Let's think through a small scene

This morning as I sat in the coffee shop, watching as it gradually filled with workers and writers, I had a small scene dilemma. Even though I have taken to outlining, there are unplanned moments, and I have to determine the best way to handle these unplanned "small scenes."

As insufferable as it might seem, here I want to provide the specifics of the moment, because I think the most interesting writing decisions are based in specifics, and I hate reading "vaguely" about writing. So, come with me on this little coffee shop adventure through a small scene of Kabuki-ish

Basically, the context is as follows. Enkô, a girl who dreamt of being an actor, has left home to go to the big city with plans of pretending to be a man so she can be an actor (who plays women onstage). But she hasn't left alone—the original creator of dancing-musical theater, Okuni, has returned to from Hell and is haunting Enkô, claiming she will help the girl achieve her dreams. Anyway, things went south on the way to the city, and Okuni possessed Enkō, forcing the girl out into a spirit-like state to follow helplessly along her body. 

The pair have arrived at the city, and Okuni has gone into a theater to see the end of a play. This theater is the swankiest in town, and they see the dazzling actor Ayame in action. Now, by the time I sat down this morning, I had already introduced the setting of the theater and portrayed Ayame onstage. Ayame is a beautiful female role actor with a passionate fanbase of men and women. He is so beautiful that Enkô initially has trouble believing he is a man, and she is swept up in his performance.  Wow. 

So, in my outline, I had initially planned for Enkô to encounter Ayame for the first time later in the book—they get into a fight at a restaurant—but when it seemed best to illustrate a fabulous theater at the height of popularity, I figured it would be best to do that at the beginning and introduce my lovely, "bitchy" actor Ayame too. 

I say bitchy with some affection. (Is Draco Malfoy not bitchy?) Also, accuracy, as that was the adjective next to his name in my notes. 

So, by the time I started working this morning, I had shown Ayame's good side (aka his acting), but I couldn't effectively leave him without touching upon his Marilyn— if-you-can't-handle-me-at-my-worst—Monroe side. Just a little. I had come up with the idea some weeks ago of using a "finger episode" in a scene, but I wasn't certain where it would go until this morning. And the finger episode is the reason we have this blog post. 

The man cuts off his finger onstage...

The man cuts off his finger onstage...

What's the finger episode? Okay, well, over the course of my kabuki research, I encountered the finger episode. There was a custom in Edo kabuki of fans giving finger-shaped biscuits to their favorite actors. The custom originated from a supposedly real episode, where a man chopped off his finger onstage and gave it to an actor. Below is the episode, translated from "An Onnagata's Tosa Diary" in The Great Mirror of Male Love by Ihara Saikaku. Translation by Paul Gordon Schalow. I've cut it down a bit here: 

 

 

 

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The man sets off on his journey, but decides that no one, especially not the local prostitutes, is going to be good enough for him after Han'ya. Such is the passion. 

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At the end of the day, you just can't make this stuff up. 

Something about this episode spoke to me, just something in the dedication and the celebration of Han'ya's grace and sensitivity... and this man's depression moved me at first. Then I found it funny. I know, I know. 

It seemed to me that incorporating this episode from The Great Mirror of Male Love would be great for Ayame... but how? As I wrapped up Ayame's acting scene, I tried to think of how I could use this to illustrate Ayame's true character. In the original text, Han'ya is thought highly for how he handles this man and the situation. But there's also a bit of absurdity too, that a man would cut off his finger for sex with his idol, and that this would compel Han'ya to sleep with him. Perhaps this is just absurd to me, the modern reader. Likely. I find people cutting off digits to gain sexual favors funny? 

But that seemed beside the point as I brainstormed the small scene with Ayame. A man climbs up onstage and cuts off his finger with a declaration of love. This much remained. But Ayame's response could not be like Han'ya's. 

When I was studying screenwriting, one of my instructors told us a bit of advice that I think holds: your first idea is probably garbage. My first idea was to imitate the Han'ya episode, and have Ayame accept the finger and the sex, which would play up some his lovable sluttiness. But I kept thinking through what-ifs? What if Ayame rejects the severed finger and the declaration? 

I took a sip of my ginger latte and shifted gears. No. What if Ayame had planted the man in the audience, paid him off, in order to improve his image? Or, what if Ayame had staged the whole thing but ends up rejecting the man to seem exclusive? 

