Part 7: Pet Snail and Pet Maggot

This is an excerpt from my novel, Caroline. See previous chapter here.

I had finished going to the library and plopped on the couch to rest when suddenly Rachael hopped onto my lap and started rubbing her head against my arms. Rachael was our family pet, it had been a shelter animal because mom was too cheap to buy an animal from an experienced breeder. Rachael was technically a mutt, if the term can be applied to cats as well, but we didn’t pick Rachael for her breed as much as for her docility and timidity. Generally it’s not good to name pets after a person in the family; Rachael was named after our grandmother who had, at the time, recently passed away.

Because Rachael was in reality Emily’s cat, she was fed by Emily and hangs around her almost exclusively; in the middle of the night she would only creep into Emily’s room, then jump up on her bed and sleep with her. I had no problems with Emily sleeping with Rachael, although initially when I tell that to some of her friends they’d get confused, especially if they know our grandmother had the same name. That aside, it’s a rare event that Rachael would jump on my lap and let me pet her. I took the liberty of taking my right hand and stroking the cat’s back from the top of its shiny head to the base of its frisky tail. I found it a little strange that the cat should arch its back each time my hand neared the base of its tail; not that I think this is improper animal behavior, but feeling its muscles suddenly tense as it merely felt my touch made the animal seem unnerved by my presence.

As I stroked the cat’s shiny coat, Caroline walked past and briefly glanced at me. I was distracted and Rachael took the opportunity to jump off my lap and onto the hardwood floor, arching its back and raising its tail in a defiant manner as it trotted away. Trying to capture Caroline’s attention, I picked Rachael off the floor, smiled at Caroline and asked, “Here, would you like to hold Rachael?”

For a second she did not respond, then she turned around and stared at me with the same look of hostility as she did when we were riding in the car back home from the YMCA. Cold and piercing were her eyes as she walked towards me; I could not stand to look at her directly when she was within an arm’s length reach. I was about to turn around and run because the expression on Caroline’s face was so intense it could melt steel doors. But as I was starting to shirk away Caroline asked, “Aren’t you giving me Rachael to play with?”

I regained the courage to open my eyes again, but did not stare into Caroline’s face directly. She held out her hands to accept the cat into her arms, but before I handed the cat to her I showed her proper way to cradle a cat before putting it in her hands.

“Is that too heavy for you?” I asked.

“No, I’ve been asked to carry heavier things before,” Caroline responded.

For about half a minute the cat tried to wriggle out from Caroline’s arms, but with a grip firmer than you’d expect from hands as small as hers Caroline held onto Rachael tightly and did not let her go even as Rachael was hissing and scratching Caroline with her claws. A remarkable transformation took place as Caroline looked into Rachael’s face; the expression on Caroline’s face soften and became more gentle. Then something completely unexpected, Caroline started “baby-talking” to Rachael, using an artificially high-pitched voice, exaggerated intonation, simplified grammar and repetition.

“Aren’t you a pretty kitty? Aren’t you a pretty kitty? Yes you are! Yes you are! Oh, where is she going? Where is she going?”

It was fascinating because my sister showed the same behavior towards Rachael as Caroline did, confirming an intuition I had for a while that females have an innate mothering instinct. Despite Rachael acting hostile towards Caroline, she treated the cat as though it welcomed her attention. When Rachael scratched Caroline with its claws so hard that she started bleeding, she was unfazed and said jokingly in a very playful voice, ‘Oh, my little kitty is a little Rrrrrrrrr! Isn’t she?’ (I can vouch that I have correctly spelled exactly what Caroline said, she could trill as well as a singer in a mariachi band.)

Caroline’s legs must have been feeling a little tired and she sat down besides me while holding Rachael in her lap. After a while Rachael wasn’t struggling as much, she appeared quite content on Caroline’s lap and allowed her to stroke it without being restrained. With a cat on her lap Caroline seemed very happy, it was hard to imagine that only moments ago she had a grim look on her face as though she’s been condemned to death row, but now she looked like she was pardon by the governor. Innocently, without being cognizant that I was speaking aloud, I remarked, “I believe that this is the first time I’ve ever seen you smile.”

