More Thoughts on Voice

Actually, I am always trying to tone down the arrogance. Not that anybody I know in person ever described me as being arrogant. Arrogance is the character that seems to infuse my writing. This is one of those things that leads me to believe that we are different people when we are in our writing mode.

As a bilingual, and I mix with quite a few bilinguals, I know that your personality tends to change a little when you switch languages. Japanese people tend to become more outgoing and assertive when they speak in English. Often, they muster the courage to be more blunt. Strangely enough, Americans who speak Japanese do not become more restrained or self-suppressed, but tend to become self-deprecating and more empathetic.

I suppose, even when you are limited to the same language, your personality may take on subtle changes when you are writing, instead of just interacting in real life. After all, writers tend to be introverts in person, and garrulous on paper.

In person, I am just another restrained and repressed middle-aged Japanese man in a tweed sports jacket and corduroy slacks who still wears a necktie to work. I honestly am still baffled why, when I write, the words seem to have such an incorrigible nose-in-the-air feel about it.

Perhaps it has something to do with the voices I conjure in my head while I write. One of my favorite actors is James Spader, and I like to hear his voice in my head while I write my narrations. Mr. Spader has not played a humble character in decades. He seems to be type cast as an egomaniac. He started his career as a teenager, doing a series of teen movies with John Hughes, then he moved on to yuppie movies Less Than Zero and Wall Street, then to Steven Soderberg’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a quintessential ’80s movie. In the ’90s, he made a series of artsy and under-appreciated political thrillers and sexual character sketches. He kept flailing at tittering, self-conscious, meek roles, and burning rubber in abrasive, arrogant, dominating roles until he settled on a style that seems to best suit playing wounded but ego-driven smart-aleck characters.

I don’t always write with the same voice in my head, and I am not sure if the voice is the cause or the effect of my writing style. More than one person have expressed that they sense a mild contempt for the reader in my prose. I sense it myself sometimes. I am rather sure that it is there, although it is not intentional. I write, if fact, with a sense of humility in that I am never quite sure if my writing is good enough. Cate Kennedy wrote, “A story is an offer, not a claim.” Words to live by. I have struggled to shake the habit of writing in order to prove something about myself, with spotty success. Veering between naive awe at the power of words and narcissistic self absorption, the personality of my writing style may have evolved into  something like a distilled character performance.

It would be most desirable if it had. Stephen King has pointed out that readers do not read for the story or the plot, but for the voice. Maybe my writing voice is a little too intrusive. Or maybe it is unpleasant or annoying. Either way, I must say that I am not certain that it is a voice that will win me some fans. When you are still pretty sure that your own writing sucks, it is not easy to love your own voice that conveys it. But if my voice is condensing into a style through the years, I will sooner or later have to make peace with it.

Jazz legend Dexter Gordon, portraying himself in the movie Round Midnight, said “You just don’t go out and pick a style off a tree one day. The tree’s inside you, growing naturally.” It is a wild tree with a mind of its own, and you cannot control the way the branches grow.

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Hook, Line, and Sinker (2)

A good opening is difficult to analyze but easier to recognize. If the opening holds your attention, it is a good one.

In this blog, I have already introduced several openings I have written. One about the witch, one about the alienated son, one about a black samurai, and one about an honest African American in trouble with the police.

I do write a lot of first chapters. (Not as many last chapters, unfortunately.) I have been writing practically nothing else for the past forty years, so I should be pretty good at it by now. Now, let me extract the first sentence from each one.

The dirty secret of my family was that my father was violently sodomized when he was seven years old by a close and respectable relative.

The sun set warm over the stench of glory.

Deep in the middle of the twentieth century, it was still a tough game to be an honest Negro in the Land of the Free.

Each one has irony, sadness, anger, and pain. I do not plan it this way. It just seems to end up this way when I feel that the sentence sounds right, unless I am trying to write a comedy.

Each story the opening sentence is followed by a conflict and a mystery, establishment of time and place, and ends with a cliffhanger. Hook, line, and sinker.

The way I see it, they are not so bad. Opening chapters are not my problem. My problem is maintaining the tension for the chapters that follow.

Another problem is probably confidence, because after a while, I start feeling that my stories are silly and feel that I am making a fool of myself.

How do I write a good second and third chapters? The problem with second and third chapters is that they can have a lot more variation than the first chapter. Unlike the first chapter, there is no simple list of essential elements for the second and third chapters.

For example, a second chapter does not have to be a continuation of the first chapter. It can flashback in time or describe a completely different story. If the first chapter is about a bomb being hidden at a city hall in Belfast, the second chapter can be a heated conference at the KGB headquarters in Moscow. In that vein, the third chapter can be a sting operation in the black market in Paris. Then the novel can alternate between three story lines until they eventually come together. (Master story teller Arthur Hailey tended to write this way.) Or if the first chapter is about a bomb in Belfast, the second chapter can back track and follow the life of the bomb squad officer up until he is tasked to defuse a particularly clever bomb. Or maybe, the second chapter should be a continuation of the first chapter. In the first chapter a bomb is hidden in Belfast, bomb squad officers and their daily lives are exposed in the second chapter, a child stumbles on the bomb in the third chapter and the bomb squad is summoned.

With all these possible variations, what defines a good second chapter? The second chapter can be any number of things. In most books I have read (and admired), the second chapter tend to be calmer and more descriptive than the first chapter, which tends to be more breathless. But if the second chapter is actually a first chapter to a different story line, it could be the same breathless introduction as the chapter preceding it.

It is only my opinion, but I believe there is no universal answer to what makes a good second or third chapter. But there are certain requirements applicable to any chapter of a book: If the reader stops reading, it is a lousy chapter.

Every chapter should have at least three “beats”. Each beat must be connected with either “therefore” or “but”. If any of the beats need to be connected with “and then”, that break should fall between chapters. A bomb was hidden in Belfast, “and then”, a heated conference happened in Moscow, “and then”, a black market sting was botched in Paris. Within a chapter, beats should not be connected with “and then”. Hideyoshi’s army was victorious, “but”, the Black samurai was dissatisfied because Mitsuhide got away, “but”, he captured a young samurai belonging to the enemy, “but”, he revealed that the Hideyoshi was also a traitor.

Given that, each chapter should follow the “sinker” of the first chapter. A novel needs a consistent attitude throughout. A Raymond Chandler book needs to sound like a Raymond Chandler book from beginning to end.

That should carry me through at least the first three chapters. But after the fifth chapter, I will have to deal with the problem of pacing.