I took another sip of my latte. I liked the latter two scenarios because they seemed awfully Ayame-ish, but I did not think it was such a good idea to stray off the main plot in a tangled Ayame scheme. Which brought me back to Ayame simply accepting or rejecting the severed finger. 

Below is what I ended up with.

 
“What are those packages?” asked the ghost. 
“They’re biscuits shaped like finger,” Enkō answered. “Some guy once…”
She trailed off as a big man, a member of the audience with warrior’s clothes and double swords climbed onstage. 
“Ayame,” he boomed. “I am a humble warrior from the countryside who has seen many of your shows!” 
Ayame’s mask-like smile slipped at the intrusion. He looked towards the back of the stage for help. "Thank you."
“I am just a humble warrior, who—“
“You said that,” interrupted Ayame. 
“Yes. Um. I cannot communicate my affections for you. So strong are my feelings, and I must convey them or die. I must show you the sincerity of my emotions.” 
The big warrior drew his short sword, and everyone shrieked. Even the actor playing Lord Takeda jumped backwards. The warrior bent down, placing his hand on the stage, and raising his blade, he brought the sword down on his own hand. Blood squirted on the floorboards. Gritting his teeth, he tightly wrapped his wound with a bit of fabric. 
Enkō admired his grit, because the crowd was losing its mind. 
He lifted his severed little finger and presented it to Ayame. “You do not deserve these childish declarations of affection.” 
It was not terribly romantic, Enkō would admit, but she had never really believed that someone would cut off their finger to give to an actor: the origin of the biscuit tradition. She was wrong. 
Ayame, however, merely looked down at the proffered finger in horror and disgust. 
His hand drooped somewhat, the warrior's expression of adoration faltering. 
“Just take it,” pleaded Enkō.
Okuni watched it all with the greatest interest as if the play had finally picked up. She tole a rice cake from the nieghboring theater-goers, and popped it in her mouth. 
“This is quite flattering,” said Ayame. He didn’t take the finger. Instead, he waved his hand and one of the stage assistants came forward, taking the finger and carefully wrapping it in gauze, then paper. 
“Do I have your permission to come and see you later?” asked the warrior.
Enkō’s eyes bugged from her head. 
“Damn,” said Okuni. She snuck another rice cake. “Bold.”
Ayame looked around the theater at a loss. He flicked his wrists, sending his sleeves flapping, then placed a hand on his bosom—or where his bosom would be if he were a woman. “I am flattered, truly.” He didn’t look flattered, Enkō thought. He looked cornered, like this were a colossal inconvenience.
“But if I had sex with every man who gave me a severed finger, I would never get anything done."  Ayame rolled his eyes. "Like, when was the last time this happened?”
“Tuesday, sir,” answered the stage hand. 
Blood had begun to seep through the fabric and paper and drip on the stage. 
 “Tuesday! Two days ago?”
“Two days ago,” said the warrior uncertainly. 
“At least I can eat the biscuits,” continued Ayame. “But these fingers. I feel like I am getting these from men who can’t afford to sleep with me—“ he paused—“not that anyone can pay to sleep with me, as that would no doubt break some law of the week, praise the Generalissimo, long may he reign…” 
In that moment, Ayame reminded Enkō of a flashing gemstone as he talked: serene and beautiful one moment, cutting the next. His mouth bent in a sullen pout, his perfect eyebrows pinched together in irritation as he thought. The illusion of his earlier emotional, selfless performance was utterly gone, and in its place, he had shapeshifted to a spoilt lover wrapped in a golden costume. Enkō wasn’t bothered by his refusal—she would do the same—but by his indifference as the warrior's chin trembled. 
“I am flattered," said Ayame coolly. "But no. I have heard there are look-a-likes. Go find one of them.” With a whirl of his heavy robes, Ayame exited the stage from the side. “Someone clean up that blood.” 
 

The above is very much a first draft, but having Ayame reject the finger on the grounds of Oh-Hell-This-Again-I-Already-Slept-With-A-Severed-Finger-Guy proved much more fruitful. We can glimpse Ayame's erotic nature, his irritation (however justified), and his lack of empathy. We also get to see his rabid fanbase in action. In many ways, this is the anti-Han'ya scene, if only because we don't end up thinking the world of Ayame at the end. 

Anyway, I wanted to share some of the ways I continue to plot and work my way through a first draft. There must be a million ways to do this. If anyone has methods that they're happy with, I am all ears. 

