Meaning in Fiction

In the second section of Akayama DanJay: Blind Faith, Jay is pretty blunt about what he represents in Akayama’s cosmic plan. Then that cosmic plan hits the fan.

In English-classes everywhere, there’s much discussion about what authors meant with a book. Two readers can disagree with each other (and even the author), which effectively means that each reader has their own private edition. Like blind men describing an elephant based only on the portions they can touch, we interpret stories from our own perspectives, and can never really share them.

I want readers to be painfully aware of this when they read Akayama DanJay and this sequel. The books morph from scene to scene, and scenes impact each other in ambiguous ways, so no two readers should agree on what I’m actually saying. I’d like this to encourage readers to pour over and argue about the texts like holy-books even though the stories are explicitly secular, which should, in turn, make readers reinterpret actual holy-books and their own relationship to the universe.

In Akayama DanJay, Dan’s dad argues that all texts, even texts from authoritative sources like science and religion, are empty of inherent meaning, but that that very emptiness unites us in exactly the way science and religion often claim to. Then he jumps out a window and dies. This leads Dan to frustration with Leo, who cites his own supposedly-wealthy-but-actually-absent father when he demands a station above reality, beyond consequences for his actions.

How is the reader meant to interpret this? If Dan’s dad is to be believed, it’s got no inherent meaning, so we should jump out windows to get it over with. But Jay’s understanding of emptiness lets him save mankind from itself. That’s my attempt to turn the lack of a message into a message about coping with the lack of a message. From where I’m standing, the book says “everything is empty, especially this book about people who interpret emptiness in different ways and where those interpretations lead them, wink wink, nudge nudge.” This puts the reader in a hard place, deciding how they react to the emptiness presented, because that emptiness doesn’t go away when they put the book down.

But anyone can interpret Akayama DanJay in any way they choose, and my argument is that ALL those interpretations are all equally empty. So, for maximum pretentiousness, I want this sequel to make readers reinterpret the first book, resulting in a deeper, more detailed outlook. I don’t really care what that outlook is. I just want readers to be unsettled as their point-of-view shifts underneath them. That shifting point-of-view demonstrates the real message, the emptiness of all messages, and therefore the importance of unconditional compassion.

In DanJay Blinks, Jay loses his staring contest with Anihilato. The only difference between this alternate universe and the original universe is a single coin-flip, so both universes seem “valid” or “plausible” in the context of the fiction. In the last book, Jay’s sacrifice worked. In this book, it didn’t. We’re left to ask, “what do we do when our compassion isn’t unconditional enough?”

I couldn’t have written this version of events first. Jay is only allowed to lose in this sequel because readers of the first book have already seen him win. They’ve gotten the message: love is good, yada yada. With the message across, I can knock it down to show it was empty the whole time. If love is really good, the emptiness won’t keep it down for long. When Jay explains his role in the cosmic plan, then bungles it, he’s showing the imagery he represents is empty. Over the course of this sequel he’ll prove that the emptiness only empowers the imagery, corroborating the first book from a fresh perspective.

Likewise, Faith is blinded. In 1678’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian allegory is spelled out with obviously-labeled characters like “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” and “Mr. Legality.” In this secular book which steals and violates religious imagery, I want to provide such obvious labels but twist them around so readers have to argue about what they really mean. What does it mean for the character Faith to be blind?

Well, in the last book, I wouldn’t say Faith had faith. She told Anihilato to “fuck off” and was happy to leave it behind in the desert. Rather, Faith is faith, and other characters have her. Beatrice obviously “has” Faith. Dan “has” Faith sometimes, but sometimes loses her. Dan wants to be with Beatrice, but his only way to her is through Faith. Anihilato tried to “have” faith by grabbing her, but she slips through fingers. Faith doesn’t work like that.

So, in coming chapters, Faith’s blindness will test other characters as much as it tests her. What will it mean to “have” Faith when she can’t see if you’re her friend or a giant worm-monster?

We’ll find out soon enough. Remember, I’m just making it up as I go. Chances are I’ll change every word of these early chapters eventually.

