Monday, December 24, 2012

I'd rather watch the cartoon (The Hobbit)...

And I just did.

...after going with my father and my 8-year-old daughter to see the new Hobbit movie at the theatre (just the 2-D version, no fancy 48 fps or 3D).

Ranty SPOILERS follow...

Gah! What a bloated, boring monstrosity! Almost three hours, and it's only part one of the Hobbit (plus assorted bits from the appendices and Unfinished Tales and whatever)!? At least the character assassination wasn't as bad as it was in "The Two Towers" and "Return of the King" movies.

I don't know. I loved the Peter Jackson "Fellowship of the Ring" movie, but it all seemed to go downhill from there. Rankin-Bass's cheap made-for-TV musical cartoon from 35 years ago beats the 2012 version on so many levels.

  • The music is better! Yes, it has that 1970s-1980s folk sound, but it's not the generic overblown "epic" music they have for the 2012 movie. The only memorable part of today's score was the bit they borrowed from the "Fellowship of the Ring". (The "Ring" theme always sends a shiver down my spine.) The few scattered songs in the 2012 version didn't seem to fit in as well.
  • The art is better and more coherent! Yes, New Zealand has spectacular scenery. Yes, they put lots of money into the monster designs and CGI. But I still like the look of the 1977 animation better. All right, so they skimped on the actual animating part of the cartoon (what was it, 2 frames per second at times!?), but I forgive that more easily than the hyperactive mess I saw on the big screen today. True, all the cartoon characters look freaky, but it's very distinctive and beautiful in its way. And the painted landscapes are awesome.
  • Pacing. I would have liked the 1977 movie to be a little longer, to give it more breathing room (as it is, it had to chop out whole sections --- I would have liked to see Beorn!), but it managed to tell the whole story in an impressively compact form. It's better than erring on the side of padding. There were way too many useless "action" sequences in the 2012 version. The backstory was presented better in the cartoon, too, all done in the pre-credits sequence, then showing Bilbo's decision to go on the adventure during the opening credits (with the memorable "Greatest Adventure" song!). A leisurely 10 minutes rather than a dragged-out 40? 60? minutes.
  • I am so sick of the over-the-top video game fights. They look LESS "realistic" than the cartoon! At least in the cartoon, they draw people doing more or less what I imagined from reading the book (while glossing over the gore, as it's a children's movie).
  • The cartoon was scarier. Yes, scarier! No snot jokes! And no overlit goblin caves. In the cartoon, when the goblins kidnap the dwarves, they go down into darkness. The poor ponies look terrified! Then it really is dark, pitch black background with just the goblin faces suddenly appearing. Plus they sing that song (I love that song. They sing it in the book, and the music in the cartoon fits perfectly. "Down, down to goblin town... ho ho, my lad!" and have the clashing chains.) When watching the 2012 movie, I couldn't help thinking "Oh lord, it's Moria all over again...". And too many prolonged sequences of people falling off cliffs and jumping across crumbling bridges. Gah! The cartoon wisely kept it short! Otherwise the impact is diluted. But weirdly, the design of the 2012 Great Goblin was reminiscent of the 1977 animated version!
  • Ok, granted that the 1977 version is a children's musical, it's a faithful adaptation of the book. Characters aren't added or changed (beyond minor details). Bilbo may be a bit flatter/calmer than I imagined him from the book, but the actor won me over. (Some of it is the limited expressions in the cheap animation, but hey, it's like watching a puppet show.) When the 2012 movie reminds me of a puppet show (or really, the muppets... except not as good), that just annoys me. If they want to do a muppet version of the Hobbit, they should just go all-out and do a muppet version of the Hobbit. Ok, never mind that, that's just superficial. But the changes to Bilbo, gah! Example: instead of hiding out in the trees besieged by goblins and wargs, now the trees are falling down like dominos and Thorin charges out to fight! And then when he's down, Bilbo rushes out like some action hero to save him! This all feels totally out of character. Plus the unnecessary initial enmity between Thorin and the elves. It arises naturally enough later in the book/cartoon version. There's no need to push it here. Everyone's character gets distorted for the movie to work.
  • The 2012 movie seems to have lost the story somewhere. Fine, they want to show Gandalf's wizards-fighting-Sauron/the Necromancer thing onscreen. But... it feels like they had to distort that to fit (the timeline doesn't seem to work right. In the books, Gandalf met Thorin's father in the dungeons of the Necromancer a long time ago! The Necromancer was a well-known evil by that time). And it takes too much of the focus away from Bilbo. Between that and having Thorin's story foregrounded, we've lost the "everyman hobbit sucked into great adventures" feel to the story. That seems a waste of Martin Freeman!
  • Speaking of which, I thought all the actors did a great job in the 2012 movie. I even liked Radagast and his magic bunny rabbits (but I'm an old Doctor Who fan.) In that, it's a tie for me between the voice actors from 1977 and the live actors in 2012. But I wanted more of Martin Freeman in scenes not involving a ton of CGI monsters!
  • I'd better stop here. I may read this years from now and wonder "What the heck was I thinking?" This is all merely my opinion as of today, while in excitable rant-mode.

Happy Yule!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Apocalypse Day!

Or one of them, at any rate. I've never paid much attention to this particular one (Mayan long count, blah blah blah), but it did remind me that I still need to work on (revise! revise! revise!) my post-apocalyptic NaNo novel from 2008, the one I apparently tagged as "Armageddon". (I think the title is actually "Babylon Remembered" aka "The Babbling Rat", but I can't be sure.) Whatever my views on apocalypses in general, the personal ones are hard to doubt: I have to believe in my own mortality.

So, work on this, work on that, finish this, finish that. It's probably a bad idea to mix the two. The 2008 story was based on the Christian apocalypse (Book of Revelation and all that), whereas the 2012 story is supposedly Buddhist/Taoist. But as I'm an atheist geek, it all comes out weirdly when I fit everything into my own made-up fantasy system (Just because the gods are real doesn't mean you should worship them!).

What to do, what to do... I think I need an intro chapter for the Armageddon novel (if I end it with the "Armageddon Jack" story, I should open it with the "Armageddon Sleeping Beauty" story. The latter of which I haven't written yet. D'oh!) I have the four threads of my still-untitled 2012 novel to follow to the end. I think I can see where they are all going. Wait, no I can't. Four threads? In between typing the previous sentences and this one, I forgot what one of them was. That just shows how all my thoughts are leaking out of my mind!

I'll continue to work on the 2012 NaNo. I hope to finish the first draft in January. I'm taking a break right now for the winter holiday season. I still have some last-minute shopping to do. And I should decide what we want to eat for Christmas. And maybe I can teach my kids to play some holiday music.

I'm soooo sick of that Minuet. (The easy one that's not actually by J. S. Bach. You know. The Minuet.) All three of my kids played it, and the past month, it's been the youngest one's turn. But I did manage to track down the gavotte-that's-not-really-by-Lully-and-not-really-a-gavotte that my son likes, thanks to this awesome website. I was annoyed that the Suzuki books didn't give much info or context on the pieces selected for them, but Mark Polesky tracked everything down and posted it on his website. It's all very well to listen to the included CD for learning how to play, but it seems very sterile (and it's only one version). I prefer to hear the music in a more authentic form. The gavotte (actually a rondeau by Lully's student Marin Marais) sounds completely different when played on period instruments (viola de gambas!) in the period style. Well, ok, my son didn't really care, but I made him listen to it anyway, ha ha ha! (Nothing wrong with his interpretation of the piece, it's just cool to compare different takes on it.)

So yeah. Happy Winter Solstice!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Post-NaNo slump

December 5 today... and I've only written about 1000 words in the damned story (the one I started for NaNo).

Without the deadline, it's like "I'm not sure what happens next... does this work? Hmm, let me think about that some more", whereas in November, it's "I'm not sure what happens next... does this work? Hell with it, I need to get the words down."

It was nice to catch up on some sleep. That ended just before midnight on Sunday when I was hauled out of bed to help with algebra homework. Gah. Lying under the nice warm blankets in the dark, one really doesn't want to move. And in that half-dream state, it's so easy to visualize the equations on a mental blackboard. Why am I not telepathic enough to transmit that image to someone else!?!!!! And then two out of three of my kids want me to "supervise" them for their (instrumental music) practice sessions. This seems to mostly consist of me saying things like "Play that again. Do the triplet section again. Again. Again. That was out of tune. Listen! Play that again, slowly. Again. Again. Now faster. Again. Play it again. Now play the whole thing. Yes, with the repeats! Don't let your pinky escape! Put the stick down, that's not your bow! Don't bang your flute on things! Stop spinning! Play it again. Again. Slightly faster. Don't drag! Don't rush! Start upbow! Upbow! No, the other way! Ok, that was better..." and being the Mommy Metronome. It's a good thing I'm not a music teacher (no patience.)

Ok... so I guess NaNoWrimo works as "supervision" for writing, ha ha. The deadline says "Write words today! Now do it again. Now do it again. Again." I just need to set more deadlines for myself, and announce it publicly so that shame will force me to stick with it. Blah.

Current goal: finish first draft of NaNo2012 story.

Estimated wordage: 75K (seems on the short side for fantasy novels) for book one. I could be completely off in that estimate. Guess I'll have to write it and find out!

Secret future goal: I want to find out exactly what happened in the prequel that I kept hinting at in the current story. I need to write that soon.

Not secret future goal: Edit! Revise! Get something decent out of all this wordage!

Let's do it.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Another year, another NaNo

Whew, I just managed to get to 50000 words by 2 pm today, which is good, because I have other stuff to do this afternoon. The NaNoWriMo validator kindly added another 500 to my total. That's certainly better than having it subtract 500 words!

