Heinlein’s Rules #1: Write.

There’s an apocryphal story attached to Abigail Adams, wife of the notoriously obnoxious and disliked second president, John Adams. She apparently chased (or, more likely, sent one of the children to chase) her husband as he was on his way to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to bring him his favorite pair of pants. “Because most of the business of politics is applying the seat of them to the seat of the chair.”

She could easily have been Tabitha (or Stephen) King, Charmian London or Vera Nabokov for all that. Because the first business in writing is applying the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.




Without a steady flow of new words, everything else dries up. It’s a slaughterhouse without incoming meat, an oil well without oil, a Congress without draft legislation. First and foremost, you must write.

Every writer is different – I tend to write in three-day bursts, plinking a few hundred words one day, a few hundred words the next, and hitting a streak of three or four thousand the third day. Jack London’s famous stint was 1000 words a day, Dean Wesley Smith writes in public, Bradbury wrote a short story a week, Kerouac wrote the entirety of On the Road in one forty-eight hour Benzedrine-fueled rush. To this day, Stephen King writes double what Jack London did and won’t let himself get up until he does.

Unless you’re going the Kerouac route, and I don’t recommend it, don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes to you when you’re actually working, not when you’re playing another round of Civilization IV*. Talking about “inspiration” when you’re not writing is just another excuse for not writing. And having taken my share of long sabbaticals, you write better when you’re in a habit of writing. You get rusty otherwise. It’s just like anything else that way.

How much should you write? I’m going to talk of words per day, even though you may write in week-long or three-day terms like Bradbury or I. Don’t take Stephen King or Jack London or any other number out of thin air. You are not Stephen King. You are not Jack London. That’s like going to the gym and saying, “well, I’ll lift a hundred pound weight every day. That’s a nice round number.”

Dean Wesley Smith recommends doing a time inventory once or twice a year, measuring how you spend all your time in fifteen minute chunks. I can attest that this is a useful exercise, and also a huge pain in the ass. It also becomes less useful if your life is less than completely predictable, say because you switch continents or because some weeks work furloughs you four days out of five and some weeks they call you in for twelve-hour shifts of unpaid overtime.

What I recommend is looking at the most stable parts of your week – maybe you never get called in on Tuesdays or you’re free after church on Sundays – and set that aside for a test run each week. This is the time where you sit down to crank out another few hundred or few thousand words. Start at a set time and end at a set time – slightly less than you’d want, so your brain considers the time precious.

When you’re done, divide the number of new words by the hours you’ve been writing. This is your words per hour, and it’s going to get more accurate each week until you know your average wordcount like the back of your hand. My own is about 800 words per hour.

Now, look at the upcoming week and see where you can reasonably slot in half an hour or an hour to write. Calculate how many words you can write this week given your wordcount and the time available. Halve this number, because shit happens.

This is your wordcount goal for the week.

You can extend this to monthly and yearly wordcount, if you like. And if you find yourself with an extra ten minutes by the word processor, see if you can wrap up that scene or write out a dialogue.

Once you have the time set out, you must protect it. You can do the café thing, or stay at home. Do, however, remove yourself from the everyday in some way – even if it’s just moving the chair to a different part of the room. It helps you make a mental break from all the other bullshit in your life. I like to mount a framed picture of Jack London that I have, to spur me on.

Then turn off the internet.

No, you don’t need it for research – forge ahead as if you knew, and if it’s important (or if it’s encyclopedic information), drop “[tk]” in that spot to mark it to look up later when you’re editing. Writing time is for writing, that is, adding new words.

For years, I had a netbook that I’d gotten for free in exchange for showing up and looking white at a factory opening in China. I got what I paid for – it was so crippled that a month after I got it, all it could do was play music and operate Word. It was absolutely perfect, because while I was using that computer, all I could do was write. I got higher wordcounts per hour on that thing than on anything else, even on my regular computer with the internet turned off.

This year, I’m getting a Hemingwrite, because it’s designed to do the same thing, share documents via cloud, and survive anything short of a nuclear blast.