But, please, no severed ears. Looking at you, van Gogh.  

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Already one week into 2018, and it is shaping up to be a strange year. It seems like just when I get relaxed into a pattern, life throws me a curveball. 2018 wasn't meant to be a year of big changes. I was hoping to finish Kabuki-ish, then keep my head down and edit Food of Magicians, Serango, and Kabuki-ish to be queried at the end of the year. We'll see. That's still the plan. But I find myself staring at the metaphorical plan and life and wondering.

Let's turkey

So, today I turn twenty-seven. 

It's strange to think that I've been writing for so long. As I write this, I'm lounging on a couch back home. It's chilly outside. Orange leaves cover the yard, and the cats have run into the basement from the cold. Last night for the first time since finishing Serango, I opened the file and started to read. It wasn't as bad as I feared. 

I feel like if I went back a decade to my seventeen year old self, she would have expected me to be published by now. But I'm not particularly bothered. One of the things about reaching your later twenties is that you stop talking about things not working out, I suppose. When you're in your teens and early twenties, there is something admirable about throwing yourself against a wall, falling down, and keeping hitting the wall without giving up. When you hit twenty-seven, you realize that the people around you aren't really there in the same way. They fall silent when you talk about hitting the wall, and any writer would tell you that the silence isn't really... it isn't particularly inspiring. It doesn't make me sad, but it does make failure very lonely. 

For the last couple years, I've been working on my own. I've been writing novels and sharing them with a few readers. It's quite a change from the days of Figment, and now that Figment is closing down and about to vanish, I find myself missing sharing my work online, which is just another way to avoid that writing silence. 

So, in that spirit, I'm going to be doing a daily flash fiction. I used a random word list generator to make a list of twenty words, and every day, I'm going to use the word as a springboard to write something different. It should be fun. I'm hoping it will stretch my imagination in new directions 

As for the seventeen year old self, there is a part of me that thinks if I don't make much more headway with this novelist business by the time I'm thirty, I might stop.  We'll see. I shouldn't be so gloomy, seeing as how I haven't even started my 2018 editing and querying. 

Kabuki-ish moves forward. I keep telling myself that I'm going to copy it from my notebook into my computer, but I haven't gotten around to it. Enkô is about to meet Okuni, so that should be fun to write. The beginning of the book is a little darker than I expected, but I think it's going well.

 

 

Let's Finish Serango

I wrote a long post about Figment last night, so I do not think I have another one in me today.

Yesterday morning, after many months of agonizing and sitting typing, I completed the first draft of Serango. This book brings me back to a world I created in high school with a few of the characters I worked with in a quasi-prequel. 

Over the last couple weeks, I had to write a series of big splashy fight scenes and then find the way home, so to speak. One interesting thing I did, that I think I will tuck away in my toolbox, is that I returned to the beginning and actually entirely reworked my first chapter. I was determined to incorporate more of the divine voice narration, as well as have a more exciting moment than Holoon the tour guide leading rich customers through a theater. Here is a screenshot of the beginning of work on that new chapter:

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After writing that opening, I bounced back to the end to write the last couple chapters. 

One of the little things I learned at the end of this project was that sometimes I write fight scene in my outline, but it does not have to be a fight. One of my favorite moments of changing my outline ever so slightly was instead of writing a duel between two characters, I took each step they took apart, and for each step, there was a memory. A reflection on their life and how they had had gotten there.

 

But the actual gunfire and fighting is over in two sentences. 

I also wrote one fight scene, and I loved it so much more for scrapping the elaborate fight plans and simply writing: "He fought." 

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There was no getting around the big dragon versus heroes moment at the end of the book, and it took a few days for me to figure out how to orchestrate it. I scribbled word lists in my notebook, planned and scrapped conversations, and solved all kinds of tiny, irritating logistical issues that were not working in the outline. The actual sentence-composition only took a few days. 

The last, long chapter of the book took just about one day. But the day before, I bounced along on the bus listening to music. And I pulled out my phone, and I began to write out what happens to Yama at the end of the book. 

Of course, I could not write all of it on my phone, but it was good to start. Sometimes transitions from writing on paper, to computer, or phone, or vice versa, can help if I'm stuck. 

