The Writing Tortoise

Silence of the Lambs was the middle book in a trilogy by the writer Thomas Harris (no relation to the awesome Chicago-based stage actor). It was made into a movie by director Jonathan Demme starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. The trilogy has since spawned a fourth book to the series, a total of five movies and a television series.

I am now 53 years old, so if I started the Hannibal Lecter franchise today, I would be 86 years old before the television series would start. It pays to debut young.

Harris’s books are not the best crafted, and serves as one more example that you should not wait until you are perfect before starting on your novel. But you should never set an age goal for being published. That is a sure fire way to delay your debut. If you focus on getting published this year or with this manuscript, you fail to grow for the next story.

This is one of the many contradictions of becoming a writer. You should debut as early as possible, but you should not try to debut young. Harry Bernstein published his first book when he was 96, in 2007. He had his first story published in a school newspaper at 16, which was an impressive achievement in his time. Probably akin to having a print-on-demand novel published today. But he struggled as a writer for the next 80 years because he wanted to be published more than he wanted to be matured.

If you set your goal to getting published before the age of 20, just so that you can be labeled a “teenage author”, you are bound to fail. Take it from me. I tried to be a teenage author and I have not published a work of fiction after 40 years.

Instead of setting an age goal for your debut, you should set yearly reading goals and learning goals. Better yet, set monthly or weekly writing and learning goals. Then again, maybe not. Reading a book a week will get you to only 52 books a year. Two books a week will let you reach the hallowed goal of 104 books a year. If you English teacher says something like “You must read at least a thousand works of fiction to be able to become a writer,” then you come to the conclusion that it will take you about ten years get that far. And most of the books your English teacher says you must read are boring. Let’s just skip it and start writing. And then one morning, you wake up and realize that you are thirty six years old, not anywhere near getting published, and have not read anywhere near the required thousand books. But if you had read just one book a week since the time you were sixteen, you would have finished the thousand books ten years ago. That English teacher might have just pulled that number out of her ass, but the bottom line is that there is no shortcut to becoming a writer. No, it is always the tortoise that wins the race. Spending ten years reading books and learning to write might sound like a long time beforehand, but you will look back one day wishing you started ten years ago before you realize it.

Some people handle writing like a business. Some people handle it like a hobby. There are successful cases in both. But the best writers treat it like a learning experience. Impatience is always the enemy of art. Roz Morris, in her book Nail Your Novel, urges you never to send out your manuscript simply because you are exhausted by the project, or because your relatives are nagging you to.

There is an old saying in Japan that roughly translates as “The detour is the shortcut.” If you are in a hurry, don’t cut across lawns. That could be a cause of trouble and cost you more time than if you walked around the lawn. Do not try to skip any steps when you are trying to build a career. The slow way is the fast way. If you try to short change a learning curve, you will pay double for it later.

 

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Review: Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris

Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris is subtitled, Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish with Confidence. Her book is, simply, about How to Write a Novel. When you have a subtitle 14 words long on a how-to book, you can assume that it speaks to a specific audience. This book predominantly speaks to the amateur who is struggling to finish the first book. Her solution is to plot your novel in advance.

Thanks to NaNoWriMo, we now have the words “plotter” and “pantser” in our lexicon: “Plotter” being the sort of writer who constructs an elaborate and detailed story summary before beginning to write, and “pantser” being the writer who writes “by the seat of his pants” letting the story take him where it may. The two are not always mutually exclusive, since even a pantser could decide to employ at least some plotting devices.

How-to-write books can be plotted on a three dimensional graph: One axis spanning between “plotter” and “pantser”, a second axis “inspirational” and “instructional”, the third axis “novice” and “advanced”. On this graph, I would plot this book as “plotter”-“instructional”-“intermediate”. (You may not agree with this assessment. I rate Stephen King’s On Writing as “pantser”-“inspirational”-“novice”)

Roz Morris is a woman who apparently makes her living by ghost writing for various best selling authors. Like all ghost writers, she does not disclose who she writes for, and trying to guess who she has written for makes for a good parlor game. You might find yourself in a fun debate with your friends over some beer. Judging from the kind of advice she dispenses, she not only does wholesale ghost writing, but a fair amount of revising work as well.

