The Dirty Secret of Japanese Sex

The British-Hungarian humorist George Mikes once wrote, in a chapter titled “Sex“, in his book How To Be An Alien, “On the continent, people have sex. In Britain, people have hot water bottles.” That comment was the whole chapter. Many British people were offended. Years later he wrote “I have never been so maligned more than for the one line chapter I wrote about sex in Britain.” But the idea must have had some truth in it, because twenty-five years later Alistair Foot and Anthony Marriott wrote a play titled “No Sex Please, We’re British” which played to full houses for 16 years, totaling 6,761 performances.

Somebody needs to write the same thing about the Japanese, because contrary to popular perception, Japan is an under-sexed society to an extent that not even the Japanese are aware of.

Many of the arguments that were directed at George Mikes back in the day will no doubt be directed at me. Some of them will be legitimate, save for one. That was the argument that said in spite of the outward lack of sexuality the British do manage to procreate, to which Mikes conceded “Strange, but true.” Unfortunately, you cannot make the same argument about Japan. The Japanese are not procreating. The birthrate is now the lowest in the world. People blame this on the shortage of childcare centers, the systemic sexism, the lack of maternal leave, the cost of education, the lack of awareness, and the lack of male participation in housework. All of those are legitimate problems, but all have seen progress in the recent decades with no improvement in the fertility rate. If anything, the birthrate is still getting lower.

Tokyo was once infamous for the chikan, the gropers who felt up women in the over crowded commuter trains. The incidence has since dropped markedly. Horror stories of men wrongly accused of groping, and publicly shamed for it, resulting in loss of careers and ruined lives are making the rounds. Then men now commute in fear. And Japan is one of the few developed countries in the world where incidence of rape actually dropped. Those things are supposed to be good news, but it upsets feminists and foreigners immeasurably. Any suggestion that incidence of sex crime is actually lower in Japan than other parts of the world receives hysterical retorts from the non-believers.

Japan’s infamous pornography market has seen a 10% drop in sales year over year for more than a decade. Fifty Shades of Grey, which sold hundreds of millions of copies around the globe in practically unknown in Japan. The love hotels that dotted the landscape are closing down, boarded up and left to ruin. formerly famous dating spots are now filled with seniors. Japan, collectively, is losing its libido.

Why is this happening? Because Japan, despite its reputation, never really was very big on sex. And yet, we have bought into our own con. Somehow, we believed the narrative that a runaway sex culture was one of our main social ills. It was easy to believe in the absence of other problems to get upset about. This is a country in which a fistfight could be broadcast nationally in the evening news. Somebody also forgot that Japan is a country that can declare war on socio-political problems and actually win. We declared a war on the obesity epidemic and now the average Japanese is consuming the lowest amount of calories since the post-WWII food shortage. So once we declared war on the runaway sex culture, closed down the discos, put restrictions on pornography, and generally leeched the blood out of anything pertaining sex, we actually got results; results which we hardly needed in the first place.

George Mikes liked to point out that if a beautiful lady walked the streets of Milan, she would be catcalled and wolf whistled by numerous men, and that London lacked the sex charged atmosphere of the cities of the continent. In case you haven’t noticed, Tokyo lacks it too. In fact, out side of Shibuya or Roppongi, you will have to bend over backwards to find any kind of sexual energy in a Japanese city. Have you ever noticed that Japanese women tend to be slim, smart, well-dressed, educated and still not getting attention from men? By the reserved standards of Japan, women are practically throwing themselves at men and not getting results.

The gaijin men get plenty of attention, because they are the only ones wolf whistling. The Caucasian women get more than their share of unwanted attention from men, due to some cultural image that is projected about them. But Japanese men are not paying much attention to Japanese women. If anything, they seem to be increasingly avoiding them. Business wise, there is still a huge sex market in Japan, but in proportion to the size of the economy, it is relatively small. There is some talk that Google, the single corporation, is making more money than all of the Japanese sex industry combined.

Still, plenty of people will tell you that Japanese sexual mores have gone down the tube. They will say that promiscuity has overrun the country and the moral decay is a major problem. Of course they will say that. Remember when the tsunami hit north eastern Japan, and debris washed up on the beaches? Millions of dollars worth of cash and hundreds of safe boxes were delivered to police stations by the people who found them. But moralists still found reasons to say that the Japanese people were not as honest as they once were. The same standards are applied to sexual morals. According to the most vocal commentators on the subject, we are living in an era where sexual morals do not measure up to those of an imaginary past. The reality is that we have an epidemic of married couples living in celibacy.

