Moonlake’s writing updates- August 2020

I’m now officially into draft 0.8 as I planned but well… things again weren’t proceeding quite as I expected. I am still more in the outlining realm compared to drafting. There’s simply too much gray area for me to fill in for a scene to actually really settle down to real drafting. Having said that, I am still working towards getting a rough draft of 2 chapters done this month. I’ve finished one chapter already and am working towards another as I am writing now. I feel like I need to exert some kind of self discipline else no matter how many decimal drafts I go through, they will always be less than a full rough draft with complete scenes. 

An Internet writer acquaintance recommended me to Rober McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting to me. I’m now reading half to one chapter of it on a daily basis. I feel like it’s giving me useful insights. 

On the side project, that never really went ahead besides basic planning. Instead, I’ve now gone back to doing articles in prose for which I could put in roughly 100 words per day so that I can feel like I’m keeping my writing muscles exercised. 

Overall plan for the WIP for this year remains unchanged: to get draft 0.8 done by end of this year and accept that it will still be less than a rough draft with full scenes but will be a hotch potch of full scenes, partial scenes and outlines of scenes. 

TV and Story Taste

I’ve blogged extensively about my reading taste. I thought today I will do an ‘old wine in new bottle’ trick and turn to my story taste in TV. By TV, I actually mean both TV and movies since I have identical taste in the type of stories I enjoy (plus I’ve always preferred watching a movie at home on a DVD relative to the cinema, I personally never liked the cinema surround sounds etc.). 

First up, I like fast-paced stories because the most I want to get out of a TV series or a movie is entertainment value. So I watch a fair bit of action movies/blockbusters and a new pickup was the spy thriller genre of TV series from mainland China, set in the period of WWII when Japan invaded China. I also tended to enjoy a fair bit of the Hong Kong TV series in the romantic comedy genre that I watched, mainly taking the form of a couple starting off ‘on the wrong foot’ with each other. Basically, there was plenty of witty dialogue where the two bickered with each other and plenty of humour. They are like the equivalent of light reading to me. 

The three types of stories that I really like or really empathise with me, however, remain the following, not in any order:

  • Heartwarming stories: I tend to prefer family love as a theme. For example, I quite liked the Family Man starring Nicholas Cage. 
  • Uplifting stories: They can be the ‘pursuit of a dream story’- I felt like I would be interested in watching The Pursuit of Happyness ever since I heard about its synopsis. Or there is this Hong Kong TV series made in 1989 starring Stephen Chow that I’ve watched three times already- I basically keep watching re-runs of it whenever it comes on. It’s called the Final Combat and is the story of an unlikely hero. I admit I was in it more for the humour and the dynamics between Stephen Chow and the female lead as a child but I also think it speaks to me on a personal level and reinforces my worldview, hence uplifting to me personally. 
  • Insightful stories: I never liked any of the Oscar nominees due to slow pace and sometimes content that I have no personal knowledge like Dances with Wolves (I was in primary school and still living in Hong Kong when it came out). But I enjoy stories that can shed useful insights into life. Nothing springs to mind at the moment but I think that’s because I don’t go out looking for these types of stories, I just encounter them on ‘chance’. 

I’m not sure how close my TV story taste conforms to my book taste, to be honest. At least, I’m not seeing a very close connection. But perhaps my taste does change across different mediums through which I consume a story. What about all of you? 

Serial Reader

Perhaps it comes with the genres I read but I mostly read series, something you probably all know if you’ve read my Moonlake’s Book Tastes series. 

So why do I lean that way? Foremost are two factors: I like familiarity and I like immersion. In some ways, the two are linked. While familiarity is more to do with risk avoidance and comfort loving, it also allows greater immersion into the same setting or the same set of characters. 

I also have a particular quirk in terms of series length. I can read up to n books of the same mystery series (given that they are all standalones essentially, just different cases with the same detective) or standalone fantasy series but my norm is usually just 5 books for a single cohesive fantasy series (i.e. all books in the series need to be read in order to form a single story). At the same time, I can read multiple interconnected fantasy series based on the same world. For example, I had read Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia series all the way from Riftwar to Darkwar which is like about 15 books in total. I’ve also read most of R.A Salvatore’s Drizzt series even though I keep describing his writing in that series as mediocre. I’ve just grown fond of Drizzt as a character and I read about him for comfort. 