Her book is filled with little techniques and tricks-of-the-trade you may have already read about or should know already. (Like, don’t throw away the segments you deleted in the editing process, but preserve them in an Outtakes File.) You can pick up most of them free from internet blogs, this one included. There were some tidbits I missed, but the reason you should read the book is not that you do not know the little tricks, but to see how they fit in the process. Every instructor fits them in differently.

Like all plotters, she recommends that you use cards to collect and sort your plot elements on your way to writing a detailed synopses, and then the first draft. Her technique differs in that she advises to write down a beat sheet AFTER the first draft is completed. (Why didn’t I think of this?) There are certainly some advantages to this method. It is exactly how you would adapt a book to a movie script. In effect, you are streamlining your jumbled first draft by adapting it to a movie-like train of beats. An excellent method if you expect your end product to conform to a classic monomyth structure. In other words, great if you are writing Star Wars Episode IV, not so much if your are constructing an elaborate Game of Thrones.

She does not provide a beat sheet template per se. You will have to find that from other sources.

Her methods seem best suited for page-turning, fast-read books, which gives you some hints as to which best selling writers she had been ghost writing for. If you are still obsessed with the dream of turning out “that best-selling novel” of yours, this book is for you. If you follow her instructions exactly, given a good story idea and moderate talent, you will eventually produce a decent page turner to the tune of James Patterson and David Baldacci.

The book is short on two things; really good writing and bleeding your soul at the typewriter. She repeatedly tells you to leave the polishing until the end, which is truly good advice, but she does not tell you how to polish. This is a very big question to which whole books have been devoted to, and which some “inspirational” how-to-write books talk about in length. It is also something that is not very useful for people looking to find the nuts-and-bolts of how to construct and finish a novel. She touches on the bleeding-your-soul element briefly in the final chapter – about sending out your novel to a publisher – saying that editors are only doing their jobs criticizing your book in a vacuum, not criticizing your life which your poured into it. This is very sound wisdom, but does not tell you how you should be bleeding, which again is beyond the scope of a nuts-and-bolts instructional book.

Roz Morris has also written two more volumes to this series Nail Your Novel 2 and 3. The second volume is subtitled Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, the third is subtitled Writing Plots with Drama, Depth & Heart. I have not yet read these volumes but I expect them to be equally helpful.

Overall, this is a good book on the nuts-and-bolts of writing and finishing a novel. If you are not trying to become the next David Foster Wallace, this book should come in handy. But as every writer will tell you, never read only one book. This is only one of a dozen books you should be reading on how to write a book.

But then (caveat) don’t take it from me. I’ve been writing for forty years and never published a work of fiction.

When You Wonder if You Should Quit Writing

Not everybody is cut out to be a writer. Or an actor, or a musician, or a painter, or any other artistic career. So, for some people, it is important to know when to quit. But when you have doubts about your writing career, should you really quit? Is there an alternative?

Quitting your dream has a bad rep, but it could mean that you were chasing after the wrong dream to begin with. Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the little boy who played Randy in Home Improvement, quit acting to study history and philosophy in Harvard and Columbia Universities. Tom Tryon had built a solid career as an actor and made a steady string of movies like I Married a Monster from Outer Space. He even appeared with Marilyn Monroe in her final, and unfinished, film Something’s Got to Give. He eventually gave up on acting and took up writing horror novels. He said that he got a lot more satisfaction, and made a lot more money, from his writing than he ever did from his acting. Jessica Alba nagged her parents into getting her into acting lessons at age 11 and devoted herself to acting for the next twenty years, until she became disillusioned with acting when, reportedly, director Tim Story of the Fantastic Four instructed her NOT to make a crying face in the scene in which her character cried lest she wrinkle her pretty face. Although she did not entirely retire from acting, she re-directed her energies to The Honest Company which sells consumer goods, of which her stake alone is valued at billions of dollars. So some people can quit their first loves and find rewarding alternate careers.

