300 words

I came across another article on what to write on the first page. I know it’s getting old, but I will try to answer it again. This article asks you to infuse five things:
1. A powerful opener.
2. Unique perspective.
3. A well-realized world.
4. An authentic voice.
5. Attention-grabbing characters.

Since one type written page contains about 500 words single spaced and 250 words double spaced, you have to do all of this in that many words. You also should open with action, as opposed to, say, the main character waking up in his bed with a hangover. You have to “show, don’t tell” and you have to make sure that every sentence will either “advance the plot or expose character”. Though 250 words is not a tied and fast number, the number of words in the first page would still be less than 300 words tops.

Also, you have to present an urgent problem with a time limit. In case you forgot, a story is about (somebody) who needs to (blank) the (blank) before (blank) is (blank) otherwise (blank) will (blank). That much must be presented on the first page or the reader will cease to care. That’s a lot of things to do in 300 words.

When you say “powerful opener”, the first thing that comes to my mind is “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” But something else might hit you harder. You can google for some good opening lines. In fact, I wrote about opening lines before.

Recently, when someone on Facebook asked if it was sufficiently attention-grabbing to have a story open with a description of someone waking up with a hangover, I suggested opening with action and suggested an opening line.

I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. 

That is not bad for something to post on a Facebook thread, but as an opening for a book, it is not quite a powerful opener.To turn a static descriptive line into something more engaging, you need to inject sensations like sounds, smells, or feelings. In this case, the cop is hungover and his footing is uncertain. How about this:

The world rolled more than I intended when I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. 

A little more visible, but not good enough. Should I add something in front of this line or after this line? I am describing a scene, but I also want to pack a punch. Maybe I want to add something more crafty and powerful in the beginning, or I might want to run with it and add something after. Word to the wise: When in doubt, add after. Do not try to embellish the opener with something contrived.

The world rolled more than I expected when I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. The jet liner started screeching in my head again. The cup was hot in my hand.
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long.
“Hi, Marv.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from his clipboard.
“Morning, Frank.”

That is already 100 words.
You can already see the scene, but it doesn’t quite draw you in does it? Firstly, the main character is just a generic drunk cop. Secondly, this looks like an ordinary neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. The passage could be the establishing scene of a Criminal Minds episode. How can we make this drunk cop special? How can we change the scene to Victorian England, or at least make Cleveland seem more interesting?

First, change the characters.The easiest, and increasingly popular (if not overused) method to make the main character more interesting is to switch genders. Turn Marv into Martha and Frank into Carol. I think it was Billy Wilder who said, “If a man comes in through the door, it is not interesting. If he comes in through the window, it is interesting.” It is a reflection of the stereotypes we still hold in our minds that we find it interesting when a homicide detective is a woman. Be that as it may, we only have so many words to make this scene interesting.

My tousled hair rolled more than I expected as I nearly lost my footing when I swerved to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy rushing out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. In the rush, I forgot to take out the diaphragm and my underwear was getting uncomfortable. The cup was hot in my hand.
“Hi, Martha.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from her clipboard, her graying Afro obscured under a police issue shower cap.
“Morning, Carol. How was the date?”
I tried to buy time to come up with an answer by sipping on the coffee, still too hot to really drink. Martha looked over her glasses at me.
“That bad, huh?”
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long.

160 words. A little more interesting.
(By the way, do women actually forget to take out diaphragms? I know a guy whose used condom fell out of his pants in the middle of class in college. You forget to take off weird things when you are in a hurry in the morning, but it can’t be common. I wonder how real this scene feels. That would be a question for the beta readers.)

Next, the scene. It does not have to be Victorian England, but it has to be interesting. That does not mean that a generic city cannot be interesting. Even a place like Fargo can be interesting if you describe it well. So far, the only word that describes the setting is “lawn”, which projects a surprising amount of information. Almost anyone who has ever lived in North America can picture an abandoned house with a lawn. And that leads to a whole train of associations. Let’s scrap the lawn. There are no kids riding bicycles under sunny skies here.

My tousled hair rolled more than I expected as I nearly lost my footing when I swerved to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy rushing out of the crime scene to vomit in the ditch full of broken glass and mummified trash.

