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“.)

Questions and Answers -sarcasm alert –

Question:

Hey guys I need to write a fiction novel. Tell me tips on how to start.

Answer:

Here it is in a nutshell.

1. Fill in the blanks.
An (adjective)(adjective)(somebody) desperately needs to (blank) the (blank), otherwise (blank) will (blank). It is not easy because an (adjective)(adjective)(obstacle) stands in the way. Story opens with (action event) that (blank) the protagonist to want to (blank), which becomes more urgent when (blank) (blank) the (blank). The task must be finished before (blank) is (blank).

2. Put a “corpse” on the first page, and a “shootout” in the final chapter. The “corpse” and “shootout” can be literally a corpse and a shootout, or something that can be figuratively described as such. (Do NOT place a dead body on a piece of paper and call it a corpse on the first page. Be more creative.)

3. Master “show don’t tell”. Omit needless words. Learn the art of point-of-view. Turn every scene and every dialogue into a clear and obvious conflict leading to a resolution. Every conflict must move the plot forward.

4. The first draft always sucks, but don’t try to polish it before you finish it. The second draft is always longer than the first and never has missing characters or plot elements. The third draft is shorter than the second because you just deleted (never added) characters, plot elements, and chapters. Then you send it out to 3 to 9 beta readers (usually 5 or 6) who will resoundingly tell you that your work sucks and instruct you on how to mutilate it. Never argue. Fall into a spiral of self doubt. Tear your book apart and paste it back together until you have a fourth draft. Send it to a professional editor (but ask for a quote first) who will tell you (for a hefty fee) that your work sucks and instruct you to go to a writing seminar, a psychiatrist, or to repent and join a seminary. Never argue. Take whatever lessons you gleaned from the diatribes of the editor and incorporate it into your novel. Now that you have your fifth draft you have a choice of burning the manuscript and slitting your wrist, or self publishing a digital book and let your manuscript drift into the internet void, or sending your manuscript to an agent or publisher who will tell you that your work sucks and tactfully direct you to shoot yourself. Never argue. After you have shot yourself ten to twelve times (because not every rejection successfully triggers a gun), you may be lucky enough to find an agent or publisher who will give your manuscript a lukewarm reception and pay you an advance of twenty dollars. Your book will be published, critically acclaimed by three book reviewers who publish literary magazines out of mom’s basement on recycled toilet paper, given one-star reviews by Amazon customers who did not get the cooking book or pornography they expected from the blurb, and the book will disappear after the first printing.

Question:

How long do most people take to write a book?

Answer:

Here is the equation: Take the average number of words you can write in a day over the course of five working days, say 1000 words per day. Cut by half for a realistic daily word count for long term, 500 words. Multiply by 5 working days makes 2500 words per week. Now set your target word count. For a first time book by an unknown author that should be about 80K to 100K words. Let’s say 80K. Divide total number by weekly word count and you get 8 months for the first draft. Insert three months to account for the 30K block, six months for the 40K block, and 9 months for the “fuck it, I’m just gonna die” block. Now you have 26 months. Assuming that you have finished your first draft by then, add one month for re-reading your first draft, tearing it apart, and hating yourself. Two months to begin to see some merit in it. Another month to discover the copy of the draft you did not delete in the attachment file of the email you sent to your high school sweetheart who is not talking to you anymore. Now at 30 months you can start burning your brain on the second draft and you realize you need another 12 months to research the botanical heritage of domesticated onions. After you have finished your research, you realize that a daily word count of 300 is more realistic for your new style which has matured over time, but your target word count has increased to 120K. You scrap your draft and start over with a fresh idea and try to come up with a better equation this time. After about 30 years of repeating the above, you realize that trying to figure out how long it takes to write a book is a waste of time and that you might have gotten published 30 years ago if you weren’t constantly fretting about the manuscript that wasn’t getting ahead fast enough. There is no way your manuscript will be finished next year, or the year after that, or even the year after that if you keep worrying when it will ever get finished. Your book is going to take a long time to finish. That is how long it takes.

