Adding Tension

I am not really sure if this is a first draft problem or not. When I was twelve years old, I could just start talking and the story would come out of my mouth non-stop. They were comic book style adventures. The characters were never deeper than Superman or Luke Skywalker. The stories were pretty cookie cutter stuff. My friends and family loved them. My hands couldn’t catch up to write it down. So I tried to come up with more complex, character driven, emotionally draining stories. Some of the stories were obscene. My family lost interest. Fewer and fewer friends supported my writing. Forty years later, I could not go back to my cartoonish adventure stories if I wanted to. My sister still thinks they were my best stories.

It was so easy to add tension to those stories. Tension is nothing more than an on-going cliff hanger. If your story stops at that point until the next installment, it is a cliff hanger. If your story does not pause, it is tension. That is all there is to it.

Juliet is so madly in love with Romeo that she cannot bear the idea of marrying Paris, a perfectly suitable groom. In fact she is so distraught she is going to kill herself. The friar is at his wits end about what to do, but if he does not produce a plan Juliet will stab herself.
See you next week, same time, same channel.
No. The friar has a plan. A crazy plan, but it just might work. Juliet must swallow a poison that will make her mimic death for twenty four hours. The wedding will be cancelled and she will elope with Romeo who will receive a secret letter informing him of the scheme. Unfortunately, the letter misses Romeo and instead he gets the message that the love of his life is dead.
To be continued.
Nope. He decides to buy an illegal potion and kill himself next to dead Juliet. Minutes before she is due to wake up, Romeo stands beside her, contemplating her death and taking his time before swallowing the poison.
Wait for the sequel. Coming Soon.
Nah, it’s here already. He swallows the poison. She wakes up soon after. She finds Romeo dead. How is she going to respond?
Stay tuned for scenes from our next episode.

Tension is just a series of cliff hangers in a story that does not stop. Just adding tension to a story is not really very difficult. Continuous tension in a coherent story is difficult. Why do we care about Romeo and Juliet? Two families are at war, but there are class differences within each clan, calculated politics, unhappy marriages, scores to settle, loyalties and betrayals. It is a car racing down a winding road at the edge of a cliff with more passengers than it should hold, every one of them wrestling for the steering wheel punching each other in the struggle, and when we see the dark souls of each character trying to gain dominance over the control of the car, we understand the purity of the young couple’s love; and that is when we get caught up in the series of cliff hangers that builds up the tension at the end of the play.

The tension is easy. It is the buildup that is difficult. Why should anybody care that Romeo and Juliet are doomed? That is the question. In Shakespeare, the buildup is attained by killing somebody in every act, basically. Each sacrifice raises the stakes. It gets easier in a cartoon story where no one character is any deeper than Superman and Lex Luthor. A building full of people can die in every battle scene. It gets difficult when the people in your story are struggling with internal problems that you need your readers to care about. What will raise the stakes in your story?

And since we are asking, do we need to solve this problem in the first draft?


And Don’t Do This…

Rule No. 1. Do not take on too many projects at once.
Rule No. 2. Do not take on too many projects at once.
Rule No. 3. Do not write during working hours, no matter how slow a day it is.
Rule No. 4. Do not open Facebook when you are supposed to be opening Google Docs.
Rule No. 5. Do not chat, instant message, Skype, Line, or email when you are supposed to be writing.
Rule No. 6. Do not Google a word when you should be looking it up in a dictionary.
Rule No. 7. Do not turn on the TV. And stay away from YouTube.
Rule No. 8. Do not read over the last chapter again. Finish the draft first.
Rule No. 9. When it is time to sleep, it is time to sleep.
Rule No. 10. You do not need one more drink before you go to bed.

How We Should Write Similes

Author Walter Mosley said that his favorite passage from literature was the two sentences from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

He was looking at me and neither his eyes nor his gun moved. He was as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight.

Joe Fassler explains thusly:

This well-aimed description, then, does more than conjure the ice-cool calmness of a practiced killer. It juxtaposes light and dark, serenity and violence, in a way that reaches beyond the physical into the anguished struggle of the human heart.

This, in a nutshell, is how we are all supposed to write. This is what we must aspire to. No simile, no metaphor, no clever comment, and no word play should exist for its own sake. A gunman is never “as cool as a cucumber”. He is “as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight”.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

William Gibson’s opening line from Neuromancer sets the place, establishes the color theme, projects a futuristic air, and conveys a sense of dystopic despair.

