Moonlake’s Writing Updates (8)

I am someone who is always more cautious about sharing bad news but the truth is that I’ve been a bit lost over these 2 months for my novel. Technically I’m not that lost but I haven’t been adding word counts on a daily basis and I haven’t been doing work for the novel on a day-to-day basis. Part of it is a change of routine- I just started a new job in May. Part of it is disconnection from the WIP in the form of not knowing enough about character and the underlying world. Then a major part is I think attributable to lethargy/procrastination combined with a lack of accountability- I brought back a decoder from overseas and suddenly TV is worth watching again. Then there are days where I can work on my novel but because I had not set goals as consistently as when I was working on a draft, I would put things off until it was sleep time and then I just went to sleep without having anything for the novel. This also coincided with a period where I skipped out on doing my daily achievements. And in fact, this lethargy is the reason why there was no blog post last week- I was composing a post for 2 weeks and then I just ‘forgot’ about it amidst continuously putting it off. And no, it’s not this current post, you will see that other one at a future time.

Anyway, I have ‘emerged from the dark’ now and I have a new deadline- to finish draft 0.6 by the end of this year. By the way, I did finish my draft 0.5, even way before the deadline. But it was more of a ‘let it go’ as opposed to achievement since I really had only half of the scenes fully written. Still, I had learnt to appreciate smallness so I just accepted it and moved forward albeit being disappointed. And now I am moving forward to yet another goal.

Persistence is the key. Till next time.

Tales of Inspiration (1)

“Where do you get your inspiration from?” That seems to be a FAQ for writers. So I thought I would answer it here by describing how each of my story ideas came to me. It would also be a good way for me and my future readers to acquaint ourselves so they get a glimpse of what they will be getting into.

But first of all, let me briefly recap my personal answer to where do I get inspiration from. Actually, it’s not actually my personal answer, more like an answer I read that I felt personally clicked with me. Essentially, it has 2 components: 1) external impetus: information and ideas you gather from books, TV, personal experience etc.; 2) the internal processing of your mind where you modify and/or combine the ideas you gather from outside sources

I think I’ve mentioned this before but my first recent attempt at novelling was actually this mock fan-fic based on an online novel that was abandoned half way and therefore I never got to see its ending. The writing wasn’t great (in fact it was quite amateurish) but I was quite into the story – it was novel in how it introduced an ‘ethnically Chinese’ protagonist into a fantasy setting based on Islam society in a desert. Also, I can see some deep themes and was rather overcome by emotion in certain bits of the story. So when I first decided to dip my toes into novel writing, I thought why not start with this story because then I could save a fair amount of time with the planning by keeping everything the same as the online novel. Now that plan quickly unravelled as I started to want to fix plot inconsistencies etc.

And yet, all was not wasted since I later came up with a prequel that was quite distinct from the original- it has completely different characters because it’s set generations back and the overall society also had a large difference. However, I became and am still uncertain over the ethical and legal considerations over actually publishing the prequel since I was still borrowing elements of the world from the original work and plus I was also rather stuck when I wrote up the outline for it so I decided to not to pursue the project. Still, I think it’s a good illustration of how inspiration works under the external impetus+internal processing system. In this case, the external impetus was clearly that abandoned online novel that I read while my internal processing came up with another related but totally different story idea.

That’s it for today. Let me know if you have thoughts on what I’ve shared before. I’m not sure what to blog about for next week yet but I’m trying to keep the content of my blog balanced so the next post of this series would be sometime next month.

Meta Fiction: Shuang Gu Sword (Double Branched Sword)

Author’s notes: this sub borrows heavily from actual Chinese history and folklore (at least, so far as the legend section goes but a fair bit was just the author adapting real history to her own use).

Appearance:

It is a set of two short swords (housed within the same scabbard) that weigh approximately the same but one (the female sword) is shorter than the other (the male sword) by a few Chinese inches*. Neither of these swords are ornately decorated but to a trained eye they show superb craftsmanship.

*The male sword is about 0.9m long in modern terms while the female one is about 0.8m in length

Legends:

Crafting

The Shuang Gu Jian is well-known as the weapon of Liu Bei, lord of the Shu Kingdom during the Period of the Three Kingdoms. The story of its crafting is not really known except for the speculation that it was crafted by a local smith as a special gift to Liu Bei for freeing the region Han Zhong from the rule of the villainous Cao Cao, lord of the Wei Kingdom. It was recently put forth as a theory that this set of weapons was actually the long lost set of swords Gan Jiang and Mo Xie crafted by and named after the famous swordsmith couple in the era of the Spring and Autumn Warring States and somehow recovered by Liu Bei. Neither version could be proved (or for that matter disproved) since this legendary set of swords had long been lost.