I also recommend taking two or five or ten minutes to reread a bit of what you’ve written (assuming you’re working on an ongoing project), not to edit, but to ‘get into the voice’ as it were. I wrote “Sweat and White Cotton” with a very different voice from “Preta” and rereading a bit ‘primes the pump.’ It also helps me to outline the next scene or two, at least in a rough one or two sentence sketch, before I start. This and the front matter where I describe the plot as if telling the story to the friend I call the scaffolding, because it’s supposed to come down before I send it around to the first readers.

What are you waiting for? Get the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair. There’s writing to be done.


Heinlein’s Rules of Writing: Introduction

This is a story of how to succeed as a writer.

I started writing when I could form coherent words on a typewriter. Ensconced in some damp box in a decrepit trailer on my mother’s property is a one-page detective story I ripped off from Gonzo on Muppet Babies* – the earliest story I can remember writing, on Mother’s Selectric.

My writing career, in terms of getting things out, starts in 1998 – when I first sent “The Remedy” out to Asimov’s Science Fiction. They rejected it, but a year later the Ray Bradbury Contest gave it third place and published it in the annual anthology. Waukegan Library sent me a copy of Yestermorrow signed by Bradbury himself, something I still deeply treasure. That same year, I published my first ‘zine, Rocket Takeoff, starting my love-hate relationship with the publishing world.

In those days, you mailed yourself a copy of the story through the mail for a poor man’s copyright, and mailed another copy to the magazine so you could wait six months or a year for your rejection. Asimov’s was so notoriously behind the times that in 1998 the guidelines included the words “please remove the sides of the paper before submission,” a phrase I struggled with until I remembered the old dot-matrix printers that I hadn’t seen since ’93. You published anything by either coding an HTML website from scratch or by running copies off at Staples and then staying up all night stapling them together.

The market for SF short fiction was tiny then, because the explosion of online and otherwise Internet-enabled new markets, like Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, or anthologies like Blood on the Floor, had yet to happen. By 2001, I had a list of six markets that paid money, which I’d pulled together from checking the Barnes & Noble racks and copying out of the library’s Writer’s Digest.

Six. Total.

Submitting a story to those six markets and collecting rejections would have taken three and a half years, according to the nascent response-time information available at websites like Writer’s Black Hole. I don’t have records from that time any more, so I can’t tell you if I actually shipped one story to all six or not. I did write “Gods of War” and got Honorable Mention in the Cuesta Literary Contest. I flew off to China for a year, and came back.

There were more markets and more opportunities and more information. Duotrope’s Digest had started up, aggregating response-time, payment, and guideline information, and keeping track of which markets were still able to pay. I sold “Gods of War” to MindFlights.com**, sold a few other pieces, and kept on writing. But it was always starting, never finishing (a bit like everything else in my life during the three years wandering in the wilderness). After “Gods of War,” nothing seemed to sell, and “Gods” was just sitting there useless on my hard drive, spent.

I went back to China to finish my degree, and made the acquaintance of Paul Skelding. He was big on new publishing – Amanda Palmer and “the death of traditional publishers” were always on his lips. He introduced me to Smashwords and the concept of selling e-books. He and I concocted an online magazine together that spectacularly failed to sell, before he got married and was transferred north to Beijing.

I despaired, at that point. I’d dropped an old story from 2007 or thereabouts into One Weird Idea, one that had failed to sell, because I had literally not finished anything since. I was exiled from China and spent six weeks meandering around Hong Kong, living out of a matchbox in the Chungking Mansions and alternating between drifting up and down the Kowloon shore and sipping cheap spice coffee in the internet café/hat shop on the first floor. I admitted that One Weird Idea was a failure, and looked at my career to that point. I felt that if SF/F wasn’t spent, I at least was. I plinked at a few stories, both in America and once I’d fast-talked my way back into China, but the spirit was gone.

