Remarkable Females in Ancient China- coming to you soon!

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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

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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.

Fiction writer with Aphantasia: So What?

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So 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?

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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.

Dissecting Character Grids (5)- Memories

Here, I think we are starting to get to the meat of a character, an important aspect that shapes a character’s personality, worldview etc. Before I dig into actual tips, I think this aspect is generally easier to fill for a character who’s older or with a wide variety of experiences. Or maybe that’s just the way I tend to conceptualise important memories.

I tend to think within life stages: childhood, coming to age, adulthood, middle ages etc. So in general, they often span the following aspects:

  • life/deaths experienced
  • coming to age ceremonies
  • love relationships incl. marriages
  • personal triumphs/tragedies
  • first time experiences

To be honest, I usually just let my mind wander across different life stages of a character and it will eventually throw up enough memories. Not sure that I can add further to this other than that I refer to Relationships and Past-times in a pinch.

Dissecting Character Grids (4)- Past-times

Firstly, I’m back! Well, actually this is my 2nd week back but you gotta give me some slack since I went straight back to work on Monday after arriving back in Melbourne on Sunday 10am. I didn’t realise how tired I was until I was nodding off on the train back to home after work while standing last Wednesday!

Anyway, back to this post where I will provide some personal tips on how to brainstorm how characters tend to spend their time. Essentially, I cheat a lot since I think about the following questions/prompts:

  • key individuals from the character’s social circle and the normal activity that character tends to do with each
  • hobbies of the character which usually come from talent section
  • activities that the character tend to on a day-to-day basis besides self-maintenance activities so could include housechores, a particular occupation/living etc.

And that’s it, short and sweet today.

Dissecting Character Grids (3)- Moods & Feelings

If you followed this blog from the start, you would know that I started off with just character moods but then I found that often what I put down is not a mood but rather a feeling (yes, I’m pedantic with definitions and technicalities). I tried to just focus on moods but it didn’t work and thinking about it some more, I don’t really think that I need to be making such fine distinctions since the goal of the character grids is just to brainstorm. So I just changed the label instead.

I don’t think tips really needs to be provided for coming up with moods & feelings for characters (other than an Excel sheet of moods&feelings candidates, I will put up a link to a Google sheet containing candidates for selected aspects of characterisation at the conclusion of this particular blog series) but I do think it is useful to think about two categories for moods & feelings:

  • The character norm: this is moods & feelings that a character tend to experience in his everyday life. They convey a sense of personality and how a character tends to behave
  • Story-event-driven: this is moods & feelings that a character experiences as particular story events happen to them. These might reinforce the character norm or might come into conflict with the character norm. I wouldn’t worry too much about whether it’s one or the other at this stage but this might be an useful area to consider later on.

By the way, I’m going on a 3 week holiday to China at the end of next week so there will be no posts during that time but I will come back. This series will continue and there’re still more author interviews lined up to go alive once I’m back so stay tuned for them and more!

Dissecting Character Grids (2)- Talents & Flaws

So this is the 2nd post in the series where I dissect specific components of the character grid, a method I use to flesh out my characters. Since I tend to fill in Talents and Flaws in a block, I’m just going to combine them in a single post.

Before I delve into the tips, I want to firstly say that I interpret talents as skills/capabilities and in broad terms such that an inability or low skill level in something also goes under Talents. Does this lead to unbalanced characters with more flaws than positive aspects, you ask? I would say no, you will see in a minute.

In general, whether it’s talents or flaws, I tend to brainstorm a mixture of 2 distinct categories: major/story driving ones and minor/innocuous ones. So this is one of the tricks for keeping a character balanced; give them flaws/inabilities but they don’t have to be major ones and can have nothing to do with the story. The goal of the character grid is just to brainstorm character traits to get a better sense of how characters are like and relevance to the actual story is actually secondary here.

