Let's Happy New Year

Well, it was the Lunar New Year, last week, I think. It is the year of the Boar, and my boar stumbled in late to the party. Los Angeles had a big parade celebrating the New Year in China Town. It’s been raining for weeks, and the weather is unseasonably cool, but the skies turned blue for the dancing dragons and the big parade. As we walked towards the downtown area, we passed a group in kilts with bagpipes who had just finished their march on the parade route. There were school marching bands, and baton-twirlers, and local politicians riding in cars and waving.

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I have been busy with my qualifying exams reading, which amounts to about six books a week, and I have not had much time for writing or even reading fiction. So, when I see the parade, I think of Confucius, strangely enough, and the significance he places on rites. Rites in the modern world, in America perhaps, are celebrations and mourning, like funerals, and maybe this parade. The cynical academic would call such rites “fraught with meaning”—”fraught” meant to convey a displeasure over gathering over something that is likely imperfect or lacking at some point in time or another. I don’t mean to say that there is a dark past to the parade in Chinatown. Just that when I saw the little children in the karate outfits or the middle-aged man with his bagpipe, I was filled with a sense of happiness that for some accident of the heaven bodies, some accident of history, we were all on this street celebrating together.

Despite being a fairly cynical person, actually, I feel the same way about Valentine’s Day. Married, dating, single, lost in some polyamorous triangle, happily or miserably—to treat oneself or a loved one to a chocolate lava cake, a card, a glass of wine, or a tableful of waffles, those are things worth doing. It is nice to have reasons to celebrate, even if they are merely “societal constructions” (what isn’t?) or a “corporate holiday” (so, what?).

To celebrate is to enjoy life, enjoy a moment with someone else. It is nice to have a reason to. Or, at least to do something peculiar on a certain day, that has its pleasures. I think I realized this and embraced holidays while in Japan when I realized that Mother’s Day was very much a very modern creation but it was embraced with such enthusiasm that I could not help but enjoy it too. I found myself smiling at the red carnations in the shop windows, the “traditional” flower to give on Mother’s Day or even the most rabidly commercial displays because it somehow felt like we were all celebrating something together, even if it were only by walking past carnations.

The old notebook for previous scene reference and the the character list in the new one. I always forget characters’ names. That doesn’t bode well.

The old notebook for previous scene reference and the the character list in the new one. I always forget characters’ names. That doesn’t bode well.

In other news, I am officially on notebook three of Kabuki-ish. It is the novel that will not die, the story that will not shrink. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I have completely given up on any kind of deadline. It is okay, I whispered to myself as I stood in the bookshop, purchasing the new notebook. It is okay.

This morning I woke up and went to the coffee shop and wrote a passage that I suspect will make it into the final draft:

He felt a moment of unease, unsettling familiarity at that particular look of fear. He had seen it on a prostitute confronting her mistress behind the bars of the brothel; Enkō in the burning clearing as she tried to tell him what happened, as if she could; himself, in that room in the castle when he could speak the truth, but found himself trapped against the great, immovable boulder of authority which laid against the mountain so immense and a constant feature of his every living moment that when confronted and told—speak—to speak, he was being told to move that boulder with the knowledge that even if he managed to shift a single pebble beneath it, the boulder would simply roll over and crush him. Umehito knew that look of fear.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the longest sentences I believe I have ever written.

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Meanwhile, I am updating a new page, Curios, on Japanese charms called omamori. I have been promising myself for years that I would photograph my collection and share them online. This little boar is not officially in the collection. A friend of mine found him at a yard sale. He appears to be a bell, but at some point he was broken and lost the jangle inside that makes him jingle and then was glued back together. But, he is still a boar nonetheless!

Let's Autumn with the Bones

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It's sweltering hot in Los Angeles. Every year, about this time, the temperature rises to the triple digits and it just sits there for a week or two. Black outs. A yearly heatwave from two years ago broke me, and I ordered an AC unit for my apartment. So, when September rolls around like a bad cousin, I am grateful for the purchase and the miracles of Amazon Prime. 

