from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #32: Testing the Waters

with 14 comments

Fuck it. I’m posting a rough draft of the first five pages of the new manuscript. I’ve already received a negative review, which is fucking with my righteous mind, but I gotta keep “soldiering on.” It’s atypical for a writer to put his rough work on display but I’m a praise-whore and need some validation or at least a good ego-crushing so I can abandon the draft and get back to the process of getting rejected by literary agents.

Here it is.

The 10:15 from the Southern Bus Terminal in Seoul softly hums a dreary tune down the lonely country highway. Whirr, whirr, whirr, badum, badum, whirr. The sun is at its peak in the pale blue of the winter sky, the dried out stalks of rice shorn close to the frozen earth in endless fields sprawled across the rocky landscape. The big city is now a distant memory lost in the infinite forgetfulness of the barren countryside, growing and devouring all signs of color, civilization, humanity. If the city is a wild, blinding spectrum of neon and a frenzied melee of flesh, the countryside is only a blur of concrete grays and dry and dying browns.

The cold of this winter has been brutal. It is a bitter and starving trans-Siberian cold. Inside the bus, the radiators furiously pump concentrated gusts of dry heat at my feet and nowhere else. I wrap my coat tighter around me, nestling my hands in the shelter of my armpits. I’m making this trip with only the clothes on my back. Where I’m going, I won’t need anything else. I won’t even need the clothes.

The bus is mostly empty. A few elderly folk scattered through the length of the carriage loll in their seats, occasionally fidgeting or coughing dry, hacking coughs. A television set high and to the right of the driver flickers soundlessly, the cable news anchor reporting in words that can’t be heard. I turn my gaze to the window, melt a small section in the icy frost with my fingers, and watch the countryside pass by.

It whispers to me.

“This is your fate. You’re on a ride into the belly of the beast and all that will be left when it’s all over is an empty, browning husk.”

I ignore the voice. What choice do I have? The alternative is to be branded a traitor in a foreign land and thrown in prison with hardened felons for three full years. I would be a piece of meat thrown to the tigers. In a country like this, even hardened felons are fiercely patriotic.

Jeungpyeongibnida. Jeungpyeong.

Jeungpyeong. This is my stop.

I step off the bus and the bus leaves me behind in a black fog of diesel exhaust. I survey my surroundings from where I stand. I’m at a small intersection with a bus stop, a gas station on one corner and a small diner on the other. It’s a little past noon and I have some time so I walk to the diner and take a seat at an empty table.

The few other tables are occupied by groups of mostly three, my future comrades and their parents. The young men are downcast and slurp their soups vacantly, their eyes in the bottom of their bowls. They look sick, pale and skinny with closely cropped hair. The mothers don’t eat much; they gaze dolefully at their sons and occasionally place some food on their plates with chopsticks. Eat more, they urge weakly. The fathers are carved from stone, stoically observing their sons, un-eating and un-speaking.

It is an awkward, oppressive silence that fills the room. I need to get the fuck out of here. It’s all just too depressing. I order my soup and choke down the steaming hot bowl, scald the damn butterflies in my belly as fast as I can.

The road leading to the division is a winding, two-lane country road. In contrast with the city with its skyscrapers and layers of store upon store, stacked high like hotcakes, the impression I get of the country scenery is simply that it’s flat. The terrain itself is mountainous but covered by nothing but amber waves of straw and dead grass. The country homes and farms are a jumble of concrete, curved roof tiles, and corrugated steel sheets. As I walk along the shoulder of the road, I marvel at the division’s outer wall which stands so high and imposing in relation to its surroundings and am struck with the notion that it was built more to keep people in than to keep people out. It broods high over the road, everything a little more gray and dead in its shadow. I walk in its shadow.

The front gate of the base is even less welcoming, with long rebar spikes protruding from oil barrels and metal horses painted yellow and black. Caution. Danger. Beware.

So these are the gates of hell. It has frozen over and can be found in North Chungcheong Province.

As I walk through the gate, I overhear a mother’s plea for mercy.

“Please take care of my son.”

The officer at the gate offers her assuring words, but the rotten grins of the guards and drill instructors behind him say otherwise. They are the grins of wolves as they look out at untended flocks of sheep.

I follow the herd of people past a large, open field to a small, run-down auditorium. Inside is a sea of black, permed hair and unsightly comb-overs and garish faux fur coasts. They all face the front. I can’t see above their heads and so I distance myself from them, choosing to stand near the door. A lady catches sight of me and tells me to hurry up, get up there.