Now I am debating with myself whether I should describe the spray-painted graffiti on the walls or get on with the story. This actually an opportunity to inject the “unique perspective” and “authentic voice”. It is always the stuff that you don’t need to write that renders voice to your story.
Voice is reflected in what the narrator sees. What does she notice about the graffiti? Is it the size, the colors, or the words? Does she pick up the lyrics to an old song, focus on the profanities, or snicker at outdated political chants? And what sort of voice is it when the narrator notices that the forensic guy vomited beneath the words “Impeach Nixon”? How is that different from, for example, saying the guy barfed under the word “fuck” or that he looked small against a giant mural of a penis?
Bottom line; this is how you infuse voice into your words. It can make or break your book, so get serious.

My tousled hair rolled more than I expected as I nearly lost my footing when I swerved to avoid spilling coffee on the forensic guy rushing out of the crime scene to vomit in the ditch full of broken glass and mummified trash. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. In the rush, I forgot to take out the diaphragm and my underwear was getting uncomfortable. The cup was hot in my hand. I hardly glanced at the forensic guy, who looked like a piece of modern art crouching against the wall spray-painted in a cascade of colors over eroded brick and ancient stone corbels. Beads of sweat was erupting on my forehead.

That projects some character and voice, not a very likable one so far, but one with personality. And it also places the scene in a grittier, more interesting place. This above paragraph leads to “Hi, Martha” which is the first line spoken. Up to that is basically a thinly disguised exposition, even though it is a description of events. So now the real action begins. It is 203 words up to this point, and I have less than a hundred words to present the story question, which is 1) what the problem is, 2) what the protagonist must do to solve the problem, 3) the time frame in which she must finish the task, and 4) what will happen if she fails to accomplish the task within the allotted time. So without further ado:

“Hi, Martha.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from her clipboard, her graying Afro obscured under a police issue shower cap.
“Morning, Carol. How was the date?”
I tried to buy time to come up with an answer by sipping on the coffee, still too hot to really drink. Martha looked over her glasses at me.
“That bad, huh?”
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long. I stooped over the corpse partly hidden under plastic cover.
“What have we got?”
“Same M.O. Same African-American victim. Same brutal rape. Fifteen stab wounds. Sign of anger, like the others. Three makes a serial.”
“Whew!”
“It get’s worse. The two previous sperm samples, they were from the same individual, big surprise, but both had the C282Y gene mutation, cause of hereditary hemochromatosis, most commonly found in Scandinavians and related Europeans.”
“Meaning the perp is probably white.”
“And probably race motivated. You gotta get this bastard before the media gets wise or it’s gonna be a fucking circus.”

That’s exactly 300 words. Does it catch your attention? I don’t know. Honestly, I am not satisfied with it. Good enough for a first draft, I suppose.

What I think is missing is the hook. An opener that carries a punch. So I will break my 300 word rule and add one more line at the beginning. Something ostensibly a graphic description of something visible, but conveys emotion of the scene. Something short and clear. I’ll nick a few words here and there to make it close to 300 for the first page. Then maybe on the second page, I will add something to describe the character.

The sky hung grey where duty called.
My tousled hair rolled surprisingly far as I nearly stumbled when swerving to avoid spilling coffee on the forensic guy, rushing out of the crime scene to vomit in the ditch full of broken glass and mummified trash. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. In the rush, I forgot to take out the diaphragm and my underwear was getting uncomfortable. The cup was hot in my hand. I hardly glanced at the forensic guy, who looked like a piece of modern art crouching against the wall spray-painted in a cascade of colors over eroded brick and ancient stone corbels. Beads of sweat was erupting on my forehead.
“Hi, Martha.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from her clipboard, her graying Afro obscured under a police issue shower cap.
“Morning, Carol. How was the date?”
I tried to buy time to come up with an answer by sipping on the coffee, still too hot to really drink. Martha looked over her glasses at me.
“That bad, huh?”
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long. I stooped over the corpse partly hidden under plastic cover.
“What have we got?”
“Same M.O. Same African-American victim. Same brutal rape. Fifteen stab wounds. Sign of anger, like the others. Three makes a serial.”
“Whew!”
“It get’s worse. The two previous sperm samples, they were from the same killer, big surprise, but both had the C282Y gene mutation, cause of hereditary hemochromatosis, most commonly found in Scandinavians and related Europeans.”
“Meaning the perp is white.”
“And probably race motivated. You gotta get this bastard before the media gets wise or it’s gonna be a fucking circus.”