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Start Again

You probably haven’t read my book Akayama DanJay. Not many people have. But I’ve been submitting queries to publishers, and I’ve heard a query sounds better if there’s a sequel in the works, and I’ve have some ideas kicking around anyway, so here we are. In the first chapter of Akayama DanJay: Blind Faith we see what happens to Jango after he sets Dan on fire.

In this commentary I’d like to outline my hopes for the book. That way, if I mess up, I can point to the commentary to explain what I meant.

Akayama DanJay is a faux-anthropology psychedelic trip a la Carlos Castaneda, wrapped in a giant anime space-robot fight which provides a tangible secular mythology. My goal was to mix religious iconography with cheesy pop-culture to provoke the sensation of spiritual experience in people who don’t think they can have one. The winning robot is obviously the one whose philosophical outlook matches my own self-righteous worldview, preaching kindness eternal and niceness when circumstances permit.

The book is politically masturbatory at times, with Dan’s arguments with Leo, but I tried to restrain that political masturbation to a context which clarifies that neither of those characters has it all put together. The overall message is (I hope) a non-partisan treatise on how to exhibit unconditional compassion without being a doormat.

If someone read that book and enjoyed it, then I think they’d enjoy a sequel which got even more pretentious and meta. At the very least, that’s what wanna write. The first book was all about accepting impermanence, so Blind Faith will be about accepting the existence of suffering. A third book in the series would be about accepting non-self to complete the whole wabi-sabi aesthetic I’m spinning, but that’s for another time.

It’s easy for Jango to accept the existence of suffering, because he’s a Virgil who spent decades studying the Mountain. He screams when Nemo eats him alive, but he knew it would happen and climbed up to Nemo anyway. Being eaten alive is Jango’s role in a cosmic plan he’s proud to take part in, because his suffering will lead to others suffering less.

Not everyone is so selfless. There are people who would gladly let others suffer out of convenience, or even cause suffering for profit. Akayama DanJay: Blind Faith must be about dealing with those people in a skillful manner.

To convey such a message about suffering, we’ll dig into Professor Akayama’s past. Akayama confessed to causing a whole lotta suffering by creating the Hurricane, but even that will pale to what we’ll learn. I want the reader to condemn Akayama for her involvement in atrocities, but feel uncomfortable doing so because of her role in rebuilding the universe. As a symbol of the godhead, Akayama has an implicit get-out-of-jail-free card because her actions have metaphorical heft—but I figure any godhead worth its salt should be able to handle all the punishment it knows it deserves. When we eventually forgive Akayama, we’ll be forgiving a secular image of the creator for the suffering we must endure as sentient beings (or, if not forgiving, hopefully at least understanding).

I also want to continue blurring the line between the mundane and the divine by having the “real world” characters like Dan, Jay, Faith, and Beatrice interact with “actually real world” characters like Lucille, Akayama, Charlie, and Daisuke. This should tie the esoteric fights between philosophies (represented by anime robots) to the interactions we have every day. Like in Akayama DanJay, small things in the mundane world should have big consequences in the divine world (of anime robots).

In the end, I want the reader to have endured the unspeakable, but feel stronger for it. I want you to feel like you’re a giant space-robot, because in a pretentious cosmic sense (my favorite kind of sense!), that’s exactly what you are.

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The End

Okay, so Scumbug Scrambag is finally over. I’m not really happy with it, but that’s how things go.

My favorite story on this website is Akayama DanJayand I’ve written that twice. The version on this site is nothing like the first draft, or even the second draft—the second draft was chopped up and sewn together to make the latest edition. Maybe the best story on this website is Mas VS Horse, and I’ve written that three times. The Minotaur’s Board-Game is alright, I think, and that’s a second-draft, too.

My point is, Scumbug Scrambag didn’t turn out like I wanted, but that’s just the nature of writing. Now I’ve got a bunch of characters, scenes, and ideas, so if I ever decide to rewrite the story, I’ll have plenty of material to work with. My next attempt will hopefully have more well-directed intent.