In December of 2012, when the world failed to end, I discovered Dean Wesley Smith. Specifically, I discovered The New World of Publishing and Think Like a Publisher. Dean doesn’t peddle get-famous-quick or false-hope stories. He praises Amanda Hocking’s grit and her good luck, but doesn’t consider her a pattern to replicate. He laid out the numbers and showed a way to make a living as a writer. Not get rich quick – make a living.

I was inspired. The various starts I had going all the way back to 2008 started getting finished, things like “Home for the Holidays” and “The Short, Strange Life of Comrade Lin” and “Simplified”. I checked the anthology lists, and cranked out pieces like “Bartleby the Clerk” and “Wives are Waiting by the Bank or…” and “The Diction-fairy” for them. I revived the moribund company structure I’d started on my last visit home, dusted it off and made it my publishing house. I put up stories on Smashwords and Amazon, I worked on the blog, I put together a business plan and marketing. I finished my first proper novel, No Time, for 2013’s National Novel Writing Month.

Lachlan Atcliffe commented, at the time, “whatever or whoever you’re doing, keep doing it.

Most importantly, I sat down to write and I kept writing. Dean Wesley Smith incorporated workflow analysis and production goals. Jack London called it his stint and took to it with the same grim determination he used to haul line or shovel coal. But Robert Heinlein formulated probably the most perfect, crystalline version of the process. These are Heinlein’s rules:

  1. Write.
  2. Finish what you start.
  3. Do not rewrite except on an editor’s orders.
  4. Put the story in the mail.
  5. Keep it in the mail until it sells.

It was true for Jack London and Bob Heinlein, it was true for Dean Wesley Smith, it’s true for me and it’s true for you. In traditional blogging style, I’ll be treating all five of these individually over the next few weeks…and presumptuously adding one of my own. But, really, if you sit quietly with Heinlein’s rules and live by them, you, too, will succeed as a writer. It’s not easy. Nobody said it was easy. But it is that simple.

* To be fair, I also ripped off Tiny Toons: How I Spent my Summer Vacation for some bits.

** Yeah, I sold an overtly Buddhist short story to a Christian lit magazine. I was as confused as you are.

Rest in Peace, Sir Terry


A moment of silence for Sir Terry Pratchett, who taught us not to fear Death. Go read his last story.

When I was a teenager, I absolutely loved Les Miserables. I read a condensed version of the book when I was fourteen, heard the musical for the first time at sixteen, saw the play for my eighteenth birthday, and read the full version between seventeen and nineteen. I read the full version in the original French during my first year in China, when I was twenty.

When I was seventeen, my friend James Chen told me about a book called Night Watch. It was a fantasy send-up of Les Mis, he said. And that was the first time I ever read Terry Pratchett. To this day, Night Watch is probably my favorite of the Discworld books (because I like humor, time travel, and French revolutions).

I kept reading, mostly as I could pick up books through the library or used bookstores. I read Men at Arms and didn’t get it, I read Guards, Guards! and did. I loved Jingo and Hogfather and Mort.

But most of all, besides Night Watch, I love Small Gods.

I picked up Small Gods in the oldest bookstore in Hong Kong, during my six-week exile in the summer and fall of 2011. Small Gods is …different. Sir Terry loved clever protagonists, brilliant but unappreciated people, usually cynical (Mort, Sam Vimes, Susan, Moist). Brutha is the exact  opposite. Brutha is simple in ways that not even Carrot is simple. He’s an uncomplicated believer in Om who happens to have a perfect memory. His belief and his simplicity power the entire story.

I like Small Gods because it talks about the power of belief, of how institutions corrupt, of what kind of man Brutha is and what kind of man Vorbis is, and what they represent for religion, power, and institutions. But I love it because Sir Terry so obviously wasn’t Brutha, and wanted to write him anyway. Because Sir Terry struggled to write this protagonist who was so unlike his other protagonists and so unlike himself. And he succeeded.

Goodnight, Sir Terry. I hope Death said ‘thank you’ for making him less scary to the rest of us.


Go Ride the Music


Do you see the music?