Final notes for November:

I'm not feeling the luuurve!
I gave myself three traditional male/female pairings (Rabbit/Toad, Rat/Dog, Vampire/Elf), one male->neuter/female (Phoenix/Silver), and one bromance (Phoenix/Rabbit). None of them convinced me of their passionate love for each other, none of them moved me to tears (not even of laughter: comedy me, you fail!). Yeah, I suck at this romance thing.
I need to organize my books
I used to have them contained and sorted on my bookshelves, but sometime in the last decade, they've gone completely out of control. *sob* Stacks of books everywhere all over the house, piles of books sent to the library bookstore, more books that fell under my bed, in my closet, left on the basement table, stolen by the children, etc. etc. I can't find anything anymore. And that's why I did all my "research" via Google this year. Yeah....suuuuure...
After 50,000 words, I have more or less arrived at the beginning
By "the beginning", I mean the scenes I imagined back before I started writing the novel. Those scenes which were supposed to set up all the exciting adventures to follow. So fine, I have an idea. Then I think about how the characters got there. And what they're going to meet later on. So I do a few scenes to set things up. A few scenes turns into six chapters. And finally, here we are.
Hmm. That wasn't the scene I imagined!
See above. So when I finally get there, everything has changed. Characters are not what I thought they were. The choices they make are not what I vaguely imagined them to be. Even today, the scene I actually wrote differed substantially from the one I imagined last night when I was thinking about it. This is why I don't like to skip around in writing stories. If I do things out of order, I'll end up like that idiom about the horse mouth not matching the ox head.
POV? What POV?
Usually I stick to the third-person limited point of view (with multiple POV characters throughout the story, but only one per scene) or first-person (that year I tried to do the diary format, and the occasional short story/novella), but this year I went crazy with the cinematic jumping about. Mostly I tried to stay out of people's heads (telepathic communication doesn't count as internal!) except for the occasional reaction shot or when I wanted to be sure I knew why someone was doing something. It seems I wanted to have an omniscient narrator this year. I dunno. I'll have to think about it.
Ok, that's 50000 words. What about the rest of the novel?
Uhhh... umm. Yeah, I guess I still like the basic idea enough that I want to finish it. Plus, this is meant to be volume one in a multi-volume series. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
The background story/prequel I didn't tell
("The shipwreck. The plague.") Apparently that refers to the space opera/Cthulhu/cyborg/fae/psi-power world ("Future History Channel") where the last humans from Earth use an experimental stardrive to start a new colony on a different planet. Bad things happen. Does that sound like Chinese-style fantasy to you? Or like Sapphire and Steel? At all? No, I didn't think so. But there it is. That's what those two characters (the vampire and elf prophets) were up to before they came here. And no, I don't ever use the words "vampire" or "elf" in this novel.

December tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hey, look, it's the plot...

Where have you been, you dear old thing?

Umm. So yeah. Hit 44000 words now. I feel like rolling around on the floor moaning "ugh ugh ugh" like my son does, but that would probably be unproductive (that's what I always say to him) and undignified (maybe I can just eat some chocolate instead.)

The last week of NaNo is so so so painful. On the other hand, at least I'm writing something.

What is that something? Well, after diverting myself for the last 30000 words on the setup for "assignment one" for my nominal main character, I finally went back to him. Sort of. He was really boring to write about because he's been spending all his time studying for the imperial exams. (And since I don't know anything about that, can't describe it in any detail. Research is called for. Later.) Actually, I'm with his wife right now. She's boring, too. Boring, boring, boring. This is one of those "romances" where they're going to be happily married, then turned into enemies, then have a sentimental reconciliation at the end.

Ha ha ha ha ha! Ok, yeah, I'll believe it when I see it. (Or write it, whatever.)

6000 more words for the November goal.

No padding.

That really hurts when I delete my placeholder notes once I write the scene they were standing in for. *cries* The word count! Decreasing! Nooooo!!!!

Only six thousand words. Think. Think faster! Quickly! Write words! All November, I feel I'm barely able to think ahead enough to know what the next scene is. I can't NOT write 6000 words, right? It would be too pitiful if I failed NaNo at this point.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

10000 words to go

Which is to say, I just hit 40K and wanted to take a break from my NaNo.

Yarrgh. Here I am in the last week again, making my frantic efforts to finish. It's been worse every year. I suppose I'm daring myself to fail, so then I'll know how far I can push it and still manage the 50000 words. Bad me, no biscuit!

Also.

Paragraphs.

What happened to paragraphs? This month, I suddenly realized that all my paragraphs have disintegrated. I have words, I have sentences, I have scenes and possibly chapters, but paragraphs? What the heck are paragraphs? I think being on the computer all the time has influenced me to make my "paragraphs" shorter and shorter, since I hate looking at a solid block of text.

All these line breaks.

And white space.

Are easier on my eyes.

And as I said last year, they give me the illusion that I am progressing rapidly with my story, even though the actual word count doesn't go up by much. I feel that I have a huge fluffy story! Ha ha! *lolls around in the white space*

But it's the last week. Which means...

Even more long sequences of pointless dialogue!

Even more side trips to random new places that I made up on the spur of the moment! Which always ends up as some dark, lifeless landscape. (Cf., "Thousand Sunless Valleys", from last year's story.) This year it's a monastery on a cliff where the king keeps his wife, concubines, and children imprisoned. I have yet to figure out what the ghost is doing there, though, besides waving the "Follow me!" plot flag.

Even more unconvincing "character development"!

And possibly some "cheating", where I just guess at what happens and write down a summary. Normally, I like to run scenes back and forth in my imagination as if watching a movie, until I can see it clearly, at which point I write it down. When the deadline is too close, I'll write it down anyway whether it's right or not. This can cause problems for me later, but at least it keeps me writing.

Grrr. This post is probably full of lies. I don't even know, anymore. Must... write... more... words...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Procrastination method #25

Randomly browsing in a dictionary.

There's nothing like a big clunky volume of paper that you can physically flip through to read entries at random. Typing and clicking just isn't as fun. My excuse is usually "I'm looking for cool words that I can use as character names." (I keep a file with a list of names that I want to use someday.)

Today, for me, it was my good old Chinese-English dictionary. Chinese is full of fun four word sayings (many from ancient literature). I only know a few of them because I own volume 3 of a series of books explaining these idioms. Other than that, I have no clue unless someone explains it to me or I look it up specifically. But the dictionary conveniently lists them in the entry for each word (so it has all the phrases that start with that word.)

Amusing ones for NaNoWriMo:

While browsing the entry for word 4761 in my dictionary: "卧薪尝胆" ("Wò xīn cháng dǎn"), which Google tells me is "Stooping to conquer", while my dictionary says "(literally) to lie on faggots and taste gall --- to goad oneself ahead by depriving oneself of all daily comforts and subjecting oneself to life's bitterness (a reference to Kou Chien when he was nursing vengeance)". Ok, so NaNo isn't exactly a great conquest, but we goad ourselves by depriving ourselves of... uh... TV? and subject ourselves to the bitterness of... hmm... pounding out the daily word count and seeing the "At this rate you will finish on..." date get farther and farther away.

Then there was word 4763, which gave me: "临渴掘井" ("Lín kě jué jǐng"), which Google says (as definition #2) (I'm not sure why #1 is KMT - Kuomintang. Not gonna google to find out about THAT...that would be another hour wasted in googling irrelevant topics) "need for last minute frantic efforts". Mwah ha ha ha ha! My dictionary says "(literally) to dig a well when one feels thirsty --- to do something too late and without preparations; to make no timely preparations". I guess traditional Chinese culture frowns on "pantsers"!

Well, the second one is very fitting. I aim to be at 35K tonight. And then if I can do 5K a day for the next few days, I may even reach 50K by November 30. Frantic efforts! Frantic efforts! Not to be confused with the English expression about "digging oneself deeper into the hole".

P.S. Note how word 4763 "临", just 2 after word 4761 "卧", is pronounced completely differently and (in simplified script) doesn't look anything alike. Damn the simplification for messing with the radicals! Why simplify one but not the other? Just how was I supposed to look up the word if I don't know how it's pronounced or what the radical really is?! Stupid f***ing Chinese dictionaries.

Friday, November 23, 2012

YARRGH! It's day 23!

<panic mode>...and I only have 31K words!</panic mode>

This writing thing. It's always like pulling teeth.

I've never pulled anyone's teeth, but after personally witnessing the literal truth of expressions such as "nit picking" (and I don't mean my inner editor), "slippery as an eel", "pissing contest", and "steaming pile of shit" (and I don't just mean my so-called novel), I'll trust that "pulling teeth" can be believed to be difficult.

At any rate, every time I check my word count, it seems it's only crept up by 100-200 words. Damn it.

Of course, yesterday, every time I checked my word count, it remained the same. Novel, why u no rite urself!?

After 30000 words, I've almost reached the point in my story where I started thinking about it. It's always like this. I have an initial conception, a scene, or some characters in mind. Then I wonder how they got there, and so I end up writing a long long long backstory. This time, it's because I filled in some blank character slots with characters from my previous NaNo stories. They brought a lot of baggage with them. In fact, they seem to have settled in and evicted my original 2012 NaNo characters!

Ah well, it's ok with me. There was no particular reason to write one story or another, so whatever comes to mind will do. (See, so much for the outline that I didn't make!)

Today I had two more characters appear. It turns out that the little dog was actually working for evil warlord XXX! (That XXX! I need to kill him off tonight.) And there's a wolf. I don't think he'll last long in this story, though. He has enough sense to skedaddle before someone kills him off. You see, he recognized the rat as being a shameless ripoff from the Legend of the Condor Heroes and... no, wait, I didn't say that. If I use the "Beggar Clan" and the "Dog-beating stick", it's an homage and an inside joke, not stealing. So there!

Look, that's about 350 words I just wasted on this so-called blog! Words, why u no be in my novel!?

Food, then back to writing...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Too many damned fights

It seems like my characters can't walk two steps without getting into a fight.

At least that's how it feels. Though maybe that's because I've been listening to bits of the Dungeon Siege soundtrack while I write. I love the epic Dungeon Siege main theme, especially the Glacern variation (so icy!). It's the only computer game I've restarted several times just to hear the music again. I'm serious.

All right, so I don't have quite as many fights as Dungeon Siege, but it's still annoying. It is the genre convention for what I'm writing (Chinese wuxia-influenced supernatural fantasy), but I'm no action director. In theory it could add to my word count as I describe every cool move and technique and weapon and blah blah blah, but in reality I haven't a clue.

It's gotten to the point where I just say that they fought, then give the results. They fight more often than they eat, as far as I can tell. To be fair, the characters usually don't have a conflict with their food, which is why I don't mention it. How often does anyone want to hear "so-and-so had a bowl of rice with some stuff on it"? But then, they don't want to hear a recitation of the catalog of Awesome!Magic!Exotic! Weapons, either. Or at least I don't. (Even though it was funny when those guys in Gu Long's novels had their rankings of the top 100 fighters and their weapons, or whatever it was. They were always missing people in the list, anyhow.)

Anyway.