Ownership History

After Liu Bei passed away, the Shuang Gu Sword went to his eldest son and successor Liu Shan. Later when Liu Shan surrendered to the Wei court, he gifted the weapon to Cao Cao as a tribute. It was said that this greatly pleased Cao Cao, who subsequently kept the weapon of his strongest opponent lovingly among his personal collection of trophies.

Upon his succession, Cao Pi- surviving eldest son of Cao Cao, attempted to kill his younger brother Cao Zhi, who had been his chief rival in terms of contending to be the crown prince. The sequence of events from this attempt that culminated in the forming of the Seven-steps Verse is already well-known. In addition, one text recorded (via oblique references) that after this unsuccessful attempt, Cao Pi gifted the Shuang Gu Sword to Cao Zhi. It was conjectured that such an action was done in mockery on the part of Cao Pi, using their father and his chief rival as analogies for himself and his younger brother respectively.

And from this point on, the whereabouts of the Shuang Gu Sword passed out of official records but periodically, rumours would surface of an extraordinary pair of swords that is similar to the Shuang Gu Sword. In each of these tales, this pair of swords confers a totally different yet similarly spectacular ability to its owner.

Amongst them, the most dramatic relates to that of the legendary Xue Cheng Yue in the era known as the Northern Song period, the leader of the rebels in the Northern part of the Dragon Empire that was held by the Jurchen invaders at that time (who adopted this particular name to declare his intentions of taking over the mantle of responsibility for repelling the Jurchen invaders from the patriotic general Yue Fei). However, it is hard to ascertain whether Xue Cheng Yue was an actual person that existed or merely a mythical figure that came about from the populace’s laments over the demise of the tragic hero Yue Fei at the hands of the villain Qin Hui. Consequently, there are two schools of thoughts divided on their belief regarding the authenticity of the ‘subsequent sightings’ of the Shuang Gu Sword. One firmly believes that the Shuang Gu Sword did surface from time to time and moreover that it is one of the remarkable weapons made from wishsteel that allowed it to adapt its properties to its owner. Meanwhile, the other stream maintains that these other weapons were in all probability simply replicas. As for the reported special properties, it was thought that they were merely embellishments that were wont to occur in these local legend/folklore type stories.

Special Properties

According to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Shuang Gu Sword is a loyal weapon, much as its master Liu Bei. Allegedly, it would fly out of the grasp of Cao Cao of its own accord whenever he attempted to hold either of the blades in his hands. Nothing so dramatic was mentioned when this weapon was in possession of either Liu Shan or Cao Zhi. This was taken to be a sign that the Shuang Gu Sword did not find either worthwhile masters for itself even though they were not as repellent to the sword as the most heated foe of its rightful master.

Of the ‘subsequent sightings’ of the Shuang Gu Sword, most accounts did not delve into exactly what the special boons this legendary weapon gave to their owners. Where a property was mentioned, different versions arose. For example, in the Northern part of the Dragon Empire, it was passed down in legends that Xue Chen Yue held a set of blades that were bloodthirsty- it was said that the more blood they were fed, the more voracious their appetites grew, such that they would seek out bodies to cut down of their own accords. In the Southern, though, most believe that either he wielded a pair of swords that gave him the ability to make his troops invisible or move like the wind in combat.

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (3)- Ban Zhao

Who is she:

  • The first female historian in Chinese history, a renowned politician and poet
  • Author of the influential text “Lessons for Women” that is inextricably linked to female suppression

Notable life events:

  • Born into the prestigious Ban family (which was reputedly the descendants of a famous philosopher in the Warring State Period) as the daughter of Ban Biao, one of the most influential scholar of his time. She had two elder brothers: the eldest Ban Gu who was also a historian and the renowned Ban Zhao who turned from a scholar into a general and was instrumental in securing China’s western border. Note that the Zhaos in the two siblings’ names were actually different Chinese characters- the Zhao in her brother’s name meant surpass whereas hers meant bright
  • Married at the age of 14 to Cao Shi Shou from the same province, widowed early and chose to remain widowed throughout her life
  • Instrumental in getting permission from the Emperor to allow Ban Zhao to retire from his post at the western border and return to their homeland. Unfortunately, he died soon after arrival such that the two of them never got to see each other again
  • Invited by the Emperor to finish the historical text that her father started and her eldest brother Ban Gu left unfinished due to his untimely demise due to politics
  • Viewed as an instructor by the Empress and concubines of the Emperor and coming to be known as Cao Da Gu (roughly meaning Big Aunt Cao). In particular, only elderly women of high prestige and virtue at that time would be referred to as Da Gu
  • Authored the text “Lessons for Women” in her old age so that her female descendants would know how to properly behave when they were married

