Post Secret: Writing Exercise




I hate my daughter because I’m afraid she will be more beautiful than me.  I actually don’t like my stepmom’s signature apple pie.  My husband’s best friend is better at kissing but I still prefer to sleep at home.  Everybody has a secret:  hidden, shaming, repulsive.  Everybody has a surface, too:  shiney and bright and inviting.  And so these two aspects of the self exist as binaries:  moon and sun; saint and sinner; virgin and whore.


Perhaps this is the single problem that most beginning writers—and even veterans—experience: their tendency to dwell on the surface…without taking into account the underneath that is enriched by the world of the half-hidden and repressed.  What will give your protagonist depth is prying open that small dusty box that your character keeps hidden in the closet of the self and discovering this:  his secret.


I pattern this exercise off of the hit website Post Secrets.  Never heard of it? “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard”—that’s what the website says. Quite often, people elaborately decorate the cards:  glitter, paint, collage, photography—you name it; the methods are as diverse as the participants.  Some of the art is strictly amateur hour; a lot is extremely punk rock…in a good way…with that DIY aesthetic:  the objects organically express the peculiarities of the secret in a meaningful way.  Isn’t that what great art is all about?

Here are some examples from the Post Secret Website:




See what I mean?  This exercise is fun and crafty.  It will allow you to fuse the writer inside you with the inner Martha Stewart.  You could do this exercise many alternative ways:  as a series of lists, for instance.  But I choose this method—turning it into a craft project—precisely because physical objects are easier to focus our attention on.  Isn’t that what souvenirs are all about—repositories of memories that, otherwise, would evaporate?  Once you have this physical object in your hot little hands, you will have gotten a handle on many things.  But don’t let the novel quality of the assignment fool you:  this exercise will work all your writing muscles—from your quadriceps to your glutes—until you feel the burn!


25 Things You Don’t Know About Me!

This was a piece of digital folk art that everybody was bandying about on Facebook.  It’s a list of 25 things your friends don’t already know about you.  At the time, I had just started up using social media and this was my first attempt to post anything of any length on the internet.

This is quite literally my first blog…the embryo…Human embryothe proto-blog!









25 Things You Don’t Know About Me!


1. I used to believe that the world was made up of robot-people and I was the only person who was real flesh and blood. This is not to say that other people did not exist; they just existed as flesh-and-blood in alternate universes where they were surrounded by robot-people. This gave me a taste for the flavor of a certain kind of loneliness that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.

Robot People

2. I used to play a game called Cockroach Auschwitz with my brother. The components: hairspray, mason jars, matches, matchboxes, newspapers, roaches.

3. I used to squint my eyes and stare into the sky, believing I was able to predict the weather. I could see invisible particles that were either long, transparent cylinders or simple ovoids that had the look of paramecium under a microscope. If I saw cylinders, I knew it would rain.

4. As a child, I was teased mercilessly by a monkey on the way to the library. It often imitated me. I would stop to gesture at it. It would imitate me some more. It would follow me along the wall. I hated that monkey and to this day upbraid myself for letting it get the best of me. I should have kept walking. That would have shown him.

5. Once I saw a UFO. But it was really because I was an FOB. That thing in the sky with the colorful lights was a Goodyear Balloon advertising things at night.

Good Year Blimp

It is not an UFO

6. Whenever I read a story as a kid, if the main character was a child but older than me by just a few years, I would get incredibly upset and competitive. Encyclopedia Brown was, therefore, a source of much unhappiness for me.

Encyclopedia Brown

7. I got many of my siblings addicted to high class trash porn: Jackie Collins, VC Andrews, etcetera. They knew that if I was reading it, there was probably a lot of sex-parts.

8. I used to get very competitive with the moon, which followed me home in the evenings after piano lessons. I would run very fast to see if I could beat the moon. The moon always seemed to gain on me when it was full.

9. Most of my early memories, I believe, are a function of indoctrination from a refugee family hoping to implant the micro-chip of propoganda in my head. Or so I think. For a long time, I thought that most of my parent’s stories were simply that. People make up all sorts of crap when they come to the States. It surprised me later when some of those stories were actually true!

10. It took me a long time to realize that I had been, quite literally, an exile for most of my life. This happened in grad school when being “exilic” was a source of glamour. All the really cool kids read cool books about the exilic condition. These books told you that the exilic condition was liberating and postmodern. It made me wish I was exilic, too. Boy, was I pissed when I realized that I had been an exile without the benefit of any of the glamor. In fact, exiles were pretty much a dime a dozen in my world. Then, I realized that all those fools who were into the idea of exile were posers and frauds. There’s nothing glamorous about being an exile if you have to actually live it.

