Monday, March 28

"The Young Writer"

The English teacher told him there was no spark in his writing. She said it lacked passion.

The young writer remained composed. He thanked her for her honesty before leaving. Walking to the parking lot, his manner betrayed nothing.

Once inside his electric blue Dodge Neon, however, the young writer sounded his barbaric yawp.

“Why must I be male and middle class? Why was I not born gay? Why was my mother not black and my father not Jewish? Where is my addiction, my depression? Where is my story?”


I write humor very rarely. If I cannot see the person in front of me laughing, I lose faith in my jokes and references and puns. This, however, was supposed to be funny, and it was supposed to give me an audience that would laugh or not, that would allow me to know whether it was funny or not, but then I had to go and lose in the first round, and I never found out.

What do you think? Does it make you giggle? Chortle? Snort in derision? Yearn for the simple pleasures of Marmaduke and Family Circus?

Sunday, March 20

A first novel: Break

I took a break in writing this week. Not that I particularly deserved or needed one. I struggled to put down just over two hundred words and gave up, called it a week. Part of this was due to the appearance of Spring Break. Demetra and I spent the week at her parents', and that is not conducive to writing. There are new relatives to visit everyday and errands to run. There is also a TV with a diagonal that pushes four feet. That is a lot of distractions.

Also, I had run out of timeline. The timeline had helped my writing more than I understood. Knowing what was going to come next and only needing to fill in the details and taking the time to better understand the characters within the situations made it all come so smooth that when I ran out of timeline, it jarred hard. I don't even know how to finish this final scene before they leave for Nairobi. This break week has been an opportunity to develop that as well.

With any luck now and without any further breaks, I should have this earliest draft done by the summer, and there will be a lot of fun in revision to look forward to then. Good times.

Single-spaced pages with one-inch margins? Seventy-three.
Words? Fifty-four thousand, two-hundred and forty-five.
Named characters? Thirty-one.

Saturday, March 19

"Car Shopping"

Good news everybody. Since The Inlander redesigned its website, the pieces read in its 2009 flash fiction tournament are no longer up. That means I am free to share the three pieces I wrote for it with you. Please enjoy "Car Shopping."


Mom took me car shopping this morning. I graduate next month, and she said I deserved it, that he would be proud of me. We went to a lot, and a salesman said he knew what I needed.

“Ready?” he asked, gunning the engine of a 1975 Pontiac Grand Am.

Dad asked me that when I was younger. Sure of my grip, I would lean forward in my red wagon and give a fevered nod. The car would never make me choke in exhilaration like that wagon when Dad charged ahead, kicking up leaves on the street.

I miss him.


There were rules for the tournament, themes and phrases that had to be included. This story had to include a red wagon. Of the three I wrote, I had the least confidence in this one, but I read it in the first round in the hopes that by keeping my stronger stories for later, they would propel me to the championship. That was a mistake. I lost in that first round and didn't get to read my other two stories at all. Then again, I don't think even my best story would have sent me to the second round. That was a really good story I lost to, and I knew it when she was done reading. I didn't feel so bad when the judges announced her victory, but the woman who sat behind me in the audience said that she had liked this one more. That felt good.

Tuesday, March 15

A first novel: Character

There is only a single piece of writing advice I have found common between writers as diverse as Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell. It's basic. It's to cut additional, unnecessary words.

I'm not quite at that point yet. I would need the characters and setting and all the rest of the details developed before I could begin to consider taking words out. I do, however, believe that I have found at least one additional, unnecessary thing: one of the main characters, the second eldest brother in the Lochilangor family. The intention was that he would serve as a foil to the eldest and third eldest brothers. Not as talented at football as his younger brother, he falls in with his older brother and becomes an enforcer for him. Unfortunately, so far he has been no more than a pale imitation of both. He has done absolutely nothing to distinguish himself. That is kind of the point, for purposes of theme or something, but it doesn't make for an engaging character.

I don't know what I'll do. For the time being, I'll keep him in the story. Maybe I will find some inspiration in the next month or two that makes him more interesting and a better character. Maybe not. In that case I will be scrubbing him from more than a hundred pages of story before the second draft.

I'm curious whether this is a validation of my strategy to just go with a few vague ideas and develop them on the fly or not. Had I taken the time to fully envision the characters and their situation would I have realized this earlier? Had I taken the time would I have better understood what made the second eldest unique and necessary? I don't know. I guess those sorts of questions will have to wait for their answers until I see the rest of the mistakes I'll make.

Single-spaced pages with one-inch margins? Seventy-three.
Words? Fifty-four thousand and twelve.
Named characters? Thirty-one.

Friday, March 11

Lent 2011

Another Ash Wednesday, another Lent, another opportunity to deepen one's faith through sacrifice and spiritual activities. The plan this season was to practice a Muslim fast, absolutely no foods or drinks beside water during the daylight hours. It's something I've wanted to try for a few years now, but as I gave it further thought in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, it began to seem less and less like a good idea. Not for any particular physical reason. Millions of Muslims manage it for the duration of Ramadan without suffering ill effects. The problem was what sort of guest it would make me. If I went out with friends for lunch, if I was invited to a friend's home for dinner before sunset, what sort of impression would it set if I insisted on holding to my fast? A poor one, that's what, and I would hate to be a poor guest. So that plan will be scuttled for a few years until I manage to spend Ramadan in a Muslim nation where the entire community is behind the fast. It's on my list of things to do before I die.