Why is she remarkable:

  • There were many renowned female poets and politicians throughout Chinese history. In comparison, female historians were much rarer. In fact, I couldn’t find any other mention of other female historians (that might be just the limit of Google but I also think even if there are others, female historians would still be less numerous compared to poets and politicians)
  • While she herself was a highly influential female figure outside the home, her “Lessons for Women” became one of the texts that later propagated the main tenets of female repression and led to a more subdued role of women in society

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I found it hard to conceptualise her as a person and so I can’t really hold an opinion about her. I’ve previously discussed a little my attitude on gender roles but in the case of Ban Zhao, I don’t think you can really fault her for the outcome that her book led to greater repression. Sure, it basically espoused the view that women should be obedient and weak but I think we need to put it into the context that she was happily married (note that she chose to remain widowed) in a society where marriages were predominantly arranged by parents and sometimes without any consultation with the one who was about to get married! So of course she could afford to be obedient and weak if her husband was treating her well and given that she wrote the book for her direct descendants, I think she probably assumed that all women could be happily married if they behaved like her.

What my Favourite Characters tell me about Myself

The previous two posts have all been about my writing so I thought I would change the pace a bit by talking about a topic that leans towards the reading side: a reflection of the attributes of my favourite characters and what they show about me.  

Firstly, I like a female protagonist who is proud. I mean, I like Mr Darcy too so it’s not just female necessarily but I definitely have a special fondness for female protagonists who are proud so Lizzy Bennett is of course high on my list. As for connection to myself, it’s probably obvious but I am proud (though most probably won’t guess it) and I like being proud. That is not at all the same as being arrogant, just saying but you get the idea.

Secondly, I have a fondness for characters who are a bit ‘bumbling’- that’s the closest word I can come to. I cannot think of a good well-known example in fantasy example for your clumsy mage archetype and the ‘duckling to swan’ female protagonists that are more prominent features of women fiction. In similar veins, I like characters who are a bit odd in some way or socially awkward. For example, I’m rather taken with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, a female sleuth who has a general people issue that crops up in many areas including relatives, romance and when she works on her cases.

Finally, I have a preference for characters who are morally good. If you wonder how come I’ve never given an example in relation to my favourite genre of fantasy, well, this is where it comes in. In at least 80% of the fantasy I’ve read and enjoyed, they are good triumph over evil stories so you get the picture. Having said that, I think I’ve come to appreciate grey more than black and white as I age so my definition of good has changed or relaxed. But I’ve never been interested in a ‘fallen into the darkness’ story such as how Anniken Skywalker became Darthvader. I think this reflects my own moral stance but also I think it’s just part of my reading taste in general.

And there you go: I think that’s a pretty neat summary of myself at your disposal. 🙂

Sneak Peek: My Tentative Next Series

What?! You have a next series already lined up when you haven’t officially debuted with a single book yet? I know most of you are thinking this but it is true. In fact, if I look at my commercial project list document (to be distinguished from my idea journal where anything goes although the distinction is pretty lost by now), I have a trilogy for which I know the core idea and already started a preliminary outline for book 1, another trilogy for which I had a one-liner synopsis of each book and at least two other series that I felt drawn to or a bit more well-formed than the state I call “trapped in the nebulous” which is basically just an idea.

Anyway, today’s post is about the trilogy for which there is already an outline for book 1. It’s my tentative next series because I operate like an artist which is to say completely on whims. The core idea of this trilogy is this: it is going to be about three women that immediately succeed each other within this same lineage; in other words, grandmother, mother and daughter. Furthermore, the grandmother and the daughter are going to be mirror images of each other where the mother is going to be the odd one out.

