New Years Resolution: Exercise in Failure?

I long ago gave up New Years resolutions, mainly because I came upon this major epiphany while sucking up potato chips and downloading internet porn: promises are meant to be broken.  Embedded in their very structure lurks the fact of failure.  New Years resolutions, then, do not furnish hope but self-sabotage.

How many of you have promised yourself to show up at the gym and lose a good 30 pounds?  How many will really quit those cancer sticks?  How many are going to start writing that novel?

So, I won’t be making resolutions for myself.   I have decided that I’m basically perfect.  To improve myself further only would mean to commit the sin of pride.  Satan, you know, was once a mighty angel who suffered from this deadly sin.  He tried to exceed his place in Heaven.  Now, cast out, he spends eternity in a lake of fire.  Me:  I’m too smart to make that mistake.

But I will make New Years Resolutions for my main character—Robert, the detective—who’s kind of stuck in a rut.  I mean, come on:  the guy has an Ivy-League degree but he’s an alcoholic who can’t get over his sister’s brutal murder, which happened over five years ago.  He works as a deliveryman for his college sweetheart, Emma, who has become an incredibly successful designer.  His goals are pretty pitiful:  to save up money, so he can go on little binges in the shadier cantinas of Ensenada.  Robert lives in a rooming house in East LA—“community housing” is the polite term—along with the borderline homeless and the beaten wives who have sought temporary refuge there.  The only quality that endears him is his sex appeal.  Robert’s kinda hot.  But, no doubt, his wanton sexcapades can only lead to a fire in the loins.  That fool is going to get a serious case of the clap.

New Years Resolutions, then, are a good exercise in character development.  Like the Christmas gift exercise discussed in my previous blog, the Resolution exercise allows you to think about the hopes, aspirations and fears of the character.  It makes you understand the frailty that links us as humans.  New Years resolutions are about semi-secret desires that are, paradoxically, semi-public:   you put them in an envelope, file them away; you share them only with the tightest circle of friends.

These are Robert’s resolutions.  He will share them only with Emma but she will never think to ask.  His best friend, Cesar, would only razz him.   Robert will keep the Resolutions in one of those fancy cartons they sell Scotch in at the Duty Free:



1)   Get a new used car:  maybe a Honda this time.

2)   Save money by recycling my empties.  Remember Suze Ohrman:  Latte Factor.

3)   Take LSAT.  It’s not selling out your soul to corporate America.  It’s just figuring out if your soul can fetch a good price.

4)   Write film script about really good looking deliveryman in LA.  It will be like Taxi Driver.

5)   Use my friend’s success as spur, not as thorn.  Also, try to be more sociable and make contacts.

6)   Stop wasting time at AA, where everybody is a loser; “water finds its level.”

7)   Grooming:  find a new and interesting way to part hair.

8)   Only one cup of coffee a day!!!!!

9)   Don’t laugh when people talk about yoga.  Wait until later.

10)         Try to get to know a girl first:  at least one date!

So, these are Robert’s resolutions.  And I have learned so much, already, about him in the process.  Of course, all characters are simply projections of your own fantasies.  They are you and not-you:  your mirror and  distortion.  Oh Jeez, I feel so exposed.






Shopping for Serial Killers

My detective is tracking a serial killer.  He doesn’t know that yet.  Neither do the police.  But a pattern will emerge.  Serial killers always work in a pattern.  I’m still working on figuring out this pattern.  I do this by reading Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert K. Ressler who worked for the FBI and coined the term “serial killer.”  Ressler was the consultant on Silence of the Lambs.

The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs Book Cover

So far, here’s what I’ve got:

  • likes to steal undergarments and leaves excrement at the victim’s residence.
  • is obsessed with a certain type of girl:  a girl who could almost be perfect but is not quite there yet.  Lots of girls in LA like that.
  • wants to help perfect them.
  • impotent.  Doesn’t have sex with them.  He only leaves things inside them.

All this is subject to change.  It’s a rapidly evolving constellation of ideas.  The title of Ressler’s book comes from the philosopher Nietzsche:  “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.  And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

I already feel creepy looking into the abyss.  I’ll need to get over that.  But does my detective see in the abyss?  Or should I say:  What does the abyss see in him?


Christmas Pickle: What to Give the Serial Killer Who Has It All?

