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Monday, March 28, 2011

Author Alcove: The Writing Process

So now it's time for another segment I guess I'll be returning to regularly: Author Alcove (wheee alliteration).  This is when/where I'll BS about the nuts and bolts of writing as I see them.  I'll take this moment to say again that I am NOT a professional author or writer.  For now, it's a hobby for me.  And obsessive hobby that I do every day, but "Hobby" sounds a lot nicer than "unstoppable compulsion." 

Why am I telling you that?  Because I just want to be up front about my qualifications.  I've been writing for about 20 years.  about 15 years of that was total shit (but I was a kid, so I had an excuse).  3 years of that was  mostly shit with some good ideas, and the last 2 years have seen a significant decrease in the shit-to-good-ideas ratio.  I have a degree in this stuff, and it makes an excellent dinner tray when it's not gathering dust in the corner and being otherwise useless.  But I'm not a pro, and these are just my opinions, so use them as you will.

Okay, disclaimer over, let's get to work.

When I used to teach creative writing to my poor middle-school students, or when somebody actually gives enough of a damn to ask me about writing, one of the most asked questions is "Where/how do you start?"  A very good question, but one with a million and four answers.  Every writer has their own process from start to finish.  We all have our own rituals and idiosyncrasies because we're all basically crazy in one way or another.

If you're Jim Butcher (he of "The Dresden Files" and "Codex Alera" series), you sit down and ask yourself the "Plot Question" (which I'll explain in a bit), lay out the protagonist and antagonist, supporting characters, setting, and then make a plot arc, outlining the beginning, ending, and middle sections of the plot.  then you write rough outlines of a bunch of scenes, then finally sit down and write your story.

If you're Philip Pullman, you write a bunch of scenes and ideas on post-it notes, then stick them on a wall and rearrange them in various orders until you find a plot structure you like. 

If you're Stephen King, you come up with a situation (like, "Vampires in rural Maine") then some basic character ideas, and let the story play itself out and leave the plot to take care of itself.

Now, those are very simple overviews of how those writers do it.  Each of those writers is very successful, and is generally regarded as at least competent by critics and the general reading public.  However, none of them are right, and none of them are wrong.  The writing process is unique for each writer, and what works for them may be terrible for you.  The writing process I know best and am most qualified to talk about though is my own. 

Stories start with ideas, so I need one of those first. I get ideas from everywhere: music, clouds, other stories (movies, books, video games, TV shows, manga, anime, etc etc), and sometimes, and perhaps best of all, from out of the clear blue sky, like one of those anvils that hammer Daffy Duck into the ground. 

So once I have my idea, I make sure it makes sense, and what kind of story this is going to be.  Is it a short story?  A novel?  An epic?  Is it actually interesting or is this the mental equivalent of a fart; a noise but no substance?  If it actually seems like it will work, I hold onto it, and roll it around in my head for a week or two, taking down odd little notes on whatever paper is around.

I first write down the story idea.  I'll use my current work-in-progress for the purpose of this post.  Story idea: "A superhero in steampunk-type fantasy setting attempts to save the lower classes of his city from a crooked aristocrat." Okay, I can easily make that into a novel. 

After I have the basic story idea, I make the characters.  Now, some people have to plot the book first, and add characters later.  I can't do that.  Who the characters are and what they're like shape the story and change the plot.  If you have the story first, then characters, you're changing the characters to fit the story, which makes them inconsistent, flat, or lifeless, all of which are Very Bad.  So, characters.

I don't have reams of paper describing a character's motivation or personality.  I have a basic idea and a rough history, two-three sentences at most.  I give the characters a starting off point and they usually reveal themselves to me the more I write them.  I know that sounds strange, but when it happens, it's really cool.  They stop being just a character and they become a person, usually with faults and screw-ups and weird little tics, just like you or me.  I'd like to go more into character but this post is getting long in the tooth so we'll move on.

Story idea, check.  Characters, check.  Plot...aahhh.  Plot is the events within a story, while story is what the book/film/whatever is about.  Some authors think plot is something that comes naturally and should never be thought consciously about, while others feel you MUST focus all your energy on crafting the plot from thin air.  Like many things, my way is in the middle.

When outlining the plot, I make sure I have at least three things before I begin writing in earnest: the beginning, the middle (or inciting incident that sets the story rolling), and the end.  Now, I usually have more than that, like random scenes or lines of dialogue I'll want to use somewhere, but aside from those three major things, the rest of the story is a blank for me when I start. 

An author (I'm kicking myself because I forgot who, maybe Stephen King or Dean Koontz) said something like this (paraphrasing ahoy): "The writing process for me is like a road trip: I know where I'm starting from and where I want to end up, and maybe I know a few rest stops on the way, but most of it is just driving and finding out what's there as I go along, mile by mile."

That's how it is for me.  I've tried plot outlining every chapter and scene in the past and, inevitably, the actual story goes off those rails and into unknown (and often much better) territory.

So this has gone on for quite a bit.  That's my way of writing, and yours may be different.  If it is, awesome, so long as it works.  Don't listen to people or professors or even famous writers who tell you it must be done THIS WAY ONLY.  They're full of shit.  Do what you're comfortable with and whatever makes your story the best.   