The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean .

This line from The Great Gatsby is not so much a description of the sight out of the window, but of the light that enters the room, and the fleeting nature of unattainable dreams in the impossible distance. There is no such thing as “blue honey” nor any connection between honey and the sea, and the narrator has never seen the Mediterranean, and to describe the sky, seen through a window, as such is to express that something is dreamy, unreal, and out of reach.

Well written similes are not just descriptions of visible scenes, and definitely not just clever ways to put together words. They are descriptions of emotions disguised as description of things.

When someone points a gun at you, the muzzle of the gun might look like “a deep pothole on a rainy day” or “an eye of a dead shark” or “a blot of black ink”. Each conveys a different emotion.

When T. S. Elliot writes:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

This is not a description of an evening or the sky, but an ominous representation of what is about to happen.

Of course none of this is a first draft problem. You can fiddle with them later, after you know where the story is going. But if you cannot describe a scene satisfactorily in the first draft, you do not have to. You first have to know where the story is going, and later try to capture the feeling of the scene with creative similes and metaphors.

Write the story first. Retrofit the similes later.

On Prejudice and Time

Once upon a time not long ago, you could make a prejudiced statement like “the male sex is intrinsically better equipped to handle problems of analytical nature, while women are woefully lacking in such facility” and not only be listened to with a straight face, but easily find people who would agree with you and praise you for your astute observation. It was taken for granted that Asians could not possibly understand the fine elements of classical Western music, or play it with much competence, let alone compose one. Many educated people supported the idea that Africans occupied a lower rung in the evolutionary ladder and discussed their “scientific” theories earnestly. Critics questioned how a Jew could possibly have the required sensibilities of a serious painter (though few questioned their competence as art dealers) and nobody laughed at their ideas.

Prejudice still persists. Women will continue to suffer disadvantage and disrespect from men. But it is not likely for somebody today to openly say “men are smarter than women” with a straight face and still be taken seriously. Even thought prejudice persists, it shifts and changes shape with time. Hopefully, it becomes more subtle, and perhaps more mild.

Mark Twain wrote:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
He clearly was, and saw himself as, much more enlightened and less prejudiced than most of his contemporaries. But he did name one of his characters “Nigger Jim” and used words and descriptions that, today, would be considered vehemently racist. By the standards of his time, however, he may not have been one. What you had to do in order to be considered racist in those days is rather hard to imagine.

“The rule of thumb” allegedly derives its name from a law that states that a man may beat his wife as long as the rod he uses is no thicker than his thumb. Although no such law actually existed in England at any time, this “precedent” was sometimes cited as a justification for spousal abuse. In the 1874 case State v. Oliver (North Carolina Reports, Vol. 70, Sec. 60, p. 44) states: “We assume that the old doctrine that a husband had the right to whip his wife, provided that he used a switch no larger than his thumb, is not the law in North Carolina” implying that the “old doctrine” was applicable elsewhere. Under such a doctrine, you were not a real wife beater unless you used a stick of potentially lethal proportions.

From today’s perspective, prejudices of the past are so out of proportion that they seem comical. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen used this to brilliant effect in his incarnation as Borat Sagdiyev, the over-the-top anti-Semitic journalist from Kazakhstan. Kazuo Ishiguro gave prejudice a less zany turn, but added a wry twist in The Remains of the Day:

 It is sometimes said that butlers only truly exist in England. Other countries, whatever title is actually used, have only manservants. I tend to believe this is true. Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race are capable of. Continentals – and by and large the Celts, as you will no doubt agree – are as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of a strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in the least challenging of situations. If I may return to my earlier metaphor – you will excuse my putting it so coarsely – they are like a man who will, at the slightest provocation, tear off his suit and his shirt and run about screaming. In a word, “dignity” is beyond such persons. We English have an important advantage over foreigners in this respect and it is for this reason that when you think of a great butler, he is bound, almost by definition, to be an Englishman.

When the book was published in 1989, much was made of the fact that the above passage was written by a man born in Nagasaki, and nobody, apparently, saw the double irony. (Yes, it is ironic that a Japanese author is writing from a point of view of an English bigot, but focusing on the fact that the author is Japanese compounds the irony.)