But my next writing project, I think, will be a sequel to Akayama DanJay. I’m actually working with an editor on Akayama DanJay, and a sequel in the works will probably sound like in a query-letter. The sequel will be called Akayama DanJay: Blind Faith and it will be at least twenty times more pretentious than the original, somehow.

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Authorial Ambivalence

In this chapter of Scumbug Scrambag, the Scumbug chases the daughter he kidnapped back to Earth.

I’m really not sure where I’m going with this story, even though I have the ending in mind. It was fun to write at first, and it still is, but I don’t think I pulled off the concept I had imagined. That’s why it took me so long to work up the urge to finish this chapter.

And that’s okay! Writing is just making things up, so it doesn’t always turn out right. I feel like I’ve learned about the narrative craft regardless of what I might consider a failure—probably even moreso because of the failure.

So, let’s make quick lists of things I like and things I don’t like in Scumbug Scrambag.

I like:

  • The Little Prince aesthetic of visiting different planets which compare different philosophies about the relationship between parent and child.
  • Leon the Professional aesthetic of a less-than-innocent little girl meddling with the group-politics of organized crime, but in space.
  • The bizarre discrepancy between those two aesthetics.
  • The Scumbug’s hilarious misunderstanding of humans and their culture.
  • Humanity’s leadership being the bad guy all along, because the Big Cheese is just a word for greed.

I don’t like:

  • The nonsense timelines. If we’re to be believed in this chapter, about ten years have passed. I like the idea of Julia tragically losing her childhood and coming to terms with the person she’s become, but faster-than-light travel by multiple parties at different relative speeds—even don’t know how much time is supposed to be passing between scenes. Is it possible to untangle the story at this point?
  • The nonsense plots. I’m glad I tried having complicated Machiavellian twists with the ambassador fooling intergalactic hitmen, and the fact the plots are nonsense is sort of a silly social commentary, but things which don’t make sense aren’t really fun to read.

Unfortunately, those two points make up the basic plot and structure of the narrative. So, if I wanted to do anything with Scumbug Scrambag, I’d probably start from scratch.

But still, I had fun writing this, and I can always harvest it for ideas. If you’ve read any or all of this, I’d like to thank you.

One chapter to go. Let’s finish this.

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The joy of not knowing what you’re doing

This time in Scumbug Scrambag Julia defeats Lady Mantis and her sisters by teaching their brood about spaghetti.

I hope it’s abundantly clear that I’m just making stuff up as I go. That’s how fiction works, in my opinion. I started with just a short note for each chapter, like “the Scumbug gets an assassin eaten by their kids.” Everything else is sort of improvised.

I say “sort of” improvised because I’m not like a comedian doing improv onstage. Once I’ve improvised something, I get to erase it and replace it or edit it. Even though the actual process of writing is improv every step of the way, the “final” product is the latest selection and ordering of improvisations.

I say “final” in quotes because I’d like to revisit some/all of these stories at some point and spruce them up. Edit them, rethink them, maybe rewrite them bottom to top. I think some of my favorite writing has come from combining half-baked ideas into one complete narrative, so even if a story doesn’t turn out how I want, it can be recycled or made into fertilizer.

At the moment I think Scumbug Scrambag holds up okay. The plots and counterplots don’t quite make sense, I think, but it’s hard to write political intrigues, even tongue-in-cheek ones about alien oozes and evil ambassadaddies. And yet I was able to write it anyway, and it’ll be easier to make it right now that it’s written. That’s the joy of not knowing what you’re doing.

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The Little Prince

The Scumbug has taken Julia to a tiny planet in the Big Empty, the space between galaxies infested with Easy Cheese, whatever that means.

I read The Little Prince for the first time just a few weeks ago. It’s a novella, and there are pictures, so I wonder why I never bothered reading it before. I guess it was just time for me to read it now, while I’m writing Scumbug Scrambag, because I think I want to hit some of the same notes. Besides Julia now living on a small planet, I think the rest of Scumbug Scrambag should present a Little Prince-style message about what it means to be a kid, an adult, or a mortal in general.