When I listen to certain songs, they always summon strong, clear images or fantasies. Sometimes it has to do with the music video or where I first heard it…but often not. For example, London Symphony Orchestra’s cover of “Smooth Criminal” sounds to me like the Nazis marching into Paris, kicking down doors and clearing out undesirables. Here are some of the others:

Redskunk Jipzee Swing Band’s “Arctic Blue”: A John Constantine figure, selling his soul to Hell to save a woman’s life. He knows exactly what he’s buying, and he knows he’s damned anyway. According to Molly Reeves, she saw similar imagery while they were composing the song…even though the lyrics have nothing to do with it.

Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”: The Battle of Teutoborg Forest, gone very, very wrong. Something dark and amorphous has swallowed the Germans, and the lonely Roman legion is in the middle of the darkness, around a feeble lantern. A black rain that should not be falls from the sky, staining faces and dulling armor. Shadows mass to swarm and attack out of the darkness, to douse the light. The one lantern may be the only light left in the world. The Romans are almost certain to die. But they are going to defend that flicker of flame, because every moment it remains alight is a victory.

Bob Dylan’s original “All Along the Watchtower”: A companion-piece to “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” The night before the Chinese Battle of Red Cliffs, where Zhuge Liang performs a grand Taoist ceremony for fair weather.

Bet you thought I forgot about these!

Bet you thought I forgot about these!

It’s debatable whether he had the whole three-day ceremony set up because he knew the winds would change in his favor in that time, or whether his ceremony actually changed the weather…but in this case, black rain falls. I see the man with the wispy beard look up in horror, because this is not of the Tao. Thunder strikes, and a lightning made of darkness destroys the altar. There is scattering and chaos as blackness seeps into the world…

Kongos’ “Come With Me Now”: Specifically, the accordion piece at the beginning. I always picture a massive Mayan god, done in the traditional artistic look, rolling back and forth with his face always forward and chuckling like a 90s video game boss. The rest of the song descends into chaotic postmodern fistfighting. As it should be, really.

Neil Young’s “Ohio”: The Stand. All of it. Mostly Stuart Redman, admittedly, and his trip back to Boulder with Tom Cullen, mixed in with the four messengers of Mother Abigail making their way west to Las Vegas and the confrontation, earlier in the book, with the Menagerie. Tired, dusty men on the road through the vast flat West.

Those are some of the strongest images I get from music. How about you? Do you see visions when you listen to certain songs? If so, what are they?

How “No Time” Happened, Part 3

Due to overwhelming fan demand…

…that is to say, two people…

…here is the original outline document for No Time: The First Hour. I have a similar one for No Time for the Killing Floor: The Second Hour and have started the one for No Time for Revolving Doors: The Third Hour.


Continue reading

Happy Clam Chowder Day!

Today’s post is a bonus, coming a day early to celebrate America’s National Clam Chowder Day.

God damn but that is beautiful. Just...look at that.

God damn but that is beautiful. Just…look at that.

Seriously, next time someone gives you shit about how Americans have no indigenous culture/cuisine? Clam chowder. It was the canny adaptation of a centuries-old French and English communal dish (something akin to cioppino) to the bountiful shellfish fisheries of the Atlantic seaboard. The only proper chowder, white and creamy, is made with clams, potatoes, onions, sometimes a green vegetable like celery, and milk.* It’s garnished with oyster crackers, the modern descendant of the ship’s hardtack used to thicken the chowder (rather than flour) in the first place.

Where I’m from, Morro Bay, chowder is on literally every menu but Taco Bell’s. When I was growing up, soup options were Soup du Jour and Clam Chowder, and every restaurant has “the best clam chowder in town.” My first job, washing dishes, included “bottomless bowl of chowder” as an employment benefit. Can’t imagine why.

[picture of waterfront – “This may have something to do with it.”]

This may conceivably have something to do with it. That and the estuary making the place an ideal habitat for bottom-feeding filtration mollusks.

This may conceivably have something to do with it. That and the estuary making the place an ideal habitat for bottom-feeding filtration mollusks.

