Semicolon: friend or foe?

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.  In this installment, he humorously discusses the implications of punctuation.  Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe. 


Late at night, I wake up with a start.  One of the large, looming questions I must face while writing this detective novel visits me like a phantom cat that sits on my chest, sucking out my breath; it asks me this question with its sandpaper tongue: “do you dare to use the semicolon?”

This may seem like a frivolous question and, really, beside the point of the craft of writing detective fiction.  After all, I have to handle so many important elements:  plot, action, character, setting.  But bear with me; you’ll see; I’m writing a first person narration.  The voice is hardboiled; the character, gritty.  The semi-colon is a boon; it is also a burden.


The semi-colon is a very useful punctuation mark.  It’s perfect for organizing thoughts, suggesting unspoken relationships between clauses and spelling out divisions between crucial parts of the sentence.  But its highly technical quality—the fact that it signals an extremely ordered, systematic mind—also represents its major drawback.  Is it too intellectual?  Does it come off as too smart and therefore make my character unlikeable?  Will I alienate a crucial part of my audience by inadvertently making both myself and my character come off as a pretentious piece of petrified poop?

I used to teach SAT prep while in grad school; the semicolon is one of those punctuation marks that signals a higher order of intellection.  Most students don’t know how to handle it, so the standard advice is to display your writing sophistication by sprinkling the essay with semicolons all over the SAT.  The hardest questions on the SAT multiple choice often feature the semicolon; there is some logic behind this:  my students in freshman composition at the exclusive liberal arts college I taught at just didn’t know how to use the semicolon.

The semicolon is the last, important punctuation mark that one gathers on the yellow brick road to knowledge.  It towers above the comma, the period, the question mark.  The exclamation point is the dingbat—that bleach blonde cheerleader who’ll have sex with the entire football team; the semicolon is the poindexter, like Cliff Clavin, the postman in that television show Cheers—a guy who will sit at the bar and tell you all sorts of Wikipedia-sounding crap he made up just to make himself seem important.  That semicolon will never get laid.




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What’s in a Name?

“Why don’t you give your hero a real Vietnamese name?”  That was the comment made by some guy who read my blog for DVAN—Diasporic Vietnamese Arts Network.  I’m a featured blogger there.  If you haven’t visited the site, you should.  In the lingo of the youth culture:  it’s the bomb.


The blog announced my intention to write the first Vietnamese American Detective Novel with a Vietnamese American Detective written by a Vietnamese American.  It was one part reaching out to my community and the other part shameless PR.

I know what this guy meant by “real Vietnamese name.”  The guy wanted me to give the character, Robert, a traditional name:  Viet or Khai or Long.  He was a little coy; he didn’t come out and say it.  It took a whole bunch of comments exchanged before he finally blurted it out.  And I was there the entire time, yanking his chain:  I wanted him to say what he wanted…because I knew that would make him think about what he meant by REAL and AUTHENTIC and TRADITIONAL  and stuff like that.

This is probably the most exchanges I’ve ever had with anyone in the comments section.  But it was worth it:  my final comment kinda set him off.  I wrote:  Okay, how about a REAL traditional Vietnamese name.  How about KEVIN?

For those of you who don’t know, Kevin is pretty much the most common name given to Vietnamese kids nowadays.  It supplants David, Justin AND Lucas—all runner-ups.  And it’s probably more common than Viet or Khai or Long, which are names that are common mostly among recent immigrants.

Of course, Kevin didn’t start out being Vietnamese.  But like 24 Karat Gold Rolex Watches and Toyota Camry’s, that name became kind-of-a-thing for my people.  Kevin, it’s a real Irish-y Irish name—the kind of name that proud-Irish-people-who-are-really-proud-to-be-Irish give their kids.  How do I know this?  I had a roommate in grad school named Kevin Patrick Cooney:  he was a child of the late seventies when everybody, not just black folk, was reclaiming their Kunta Kinte real-name.