I once attended a re-enactment of a traditional geisha party. The senior ladies who are the last of the Beppu Kenban, which once counted over a hundred geishas as their members, entertained us with their song and dance and old fashioned parlor games. As the evening went on, and alcohol took its effect on the men, the sexual innuendos and double entendres from the women became increasingly obvious. The whole evening was designed to get the sexually shy men out of their shells. By the end of the evening the women made the men laugh with crude sex jokes that men dare not utter in public, and the party adjourned with the happy drunken men feeling a little bit like conquerors for having dared to talk sex and flirt. That was the entertainment that real geishas traditionally provided. Of course, inappropriate behavior from the customers was no doubt a routine occurrence. And romance between a geisha and a patron is the regular staple of Japanese literature. But the truth is, geishas existed on a backdrop of indolent sexuality. Men had to visit geishas and have their sex drive and confidence propped up before going home to their wives to have sex (though not always with success). That is the reality behind the legend.

In the West men have Viagra. In Japan they have (or, used to have) geisha parties. But not much sex.

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The Age of the Cyber Lynch Mob

One of many silly incidents of 2015 was the brouhaha over Halloween costumes. This year it was about the hobo costume.  Angry protesters criticized it for being insensitive to the homeless. One commentator, after pointing out that a “hobo” is not the same thing as a modern “homeless person”, said that a truly destitute person has bigger worries than being outraged over Halloween costumes. “Banning a hobo costume doesn’t make the homeless feel better. It makes you feel better. This is the lazy liberalism in which scolding has become a substitute for actually doing something.” He also went on to an expletive filled tirade against “self-righteous busy-bodies trying to leech the fun out of everything”. And this commentator was Bill Maher, the socialist, atheist comedian of the far left. It is not a good sign for the future when a leftist tells leftists that they are going too far.

The same busy bodies were in overdrive when Justine Sacco, a senior director of corporate communications tweeted this joke, one that was meant to ridicule the bubble of entitlement and false sense of security that White Americans tended to live in.
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

The poorly constructed joke was taken out of context and what followed was a global witch hunt for a “racist” that encompassed the twitter-sphere and destroyed Sacco’s life and career before her plane landed in Johannesburg 11 hours later. She not only lost her job and suffered from PTSD, but lost dating prospects due to her notoriety and was disgraced in front of her extended family in South Africa who were African National Congress supporters — the party of Nelson Mandela. Her old tweets were unearthed and turned into a BuzzFeed article. A New York Post photographer stalked her on her way to the gym. A punishment clearly over sized for the crime was dispensed by people who had no authority and faced no consequences, on an univestigated allegation, delivered in exchange for nothing but the pure joy of bringing down a stranger.

The self-congratulatory lazy liberalism instantly praises the tormentors of perceived villains, with “likes” and “retweets”. That was how Sacco’s tweet was passed around by people eager to see her fired. The joyous festivities of the public lynching had no place for empathy toward the strange fruit hanging from a tree. The jeering mob just cheered her execution without a sober thought as to whether there was a living human on the end of the rope they pulled. And everybody believed they were participating in something good; an unquestionably good deed of bringing down a demon. The irony is that they used to hang black people with the same fervor, over allegations of such small “crimes” as catcalling a white woman.

Why do we need to write about dystopian futures when we live in an Kafkaesque one today? In 2013, at a conference for tech developers, a man joked to another man, in a voice lower than conversation level, about the attachments for computers and mobile devices that are commonly called dongles. A woman seated in a row in front of them stood up and took a picture of them and immediately tweeted  “Not cool. Jokes about . . . ‘big’ dongles right behind me.” The two men were promptly fired, losing their jobs and their ability to support their families. The man posted his predicament on the internet and the woman suffered a backlash. She was demonized, received death threats, and eventually was fired herself. Homeless and frightened, she slept on a series of couches with friends and relatives. One misunderstood joke ruined three lives all because we cannot talk to each other politely anymore.

If George Orwell and Phillip K. Dick and William Burroughs collaborated on a vision of a dystopian future, they would not even come close. As a child of the 20th century, I always imagined the next century to be an enlightened future bolstered by advanced technology. Who would have imagined that the 21st century would be a never-ending 24-hour global lynch mob? Every human with a smartphone is as self-righteous and gleeful as the mob that Billie Holiday sang about, happily confident about the “justice” they deliver.

And of course we are delivering justice because we are all victims now. Every person is clambering in the race to become more-victimized-than-thou. What an age to be a writer, when a single line of words can unjustly destroy your life.

Then again, anything can be good for a writer. We have been regurgitating the same old stories since Greek times. Once every century or so, some genuinely new plot elements or character models are introduced. A vampire. A zombie. A mad scientist. A space alien. A private detective. A man-made life form. Technology run amok. A world of living dinosaurs. A dystopian future. Most of these concepts were introduced in the 19th century. The newest addition to our story-telling lexicon is the concept of a predatory pedophile introduced by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955. You can argue that William Gibson’s concept of cyberspace is a new addition on a par with literary additions of the 19th century, but even that was introduced in 1982.

