Nom de Plume

I have finally settled on the pen name Akira Fuyuno. It is a name I had thought of more than a decade ago, but hesitated using for the English speaking audience because I was not sure how it would sound to their ears.

I came to this name by observing the names of the best selling Japanese authors, and realized that many of them had either a color or a season associated with their surnames. Natsuki Shizuko, the queen of Japanese mystery, and Natsume Soseki, father of the modern Japanese novel, both have “natsu” (summer) in their names. Akagawa Jiro, the best selling Japanese mystery writer of all time, and Kuroiwa Jugo, the king of yamato historicals, both have colors associated with their names; “aka” being “red, and “kuro” being “black”. Other writers put in their colors and seasons more indirectly, such as by using the words “blossom”, “ice”, and “sea”. Names that do not follow this rule tend to be the author’s real names. Yoshimoto Banana uses her born surname, although Banana is obviously a nom de plume.

I chose “winter”, fuyu, and combined it with “field” to make a name “winter field” which resulted in Fuyuno. Akira is a fairly common name and can be expressed in a wide ideograms (明, 昭, 章, 彰, 亮, 晶, 彬, etc.). I chose the one that means “sparkle” (玲) so as to project an image of ice and snow sparkling on the winter field on a sunny day.

Most Japanese people would not be conscious of this visual image when they see the name, but will vaguely understand the poetic effect. I have never actually published under this name. I have, I believe, submitted a few manuscripts.

As I have repeatedly said, I have not been a successful writer to this day. Choosing a name is a big decision. I hope this one brings me luck.

Zombies, Vampires and the Next Big Thing

The original Godzilla, in its first cinematic incarnation (1954), was a veiled criticism of American firebombing of Japanese civilian cities. Some scenes, such as Japanese defense forces impotently firing their guns at an impervious enemy, a radio announcer choosing to broadcast words of farewell rather than evacuating, the thermonuclear monster disappearing toward the sea after the destruction was done, all echo specific incidents of the war.

Two years later, Hollywood released Earth vs the Flying Saucers, the first of many movies featuring aliens in superior flying vehicles attacking, nominally the planet Earth, but actually the United States. You do not have to even look at the short, slant-eyed space creatures to see where the inspiration came from.

Eventually, as memories of the war faded, and new forms of paranoia took the place of the old, Godzilla evolved into a kinder, gentler monster and flying saucers gave way to Star Trek.

Popular stories are a product of our common fears and obsessions. Which begs the question: Why are we so obsessed with zombies today? The answer seems quite straight forward. We see zombies everyday in our lives. Money obsessed capitalists shooting themselves in the foot environmentally to achieve their narrow minded objectives. Power obsessed politicians doing everything but serve their country to get where they are going. Overworked office employees mindlessly doing their segmented and compartmentalized jobs. News media telling their divided constituents what they want to hear for the sake of ratings. Even books and movies, tracing the manuals, covering the bases, and repeating the “sure fire” formula.

And the vampire obsession? Doesn’t the blank, emotionless face of Kristen Stewart remind you of every teenager you ever worried about? The stories are not so much about vampires as they are about alienated teenagers: People who stay up all night, live on disgusting nutrition and complain that they do not feel alive. These are people who believe their lot will continue forever and are bored to death before the fact. They do not have to worry about growing old or making a living, yet are encumbered by their own set of problems that nobody but themselves understand. They feel invincible and dead at the same time. You see too many of these people and they are encroaching on your world. Why wouldn’t they be reflected in popular culture?

So what is the next big thing?

My guess: Romeo and Juliet. Seriously. Think about it. We live in a world where Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher co-exist and compete for audiences. A world where some colleges are so sensitive to heresy that comedians refuse to perform on the campuses, while other colleges are so sensitive to heresy that they teach that the earth is five thousand years old. These are the modern day Capulets and Montagues bickering in a world where refusing to serve a wedding cake, the most peaceful way to voice objection imaginable, is a reason to close down a business, and bringing a phony hand-made bomb to school, a prank straight out of Disney Channel, is a cause for nationwide brouhaha. If a world so divided were to be reduced to a simple popular entertainment story, it could either be about people caught in an Aliens vs Predators setting, a couple of star-crossed lovers caught in a schism, or both. Or maybe Romeo and Juliet in an Alien vs Predators setting in Wonderland. Since the schism is between people who disagree on whether or not the world is melting, let’s say, Romeo and Juliet in an Alien vs Predators setting in a smelting Wonderland.