Two-thirds of the way through the month, and only halfway to 50000 words. ARRRRGH!!! Yep, still badly behind at 26K words this morning. It's horrible. I hate writing. All the cool words run away when they sense me approaching the keyboard. It's so annoying. Ah well, time to get one of the kids to school now.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

This is not called "catching up"

Day 17, and I'm starting this morning at 21000 words.

Yeah.

I wish my plot was better. Where is my magic plot-improving wand!? Stupid plot! Everyone just plods along in predictable ways. Well, it would have to be predictable by me, since I'm the one who wrote it. But wouldn't it be nice to be surprised by your own plot twists? (And I don't mean like in those movies famous for their "plot twists" where just hearing the premise and being told there IS a plot twist, the supposed twist is obvious. *cough cough* Sixth Sense *cough *cough* I mean the stories where things veer off in ways that I never expected at all, but not in a WTF out of character way.)

Plot twists? Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I wish I had some.

Nope. I'm just sending my characters on the plot choo-choo... ugh. Well, the only surprising thing last night was that the Rat had an imperial seal from the previous-previous dynasty. O...kay... And they're going to use it to trick some bandits? What bandits? There were no bandits in my original "outline" (what would have been my outline if I'd sat down and written one, which I hadn't.) Apparently I got sick of typing about the soldiers here and soldiers there blah blah blah.

So now we have bandits. Ugh. Why is a nice girl like her (the schoolteacher's daughter) getting mixed up with bandits? Isn't that dangerous? I blame it on the Rat.

I also need to think up a new batch of names. The past few days I've been writing about the need for revenge on XXX! That bastard XXX! He's so evil! They lived in XXX, but then they went to XXX, where there was no sign of XXX, so then they went to the village of XXX, and asked XXX about it, but XXX didn't know where XXX was either. Maybe he went to XXX. Oh, FFS! Just go jump in the XXX river already!

But look. It's over halfway through the month. Let's take this "catching up" thing more seriously, eh? The lock-myself-in-the-library thing kinda works, but I just need to speed up with the writing. Why I can't just pretend this other room in my house is the library, I don't know. I need to work on my self-hypnosis skills.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Another day, another character...

Three years ago, I wrote my NaNo novel in a claustrophobic first-person diary format. This turned out to be horribly difficult to sustain. Even I, the author, lost my suspension of disbelief that this person would dutifully sit down every day to transcribe Exciting! Dramatic! Ooooh! Traumatic! Standard Fantasy Epicwank! in exacting detail. I didn't want to turn it into a memoir halfway through, or an interrogation, etc. I should have picked a different plot for that. Probably a romance/mystery in a fantasy setting would have worked better, rather than giant magical mecha and mass slaughter and torture and stuff like that.

Don't say I don't learn from experience!

This year I went in the opposite direction. I skip merrily from character to character, not worrying overmuch about point of view. And instead of trying to think of it as one big novel (which I can't keep in my head), I think of it as a basket of individual stories that happen to be jumbled together.

I'm actually enjoying it, once I force myself to start typing, and once I set aside the "Good lord, this story sucks, is lame and shallow, has boring characters, who talks like that anyway what's wrong with my dialogue writer!?, when is everything going to make sense" worries aside. (This may all be true, but I stop worrying about it anyway, or I'd never bother to write anything.) I'm writing the story I want to read, or at least that's the idea.

So I write these characters and meet them properly, when they were only placeholder pieces in my "outline". And they inevitably turn out differently from my initial conception. This includes my so-called main characters, who always end up more boring than the so-called secondary characters. After this many years, I know to expect that. The whole classification of someone as the "main character" is now just a game I play with myself so I have a starting point to hang the novel on. This year the protagonist is secretly the character from a previous NaNo, so this project is secretly a sequel, but since in the previous novel, the character suffered from "main character syndrome", this project is secretly the "first" book after all, and the previous one was about someone else.

Meanwhile, I've skipped on to another character. Hey! It's the Annoying Child Character (TM). It's the boy from the minority culture *cough*elves*cough* that I'm making up off the top of the head. It seems they have connections to India: so Buddhism wasn't the only religion that went to China; so did what seems to be a cult of Kali. Looks like we're headed for a Mahadevi vs Xi Wang Mu goddess smackdown! (Or not.) There's also a problem with the customs of the royal family... it took my children to point it out to me. Heh. Something for me to think about.

Today I've introduced two more characters. Ha ha! The Dutiful-Daughter-Seeking-Revenge and the Rat Fairy-Beggar now have names and a scene together.

What I don't have is 25000 words. It's November 15. There's something wrong with my math... I have 18000 words right now. Blah. The sit-in-the-library-and-write thing is working, sort of. I just need to write FASTER.

But I got too hungry and came home to get food. Then I got distracted and wrote up this blog post. Which proves I wasn't REALLY that hungry, eh? Eh? *facepalms*

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

It's that time again...

...when I realize it's about halfway through November and I'm BEHIND!!!! *cue horrified music* It's November 13 and I have about 14K words this morning.

It's not that I haven't had time to write, it's just that I haven't spent the time I have in writing. Time to move on to the next step! I will go lock myself (mentally) to a cubicle in the local public library and sit down until I have my words done. No food, water, or bathroom breaks. I prefer writing in the library to going to a coffee shop or whatever. It's quieter, I don't feel pressured into buying drinks and/or food, the tables are bigger, and the electrical outlets are placed more conveniently.

But I can see today is another evil day of evil: I'm starting a new file. All that blank space usually puts me off. There's nothing for it but to start...

...infodumping. Yeah. Back when I visited Yunnan, I saw some really cool exhibits with artifacts from an archaeological dig uncovering some old mostly-forgotten kingdom/tribe. There's tons of these in China, especially to the west, southwest, etc., that were at the "frontier" of ancient imperial China. It's a pity I didn't take pictures or notes, nor did I buy any picture books/museum books (if any were available.) At the time, I was not thinking "Hey, I want to steal this culture for my NaNo this year!" (Reminder to self: You ALWAYS want to steal things for your story/RPG campaign/whatever.)

So it's back to "make shit up as you go along". Bah. Whatever I think up is usually more boring than the real thing. It will have to do for now. So I'm making up my own "lost kingdom" (of which this village that I'm infodumping about will be the last remaining outpost) with its random alien culture (elves, I tell you!) and shtuffs. I will try to do more serious researching when I get around to revising this first draft.

So, not yet Bottomless Pit of Despair time yet, but definitely Butt In Chair, Fingers to the Keyboard, No More Internets, For Realz time.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ugh, I'm behind

I really need to write faster.

And not spend so much time not writing.

Ugh, ugh, ugh, moan, moan, whine, whine, blah blah blah.

I have this gaping hole in the middle of the story where I have no idea what happens. ("And then a miracle occurs.") It seems I may do the Gu Long thing where he goes on for pages introducing some random cool characters, builds up the suspense...then has them killed off by the end of the chapter. Rinse, repeat. I did think to have a revenge plot wander through the middle of the story (it's not even the middle, it's more like the late beginning), where some woman wants revenge on the warlord fellow (he had her family killed), and it's the rat fairy who helps her. The warlord is running away now that the Mongol dynasty got overthrown, but why the heck would he end up in the village? Wandering around delirious from fever from an infected wound? Everyone else thinks he's dead?

Why do the villagers shelter him? Is it all just a coincidence?

What's going on? Am I going to offend people by making the villagers be from some non-Han minority group about which I know nothing? What if it's an imaginary minority ethnicity? One that does magic? (The elves!? WTF? They must be the elves! Yes, because elves are so Chinese. Or not. After all, they're 'foreign' and they're weird and they dress funny and they're rumored to be anthropophages. Plus one of the characters was originally an elf. That explains everything! Not.)

What about the emperor sending his army to take over Yunnan?

What am I going to do with all those soldiers? I don't want to deal with thousands of soldiers in my story.

Maybe the villagers just want to hide until everything's all peaceful again.

Why why why why why? What happened to the two disciples who got killed?

I don't know, I don't know, and I don't know. I'm under 11000 words and need to be at 20000 by the end of Saturday. ARRRRRGH!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The triumph of the vague

Also known as, "the chapter in which I summarize in 500 words what happened in the prequel (or sequel, depending on one's point of view) novel which I never wrote, without giving enough detail for anyone to understand what the hell it was about." Gah! I bet I could get more wordage out of it if I described events with something more specific than "Long ago, a long way from here, a woman who wasn't there had a conversation that never happened with a man who couldn't speak" and glossing over a whole adventure with "The shipwreck, the plague."

But then again, I'm trying to write THIS novel, not the other one. If I'd wanted to write the other one, I'd be doing that right now. But I'm not.

Which is no excuse for the parts of the current novel I'm not writing, either, such as "Years passed. Of the Phoenix's passage through the underworld, we will not speak." Well, I said I wouldn't speak of it. So I won't! But who is this "we"? Since when do I have a narrator in this novel? Damn it! *headdesks* But I think it's because I'm doing this novel in "fairy tale mode". I read too many fairy tales at an impressionable age. I still read them. So sue me, I like them. Why shouldn't I write in fairy tale mode if I feel like it?

But, um, yeah, skippity-skippity, skippity la la la.

So I'm not having my cake and I'm not eating it either. That is, I'm not writing the scenes I don't want to write so I can skip ahead to do the parts I do, but I'm also slow in writing the scenes I claimed to want to write. That explains why I'm currently lagging at 5000 words behind.

Yeah.

Go me!

...I said, "Go!"

...Now? Hello? Writing? Words?

...I'm going to go wash the dishes now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

There really is a nun in my story!?

E-mi-tuo-fo! Shanzai, shanzai. (Do I want to write it like that? Maybe the "shanzai" part should be translated. As what? "Very good"?)

So there apparently the toad demon shows up dressed as a nun. Is she really a nun?

November's plot is only a distant cousin of October's plot.

Nothing is what I thought it was, or not quite. So much for planning!

The outline is like a light that I throw ahead of me, so I have something to focus on as I move forward. Once I get there, I find the ground is full of new details and formations that were unknown to me before I got there. Sadly, this year the "light" runs on a wind-up battery, so every time I catch up I have to spend a lot of time figuring out what happens next.

What happens next? Gah, I'm behind, behind, behind. I'll write what happens next on here. Maybe that will motivate me to write 4000 words today. (Let's pretend to believe that for now. It's not impossible, merely unlikely.)