And that’s it for today. Feel free to drop a comment if you want to share your little reading quirks for a series. 

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (6)- Liu Ru Shi

Who is she:

  • One of the Eight Beauties of Qin Huai, essentially eight prominent prostitutes of the late Ming era (Qin Huai is the name of a river in Nanjing, it was a red light district back then with brothels operating on boats) famed for poetry, painting and beauty 
  • A highly patriotic woman 

Notable Life Events:

  • Born as Yang Ai in 1618 and adopted by a renowned prostitute at the age of 10 
  • Married to Qian Qian Yi, a government official who was chief of a prominent political faction in late Ming, and continually influenced/forced him towards patriotic acts in the Ming-Qing dynasty swap-over
  • Urged her husband to commit suicide by drowing with her after the Ming government was completely run over and refused to leave Nanjing with her husband when he agreed to become a government official in the Qing dynasty. Consequently, he resigned his position after half a year
  • Encouraged her husband to get into contact with remaining Ming rebels as well as financially sponsoring these rebels
  • Died at the age of 46, straight after her husband’s death, when his relatives and neighbours wanted to rob them. By hanging herself, she successfully drove off the robbers 

Why is she remarkable:

  • Historically, it was her patriotic acts that softened the impression towards her husband Qian Qian Yi who otherwise had a mixed reputation (due to his ‘defection’ to the Qing dynasty)
  • Perhaps it was her identity as a prostitute, but I think she was the only woman in this series so far for whom there is concrete evidence that actually decided who she was going to marry, at least in adulthood (she was the concubine to another government official before she married Qian Qian Yi, when she was 14). For example, there were records of how she dressed in men’s clothing in order to meet Qian Qian Yi before their marriage. 

Moonlake’s thoughts on her: 

I think of all the women I’ve blogged in this series so far, she is the one for which I have the most complete sense of. She has clear ideals and other than selected periods of her life, she is very much in control of her own life. 

Tales of Inspiration (3)

Today I’m going to talk about the inspiration underlying my current WIP. 

I’ve alluded to this before: for many years, I was an active member at a website where you can submit what I call articles in prose on world meta: all the different aspects that make up a world. It was there that I first came up with my fantasy ancient China setting. I had a whole folder of ideas on the setting: some fairly well-formed, others bare snippets. 

It was some time back in 2016; I wanted to start a novel project but was totally out of ideas. Nothing jumped out at me from my idea journal so I flicked through that folder for my setting. And ah ha, straight away I was excited by a document titled cave nomads and that became the setting for my WIP. 

As for the plot, to be honest, for the life of me, I could not remember how they came to me in any details. It felt like they dropped down on me from the sky. But as far as I could make out reading over my early notes, I think they must have been a by-product of me thinking about the history of the cave nomad society and their Chinese roots.

So far, this is all about internal processing. Where’s the external impetus part of this formula that I’ve going on in this serial post? Well, I arrived at the cave nomad concept because I was just randomly thinking about nomads and different terrain types one day. I believe I had a short spell of fascination with nomads as a result of some of my previous attempts at novels and short stories that featured nomads. 

And that’s all for today. Check back in next week for a brand new post under my Remarkable Women in ancient China series. 

Chinese Superstition- Physical Oddities and Polycoria

Following on the last post about Chinese number superstition, I decided to do another on a related topic. So ancient Chinese had various fortune telling methods, one of which was looking at people’s facial features. For example, long ears or a long gap between the nose and the upper lip were considered a sign of life longevity. Today, I’m going to talk about one particular physical oddity, the condition known as polycoria which is where someone has two pupils in one eye. Note, however, that in ancient China, sometimes people were mistakenly thought to have polycoria when they have moles inside their pupils. 

So what is the superstition around polycoria? Well, it is thought that polycoria is the sign for lords, Emperors and paragons of virtue and learning. Now, how does that tally up with atual history? It does somewhat. 