Is that too obvious? Too clear a reflection of the daily news for fictional entertainment? Maybe we should change melting to freezing. Instead of space aliens, we can make them medieval looking warriors in quasi-European/Japanese armor fighting for supremacy. In order to compensate for the lack of monsters, we can throw in a few dragons if you like. And instead of just one pair of lovers, why not a whole family scattered across the landscape. A mother, a father, a few brothers, a couple of sisters torn by war and other circumstances would make for good melodrama. And why not throw in a dwarf or a cripple, just for diversity’s sake? Okay, so we have The Game of Thrones.

Now we are looking at a formula. This just might be the next big thing. A Swiss Family Robinson caught in a violent and divided world. What are we going to call this genre? Divided world fiction? Conflict romance? The genre is about Incidental Separation in an Intractable Schism. That would be ISIS. Hmm. I think I need to work on that.

What Are Adjectives For?

His mimsy gait and uffish demeanor could barely conceal his slithy character and vorpal intellect.

You could pretty much catch what the first sentence is saying even though four of the words (taken from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky), all of which are adjectives, don’t mean anything. If you subtract the words “mimsy” “uffish” “slithy” and “vorpal” you would have:

His gait and demeanor could barely conceal his character and intellect.

You could still get that “he” looks harmless on the outside, but is short of being trustworthy. Which begs the question: What are adjectives for?

Continue reading “What Are Adjectives For?”

Why Best Selling Authors are Your Best Friends

I generally do not waste my time reading hateful blogs, but then I am made aware of their existence every now and then. I recently came across this, which talks about writers or would-be writers with hateful blog posts about best selling authors ruining the field for other writers (numbers 2 an 4).

I can’t blame writers for being ignorant about economics and market dynamics. But seriously, why should writers complain about other successful writers like E. L. James and James Patterson? If anything, they are cultivating the market for the rest of us. In fact, every time someone writes a best seller, every time someone receives a record advance or a record payment for paperback rights, it is more opportunity for the rest of us.

Back in the day when Peter Benchley got over half a million dollars, $575,000 to be exact, for the paperback rights to JAWS, people thought that was preposterous. Once that barrier was broken, it was followed by a string of other best sellers notably Colleen McCullough who sold the paperback rights to  The Thorn Birds for 1.9 million dollars, a new record. Okay, those were the seventies. Times were different then. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent was more recent (1987) and the paperback rights were sold for 3 million dollars. A breathless article in The New York Times reported “Industry officials say that assuming the paperback edition is priced at $4.95, Warner’s will need to sell at least 1.5 million copies to recoup its investment.” Sydney Pollack bought the movie rights for an additional 1 million dollars (and made a movie starring Harrison Ford) and people thought that was insane.

Now contrast that to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone published a mere decade later. By 2001, the book had sold over 5 million copies in hardcover and 6.6 million copies in paperback, 19th and 7th place respectively, among children’s books. Not among all fiction, but among children’s books. (The series went on to break all kinds of sales records, but more on that later.)

Why is this good for you and me?

Firstly, every time a record payment is made, a mental barrier is broken. In 1987, Sally Beauman broke the record by getting a 1 million dollar advance for her debut novel Destiny. Preposterous for a first book, right? Then in 1993, Allan Folsom got $2 million advance for his debut novel The Day After Tomorrow. Then, in 2002, in a two book deal, for his first book and a promise of a second, Stephen L. Carter received an advance of $4.2 million. Doesn’t a $25,000 advance sound puny after that? That’s ten times what J. K. Rowling got for her first book.