Prejudice erodes over time and takes on new meanings. The mismatch between the past and the present provides an opportunity for metaphor, irony, and humor. This detachment, the ability to see and project the comedy in the prejudice, will serve as the bulwark against the resurgence of seemingly dead bigotry. Angry activism may serve as the machete that cuts open the path, but it is the tides of culture that will pave the road. And in that sense, taking the view from a step back, observing obsolete attitudes with aloof mockery may indeed be a noble thing for a writer to do. Conversely, taking the machete to today’s current problems is not the job of the novelist. A novelist works in the clarity of settled dust. He enters the scene not in the confusion of the fray, but after the nuggets of the issues had been sifted from the sand.

An activist cuts open the trail. A story writer paves the roads to ensure that the jungle vegetation will not encroach on the passage way. Bigotry of the past should be carefully mocked. Care should be taken to calibrate the mockery for best effect. Do not criticize the people of today, not directly, but only through reflection of the people from the past. Current problems will only deflect your reader’s attention from the story. Insert too much opinion, and your book will seize to be a work of fiction and become a manifesto. Manifestos have a way of provoking the readers to make up their minds about the subject matter before they are done reading it. So do not insert your opinions into your work of fiction, but do insert the prejudice. Bigots make good villains.

Bigotry per se is not funny, but I believe it is okay to laugh about it. Our sense of humor is the best bulwark against its resurgence.

The Moon Gun

Science inspires science fiction, and science fiction inspires science. Jules Verne came up with a highly impractical method of travelling to the moon by loading a space module in a giant gun and shooting it at the moon in his book De la terre à la lune (From Earth to the Moon). This and The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells inspired Georges Méliès to create Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), possibly one of the earliest special effects movies. These early creations made the moon trip synonymous with the fantasy world of future space travel. American engineer Robert H. Goddard predicted early in his career that rockets will one day take men to the moon. Although he was widely ridiculed for his prediction, the idea remained in the public psyche. It was a long buildup to the actual moon landing in 1969, a little over a century after the publication of the Jules Verne novel.

But what happened to Jules Verne’s gun idea? Some scientists say that a gun is actually a more economical way to project objects into space than a rocket. The large g-force that will inevitably accompany the firing will make it an unsuitable instrument for human space travel, but it could be a good supplementary method for launching supplies and small satellites. At least one person, a Canadian inventor named Gerald Bull, thought such a device was feasible. He designed and sold military guns in hopes of earning enough funds to realize his dream. He made and broke alliances trotting the globe in pursuit of his obsession. While most people in the world were not interested in such a far fetched idea, he found an unconventional sponsor in Saddam Hussein, at the time, the president of Iraq.

The proposed gun would have been 156 meters long with a barrel 1 meter in diameter on the inside. It was to be called Big Babylon. If it worked, it would have sent small projectiles into low earth orbit at a tenth of the cost of conventional rockets. Saddam Hussein’s condition for the sponsorship of this project, however, was that Bull also work on his military artillery project. This was before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and he was considered a major threat in the Middle East, particularly to Israel. Before Big Babylon was completed, Bull was killed by unknown assassins. Some speculated that it was the work of the Mossad, but no evidence could be found. Iraq invaded Kuwait five months later. Parts of the proposed space gun, which never made it to Iraq, are now on display in museums.

There is a spy thriller in there somewhere. Stories inspire stories. Just like the biography of R. H. Goddard, who never lived to see his dream of a moon rocket come true, the biography of Gerald Bull is full of twists and turns, obstacles and leaps of faith; a tortuous tale of a man circumnavigating the twisted paths of fate, seeking validation of his vision, until finally he is martyred for his own indulgence: A tale of a dream gone wrong.

The word “lunacy” has its origin in the word for moon. The full moon is supposed to make us quirky, romantic, inspirational, and prone to far-fetched thoughts. The science of the mid 19th century was full of lunatic thoughts, like travelling to the moon. A lot of stories started in that lunatic period. Hard science may be as dull as bricks and mortar, but it is the lunatic visions that power its progress.