When I got to China, I discovered that not only did they not have clam chowder, nobody had ever heard of it. Not even the other gwailo. Being as how fish and shellfish were freely available fresh (as in, ‘alive’) in the wet markets and I was in desperate need of American food, I turned to my friend Old Scrote (who’s taught me so much) and adapted his recipe. Here, then, is my recipe for Chinese clam chowder.

First, go down to the wet market and argue with the fishwife in Cantonese.

This one, around the corner from your apartment. You can go inside if it's raining.

This one, around the corner from your apartment. You can go inside if it’s raining.

Mind the blood groove in the floor, you do not want to fall in that shit. You’ll want a bunch of clams, mussels or oysters, and maybe a fish if you can get her to kill it and throw it in for less than ten kuai extra. Because of my terminal lack of fucks to give and usually dodgy employment situation, I didn’t ever have them shucked but just tossed them into the chowder, shells and all.

Go over to the vegetable ladies and pick up onions, potatoes, and celery. Everything I ever cook is ‘one quarter onion per person per meal,’ and you’ll want double that amount in potatoes and two celery ribs for each onion.

Head to the grocery store for the bacon and milk. Only use milk that you can make cheese with by boiling, adding salt and vinegar, and straining. If the milk doesn’t make cheese, it shouldn’t go in your body.

When you get home, chop the celery up into half-inch lengths and the potatoes into thin slices. As Old Scrote instructs, “Chop the bacon pieces very finely and fry them in a little oil. Chop the onion and soften it with the bacon.” Where we diverge is the next step – toss the clams in, liquid and all, adding water if necessary, then cover the cooking pot. Don’t turn it up too high – you want the liquid to simmer but not boil. It shouldn’t take but a few minutes, five or ten at the most. Remove the clams and set them aside, tossing out any that refused to open. You do not want to eat them.

The rest of the recipe proceeds like Scrote – throw in the potato slices, turn up the heat, and boil them. After about ten or fifteen minutes, toss the celery in, too. Add the milk after twenty minutes, then wait for the potatoes to crumble into flour and thicken the soup up. Add the clams back in and season with plenty of salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with Tsingtao beer and a side of homemade sourdough. Feed yourself and your two insane roommates and whatever friends/lovers come streaming through the house for a week or so.

Happy National Clam Chowder Day.

*I had heard legends of this ‘red’ chowder, mostly from a throwaway gag in Ace Ventura, but I didn’t really believe it existed. Then, when I was 22, I was finally served some. It made me doubt the existence of a just and loving God.

How “No Time” Happened, Part 2

In August of 2013, I flew back to America to sit the mandatory French testing that would guarantee me a placement in the Peace Corps. I’d worked on an organic farm outside of Shenzhen, China, and with proof of my French skills, they were certain to ship me off to some distant clime in West Africa. While I was home, I scoped out locations and soaked up the atmosphere of Morro Bay, a place I hadn’t seen in two years. I hashed a bit at my outline, in between visits with old friends, meals that involved cheese and good beer, and endless games of Europa Universalis III.

A month later, in September, I flew back to China, flush with success. I started a new semester at Northeastern University’s online program and hit the bricks, looking for work. I knew the schools had hired while I was an ocean away, but that just meant more tutoring opportunities, right?


A month later, I was still hitting the streets. China’s National Day had come on October 1, a weeklong vacation where, as with every Chinese holiday, the students go home to their parents, sleep, eat mama’s cooking, and sleep more. And eat. And sleep. Zhuhai, already a sleepy little seaside city, was sleepier still, soaked in its own turpitude.

It was during the holiday that my girlfriend broke up with me. Two and a half years come to an end. Looking back on it, it had been a long time coming. I’m glad she pulled the trigger – and I’m still glad she stood by me as long as she did. I said goodbye to her and cut our staycation short, walking home instead of taking the bus. It was four straight miles through the dark starry Zhuhai night, where the sea is slate-grey at noon and muddy brown at dusk, and the suspicious smell of the Pearl River’s effluvia poison the Pacific…but hell, at least the air’s clean enough to breathe.

