Guest Post: “Influences & Inspirations” by Duncan Jepson

JepsonDuncan-AuthorPic1During the last 150 years, China and the West have collided many times, virtually always on Chinese soil, and their relationship is heavily coloured by this history. Many in Asia are choosing and building their futures motivated by their own and their family’s experiences, ambitions and histories, much of it unclear and unknown to most in the West. The relationship between China and West is set to become more intense and complicated and we have to hope these two sides will work together rather than tear the world apart.

The story of Emperors Once More is about the collision of these different motivations and forces in China and among Chinese people, set against their position on the world stage. On a national level, the government is tasked with maintaining a union of a billion plus people so it does not crumble into chaos again, fighting the very human feeling of humiliation from centuries of defeat, both personal and national, the need to re-establish respect on the world stage, the clashes that will arise from the very practical need to obtain vital resources for the future and China’s new role in the global order. The story is also about those very personal experiences such as migration, subservience, colonialism, aspiration, ideology, revolution and tradition.

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This is also personal to me. As a Eurasian, I have often found myself stuck awkwardly in geography, sometimes feeling at home in no place in particular but persistently trying to be comfortable in both East and West. I have watched the older generation in Hong Kong, those having lived and grown up under colonial rule, feel the weight of a heavy glass ceiling whether due to limited education, lack of understanding of the governing culture or, at times, simply by race. To some there is a deep frustration and resentment to having been treated as what they feel is a foreigner in their own home. Thankfully the world has moved on and a young generation of Chinese don’t see themselves this way – many are now of a new global generation.

The premise of Emperors Once More is that, in 2017, China has bailed out the West, but the West has defaulted on its debt. For many Chinese, this has the same strong sense of bitterness as the humiliations of the Opium War, Rape of Nanjing and Boxer Rebellion. One man in Hong Kong, deeply affected by colonialism, wants to use this new collective anger and indignation to push Chinese to demand China use its global power to reclaim its rightful place in the world order. To achieve these ends, he will draw on both ancient rites and modern technology to commit a series of killings and provoke national rage.

I wanted a criminal with a purpose and an anger that is rooted deep in history and personal experiences, believing there are wrongs to be righted, and a hero who is of a new different world who sees a better future that does not have to pay for the past. I hope that this story pulls the reader into a full-bloodied crime tale while drawing on Chinese history, culture and mysticism.

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Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director, producer and writer of five feature films. He also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and a founder and managing editor of Asia Literary Review. He is a social commentator on Asia and regularly writes for The New York Times, Publishing Perspectives and South China Morning Post. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.

Jepson’s Emperors Once More is out now, published in the UK by Quercus Books. Jepson is also the author of All the Flowers in Shanghai. Be sure to follow Duncan on Twitter and Goodreads.

Guest Post: “Confessions of a Four-Color, Benday-Dot, Super-Deformed, Ultra-Compressed Science Fiction Writer” by Paul di Filippo

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Paul Di Filippo is the author of Wikiworld, a great science fiction short story collection, which was recently published by (now award-winning) ChiZine. To celebrate the release of his new book, he has written the following piece about comics and their relationship with literature, and his own experiences as a reader and writer…

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My first reading, beyond the typical picture books of my era, such as Harry the Dirty Dog and Hop on Pop, consisted of comic books. Lots and lots of comics. I recall the very first comic I ever read, in 1961, in the summer between first and second grades. It was Mighty Mouse in Outer Space, and it blew my primitive juvenile brain to flinders. (I recently tracked down a copy on eBay, and had lots of fun revisiting it.) I’ve never been the same since. You might very well say that this comic was my first introduction to the literature of fantastika, and set me on the course to becoming a writer of same.

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After this soon came the hard stuff. Batman, Superman, and the strange new antiheroes from Marvel. Alas, though I read them fresh off the drugstore stands, I retain no issues of Fantastic Four #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15, or similar lucrative titles. I concentrated on buying DC, while my pal Stephen covered the Marvel stuff, and we shared issues for mutual reading pleasure. Stephen, wherever he may be these days, got rich, and I got Lois Lane #53.

This phase of my readerly life lasted until about 1965, when I discovered hardcore adult science fiction, in the form of Raymond Jones’s The Year When Stardust Fell. To my retrospective amazement, I dropped comics almost entirely then, like a fickle lover, in favor of this new, more complex, more satisfying medium. Part of it had to do with my limited allowance. A dollar per week bought seven or eight comics, or two paperbacks. I couldn’t do both.