“How old was she?”
The smell of blood was overwhelming. And there was the chicken meat smell of fresh corpses. And the smell of wet hair.
“Same age group. Twenty-two or three. We won’t know for sure until we get a positive ID.”
The victim’s wrist was very thin and her skin was still fresh and smooth. Dark and beautiful.
When I grew up, boys played with boys, Jewish girls played with Jewish girls, and black people lived down the street. We all went to the same elementary school but we did not really mix very much. I thought I grew up to be decently inclusive, color blind practically, and could work with anyone without trouble, but when it was time to actually sleep with a dark skinned man last night, I took two more glasses of Scotch than I should have to help me go through with it. And as the puss from the diaphragm ran down my thigh and the sick burned my throat while I tried hard to swallow it down, I felt in my guts that I hated myself. A loving man I did not deserve had to be tolerated with the help of whiskey.
“Bitch,” I said.
“What?”
“No, not her.” I stood up, and immediately felt the blood draining out of my head, the floor a ski slope under my feet.
“I was talking… about myself.”
A cold chill gripped my body and liquid squeezed through the goosebumps. 
“Are you alright?”
“Fine.”
“You look like shit.”
“Thanks, Martha.”
“Seriously, are you okay? What the hell happened last night?”
“Nothing. I just… need to step out and drink my coffee.”
I straggled out of the scene and saw the young forensic guy still recovering by the spray-painted wall. I briefly thought I might join him and barf, but more uniforms were showing up and I had to put on a brave face.
The coffee was still too hot to really drink. I tried blowing on it. Slowly.

Are We Fighting More or Less?

“Why am I Mr. Pink?”
“‘Cause you’re a FAGGOT. That’s Why!”
– Reservoir Dogs

So, this guy named Mr. Pinker, he believes that the world is collectively outgrowing war and turning into nice, domesticated, peace-loving adults, because he’s Mr. Pinker, while this guy named Mr. Gray has a darker, storm-clouds-ahead view of the world because, you know, he’s Mr. Gray.

I am of course talking about Steven Pinker whose best-selling book Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that war and violence is in decline. English political philosopher John Gray (not to be confused with the American inspirational speaker of the same name) says in his essay that Pinker is full of BS, his statistics are hogwash, and his academics deserve a dunce cap.

But the argument seems so utterly pedantic. For example, Pinker theorizes that the increase of wealth and the diffusion of enlightened values have contributed to the decline of violent conflicts world wide. Gray counters that, although largely forgotten, the original Enlightenment thinkers were a bunch of anti-Semitics, racists, bigots, and misogynists. He points out that Jacobins and Bolshevics, who endorsed violence, were off shoots of Enlightenment thinking, not to even mention the pseudo-scientific racism of the Nazis. Pinker counters that such impure thoughts do not count because they are aberrations from the true creed of Enlightenment. And then the argument delves into a penis size contest over who is more intellectual based on the understanding of what “enlightened” really means. (Don’t tell me about Enlightenment! Nobody knows Enlightenment better than me! I am the most Enlightened person you will ever meet!)

What really irks me is Gray saying “There is something repellently absurd in the notion that war is a vice of “backward” peoples” because so many wars were introduced to formerly peaceful legions by colonial powers. From my point of view, that only proves that the colonial powers were more “backward” than the colonized. Then he goes on to say “the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world” but the US has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Therefore, highly developed countries can be violent. Why does Gray keep insisting that his choice of countries are always the “most advanced”? Would it have anything to do with the fact that he is a white Englishman from Oxford University? In his view, “colonial powers” and the United States must be the most civilized places in the world, and because they are violent, it is not the “backward” countries that are violent. By extension, he is saying that if you are not from Western Europe or North America, you are automatically backward whether you are violent or not. I find this guy repellently absurd.

As for the actual statistics, it gets even more pedantic. Gray cites Nassim Nicholas Taleb who argues convincingly in his essay that Pinker’s conclusion that war is decreasing may only be statistical noise, a transient anomaly that can easily be cancelled out when placed in a larger context. That gives Taleb the right to call Pinker’s assertion a fallacy, but it does not prove Pinker wrong. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy. “The ground is wet after the rain. The rain must be the cause of the wetness” can be right or wrong.