Writers who quit writing are not as obvious as actors who quit acting. Actors perform in the public eye, while writers work in seclusion. An actor who makes no more movies is a has-been. A writer who stopped publishing is just having a prolonged writer’s block. In reality, however, writers burn out quicker than short birthday candles. Actors who are unemployed are not acting. Writers are writing, employed or not. Writing has drained the life out of writers who never published a page.

If you studied creative writing in college, practically your whole class is composed of people who gave up writing to pursue more fiscally stable careers. Twenty years out, some of your classmates might still be writing, on blogs, school newspapers, low circulation academic journals and such. Some of them might even have a vanity publication or a self-published e-book. A few could have gone back to writing after a long hiatus, scribbling away ideas in notebooks now that the kids are off to college. That is generally the fate of most aspiring writers.

So when is it time to give up on writing? If you google, “signs it is time to give up writing”, you might find a list of symptoms to watch out for which are almost identical to the symptoms of writer’s block. The symptoms alone cannot tell you if it is time to quit.

I cannot recall the exact age at which I gave up on writing fiction. It was twenty years ago, give or take. Since then, I finished the medical school I had been bullied into, completed my PhD, saved a few lives, contributed to several professional books on medicine, and worked on the development of a new cancer treatment. I cannot say that I had been a complete failure without being a writer. If I had a confidant, he might tell me that I made the right choice in quitting writing. In fact, I do have a few confidants. They tell me instead to quit my medical career, or at least suspend it for a while, and devote myself to writing. I am back into writing now because I know that this is what I should be doing. I am not whole without it.

So what if you start having doubts and start wondering if it is time to give up on your dream of a writing career? Do you need to quit?

My advice is, quit for ten years. Then, if you think you can pick it up again, start over. I had a hiatus of over twenty years. That might have been a bit overlong. Ten years is ample time to build another career, gain worldly experience, travel the world, and acquire new insights about people and life. It is a long time to spend reading lots of material. If, after that time, you still have the spark of the writer in you, you might emerge from your doldrums a different person. And that person may have a better chance at surviving the world as a writer than the person who is toying with the thoughts of quitting.

On Males and Rape

Audiences evidently still find it pretty cool when a strong woman coerces a man into sex at gunpoint or otherwise under threat of life. Not so fun when the squirrel’s got the gun, is it punk? Payback is sweet, especially when it is happening in the world of make believe. Fiction can turn the table around and force people to think differently about the world around them.

There is an old movie I really want to watch again on this topic titled It Coudn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy. It is a TV movie aired in 1974 starring Paul Sorvino, with Bob Dishy, Adam Arkin, and Eddie Barth. If that sounds like an impressive roll call of great character actors (and it is) it also stars Michael Learned early-ish into her award-studded career. I was only twelve years old at the time and did not understand exactly what was happening or get all of the jokes, but the acting must have been superb because some of the scenes just stuck into my little boy brain and I can still see them vividly to this day.

Here is what one of the reviewers at the Internet Movie Database says about it:
(SPOILER ALERT)
Paul Sorvino plays Harry Walters, and the initial scene has him dressing for a Rotary Club dinner with complete instructions from his wife. He lives in a big house he does not like because his father-in-law wants his daughter to look successful, his father-in-law made the sizable down payment, and we later learn that Harry wanted to be a teacher, but again, the father-in-law interfered and convinced him to join the family business and sell real estate. In short, Harry Walters has spent the last 20 years of his life being a complete doormat to the wishes of his wife and in-laws.

Then comes the life changing moment. When his car breaks down on the way back from the Rotary Club dinner a beautiful well dressed “respectable looking” woman offers him a ride. However, instead of taking him home, she drives on a deserted road, forces him to remove all of his clothing at gunpoint and rapes him. Like so many women, Harry would probably have said nothing to anyone about this, but she dumps him in the middle of nowhere completely naked. He steals an apron from a woman’s clothesline to cover himself. The homeowner sees this and calls the police who wind up arresting Harry!