Question:

Does anyone in here know how it feels to get shot? (I realize it’s a major longshot but figured I’d ask)

Answer:

(After a long line of sarcastic replies)
Not to ruin such a humorous thread with a serious response, there are numerous resources out there on this topic.
Gun enthusiasts are most pissed when they read unrealistic depictions of guns in fiction and they have many internet articles discussing just that. Many gun enthusiasts have been in shooting accidents and know first hand what it feels like. Some have written at length about their experience. You may want to reach out to them.
Gun shot trauma is remarkably common in some parts of the world (but not in my neighborhood fortunately). There are doctors who specialize in them. You can find many graphic descriptions of gunshot wounds in specialized journals.
If you go to the Pubmed website, you will find an archive of every medical article ever published after about 1960, find the name of the journal you are looking for, then go to the library and ask for relevant books and documents.
And, of course, you can try shooting yourself, but writing is a traumatic enough endeavor as it is.

Question:

BETA READING QUERY
How to trust my beta that my manuscript wouldn’t be stolen?

Answer:

Send your manuscript to competent readers who have experience enough at writing to understand that stealing a beta manuscript is not worth the trouble.

Question:

Where do you get (story) ideas from?

Answer:

Agatha Christie suggested Marks & Spencer. You might find a better deal at Walmart. Try to avoid knockoffs from China.

Question:

i want to be a writer. plz help me how can i do it.

Answer:

I want to be a writer too. I have been trying for 40 years. Plz help me.

 

Why Reality is Stranger than Fiction

This blog, as I keep saying, is primarily about writing fiction. But since I cannot ignore Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, let me talk about its significance from the perspective of a fiction writer.

I am not proud to say that I successfully predicted a Trump victory. I half hoped his opponents will see what they were doing wrong and reverse the trend, but it was not to be. As a result, we have an unlikely presidency that underscores the old axiom “Truth is stranger than fiction”.

But why is it so? Truth and reality cannot, by their very nature, be stranger than fiction. Why is the real world so much stranger than our wildest imaginations? In the case of the Trump victory of 11/9, the reason is quite obvious: Our reality was not real.

A man who says his seduction tactic is to “grab them by the pussy” running for president was unthinkable in the past. Or was it? Donald Trump dismissed this remark as “locker room talk” for which he was widely criticized. But any senator, congressman, or even president who had ever been in a fraternity must have participated in similar locker room talk or worse. We only look away and pretend that it never happened. We build mental barriers and assume that a dignified leader in public is also a boy scout in private. In hind sight we know this not to be true for most past presidents. Even the most deified presidents have, over the course of time, been revealed to have had some faults. And yet we pretend that such behavior does not exist. We are seeing the world through colored glasses.

Reality is stranger than fiction when something that happens is not supposed to happen. Who is supposing? No one but ourselves. We assume something to be the way the world should be and let that assumption cloud our eyes. And when reality reveals our assumptions to be wrong, we are shocked at what we finally see. It is because we made up the world into something that it is not that we find reality so strange when it finally slaps us in the face.

Once upon a time, we collectively did not know that pedophiles existed. In the idyllic past when abortionists were never talked about and rape never supposedly happened, girls and young women wore dainty white dresses and knee high stockings to tea parties in flower gardens, oblivious to the depraved thoughts of the men around them and ignorant of what men said about their bodies behind closed doors. It was all a big secret, even when colored men were being tortured to death in public for allegedly having those very thoughts that white men shared in their smoking rooms over whiskey. And when Nabokov finally published Lolita, bringing fiction up to speed with reality, the protectors of our fictional view of the world criticized the work as pornography and tried to ban it from publication, in effect sweeping untidy truth under the rug.

A meme on the internet blamed the Trump victory on the “I’m-offended-generation” saying “This is the answer for all the political correctness hysteria out there. When every single joke is ‘racist’, when every innocent flirt is ‘sexist’, when every Halloween costume is ‘cultural appropriation’, when a cartoon makes you need a ‘safe space’, when every little comment is ‘offensive’, you’ll get Trump for president.”