Secondly, big payments for best selling authors reflect a larger trend. The publishing industry in the United States was selling just over $3.1 billion in books in the early 1970’s but is selling over $25 billion today. That’s an 800% increase. What on earth happened? In a word, computers. Computers have made books easier to write, edit, print, and distribute.  Up until the early 90’s, most writers still sent in their manuscripts as bundles of paper. Editors were people who could estimate the number of words, and consequently the cost of printing, from the thickness of the bundles. Proof reading was a monumental task before the time of word processors. So was editing and typesetting. Once the proof reading, re-typing, editing, re-typing and typesetting was done, the printing and binding would be done on mechanical, non-computerized printers. Once that work was set and done, and the books sold well enough to offset the initial investment, re-prints were made to be sold for profit, due, in large part, to the economy of scale. This meant that publishers loathed taking on new writers and depended heavily on previously published works. Today, thanks to computers, the initial investment in publishing a new book is a lot lower. That means new books can be printed more readily, which contributed to the higher sales and, ultimately, higher advances for new authors. Which, at least in theory, applies to every writer.

Thirdly, the best selling authors are expanding the market for books. Back when Sony had just released the Playstation and Microsoft was expected to unveil the X-Box, Nintendo executives were asked in an interview about the impending threat, to which they answered, contrary to all expectations, that their greatest worry was not competition from another game consul, but the possibility that children will rediscover baseball or storybooks. That threat came true in the shape of Harry Potter.  A whole array of pundits marveled at the time that children of the multi media age were actually going back to reading print. The British Medical Journal actually ran a article about how playground injuries decreased in the month when a new installment in the series became available. It is thanks to Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling that we have a whole generation of children addicted to books instead of video games. And you might hate the skippy prose of E. L. James, but you cannot deny that millions of people read a full length novel on their iPads for the first time thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, which recruited a whole new audience to the world of digital books.

So why hate best-selling authors at all?

In the late 80’s, some critics thought that the publishing trend toward mega-selling authors like Stephen King and John Grisham was killing the opportunities for small selling authors with staying power, because publishers were relying more and more on fast selling new authors rather than their backlist of great writers they signed on decades before. In reality, industrialization was making publishing of new writers easier, thus making the publishers less dependent on old books they no longer had to edit and typeset. It was just a temporary economic fluke. Editing and typesetting was once so expensive that publishers preferred to keep old, medium selling books in print rather than sign on new authors. Technical innovations in the 60’s and 70’s made typesetting and book binding cheaper and easier. That coupled with television advertising made mega-bestsellers possible. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping old books in print remained the same. So, instead of publishing low selling “serious” literature with staying power (something very difficult to predict), publishers shifted to fast selling trendy books. Book critics (remember them?) saw this and there was a chorus of voices saying that mega-selling popular fiction was ruining quality publishing. That may have been true for a while, but it lasted only a few decades. Today, thanks to digital publishing, you can keep old books in print, and keep making profit, without keeping physical books in stock. This is highly advantageous to books that sell a very low amount over a very long time. Now that books can stay in print indefinitely, “serious” books are making a characteristically quiet but steady comeback. Digital books do not need to fight for shelf space or storage space with high volume best sellers anymore. So best selling authors are not crowding out anybody.

But isn’t there a limit to the number of books a reader can read in a year? If big selling authors hoard the reading time of our readers, won’t they take over the reading time away from our works? Yeah right, like people read that many books. Your main competition is television, movies, games, internet reading material (blogs, e-zines, etc) and YouTube. Not best selling authors. Best selling authors actually tear people away from these competitors. Remember how Harry Potter was Nintendo’s worst nightmare? Potter addicts who finished reading the series were looking high and low for similar fantasy novels that can satisfy their craving for the next fix. Your book could be that next fix they crave. Best selling writers are your allies in the fight for audience time against other forms of entertainment. They are not your enemies.

Okay, so how about people like James Patterson? He doesn’t write his books alone. He employs ghost writers and co-authors to churn out lots of books, unlike we regular folk who need to keep our butts on our seats and write by ourselves. Isn’t that, like, cheating? We little writers have the right to hate James Patterson, don’t we?

