Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language: Code Words.

Japanese people in general are utterly incompetent English speakers. Those who can pull off a reasonable imitation of fluent English are considered exceptions. Quirky street signs and product labels written in a strange version of what appears to be English are everywhere in Japan. This strange language is often referred to as “Japanglish” or “Engrish”.

One famous example is the cartoon mascot for a line of environment-friendly home electronics. The electronics maker chose a woodpecker for the mascot. They could have called the cartoon character Woody, but “Woody the Woodpecker” was already taken, so the called it “Pecker the Woodpecker”. It did not take them very long to retract the whole thing.

There was also a chain of steak houses called “Loins”. Loins, I’m sure, referred to the choice slab of meat (top sirloin, bottom sirloin, tenderloin, and short loin), but the founders of the chain did not realize that the word also had a different meaning. After spending millions of dollars (hundreds of millions of yen, actually) promoting the brand, they abruptly decided to change the name of their restaurant chain.

The cherry blossom is Japan’s unofficial national flower next to the chrysanthemum. You might say that the chrysanthemum represents the non-martial component of the Imperial dynasty, while the cherry blossom represents the samurai spirit. The flower, which blossoms for a few days then sheds away in a blizzard of petals, has been likened to the glorious death of a soldier in battle. The masculine image is probably the reason behind why one of the first Japanese automobiles to be exported to the United States was named the Nissan Cherry. They nixed that name too.

Since these “Japanglish/Engrish” problems are so common, a Japanese writer is highly sensitive about such unintended connotations sneaking into his prose. And if you ask someone like me to critique a piece of writing, these are the mistakes I would be focusing on. Some people latch on to the misuse of commas, semi-colons, prepositions, or pronouns. You cannot expect me, a Japanese writer, not to obsess over the unintended meanings of words.

That is why I somewhat over-reacted when I found the phrase “Thatcheresque woman”. A woman who resembles Margaret Thatcher could be a whole spectrum of things, from a strong-willed leader to an entrenched ideologue. Depending on their political orientation, some people are die-hard fans of Thatcher and some people think she was a witch. You may intend the phrase “Thatcheresque woman” to mean one thing, but the reader may take away something quite different.

Another one is “like the Louvre”. The Louvre is a vast and diverse place. You can see Charlemagne’s crown, Hammurabi’s pillar, the bust of Benjamin Franklin, Egyptian sarcophagi, architecture by I. M. Pei, lots of French couples kissing, and hordes of Asian and Middle-Eastern tourists. And also some paintings. What part of the Louvre are you trying to project in your imagery? If you are going to use the Louvre as an anchor word in your story, you better think it through.

The most heinous of these offences are the code words: A “Gucci-clad” drug dealer, a stock broker “sheathed in Armani”, an artist “lounging on a Wegner chair”, a hipster with purple hair, or a spooky old man living in a “Jacobethan manor house”.

To be fair, I am guilty of the same offences. I write telegraphic descriptions like “over dressed drug dealers in dark suits and vivid ties” while being well aware that the only reason the reader can visualize this is because there are lots of over dressed drug dealers in dark suits and vivid ties depicted in movies and television. It’s like describing a spy in a trench coat, sunglasses and a fedora. You can see it so clearly it is almost a caricature in itself, but only because we have all seen the same visual entertainment. If someone unfamiliar with the visuals ever read this writing, they will never know what it is all about. And if people for whom these words carry different connotations read them, it could easily project a warped image in the same vein as Nissan Cherry.

If you want to write stories in the English language, you have to immerse yourself in the English speaking culture so that you will know that a name like “Nissan Cherry” will sound corny to Western ears. But you also have to take a step back and realize that using a “Jacobethan manor house” as substitute for “cue Bela Lugosi music” is simply bad writing. Just as most people outside of the Japanese culture sphere do not associate “cherry” with masculinity, a lot of people do not associate classic English architecture with vampires. (Besides, “Jacobethan” – originally a fusion of “Jacobean” and “Elizabethan” architectural styles popular in 19th century England – is lately an American euphemism for “MacMansion”.)

In this era of truncated writing, when we are expected to cut to the chase without foreplay, to ditch the expositions and get to the action, it is difficult not to rely on prefabricated imagery. The best we can do is to be conscious that we are using them. And when we use them, we have to be careful what imagery we are employing. But since one man’s cherry is another man’s cherry, it’s better to do away with cherries as much as possible.