It’s that time of year: Christmas. Like so many procrastinators, I have been in Yule log denial. “At least I got the gifts for my nieces and nephews,” I tell myself.  Otherwise, I’m a terrible person–a blight on the cheery, winter landscape. I have not bought gifts for my siblings.  My elderly parents are entirely neglected. My wife is not even going to get a lump of coal in her stocking. She’ll have to make do with just me…

Christmas Gift

Suddenly, I realize I haven’t bought a gift for the most important person of all, the one figure who has consumed my life for months: my serial killer. This is an oversight that is unforgiveable. Such poor form! Dear God, I have become a monster.

Of course, I don’t really know a serial killer. But I’m writing a detective novel with a serial killer in it. That crazy fool has been victimizing the beautiful young interns working in some of the finest design studios in the garment district of Downtown Los Angeles. He’s a crafty fellow with impeccable taste.  And yes:  his victims are all kinda hot.

Even if this man is entirely made-up, thinking about what I would buy him is a good exercise in character development—a variation on one what writing workshops do all the time. What flavor ice cream would your character eat? This was the question written on a mimeographed worksheet in my first Creative Writing seminar.

What flavor is your ice cream?

True, fictional characters can’t eat ice cream but this doesn’t invalidate the exercise. Having to think about their dietary needs makes these creatures of my imagination more concrete. You need to believe in your character as if they are flesh and blood in order to have them act like they’re not just paper and ink.

I guess buying gifts for your family and friends, then, represents an act of imagination: it’s writing at the most fundamental level. Aren’t you just inventing your friends and family as characters populating your own head? You buy them something because you have a fantasy about what the folks in your life truly mean to you. Dad gets a tie; Mom, a cookbook; Bro, a subscription to Sports Illustrated; Sis, that Britney Spears perfume you just know she’ll love.

Of course, the day after Christmas is exactly the moment you realize that those very real people have existed mainly as fictions. So much gets returned. Stuff is packed into the closet. The truly egregious gift is laid aside to be put into the pile at a white elephant gift exchange. It’s value will come belatedly next Christmas not as a concrete artifact but as a joke.
So what does every serial killer need? What wouldn’t he buy for himself? What would flatter his sense of personal taste? What would speak to his class and social position? What would address his burning ambitions and desires? What will help him become an even better serial killer than he already is? What is that one thing he is missing in his life? Of course, I’ve got it: cuff links!


Do I feel Social Responsibility?

So, do I feel any kind of social responsibility when I write an Asian American detective?  I thought I would.  But I don’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  I started writing little detective vignettes—short episodes—because there were few Asian American detectives.  Those vignettes were just for me. And when I had enough of them, I realized they could be for the rest of the world.  So I definitely started out with a vague sense of social responsibility:  There were no Vietnamese American detectives (mine’s hapa:  half-and-half).  What was out there that treated Asian Americans felt a little too stereotypical.  And I aimed to correct that.

There was a social project, too.  I wanted to represent my part of LA—the landscapes that a real insider knows.  Not just Malibu or Hollywood.  But Silverlake and Downtown.  Not just the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Polo Lounge.  But the Gaylord and the Bounty.  I wanted my Vietnamese American detective to own a piece of that landscape.  To claim it.

The Beverly Hills Hotel

The Beverly Hills Hotel

But detective fiction is also politically incorrect.  My serial killer is a vicious and depraved woman-killer.  My characters work in fashion:  they’re monsters in pretty masks.  My detective is an uncensored deliveryman who has seen the ugly underbelly of the fashion industry: sweatshops, human trafficking, wage slavery.  Need I say more?

I had this awesome grey-haired Creative Writing instructor in college.   He often gave this advice to students who go to class with stories that all were about heavy social issues and big, brainy ideas:  David would say, “your only responsibility should be to the story.”  When I started teaching Creative Writing, I gave that same advice and passed it off as my own.

I try to follow my own advice.  I want to tell a good yarn.



Guy Noir

One of my fears about writing a detective fiction is that I might end up sounding like Guy Noir.  You know who Guy Noir is, right?  He’s the spoofy, campy detective  that Garrison Keilor uses on his show, Lake Wobegone.  His speech is more hardboiled than a five minute egg cooked an hour in a nuclear reactor.  It is so over the top that it becomes a parody of itself.  When he speaks, there is dramatic music that punctuates each statement, like one of those old-timey radio shows:  TATATA!!!!!!!!!