So Harry goes to the police station as a perp not a victim, and here is where there are so many parallels to what happened to women then, and still happens 41 years later. Nobody believes his story. He wants to talk to a male officer about the rape – request denied. Nobody shows any compassion. He is asked if he liked it. He is asked details about a crime he would rather forget. People question how he was dressed when he was picked up by the woman and how he was acting. Does any of this sound familiar ladies…and gents? Worse, a local newspaperman who hangs out in the police station gets wind of the story and prints all of the details, and Harry’s name, on the front page. At work he is greeted by snickers and pointing. His boss yells at him for making the firm look bad. At home his wife SAYS she believes him but she is treating him …differently…like “damaged goods” although that phrase is never used.

The epiphany moment comes when Harry is faced with a choice. He can plead guilty to the indecent exposure charge and get a small fine, or he can fight. He chooses to fight against all advice and pressure from his attorney and wife. He says – and this is one line that would never get on TV today – “I’ve allowed it (rape) to happen my whole life.” This time he is fighting back. He goes back to the police station and files charges against a woman whose identity is unknown, he pleads not guilty to his own charges, and gets the reporter who outed him in the papers to help him find the rapist with a composite sketch. How will this all work out? Watch and find out.

I gather that there was a big controversy back in the day when the movie was aired on prime time, at 8pm in a slot that usually showed family fare. At least there was one. A movie like that would never be aired in the safe-space atmosphere of the 21st century. It goes to show how much more liberal the world was about fictional depiction of reality before political correctness kicked in.

This story is a comedy that invites the audience to see what typically happens in the life of a rape victim by switching the gender of the victim. But not only that, it sneaks in the message that rape is going on in the world even before the physical sexual assault. The sort of life that a married man would be derided for as being a “doormat” or a “seat cushion” for his wife is (or was) typically considered commendable behavior for a married woman. This is the life that Harry Walters tries to break out of when he fights against his rape. Can you get more feminist than this? And yet, all the “feminist” roles are played by men. Michael Learned, the one accomplished actress on the show, plays what is arguably the victim-blaming sexist villain.

This movie would be very relevant today in the light of recent events. It is such a shame that we cannot see movies like this made anymore.

The Best of Samurai Novelist

Another month and this blog will be one year old. This is my 135th blog post. I have 72 followers, an average of about 6.6 visitors per day, with a record of 88 views in one day. Not the most impressive blog in the world. If this blog was a coffee shop, it would be out of business, but I have patronized coffee shops with less visitors than this and enjoyed the experience. I hope my visitors do too.

My most popular blog entry so far is the one titled Writer Do Nots with 18 likes and 74 views, followed by 10 Kinds of Plot Twists with 11 likes and 29 views.

The blog entries that got 10 likes were The Hook, Line and Sinker, Write What You Know, The Age of the Cyber Lynch Mob, Reminders to Myself, Ten Ways to Get Away with Murder, and Rules for the Second Draft (2).

The blog entries that got 9 likes were Back Story Blues, Writing Good Dialogue (1), Writing Good Dialogue (3), Building a Complex Villain, Analyzing the Opening Line, On Prejudice and Time, and Writing Too Much.

The worst blog entry is probably Basic Writing Stuff You Were Too Afraid to Ask which in spite of getting 145 views, got only 2 likes. The most viewed entry is Writing Exercise 2, which got 156 views but only 3 likes.

I was pretty proud of my ideas to combat writers block in Tricks to Overcome Stuckness series, but they were neither liked nor viewed very much. I still hope that some of my writing advice is helpful.

If you have time to read only two blog posts, I would suggest you read the most liked (Writer Do Nots) and the most viewed (Writing Exercise 2).

My daughter has suggested I employ search engine optimization to enhance the visibility of my blog. I still cannot understand the first thing about it, but I might try. I wish to have more than 6.6 visits per day. I started this blog after a vlog by Jenna Moreci convinced me to start writing a blog before even finishing my novel, so that it might help market the book once it gets published. A blog with 6.6 visitors a day does not sound like a big marketing tool to me. At this point, it is nothing more than fruitless diversion. I might as well be playing Call of Duty for what it’s worth.