To be honest, this idea has evolved a lot from the beginning. At first, it was going to be the repercussion of a single deed that the grandmother’s done on the mother and the daughter. The story itself was essentially about this deed being told three times, from each of the three women’s perspectives. But well, as it happened, now the story still retained this aspect but the focus is very different. It’s much more about how individuals with different characters perceive and react to the same set of events.

Those who have followed my blog for a while might have noticed that I have a fascination for world building. So for this series, my mind has concocted a fantasy musical instrument that represents the dynamics between the grandmother, mother and daughter. I shall leave a bit of space for imagination before I have much more substantial progress on this series. The other aspect I will mention is that somehow my mind decided to thrust this into the Han dynasty and this will involve a fair bit of political intrigue at the Imperial Palace.  

Meta Fiction- Han Yu

Appearance:

An irregular shaped block of white crystalline rock, on top of which six strings of undefined material lay.

Special Property:

The strings of Han Yu exudes a slight chill that can be felt if one passes one’s hand close above them. However, upon actual contract with human flesh, they start to exude mild warmth. This property gave rise to the term *Han Yu Sheng Wen (literally Cold Jade giving birth to warmth) which is used to describe a pleasant surprise.

*This term is based on actual Chinese characters but the term itself is made up

Benefit:

Tunes played from Han Yu have a calming effect on their audiences and also provide them with better mind focus.

Drawback:

When played, coldness is summoned to a radius approximately equal to its maximum hearing range. The drop in temperature is a very gradual process. However, that is not to say that the effect could not be lethal*. The well-known incident in which a gathering between several masters of the guqin, among them Master Plum Blossom who happened to be the owner of Han Yu and was using it to perform his masterpiece “The three variations of plum blossom” at the time, resulted in all attendees being frozen to death remained the most lamented event among those with a true appreciation for music.

Lore:

Reputedly, Han Yu was not made by conventional craftsmanship but rather a product of nature. It was said that the strings of Han Yu were actually morning dew condensed into line form by Snow Spirits who were the original owner of this legendary instrument that have now fallen into mortal hands.

Twist:

Whenever Han Yu is played, it acts as a beacon to Snow Spirits. Moreover, it not only attracts them but the sound produced from Han Yu acts as an aphrodisiac that put them ‘in heat’. In fact, the drawback of this instrument is entirely attributable to the tendency of this instrument to put Snow Spirits in heat.


Writing updates (7)

I’m now a little more than halfway through draft 0.5, the next draft was to be draft 0.8 before I left for my holidays but now I think there will be a draft 0.6 and then I don’t know how many drafts it will be until I feel I call something draft 1. When I started on this project, that is not how I envisioned things to be. I thought the iterations would mostly apply at the outlining stage. But I guess what I can take away from this is that every novel project is really different and so all I can do is keep learning and keep experimenting.

The other major update I have on it is that I decided to make the deadline for completing draft 0.5 the end of June this year as opposed to my birthday in October. After all, I did get up to the halfway mark in three months’ time so there is no point for me to give myself extra room to procrastinate.

Having said all of the above, I am a long way from debutting, especially given my ambition to finish three novels before debutting. But I am always moving forward and I’m content with this for now.

Writing what I Read: A Brief Reflection

I don’t consider myself widely read in that I mainly read three genres (fantasy, mystery and historical fiction) and I only write in the genre of Chinese fantasy (actually I do have ideas pertaining to traditional fantasy but Chinese fantasy is what has my attention right now). In that sense, I think Chinese fantasy certainly encapsulates both the fantasy and historical fiction part of my reading diet.

Now, how does mystery figure into my writing? A few years ago, I would have told you that it doesn’t. But now I would say that it creeps into my outlining process. Those who has followed my blog for a while knows that my outlines are plot or at least events-centric so basically I have the tendency of adding something to the story (could be a minor character, could be an item, could be an event) that hangs there for a while. And it’s funny how I never spotted that before until I showed one of my writer friends that abandoned trial novel attempt and he actually commented that ‘hiding stuff from readers seems to be my style’.

Now, every writer is different. I know a writer who’s never read a murder mystery but is currently writing one (although it has a literary fiction bend and might yet be classified as one yet). How about you, my writer readers? Feel free to let me know in comments.

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- March 2019

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Firstly, as an ethnic Chinese reading this novel, I commend Kay on his research and besides minor quibbles, I really think his fictional Northern Song Chinese setting came across as authentic and compelling.

