Let's type Kabuki-ish openings

I hate writing beginnings. I have never, once, in my entire life enjoyed writing beginnings. 

The one bit of positivity that I can muster generally about writing is that I've come to view it less with pain, an acute pain, than with just perserverance. When I was in high school, I recall walking through a part of the cafeteria with a friend. I had finished two fantasy novels by that point and was contemplating a third, and my friend enjoyed—or said she enjoyed—reading my work. I don't know. I figure if you willingly read 600 pages of someone's writing, you either enjoy the writing or hate yourself. I was talking about writing the third book. 

"Writing sucks," I said. "It sucks. Writing sucks." 

At that point, some cotton-ball-headed English teacher stopped at the coffee machine. "Don't say that!" 

"It's true," I said, with all the arrogance of fifteen year old me. That was a lot of arrogance by the way. You could make a veritable buffet for elephants out of my arrogance. I didn't give too damns about what that English teacher thought about writing. It sucked. 

If I give her the benefit of the doubt, she was probably upset about my word-choice. Sucks. Sucks. Sucks. 


When I think about word choice, I think of kindergarten. 

I went to a small local school a few minutes from our house. Like many elementary schools, we received a school supply list in the mail, and like many families, we cobbled together the things for the list from around the house and bought what absolutely needed to be purchased. On the first day of kindergarten, we came in with school supplies, and drew pictures. I had brought crayons, but not colored pencils. The school list had called for both. 

Apparently, I was the only student who had made this mistake. In my imagination, in my memories, I'm the only one who made this mistake, because Ms. Gibson proceeded to scold me off in front of everyone. It was embarrassing, and I when I went home, I burst into tears. 

I told my parents what happened, and in that positive parental support, my mom called Ms. Gibson a "fucking bitch." My dad, I believe, went out and bought me colored pencils. That might have been the end of it. 

A week later, or maybe the same week, because time is weird and molasses when you're small, we were drawing in class again. I was squeezed between my two best friends, drawing stick figures, with colored pencils, no doubt. 

Ms. Gibson leaned over us and asked what we were drawing. She point to my figures. "Who is this?"

"This is you..."

"Oh, how nice. And who is this?"

"And this is my mom."

There was a tangle of lines about the stick figures. That's a good symbol for my dialogue-writing abilities. At kindergarten, however, the conversation was a literal mess of lines. 

"What are we doing?"

"That's my mom calling you a fucking bitch." 

It really speaks to my kindergarten self that I didn't notice any strange reactions from Ms. Gibson, and I soon forgot about the whole thing. My mom swore a lot back then. We were not allowed to swear, but mom did all the time at home. It was incredible.

Anyway, Ms. Gibson called home to arrange a parent-teacher conference, but did not say why. My mom, who had an office job, set the appointment, and my father, who worked at home, was to go to the appointment. Dad went into that meeting with no idea that he would encounter. 

"Do you know why you're here?"


Ms. Gibson presented the drawing and explained what I had told her in class. At this point, my dad says he didn't know that this was that kind of meeting, about me being in trouble, and he thinks mom knew but sent him in blind. Ms. Gibson was righteous and confrontational in her description, her assumptions about my home life. 

After her angry telling of the incident, Ms. Gibson said, "Surely you don't use this kind of language at home?" 

Mrs. Gibson made the mistake of thinking that talking down to my father, a proud historian, would make him apologize. She probably thought he would be cowed, turn defensive. 

"Actually," he said, "when a teacher sends a kindergartener home in tears over colored pencils, yes, 'fucking bitch,' is the proper language to use. That is precisely what those words exist for." 


As far as I'm concerned, on a first draft, my goal is to write a beginning that's good enough to allow me to write the next bits. Inevitably, I am excited by what comes after the beginning. I am always most excited about endings. I like those parts the best. 

But, you have to write a beginning, and actually, many people will tell you that the beginning is more important because if the beginning is bad, then no one ever reaches the ending. This is certainly true. 

I still hate beginnings. Which brings me to Kabuki-ish. 


Kabuki-ish still exists primarily on paper. This week, for fun, I started to copy the opening and play with my notes. The notes look like this: 

It's worth pointing out the lack of breaks, paragraphs, and sketch-like nature of the opening scene, which is a rambling description by one of our characters of the theater. I took the opening couple pages, copied it, and fleshed it out to look more like a novel. Below is what I got. 


But after  the writing, I realized that I had already fleshed out this passage in my notebook, and I copied that as well, ending up with different versions. Now, the next step would be to decide which one to use. Or, what sections to keep from one and the other, then Frankenstein them together. That is the likely outcome, I feel. 

There are two parts to the opening. The first part is mostly unchanged from the notes, as crazy as they appear:

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Now, the next bit is where it gets a little confusing. For the the next scene, there's a long version and a short version. Here's the short one: 

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And this is the other version of "Enkō Listens" that I found in my notebook: 

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Enkō was an orphan. 

There were a lot of orphans back then, in general, and Enkō had never let it get her down. 

Her pops had always frowned at her overactive imagination, but he never said anything about it. It probably helped that he was mute. As a small child, Enkō had imagined that he had found her in a stalk of bamboo, that maybe she was a princess from the moon—or at the very lease, the royal court. The day after she heard Umehito and everything changed, she overheard Mrs. Melon and the Well Widow talking. They were complaining about the distant highway traffic that inevitably dumped garbage and dead people on the eastern edge of their village, Swampside. Enkō normally didn’t pay them any mind, but she was trying to find spring onions in the patch of grass nearby. 

