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An excerpt from “Shinosuke”

I’ve been working on the final novel in my YA fantasy trilogy over the past couple months, along with editing Murderous Requiem for it’s scheduled release of April 8th, but over the past week or so I’ve been bitten by the Japanese culture bug again.  I’m not sure why, but every year since I was about 17, I have a short attack of Japanese culture.  I get obsessed with Japanese movies and dig out my Japanese language books and CDs and start eating Japanese food.

It was during one of these “attacks” that I began an adaptation of a Japanese story written in the 17th century by Ihara Saikaku called “The Tragic Love of Two Enemies,” about a samurai in love with a young man who doesn’t know that the samurai killed his father.  It’s been difficult going, because of all the research I’ve had to do to keep the feudal setting believable and I’m probably only half done with it.  But I dug it out and dusted it off yesterday and was very pleased with what I’ve written so far.

Here’s one of the scenes I like.  Shinosuke is the young man (18-years-old in my story, though he was younger in the original) and the samurai is Senpachi.  At this point in the story, the attraction between the two characters is clear to both of them, but Senpachi has been resisting it.  They’ve decided to take a break from sword-fighting practice to relax in the shade of a cherry tree.

Senpachi stretched out on the petal-strewn grass, alongside Shinosuke.  This brought them physically closer than he’d allowed them to be, since that first evening in the ofuro.  But the moment seemed to warrant it. 

“Let me tell you a story.  When I was about your age, there was a man—Sato Haruki.  He was…older, and very experienced on the battlefield.  He’d fought at Seikigahara.  We were both assigned to the same unit, under the command of your father.  Haruki took me under his wing.  He taught me how to fight and the way of bushi….”  Senpachi hesitated a moment, concerned that what he was about to say might encourage the youth in his attentions.  But he would not dishonor Haruki’s memory by hiding their relationship, as if it were something he was ashamed of.  “He also taught me how to love.”

The word hung in the air between them, Shinosuke saying nothing, but his expression indicating that he understood.  Senpachi cleared his throat and continued.  “Haruki also taught me how to face death.”

“What do you mean?  Did he die?”

Hai.”

“On the battlefield?”

“On a hunting trip.  There were six of us, all on horseback.  Something spooked Haruki’s horse, as we crossed through a field.  Before he could get the animal back under control, he fell off.  We all thought it was funny, at first, and we laughed.”  The samurai smiled faintly at the memory, though there was little joy in it.  “Haruki had landed badly, and we soon realized that his back was broken.  He couldn’t move, and he felt nothing when I squeezed his hands and legs.  Though he could still speak and even joke about us having to strap his sword to his forehead for his next battle, we all knew—he knew—that he would be dead soon.  I don’t know how long he might have held on, but Haruki saw no point in dragging out his death.  He asked me to kill him.”

Shinosuke drew in his breath involuntarily, and his eyes expressed a small amount of the horror Senpachi had felt at that time.  Senpachi was only fifteen.  He’d never killed a man.  And now the first man he killed was going to be the man he loved.  All these years later, the pain the memory brought back to him was still agonizing. 

“Our friends led the horses away from us,” Senpachi said, when he trusted himself to speak, “so we could be alone together, in Haruki-kun‘s last moments. Then I drew his wakizashi and leaned down to kiss him.  While our lips were still touching, I pierced his heart with his own blade.”

He realized that his hands had clenched themselves into fists so hard that his nails were cutting into his palms, so he forced himself to relax them.  Haruki-kun….  He still longed to beg his lover for forgiveness, though he knew Haruki hadn’t blamed him—had, in fact, wanted him to do it.  It had been necessary.  And it was, after all, merely the first in a long, long line of painful regrets.

Shinosuke spoke quietly.  “It must have been terrible.”

For a moment, Senpachi couldn’t answer.  Then at last, he said, “It was.  I couldn’t eat or sleep for several days, and I wept until…I had no more tears to weep.”