11. I had an inferiority complex because I never lived a bohemian hand-to-mouth life in New York. Finally, I went to New York but developed an inferiority complex because I didn’t stay long enough.

12. I got a red toy rat for Christmas. It was one of my favorite toys. Inside, it was stuffed with styrofoam pellets. It smelled of gasoline. There is a picture of me with the rat and I am smiling.

13. My parents hated all hippies because of their protests against the Vietnam War. This made me compelled by the hippie aesthetic but, simultaneously, afraid of them, too.

14. Because they were strict and proper FOB’s, whenever my parents saw kissing on television, they would switch the channel. Then, they would turn it back when the kissing was safely over. Inevitably, kissing meant for me that I would miss a vital piece of information.

15. As a child, I thought I would never ever get married because I didn’t want my parents to see me kissing. So I got married and didn’t invite my parents to the wedding.

16. I invented the taser as a child. There were blueprints and everything. So, I felt supremely cheated when many years later, the taser was invented.

17. In graduate seminars during my first year in the Ph.D. program, it was fashionable for the young professors to have people read out loud. It was supposed to get us back to the enjoyment of reading. Often, when it was my turn, I wanted to break down crying and tell everyone that I didn’t know how to read.

18. I used to write all my sister’s Creative Writing assignments when she was in High School. We’d lock ourselves in my room and I would dictate. My mom would stand outside the door and eavesdrop. She was convinced we were having an incestuous affair.

19. I am fascinated by the abundance of pornography in the world. Sometimes I walk into those truly stupendously large porn stores just to gawk at the triumph of capitalism…this is what I tell myself…and I’m not sure if this is a rationalization for what are fundamentally base appetites.

20. I used to tell the elementary school kids that I learned kung fu from my grandfather in the backyard…as if it was no big deal. My schoolmates, after all, paid for real lessons, I told them. This impressed them immeasurably.

21. I was always impressed by my older brother’s tan. He had that high pro glow. When I tanned, I just got dark.

22. My first playboy was on microfiche.

23. I once surfed with dolphins and it scared me.

24. I met up with some old church friends from my Mormon childhood during my brother’s graduation celebration. They told me that they always thought I’d become a concert pianist. I kept thinking, “What planet were you living on?”

25. For a long time, my idea of a truly chic, sharp look was a turtle neck. I still don’t think you can go wrong with a turtleneck unless you have a fat face.

Top 10 Things I Hate in an Asian American Murder Mysteries



There are not that many Asian American writers out there.  And still fewer Asian American writers penning mysteries.  So, you’re probably wondering:  “brother Khanh, what’s with all this hating?”  Why would anybody create a list predicated on the idea of hate?  And why hate on a minority within a minority?  Isn’t that just mean-spirited and unproductive and tearing-us-down?

Well, I’ve got my response aimed right at you, like a rock in a slingshot.  Short answer:  there’s productive and nonproductive hate.


Long answer:  If you don’t know what you despise, abhor, can’t-stand, then you won’t develop an aesthetic compass.  I used to teach Creative Writing students on the college level at a pretty exclusive school.  It is often touted as the richest school in the country.  And it is pretty highly ranked.  The majority of the students are drawn from polite society and that means that they have learned that hate is a bad emotion.  In their suburban worlds, hatred is meant to be sublimated or repressed.  I kid you not:  half the campus is vegan.

This meant that they were disinclined to express strong emotions of any sort and their fiction suffers for it:  it becomes characterless.   Hatred can be a useful tool.  This doesn’t mean that I want to kick the ass of the few Asian American writers out there.  Neither do I want to burn a cross—literal or figurative—in front of their house of fiction.  I read them.  I need them.  They are my lifeboats and role models.  If I ever met one, I would offer to buy the first round of drinks…and the second…and the third, actually.  I’m pretty much a fanboy at heart.

I’m a relatively new writer of mysteries and so have never developed the kind of systematic hate that will translate into a refined aesthetic sense.  In other words, I have yet to follow the advice I give my own students.  So, here is my list of god-awful, poop-in-my-pants things I hate in Asian American mysteries.  Follow me on this journey to self-discovery:


1)                     Ethnic Enclaves:  I hate Chinatowns and Pilipinotowns and J-towns and K-towns.  Little Saigons and Little Indias—these places are belittling:  the world of the postage stamp.  I know they exist but I will never write about those zones as the exclusive world of my detective.  It smacks of segregation.  It’s just not me.  Okay, maybe I’ll do it for a third or fourth mystery—I’m such a backpeddler.