Most characters in The Little Prince never interact with any other characters except the Prince as he visits them on their isolated space-rocks. Meanwhile, on The Little Prince’s Earth, adults interact only via a rigid, empty worldview and are therefore might as well be on isolated space-rocks.

I suppose Scumbug Scrambag is something like Leon the Professional told in the style of The Little Prince. We only meet two humans:

  1. Earth’s ambassador, a morally bankrupt but thus financially successful tech-CEO
  2. and Julia, a little girl who’s grown up coping with a world run by people like the ambassador.

Oh, also a bodyguard who got beat-up in chapter one, and all the ambassador’s bodyguards, but they only exist to be killed by evil alien hit-men, so they don’t really count. It’s the fact they don’t count that counts.

Aside from humans we meet aliens who, as the Scumbug suggests, fit into one of two categories: those who eat their parents, and those who eat their offspring. That relationship continues a cycle called the Big Cheese.

Flaybos wouldn’t dare eat their jeorbs. Flaybos exist to be eaten by jeorbs who continue to tell their story! That’s all a flaybo is! Eating their jeorbs would be like eating themselves.

The seahorse protects his children and sends his salary back to his home-planet. Metaphorically, he lives his life for them and they therefore “consume” him.

Germa the Gerbil knows his momma could’ve snapped him up with the rest of his clutch.

In the next chapter, maybe we’ll see how Lady Mantoid’s species works—but I’d say we’re due to see another alien eat the hand that feeds it.

And how does the Scumbug fit in? It claims to have eaten its kids, but what could it’s parents even beBigger sludge with bigger lumps?

And… us? Where do we fit in? Are we doomed to be like the ambassador? I hope not.

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Leon the Professional

In part two of Scumbug Scrambag Julia and the Scumbug retrieve a spaceship while humanity cuts a deal with Germa the Gerbil.

When I described the idea for this story, someone mentioned Leon the Professional, a movie about a hitman protecting a twelve-year-old girl. I watched it. Let’s talk about it!

First of all, wow is the little girl in that movie sexualized. Leon’s love for Natalie Portman is fatherly, but she busts out singing Like a Virgin and Happy Birthday Mister President dressed as Madonna and Marilyn Monroe. It’s seriously off-putting, like, wow. She’s meant to be 12.

Second of all, I like little Mathilda deciding she wants to be a hitman. The evil guys who killed her brother are the final villains of the movie, and she initiates those confrontations by venturing out to them herself. Its narrative is efficient—no lose ends, and the beginning causes the end.

Scumbug Scrambag should be very different even if it steals inspiration.

First, eight-year-old Julia shouldn’t have such a Lolita thing going on. I think her calling the Scumbug “Scumdaddy” will be the beginning and end of the sexual tension. While that explicit tension is played for laughs, implicit themes about child-trafficking dominate the plot.

Second, I don’t think Julia wants to be a hitman, even if her backstory is hilariously tragically dark. I’m not sure what her deal is, but I do think, like Mathilda, Julia will initiate the final confrontations by setting out on her own. The Scumbug has serious misconceptions about how the universe works, and Julia will have to set them straight.

Overall, I’m glad I watched the movie. It’s always nice to see what’s been done with the story-elements I’m playing with, and it makes me consider how I want to approach tropes I’ll inevitably butt against. But wow it’s uncomfortable watching Natalie Portman telling Jean Reno she loves him. Phoo boy.

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The Latest Thingie I’m Doing

I just posted the first chapter of Scumbug Scrambag today! It’s about an alien ooze who works as a hit-man for an intergalactic crime-family, but now goes on the lam to protect an eight-year-old human girl.

This is the latest in a series of thingies I’ve done. I think doing thingies is good for me. I enjoy feeling productive and making thingies to show people. I guess that’s why I’m making pictures again, too. People like pictures. I do, at least.