If Kafka could create Der Process and Das Schloss from the emerging contradictions of the early 20th century, certainly the virtual lynch mob society we see in the world today can become the springboard for the fictional creation of a completely new kind of surreal.

Writers are still rehashing the ideas created by Kafka, Doyle, Shelly, Stoker, Orwell and Dick and placing them on the same Greek plot lines. But we are already living in a disastrous world that outstrips the imagination of the most pessimistic of the greatest writers. We are deceiving ourselves if we think the situation will get any better. We are standing at the doorstep to a new age of instant gratification for tormentors. The technology can only grow faster and more powerful. If the idea that the mention of a dongle at a tech conference can ruin three lives seems ridiculous today, it will most likely sound quaint tomorrow. People who are offended at the insensitivity of others are rewarded with validation through “likes” and “retweets”. And any incidental victim of a lynching is forgotten and discarded in the rubbish heap of memory. There is nothing but incentive and reinforcement in this world for this trend to grow. What could be the logical conclusion of this trajectory?

Whatever it is, it will create the most beguiling fiction, and the most dreadful reality.

 

How Many Eggs Do You Break For An Omelette?

Yes, yes. I’ve insulted, harangued, humiliated and demeaned my friends and enemies alike. I’ve physically assaulted some of them. I took their money, liberated their belongings, invaded their homes, snorted their coke, and staged destructively wild parties on their property. I slept with their girlfriends, wives, husbands, fiances, daughters, and molested their children. But it’s all for the sake of my art!   – Anonymous Artist.

(Personally, I haven’t gone that far. Yet.)

Granted that you cannot avoid breaking a few eggs when you make an omelette, how many eggs should you be allowed to break?

It depends on so many factors, I don’t know where to start. This is a question that applies to all artists, including writers, but it applies most to the least crazy of them all: Journalists.
You may argue on whether or not journalists are artists, or perhaps on whether they are the same breed of artists as fiction writers or poets, but you must agree that they have a lot of potential to bite the hand that feeds them. In the quest for the big story, they may have to throw their valuable sources under bus. Marisa Tomei plays a journalist who abandons her friendship with a source too soon in Ides of March.
Those of us who have interacted with double dealing journalists can relate to some of the elements of that and other movies. Weighing the consequences of their treachery is a part of the journalist’s game.

The treachery of other kinds of artists are less cerebral. A musician or a fiction writer might spend a lifetime not betraying anyone, at least not in a very calculated manner. If you have a person who is a source material, you can fictionalize him into something unrecognizable. So you would not be betraying actual confidences as a journalist might. A fiction writer does not play the zero-sum game of “write the story or keep a friend”.

But there are other kinds of betrayals. After all, every writer is an investigator of some sort. I can write about how a fist fight feels like because I have been in a few of them. Granted there are some safe places to have fist fights, boxing rings and martial arts gyms for example, where you can get pretty good simulations of actual street fights. Even then, you are bruising your knuckles on someone’s face. Your only consolation is that it is consensual.

And speaking of consensual, what kind of romantic relationships have you been itching to write? I have a few stories that might devastate some people when they recognize themselves in it. There are so many writers out there who, although they publish in a totally different genre, started writing out of a desire to rat on a relative who sexually molested them long ago, or something along those lines. And it is not only the victims. Predators have the same secret urge to spill the beans. And if you are neither victim nor predator, you might have dark secret fantasies of being one or the other. You see them reflected in fiction all the time. Although they may not hurt people who actually interacted with the author, a brutal rape scene might send an actual rape victim into a traumatic relapse after reading it. Some psychologists even urge warning label on books. But that is not going to stop writers from writing.

The best way to find out what people say in arguments is to get into arguments with people. That is why there are so many trolls on writing forums on the internet. What are people going to say when they are hurt? Well, hurt them and find out. Or pretend to be hurt at an innocuous comment and make drama, making the other guy the troll. The worst thing that can happen is that you are going to be banned from a gathering of strangers. It’s another relatively safe way to bruise your knuckles on somebody’s face.

Of course you will have to live with the consequences of all the fist fights you had in the parking lot, the one night stands, the sexual role playing, and the internet trolling (or trollee-ing), not to mention the exhaustive interviews of people who have lived through pain. Even if you do not write about them, they can come back and bite you, because of course you are hurting people in the process. So how much is too much?

If you have to kill somebody to write a realistic murder story, you are clearly pushing it. But short of that, how many eggs are you allowed to break for an omelette? The good news, for novelists anyway, is that you don’t have to break even one. The quality of your finished work of fiction is not dependent on the number of eggs you break. You don’t have to be a badass to write like one.

But then again, it is all a learning process. Like every bitter experience you suffered in your childhood, every abrasive comment you get on the internet teaches you to write better, if only because it offers a glimpse into the minds of people who do not think like you. Also, some people will hate you anyway no matter what you do. What is true for people in your immediate proximity is true for people you meet on the internet. They are haters. You cannot please them, so don’t try. Those eggs are already broken.

