Jigsaw Puzzles, Writing and Me

So I just came back from my holidays and I wanted to write about something a little different from my usual focus: jigsaw puzzles. Actually, it was one of my childhood hobbies that I only recently picked back up. So what has it got to do with writing at all?

Well, jigsaw puzzles:

    Trained my intuition. That’s how I think of it anyway, so much when Mum asked me to explain how to go back about a jigsaw, I actually replied I used my intuition and that was too abstract an answer for her that she couldn’t understand what I meant. Anyway, so how is intuition useful for writing? Well, mostly the way I visualise a story is as different ideas (about characters, about a main situation, about the setting) all clicking together like pieces of jigsaw. But ideas are elusive creatures, you know. Sometimes I get divergent ideas on the same character or a particular point in the story. So I was hoping that the intuition I built up through jigsaws would transfer over when I outline stories. Then again, you can say I’m just making up an excuse for me to throw myself back into a favourite pastime 😛
    Taught me that I’m a person who does things purely because I enjoy the process. Yes, that’s right, jigsaws led me to such a self discovery and I think it’s a very important discovery. Shame that I don’t always keep it in mind! What this meant for me in terms of being a writer is that I need to be more mindful to keep the ‘play’ element of being a writer more prominent as I tackle each WIP. I’m quite self-disciplined in general. But the down-side of this is that writing often turns into a type of second job for me that is not much different from my FT job. And that’s not quite right because writing is actually my passion so while I need to persevere in it, I also need to loosen up in a sense so that I can also enjoy the process because that’s what feeds me as a person.

And let’s just keep it short and sweet today. Come back next week to hear about my writing update. Haven’t done one for a while now *rubs hand in anticipation*, aren’t you excited *wink*?

Remarkable Females in Ancient China (1)- Dugu Qieluo

If you are curious why I’m doing this series because you missed last week’s post, check it out here
qieluo

Who is she:

  • Wife to Yang Jian, founder of the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) which was built on the demise of the Northern Zhou dynasty when Yang Jian made its last Emperor yield the throne to him
  • formally known as Empress Dugu in life or Empress Wenxian after death
  • The seventh daughter born to her parents- a general of Xianbei (a major nomadic group residing in what’s now eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Northeast China) ethnicity and a Chinese lady of noble birth

Notable life events:

  • Named Qieluo for tagara in Sanskrit which has a host of Buddhist connotations, most notably Valerian which is a herb used for incenses
  • Married Yang Jian at the age of 14
  • Dissuaded the Emperor Xuan of the Northern Zhou dynasty, husband to her eldest daughter, from making her commit suicide through “intensive begging and pleading, kowtowing and bleeding” (now that’s the perseverance of a mother!) 
  • Persuaded her husband to ascend to the throne when he was indecisive on whether to continue making the last Emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty his puppet or ascending the throne himself
  • Instrumental in the deposing of her eldest son from the office of Crown Prince to be replaced by her second eldest, who became the second and last Emperor of the Sui Dynasty
  • Known for being jealous
    • Abolished all of the high ranking positions for royal concubines and drastically cut back on their numbers (She was the first Empress who was allowed to make decisions regarding the system regarding royal concubines, ahead of the Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty aka the only female Emperor of ancient China)
    • When they were both middle aged, she killed a palace slave of noble descent that her husband had bedded once, prompting him to ride away from the Imperial Palace in anger

Why is she remarkable:

  • It was well recorded that she was loved by her husband, which is far from the norm for most royal couples of ancient China. Furthermore, she
    • was the first Empress to give birth to all of his children (10 of them in total, 5 princes and princesses)
    • and her husband was the first and one of the two royal couples in ancient China ever recorded to live together daily as opposed to apart in separate palaces
    • was mourned intensely by her husband who later expressed a wish to be reunited with her after death when he became very sick just prior to his own death
  • She was the only Empress considered to be equal to her husband in status during his reign by court officials and maintained her influence on him throughout her life. This was opposed to many Empresses who gained power after the demise of their husbands and exerted or even usurped power from their own sons.

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I’m not normally drawn to Court women (Empresses and Dowager Empresses and the like)- those few I know are too ambitious and power-hungry for my taste (this could be the way they are portrayed but then again I have a general aversion in taste against anything related to Court intrigue and politics). But I think I admire Dugu Qieluo and in particular, I admire her known jealousy. Well, not for the sake of her jealousy per se, but to the extent that I feel that she’s authentic to her womanhood in that respect. Ancient China was a monogamistic society and I’ve grown up with the impression that women of that time mostly accept that as their due. I understand that- most people conform to societal norms, but on a deep-seated level, I think I am repulsed due to my feminist streak. Going back to Dugu Qieluo, it might be a trait gifted to her via her Xianbei lineage (apparently the Xianbei society had some matriarchal traits).