(Read also “Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language“)

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The Oneiric Structure in Literature

At least a century before Aristotle penned the first known Western treatise  on literary theory in Poetics, Confucius wrote his theories on literature which, roughly translated, stated something to the effect that “what is written does not give the fullness of what is said; what is said does not give the fullness of the concepts in the mind” and thus concepts of literature must be transmitted via established imagery, or to adopt a more Western terminology, through signs.

What Confucius seemed to have been communicating since before the time of Aristotle seems to be that there is a dissociation between the signifier and the signified, a disconnect between the fabula and the syuzhet. These are structuralist and post-structuralist concepts: Ideas that Western literary theory did not come up with until the latter half of the twentieth century.

If what Confucius called the underlying concept within the mind is equivalent to the fabula, then the story told by a fallible and unreliable narrator is equivalent to the syuzhet. Now, syuzhet, which is the construction by the story teller and not the exact replica of the fabula, can come in distorted forms. This is how you can have a flashback narrative or a backwards narrative, because a syuzhet does not have to follow the chronological time line of the fabula.

Aristotle started backwards (or Confucius did, depending on your perspective) in breaking down the concept of narrative structure. He started with a three act structure, the beginning, the middle, and the end; a setup, a confrontation, and a resolution; each connected with causality. He did not realize that the causality may have been artificially contrived and juxtaposed on the fabula of the story. But this contriving and juxtaposing became the basis of the inductive method of theology throughout the Middle Ages.

Even today, when scientists try to communicate their discoveries and future directions to the public, they study classic narrative structure. There is almost a religious belief that classical narrative structure assist in more accurate communication and clearer deduction. I must admit, I spent years trying to get my colleagues in medical research to adopt this method.

However, the inductive method and the narrative structure that goes with it, can lead to some embarrassing errors in science, one of the most notable examples is the concept of dietary cholesterol as a risk factor for ischemic heart disease. You cannot argue with the story. Arterial plaque is made primarily out of cholesterol. High levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream is associated with the prevalence of arterial plaque. And high cholesterol diet is associated with high levels of cholesterol in the blood stream. Tie these elements in a story line and you come to the conclusion that eating less cholesterol should result in lower incidence of heart disease. Except dietary cholesterol consumption in North America has been in steady decline for the past four decades and the incidence of heart disease is still on the rise. Meanwhile, the dietary cholesterol consumption in Japan has been steadily increasing in the past four decades which coincided with a steady increase in heart disease, though at a level still lower than in North America. Meanwhile, the French eat more cholesterol than the Americans, but suffer fewer cases of cardiac arrest.

This and many other examples illustrate the constricting nature of narrative structure and how it can confine us to a way of thinking that may or may not be accurate reflections of reality. Climate change denial actually makes a better narrative than orthodox climate change theory.

Oriental narrative structure studies started from the bottom up (or top down, depending on your perspective) and cast suspicion on all perceived causality in story. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed the basic idea of a disconnect between “what you say” and “what you mean” in the late 19th century, but it was not until Michel Foucault adopted the concept to literary criticism that the idea really took off. It developed into a branch of study called “structuralism” (and eventually “post-structuralism“) which was later adopted into film theory.

The idea of structuralism, which started with the disconnect between “what you say” and “what you mean” developed into the idea that causality may or may not be the illusion of the story teller. The idea that the initial event, the middle event, and the concluding event are connected by causality – like a row of dominoes – may (or may not) be something the story teller conjured up to make the story easier to tell. The underlying reality may actually be a complex web of a million cause-effect associations, or may not be connected at all.

This realization has lead to new developments in narrative structure in literature and cinema, such as multiple timeline structures and hyperlink structures, that layer seemingly unrelated story lines and flashbacks on top of each other, some of which are connected by causality and others only by emotion.

But it did not stop there. If the syuzhet is not a reflection of the fabula, and the causalities that connect the acts can be the fabrications of the story teller, then what is to say that the fabula exists at all? When we dream in our sleep, we see the imagery but we do not register the story. There is no coherent story to identify. Therefore, the syuzhet exists without the fabula. The same applies to our childhood memories. There must have been a fabula sometime in the past, but we only see glimpses of the imagery in the deepest recesses of our minds. What we see are mere shadows of a story long lost.