But I will continue this blog, probably because I am an incurable romantic. What do you expect of a writer who has never published a work of fiction for forty years and still haven’t given up trying? I will see if I can write something more interesting by the first anniversary. Stay tuned.

Learning How to Read

The worst kind of book review is the one-star review we see on Amazon.com saying “Book arrived torn and in poor condition”. It gives no information on the quality of the writing and knocks down the average score, skewing the result. The second worst is the review that says “This book is truly awesome!” and gives no further information.

If you even bother to google the topic, there are tips for writing book reviews that give you a number of pointers such as, “Start with a couple of sentences describing what the book is about” and “Discuss what you particularly liked about the book”.

A little more sophisticated guidelines for book reviews are available on the internet from numerous universities. (ex: Trent U, UNC, ANU, and many others. Just google “book review university”)

These how-to’s are pretty rudimentary, but even a quick glance will tell you that most amateur book reviewers do not bother to follow even these.

But what if you were a professional book reviewer, a young writer working for, say, the Akron Beacon, hoping soon to be working for the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Chicago Tribune, maybe even the New York Times someday. You are given an assignment to review a book and this is the first step of your career. How would you write it?

Even an entry level book reviewer for a local newspaper should be head and shoulders above the level of your average literature major who just read the university guidelines on how to write book reviews. Whether the book itself is good or bad, the quality of your review will make or break your career. Forget about the career of the author, you are not his editor or publisher. You have your own career to worry about and it all depends on how you dissect the book at hand.

A young person in such a profession as reviewing books should be expected to know much about literature, perhaps a good deal about literary theory and literary history as well. Just having read some generic fiction would not cut it. You would be expected to know how to take apart a book properly, even if it is just a new installment in a YA vampire series.

I read long ago that for every shelf full of books published on how to write a book, only one book or less is published on how to read a book, yet a book on how to read will teach you more about writing than a book on how to write. I have no doubt that it is true. If you do not know how to read, how will you know whether your book will stand up to the scrutiny of serious reading?

Writers are usually readers. But do we really know how to read? Do we really pick up all the psychologies and symbolisms correctly? Can we be interpreting the meanings of books wrong?

Put yourself into the shoes of that reviewer once again, whose career depends on writing a high-quality review of the book you wrote. It could be a scathing review or a glowing review, but either way it must be a quality review. The reviewer is not just bad mouthing your work. It is a deadly serious business.

Maybe serious criticism does not matter any more. A whole generation of readers have misinterpreted Kerouac’s On The Road, a story of ostracized loners in search of their niche in the world, as a celebration of non-conformity, hoping perhaps that being cynical will get them laid. Some self-fashioned literary critic has based her criticism on the age-weathered misunderstanding of On The Road and positioned herself as a feminist maverick by criticizing the “misogyny” she picked up through her misguided (and outdated) interpretation. That kind of willful warping of the text could be the order of the day in the 21st century.

But it still does not change the fact that a writer must understand how to read, and how his own work is read, even in a world where his audience, and critics, no longer can. A writer must write (and read) as if criticism still matters.

Pain and Literature

I just came across an internet meme that says “Pain changes people, it make them trust less, overthink more, and shut people out”, and I realized that is my book in a nutshell.

Pain also makes people addicted, to painkillers, recreational drugs, alcohol, sex, work, isolation, or just more pain.

I am working on two works-in-progress right now. One is a samurai story set primarily in the Sengoku period. The other is a love story, but mostly a story about pain. Like so many love stories.

Jack Henry Abbot wrote “Everywhere I see pain, I see someone drawing pleasure from pain.” Whenever someone is oppressed, ostracized, or tortured, somebody finds enjoyment in tormenting the victim, even when the suffering itself is spontaneous or random.

What if two people met who were both in pain? The gorillas that we humans inherently are, they would instantly adopt a pecking order and one would start sucking pleasure from the pain of the other. The nature of pain being what it is, the dominant must open his own old wounds in order to get the most from the pain of the subservient. They fall into an affair that is consensual sex on the outside, but is rape and enslavement in their minds. In the process they become heavily addicted to each other.