For brevity, I will just list the five most prominent historical figures (this is according to me so don’t quote me for precision *wink*) by chronological order of birth:

  1. Yan Hui- the top disciple of Confucius, died at the age of forty, praised for his virtue by his teacher and lauded by later generations
  2. Xiang Yu- commonly known as the Conqueror of the Western Chu, a feudal lord vying against his sworn brother Liu Bang (who later founded the Han dynasty) for control of ancient China after the collapse of the Qin dynasty (the first official dynasty under which the whole of ancient China was united as one land)
  3. Wang Mang- originally a government official of the Han dynasty, he seized control of the throne and founded the Xin dynasty which lasted a scant 14 years 
  4. Li Yu- last sovereign of the Southern Tang dynasty, which occurred during the turbulent period known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period where the northern and southern part of ancient China were continuously split, right before the founding of the relatively long and prosperous Song dynasty. He was a famous poet but generally considered an incompetent ruler. 
  5. Zhi Di- third emperor of the Ming dynasty, fourth and surviving eldest son of his father who founded the dynasty. He usurped the throne from his own nephew, who was son of his eldest brother and the Crown Prince (but died before his own father). 

What Moves Me (2): Lost Opportunity to Stand Up for Self

This post is the result of a conversation I had with a long-time Internet friend. I was telling him about my personal reflection spell last July/August and how one of the most potent memories that crept up on me had to do with my high school group and peer pressure. I found out I was still angry at them even after all these years. At first, I thought it was because what they did ran counter to my life philosophy but then what came out during the conversation was that actually it had far more to do with lost opportunities to stand up for myself. 

So I’ve been always quite peace-loving and conflict avoiding, which are perhaps two sides of the same coin. Like a few years after I graduated from Honours (which is at least 10 years ago) there was this incident that two of my colleagues were arguing in the secure data room and I literally hightailed it out of there. Why? I hate scenes, even if it was just me witnessing one. 

I also hate any public scenes aka arguments with complete strangers in public. My default reaction is to not even talk to the person. I thought of it as my dignity but I think most people took it as submission. Like several years ago, one day after work, I arrived at my tram station and I was just walking to the front when out of the blue, a guy just accosted me. I stopped thinking he was a staff from the tram company flagging me over due to some safety concern or something. But then it turned out it was just some racist guy verbally attacking me for no reason. And I stood there dumbfounded (part of the reason is that I have very slow reactions, whether physically or emotionally). 

Mostly I just brush off these incidents but sometimes I do remember them a few days later and concoct a different outcome where I did say something in response, in moments when my mind happened to be idle. 

Having said the above, I still don’t know how I should react next time something like this happens. Perhaps I will go on as before or perhaps I will send them a withering glance. Hmm… food for thought.

Fantasy Pet Peeve

For all that I love fantasy, I have a single pet peeve with it: all wars eventually trace back to Gods. 

First, for the sake of putting things in context, let me recap in rough chronological order my foray into fantasy (back in those days, nobody cared about subgenres as far as I’m concerned and it was probably only a few years that I started specifying subgenres. Before that, I’ve just been telling people that I read fantasy. Full stop.). 

My first ever fantasy series was the Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I really liked it and from that point on, fantasy became my main staple for reading. After that came David Eddings, Terry Brookes (I only read the original Shannara series, I think, not all of them. I couldn’t really remember my impression of him. I think I neither loved it nor hated it.), Raymond E. Feist…. And then I found the Hobbit and LOTR (actually I don’t know I read Feist first or Tolkien first but both are among my 5-stars. I prefer Tolkien if I have to strictly choose but that’s personal taste.). Forgotten Realms came a long way after that. 

Regarding my pet peeve, I think half of the books I recounted in the last paragraph have wars that trace back to Gods. To be honest, I don’t think it became my pet peeve until it emerged into the books by Raymond E. Feist (pretty late at that, after the 4th or 5th series, I can’t remember anymore. But my recommendation is really that only Riftwar and Serpentwar Saga are top-notch. And then the standalones Prince of the Blood, the King’s Buccaneer and perhaps Honoured Enemy) that previously had only wars driven by mortals. All of a sudden, I felt like I wanted to roll my eyes. Why couldn’t mortals have their own wars driven by greed and whatever mortal concerns? Why do wars have to be ultimately driven by immortals? Those were my thoughts. 

