On The Need To Stop Choking

I was doing some job searching, and one area I was looking into was English teaching in Japan. I spent a year in Japan while in college, and I must tell you, it was one of the best times of my life. I spent Halloween night alone on a mountain covered in torii, as part of the mammoth Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shinto shrine. (And since I don’t have enough images on this blog, check out this one below:)


A big red tunnel, basically
Yes, it’s THAT place.

It wasn’t just the Shinto shrines that got me, either–the food was amazing (??? for the win), the people were engaging (though maybe that was just because I was a white guy), the weather was unbelievably fantastic, and there vending machines every five steps that would sell you soda, grape juice (that had grapes in it), soup, beer, and hard liquor. (Well, chuhais, so semi-hard liquor.) You could go outside after dark and not worry about getting knifed or robbed. I even loved Japanese furniture; say what you will, but I found that the Japanese futon to be way more comfortable than American beds, and if I could, I would have one. (I think this is because I’m very tall, and frequently my feet hang over the end.) Not to mention, it has wonderful mass transit. Note I said mass transit, and not public transit, for aside from subways, all of the mass transit–trains, buses, and so on–are owned by private companies. Even Japan Rail, which used to be called Japan National Rail, was broken up and privatized in the 80’s. (So yes, the free market does work.) Yes, the language is difficult (I never understood as many kanji as I was expected to, and I could never keep the honorific form of the language straight in my head) but I felt that was a small price to pay for everything else that was so wonderful.

Anyways, I just felt sharing that little bit of my history because the sheer awesomeness of the place drew me back to it during my job hunt. Working in Japan for foreigners is not easy, aside from one area: English teaching. Demand for English teachers is up, or so I’m told, as more Japanese believe English will be a necessary skill for their future job prospects. (Though they should probably be learning Chinese or Hindi as well, just to be on the safe side.)

So I went looking for English teaching jobs. I came across one website, ELT News, and starting reading the blogs. And what do you know, I find something that directly touches upon my experience writing. I’ll excerpt only the relevant part of the post, but if you’re interesting in teaching English in Japan, I encourage you to read the rest of it; the author, Mike Guest, is a pretty darn good writer (bolded emphasis is mine, by the way):

This was a chapter (The Art of Failure, p. 324-344) outlining the difference between choking and panicking using examples from professional tennis, golf, and an airplane crash. Choking, Gladwell argues (with his usual research-based support) is a case in which the agent, under pressure, reverts to a mechanical mode of action or behaviour where he/she becomes overly conscious of every move and thus can’t function with the fluidity of someone who normally has intuitions, skills or an ingrained sense about what to do. Panicking, on the other hand, refers to cases where people stop thinking due to what is called perception narrowing under pressure. Experienced people may choke under pressure, the inexperienced are more likely to panic.

Most readers will be aware of the tendency for many Japanese learners of English to either choke or panic when having to produce or perform under pressure in English. “I went to Canada but I couldn’t say more than a few words. I just forgot what to say,” might be a typical refrain– from somebody who has studied English for eight years and is even proficient on standardized tests. But understanding the difference between the two is crucial.

Some of my students are chokers. They have a reasonably good command of the flow of English, the holistic side. It has worn itself into their cerebral fabric. They ‘know’ the language but, when under pressure, tend to revert to an earlier mechanical stage which causes them to re-think every lexical, grammatical and social nuance of the language, effectively paralyzing them in speech. Choking, Gladwell say [sic], is about thinking too much.

Others, with far fewer ingrained English skills simply lose all perception and panic, grasping wildly at any English expression which might race through their minds. Panicking is about thinking too little. Panicking is often a product of too little experience, such that when any plus-alpha factors appear, the fragile control system easily breaks down.

Addressing panic involves little more than gaining experience, buckling down, applying diligence. It is what Gladwell calls ‘a conventional failure’. But choking is ‘a paradoxical failure’. Gladwell uses a research-based example (one from Claude Steele at Stanford Univ. and one from Julian Garcia at Tufts Univ.) utilizing stereotypes and expected performance to illustrate the difference.

The bolded part is what hit me in the head like a sledgehammer. This is what I’ve been doing for so long with my writing. I’ll write, think, “Oh, this is crap,” then go back and re-edit endlessly, or just walk away. This didn’t happen to me in high school, when I wrote my first novel. (400 pages, too, at the tender age of 15. I think that was a decent start that I failed to capitalize on.) This doesn’t happen to me when I blog. I don’t know why, but somehow, in those two instances–my high school writing and my blogging today–I just don’t think about it that much, I just let it come to me and let it be. But when I write my fiction today, I lock down and struggle to get through.

My problem is I just think too goddamn much.

I blame some of my writing books, for starters. Some of them are very good. Some are okay. Some are terrible. But in any case, I relied too much on them, and so when I started writing, I would think about what I read in them and go, “But my work isn’t matching up to that at all.”

What I have to do now is just say “Screw it” and write it. Forget about what everyone else says; hell, forget what I say, and just do it. I did that with my last story, which I just finished the first draft of a few days ago, and to which I’m rewriting (though substantially; I think if I use different characters, it will be better. We’ll see.) I did that with a story earlier in the year, which didn’t get published, but it was just something I wanted to write, so I did it. I need to keep in that habit and just keep going. I’m bound to hit paydirt some time or another.

Or a wall. One or the other.

New Title, New Frame of Mind

First, my Internet is down (again) so I’m typing this fromy new Android phone. Please excuse any typos and it’s relative brevity; I wanted to write a longer piece, but, well…

I’ve been extremely busy the past week, finishing up one day job and looking for another. But I’ve still been plugging away on this story, and I’m seeing some interesting things emerge. First, I’ve renamed the story from “Janzer”–which I will finally explain in a moment–to “Calculated.” Why? Because I noticed I was using that word a lot to describe my protagonist’s thinking process. One of the things I’ve always wanted to write was a character who lacked emotion. When reading one of my many books on fiction writing, it touched on emotion a lot, how it was so very goddamn necessary, unless you were writing a character who was “clinical.” And I thought, “Yes! I want to write that!”

