Ralph Waldo Emerson
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The journey of 1000 li begins beneath one’s feet.
And so, beneath my feet, the first words I write go down on the printed page:
A faraway temple bell tolled five times—each reverberation almost dying away between beats. Whoever it was who struck the large bronze bell—probably a senior monk—observed a set cadence as he drove the hanging wooden beam against the side of the sacred ōgane—setting it to ring—sending out sound, which it was said could be heard all the way down to the underworld.
When silence fell again, Hanaye had no remaining reason to pause. Razor in hand, she gasped, “…all your hair, Lady Takagi?”
“Yes. I believe that that is what I asked. Cut it all off.” Yamabuki tried not to let Hanaye’s emotions infect her own.
Nodding grimly, the handmaiden kept back her tears, distracting herself by looking fixedly at the young warrior’s tresses, not letting herself look at anything else, determined not meet the warrior’s gaze for fear her own feelings about the tonsure would take over.
Yamabuki sighed, “You do know that it does grow back, no?”
“Yes, my Lady,” Hanaye methodically began to cut the long strands of silky black hair.
And so, after years of working on the Yamabuki story, the first words of the first novel are set down as the alpha manuscript takes shape–the final first step on a journey of 1000s of words.
This has been as much a journey for me as for Yamabuki, the female samurai, whose life I have fictionalized in this project. Starting off as a 20 page short story that took place over the period of an hour, it has morphed into a multi volume saga that spans the runup and action of the Japanese Civil War–the Gempei War.
For years I steadfastly wanted to start at the same place where the short story opened. Yamabuki comes across some ruffians who torment an innocent young woman. She stops them and saves the day. This is where my journey began and where I wanted to take my reader. Soon, however, I realized that my alpha manuscript readers did not know Yamabuki–not like I did.
Who is this Yamabuki, who stops to help the innocent young woman? Why is Yamabuki there? What drives her? What makes her tick?
What happened was that I ended up lifting pieces of books three and four (manuscripts in-progress) and shifted them to the very beginning of book one as a prologue.
Because I had already gone on the journey with my main character, learning over time what she was like and what she wanted and needed. Yet, that journey that I had with my character cannot be replicated (credibly) in the novel structure available to me, no more than an introductory book on chemistry should devote pages and pages to alchemy before it finally (back toward the end) hits on the atomic theory.
My own journey to discover my character is not the journey the character experiences when she discovers herself. Once I understood and accepted this reality, it freed me to tell the story from Yamabuki’s perspective (even when I write 3rd person omniscient) and not from my own.
I look back at the manuscript and its growth–like a small sapling that’s grown into a flowering tree in spring bloom. The description of the burning farmhouse from the 20 page short story manuscript survives virtually intact. It reads:
In just a few steps Mochizuki took her to top of the ridgeline where the orchard ended and the trees thinned, though not completely. From the partially shrouded overlook she looked down onto an open shallow river basin where the floodwaters had prematurely drowned the fallow rice paddies. Dark waters churned past a farmhouse sensibly built on the high ground of the opposite bank.
Fire now claimed what the waters spared. Orange flames shot from yawning windows. Smoke spewed from the thatched roof. An entry door hung askew. The fire threw off so much ash that the sky poured down a steady snow of black cinder.
I thought my readers would want to start in the thick of the action, and so I wrote it that way. Instead the readers wanted to know more about the character, which moved the initial action to an earlier time on Kyushu, when Yamabuki gets ready to undertake her mission.
And in that the readers reminded me of something I had forgotten in all the massive writing–they were interested in her journey, not her destination.