I can totally sympathize with this guy who called me out on my “Robert.”  Growing up, I had many an opportunity to change my name.  When I became a naturalized citizen of the United States—that was the easiest moment to take the leap.  Why?  Because you got a new piece of paper, telling you exactly who you are and you did NOT need to pay for fees or fill out additional forms.  My parents went around and asked all of us if we wanted to change our names.  My eldest brother seized the opportunity and went all-in, redubbing himself George Stanford Ho.   We all understood.  His Vietnam name was DUNG.  That literally means shit in this country.  And he got a lot of shit for his name.  Yeah, he got into his fair share of scraps.


Even though I was sympathetic, it did not surprise me that later on he would get a nose job.  This happened in college.  For a month, during winter break, he walked around the house with a bandage and made-pretend that it came from a accident that occurred during a ski trip.  (Yes, he also joined a fraternity and was into all sorts of polo and lacoste and argyle socks.  And don’t even get me started on the day he came home pretending he was an English gentleman with a fake British accent).

I think he hired a butcher because the nose job got botched; the silicone ran; he kept on trying to fix his nose, pushing it back into shape.  My brother became the unofficial Michael Jackson of the family.


I’m not trying to cap on George—well maybe I am just a bit—but, to me, he was a warning signal about what happens when you trade in your Kunta Kinte name for a brand, spanking new whitey name.  And this is a long way of saying that I’m happy I never felt the inclination to change my name, that I never felt uncomfortable with my name—Khanh Ho.

I also recognize that he changed his name because he was the eldest and was used to being wealthy and rich and top-of-the-food-chain.  Coming to the United States at the height of your teenage years and suddenly losing it all must have been a kick to the nut sac every day.   Me:  I was the youngest of eight kids.  I didn’t ever think about a lost homeland because I was barely conscious when we landed in the United States.  Whenever grown-ups talked about the lost glories of Vietnam, I literally thought they were making stuff up.  I never had to suffer in the way my brother did—looking backward, feeling intense waves of inadequacy.


Still, for a long time I was quite judgmental about names.  I hated it when people said “I’m going to give my kid an American name.”  Why?  because that suggested that Vietnamese people weren’t really Americans.  This cut to the quick. It showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the way citizenship worked in a pluralistic society where Joshuas and Geoffreys and Obamas were part of the grain.  It showed me that you had internalized the message of America:  you don’t belong; no, you’ll never belong; go back to where you belong.

At one point, I thought that, were I to reproduce, I would choose names for my offspring that were not conventional–not names at all:  River or Trout or Rainbow.  I didn’t think that this was, in its own way, a kind of whitey thing to do:  a whitey-hippie thing to do.


I have a plot!

There’s a scene that’s been bouncing around my head all day. It’s from The Facts of Life—that eighties television show that chronicled the trials and tribulations of rich, young girls at an exclusive boarding school. In this scene, Blair Warner, the rich princess, gets a box: in it, her first couture gown. Blair is elated. And I remember she gushes–“Every girl’s first couture gown is a special thing.”


Why can’t I have great scenes from Fellini films bouncing around in my head? When something momentous happens, why can’t I immediately think of transcendent paintings by the Dutch Masters with their still, light-filled interiors? When tragedy strikes, why do the experimental novels of the Bloomsbury Set remain an ever-elusive touchstone? I am ashamed to admit it but most of my reference points are terrible eighties television shows that my sisters—all older, bigger and meaner–made me watch.

So here’s my big announcement: this scene is what has been replaying itself on a loop in my mind for a whole day, because I have a real, bonified plot. And this is a big achievement. My first complicated detective story plot. It was all done last night with friends and drinks. We laid it out on index cards on a burgundy Persian carpet. Everything is numbered…so I can keep things straight in my noggin! Yeah!

And yes, I know it’s terribly demeaning to reference this moment in terms of a scene of crass privilege and materialism from an odious character, featured on a spin-off show that championed superficiality. I’m totally aware of this. But I can’t help how I feel. And I could have gussied up my point of reference but I’m trying to be honest with you here, warts and all.


Is There an Ideal Vietnamese American Mystery Hero?

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.  In this installment, he discusses the genesis of his Vietnamese American protagonist–a twisted road that moves from an attempted suicide to rehab to recovery.  Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe. 