Well, I’m not going to recap my entire life as a reader from that point on. (To dispel one mystery: I returned to reading comics about thirty years later, with a vengeance.) But I tell the tale only to illustrate a very common path for my generation and the next couple after it. Right up into, oh, the late 1980s, this route — comics first, then books — was totally archetypical. Young fanboys and fangirls imprinted first on comics, then matured into readers of “chapter books.”

But we all know what happened next: the greying of the comics audience, the vanishing of comics from drugstores and supermarkets, the lack of innocent entry-level comics titles, the peer popularity of YA books, etc., etc. — all these factors and more have caused comics no longer to be really a gateway drug. And in fact, comics fandom and book fandom, while overlapping to some small Venn-diagram degree, often are utterly ignorant of each other. (This of course was not always the case, as modern comics fandom arose almost entirely from within SF fandom.)

One important thing which I think this change in reading patterns has caused to go missing from modern SF/F/H writing is a certain comic book sensibility: in plotting, character development, scene-setting, theme presentation, and all the other typical aspects of fiction construction. Because, you see, comics have their own tools of storytelling, and a writer does not fully internalize them unless he or she encounters them at a young, receptive age.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about a dearth of novels about superheroes. Those are actually kind of trendy right now.

I’m talking about bringing the unique toolkit of comic book storytelling to any kind of writing at all. It could be a mainstream humorous novel, or a historical novel, or, in my case, an SF novel. Not many people are doing that these days.

Maybe you’re old enough to recall when writers such as Thomas Pynchon or Robert Sheckley or Kurt Vonnegut got labeled as “too comic-booky.” It was a fair cop! They were, I am certain, all readers of comics in their youth, and were incorporating the methods they had internalized into their adult prose.

I can’t conduct a seminar in this limited space about all the techniques I discern as originating among comic book writers and artists. I can only give a couple of examples.

Take the matter of switching scenery. Everyone knows how quickly and radically a comic book story can jump from one panel to another. We’ll call this the “then… Korea!” trick, from a recent blog post by the comics savant Mike Sterling. I don’t see this enough in novels. Oh, yeah, we’ll have a jump, an ellipsis of time and space, but usually to a different character, or as a predictable linear progression of the protagonist’s actions. “The next day dawned…” Nothing wild-eyed or unexpected, like catapulting the hero instantly from one venue to another in the blink of an eye.

Or take the matter of shifting the focus of the story in unexpected ways. The Simpsons TV show is the master of this. (Animated cartoons of course being the sibling to comics.) Three minutes into an episode, you think you knew where it’s headed, then, whammo, a total one-eighty. How often have you seen that maneuver in a book?

Or consider serial plotting within a single book. We start with one crisis which is resolved partway through the book, but contains the seeds of the next crisis, and so on as long as desired, until by novel’s end you’re utterly removed from the concerns at the beginning. I can’t even summon up a prose example of this common comics scenario.

If I had to adduce other writers than those named above who follow a comic book esthetic, I’d nominate A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, and Ron Goulart. Maybe you can start to get a feel now for the type of fiction I’m advocating. Jonathan Lethem, famously a comic book kid, in his early novels manifested some of these chops and riffs. Perhaps the purest and most satisfying writer of such stuff today is my pal Rudy Rucker. His novels are comic books without the artwork. And that certainly doesn’t preclude him tackling serious and important subjects in sophisticated ways.

In my own fiction, I can point to several stories deliberately constructed along these lines. “Fractal Paisleys”; “The Double Felix”; “Flying the Flannel.” And so forth.

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My newest collection, Wikiworld, holds a few. My all-robot story “Providence” is a homage to the great SF comics from EC. You can picture Wally Wood or Al Williamson art to go with it. “Return to the 20th Century” is more out of DC’s goofy Silver Age Mystery in Space or Strange Adventures line. But even other stories of mine that are not so heavily influenced have benefitted, I believe, by little salient comic book touches.

I said I returned to reading comics with high intensity about twenty years ago. The superhero stuff I enjoy these days is entertaining, but can’t really teach me anything new. But knockout creators like Richard Sala, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Ben Katchor, Cathy Malkasian and Bill Griffith continue to stimulate me to try to incorporate their specialist pencil-and-ink and word-balloon techniques into my prose fiction.

If you’re exclusively a prose writer, you should delve into the comics scene. Once you go lowbrow, you never go back!