The bottom line is, you can break all the eggs you are willing to pay for. It is not your job to cry over them. Your job is to make an awesome omelette.

Reminders to Myself

  1. Do not try to write “that bestseller novel”. Write a good 10 thousand volume seller.
  2. Your characters are not your alter ego. They do not have to look cool for you.
  3. You’ve been stuck before. You will be stuck again. It is not the end of the world and it is not a reason to discard your novel.
  4. It is the same 30,000 word wall as the last time.
  5. Don’t polish. Just write.
  6. Leave that plot bunny alone.
  7. No, you will not find inspiration on the internet.
  8. You have already read that how-to-write book.
  9. If you cannot write two thousand words today, write two hundred words. It will pile up.
  10. You are not too busy. You are not too tired. You are just too distracted.

World Building

J. K. Rowling describes Mrs. Dursley as having a long neck that was useful for spying on her neighbors over the fence. But she never tells us who those neighbors were or what was it they did that Mrs. Dursley was spying on. Rowling probably knows. She knows everything about her world. She once said she knew the names of all the players in all the quidditch teams.

Readers do not have the patience to read lengthy descriptions anymore (or so they say), so there is a limit to the number of words you can cram into a book. If you create an elaborate world, you will have to create a lot of detail that you know you are not going to write. This applies to every genre.

For example, in order to create convincing characters, you should write a short biography for each during the writing process. The information in the biographies may not appear in the book. It is just some background knowledge that the writer has.

If there is any kind of writing that epitomizes the idea that “writers write to write, not to be read” it must be the so called “fantasy” writing, which involves lots of world building. Much of what the writer writes is hidden from view. You might write the entire history of a kingdom and little of it will ever appear in the story. The more elaborate the fantasy world, the smaller the proportion the reader will see.

As a consequence, all fantasy worlds begin to look alike. All dystopian futures begin to look alike. All space travel stories begin to look alike. But in the mind of the writer, there is a distinct world with distinct images, landscapes, and inhabitants. How do you project that elaborate world to the reader? How do you explain the world without lengthy boring expositions?

First, you must grasp the correct definition of world building. You do not start your world building by saying “Barahir, son of Hador, was the eighth Ruling Steward of Gondor, and was succeeded by his son Dior” or “The Thermians are under attack from Sarris and need the help from Jason who will activate Omega 13”. You are just attaching names to characters, places and devices. That is not world building. World building is when you attach emotions and personality to places, customs, objects and characters.

A British royal wedding is a massive event resplendent with ornate carriages, marching soldiers in period uniform and church bells resonating through the city. A Japanese Imperial wedding is a somber and private series of ceremonies held within the walls of the Imperial Palace with little music and less fanfare but much sanctity and seriousness. Same event, different emotions. These emotions are what make your world.

When creating a stage, it is easy to be tempted into making up fantastical names for everything and describe strange landscapes under the assumption that these things, when amassed in sufficient quantity, will explain the world we created. They do not. But whether or not Hobbits drink and dance during weddings or young wizards-to-be suffer peer pressure on the Hogwarts Express are important elements of world building. Ron Weasley feels a little bit inferior because he does not have the money to buy treats on the Hogwarts Express. The fact that such emotions exist in the wizarding world is an important element.

World building entails the creation of large amounts of information that will not be included into the pages of the novel. But it is ultimately about emotions. A sacred cave does not have a sign outside that says “Sacred Cave”. Just naming your stage “the Cave of Gharapuri” is not going to cut it. You have to make it sacred through the attitudes of your characters. And in the modern novel, in which lengthy expositions are shunned, you have to cut straight to the chase and describe what people are doing there and how they are feeling.

And that is why we never learn what Mrs. Dursley was looking at when she spied over the fences, or the names of all the quidditch teams. We do not need those to understand the world around them.

Writing Good Dialogue (4)

The Dude: Walter, what is the point? Look, we all know who is at fault here, what the fuck are you talking about?
Walter: Huh? No, what the fuck are you… I’m not… We’re talking about unchecked aggression here, dude.
Donny: What the fuck is he talking about?
The Dude: My rug.
Walter: Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!
The Dude: Walter, the chinaman who peed on my rug, I can’t go give him a bill, so what the fuck are you talking about?
Walter: What the fuck are you talking about? The chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you DO NOT… Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.
The Dude: Walter, this isn’t a guy who built the railroads here. This is a guy…
Walter: What the fuck are you…?
The Dude: Walter, he peed on my rug!
Donny: He peed on the Dude’s rug.
Walter: Donny you’re out of your element! Dude, the Chinaman is not the issue here!