 

 

10 Kinds of Plot Twists

  1. The Dream Twist.
    It is the worst and most annoying type of plot twist when the story you have emotionally invested in turns out to have been just a dream. It usually does not please the reader. The only way to save this over-used plot twist from total disaster is to ensure that the events in the dream world has parallel events and emotional consequences in the real world surrounding it. If the adventures in the dream world substantially changes the course of life for the protagonist in the real world, the story can be satisfying. If it was just a dream and nothing changes in the real world, it would be a let down. That means that the dream sequence should not end in a saved-by-the-bell wake-up. If the protagonist is about to die in the dream world and woke up to find that everything was okay, the story is not okay.
  2. The Butler Did It Twist.
    The staple of Agatha Christie mysteries, the final twist is that the person you were looking for (the murderer, usually) was someone totally unexpected. The most often mentioned gripe with this twist is that some key information is withheld from the reader until the very end. How was I to know that the nurse was the murderer when it was hidden until the last page that she was secretly a distant relative of the victim with potential to inherit a huge fortune? In order for this plot twist to work, the reader must have access to as much information as possible without making the conclusion too obvious. Also there should be some foreshadowing leading up to the twist.
  3. The Upper Hand Twist.
    Someone plans a heist. Someone plans a double cross. Someone predicted the double cross and had secretly taken measures to counter it. When all is revealed, someone had the upper hand. The upper hand twist is the staple of bank robbery and jewel capers. If done well, it rarely fails to entertain. A variation of this twist is when the double crosser switches sides and feeds information to the enemy, but later turns out to have been a mole who planted misleading information on purpose to distract the enemy. Mostly used in crime stories, but also seen in political thrillers and courtroom dramas. It only works if the initial double cross was unexpected for the reader.
  4. The Secret Good Guy Twist.
    Hitchcock seemed to have loved this. One of the bad guys is too charming to be true and the heroin falls for him though she is well aware that he is dangerous material. And then, at the critical moment, he reveals himself to have been a secret agent for the good guys. It works best if the reveal is saved for the very end, or if the secret good guy reveals himself to the wrong person, making it a double twist. The premise is often too good to be true. The way to get this to work is to make the secret good guy an increasingly suspicion-inducing character as the story progresses. He must lie a lot, and his lies are exposed one by one, making him progressively less trustworthy. But he keeps patching up his story with new lies which nobody but the heroin (or equivalent) buys. The reader (or the audience) should be screaming “Don’t trust him!” long before the reveal. The best example is Alfred Hitchcock’s Charade.
  5. Identity Twist.
    “Luke, I am your father.” Someone you thought was one thing turns out to be something else entirely. Works best when the first characterization is well developed, and the reveal is related to the objective of the story or the motivation of the main character. Darth Vader was perfectly characterized as a murderous villain. Luke was motivated (at least in part) by his desire to avenge his father. When the object of his vengeance turns out to be his father, it flips his motivation and adds a new conflict to the story. Street investigation police stories often employ this device. Old fashioned spy novels sometimes employ this also. This twist would fall flat if the secret identity was not directly related to the motivation of the main character.
  6. Hallucination Twist.
    An unreliable narrator who is not really sure what is real and what is his imagination tells a strange and confusing story. It is later revealed that one part of the narrative was a figment of his imagination. Most often, the imagined thing is a character in the story. In this case, one of the characters does not actually exist. The imagined element could also be a series of events, or the inciting incident. The inciting incident that set the main character on his journey did not actually happen, or he was mislead on his journey by a series of hallucinations. This twist works best when the instability of the narrator is amply foreshadowed, but not really exposed until the reveal. You find this plot twist often in the so-called “rubber reality” movies.
  7. The Liar Twist.
    An obsession of Orson Welles. You hear a series of accounts from different perspectives of the same event, and eventually the audience pieces together a story, until a contradiction surfaces. Somebody is not telling the truth. The reveal identifies the liar. This works best when the audience has invested enough effort into constructing a story from the various accounts. It is difficult for the audience to identify the liar because his account is one of the key building blocks of the narrative they have come to believe in. However, the reveal is not satisfying if the liar is too far out in left field. There should be enough foreshadowing to make it plausible, but not enough to make it too obvious.
  8. Not Dead Twist.
    Someone whom you thought dead was actually alive. This twist cannot work unless the story preceding the twist hinged on the fact of the death. For example, someone is said to have died of illness, but the story does not fit and murder is suspected. The story follows the investigation until it is revealed that the victim was not actually dead. You might feel that this story twist has been over-used. It would take a clever writer to pull this off without making it seem cheap. It works better when a lot of emotional investment is infused in investigating why and how the supposedly deceased died. (A variation is the Dead Twist, in which one of the characters, such as the narrator, previously believed to be alive, turns out to have been a ghost.)
  9. The Same Person Twist.
    The most typical examples may be the movies Vertigo and Body Double,  in which characters whom you originally thought were two different people turned out to be the same person. But it can be combined with elements of the Hallucination Twist or the Identity Twist to enhance the confusion, particularly when an unstable character does not really know how many people he really is. It works best when there is a lot of emotional investment infused on finding (or finding out about) one of the (supposedly) two characters. (A clever variation on this is the Two Persons Twist, in which someone, previously thought to be one person, turns out to have been two separate people.)
  10. The Stage Twist.
    The story you thought was taking place on a strange alien planet was actually taking place on Earth, or a story you thought was set in medieval times was actually taking place in the present. If done well, this twist can be shocking, like the ending of the original Planet of the Apes movie with Charlston Heston. If done wrong, it will be a let down like a poorly done Dream Twist. This twist has more failed examples than successes. The reason that it is so difficult to pull off is that it needs to be the answer to the central quest of the story. Either the protagonist is vindicated or all hope is lost depending on this final reveal.

A writer does not always plan a plot twist. Often, a story takes a wild turn and a plot twist jumps out at the author. In which case, you have to go back to the beginning and retrofit the foreshadows in the second draft. Whatever type of plot twist you install, somebody has already done it better, but more usefully, somebody has done it worse. A writer should look for examples of the same kind of plot twist where somebody screwed up and ruined it. Then you can improve on the failure and create a better plot twist. If you are the type of writer who plots your stories, a little research can yield some useful information. Even though plot twists in novels are not so heavily researched, information on the plot twists in movie scripts are all over the place. There are plenty of examples out there that can help you fine tune your story. The rule of thumb is, a plot twist works best when a lot of emotional investment is made by the time it happens. The twist should confound the emotional investment.