Caroline was surprised and said, “That’s not true, I’ve smiled many times since I’ve been with you.”

“‘Since I’ve been with you,'” I thought to myself, this time careful to avoid saying my thoughts aloud, “I’ve never been purposefully with you, so far we’ve only encountered one another when we accidentally bump into each other in the house.”

“If you’ve ever smiled in front of me then my eyes must have been shut at the moment, because after scanning every memory of the times I’ve look at you, you appeared grim, like the Angel of Death or a scary kid from a horror film,” I said.

Caroline smiled and jokingly whispered, “I see dead people.”

“Yes, when you take LSD you see a lot of things,” I thought silently to myself.

“Have you ever had a cat before?” I asked.

With a glowing smile Caroline said, “Never, I didn’t even have a gerbil or mouse. I had a goldfish once but it died a few weeks after I got it. Goldfish are no fun, you could never pet a one; they’re so sensitive and swift that they’d swim away before you could touch them, and who wants to touch a slimy goldfish anyway? I can’t understand why some people enjoy keeping cold-blooded animals as pets, especially lizards and other reptiles. I can understand why people keep turtles as pets because baby turtles are cute, but once they grow up they’re nothing but a cold lizard in a shell. I especially can’t understand people who keep snakes as pets, what’s so appealing about a slithering animal who frequently sticks out its forked tongue and swallows animals whole? It sounds more like an extraterrestrial being than an earthly creature. I think mice are cute, especially if they have a fluffy coat and cute, large ears. But I hate albino ‘lab mice,’ I find their bloodshot eyes very disconcerting. The white color of their coat is too intense, it reminds me of the white coats doctors wear, which I’m still trying to rid my memories of. I hate rats, except the ones with multi-colored coats which I do like to some degree.”

I asked Caroline only a simple question but never expected such a complex answer where she enumerates what animals she likes and for what reason. But she wasn’t finished yet, “But since I’ve spent so much time in a hospital I never had a chance to have a real pet, once they got me one of them trendy electronic pets from Japan but it couldn’t replace the warmth and fuzziness of a living, flesh and blood pet.”

“You seem to have a lot of preferences on what types of animals will make good pets for a person who hasn’t have had any real pets in her life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, this time her smile turning a little sour and back to a hostile look.

“Well, since you never had an opportunity to try out many different types of pets, you really don’t know which animals make good pets or not. I found many types of animals indeed make good pets, even ones no one thought can be domesticated. I once had a pet snail, I kept it in a large glass jar and enjoyed watching it crawl up the sides of the glass with its undulating belly and probing its environment with its long eyestalks and two tentacles that surrounded its mouth. The problem was that I kept feeding it lettuce, which contains too much water. After a while the snail became bloated, plus the jar was also collecting unsightly snail feces and slime trails. I felt sorry for the snail’s living conditions and appearance so I released it into the garden from where it came.

“I also kept another unusual pet, I once swatted flies and fed them to my goldfish, because I’ve heard that feeding goldfish live food provides them with more nutrition than regular pellets. I once caught a very large fly, it was unlike the small green-bottles that are more numerous in our area; it looked more like a large horsefly. I kept this unusual find in a small glass jar so I could carry it carefully to the fish tank when I suddenly notice tiny, short, white filaments no thicker than a thread wriggling out of its crushed abdomen. They were maggots that have hatched inside the body of the fly. It was planning to lay the maggots on a suitable substrate for feeding until I cut short its plans by crushing it to death. Fascinated by these almost microscopic creatures I tried raising them, first on banana peel and then on pieces of apple and cantaloupe. Despite their otherworldly and some would say disgusting appearance, I took care of them as well as my knowledge of maggot husbandry allowed, even giving them a habitat inside a used makeup container my mother threw away. Even so, out of the half-dozen maggots I collected only one survived to the stage where it was as big as a grain of rice. Unfortunately it then escaped from the makeup box I gave it as its home. I could only hope that mom accidentally threw away the maggot into a pile of trash where it continued its development, then turned into a chrysalis, from which an adult fly emerge and is now blissfully buzzing around in a garbage dump somewhere, enjoying sucking juice from a spoiled peach.”