I have a bad habit with subplots. They tend to be explanatory passages disguised as parallel story lines. The subplot involves another couple, predestined never to have a sexual relationship, who revolve around each other trying to alleviate each other’s pain.

Sometimes, when writers fall into writer’s block, it is useful to ask yourself what the story is about. I did a lot of that, and yet I did not quite capture the essence of it. It is a love story. It is about a man obsessed with a woman and vice versa. It is about mistakes. It is about denial. It is about sexual domination. I kept coming up with all the things that the story was about except that it was about pain.

The book is loosely based on a six page story I wrote long ago about seducing a woman with a congenitally deformed face. In it I wrote “It is both an act of charity and an act of exploitation, and both acts are mine. And, like all acts of charity, it is selfish and evil. Like all acts of exploitation, it is delectable and juicy.” That was the core of the story. I lost sight of that, which was, of course, the source of my writer’s block.

Pain is an incredibly powerful force. It can cause, not only addiction, but also irrationality and violence. It enhances bigotry. It triggers self-righteousness and powers vindictiveness. It is difficult to understand for those who do not experience it, and is acutely isolating. Yet it bonds together people who share it, not necessarily people you should be bonding with, often times quite the opposite, but the bond can be addictive. More often than not, the bond further enhances outraged self-righteousness and aggrieved vengeance.  And there is always a pecking order among people who have bonded through pain. Perversely, although pain is isolating, the irrationality and selfishness it induces can be contagious. Family members of those who have gone through pain tend to inherit the same irrationality of those who suffered the pain directly. Thus pain-induced behavior is carried in the family.

Pain can come in many forms, physical, psychological, emotional, or social. Chronic, unrelenting pain can have basically the same effect as a prolonged incarceration in a concentration camp or a prison; despair, self-loathing, misdirected anger, irritability, violence, and hopelessness. Intermittent pain can lock the sufferer in constant limbo between pain and fear of pain. Sometimes, when lashing out against anyone or anything can provide brief or superficial relief, the sufferer will become prone to sudden outbursts which are often hurtful to others, constructing a chain reaction of pain.

Some literary works are studies in pain. Mix pain with the irrationality of injustice and you get Kafka. Mix it with meaninglessness and dread and you get Beckett. Blend it with utter isolation and numbness and you have Camus. Take apart pain layer by layer in a deliberate dissection and you have de Sade. Throw in lots of pedantic digressions and political opinions and you get Hugo. Tolstoy might as well have said all pain is painful in its own way.

We are all little demons sucking pleasure, however small or brief, out of other people’s pain. That is the nature of our existence. Sometimes, a ray of light illuminates our vision and we see the essence of the thing impaled on the tips of our forks. Burroughs called this frozen moment “naked lunch”. But we have yet to understand how horrifying it should be when we see that it is the imprisoning, dehumanizing, destructive pain suffered by others that is always on the tips of our forks. We cannot understand the horror because we are unable to feel the pain.

And here lies the mission statement of the vaguely defined entity we call “serious” literature. “Genre” literature transport us to a place where we can feel the things we want to feel. “Serious” literature transport us to a place where we can feel the things we prefer to look away from.  Thus, my samurai adventure story is “genre” while my other work-in-progress is “serious”.

So now I know what my story is about. It is a depiction of the nature of pain and our relationship to it in pornographic detail. I do not know if this realization will make it easier to write, but at least I now know the direction it is headed.

 

The Mind of the Shooter

A man born in New York City named Omar Mateen, who looks like he could pass for an Italian or a Greek if you neglected to ask, took a gun to a gay dance club in Orlando and shot over 50 people. You can read about the details from a news outlet, because giving you details on a mass shooting is not my concern here. If I have a generalized comment directly related to this incident, it is that I always knew people from New York tended to be crazy.

What I am concerned about on this blog is writing. I would like to stay focused on that. And not only about how badly written news stories on sudden tragedies tend to be. But I would also like to talk about the psychology of Mr. Mateen and people like him and how it should affect our writing of fiction.

