Posted by: holdenlee | June 2, 2010

Writing snippets


I’m working on three novels:

Pleasant Island: I wrote this in elementary school through 9th grade but I’m giving it a complete overhaul.

Pleasant Island 2: Sequel that I thought up in high school but am only seriously writing now.

Silfa: A story I came up with this semester, about a girl (Silfa) who wants to become a world-castlist (someone who grows worlds for a living). But since there’s a limited number of worldspores there’s a very competitive test to get into the World-Castling College, and she narrowly missed the cut. When she is offered a smuggled worldspore, she runs away to pursue her dream…

I’ve only started seriously writing this semester. During the semester I set aside every Tuesday to write (Wednesday was when I got the psets for the next week; I was always busy Thursday-Sunday getting them done; then Tuesdays would often be completely free.)


With all that worrying about solving problems, I didn’t get to write any part of my story today. I think I need to stop being so lazy! It’s hard to get started writing; I guess it’s just like anything; in the past it was difficult to get started doing math problems, but very quickly it got natural; now sitting down and doing math problems is a relatively easy thing to do. (It’s even easier to just read math, but reading without doing is also lazy.) If I could just write a chapter every day for a week, maybe it’ll come more naturally. I need to force myself to WRITE every day, if I want to be a better writer and finish my story.


I needed a new idea, pure new idea, not trying to see what elements make up a good story and working backwards. So, while I was walking, I just thought.

I thought about the worlds I had “created” and left to languish unformed in my mind. Toobi, Purpletee,… I thought about the idea I had the last time, to turn my experiences of math olympiads into a story. [I talk about my idea for Silfa.]

I was delighted with this idea. This proves the power of thinking! I thought. There is a lot more room for imagination in this version of the idea, I can incorporate lots of my own experiences. I also plan to characters with better developed personalities: […] But I knew I needed to start writing this soon, because an idea not promptly written becomes a burden. I want to, no, I mean I WILL start writing it today.


Maybe I shouldn’t try and cram all my writing into one day for stories. Maybe I should write a bit every day. I’m not quite sure what I should do to improve my writing- do I just write all the time or is there more to do? I can’t exactly pinpoint what needs improvement- it seems like everything. Better descriptions? More character interactions? More or less plot-driven? I latch onto different explanations. I feel like I’m still trying to find my voice as a writer… Gosh this is difficult, but I’ll try my best!

Writing seems like constructing the reals from the integers. I start with a few core ideas and parts of the plot, but then I have to fill in the intervening parts, to make the story flow continuously, to let the characters grow and interact naturally to catalyze the passage of the story evolving in my mind…


…Then I have to Lagrange interpolate the points to come up with a story having the elements I came up with. [lol, this is hilarious]


He made me realize that I needed lots of improvement. When I was small, I thought it would be easy to get a book published. Pleasant Island was the most wonderful story in the world. But I read it now, and I’m thinking, this is crap. Even if I made the most profound edits it wouldn’t be publishable. I don’t think I’ll even try to make it publishable. Just accept it, move on, and write better in future stories. I have pinned a lot of hope on Silfa though- maybe I shouldn’t too much. There’s also the issue of PI2. It’s a good story, I think, but it relies on PI1… I’ll just write, without having to worry about these things.


I’m flitting in and out of the water, sometimes- one a week, possibly- get caught up in writing, and at other times, hopeless about how to continue, no amount of deliberation making it better… The simple perfection of doing something I love and have the whole day just fly by… I need that. Not the fakeness of working, and wasting a minute online after every hour. There is time for leisurely work, but I want to find that perfection first… Maybe it doesn’t really exist. It’s always two-sided. Natural yet unnatural. Like math- working on math for an entire day, many of the moments are struggles to solve something, but as a whole, the day has the emergent property of flowing by smoothly… When was the last time I worked like that on math?

I’m a languishing writer who can’t write anything but his own autobiography, recording the humdrum of his daily life and his alienation from meaning… Sounds like modern art. I need to immerse my brain in the river of creativity…


[On Silfa]

One of the most important parts is the “experiment”: I always secretly imagined that maybe I would see the USAMO problems in my dream before the exam or something. An idea I played with was “if some fairy had come to me and promised my victory in exchange for ___, would I have taken it?” What if afterwards, a fairy had offered me the opportunity to travel back in time? I think in the few days following, I might have accepted. Now, it’s a concrete no, but it took a lot to transform myself to this point. So in the story, when Silfa is the most depressed, someone does go to her and offer another chance- it’s a classic plot element (the evil fairy) but I think it works very well here. It stunts her emotional transformation and makes its need more obvious at the same time.


I think writing has expanded my own feelings. It’s like Winston in 1984 (which I’m reading right now). After he starts writing his diary, he starts reflecting over the state of society; he starts developing feelings about it; he starts to be discontent, to question. Orwell shows the power of the written word- without it memories blur and mutate. Writing forces Winston to be introspective, as writing the experiences essay and these diary entries has done for me. I feel like I can identify with him.


I wrote a bit more than 2 pages for the first part of the chapter The Great Umbrie Rescue. I’m putting it in the first Pleasant Island book! Yes, I’m excited, I’m going to rewrite the first part of book 1! It’s simply horrendously written- I wrote it when I was in elementary school- and I actually thought it was good writing! It’s going to be hard to replace some of the stuff in there though- I’ll have to wait and seek out some good ideas. Some things need to go. If I think of another wonderful idea, maybe involving a new creature, I’ll put it in. The Umbrie chapter storyline is perfect. Except possibly for the Crocomon-Fastuck chapters, often they were like “oh, the family discovers a new creature! It’s a (insert object) with a face on it! Tinny took a picture!” or “There’s this bad guy chasing them! Some good creature saves them! Yay!” Shallow, and without plot. On the other hand, to solve the problem in the Umbrie chapter, Betty will have to be innovative and convince the Umbries (who don’t speak English) of her intentions.