In film theory, such a form where a series of images are presented without a narrative plot is called “oneiric“. Movies that adopt this form, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror”, is hard to understand and (dare I say it) rather boring. Novels that adopt this meandering-of-consciousness style, such as Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto“, are not to everyone’s taste.

Still, such pieces can succeed. Not every story needs to follow the Star Wars structure, the hero’s journey, or have a chain of conflicts and resolutions in every scene. It is not as easy as fitting a story to a template, but clearly there is more to narrative structure than composing a causality-connected string of conflicts and resolutions.

Building a Writer’s Mind

There was a story on the internet about a man who tried to replicate Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s diet and workout routine for a month. It was not an easy task because it involved consuming over five thousand calories in high protein foods divided over seven meals per day and pumping an ungodly amount of iron to consume and utilize those calories. Even Johnson was initially skeptical of this effort when he learned of it over Twitter, responding with smug remarks, but conceded that he was impressed with the fellow in the end, partly because the man had realistic expectations. He started out weighing 207 lb and finished at 208 lb a month later, not looking significantly different after spending $1300 on the food alone. He did say that he felt healthier after his 30-day challenge, but he stressed that you cannot build a body like an action star in a month.

In spite of all the high flying promises of ad campaigns for machines and diet drinks that will give you a Cinderella-like transformation in 30 days or less, most of us know deep down that those promises are bogus. The only way you can lose 60 pounds within two weeks is by amputating your legs. Then again, the world is never short of suckers. There will always be people who buy into the story that those before-and-after photos were not reversed, Photoshopped, or spanned a longer time than advertised.

Building and maintaining a writer’s mind is similar to building a body. You cannot build it over night and it takes constant work to maintain. It is a lot less obvious because you cannot see it, but the principle is the same: You need to nourish your mind with a large and steady diet of healthy books and you need constant workout on your brain. Writing is not like riding a bicycle. It is not the sort of thing you learn once and never forget. It only looks that way because successful writers never stop training themselves.

A lot of people have fantasies about becoming a published author, including myself. But the longer I work at it, the more I realize how inadequate my daily training routine really is. Some people just seem to type out a story in a week, send it off to a publisher, and laugh all the way to the bank. But then again, some people can dead lift five hundred pounds. It doesn’t take very long to lift five hundred pounds. You just grab the bar and push it over your head. The whole process takes only a few seconds. But to build a body that can do it takes a lot longer than that. It takes years of very hard training.

Writing a full length novel is like lifting five hundred pounds. It looks impressive in and of itself, but the real work is in building the ability to pull it off. If Anthony Burgess wrote an immortal masterpiece like A Clockwork Orange in three weeks, it was only because he had already finished a rigorous preparation period. Putting the story on paper was just the lifting of the weight. Just that alone was not easy or effortless, but it was made possible by the training that preceded it.

If you are the sort of person who believes that writing fiction is a get-rich-quick scheme, I have bad news for you: It isn’t. Some people attribute E. L. James’ success with Fifty Shades of Grey to the author’s many connections in the media world. I don’t buy it. Other people have had better connections but their books did not sell 300 million copies. A more likely explanation is that she is fluent in a new language, specifically the language of texting, which may be divorced from conventional grammar but approximates what people are already accustomed to reading on their phones. A computer analysis of Fifty Shades also revealed that, although the book tends to deviate from conventional narrative structure, it follows the same emotional fluctuations as other best selling novels. All of this suggests that the book was neither a fluke or a success constructed from personal connections. The author had carefully prepared to write exactly the book that she did.

The writer’s mind is constantly melding and fusing words, story lines, scenes, and metaphors. A writer does not just read a book, but beach combs through it for small treasures. A writer is constantly on the lookout for new pigments that can help paint pictures with words. A writer is always thinking about writing. There are no real vacations for writers, just as there are no real vacations for the body builder. If you stop, you fall behind.

There really is no such thing as an over night success in fiction writing. It only looks that way because, unlike the bulging muscles you can plainly see on Dwayne Johnson, the muscles that writers train to build are invisible. But the muscles are there. They are hard to gain and easy to lose. And any sucker lead into believing that they can write a competent novel without going through the rigorous training process is as comical as the mug who buys into the con that he can lose his lard and put on impressive abs and pecs within thirty days.