Jonathan Franzen on Writers and Social Media

JonathanFranzen-AuthorPicIn the October 6th issue of the Atlantic Weekly, author Jonathan Franzen had an article called, “Why Novelists Should Stay Off Facebook”. [Before I continue, I must say I’ve been enjoying the Atlantic Weekly a great deal – it’s a brilliant read for anyone who can’t wait the month between each issue of the main magazine – and I’ve particularly enjoyed the articles on books and literature.]

The author is no shrinking violet when it comes to his opinions on technology, and especially any advancements that have an impact on publishing. He is not, for example, a big fan of eBooks, and has warned that they are “corroding values” and “damaging [to] society”. Anyway, the article was interesting, so I thought I’d offer some comments here, and see what other people think. The article carries a pretty restrictive prescription, especially in this day and age, but if you stand back and take a look at it, there may be some truth in what he writes (subjective and individual truth, of course, as there is no One Way to Write a Novel).

Let’s begin with this comment:

“… the internet in general – and social media in particular – fosters the notion that everything should be shared, everything should be communal. Where that becomes especially dangerous, I think, is in the realm of cultural production – and particularly literary production. Good novels aren’t written by committee. Good novels are produced by people who voluntarily isolate themselves, go deep, and report from the depths on what they find. The result is communally accessible, but not the process itself.”

Do you agree? I sometimes wonder about this. I think there is undeniable value that can be found in utilising social media to reach out to fans, potential fans, and the ever-growing horde of bloggers and reviewers (almost all of whom, I’m sure, use at least Twitter). To be able to reach out and engage with fans of your genre (critically or from their own position as fans), must have value. I can think of a few authors who, early in their careers, have reached out to bloggers to help get the word out about their upcoming debuts. Established authors can also marshall their considerable followings to help promote their own work and causes, or those of others they deem worthy.

I think the most important part of Franzen’s point, though, lies in the “Good novels aren’t written by committee” comment. To that end, he continues:

“What makes a good novel, apart from the skill of the writer, is how true it is to individual subjectivity. People talk about ‘finding you voice.’ Well, that’s what it is. You’re finding your own individual voice, not a group voice.”

I agree with him. There are times when, in my precocious and pseudo-intellectual moments, I get the feeling that an author’s voice has been trampled by the requirements and tastes of their editors and/or agents. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of stunning debuts followed by lacklustre sophomore efforts that bear little resemblance to the style and panache of what came before.

JonathanFranzen-TIMEI wonder if, while he makes no explicit mention of them, Franzen is also passing judgment on the new-and-proliferating online writing forums and communities? Perhaps so, but then I wonder what his opinion would be on writing groups that are “old school” and in-person? Surely the online forums bring the potential for wider and more varied input? If you’re only able to meet and discuss projects with like-minded people from similar backgrounds (geographical and/or socio-economic), then you might miss a trick, or end up regurgitating time-worn cliches and tropes. But what if someone from across the world was able to offer comments and advice? Surely that would help keep things fresh, or spark a wholly original idea? (Gasp! Yes, they must still exist…)

As for his comment about novels not being created by committee… Well, as anyone even remotely interested in the publishing industry and process probably knows, no novel is written in a vacuum, and that there is a committee, of sorts, that will likely put their fingerprints on a novel that is to be published. One novel that was recently sold by my boss, for example, went through a number of drafts, before it was sent to me for a reader’s report, before then being sent to the editor, before being sent to another editor. That’s quite the committee. I don’t think anyone involved suggested anything that would take away or adversely suppress the author’s voice (one which I thought was superb, atmospheric, and at times immersive). But I do wonder if online forums might? If your audience or committee (just to keep using Franzen’s term) has no vested, professional interest in the final product, might that change their prescriptions? There is an online writers group/platform that at least one publisher keeps an eye on. I know of one novel that was picked up based on how much attention it received from users of that platform. To me, it wasn’ that interesting or particularly well-written. The novel equivalent of a camel? (Please tell me I don’t have to explain that metaphor?) That probably sounds like elitist claptrap to many people who read this, or something Franzen (professional Grumpus and naysayer that he is)* might pronounce. But I do think there is at least a kernel of truth in Franzen’s belief that for an author to develop his or her own Voice, one does have to step back from the cacophony of voices and opinions and inputs online.

Franzen-FreedomUKI do, however, think Franzen also doesn’t really understand the ways in which many authors (certainly many in the SFF genres) use social media and the internet. I don’t know of many who reach out blindly or incautiously for input from online communities. Most, at least in my experience, do so for publicity reasons. And for many it seems to work rather well, at least from a critical (if not commercial) standpoint.

