Month: April 2014

Persistence is the Game

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P is for PERSISTENCE. If you want to get published, learn it. Memorize it. Embrace it.

Publishing is hard. The business rewards those who don’t give up.

Editors and agents will keep it real. Learn from what makes sense, discard what doesn’t. Don’t sell out your dream.

Realize you will be rejected more times than you ever thought possible. Mourn for a day and move on. Revenge query.

Structure will guide you like a headlight along a dark road. Don’t compromise on craft. Read good books.

Imagine yourself at the top, even when you feel like you can’t crawl out of the gutter of rejection. Imagine it. Be it.

Stay the course. If you need another round of edits, dive in. Don’t fight it. Keep editing and carry on.

The fact is, you’re looking for a marriage. You’re looking for the L word. You want that agent to adore your work.

Expect critique partners who help and respect you. Treat other writers as you would be treated.

Never give up. Never. Even when they say your baby’s ugly. Editing is plastic surgery be your own book doctor.

Care for yourself during submissions. Resist the urge to wallow. Buy little rejection gifts, treat yourself to manis/pedis.

Embrace the challenge to get published. Believe in your story. Look for the love in their eyes, even if it’s under every rock on the planet because publishing, more than talent rewards persistence

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One Night in Edo with a Courtesan

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It’s dusk in the Nightless City, Yoshiwara over by the old Asakusa shrine. The lanterns are blazing along Nakanocho Boulevard and the cherry blossoms are falling.
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Two men, a daimyo from the Kando where well-to-do escape stifling heat of summer and Yabo-san, Mr. Bumpkin from the hills passing through Edo are about to cross paths.
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The kago drops the daimyo off to the House of Great Muirya-a prestigious brothel where the lawns are manicured into impossibly, charming little gardens and cedar floors lead into a labyrinth of assignation tunnels.

12 hour at the Yoshiwara

This is not the daimyo’s first time or his second. He’s paid a bundle in ryo just to negotiate a meeting with the high class courtesan. He hasn’t been accepted. She’s late. She didn’t even show up the last time the meeting was requested. He’s donned the inevitable straw hat disguise, so no one knows he’s moving about such an infamous place.

Samurai in desguise

The hat is of course a joke. Many samurai wear the same disguise but it seems a ritual that is tried and true in the Yoshiwara. He’ll give up his daishi and sword at the door before he enters the brothel. They don’t want any trouble, and besides everyone knows he’s here. His name is posted outside. If she accepts him, the room will be sumptuous. He can think of little else. He hasn’t seen her. There’s been drinking games, endless sake, geisha entertaining and he’s getting poorer each time but that’s the brothel’s idea. Make him wait. Spend his money. It’s been months and he’s a man of position and power. But still the courtesan refuses him. He’s determined all the more to have her, at least till his ryo runs out.

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Yabo jingles kobans in his sash. He’s saved a lifetime all for this moment. He has enough for a meeting at the tea house to request a night with the famous courtesan. He wonders if his countrified airs will count against him. He jingles kobans again. He’s not handsome and the courtesan may well turn up her nose. Money will pay for anything, even a night with the girl of his dreams.

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The shoji slides and she floats into the room, with a trail of silk and jasmine flowing behind her. The yabo and the daimyo look at each other. Who will she choose?

Nothing says Japan Like Noh

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The Greeks had their tragedies. The Romans a love for gore. The Japanese have Noh.

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Well not quite as old as the ancient world, Noh’s classical drama has been performed continuously since the 13th Century. Like kabuki in it’s earliest inceptions, men play both male and female roles. Masks are a big part of the performance that can last all day.

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If you went to a traditional Noh in the past, you would see five plays mingled with short, humorous courses to cleanse the palate. Today, Noh is performed in two plays and a humor set, a kyogen, set in between.

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The plays are traditional and codified by the family foundation, new plays occasionally celebrate history and welcome innovation. There have also been fusion Noh blending with other art forms like Banruku, puppet theatre.

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One cool tradition is that Noh players rehearse only once as an ensemble, which embodies the saying, Sen no Rikyu, “one chance, one meeting.”