Here is the voice-over that introduces most of these sketches:  “A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets, but on the 12th floor of the Acme Building, one man is still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions — Guy Noir, Private Eye.”  It only gets sillier from there.

Guy Noir

I didn’t start out consciously writing this way.  But this is the kind of style I naturally gravitate towards.  I’m a bit melodramatic and hardboiled and silly.  It can get a little excessive, no?

The thing is:  detective fiction already is a parody of itself.  It’s so self-aware of its own conventions.  Robert Crais has an entire chapter in Lullaby Town in which the narrator keeps saying “Take that Mario Puzo” and “Take that Dashiell Hammet” whenever the narrator lets out a hardboiled zinger.  So, there’s already this over-the-top quality of speech.

Can I just relax and run with it?  Am I a wussy because I don’t know how far I can take it?  I guess restraint isn’t one of the hallmarks of great detective fiction.  If I wanted understatement, I should write haiku.  Here’s an idea:  a detective fiction in haiku:

Murder Weapon Found

Body Broken Cut in Bits

Who dunnit?  Dunno.

Special Powers

If you’re writing detective fiction, your hero should have a special capability.  Call it a power.  Kung Fu.  Lockpicking.  Photographic memory.  This is true in a lot of plot oriented genres:  MacGyver can make anything out of chewing gum and a paperclip…and the case is closed.

Nobody tires of a special power.  Didn’t we all want to be superheroes?

"Super Heroes Cartoon Charcters"

So here’s the catch:  you need to plant this early.  And then it can be used later.  And everybody will go:  wow, that guy sure knows how to put together a yarn.  Ernest Hemingway does this in The Sun Also Rises, which early on states:  “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.”

Well guess who gets his ass kicked a whole lot later.  That’s right:  the narrator.  By Robert Cohn.  Beat that!

My hero doesn’t have a special capability.  But I know he wants one.  So far, the closest thing to this is his declaration that he is invisible to most people.  He’s a delivery guy.  All delivery guys are basically invisible.  And they can get in and out.  Is this enough?

I know:  maybe he has a pornographic memory—instant recall of any and all smut his eyes have run across…and this will allow him to recognize the serial killer’s victims as former centerfolds from obscure glossy magazines.  God, if I could just give him a special power, it would be like giving him new shoes—ruby slippers, seven league boots.  He would be so happy.  Fancy that.

The Detective Fiction Writer’s Diet

Maybe I should start my own fad diet:  I’m losing a ton of weight as I write.  It’s because I’m following a strict regime.  I exercise right before and after writing.  Ten minutes of calisthenics, before.  Forty five minutes of cardio after.

My biggest meal is lunch but it has to be quick.  All my meals have to be nutritious and quick.  I don’t want fuss or excessive preparation.  I don’t want to do too much cleaning.  So, I eat oatmeal and eggs.  Also, I cut out drinking.  I love to make elaborate meals but only do so when I visit my friends—my team—who help me think of new ideas for the book.

Get this:  I’ve dropped from 192 to 169 pounds.  And today, I have officially made my major fitness goal:  falling within the BMI—Body Mass Index—for my height:  5’10”.  Who would have thought writing could lead to weight loss?  After all, you just sit on your butt all the time.

Weight Scale and Measuring tape

I think it has to do with being honest with yourself.  Here is my delusion in a nutshell:  I was a gymnast at one point and I did some weightlifting afterwards, so I’m much thicker than the average guy of my height.  I just thought that the BMI didn’t apply to me.  And I’m a smart-ass–pretty good at finding fault with just about anything:  The BMI was antiquated, made a hundred years ago by some scientist who used an arbitrary formula.  It didn’t take into account postmodern training, which now produces big guys.  I still thought of myself as this gymnast with an amazing bod.  Snort.

Olympic Gymnast

But now I realize this was arrogance.  And it was denial.  And it only hurt me.  Writing every day and keeping track of what I write was what made me realize I was not exempt from the laws that govern everyone’s life.  Setting small goals and being honest about them–those things are what made me take stock of other parts of my life.

So what do you think?  Should I write another book, one that will beat out that Atkin’s Diet and sail to the top of the bestseller’s list?  The Detective Fiction Writer’s Diet:  Sit On Your Ass and Let the Pounds Melt Away—I like the ring of that.

A Room of My Own, A Lock on the Door

I like to fantasize that I write in a spiral notebook, longhand, seated at a steel desk in a locked room—all alone.  In these fantasies, I am wearing a turtle neck and a fedora.  I’m smoking cigarettes and sipping Scotch, neat.  There’s jazz on: old-timey stuff from the twenties, like Bix Beiderbecke.