Last week I visited the Museum of Natural History where they were holding a fun exhibition on mammals. Bones were hung from the ceiling. Ancient antlers, horns, and skulls gleamed behind glass cases. It was a fun trip, not only because I got to see the skeletons of animals long gone, but also because I'm writing a book about, literally, the skeletons of animals long gone. 

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I'm sitting directly in front my AC unit as I type this. This morning was cooler, so I walked over to the neighborhood coffee shop to work on a scene from Serango where two royals from different countries challenge each other: dueling words, flying threats. And they're literally arguing about bones, although one of them does not know that yet. What a strange book. 

I have also stopped, 100% writing it on the computer. It's scrawled out, with margin notes and word options, and all my parenthetical shorthand. All things considered—the beginning of a new school year, a crazy workload, this damned heat—the writing is going well. In fact, it almost feels like it's going too well. I think it's the return to paper after almost, basically, two books banged out on a MacBook Air with some handwritten (and then typed) plotting... I think it's possible to burn out on a keyboard. I also think it's possible that I did. 

So, here I am, back to the morning typing, writing Serango approximately 90 minutes at a time before I grab my bag and run off to teach Chinese history. Also, I'm teaching now, which you might find amusing. On Wednesdays, I am a student in a seminar on Classical Japan, and all the scheming, plotting, mythology... It's making me miss P+FD. I want to return to that world, even if I was just revising. But, the way Serango is going, I'm afraid that I won't finish the draft and copying by November, and that will give me little precious time to write Kabuki-ish before I start editing and querying next year... The dilemmas continue. 

Also, writing feels really lonely right now.  

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A few weeks ago, I got to visit Ojai, California, which is about two hours outside of Los Angeles. They have wineries, which produce minerally wine, and beautifully scrabby, dry California fields. Mountains. Birds of prey circle the yellow grasses, and I rode a bike around the outskirts of the town, my head a little dizzy with wine. There was a bookstore formed entirely outside from the remains of a sprawling house. Every wall was packed with books, organized by topic. No roof. A fat, slightly spoilt cat slept on book piles near the register. 

As the year goes on, I will do my best to remember the birds of prey who didn't give up, who kept circling their fields despite the heat. And, I will try to remember that dozing bookstore cat. 

 

 

Let's Job End

This is my last Wednesday as a journalist. It's been a ride, although I haven't written much about it on my blog. But my day job has shaped my writing schedule and experiences of the last two years, so I suppose it's worth reflecting on. 

My work has been a combination of translation, interviews, and tons and tons of reading. Also, a fair bit of writing. I am a glorified secretary, but I'm grateful to have had a job that has allowed me to pay the rent and have enough left over for everything else. I studied Japan in school, and when I finished my MA, I was unsure of what to do. This job came down to who I knew, and I was asked by a school colleague if I needed a job. The next thing I knew, I was interviewing for one of Japan's largest daily newspapers, and here I am two years later, covering the presidential election. 

We've worked on all kinds of topics, from sports DNA (does it exist?), to politics, to controversial statues and bullet trains, the American diet, the Oscars... I got to interview George Takei and Steven Spielberg. Not bad for a girl who didn't even go to journalism school. 

On an ideal day, I wake up and write fiction, then come to the office. I've already read through the main news items of the day, from the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the New York Times and anything else that has surfaced. I arrive at the office and boot up the computer, turn on CNN. I handle any emails that have arrived in the night, and I prepare to brief my boss on the major stories of the day. Hopefully, I've found something newsworthy to work on that our Japanese readers will be interested in. Let's assume I have an interview scheduled. It might be on the phone or somewhere in Los Angeles, and I record the interview so afterwards I can transcribe it for my boss to use quotations in her articles. I might have another interview, maybe an expert or professor to complement a personal account of a story, or I might be sent off to hunt down relevant studies and statistics. Sometime in the late afternoon, I take lunch, and I'm pretty tired, so I don't get much writing done. When I return, I'm trying to finish up any research needed for my boss to finish writing by our evening deadline. If I've checked the boxes, I might translate articles. 