The truth is, there is now no conflict that can be classified as wars in North America, South America, Western Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, Southern Africa, and Australia. The only actual wars are confined in Ukraine, the Middle East, and Northern to Mid Africa. we are indeed seeing the decline of war. This may be a transient fluke or it could be a trend.

The penis size contest between two white men is totally irrelevant. What is incontrovertible is that we are at a low point in the history of violence. What can we do to turn this into a trend? That is the question we should be asking. Not whether John Stuart Mill was right or wrong.

What ideas should we project to the world that will make it a better, more humane, and more livable place? What are the obstacles? What are the trends we should nurture and what are the trends we should stifle? We should not rest on our laurels at seeing the world more peaceful than ever. We need to understand why it is more peaceful and work to keep it going.

If anyone out there wants a Nobel Prize, I can tell you how to get one: Construct a philosophy backed by statistical analysis that tells you how to make the world a safer, more peaceful place. Do not be Mr. Pinker who only says the world is getting more peaceful, but analyze what is happening and devise a plan to make the world more peaceful.

(Sorry that I deviated from the topic of writing, but then again, someone might be inspired to write a book about Long Peace.)

The Enthusiasm/Dissatisfaction Balance

As the Olympics present us with a parade of astonishing human achievements, we are reminded time and again that excellence demands you to be unreasonably unhappy with yourself to agonizing extremes. The Olympic games do not officially call you a loser for being the forth fastest person in the world, but that is the implication of the accolades. In just about every sport, the difference in actual accomplishment between the first place and the forth place are so small, it seems unfair at times that a chance mistake spanning a thousandth of a second can make your score nose dive to eleventh place.

It is mind boggling that these amazing people have been honing their skills to such a degree, that they have to be disappointed to be the eleventh best in the world. In any other profession, eleventh best in the world is the pinnacle of achievement.

Excellence is the result of dissatisfaction with one self. In the field of writing, only the most incompetent believe themselves to be great writers. Truly good writers are always dissatisfied with their own abilities, and they constantly aspire to be better.

I have stated before that a “real job” is a job where you can be paid a living wage for being “good enough”. Freelance writing, like acting, dancing, and singing, is often not considered a “real job” by many people because there is no bottom bar that certifies income, much less stability. Plumbing is a “real job” because you can be a certified plumber after a bare minimum apprenticeship. You still have a long way to go before you can be counted as one of the best, but you can start to get paid. Even then, of course, only those who are dissatisfied with their skills as plumbers ever improve.

Dissatisfaction with one’s performance is often considered unhealthy. A midlife crises is usually attributed to a sense of deadlock in how much one can achieve in the remaining future. If you keep beating on yourself and focusing on your shortcomings, someone will sooner or later tell you to cheer up. Be positive, they invariably say.

There is a fine line between being dissatisfied with yourself and being negative. You do not want to be negative, but you do not want to be complacent either. You have to constantly identify your shortcomings and focus on improving them. That is not really negative, but it is not entirely happy.

Perhaps the trick is to be unhappy and positive at the same time. It is a balancing act. If you fall off, you could get caught in writer’s block or worse; alcoholism, drug abuse, or major depression. But it is not always so dire, because the effort to improve is a challenging puzzle. There is a certain enjoyment to it that draws you in. You have to let the enthusiasm drive you, but still remain dissatisfied.

When you lose balance and fall off, remember that it is like falling off a bicycle. It is not the end of the world for you. It was a precarious balancing act to begin with. Try to understand that you must get back on the enthusiasm/dissatisfaction balance. It gets easier if you can see that balancing act in perspective.

The Harry Potter Hallucination Theory

There is a theory going around on the internet that the entirety of the Harry Potter series is just a series of hallucinations in the mind of Harry Potter. The poor boy, having been kept in a cupboard by his abusive aunt and uncle, was driven to insanity and invented the whole story of the world of the wizardry in which he was the center of the universe destined to save the world.

Fan theories are nothing new. There is a theory that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was actually about his best friend Cameron’s schizophrenia, or that The Matrix had more layers of virtual worlds than we see in the movie, or that the shining contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction was actually the extracted soul of Marsellus Wallace. Most of the time, fan theories reflect the quality of the story. Good books and good movies have fan theories surrounding them. The Fly 2 does not.