I have a confession. I didn’t set out to start writing a Vietnamese American mystery writer.  I just started out to write—fiddle, play, invent.  Some writers often compare this to masturbation:  an aimless activity whose only point is self-pleasuring.  Yes, when I write, I often feel that I will get hairy palms…

I actually started writing about a friend who was neither Vietnamese nor Asian.  He was a Columbia grad who had just gone through rehab and was now a member of AA.  I did it to cheer him up, because that is one of the few things I can do with my writing.  In this regard, I am an excellent Thank You Card writer.


Robert—let’s call him that, after my protagonist—is an ethnic mix of people:  Louisiana Creole, Filipino, Southern black, Irish, Puerto Rican—you name it.  So, my acts of entertainment, which were for him alone, were about a mixed black detective in a hardboiled adventure.  Robert loves detective novels.  In the month that he was in the loony bin, the time he was in rehab and, much later, the year that he resided in a sober-living facility, he devoured detective fiction.


But it was Robert who encouraged me to write, not about a mixed race black detective from the South but a Vietnamese American.  Without his permission, these stories would not have become what they now are:  a novel that, I can say, is no longer just a pointless act of self-pleasuring, an entertainment for a sick friend but a Vietnamese American Detective Story.

This is a long way of saying that I’m at the point in my project where I wonder about its genesis:  a nostalgic moment that is also wonderful because that means I am the eagle, bourne aloft by a window and I can survey the world I had a hand in creating.  It’s a lofty feeling—a feeling of security.  But it does open up interesting questions.


How does literature—low or high, poetry or prose—get born?  Did a Vietnamese man, then, come out of the egg of suffering, hatched by a black man?



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Dear Abby: Writing Exercise

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.   In Commemoration of Dear Abby—aka Pauline Friedman Phillips—who filled his childhood with so much pleasure, Khanh created this character exercise.  He often gets asked to pass along Creative Writing exercises.  That makes sense:  Khanh was a Creative Writing Professor.


Dear Abby…


I know my boyfriend is downloading internet porn with our rent money.  I’m afraid that my mother-in-law thinks I’m low class because she suspects her son is not the real father.  How can I tell my best friend that she needs to pay her fair share when we go out? 

Who hasn’t had a delicate question that burned to be asked? Who hasn’t been ashamed to do so?  For many years, Dear Abby was at the center of American consciousness and she fielded all sorts of questions—from etiquette to morality to good taste—that baffled us in this modern American world that was constantly changing, morphing, evolving.


This exercise forces you to think of character and, through the back door, moves you into plot.  It’s simple, really.  All you need to do is think about a burning question that your character—major or minor—needs to ask.  What embarrasses them?  What causes their lives to feel empty—unfulfilled?  What do they want revenge for?  What are they too afraid to ask of their lovers, friends, family?

You got it?  If you haven’t been thinking of these things, than you’re probably not thinking very deeply about your character.  This exercise, then, is an exercise of engineering; it’s putting all the stuff into the character that will allow him to appear fully realized.


Now, here’s the kicker.  Write a letter to Dear Abby.  You know the form of the Dear Abby letter—short and sweet and direct—explaining the problem and seeking advice.  Try to see if you can get the voice of the character in a missive that paradoxically is supposed to be cut and dry (i.e. boring) and also interesting.  Kind of hard!

Here:  I’ll give you an example.  I’m writing a mystery novel about a guy who’s a deliveryman in the garment industry of LA.  He’s kind of a loser—an alcoholic who graduated Columbia University—who has been paralyzed by his addiction, ever since his own sister was murdered five years previously.  The novel opens up with the murder of a girl—a one night stand—who works in one of the design studios he makes deliveries to.  As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that there’s a serial killer out there, mutilating the beautiful young things who work in LA’s fashion industry.  Now, Robert is compelled to find the killer in memory of the girl he once had sex with and the girl he loved and will never forget—his sister.