Nebb

Deep in the middle of the twentieth century, it was still a tough game to be an honest Negro in the Land of the Free. Nebb never managed to get himself called James or Carlson, his real names. Not once since he got to California. He ran a liquor shop and never broke the law but that did not stop the cops from picking him up at his store one summer night. He was lucky it never happened until he was almost twenty-eight.
He was cuffed and taken to the interrogation room where two white cops in plain clothes began to question him. Well, one of them did. The other just stood in the corner and twisted his whitened knuckles on a big old Billy club with his fists so tight you could almost see the juice squeezing out through his fingers. The other sat across the table and smiled a friendly smile. Nebb knew right away that if he gave one wrong answer that Billy club would swing and crack his skull.
“How you feeling, Nebb?” the Good Cop asked.
“Fine, sir,” he answered trying to sound calm but not too calm. A Negro too calm always angered white people.
“We don’t want to hurt you, Nebb. You give us some answers and I swear we send you right home without a single bruise”
“Thank you, sir”
“Smart boy”
The older cop turned to the stone-faced younger cop standing with the club.
“Didn’t I tell you he’d be a smart boy?”
The big man with the club did not even return the smile to the man who was obviously his superior. He merely kept twisting his knuckles on the Billy club. His face looked more ready than ever to beat the living daylights out of Nebb.
“You will help us, won’t you Nebb?”
“Yes, sir.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
He put an elbow on the table and leaned forward. Then his friendly smile faded.
“Where is Dennis Keenan?”
His first impulse was to ask “Who?” but he stopped short. Nebb had never heard of Dennis Keenan. He did not know who he was. He did not know where he was. But if he said so, he would be beaten to a pulp and thrown out with the garbage. If he died during the brutal interrogation that was to follow, the cops will always have a good reason why a Negro had to be killed. It was so easy to pin a crime on a dead black man.
The room smelled bad. It was as if they used engine grease to wash away the blood and guts of countless colored suspects. Brutality stained the plastered brick walls and the paint that peeled from it. The table in front of Nebb had a plywood tabletop nailed on over the original, probably in a rushed repair job after someone’s face was forced into it once too many times. The corners were worn and rounded and the plywood splintered there. The table’s corners had seen heavy use. The splintered corners looked cleaner, the wood being fresher.
Nebb searched his mind for the right answer. There was not much time. If it took too long, the old cop would give the young cop the signal to break him in half. But he could not ask who this Dennis Keenan was. The cops would think he was playing dumb and give him the beef. He could not ask any other question either. Any question that meant “I don’t know” would instantly be interpreted as “I don’t want to tell you”. It was suicide to say “I don’t know”. But he could not answer where this Dennis Keenan was because he did not know. What to say? He had to think fast.
Finally, after long seconds, he came up with a reply.
“I’ll find him for you.”
The cops were silent. It was silence so solid you could hear the paint peeling off the walls. There was no way to tell if the answer was the right one or the wrong one. Nebb waited, thinking as fast as he could the next thing to say. He could hear a voice talking down the hall complaining loudly about the lousy coffee in the diner down the street. Someone with an Italian accent was discussing baseball. There was an electric fan somewhere sputtering into a steady buzz. A typewriter was tapping away unsteadily. The walls were like an echo chamber and everything sounded cold even through the hot summer air. But the next sound he would hear could be the breaking of his own bones. Cold sweat crawled down Nebb’s face. He did nothing to deserve this. He had never been on the wrong side of the law. Yet he knew instinctively that his number was up.
Then suddenly the older cop broke into a big smile and turned to his younger colleague.
“I told you he’s a smart boy,” he said triumphantly. Then he turned back to Nebb.
“How long will it take to find him?”
“Depends,” he said. Then he added “Dennis Keenan might have friends.”
“But not as many as you, right?”
Who do they think I am? Nebb thought. The cops must have thought he was the leader of the mafia or something when all he ever did was run a legal liquor store in Vermont Square, South L.A. After he returned from the war Nebb moved to Los Angeles to take the factory job that was supposed to be waiting for him. He was hired and fired in a matter of months for no reason at all. After that he took up a construction job and worked for a while in the California housing business. Just when he thought he was learning his craft as a carpenter, he was fired again for no real reason and he spent his spare time helping out at Drake’s Liquor Store. Mister Drake was an old white man who realized early that he needed an African face for his store in a neighborhood that was rapidly turning black. He did not care for black folks any more than the rest of them and it took him a while to find a black store keeper he could trust. But he was a fair man who knew his business and knew it well. After a rough start, he took to calling Nebb his “good nigger boy” and taught him everything about his business. Nebb learned quickly and a few years later mister Drake receded into semi-retirement. He now barely showed up at his store once a week to check the books and left the store for Nebb to run.
“Maybe,” answered Nebb, trying to sound neutral. He may have pushed it, but he had to fish for clues. He added “Trouble is I don’t know who Dennis Keenan’s friends are or where they’re at”.
That was when it happened. It was hard to tell what happened, but it was heavy and it happened fast. Whatever was happening Nebb knew that big Billy club was rushing toward center stage. And it would have cracked right through his face if the older cop had not shouted something at the younger cop to stop him.
Nebb did not know when he closed his eyes. But when he dared to open them again the young cop was standing much closer with his club swung up and the old cop had his open hand outstretched to halt him. The two cops where frozen in this awkward pose until the young cop slowly lowered the club to his side. Nebb was frozen. He could barely make out what the older cop was yelling. “Stand back!” he seemed to be saying, “Get back there!” or something along those lines. He could not be sure.
When the young cop returned to his post at the corner of the room, the old cop straightened his jacket collar and collected what was left of his easy manner. He looked over Nebb with a mix of suspicion and respect he did not show before.
“So,” said the old cop slowly, not the Good Cop any more. “You know that Dennis Keenan hangs with white people. Do you know what kind?”
“No.”
“You better not. And whatever you know you better forget…for your own good”
“Yes, sir.”
The older cop stood up and stood directly in the face of the younger cop.
“We’re done here,” he said.
The young cop protested silently. His already stone face ever so slightly stiffened and he did not move another muscle, his eyes blazing.
“We’re DONE here!”
The young man angrily paced to the door, grabbed the doorknob like he was trying to tear it out and he left the room. Nebb noticed for the first time that the cop’s shirt was soaked in sweat under the suspenders.
“There” said the old cop, stretching out his arms in a big deliberate shrug. “I told you I’ll let you go without a bruise. I’ll walk you to the door just in case”
He regained his smile as he said this.
“Are you afraid of Dennis Keenan, Nebb?”
“A little, I guess”
“Can’t blame you. Where’d you get that nickname Nebb?”
“Sergeant gave it to me in the army” Nebb answered honestly.
“Is that so? What did they call you before that?”
“Junior, sir”
“Well Junior, you got two days to bring me Dennis Keenan or bad things will happen to you. You don’t want bad things happening, do you Junior? When you come back, ask for Lieutenant Northam. Jack Northam. See you in two days”
Northam left Nebb at the front stairs of the police office. Nebb knew he was in trouble. But at least he had a clue. Dennis Keenan was a black man who hung out with white people. Not just ordinary white people, but the kind of white people the likes of Nebb were not supposed to know about. That did not narrow things down much. But it was a start.
He started down the stone stairs. It was a hot night. And Nebb had a long way to walk home.

 

Gobbledegook

A few days ago, I wrote the opening passage to a story with the intention to dissect what was wrong with my writing. But I ran out of energy. As often happens, I looked at it analytically, and cannot find anything good about it anymore. I want to throw the whole thing in the trash bin. I will explain that thought process some other time.

Here, let me talk about something else. Let me talk about Gertrude Stein. Even if you have never heard of Gertrude Stein, you have been exposed to her influence. And not only in English. Some people might be surprised that she has even influenced Japanese popular song lyrics. You can hear some recordings of her reading her own poetry on YouTube. One of them is here. You can read the same poem here if you wish.