This one is my favorite subject actually. If anyone talks about James Patterson’s strategy of employing ghost writers and co-authors, my response would be: Oh year? What are you doing? Writing is not a solitary activity anymore. Look at all the people in the NaNoWriMo communities constantly encouraging each other, asking and answering questions, plot bunnies and story prompts popping up on the internet every few seconds. The only difference is that James Patterson pays his people to do it. We are experiencing the dawn of “rock band” writing, where a group of three to five people collaborate to create novels. Readers cannot wait another year for the next volume any more. James Patterson has proven to publishers that “rock band” writing can be economically advantageous, paving the way for the next generation of “rock band” writers. (“Rock band” writing is my coinage, by the way.)

Back in my day, when I was struggling to write as a teenager, there was no internet, there were no mutual encouragement groups, there were no other writers for miles around that I knew of, and there were no plot bunnies and story prompts delivered to my doorstep. Hard copies of the New York Review of Books were delivered by mail. I can still come up with a brief story prompt every minute for ten to twenty minutes running without breaking a sweat because I trained myself to do so. NaNoWriMo and its communities have changed the activity of writing completely. In fact, technology and all its 21st century wonders have changed writing completely. James Patterson is just half a step ahead of the curve. Even people who believe they write alone have “support structures” of beta-readers, twitter followers and e-mail subscribers who provide support, input and feedback, which are things Dickens and Tolstoy did not have. Everybody today are writing in groups.

If you still want to write your novels Victorian style, cooped up in a comfortable cubby hole, socially isolated and away from distractions, writing by the seat of your pants without plotting or structuring, laying down long expositions and lovingly detailed sketches, styling sentences with refrains, symmetries, rhythmical word strings and surprise metaphors, you still can. Nobody is ruining that experience for you. Nobody is hoarding the printing press, the shelf space, or the storage space anymore. Best selling authors are not your enemy. They are your best friends.

Styling Sentences

If you are not inspired to try out some elaborate writing exercises after reading (or listening to) Brook Landon’s Building Great Sentences, you are not a writer at all. His explanations of long, elaborate, cumulative sentences, and how they are done well, makes you want to try them out yourself.

His book is available in both print and audio versions, but you want to own them both (unlike so many writing manuals) partly because this is a series of lectures and partly because it is about the sounds sentences make in your mind. (Although I have to admit I am rather put off by Landon’s speech, particularly how he slurs the word “se’nences”.)

Oddly enough, his book is not a textbook on how to write, but rather one that makes you more conscious  of how you have been writing and helps you improve. If you have been writing a mixture of good prose and poor prose and you are not sure how some of it turned out so good and some of it is so unreadable, Landon will give you a clearer view of what you have been doing wrong and how you might be able to improve. You might say it is quite like that magical mirror in Harry Potter that can only give you a reflection when you desire the right things.

The book is, from beginning to end, about nothing but sentences, in all its complexity, expressiveness, and musicality,  from the simple dot-dash rhythms of short and long word segments to the undulating refrains of similar sounding patterns, and how to add appeal, flavor and most of all memorability to what would otherwise be nothing but a string of words.

See what I did there? I am already writing longer sentences. It gets kind of fun, composing long sentences. What Landon (and other wonderful instructors like Ursula Le Guin and Virginia Tufte) fails (or purposely avoids) to tell you is that not everyone reads for the prose. Some of the best selling books in the world sport godawful  writing. Which begs the question, do we need to style sentences at all? James Patterson, currently billed as the best selling writer in the world, says flat out that he does not style sentences.

It all boils down to what you want to do. Do you have ambitions of writing really great books, or do you want to make a living? The rule of thumb, it seems to me, that the closer your work gets to poetry, the lower the chances you will make any money at it. Economics of writing is closely tied to the habits of the modern reader. Every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter must lead up to the next step in dramatic story telling (“Just let me read one more chapter before I come down for dinner!”), ending the volume in not-quite-a cliffhanger, and producing the next volume in the series as quickly as possible, so as not to keep the reader waiting.