Instead I'm trying something much more mundane, reading the Bible daily. I've tried this before, beginning with Genesis and working my way through sometime in high school. That failed miserably, somewhere in Leviticus understandably, so I'm trying to follow the day's selected readings. The United States Council of Bishops makes it really easy, posting the entirety of the day's chapters and verses from the New American Bible Revised Edition translation on their website. I don't even have to open a physical Bible. Maybe I'll make it carry this on next year with a more Catholic twist and read the papal encyclicals and bulls.

Sunday, March 6

A first novel: Pre-writing

Those who follow this blog through an RSS feed or regular visits to the site missed an insightful comment to my last Sunday post regarding this novel. My best man pointed out on Facebook that these last few posts make it sound as though I'm still pre-writing, putting down all my thoughts on character and plot and setting and refining and organizing them rather than really writing this novel even though I am more than sixty pages in.

He's right. It may be more traditional to write extensive timelines and character descriptions, but this works for me. I had some vague ideas of the characters and their settings and plot just went at it. I test them out and get a sense of what is most right and what I want to continue with.

The worry that kept me from writing detailed notes was that once I began writing, I would discover I was not actually interested in these wind-ups I had created once they were set free and I would have to rewrite significant pieces. To some extent, this has already borne out. One of my early interests in this novel was treating is as some sort of redemption for bad movies. The protagonist loves film, but seeing as how he lives in Kenya and is entirely without access to any film but those with the broadest appeal, he only sees the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and other men who have since become punchlines. The working title, The Subber, is a reflection of this as the protagonist begins to write subtitles to these and other movies. That theme is still present but much reduced as my interest has moved toward more fundamental themes like storytelling.

Maybe I would have realized this earlier or found ways to stay more excited about bad movies with different pre-writing techniques, but I'm content with this. Beside when I better understand what this novel is about and who its characters are, the actual writing will be much less intimidating when there are already some hundred pages of foundation to build from.

Single-spaced pages with one-inch margins? Sixty-six.
Words? Forty-nine thousand and eighty-one.
Named characters? Thirty-one.

Wednesday, March 2

Considering Ngugi wa Thiong'o's "Wizard of the Crow"

We have an obsession with villains. Victorian readers turned Satan into the hero of Paradise Lost. Grendel and Sauron became the protagonists of their own novels by John Gardner and Yisroel Markov. Darth Vader is the most enduring character in Star Wars, and Heath Ledger won his Oscar as the Joker, while no one paid any attention to Christian Bale or Gary Oldman. For the kids, this summer saw the release of Despicable Me and Megamind whose protagonists respectively planned on stealing the moon and defeated Metro Man.

Maybe it has something to do with Tolstoy's line that all happy families are happy in the same way while the unhappy are miserable each in their own way. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that villains are active. They rob banks, kidnap presidents and threaten cities while the heroes passively react to them. Maybe we all just want to be villains and be free law and morality to do whatever we will. I don't know.

In any case, the trend continues in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow. The villains are the best part of the novel. When the story followed the Ruler and his plans for Marching to Heaven, a project to rival the Tower of Babel in size and ambition, and the power plays of his ministers Machokali and Sikiokuu, the story rollicked. When the story followed Kamiti and Nyawira as they healed peoples' souls and advocated for equal rights for women and against the dictatorship in Aburiria, a thinly disguised Kenya, the story collapsed.

The problem is that you already know Kamiti and Nyawira. There is no mystery to what they will do. They are prophets with ideas heavily inspired by Buddhism. Without guile, they treat everyone who asks for their help. They lack conflict and bore.

The Ruler and his lackies, however, you never know what they'll do, who they'll double cross, from whom they'll beg forgiveness. Tajirika takes over an entire prison with the bucket he used as a toilet for a week and cows all of his guards by telling them he has the death virus. Machokali has surgery to expand his eyes to the size of light bulbs in order to see the Ruler's enemies no matter how far they run, and Sikiokuu takes ears the size of a rabbit's to hear the most private of conversations regarding the Ruler. Urged by the Global Bank to turn Aburiria into a multi-party democracy before they will release the loans necessary to fund Marching to Heaven, the Ruler gives birth to Baby D and makes himself the titular head of all parties.

In a masterstroke, Ngugi does not make these villains implacable opponents on the level of Lex Luthor or Archie Costello. Rather, they have more in common with the Shredder and Cobra Commander of the 1980's cartoons. Their insanity only serves to mask their gross incompetency. Ambition paves the fastest path to the crocodiles of the Red River. Sycophancy and groveling are the keys to success. When lines of people converge in protest in the capital, the Ruler decrees that no more than five people can stand in line together, forgetting that he had earlier dispatched motorcycle riders in every direction of the compass to make lines in support of the government. The Movement for the Voice of the People disrupts the Ruler's birthday with plastic snakes. The ministers overhaul the education system so that the only proper textbooks are those written by the Ruler.

By all rights the government should have collapsed under its own weight long ago, but it has had support in the West. The Ruler came to power by slaughtering some seven thousand suspected Communists during the Cold War, and now, when times have changed, the West is pleased with the slightest movements toward democracy. A complete lack of understanding of Aburiria and its people only complicates the problem. In one of the best scenes, women protesters disguised as tribal dancers and official entertainment for the Ruler and representatives of the Global Bank moon their audience and proceed to defecate all over. The Global Bank men want to laugh but see the stony expression of the Ruler and become convinced it is actually a very solemn dance.

In this, Ngugi draws a clear picture of the ills that continue to afflict far too much of sub-Saharan Africa. His ambitions to prescribe remedies are not as effective, but what he offers us is enough.

I read another of Ngugi's books, Petals of Blood. You can read my thoughts on it here.