How my new novel "Shunga-Satori" took form as "the underworld surrealism of a dark fairy tale."
In Part One of this series, I talked about how Shunga-Satori started as a project about an artist trying to make sense of another artist's legacy, and how the failure of that project to coalesce led me to think more about how to make a story out of one of its components.
How my new novel "Shunga-Satori" started as the story of a dreamspace.
Of all the books I've written so far, Shunga-Satori arguably has the most roundabout and tortured path from origin to destination. In fact, I'm not even sure at this point what exactly counts as the "origin" of this project, but I'll do my best to parse the fossil record.
But if this project started anywhere at all, it was with the title.
One of the hallmarks of functional adulthood is learning how to throw things out and not regret it.
I'm coming to believe one of the hallmarks of functional adulthood is learning how to throw things out and not regret it. This is not as difficult as it seems. Learning to do this is one of the most personally liberating and empowering things you will ever have.
If we are driven primarily to write for our own satisfaction, what does it means to say to keep the reader in mind?
In another forum I'm in that's aimed at writers, there's a discussion folder devoted to workshopping queries and pitches. One of the common problems that's been identified with many pitches posted there can be summed up as not writing the pitch for the reader, or forgetting one's audience. Many of the pitches workshopped there fall short at communicating what kind of story this is, or who it's for, or what to expect when we read it. They are often vague when they need to be specific, or include too much of the wrong kind of detail. They seem driven more by the need for the author to validate what they're doing than to communicate to others what their story is about.
In all charity, it is hard to write that stuff well. I write the blurbs for my own books dozens of times before I'm satisfied (and even then sometimes I pitch them out and start over altogether). Even though my main reason for doing all of this is to satisfy myself further, I still know I need to operate as if I have to satisfy an audience of people who are not me. Otherwise even that tiny audience of six who actually give a darn about what I'm doing (as opposed to thousands just along for the ride) isn't going to exist.
All this raised the following thought: If we are driven primarily to write for our own satisfaction, or at least to write for our own satisfaction as a main motive, what does it means to say to keep the reader in mind?
Let me answer this question first with another one: Who is "the reader" going to be?
For one, the reader is our future self -- and that future self might well be someone as close to us as the guy who is going to end up re-reading the draft now being written. If nothing else, we need to write for that guy, who may not make the same excuses for our mistakes that we did for ourselves once upon a time.
It helps to be charitable to our future selves, both for their own sake and for whatever proxy they become for any other audience we might attract. In other words, whatever readers we get need to be treated with the same kindness as our future selves, and vice versa. We can't assume they will just know. I don't know how many times I've come back to a work of my own in progress, after taking a month off from it to clear my head, only to discover how many bad assumptions I've made about what the reader knows. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
I have over time come to embrace the belief that creative work should be first and foremost about the cultivation of our own joy, and that monetization or marketing should be a distant second concern. I don't say this because I think everyone who makes a living writing is a dirty sellout, only that we should not be confused about our motives. I also believe whatever we produce should be made with as much care and attention to its craft as possible. Maybe instead of "Dance like no one's looking", we should say "Dance like someone you care about is looking".
Sometimes the inspiration I get from an image is indirect.
These past couple of weeks saw the arrival of some new artbooks into my collection: a catalog for an exhibition of Emi Wada (Kurosawa's RAN)'s costume designs; the Anime Architecture hardback; Underworld: Sites Of Concealment (all you urban-exploration fans will want this); and — this kinda classifies? -- The Ghost In The Shell: Fully Compiled, a massive hardcover three-in-one of the manga. I'm still reading books, of course, but the majority of my big spending has gravitated towards art and design tomes.
Some of these books sit in what I call the "forever shelf" to the right of where I am typing this. Every now and then when I'm in the middle of one sentence or another, I reach for one of them, open to a random page, and get a little inspiration. The shelf expands and changes membership over time, but a few titles have established themselves as constant presences, like an all-in-one-volume overview of Sorayama's work, or a similar one for H.R. Giger. At some point I mean to post pictures and walkthroughs of all this stuff, just for fun. But what I'm posting about today is the significance of these things for my writing and creative work generally.
"Far from being 'inhuman' or 'robotic', as was often charged in the early days, electronic music is thus a profoundly human art."
In his wonderful little book on electronic music, Paul Griffiths wrote "Far from being 'inhuman' or 'robotic', as was often charged in the early days, electronic music is thus a profoundly human art. It is also one that seems peculiarly appropriate at a time when electronic means, the radio and the gramophone, are the principal sources of musical experience for the vast majority of people in technologically developed countries. We may even reflect, with Herbert Eimert, 'whether perhaps it is not the symphony recorded on tape or disc that is the synthetic, and electronic music the genuine article.'"