Caroline looked quite repulsed, and said, “I don’t know whether to compliment you on your ability to describe with such beautiful language something as ugly as maggots, or to be completely disgusted at the fact that you enjoyed having maggots as pets.”

I smiled and said, “Why can’t you do both at the same time? My point is that there are many animals that most people have never even considered that actually make good pets. In fact maggots make excellent pets, they take up very little space, eat very little and don’t seem to excrete much waste (at least that’s my experience). It doesn’t matter if a few of them die because people are less emotionally attached to insects than mammals, they have a very short lifespan and therefore go through their entire life-cycles in a matter of weeks and are plentiful and easy to obtain. Now, many consider flies to be dirty creatures because they spread diseases, but consider the fact that more normal pets such as dogs and cats are also quite dirty themselves, especially dogs because they cannot be trained to use a litter box. Dogs and cats also spread diseases such as rabies, tapeworms, fleas, where would these things be without cats and dogs as intermediates for their transmission? In fact, the household cat is a reservoir of a parasite so dangerous to unborn fetuses that pregnant women are advised not to handle cats. On the contrary, maggots do not carry any diseases that are transmissible to human beings unless you eat them raw, which is unlikely. So there is quite a case to be made that maggots make the perfect pet, despite our instinctive, visceral reaction towards things that look like grains of rice that can wriggle. And besides, when Rachael comes back from the yard carrying the bloody remains of a bird he’s caught outside, that’s quite disgusting also.”

“Ew! Rachael has caught a bird once?” Caroline said with a look of disgust on her face. She released her grip on Rachael and even tried shooing her away from her lap, but Rachael enjoyed lying on Caroline’s lap too much to jump off.

I smiled and said, “I believe Rachael likes you.”

Continue to next chapter.

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#poem collection, Rest in Sleep, Morning Songbirds, Winter Ends…

Rest in Sleep

Let my body lay to rest,

Hope I wake for break of dawn.

Tranquil night is my request,

Pray come morning, fatigue be gone!

Morning Songbirds

Soft light rouse the birds from sleep

The Valley fills with songs from beaks

Under clouds a chorus builds

Filled with sonorous avian trills

Winter Ends

Dreary clouds above

Freezing rain below

Chills my core and soul

The gloom of winter comes to pass

To spring who will revive the grass

Moonlight

Mother moon in the sky

Veils night with her light

Soothing eyes tired and sore

With light so soft and blue

Gentle, mute and calm

In Memory of Brussels, March 22, 2016

Noble Europe, how we mourn

Ripped by brimstone, torn by scorn

Raging men with endless ire

Tore through lives with dogmatic fire

My Novel Backlog Problem

My earliest desire to become a writer came from when I was in third grade and was given an assignment to write a short story. Apparently I ran with it and wrote a story four pages long, longer than what most of my classmates wrote. The teacher thought my story was so good she decided to read it in front of the class. Then in fifth grade I was given an assignment of writing a short story. But the teacher phrased it oddly, she told us to write a “novel” (even though the novel would only be five pages). I received an A for that assignment and also glowing feedback from the teacher praising my story. It was crucial that she used the word “novel” to describe the assignment, because it got me thinking, what if I did write a novel? I did some quick mental calculation and discovered that if I wrote a page a day and continued for one year, I would eventually write a novel-length work.

Before I knew it 7 years have passed and I wrote 4 or 5 different novels. (I am glossing over a lot of details, but many things happened in these 7 years that require another blog post to do justice to it all.) In my naiveté when I finished writing a first draft I declared the novel finished. I never thought of going back and revising the work. To be truthful, when I reread my work I am often disappointed by the quality, but instead of rewriting the novels I merely treated it as practice for writing the next novel. I thought that if I practiced enough by writing novel after novel, I would eventually get to the point where I could write a first draft that’s publishable. Maybe some novelists can do this, but I learned that it’s not usually the case.