Noh-stage

Make It Through The First Draft

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Writing a novel can be overwhelming. If it’s your first, you may not think you can make it. This is a vulnerable time. Writing is not a sprint. It’s an endurance test. Whether you’re a planner or a panzter the process can play tricks on your mind. You agonize over the right word. You start to feel down on your story, your writing and yourself. This is toxic.

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Shut down that inner critic. This is not the place to agonize, pick or poke the quality of your writing. Editors, agents and future drafts all await you. When you start to think, “Who am I? No one will want to read this.” or “It’s impossible to get published.”, you feed into a track of negative self-talk. Once you believe it, you’ll be tempted to stop. You will want to avoid writing or you’ll put it off for another day, when you feel like it.

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Thing is, you’ll never feel like it if you can’t tamp down the demons. Writing is your job. You won’t wade through the ocean in a day, will you? Nor will you finish the novel by worrying the first draft isn’t good enough.

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Guess what? It’s supposed to be bad. Just get the words down. Keep going, don’t think about submissions. That should be the furthest thing from your mind.

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Try to float through insecurities, keep writing. If you can get to the next page and the next before you know you’re done with that first chapter. Once you’ve done one chapter you can do two, if you make it to the dreaded half way mark, keep going. Don’t talk about your work or your story. Keep the fires of creativity stoked with a need to get the plot on paper. Writers who talk about their work grow bored. Talk too much about the details and you’ll find enthusiasm waning just when you need that the most.

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It you write your story linear, turn off the harsh inner critic and keep juicy details to yourself, the momentum will carry you through the worst first draft malaise your mind can ever dish up. You’ll have you’re first draft done, and hey your a novelist. Now you get to edit that sucker.

Glitter Fred

Lermontov A Hero in His Time and Ours

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He lived nearly two hundred years ago. The novel Mikhail Lermontov left us sparkles as a portrait of the Byronic hero. Pechorin is bored, he’s sharp-tongued, calculating and a little desperate, nay impulsive. He’s sensitive, but self destructive too. A contradiction, the supreme anti-hero.

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So what is this superfluous man? In Russia, it’s more than dandyism. The archetype was made popular by Turgenev in his novella, Diary of a Superfluous Man. He disregards societal norms, he’s cynical, unempathetic and enjoys rubbing others with his pursuits, the big three: gambling, dueling and romantic escapades. He’s not just a one-dimensional fop. He’s a symbol. An exponent of the Tsar Nicholas I’s reactionary policies. These men refused a useful life they didn’t believe in so they gave themselves over to a rakish passivity. The superfluous man is lost, he’s not riding the character arch to win the game. He’s thrown his hand in before he ever started. Much of this literary type can be traced to the peculiar socio-political climate of 19th century Russia. Russia didn’t have a renaissance or a reformation. Thus the history of it’s literature has always been a vehicle for social change before entertainment. Lermontov does both.

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Hero for Our Time is set against the beauty of the Caucuses Mountains. The structure consists of five novellas with differing points of view. The most compelling scene depicts a duel. Dueling in Russia at this time was rife and deadly. Pushkin himself was killed in a duel. The government outlawed the practice but duelers always found a secret place and a way to carry on the duel, little caring they could face arrest if they were discovered.

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What makes Hero so vivid is the duel is set on a cliff. The idea is almost ridiculous, so over the top that it couldn’t be real. But that’s the point. Lermontov wanted to set his duel in a way that would be memorable.

Kyoto A City in Bloom

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To my mind there is nothing so beautiful as the ancient city of Kyoto. The shogun had Edo, but Kyoto was fit for an emperor.

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Kyoto is full of stories and ghosts. It has a dash for the dramatic too, with thousands of shrines and temples, it is the sacred heart of the country where a bloodied samurai once hid out in a cabin after an assassination attempt for his part in modernizing Japan.

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One of the most famous shines is Fushimi Inari Shrine, a tantalizing spectacle for the eye you’ll want to get lost in. The shrine showcases thousands of jaw-dropping bright torii gates, you wind your way through to get to the shrine. This is one place where the journey really counts.