Being Futsu

“I’m just an ordinary guy, living an ordinary life.” – Haruki Murakami

It is basically impossible for anyone living outside of the Japanese culture sphere to understand the pathos, defiance, and resignation associated with the word “futsu” – or “ordinary” in English translation. Haruki Murakami, an odds-on favorite for the Nobel Prize for Literature, has spent his entire career writing about “futsu”, but still has not quite communicated how much this seemingly unexceptional word is central to his universe.

Imagine a distant cousin suddenly appeared at your place with the intention of recruiting you as a volunteer campaigner for his favorite political candidate, say Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, and his favorite candidate is far from your political ideal. He enthusiastically extols the virtues of his candidate and  the great future for your country his candidate will inevitably bring. You can only see faults in the man your cousin sees nothing but greatness. He says you will be participating in a great moment in history. Not eager for a confrontation, you say “Well, I’m just an ordinary guy.”

In this context, by saying “ordinary” you are saying that you are not interested in becoming a part of greater history in the way your cousin sees it. In effect, you are saying “Yeah, whatever.” You would rather remain disconnected.

Joseph Heller described his character Major Major as “Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.” This might as well be the description of Murakami’s futsu main character. “Futsu” also means average, mediocre, unimpressive, lacking distinction; a cog in the wheel destined to be worn out, discarded, and forgotten; a pebble in a beach of pebbles; an insignificant blip in the universe.

Yet, Murakami’s characters, like all Japanese people who profess to be futsu, are extraordinary. His main character has unique perspectives, so much so that he weeps at the sight of a taxidermic display of a whale’s penis. He never fails to find a magically helpful woman to accompany him. He navigates the Tokyo cityscape like a gentle breeze between the skyscrapers.  Japan is a nation of exceptional people all, at some level, accepting their lot of being futsu. Very few people believe themselves to be “special”. Most do not even think it is a virtue to be special.

Etymologically, “futsu” means “common” or “acceptable”, as in “common language” or “acceptable currency”. “Futsu” is the marking trait of lingua franca and legal tender. It is the character that gives something its universal currency in the world; its acceptability. If you are not “futsu”, you have no currency.

So, by saying that you are “futsu”, you are saying that you are an ultimately expendable cog in the wheel, but also standard currency; a cog that fits. Thus, by extension, when you say that you have no interest in taking a larger role in shaping history, you are not only rejecting your cousin’s candidate and his political views in particular, but also the very idea of being “special”.

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” as the infamous Japanese saying goes. Japanese people have a natural aversion to special-snowflake-ism to the point that they see virtue, and hold pride, in the proactive rejection of individuality. What is not special fits better. And what fits better works better. Joseph Heller’s Major Major was an anomaly. Murakami’s “ordinary” character is a pebble in a sea of ordinary pebbles all of which are proudly – if a little sadly – ordinary, each rejecting its significance in history in its own detached way. Murakami’s pebble is stranded among them, sometimes struggling to stay in the dredge.

That is why there is a sense of denial when Murakami’s character insists that he is an ordinary guy living an ordinary life. None of his characters are corporate drones. Few of them even commute to work. There is never a description of one wearing a necktie or a suit.

Murakami is not the only Japanese writer whose works center around “futsu” characters. In fact, almost every contemporary Japanese writer takes his/her own perspective at the “futsu” existence. It is an oxymoron to say that “futsu” is an extraordinary word, but it is. It encompasses an entire culture and reflects life philosophy. You could probably not fathom modern Japanese literature without some understanding of it.

Fiction Writing Rules

Here are some of the most often suggested “rules” for writing fiction. Some people say that it would be better to call them “guidelines”. Others say that the whole concept is hogwash and that there are no rules for writing fiction. Some say that they are not rules for writers but serve as guidelines for editors and publishers to reject or accept manuscripts. It goes without saying that this is an incomplete list.

  1. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Omit needless words.
  3. Do not break the conventions of your story world.
  4. Use proper grammar.
  5. Maintain continuity.
  6. Write what you know.
  7. Avoid passive voice.
  8. Avoid adverbs.
  9. Avoid decorative prose.
  10. Avoid exclamation marks.
  11. Avoid long expositions.
  12. Avoid prologues.
  13. Avoid cliché.
  14. The MC must be relatable.
  15. The villain must also have a human side.
  16. The hero must have vulnerabilities.
  17. Open with attention grabbing action.
  18. Don’t give away the ending.
  19. Follow story structure.
  20. Leave out the parts no one reads.
  21. Maintain POV. No “head hopping” in a single scene.
  22. Every scene must advance the plot or reveal character.
  23. The main character must have clear motivations and goals.
  24. There must be a consequence if the MC fails in his/her quest.
  25. Every scene must have a clear and obvious conflict.
  26. Every scene must end in the resolution of said conflict.
  27. There must be a setback before the climax.
  28. All dialogue must serve the plot.
  29. There must be a time limit (eg: before midnight) or an event deadline (eg: before the war starts) for your MC to attain the quest.
  30. Every story beat must be connected (or be connectable) to the next beat with either “but” or “therefore” (not “and then”).