If you have ever been confused by the lyrics of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or any other artist since them all the way through to the most recent rap music, you have Gertrude Stein to thank for that. She was the pioneer in using words for their sounds alone with little or no connection to the meanings they carry or the associations they convey. Just as modern furniture, aesthetic and practical, were influenced by baffling cubist sculpture and toned down to make them more accessible, modern music lyrics are the watered-down examples softened and rendered accessible from the extremely experimental abstractions of Stein’s poetry.

Stein’s poetry is like proto-rap lyrics etched on the glassy surface of Edwardian tea cups. In spite of their defiantly cutting edge composition, there is something dainty about them that you do not see in the aggressively confrontational hard rock, heavy metal, and gutter rap lyrics they eventually spawned. But the influence is unmistakable.

Gertrude Stein’s influence on the other forms of literature, particularly the novel, is more difficult to demonstrate. The most often mentioned is Hemingway, who is known to have visited Stein in her Paris studio. Scholars have pointed to various elements of his style as having been influenced by Stein, but it is difficult to find extractable passages in his or any novel that reflect the sort of focus on the sounds of words and dismissal of meanings.

You can argue that there is no influence, but I think I see an influence in William S. Burroughs:

“In the City Market is the Meet Café. Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up harmine, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketeers of World War III, excusers of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states, a Lesbian dwarf who has perfected operation Bang-utot, the lung erection that strangles a sleeping enemy, sellers of orgone tanks and relaxing machines, brokers of exquisite dreams and memories tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, doctors skilled in the treatment of diseases dormant in the black dust of ruined cities, gathering virulence in the white blood of eyeless worms feeling slowly to the surface and the human host, maladies of the ocean floor and the stratosphere, maladies of the laboratory and atomic war… A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum… Larval entities waiting for a Live One…”

Burroughs does have refrains elsewhere in his book, but does not have the sort of Tourette-like mechanical refrains of Stein.

Shutters shut and open so do queens. Shutters shut and shutters and so shutters shut and shutters and so and so shutters and so shutters shut and so shutters shut and shutters and so. And so shutters shut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.

It is a kind of phonetic magic that, although it is complete nonsense, makes you want to try reciting it. Burroughs is not like that. But he does seem to throw coherence to the wind and just pile on the words. His words have no real meaning, but he manages to convey imagery and atmosphere; and he does so with a distinct and unmistakable voice. The difference is that what Burroughs is writing, however abstract, is a story and, at least nominally, a novel. Stein is pushing the boundaries of poetry. But I still think Burroughs owes a great deal to Stein. Like Stein, he is not concerned with the meaning of words, but unlike Stein, he is also concerned with the imagery and associations that the words evoke, and less about the phonetics.

And I keep thinking, how can I incorporate this verbal weirdness into my writing? It is in fact very difficult to organically insert incoherent passages into a coherent non-abstract story line. But if you are writing about, say, the delirious mind-warp in the midst of a brutal battle field, or the sudden inexplicable rage of the murderous warlord, through a first person perspective, I think there would be a place for a cool jumble of incoherent words. There must be a writer out there who has pulled it off.

A jumble of nonsense words can be cool. But it would be hell to edit. You can write a fairly decent passage and still feel that you need to throw the whole lot into the trash. If you wrote an incoherent passage, how could you keep it in the final draft without hating yourself for the rest of your life?

 

Yasuke, the Black Samurai (2)

The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried. Blood-caked hands sheathed in lacquer black armor grabbed a fallen warrior by the chest plate, a pin cushion of broken arrows, and lifted him up above the razor grass. Broken joints dangled in odd directions and his eyes, lost to crows, were sockets of darkness in the orange light.
“Mitshuhide wa dokoda?” A heavily accented voice barked into the blinded man’s face.
“I know you. You are the black man,” said the eye-less samurai. Then he vomited as he gargled curses through burbles of blood and choked on his own dying breath.
The black man threw the samurai on the ground. A fist-sized fresh-water crab was crawling on the blood smeared mud. Yasuke looked over the battle field strewn with corpses and dismembered limbs, the enemy leader nowhere in sight.  The battle, for him, was not over until Mitsuhide’s head was in hand.
Black smoke rose from the camps as the men of the
honjin threw bodies of the dead on a fire. The dusk filled with the foulness of burning flesh, and mouths and nostrils became dusty with bitter soot. Columns of smoke slowly multiplied in the darkening sky, announcing to the world beyond that a fight had been won. And yet the traitor was still at large, a taste in the mouth worse than the soot. 
Silhouettes of soldiers stood by the fires, their lances and spetums held erect against the purple sky. Scavengers scurried about, bolder now that darkness was near, looking for purses with gold and weapons to be sold. Foot soldiers and pages parried with them as they tried to retrieve the heirlooms and jeweled armaments, but they also had to carry the bodies for the fires. Noblemen in the camps sorted through the corpses for heads to be severed and taken home as trophies. 
Yasuke, the black warrior, paid them no heed, for he had been fed the cold dish of treason and it sat ill in his stomach.
He made his way through the tall grass, when he heard a rustle. He found a young warrior, hiding.
“Spare me!”
He was clearly noble. His armor had a
Namban chestplate of European make, and the rest was gold plated scales tied together with silk.
“Your leg is injured. If you stay here the scavengers will kill you for your belongings. I must take you back to camp.”
“No! Leave me!”
“You will die here.”
“I am Atsuji Magoro Sadahiro. Son of Sadayuki. If I am captured they will take my head for Hideyoshi.”
“You will have an honorable death at least.”
“Spare me Black Man! I do not want to die!”
“I can promise you a clean, swift slice. The scavengers will take you apart with blunt weapons. You will not survive the night.”
The young warrior looked away. He was barely teenage. He had a string of beads and a cross hanging from his neck, a Christian, like so many of Mitsuhide’s subjects.
“If you tell me where Mitsuhide is, I shall bargain for your life. But I make no promises.”
The boy looked up, rebellious, and took measure of the man in black armor.
“Why do you fight for that peasant Hideyoshi?”
“I do not fight for Hideyoshi, but I owe allegiance to Lord Nobunaga our master.”
“But Nobunaga is dead.”
Yasuke gritted his teeth. He had failed to protect the man who had freed him from slavery. He drew his sword.
“I can take your head now, if you so wish.”
The boy shrank.
“Mitsuhide ran for Settsu.”
“That would be a hard escape. The road is ambushed.” He sheathed his sword. “Come.”
Before the boy could object, he was lifted on the huge man’s shoulder. He waded through the razor grass and carried him to the camp. Soldiers gathered curious to what prisoner he had brought, but kept distance, wary of the black warrior two heads taller than the best of them. He set the boy down near the center of the camp. Ishida Mitsunari came out of the pack, shoving noble soldiers aside, clawing through them.
“What is this?”
“This is the son of Atsuji Sadayoshi. He has given us the location of Mitsuhide in exchange for his life. Mitsuhide is headed for Settsu.”
“If you plead for his life, you shall not have his head as trophy.”
“I do not care for trophies. I want to avenge my master.”
“Very well.”
Ishida Mitsunari, known as Hideyoshi’s lap dog, was despised by many but his position as Hideyoshi’s closest aid was solid, and he was never shy to show it. He bent down and snarled at the boy warrior sitting on the ground.
“So you, the Atsuji heir, is selling out your master to save your own hide? I would not find that surprising, knowing that your master is a traitor.”
He straitened up and addressed his men.
“Behold! Treason trickles down the ranks!”
The men laughed. The boy, humiliated looked down at the ground fighting back the tears.
“Send a messenger!” he cried. “Our enemy is headed for Settsu! He must be killed before he reaches the fortress!”
Some men ran about, rushing left and right, fetching the horse for the messenger, but just as a samurai mounted the horse, another horse came riding into the camp nearly colliding with the out going horse.
“Hear ye! Hear ye! Mitsuhide is dead!” cried the horseman. “Our enemy is dead! He was killed in an ambush on the road to Settsu! We have victory! Hear all! Mitsuhide is dead!”
The soldiers erupted in cheers.
“Ey-Ey-Oh! Ey-Ey-Oh!”
“We won! We won!” the soldiers cried. “Our master is avenged!”
Ishida Mitsunari stood before the boy and sneered at him.
“It looks like I shall have your head after all. You betrayed your master too late.”
The boy spoke out at the top of his lungs.
“Hideyoshi is the true traitor! He knew of the revolt in advance! He tricked Mitsuhide into it! He never warned Nobunaga because he wanted to see him dead and take his place!”
“Silence!” cried Mitsunari, but he was clearly taken aback.
“Listen to me, all of you!” cried the boy. “Hideyoshi knew what was happening! He set a trap and made Mitsuhide kill Nobunaga, then he killed Mitsuhide so he could claim credit for avenging his master! It was all planned!”
“Rubbish!” said Mitsunari. He drew his sword. “Silence or you shall not live.”
The boy said in a defiant growl.
“You will kill me anyway.”
Mitsunari, crying out in rage, flung his sword down at the base of the boy’s neck. The blade got caught in the mail of the armor, but bit deep enough to cut into the artery. A shower of blood erupted from the wound and the boy fell sideways.
Yasuke knelt beside the boy, but the wound was fatal. As he faded away, the boy slipped a piece of paper into the black man’s hand. Yasuke took the paper, pretending not to notice. He turned to Mitsunari.
“The boy is dead.”
Mitsunari turned away in a huff and ordered to his men.
“Slice off his head and put it in a box.”
Yasuke stood and watched as the corpse was taken away. He could not help having the uneasy feeling that he had yet to fight another battle with a much greater enemy before justice was had for his master.