The other thing that made her stand out for me was that she didn’t have to seize power by force or trick at all (as I said above, I have no admiration for ambitious individuals in general, I don’t care what great deeds they have done), it just came about naturally for her.

*Note: I mainly used Chinese sources but there is an English Wiki on her: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dugu_Qieluo

Also, I’m going on holiday in November so there will be no blog posts during that time. But I will come back in December.

Remarkable Females in Ancient China- coming to you soon!

ancientChinesewomen

Yes, I’m creating yet another lot of quarterly serial posts both so I can more or less stick to it and it might dovetail into other related posts (still chewing over possibilities).

So essentially, this lot of new posts will feature remarkable female figures from ancient China that I compiled mostly from Chinese Wiki and other Web sources. And now you wonder what I mean by remarkable and why I’m doing this lot of new posts, don’t you?

Firstly, I can’t say I have a tight definition on remarkable- I’m mostly just looking up specific names that I came across that piqued my interest. However, I think it’s fair to say that if a female name has passed down through such a long time in history then that is remarkable in itself.

As to why I’m undertaking such a project, well, I’ve been noticing for a while that I have greater difficulty writing female characters compared to male characters despite my gender. In terms of my genre of Chinese fantasy, I found that I’m often boxed in by this idea that Chinese women in ancient times didn’t have much agency. And that obviously presents a major problem for fiction- a story of a protagonist without agency is going to be very dull to readers. So my solution is to do more research into this topic and dig out examples where women do have agency. Plus, I’ve found that I don’t much like researching for novels so this is my perfect excuse to do it on a consistent basis.

Stay tuned next week for the first episode of this brand new series!

Reflections on My Outlining Odyssey

beige analog gauge

Every now and then I like to reflect on things and that time has rolled in again.

But first, a bit of context for those of you who hasn’t read previous posts: I started outlining my WIP in Dec 2016 and was originally planning to finish outlining at the end of this year. I deliberately decided to experiment with a more comprehensive outlining process to address the issue of writing myself into dead corners. But now there is a minor change of plans and I’ve already gone ahead into draft 1. Still, I think I should be able to claim that it was an outlining odyssey that I had undertaken (and I just like the sound of the word odyssey so bite me :P)

So what were the main take-aways from this journey that lasted 1 year and a half?

  • I’m happy with the general process now which mainly involves iterations on the traditional outline (just paragraph summaries of your scenes, you can put anything there, mine tend to be event summaries with bits of dialogue)- I think it allows me to produce outlines that are the tightest I’ve ever written so far
  • I use an Excel tool to supplement the traditional outline and it usually invites in my inner critic so bad that I can only use it in small doses every day. I think it’s a needed tool and gives me important insight but not sure if it’s worth the time inefficiency. Maybe move to the editing phase, not sure.
  • In between iterations, I have some natural cooling periods and I decided to use time more efficiently and invest them into collaborative short story ventures (think I might have mentioned this)
  • Micro goal setting is definitely a valuable accountability tool. If I just have a big goal and no micro goals then it’s very easy to get off tracks for months and not do anything writing related

That’s it for this week. Next week, I will talk about the idea of a new serial post that I am considering. Stay tuned.

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- July 2018

photography of a smiling woman

Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs
So I’m not that much of a YA reader and I don’t tend to read urban fantasy at all but I picked up this book to do structural analysis for a writing course. I also consider this book as one of my Broadening Horizon reads this year. That aside, it’s not as horrible as I thought it could be but neither am I charmed. The pace is quick and the plot contains some twists but other than that, I’m not really taken with it. The heroine is okay but I can develop no bonds to her. I did note that the author suggested that the books be read in order and perhaps my problem of bonding is an artifact of me just picking up a Mercy book so late in the ordering of the series. However, I also think that the problem of this book lies in that Mercy the protagonist hasn’t grown one bit by the end of this book and in a way that made me feel like there is no point in me having read this book.

X by Sue Grafton
So I was really fond of Kinsey up till R maybe? And then it felt like Kinsey had fallen flat. But halfway through this book, I was like “Kinsey old girl, you finally came back!” And that’s what really excited me about this book.

I know the ending to this book is controversial (as a writer myself, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to write such an ending for technical reasons). All I can say that it worked for me and that’s solely because I am very fond of Kinsey.

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton
I think this is the most complex story of the Alphabet series so far (which is ending in the next book!), with three parallel plots. To be honest, during a particular point, I thought one of the plot lines occurring in the past was redundant and felt bored but my perception was completely overturned only a few chapters later. So kudos to Grafton for embarking on this ambitious project and for it turning out so well.