Fans can be more observant than the writer and can discover plot holes the writer never realized were there. The most famous example is the “who killed the chauffeur?” question in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. It is a testament to how engaging the book is that readers become obsessed enough to latch onto unanswered questions.

But not all unanswered questions are plot holes. Some questions, like the contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, are deliberately left unanswered to enhance the story. Since these are intriguing points by design, they tend to act as magnets for fan theories. But the Harry Potter fan theory is different because there never was an unanswered question, deliberate or by accident, about Harry’s sanity. The idea that Harry is insane is something of an out-of-left-field accusation.

J. K. Rowling responded to this fan theory by saying this: “I think that’s a fabulous point, and it speaks so perfectly to the truth of the books.”
Excuse me? WTF?
She actually added “I’ve heard it suggested to me more than once that Harry actually did go mad in the cupboard, and that everything that happened subsequently was some sort of fantasy life he developed to save himself.”
And that’s a “fabulous point”? What is she trying to do? Undermine her entire franchise?

There is only one of two possible reasons why Rowling said this. One; she is crazy and  it is high time she stopped commenting on every opinion offered by fans and left Harry Potter alone, or Two; she might actually be on to something profound about the nature of successful fiction.

Most fan theories try to answer unanswered questions. Some try to look at the story from a different perspective. Others are not even theories at all but belong in the realm of “fan sequel” or “fan fiction”. But, unlike all of the above, the theory that Harry is an insane child who escapes into an imaginary world can blend into the original story and still hold up.

Fantasy stories have a special relationship with reality in that almost all fantasy stories could be explained away by the phrase “It was all just a dream”, but a plausible one. Harry builds a family, a career, and a future in his magical world. He does not wake up one morning to discover that it was all a dream. But he might have.

J. K. Rowling rewrote the first chapter of the first volume of Harry Potter fifteen times. Obviously, this chapter was very important. It sets down the reason why the story had to delve into fantasy. Harry Potter, the abused child, had a vested interest in the magical world of Hogwarts being real. And we the readers knew it. Otherwise, why would we want to read a story about a kid on a broom?

This is where so many amateur fantasy stories fail. They do not present a sound real-world ground to break away from. Not all fantasy stories start in the cupboard of the Dursleys on Privet Drive. Take Lord of the Rings for example, which starts in the fantasy world of Middle Earth. (Bad example. The first few hundred pages of LOTR is a pain to read.) Or take Star Wars which starts on the planet Tatooine. Luke Skywalker is bored out of his mind working on a dirt farm in the middle of nowhere. What if Luke, an orphan raised by his aunt and uncle, imagined that he found a secret message in a discarded android? From there, his imagination ran wild. He imagines he went deep into the desert to find a hermit of an old man, who turns out to have been a wizard, who happened to have known his father, and now he has to go on an adventure to save the galaxy… Yes, Star Wars could totally be a figment of Luke’s imagination. Luke was in such a terrible position, he needed a fantasy to enliven his life.

So when you write a good fantasy story, there should always be a possibility (however remote) that the whole story is an escapist pipe dream by someone in need of a protective psychological cocoon. We suspend our disbelief because there is a need to believe the magical world is real. If it were not real, we are stuffed back into the cupboard under the staircase, a dreadful, humiliating, marginalizing place.

We cannot believe in Hogwarts, or the Galactic Empire, if there were nothing at stake in the whole thing being real. Think of what a pathetic character Harry would have been if he was just an abused psychotic child in a cupboard mumbling to himself about Hogwarts all day. Think of what a let down it would be if Luke woke up in a desert hut one day, alone and destitute, to find that the whole story of Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader were all just a dream. We are forced to believe in the fantasy because it is backed by the dreadful alternative of reality. Which side would you follow, heads or tails?

Books like The Never Ending Story strides between the real and imaginary worlds without the story collapsing onto itself. Mary Chase’s Harvey actually stresses the possibility of insanity and Elwood almost ends up in an asylum. Lewis Carroll’s Alice and The Wizard of Oz‘s Dorothy both wake up from dreams. Readers need to be prodded to the edge of belief and non-belief. The Dursleys stubbornly reject the notion of magic in a way that make their disbelief seem unreasonable, when in fact it is the reader who is suspending disbelief.