Just how evil is this toad demon/nun supposed to be? She says she's there for knowledge, and maybe that's true. All those years seeking enlightenment, but it eludes her. She thinks the boddhisattvas know a secret that they could share but refuse to, out of spite or fear (that too many commoners will ruin a good thing?) She doesn't believe that they are acting out of compassion. I suppose it's a projection of what she would feel if she was the one with secret knowledge. A secret is only valuable until it's revealed, she says. Fine. So, if the boddhisattvas won't share, what about one of their outcast disciples? Being a disciple, they might know. Being outcast, they might be persuaded or bribed to speak.

So what about the rabbit immortal? He's the local earth god now, and meant to guard the prisoner (the outcast disciple). Why does he let her pray to the apostate? I suspect he's a romantic. The prisoner might corrupt her, but then again, the influence might go the other way. Maybe he'll fall in love with the nun! Isn't that what happens in stories? Wishful thinking, but he has to allow them the chance.

What happens, of course, is that it's the Rabbit who falls in love with her instead!

Oops.

Monday, November 5, 2012

In which I eat too much chocolate

Ugh.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

I really shouldn't buy three bags of candy bars and stick them in the drawer by my computer and expect them to last through November. If they're there, I'll eat them. Like, now. And another one, because that first one was so tasty. And then another one, because if you've already eaten two, what difference does a third one make? And if you've eaten three, why not four? And so on.

A pity that doesn't work for my writing. So, it was nice to finish "part one" and to start up a fresh new file...

...fresh new file...

...Part 2...

...Go on, what are you waiting for?!

It's still looking awfully empty.

Maybe I'll go do something else for awhile.

(hours pass)

What do you mean there's only 200 words in that file so far?!!??!!!11111one?

...I think I'll go eat another piece of chocolate...

...No, still not feeling writerly...

I think I'll go add some wordage to my blog.

And eat another piece of chocolate.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

5000 words, Lalalalalalalala Lalalala Lalalalala

"Geduld, nur keine Bange
In zehn Tagen seid... ihr... tot...!"

Wait, what what what? Um. Maybe I was better off listening to the Schumann symphonies.

It's all death, alcohol, shoes, robbers, alcohol, and death with these songs, isn't it? Never mind. After three or four repetitions of this "Fau" album (by Die Streuner / "The Strays"), I dragged myself to 5000 words. (And to think I only bought it for the "Charley is my darling" song, as my son was playing it on the violin at the time. Three cheers for random Youtube searches.)

Meanwhile, in my NaNo story, we're at the palace of the Queen Mother of the West. The Man and the Woman have seen each other for the first time. For about ten seconds. And she died shortly after that (but he was already on his way elsewhere). Then he was reunited with either an imposter or a possessed corpse. This "romance" isn't looking too healthy at the moment. We also met the Friendly Rabbit (the one named after a cabbage), but he is on the chopping block. He dies tomorrow! That gives me something to look forward to, eh?

At least I hit my quota today earlier than yesterday. There's hope yet! I still need to figure out what happens when everyone gets dumped into the mortal world. I think we're going to end up in Yunnan in the early Ming Dynasty. Lots of turmoil and thus chances for wacky supernatural meddling by desperate people. (I'll have to do some research... but will probably end up making most of it up off the top of my head, gah.)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Only Schumann will get me through this...

It's only day 2 and I already hate everything. (My story is lame, shallow, meaningless, cliched, racist, sexist, riddled with cultural/linguistic/ecological errors, devoid of interest, etc. etc.)

On the other hand, I'm only 2000 words in, and I've already "discovered" new things about the characters. Admittedly nothing very deep, but now that I know that "Silver" and her fellow disciples have been practicing the "Shifting Body, Changing Element" technique, but lacking a crucial breakthrough, that explains why "Phoenix" would end up using something like it (obviously "Rabbit" stole the secret manual from the ruined temple and gave it to his friend.) Speaking of which, who is this "Rabbit" and where did he come from? He was never in my original plot outline. But there you go. That's what happens once the actual writing starts. I'm told (by me) that he's a nephew of the rabbit in the moon (the one who brews the Elixir of Immortality) and he's a fat, nosy, meddler who grows magic snow lotuses in icy crevasses.

One of the stupid things that slows me down is that I make up Chinese names for all the characters and techniques and powers and so on. (And where I don't make them up myself, I steal them from other people.) Yeah. It doesn't help that I totally suck at literary Chinese, and it's only the power of Google (and a dictionary) that lets me limp along. Even if I never write them down where anyone can see it, it still helps me mentally. The other stupid thing is me making up their dialogue in the language of Chinese wuxia novel cliches. And then I try to translate it into English. Badly. ARGH! *headdesk*

Meanwhile I still have lots of words left to write tonight. I can tell I'll have to be sitting at the computer late at night, desperately wanting to sleep, before I can get any of it done. I predict I will go through three repeats of the Schuman 3rd and 4th symphonies before I log off. That's how slow I am. Ugh.

Day 2 and so far my character death count stands at: 1 named, 4 unnamed!

Naturally I'm excited to continue and see how high I can get that number this year!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Off we go... to somewhere?

Day 1 of NaNoWriMo begins. Well. That wasn't exactly a speedy start. Took me until now to get the first 500 words down.

No, I didn't ever finish my outline.

No, I didn't ever finish carving all five pumpkins.

No, I never got around to vacuuming.

No, I haven't figured out yet how to connect villain A to villain B, much less how to get the other characters into the right places at the right times. (Note to self: except for one thing: remember that the Dog wasn't saving the Phoenix, he was saving the backpack, which had all the yummy-yummies inside it.)

No, I didn't ever finish making up names for my characters. (Even worse, many of them need multiple names, for their various lives and identities.)

No, I didn't ever finish making up names for the places, sects, mysterious powers/martial arts, etc. etc.

Guess that means I'll just have to make it up as I go along. I'll try to keep to strict chronological order (though I will skip between characters) so that I can keep the flow of cause and effect straight in my head. Last year I split my narrative into alternating "past" and "present" chapters, but that was a pain even with an outline prepared. This year, if I mess around with the ordering of scenes, I'll wait until revision time to do that.

So what did 500 words get me? Through the first event I wanted to note, and a little bit into the second one. And way too many Google searches for trivial things I don't want to admit to. Note to self: just make something up! Skip it! Get writing! 1500 more words to go for today! Fun fun. Yay. Smell that enthusiasm. (Not to be confused with broccoli, which my younger daughter insisted her oatmeal smelled of this morning. Too much Halloween candy last night, I say.)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Are we ready yet?

Argh, no. I still have to go to the store, where they'll probably be all out of milk and bottled water and toilet paper and batteries and cereal and... ugh, and I still have to get to the pharmacy Real Soon Now and...

Why visit us now, Hurricane Sandy? I don't remember sending out an invitation. Gah! Oh well. Looks like I'm going to be among the thousands without power this week as NaNo starts. At least I have a full bag of charcoal for the grill. And we hope other places in the area will have backup generators so we can just drive off and buy food somewhere, dark traffic lights and fallen trees be damned!

I've been writing the notes for my NaNo in my notebook (the kind made out of paper) with a pen (the kind that uses physical ink). With luck, I'll be able to read my own handwriting. The plan is to write the NaNo by hand if necessary, then type it into the computer later.

There, THAT plan was easy enough.

Now, what about the plan for the novel itself?

Well...

I'm working on it. It's getting away from what I had originally envisioned, but it always does. The more details I figure out, the more I realize that "no no no, THIS is what actually happens", which means that the only way I know what the ending is is to get there by writing my way through the story. I think I have enough now to get me through the first week or so of November. I even have a name for one of the characters (that leaves another dozen or so to go). Hooray for Google translate!

So, yay, I'm looking forward to starting! And hiding in the house away from the scary scary evil trees outside. There's so many. Lush, aggressive vegetation as they once said in that old Doctor Who episode. Or that other one:

DOCTOR: Well, perhaps if we could define the exact nature of the threat posed by the trees.

HINDLE: I've told you. Seeds, spores and things. Everywhere. Getting hold, rooting, thrusting, branching, blocking out the light.

...

DOCTOR: Why do you think the plants are hostile?

HINDLE: Because they are.

Mwah ha ha ha! I'm with poor crazy Hindle here. After years of trees falling around me and crushing cars, houses, and people, I've developed a phobia...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Never mind the plot, just get me through the setup

Yeek, ten more days until November. I still don't have a title for my NaNo novel, nor names for the characters, nor names for the places, nor the main plot worked out. Also, I just realized I forgot to do "research" for this story, by which I mean shopping for books for my overflowing shelves! Darn. Well, the ones I already acquired in previous years will have to do. (Plus Google, of course.)

So what do I have so far? Three characters stolen from previous stories, a fantasy version of the world stolen from an old RPG campaign I ran, also used in the previous NaNo stories, a handful of new characters made up for this year's story, an old TV show I'm ripping off ("Sapphire and Steel"), a new TV show I'm ripping off ("活佛济公/Legend of Crazy Monk"), and a stronger version of "ICA=ICC" ("In character actions = In character consequences" as used in online RPGs) which is supported by the way the gods/magic work in this story.

In theory, all I have to do is set up the right initial conditions, and then everything will run by itself to the inevitable yet surprising conclusion.

*keeps a straight face for about five seconds*

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!

No, actually, I do need to have some kind of plan. It takes me a long time to think up "well, what would be the most fitting consequence for that, then?" It's easier in a game, when I don't have to figure out what every side is thinking and planning (if I'm lucky, I only have to deal with one character at a time!) If I write in too much of a hurry, the barriers between different characters break down and everyone suddenly knows everything and thinks the same thing. Not the same as ME having a mental breakdown, but still bad for the story.

So I need to make some notes on what each character is doing (in each life) and what they're trying to achieve. Some of them are working for others: I need to keep track of their motivation, secrets, knowledge, current set of memories, and what lies they're telling. There's always the "why me" questions to be answered, too. I'm not having any Chosen Ones, except in the sense of "you're the next name on the list/next in seniority, it's your turn now!"

Never mind writing pointless blog posts about it. Time to go jot down a few more ideas!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

50000 words? Meh...

It's only going to get me through the first 3-4 episodes max (I tend to think of my stories as 45-60 minute episodes in the TV show I'm running in my head), while the "arc" will take at least 6-8 episodes. After this many years of writing 50K chunks, this is pretty obvious. Not sure what I should do about it. The last two years, I tried writing parts 1 and 2 of the novel. What happened was that a) there's a chapter missing in the middle between the two parts, b) I started up new plot threads and forgot some of the ones I had from the previous year, and c) I still didn't get to the proper end even after over 100K words. Bah, humbug!