2)                     Dragon Ladies:  God, my little sister moved to the Midwest to work at a company.  She was a ballbuster and people started calling her a dragon lady.  She owned it.  Posted a comic strip with a dragon lady in one of those Chinese dresses with a high slit and the mandarin collar on her door.  It was framed as a joke.  But she didn’t like it.  It was a joke that was no joke at all:  the worst kind of joke.

3)                     Gangs:  Tongs or triads or yakuzas—whatever you wanna call them–are gross.  I know I have an open market with those Vietnamese gangs.  People love criminality.  If there is one way we Vietnamese have distinguished ourselves, it has been through gang violence…but I just don’t like all that pinky-cutting!  Funny thing:  I’m totally interested in human smuggling, which makes this kind of a conflict of interest.

4)                     Educating the public:  Public service announcements suck!  I’m not really there to teach you how chopsticks work.  It’s just gonna ruin my own meal!

5)                     Overcompensating Angry Asian Characters:  The Angry Asian Male bit—I get it.  I got a bit in me, too.  But there’s a website for that:  Angry Asian Man.  I visit it, so I can get my fill of rage.  Then, I get back to normal.

6)                     Cultural Tours:  I had a Vietnamese friend who took his white friend to Vietnam.  He spent the entire time translating.  It ruined the magic of the experience.  If my detective knocks on a door and sees some Red and Gold squares on it and then a girl answers—all in white—guess what?  You’re shit out of luck:  figure it out on your own (maybe I’ll give you a clue, though).

7)                     Italics:  Italics are the sign of the perpetually foreign.  They pander.  They’re cheap.  They’re lazy.  Readers love italicized foreign words because it allows a sense of interiority.  “I’m an insider now!”  But since when does learning a few phrases make you an insider?  Only dillholes think that!

8)                     Incense and Gongs:  All the paraphernalia of orientalism does not belong in my stories—except poison dart guns.  I love poison dart guns.

9)                     Sexy Stripper Asian Girls:  I love the Sexy Stripper Asian Girl as much as the next guy. A girls gotta eat, right?  I even love her better when she’s a Ph.D. student working at a hostess bar in order to support her expensive coke habit.  Okay, I was leading up to a thorough trashing of this terrible, terrible convention.  But actually, this is sounding pretty good.  So, it’s decided:  Sexy Stripper Girls are fine by me!

10)                 Pidgin:  Pidgin should never be spoken; it should be eaten.  ‘Nuff said!





The Secret to Traveling Cheaply: A Writer’s Approach

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.   Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe. 


I spent three years traveling.  Backpacking.  And I did it with my best friend and life partner.  We got hitched right after I handed in my doctoral dissertation.  Of course, like all newlyweds, we honeymooned in Hawaii but, unlike others, we began our married lives, quite literally, as homeless people:  camping in beach parks, hitchhiking from spot to spot, depending upon the kindness of strangers.


It was the most fun I ever had.

We bought our expensive tent from the wilderness store—the one that the Hollywood executives frequented–with the rows of gleaming BMW’s parked out front.  “At least this way, folks will know the difference between us and the homeless people.”  I was just trying to take away the sting from the sticker shock of buying so much expensive gear.  In one visit, we spent several thousand dollars.  We only got top of the line stuff.

This store is frequented by rich Hollywood types but I've been going to it since I was a cub scout.

This store is frequented by rich Hollywood types but I’ve been going to it since I was a cub scout.

It was just a lame joke but this would prove prophetic: the indigent in Hawaii abound in the many beach parks, which boast the very best, the choicest land; that is why so many homeless flock to these parks–that and the fact that the Hawaiian rangers have a hard time finding it in their hearts to dislodge those already displaced.  The upshot: beach parks are filled with people who are making the most of their situation.









If it weren’t for a few signal differences, it would have been easy for us to be mistaken as one of our peers who were down on their luck.  And we made a number of great friends–John from Alaska who had been through such a terrible divorce it caused him to bicycle from Alaska to California to Hawaii; Steve who was getting over his bipolar disorder by enjoying all the island’s rainbows.


What was the essential difference between us and them?   Well, the homeless have terrible gear:  Coleman tents—domed numbers that can turn into kites with a brisk wind.  Alaska John’s tent caught on fire one night.  He probably shouldn’t have been cooking in it.Sierra-Designs-Zolo-2-Person-Camp-Tent-main-en

After a year, traveling gets tedious—at least the conventional way of schlepping about:  moving quickly; covering as much ground as humanly possible; crossing off all the sites; visiting temple-after-temple.  It takes a toll.  So, we developed a pattern of settling in one place for a month and then—zoom—taking off for another month of extended travel.  Like birds of passage at a watering hole, we hunkered down for a spell and got to really know an area.