One of the best dialogues ever written was the three way conversation between The Dude, Walter and Donny in The Big Lebowski. How the Coen brothers ever came up with a script like this is a mystery for the ages. In most movies, fans are shocked to learn that their favorite lines were ad libbed by the actors on the set. But fans of The Big Lebowski have expressed shock upon learning that almost none of the lines in the movie were spontaneous, the reverse of the usual reaction. This is because so much of the script sounds spontaneous. It is a testament to how well the screenplay is crafted that practically the entire movie looks and sounds like a string of spontaneous dialogues.

Each person has emotional character. The Dude is laid back, Walter is always angry, and Donny is slightly confused. Each has a point of view, each has position, and each is clueless in his own way.

 

If ever there was an example that proves dialogues in screenplays and dialogues in novels need to be crafted differently, this is it. You simply cannot transplant this dialogue into a novel. The characters cannot get to the point of their own arguments because they are distracted by their own thoughts mid-sentence. (I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you DO NOT… Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. ) This sort of twist and jump cannot be communicated to the audience without a good actor delivering it. However, other elements of the dialogue do operate on the same basic principle that makes good dialogues good in novels.

The Dude: It’s like what Lenin said… you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh…
Donny: I am the walrus.
The Dude: You know what I’m trying to say…
Donny: I am the walrus.
Walter: That fucking bitch…
The Dude: Oh yeah!
Donny: I am the walrus.
Walter: Shut the fuck up, Donny! V.I. Lenin. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov!
Donny: What the fuck is he talking about, Dude?

Walter says Lenin, Donny hears Lennon. The ensuing miscommunication is hilarious.

A dialogue exposes character and moves the plot. A dialogue is as much about miscommunication as it is about communication. A dialogue tells a backstory by showing what kind of expressions, associations or sensitivities each character expresses.

One of the most difficult things a writer must do is to resist the temptation to explain. The part we do not explain is what gives the story depth.

Here is an excellent piece of dialogue I was lucky enough to come across in an internet discussion completely by accident. I am definitely going to use it in a novel sometime.

“There are a lot of very attractive women in this group”
“That was creepy”

The first line, though seemingly innocuous and well intentioned,  can come off as inappropriate in numerous circumstances. The second line, quite honest and understandable, is still a curve ball that can pull the rug from under the first speaker. It also hints at a lot of backstory. What are the possible motivations of the first speaker that crossed the listener’s mind, and what was it that impressed the second speaker as creepy?
As an alternative, consider this:

“There are a lot of very attractive women in this group”
“Thank you for the compliment”

That does not knock anything askew. It does not expose the cluelessness of the first speaker. It does not make the reader uncomfortable and most readers are likely to skip right past it. A good line knocks some coffee out of the cup like an unexpected speed bump.

But more importantly, the two characters talking must have different mind sets behind their words. One says Lenin, the other must hear Lennon. When one says “attractive” (with innocent intentions) and the other hears “creepy”, the former is only trying to put a smile on the listener’s face, but the latter is automatically on guard for a potential sexual approach, or being evaluated on their appearance alone. Each person is an inhabitant of a different mind set. This is what we want to see in a dialogue.

If the speaker had said, “There are a lot of ugly bitches in here” and the listener was offended, it reveals considerably less, because you are supposed to be offended by a line like that. When the speaker says “attractive” and the listener is offended, it illustrates that the two people see the world differently. The inciting words must seem innocuous.

“What the fuck is he talking about?”

The most important element is that your characters should be able to say “What the fuck is he talking about?” in the middle of the dialogue and the line can fit in naturally. The characters should wonder what the other person is talking about. But the reader should never be left wondering.

I previously talked about the “random guy at Starbucks” dialogue.

Random guy at Starbucks: Doing homework?
Me: No, writing a novel.
Guy: O.O really? When is it going to be published?
Me: Oh, it’s just for fun. (insert brief explanation of NaNo here.)
Guy: But…you’re like…hot.
Me: *smh/facepalm* what does that even mean? (reinsert headphones here.)

Two people are totally baffled at each other, but it is very easy to understand what is happening. This is what dialogue is all about. Which brings me back to this:

“There are a lot of very attractive women in this group”
“That was creepy”

Two completely different perspectives in two simple lines. There is a seed of a story here. In fact, this is a pivotal dialogue from which a whole novel can grow. I do not know how native English speakers will respond to this dialogue, but I cannot get over how lucky I was to stumble over this example. Quite frankly, I am obsessed with it.

These two lines makes me want to dig deeper. What kind of a man would say the first line, and in what setting? What kind of a woman, with what history, would immediately respond with the second line? If this was how they met, how will their relationship grow? Good dialogue should make you wonder. And if the dialogue you have stirs your imagination, you just might have something there.

 

Ten Ways to Get Away With Murder

For mystery writers.
Ten ways to get away with murder.