“I could never have done it.”

A gentle breeze shook some cherry blossom petals down upon Shinosoke, and some stuck in his ink-black hair.  It was a soft, beautiful image that contrasted sharply with the story of pain and death Senpachi was relating to him.  Without thinking, the samurai reached up and plucked some the petals out of Shinosuke’s hair.  “I wouldn’t have thought I could, either.  Not until that moment.  But being a samurai means putting your duty ahead of your own needs.  Haruki deserved an honorable death, and it was my duty to give it to him.  Had I failed, he would have died, anyway.  But his death would have been slow and painful and undignified.”

As if they had a will of their own, Senpachi’s fingers floated along the youth’s hair, barely touching, until they came down to touch skin, gently following the line of Shinosuke’s cheek.  The youth closed his eyes, making no attempt to pull away.  But as soon as Senpachi realized what he was doing, he jerked his hand back.

His voice was gruff when he spoke.  “We should get back to practice.”

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“Saturn in Retrograde” has been accepted for publication!

This is the fastest I’ve ever received an acceptance of a submission: 6 days!  But it probably has more to do with deadline pressure than my brilliant writing:  Dreamspinner wants the anthology to be released in early June.

I’m very excited about it!  Not only did Saturn in Retrograde turn out to be something I’m rather proud of, but a release in June keeps me in the public eye.  It’s bad to go more than a year between releases, if you’re trying to build up a readership (or at least I’ve read that the “magic number” in the publishing world is a new release in not more than a year and a half, if you don’t want people to forget about you).  And although I did have a release in December (The Dogs of Cyberwar), and it garnered some nice reviews, it didn’t sell particularly well.  Seiðman will possibly be released this year, but I’m not sure yet.  So a new release in June is good.

In the meantime, I’ve been struggling with Shinosuke again, my re-telling of a 17th-century samurai love story.  I’ve written about five thousand words in the past two weeks, which is hardly a great pace.  It’s been pretty awful, in fact.  I was blaming the slow progress in the first week on having my attention focused on getting Saturn in Retrograde out the door, but I don’t have much to blame the slow progress of the past week on.  I have a handle on the manners of the period, now.  At least, enough so that I don’t have to worry about it constantly.  And I like the story.  But for some reason, it’s hard to write it.

I guess the only thing is to keep plugging away at it.

In other news, Dreamspinner Press is hosting a workshop for its writers in New York City this week and I’ll be there!  I’ll be hopping on board a train with my friend, Claire Curtis (who needs to be there for moral support — travel gives me panic attacks), Thursday, at 9:17am in that wretched time of day some more optimistic people like to call “morning” and returning Sunday night.  No doubt, I will achieve some kind of writerly enlightenment somewhere in the middle.

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How to Address a Samurai (Without Him Cutting You in Half) – Revisited

After finishing the first draft of a time-travel story I’ll be submitting to Dreamspinner early next week (after another draft or two — it seems one of my friends found my time-travel quantum mumbo-jumbo to be “all screwed up”), I’ve dusted off my tragic samurai love story from last winter and begun working on it again.

I thought I’d sorted out how I wanted the characters to behave, within their social ranks, but apparently not.  Looking at it with fresh eyes, I found numerous contraditions sprinkled throughout the story.  I also discovered that the characters were behaving rather like wooden fence posts in kimono.  There was so much formality in the character interractions, there wasn’t much room left for emotion or character development.

Fortunately, all was not lost.  The story is still good; the setting is still fascinating (to me); and the characters are interesting, if I can just get them to loosen up a bit.  One of the biggest problems was the Japanese words I’d sprinkled a bit too liberally throughout the text, especially hai (“yes”) and iie (“no”).  My decision to use these words had resulted in a very irritating rhythm in places, where they were simply repeated too often.  In English, a reader might not notice anything odd in the following passage:

     “You didn’t attempt to copy the artwork?” Senpachi asked.  The birds and flowers were conspicuously absent.
      Shinosuke flushed red again — something Senpachi was beginning to find endearing — and bowed lower.  “No, sensei,” he said, “I’m sorry.  I…they were beyond my ability with the brush.”
      “No matter.  Are you claiming to have memorized the poems, as well?”
      “Yes, lord!”
      “Well, let’s hear them, then.”