One day I arrived home late from school. I explained that I was in the library engrossed in George Orwell’s 1984. My father, who apparently knew nothing about the book other than that it was a book written about the near future (at the time) by someone who lived shortly before our time, went off on his usual tirade about science fiction and what a waste of time it was to read such rubbish. He had repeatedly told me that science was the antithesis of fiction and only in deceit shall ever the twine meet. In his view, science fiction was worthless, since science was progressing so rapidly in the modern era that fiction writers were no longer able to predict the future that had not yet been predicted by scientists. I believe he was wrong on both counts. Fiction writers continue to conjure wild visions of the future that not even the most imaginative scientists can project, and if writers lost their ability to do so science fiction would still not be worthless, since forecast was never its intended function.

Science fiction, like naturalism, was the indirect product of the Age of Reason. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the era when people still believed in ghosts, but more importantly, God. Audiences after the Age of Reason no longer believed in ghosts and had a substantially subdued fear of God. Stories that depended on the society under the all seeing Big Brother that was God, and his very real henchmen, along with the belief in angels, ghosts, curses, and monsters of all kinds, no longer carried the same punch as they used to. Reason somehow narrowed the range of human experience by taking away magical elements from the realm of fiction. In response, some authors turned to the wonders of the natural world, while others turned to the strange world of science.

Some people have suggested that Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are about the use of psychedelic substances. Actually, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was an Euclidean mathematician who was mocking the then new mathematical theories involving irrational numbers and imaginary numbers. He demonstrated better than anyone else that structured thought could inspire the opposite.

Although people had stopped believing in ghosts in the graveyard, people could still suspend their disbelief and wonder if perhaps there might be life on Mars, and even that they might be more intelligent than the people on Earth. People who had long stopped believing in sea monsters could still be persuaded to be briefly frightened at the possibility that there might be an undiscovered species of giant squid in the ocean’s greatest depths. Long after real lions were transplanted to the zoo in London, and were no longer mythical creatures, people who understood that there were no lions to be found in the Forests of Arden could still be stirred at the thought that some dinosaurs, that had escaped extinction, might still be prowling the depths of the Amazon jungle. The role of science fiction was to re-expand the realm of the imagination that had been downsized by Reason.

Why is it so important to believe in something that does not exist? My father would have called it a waste of time on a pipe dream. And yet we instinctively understand that we would be losing something precious, and have, when we stopped believing in unreality; when we stopped believing in ghosts and fell distant from the torments of Hamlet. Something deeply human is intrinsically linked to our ability to believe in things we do not see.

Why do actors become actors, musicians become musicians, and scientist chase after the Nobel Prize they will probably never win? Nobody is ever born a success or a failure. Nobody can ever see their own future selves. Yet we aspire to be something we can only see in our imaginations. All human endeavor is founded on an imagined vision. Our ability to be emotionally moved by an imagined picture is the very foundation of our lives, indeed of all civilization. Even as we pumped our brains full of reason, it was our hearts that needed to be filled with new and more outlandish dreams. And this dead heat race between the reason in our brains and the dreams in our hearts is what powered literature. We read it to exercise our hearts as much as to inform our brains.

Science fiction, like everything else, is the inevitable consequence of this struggle between reason and dreams. And that is why humanity can never escape the moon gun.

Linda’s Father (fiction)