On the other hand, 50K is near the maximum I can reasonably write in one month. (I could probably do 60-70K if I really pushed it, but it wouldn't be much fun.) Maybe it would be better for me personally if NaNo was redefined to be two months long. October and November would be nice. Maybe next year I'll do AugNoWriMo as part 1 and November as part 2. Too late this year. I'll go for November and January instead.

Or I could try consuming caffeine and/or alcohol to increase my word count? Hmm. Probably not. I'm a terrible NaNo-er. I only ever drink water and watered down orange juice at home. If I'm feeling adventurous I'll drink grapefruit juice or tea. While eating out, I may even get a lemonade! Oooo! Or soda, if I'm really thirsty and desperate. (This is why I'm not ever going to attempt to write one of those classical alcoholic wuxia characters as my point of view character.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Blaming the pregnant woman? Oh, please...

Another one from the Big Bag O' Sexist Cliches.

I didn't want to do "Romantic Stalker Man", so now I have "Clingy Wife"? This is what happens when one tries to think up plots while walking the dog. So, in the last mortal life, the woman (I need a name for her) finds out from a fortune teller (actually one of the disciples of the evil naga) that her husband is about to be called into service by the goddess/die. The wife is pregnant... So, who can blame her if she thinks this would be a bad time to lose her husband? Doesn't their child deserve a father? But she can't talk to him about it, as she feels she can't force him to choose between personal and divine duties. She's going to save him by... making a deal with the naga (who must be imprisoned at this point)!? No, that's not going to end badly at all!

So what was his bad idea? Back in their previous lives, he was late for an important appointment, and on his way there, he saw the woman fighting a demon, but he ignored it and rushed on, even though she clearly needed help. "I'm a gardener, what do I know about demon slaying? Not my problem." Ok, not a sexist cliche this time. Just based on those classic psychology experiments.

So, he owes her a life. Presumably this will be repaid in the third lifetime they're together. It's likely this kind of sacrifice is the only thing that can drag her out of the clutches of the evil evilness of evil. Meanwhile, if they fight, remember that each attack will be returned eventually to the attacker. One stab in the back deserves another. One sacrifice deserves another. If she forgets him, he will forget her. She forgets him because she's lost to the demon. He forgets her because he died and lost his memories.

Oh dear, how many times are we going around this cycle?

And where does the other mission come into it? Plus the subplots with the dog and rat fairies? I'll worry about that later.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

NaNo2012 Pre-season brainstorming?

Aka what else can I do when someone throws up in their bed at 4 am and decides to sleep in mine? What with the temperature checking and emergency laundering and lack of space, I had a hard time falling asleep again. So there's two hours there of "I should figure out a plot for the novel".

Plot? Characters? I do want to have them in hand before I start. I'm one of those people who needs a Plan. It doesn't matter if I deviate from the Plan, the important thing for me is to have it.

My plan this year: totally rip off the "Legend of Crazy Monk" (2010-2012 so far) TV series, but set it in my personal fantasy version of China (and the rest of the world) that previously contained my vampire and elf "Sapphire and Steel" rip-offs. Also in the plan: kill off or retire those two characters! They've been replaced! Ha! The Queen Mother of the West has a new favorite earthly minion!

Ok, so who are the characters this year? I don't have names yet, but after some thought, I've decided they are the Phoenix Immortal (a divine gardener who does something bad, gets punished for three mortal lifetimes, then is called back into service), the Crazy Nun (no, just kidding, that's silly. But she probably was a nun at one point), the Naga (once a disciple of Manjusri, now turned evil), and the Dog Fairy (the character based on my dog.) Plus the Dead Son, the Walking Facechanging Puppet-that-is-not-the-TARDIS, the Stereotypical Village Elder Couple, and the Rat Fairy (bickering love interest for the Dog Fairy). The Rat Fairy is probably a member of the Beggar Clan, and knows the Dog Beating Stick technique, ha ha!

So what about the plot? Apparently there has to be this big doomed romance thing going on between the Phoenix and the Nun. He fails her, she fails him, and now they can both fail simultaneously before getting some kind of conclusion. It's karma? The villain is involved with them as a consequence of their failures.

Gender issues. Hmm. The Chinese phoenix ended up being female (all the dragon-phoenix pairings!) but apparently that started during the Yuan dynasty. My story starts in the late Song, and ends in the early Ming (which I probably have to rename to the "Sun Moon Dynasty" just to be annoying). The Phoenix in the story started male, went through 3 mortal lifetimes with one as a female, and later became un-sexed and asexual as a price paid to enter divine service. The Phoenix dresses as a male, but seems female to males and male to females. So I'm not sure just how "his" romance thing is going to work out.

Racist? Erp. This is the problem with fantasy worlds when you declare that one place (the cool one where you're setting the story) has dragons as emperors, but that those barbarians out there had a Goblin Khan, and the other land that mysteriously resembled ancient Persia sank into the sea or was overrun by demons, and that one over there is inhabited by were-creatures, when a look at a map will reveal their obvious real-life counterparts. I think of the controversy when one author decided to just delete Native Americans from a fantasy world and shudder. What to do, what to do... What do HUMANS represent in the fantasy world? Why use non-humans at all? Why is the "main" country inhabited by humans, while everyone else is "exotic"? Meh. Let's just say observer bias. Plus there are pockets of humanity out there, and let's pretend I rolled some dice to decide where they live.

Time for lunch...

Monday, October 15, 2012

China? Did I go there? Memory like a sieve...

Let's see if my younger daughter remembers anything:

"The five star hotels are really nice. They have really nice food."

"We went to lots of museums."

"The tours were boring. The wall of China was really annoying to walk on. They had horrible foods on the airplanes. The trains were ok. The subway was too crowded! The end."

Hmm. Maybe not. Oh well. China is China. 2012 is 2012. It was pretty much what you'd expect for a modern, hideously over-populated place. Actually, it was relatively clean. Decent plumbing. I mean, the cities/towns could have totally reeked of sewage, but they didn't. The streets could have been covered with litter, but they weren't. Toddlers poop on the ground instead of wearing diapers, but parents are vigilant about cleaning up. Considering all the disgusting poopy diapers we've had to deal with, going diaper-less is probably more eco-friendly and saves on diaper rash. People may be poor and have to make a living doing things people in richer countries wouldn't bother with, but it seems conditions have improved (compared to the times when millions of people were starving). The rich are richer, but aren't they always?

Emei Shan

"Oooo! There's a computer in this room! Don't tell [brother] or [sister]!"

We spent some time wandering up and down the main street. There was a bus depot for the buses going up and down the mountain. Didn't speak English there. Picked a restaurant at random. For once I didn't order too much food (come on, it's a vacation, I like to feel we have lots of food, and besides, I can never predict from the menu which dishes people will like to eat.) There was that obstacle-course game show on the TV there. These things are weirdly hypnotic. Is that guy going to go for the evil tipping chairs on the top, or try to rush past the punchy-ram things at the bottom? Punchy-ram things it is! SPLASH! D'oh! NEXT!

Got up really early the next day and had to wake up the hostel management to open the front door and check me out. Then we had to go pound on the door at the neighboring hostel to release the spouse, who had been wandering around haplessly in the dark lobby, not knowing which was the correct office door to knock on. Once out on the street, drivers aggressively pitched their services to us all the way until I put down the cash for the bus tickets.

We took the bus halfway up, to the Wanniansi stop, where there's a cable-car to be taken up to where the temple is. Whee! Another cable car ride. I think those were tea bushes we could see on the ground. Emei Shan has its own famous variety of tea. (Which I fail to appreciate, not being much of a tea connoisseur. Guess I should have gone on the "tea" shopping trip!) Then we saw the seemingly endless flights of stone steps, and the moaning commenced in earnest. We slowly made our way up, stalked by an old man selling bamboo sticks (we ended up buying some), a woman sweeping the path, and a porter who kept eyeing the moaning kid. He probably hoped we would give up and hire him to just carry our son up the mountain.

...Ok, so not that many Chinese tourists bother to walk up all these steps, either! But it was clear we weren't going to make it very far, no matter how many bribes we offered. So we stopped off at one of the little rest areas, had a snack, and then headed back down. (We didn't even get far enough to see any monkeys! D'oh!) Saw some mules carrying bricks (apparently some construction going on at the temple). The mules mostly walk by themselves without constantly moaning! We glanced at the temple, but it was crowded and the kids didn't want to go in. That was that for historic holy Emei Shan for us...

We picked up our luggage and then stood around on the sidewalk until someone with a van stopped and offered us a ride. The driver already had a passenger, but there was plenty of room and he took us right to the train station.

...hours earlier than I had planned. Not a great place, the train station. Hot (un-air-conditioned) and with yucky toilets. (Squat toilets, no doors, filthy floor.) Not the worst toilets I've encountered in China, but probably the worst on this trip. So we wandered around a bit. Bought some paper fans, snacks. I should have bought some instant noodles (the ones in the bowl that you just add hot water to) but stubbornly resisted, thinking "I eat the damn things all the time back home, I don't want to do that when I'm on vacation!" Just about every other passenger had the instant noodle bowls, though. Did they know something I didn't? Heh. Cheap and convenient beats expensive, slow, and mediocre train food any day.

...nice train. Yes, it was air conditioned! "Hard sleeper": 6 in each compartment, not bad. Don't ever let your kids steal your blanket! They have fold-down seats along the walls on the opposite side from the beds, with little fold-down tables. Passengers seem to take turns sitting there and looking out the window. One time it was some kids from Hong Kong with Justin Bieber Uno cards. Heh.

A lot of tunnels! The route goes through a mountainous area, along a river valley. Very scenic, in spots. We stopped for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. (Due to severe thunderstorms further down the track, apparently.) Arrived in Kunming in the morning.

Kunming

Crowds, crowds, crowds and traffic! Besieged by touts wanting to sell tours to Dali, Lijiang, etc. the minute we stepped out of the train station. We just followed the main mass of people in search of the taxi area. In the end, we went off with a woman who promised us a minivan. I think we could have walked to the hotel just as fast (as we did in Chengdu) but we were being lazy (plus we had more luggage than we had back when we arrived in Chengdu).