Write Your Own Story

Here is a story idea:

It is the early 20th century. Think Anne of Green Gables or To Kill a Mockingbird; an innocent time with innocent children. Think of a red-headed girl with long braided pigtails and a freckled face, a tom-boy in a skirt who climbs trees and “duels” with sticks and does all the things boys are supposed to do. Her family decides to hire a maid, a black single mother with a daughter of about the same age, a tom-boy in trousers. Our protagonist meets black people for the first time in her life, and when see meets the black girl, she is struck by an overwhelming emotion she is too young to recognize as love. Since this is long before people started talking about lesbianism or feminism, the relationship that starts is tumultuous. She starts out picking on the black girl, then become fast friends, then torments her again. The amplitude of her swings continues to enlarge until she adopts racist ideology early in her adulthood (about the time it was in vogue) and the black girl lashes back in a way that could land her in jail, at which point the white girl about faces and takes great risks to keep the black girl free. They suffer through failed marriages, tragic parenting and separations. They do not understand that they are lesbians until their husbands start accusing them as such, to which they at first respond with distaste. Divorce is followed by social isolation for the both of them. They finally come to peace with the true nature of their relationship in middle age. When the civil rights movement, and later the gay rights movement appear on the scene, they take turns being offended. What right do these newbies have to demand rights they grew up and suffered without? They have to learn, in later life, to support causes they might have benefited from in their youth, which they find to be a struggle.Eventually, they become mellow old ladies who die in each other’s arms. The End.

Not a bad story. If I managed to pull it off it might grow into a pretty good book. But isn’t it strange that such a story will pop into the head of a middle aged Japanese man who had spent most of his life in Japan? You would expect the author of this story to be an African American woman.

Sometimes, an elaborate story just pops into your head and you don’t know where it came from, like, once every all the time.

But then again, a story about a couple who are too stubborn to admit to themselves or each other how much they love each other is a common trope of romance novels. The only thing novel about this mixed-race gay romance is the pre-WWI-through-post-WWII timeline. I don’t generally write romance, but it is not really an original idea, so it should not come as a big surprise that such a story should come to me.

On the other hand, if you think of the controversy that followed the publication of Remains of the Day, a story set in an English manor written by a writer of Japanese extraction, or the brouhaha that followed the publication of The Incarnations, a historic novel set in China written by a British author, it does not strain the imagination to see what kind of animosity will be inevitably generated if a straight, middle-aged, Japanese male wrote a story of a race-tinged love/hate relationship between Caucasian and African-American lesbians.

Woody Allen once said that you cannot control who you fall in love with. In that respect, creative writing is very much like love. It hits you out of nowhere and leads you into the most unconventional of relationships. If a fifty-year-old man fell tragically in love with a twelve-year-old girl, he cannot un-fall in love. The best he can do is to keep his feelings to himself and not act on it. Suppressing pedophilia in that way should raise no objections in a first world country in the 21st century. But what about suppressing your love of writing? When you stumble into an unconventional affair with a story, is it a good idea to pursue the project? Or even if it is clearly NOT a good idea, socially and politically, is it acceptable to forfeit on the story in fear of being ostracized? It may not be a good simile, but if it is true that you cannot control who you are destined to fall in love with, and can only control what you do about it, and it could be someone from a different class, a different race, or the same sex, each of which were forbidden at one time or another, and still carry consequences in some societies to different degrees, at what point is it cowardice not to run with it? I wouldn’t be jailed for writing the story I outlined above, but I will definitely be asking for trouble. Is it cowardice to shrink away from that?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would know the answer to that. He believed all silence to be lies. It is a matter of integrity for the writer to not cave in to the potential harassment of whatever political body that may oppose him.

But why so serious? This is only fiction. This is only a story. Even in the off chance that I managed to finish a decent novel, and an even slimmer chance that the book was represented and published, how many people would make the effort to pick it up and read it? Why fight for principle when there is little chance that the story will be published, sold, and bought? What sense is there to make the effort if you know that the book will give you nothing but trouble should it survive? It is just a bad lottery ticket.

Fortunately, I am not so madly in love with this story idea. I can discard it without much thought. And that’s the thing. I could write this story if I tried. But I do not have a reason to fight for this story to be told. In that sense, it is not my story.

I read somewhere that you should ask yourself why you are writing your story, and find a good answer to why you need to have your story told. I thought that was rather pretentious. What profound reason did Agatha Christie have to write Death on the Nile? Did she feel that she needed to tell that story? Not every story needs a good reason why it needs to be told. But, as in the example above, sometimes an idea pops into your head with a warning label attached. Why pursue this story if it doesn’t mean anything to you? Why tell if you do not need to tell it?