You have to give your fantasy reader a reason to believe at the very outset. For that purpose, the risk of the story being unreal must be presented. Sometimes it is very obvious. (The main character keeps mumbling “I must be in a dream” or his immediate family consults a psychiatrist.) Sometimes it is not so obvious. But the threat must be there. The reader must have no choice but to believe the fantastic.

So, as much as I would like to see J. K. Rowling shut up and stop tweaking the Harry Potter legacy, in this particular case, I must admit, she nailed it. For once, she responded correctly to input from her fans. It is in fact a “fabulous point” that the whole of Harry Potter franchise might have been a figment of Harry’s imagination. That is the foundation of why the story works.

Review: “The Book in a Box Method” by Tucker Max & Zack Obront

Try to get this around your head: A book on how to write a book by Tucker Max.

If you do not know who Tucker Max is, here is his self-introduction from TuckerMax.com:

My name is Tucker Max and I am an asshole. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions, mock idiots and posers, sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead. But, I do contribute to humanity in one very important way. I share my adventures with the world.

His best selling book, I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, is a memoir chronicling his frat boy antics. You can read some of the stories in his book on his website. He published three more books in the same vein, before writing the book I am reviewing here.

Before you bulk at the thought of getting writing lessons from the same man who tried to secretly video tape having anal sex with his girlfriend (yes, you can read that story on his website too), you have to understand that this man is also the mentor to Tim Ferriss, of The Four Hour Workweek fame.

The Book In A Box Method explains how busy professionals can write non-fiction books about their professional expertise with minimal effort through a combination of efficient outlining and dictation. Max currently runs Book in a Box.com, a full service book production firm that helps busy people publish non-fiction books by having them dictate over the phone. The client is asked to talk on the phone for a total of about twelve hours and the firm does the rest. This book explains how the firm operates and instructs would be writers (who may or may not be able to afford their services) how to efficiently write non-fiction books the Tucker Max way.

With a little imagination, the book can be useful for the fiction writer as well, although the overall efficiency may bog down somewhat. I classify all books on writing on a three dimensional graph with three axis, plotter-pantser, inspirational-instructional, beginner-advanced. This book is all about outlining in advance, and highly instructional, but is hard to place on the beginner-advanced scale. If you want to take this book at face value and use it to write a non-fiction book on, say, how to build a canoe, the book is very easy to understand, the principles are straightforward, the application is relatively simple, and the book, a slim volume of 129 pages, is a quick read. If you want to apply the principle to writing fiction, however, you would have to be an experienced and knowledgeable writer who has done a lot of writing excercizes and is thoroughly familiar with plotting and outlining fiction. You would also have to have a somewhat detached attitude toward your fictional world, which is a rare attribute for story tellers. So if you are to use this book for writing fiction, I would have to say that this book is for advanced writers only.

Dictating books, both fiction and non-fiction has been tried in the past with varied rates of success. Max succeeds by acknowledging that the spoken transcription is a different language from written text, and that editing process is more of a translation. He proposes writing the edited text directly on top of the transcribed text or, as a translator would do, write the edited text side by side on the screen next to the transcribed original. You do not delete and correct the transcribed text as you would a written text. For anyone who actually spent any time translating, this makes a lot of sense.

It is not the same thing as Hemmingway’s dogma “First drafts are always shit.” You do not treat the transcription as a first draft, but as something in a different language.

The rest is quite familar. You start out with a focussed objective of what you want to write, for what audience, to what effect. You create a detailed outline punctuated with questions that need to be answered. You insert good openings, transitions, and conclusions to every section, large and small, of your book.

The book is, of course, partly a promotion for his business. As such, it is generous with its secrets, but candid about the problems of doing it alone. If I were to write a non-fiction book about my professional expertise (of my day job, that is), I might employ his services (with the added benefit of being able to brag that I wrote a book with Tucker Max).
Depending on his rates, of course.

Review: “Shin-Godzilla”

The new Godzilla movie opened in Japan last week, and I just went to see it. This is a reboot of the franchise (none of the characters had ever previously heard of Godzilla) and it may be the best Godzilla movie since the original released in 1954.