One of my peculiarities is that I never failed to find inspiration for writing new novels. Whenever I work on one, two or three new ideas would pop into my head. By now I have more ideas for novels than there is time to write them. I have written so much material during high school and college that I can literally spend the rest of my life rewriting and revising the material to make it worthy for publishing, yet still I have ideas for books in my head that beg to be put on paper.

While I would like to work on new novels, I also have this incredible backlog of first drafts that are in a limbo state; they are on their way to becoming novels but aren’t completely finished. Recently I took the decision of taking one of these novels, editing it so it would at least be readable, and putting it on this blog. I am putting it out in small chunks because editing takes a long time, and I don’t have enough time in my schedule to do it all at once. Why do I plan to do with it afterwards? I have no idea, but if it gets a good response then maybe I would try more earnestly at creating a good final draft that will be published in a more traditional way. At this moment I don’t think it’ll be possible, but I can only hope.

Part 6: A Few Extra Fingers and Toes

This is an excerpt from my novel Caroline. Read the previous chapter here.

Despite living in the same house and sharing the same room, Caroline and I barely interacted with one another. Even at the dinner table I had never asked her to pass the salt or mustard. It might as well that Caroline and I did not know about each other’s existence, except when it was time for the both of us to go to bed. We slept in the same room since I was sick of being forced to sleep on the couch because Caroline hogged what was supposed to have been my room. Despite the fact I had partially regained control of my room by complaining to mom, I still don’t have my own bed; there were not enough beds around for all of us to sleep in unless one of us sleep in the same bed together. I did not want to sleep with my sister or my mother, and Caroline was out of the question because she had such a small body I’d fear crushing her when I turn over.

I improvised, I pushed two tables together, threw a blanket over it and called it a bed of my own. Of course, it wasn’t as comfortable as sleeping in a real bed, but after spending a few nights on the couch and being constantly awaken in the middle of the night by sounds of sharp screaming of someone next door I was willing to take anything. After spending a few nights with Caroline I discovered she was a very deep sleeper. Once a sauce pan fell off the bookshelf and onto the floor making a tremendous racket, yet Caroline still remained asleep. I also discovered I could sneak up on Caroline and softly sit beside her while she slept, and stare at her tranquil face as her chest slowly moves up and down as she breathed. Thinking about it now, what I did seem creepy, I was like a stalker sizing up his prey. But it was also kind of sweet, a lover admiring his partner as she was still in her tender sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Of course being children we were completely asexual, what we knew about romance were from cheesy Disney cartoons and sex education videos also made by Disney. For all I knew sperm cells have eyes, mouths (though oddly enough no ears) and top hats, and know how to perform synchronized swimming (granted not all sex ed videos I saw were like this, but the ones targeted at people of my age group were). I knew even less about the emotional side of love, especially the vicissitudes of a relationship. One day you could be so in enamored with an individual that you believe any moment without her is like the pain of a million hells; yet another day you are so infuriated by the actions of your beloved, you want to throw her out of your life for all eternity.

Love is a rollercoaster. I recommend those not intrepid enough to ride a rollercoaster to get into a romantic relationship. You’ll experience all the ups and downs without throwing up, except if you get pregnant which is another matter altogether. Fortunately I’ve never gotten anybody pregnant, which is all the better considering the children I will have been raising will have a few extra fingers and toes. It’s not that I’ve planned carefully to always wear a condom each time or use other proper precautions; it was because my partner did the proper homework and kept up with the oral contraceptive regiment that I avoided the fate some other horny teenagers with less prudent partners didn’t.