But when the Japanese for “yes” and “no” is substituted, it becomes a bit irritating:

     “You didn’t attempt to copy the artwork?” Senpachi asked.  The birds and flowers were conspicuously absent.
      Shinosuke flushed red again — something Senpachi was beginning to find endearing — and bowed lower. “Iie, sensei,” he said, “I’m sorry.  I…they were beyond my ability with the brush.”
      “No matter.  Are you claiming to have memorized the poems, as well?”
      “Hai, lord!”
      “Well, let’s hear them, then.”

Multiply this throughout the manuscript and it becomes damned irritating.   A simple word like “yes” shouldn’t draw so much attention to itself.  So I was faced with two choices:  1) Change all instances of hai and iie to “yes” and “no”, or 2) Leave them alone, but reduce their number.  For now, I’ve chosen the latter course.  For the most part, “yes” and “no” are seldom necessary.  Generally, they are implied by the context.  So the current draft of that passage now reads:

     “You didn’t attempt to copy the artwork?” Senpachi asked.  The birds and flowers were conspicuously absent.
      Shinosuke flushed red again — something Senpachi was beginning to find endearing — and bowed lower. “Sumimasen,” he said, “I…they were beyond my ability with the brush.”
      “No matter.  Are you claiming to have memorized the poems, as well?”
      “Hai, sensei!”
      “Well, let’s hear them, then.”

One might argue that replacing a small Japanese word like iie with sumimasen is cheating.  But since sumimasen means “I’m sorry,” it allows me to tighten the passage up a bit more, at the same time that I’m breaking up the hai-iie rhythm.

There was also a lot of confusion in those early drafts about when to use first names and when to use last names.  So I’ve come up with the following rules that I’m trying to apply consistently throughout the text:

  • Shinosuke, the “boy” (he’s eighteen), is always “Shinosuke” to everybody, because of his youth.
  • Akanashi Senpachi, the samurai he falls in love with, is “Akanashi” (his family name) to everyone but himself.  This includes his friend, Toriyama, since men use each other’s family names when talking to each other, even if they are friends.  He’s also “Akanashi” in the prose, when the story is told from Shinosuke’s point of view.  About halfway through the story, however, he becomes “Senpachi” to Shinosuke in dialog and in the prose when the story is told from Shinosuke’s point of view, because lovers can use first names.  When the story is told from Senpachi’s point of view, he is always “Senpachi” in the prose.
  • Senpachi’s friend, Toriyama Kurobachi, is always “Toriyama“.
  • Servants are referred to by their first names, such as “Kaeda.”
  • The prefixes -san (Mr. or Mrs.) and -sama (“lord” or simply an acknowledgement of higher rank) are not used in the prose.  (My God, did that end up being cumbersome!)  In dialog, the two samurai (Senpachi and Toriyama) are referred to with the honorific -sama by everybody, except each other.  When referring to one another, in the presence of others, they use -san; when alone, Senpachi calls his friend “Toriyama” and Toriyama calls him “Akanashi,” since they are close friends.
  • When the two samurai are addressed by something other than their names, they are called either sensei or samurai-sama.

Believe it or not, this is actually far less complicated than what I’d worked out earlier and it’s allowed me to go back and remove a number of confusing references.  There are still a lot of fuzzy points (Would the samurai refer to Shinosuke’s mother by her first name, because she’s a lowly seamstress, or as Daizaki-san, in honor of her late husband, who was a friend of theirs?), but already I can feel the prose perking up a bit.

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