It has been 12 years since any Godzilla movie was made in Japan and more than 30 years since anything approaching a good Godzilla movie was ever made. But this time, they employed Hideaki Anno to produce and direct a Godzilla story that is true to its original theme of fallible, quibbling, selfish, and ultimately barbarous human beings against the unpredictable whims of mother nature.

Anno is previously known as the creator of the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, a critically acclaimed animated television series which was later followed by several animated movies. The series was a very philosophical re-imagining of the giant robot manga genre which featured numerous religious references and adult-oriented material. He was a controversial choice as a director of Godzilla.

The cast is a Who’s Who list of Japanese thespians (as opposed to the teen idol heartthrob list of previous latter day Godzilla films). Japanese actress Satomi Ishihara is cast as an American envoy with presidential ambitions in what amounts to a reverse white-wash casting. She did not make a very convincing American. Casting a Japanese actor in a foreigner’s role is something of a tradition in Godzilla movies, but she also failed to project a character who was supposed to be a tough-as-nails power girl from the Uber Empire. (I think she was meant to be a thirty-something version of Hillary Clinton with a thinly veiled human side.) I could not help thinking of a long list of American actresses who might have wanted to play the part. Angelina Jolie would have fit in perfectly. That, however, was the only sore spot of the cast.

Director Hideaki Anno knows exactly what buttons to push to trigger nostalgia attacks in old school Godzilla fans, including the ridiculously specific documentary-style subtitles that pop up to explain who each character is and what each weapon is. His adherence to Godzilla traditions makes the movie just a little bit too campy, and probably difficult to sell to American audiences without substantial editing. (The earlier Godzilla movies were famously mutilated severely to make them conform to what American movie executives deemed “marketable”.)

Unlike Independence Day, a prototypical Hollywood summer blockbuster which also had been re-introduced lately, there is no clear “hero’s journey”, or even a very clear hero. There is no rousing speech by the president, no ace fighter pilot, and no sexy lead scientist. The prime minister is almost a symbolic role, like a monarch pressured to authorize a plan that had already been decided on by the ministers so as to relieve them of accountability. When a speech to the troops is finally made, it is made by a disposable underling who calls himself “the harakiri stand-in”.

The story centers around the dilemma of how to kill an indestructible monster in the center of a densely populated metropolis. Not to give the story away, Godzilla is impervious to anything short of nuclear weapons. Tokyo being the center of almost everything in Japan, if the only plausible solution were to be adopted, the country itself will go down with the monster. And of course, meddling foreign powers are pressuring to have the monster eradicated at whatever cost before the creature multiplies and destroys the world. A special team composed of a rag tag band of misfits (Is there any other kind?) must come up with a solution before the capitol is nuked. The clock is ticking.

Anno makes good use of the Tokyo cityscape; streetlights silhouetted against explosions, drone views of jammed traffic, old people evacuating over railroad crossings. He has a tendency to place characters on the extreme corner of the screen, filling the screen with an empty void to emphasize the feeling of powerlessness. He likes closeups of blank, almost comatose faces. You see helicopters hovering in perfect formation and tanks lined up like horsemen in Kurosawa films. The movie is a visual delight.

Godzilla is supposed to be a little campy. The special effects should work, but also should be just a little bit cheesy. The dialog should be good, but also just a little bit silly. The humor should arouse laughter, but of little bit nervous kind. Surprisingly enough, Anno pulls this off. The story has the Kafkaesque pathos of the futile fight against bureaucracy, Hemingway’s creed of heroism in the face of certain failure, and most of all the Japanese religion that collective overwork and sacrifice in sufficient quantity can solve any problem. And, yeah, we kind of smile at that last part because it’s funny, and so true. We so believe that another extra hour of zangyo (unpaid overtime) will solve everything.

Hollywood summer blockbusters are faster paced, more tightly plotted, and features more explosions per minute. But Godzilla is a different kind of movie. Anno clearly aimed to make a Godzilla that only a Japanese studio can make. This is a very Japanese film, both in content and in underlying spirit. For connoisseurs  of Japanese films, this may be the treat that had been missing from Japanese cinema for a long time. It reminds us of who we, the Japanese, are.

