Let's spring... into action

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by  Ling Luo .

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by Ling Luo.

This past week a group of Japanese tea ceremony practitioners visited my university, and we got to watch a demonstration. They brought tea bowls with them from Osaka, decorated with cherry blossoms. The flowers have been blooming in some parts of Japan—and in Los Angeles too.

So, when I was going to open this blog post, I went through my omamori collection to see about a charm with a cherry blossom motif. There were a few pink ones, but to my surprise, there was only one charm with a sakura design… and it is the first one I ever purchased. I was fourteen or fifteen, and it was my first time in Japan. I could read and write the alphabets, a smattering of kanji, but I could barely string a spoken sentence together.

We visited Kiyomizudera, a big temple complex in Kyoto famous for its healing waters and view overlooking the city from the eastern mountains. I bought the charm by myself and attached it to my belt loop, because I had no bag. In hindsight, I’m not sure what I was thinking. I jangled when I walked, and my companions joked that they’d always be able to find me, like a lost cat. I did get lost on that trip, in a lot of ways. But, I’ve still found my way back. Something must have worked.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

So, in the spirit of the cherry blossom theme, I went into my photos and discovered that I did not have many cherry blossom pictures either. But I did see a couple taken in Nagoya, with the reconstructed castle in the background, during an illumination, which is when a site puts up lights and lanterns and permits guests after dark.

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Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

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In Southern California, it has rained more than usual. As a result, in the past couple weeks, the California poppies have been blooming at spots in the mountains. Last week, an entire small town had to shut down the highways because so many people were coming in and overwhelming everything.

I woke up early this morning and a friend and I drove a few hours north of Los Angeles to Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, a state park known for the flowers. It was as if someone had split orange highlighter ink on the hills. There were little brown butterflies who were not interested in the poppies; stubby yellow flowers and purple blossoms. The mountains, ordinarily brown and dry, had turned a warm green. Spring has come to Southern California, marked by the native poppies with that silky glimmer to their orange petals.

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As I walked the trails, I thought about how difficult it was to describe what I was seeing. Was it orange highlighter ink splattered? Split? If I called the petals “silky” to explain that gleaming line where the sunlight hits the curve of the petal, would anyone understand that? Or would they assume “silky” referred to touch? So, I had to add “glimmer,” but that’s not quite right either. English is difficult. It also contains gaps of darkness, where words ought to be.

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Speaking of gaps of darkness, writing Kabuki-ish continues in fits and starts. This past week I wrote a romantic scene that has been on the ol’ To Do for weeks. It took three days to write. I had a problem with the scene that was not plot or writing, but primarily a failure of process and my own imagination. I knew that it was a date scene, a romantic scene, like one in a musical where a character comes around and realizes they’re in love. My imagination had supplied a haze. Romance, in my imagination sometimes, is a song. It’s a color. It’s a wordless swell.

This is all to say that I had a bullet point in my Outline that was basically, “Enkô and Ayame go on a date. Ayame realizes he has feelings for Enkô.” Or, something to that effect. To put it even more bluntly, this was lazy planning on my part. This is not, it must be said, the first time I’ve run into this problem.

So, there’s a date scene, and I haven’t done the imaginative work to imagine the specifics. And, dates are all specifics. It’s funny, because romance is a sensation, a haze, but it is built on piles of terribly specific details. So, I sat down to try and think of what those were. It was clear, when I began this process, that I would not be writing this like a normal scene. (I tried to write sentences, got distracted multiple times, and gave up). It’s not giving up. It’s like backing up to realign your car when parking.

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I began to try and get down to the gritty details, the foundation of the scene really. It was springtime. This would be a springtime scene. What is springtime? I listed words. Eventually, the words started spinning out into phrases. One of the considerations I have to make with Kabuki-ish is whether the prose is going to be written in a quasi-rhyming, beat-driven manner. There are a few scenes written in that way. If I like a word, I try to guess a useful word with a parallel sound. Eventually, I decided to not do that mode for the scene, deciding on straight prose style. I could begin to imagine the setting.

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I knew what poem I wanted to adapt. At one point in the scene, Ayame sings while Enkô dances for a small crowd on a bridge. My brain went to one of the opening poems of the Man’yōshū, a romantic poem that would be interesting here. At this point, Ayame thinks Enkô is a boy. Furthermore, at least in the first draft, this scene runs entirely from Ayame’s perspective, which means that Enkô is rocking male pronouns, we don’t see Okuni, and Ayame has a lot to sort through emotionally, even without all this stuff he does not know. One of the themes that this draft in particular has grappled with, is the idea that gender is performed and perceived. There’s a fluidity, yes, but a fluidity from these two categories.