The moment Linda left me alone with her father, my ears started ringing in the silence. What did she say? She was going to get the drinks? Or was it food? Her voice, I think, trembled. I was left sitting in an antique leather chair in an oak paneled study with a man I had barely introduced myself to. He was pacing back and forth like a tiger in a cage, occasionally stopping to look at me.
“So,” he said.
“So?” I thought.
He paced a little more.
“You want to marry my daughter.” He pronounced each word separately, like he was reading each word off of flash cards. I did not acknowledge or deny, although it was not a done deal. I had not yet bought the ring or popped the big question. We were seriously considering. We tended to talk about it, Linda and I, like a distant possibility. She had not entirely warned me what I was walking into this day. But she seemed anxious.
“You want to marry my daughter.” He repeated at the same pace.
I did not nod or respond.
“Do you like this house?” He gestured at his spacious study.
“Ever been in a house like this before?”
“No, I can’t say I have.”
“You speak good English. Where did you say you were from? Korea?”
“Oh. Tokyo? Kyoto?”
“Never heard of the place. Would you say, it’s a small town?”
“Yes. I would say that.”
“So you are from a small town, in Japan, and have never been in a house like this.”
He nodded, somehow disapprovingly.
“You will be marrying into a great deal, wouldn’t you?”
“I think marriage would be a major commitment regardless.”
“But you see, my boy… What did you say your name was?”
“Kenji. We are a big family in this country. We have been in this country since before the declaration of independence. We were business owners early on. One of my ancestors hired Benjamin Franklin as an apprentice. We can trace our family back three hundred years. I own five businesses. My brother owns seven. I have friends and relatives up and down the east coast in real estate, construction, retail, banking, and politics. This is not the only house I own.”
“I see.”
“Do you? The way I see it, a marriage is a kind of a deal. Both parties have to bring something to the table. It’s not a charity of some sort where one party gives and the other party takes. It has to be an equal partnership. Do you agree?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you really.” It was not a question.
He stood there looking at me.
“Would you like some whiskey?”
“Yes, please.”
He walked over to an inlaid mahogany cabinet and poured a finger each into two tumblers out of an elegant cut glass bottle. I thanked him for the drink. It had a sweet, smokey aroma, a peaty bite, and a creamy aftertaste with a hint of a sherry cask.
“You might be more accustomed to sake, but I don’t keep any of those around.”
“This is fine.”
“You have no idea.”
I took another sip of the Scotch. My ears had kept ringing, but the alcohol helped.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, Mr Brooks. I love your daughter very much, but…” I looked at the remnant of the whiskey in the tumbler, tilting it to admire the color. “This isn’t going to work is it?”
“You mean this marriage.”
He seemed a little taken aback.
“Well, I have my concerns that it might not.”
“Sir, I hope you will not be offended when I say that I had concerns of my own.”
“What about?”
“My mother. It would have been a hard sell at best. I know it is an obsolete way of thinking, but she never would have accepted my marriage to what she considers, for lack of a better word, a barbarian.”
“You see, in Japan, any family worth even considering is twice as old as yours. My family, for example, can be traced twelve hundred years.”
There was a silence that felt even emptier than before.
Eventually, Mr. Brooks knocked back the last of the whiskey left in his glass and asked.
“What kind of a bride would your old fashioned mother approve of?”
“A Japanese one. But she is critical of anyone who cannot hold a decent tea ceremony.”
“And by decent, she means?”
“Her standards are quite high.”
“I see. Would you like another whiskey?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
We were quietly sipping our second round of whiskey when Linda and her mother came in with a tray of hors d’oeuvres.
“Well, are you boys playing nice?”
“Yes, in fact, I think we came to an agreement.”

I stayed for dinner, the most tense affair I had ever experienced. A month later, I officially broke up with Linda. She had since had three marriages to three white men. Her first husband, a very rich man from a celebrated family, turned out to be an abusive philanderer, and she remarried to a nicer man after a lucrative divorce settlement. But the nicer man lost his fortune and some of hers in a financial crash and shot himself. She then married a much older man in need of a trophy wife, a role she was just young enough to fill. She became a chain smoker with drinking problems and never had children.

I had problems of my own with my family and stayed in the States and remained single. I somehow kept in touch with Linda’s father, who became something like my mentor in business. We never talked about what might have happened if I went through with marrying his daughter. But one day he brought out a set of tumblers and an elegant cut glass bottle half filled with whiskey.
“Do you remember this glass?” he said.
“I had it stowed away for some reason. Chanced on it when I was looking for something else.”
He poured me a finger and and we sat on his porch enjoying the whiskey.
“Life is a strange thing,” he said. “You try to steer in the right direction, but you never know how things will turn out.”
“I agree.”
I stayed for dinner that day. A silent one, like always.

Sexism Against Men in Fiction

Let me infuse a measured amount of hypocrisy into my blog by encouraging you to include a realistic amount of sexism in your works of fiction. As a general rule, fiction that subvert the reader on either a conscious or sub-conscious level to behave in a sexist manner should be avoided, but being politically correct is not the same thing (or should not be the same thing) as pretending the problem does not exist.

I was inspired to write this by another blog post titled “Five Signs Your Story is Sexist – Against Men”. (I assume the hyphen mid-sentence is supposed to imply “Wait for it. Here it comes”.)  The five signs are the following:

  1. Male heroes have no relationships.
  2. Fathers are distant or judgmental.
  3. Men are divided into winners and losers.
  4. Male sexual consent is disregarded.
  5. Feminine men are mocked or demonized.