Kyoto is also home to Gion, the traditional Geiko district. If you hang out, or are lucky you might see the Geisha as she scoots to her engagements around the old city streets.

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There are tourist traps in Kyoto like any other city, but if you want to mingle with real Geisha you’ll need to be invited to a prestigious tea house, and if you’re George Bush or a wealthy industrialist you might have a chance, though it won’t guarantee you entry. Yes, it’s that hard.

Geisha Kyoto

Fall is one of the best times to see Kyoto. The maple tree is well-cultivated and nothing is more breath-taking than seeing the fiery show of these beauties as they change with the seasons.

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Autumn is also a great time to grab a sip of plum sake, and head for Gion for more Geisha-watching, because you’re not important enough to enter the tea house.

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Shrines. Geisha. History and bloodied samurai. Yet, nothing says Kyoto like cherry blossoms. Hanami is the very best time to visit Kyoto.

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You’ll see lots of Geisha if you go to Kyoto during cherry blossom season, so go and rejoice. Grab your camera, but keep a respectful distance. You’re in Kyoto and you’ll have to be happy with a look on the outside. If you’re David Bowie, you might get into the tea house.

Japanese Woodblocks; A courtesan’s Best Friend

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The woodblock was a Chinese import Japan took to her heart. The art existed before moveable type, but arrived late to the island nation. Ukiyo-e artists of the so called floating world flourished during the 17th Century and beyond. The floating world refers to the dominant culture in Edo celebrating beautiful women of the Yoshiwara, kabuki actors, history, and natural landscape.

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The most famous artists, Utamaro, Hokusai, Harunobu and Hiroshige created a stir by publishing series dedicated to the most famous courtesans of the day. Tamigeko. Takao. Katsuyama. All sat for woodblock masters and became household names.

Woodblock Courtesans

There was no better buzz or copy than to sit with a Ukiyo-e master. If a girl was really famous, the woodblocks created a stampede in front of the printer’s store, with no time for ink to dry. They were revered and treasured by men who dreamed of a night with the famous Takao. A sort of Edo Tigerbeat Magazine.

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Rivals dared each other to sell out woodblocks faster, the winner declared the most desirable of her day. The brothels loved this free publicity because it drove up the prices of the girls. The woodblocks became collectors items and courtesans rose in the ranks on the strength of her sales alone. It was whispered that a woman who could sell out all her woodblocks, in record time, must be special indeed.

Courtesan Komacji

Kabuki actors were also popular topics of woodblocks. They often depicted courtesans themselves in their performances because it was forbidden for a woman to perform kabuki. It was often difficult to tell kabuki actors depicted as courtesans in woodblocks. Can you tell the difference?

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A popular form of erotic woodblocks, shunga was enjoyed by men and women during the Edo period. Hokusai published many erotic woodblocks, and the artists supported themselves supplementing their income. Everyone had their stash. It was cheap, widely available and catered to the masses.

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“… living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.” Asai Ryoi

Ikebana Time

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Samurai Ikebana Bamboo

The history of structured flower arranging can be dated 500 years back. The roots are obscure but a Buddhist connection is suspected. The first practitioners were Buddhist monks. It was simple in the beginning, only a few tall stems and two shorter stems were used to create the illusion of life in flowers. One did not just place the stems in a special oblong vase, one contemplated in the mind before carefully systemizing a harmonious arrangement.

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It wasn’t long before the samurai became avid Ikebana enthusiasts. They brought the lifestyle into the homes of upper class warriors. The sacred alcove, the Tokonoma, a small screen, an incense and candle.

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A popular style, the Shoka consists of three main branches, known as “Heaven”, “Earth “, and human.

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Hemingway’s Style Surprisingly Relevent

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They teach the greats in English class but nobody writes like that anymore. Fitzgerald? Too much doom and subtext. Chekhov? Roundabout and talky. Joyce? Who has the patience. Hemingway? Well, back up a bit. Hemingway was actually the father of modern literature. While others took chapters to warm up, explore characterization and slow-start their plots, Hemingway’s sparse make-every-word count style served as a bridge away from the rambling tomes that preceded him. He was the first to chop the unnecessary, to hone till he found his “one true sentence”. Today’s writers are closer to Hemingway, than Dickens. Here’s why.