Another big shiny hotel in the middle of a pedestrian shopping district. This one was trying way too hard to reach five-star status! The staff were aggressively helpful (though they didn't seem to speak English), grabbing our luggage from the car and escorting us to our rooms (conveniently located next to each other), then coming by with an amenities cart every day and thrusting slippers, newspapers, candies, kiddie toothbrushes, etc. at us. A pity they couldn't spend more effort on the more basic stuff, such as making sure the toilets worked! We had to have someone come up and clear it twice. I guess they thought it easier to just use a plunger on it every day rather than to really de-clog it.

Spent some time wandering around (more navigation using KFCs as our landmarks!). The provincial museum was cool (and free!). Ye Olde Towne shopping alleys. One selling pets...one scary place. So many birds, baby turtles, and little furries (rabbits, rodents). Tubs of live bugs (pet food?) lying around, one in the middle of the street. Plants, souvenirs, "antiques".

More random TV shows:

Another game show... this one with people as tic-tac-toe pieces, chased around by bulls!?

Something like "Antiques Road Show" with Chinese stuff...? Whoa... did someone carve a stunningly realistic fried chicken leg and hamburger out of jade? What what what...as a diet aid/gift for a friend!? Did I hear that correctly? I guess it makes a change from jade cabbages, jade grapes, and jade bracelets.

Crazy monk... Journey to the West... Matilda... Pleasant Goat... Harry Potter... random anime...

The next day we went to the Shi Lin ("Stone Forest"). Wow! Stunning place! I don't think I've ever seen anything like it anywhere else I've ever been. Big limestone rocks just sticking up out of the ground in striking formations. Pools of water/lakes hidden in the rocks. They have paths and stairs that go all around the main tourist area. "You are in a maze of twisty passages, all different" came to our minds immediately. (Shows the age of me and the spouse!) Yes, it's really really crowded in spots, but we went early, and we accidentally went around the place backwards, so for most of our visit, we practically had it to ourselves. (In many places, we were the only people in sight.) Eventually, we did get lost and I had to ask random tour guides for the way out. (The cryptic little maps they had there only confused us, besides being in Chinese.) I think we missed out on a trolley ride, but we had a good time anyway. The weather was favorable, being a cool, drizzly day that made the gray rocks seem mysterious and impressive.

We had lunch at a restaurant in the "minority ethnic group area" (where apparently the people who used to live in the Shi Lin scenic district were relocated by the government. I suppose that's one of the things governments do to create national parks... it's happened in the U.S., too.) It was one of those "point to what you want and we'll cook it for you" places. This included a bin of...some kind of insects!? which I did not point at. Ha. I did really like their fried goat cheese squares, though!

Truffula trees! I swear, on the road from Kunming to the stone forest, there were these skinny trees with single tufty balls of leaves on the top. They looked exactly like the trees from "The Lorax", except for the coloring. No, we didn't see any bar-ba-loots.

We didn't stay in Yunnan very long. I originally wanted to visit Dali, but we didn't have enough time, so we just headed back to Beijing the next day. We didn't do much the second time around. Just wandered around another bit of the city (historical hutong sections! Alleys!) while my older daughter shopped for more anime figurines and manga. Also visited the big bookstore in the Wangfujing shopping area again. I love that bookstore! Awesome bookstore! So many floors! So many books! So many DVDs! I wish we had that bookstore near my house! Did I mention, I liked the bookstore? OMG, I want that bookstore! I should have spent the rest of our cash there. Instead, we ended up at the airport with a few hundred RMB left, and spent it hastily on overpriced souvenirs. Ah well. At least they were cute. (I like the little panda screen my older daughter got.)

...and then on the plane back to North America. So yeah. I think all this travel and vacationing is wasted on us...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Onwards and westwards... Chengdu!

I suppose I should finish writing up this stuff before I forget completely. I have a terrible memory. I was looking at my NaNos from previous years. I had a hard time even finding where I left all the files. I forgot the titles, the character names, the plots, etc. I guess that's why I fantasize about immortal characters with perfect memories.

Anyway, the next city we went to after Xi'an was Chengdu. Apparently Chengdu is not as popular with Western tourists. I don't remember anymore why I decided to go there. Something to do with "I don't wanna go to Shanghai, I went there last time and it wasn't much fun" and "Hmm, I don't think I've been to Chengdu before, have I?". So there we were. This time, I decided we would all try out the regular bus from the airport. Turned out not to be much fun what with the crowding (but since we got on early, we had seats) and our luggage and not being familiar with the route or having a decent map. (I had a couple of print-outs from Google maps and my "Western China" guidebook.) The subway system in Chengdu is still being constructed. I think just one line was open, and it didn't go anywhere we wanted. So we were dropped off in front of some random hotel, then had to walk the rest of the way. We must have been getting used to the traffic in China, as we managed to cross the roads we needed to cross with a minumum of terror.

It turned out our hotel was in the middle of a giant mall of shopping malls! There's this big pedestrian shopping area in the city center (with 2 KFCs within sight of our hotel). We walked all around the building before finding the entrance. The kids were very impressed with the shopping area. And they liked the hotel, as it had good free wireless internet. The staff didn't speak as much English as they did in the Beijing or Xi'an places. (I think all our transactions ended up in Chinese, whereas in Beijing they wanted to show off their English.) There weren't any English language tours on offer, either. Still, the concierge was very helpful (and they had a rack of cute little cards on each of the local tourist attractions) in arranging a van and driver for us for the next four days (and to take us to our next hotel, which was convenient, as I had been wondering what we'd do with our luggage that day while between hotels.) He suggested some local restaurants, but we were all too tired to attempt them, so we ended up eating at the KFC. The KFC had a picture menu, so all we had to do was point and indicate numbers. (I'm not up on all the fast food names/drink names in Chinese... it's not like I ever order fried chicken in Mandarin when I'm in the U.S.) The pieces you get in China are the "good" pieces, too, ha ha, meaning the wing pieces and such. So even though it's the same brand, they do adapt to local preferences. The McDonalds seem to be popular as ice cream dispensers.

Damn, that was a nice hotel. I liked it best out of all the ones we stayed at. The only annoyance was having our rooms on 2 separate floors. Nice deluxe bathroom: I think that's the biggest thing that cheap places lack. And it was way nicer and cleaner than the bathrooms in our house! At least that was one thing no one complained about. The breakfast buffet was good, too. I liked the option where they cook up a bowl of noodles (rice, wheat, etc., plus your choice of veggies, meat, and condiments) for you. China is a great place if you like to eat Asian style noodles (I do). It was cheap and easy to find a noodle shop in all the cities we visited.

Day 1

ATMs! I love the conveniences of modern technology. It turned out to be easy to get cash from machines in China from my bank account in the U.S. (as long as I first notified the U.S. bank that I would be traveling in China.) A good thing, as everyone wanted to be paid in cash. And the city was not nearly as crowded at 6 am when I went to look for a bank. Ha ha! I stopped by at a convenience store and bought Pocky for the kids, so that cheered at least two of them up.

Dujiangyan: It's weird that an ancient irrigation system should be such a tourist attraction, but it is. And it was lovely! (Including a park just inside the gates and a couple of temples.) More attractive than most of the places we visited in Beijing, to be honest. Some parts were being repaired (damaged by the earthquake a few years back), but most of it was open. The kids liked the swaying rope bridges. And the toy crossbow we got as a souvenir. Love the crossbow. They were still playing with it last weekend, which is more staying power than most "I want it now!" toys.

Mount Qingcheng: Famous Taoist mountain. Mucho moaning when the kids realized how much walking and climbing up/down steps was involved, so we didn't get to see as much of it as I would have liked. On the way there, our driver used his tour guide powers (he proved to be pretty good as a tour guide, rattling off as much tour info as our English speaking guides had back in Beijing) to take us to a Taoist restaurant. Well, Taoists are famous for the whole healthy-living/immortality-aspirations thing, so the food was interesting. Chicken soup...Taoist style! (Including head and feet, of course). Endangered fish! I didn't order that one. The driver just pointed them out in the big buckets. (In China, it's usual to keep fish alive in lieu of refrigeration). Small critters... I'm not sure what species they were. Apparently the restaurant had a special license to serve them. I ordered another, less endangered, fish instead! Veggies... the vegetables are all laid out and you can point out which ones you want to the staff, and they'll cook it for you. We ended up with too much food, as usual. And it wasn't to everyone's taste. Still, I thought it was cool.

Qingcheng Shan was hot and crowded. Basically, we walked, then took a boat across a little lake (it turned out to be just as fast to walk around it), then a cable car up the mountain, looked at some temples, then walked back down. All those steps. There were people there offering to carry you for a fee, but we weren't that desperate.

Day 2

Giant Panda Research Breeding Base: We went to see the pandas. Whoa. It's like the size of the National Zoo, but just for giant pandas and red pandas. That was more pandas than I've ever seen in my life! And red pandas! My older daughter loves them. They really are as cute as they look in pictures. We got to see them up close. There was one dozing in a tree branch right over the walkway. More rides on trolleys! Helpful when my son got especially sad and tired and "ugh"ed every five seconds.

Lunch at a tourist trap. (Silk). I think the driver took us here after seeing that the kids didn't like the Chinese food on the previous day. So this time we had the usual meh-inducing food that we had on the previous tours. Then we walked through the silk museum and shop. Those double-sided silk embroidery pieces were amazing: they have different pictures on each side of the same piece of fabric! Amazing or not, we still didn't buy much. (We're such cheapskates... plus I wasted all the money on fancy-schmancy hotels and restaurants.)

Du Fu Thatched Cottage and Wuhou Memorial Temple: A memorial to a famous Chinese poet, then the famous "Three Kingdoms" historical/cultural memorial. You can guess how well that went down. Yeah. I think all the kids got out of it was extra bribes of ice cream and candy. I knew I should have made them watch the "Three Kingdoms" movies first... hmm... Actually, the sites and buildings were very attractive and well-maintained. Some really beautiful gardens. And good gift shops. Maybe I should have bought more souvenirs when I had the chance, but I don't really need more stuff (where would I keep it all?).

Day 3

Shopping! We wandered around the shopping area. Finally found a supermarket! Apparently they hide them in the basements of department stores. Fruit! Sewing kit! (I had to fix my younger daughter's straw hat, which broke about two hours after she bought it.) We tried eating at the famous Chengdu dumpling/small foods place. It took me a long time to figure out how to get the food. Apparently you make an order, then stalk the tables until someone leaves (it's super crowded!) and then give your order to the kitchen, and they'll bring it to your table. Hmm. The dumplings were indeed excellent. Then we went to one of the chain bakeries. I love the round-puffy-things-on-a-stick. I can't remember what they're called. I wish I'd eaten more of them while I had the chance. I like the Chinese bakeries: the stuff isn't as sweet as the stuff in American bakeries, so it's far more to my taste.