To be honest, I think why this happened was because why I was drawn to Feist in the first place was his motivation for the Riftwar that differed from the normal good/evil struggle. So to have it emerge later that actually wars ultimately could be traced back to Gods took away that appeal for me. And the other reason could be that his series had also lost a lot of the original appeals for me by the time the ‘new reveal’ happened. As wont to happen for a multi-series based on a single setting, you no longer can read about many of the side characters that you were once very attached to. So all in all, I decided to say farewell to Feist, who still remained as one of my 5-stars with his previous works. 

Now, how about all of you? What are some of your pet peeves with fantasy?

World Building: Resources

Perhaps it is my economics background but I like to think about resources and how that has a range of flow-on effects. To that end, I was a little intrigued by the sci-fi book Dune but one of my friends persuaded me to try something lighter instead so I still haven’t ventured into sci-fi yet. But it’s on my list for Broadening Horizon Reads. 

The Kogish Trees and Flamesilk

Native to the Joreta region, a Kogish tree is a special breed of trees that grows in clusters and erupts in flames whenever the sun reaches its daily zenith, all the way until sunset. Such flames do not char the Kogish trees themselves but rather consume all the plant lives that grow around the Kogish trees. It appears that this is the method that Kogish trees use to propagate themselves as new Kogish trees often take the places occupied previously by other plants within the perimeter of fires erupting off Kogish trees. The flames erupting from Kogish trees cannot be quenched by normal water. Only water from the local Jtatk River will do the trick.

In appearance, a Kogish tree resembles a mahogany tree. However, its bark is bright red, the colour of flames. From afar, a cluster of Kogish trees might look like a bushfire currently ravaging a forest even when the trees are not themselves burning.

A Kogish tree produces a sap that is amber red in colour. This sap oozes out from the sides of a tree trunk, along low-hanging brunches and often collects into a form much akin to a single silk strand that hangs off the end of such brunches. Locals collect such strands and weave them into a material known as Flamesilk around the world.

~ Excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Plants, Animals and Social Customs

History

At first, humans who reside in this region, known as the Yklars, had no use for the Kogish trees. In fact, the original society of Yklars* is one formed from nomadic tribes, who roam the Joreta steppes in continuous flight from the encroachment of the Kogish trees. This changed when they come upon the Jtatk river and found that the the self-combusting flames from the Kogish trees can be put out by water from this river. As a result of this discovery, the tribes settled down along the banks of the Jtatk River and more or less co-existed with the Kogish tree clusters, though they still have to devote substantial resources to control the expansion of these trees.

*These Yklars had no knowledge of crafts and so could not cut down the Kogish trees. They also had little weaving skills and certainly had never come in contact with any kind of fabric material, much less silk.

Then a refugee family fleeing the Dragon Empire came to the Joreta steppes and lived quite close to one of the many Yklar tribes, the Uratus. At first this family lived much in separation with the Uratus even though they did not fear their neighbours too much. It was this family that first made use of the Kogish trees in the form of firewood^and the womenfolk in the family wove the sap strands into the original version of Flamesilk, from which the familys summer clothes are made out of.

^Kogish trees as firewood doesn’t self combust and behaves much like normal firewood

One day, the youngest children, a pair of fraternal twins of different gender, from this family were playing in the kitchen and the boy was too close to the stove and his sleeve went in except it didn’t catch on fire. That’s how the fire resistant properties of the Flamesilk was first discovered. This led to a second use for Flamesilk- the creation of fire dampening cloths that the family kept around the kitchen.

As time goes by, this family started to interact more with their neighbours and got adopted into the Uratu tribe. In this way, knowledge of weaving and crafting tools spread to the Yklars as the Uratu men and women learnt from this family. This started the production of Flamesilk en masse as the nomads started to wear silken gowns in summer in replacement of animal skins, their traditional garment*. This is because the Joreta weather is generally quite warm in all seasons. In this way, the Kogish tress became as much a necessity in the Yklar society as they were once a menace.

*In winter, the Yklars now wear clothes woven from hemp, another innovation brought in by the refugee family from the Dragon Empire.