And then, voila—genius, magnificence.  Like a long, leggy deer, divine inspiration leaps from my head.  I don’t even know where it came from but it is there.  A sign that I am touched by God.

But this scenario is just not true.  I actually sit cross-legged on a purple couch in my living room, often in my boxers.  My Mac is perched on my lap—growing hotter.   So hot that I put a pillow underneath.

And I’m never alone.  I’m always showing stuff to friends.  You gotta write with a team.

Once a week, I meet with my friends.  They don’t know they’re my team:  narrative commandos with ninja moves and mutant powers.  But they are.  I’m lucky because they know detective fiction way better than I do.  Also, they know the nitty-gritty side of the fashion industry.  So they can tell me if I’m way off base.  And they’re smart as whips. I take notes when they are pontificating.  I am making my pilgrimage to the well with my buckets.  It happens once a week because that’s when I run dry and I must return to the source.

Then, I sit on my couch and try to make their ideas into story lines.  And repeat the cycle.

I guess I’ll never be the kind of genius that sits in a locked room and strings together sentences.  I’m not cut of that cloth.  In his early apprenticeship, John Cheever actually made it a point to sit in a room until lunchtime every day, for five years and write.  The room was in the basement of his New York apartment.  He even put on a suit.  Then took it off and slipped it onto a hanger.  He didn’t want to ruin that suit.  It was his only suit.

In the introduction to his Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories, John Cheever made this surprising revelation:  “a great many of my stories were written in boxer shorts.”  So at least I have something in common with a great genius.

A boxer with smiley faces

Sleeping Beauty: Classic that Never Dies

The action in Sleeping Beauty is immediate—an oil spill, a chance meeting with an heiress on the beach, abduction, ransom, entanglement.  I admire the way plots happen in detective fiction.  In this one, it’s especially good.

Ross Macdonald is masterful. And here’s what I love:  nobody knocks on a door and hires the detective.  It’s all done on the fly.  He finds himself enmeshed in the story and it seems natural.  It’s almost like he was ambushed by the story and the world solidifies around him.

Sleeping Beauty Book Cover

Love it.

You read a guy like Ross Macdonald and you feel humbled.  I’m not there yet.  I’m still feeling my way around this world.  But I want it to feel suddenly real–inevitable like that.  Who says detective fiction isn’t art?

Sweatshop Labor vs. Piece Work

Most people think about sweatshop labor and they think about a humming factory filled with feudal overlords and peon workers, mostly illegals.  Maybe it’s because these places are so cinematic, everyone can imagine them even if they’ve never been.

But there’s another kind of sweatshop labor:  the home factory.  Maybe it’s in a garage.  Maybe a living room.  Piece work plays a big part in LA’s garment industry, especially among high-end independent designers who need to produce things in smaller batches.

Piece work exploits people in different ways.  They’re maybe living off state aid, taking care of a kid.  They are only compensated by the piece and they’re penalized for shoddy work.  So they work longer for less pay.  Much less than a sweatshop worker.  They also supply their own factory spaces—their living rooms—where their children play at their feet.

Piece work.  I want that in my story.  But I’m not sure how it fits.  It’s certainly not as glamorous—can I use that term loosely?—as a real, honest-to-god sweatshop.  You can have a photogenic chase in a sweat shop.  There’s a hierarchy that can be exploited for good storytelling—an unscrupulous boss-lady who has witnessed an event but is afraid to share it with the police because of the grey nature of her business.  A higher-up boss man who only emerges from his office to whisper something to a bootlick nobody.  A young girl, recently imported from China, who only knows a few words of English and has already seen more than she can utter.

Factory filled with workers and sawing machines

Maybe the serial killer is a bit more careless around people who don’t count.  They are witnesses who can’t speak.  Usually sweat shops are hidden but have ventilation that open up into alleys, nooks, crannies.

Most of the piece work takes place in Monterrey Park—the suburb of LA populated by Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants.  So it’s inconvenient unless there’s a story line.  I haven’t figured out that storyline yet.

But is inconvenience and feasibility enough to ax this story line?  Sometimes you have to be brutal in detective fiction.  Cut your babies.  Dump them in a burlap bag.  Drop them in a river.  Watch them float downstream.  Brutal makes good story, no?