Monday, July 17, 2006


Back when the deadline for the Fully Booked contest was looming over hundreds of unfortunate writers out there, I wrote a short story entitled "Masks" in the course of a single night. I originally meant for it to be my submission to Neil Gaiman and the other judges, but a re-reading of the story left me feeling empty and dissatisfied. So, as with every story that doesn't meet my personal standards, I tucked it into an archive folder and forgot about it for the next few months.

Now, with both the Fully Booked contest and the recent Sci-Fi/Fantasy Convention behind us, I ended up digging through my cobwebbed works and rediscovering my working draft of "Masks". While I still feel that the story isn't fit for publication, I've found a strange attraction in most of the descriptive writing. "Masks" was meant to be an outline of the underlying plots behind a fictional imperial court, and as such, it contained heavy amounts of visual reference.

My favorite excerpt from "Masks" follows. I find it odd that I fixate so much on this piece of writing, especially for a story that doesn't seem too good to begin with.

The Emperor wears no mask.

Each eye is dyed with inks of blue and white. Each sleek hair upon his brow is clearly outlined. Each wrinkle, each imperfection upon his skin has been brushed away with the finest flesh-colored powders.

The Emperor wears robes of gold and green, cunningly tucked and folded to hide his growing paunch. He carries an extensive train of silk and lace, all the more to conceal his diminutive stature. He gestures with white satin gloves that cover hands so soft they would bleed at the slightest blister.

He wears a construct of gold and diamonds upon his head, although every single courtier knows – much to the Emperor’s detriment – that the wig is obvious, and that the baldness is already in its advanced stages.

In a sense, the Emperor is his own mask.

Why do I post this excerpt here? I don't know, really. Maybe I just like this little bit of writing *that* much.

I remember typing this part of the text at a fast and regular pace, as though I already knew what the Emperor character looked like. I think I got my primary references from Samurai 7 (an animé by Gonzo Digimation, based on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai); the Scorpion Clan from Legend of the Five Rings; and Hotep and Hoy, the Egyptian priest characters from The Prince of Egypt.

I believe that I worked my reflections from a certain ethical standpoint into "Masks", which got frustrated when I deemed the story too low-quality to publish. This probably got me writing a blog post some months later: As a result, "Faces in the Crowd" holds many of the themes that "Masks" was supposed to produce.

I find it funny that we can somehow do something right, even when we did it wrong to begin with. This episode actually has me wondering why I didn't just try to salvage the work instead of hiding it in a pile of old junk for me to unearth five months later. I'm not proud of the short story as a whole, mind you... but I'm proud of writing this particular excerpt, as I am with a few other bits and pieces of the draft. And if I'm proud of something I've made, then I believe that it at least deserves to see the light of day.

That's why this excerpt is posted here, far from any notions of Neil Gaiman or a prize of thousands of pesos, far from any prospects of awards or convention notability. This excerpt is posted here because I decided that I liked this set of five paragraphs after all. Hopefully, you'll agree with me.


skinnyblackcladdink said...

might i offer unsolicited criticism? if not, i apologize for being cheeky.

the image is pretty, and the writing appropriate in its transparency, so that the image behind it shows clearly through... however, and don't take this the wrong way, my first problem with these paragraphs is that i don't like the way the last line was constructed. it breaks the poetry of the previous lines. the "in a sense", i suppose, strikes me as a bit, er, wishy washy. you could have gone straight to the point and just said so: "The Emperor wears no mask, for he is his own mask." or, simply, "The Emperor is his own mask."

my second problem comes earlier, and is, perhaps, much more significant: you say the Emperor wears no mask, and yet you go on to describe the mask he is wearing... the ink, the powder... these are elements of a mask, too. even the gloves, the crown, etc... better, possibly, if you'd talked about the way he controlled his features, his rigid upright posture, perhaps, the way he prevents his lips from shaping a smile or a frown, without the aid of these external things being applied to his person.

but that's just me, and i realize i'm taking your 5 paragraphs out of context, so it could all flow more smoothly with the rest of the text. might we get a chance to read the entire draft?

Sean said...

Skinnyblackcladdink: Fire away. That's probably why the stuff is posted here, I think.

First point: That's me, actually. It's one of the problems with my style of writing: I stuff too many turns of phrase into my descriptions and explanations. This piece of criticism would have caused me to correct my draft, yes.

With regards to context, though, the story was actually being narrated from a first-person point of view. So the description here is really based on the impressions of the main character, and it therefore gets dotted with his personal reflections. (This is, if anything, a vague justification of the wording. I'd still correct it.)

Second point: This is also most likely an issue of context, although I see your point. The emphasis on masks takes place because the setting is an Imperial Court whose subjects are all required to wear physical masks -- ostensibly to signify an unchanging hierarchy and presence of personal duties. Only the court's Emperor does not wear a physical mask in this regard, although I imagined him as being painted up to reflect the look of his courtiers. It's not that he doesn't have a mask; it's that the first paragraph mentions that he doesn't wear a physical one. It's the last paragraph that attempts to expand the definition of a mask in this way.

I'll see if I'm brave enough to put the entire draft online. I usually only put up stuff that I like on this blog when it comes to my own fiction, and I didn't like this one. Still, it could make for a good analysis...

skinnyblackcladdink said...

point two: ah context. right. now you have to post your story. heh.

Sean said...

Skinnyblackcladdink: Gods, I hate having to use context to argue a literary position. It's a huge gamble: Chances are that you're thinking about the text in a certain way and the rest of the audience is thinking about it in a totally different way.

I'll post the story as soon as I can find it and get the formatting right, though. Like I said, it would probably make for an interesting exercise.

naughty girl said...

yup, skinny's right. you have to post the story!! :)

i really love your use of imagery. that's one of my many faults as a writer. i need a lot of work in that area.

obviously, you have no problem "showing" your story. bravo for that!! :)

Sean said...

Naughtygirl: It's already up here. In the end, the only problem I had with posting the story was the possibility of re-using it. But I eventually realized that I could just find something else to write when the time came.

To be honest, I hate writing imagery. I prefer writing mannerisms and dialogue, and leaving the rest for readers to imagine. That said, however, the descriptive writing was a result of practice over the last few months.