I always approached making the creatures the wrong way. It would always be either think of some attractive shape and make a creature that shape (it’s a __ with a face!) or mix and match different body parts (in different quantities) in different combinations. As a result, they were pretty crappy. And I was totally oblivious, thinking that they were the best creations ever. (Please, one of them was just a triangle with a face.) I’ve found the best thing is to think of a biological basis for the creatures. What traits should they have? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What environment do they live in and how are they adapted to it? How do they get food? What are their social habits? (Smilecrabs with four legs and no pincers living in tree houses simply fail this description.) I think back and forth between the anatomy I want and these questions. If I keep this in mind, creatures will be more biologically convincing and have more personality.

Applying this to Umbries- their tops help them fly and also pick up the habits of umbrellas- think of snapping open and closed to fling water off, spinning in circles playfully, etc. This is even useful as a community- the elders sit upright to shelter the youngsters, who hang upside-down below. And of course, the greatest weakness- being blown away. They become animated in my mind in a way they could never have before, when they were just umbrellas with faces. This would be great as an animated short, I thought. I thought of how [a friend] said on his facebook page that one of his dreams was to animate one of his own stories. Maybe I should be ambitious like that too.

Thinking of this brought me back to the days of long ago, when my ideal of self- […] was creation. The urge to create- creatures, stories, comics, maps, worlds, fiction textbooks,… It didn’t really die. It just stopped surfacing. I would periodically think of my dream of [this ideal], and then sometime I just skipped over a period, and never thought about it again… so in high school, I defined myself in terms of math competitions, in terms of how much math I can cram into myself, and [this ideal] was lost…

But I had found the joy of creative thought again, and was pursuing it with a new vigor. Imagining creations, being an artist- maybe that was my calling. After all, I had got interested in this, in writing stories, long before I got really interested in math, and it was less forced. Maybe I should just abandon math when I’m able to support myself as a writer… but then I think not. It’s that math still really appeals to me. I really enjoy doing math research, as this UROP shows. I used to be uncertain- was I good enough to be a mathematician? But now I’m like- yes, I will be a math professor, and I will be a writer, at the same time, and I’m going to make it work!


[On reading over my diaries/ journals from elementary and middle school]

I laugh at the blunt, factual, enthusiastic-about-everything way I wrote. The summer when dad was still here.


MIT isn’t really stressful. That’s the wrong word. It’s like, I have a lot of work and I have to do it, and that’s that, you know? Numbing is the correct word. Just focus entirely on the work and then, oh, I’m hungry, I have to get dinner, it’s 8 hours since I’ve last ate.

That’s why Tuesdays are so important to me. It’s a different type of busy. It’s where I pick up my humanism and creativity for the one time during the week, to write stories. The rest is dedicated to numbingly tooling away, and possibly playing DDR in the cracks in between.


Writing good stories isn’t simply about coming up with interesting creatures, or creative settings, or an adventurous plot. (Well, at least it’s a different kind of writing. It can be good, but it is shallower.) Writing good stories is about putting feelings, scenarios of conflicting feelings, on paper. And it’s hard to understand the mixture of feelings resulting from a situation without actually having been in a situation. Sure, we can all sympathize with a chronically sick person on a basic human level, but do we know what it’s like? The feelings, coupled inseparably with the physical realities that they experience? It would be difficult indeed.

So maybe the moral is that I should collect stories from other people, and sort of mix and process them to churn out human stories. But how could I collect stories? From normal people, friends, probably not hard. Everyone probably has a story to tell. How do I go about asking? For stories about more extreme circumstances that would be difficult. I can’t just go up to people and ask what their life is like. There has to be a strong friendship, a trust.


I checked out two books on writing fiction and spent the morning reading one of them… There’s so much info to absorb, so many questions I never thought about while I’m writing. But I feel discombobulated now, and too tired/ lazy to write… I haven’t written for 4 weeks (that means I’m 28 pages behind my goal for the year). I dunno how to get in the mood for it again. But also Silfa seems splattered all over the place, I’m not even sure how to tie the story up coherently at this point. I think I need to take a day to just think about where the story’s headed, and consider what traits I want to give each character; they seem to confined within the real-life people they are based on (maybe that’s not a too bad thing since it’s a 3rd-person limited point of view, but as a 3rd-person story it needs to develop the characters to some degree). Not to mention I still have no idea how the second part of the story is going to go yet. I’m getting tired just thinking about how I’m going to be able to finish this.

5/29/10 Sat.

I ended up writing almost 7 pages on Wednesday on the Foogcloos chapter of Pleasant Island, which is longer than I thought it would be. But it was nice, because I came up with the idea of the “cloud fairies” and their city while I was writing, making the chapter much more interesting. It seems the rewrite of Pleasant Island has a sort of dreamy descriptive voice to it. Creating worlds is fun—and to me the two rewritten chapters so far—Umbries and Foogcloos—are beautiful. I’ll have to rewrite the existing chapters (such as the fire snails one) which is going to be slightly annoying… I’ve also tried to give the characters more personality, which should make the story better as well.

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