This list has been collected from a diverse collection of books and articles. These are just compilations of other writer’s experiences. Some are useful, others are less so. Many of these are complicated and need lengthy explanations to be fully understood. Some have whole books written about them. But generally speaking these are the things that inexperienced writers do wrong and wonder why they are not getting published. You do have to break the rules when you see fit to do so, but you should never break them by accident. Apply these rules with caution and reject them with care.

Or Perhaps a God (Flash Fiction)

“The ancients believed the rumbling of thunder was the distant cry of a dragon.”
Genzo looked up at the clouded sky as if he was wondering if a dragon might show itself.
“And how ancient was that?” said Simpson. “I thought kaminari was depicted as an ogre-god bearing drums, not a dragon.”
“The Ainu had different beliefs,” said the samurai.
“We should seek shelter before it starts to rain.”
“There is a cabin farther up the mountain.”
“How far?”
“An hour if we hurry.”
“We may not have that long.” The Englishman looked back at the valley below. The village where they started looked like tiny specks in the distance.
“We should get moving.”
Unseen creatures scurried and fluttered behind the leaves at their approach. Boulders overrun with tree roots turned the steep trail into a tortuous stairwell.
In time, they saw the cabin, a simple structure huddled against a moss grown cliff.
“It looks to be of a religious nature,” said Simpson.
“Part of a string of shrines along the trail,” said Genzo. “Take off your shoes when you enter.”
They approached the cabin and Genzo clasped his hands respectfully before entering. A carcass of a grey furred animal was hanging from the eaves. A bearded hunter in a weathered Ainu vest of intricate but badly faded patterns, sitting cross legged, and oiling an old matchlock gun acknowledged the two newcomers silently.
Genzo talked to him cordially to which the gruff man only grunted, consumed with the maintenance of his gun.
“Can you ask him what that animal is, hanging from the roof?” said Simpson.
Genzo asked and got a curt reply.
“It’s a wolf,” said Genzo. “Rare these days. Foreign dogs brought diseases that killed them. Few that remain cause much trouble.”
A heavy rain started to fall on the boarded roof, making conversation impossible. Simon and Genzo opened their lunches and ate. The hunter did not seem to have food with him and drank water from his hollowed gourd. Simon gave him a ball of rice, which he took and ate in silence.
The rain and thunder was brief and soon the sound was no longer deafening.
“Will you ask him how much he would charge for the wolf?”
Genzo translated.
“What do you want with it?”
“The British Museum would no doubt be interested in a specimen.”
When Genzo talked to him again, the hunter looked straight at Simpson and held up five grubby fingers; a good week’s wage.
“Alright,” said Simpson.
He took out his wallet and gave the hunter five one-yen bills. The hunter gave a stiff smile, no doubt his best effort, accepted the money and packed his things. He put on his coat and hood, a hodgepodge of furs, and he trudged out into the sparse rain.
Simpson looked out at the wolf carcass, a fabulous prize for naturalist, to which he would attach a Latin name and etch his own into natural history.
“He must have been our ogre,” he said into the rain, “or, perhaps, a god.”

(The Japanese Wolf is an extinct species of wolf, associated with a wide range of Shinto gods, believed to have disappeared around the turn of the 20th century.)