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What you didn’t say counted more. He was the master of the right word. He saw the power in the few. Unlike Proust who could writhe on the floor for hours pulling and pushing words from his brain, Hemingway’s short stories prepared him to get the most out of the smallest space. He turned away from overblown, dense styles like Melville and went to work as a newspaperman writing copy for the Kansas City Star. He learned to be succinct and to shoot for clarity. He adapted the Star Style and adhered to the guidelines without fail.

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Hemingway’s Star Style, 1915

•Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.

•Eliminate every superfluous word as “Funeral services will be at 2 o’clock Tuesday,” not “The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o’clock on Tuesday.” He said is better than he said in the course of conversation.

•Be careful of the word also. It usually modifies the word it follows closest. “He, also, went” means “He, too, went.” “He went also” means he went in addition to taking some other action.

•Don’t say “He had his leg cut off in an accident.” He wouldn’t have had it done for anything.

•”He suffered a broken leg in a fall,” not “he broke his leg in a fall.” He didn’t break the leg, the fall did. Say a leg, not his leg, because presumably the man has two legs.

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That’s the house in Key West. I step into the little writing studio out back near the salt water pool. I’m told by the guides who give the tours that Hemingway and his wife, I think #3 had frequent fights over the pool. It was a pain to clean and haul the sea water in. I imagine as I walk the grounds, Papa strides to his studio at dawn, locks the world out until noon, heads into town over to Sloppy Joe’s for a few. I wonder at how he is able to live life to the fullest with his hard-drinking, womanizing reputation. And I know he heads to Bimini next for big game fishing, and the evening will end, perhaps 90 miles away at the Tropicana. I see him get up and do it all over again, with a massive hangover, knowing how his story will end, but focused on the now, while still cranking out the greatest novels ever written.

Then I look at the Star Style.

#1. Use short sentences.

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a Glimpse at the Real Madame Butterfly

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I’m cheating a bit in my title. I do realize but I love a good mystery. Take the romantic tragedy of Madame Butterfly. The story is a classic opera. A few movies. Has inspired several books, including my own, The Secret Life of Concubines. Even Madame Alexander made a doll in her likeness.

But I want to know. Who is Cho-Cho-san?

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The story is simple enough. Pinkerton, the naval officer arrives on a ship. Meets a beautiful girl, Cho-Cho-san. They fall in love but Pinkerton leaves her behind, and she waits and waits and waits and waits with unshakable faith, he’ll be back.

But it doesn’t go the way she wants. Enter the tragedy part.

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Pinkerton returns. He’s surprised to see Cho-Cho-san is not alone, she has a child. A son who is her whole life. In the words of Malcolm McLaren, Pinkerton’s a bounder. He married a Yankee girl. Which can only spell total devastation for Butterfly. She goes ballistic when she learns he has not returned for her as promised, and…he’s brought his wife. They want her child. Butterfly is destroyed.

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It’s a wonderful story, and Puccini’s opera is one of my favorite. But was Madame Butterfly real? Depends on who you ask.

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Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant went to seek his fortune in the Meiji era. He worked the tea trade, and ended up on Nagasaki where he opened his own doors. He was half-adventurer, half-international investor. He took an active role in the Boshin War that toppled the shogunate and built the first western house on the island. He won and lost fortunes a few times over but Glover was first and foremost an industrialist, instrumental in aiding Japan’s rise out of feudal darkness.

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He met and married Madame Tsuru. They had a son, Thomasburo. Not much is known about her, accept an old photograph where she is wearing the famous kimono adorned with butterflies. No historical evidence exists that she went by the name Ocho-san (Butterfly). Not a shred, other than the kimono. Historians have deduced that Madame Butterfly was a fabrication of the Nagasaki Tourist Board, even going so far as to rename Glover House, the “Madame Butterfly House.”

Who was Cho-Cho-san?

Who inspired one of the greatest Italian operas?

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A publicity stunt. An old photograph and a whiff of history. I wonder if Puccini knew that. Somehow, I don’t think he’d care. I don’t care either, I should but it’s a great story. Right?

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