I had never read him or Chinese historical fantasy before so I had little expectations of what I will be getting. I was pleased to learn that this is a tale where Kay re-imagines history in a fantasy setting even though the fantasy element is on the slight side. Nevertheless, since my one true love in reading remains fantasy and I know of the major history events that this book relates this does capture my interest. I’m also satisfied with the open-ended ending which leaves me with some hope that Ren Daiyan, the fictional equivalent of Yue Fei, potentially did not meet his bad end (I doubt it given his character but at least the ending dangles some hope in front of you). There was one point where I hoped the ending would be more positive towards Ren Daiyan but I think the current ending fits the book better so I’m content.

Overall, I think Kay is a writer that I will want to add to my list of favourite authors. I think he has a good handle of the omniscient voice even though it made the opening (specifically chapter 1, I definitely started getting into the book after chapter 2 when Lin Shan appeared) a bit slow and at times I felt like the omniscient voice was interference (but other times it felt insightful and deep). I also appreciate his prose- lyrical and full of imagery. However, the main characters (Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan) are only a part of this epic tale, small vehicles in some sense. I do like epic tales and I like this aspect of this book well enough but this does stop me from bonding with the characters and does take away from this book.

Songs of Insurrection by JC Kang

I DNFed this book, the start of the Dragon Songs Saga. I got to the half way mark and then I just didn’t feel like I have the patience to keep on reading it. Perhaps because I came to this straight after River of Stars, I had high expectations of a Chinese fantasy series written by a fellow ethnic Chinese. But I think why I DNFed it was partially this high expectations, partially I was the wrong reader for this series and partially I just had issues with various aspects of the story or the writer’s way of doing things.

Firstly, I didn’t feel like this story really needed to be set in a fictional ancient China and in fact, this story was more like ancient China and a bunch of ethnic Chinese characters shoved into the conventional fantasy setting than an authentic Chinese fantasy story like River of Stars. Specifically, I felt like the conveyance of Chinese elements were primarily delivered through scattered Chinese terms emphasised via italics and sometimes the interchangeable use of specific Chinese terms and their meaning in English just seemed completely random to me. Perhaps that’s my unique experience as a Chinese and this book is really targeted at the ESB market so I’m just the wrong audience for this.

The other aspect in which I think I’m mismatched with this book is that the portrayal of the female protagonist Princess Kaiya mainly resulted in my boredom and disbelief. I felt like perhaps this book should be labelled under romance as a large part of the first half of the book seemed to concern Princess Kaiya being smitten with this foreign prince. This does have a narrative purpose in making readers question whether her actions are really decided by her or she was under undue influence but an unfortunate side-effect was that she was always feeling like her stomach was full of butterflies or other similar wording which really got to the point of being repetitive. Also, Princess Kaiya came across as a sheltered wall-flower who kept second-guessing her own actions and then stick to them anyway. I do get it on one level- it’s a reflection of her being a teenager and/or the Chinese upbringing where you have a fear of going against rules. But again it gets repetitive when she keeps doing that. The same goes for her emotional range-she’s forever fluctuating between determination and doubt/apprehension, even when she’s supposedly drunk (I don’t drink alcohol so I have no first hand experience to relate to but I felt like her thought pattern is the same whether she’s sober or drunk which just doesn’t seem right. I also feel like in this story she fluctuates between being sober and drunk within the span of three or four hours or that’s the way it appears to me). So all in all, whenever we arrived in a chapter in the princess’s POV, I felt an urge to skip it except for the event of the chapter. The pacing of the chapters is nice and quick, that’s the main merit I see in this book and why I stick to the half way mark. That and the other story line with Tian and Jie who were portrayed a bit better in that I couldn’t find direct fault with them but there was nothing to endear them to me either.

The above were my main disconnect from this book but some other nitpicks I also have included: the tendency for readers to get confused when a scene contains multiple sidecasts and the author’s attempt to make them distinct through coupling names and physical attributes don’t always work; world building tidbits like there being three moons and their usage in time measurement that came into the story and then had little narrative functions and sometimes only caused confusion or just in general diverted attention from the story.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Picked this up for my overseas holiday read and I think it’s a good choice- The chapters are short enough that I can breeze through it. As for the story itself, I do think it has all the qualities of a classic. While the omnipotent voice creates distance compared to contemporary novels, I am still captivated by the anti-hero of the story enough to look him up and learn that he is completely fictional. I am also impressed by the depiction of the sense of smell that is central to this novel which then branches out to the other senses. Overall, a good choice for long time readers of the mystery genre looking for a high quality light read.