Dear Abby,

Ever since my sister died, I’ve been wanting to get revenge on the world and been taking it out on myself.  I know that this is unhealthy.  And this alcoholism thing has been damaging my liver but I can’t see my way out.  Part of me says I should try to get into therapy but the other part says that I’m not really hurting anyone.  Is it okay if I’m not hurting anyone?


Counting Empties in Los Angeles County


The final thing that you should realize about writing this small exercise is that engineering character also leads to engineering action.  If you write this—it’s short so write it good!—you should begin to divine the main conflicts.  You’ll also see the crisis.  And you’re gonna get a front row seat for the major plot points.  So, get your pen out and get ready to spill your guts.


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Aaron Swartz: What We Can Do To Ensure the Free Flow of Information

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.  In this installment, he memorializes Aaron Swartz in an essay that will appear both in this blog and the Huffington Post.  Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe. 

Those of you who are bracketed by the digital world—everyone reading this—should take a moment to mourn the loss of Aaron Swartz: activist, hacker, pioneer, internaut.  I did not know Aaron but his short time on this planet impacted my world; he pioneered many of the applications that make possible my clumsy navigation of the blogosphere.  He also championed open access to information—one of the most important movements of the millenium.


In the end, this is what undid him: he allegedly hacked into JSTOR, an internet source that shares academic articles, with the intention of releasing scholarly articles to the general public…for free.  Faced with the bullying of a relentless prosecutor who sought to incarcerate him for an unconscionable period, Aaron Swartz committed suicide at the tender age of twentysix.

Aaron’s death hit me on so many levels, it is best to number—in order to enumerate—them:

1)   I spent many years as an academic—someone who was trained in a period when scholarly publications were only available as physical documents; someone who later saw the miracle of internet open up access in ways inconceivable to me:  this was a tectonic shift in the business of academic life.  I am one of the people who contributed my academic articles—gratis—to scholarly publications.  JSTOR took my freely given data and then turned around and charged me a premium for access–selling it back to myself, my colleagues and my friends…and I am glad that Aaron was part of a movement returning that access to someone like me.


2)    I am an avid internet user who has made recourse to many of the innovations that Aaron and many like him are pushing.  And I am humbled that someone so much younger than me–someone young enough to have been a student of mine–could accomplish so much in the world.

3)    I have lost someone very near and dear to me through suicide—hanging.   Yes, I was the one who cut her down; I know how terrible it is.  My heart goes out to Aaron—the excruciating pain he must have felt when he did this same act to himself.  I still remember what my therapist told me:  “Hanging is the sign of a highly ordered, rational mind—you have to have an understanding of physics.”  His suffering has ended but that of his family, friends and associates—it has only begun.

*  *  *

            There is one final connection that makes Aaron suddenly become vivid in my mind’s eye.  I am also writing a novel—a mystery–in which there appears a hacker.  I haven’t yet named the hacker, at least not with a moniker that sticks.  At this point, he is simply someone who is almost a device:  a modern day deus ex machina—literally the god in a machine.


In olden days, humans-dressed-up-as-gods were lowered in their baskets to resolve plot elements when a story got hairy and the playwright, lazy.  I never thought about my hacker very deeply beyond the fact that he performed a specific function.  But now I realize that without hackers—people like Aaron who remain often invisible to the rest of the world—we could not go about the business of living and sharing and doing.

For those of you who don’t know:  There’s a big tribute going on in the internet to commemorate the passing of Aaron Swartz.  Every academic who feels solidarity is going to post their stuff online with the hash tag:  #aaronswartz.  That’s a lot of people.  It will be a celebration of the kind of access Aaron championed, an acknowledgment that these lofty goals can’t be stomped out by the nastiness of the small-minded.  It will be like a digital 21 gun salute, only bigger and better.  This  salute will have reverberations across the internet:  a warning shot that the producers of knowledge have something to say about the way our justice system and our corporations treat one of our own.


*  *  *

Truth be told:  I don’t know why I am thinking about Aaron Swartz so much.  Partly, I’m sure, it may be that the manner of his suicide was so much like my sister’s.  Maybe it’s because my wife has a Computer Science background and so Aaron was something like a colleague and fellow traveler.  Whatever the case, I know that grief is something that belongs, appropriately, to the family…but that it also has no boundaries; I am grieving even as I feel it unseemly to grieve.  Does this grief belong to me?