I am not saying that I will not, nor that you should not write a story that is not about you. Writers are perverse that way. And whether or not you are emotionally invested in your story has less to do with your life experiences than the work you put into its creation. Any random writer could be struck with an idea for a story that is sure to get them in trouble, and fall madly in love with it. And that is the dangerous thing about writing.

The Hook, Line, and Sinker

The other day, I wrote a brief analysis of elements that are often found in a good opening line and conjured a sample opener “The sun set warm over the stench of glory.” Now I think I will try to develop that into an actual opening sequence.

As I explained before, the opening of a book is the hook, the line, and the sinker. “The hook” provides the catch, “the line” provides the tension, and “the sinker” provides the direction. If you want to see a perfect example of the hook, line, and sinker, read the opening passage of Elmore Leonard’s Glitz. (You can read all of the first chapter in the Look Inside feature of Amazon.com.) Pay attention to all the colors, textures, movements, and emotions introduced in the first section. And take special note of the particular sound of the language of the story. This is what we want to create for the opening passage.

“The sun set warm over the stench of glory” is a description of a battle field. I did not try to write about a battle field. It was just the first thing that came to mind when I was staring at a bottle of cologne on my work desk in my little cubicle while I was procrastinating on more important work. How do you get this little hook to lead into a story?

Let’s first imagine what the battle field looks like. It is not a modern battle field with guided missiles and smart bombs falling from unseen drones. It is a battle field where men fought at close range with spears, swords, and matchlocks. Bloodied armor is discarded among with dismembered limbs in the moist tall grass. Crows are picking on corpses and stray dogs are gnawing on dead horses. Scavengers are hunting among the dead soldiers for usable weapons and purses with gold, while noble soldiers are looking for enemy officers among the corpses so that they may cut off the heads and bring them home as trophies. It is the aftermath of samurai warfare. How do I tag that information after the opening sentence?

But before I do that, I must decide on the protagonist. You should never introduce the protagonist too late in the novel. In some Agatha Christie books, Hercule Poirot does not make an appearance for the first half of the book. But that is okay because readers already know that there will be a Poirot and know exactly what he is like. In any other kind of book, you need the protagonist to appear on the first page. For this particular story, I think I will choose for the protagonist, Yasuke, the black samurai.

There were not many Africans in Japan in the sixteenth century, and the tall, muscular man with black skin was looked upon almost like a mythical creature. Lord Nobunaga, believing his skin color to be a forgery, ordered to have him washed. Let me see if I can utilize this incongruous skin color to set up the tone of the story.

By the way, tone is very important. Stephen King said that readers do not come to a writer for the action or character or story, but for the voice. In so many cases, voice is a matter of attitude. If you do not know what I mean, take this random quote from Raymond Chandler. “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” That is very different attitude from the kind you need to write a samurai story, but you get the idea. Now let’s decide on the kind of voice you need.

Samurai literature is frequently associated with Zen Buddhism. In reality, Zen became popular with the samurai in the early seventeenth century when most of the fighting was over, and the warriors could reflect on the meaning of their lives having spent a lifetime chopping off limbs with swords. These are the people who resonated with concepts like “All things material are the Void, the Void is the material. All is nothingness.” That is the general tone of the samurai novel, and the Zen nihilism is the general attitude.

So now we have the first sentence, the picture of the stage, the protagonist, and the general tone. But we still do not have the line (tension) and the sinker (direction).

Always open a book with a conflict, they say. Conflict never happens without motive. Someone wants something. The other person, or some phenomenon, gets in the way. So what does the black samurai want when the battle is over and won? Let’s say he wants to find a traitor. His master, Lord Nobunaga is dead. He wants to find the man responsible for his death. (I am actually making this up as I go along.) That would make an interesting “line” but what about the “sinker”? Where would the story be headed?

There is no historic evidence that Yasuke fought in the Battle of Yamazaki, but that would be about the right battle to set this story. To avenge his master, he would be fighting on the side of Hideyoshi, and he would be looking for Akechi Mitsuhide, the traitor. But Mitsuhide would soon be dead, so the story will have to re-direct the black samurai toward another conflict.

Another thing I have to think about is the rhythm. How may words you use in a sentence can change the impression of your words. Moby Dick opens with a three word sentence: “Call me Ishmael” which is immediately followed by a sentence forty words long, then a fifteen-word sentence, then a sentence eighty-seven words long. The construction is almost a daring piece of poetry, where the last sentence of the first paragraph reads:

If they but knew it, almost
all men in their degree,

some time or other,
cherish very nearly

the same feelings towards
the ocean with me.

Since our first sentence already has nine words, I figure the optimum number of words in the next sentence would be two or three. Probably two. So I picture the scene in my mind and try to put two words behind the nine-word opening sentence:

“The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried.”

The two word sentence punctuates like an elongated comma. It gives you time to inhale your breath for the sentence to follow. It emphasizes the hook. Now, it is time to expand on the vision of the battle field and see in front of you the black man in samurai armor entering the scene.

The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried. Then one fluttered off the perch on broken arrows in a fallen warrior as the man, a black man sheathed in lacquer black armor from head to toe, his hands caked with blood to his elbows, waded through the tall grass approaching the samurai on the ground. His eyes had been lost to the crow, but he was still breathing. The licorice black negro grabbed him by the torso plate and lifted him up to his face. Broken arms dangled in odd directions.
“Mitshuhide wa dokoda?” he barked, struggling with the words.
The samurai gurgled curses through bubbles of blood and fell silent, choking.
The man dropped him, disgusted. Where was Mitsuhide? Where had he gone? The battle, for him, was not over until Mitsuhide was dead. 

Good enough for a hook? No. Not quite.
The problem is the third sentence. It is the right length but conveys the wrong information. If this was a movie, the scene would be fine. But this is not pictures on the silver screen. These are words on a page, and words have connotations.
Also, the director must direct the audience’s attention on what he wants them to see. We need closeups of specific items. We need words with sounds like noises you associate with the scene.
Let’s try again.

The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried. Blood-caked hands sheathed in lacquer black armor grabbed a fallen warrior by the chest plate, a pin cushion of broken arrows, and lifted him up above the tall razor grass. Broken joints dangled in odd directions and his eyes, lost to crows, were sockets of darkness in the orange light.
“Mitshuhide wa dokoda?” A heavily accented voice barked into the blinded man’s face.
“I know you. You are the black man,” said the eye-less samurai. Then he vomited as he gargled curses through burbles of blood and choked on his own dying breath.
The black man threw the samurai on the mud. He looked over the battle field strewn with corpses and dismembered limbs, the enemy leader nowhere in sight.  The battle, for him, was not over until Mitsuhide’s head was in hand.

Well, that is better, but now I have a problem with the point of view. This is the omnipotent point of view and it distances the reader from the feelings of the protagonist. Besides, it is kind of confusing when at one point we hear the black man’s voice in the third person, and then, just a few lines later, we know what he feels.