The Clock (Flash Fiction)

The clock hadn’t ticked in decades. It just sat there at the end of a salvaged wooden deck that used to be the front porch of an old farm house, now a fixture at the office entrance of Mason’s Salvage Yard.
Mason sat sipping corn whiskey, reading one of many salvaged books, waiting for customers who rarely came. The vacuum tube radio, his temperamental companion, was not working today. He licked his thumb and flipped the pages in silence.
“Hello,” said a young voice.
Mason looked up from his book, and he kept looking. A white face was rare around here unless it was a cop, and this was a young woman.
“I’m looking for some bikes?” It was definitely a question mark inflection at the end of her sentence.
“You are,” answered Mason.
She nodded eagerly, as if she was the one answering.
Mason gestured with his fat hand to the corner of the yard, a large mangled pile of rusted skeletons.
“Mind if I take a look?”
“Knock yourself out.”
Mason poured stale coffee over his cup, not that he really wanted to sober up, just a custom when he had a customer. The woman took her time and did not return until he nearly finished his pulp. She returned with two rusted bicycles.
“How much for these?”
“Forty dollars each,” said Mason after a brief glance.
“You’re kidding right?”
“Ain’t goin’ a penny lower.”
“This is a Ward Hawthorne. And this one, it’s a Schwinn B-6. 1947 I think?”
“You do,” he answered. “Do you want them or not?”
“Look, I’ll pay a hundred dollars each. Call it a deal.”
“Ain’t got no change.”
“Fine. But there’s no taking it back.”
“None for you either.”
“I need a receipt.”
“I’ll go see if I can find a pad.” He lifted his heavy self off the chair and disappeared into the old warehouse behind the porch. There was a shuffling sound as Mason moved boxes and cartons in search of a receipt pad.
“Do you have the time?” called the customer.
“What?” said Mason as he came out with a dusty curled pad.
“Do you know what time it is?”
Mason did not answer while he tried to choose from a bouquet of old pens in a small flower pot. He gestured at the clock on the other side of the porch. It was quarter past three, like always.
Mason tested the ballpoint pen on the cover, and wrote “$200.- for two bicycles”, then signed it.
“That clock’s stopped.”
“Don’t matter to me.”
She shook her head, ponytail waving behind her.
“Here’s your money,” she said exchanging it for the receipt.
“Nice doing business with you. You be careful now. This is a bad neighborhood.”
“Looks quiet to me.”
“You watch out.”
She cocked her head.
“Mind if I come back?”
“What for?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I want to sit on that porch. Read a book. See what it’s like.”
“You won’t like it. Time’s stopped here.”

Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language

I joined a fiction writing group on Facebook and was surprised to find that nearly half the members were writing in English as a second language. Not all of them were fluent and many were inexperienced writers, so the questions posted on the group largely consisted of very basic things like “Is grammar important?” I think we have that same question, in various renditions, posted every week.

Of course the ability to write with something resembling forgivable grammar is an absolute requirement. But learning grammar is only a small step in a much more difficult enterprise. That is not to say that learning grammar is not important or that it is easy. It is merely dwarfed by the much bigger efforts that lie ahead.

Take a word, any word, in your native language and list what connotations and/or imagery that word is associated with. Now take an equivalent word in English and list what that word is associated with. The word “lemon” in Japanese, for example, is associated with life giving freshness. In English, it is a word for a defective product. The word “lemon” signifies the same citric fruit in both languages but it carries different images. The word that implies a bad product in Japanese would be “imo”, which means “sweet potato”.

And that is just one word. How about a series of words? How about situations? How about ideas? How about behaviors? A drunken behavior that is normal in Japan would destroy careers in the US, while an aggressive behavior in, say, a basketball game that is perfectly acceptable in the US could cost you friendships in Japan. What is considered normal in many parts of the world is considered misogyny in the West, while what is perfectly normal in the West could be considered disrespect in other countries. (The English language does not even have a word for “disrespect against elders”. The Japanese language has at least three.) This means that whatever situation you write can be interpreted differently by your English speaking audience.

Then there is the matter of cultural background. You might have watched the latest HBO programs, stayed up to date with the Marvel franchise, and listened to rap music, but if you have never seen the Grinch steal Christmas, or Toto out of Kansas, or Kevin set a trap, or Opie chafe against Andy, or more cowbells, you will be unfamiliar with a whole backdrop of cultural references. Not all cultural references come from the screen, such as, do you know how likely it was to see the Indians and the Tigers both at the World Series? Or the likelihood that the Indians would appear in the World Series in the same year the Cavaliers won the Finals? Which Manson is scarier, Marilyn or Charles? Cultural background can also be events, like street parties, PTA bazaars, Labor day parades, and sleep overs. A whole spectrum of experiences could be alien to you.

All of this on top of learning how to compose a story, build a plot, sustain tension, build suspense, and structure dialogue.