Now, let’s consider minor/innocuous talents and flaws. I usually draw them from 3 sources (there’re more that one can think of but remember these are personal tips so not meant to be exhaustive. In fact, I would appreciate it if anyone can leave comments that expands on what I put down here):

  • artistic (including calligraphy, poetry and literature)/musical pursuits  ie. whether someone is good/bad at drawing, playing a specific instrument etc.
  • the physical senses: sight, hearing, smell and taste. So far I don’t think I’ve made use of the touch as a sense but unless the character happens to be blind or has a specific occupation, I guess it wouldn’t occur to me to think that a particular character has a superior/inferior sense of touch relative to the average person
  • personal habits and past time: For innocuous flaws, I usually fall back on things like sweating, snoring that are personal habits, character traits like tendency to spoil loved ones or hold grudge depending on rough character orientation on the good/evil spectrum and in terms of talents, I drill down to details like good/bad at a particular childhood game in a pinch

Turning to story driving talents/flaws, I usually think about the following sources:

  • Fighting skills (weaponry, strength, stamina, dexterity, speed, magic powers etc.)
  • What I call reactional abilities such as:
    • Decision-making: how fast they can make decisions, are they rash in decision-making or do they weigh all of the pros and cons, what factors impede them from making an informed, rational decisions as the norm
    • Social interactions: leadership skills, negotiation/bargaining skills, are they stubborn/prideful
    • Ability to adapt to new situations and speed

The last part of the puzzle to character talents/flaws for me is that I constantly remind myself that most things in life is double-edged.

Dissecting Character Grids (1)- Relationships

Now that I’ve been using the 10 by 10 Character Grids for a while now and found that I liked them as a way to let me get into my characters, I thought I will start a series to explore each element of them in greater details, which is basically creating a tips series for different aspects of a character.

I’m starting with Relationships because I’ve noticed that I tend to get to the full 10 items on this aspect of a character grid relatively quick. But before I get to the tips, let me answer first the question of what would I have achieved by the end of brainstorming 10 aspects on a character’s Relationships?

So how do I come up with Relationships real quick? By essentially coming up with answers to the following questions:

  • What is the immediate family situation like?
    • Both parents still living?
    • How many parents does a character have (I’m writing fantasy, Oriental fantasy especially, so it is possible that I will be writing about polygamistic society)?
    • How many siblings?
    • How many spouses/ex-spouses?
    • How many children?
    • Who amongst these are significants in the life/mind of the character? What are the relationships between them actually like? Is it more in the realm of positive feelings like love and affection or negative feelings like competition and grudges and downright hate? Or a mixture of both?
    • Family values
  • What is the extended birth family situation like?
    • Do any of the relatives play a significant role in the character’s mind/life?
    • If so, what is the exact relationship like?
  • Friendships
    • Does the character have a lot of friends or only a few or none at all?
    • Who are the ‘notables’ in this aspect?
    • Are the friendships reciprocated?
  • Romance/love interest
    • Any? If so, who and how is their current status?
  • What is the character’s overall social standing?
    • What does acquaintances and people who know of the character generally view him/her as? Superior to themselves, on par or below themselves?
    • What is the basis of such a view?
  • General people interaction
    • Attitude towards strangers upon first meeting

Writer’s Awakening- Colin Palmer (2)

Moonlake: So now we return to the interview with Colin Palmer. Hearing about your story with this big company, I definitely felt like they were toying with you. But at least you made a comeback. So how did the comeback come about? Wow, that’s a mouthful there lol.

Colin: Ten years later, in another country surrounded by non-English speakers, I received a minor epiphany, if an epiphany could be considered minor!  I was teaching English and one of my students required specific help in writing computer blogs.  That was almost two years ago and it made me wonder about my own writing.  I had friends, other students of mine in the IT sphere and I asked them about publishers in this country.  Unfortunately, there were very few and none supported foreign languages but two of my students also directed me to a Russian website, Ridero.ru.  The support section of Ridero replied to my email immediately, courteously apologising that they could not assist with English language books but re-directed me to their European website, Ridero.eu which did have an English Department, albeit brand new.