It’s not that I’m a cold, emotionless bastard, it’s because I’m the exact opposite. Emotions rule my day, from elation of a completed project, to ruinous apathy when I have nothing to do, to the fire and brimstone anger I get when someone makes fun of me or try to “correct” my speech. I’m a slave to them, and more than once I’ve yearned to escape their chokehold and just examine life in a dispassionate, logical fashion. Data is a good example of this, though he still wants emotion; I want a character who is at peace with their absence.

Of course, just having that would make a dull story, so I have two other central characters that focus on emotion. One is our protagonist’s mortal enemy, who is consumed by rage for previous wrongs. I admit to putting a lot of my own anger and frustration in him, for almost succeeding yet still coming up short, and being unable to get his point across. And putting myself on paper like that feels really damn good. It’s like the pressure is being siphoned off, and you’re no longer in danger of having structral integrity failure. Plus, you can examine your own traits from an outside perspective, see how they drive you. I’m sure there’s some self-actualization and psychoanalytic BS in there somewhere

The third character also embodies a bit of me, and that’s wonder. When aliens show up at her door, she doesn’t freak out (at least, not that much) and instead goes “Cool!” Maybe it’s a leftover of my boyhood days of wishing Obi-Wan Kenobi would take me away to become a Jedi Knight, but I think it’s also part of our contemporary culture too: who wouldn’t think it was awesome if Optimus Prime and Megatron started duking it out (so long as Michael Bay wasn’t choreographing)? Maybe it’s just me.

So there is the trinity of emotions for this story, and the new frame of mind I’m working with. Through rewriting, I’ve sculpted away the excess junk and found that emotion itself is the bedrock. But there’s a lot on top of that; for instance, WTF is “Janzer?” Am I high? Well, I’ll admit to being an anime fan, and this story involves one of anime’s greatest components: giant robots. And, in the tradition of anime giving its robots ridiculous names–Gundam, Evangelion, Gunbuster, Big O, and others–I decided to give mine a random, made up name. I think it fits (and it sounds cool, to boot.)

So there you have it. My story is everything I wanted to write, although there’s a bit less of it: I cut from 7139 words to about 6700, which is good. Less junk, more space. Though I did have to axe a darling or two to make it work.

Editing “Janzer”

So I’m typing up this story, which I’m tentatively calling “Janzer,” and I’ve noticed that it’s currently at 6,359 words. This is not exactly a good thing. I’m certainly not done with it yet. There are more scenes to type up, at least three or four. And the upper limit for short stories, which this is supposed to be, is generally accepted at 7,500 words. No editor is going to look at a work from a first time (or nearly first time) science fiction author beyond 8,000, and if my fears are correct and this goes over 10,000, it’s dead in the water.

Not something I need to be terribly concerned with right now, but when I do edit this story properly, I’m going to need to cut a lot. I already have one scene I know I’m going to ditch, but it’s very clear this story is going to need a significant overhaul. Ideally, I’d like it to be within 6,000-7,000 words, both because that would make it more appealing for an editor on a budget (which are tight everywhere) and because it will likely, through attrition, become significantly more polished. And this definitely means the plot is going to be rebuilt from the ground up.

It’s difficult for me, though. I really have only read novels; I don’t read short stories all that much, so when I try to write one, I tend to write detailed, expansive stories, trying to cram far too much into too small a space. It’s a flaw, for me, and one that can only be cured–well, maybe helped–by reading more short fiction. When I’m more settled with my financial situation, I will definitely buy at least three back issues of Asimov’s and read it until my eyes bleed.

I suppose I should talk about length and story types. There are many different definitions of what is and isn’t a short story, but since I’m a speculative fiction guy, I’m going to go by the premier speculative fiction association in my country: the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Their categories for the Nebula Awards, considered part of the holy trifecta of science fiction awards (the others being the Hugos and whatever else you prefer, usually the Phillip K. Dick Award, the Locus Readership Poll, Writers of the Future Award, or something like that) sort of define the business.

In their terms, short stories are anything 7,500 words or less. The next category are novelettes, which are 7,500 to 17,500 words. Then novellas, which are between 17,500 and 40,000 (if I’m not mistaken.) Anything above that is considered a proper novel. I’ve long heard that the industry standard is 250 words a page, and if we take that as our guideline, we’re looking at 30 pages or less for a short story, 30-70 for a novelette, 70-160 for a novella, with the lowest page count for a novel being around 160-170 pages. Of course, this is just SFWA standards; I’m sure there are some people count a work with up to 100,000 words a “novella” in some crazy paradigm. I personally feel that something that’s less than 200 pages but more than, say, 50-70, is a novella. For me, 200 pages is the bare minimum for something to be considered a novel. Anything less (or anything significantly less, I should say) does not have the long plot, the vastness of space, the power of detail and complexity to truly be considered a novel. Anything less and you have something different.

I suppose, thinking about it, that my preferred length might be a novelette. It’s not that long, so I don’t have to write an enormous amount of detail, but at the same time its long enough to create complex characters and a twisting plot, which I might not otherwise be able to do in a short story. Not too much time, but enough. Unfortunately, the novelette is even more of a disreputable banana republic than the novella is, and I don’t think any publisher would seriously take into consideration a novelette for publication. Sure, magazines, but in this day and age, where does that get you? Maybe it gets you somewhere, but I’m not sure.

I’m going to go back and pound away on “Janzer” and see what happens. Then I’ll probably end up pounding away some more.