Their conversation shifted to the weather, which had been unseasonably dry. Enkō switched to looking for wild chives. She spotted a stalk of wild rice buried in much and crawled over to get it. That was when they started to talk about her. 

She froze. 

It was Mrs. Melon who said the weather could have been worse—there was that summer years ago, when they found Enkō, right? 

Wit her threadbare robe hitched up around her legs and her hands and knees in green mud, Enkō heard the truth. Or, at least, the truth as Mrs. Melon remembered it. 

There had been a bad famine that year. It didn’t rain. It was uncommonly hot, and the clouds didn’t form dragon nests overhead, so the dragons didn’t bring rain. No one could believe how dry it got. The paddies shriveled into the size of a game board, and the fields dusted. Even the bugs died. But not Enkō. 

A lot of babies had been left by the riverbank that year. Moms and dads fleeing the dead fields for the big city. That village, Swampside, was not far from the Great East Highway, the widest dirt road on this side of the world, and the highway that would take you to the city if you could brave the bandits, or even worse, the bored provincial warriors. 

Enkō had been one of the many babies abandoned on the way to the city. They all soon died, as they’d been starving to begin with. 

But not Enkō.

“Many of them, you know,” murmured Ms. Melon to her neighbor, “were quiet before they died. But not her. She wailed and screamed. It made my hair stand on end for days. All those dead babies and her screaming.”

“How horrible.” 

“The impure tanner took her in. It wasn’t natural at all, being around all that death for so long.” 

“He didn’t speak after his wife died, you see. And she’d been childless…”

What went unspoken but Enkō felt like a weight, was that they thought there wasn’t something quite right about her. As she listened to the women tell the story, she wound her hands up in her apron as her heart welled with gratitude and her eyes with tears. The lovely mystery of being an orphan, maybe a princess or a fallen nature spirit, had been stripped away from her. Just one baby amongst a bunch of dead ones. 

Enkō crept out the back door, following the bushes back to the grove where their hut was located. 

Her pops, her adopted and only pops, was covered in blood from his work stripping the hide from a carcass, but Enkō hugged him anyway, holding onto him like a rock in the surf. The waves threatened to drag her out to sea, a darker place. 

She never let go of her pops. 

Not having a mysterious past or even the possibility of royal parents made the acting even more special. That became the real dream, attainable and beautiful. 

“Pops, I’m going to learn to be an actor!” 

He just stared at her. 

Then he handed her a bowl of stew. They sat on the floor, slurping, and when they finished, she took the scraps outside to feed the flock of crows. 

The next morning, Enkō washed herself in a stream and wore her cleanest robe and pants before trying to brush her hair with a twig, unsuccessfully. “Wish me luck,” she said to the crows. 

They jumped around, feathers scattering, and went back to feeding on the deer remains at the edge of the clearing. 

She went to Umehito’s house, calling out before she walked inside. He lived alone. He was drinking on the back veranda overlooking his overgrown backyard, and the bottle was mostly empty. 

The villagers did treat her like a dirty mountain monkey—that is what Enkō meant. It could also mean halo, she knew, though even at her young age, that was not what the villagers meant. But she had washed up as she best she could. 

Umehito took another swig from his cup. 

“Excuse me?”

He lazily glanced over his shoulder at her, then refocused on his miserable garden. He had not reached for his broom, which Enkō saw as promising. 

She crept out next to him on the veranda. “Hello.” 

Umehito held out the wine bottle. 

“No, thank you,” said Enkō. “I would like very much to learn how to be an actor, and if you would teach me, please.” 

He stared at her. 

He took another drink, something sad in his eyes. Enkō couldn’t have known it at the time, but Umehito had studied under the great female role actor Umeyuki II, who had studied under the Umeyuki who audiences had called the God of Illusion. If Umehito hadn’t ended up in Swampside, his title Umeyuki III stripped from him, he would have had his choice of the most beautiful and talented children in the artistic capital of the world. 

He took another drink. 

Then another. 

A part of him wanted to drag this insolent little farm girl—with a country accent that could mold tofu—into the ugly, overgrown yard where he would strangle her with her threadbare clothes and shove her body in the bushes. Man, the wine tasted bad here. 

But the part of him, the passionate part of him that would be insulted was burnt out and buried under the months of humiliation, and finally, the boredom of this backwater, somehow remained.  

He looked up at Enkō, who was wringing her hands. “Why?”

She stared at him, because he had asked such a big question, she didn’t know where to start—beautiful costumes, grand stories, that roar of adoration—and Enkō had grown up with a mute man, so words were not her strength. Her big eyes filled with tears and longing, 

and it took Umehito’s breath away. 

“I want to be someone else,” said Enkō. “Just for a little while.”

He wiped at his eyes, trying to summon his disinterest. “Humph.” He reached behind her for another bottle and ignored her, opening the bottle and drinking. Enkō waited. He made her wait, and it was cruel, but he wanted someone to hurt, like he had. 

When he finally looked at her, the bottle halfway gone, she didn’t look hurt, just hopeful. 

“What do you want to do?”


“What do you want to play?”

“I’d like to play a princess.”

He laughed at her. She laughed nervously with him. 

She didn’t know it at the time, but Umehito had made a career playing princesses. 

“Whatever,” he said. “Fine. That should be fun. The first think you can do is clean my yard.”



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.  


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.