The essay goes on to present examples of each item in modern fiction, tries to explain why such depictions are harmful in real life, and suggests how each problem might be remedied. Read it if you need to, but most men do not. It does not tell us anything we do not already know.

Do these problems need to be “fixed” in fiction? It is more than evident that these are the tropes that sell. It should also be obvious, unless you are totally blind, that this is how the men around you tend to live. Men ARE lonely beings. Fathers ARE judgmental. Men ARE divided into winners and losers. Men ARE (easily) coerced into sex. Effeminate men ARE mocked and alienated. Trying to “fix” these problems in an imaginary world by creating a place where such pressures do not exist is admirable from a political correctness perspective, but does it serve the purpose of improving the quality of your stories by setting the stage in such a idyllic Never-Never-Land?

Story is driven by conflict. In a conflict you can acknowledge the existence of a problem without condoning the people who practice it. You can achieve this by “fixing” your sexism only half way. The male protagonist tries, and fails, to have lasting relationships. Fathers try, and fail, to mend fences. Men try to leave the rat race and the never-ending dick-size contest, only to be drawn back in. Men try, and fail, to resist sexual coercion. Effeminate men try, and fail, to be accepted by their more masculine peers and vice versa. Men should be depicted as trying to become more rounded characters in a world that conspires against such efforts. Men try to be good men, but they are still compelled to be men.

A man adopts a new lifestyle in order to settle down and develop a lasting relationship, but someone comes in with a new job. The world needs him. He cannot settle down.

A father and son reunite over dinner. They try to connect. But old conflicts emerge, pride is at stake, and their respective manhoods get in the way of the reunion.

A woman plants an unwanted kiss on a faithful husband. He resists, but can only do so with an awkward smile and vague excuses. When he arrives home he must hide the evidence of the kiss from his wife who will no doubt assume him to be the instigator.

A big man and a small man shake hands and tries to mend fences, but due to their respective standing in the world, each man must respond to difficult circumstances differently. They must choose different sides.

You have seen the same script a thousand times. But the world continues to conspire against men who try to be less like men. This is what happens to men in real life every day. This is the script that always works because this is the way it always is.

Even in a fictional world full of witches and warlocks, elves and fairies, vampires and werewolves, androids and space aliens, emotions and conflicts have to be real. The conflicts men face in the world are closely related to the masculine roles they are compelled by their environment and biology to play. This is why sexism against men in fiction is often the driving force of the plot. Therefore, completely eradicating the abuse of men from your story can be detrimental to the quality of your narrative.


50 Word Stories: An Elect Few — In Noir Velvet

An awesome piece by In Noir Velvet.

“Only an elect few; Society’s ills. Even if you have everything to give, talent is seemingly masticated in this fickle world of diversion. Merit does not win. Or so it; gently. That’s why you have to disturb a little. Those of material wealth can’t change the rules. But authors can.”

経由: 50 Word Stories: An Elect Few — In Noir Velvet

Misogynistic Stereotypes You Find in Romance Novels

Romance novels, usually written by women and often purportedly written for women, frequently contain the sort of sexist stereotypes that, had they been written by men, feminists would be burning effigies of the author in the streets and demand his castration. I do not read a lot of romance novels, so what follows is not a comprehensive list.

  1. Women can be triggered to fall in love at the sight of a man, and go totally insane over someone they know nothing about.
  2. A highly successful woman with a rewarding career is not happy until she finds the perfect man to submit to.
  3. Women can fall in love with men who rape them. Men cannot resist ripping the bodice off of the women they love. And it’s romantic that they do.
  4. Women are the keys to opening up men emotionally, men are the keys to opening up women sexually. (He is an emotional clam without her, and she would be a lifelong prude without him.)
  5. When a man hurts a woman, it’s always because he is suffering from internal pain. When a woman hurts a man, it’s usually because she is a heartless scheming villain.
  6. A life long Lothario can be converted to a monogamist husband if he meets the right woman. (It’s not his fault that he dumped his last five flames. They were losers.)
  7. Men have power and women crave it. Or, men have power and women only have attitude. And their defiant attitude not backed by actual power is always appealing.
  8. A woman must never consider herself beautiful or even know that she is. In fact, she should carry at least a small amount of anxiety about her imperfect appearance, even if the movie will inevitably cast Scarlett Johansson in the role. A man can be attractive even if he had half his face blown off in a heroic act, walks with a limp, slouches like a gorilla, is frequently abusive, and even violent to women, as long as he is rich, powerful, tall, and carries an inner pain.
  9. A woman will throw away her promising career for a man, in return, a man will throw away his stubbornness.
  10. Women are always helpless at some point, cannot make up their minds, cannot avoid obvious danger, and are easily duped by villains.

