Monday, October 12, 2020

How To Write A Killer Opening

This past weekend I had the pleasure of giving a talk at the annual Japan Writers Conference, which was of course held virtually because of Covid. If you want to learn more about how to write an effective story opening, here are my 50 minutes worth of thoughts. Enjoy!

Friday, October 09, 2020

That Rarest Breed: Leftist Political Thrillers

Recently I had a fun discussion with Praveen Tummalapalli about why there are so few leftist thrillers, and of course we talked about much more, too.

The discussion was for an article Praveen is writing for Current Affairs Magazine, but it wound up working well in its own right, so I'm posting it here. Had I known we were going to use the interview not just for background, I would have lit our Zoom call better and used an external mic, too. I might even have combed my hair! And apologies also because, having listened to some of the talk after the fact, I was horrified at how much I was saying "um." I work hard to avoid verbal tics, but that morning the Ums got the better of me.

I've addressed some of these issues before, particularly in the context of the tendency to denigrate as "political" only those storylines that don't jibe with one's own political views. As I sometimes like to ask when people criticize my novels as "too political," "You do know they're political thrillers, right?"

Anyway, regardless of any technical shortcomings, I hope you'll enjoy the discussion. When the article's out, I'll post that, too. And who knows? Maybe some of this will encourage other novelists to depict the thrills inherent in leftist politics.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Vincent Bevins's The Jakarta Method

Okay, time for another book I've listened to during the pandemic (and now the wildfires). Last up was Barton Gellman's Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State; this time it's The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade & The Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World.

The Jakarta Method recounts the US-backed extermination campaign that murdered something like one million Indonesians. If you're unfamiliar with this history, it's partly because the program was a "success," and partly because the details are so disturbing--disturbing both for the horrors and human suffering the book recounts, and because the horror and suffering were both the effect and the intent of US policy.

If you found yourself recoiling from that last clause, don't worry. The reaction is natural. It's hard to look in the mirror and see something terrible staring back. This is just an axiom of human nature. So when faced with evidence of atrocities committed by one's own in-group, it's extremely psychologically tempting to deny them, memory hole them, or to marginalize them as aberrations or "a few bad apples" (see for example Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, putting the Mai Lai massacre into its proper, larger context).

But if there's one thing I know about humans, it's our tendency to give ourselves and our in-groups the greatest possible benefit of the doubt (for more on this, I recommend looking into something called the Fundamental Attribution Error). From the earliest age, Americans are fed a steady diet of American Exceptionalism, American benevolence, the Indispensable Nation...the whole notion of a Light Unto Nations and the City Upon a Hill. You don't have to seek out American apologia and hagiography; they're impossible to avoid. Our national anthem is a celebration of war and slavery; stadium flyovers are part of the cultural firmament; we carve likenesses of revered politicians into the face of mountains; as children, we're made to recite a Pledge of Allegiance proclaiming that we have achieved liberty and justice for all; politicians decree that America is the greatest nation in the history of mankind and that there's not a country on Earth that wouldn't gladly trade places with us.

Imagine for a moment how the media would treat, and how we would perceive, these sorts of things if they were occurring in, say, China or Iran or Russia. Can you believe Iran puts "In Allah we trust" on their own currency, or that they have developed a weapon intended to burn people to death and that they celebrate such a horrific weapon in the weapon's very name? That Russia believes in Russia's "manifest destiny" of dominion over an entire continent from sea to sea? That China has something called the "Xi Doctrine" declaring separate eastern and western spheres of influence and making all of Asia a Chinese protectorate?

And of course you could write an entire book on how their wars are aggression and conquest while ours are merely interventions or police actions; how their nuclear weapons are destabilizing and provocative while ours are simply defensive; how they meddle in elections while we merely assist; how theirs is terrorism and ours is Shock and Awe (actually, I really do need to write a post just on the propaganda buried in our reflexive nomenclature. There's so much of it).

Part of the reason propaganda is so pervasive is because it's so pleasurable. We all want to feel good about ourselves and our in-groups, and propaganda helps achieve that. What's the expression? "Flattery is the art of telling people exactly what they want to believe about themselves." Coke and Pepsi don't dominate the world because they're good for human health; they dominate because sugar tastes good. What tastes good gets widely consumed, regardless of what it might do to your body (or your mind).

To put it another way: ego distorts accurate perception. Books like Bevins's are corrective lenses. For anyone interested in seeing more clearly, The Jakarta Method is a great place to start.