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So, when Ayame sings like a man who rules supreme over his land of theaters and pleasure quarters, there’s something else going on here with gender too. He sings this song, unwittingly, to a woman performing and perceived as a man.

So, over two more days, I took the pieces and strung them like beads into a complete scene. I feel like with these kinds of scenes, it can be hard to see to what degree it works, tonally and emotionally. I had to correct the pronouns on Enkô so many times. I may decide against shifting them in the second draft, but it makes sense the way it is. We’ll see!

My favorite scenes are ones that are miniature novels. They begin with a problem, the problem worsens, and then there is a resolution of some sort for the problem. In this scene, it’s not about the romance. I mean, it is. But it’s about Ayame coming to terms with the nature of his fame, his relationship with his fans and patrons, and the lack of trust he comes to realize he has with them. This trust being shifted to Enkô is the backbone of the scene. Trust, ideally, is the backbone of a great romance.

I mean, obviously there’s a lot he doesn’t know, and that’s a problem for another chapter. But this was a good challenge to work through this week. “A problem for another chapter,” I write. Who knows when this book will be done? Maybe the poppies know.

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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 with an ornate lacquer box inlaid with mother of pearl. The box was beautiful, almost as beautiful as Ayame, and about the size of a writing box... She wondered why. The stage assistant took 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. He popped open the lacquer box, revealing a collection of paper-wrapped pinky fingers. 
Okuni choked on her rice cake. 
Blood had begun to seep through the fabric and paper and drip on the stage as  Ayame rolled his eyes and  the stage hand added the finger to the collection. “Tuesday! Two days ago?”
“Two days ago,” said the warrior uncertainly. He clutched his hand in pain. 
“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 be real II

Happy August to everyone! This continues to be my terrible attempt at an online journal documenting my writing and my odd relationship with it. I've had an interesting morning. 

At first, I thought this post would be upbeat positivity, but as I opened my computer and logged in, I realized that this was really a continuation of my last post from July 15 "Let's be real." To recap, I was miserable writing Serango and I had lost almost all momentum. I have been writing it since January, and I was ready to call it quits. This would have been the first project I had quit mid-first draft in almost a decade. 

That was July 15th. I was feeling marginally better about Serango, but still frustrated. The other day, my friend left my apartment and I declared that I was going to my coffee shop to write. But as she walked out the door, I was filled with such dread that I actually put my bag down.

I knew that I ought to power through and just sit my ass down and stop complaining. I knew that was the advice I'd give someone else, albeit in a nicer fashion. 

But, the idea in that moment repulsed me. I think my mindset stems from this I'm-not-querying-I'm-writing-what-I-want phase, and I've always believed that if you find a project boring or tedious, the reader probably will find it to be that too. Make it interesting, I would tell someone. Blow something up. Make someone kiss someone else. 

So, I paced my apartment, walked off the dread, and then I reluctantly resolved to just go and work on outlining and brainstorming Kabuki-ish. Which has the dubious honor of being the Next Thing. I went to the coffee shop. I worked. I made good progress on Kabuki-ish. I did that the next day. I worked all on paper, which felt great because I've been staring at screen all day for work. 

Then, with a bounce in my step, I packed up my things this morning, and like usual, I went to the coffee shop. It was later than usual, and the barista was different. We've shared a couple words, and I think I told him I was writing a novel sometime in the past. 

Anyway, as I ordered, he asked me how the novel was going. 

The guilt, it was real, and like any horribly guilty person, I lied. Well, I sort of lied. 

"Actually, it's hard right now. It's like work. Well, it's always like work, but it's become work that I don't enjoy doing." 

He didn't really have a response, and I don't blame him, because even if someone I knew dumped that heaping pile in my lap, it would take me some time to respond. I shrugged, which sort of allowed him not to respond. 

But the lie was that I was even still working on Serango, which was the novel he was asking about. Not specifically of course, because I do not think enough of my projects to summarize them for baristas, who are essentially held hostage to the counter, and even saying "I'm writing a novel," makes me feel horribly pretentious. It's much easier to claim to be working on something vague, which can allow people to assume you're doing spreadsheets or some serious work. Not writing probably bad fiction. 

Anyway, that barista is the first person in a while to ask that basic question. How's the novel going? And the guilt, not only from giving up on Serango, but then lying about it to basically a stranger just made me... 

I went to my table. I sat down. I hadn't brought my computer because I had resolved to work Kabuki-ish out on paper, and I thought to myself, I should write Serango right now. 

I opened my notebook, and fidgeted. I stared out the window, I stared at other people, and I went to retrieve my latte. I tried to remember where I had even left off, so many weeks ago, and vaguely knew. 

