Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Review: Masks

If you haven't read the unpublished "Masks" yet, then I recommend that you do so before going over this article. Go on... it's not as though it's going to bite you or anything.

At this point, I would like to outline exactly why "Masks" never got submitted for the possibility of publication. While the comments on my previous posts were especially enlightening in this regard, I'll still need to explain the position from the writer's point of view.

I'll start with a bit of background: I wrote "Masks" a couple of days before the deadline for the Fully Booked contest, in a single four-hour burst of computer time. I had already established a couple of characters (Polonius and Moia) in a first attempt at the story the previous day, and came up with the rest of the cast during the actual writing itself.

Although it's not too obvious in the story, "Masks" follows the inner workings of a fictional imperial court. This particular court, however, is heavily structured to the point where each and every one of its courtiers, diplomats and ambassadors is required to wear a mask; These masks represent their respective positions, as well as their official tasks and duties. In a sense, these are like badges of office, and one can easily infer the local pecking order just by glancing at peoples' faces.

The description of various characters' masks therefore plays a prominent role in the story: Over the course of the tale, the qualities and duties of each character is tied to the features of his or her mask.

Etiev, the narrating persona, happens to be an imperial advisor. As a result, it is his duty to assess the Emperor's decisions and contradict them where needed, effectively causing him to be labelled as "The Emperor's Villain". For that matter, Etiev's job is made far more difficult by the fact that his master is a hedonistic, supercilious ruler... and that everyone else doesn't seem to mind. This causes him to see how everyone he knows has become increasingly absorbed into their own masks, and in the end Etiev eventually gets swallowed by the "villain" label he has obtained through a lifetime of honest duty.

I felt that the first draft of the story succeeded in some ways, but failed in a number of others. In a way, it had reached the "rewrite or no?" situation, in that it was able to tell a legible story but needed a number of serious improvements. My basic pros and cons went as follows:

Pros: I liked most of the descriptive text in "Masks", given that I don't usually work much of it into my pieces. It was supposed to blend physical appearance with mental impression, and although I don't know if it succeeded in doing that, I still found it interesting to read. I also found myself satisfied with Etiev's ability to try and put readers in his shoes, which was good for a first draft.

Cons: "Masks" felt a little too drawn-out. It dwelt on no less than seven separate masks (Etiev, Stanislai, Polonius, Moia, Vykos, Tatien, and The Emperor), and I was concerned about losing the readers' attention right in the middle of the whole thing. If this story had reached a second draft, it would have seen the possible removal of Vykos and Tatien, as well as a significant shortening of Stanislai's role. While the ending had been planned early on, I also felt that it was too much of a shock in its current incarnation -- it left the reader with few ties to Etiev's "villanous" reputation in order to work. Again, a second draft would have left more numerous and subtle clues as to Etiev's actual plans.

Both the pros and the cons seemed logical, and the story could have gone either way. What finally forced me to shelve it, however, was the realization that I had written it as a submission to the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards -- which required all prose submissions to be in the genre of science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror.

"Masks" definitely does not belong in either science fiction or horror; Fantasy was about the closest it got in terms of being a legal submission to the contest. I figured, however, that "Masks" would not be read along the standards of fantasy literature despite its imaginary setting. If it had been touted as a work of speculative fiction, then I myself would have been colossally dissatisfied because it simply did not read as one.

In that respect, I feel that one of the measures of speculative fiction is this: Can you theoretically rephrase the story in a contemporary context without using any of the fantastic trappings? I felt that "Masks" could indeed have been phrased that way, and therefore made for a poor fantasy submission.

And so I threw the story into my archives for possible rediscovery one day, and proceeded to work on an even poorer submission for the Fully Booked contest.

Of course, having re-read the story some months later, I do find myself wondering if I should have just set the latter thoughts aside, constructed a second draft, and eventually passed a more refined version to the contest organizers. The story might have performed better, but I would still have maintained constant doubt over its fantasy qualifications. No... if anything, I probably left this work out of the running because I didn't feel that it fit the right standards.

Yes, sometimes that happens. Sometimes the judging has to take place even before you let the story out of your hands.

A writer, however, can always take comfort in the fact that he'll be writing other things. And if attitude is anything of a consideration, then a writer should always expect these other things to be far, far better than the ones that came before.


Dominique said...

Sean: I suppose this is one of those times when readers familiar with your earlier work are at a disadvantage. Masks are a recurring theme in Antaria, and so I made instinctively jumped to the same conclusion. Looking back, though, I agree there was nothing to hint that it was an Antarian story, except my own prior knowledge.

Where I'd engage you at this point is in your quandary regarding the genre. "Masks" works well enough as a fantasy, given its premise; it could even work as science-fiction. I think you are being too hard on yourself (or, to be more neutral, on the author) by clinging to strong classification types. The nature of "masks" as a key element in court proceedings already lengs it that mystery.

Where I feel a little dissatisfied is how such a key element seems to be nothing more than the whim of a king (and a strange one, at that, for how does one know who is underneath that mask?) It could have been more tightly spun if the masks were not just the object of Etiev's rebellion / treachery (as I read it to be), but somehow a mystical (for fantasy) or cultural (for sci-fi) taboo.

But all in all, I still thought it would have been a worthy contender in the awards. Next time, let the judges be the judge ;-)

Sean said...

Dominique: I think that the problem's more with Antaria than it is with "Masks". The Masquers are practically a living embodiment of the "Masks" viewpoint, and they've been getting a little too much, er... 'face' time lately.

I'll confirm that I have a problem when it comes to a clear definition for Fantasy, however. I usually feel that, in order for a story to be considered "fantasy", it must work completely within an imaginary context, ergo, the story cannot be told in a more contemporary setting. I'm open to better interpretations at this point, though.

Dominique said...

>> I usually feel that, in order for a story to be considered "fantasy", it must work completely within an imaginary context, ergo, the story cannot be told in a more contemporary setting.

On this point, I must disagree. There are lots of fantasy stories in contemporary settings, some of them fairly good ones. High Fantasy, I'll grant, ought to be put in non-contemporary settings, but even that rule can be broken, possibly with some refreshing twist. I hope I am not misunderstanding the premise of your argument.

I have a similar theory on the distinction between sci-fi and fantasy, but it relies not on the setting but on the central intelligence you use. I'll write it as I find the time.

Sean said...

Dominique: No, scratch that... I meant that, for something to be defined as "of the Fantasy genre", there must be an imaginary element or context that is critical to the story being told. You can write a story about a knight fighting a dragon, for example, but if you can just as easily rephrase the story so that it becomes, say, a police officer fighting a drug lord, then it can't accurately be described as "Fantasy" in the first place because the fantastic trappings are only there for decoration. This does not prevent Fantasy fiction from being placed in contemporary settings, although it places greater emphasis on an "out-of-this-world" requirement.

Of course, I could still be wrong, and these could merely be the ravings of some demented mind. But that's how I look at it, at the moment.