I wouldn’t go that far (not the least because it smacks of buck passing). But there is an element of truth in the statement. A large number of people evidently believed that a vote for Trump was a vote against runaway political correctness. There are many criticisms against political correctness, to which not everyone will agree. But one thing both proponents and opponents of political correctness agree on, is that political correctness is an attempt to shape the world around us in the way it should be, but not necessarily is. There is no rhyme or reason why “people of color” is less offensive than “colored people” from a linguistic perspective. The only way “colored people” could possibly be offensive is through its association to the way the term was used in the past. It is an attempt to distance one self from the people who used terms like “coloreds” and “blacks”, and by extension their actions. While the intent may be noble, it is a way of bending our minds (if for the better) and changing our vision of the world to suit our ideals. At worst, political correctness is just a way to shame others into sweeping actual problems under the rug without really solving them.

Some people do not see political correctness as an ideal solution to everything. When there is a difference of opinion, there should be dialogue. Instead, the political correct party ironically directs haughty contempt at those who do not agree. That was the very attitude that political correctness was meant to rectify. As a result, a whole new group of people were reduced to targets of “mansplaining”. These lessor beings of the fly over states were not supposed to exist in significant numbers. The majority of Americans were supposed to be “information competent” and “make wise choices”.

Unreality can only be stacked so high. But we engage in it regardless of what place in the political spectrum we place ourselves. The rich have always ignored the slums beyond the palace walls, the masses have always ignored the warts on their champions, and the educated have always ignored their own lack of worldly wisdom. When we construct an elaborate world of unreality it will always, sooner or later, come tumbling down. That is when we feel that truth is stranger than fiction.

The truth is that Donald Trump, despite his radical departure from what had previously been deemed presidential behavior, has won the election. I called it because he had several definite advantages over conventional politicians. He does not need to be re-elected to any office because he holds none. That means he can say anything that grabs attention and let the media be his advertising team. He has a natural charisma that he has utilized successfully for over thirty years. He was riding on a wide spread anti-liberal sentiment, some of which was irrational but some was rational, but was nonetheless uniformly being ridiculed by the liberals. (A word to liberals: Political comedy, no matter how astute, only serves to galvanize your opposition and fracture your unity.) It also helped that Hilary Clinton behaved much more arrogantly than her margin of actual popularity allowed for. Maybe Donald Trump could get away with shooting somebody without losing supporters, Hilary cannot. But at the end of the day, he won because he is a talented man. You can argue that he lost by a small margin in the popular vote, but not many people in the world could have run an election in the way he did and manage to garner so close to half the votes cast.

His opponents ignored all of that. They talked about his antics endlessly, giving him free publicity even as they criticized him. They painted his supporters as if they were beings of lessor intellect. They had in their minds the “correct” way to see the world and demeaned anyone, right or wrong, who saw the world differently. That is a recipe for political failure.

It remains to be seen what kind of president Donald Trump will be or what kind of world he will nurture, but that is not the point of this blog.

There are many lessons to be taken home from the results of this election which will no doubt be argued for many months to come, but for the fiction writer the lessons are clear. If we look at the world through colored lenses of the way we believe it should be, our imaginary stories will be trumped by reality. If we are to write ground breaking fiction, we must look at the reality behind hushed walls, beyond stereotypes, and beyond what we want it to be. We must take a page from Nabokov and admit that things that are never talked about actually exist in the world.

Japanese History in a Nutshell

If you must grasp Japanese history in a nutshell, it is useful to envision five hills lined up in a row; five bell curves, if you will.

