (noun):

1. A trusted associate who reads and offers comments on an edited first draft.

2. The person from whom you will alternately dread and crave hearing a response.

Chosen One (noun):

1. A character who is unaware of their hidden greatness, but who will somehow, inexplicably and very often despite their own incompetence, save his/her world.

2. Harry Potter (who is not a typical “chosen one” incidentally, as his importance derives from the fact that Voldemort chose him as the wizard more likely to be a threat)

Coffee (noun):

1. A mild stimulant deriving from the coffee bean.

2. Many writers’ (and adults’) drug of choice.

Con (noun):

1. A gathering of fans, usually of science fiction and/or fantasy, to discuss and celebrate the chosen object/field of their devotion.

2. The means and the ends of fandom.

Edit (verb):

1. The process of revising a first draft.

2. The process of attacking your ms with a red pen and “murdering your darlings.”

Fanboy/girl (noun):

A person who follows and enjoys a story, series, universe, or person, but to a greater degree than a typical “fan.”

Fantasy (noun):

1. Speculative fiction in which magic and/or the supernatural play a central role in the story.

2. The literature of what couldn’t be, but is.

Geekgasm (noun):

An experience of overwhelming joy induced by contact with an object, idea, person, or event which stimulates the geek centre of the brain.

Geekgasm (verb):

To experience a geekgasm. Often identified by a silly, beaming grin, a high-pitched squeal, and a happy dance.

Genre (noun):

1. A means by which books are classified.

2. An attribute of a book which often receives far more attention and/or judgement than it deserves.

Internet (noun):

1. The medium across which computers exchange information.

2. Your best friend and worst enemy.

List (noun):

1. An efficient means of organizing information.

2. Evidently, a form of energy. To be without “list” is to be passive and unresponsive.

Josephine grunted listlessly.

Mary-Sue (noun):

The protagonist of badly-written fanfiction, sometimes a thinly veiled portrayal of the author. The character is universally loved and has no physical or personality flaws save perfection and being intensely irritating.

Nightmare (noun):

1. A frightening dream.

2. A spirit-horse which forces you to ride it to various evil realms and gatherings.

3. A potential source of inspiration.

Notebook (noun):

1. A small book with blank, lined pages.

2. An object which, in large numbers, can hypnotize writers.

Pirate (noun):

1. Seafaring murderers and thieves who are often romanticized as being the jolly epitomes of awesome.

2. Someone who illegally downloads music and/or films.

Podcast (noun):

An audio programme, similar to a radio show, distributed over the internet and most frequently listened to on iPods.

Podcast Novel (noun):

A unique medium of novel, in which the story is read aloud on a podcast. It may include voice actors, music, and sound effects along with the actual narrative.

Science Fiction (noun):

1. Speculative fiction in which nonexistent, but plausible, technology and/or physical laws play a central role in the story.

2. The literature of what could be, but isn’t.

Speculative Fiction (noun):

1. Fiction wherein some element intrinsically different from the writer’s own empirical experience of natural laws is essential to the story.

2. A legitimate genre of literature.

3. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and their various subgenres.

Steampunk (noun):

1. A creative re-imagining of the Victorian Era, particularly the London milieu, with an emphasis on speculative steam-based technology.

2. What happens when Goth kids discover the colour brown (attr. I Should Be Writing).

Time paradox (noun):

1. A paradox resulting from following the circular logic of time travel.

2. A plot device.

3. A terrible thing to think about if you have insomnia and are lying awake at 2 a.m.

Tribe (noun):

The greater community of writers.

Vampire (noun):

An undead human who survives by drinking blood. Contrary to some misguided beliefs, they do not sparkle.

Writer (noun):

Someone who writes.

Writing (verb):

1. The act of transcribing or setting words down in print/type.

2. The act of creating a story with fully-realized plot, characters, and theme.

Worldbuilding (noun):

1. The process of creating an imaginary, functioning world and its various components, including religions, geography, history, cultures, and economy.

2. Something really, really fun, and really, really important… that can become a really, really good way to procrastinate if one isn’t careful.

Zombie (noun):

1. An undead creature who survives by eating brains.

2. Something which ought not to be present and/or functioning, but is.

When Joe’s computer sent spam without Joe’s knowledge, Joe realized it had become a zombie computer.

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A Serious Post

April 25, 2011

Yesterday’s post was full of fun and frolic, which is generally how we roll here at Intergalactic Writers Inc. However, as long-time readers will know, there is sometimes a need to lower the mask of comedy, to do away with the smokescreens of jokes and wisecracks. There is sometimes a need to be serious.

This is one of those times.

I learned today that a young man with whom I went to elementary school took his own life. What’s worse, I learned that this was not a recent event; indeed, it was just over a year ago.

There is very little more chilling than reading the name of someone who has died… and realizing you knew them.

I had not seen this boy for years. I cannot honestly say that we were friends in elementary school. We behaved as little boys and girls do in elementary school- he threw balls of paper at me, and I avoided sitting too close to him. Then he moved to another city, and I never saw or spoke to him again.

Nevertheless.

I knew him. He is in my class photos, and I am in his. I can still see him, hunched over a math test, reading a book, looking away innocently as I brushed another paper wad off my desk. We were never friends, but neither was there genuine hostility between us. And he is gone, has in fact been gone for quite some time.

Looking at those class photos, you would never guess.

My deepest condolences are to his family. I cannot imagine what they have gone through. But I do, perhaps, have some inkling of what their child felt. And that is perhaps the root of this sick knot lodged in the pit of my stomach: the deep empathy from having known him, and having faced similar demons.

So I would like to take this opportunity to say: there is help. If you are suffering now, or if you know someone who is suffering, the darkness does not have to be faced alone. There is no shame in the fight, nor is there shame in asking for help. The mind is an organ, like the liver, like the heart, like the lungs. People with heart disease have no stigma attached to taking blood pressure medication or switching to a low-sodium diet. There should be no stigma attached to mental illness.

But there is. And this has to stop, because it is ultimately the silence that kills. The silence of the sufferer, and the silence of those who look back in retrospect and say, “I guess I did notice…”  

There are always, always, always options. Even in the blackest night of the soul, there is hope. So long as you live, there is hope. Please, if you know someone who is hurting, don’t stand by, even if help seems to be the last thing they want or need. Please, if you are hurting, know that people care for you, and that there is always help available. Asking for help does not make you weak. Asking for help is, in fact, one of the greatest acts of courage you can do.

Speak up. Speak out. Don’t stop speaking.

-Arvik

Kids Help Phone: http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx

Hope Line: http://www.hopeline.com/

Teens’ Hope Line: http://www.teenhopeline.com

Directory of American Crisis Hotlines: http://www.psychotherapist.net/crisis-hotlines.htm

Directory of Canadian Crisis Hotlines: http://www.ementalhealth.ca/canada/en/_Telephone_Crisis_Lines_a1_b21.html

Directory of British Crisis Hotlines: http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/support/mental_health_emotional_usefulcontacts_index.shtml