I never imagined such a writing style, as an established professional pattern, when I was struggling with writing in the seventies. Commercial publishing did not even really take off until the Second World War. Yet most of the literary works we were taught when I was in high school was published before that time. The serial novel was a rarity until paperbacks were invented. And when you consider what kind of logistics are involved (you don’t know where the trees that went into those pages came from) in delivering to you the latest volume of a YA novel before your classmate reveals the ending, you can see this sort of thing could not have existed in Tolstoy’s time.

The idea of styling sentences evolved thanks to the way people read back in the day. Readers of Virginia Woolf did not leaf through the pages and wait anxiously for the next installment. They drifted leisurely through Mrs Dalloway, sighed, put down the book, picked it up again, and re-read their favorite passages. And in days before the invention of radio, public readings of short stories and novels (not to mention sonnets and verses) were held in pubs and cafes as a sort of entertainment, which meant that stories needed to sound good, with refrains, rhythmical structures and memorable quotes. All of this was related to the lack of industrial book production and circulation.

That is not to say that styling sentences have no place in the modern novel, especially if you intend to self publish and keep your day job. In fact the idea of mirroring sentences appeal to me very much and I would like to employ it in my current work-in-progress if I can.

Styling sentences can also be great elements in creating atmosphere if you are writing, say, fantasy novels or period pieces. And most of all, it is fun. Blending old-fashioned, aggressively styled sentences into modern-day, Hollywood-compatible story arc structures has a smart-alecky element that appeals to me. So if I ever get my novel finished to my liking, you can expect some slithy striving and pompous plotting, mucking up and messing about, kneading the phrases into your faces, nitty and graphic with the blood and feces, words, words, words, piled and structured, stripped and paraded like humiliated prisoners, sludging barefoot through the cold mud of self righteous prose, all for my enjoyment, not for yours.

The Money from Books

Thinking about the financial rewards of writing is like buying a lottery ticket. You know you are not going to be a millionaire overnight, but just the excitement of thinking about the possibility is worth the price of the ticket.

Yes, J. K. Rowling is a billionaire on account of the Harry Potter series. Yes, E. L. James made a hundred million dollars on the Fifty Shades trilogy. Yes, we all know that those are statistically non-existent rarities. If you are lucky, you are going to get a few thousand dollars for the first printing and that’s it. Don’t quit your day job.

Still, hey, if my book makes it big, I think I’d give you, my old friend and voluntary editor, a million dollars or so from the proceeds. And I’ll buy my wife that big present she always dreamed of having. I’ll buy myself a Ferrari. (A Lamborgini is, let’s face it, too pretentious.)

No, no, no. You shake your head and smirk to yourself as you start typing again. Now let me see, where was I. Oh yes, the protagonist was having a conversation with his father. Let’s work on that word count now. This is still the first draft and you are still on chapter three. It’s taking shape nicely. You like it better than Harry Potter. Speaking of which, if this book takes off, I think I will offer Tom Cruise a movie deal. Who is the hot movie producer these days. Stephen Spielberg seems passe. I need to google that later.

Ooops, time is slipping and I am still counting eight thousand words. Better get focused now. Books don’t make money, really. You write it mostly for the fun of it. “Writers write to write, not to be read.” But, come on now, dreaming about riches is part of the fun. It is equivalent to the fun of buying a lottery ticket. You are not going to win, but you can dream.

I have been writing since I was twelve years old, and in the past forty years I have made roughly five hundred dollars on my creative writing. I should know better than anyone that creative writing does not make money. It is all just for the pleasure of writing and the privilege of being able to tell your friends that you have a published work.

But just in case, I think I will set up a tax shelter in the Cayman Islands. And if the book really is a success, I would like to donate to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (They do take donations, don’t they?) Nothing like contributing to a good cause, you know?

POV and the Emotions of the Narrator

Have you ever noticed how good British actors are in general? Director Ang Lee once marveled “Can everyone in Britain act?” Even in the primitive confines of the early movie era, when screen acting was less about performing and more about getting across the thick barrier of film-to-audience,  some of the most role defining actors were English. Of course, I am talking about Nigel Bruce. While Basil Rathborne defined Sherlock Holmes for a generation, his co-star Nigel Bruce defined Dr. Watson for eternity. The Internet Movie Database has this to say about him.