This is barely good enough to serve as a space holder in the first draft. But in the process of writing, the vision of the scene has become more clear and specific. I see a battle field, quiet after the battle, flooded in orange light, razor grass swaying in the breeze, dead horses and soldiers strewn around, smell of blood and guts, buzzing of flies over dismembered limbs, a frustrated black man in black armor wading through the gore to find anyone who might know where the traitor had gone. What we need now is the “sinker” or the direction.

Here is an example of a “sinker”. It is the second paragraph in the opening of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It has no hook and no line. Just all sinker.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

It gives the reader a taste of what the rest of the book will be like. When you have a book titled “Bleak House” and a chunk of the opening passage talking about nothing but fog, you get the idea that the atmosphere of the story is NOT clear skies ahead. A Victorian reader could evidently take a sinker of this kind and still read on. A lot of modern readers will no doubt take this as a signal to put the book down.

The sinker is the voice. The sinker is the sound. The sinker is the mesmerizing hypnosis that turns you into a crack addict for the next chapter before you know you were smoking anything.

So how do you go about writing the sinker? Dickens’ description of the fog is an extreme example, but the sinker usually has a refrain, in feelings if not always in words. It tends to repeatedly hammer in the concept at the center of the story to come.
The sinker for the samurai story might go like this:

Black smoke rose from the camps as the men of the honjin threw bodies of the dead on a fire. The dusk filled with the foulness of burning flesh, and mouths and nostrils became dusty with bitter soot. Columns of smoke slowly multiplied in the darkening sky, announcing to the world beyond that a fight had been won. And yet the traitor was still at large, a taste in the mouth worse than the soot. 
Silhouettes of soldiers stood by the fires, their lances and spetums held erect. Scavengers scurried about, bolder now that darkness was near, looking for purses with gold and weapons to be sold. Foot soldiers and pages parried with them as they tried to retrieve the heirlooms and jeweled armaments, but they also had to carry the bodies for the fires. Noblemen in the camps sorted through the corpses for heads to be severed and taken home as trophies. 
Yasuke, the black warrior, paid them no heed, for he had been fed the cold dish of treachery and it sat ill in his stomach.

Not a perfect example, but good enough for an exercise.

How to be a Teenage Author

I never was a teenage author. But I tried to be.
The book I started when I was sixteen was not finished until I was twenty six and never got published. It was a terribly dark story about confused memory and an identity crises surrounding sexuality of a teenage boy, which sounds awfully dated today. If it had been published in 1981, it might have been hailed as the harbinger of many novels that came after it, but by the time it was finished it was very stale.

In the late eighties, when cellphones were so large they usually occupied about half the space in an average briefcase, and personal computers still mostly ran on MS-DOS and email could only be received by stationary desktops, I predicted that electronic messages would one day be received on pocket-sized portable devices. And not only email, but there would be something like personalized bulletin boards on which people around the world could post. And I came up with a story about a girl who had exactly such an instrument and got mixed up in a murder. She posted her plight on the machine and messages from concerned people flooded in from around the world. Her postings where re-posted around in a chain and readers called for help or offered assistance as she ran and battled for her life. Had I finished the novel, and published it, I would have been credited for inventing Twitter. Back in the day, everybody thought the plot was way too far fetched. If I wrote the story now, it would be terribly stale.

I wrote before that you should never set an age target for your writing debut. If your goal to is to become published by any given age, 20 for example, you are bound to fail. Setting an age target is a terrible idea. It virtually guarantees that you will not be published in a very long time. If you are young, you should focus on writing better today than you wrote yesterday, and not on whether some publisher out there will like your work enough to invest in it. That will probably be a shortcut to being published.

It is very tough to get yourself conventionally published as a teenager. Let’s face it. Grownups are sick of teenagers. People with the money and power to publish and promote books do not follow teen culture. Every generation of adults have felt that the teen culture of their children to be worthless, and it has been repeated every decade. Some savvy businessmen realize that there is money to be made in teen culture. That is where most hit movies come from. But such people are exceptions to the rule. The rule of thumb is, if your parents do not like the music, the artists, or the art forms that you follow, most professional publishers do not like them either.

In fact, it is tough enough for grownups to get published. There are stories all over the internet about people who struggled for ten, twenty, or thirty years, honing their craft and pushing themselves until they finally got one book published. I have published one book, nearly completed another, contributed chapters to several technical books, translated several volumes, wrote some academic papers and magazine articles, but at 52 years of age, I have never published a work of fiction. And if that is all I have to show after 40 years of writing, the chances are, your writing career will be just as tough.

That said, there must be some ways to increase your odds at getting published at an early age. There have been some successes.

Some of the basic stuff applies to writers of any age. Such as you must read a whole lot of fiction in order to write fiction, with special emphasis on reading outside of your genre. You must do writing exercises such as those found in Le Guin’s Steering the Craft and Barbara Baig’s Spellbinding Sentences to improve your writing skills. You must re-write many times before you send your manuscript to anybody because the first draft always sucks. You have to read a lot of books on how to write and how to edit. You have to look at your own writing objectively and admit that it sucks when it sucks.

On top of all that, there are some things specific to young writers that they should watch out for. The following list is the advice I should have followed when I was under 20 years of age.

  1. Tone Down the Rhetoric.
    If you have to write about how grownups do not understand young people’s problems, keep it to a minimum. Agents, editors, and publishers hear the same thing from their own children every day at home. It is the last thing they want to face at work.
  2. No Fan Fiction
    Fan fiction is what you write for fun. It is not for publishing. Just the nightmare of securing the rights to use characters that other people already have the copyright to will turn off most publishers.
  3. Avoid Fantasy
    If you must write stories with fantastical elements, set the story in the world you know. Teen writer Alexandra Adornetto set the Shadow Thief in Drabville, which, as the name implies, is a pretty ordinary place. DO NOT embark on elaborate world building. That requires a lot of scholarship and is not recommended if you want to debut early.
  4. Write About the Here and Now
    A writer of any age can write about a dystopian future, wizards and dragons, or plots to conquer the world. Only a teenage writer can write about the social dynamics of modern-day high schools. I can write about high school life, but it will be about high school in the 1980’s. Only you can write about your environment in today’s world. If you must write about monsters, throw the monster into that world.
  5. Start Small
    Do not try to write that magnum opus at the first try. Start by submitting short stories to small publications. Everything that gets printed on paper is something on your resume. This is where your youth becomes an advantage. While it might be embarrassing for an old man to list on his resume that he submitted a short story to a minor news letter, it is a triumph if you are young.
  6. Don’t Preach
    While you might be passionate about the environment, gender equality, racial conflicts, or income disparity, there are much more qualified writers who can write about those things. If you are writing a work of fiction, those things never need more than a passing mention. Understand that those things are not your strengths.
  7. Write Fresh
    As I illustrated above, a fresh idea can turn stale pretty quickly. If you have a fresh idea, don’t try to build a major novel out of it. Write any story. The length does not matter. That Twitter story could have made a pretty good short story. The important thing is to get it out there while it is still fresh.
  8. Focus on Growth
    Your editor, agent, publisher, or anyone else involved with your work, will not be impressed with your wisdom, insight, or life experience. They have more of them. So don’t showcase how wise you are or how much you “get” the world. Instead, focus on growth. The main character changes from one thing to another in the span of the story. That character arc of a little child growing into something bigger is the thing young writers excel at writing. Focus on that.
  9. Don’t Shoot for the Moon
    You do not have to write a masterpiece. You need to finish something good enough and get it out. If you try too hard you will only delay the completion of your work. Do not shoot for something needlessly “literary”. You do not deliberately try to aim for “high brow”. It only makes you look silly. If you must aim, aim for low brow.
  10. Therapy Writing is Not Publishable
    There is nothing wrong with writing to preserve your sanity. Just keep it to yourself. If you write for your own mental well being, that is not for public consumption. Also, if you need psychiatric help, get it. There is nothing cool about being a chronically depressed writer. Get off the pain.

