Conference in Nagoya provides writing tips

by Eric Johnston

NAGOYA — Japan has long been a favored destination, and a favorite subject, for Western scribes. In the 19th century, Laficadio Hearn and Isabella Bird penned books that were widely read in Europe and the United States. In the 20th century, novelists like James Michener and beat poet Gary Snyder were heavily inspired by Japan. Modern writers like Pico Iyer have used Japanese culture as the theme or background for their novels.

The Japan Writers’ Conference, which opened at Nanzan University in Nagoya on Saturday, makes no promises that participants will reach the kind of public recognition enjoyed by the above names.

But the two-day workshop of more than 50 people was a chance for foreign and Japanese novelists, essayists, poets, or playwrights to meet and develop their own literary voices at 30 different workshops, while expanding their contacts among fellow writers.

On Saturday morning, Elaine Lies, a correspondent for Reuters and a two-decade resident of Japan, spoke on writing news stories, offering advice to aspiring freelance writers on what kinds of Japan stories and angles editors look for.

“Thanks to the overseas popularity of manga and ‘anime,’ interest in Japan has been rekindled. There is more interest now than there was eight years ago or so, and you can use that to write about other subjects,” Lies said.

Last year, of the top 100 most popular Reuters stories worldwide, number five was a piece Lies did on a yakuza’s daughter.

“Stories on geisha and yakuza do sell. But you can find a new take on a stereotype, or a modern twist on traditional culture. You don’t have to write the same old things in the same ways,” she said.

Those seeking to make a living as writers on Japan need to keep in mind the “So what?” test, as Lies put it. In other words, the writer has to keep in mind why their story idea is important to a particular group of readers who may know nothing about Japan.

How to present one’s story, be it a news story or a novel, was the topic of discussion in several other workshops. The use of humor, and what kind of humor, was the subject of one particularly spirited discussion.

“You have to think who the characters (of your work) are, and the joke has to fit the character,” said Brian Herschler, who led the discussion. Others pointed out it is important to know when to pull back, that a little bit of humor can go a long way, and that humor must be put into context and that its effectiveness often hinges on how well the character has been developed.

The conference held its first gathering in Tokyo last year, and is an all-volunteer, nonprofit effort open to Japanese and non-Japanese writers alike.