Of course, I never planned on getting serious with my cousin; it was simply good fortune that everything fell into place at the right time. The stars were all aligned, God was smiling on me, whatever turn of phrase you prefer to describe the events that transpired; I eventually got involved in a meaningful relationship with Caroline.

~~~~~~~~~~~

It had only been two weeks since Caroline was living with us, she had gotten used to the daily routine; breakfast at 8:00AM, lunch at 1:00PM, and dinner at 7:00PM and a few between-meal snacks whenever she felt like it. Yet she seemed merely to go through the motions simply to survive until the next day; she never talked to anyone or showed interest in anything besides television and eating. Even so she ate very little, enough to maintain her metabolism but not enough to gain any weight. She was not that interested in television either, all she watched were informercials.

“For the low, low price of $19.99 you too can own this completely useless combination electric knife, fishing pole and nose hair trimmer. And if you call in now we’ll even send you this anal thermometer that can also be used as a coffee stirrer.”

I don’t know if anyone hawking merchandise during midnight informercials who isn’t running a scam have gotten seriously rich, but if Americans want to buy crap they could always go to garage sales. I’m not trying to disparage the people who are running informercials, I think they are American heroes. Compared with such examples as Donald Trump and Dick Cheney, they represent the most positive image of American capitalism besides Bill Gates, which in itself speaks volumes on how capitalism operates considering how rapacious his business practices were.

Each time I woke up in the middle of the night for a glass of milk, it was sad watching Caroline sitting in the living room, only inches away from the eerie glow of the phosphorescent screen, on the verge of ordering a Ronco rotisserie oven. Sometimes I felt quite sorry for her, I wanted to open up to her but didn’t know how, until an opportunity came on a Saturday afternoon.

Continue to next chapter.

Part 5: Ricky Muses on Being a Man

This is an excerpt from my novel Caroline. See the previous chapter here.

For quite a long time Caroline was aloof and emotionally distant, and understandably so. I have never lost both parents before, even though I lost my father not due to his death but by virtue of him having effectively abandoned us. Dad was a person that one could never rely on; he comes and goes when he pleases. He could be quite charming and sweet to the point that mom would allow him in the sack for a night or two, but then he would disappear and we would not hear from him for another six months. Mom endured his behavior for six years until one night, fed up with his I-came-I-saw-I-left routine, kicked him out of the apartment while he was still in his underwear. Even so mom must have been in a good mood because she did not leave him naked so he would retain at least some of his dignity, not that it made much of a difference thermodynamically in a summer evening in California.

Dad was a lot like Uncle Cecil, he was jovial and humorous and I saw him as often as I did Cecil. He would have been a great father if he had been there more often, instead of sending a cardboard cutout of himself on April Fool’s Day. (Yes, he either had a very cruel sense of humor or was a little mentally unstable, believing that a stiff piece of paper can replace the presence of a warm live human being. Mom took his joke lightly though, she put the cardboard cutout in the living room until our cat started using it as a scratching post.)

It wasn’t because he didn’t care about us; his occupation took him too far away from home for unendurable stretches of time. He worked as a contractor in Thailand sometimes for stretches of eighteen months, only to return on holidays. For quite a while mom remained quietly home like Penelope, being a faithful wife and pining away until the day her Odysseus will return. But a relationship could not withstand such abuse for more than six years and mom eventually decided that divorce was the only recourse. As for dad, he remained in contact with us for about half a month after the divorce before unexpectedly disappearing. His whereabouts to this day is a complete mystery, though I have to say that there are so many things that could happen to a man in a city named Bangkok.

I never knew my father well, to me he was only a shell, his personality only a defense against exposing his true feelings to anyone he loved and cared about. I envied those friends of mine who had true fathers, even those whose fathers were archetypal Homer Simpsons who did nothing but sit in front of the TV and watched football with his potbelly popping out from under his tank top. At least those types of fathers were always there for their children even if the only time they participated in their children’s lives was when they asked them to hold his beer while they tried to eat nachos with two hands. I didn’t care what my father was like, all I wanted was his presence, apparently though even that was too much for him to bear.