I want to fittingly memorialize Aaron—a guy that I would have loved to drink a beer with–and that makes me return to my one obsession: my unnamed hacker.  I almost thought to name this guy after Aaron, so that he could suddenly move outside of becoming a device—a convenience—and enter into the world that simulates flesh and blood.  But I thought, finally, that this was tasteless.  I choose instead to think about him when I write choice pieces of dialog for this character—this god in the machine.

And like many academics, I will collect my paltry catalog and send my life’s work as an academic—essays, reviews, stories–into the interweb cloud…as part of that collective 21 gun salute that, I hope, will resound, not because it is the noisemaking of just one person, but the deafening thunder of thousands.  Copyright be damned.


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A Friend Back From the Dead

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.  In this installment, he discusses how a college friend–long thought dead–reemerges.  Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe. 

Sometimes life gives you stuff to write about.  Crazy stuff.  Urgent.  Wacky.  When that happens, you should write about it.  And ask questions later.  Here is something that happened to me that was so crazy that I want to put it in my detective story.

I was at a poetry reading.  The poet, Bao Phi, was pretty well known—a slam poet who won prizes and had been on TV—so he had a following:  young people who live by their smart phone facebook updates.  The place was pretty packed but I knew the organizer, so I was gabbing with him up front before the main event.  And this made me visible.  When I disappeared to the back of the room, I heard a voice:  “I remember you.”

Poetry Slam Advertisement

Poetry Slam Advertisement

I turned around but couldn’t place the face.  “It’s Craig, from undergrad.”  Craig had been my college sweetheart’s roommate.  I saw this guy regularly—he was a fixture in my life—but I never thought much of it, because he was not the reason I was coming around to that apartment.  He was just a part of the scenery.  Craig was getting a master’s degree.  He was a mild-mannered Asian guy.  Buttoned down shirt.  Steel-rimmed glasses.  He was un-flashy in every way, except for one thing:  he was one of those Asian guys with a motorcycle.  He kept that thing garage parked with a cover and it was spotless.  One look at it and you knew he drove it at night and drove it fast.  It was a bike that made you think of this word:  ninja.

Ninja Motorcycle

Ninja Motorcycle

That was his undoing.  The last time I saw Craig was in the hospital.  He was in a coma.  His father was at his bedside.  And a little machine was going bleep-bleep-bleep just like in the movies.  He was in traction.  And me and my girlfriend came to see him.  It was a powerful experience.  The room was dark and solemn and funereal.  We couldn’t really talk to him.  We just came to look, as if his body already were in state.  There was no color in that room.  I remember it all as a wash of black and white.

Craig is better now. He’s still in therapy and trying to finish up that master’s program he started twenty years ago.  I’m glad that I saw him.  I immediately went home and facebook-friended him.  Wouldn’t this make a great twist in my story:  friend, ex-partner comes out of a coma after many years, gets back on his ninja motorcycle and secures the crucial bit of evidence that solves the crime.  What do you think?  Yea or nay?

Did you like this? Make Khanh’s day:  Share on Facebook.  Tweet your friends.  Leave a comment.  Here’s a question to get you started:   Would you stick a character from the past back into a detective story?  

Gun Control 101: 10 Things that will Change in Detective Fiction in a post-Gun Control America

Khanh Ho–Creative Writing Professor, world traveler, all-around-nice-guy– is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.  In this installment, he humorously discusses the implications of gun control on the shape of the Mystery Novel.  Like what you read? Share on Facebook or Twitter.  Leave a comment.   Or subscribe to this blog. 

I have no official stance on gun control.  But I’m kind of a half-assed liberal.  I listen to NPR.  I even feel guilty for not eating organic.  When it gets unseasonably hot or rainy or cold, I’m quick on the trigger.  “We’ve got to start doing something about global warming,” I’ll bark.  I voted not once but twice for current reigning heavy weight president:  Barack Obama.