  1. The death is never uncovered. “My husband went on a business trip and never returned.”
    (Best case scenario, nobody gets suspicious. Works best when the victim is a loner with no relatives he keeps in touch with and has low Facebook profile. Not ideal if and when the body is accidentally discovered. Down side: You might have difficulty legally inheriting his money.)
  2. It looked like a natural death. “My husband died of a disease.”
    (Use an innocuous poison like a potassium injection. It will resemble a heart attack and nobody will be the wiser. Just don’t do it around doctors. A wife tried to inject potassium into an iv tube at the Mayo Clinic and quick witted doctors uncovered it. Down side: Medical examiners are usually smarter than you.)
  3. It looked like an accident. “My husband drove off a cliff.”
    (Simpler the better. Applicable to almost any kind of victim. Lazy police bureaucrats will prefer accidents over things that need genuine investigation. Down side: Your victim might survive.)
  4. It looked suspicious but nobody looked for the murderer. “My husband shot himself, but it could have been an accident. The insurance investigator went home when he learned that his policy did not cover either case.”
    (When nobody stands to gain from somebody’s death, there is very little incentive to look closely. If they investigated every death in the absence of a motive for murder, the police would be overwhelmed. Down side: You never know who knows about your secret motive. If it is money, you better have it well hidden.)
  5. It was justifiable homicide. “My husband had been habitually violent. I have my history of hospitalizations to prove it. This time I knew he was going to kill me so I shot him.”
    (Works best if the victim actually was a habitual abuser. If not, you have to set him up as such. Juries are sympathetic to abused wives. Down side: Not the best option if you are a husband scheming to kill your wife. Also, you have to hurt yourself frequently and go to the hospital with suspicious injuries multiple times before you have a convincing setup.)
  6. It was self defense. “My husband took two shots at me. I shot back once. I didn’t think I would hit him in the head.”
    (Works best if your victim has a reason to kill you. Some states allow this more than others. Local legal precedents may vary. Down side: Forensic experts can tell if the shootout was poorly staged.)
  7. Temporary insanity. “My husband had a habit of drugging me to have sex. This time I woke up and found him dead. Was it me?”
    (Works best if your intended victim is known to have weird habits. It must not be revealed that you had any prior habit of taking drugs yourself. The “battered victim who temporarily lost her mind” has been proven to work at times as well. Down side: A lot seems to depend on the ability of the lawyer.)
  8. The perfect alibi. “I was at the party all night. I was right next to the hostess all evening. There were numerous witnesses. When I got home with a few of my friends from the party, my husband was dead.”
    (Essentially, you are hiring a professional to kill your victim at the precise moment when you have the perfect alibi. Works best when you have a lot of money to apply. You may have some difficulties in finding a good professional, but rich people will always find a way. Down side: What’s the fun in it?)
  9. The reasonable doubt. “I know it’s possible that I might have done it. But the neighbor had a grudge with him and has no alibi. His business partner will gain from his death and has no alibi. His mistress could have done it and has no alibi. It could have been anybody.”
    (Works best when you are trying to kill off someone with lots of plausible enemies. Down side: Someone else might beat you to it.)
  10. The deal. “If you let me get off with second degree manslaughter, I can lead you to the arrest of a major drug dealer.”
    (Works best when you have something to offer. Down side: Won’t work if you don’t.)

 

On Writer’s Block

Writer’s block can be masking anything from outright laziness to clinical depression. Then again, the desire to write a book can be a front for almost anything. The practice of writing is encrusted with excuses conjured over the centuries by the most imaginative of people.

It is difficult to nail what writer’s block really is when so many things are being ascribed to it. But the study of writer’s block can tell us a lot about writing and how we operate as writers.

Reviewers of speech recognition software have been saying for years that speaking like writing is a skill unto itself and that talking into a microphone does not automatically produce printable text. Some have gone so far as to suggest that there is a neural connection between our brains to our hands that help us to compose the prose we write.

Samuel Delany wrote that what we envision becomes clearer when we fit words to it. The process of choosing words to fit the idea forces us to focus what we want to say. In the course of lining up the “right” words in a string, we give birth to more visions ahead, which in turn needs to be clarified by fitting words to them. Delany calls this the “envisioning/notating process”. Nanoers call it “pantsing”.

Fitting words to what we want to say, clarifies, focuses and consolidates the original vision. Once fitted to words, the vision becomes less flexible and less fluid. The vision coagulates into text. As thoughts harden into solid text, more thoughts appear just ahead. Writing rides this precarious balance between vague ideas and hardened prose. It is the perpetual motion machine that is carried on by the momentum of falling forward.