Getting published is not about making money, becoming famous, or sticking it to the man. It is a little bit about self-realization, but when you are very young, that could become the main thing. You should realize that your relationship with the act of writing changes with age. When I was a teenager, I thought getting published would be a big in-your-face to all the people who dismissed me in the past. That is a very poor attitude for writing, and if it shows in your work it could be fatal. Remember that Harry Bernstein, who started writing at the age of 16, did not get published until he was 96.

Most importantly, don’t be an ass. When people treat you like a kid, you should not get openly hostile. You are a kid. Prepare to be treated like one until you are past 30 or 40. At which point, you will be treated like you are too old.

It is not a tragedy to be NOT published by a certain age. So your target debut age should not be etched in stone. The more you obsess over the time of your debut, the later your debut is going to be. So don’t get stuck on the idea of getting published early. Stay focused on writing something better today than you wrote yesterday, and do lots of writing exercises and keep reading a lot.

Analyzing the Opening Line

A good first line to a novel can be a piece of original philosophy or observation:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Or it could be a simple self-introduction:

“Call me Ishmael.” —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.” —Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

Or it could be an odd description of a scene that takes the reader off guard:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, 1984

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” —Samuel Beckett, Murphy

“A screaming comes across the sky.” —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” —William Gibson, Neuromancer

Or it can break the forth wall:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” —Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” —W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge

It could be a brilliant example of “show, don’t tell”:

“With a strength born of the decision that had just come to her in the middle of the night, Avery Johnson forced the suitcase shut on the clothes piled inside and slid the lock in place.” —Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow

Or it could be, “To hell with it, let’s just tell”:

“It was a pleasure to burn.” —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Or it could be “show” without an obvious underlying “don’t tell”.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

The bottom line is that nobody ever designs his first line. With all the books on writing in publication, it seems nobody has categorized opening lines by type (I think there are about a dozen, give or take), or analyzed what elements make a good opening line. Every writer, it appears, channels his or her muse and tries to come up with an opening line in the same way a poet might compose a poem.

But if there is one part of the novel that is open to analytical dissection, it is the first few sentences. The purpose of the opening line is well defined: It is to capture the attention of the reader and to draw him into the story. It must also open up the story world and lure the reader into the establishing passage.

In other words, an opening line can be calculated. It does not have to be spontaneous poetry.  So what does an opening line need? It does not always need to paint a picture. But it does usually convey an emotion. “My name… like the fish”. An April day being bright and cold. The sun shining on the nothing new.

It also presents contrasting ideas. “It was a pleasure to burn” contrasts “pleasure” and “burn”, the latter is an act of destruction, not usually associated with pleasure. In fact, “pleasure” is not a word you are most likely to associate with the word “burn” which is one of the synonyms for “pain”. A good opening line also project a sense of mystery. Why is it a pleasure to burn? What is being burnt and who is burning it? Or what compelled Avery Johnson to pack a suitcase? Where is she going and what is she leaving? Even the most static description of a sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” carries a sense of mystery. But there is also an ominous resonance of ill fate. When you line up the words “sky” and “dead”, and use “dead” to describe the heavens, you feel something evil is creeping up.

Barbara Baig and Ursula Le Guin instruct us to find word associations, and build up a vocabulary rich with interconnected words. But in the opening sentences, we are much more likely to find “anti-word-associations”. “It was a pleasure to burn”.

Conventional, that is to say non-contradiction, word associations also play a role. “Call me Ishmael” could not have worked if it were “call me Bob” or “call me Joe”. It is the Old Testament name, the lone illegitimate son torn from his biological mother to be raised by Abraham’s wife, soon to be kicked off his position once a legitimate son is born, the desolate survivor, that gives the simple sentence an ominous tone. (And of course readers of Melville’s time all knew the Bible.)

There are other elements, of course.

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”  —George Eliot, Middlemarch

Who said “show, don’t tell” applies only to emotions? The above opening sentence not only describes Miss Brooke without telling us what she looks like, but indirectly “shows” us (without “telling”) what a male reaction would be to the sight of her.

Director Alexander Mackendrick once said “What a movie director really directs is the audience’s attention.” The author sometimes does the same. When a woman is suddenly introduced in the first line, what quality of that woman are we supposed to notice? This subtle direction is one of the reasons why so many modern feminists find old books sexist. How else can a modern woman feel when the author mesmerizes your eyes with the line “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”? But then again, nobody would be offended if Nobokov did not do it so well. “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” You feel Humbert Humbert’s sick, obsessed gaze creeping into your own eyes. This is deliberate hypnosis.

The opening of a book is the hook, the line, and the sinker. The hook provides the catch, the line provides the tension, and the sinker provides the direction.

Consider Ralph Ellison:

“I am an invisible man.” (Hook!) “No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edger Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind” (Line). “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (Sinker). Then he continues, “Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus side shows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed anything and everything except me.” By this point, the hypnosis has kicked in, and your attention is unmistakably directed at the invisible man.

So the first line conveys emotions, presents conflicting word associations, projects a sense of mystery, echoes omens, and is the “hook” of the “hook, line, and sinker” that directs the reader’s attention.

How do you write a line like that?

Let me try. I will start with a random word. There is a bottle of cologne on my desk so I will start with “cologne”. An anti-association to that would be “stench”. The thesaurus is not very helpful. Under the heading of “stench” there are “foul odor”, “smell”, “stink”, “fetor”, “funk”, “malodor”, “redolence”, etc. Throw in some ill omens and mystery, and let me conjure a random sentence.

“The sun set over the forest of blood-stained spears, and flooded warm light across the scattering of battle-worm armor perfumed with death and victory.”

Nope. Too long and too informative.
How about:

“The warm light of the sunset flooded over discarded armor and spears perfumed with death and glory.”

Better, but still too long.

“The warm sun set over the stench of death and the perfume of glory.”

Not quite there yet.

“The sun set warm over the aroma of death and the stench of glory.”

Much better.

“The sun set warm over the stench of glory.”

Works.