Serango has been a funny project in that it's been stop and go all along. It's been a book of lessons, perhaps more so than other projects. Be brave with structure, narration, and the things we take as standard. But the biggest lesson was probably when I realized that I shouldn't stop. Don't stop.

 

Finish. Finish. 

Finish the book. Not matter what, finish the book. 

 

 

Let's Talk about Figment

I'm lying in bed after a long, hard day of work. As I gaze at this blog, I realize that I started working on this post back on October 7, right after Figment announced it was closing down. I titled this post, "Let's talk about Figment," added a screenshot, and that was about it. I don't think I knew what to say. 

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When I don't know what to say, I start at the beginning. My old screenwriting teachers always said start with the action, and maybe that's why my beginnings have never been good. A decade later, it still feels like my best beginning was written at fifteen when I started a book with "All was quiet until the white dragon vomited soot and flames across the hall." 

That book was written before I started sharing work online. It was also the beginning of my online work. I wrote Serango my freshman or sophomore year of high school, and I printed off the pages, punched them into a binder, and it was passed around a larger friend circle. Enough people enjoyed the fantasy that when my aunt offered me use of her Apple website account, I took her up on the offer. That Apple site, a program which Apple has long since abandoned and no longer exists, was the beginning of sharing work online. The platform functioned similarly to Squarespace, with formatting done offline.

I posted my novel in chapters, and because I did not know to fear... Because I was a braver person then, I printed off one of those advertisement sheets where you can tear off a phone number, like for dog-sitters or selling used furniture, except I put my website's address. I posted this sheet on the communal cork-board at my high school so that everyone who wanted to read my novel could do it. 

I don't think I did that out of any arrogance. I think it was simply a naive lack of fear. I think I thought my writing was good. Considering that enough people read the first Serango, it was not bad. Even with a decade of distance, I look at those early pages and see a lot to admire, if a had habit of chronic overwriting. (The second book in that series, however, was a hot disaster and I don't think I knew it). 

Anyway, I posted on that cork-board because I did not feel there was a place for me as things stood. I mean no offense to my high school. NCS, a small D.C. private school, had a literary society, but it seemed that everyone sat around sharing short, literary fiction. I didn't doubt that I couldn't write that stuff, but... I never wanted to write short fiction. What was the point? I read novels. I wanted to write novels. 

Better yet, I wanted novels with dragons and heists and mysteriously gendered chemists. I wanted to make up the world. I wanted armies battling over gold. God, why would I want to write about couples divorcing and fighting in kitchens? (I mean, to be fair, I guess The Princess and the Fox Demon is partly a divorce novel, but it has shapeshifters, and shamans, and a battle with a volcano. I think you get the point.) 

What I mean to say is that, I was never interested in short literary fiction, and that alone was what I could discuss in real life in school. The internet, however, was a different story. People online seemed to be crazy for mythological creatures, smooching, and horrible jokes. People online seemed to like genre fiction. At that time, I did not know what it was called, but I knew what I liked to write. 

I fumbled around with my own website for a time, but by the time I went off to college, it was a thing of the past. I have a copy of the school newspaper with an article where I was interviewed, and I believe there is a screenshot of the website. That's all I have. 

My freshman year, I wrote novels, but did not share them, and I believe it was my second year when I discovered Figment. 

The website had been around by the time I found it. I participated in a writing day contest at my university, and if you participated, you got a free dinner with a speaker. I submitted a piece of creative nonfiction. I got my dinner. The speaker was one of the founders of Figment, Dana Goodyear, and I remember her talking about founding a website to share writing after being inspired by cellphone novels in Japan. I knew about cellphone novels, and I liked the idea of sharing my work online. 

I was not very good. I banged out a few projects for Figment, like The Mori Hero, but my overwriting habit completely wrecked my hopes of a following. It took me a long time to learn that there was a way to write and catch people's attention, to sustain that attention, and that you could not take a million words when a few would do.  I cannot begin to express how important this was for me. 

I discovered short fiction, flash fiction, and attention to word count made me a better writer. I started winning contests. Just as I began to hit a stride and actually get followers, Figment absorbed another website. The historian in me, as biased as she is concerning Figment, sees this as a turning point. The influx of new users were not used to Figment's culture. They were writers more so than readers, and this made building a reading audience harder than it had been before. Users demanded reading exchanges, which is okay, except that it became exhausting and unrewarding. That said, I loved working on the science fiction serial, Void Inc, and the short story "The Madness of Crown Prince Sazaki," both of which I still find wonderful. I almost don't believe I wrote them. 