Seriously ladies, why do you read this crap?

But more to the point, how can people who read this sort of thing, recommend it to friends, and buy more of the same, be offended by books like The Grapes of Wrath, The Call of the Wild, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and On The Road because they are misogynistic?

Of course, romance novels can provide you with life lessons sometimes such as:

  1. That woman he finds most sexually attractive is never the right girl.
  2. That man she idolizes as the most desirable is never the right man.
  3. When someone is shy, give them another chance.
  4. Good servants are worth keeping.
  5. Nothing is ever gained by keeping your emotions bottled up.
  6. Not even your ideal mate is always perfect.
  7. Your imperfections can be your assets.
  8. Admitting to your inabilities sometimes solves problems.
  9. Compulsive is not always wrong.
  10. Trusting your instincts can sometimes pay off.

(I have to ditch this habit of rounding up lists in neat groups of 10s. Real life is never so convenient.)

I want to write a reverse romance novel: A book that takes silly stereotypes and stands them on their heads and sheds brutal wisdom instead of cute anecdotes. Let’s introduce an ugly woman with half her face twisted to mush, and a man who is captivated by her inner beauty. Let’s make the female lead carry an inner pain. Let’s give the main characters reason to mistake love for sexual obsession instead of sexual obsession for love. Let’s insert a female villain who torments the romantic lead by withdrawing sex from him instead of by luring him into it. Let’s introduce a pair of supporting characters who are even less romantically successful than the main pair. (One of them can be gay and the other not.) Let’s make sure, from beginning to end, every female character knows exactly what she wants. And let’s make sure that men and women are all intelligent and have serious discussions about God, science, fate, and morality. Feminist readers will probably hate me for it and call me a misogynist. It will probably also be a hell to market. But as someone recently pointed out, I am a contrarian by nature. It is the sort of book I am meant to write.


On Cliche

A private detective wakes up with a hangover on the first page of a detective novel. No, don’t write that. That’s a cliche. A woman is looking out the window deep in thought as she touches her hair. Nope. Been done a thousand times. The main character is told by a wise mentor with magical powers that he has an important destiny. Haven’t we seen enough of that already?

If you look through the internet on advice on writing, it will not be long before you come across a list of cliches to avoid, followed by more cliches to avoid, and more cliches to avoid. Read in your genre, they advise, because you may think your story is original, but your readers who love vampire stories have been reading twenty vampire books a year and they have seen it all. And before long, you come to feel that not only is your story unoriginal, but your prose is just a string of cliches.

We have all heard it before that there are only seven basic story plots and 46 archetypal characters. Similarities between works of fiction is unavoidable. And of course people will try to tell you that a cliche is not a cliche if you can sincerely project its universal implications.

Writer and editor Lee Diogeneia, whom I met via Facebook, recently gave me this sage bit of wisdom. In the decades preceding and following the publication of Harry Potter, tons of books about magical boys in search of their destiny have been published. It has often been pointed out that many of these books trace the same bildungsroman plot and the same magical child formula. They all feature the same fantasy trope. And yet only one of them became Harry Potter. It’s all been done before. Every story ever written is derivative of something that came before it. The only real variable is the author.

So, in spite of all those internet educators telling us to avoid cliche and common tropes, my only option is to write my best trope and infuse it with my best cliche. There are editors and editors out there, just as there are critics and critics. Some will nitpick over your every choice of words and every placement of a sentence. Some will be vague and inspirational. Saul Bellow’s editor once reportedly opined “This could be better.” Finding the right editor, it is said, is like finding the right spouse. No single editor can be a perfect match for everybody. But a piece of wisdom like Lee’s gives you hope that there might be a compatible editor out there after all.

The bottom line is, we are all writing tropes and we are all writing cliches. An avid reader will always find other works that did the same things before. The best you can do is to write your own version of the same old story in your very own way.