Near the end of the article, Franzen expounds on some wisdom that Don DeLillo once shared with him, on the subject of authorial isolation:

“… if we ever stop having fiction writers, it will mean we’ve given up on the concept of the individual person. We will only be a crowd. And so it seems to me that the writer’s responsibility nowadays is to very basic: to continue to be a person, not merely a member of a crowd. This is a primary assignment for anyone setting up to be and remain a writer.”

In other words, writers and would-be writers should Be Aloof? What do you think? Is Franzen wrong? Completely, partly?

Jonathan Franzen is the author of, among others, Freedom and The Corrections.

* That being said, he still seems to have nothing on Brett Easton Ellis on that front…

Guest Post: “It’s the End of the World — Bring Charmin” by Gail Z. Martin

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In the post-apocalyptic TV show “Revolution,” one of the characters, a former Google executive, says, “80 million dollars in the bank and I would trade it all right now for a roll of Charmin.” Of all the things that society has lost, at that moment, he misses commercially-produced toilet paper. It’s the little things that count.

I write the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, a post-apocalyptic medieval epic fantasy series, for Orbit Books. In Ice Forged, the first book in the series, my characters have to come to terms with what they’ve lost, both big and small. Oddly enough, sometimes it’s the small things that matter the most.

Epic fantasy usually deals with the sweeping repercussions of events and decisions — the wars, assassinations, dynastic conflicts and economic collapses that change the balance of power. Certainly anything worthy of being called an apocalypse affects the superstructure of society: government, commerce, economics, and technology. Add in plague and natural disaster and a nation, continent or kingdom loses a significant portion of its workforce, its intellectual capital, its history and its physical infrastructure. Those losses are guaranteed to change what daily life is like for the survivors, and to make just getting by much more difficult.

Martin,GZ-IceForgedYet for individuals — whether real people or book characters — sometimes the big losses seem distant and abstract and it’s the small losses that drive home just how much life has changed and what is gone. In Ice Forged, characters mention what they miss, little things like memories of how holidays were celebrated and favourite foods that are now difficult or impossible to get. Perhaps it’s the realization that the landmarks — like a castle or the main street of a city—that seemed immutable are now ruined. It’s the dislocation of war and cataclysm that causes long-time neighbours to go missing, and the people you always met in the course of your daily life to vanish. Or it’s discovering that with crops unplanted or unharvested and distilleries and vineyards ruined, there’s not going to be any new good wine, ale or whiskey any time soon.

When the means of production are destroyed, whether those are craftsmen or factories, the goods in existence are all the goods there will be until manufacturing is restored. For the characters in Ice Forged, that means any goods they can’t grow themselves or create from raw materials. Not only will there be no new brocades or silks (and nowhere to wear them), but no new metals or coal mined, no imported goods until trade is restored, and nothing that someone might have purchased rather than making. Things like sugar and salt, maybe even lumber and clay become difficult to find. Looting the ruins and the trash heaps becomes the new form of shopping. And in a million little ways, life becomes strange and hard.

In Ice Forged, the devastation of the Cataclysm goes beyond physical destruction. Mages on both sides made a doomsday strike using magic, and unintentionally destroyed the bonds that allowed men to tame magic and use it to their purposes. For a culture that depended on the little magics for everyday life, that means no healers, no using magic to keep pests out of the crops or strengthen a sea wall, no way to keep milk from spoiling or food from rotting or all the hundreds of small ways that people had come to rely on a flicker of power here and there. And after four centuries of using magic as part of everyday life, few people remember how to do things the old way.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams advised readers to “Always know where your towel is.” Perhaps he should have included some Charmin, just in case?

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Martin,GZ-ReignOfAshCome check out all the free excerpts, book giveaways and other goodies that are part of my Days of the Dead blog tour! Trick-or-Treat you way through more than 30 partner sites where you’ll find brand new interviews, freebies and more.

Ice Forged will be a Kindle Daily Deal with a special one-day price of just $1.99 only on October 31!

Reign of Ash, book two in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga launches in April, 2014 from Orbit Books.

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About the author: Gail Z. Martin is the author of Ice Forged in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga and the upcoming Reign of Ash (Orbit Books, 2014), plus The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven & Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books, and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn and The Dread) from Orbit Books. In 2014, Gail launches a new urban fantasy novel, Deadly Curiosities, from Solaris Books. She is also the author of two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures. Be sure to check out Gail’s website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook for more up-to-date news. Gail can also be found at the Disquieting Visions blog and on the Ghost In The Machine Podcast.