Moonlake: Cool. The ball started rolling from there on, yeah?

Colin: Yep, I studied online publishing, self-publishing and compared many similar sites to Ridero over a period of six months with Ridero becoming the standout because of the enormous amount of free services they provided to the author PLUS an amazing 85% royalty return on sold books.  They also provide free ISBN, non-exclusive contracts and distribute to all the largest online bookshops in Eastern and Western Europe, plus Google Books,  IBooks and ITunes, plus Amazon USA!  Hardcopy and paperback books are available on a print on demand basis direct from Ridero and the author does not need to outlay any money at all.  They do offer professional editing, layout and cover illustration specialists and these you do have to pay to use but their prices are exceedingly cheap compared to western publishers.

Moonlake: Okay, sounds more enticing than Amazon even. How did this venture go?

Colin: Well, everything was looking good, and I went back to writing.  I already had a desktop, my weapon of preferred choice but I also bought a laptop for those times away from home.  I dragged out the portable hard drive and discovered nearly half my stories were written in a Word programme so old even the latest Word had trouble formatting them!  It took days of manually rewriting but it also let me update and edit them even further.  Yes I did try scanning and auto formatting but it made them worse.  I also sought advice from friends in the professional sphere who tried different ideas but all failed to produce good copies.  But I rediscovered the joy of the stories as I rewrote them and it become a pleasure, not a chore.  My oldest novel was the most difficult because of its length more than anything.  I managed to edit off over twenty-five thousand words from that one!

Moonlake: Yep, nothing like time away from it to get a new perspective on things. What happened next?

Colin: Then I began applying my research about self-publishing, create a page or pages on social media, create a website, join like-minded online groups, create a blog, get your name out there, sell yourself, marketing, marketing, marketing!

I sent my first book to Ridero in December 2016, it was available online before Christmas.  I pumped the new book and the site through my Facebook page, through friends, family, I did that for a month and got nothing, zilch, zip.

Moonlake: Hmm… so initial marketing hasn’t been successful, any lessons learnt?

Colin: Lesson learned about family and friends, they will support you verbally, congratulate you if deemed necessary but buy your book, pass on information about your book, and more importantly in self-publishing, provide a review of your book, no, don’t hold your breath.  I sent my second book to Ridero, the one with the heavy editing work completed and did the same with family and friends, doing everything except beg them for shares, reviews, or bless their cotton socks, actual purchases.

Moonlake: So what did you try next, if any?

Colin: I joined Book Review clubs and groups and began making more comment in social media, anything to get my name and product out there.  I was sending out my website and FB author page weekly, sharing a blog post twice a week, and still writing. I finished my third novel and submitted it to Ridero. I kept checking statistics for all the available markets where my books were sold, nothing, no reviews, no sales.  I kept writing.

Some of the groups on social media were turning into a wasted exercise, their questions so blatantly basic and ridiculous that I realised were purely for attention seeking.  I learnt that big groups are not helpful except for socialising and I had no time for that.  I tested each group by placing an appropriate blog answer to one of their basic questions, then monitored the visits to my blog.  It was usually nil, on rare occasions one or two.  Those groups were systematically deleted off my lists.

Moonlake: Yeah, it’s hard to drive traffic from Facebook groups to your site. I usually just use them to network with other writers as opposed to marketing. Then again, I haven’t got any work to market. So what else happened with this first foray into self publishing?

Colin: In mid-May 2017, a friend in Australia sent me a personal message via FB telling me they had searched for my book on Ridero to purchase a hardcopy.  Even with the link I’d provided, he couldn’t find my book or either of the other two NOR receive a return when he put my name into their search engine.  I immediately contacted Ridero and as usual with their correspondence, they immediately replied that they would look into it.  I also tried searching for my book randomly on Google and received only the Amazon US site, so at least they were there!  I tried searching Ridero without entering through my Author Login and found the same thing my friend had – nothing about me or my books.