The crowd is pungent with the smell of cheap perfume. I jostle, squeeze, and push my way up to the front; the crowd steadfastly watches the front, oblivious to my intrusion. I budge through the last of them into an area where neat rows of metal folding chairs have been set up. A soldier, the brim of his helmet low over his eyes, grabs my arm and pushes me into the next available seat.

“Legneun shoulder neolbi pigo handeun fist jwigo knee above put up.”

What?

His teeth clench, jowls twitching, when I don’t respond. I look at the others sitting to my left and understand, copying their stances, feet shoulder-width apart and fists resting on their knees. The remaining seats fill up and the soldier walks up to the stage and glares menacingly out at us.

Another soldier is at the podium and all the recruits sit still and listen. I don’t understand what’s going on or what’s being said so I open my mouth when everyone else does and just sit still.

The soldier leaves and an officer walks up to the podium and delivers a long, winded speech. I can’t catch anything because I’m sitting in the back and the amps obscure his words. When he is finished, all of the recruits yell out something in unison and then the soldiers descend on us and herd us outside to stand in neat rows, four nervous young men to a row.

Run.

We run in formation for the first time and as we run, a few parents run alongside the road, waving and shouting to their children. “Be strong!” “We love you, son!” I don’t mind so much when their shouts fade in the distance.

If you were patient or bored enough to read the whole thing, take another minute to leave me some feedback. Be honest. Be brutal. I may seem overly sensitive and critical about my work, but there’s nothing to worry about. I’m also my biggest admirer and think I’m the real deal. Even if you say it’s complete rubbish, I’ll just assure myself that you have no taste and promptly delete your comment. I really won’t but only because of my disinterest in this blog.

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14 Responses

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  1. I’ll read it more carefully tomorrow, but I like the idea of it more than the dream. Some quick comments though, first, I don’t like the contrast of flesh and neon with brown and grey. While both flesh and neon might be considered colors, I feel like the imbalance between such unique color words and such common colors is hard to swallow. Maybe spoof up the second half of the sentence? With the wolves analogy, i think maybe a better analogy would be waiting for the flocks to be unattended and watching them hungrily waiting for that moment because the hunger of looking at unattended flocks came later i’m sure when the boys were rushed out of the amphitheater and they left their parents behind. perhaps offset the anticipation of the kill with the thrill or bloodlust in killing the unattended sheep later. I don’t know, just some thoughts i had.

    The only concrete thing I can say is it should probably be handneun or something similar since Koreans say hand like haendeu.

    Joel

    April 12, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    • I’ll think about the color and wolves thing. I was more looking for comments on the whole of the passage: Is it preferable to the old one? Is it too descriptive? Is it lacking in voice?

      With the hand thing, of course the soldier wasn’t talking to me in English. I just translated the words I knew at the time. I know it’s confusing so I’m going to think about how to fix that, too.

      holdenbeck

      April 13, 2011 at 11:09 am

  2. Although I liked the first version of the beginning of your story, I find this new approach to be much more compelling. It does a much better job of placing the reader in the position of a confused and frightened recruit, and it also flows better.

    Kevin Kim

    April 13, 2011 at 12:36 am

    • Thanks for the input, Kevin. Those were the two things I was looking for in this draft: whether I could convey how I was feeling rather than simply talking about it and how well it flows.

      holdenbeck

      April 13, 2011 at 11:10 am

  3. ok here are some thoughts.
    i like this approach. i think it suits your strengths. i think the dream stuff suits your strengths too but it also seems to lend itself more easily to your weaknesses/excesses. by which i mean i think you use too many adjectives and you are a little too gimmicky. so for example i think this part:
    The few other tables are occupied by groups of mostly three, my future comrades and their parents. The young men are downcast and slurp their soups vacantly, their eyes in the bottom of their bowls. They look sick, pale and skinny with closely cropped hair. The mothers don’t eat much; they gaze dolefully at their sons and occasionally place some food on their plates with chopsticks. Eat more, they urge weakly.
    is seriously fucking great. this part:
    The 10:15 from the Southern Bus Terminal in Seoul softly hums a dreary tune down the lonely country highway. Whirr, whirr, whirr, badum, badum, whirr. The sun is at its peak in the pale blue of the winter sky, the dried out stalks of rice shorn close to the frozen earth in endless fields sprawled across the rocky landscape. The big city is now a distant memory lost in the infinite forgetfulness of the barren countryside, growing and devouring all signs of color, civilization, humanity. If the city is a wild, blinding spectrum of neon and a frenzied melee of flesh, the countryside is only a blur of concrete grays and dry and dying browns.
    is kind of bullshit. basically, what you are describing here is scary as shit already so i prefer it when you tone it down. also i think the one sentence or one word paragraphs can be effective but you do it too much and it gets tired.