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It was sometime soon after the merger, 2013, that Patterson held a romance writing contest on Figment. And that was when I wrote the first opening to The Princess and the Fox Demon

Fox demons could change into anything or anyone, but as the lonely places of the world vanished, they became harder to find.

Princess Asuka knew of one fox demon. She peered out over the burnt out shrine grounds. Cherry petals fell from the trees like ghost tears.

He was beautiful like a willow, but with a body that had been carefully designed for violence. She froze for a minute, struck dumb by the way his back lazily curled against the pillar, organic, with his green robes pooling around his waist, stripped off in the summer heat. He sprawled out on the deck, bored, flicking his fingers so that little violet flames leapt off his fingernails. Princess Asuka shivered—this demon couldn’t be more different from the boy she loved.

Two hours ago, her betrothed had died. She hadn’t told anyone. The boy had written her poems about spring rain, sweets, and kisses. She had known love, hopeless and riotous, and warmth and his laughter.

And she knew the disgusting old man she would have to marry if she went back to the capital alone.

“Prin-cesss,” drawled the fox demon. “What a pleasure.”

She crossed the yard, trembling, knowing the closer she got, the harder it would be to run away, to forget her rebellious madness that had told her this would be a good plan. Humans only struck deals with fox demons when they needed them to transform into a replacement, only when humans were looking for mischief and lies.

Princess Asuka desperately needed a lie.

She stared at the ground as he examined his prize, and she knew his eyes were laughing because he had proposed to her once so passionately—he had been a young demon then—and now she had come back. The back of her neck burned as he circled her, his fingers trailing over his air, and the shame nearly sent her running for the trees.

“You humans care too much about bodies,” he whispered. “You’re looking for all the wrong things.”

She sighed as his lips ghosted over her neck.

“How do you want me?”
— "The Princess and the Fox Demon," flash fiction, 2013

I didn't win. I doubt I even came close. 

But I was surprised at the level of interest the little piece received, as well as the enthusiasm. So, I turned around and expanded on the story. It evolved into my most successful online novel. I got comments. I got fans. The fans from the other projects merged onto this one, and despite the strangeness of the story, it worked. 

A day when my longform, epic sci-fi poem was featured on the homepage, which was the highest Figment glory. 

A day when my longform, epic sci-fi poem was featured on the homepage, which was the highest Figment glory. 

Figment became a home, but I was also aware of a creeping shadow over the site. Contests slowed down. Everything from updates to forum moderation ended, and I think when the website was sold to a publisher, that was when Figment as we knew it truly ended. Curation and moderation, regular and engaging contests all seemed to fall by the wayside, and I don't doubt that the site continued to grow during this phase, but I spent less time on Figment. I tried a few contests, hoping that since a publisher had bought the site that I might attract some editorial attention by wining, but I now know that was a waste of time. I shifted away from Figment and found myself focussing on P+FD. I started to publish The Hiwau and the Moon Consort as a serial. At some point, I was thrilled to be placed on the homepage and interviewed by the website. (PDF of the interview here.) That was mind-blowingly exciting. 

Sometime after that but before I finished Hiwau, I think I discovered that this phase of my writing, like that little personal site in high school, was over. I discovered some incredible writers that I'm following even now. I even made some friends. 

But unlike some of my Figment friends, I actually took down my fiction years ago. It was years ago that I copied all my comments and projects, deleted everything. And it's strange to look at it again, what mishmash of things I saved. The screenshot at the top of the page is one taken on October 7, 2017, almost two years after I removed my writing. 

I am grateful for the home I found at Figment, one of those rare places online that, for a time, felt small enough to be an intimate community, but not insignificant. I learned how to write for others, read feedback, give feedback, and grow. My conciseness (sorry about this blogpost) and confidence arose from my time on Figment. A priceless writing circle of friends. I was never one of the Figment Greats, but I am honored to have written alongside them for a time.  

 Farewell, Figment. 

Other Figment Farewells: Samantha Chaffin.  Lydia Albano

 

 

I'll leave you with a genuine Figment fossil, perfectly preserved. I found it while sifting through my old, unlabeled screenshots. It's not my most popular. It's just an E.R. Warren flash fiction fossil, circa 201?, complete with gods and jazz, under 150 words. This is what Figment taught me to do. 

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