Friday, March 25, 2011

I've been trapped in Kim Jong Il's Basement OR What it's like in Korea

So it's been a couple months.  I'm very bad with blogs, what can I say.  The good news is I've been productive on other things, mainly writing of course, and getting more and more into an easy working groove.  So I guess it'd be useful for anybody perusing this blog now or in the future to know what it's like living and working in Korea.  So I'll answer some basic questions for you.

How did you get to work in Korea?

It wasn't too hard.  I went to and filled out the basic information, and wasn't an idiot.  The very kind and always helpful Mr. Choi helped with everything else.

What do I need in order to teach English in Korea?

You need to come from a country that has English as it's native language, a college degree in ANYTHING, a clean criminal record, and not be a moron.  Really, that's about it.  You do not have to speak one iota of Korean, have any educational background, or history teaching English.  You should be a pretty good speaker and be decent at writing and not having to lean on spellcheck though.

What kind of work would I be doing?

Chances are you're going to get hired by a hagwon.  A hagwon is an after-school center that specializes in a particular subject (i.e. Tae Kwon Do, Math, Science, Guitar, and of course, English).  Hagwons cater to a wide array of students, from kindergarten to high school kids.

Hagwons have weird hours, as they're after school centers.  You can probably count on working between 2:30 and 10:00.  some start sooner and get out earlier, some start later and end later.  Not all of that is work though.  I arrive at my hagwon at about 2:30 PM, leave at 9:50 PM, but only actually work about 3-4 hours of that.

It's kind of like college in that you have different classes on different days, and breaks between classes.  Even the really busy foreign teachers at my hagwon don't work more than 4-5 hours a day.

When you're in the classroom, you're following a book.  a lot of it is conversational, so there's a lot of questions and answers, though the content of that obviously varies with what age group you're with.  For my little kids, we play games and repeat basic sentences.  My older kids have long, complex conversations with me about current events and the like.  It's really, really easy, even if you have negative one hundred experience in teaching.

What's the pay like?

You can expect about 1.8-2.7 million won (about $1,700-$2,500 depending on current exchange rates) paid directly to a bank account the school creates for you once a month.  The school will also set you up with an apartment, rent free.  I only pay for electricity, water, and internet in my apartment.  That costs me about 70,000\ ($65) a month for all that.  My internet bill back home by itself was over $50.

Also, since you're not a Korean citizen, you pay next to no taxes.  I pay about 3% in taxes.  Nothing.  You also get decent health insurance.  I've been here about 5 months and I've got just under $10,000 (from $0 when I arrived) without really trying to save at all.

What if I don't want to work at a hagwon?

There's a LOT more opportunities once you get here.  There are regular schools you can work for, even universities (though universities require a bit more in the way of qualifications, like prior teaching experience, a degree in English or English related field (i.e. Literature, writing, etc), maybe a TEFL certificate, or a Master's.  Some of the high end universities require all of these AND more.  However I've also seen a job at Ulsan University that had the same requirements as my hagwon, so it depends.  The regular schools have roughly the same requirements as the hagwons.

I'm afraid of North Korea!

North Korea usually just bares it's teeth once or twice a year and does something stupid and things quiet down.  I was here when they shot the island off the coast of Incheon in November of 2010, and the attitude of most Koreans was that the North was crazy, and they went about their day as per usual.  If they're not worried, I'm not worried.

What do you like about Korea?

The food is amazing.  Lots of pork, beef, rice, and vegetables.  It's also really cheap.  I highly recommend you try shabu shabu, sam gyeop sal, bi bim bap, dong kas, chamchi kimbap, and, well, everything really.

The people will stare at you, but it's out of curiosity, not disrespect.  They're mostly polite.  there are some jack asses, but every country has those.  If you make a faux pas, they'll politely correct you, or usually just ignore it, and dismiss the social error as you being a foreigner and not knowing and they're cool with it.  You'll get a lot of random Korean people shouting "Hello!" at you.  They're mostly very friendly and sweet.

I also like that in the city, everything is in walking distance.  I can get most any place worth getting to in 15 minutes or less of walking, including work.  If I have to take a taxi, they're very reasonable and the cabbies are usually friendly.

What don't you like about Korea?

The traffic is insane.  I am never buying or renting a car here.  To hell with that.

Some of the things they do to western style food is a culinary crime.  You should not be allowed to put mayonnaise, corn, and shrimp on a pizza and be allowed to operate a restaurant.  Also, fried chicken is NOT Mexican food.

The television here is truly awful.  Every Korean show is about women crying and sad violin music playing.  Sometimes there is incest or gender swapping.  I don't even know.

That's really it.  This country's pretty great and I got used to it absurdly fast.  I still miss home, but Korea's a really swell place to live for a while.

Would you recommend teaching and living in Korea to others?

If you've got an open mind, aren't pants-on-head retarded, aren't a whining baby about things that are different, and want to experience another culture, absolutely.  I've already decided I want to spend another year here, maybe two more.  If you got more questions, post 'em in the comments area.