I don’t know how I was affected by never having a father around, perhaps never having any men around and growing up solely being closed to women adversely affected me in some way. But then again I think men are overrated in their abilities to be good parents. I was raised by my mother and I didn’t turn out gangster contrary to the predictions of evangelical Christians and proponents of the pro-father movement. Perhaps never having a father did adversely affect me in certain ways, for example in my life thus far I’ve only had one girlfriend, a fact which would lead some to conclude that I’m pathetic. Then again it might not be such a bad thing because it could also be interpreted that I’m a loyal and faithful lover instead of a whoring slut.

You might find my attitude towards the opposite sex a little strange, though that is what I learn through my relationship with my cousin. At first our relationship was completely unromantic and asexual. Indeed how could it be otherwise? We were both too naive and innocent to understand that the equipment down there was for more than passing urine and a quick way to disable adults who intend to harm us. Well, I discovered masturbation by the age of 9 though that’s a different story altogether.

At first Caroline and I barely spoke to one another. It seemed as though we weren’t aware of one another’s presence within the same house, when she was in the living room watching television I was in my room reading, and when I was in my room reading she was over at the boob tube watching talk shows. I do not know what to say to someone who has gone through such a tragic loss. I had a fairly good life despite my initial upbringing in a tough neighborhood in Oakland, but I had never lost as much as Caroline had. What do I say to her? “Sorry for your loss, nonetheless I couldn’t bring your parents back to life and could offer you nothing more consoling than these words?” I’m not good at being a source of comfort at a time of distress, and if I told her the harsh truth it might even make her even more sad than she already was.

Of course, I could also tell her, “Sorry for your loss, though I know a way of bringing your parents back from the dead. All I need are some surgical grade titanium plates, surgical sutures, a head off of a fresh corpse, a 50 millifarad capacitor, a 1000V DC power source and a few alligator clips. Of course, there’s always a risk I’ll create two unholy monsters who will escape and start terrorizing hapless villagers, or even worse, breeding with one another and crating a race of unstoppable monsters who will roam the world murdering the human race. But all scientific endeavors entail some risk, either it be blowing up the world or simply pissing off Greenpeace.” Nah, that would be too disturbing for her, better tell her that I didn’t have the ability to revive her parents than to tell her that I had the ability but doing so would inherently risk creating horribly mutilated monstrosities.

I had all the time in the world to talk to my cousin, considering the fact it was summer vacation and mom’s too cheap to send any of us off to camp. Instead I decided to spend most of the time in the library with my head buried in encyclopedias and other erudite reading materials. Emily had her own business to attend to, she had a suite of friends to hang out with. They went to the movies, the local ice cream shop and juice bars and discussed subject-matters girls of her age are preoccupied with; who is going out with whom; who caught whom doing what; who is interested in whom and what reason prevents who from telling whom how who feels about whom, and other similar scenarios or any combination of the previous scenarios. The more time I spent with my sister the more I started to believe that language was something created by women, because men do not have so much crap to gossip about with other men. Men probably coopted this invention by the females as they found it as a useful way to express sports results (the previous system of grunts had become too ambiguous; two grunts could mean the team scored two points or there were two minutes left over before the game ended).

Of course I’m only kidding, language was probably developed by both men and women, and there are chatty men as well as women who don’t like to express themselves orally. Men also have plenty of things to talk about, though they are less concerned with the social sphere than with technical things such as computers, car repair, home improve, etc. Now, I know perfectly normal straight men who sit around and discuss gossipy things; the details about other people’s love lives; even exchange beauty tips such as how to style one’s hair up to date. Of course, they all did this under the pretext of gathering together to study, but as an outside observer I can’t help but seeing them as a group of chatty schoolgirls gathering together to talk to their girlfriends.

One could never generalize to say which types of activities are characteristically feminine or masculine. Of course I’ve never seen a woman sitting in a sofa with her belly hanging out for everybody to see watching a football game or a man asking his hairdresser, “What would you recommend to add more volume to my hair?” Though I personally use a little hairspray because I think mousse is a little too messy.

Continue to next chapter.

Can We Write a Good Non-Linear Novel?