Moonlake: Oh, that’s a pretty major hit in terms of distribution! How did you resolve it?

Colin: Ridero replied quickly to this situation, very apologetically advising that their search engine had no capacity to find English language books or authors!  They understood the consequences of this and have been frantically working to fix the problem, and nearly every day for the past month I’ve received email updates on their progress.  Finally, just yesterday, 9th of June 2017, they advised that only their Russia based website could deal with the language problem and with my agreement, they would forward my books into the Russian system.  Unfortunately, this means I have to fill out a contract in compliance with Russian Law, an actual real live in the flesh contract which would be mailed to me, online or faxed contracts are considered unlawful.  I will need to do this for the existing books with Ridero and any future books I place with them.  There are currently strict sanctions between this country and Russia and I don’t even know if the mail will come through and if it does, whether my returned contract will be actually returned.

As of yesterday, I am still writing, still editing, and also writing this, my experience as a writer with the traditional publishing world and self-publishing online.  Neither route has been very successful for me but at least I can SEE my books for sale even if nobody is buying them!  Am I giving up again?  No way Jose, the thrill is in the writing, the story coming out in front of my eyes.  My imagination is the author and I am just the tool it uses to get that story out – but damn, isn’t it a amazing to see MY name on a book as the author.  I want more thrills, I want more amazement so for now, I’ll keep plugging at the blogs, and the websites, the groups, and the reviews and hope I start getting some back on my work.

Moonlake: The chase is the reward, as they say. I feel the same way. And I’m always uplifted by other writers’ persistence. Now, looking back, how would you have done things differently or would you have done things differently?

Colin: Oh yes . . . I would have chased the dream beginning when I was at school, where the “bug” began but I had little to no encouragement then except from myself

Moonlake: Well, I guess the interim period wasn’t totally wasted, you put a lot of stuff in that notebook, I think that qualifies as a writer’s journal or idea journal.

Colin: Sadly, I’ve never found that little notebook again though I harbour the hope my daughter still has it with all my manuscripts . . . somewhere . . .

Oh, that’s something I WOULD have changed – technology, I would have saved things better 🙂

Moonlake: Wasn’t finding the notebook the turning point after the big upheaval of your life? Is the notebook lost subsequently after that?

Colin: I found that notebook in the 1990’s. And I should have placed more importance to it because it and the floppy became things of the past – you know, lost their importance

Moonlake: Ah I see, it is subsequent loss. But you turned some of the stuff there into short stories already I thought, those 2 that you got into 1st and 2nd for.

Colin: Yes, they did that, and more – ideas from that era still pop up in my head.

Moonlake: I’m pretty sure that the best are still there and more will always be formed as you live and see and experience things. Anyway, let’s ask the closing question for this interview. Overall, how far do you think you have come since your starting point?

Colin: In the last year, my word count has increased massively, the numbers of short stories I’ve completed has almost tripled but my conversion rate from short story to novella or novel has decreased. I put this down to two main reasons. Firstly, there is, for me, relatively new involvement in writing groups, two of which have become favourites because of the support from fellow members and the writing prompts they deliver up on a regular basis. Their encouragement and sharing is fantastic. Secondly, my main WIP is a devilish thing, rhetorically speaking and the MC is refusing to cooperate and make the story flow. As a pantser, I watch the story develop as I write it and this one is confusing me so badly because the protagonist and the antagonist appear to be changing roles! Who I thought was the MC is turning out to be the antagonist. So I keep diverting to my growing short story collection, finishing more and more of them to rest my head! How far have I come? A long, long way over 50 years with this past year being the most productive as far as quality and quantity. I am a much more accomplished writer now than ever before. As it should be, all writers should remain students of the art right through ’til the end!

Moonlake: Well, I think it’s been a fruitful year for you in an overall sense. And everyone lives to learn, especially writers. Well, thank you to Colin and our dedicated readers today. Till next time!