3 day border crossing from Bolivia to Chile: saw such wonders high in the mountains!

3 day border crossing from Bolivia to Chile: saw such wonders high in the mountains!

And this is how I’ve done it ever since—even after the three years of constant traveling came to a close.  A month-long stay is conducive to a writer’s life.  It also allows you to get to know a neighborhood.  You favor a certain bar and café.  You frequent certain shops.  People get to know your face and, sometimes, even your name.  You become a regular—incorporated into the life of a neighborhood:  a welcome sight–you become part of the world of the expected.


The secret of doing this well—the secret to getting some great writing done in the process—is a bit counter-intuitive and flies against the typical advice that young, budget travelers bandy about: don’t cheap out on your digs; splurge on your accommodations.  Spend every spare nickel and dime on a pad you can spend a lot of time in.  If you’re a true writer, you will no doubt fritter the better part of the day inside.  So, try for an ocean view.  Go for the doorman building.  Get air conditioning.  Make sure you have tasteful art. High class appliances are a must.  You can economize in other ways.


Secure an apartment in a truly nice neighborhood.  I loved my little piso in Palermo Viejo—the upper middle class section of Buenos Aires with its many boutiques and restaurants and bars.  It was right off a plaza with views of a cathedral.  During my jog, the little private school kids would be let out for lunch and they would swarm in a swirl of uniforms; it was just like swimming through schools of fish–the sort you might see among the coral reefs of Hawaii.  Afterwards, I ate empanadas at the corner bakery:  three for a dollar.

palermo viejo

Paying the most that you can for accommodation often runs counter to the code of the budget traveler, which states that accommodation is the lowest priority–simply a place to sleep.  Within this worldview, you should spend as little money on your bed.  That way you can buy booze and go parasailing and pick up an especially nice sombrero.

We hated hostels:  useful only for a day while you're looking for permanent digs, mainly because they're information hubs

We hated hostels: useful only for a day while you’re looking for permanent digs, mainly because they’re information hubs



But to a writer, an apartment is more than simply a place to lay one’s head.  It’s ground zero:  headquarters–the tent in the vast terra incognita in which you plan campaigns that will take you into the heart of darkness.  I have a lot of fond memories of my old neighborhoods.  The apartments live forever in my memory.  All the people–the butcher, bartender, grocer–have become characters, if not in my fiction, than in my imagination.  I hardly remember my visits to the National Museum and I do not cherish all those sombreros sitting in my closet, taking up space, ready to go to Goodwill.


Did you like this? Make Khanh’s day:  Share on Facebook.  Tweet your friends.  Leave a comment.

Write the Ending First!

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever. Why? Because being the first is a power trip.   Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe.


I just wrote my ending. And man, what a good idea that was. I can’t take full credit for the idea. Montserrat Fontes gave me this advice when I invited her out to do a reading at my college.


For those of you who don’t know: Monsy Fontes is the American Book Award Winning writer of Dreams of the Centaur. She is one of the great Chicana writers. Monsy was also my high school English teacher and I remember her smacking a whip made out of a dried, braided bull penis on my desk: “When you’re writing a trilogy, write the last book first” were her actual words. “That way you know what’s got to happen.” For me, every word she says is always punctuated by a smack!


I’m not writing a trilogy but the theory behind this advice still holds. It’s best to know your ending. And dutifully, this weekend, I wrote the climactic action sequence, which takes place in the Ambassador Hotel, the pleasure palace where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The Ambassador Hotel Los Angeles

Boy did I learn why this important. I’ll list my epiphanies: 1) I realized I had to set up the locale early. Otherwise going through a description of the hotel—its historic value, its splendor—would slow the action. When you’re stalking a murderous villain, it’s not a good time to describe the chandeliers. 2) In the climactic scene, my detective is going to get his ass whupped but will triumph through a common item he always carries on his person. This means that I need to describe this item early on, so it doesn’t come out of the blue…and its reemergence will feel serendipitous and inevitable.


These are the two major things I realized:  silver coins, jingling in my pocket. I never had these coins before; it’s like I found them on the ground and took them to an antiquarian and found out they’re rare Susan B. Anthony’s.  There are other, smaller epiphanies but I won’t bore you with an exhaustive list. If I had written this novel sequentially–from beginning to middle to end—I would not have known what to set up early. And in second stage revision, I’d have been faced with a labor-intensive task. So if you’re writing any kind of novel but, especially, a plot intensive novel, the ending is probably one of the first things to tackle. Now go write! Smack!


Frank Eber: Plein Air Painter

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever. Why? Because being the first is a power trip.   Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe.