The first is the period spanning “Kamiyo” to the end of the Heian Period (around 1192). “Kamiyo” means “age of the gods” and is largely a period known through oral legends. Jinmu Tenno, the great-great-great-grandson of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, started from a place called Nakatsu Kuni (literally Middle Earth) and conquered eastward until he united all of known Japan of the time. This supposedly happened in 7th century B.C. He became the first emperor of Japan. Although some records of early Japan can be found in Chinese documents, written history did not begin in Japan until the 7th century A.D. Japan began to “modernize” and build a more structured form of government, based on the bureaucratic system in China, in the late 6th century. The architect of the reform, Prince Shotoku admonished his subjects to preserve “wa” (peace) at all costs, which pretty much suggests that Japanese rulers up to this point were a rather violent bunch. They tried to build a capitol city, in Nara, Fujiwara, and finally Kyoto (794 A.D.). The emperor gradually lost power and his regents ruled the government. The imperial aristocrats took the “wa” business seriously. Killing was deemed a vile and low class vocation. The “kebiishi”, armed law enforcers who patrolled Kyoto, were not even given official ranks in government and called “office-less mandarin”.  As a branch of government, they did not officially exist. The aristocrats dealt with all matters related to violence at arm’s length, which gave rise to a new social class who specialized in the killing business; the samurai.

There are tons of medieval literature dealing with this period. The Tale of Genji, often said to be the world’s oldest novel, is set in the pre-samurai Heian era, and deals mostly with the amorous ways of the aristocracy. Modern fiction involving the first bell curve deal with the decadent decline of the era, such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Toyoda’s Portrait of Hell (both of which are based on short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke).

The second bell curve began as the first bell curve waned. In 1185, after much romanticized drama and glorified bloodshed, Minamoto Yoritomo, the heir of the Minamoto clan, became the shogun, a position appointed by the emperor. He built his office in Kamakura, 30km south west of modern Yokohama, which became the Kamakura shogunate. The shogun’s office was placed far from Kyoto to avoid imperial influence and the shogunate soon started behaving like the de facto ruling body of Japan. Almost immediately, the shogun became a figurehead and power was held by his regents, the Hojo clan. The imperial aristocracy maintained their influence by marrying their daughters to powerful samurai, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of the shogun. Eventually, the shogun and his close associates became cultured and foppish. They would read poetry and appreciate incense burning. In the late 13th century, Kublai Klan would make two attempts to invade Japan. The invasions are successfully repelled, but the expenditures sapped at the shogunate’s strength and eventually, this bell curve also waned.

The drama surrounding the rise of Minamoto Yoritomo, and the consequent fall of his rival Taira Kiyomori, is the regular staple and the fundamental template of samurai literature. The decline of this period did not become a source of popular fiction until modern times.

Between 1333 and 1336, as the shogunate fell apart, Emperor Godaigo saw an opportunity to revive the imperial throne and bring power back to the emperor. But times had changed and the old ways of the aristocracy had not. His ambition was met with failure, a schism formed in the imperial throne, the emperor once again became a figurehead, and a new shogun, Ashikaga Takauji, started a new shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. This was the beginning of the third bell curve, the Muromachi shogunate. Since this shogunate began with the suppression of clans allied with Emperor Godaigo, and supporting an alternate imperial throne, it had more power over the emperor than the previous shogunate. But eventually, as the schism was annulled and the throne united, and aristocrats sought influence through intermarriage with the shogun and his regents, the shogunate once again became cultured and foppish. The 8th shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa was so engaged in the arts, he is credited for creating the Japanese culture that we know today; one of subdued and austere aesthetics. However, he was a total disaster as a politician. He let his wife, Hino Tomiko, get involved with government and fight with his regents over power. The confusion eventually lead to Onin Wars (1467) which snowballed into the Sengoku Period, the Period of the Warring Lords. Japan became a free for all and any one of the regional war lords could gain supremacy over others. Most notably, Hideyoshi who started his life as a peasant farmer boy went on to rule Japan. This mouse-eats-cat situation continued as the bell curve of the Muromachi shogunate waned.

Out of the multitudes of war lords vying for power, Oda Nobunaga eventually became the de facto ruler of Japan. Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the last shogun of the Muromachi era, sent letters to various samurai clans “ordering” them to attack Nobunaga. The war lords complied only as long as it was convenient for them. They saw the edicts as justifications to ally and overthrow Nobunaga. But as Nobunaga destroyed his enemies one by one, the shogun’s edicts became increasingly irrelevant. By the time an official letter arrived from the emperor discharging Yoshiaki from office (1573), the shogun was as powerless as the emperor himself. After the death of Nobunaga (1582), power would shift to Hashiba Hideyoshi (later Toyotomi Hideyoshi), then finally to Tokugawa Ieyasu who established the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo). This era, between the final waning of the Muromachi shogunate and the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, by coincidence overlaps with the life of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). This is the era most often depicted in samurai fiction, including James Clavell’s  Shogun and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress.