It appears that Mr. Mateen identified himself as a Muslim, though if history is any guide, we should soon recognize Mr. Mateen as a repressed homosexual. No amount of twisted logic could explain why he decided to target a peaceful dance club otherwise. Of course a fragrant display of homosexuality might be offensive to conservative Muslims, but this is Orlando we are talking about. The livelihood of the entire city practically depends on offending Muslims. Most likely, he targeted a gay dance club because he was a frustrated gay man, justifying his actions through pious pretensions, like the majority of homophobes in history.

It has been pointed out that just about every mass shooter in America who left any record of their feelings talked about their sexual frustrations. (Which is why most industrial countries in the old world, with wiser policy makers, never quite outlaw prostitution.) The fact that mass murders are so often linked to sexual frustrations tell us a great deal about the bestial side of humanity. We are by and large not far removed from mountain goats and horned lizards when it comes to fulfilling our sexual desires.

Almost all mass shooters have a very selfish, personal, visceral, physiological motive, which they dress up in political, religious, or philosophical pretensions. There never was a mass shooter who did not say he was trying to cure some social ills. And he sees himself as a lone hero.

This is where literature comes in. How do we construct lone heroes? How should we de-construct lone heroes? Batman, for example is a vigilante with a personal vendetta (and we don’t see him getting laid much). From his vantage point, the world is full of noxious villains. He literally answers to signs in the sky to go after them. He is, from his view, terribly misunderstood. He is compelled to live in hiding, in a cave. In the dark recesses of our adolescent fantasies, there is a universal place where Batman dwells. The original author no doubt instinctively knew never to let Batman carry a gun.

From the Lone Ranger to Dean Moriarty, lone heroes see themselves differently from the way the world see them. They are self-contained capsules of their own moral codes. Lone heroes are the sort of people who say “Yes, I killed a lot of people, but they all deserved it.” Juxtaposed over the recent reality, we can finally see how preposterously harmful such ideas can be.

But that is the nature of art. Woody Allen, of all people, expressed this in the comedy movie Bullets Over Broadway, in which Rob Reiner, playing a script-writing mentor, preaches “An artist creates his own moral universe” which the main character (John Cusack) takes to heart; unaware that his co-writer (Chazz Palminteri), a killer mobster who lives by the “they all deserved it” code, would actually kill people and doom himself to death in order to create the perfect play.

Writing is a lonely exercise and in many ways we are lone heroes hiding away in little caves creating our own moral universe. Gun rights advocates have long insisted that violent movies, video games, and evil books had a lot more to do with mass shootings than the physical presence of guns. Such claims may very well have some merit, next to other factors like sexual frustration. We want our readers to identify with the lonely, alienated, misunderstood heroes of our imaginary worlds. But if some psychopath took our words literally, or lived in the sort of moral universe we created in the world of fiction, the consequences could be deadly. Woody Allen’s message was that being an artist was not a risk you should take on lightly, and the movie, despite being a comedy, nearly scared me out of creative writing altogether.

And this train of thought leads me to the difference between genre fiction and “serious” fiction. It is not the vampires and space aliens that make genre fiction “genre”. It is when we see Batman from his point of view only, and see the vilified lone hero from his own self-serving perspective, that the story becomes “genre” fiction. When we also see the vindictive, self-restricting Bruce Wayne refusing to grow up, the story becomes “serious”.

Humans are strange, multi-layered, bestial creatures. Nobody ever kills for religious or political beliefs alone. There is the frustrated sexual urge, the social isolation, the mental illness, and warped self-image, all conspiring to create the desire to go out in a hellish eruption of self-righteous flames, and a serious writer must see both sides of the story; the hero as seen in the killer’s mirror and the villain that he is from an objective point of view. The end product, the work of fiction, is still potentially deadly, but it conveys a more rounded message.

(Edit: Only two days after I wrote this post, it is already coming to light that the “Muslim” man who went on a killing spree in the middle of the Ramadan was “not very religious” and showed homophobic tendencies.)