Thus, we are prone to be stuck when we lean too much toward envisioning or notating. When we try too hard to see the next vision or find the next word, we get stuck. The sweet spot is in between the two. The story moves forward when you have one foot in the vision and one foot in the text. If you are too fixated on finding the perfect phrase, you lose sight of the vision. Many of the tricks to counter stuckness I explained earlier aim to take you away from the obsession with text and take you back to the vision. (the Light Trick, the Icon Trick, the Invisible Entry Trick, etc.) Or, if we see the vision but lose sight of the words, you  can talk about your story to others, to the wall, or to the characters. (the Wall Trick, the Pizza Trick)

It is often pointed out that the writer is the first reader of his own work. When we see our words appear before us, we automatically switch from writers to readers, enthralled at the story that is forming in front of us. Writers may be the instigators of the story, but it is the story that pulls us through. We perch on the borderline between writer and reader. Sometimes the story takes us in unexpected directions.

Why is this possible? Why do stories start taking on a life of its own and write its own plot? The imagery must come from the associations derived from the story elements, emotions and words we have infused into it. When given the word “orange” some people think of breakfast, some people imagine baked treats, some people associate the word with terrorism and national security. Writers, being ever so fond of metaphors, mix words of overlapping  imagery to compose their prose. The web of associations accumulated on the pages create the atmosphere over which the story flows. The writer, method acting his characters, is carried on the emotional currents of the imagery as the words appear before his eyes.

Writer’s block is when this stops happening. The emotion doesn’t seem so vivid anymore. The balance between creator and consumer had been broken. Issac Asimov claimed that he never suffered writer’s block. He didn’t know what it felt like. He lived the simple writer’s life of writing, reading, and writing. He made good money doing it, and should have been able to indulge. “We shall,” he said. “Today we will hop over to Doubleday’s and buy someone else’s books.”

An avid reader not only collects new vocabulary but adds new associations to the words he already knows. He also grows connections on his plot elements. The concept of a pedophile was not on the conscious minds of the general public until Nabokov wrote Lolita. Now, when you read a description of a middle aged man in a tweed suit, some people think of a school teacher, some people think of a writer, but some people think of   Humbert Humbert. Just as the word “orange” can conjure a variety of images, a character description, a setting, a situation, or a plot twist can conjure a variety of emotions and imagery. A reader collects these associations and adds new ones to his story vocabulary. When writing, these associations automatically connect each other and produce new imagery as the words appear on the screen.

Stephen King wrote that if you do not read, you will not have the tools with which to write. He did not try to elaborate on the mechanism behind his words. Delany came closer to explaining the process. Asimov was insightful as always but he had the disadvantage of never having experienced writer’s block to be able to understand it. But they all seem to know that the origin of the next line  was what you wrote in the last line, and that what you associate to the words, sentences and story segments you wrote in the last line became the vaporous ingredients of the next vague vision.

This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to write fiction in a second language. Writing fiction involves so much more than just linguistic skill. It requires the construction of a massive world of interactive connections and identifications. You must not only know the definition of the word “orange”, but also associate it to the state of national security. Without the words on your screen stretching tendrils into the realm of your imagination, your story cannot move forward on its own.

From what little we know about the process of writing and the mechanism of writer’s block, it can only be surmised that the best treatment is prevention. A writer’s mind must be constantly maintained by ceaseless reading. The web of associations must be constantly updated and improved. It is this web of associations that create the unexpected turn of the story in mid-writing.

And that is why, you should always read more than you write.

Ideologues

I cannot remember who, but a literary critic for the TIME magazine once wrote: “Ideologues, of whatever persuasion, make lousy readers of fiction”. Christian fundamentalists have attacked the Harry Potter series saying that it promotes paganism. Feminists can’t accept Cinderella. Nazis have made colossal bonfires out a long list of excellent books. Communists. Capitalists. Catholics. Muslims. Pacifists. Militarists. Anarchists. Royalists. None of them hated their most hated books because they failed to entertain. They hated them because the books did not fit their ideology. And that is NOT what fiction is about.

You might dislike Lord of the Rings because you think it is a meandering, slow moving, overly dense book, and there is nothing wrong with that. But some people have disliked Lord of the Rings because, they said, it is a “capitalist conspiracy to keep the proletariat in their place”. For all the charms of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, social mobility is not one of them. Because of this, ideologues have found a reason to hate Hobbits.

If you are one of those people who cannot accept a work of fiction that does not fit your view of the world, don’t bother to try to write one. If you cannot, for any reason, drop the Harry Potter hate, the Cinderella hate, the Lord of the Rings hate, or the hate of any other book that disagrees with your ideology, you are not meant to be a fiction writer.

Granted there are problems in the world that need to be addressed; the plight of the women, the racial minorities, the homosexuals, the poor, the disadvantaged. You can be passionate about those problems as much as you like, but if your passion makes you see monsters in the woodwork while reading fiction, you cannot make fiction work for you. You are trying to model clay that bends only one way. Your story is an echo chamber of your own opinions.