I went home to the cavernous four-bedroom apartment that my roommate had fled months before, where we never did buy furniture and the kitchen always seemed in constant danger of being overwhelmed by some lifeform or another. It was a whitewashed tomb on the eighth storey, full of closed doors and regrets. My room and the kitchen were the only places that even seemed inhabited, and my room only because of the three luggages and the small collection of Tsingtao beer bottles I’d collected after each day’s job hunting.

The collection got bigger as October wore on. My internet gave out and never came back, the food in the fridge went bad as I dined, night after night, on a bottle of Tsingtao and two packets of Chinese peanuts. I began to take up residence in the local gwailo bar, an Authentic Australian Bar joined at the hip to a dodgy Italian restaurant, owned by a Welshman and staffed with the best English students the Zhuhai universities could provide. I ordered the garlic chicken at the extravagent price of ten dollars, and made four meals apiece out of it, washed down with copious amounts of the local swill beer that was priced just right at less than a dollar per pint. I did my homework over their wifi, perched on a rickety stool in the back and with my computer shoved in between the skittles table and the wall, ducking down if I saw my ex or any of her colleagues so I wouldn’t run the risk of embarrassing her.

My Hemingway impression was perfect.

I began, in a crude way, to figure out that I was destroying myself, and that unless something was done, my grades would suffer. Unless something changed. Unless I changed. Unless I did something…adventurous.

I signed up for National Novel Writing Month on October 20, my mother’s birthday. I shaved my beard on October 30. I had an ill-advised one night stand thanks to my Doctor Who costume on October 31.

On November 1, I nursed a hangover and opened a new word document. At the top, I typed NO TIME: THE FIRST HOUR. And I began to write.

I’d written a novella the previous year, a patchwork piece of five interconnected pulp stories entitled Ian Brown and the Hand of Fatima. But I’d never finished a full-length novel. National Novel Writing Month asks for 50,000 words. The 12-chapter mystery formula asked for 60,000. Well, Hell. I had no job and no girlfriend and my life consisted of online classwork, the pub, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, green Tsingtao bottles, and my bed.

And now, a book. Gooch took shape immediately – I’d done preliminary work on him, Rachel and Maria a week before I started. I groped for Rachel’s voice and found it once I realized the person I thought she was was actually Debbie-Anne. Maria took her entrance and characters began to crawl out of the woodwork: Uncle Jerry (then under the pseudonym Uncle Wrex), Matthew Park, Alison Wingate III.

Francesca Caballero y Gutierrez, Ama, was a particular treat. Until Gooch opened that door, I was expecting the frail old woman from my notes. The woman who appeared on the page is still blind, but her fingers are strong and her ears sharp. Age didn’t diminish her – it refined her. And I fell in absolute love with her (still am!).

The soundtrack coalesced. Gooch’s “Telegraph Road,” Maria’s “Heaven on Their Minds,” the tick-tock of “No Time” and the spare acoustic eulogy of “Beast.”

I remember finishing chapter four and talking to my mother on the phone and going “I wrote this character who’s just like you!” (Alison)

I remember writing chapter nine and calling her again and going “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t plan this. Alison just …kind of got away from me there.”

I remember spending almost a week on chapter eight, as it metastasized and threatened to strangle the book like a cancer. As it simply kept growing as fast as I kept writing, and of the sleep-deprived despair I felt at ever finishing the damn thing. I remember Lachlan Atcliffe steeling me to carry on and listening to my rants about how much I hated it.

No, seriously, fuck chapter eight.

I remember writing about Gooch’s love of tequila, inspiring Big Joel to suggest a round of tequilas. And another, and another. We whispered terrible secrets in the dark, the things that haunted us and drove us to that dingy bar, that distant continent, that fish-smelling village of Tangjia that had once shown so much promise.

There is a pervasive energy to the gwailo, a malaise and a shadow that hangs over us whenever two or more gather – the mingled love and fear of Home. In large cities, young cities, husky, brawling, where there are Russians and Frenchmen and Israelis thrown together with the usual detritus of the Anglosphere, where some are still young and still on their gap year, where there is still some hope, the malaise ebbs. In cities like Zhuhai, it’s in the air – the sense that you have failed at life at Home, and will fail again if you ever return, that are less than a man if male and an invisible white ghost if female. In Haikou, it was suffocating as the jungle odor of the coconut groves and the punishing wet heat of afternoon before the monsoons came, and just as real.