And yet, there is a further twist to the story. Later, a particular curious-minded Yklar child, by the name of Taruksha, found that if he gently rubbing Flamesilk against each other, he could produce a tiny flame. This flame is in fact quite a pretty sight as it seems to be floating on top of the fabric. Very rapidly, this became a favourite toy of Yklar children, while Yklar adults remained ignorant of this fact (as the children tended to play with flamesilk only when there were no adults around). It wasnt until that an entire hut got burned down as a result of a particular child playing with scraps of Flamesilk in his mothers sewning basket and rubbing them together too hard that this became generally known. Luckily, no casualties resulted from that accident. Nevertheless, the Yklar tribes came together to discuss the implications of this discovery. At the end of the meeting, two new ideas concerning the use of Flamesilk were brought up: one on the weaving of an improved version of the fabric by interspersing each strand of Flamesilk with a hemp strand for use in clothing and the other concerning its use as a torch to light the way at night.

Special Properties

Flamesilk smothers fire, came about due to constant washing in the Jtatk river, whose water is the only form of water able to rouse the fire of the Kogish trees. As a result, the fabric has taken on the property of these waters. For the original version of Flamesilk, however, a flame is also created if flamesilk come into contact with each other. The actual size and strength of the flame created this way depends on the force of contact i.e. a light brush versus intentional rubbing of Flamesilk with vigour. When this property is discovered, however, it led to the creation of a improved version that does not have this dangerous effect.

The Yklars built fences made up of a single bolt of this form of improved Flamesilk around their towns to protect them from the effects of bushfires caused by the presence of the Kogish trees. In addition, all the original Flamesilk cloths that every family kept around in case of fires were replaced with cloths made of the improved Flamesilk. The original version of Flamesilk, however, is still in use as adults utilise what become to be known as a Taruksha flame in the lighting of pathways when travelling at night.

Note: The post is inspired by a section in a Chinese novel written in the Qing era (the one associated with the reign of the Manchurians) titled Flowers in the Mirror, telling briefly of a type of tree that combusts on contact and which bark was weaved into bolts of cloths resembling cotton.

Beliefs about Numbers in Ancient China

I decided to write a post about a Chinese fun fact today and having no ideas, I Goggled it. What caught my eyes was number superstition. So today I am going to trace back the beliefs about numbers (or rather single digits since I want to limit the scope of this post) in ancient China:

One: there is no superstition around this number per se, but it was regarded as the ‘mother of all creatures’ due to the section in the famous Taoist text by the philosopher Lao Zi which gave a theory of how the world was born which said ‘The Way gave birth to One, One gave birth to Two, Two gave birth to Three, Three gave birth to Everything.”

Two: online sources would say this is considered a lucky number in Chinese due to the saying “good things come in twos.” I’ve traced back this idiom back to a modern biography about a late Qing or Manchurian dynasty merchant/government official. Therefore, I conclude that there is no superstition around the number 2 per se. 

Three: as far as I can make out, ancient Chinese seem to use three in an abstract rather than concrete sense such that three is often a synonym for many. 

Four: I think this is more modern superstition as opposed to coming from ancient times and it’s probably more prevalent in Hong Kong (well, I cannot really speak for mainland China, I was born in Shanghai but I only spent my pre-primary school years there and I only started remembering things at the age of 5). In essence, four and death sounds a bit similar in Chinese. 

Five: Except for its relation to the Five Elements or Wu Xing, a geomancy/Feng shui concept from the I Ching or Book of Changes, a text for fortune telling, this number does not have much meaning

Six: There was an ancient text that related the sixth of June on the Chinese calendar to smoothness and so six was considered a lucky number 

Seven: I can’t really track down why this number would be considered lucky. I personally can see why it would considered unlucky, though: July according to the Chinese calendar contains the Ghost Festival and accordingly, July is considered the Ghost Month

Eight: Apparently, why this is considered lucky actually has a root in ancient times. This surprised me- I thought it was like 4, based upon similarity of its sound to a verb in Cantonese which means attaining a fortune. But apparently, its roots comes from Taoism in which eight represents wholeness and completeness given that its founding text, the Book of Changes, is based upon eight trigrams and the eight cardinal directions also represents the whole universe in Taoism spatial conception. 

Nine: This is a number traditionally associated with the Emperor, partly because it is the highest single digit. In particular, ancient China was conceptualised as Nine Provinces (Chiu Chou), the Emperor wears a robe featuring a dragon with nine-toed claws whereas his brother and cousins can only wear robes featuring dragons with claws that have less toes than nine etc.