Barack Obama

I never gave it much thought:  I am kind of pro-gun-control because of the world I live in—a world where I daily flirt with veganism and juicing and cleansing.   I’m not so extreme that I’ll actually stand at a corner with a picket sign.  But I have been known to drive by slowly and honk my horn—and if it’s safe, if I do not need to keep both hands on the wheel, I’ll raise my fist in solidarity…as if I were a Black Panther.

Black Panther

But today I suddenly began to think about what the hot topic of gun control means for me as a mystery novelist, not as a Kombucha-drinking-farmers-market-goer-who-has-on-occasion-worn-yoga-pants.  And I suddenly saw a pretty ugly picture.  Without guns, America’s preeminent place within the world’s imagination will suddenly grow flaccid.  Who wants to see an action adventure movie without the rat-a-tat-tat of guns guns guns—massive guns of every make and model?  Who wants to read a mystery novel without the murder and mayhem that is possible only through the deadly steel of a cold, hard pistol?


So here is my list of 10 Things that will Change in Detective Fiction…if we get rid of guns in America:

1)                     We will all turn Japanese—resorting to knives and swords, daggers and picks:  sharp objects will reign.

2)                     Mixed Martial Arts will suddenly spike and writers will learn new terminology for grappling; UFC cross-over novels will become the NEW NOW.

3)                     Bombs:  fictitious characters will start dying through bombs; it will be messy and extremely imprecise.

4)                     Genre Crossing:  Classic Detective Fiction—the gun sort—will be crossed with Historical Drama…if we want a classic shoot ‘em up scene, it will have to be imagined as the not-so-distant past.  The eighties will be a historical period.

5)                     In the world of fiction, the NRA will be proven right:  only the bad guys will have access to guns.

6)                     Good guys will encounter guns in trash cans and under stoops—lucky finds!—but they will never be able to carry one in a holster.

7)                     Many more bludgeonings and stranglings…many, many more…

8)                     All those ex-cop, alcoholic detectives will return to the police force…just to get their grubby little fingers on a trigger.

9)                     Detectives with storylines dependent upon shooting will suddenly, in one installment, move up to Canada where it’s just like American but with GUNS; they’ll go up for a convenient reason—a dame—but they’ll stay…to maim.

10)                 Noonchucks will experience a renaissance hitherto unseen since the appearance of Bruce Lee.


All of this paints a pretty dismal picture for the American mystery—that little world in books out of which I am tentatively trying to build a small and modest home.  Now, I’m no longer sure where I stand anymore on this whole gun control debate.  On the one hand, I want to still be able to drink my Free Trade Coffee with a measure of dignity—without the feeling that I’ve betrayed the values of a class to which I marginally belong; on the other, I know that without guns, America will no longer tower above the rest of the world.  Nobody will watch our movies.  Our books will be castrated.  And I will be without a job.

Did you like this blog? Make a struggling writer’s day:  Share on Facebook.  Tweet your friends.  Leave a comment.  Here’s a question to get you started:   Would you ever read a mystery without guns? What about a movie?

Index cards

My upstairs neighbor is going to UCLA film school.  Her specialty:  scriptwriting. I visited her on New Years–I like to do that.  I’m that kind of neighbor.  It’s kind of a tradition.  I brought a cake.

My neighbor–let’s call her Siouxsie–is one of those girls that makes you feel insecure around her aura of coolness.  Souxsie had knee high stockings but I wasn’t quite sure if this was a look or a costume.  Her husband–Max–wore a zoot suit and a turban.  He’s a documentary filmmaker with one of those curly moustaches.  They are both transplants from San Francisco.  Get my drift?  Then I’ll spell it out for you:  C-O-O-L.



Siouxsie started telling me about all the stuff she was learning from school.  “Each teacher has a special method and makes you learn it,” she said.  “Some of it is useful, some of it not.”  I thought this was cool.  Nobody ever made me learn their method.  I just kind of made things up as I went along.

Her most current teacher—a man who sells his film scripts for close to a million bucks and finishes a project once every three years–keeps track of all the scenes on index cards, with a little bracket attached to each.  There’s a brief synopsis of the scene on the front.  And, on the index cards, a little clip attached that holds additional notes.  The little squares were laid out like tarot cards  on a round table that sat in the middle of the living room:  a shrine to creativity.