The novel is one of the most marvelous literary genres created by humans. If you want to leave a literary legacy in prose, writing one is a prerequisite. However, despite how much I am obsessed with novels, there is one significant flaw to the entire genre; it has essentially a one-dimensional format. What I mean is that most novels follow a linear progression, so that event A follows event B, event B follows event C, and so on in a one-dimensional chain of events that goes from the beginning to the end. At this point you might say, “Okay, but aren’t stories supposed to be like that? Each story has a beginning, middle and end, this was taught to me at elementary school, why are you teaching me this again?”

But this it is not how we experience the world. If you paid close attention to how you live your life, you’ll realized it’s nothing like the linear narrative found in novels, plays, movies and other creative works. You were born in the middle of another person’s story, namely your mom or dad’s life story. You didn’t learn about how the world works as a linear narrative, but only hear bits and pieces of information you eventually put together to get a coherent picture. When you go about your daily life your stream-of-thought is highly non-linear, as for example when you go to the grocery store all sorts of thoughts unrelated to grocery shopping pop into your head. Your life is constantly interrupted; for example you want to be a writer, or a scientist, or a musician, but throughout your life you are constantly diverted and go through years doing things unrelated to your main goal. Eventually when you die, your story will be at an end, but the life-stories of other people continue on and there really is no ending to the story of the history of the world. So even though we live our lives in multiple dimensions, our novels are still in one-dimension. Even though novels can use techniques such as in medias res and flashbacks that break with linear storytelling, it still doesn’t go far enough.

Is the fact that the novel is one-dimensional only a theoretical problem? No, because there is one (or two) genre(s) of literature where this problem is felt, and I’m talking about science fiction and fantasy. The problem with many sci-fi and fantasy novels is that the world the characters live in follow different rules from our own. Along with rules, such novels often have lots of backstories that forms the background to the main story. In such a work, the writer has to explain the rules to the reader before he or she can make sense of the work, but it is difficult to accomplish without breaking the linearity of the narrative.

One way of doing it is to write a manual about how magic or technology works in the universe of the novel. But this is problematic because a reader would have to slog through pages of explanation before he or she can understand the work.

Another way is to explain the rules in the narrative itself. Again, this is problematic because it must be done with finesse or the reader will complain. If you simply drop a chunk of exposition in the middle of your story it would ruin the linear flow of the narrative. You must somehow drop the explanation in a way that naturally flows with the narrative, which takes a lot of skill.

The last method, and the most clever, is to introduce a character that does not understand the rules in the sci-fi or fantasy world the writer created, but who learns the rules along the way. This is a fantastic way of explaining the rules without interrupting the flow of the narrative, except that it comes with its own problems. The problem is that the reader naturally identifies with such a character, since he or she also didn’t know the rules of the world inside the story. If the character is naturally charming, then it’s a good thing, but if the character is terribly annoying it makes the experience of reading the novel much worst. I know this because I personally read a portion of a novel that uses this exact technique and failed quite miserably.

But all of these techniques try to cover up a limitation almost all novels suffer from, that is they all adhere to the linear narrative format. Perhaps it’s time to consider other formats that makes more sense for stories that are less linear. I can think of three different approaches, each of them inspired by a different medium.

The Wiki Novel

Have you ever gone to Wikipedia (or any other wiki), but instead of reading through one article to get just the information you need, you kept getting distracted clicking through one link after another, and you were so engrossed browsing through the wiki that you wonder where 3 hours went? Sometimes you may do this intentionally, simply browsing through Wikipedia because you find clicking through article after article entertaining. Why can’t novels function like this? Instead of a single linear narrative, you have a bunch of interrelated short-stories that are cross-referenced with links. One part of the story can refer to events to another part of the story by a hyperlink, which avoids the writer having to awkwardly write a paragraph of exposition that interrupts the flow of the narrative. If this is done correctly, the reader can enter into any chapter of the story and it would still make sense. This way the reader can choose to read the most interesting chapters first and become excited about the work right away instead of having to commit to chapters of explanation before he or she can find the story enjoyable.