    another thing ive been meaning to say – often (although not here) you insist that there are no lessons here or no “meaning in tragedy” or whatever. which i guess is fine. but the best thing i every read from you was that one story about the burger. i don’t want you to turn that into some feel-good moral or anything like that – basically it was great as is – but realize that these moments are what makes reading what you write rewarding. pages and pages of gloom is true to your experience (i’m guessing) and thats how your book should be. but readers get numb to it – there’s only so many ways that you can say “it sucked a lot” before i stop feeling it. then there is one transcendent moment when someone gets you a whopper junior and 1 it is amazing and you tell the story incredibly well and 2 it reminds everyone how fucking terrible life in the army is again without you having to come up with new ways to tell them it sucked.

    sang

    April 13, 2011 at 9:59 am

    • Thanks for taking the time to give so much feedback. I realize a lot of the weaknesses you identified. It’s one of the reasons I put the previous draft on the backburner. There’s too much commentary. The “no leassons here” and “no meaning in tragedy” and “the experience sucked” messages I didn’t include in this version. I took out the whole introduction I posted earlier. It’s not a part of this draft.

      I know the beginning is boring and still thinking about how to make it something that will grab the reader’s attention. Again, it’s just a rough draft. I’m only about 30 percent done with the rest of the manuscript. I want to have the rest down on paper before I sit down for revision.

      holdenbeck

      April 13, 2011 at 11:20 am

  4. I think we’re all converging on a theme, here. What makes the new approach work is that it hews more closely to the old writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell.” The moral lessons, if any, don’t have to be spelled out for the reader (I’m talking to myself as much as to you when I say this). This new draft shows more trust in the reader’s ability to distill abstractions from the concrete experiences you depict.

    Keep on going, and if you ever need examples of stripped-down prose, you’ve always got Mark Salzman (elegant simplicity) and Elmore Leonard (brutal simplicity) as role models.

    Kevin Kim

    April 15, 2011 at 2:52 am

  5. I added links to a comment just now, so it may have gone into your spam filter, which is why I’m not seeing it.

    Kevin Kim

    April 15, 2011 at 2:53 am

    • The show vs. tell problem has always been a thorn in my side and the reason why I felt I had to re-write.

      Thanks for the references. I’ll try to get myself to check them out instead of playing Minesweeper the next time I hit a wall.

      holdenbeck

      April 15, 2011 at 9:38 am

  6. […] Entry #32: Testing the Waters « from the Korean Army to being … The front gate of the base is even less welcoming, with long rebar spikes protruding from oil barrels and metal horses painted yellow and black. Caution. Danger. Beware. So these are the gates of hell. It has frozen over and can be . […]

    Rebar Spikes

    April 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm

  7. I do not qualify and am in no position to give you constructive feedback or to criticise as I lack the skills you have in writing I did however enjoy the descriptive nature of this passage. What a terrifying experience… There’s something about the scene in the diner I found touching. I honestly look forward to reading the rest. Good luck with it 🙂

    Su

    April 29, 2011 at 5:43 am

    • Su, thanks for the feedback and encouragement. The writing hasn’t been coming as well as I had expected but I hope to have it done and ready for publishing sometime this year.

      holdenbeck

      April 29, 2011 at 1:25 pm

  8. I’m Korean-American and just stumbled upon your blog. Honestly I’m not an avid reader, an occasional magazine or romance novel here and there about does it. I think I have ADD also, but that’s beside the point. I read a few of your entries and really enjoyed them. Your sense of humor and cynicism crack me up. I think your style of writing is unique and brilliant. But Im also envious of anyone who can express in words every emotion and thought that comes to mind…It’s hard to believe that trashy novel writers get a steady paycheck but real writers are overlooked. I say stick to your guns keep your writing yours and hopefully/eventually you will be noticed. I’d buy your book 🙂 Good Luck!

    Denise

    May 11, 2011 at 3:56 am

    • Denise,

      Thank you for the encouragement. It’s been a while since I’ve worked on the book or the blog for several reasons, the biggest of which was laziness, and an unexpected piece of encouragement is the kind of motivation I needed to get back into the mood for writing. I’m about to head out to the coffee shop now and just wanted to say thanks.

      Holden

      holdenbeck

      May 11, 2011 at 3:59 pm


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