 

Review: “On Writing” by Stephen King

Before The Ring became a Hollywood movie starring Naomi Watts, it was a Japanese horror movie starring Nanako Matsushima. Before that, it was a record breaking best seller by Koji Suzuki. He was a student in a writing seminar where he wrote the first chapter of his novel as a short story. It was so popular among his fellow students, they kept asking for more, so he kept on writing every week until the novel was finished. By all accounts, it is a gripping page turner, but the prose was so poorly written I could not get past the first few pages.

This happens in every language: Badly written books becoming phenomenal best sellers.

Some writers can get away with bad writing. It is a mystery for a struggling writer like me. There is not a single book out there that teaches you how to create a badly written best seller. Most books teach you how to write well. But if your objective is to sell a lot of books, good writing is actually optional. I for one would rather be E. L. James than Faulkner.

Stephen King’s On Writing is the only instructional book I know that practically skips the issue of good writing. I do not think Stephen King is a poor writer, though he had been criticized as such. He was at the forefront of subtracting exposition from the narrative, a revolution in story telling that was highly maligned early in King’s career, but is now the standard in most fiction. (Back in the day, serious fiction had pages and pages of exposition without dialog or action, like Joseph Conrad.) Other than that, King is not Shakespeare, but he does not deserve the vitriol he took early on. That said, On Writing is short on how to write good prose and long on how to tell a good story.

I classify all books on writing on a three dimensional graph with three axis, plotter-pantser, inspirational-instructional, beginner-advanced. I would say this book lands in the pantser-inspirational-intermediate category. Stephen King is famously a pantser. He does not plot, outline, or diagram in advance. He just starts typing at the beginning and lets the story take him where it will. Sometimes, what he intended to be a short story grows into a sprawling novel.

On Writing is not structured like an instructional manual and it is frustrating to go back to it to find the lessons you picked up. But it is a much easier read than most instructional books. The author entertains while dispensing his wisdom. The book serves more to inspire rather than instruct.

The book can be destructive if taken too literally by a novice writer. According to the book, King types away two thousand words a day letting the story guide him until the first draft is done, then he turns that into a second draft which is about ten percent shorter than the first and turns it over to the publisher. Apparently, King is so talented he can practically type out the final draft in the first try. Most writers cannot do this and should not attempt it.

He also says you should not keep idea notes because they will only preserve mediocre story ideas that you are better off forgetting. He believes good ideas would be remembered. That is another piece of advice you should not follow.

He does tell you to read a whole lot and write a whole lot. In his early years he wrote constantly, collecting a thick wad of rejection letters which he impaled on a nail in the wall. After reading and writing and reading and writing, he came to a point when he could see that his stories were better than some of the published works. Eventually, the publishers saw it too. His stories started getting accepted. He has been doing the same thing ever since. That is the part that budding writers need to take home.

Since this is a man who just sits down and writes without analyzing, he has very little in the realm of technique to teach. In fact his lessons can be distilled to a page of bullet points, most of which are inspirational quotes.

So how do you create a good story? And does King succeed in elaborating it?

The answer to the first question, as King seems to be saying, is enthusiasm. Follow your excitement. Follow your smiles. Follow the words that make you gleefully clap your hands and chuckle to yourself. Follow the fun and that is where the readers will go.

The answer to the second question is: Not very well. Stories need story questions. (Will she prevail? Will he survive? Will the child escape?) Good writers focus on the story questions, and readers read for the answers. The most obvious story question for King’s memoir is “How did he do it?” but the master of story fails to focus on it. Part of the reason is that King’s life is a series of tragedies; poverty, rejection, critical enmity, alcoholism, loss, traffic accident. He needs reassurance that he can focus on his success. So he tends to focus on his mistakes, things not to do. But that is not what we the readers are here for. Any drunk can tell us about the evils of alcoholism. Only Stephen King can tell us the secrets of his success. Yet he shies away from his main story question, to our great disappointment.

I wrote about the ingredients of Stephen King’s success before. It takes some creative reading to wean them from his book. On Writing, in King’s mind, is not about the secrets of his success, although that is what we read it for. His book is about the life of a writer and how to come to terms with its inherent miseries. But reading On Writing for its life philosophy is a little like buying Playboy for the articles.

Will this book really help you write a better book? I cannot say. But it is a good book and a heartfelt story that every writer should read. What lessons you manage to glean from it is up to you.