I think Scumbug Scrambag will be under 40,000 words, a short novella. Unlike a lot of stories I’ve written here, I’m not really sure where it’s going? I’m trusting my idea of a virtue-wheel to buoy me and named the chapters after things which I think should happen one way or another. The Scumbug has a strict notion of morality and it’ll be tested in the coming chapters. Is it true that every life-form either eats its parents or its kids? Even if it is true, is it any sort of thing to teach an impressionable young child like Julia?

And which side does humanity fall on? This first chapter paints the ambassador representing Earth as kind of a dickhead. He was apparently willing to kill an orphan for political points against the mysterious Big Cheese—the ambassador is the kind of life-form who eats his kids. But is that ruthlessness really what humanity needs right now? We’d better hope Julia eats him first.

And what about Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid? Where on the spectrum will the Scumbug settle? Who knows? Certainly not me.

I think I’ll post a new chapter every two to three weeks, but no promises. I’m running a marathon in Japan, soon, so my schedule’s a bit up-in-the-air.

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Phoenix Wright and Moving On

Jonas and company engage in a trial to determine whether Alphonse gets paid or pays out. If Alphonse can’t keep his mouth shut, he’ll lose everything.

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even know any lawyers personally. Luckily, accuracy is hardly relevant to courtroom-drama. Fudging it is probably more exciting than the real deal.

Have you ever played the video-game Phoenix Wright? I haven’t, but I’ve watched those boyish nimrods The Game Grumps play it, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. Phoenix Wright is a defense-attorney in a world of cartoonish mystery. In court he spars with the prosecutor using a system of legality which only vaguely resembles reality. The law is flexible because Phoenix Wright is in a game, and a game is supposed to be fun even if going to court is usually like pulling teeth.

Likewise, I’m not concerned about realism in this court-case, just making a compelling back-and-forth. I want Alphonse to lose for his inability or unwillingness to understand how others perceive his actions, and his simultaneous egotistical attachment to his public image. I also want as few new characters as possible, so I limit myself to Alphonse’s lawyer Lloyd and Judge Fairfax, both of whom have limited roles.

And, uh, that’s a wrap. Thank you so much for reading all this way (about 40,000 words total, a proper novella!). I’ll periodically reread and edit this story; I think Jonas’ and Whitney’s relationship needs some work, and I should probably learn more about horses eventually. My writing motto is “First get it down, then get it right.” Let me know if you have any comments, or noticed any plotholes, or anything like that.

Eventually I’ll start a new writing project, but I’m not sure what it’ll be quite yet. I’ve got a few ideas bumping around.

In the meantime, why not try reading another story, or checking out my YouTube channel?

Stay frosty, and don’t bet your legs unless it’s a sure thing!

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Names

Will Jonas keep his legs? Alphonse won’t give up so easily. In the meantime, let’s check out some names.

I choose names for my characters based on whatever feels right, and there’s no objective rule for that. Jonas. Alphonse. Naira Nightly. Mike Mann. I think these names are pretty nice to say. I can change ’em when I like.

More importantly, I think, they all start with different letters. Here are the named characters so far that I remember off the top of my head:

Bronson (Alphonse, Father, and Grandpa)
Champ
Craig
Danny, Debra
Georgie Masawa
Hermes
Jonas
Kevin
Mike Mann
Naira Nightly
Sandra
Whitney

I think that’s it? Other than that it’s anonymous men in leather and unnamed athletes. Hardly any characters have last names.

“Craig” and “Kevin” start with the same sound, as do “Jonas” and “Georgie,” but that’s okay. When I read I find myself not really pronouncing names in my head, just seeing them and moving on, so a C is different enough from a K and a J from a G to distinguish the characters’ names at a glance. Conversely, Champ and Craig start with the same letter, but they’re rarely mention together and the “Ch” is kind of a unique character on its own.

As for Naira Nightly and Mike Mann, alliterative names sound like comic-characters a la Peter Parker and Bruce Banner. I figure they take up less reader head-space that way. Georgie Masawa gets the odd-one-out non-alliterative name because he’s special and cool and important and maybe I’ll change it later I dunno.

Next time, let’s see if Alphonse can wring a positive public-image out of this mess.

The Aftermath
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