“Nigel was, from the beginning, typecast as bumbling English aristocrats, military types or drawing room society snobs and, within the narrow parameters of his range, he was very, very good at playing these parts.”

Yes he did seem to have “narrow range”, but maybe that was what was required of him. He may have been able to play a wider range of emotions if he was ever called to do so, but he seemed content at playing within his parameters until his regrettably early death. But if he had such narrow range, why did he strike us as such a perfect Dr. Watson?

Almost all the stories of Sherlock Holmes, with a few exceptions, are told through the eyes of Dr. James Watson. This narrator, a down-to-earth former military doctor with little worldly knowledge outside of his profession, is forever stuck in the mentality of his social class, and his emotions range between provoked, astonished, irritated and aloof, mostly aloof until he is astonished. This is one narrator who never sees it coming.

A novel must have a point of view, and it is an inconvenient fact that a point of view sometimes has emotions. Not every narrator is as emotionally blank as Dr. Watson. Sometimes, the feelings of the narrator drives the story. Sometimes the emotional vantage point of the narrator simply will not accommodate the story elements. Billy Bathgate is the story about the fall of the gangster Dutch Schultz as told by a young boy. It is a coming-of-age tale about a boy growing up through his exposure to the prohibition era mob, so the narrator is the protagonist. His feelings matter. But, he is emotionally subdued and cautious. He has a reason to be. He is living among vicious gangsters who might slit his throat for the slightest provocation. So the narrator is emotionally walking on eggs throughout the story. (Why the movie adaptation was such a mess is a story for another time.)

What if Billy Bathgate was written from the point of view of Dutch Schultz? He was an emotionally volatile man who could be smiling and laughing, apparently having a good time, and seconds later will fly into an uncontrollable rage and smash a scull with an ashtray. It would be a mistake to try to tell a story from his vantage point. If you tried, the sudden emotional ups and downs, the instantaneous self-justifications, the sudden flips from joy to rage and back again to joy, will likely confuse and turn off the reader. If you choose such a narrator, you better have a good reason.

That is not to say that unstable narrators cannot make good novels. Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney have all excelled at this. To say nothing of William Burroughs. But a narrator is best when he has a narrow emotional range. That is why Nigel Bruce strikes us as the perfect Dr. Watson. Always either aloof or astonished, sometimes irritated but never gravely insulted, never losing composure even in the face of his own evident impotence, Dr. James Watson, as embodied by Nigel Bruce, is the perfect narrator for Sherlock Holmes.

The bottom line is, the emotional fluctuations of your narrator, your point of view, is something you have to be conscious about when you write your novel. I cannot find a book on writing that tells you about how to craft such a narrator, but such things are important. E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate had a good reason to walk on eggs emotionally. Most other stories just deal with it in a seat-of-the-pants sort of way. But when you are editing your novel and it is not going well, maybe this is the part that is making things muddy. The story elements you are trying to tell does not match the emotional fluctuations of the narrator.

World Building and the Samurai Novel

The really hard part about writing a samurai novel in English is that you must remain within the historical context of what you are writing, yet not spend too much time explaining.

Most Western readers have a much clearer image of what a Victorian tea party is than what a Japanese tea ceremony is. So, while you can just say “tea party” when describing the former, you have to fill the page with an array of explanations when describing the latter.

Imagine two Victorian gentlemen, out in the garden on a sunny day, wearing colorful waistcoats under black tail coats, their hats in the hands of the maids in the background, sitting down to tea to discuss a sinister political plot to which one of the gentlemen may or may not agree to cooperate.

Now imagine a samurai and a tea master, plotting something similar, in a quiet tea house, the tea master is wearing a short black haori and is quietly stirring green tea in a bowl. The samurai, in his kariginu, has left his sword on the shelf outside and quietly contemplating what he is about to say.

In the above example, you might picture an English manor, maids in black uniforms, flowers in the garden, perhaps a butler, or other background material. You might also sense, since I mentioned a tea party, these two men may not be alone, or are soon to be interrupted by the entrance of other guests.