1st to Die by James Patterson
So I came to this from the Women’s Murder Club hidden object games (which I liked) and Alex Cross. I like the concept of a women’s murder club before I even venture into this series but this story’s written in a sub-par way in my books. So we just get the page-turning, fast-pace that is Patterson’s wont for the case itself but the problem is that this story is much more complex that that and when all the other elements are in a hit-and-miss state, I seriously cannot say that this story is written solidly.

Mostly, the other 3 women besides Lindsay feel flat and I even have trouble bonding with Lindsay given that one key action she did just felt like a dumb move to me. Some of the chapters that aren’t about the case but about character and relationships are complete window dressing and leave me feeling awkward about their sub-parness. I’m also underwhelmed by the fact that the prologue of the book started off with a hook and then the concluding chapters and the epilogue acted like a major anti-climax to the hook in the prologue. In fact, I just feel like the last few chapters and the epilogue is basically all needless theatrics that Patterson was forced to put in to justify the hook he put into the prologue for lack of a better approach. I think I’m going to stick with the Alex Cross series instead of this.

Now, what have you all been reading? Let me know in the comments.

Moonlake’s Broadening Horizon Reads

sunset ship boat sea
This is a new commitment that I came up with this year, in hopes of advancing my writer’s craft. Specifically, it involves reserving 2 of my annual 20 reading slots for: 1) a book completely outside my usual genres of fantasy, mystery, historical fiction and any possible combos of the 3; 2) a book within my usual genres but with elements outside my usual taste.

As of writing, I’ve already done both this year but I will save them for July and Oct Book Discoveries. In this post, I want to showcase my tentative list for my Broadening Horizon Reads (BHRs) for the next 4 years:

Outside usual genre:

  • Literary fiction: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell/Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien
  • Military fiction: Operation: Jaguar by Lyman Rate
  • Sci-fi: Leviathan wakes by James S. A. Corey
  • Horror: Stephen King’s Carrie/The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Within usual genre but outside usual taste:

  • Religious thriller: Desecration by J.F. Penn (religious thriller) [I downloaded this as a permafree a while ago from visiting her Creative Penn website with lots of helpful resources for writers and I got curious about her fiction but I have an aversion to ebook reading so it’s been sitting on my PC collecting dust. Now, I finally have a valid reason to bring it back up to see sunlight]
  • Psychological thriller: Tana French [A friend recommended her as his favourite author, I will just randomly pick a title since I never read mysteries in order. Never harmed my understanding since they are mostly standalones]
  • YA translated work: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón [I assumed this is fantasy but after googling it, I’m not sure but the same friend who recommended Tana French recommended this. I tend to not enjoy YA relative to adult even though I do read Tamora Pierce. I have a feeling I’m almost done with her, though, except for her Beka Cooper series which I’ve read book 2. I liked it so I think I will go back and read the whole series. But my local library doesn’t have a physical copy, only epubs, so it’s been pushed back way down on my reading list]
  • Fantasy/adventure/classic starring animal protagonists: Watership Down by Richard Adams [ditto above on how I came by it]

Keep throwing me suggestions if you like and come back next week for my July Book Discoveries.

Fiction writer with Aphantasia: So What?

so-what-1462746_960_720So nothing, I reply.

What are you talking about, Moonlake?

Well, let’s me go back to the start. One of my FB writer friends pointed me to this article: https://www.facebook.com/blake/posts/10156834777480504

Briefly, the article talks about the condition called aphantasia which is basically an inability to visualise things in your mind. And guess what? I’ve got this condition, I’m a fiction writer with aphantasia. So what’s the big deal? Nothing, I just never knew this condition existed before and many don’t. So this is a FYI post essentially. Plus, I don’t think I had it as severe as the author of the article. Sure, I can’t ‘see thing’ in my mind and I’m often not taken with prose that is very ‘graphic’ but certainly, the joys of reading isn’t down to appreciating concepts only. I appreciate the beauty of language and prose. Just as I enjoy reading fiction, I can write it fine and I am working to be a published fiction writer. And so, everything’s fine. 

And oh, don’t run away just yet.  I’m also talking about my reading plans today. 

What’s writing to me?

girl writing on a black keyboard
This is an update on my old post “What does Writing Mean to you?” that I wrote 3 years ago. Reading that old post again made me realise 2 things: 1) a lot of what I said still remain true: I see writing as freedom and self-expression and the intrinsic worth/quality of my work is important to me as opposed to commercial potentials; 2) I was a bit of a ‘tentative writer’ back then- unsure of whether I want to be published or not. But now I can confidently say that I do want to be a published author and I’m now working towards becoming one.

