When people find out I'm a book writer, they usually ask, "What kind of books do you write?" I know the question is coming but I always cringe when I hear it. It's a legitimate question, of course; the problem is I haven't figured out how to answer it.
Here's my academically-slanted answer: "My novels are postmodern-ish and somewhat experimental, employing sidebars, marginalia, elements of non-fiction and other genres, sprinkles of science and philosophy, and my wife's art. They deal with Asian or Asian-American themes, but also broad questions of existence. My characters include an artist who goes mad painting a view of Mt. Fuji every day for a year, a lovelorn competitive calligrapher, a naïve neuroscience graduate student, a dysfunctional museum curator, a technical writer searching for emotion. My plots weave together multiple storylines and time spans. My new novel Oh!: A Mystery of 'Mono No Aware' is no exception as you can tell by the title."
As you might imagine that answer causes some people a bit of discomfort, so I usually answer very broadly: "I write contemporary fiction, mostly set in Japan. And my wife's art is in them."
"Children's books?" is often the response.
"No, for adults. A friend of mine calls them 'philosophical mysteries.'"
"Oh. Who do you write like?"
"My favorite author is the Japanese writer Kobo Abe. He wrote The Ruined Map, which is my all-time favorite novel. He's most famous for The Woman in the Dunes, which was made into an award-winning film in the 1960s." Adding something about film usually sparks some attention, then I lose them with: "I also like Malcom Lowry's Under the Volcano, Haruki Murakami, and Umberto Eco."
"Oh. Great. Good luck with your books! Well, I gotta run..."
"Wait! My novels are really suspenseful with complex characters. Forget all about that philosophy stuff I mentioned. They're just good stories about love and desire, success and failure, and what it means to be human. If you just give them a try..."
I really do like the idea of "philosophical mysteries" describing my novels. Perhaps because I enjoy hard-boiled detective novels, my plots tend toward the detective/mystery genre. At a book festival several years ago, I attended a session with Robert B. Parker, most notably the author of the Spenser series. He said he'd recently changed his plotting style. Previously he worked from a detailed plot outline, now he doesn't work from any outline. It allows him to go where the story is taking him.
My plotting falls between the two extremes. I develop a rough outline of a few things that will happen in a chapter or section. The notes are primarily focused on what moves the story forward. At this stage I don't need to get into what the character is feeling or how they are developing. Those elements of the character should arise from the action and reactions of the plot. All together I usually have a couple of pages of plot notes.
One of the key parts of this rough plotting process is to have an idea of the ending. It gives me something to shoot for when building the rest of the plot. I usually develop a few other main plot points I strategically place in the outline. These plot points propel the story forward (sometimes backward). They are intended to move the story toward a surprising yet powerful and inevitable ending. Like in a good mystery.
When I'm writing the first draft, the rough outline gives me something to hang onto, focus my efforts. But I'm not a slave to it; in fact, rarely does the book end up looking much like the initial outline. Characters become fully formed and can take the plot in different directions. Good ones, I hope.
Thanks for reading!