The second example, I am sure you will find more difficult to picture. Unless you have extensive knowledge in historic Japanese apparel, you would not know what a haori or a kariginu would look like. You probably do not know that tea masters generally shaved their heads like monks. How bright is it inside a tea house? How does the light get in? What colors are the walls? How large is the tea bowl? More importantly, can you anticipate what will happen next? Perhaps the writer should explain everything.

But when you picture an English manor, the building is usually yellowish grey stone. You see some accents and decorations carved in the stone with perhaps a gargoyle here and there. There would be tall windows, twice the height of a  man, opening from as high as the ceiling down to about waist height, with drapes hanging to the floor. Indoors is not very bright, but you can walk out into the garden which is sunny. And the green lawn covers the grounds.

How about a tea house? Do you know that the walls are usually brownish clay? Do you know that it is often no bigger than a walk-in closet? You do not sit on chairs, you sit on the floor. The light comes in through windows sealed off with paper and the ambient light is a departure from the stark brightness of the world outside. Did you know that tea houses were often deliberately built using crooked wood to give it an aesthetic feeling?

Following the principle of “show, don’t tell” becomes difficult when you know the reader will be unable to see any of the things he might be able to see had the story been set at another time at another place.

There is only so much world building you can do in a limited number of pages. The patience of the modern reader is short. You cannot expect them to follow long passages of exposition. It would be easier if you were writing about a completely fictional fantasy world. Things get tricky when you have to show a clear picture of something taken from an actual time period.

It is important to remember that the point of world building is not exposition but atmosphere building. Sure it is cool that the Ring was made by Sauron, and that Superman came from the planet Kripton, Ironman has Palladium in his chest, Wolverine’s claws are made of Adamantium. But those are just names. World building is not just the act of giving names to imaginary objects. It is the act of building atmosphere. Since only a limited amount of words can be expended on world building in the modern novel, we must focus on the target, the meat of what we want to express. We do not need to tell the reader the color of the jubjub bird or the sound of the frumious bandersnatch. If we succeed in projecting the atmosphere, the work is done.

So let’s get back to that tea room. Do the readers need to know that the walls are plastered with brown clay? Do the readers need to know that the room is small? That the place is quiet? Is that what you want to project? When a tea ceremony is performed to perfection, the tiny crater that forms in the powdered green tea when the tea master spoons out a scoop is supposed to become a work of art. How the napkin is folded into shape, how the spoon is placed on the ivory lid of the natsume, is each an act of artistic expression requiring a measure of originality and creativity, not just a matter of good manners or proper etiquette. Yet you are not allowed to place the spoon anywhere outside the two inch circle of the ivory lid. This is why the surface of the powdered tea is smoothed like fresh snow prior to the tea ceremony, so that you can see clearly the footprint of the spoon when the powder is scooped out. This is why the ash in the furnace is smoothed like fresh snow. There are rules dictating the size, shape and number of the pieces of charcoal to be placed in the furnace. If you deviate even slightly from the standard, using a slightly longer piece of charcoal or placing the shorter piece in the foreground instead of the background, it will be judged either your daring act of originality or a sign of your ignorance. Hold your breath before you put down that spoon, you are taking a risk.

Furuta Oribe, a sixteenth century samurai tea master, once placed a spoon on the ivory lid in such a way that is remembered to this day. Putting two men in this tiny universe, where the placing of a spoon can make or break your reputation, or even make you immortal, is building a stage. Having them perform this ceremony in an era when thousands of people were dying in battle every day, not only soldiers but women, children, monks and priests, is building a world. Having the two of them plot the overthrow of a warlord in this time and place, thereby connecting the isolated artistic space and the gritty reality of the world beyond, is building a story.

Does it matter that the coat the tea master is wearing is called a haori?

I believe that the same principle applies when you are writing a fantasy or science fiction. Whether your story is set in a world of fairies and elves, a dystopian future, or an alien planet, when you are world building for the impatient modern reader, you must focus your expositions on exactly what you want to project. It is the nature of the world you build, not the artifacts, that matter.