At night we went to see a Sichuan variety show. It seems to be what they show all the tourists there. Very short bits of opera, tumbling, puppets, and face-changing. Nothing too amazing, but a decent sampler. It would have been nice to see a full show of something, but three kids=no way to get all three to sit quietly for that length of time for something in a foreign language.

Day 4

Off to see the giant Buddha! Ok. Yeah. It's big. We went on a boat, stopped in front of it, stared. Realized that we'd left the camera in the car. D'oh. My daughter took some pictures with her iPod, I think. Lunch at Leshan at a local restaurant. Not bad. Then the driver used his tour guide powers to suck us into another local attraction: the semi-petrified wood museum!? Hmm. Well, they said it was "ebony", but the displays were talking about the semi-petrified stuff they were digging up. The museum had a person to give us a guided tour (unfortunately, in Chinese, so that left me to do bad translations). Some cool carvings (but the cultural context was mostly lost. Like showing a giant carving with all the best scenes and characters from "Star Wars" to people who had never heard of "Star Wars" before.) Then after that, we reached the strip of hotels/restaurants at the foot of Emei Shan. There was some mix-up with our reservation, but they found us another room at the hostel next door, so that was all right.

Next: Emei Shan! Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Stalked by porters! Didn't see the monkeys! Too many steps! Vendors with weird fruits! Mules carrying bricks! Turned around and went back down! A long wait at the un-airconditioned train station. "Hard" beds on the sleeper train to Kunming. Nice train, filthy toilets. (And why didn't we buy some bowls of instant noodles? Ah well.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Too many words, not enough syllables

Much as I like the elegance and compactness of Chinese, and even though ambiguity is great for poetry, puns, and cryptic crosswords, it's a hassle to deal with in real life. It's usually played for laughs in movies/TV shows, but when you can have a plotline where someone introduces themselves as "Fake Name", and claims that actually their surname is another (genuine) surname that just happens to sound identical to "Fake", and that their personal name is another (genuine) word that coincidentally sounds identical to "Name", and this can be believed (albeit by a naive character), there's something wrong with your language!!! (Yes, real example from a real TV show I've been watching.)

And this ambiguity leads to a whole system of superstitions based on puns. Pun-based superstitions! Bah! Many of the buildings don't have floors numbered "4" or "14" because "4" sounds like "death". Pictures of bats are lucky. And a bunch of complicated ones that I can't even remember anymore. Plus all the pun-based insults!

When I was traveling in China, there were many times when I wished I could see the subtitles when people spoke to me. It's a good thing TV in China is (nearly) always subtitled. Even though I can't read much Chinese, I find it helps a LOT to see the words printed out. (Hell, I watch English language shows with subtitles on, too.) (And then there was the time in the hotel when we were watching a movie in French with Chinese subs, ha ha ha.) (Although I prefer traditional characters for reading. The simplified Chinese writing used in the PRC makes too many words all look the same. And then there were the common characters that it took me awhile to go "AHA! So THAT's what that word is. D'oh!")

Subtitles or not, somewhere along the way, my two younger kids decided they liked this Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf animated children's show. Ha ha ha ha. It is strangely addictive. I nearly bought the 200 (approx) episode DVD box set, but then sanity descended on me again. Which hasn't stopped us watching it on youtube and so on after we got home.

It's a pity this terseness and ambiguity is nearly impossible to translate into English. It makes the English language versions of Chinese-culture-based fantasy sound clumsy. If you translate the names to convey the meaning, they end up seeming stilted or silly. If you don't translate the names, you just get strings of gibberish. Plus there are many specific terms (especially pronouns and forms of addressing people and greeting people) that denote various relationships between the speaker and the listener that are hard to express in English. When people try to write it out in English, it's usually way too wordy or weird-sounding. It may sound archaic in Chinese dramas when people speak that way (presumably the voice actors are specially trained to make it sound natural), but viewers understand that that's the way people talk in that kind of genre (ancient costume shows, whether comedy or drama). I've wanted to write Chinese-style fantasy stories in English, but I haven't found a good solution yet. Maybe I'll try again this year for NaNoWrimo!

Friday, August 31, 2012

An army of terracotta warriors!

Nothing can stop me now! All resistance will be crushed! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Well, I have eight of them. Plus a horse. And they don't have weapons. And they're only about 4 inches high. But I'm sure all that can be fixed, what with the wonders of modern technology. What do you mean, that's never going to work...

Right, so, Xi'an. We ventured into smoggy smoggy China a bit after sunset. Took the airport express bus into the city (the airport is actually in a neighboring town.) The old Xi'an city walls (nicely restored) were lit up with colorful lights. Very Christmassy. Or Las Vegassy. Or Disneyish. I guess China can now claim to have invented Disneyland, with the hordes of lifelike statues (never mind that they were hidden for a couple thousand years.) So we got off the bus at the Bell Tower, and within five minutes of map-peering and looking lost, we were accosted by a woman trying to sign us up on a tour. (As it turns out, this was slow and quiet, perhaps due to the late hour: in other cities the touts were out in force and immediately in your face with the brochures and shouted offers.) She said she worked for the airport shuttle company, and that they would give us a free ride to our hotel. So, I agreed and we signed up for a terra cotta warriors tour for the next day. The prices seemed reasonable enough. She wanted cash, of course! It took me awhile to get used to carrying giant wads of cash around all the time. I ended up with the Envelope o'Money, which I took out from my backpack at the end of each day to pay the drivers/tour guides.

So eventually (we could probably have walked there just as quickly if we had known the route) we were delivered to our hotel. Just outside the city wall, it was an even fancier place than the place we stayed at in Beijing (but still no swimming pool). Ah well, we're on vacation, at least the nice hotels make the kids happier. Or so I thought, until we found out that this place charged by the minute for an internet connection! (And there was much gnashing of teeth. Even though youtube is blocked in China. Club Penguin still works.)

The next morning, after another hotel breakfast, the tour guide came by to pick us up. It was just us and an Italian couple in a van. We got to see more of the smog, and more of the construction boom. It was amazing how many highrises we saw being built all around every town or city we visited. Xi'an and Chengdu were also in the process of building subway systems. Happy posters promised how much better life would be when they were done. I can believe it. The subway system in Beijing was really really good, and moved massive massive numbers of people around (and they're still expanding it.)

Our first stop was, of course, the "Terracotta Warrior Factory". They actually make terracotta warriors there, in all different scales. We got to see the ovens. Coal (still glowing)! That impressed the Minecraft players in the family. Naturally we bought some souvenirs. They had all of the usual touristy things besides terracotta-themed items: clothes, jewelry, kites, fans, etc. The lacquered furniture was beautiful. If I had lots of money and a spare palace, it would be just the thing. The guide promised it was cheaper than buying it at the Terra Cotta Warrior museum shop, and it probably was. It was even cheaper than I realized, as I accidentally haggled with the sales people and they offered me discounts. Heh. I'm too used to buying things online these days.

Eventually we reached the TCW site. There was the inevitable tourist village by the gates, and then the inevitable trolley ride to the museum itself.

Overheard in the trolley line (from a Chinese family with kids):

"...so as soon as we got up the mountain, they wanted to go down again! And then all the way down, they just wanted to shop for souvenirs and buy gifts for their friends!"

"...and we wanted to try some of the local food, but when we went out of the hotel, all we could find was fashionable clothes stores and alcohol/smoke shops!"

...So it's not just us, then! (Although the "Oooo! A (white) foreigner! Take a picture with him!" thing we got at the Forbidden City probably doesn't happen to Chinese tourists.)

The museum wasn't that far away. We could have walked (and did walk on the way back), but tourists/kids just love those little trolley rides. Apparently.

The farmer who discovered the Terracotta Army was there in the museum shop signing copies of the official book. There was also a short intro film about the TCW. In English! Must be confusing for the Chinese audience.

So then the guide released us to go look at the pits. Yep. They're pits. Big rectangular holes in the ground, now with buildings constructed around them. A few of the statues are still in place for display. The dirt is a strange (to us, used to a more reddish clay soil) faded yellow color. Each building seems to have a bunch of photo op platforms and alcoves, where you can pay extra for a specially exciting picture of you as a Terracotta Warrior, or standing in front of them, etc., etc.

The TCW were pretty cool, and the place not too crowded. Once in awhile a big tour group rushed by ("Don't try to yield to them! You'll be yielding forever!" admonished one woman. I didn't like stepping into a crowd, but it's the way people have to walk, or drive, in China. Heh.) But it didn't take too long for the kids to get bored, and hot, and we retired for an ice cream/bathroom break.

Lunch was even cheaper than the tour-group-lunches we had in Beijing. You could tell because there was no meat served. And drinks were not included.

After lunch we headed back to our hotel. There was other stuff to see in old town Xi'an, but we were tired/jet-lagged/intimidated by the traffic and didn't venture far from the hotel. We ate dinner at the hotel, having failed our feeble attempts to find anything appealing outside.

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel to walk back to the airport shuttle stop. The most embarrassing bit was when we had to be helped across the street by a nice old lady. Isn't there something backwards in that? Heh. So, since we couldn't walk for more than ten minutes without an ice cream break, we stopped for ice cream. (The free wi-fi was a lie!) More random people approached us, offering tours and rides. We declined, until...

We found the airport shuttle bus full, and the next one not for another half hour. At which point the nice man offering us a ride to the airport right now seemed like a good deal...

...which it was, by our standards. It cost the same as the bus (I could probably have tried to haggle for a lower price, but it was already about 1/5 as much as it cost us to get to the airport from our house in the U.S.!) and was quick and easy. Although there's all these warnings about hiring non-official taxis and so on, we did it a few times during our stay in China and it was fine each time. No one ever tried to cheat us. (I do speak some Mandarin, which probably helps.) Sure, we were overcharged for things (compared to what a local would pay), but we always agreed on prices beforehand and there was no problem getting where we wanted to go. It was definitely worth it for the convenience. Since there were five of us, we didn't fit well into a standard taxi, and the "gypsy" drivers typically had minivans or at least a bigger sedan.

Onwards to Chengdu!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Are these your children? You have THREE?!"

At least that's what people kept saying to me for the last two weeks, while our family was visiting China. And then they'd all say "I like girls. Boys are naughty!" Heh. Was there some campaign to make people prefer girls, to counteract all that with the disproportionate number of boys to girls surviving? At any rate, if you ask people now, they say that only "old-fashioned people", out in the countryside, might still be biased towards boys.