The Episodic Novel

Instead of writing a novel where each of the chapters make sense only in the context of the previous chapters, write a novel where each of the chapters can be standalone short-stories that can be enjoyed on their own. This is a technique used by many television programs. In the world of television, one cannot expect the audience to have seen all the previous episodes of a show, therefore many television programs adopt the convention that all the episodes are independent pieces. That way the audience can watch any episode and fully understand it. This is not appropriate for all novels, but it may be combined with the techniques of a wiki novel to create a wiki-episodic continuum that uses the best of both techniques.

The Video Game Novel

This idea is exactly what it sounds like; a novel in the form of a video game. This one is probably the hardest to pull off since most novelists aren’t video game developers, but there is an aspect of video games that fascinate me as a writer. The interactivity of video games immerses the reader into the world of the game in a way that books cannot. What I mean is that there are very few novels that forces the reader to take an action as a character in the book, then the text changes based on what the reader chose to do (and perhaps gives some insight to what would happened had the reader made another choice). I know a few writers have done this (oddly enough I discovered that Ayn Rand wrote a play that uses this gimmick), but there hasn’t been a massive number of novels that functions quite like this.

In the end, will my suggestions work? It’s difficult to say. Some might think that my talk of a non-linear novel to be somewhat experimental, but the fact is that writers have been experimenting with it for a long time. One of the earliest examples was Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, all the way back in the 18th century. One of the striking features of the novel is how the narrator keeps skipping around the story, at one point even saying something to the effect, “while most writers take you from point A to point B to point C, I take you from point A to point C, then back to point B while visiting point F along the way.” It is now mostly forgotten, but we can take a lesson that not all stories have to start from the beginning, go to a middle and finally end up at the end, the way we have been taught in elementary school.

Kung Fu Fighting (and cooking, and dancing, and sewing…)

If you are Chinese, you are guaranteed to be a kung fu master, or at least that seems to be what most people in America think. Even though most people nowadays know that this is merely an unrealistic stereotype, it is still surprisingly persistent. For a while my dad’s Filipino co-workers tried to get him to bust some cool kung-fu moves, despite the fact he didn’t know any. This misconception stems from the fact that a large number of movies and television shows starring Asian characters will have a cast full of martial arts experts. Even movies targeted to children such as Mulan or Kung Fu Panda have main characters that excel at or aspire to be martial artists. No wonder our views of Asians are skewed.

Yet there are technical reasons why most Chinese people know kung fu. The first reason is that the term “kung fu” doesn’t really mean what people think it means. Originally the word “kung fu” refers to any skill that is obtained through practice or training. Therefore, one’s skill in driving can be considered “kung fu,” as well as cooking, playing the piano, playing football, doing homework, all of these skills, or precisely the effort one puts into perfecting these skills, can be called “kung fu.” In modern Chinese the word “kung fu” almost exclusively means “martial arts,” but the older meaning of the word still persists, and from time to time people will talk about their “kung fu” in studying, painting or any human activity wholly unrelated to fighting. This ambiguity in the word “kung fu” has been used as a source of jokes from time to time. (So yes, all Chinese people know kung fu, but so does everyone else.)

The second reason is that many Chinese people practice tai chi, which is technically a martial art. Tai chi originated as a fighting style, but throughout the centuries has turned into a series of exercises performed by old men and old ladies to improve their sense of balance and mental well-being. It’s a little similar to how professional wrestling slowly transformed from being a serious sport to a performance art. Most practitioners of tai chi can’t do real combat, but the movements they perform were inspired by real-life combat moves. I don’t know how many people practice tai chi, but it’s a fairly large portion of the Chinese population.

In the end it doesn’t really matter whether Chinese or other Asian people are good martial artists, but it’s fun to talk about aspects of my culture with other people. Even if the stereotype is false, it’s nice to know that I can bluff my way in any fight by claiming I’m a kung fu master, then throwing out a few random moves to convince people of my prowess.