I'm leaving my job for a few reasons. First of all, it's time. As some of you might know, I'm starting a PhD program in the fall at the University of Southern California, where I will be studying premodern Japanese history. I knew I wanted to have some time off before I started school, so I've saved enough to cover my vacation. This summer, I'll be writing and traveling and spending time with my family. It should be nice. The second reason is that journalism is clearly a profession for those passionate about it, and while I've had a wonderful experience working in the field, I think it's a passion that I just do not have to the degree needed to stay.

I've met young people interested in journalism--and there's a lot to be interested in--but I fear that they think because they liked English classes it will be a good fit. That's really not the case. Of course, a love of reading and writing is crucial, but I think the most important thing is a curious mind, a tenacious personality, and an ability to quickly move between many research projects. You also have to really want to be in this field. The pay is low. The paid opportunities are few. But I've come to value this work as a citizen, especially the crucial work that full time investigative journalists do, and I hope we as a society come to appreciate it more. And by appreciate, I mean pay for it. The industry will have to find an economic way, but the rest of us will have to realize journalism's value before it's too late and we have another Flint, Michigan on our hands. 

On a lighter note, I had the opportunity to attend Free Comic Book Day this weekend! At the Comic Bug store in Manhattan Beach, people could line up and request free sketches from artists, in addition to the free comics. I requested an "Ironman Pikachu," as well as a Thor. I like to imagine Pikachu dreaming of having an Ironman suit that he can charge himself. Anyway. I also picked up the free Boom comic, a Korra comic, and a Sonic comic. I bought the new Black Panther as well. The art is wonderful, but I think I'll wait for the compilation issue because the story seems dense. But in a good way. It's hard to tell with opening volumes.

Progress continues on Food of Magicians (FOM). 

I was thinking about sharing some writing blurbs on Twitter, but I decided to wait and do it here. As of this morning, I have introduced my five main characters. Or three main characters and two supporting characters. Or two main. It's really only two perspectives. 

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to talk about planning a book. While I don't want to totally spoil FOM, sharing some of the planning process might be interesting for other writers. 

In some ways, planning a novel depends on how well you know yourself as a writer. What are your habits? What are your strengths and weaknesses and how will you plan for them? 

For me, I know that my writing game is best when I'm doing 600-1000 words a day. That's good words, words that I'm pleased with. I do not necessarily write scenes in order, but the more I write, the more "in order" things have become.

When I was younger, I would write a lot more when I sat down to write, not necessarily in order, and I was a chronic over-writer.

If I needed one word, I would use four words. I think that came from wanting control. I wanted to be positive that the reader pictured exactly what I wanted. As I've gotten older, I've become more and more at peace with the idea that readers will think what they think. They will picture what their imagination gives them, and ultimately, you only have so much control over that. And that's okay.

I have always imagined the Durnsley's house as my grandmother's house. My imagination stuck a mantelpiece and fireplace in my grandmother's house to make it the Durnsley's and I think my imagination supplied my grandmother's house as a "set" because it was a mostly unpleasant place in my childhood. I don't Rowling intended the Durnsley's house to look like my grandmother's but that's just how imagination is. That's books. That's part of the magic and power of them, the associations the imagination will supply when reading. When I was writing Serango in high school, a friend told me that a character was blond because he was attractive. I had definitely described him as having dark hair, but her imagination had run with "attractive" and attractive for her meant blond. Stuff happens. Readers imagine what they like, and I think that part of writing is accepting that. 

Anyway, when I started to realize my controlling, and consequently, over-writing impulse, I worked harder to change that. That was a habit. I knew I wanted shorter chapters, to be more effective with my words, even if it meant working more slowly. I wanted to be the sort of person always working on something, not banging out thousands of words in a frenzy a few months a year. I did that throughout high school and the start of college, but my writing improved when I started treating novels more like carefully planned marathons and less like sprints. 

At Yallwest the weekend before last, I heard a lot of writers talking about pantsing, which I enjoyed very much. But since I haven't done that in some time, and since I enjoy reading process details, I thought I would so a series of posts on planning FOM. So, next Wednesday, I will be posting about planning the opening act of FOM, as well as planning for a relatively large cast. 

See you next week! I will no longer be a journalist. I will be full steam ahead on Food of Magicians. And I'll be eating food in New York City.