So yeah! It's been months since I wrote anything. I thought maybe a blog post on "what I did for my vacation" would help me get back into things. Anyway, it's traditional for the start of the school year (on Monday! Argh!)

China. I told them it was crowded, I told them it would be hot in August, I told them that KFCs were weirdly popular, I told them about the squat toilets, I told them about the traffic, I told them it was smoggy, and I told them about carrying around cash and toilet paper... the whole lowering-expectations bit. Eh. We still had lots of moaning, but nothing too serious.

First came the airplane trip. That in itself was a novelty, as it was the longest the kids had ever been on an airplane before. About thirteen and a half hours of being cooped up in a seat, but each passenger had their personal TV and frequent servings of food. (Ok, so the cups of instant noodles were the worst ever, what with the water not being hot enough and the noodles not soaking long enough, but it was otherwise reasonable.) It was cool to basically fly over the north pole, and have sunlight all the way there.

First city: Beijing. We were all dead tired by the time we got off the plane. Marveled at an airport big enough to have its own subway system! Tried out the foreign currency exchange machine (convenient!) and eventually managed to find the airport express train and figured out how to buy tickets. Whee. A pleasant ride, giving us our first ground level view of China. So, city and stuffs. Superficially similar to cities everywhere. Then we hit the regular subway system. Crowds! Crowds, crowds, crowds! But Beijing has a great subway system. The fare machines are nice, as are the easy to understand flat rates (2 Y per trip) and the maps everywhere, especially the ones with the lights that show you your current position on the line and highlights the next stop. Also helpful: English and pinyin everywhere. English announcements. This made it very easy to navigate.

Getting from the subway station to the hotel was trickier, as the hotel wasn't visible from the exit. But it wasn't hard to ask for directions. No shortage of random people on the street, ha ha! Thank the gods we didn't have to cross any streets on our first day there.

Traffic in China: very, very scary. Possibly the scariest thing we encountered there. The drivers are crazy. The cyclists are crazy. Red lights are optional. What "stop before turning right on red"!? Honk and pass at every opportunity! (The most egregious case was when we were riding one of those little golf cart/trolleys that carry people around inside a park, and one trolley driver felt the need to zoom up and overtake the trolley in front, to arrive a full 5 seconds earlier!) Mostly as we were being driven around China, I tried not to look too hard at what our driver was up to. We always put on our seatbelts. (We're Americans! They can't take that as some kind of insult! But it was funny when one driver told me that he had driven extra slowly and carefully as we had kids along, meaning he had probably only passed about 90% of the other vehicles on the road rather than 99%.)

So anyway, we managed to find our hotel in Beijing, albeit by the back door. The kids were impressed at how fancy it was. (I had booked a bunch of fancy-schmancy hotels for our trip, probably wasting more money than necessary: the one time we stayed in a hostel that cost 1/10 as much, it was actually very nice, though my son kept complaining that "this hostel is inferior!" until we figured out the air conditioning.) We were too tired to eat anywhere except the hotel restaurant. Despite being a fancy-schmancy place, the hotel restaurant still sucked (IMNSHO) as hotel restaurants everywhere tend to suck. So much for my ambitions to try the local food. Ah well. Everyone collapsed into bed soon after. Next morning: hotel restaurant breakfast buffet! Now those I like, despite them being ridiculously overpriced. It's easy and everyone can find something to eat, usually. In China, the fancy hotels tend to have "Western", "Chinese", and "Japanese" style foods. So, a gentle introduction to new stuff: weird white fruit in the fruit bowl! The kids declared that it tasted kinda like kiwi fruit. There, that wasn't so bad! And the pear were Asian pears, but they liked them, as well as the usual apples, watermelon, and cantaloupes.

Day 1: TOUR TIME! I ran off to see the concierge after breakfast. She was very nice and was able to book us on an English-speaking tour to leave in the next twenty minutes or so. Well, that was lucky. These were small tours with about 10-12 people. We went to see the "Sacred Way" part of the Ming Tombs. (Probably the most fun part, what with all the stone statues and animals and not having to go through some evil crowded hole in the ground.) Then to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Of course, everyone was still so tired that as soon as we took the cable car up to the wall, there were cries of "can we go back now?" and "I'm tired!", "I'm thirsty!", "I don't want to walk!". So our "hike" along the wall was very short. Went to the next tower section and came back again. First taste of souvenirs. It took me awhile to get a feel for how much things should cost in China, and how to haggle. The first vendor I bought something from gave me a pitying look as I paid way too much. But on the bright side, neither place we visited was crowded at all. Sure, there were people, but we had plenty of space to ourselves.

Shopping trips: yes, there were two shopping trips included in each day's tour. As long as you go with the same company, you go to different ones. It's really not the worst thing in the world. You get to go to a nice air-conditioned building, where they introduce you to jade, silk, pearls, tea, etc. in Chinese culture and history, and then you can buy some stuff if you want. The first day we went to the jade-carving factory and the silk factory. I got some trinkets and a cute vest for my younger daughter, which turned out to be one of her favorite things from the trip, so hooray for tour-shopping stops!

Lunch: the tour-arranged food was pretty "meh", Chinese style cafeteria food, basically, at the jade factory. Rice, a soup, green leafy veggie, some egg dish (I think), a couple of meat+veggie stirfry, nothing too exotic or memorable.

Day 2: TOUR #2! Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) in one lightning tour. ("I hate tours!" "Not another tour!" "Ugh! Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh." "Mommy, can I buy those earrings?" "Well, maybe, lemme see...maybe on the way back. Oops, too late, the guide just went out the other exit...") We misplaced one member of the tour group (the guide managed to find her eventually) and then another family in the group objected to having to buy extra tickets for the boat ride through the Summer Palace grounds. So we had to walk... our first taste of a really crowded tourist attraction! Partly it's because of the narrow walkways and corridors in the palace that everyone has to go through. Bottlenecks. Not terrible. And we ended up only going on one shopping trip: pearls. (We didn't buy any, but it was neat when they opened up a real oyster and we got to see/touch the tiny pearls it had.) The tour guide took pity on us and skipped the second stop (tea), but made us sign waivers (or at least papers saying what a good guide she was) so she wouldn't get in trouble with management.

Laundry time! This is what I really hate about travel in China. No laundromats. Just as you hire a driver along with a car, you hire a washer along with the washing machine. Or something. But it was something like USD$10 to get a shirt washed! What with our raggle-taggle tourist clothes, we could have bought new outfits for less. Besides, it would be embarrassing to have someone see my holey underwear. So, into the bathtub with our dirty clothes. Bah. (Yeah, I had brought along packets of detergent, having expected this. But I forgot to bring a clothes line! D'oh! I never did find one, so I ended up ripping my all-purpose-wipe/ex-cloth-diaper into a long strip and twisted it up to use a makeshift clothes line.)

Day 3: No tour! I think we all needed some downtime from tours. I don't know what we would have done if we'd gone with one of those 14-day (or whatever) tour packages. Been really miserable, I expect. Wandered around the Wangfujing shopping area of Beijing. Nice bookstore. Useless malls full of clothes. Then for lunch, we went to one of the branches of the famous Peking Duck chain: Quanjude. The waitress talked me into ordering the full banquet. Ha ha ha. We thought the flow of dishes would never end. At least we could sit there and pretend to be emperors or whatever. Yes, this included the duck livers and duck hearts and gizzards (I actually like those) and random things like the "Quanjude Duck Delicacies Nestles". It was pretty expensive, but hey, it's an experience.

In the afternoon (the laundry still isn't quite dry!) we went to wander around the giant flea market at Panjiayuan. It was a bit of a walk, and along the way we passed people on the street with... turtles?! Are they selling turtles? Not tiny little ones, either. These must have been nearly a foot long. WTF? The flea market itself was huge. Bought some random stuff (my older daughter likes wall scrolls and little bags). Got tired of aisles and aisles full of jade bracelets and pretty rocks. Repetitive place. Then there were the people with random statuary, random magazines (in English!), random books (Chinese and English), random cameras (non-digital), random binoculars and telescopes, random chests and furniture, etc.

Day 4: Anime floor of the mall! Whoa! My older daughter is an anime fan, and she found out about this place somehow (the power of Google?) and made me take her there. It was impressive. "Cartoon town" or something. A bunch of little shops (I mean, each one was probably the size of my bedroom or smaller) selling manga, figurines, posters, etc., etc. I guess there's so many malls in Beijing there's bound to be one specializing in anything you want.

Then it was time to check out of the hotel. Made the mistake of dragging everyone and their luggage around the city looking for somewhere to eat lunch. We ended up at a Subway, which has much the same food there as it does in the U.S. And then more misery as we dragged through the streets to Tiananmen Square, mainly just to say we'd been there. Not really that interesting a place. So then it was down into the subway station and off to the airport! We ended up there three hours early, so they rebooked us onto an earlier flight. This was a good thing, as the flight turned out to be about three hours late anyway, and if we had been on our original flight, would have arrived in the next city at about midnight!

To be continued next post: Xi'an...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

What do you mean it's 2012!?

Urgh. Yeah. So I haven't been writing much. I really need to finish the stupid novel before I go work on the other story idea that's been gnawing at my heels.

I tried the lock-self-in-library-and-write thing yesterday.

Key mistake: I decided to take a few minutes to "glance at the new books section on the way to the quiet room."

Oops.

So yeah. I wrote a bit, then couldn't resist the books sitting right there in front of me on the desk.

What's really unfair is that I can read a book so much faster than I can write one. ARRGH! But I suppose it would be even more frustrating if it was the other way around. Still. Annoying.

I suck at romance. Let's forget the whole romance angle. (Yes, Nyima and Chola still end up together, but we won't dwell on it. And there's no sexxors in the novel.) Maybe that will help with the whole finish-the-first-draft issue.

There. It's the last couple of chapters of my novel, and... um... ok. Now THREE of my main characters are locked up in prison, while three others are being possessed. What is wrong with you people!!!?!?!!?!!!!111111one!!

"I have a frog on my head!"

Oh, please. Can't you think of anything better than that?

...

I guess not. I am writing this blog post to convince myself to write the next few sections, in which we escape from prison for the last time and gang up on the murderous usurper Prince Senge, arrange "democratic" elections for Shambhala, declare "Mission Achieved", and then get the hell out of there and hide behind the "The End" sign. Yeah.