There was an Englishman who tried to pick a fight with Big Joel that night, but the old brawling hockey-playing Irish boy from south Boston wasn’t having it. He was quoting Robert Frost instead, as he might have done before a tabernacle or a Harvard lecture hall in another life. So, after the tequila conspired with darkness to rob me of memory, he started in on me. They tell me we wandered out together as the bars closed at two AM, spilling into the street market beneath the shadow of the legendary Dragon Union dance hall and brothel and bordello, that dominates the heart of Tangjia.

Praise be to China and the Chinese, for they make use of every public space. Any square inch will be turned to community garden, to ballroom dance practice in the evenings, to the housewives’ tai chi in the mornings under the care of the wizened master, or to the street market. Enterprising young guns from across China, from Urumqi and Kashgar on the old silk road where the men all wear silk hats under Allah to the waterside slums of Shenzhen, gather in the night markets to buy and sell. The card tables come out at sundown, the portable barbeques are trundled from their hiding places, the restaurants retreat inside themselves while the Muslim boys banter and grill you oysters and kebabs and crucified chicken drumsticks and the toothless Hokka women smile at your Mandarin as bad as theirs and grill or blanche vegetables and pork by the mouthful. We whites set up ourselves a card table, between two pointless street gangs and a quiet table of low-grade tong soldiers.

They tell me that the Englishman became mean as he drank, as Englishmen do, and he began to insult my mother. They tell me I took a swig of beer, and asked with all politesse if he was joking around, or if he was really trying to insult my mother. They tell me I put the bottle on the table, quite deliberately, as the other six guys shifted around, ready to start the fight if I threw the punch. Hell, I had a brown belt in Uechi-ryu and a Boston southie going for me.

And the Englishman sputtered that he was just joking around. And I smiled, and shook his hand, and was pleasant.

That’s the bit that scared people, the bit they were haunted by when they told me the next morning. I was scary because I was friendly.

Finally, by November 30, I had taken a spare room with a Grand Old Gentleman and a scholar, and stayed up all night, powered by homework and cheap Tsingtaos and Pepsi, and plowed inexorably through the last few chapters. I wrote them all in that night, finishing at 5:50, the time on Gooch’s microwave when he stumbles into his house on Easter morning. I scattered [tk]s like confetti, marking places to fix in the second draft or after, leaving them spread in my wake as I sailed on towards the safe harbor of the end, the end in sight, -THE END-.

And I reached The End.

The dawn was just yellowing, the sun peeking triumphantly out before the factories would bury it under smoke and soot. I put on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and brewed myself a cup of jasmine tea. I spent an hour like that, wandering the house, as my roommate wandered out for his coffee and out to teach his morning class. I let it steep into me, into my bones.

I’d written a book.

At 62,000 words, I’d written an entire novel.

I uploaded it to NaNoWriMo for verification, and got my winner’s diploma.

Then, spent, I stumbled to my room, and slept.

On December 1, I took the ferry to Hong Kong. It was time for my visa run…and a party to go to. One I had damn well earned the right to go to.

Strange and beautiful things happened then in Hong Kong, but then they always do. Hong Kong, for my money, is the most romantic city in the world. And I had written a book. God damn. I’d really done it.

The rest of the story is a roundy-round of drafts and edits, shifting names and nationalities, Alison and Jerry and Ama assuming their proper place and dignity, things explained, verisimilitude. The story of publishing a book is rarely as interesting as the story of writing it. But, hey, that’s the company motto: Every story has a story.

And I’d written a book.

God damn.

Edit: Big Joel died, not too long ago, in a freak car accident in the streets of Zhuhai. Wherever you are, raise a glass for him. Where he’s gone, everyone is a poet – and he can drink and quote Robert Frost in a night that never ends.


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