One of the blessings of my life is that I have found myself almost like a fish: surrounded by all kinds of glittering, shiney people—whole schools of them. I don’t seek these people out; I don’t schmooze. I’m the kind of guy who gravitates toward the wallflower in the room. And yet these wallflowers turn out to be amazing. Go figure!


Frank is just one such person. When I met him, he was nobody special: just this guy who liked to rock climb and was especially talented at it. Lanky, German, sandy-haired, he did manual labor—putting tile together. I heard he was pretty good at it; he showed me a three-ring binder once with pictures of his work encased in plastic…but I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember much. Frank did tiling for rich people’s houses in Malibu. Once he did Tommy Hillfiger’s house. “That was some good money,” he said.


Frank had a really beat up Toyota truck with an old Mexican blanket on the seat. The Mexican blanket was kind of funky but I never mentioned it; I didn’t want to make him feel bad. His hands were always gnarly—white with the ravages of rock climbing and manual labor. Frank had a simple, plain quality—the ideal melding of the German and the vagabond: no-nonsense and un-flashy.


For a period of three years, I traveled and (secretly) wrote. I had been writing and publishing since my early twenties but when I decided to go to grad school, I found that I didn’t have much time to do anything but obsess about my so-called dissertation. I would pick at that dissertation , like it was a pimple—day and night; when I wasn’t picking at it, I was worrying about the damage I did to myself, the scarring that would come, from picking—day and night. When grad school was over, I just decided to go off and write.



It was a convenient time: my little sister had died in a crazy messed up way. I needed to take a break from life. So, traveling for a while seemed the best solution. Whenever I came back to the United States, I ‘d run across Frank. It was always pleasant. We’d drink a beer and he would tell me about another rich person’s house. He was always doing pretty well with these rich people gigs. They even wanted him to paint. “They sometimes pay me a lot of money to paint houses,” he said. “I like it, you don’t have to be always on your knees.”


Shortly after I returned to the States for good and got myself a gig as a Creative Writing professor, Frank took off. I got a job in Iowa—the heartland of writing. “I promise I’ll visit and put tile in your house,” he told me. But not even my parents visited me. And then I heard through a friend of a friend that Frank had taken off. I thought I’d never see him again. Frank started traveling for a period of three years, too. Ostensibly it was for a rock-climbing adventure. I didn’t know that we were living parallel lives: While I did the worst flea-bag hotels of the Third World Countries, Frank was doing the best Climbing Spots in First World Europe. While I had been secretly writing, he was (secretly) painting.


Now, Frank Eber is a successful artist. He’s a watercolorist. He’s won shows and competitions all over the world. He’s been admitted into some of the most prestigious watercolor societies as an esteemed peer. He’s represented by galleries. He’s also in demand as a teacher but not just any ordinary teacher: a headliner. Next summer he’s going to spend time on the islands of Greece, painting and teaching already great artists—talented artists–how to unlock the key to greater greatness.


What I like about his art is that it’s all about craft. It’s technique-driven. And it’s no-nonsensey. He’s not trying to make experimental art. He hasn’t turned his back on representational art. “I paint what I see” is the first sentence of his artist’s statement and it flies in the face of the hobgoblin of postmodern conventionality. For him, it’s important to exactly capture the color on clouds; the reflections on a puddle; the way that a skateboarder moves in an urban landscape; the cows in a field–dappled blacks and whites in the shimmering nonchalance of browns.

Check this out:


Five and nine-1


And this:


polperro boats

And this:


Cows at pond, web


There is an honesty to Frank’s paintings. They are honestly commercial: he wants you to buy them. And this is also refreshing in a time when artists DON’T want you to buy their art, so that you will WANT to buy their art. Frank’s stuff is unpretentious: he is not trying to deconstruct. His art comes out of a humble craftsman tradition—a world that peaked with the Impressionists but remains a powerful force in the mainstream of modern America. Will I always live a parallel life with Frank? Is he my secret sharer, my brother-friend, my double, my imp? We are like pendulums at different extremes of an arc.


When I knew Frank, I was writing stuff that would be called pretentious: fancy stuff, avant garde. Now, I’m writing stuff that is cut out of a mold, shaped within the form of a tradition. He followed me into the world of travel but now it feels like I am following him into the world of conventional art. Detective Fiction is kind of like the world of art that Frank was trying to paint himself into. Looking at Frank’s beautiful paintings, I only hope that I can achieve his level of sophistication. Like Frank, I write what I see. But I don’t see cows. I don’t see skateboarders. I don’t see boats bobbing in a marina. I see death. I see death everywhere.