The Tokugawa shogunate was established in 1603, but Hideyoshi’s clan would not perish until 1615. This is the beginning of the forth bell curve, the Edo era. The shogun appointed “metsuke” (inspectors) to maintain law and order among commoners and low level samurais, and “oometsuke” (grand inspectors) to suppress rogue action by the regional lords. The first grand inspector was the celebrated ninja Yagyu Munefuyu, brother of the legendary Yagyu Jubei. But as prolonged peace extended over centuries, the grand inspectors stopped sending assassins to keep the lords in line, but switched to subtly changing seating arrangements at official functions to punish the lords for various transgressions. By the time Western gunships arrived in Edo harbor, the shogunate was ill equipped to fend off foreign invasions. But regional lords, particularly the ones whose position in government was low due to fighting on the wrong side against the Tokugawas in the early days, were quietly modernizing their forces. As the Tokugawa shogunate waned, the regional lords would form the backbone of the new Imperial Japanese government.

The prolonged peace of the Edo period resulted in the prosperity of the masses, and for the first time, widespread literacy among the commoners. Wood block printing not only produced beautiful art for mass consumption, but numerous popular books. Kabuki plays, joruri puppet theater, and many forms of stylized story telling, such as kodan and rakugo became popular. Many of these works dealt with the lives of commoners. Others dealt with historical stories.

The end game of the last shogunate, called bakumatsu, is another era often depicted in samurai fiction. The movie Last Samurai with Tom Cruise comes to mind.

Thus comes the fifth bell curve. In 1866, the shogun officially gave power back to the emperor. But of course the emperor did not have the means to govern. Even though the shogun was overthrown by an alliance of regional lords, bureaucrats of the shogunate were needed to run the country. This class of shogunate aristocracy had intermarried with the imperial aristocracy over the centuries and had more affinity with the imperial society than the regional lords who put the emperor in power (albeit as a figurehead). The two kinds of samurais would struggle for power while Japan went through rapid modernization, repelled Western colonizers, and started colonizing its Asian neighbors. The problem really surfaced when the military, mostly controlled by regional clans and low level samurai, and the foreign ministry, controlled by imperial aristocracy, could not agree on foreign policy, especially what kind of wars to wage. Japan delved into militarism while the key players wrestled over the steering wheel. The emperor was a figurehead. Tojo became a figurehead. Many layers below them became figureheads of various interests. The mighty Japanese empire went into a tailspin that culminated in the dropping of two atomic bombs.

One of the things General Douglas MacArthur did after the war was to ban the possession of samurai swords permanently. Numerous priceless swords were destroyed. It took a lot of petitioning to get the Americans to understand that some of these swords were irreplaceable art pieces. Japanese citizens would eventually own swords again but the samurai class would never be the same. Land owning gentry had their lands confiscated and an entire social class was systematically destroyed. That was the end of the fifth bell curve.

People speak of “The Last Samurai” as if there was only one. But the age of the samurai ended three times: Once at the end of the Sengoku era, once at the end of the Edo era, and once at the end of WWII. Meanwhile, the Onin Wars is said to be the end of the imperial aristocratic lifestyle. But the strange rivalry between the aristocracy and the samurai continue in different forms. You might say that a sixth bell curve came after WWII when a new democratic Japan rose to the position of an economic giant. But that does not fit with the picture of previous five bell curves of Japanese power. Postwar Japan seems like a new entity. A place where no samurai would ever live.

Okehazama

The name, Okay-hah-zama, almost sounds like an Oriental rendition of the name “OK Corral”. Actually, “oke” means “bucket” and “hazama” can mean “valley” or even “gorge”, thus “Okehazama” would mean “Bucket Valley”. The name implies a geographical pinch point, like Thermopylae. Nobody knows exactly where the battle of Okehazama took place, and debate had raged for centuries on how Oda Nobunaga, with just two thousand troops, managed to defeat Imagawa Yoshimoto’s massive army, said to be anywhere from twenty five thousand to fifty thousand soldiers.

