Wednesday, November 18, 2009


You finished a chapter.

Now go back and fine-tune it — add, delete — what needs to go in, be taken out. Repair the characters. Do it when your mind is still fresh with the scenes and the characters of that chapter. However, you must be unbiased (which is hard toward what you’ve just written), detached (which is harder from what you’ve just built), so you can see your own creative flaws.

Or it will be hellish after the novel has been written to go back to fix the flaws either on your own courage, or at an editor’s request.

On characterization
Unlike an actor who plays just his role, an author plays all his characters’ roles, like a man who plays chess against himself.

You can imagine characters. Yet until you write them out, you haven’t known them. Put them in motion. Let them interact with one another. Let them live in some environment. It’s then that you begin to explore your characters’ depths. If you ask me what’s the hardest part in writing a novel, I’ll tell you: characterization. That’s what separates a literary novel from a potboiler. Characters shape a story line, not the other way around. You can’t think up a plot and shoehorn your characters into it. If you do, you are writing a potboiler. In fact, well-developed characters create a more convincing story line, even shaping it or altering it against your original vision. Think about that!

On Hard Scenes
Writing is just like any normal part of our daily life. It ebbs and flows. The worst thing to a writer isn't writer's block but illness, prolonged, unbearable illness that can really affect his writing. Other than that, as Hemingway once said, there will be days when you have to drill rock and then blast it out with charges. When that happens, just take a break, do something else and let your battery be recharged.

There are no hard scenes to write. Really. Those so-called difficult scenes are what writers make them out to be with their paranoia. So before they can write such scenes, their anxiety has already killed their creativity to write them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Write What You Know

You can write 50K words a month like the NaNoWriMo challenge. Even 100K words in two weeks. Then you’re qualified as a hack writer. Potboiler writers write faster than they breathe. John Grisham finishes each of his thriller in six months. However, literary fiction writers average 2-3 years a novel. Pace of a tortoise.

As an Asian, I can identify with a protagonist who’s brown-eyed, yellow-skinned. I read A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, one that won him the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for literary fiction. In this short-story collection, his protagonist in every story is a Vietnamese, and Robert is white. Well, despite lavish praises from his critics, I could never feel ‘the voice’ in each of his stories, presumably from an Asian.

It takes an extraordinary skill for a writer to write in a voice other than his own, considering his race, his ethnic background, his years spent in the said environment that serves as the locale of his novel.

Writers like Chang-rae Lee, Ha Jin write strictly from their upbringing background through their protagonists. So the Korean voice, the Chinese voice from their works ring true. I take my hat to Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) who put himself (a white male) in the place of a Japanese female as a geisha and, kudos to him, succeeded where many others have failed. But it took him 12 years to write such a novel, having gone through three major rewrites to change the POV, third to first.

And don’t ask Arthur Golden to knock off 50K words in a month!