Tarot Cards


The genius of the system became immediately apparent:  you can move the cards around, swapping scenes; it is easy to visualize the sweep of the plot and understand the ebb and flow; the little clips allow extra information without becoming overwhelming.  You can still focus on the key point of the scene, the thrust of the narrative, the arc of the characters.

“Why are some of the cards different colors?” I asked.

“Oh that.  I just ran out of cards is all.”

Cool people are environmental and unpretentious and not-too-anal.

I got home and dreamt about these cards.  I fished out a pack of flash cards—remnants from a brief flirtation with German–from my closet.  There was something so perfect about them, wrapped in their clear plastic.  Like the rows of fresh meat at the grocery store.  I’m totally going to jack this system, I thought.  But I don’t quite know all the ins and outs of it yet.  I’m sure there’s more to it.  I wonder if she was pulling my leg about the colors.  I wish I could just pop in again.

But the New Year, it is no longer young.  I think I’m out of cake flour.  Cakes are better, fluffier with Swans Cake Flour.  Anyway, I only make it a habit to talk to my neighbors on the first day of the New Year.  Otherwise, I studiously ignore them.

Red Velvet Cake: my specialty!

Getting a Plot Down

This blog has two parts:  one with a version of a plot exercise I wrote earlier and then one with that same plot exercise I wrote much later.  I wrote the blog thinking I’d only present one version.  But I ended up writing many versions, as I corresponded with friends, colleagues and strangers.  Tell me which version you like.

Part 1:

So, I’m beginning to develop a plot for my narrative.  This is a big step.  Up to now, I’ve just been writing out little sketches that get me into the character, the world and the situation.  This is fun.  But it’s amateur-hour-early-stage-anybody-can-do-this writing.  I just pick out whatever I think will be in the story.  I write it. And I trust that I will be able to fill in the space between scenes.

Plot Structure

Rendering of a Climactic Plot

Now the strenuous work begins.  So I just wrote this exercise, which is something that one of my old writing instructors had me do and which I often make my students do:  a description of the world in a short paragraph.


Here’s mine:


Robert, a Vietnamese American Ivy-League graduate finds himself at 28 years of age in a rut: still grieving for his mysteriously murdered sister; alcoholic; unable to get past the 3rd stage of AA; frittering away his potential in a dead end job as a delivery-man in LA’s fashion industry.   When someone starts killing the beautiful young interns that work at the most prominent independent design studios, Robert now must solve the case. He’s had an affair with one of these girls and he doesn’t want her case to wither on the vine like his sister’s.  With the help of his childhood friend Cesar, a beat cop who wants to make detective, Robert explores both the ugly and the glitzy side of fashion:  a world of beautiful people looking for perfection and a demi-monde of exploited labor working in sweatshops.  He uncovers a world of drugs, sadism, trickery.  And he unveils a Los Angeles—the gentrifying downtown scene, the third world conditions, the high rise lofts–hidden from the LA usually depicted in movies and television.


Writing something like this allows me to do two things:


1)   I get to hear how stupid this project is.

2)   I get to hold the idea of the story in the palm of my hands.


I’ll stick this at the beginning of a worksheet that I can use for plotting.  And I’m hoping that soon enough, I’ll have all the scenes mapped out.  The writing should come together faster.  So what do you think?  Rip me a new asshole and tell me what you think:  suggestions, praise, criticism.

Part 2:

That was the first draft but then I started telling people about it.  I’ve been doing that a lot and it’s forced me into a discipline:


The narrative follows a Vietnamese American (hapa) who works as a driver in the gritty underbelly of LA’s fashion industry. Beautiful young interns working for top designers are getting killed, their body’s mangled and arranged in disturbing tableaux among the body parts of mannequins. Robert–an alcoholic, ivy league has-been whose life has been put on hold after his own sister’s vicious murder–is sucked into the investigation.


This version is planed down.  It’s short.  I think shorter is better.  What do you think?