Then I forced myself to figure out what happened next. I had a detailed outline on my computer, but the sheer complexity of the end of the novel—and the outline—and all my still unsolved questions and problems had probably crushed my enthusiasm. Screw what I have, I thought. If I can't keep the story straight in my head without notes, neither can the readers. 

That's a bit of, I believe, incredibly useful advice for fantasy writers. That isn't to say that you shouldn't carefully plan, but I really do think you should have the broad strokes for each plotline in your brain. 

And basically, I outlined simply what had to happen next. I jotted down dialogue. It was maybe a page and half of brainstorming and re-working, but I fixed so much and the next pages felt doable. The end felt more in sight. And given that the novel is almost at 70,000 words, the end must be in sight. 

I came home and re-read my opening, made pretzels, and here I am, not giving up on this book. I don't think anyone will really like Serango, but I owe the book a completion. I really do. 

 

 

Let's Bookfest 2017 (ft. writing insecurity)

I cannot believe that it's been almost a month since that silliness on Twitter. 

Where am I? Writing these posts feels like scribbling on a bit of paper and firing it into space. Where am I? Well, I'm still idly paddling around in the space ship. I've been asked by a few people if #Pitmad went anywhere, and the answer is a resounding no. Take that and fire it into space. I have gotten a few lovely rejections and I am patiently waiting for the last one to free up the anxiety section of my brain. 

Fortunately, I am very busy, so I can't re-fresh my email and wonder which iteration of industry subjectivity or voice I will receive in my inbox. Papers are due, and then I am going off to Japan! It's going to be wonderful. 

In the meantime, I am plugging away at the novel that I am convinced absolutely no one will want to read. How is Serango going? Well, this morning I reached the 63,000 word mark, which means I am butt-up against the third and final act of the book. I think this is the closest I've ever come to actually matching my acts and outline planning in a long time. So, that's positive. The negative is that this book is so hard to write. I like the characters, but I'm not convinced they'll be likable for anyone else. Also, there are so many characters! And this book isn't structured in a friendly, easy way like Six of Crows where the story evenly switches several main characters. I'll spend a couple chapters with one person, then move to another because it makes sense for the plot. Will a reader tolerate that? I don't know. Do I care? Also, don't know. I feel like I should care more. 

In addition, I am a little terrified that nothing happens in this book. Maybe this is an irrational fear. It feels like there's a lot of feeling, talking, and describing. I kind of dig that, but I feel like more stuff should be blowing up or something. I don't know. 

I keep having these days where I love what I've done. Where the characters are funny, or something dramatic has happened. Then, there are other mornings when I sit down to write and it's such a slog. Thank God I am not intending to query on this. What a nightmare it would be.  

Anyway, in the spirit of positivity—I hear you are supposed to only be positive on blogs—I will say that it is nice having some sexual tension between characters. And there are some truly absurd descriptions in this book, but... there it is. 

In this scene, which I wrote this morning, some guards have come to take a young woman named Nemesca away from the revolvists. She has joined the army because she wants to be a revolvist, and she wanted to escape her marriage to the prince. The General, Airfield, is trying to determine whether or not they should fight to keep her in the army. 

Anyway, the last couple weeks have seen some book festivals around Los Angeles, so I thought that I would share some snapshots. Last weekend, the University of Southern California hosted the LA Times Festival of Books, and this past Saturday, there was Yallwest. 

The unexpected highlight of the Festival of Books was the "I'm too sexy for this book" panel, which featured romance novelists. I've enjoyed a pile of Julia Quinn novels, so I decided to sneak into this sold-out panel. They talked about their work schedules, raising and supporting families, and stigmas of the profession. They had a real no nonsense approach to writing, which was frankly refreshing. "Writer's block is a disease of the privileged," or some such gem was said. Afterwards I bought a copy of Because of Miss Bridgerton and had it signed. 

Yallwest, the YA book festival in Santa Monica, was only one day this year. And because it was on the same day as Independent Bookstore Day, I had to do double duty. I woke up, wrote, went to my local bookstore to snag a copy of Rainbow Rowell's Kindred Spirits, and then went straight across the city to Santa Monica. I arrived in time for a panel on writing series (cue laughter) and then a panel on mythology in YA. At a panel on animation featuring artists from Disney, Pixar, and the Simpsons, I ran into an old friend. We re-connected over banana pudding (because there's a truck for that at Yallwest) and then I found Samantha Chaffin. It was like finding a creature in its natural habitat. Anyway, we talked, and maybe she will write another pirate book? Maybe I'm at peace with never having an agent? I'm looking forward to the pirate book!