 

The Confidant

Maybe it is because I am a male that a love story is easier to write when the main male character is still just looking to get laid. He chats up a fairly random girl who appeals to him, she gets to his head, and soon he cannot get her out of his mind. It happened to me in my younger days.

The problem arises when I get to the “boring” part; the part we boys tend to skip when reading love stories. You see, we don’t really care what Juliet confesses to her nurse, we just want to see the outcome of the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt. In fact, in my current work-in-progress, I neglected to insert a character to whom the main female character can confess her feelings to. I suffered for months at what I thought was writer’s block when it was only faulty story construction.

Men and women look at their love story experiences differently. That was practically the whole plot of Friends, one of the most successful television sitcoms of all time. This is why women need to talk to women and men need to talk to men in a love story. If you count the words, the main characters probably spend more time talking to their respective advisors than to each other. But for us guys, that is the “boring” part and we barely acknowledge its existence. We want to skip to the sex scenes.

A good love story needs balance between the male perspective and the female perspective. I have written before that a good dialogue is more about miscommunication than about communication. When the two main characters start talking past each other, the reader should want to jump in between them and scream “Will both of you please shut up and let me explain what each of you are trying to say?”. In order for that to happen, the reader must understand both viewpoints. One of the more important devices for this purpose is the female character confessing her feelings to someone.

You can tell that I am not a big love story fan, but sometimes a story comes into your mind in such a way that you just needs to be written and it just does not fit into your usual genre.

 

Delusions of Writing

Writing is like singing. Anyone can croon a tune to a karaoke machine. Only a few can sing well enough to get paid for it. The same applies to dancing, acting, painting and whatever else people generally do for fun. Snow boarding, say.

I am quite sure you can sing well enough to entertain a few friends at karaoke with a little practice. But that will not even get you through the preliminary audition of American Idol, and you know it. So why do we have any different delusions about writing a novel?

They say that a musician is a guy who packs five thousand dollars worth of gear into a five hundred dollar car and drives a hundred miles for a fifty dollar gig. That is a pretty accurate description, and that is why most musicians keep their day jobs. Dancers, actors, painters, sculptors, snowboarders, what-have-you, they all know the reality of their craft and keep their day jobs.

Becoming an artist is not like becoming a carpenter, a plumber,  or an accountant. Those are “real jobs” (though writers hate the term) with real certifications, real quotas, real business standards. There is no such thing as a standard business practice for a dancer, or a quota for a snowboarder, or a standard proficiency level for a singer to meet. Just being “good enough” is not good enough for an artist.

And this is why people keep telling aspiring writers to “get a real job”. By a “real job”, they mean a job where you can get paid for being “good enough”. A carpenter who does good enough a job earns an hourly wage. There is no such thing as an arbitrary acceptable standard quality for a fiction writer. We are basically competing in American Idol.

We like to imagine that a writer is something like a cabinet maker or a gourmet baker; half artist, half craftsman. If we are good enough, we get paid. If we are exceptional, we succeed. Deep down, we know it is not true. Success as a writer is a randomly bestowed miracle, with a very high bar to clear just to get your voice heard at all. And then, if you are good enough to clear that first bar, you are given the privilege to jump through a series of hoops, the unlucky ones sifted off along the way, until finally you are granted your first printing, which is usually the last.

Have you ever seen an actor starve himself to skin and bone for a role, then build himself ripped up for the next? That is essentially the dedication expected from a writer. As Hemingway said, all you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed. We all bleed, and sing, and dance, and whore to the whims of the market place. But do we have a real chance at success?

Beware, beware, the dream. It will eat your soul and crap it out. And like crack addicts for mother’s love, we keep coming back; even when we should know by now that the old bitch had forsaken us long ago, and any attempt to find acceptance will be met with cold rejection; foolishly, we try again only to be frustrated.

Being good is not good enough. Being great is not good enough. If a handful of friends and family like your first draft, that is an encouragement, not a promise. You have not stepped out of that karaoke bar. You will not for a long while yet.