The objective of a work of fiction is to transport the reader to another world through the medium of print. That must always come first. A work of fiction can also carry a message, but that should always be secondary. If you have to get on a soapbox in the middle of writing fiction, fiction is probably not your thing. There is nothing wrong with that. Some excellent writers have written nothing but non-fiction. Assess yourself and decide if you should change course.

There are, of course, many lousy books in print that are thinly disguised soap boxes for the authors. Some are even best sellers. But nobody really reads them for their literary merit. Readers read them for what they are; thinly disguised opinion pieces. An outright infomercial is more honest.

If you are going to write from the standpoint of your own ideology, do me a favor and stop pretending to be a novelist. If you want to save the world, (or conquer the world, as the case may be) you don’t need to work through fiction to do it. You should start a non-profit or run for office. An anonymous volunteer doing the grunge work in the trenches is much more helpful to the people in need than a writer making up fictional renditions of their real life problems. If real world problems are so important to you, why do you write and not do? Or at least write non-fiction instead?

A fiction writer creates characters he/she loves and make them go through the tortuous travails of outrageous fortune. This is generally NOT a good vehicle for dispersing ideology.

There are many possible motives for wanting to write a work of fiction. But for most successful writers, the biggest reason is the joy of writing. Most other motives will not, in the long run, help you become a successful writer. Ask yourself why you want to become a writer. It is not at all shameful to realize that you need to change course. Maybe what you really want to do is run for president.

Writer Do Nots

Take this advice to heart:

  1. Never write a novel to prove something.
    If you are going to be a novelist, then just do your job. Publishing a novel is not a way to prove something. The objective of a work of fiction is to transport the reader to another world created in print. It is not meant to impress people who have no intention of being transported and probably only will be looking for faults in your work anyway.
  2. If you write for your own therapy, it’s not for publishing.
    Every writer has a book that is not meant to be published. We might call them private journals, notes, fiction for my own consumption, whatever. If you write something for yourself, keep it to yourself. There is nothing shameful about writing something that cannot be published. And things that are written for your mental well being rarely accomplishes the objective of entertaining a reader.
  3. Never set an age target for your debut.
    I confess. I wanted to be published before the age of 20 because I wanted to be a “teenage author”. Then I wanted to be published before 25. I am now 52 and still have no fiction works published. Harry Bernstein published his first book when he was 96, in 2007. He had his first story published in a school newspaper at 16, which was an impressive achievement in his time. Probably akin to having a print-on-demand novel published today. But he struggled as a writer for the next 80 years because he wanted to be published more than he wanted to be matured. Do not make this mistake.
  4. Never try to write more than you read.
    If you are too busy writing to be reading, I can promise you that you will have no future as a writer. Writing without reading is like talking without listening. You are only going to annoy people. If reading is a chore for you, that is already a near fatal disadvantage. Remember to read at least five thousand words for every thousand words you write. If you are a bookworm who cannot live without books to read, you are much more likely to have a chance at writing.
  5. Never aim for high-brow on purpose.
    Engrave this into your bones: There is no such thing as a high-brow literary fiction written on purpose. Writers write out their hearts, and it either ends up high-brow fiction or genre fiction. You do not choose your genre, your genre chooses you. If you must aim, aim for low-brow. Never deliberately try to go high-brow. It will only make you look ridiculous.
  6. A job to fall back on is a job to fall back on.
    If you are going to be a writer, and you need a paycheck to fall back on, do not take on a demanding job. Don’t become a medical professional or a teacher for disadvantaged children. Become a night watchman or a library attendant. Find a job that is not physically demanding and provides a lot of free time. Work in the darker corners of the public sector or get a drab office job. Join the military. They have good libraries.
  7. If you need psychological help, get it.
    Yes, I believe I wrote better when I was perpetually depressed. But that is not a way to live. If you cannot write a good, readable novel when you are mentally healthy, you should not be writing. A little psychological trauma can help you write a story that packs a punch, but if you need your wounds to write, they are not the novels your pre-wounded self was meant to write. Get off the pain. It is not the right fuel for your writing.
  8. Haters are gonna hate.
    Do not expect support from haters. They are only projecting their own insecurities on you. You cannot prove anything to them. You should not try. Walk away. You do not need them and they do not benefit you.
  9. There is no such thing as failure.
    If you get published, great. If you do not, you are growing. Focus on the positives. If you have been writing seriously for a while, your improvement will become obvious. Build on it. Write better. Keep improving. If somebody does not read your awesome story, it’s their loss. Stay on that attitude and keep writing.
  10. Never be stingy with advice.
    Other writers are struggling too. If you have picked up a few tips along the way, share them. Help other writers write. Don’t worry about competition. They are not your competitors. Your competitors are television programs, movies, game consuls and YouTube that tear your readers away from books. Fellow writers only help create more readers. They are your friends. Help them.