In the aftermath of the battle, the mighty Imagawa fiefdom disintegrated, not in small part because Matsudaira Motoyasu (soon to change his name to Tokugawa Ieyasu) broke away from Imagawa rule and allied with Nobunaga. While Nobunaga gained strength, recovered lost territory, and went on to unite Japan under his banner. It was a true turning point in history.

Nobunaga was only 26 years old at the time, and had newly succeeded his father as the leader of the Oda clan. He had a reputation for eccentricity and was dubbed “the fool”.  By contrast, Yoshimoto was 41 years old, had been the leader of the Imagawa clan since he was 17, came from an old noble family, and was granted the name Yoshimoto from Ashikaga Yoshiharu, the eleventh shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate. Although the power of the shogunate had been dwindling for some time, it was still a great honor that granted him considerable authority.

Following the death of Nobunaga’s father, Imagawa Yoshimoto’s clan had been nibbling away at the territories of the Oda clan for years. Oda fortresses and outposts were falling one by one. The Imagawa clan had taken control of the entire eastern coast of Ise bay. The powerful clan was now ready to make their final move on the Oda clan, crush them once and for all, and clear their way to Kyoto, where Yoshimoto could join forces with the shogun and rebuild the shogunate with himself as regent. In May of 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto lead his army into Oda territory. The five hundred soldiers defending Marune fortress were the first to be slaughtered. Washizu fortress was the next to fall. The Imagawa army was unstoppable.

Oral historians of the era blamed Yoshimoto’s arrogance and complacency for his defeat. Written records inked decades after the event credit the valor of Nobunaga’s soldiers. Legends and fiction depicts Nobunaga as a tactical genius, which he probably was, but there were great many elements involved. Yoshimoto was confident enough to divide up his army and send them off on independent sorties. There was perhaps more booty to go around that way. He kept only five thousand of his closest men around him, not all of them combat personnel. Nobunaga’s smaller army was agile enough to sneak between Yoshimoto’s divided army and strike directly at the center. And a sudden downpour fortunately masked Nobunaga’s approach, helping his surprise attack.

In spite of the fact we do not know exactly where the battle was fought, exactly how big Yoshimoto’s army was, or exactly how the battle was won, all accounts agree on some curious details. Yoshimoto, who cared very much about his connections to high aristocracy, dyed his teeth black and powdered his face white in the aristocratic fashion, and lead his army on a palanquin instead of on horseback. When Yoshimoto was finally cornered, he struggled with a young soldier named Yoshikatsu and bit off his finger. When his head was presented to Nobunaga, the pale dead finger was still between the nobleman’s blackened teeth.

This all happened in a time when people still believed in magic, ghosts, curses, and gods. Modern writers and historians tend to downplay this element, and even Nobunaga’s contemporaries avoided recording the various rumors and supernatural theories surrounding the miraculous victory.

What would the people of the time thought of Yoshimoto’s defeat? What divine retribution lead to his downfall? What sacrilege did Yoshimoto commit that aligned the gods against him so? What angry spirits, what vengeful ghosts had such a grudge against Lord Yoshimoto?

Remember that Yoshimoto had already conquered all the key fortresses that stood in his way, and he had sent his armies on sorties in search of booty. His forces were set free to rob and rape the villagers and town people. This was probably not the first time such action was taken. And it was because his army was off to pillage the people that Yoshimoto was left open to Nobunaga’s surprise attack. No doubt, in his time, people whispered of the anger of various patron spirits of the villages and townships plundered and destroyed by the Imagawa army. But nobody recorded, in so many words, that angry gods took vengeance on Yoshimoto. It was a frightening thought to put into words. Best not to mention them lest the spirits turn against you.

Instead they recorded the details. Yoshimoto’s dismembered head was delivered to Nobunaga, teeth dyed pretentious black, face powdered foppish white, and his killer’s finger still in his mouth.