After you have mastered the grammar, the word associations, the attitudes, the social norms, the cultural backdrop, and all the elements that go into structuring and executing a well constructed story, the last wall that stands in front of you will be humor.

I won’t go into the discussion of what humor is to the Western audience and how it differs from humor elsewhere. That alone will require volumes. Suffice it to say that it took me a month of trial and error to translate ONE alligator joke by Milton Berle into a Japanese version that works. After thirty years of trying, I have yet to make a yotaro joke work in English. And after you succeed in making people laugh, you will have to learn, say, which is more offensive, a blond joke or a Pollack joke? Humor will be your last boss in conquering the art of fiction writing in English.

But after you have mastered all of that, you are no different from any random NaNoWriMo contestant whose mother tongue is English. It took all that effort just to stand at the starting line. Now, you can actually try to be good at it. Good luck.

(See also part 2: “Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language: Code Words“)

Cupcake (Flash Fiction)

(30 day Flash Fiction Challenge: Day 1: An impulse buy leading to intergalactic warfare.)

“Stand back!” cried the cupcake through crackling static. It jumped up off the plate on tiny legs and sprouted tentacle arms holding shiny little instruments. The blueberries popped open to reveal eyeballs.
Susan shrieked and jumped off her chair. She picked up a large hardbound book and held it up to swat it.
“Freeze! Don’t move!” said the cupcake creature. “Or I’ll… I’ll shoot!” Its tentacle hands were trembling. The voice sounded like it came filtered through an old radio.
“What? Who? What are you?”
“I am Zeno of Baloo here to investigate the disappearance of Isheka, the expedition scout with whom we lost communication. I awoke from cryosleep to find myself here. Where am I?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about. You’re a cupcake I bought at the outdoor market. I’d been off gluten for thirty days. I couldn’t help it.”
“What are you talking about? I do not understand. Where is gluten? Terrestrial or celestial?”
“Neither,” said Susan, still holding the book, not sure whether to strike or to run. “It’s a substance. It’s something we eat. A protein.”
“Carnivores!” cried the cupcake nervously pointing the shiny instrument at Susan.
“No! No! I’m a veggie!”
“Why am I here?”
“I bought you!”
“What for?”
“Because I wanted to eat…”
A sudden flash emitted from the shiny instrument and a laser beam burned a dollar sized crater in Susan’s book. She looked at the scorched cover and realized it was her newest copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
“That was uncalled for!”
“Stay, creature!”
“Listen cupcake…”
“Don’t call me cupcake!”
“You may be new around here, but in these parts we have this thing we call manners.”
“Manners? Isheka must have been eaten. Eaten!”
“Ew.”
The alien raised its weapon.
“Wait! Wait! You don’t know that! Anything could have happened.”
“Like what?”
“I don’t know. Someone might have bought your friend just like I bought you.”
“And eaten?”
“If your friend was eaten, I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. It’s that you look so much like something we eat.”
“We must hurry.”
“We?”
“Isheka may still be alive. You must take me to the place you found me.”
“It was the farmer’s market in the park.”
“Then we must go there. The peace of the universe is at stake.”
“That sounds a little overly dramatic but I guess I had fights over a cupcake before. Can you get in my purse because people might freak out when they see you.”
“Yes. We shall go to the rescue. And don’t call me cupcake.”

(Written in response to 30 day Flash Fiction Challenge: Day 1.)

The Scene (Flash Fiction)

I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed 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.
“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.
“You need a shower cap,” she said pulling one out of her bag. I was suddenly aware of the state of my hair.
“Thanks.”
“It’s greying.”
“What?”
“Your hair.”
“Well at least I won’t get blond jokes anymore.”
I put on a pair of disposable gloves and stooped over the corpse partly hidden under plastic cover.
“What have we got?”
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.
I thought I grew up to be decently inclusive, color blind practically, but last night when it was time to actually sleep with a dark skinned man, a loving man I did not deserve, I took more Scotch than I should have to help me go through with it. And as the puss from the diaphragm ran down my thigh and I fought back the sick in my throat, I realized what I was beneath the veneer.
“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.”
“Seriously, your eyes look like rotten fruit. What the hell?”
“Nothing. I just…”
I looked at the corpse. So young. So still. Martha spoke down at it.
“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 gets 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 fuckin’ circus.”
“I can’t do this.”

(Composing this piece was previously discussed under the heading “300 words“.)