That was the broad picture and in this post I want to drill down a little bit into the type of writer I am and the type of author I hope to become:

  • I would want to focus on being a niche writer in Chinese fantasy which I define as fantasy set in fictional ancient China, starring ethnically Chinese characters. But I might dip into what I call traditional fantasy as well (basically epic/high magic/sword&sorcery fantasy).
  • I have a natural tendency to think up stories that best fit in a tight-fitting series ala LOTR style as opposed to what I call a standalone series in which books from the same series are only loosely related to each other. I plan to be publishing a complete series or at least blocks of 3 books all in one go (but don’t hold me fast to it yet *wink*).
  • I don’t plan to be an author producing high volumes every year because I don’t have the speed/level of skill to match and I also need as long as possible to produce something that matches my internal quality standard.
  • I’m heading towards the indie route because that I feel it gives me the most control and flexibility I can have as a writer. I think mindsets are changing towards indie work but I might as well set it down clearly here: that does not mean I will be producing work of lesser quality than if I went for traditional publishing. I will pay for professional accredited editing, book covers and other services as needed.

That’s it for this week. Next week, I will talk about books again.

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- April 2018 (2)

fashion woman girl women

Other than the 2 books in the first half of this post, it was really another Christie splurge…

Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie
So apparently I had read it before and then picked it up again from my local library and I think it’s okay, I didn’t particularly like it but there’s nothing to majorly hate about it either. Reading over others’ reviews, it seems like the ending was the issue for most, For me personally, I did find the ending somewhat jarring but in retrospect I think it’s still a proper ending to this story meant to end it on a hopeful note. So I’m giving it a solid 3 stars.

The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie
The premise of this book- that death could occur via supernatural means- drew me right in. Of course, I knew that the real modus operandi wouldn’t be supernatural means but all the way till the very end, I was (again) fooled by Christie and as always, I’m very pleased to be fooled by Christie.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie
I think this book wins hands-down as the book by Christie with a most relatable beginning. Previously I had noticed sometimes descriptions from Christie’s times that are no longer relevant nowadays but the beginning of this book makes me experience the complete reversal- the continual relevance of one’s fear in the dentist’s chair. That amuses me.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
This book has the requisite Christie twist right at the end but I’m not particularly drawn to it- I think it’s because I don’t think that twist that clever nor do I bond to any of the characters. It’s still a decent Christie piece though. And oh, it works as a nice counterpoint to Christmas in its title.

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- April 2018 (1)

business coffee cup data

I clearly had enough of just light reading so I changed it up a little by branching out to a new sub-genre: historical fantasy. This coincided with my decision to join a historical fantasy book club on FB.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
This wasn’t that engaging a read in that there’s no urge for me to binge read it (in fact I haven’t been reading it in one go on a day-to-day basis but the pacing certainly picks up towards the end) but I’m intrigued by the characters enough to stick to the end (which I didn’t get 100% not that it bothered me that much). I think the author has written a solid story overall (despite the fact that the actual genre isn’t really to my taste- it’s really more straight historical fiction rather than historical fantasy as I was led to believe it is and it’s really very literary fic in nature) but I’ve certainly read worse debut novels than this. Not that keen to follow the sequel to this though.

A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden
In essence, what the author has done was taking Tolkien’s orcs as inspiration, adopting them for his own while retaining that lore-rich feel of Tolkien’s so while I have no fascination with Orcs in general, I’m sucked in by glimpses of the Old Way that we saw throughout this book. This is an anti-hero story, a story of vengeance (which I have to say doesn’t appear on my usual diet) so I don’t expect to root for Grimnir and I don’t, not really. However, I prefer him vastly to Etain at the start (who annoyed me cos she had established this blindfold for herself due to her faith and wouldn’t acknowledge the Old Ways that she saw right in front of her eyes but luckily that changed with the character development) and certainly by the end of the book, I’ve grown comfortable with Grimnir.

To be honest, this book has a chance at 5 stars from me except that the underlying premise of this book is about the start of the downfall of the Old Ways and that’s what I love about fantasy so I wasn’t as immersed in this book as I could have been if I was to read a book before such a downfall (but that would have been another story, I know). For this same reason, I’m a bit apprehensive of picking up book 2 of the Grimnir series since I expect that the downfall of the Old Ways will happen in earnest there. I’ve since been reassured by the author that book 2 is actually about the rally of the Old Ways and so I’m eagerly awaiting its release which is very soon- it’s on pre-orders when I last looked at it. My current plan is to read the whole trilogy and then decide if I want to acquire it for my personal collection which is reserved for books that I would at least award a Goodreads 4 stars to.

Anyway, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this book despite the fact that I don’t have a personal fondness for orcs and that I’m really just a fantasy reader and I have no personal knowledge to appreciate the historical element in this book (but from what I heard from the historical fantasy book club, the history elements are great too).