Lines like this, and the sentiments they evoke, seem best to describe my response to a group like Autechre and in particular the record Tri Repetae++, which repackages the Tri Repetae album plus the Garbage and Anvil Vapre EPs into a two-CD set. Many recommended it to me as a good default entry point for the band, and I have paid that notion forward myself. Maybe there are better individual Autechre records, but TR++ is as close to the Compleat Autechre Experience in a couple of discs as we are likely to get. The duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth released a good deal of other music after this, and are still hard at work, but somehow every gesture of significance, every aesthetic of importance they have manifested to date, is reflected here.
I'm almost done with editing the proof copy of Shunga-Satori, and I found ... well, a fair number of things that somehow managed to elude me in previous drafts.
Briefly: I'm almost done with editing the proof copy of Shunga-Satori, and I found ... well, a fair number of things that somehow managed to elude me in previous drafts. This is not a show-stopper, merely a show-delayer. I might have to write a few things, and do some close checking for a few things, but the book is 99.5% there as far as I can tell.
Editing with the proof copy is a radically different feeling than editing even on regular paper. It feels a lot more like being handed someone else's work and asked to weigh in on it without reservations. I found myself raising questions I'd completely missed before — not normative ones that would have forced a full rewrite, but ones still big enough they deserved close attention before the book went into other hands.
I am not an absolute perfectionist, although I'm close enough to one sometimes to play one on TV. There's some things about the book I've gone back and forth about — certain aspects of tone or voice, for instance — but at the end of the day I've decided those things are the way they are for a reason. If they turn out to be a bad idea, then I'll just have to keep that in mind next time around.
I've crossed some kind of personal Rubicon in terms of how I come up with ideas and treat them.
For reasons I've mentioned in these pages before, and some I've not, 2022 was a deeply stressful and difficult year. My wife and I put our house on the market — right when the market popped, too — bought a new one, moved, pruned down, rethought. I started Shunga-Satori and mostly finished it (it's now just about finished). And on top of all of that, I came up with more new ideas, more viable new ideas, for stories than in many of the previous years put together. I don't even know if I'll be able to get to all of them, but the sheer explosion of riches in my hands deserves some thought. What happened?
I do feel like I've crossed some kind of personal Rubicon in terms of how I come up with ideas and treat them. Once I adopted a certain new way of looking at the ideas that come into my head, I couldn't look at them any other way. It was the implications of an idea — and not just any old implications, but the way the idea's implications create or transform a worldview. Also, the people who are embodiments of that worldview. I'll try to explain what I mean.
It's here! It's here!
After a couple of delays, my proof copy for Shunga-Satori is finally in my hands!
On the problem of audiences growing weary of stories that never actually end.
First: If you are not reading Ted Gioia, do so. Of all the folks out there with a Substack, he is one of the few witchers worth tossing a coin to, as the saying might go.
Second, his most recent post is titled "Audiences Grow Weary of Stories that Never End." How can I resist such a claim?
We begin reading (or watching) a story with the sure expectation that it will come to an end. These endings have changed over the centuries—Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) pursues a very different form of closure than, say, Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) or Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). But each is effective in its own way.
Stories without closure collapse into unruly chronos—the passage of time reduced to, in Kermode’s words, “one damn thing after another.” But that chaotic narrative-without-destination is increasingly the norm in contemporary storytelling.
On "sending a message".
A line from Ebert, when reviewing Atom Egoyan's Exotica: "A film can only get so far by simply stating its message; if the message is that easily defined, why bother with the film?" The same goes for any work that could have a "message" embedded in it. The message is something we can build on or around, but not exclusively with. One ought to have a story to get wrapped up in, and in that story, someone to follow and give a damn about. The experience of the story is, well, an experience of its own.
I think it was Jack Warner who said something like, "If I want someone to send a message, they can use Western Union." And yet some of the very best movies made on his watch at Warner Brothers, and in the years following it, all have something we could call a message. It's just that there is far more than that alone.
What I learned while writing my latest (and strangest) novel.
Well, it's almost done. As of earlier today I put in an order for the proof copy for Shunga-Satori, with what I hope are the just-about-final cover copy and interiors. If all is well, then I'll set up the Kindle edition in the coming week, and we should have my latest, and strangest, novel out into your hands long before the end of the month. (Spend some of that sweet tax refund money on it! It's cheap! You'll be supporting an artisanal creation!)
I haven't yet set up an official splash page for the book — that's still to come in the next couple of days — but once I have that in I won't be able to shut up about it.
Here's a few things I picked up along the way while working on this particular book.