Wuxia Novelist: A Writer's Blog

Wuxia Novelist: A Writer's Blog looks at the broad range of issues encountered by me as a novelist working in the Chinese wuxia (heroic fiction) genre. I have, however, a very broad background and this blog will not narrowly focus on one genre of literature, rather I will consider books, movies, and ideas that relate to my life as a writer. For more information about my background please visit my author's website: www.thedragongateinn.com or www.facebook.com/WuxiaNovelist

Location: United States

Check out my author's website: www.thedragongateinn.com for everything you could ever want to know about me.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Dancing White Dragons

The snow dragons have been at it again painting The Dragon Gate Inn and its surrounding mountain woodlands white. They blew through late last night and were off in the morning. Not many travelers come through here in the winter, so business is okay, which means it’s peaceful up here. But we are purposely off the beaten track and enjoy the solitude.

You know, of course, the difference between solitude and loneliness. Usually, the former is a chosen state while the latter can be an imposed condition. At the Inn, the latter state seems only to occur when the imagination goes cold. As writers, we know a lot of “tricks” to keep the fires of imagination burning brightly; after all, the publishing industry is glut with articles and books on just that subject. It’s fun, however, to share these techniques with others and today I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and experience with one of the methods I greatly enjoy for keeping in “the zone” of imagination when I write – listening to music.

I recently thought about this when I discovered a fantastic online radio station: www.pandora.com. I’d been searching for an online station that: 1. played the music I found most inspiring when I write, or, even, when I read.

I digress here…I know some of you can’t stand to have anything going on when you write, music or even pins dropping. And some of you love to blast that radio or iPod as an accompaniment to your writing. Once again, I don’t come down on either side. Do what works for you. I blast when I’m working out on the bike trainer and don’t want pins dropping when I’m writing a non-fiction article packed with facts and figures.

In my fiction writing, I pursue a “middle path.” Music that takes me deeper into my story, and that’s the second thing I was looking for in an online station, 2. “my” music, music that I could pick, and 3. no interruptions in “my” music – streaming inspiration!

In my Internet search, I’d get one or two of those conditions, but almost never all three, until one day I hit upon Pandora. This station meets all three of my conditions and goes even further, as you can create a number of “stations” that will play different genres of music you choose and even allows you to mix the stations into one big happy conglomerate of your favs.

In my case, I have a “contemporary folk music station” that plays such a wide range of music you’d be wondering how the heck does he define “folk” music. I don’t know, it’s just steady streaming vocal music that I enjoy.

For those non-vocal moments, and that’s usually when I’m writing fiction, I have the “Ambient Music” station, which I’m listening to right now as I write this blog. I’ve always liked “space” music. Back in my graduate student days, I listened, and still do, to quite an eclectic mix of music. At one point, I even took up the gu-zheng (古箏 - Chinese zither). It was the only instrument that I could actually play a tune on! Nowadays, they wrap it all up as “world music.” Pandora hasn’t gotten there yet. I wrote and asked and they said that they were working on it, collecting the music and getting it programmed takes some time. When they get that up, I’ll also have a “world music” station.

But back to ambient music. For me, for fantasy writing, there’s nothing like it. I enjoyed hearing Tom Southwell, Production Illustrator on Blade Runner, muse about his listening to Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” and “China” albums when he was doing the drawings for that movie. The final cut DVD of that great movie is now available and there is a special features disk with a long documentary on the making of the movie. They touch on just about every aspect of the “making of” – it should give us writers, frustrated with the glacial progress of the publishing industry regarding our works, an infusion of courage to “keep on keepin’ on” when you see what director Ridley Scott had to go through to create one of the greatest SF films.

Southwell reminisced how he would put on the Vangelis music and within five minutes be lost into the world of Blade Runner, lost in that jianghu, and more intimately experience the actors’ emotions as he drew the sets that made up that physical world. And you all know how well that worked!

I do the same. The right type of music propels me deeper into my story. I guess its sort of a transportation mechanism taking me further than I ever could have imagined in a “normal” state of mind. Of course, you can get the same sensations if you practice meditation or martial arts – it’s that one pointed mind focus that carries you deeper into mind – whether you choose the jianghu of imagination or some more profound path. Regarding the latter, my Buddhist teachers never used music. I think some of them would feel that it was just a distraction; that strengthening the mind should be done without “crutches.” But then each circumstance is unique and calls for unique applications and techniques.

I love using music when I write fiction and Pandora seems to be a good route for me. As the music is played you can “vote” as to what you like or don’t like. Gradually, the system will adapt to your choices. And if you want to take the time, even offer you information on music that is similar to what you’ve picked thus allowing you to expand your musical horizons. I think it’s great and now have my Ambient Music Station well programmed for streaming along the peaks, crannies, and waterways of the jianghu.

So if you like using music to write and you have an Internet connection that can handle streaming music, give Pandora a try and you’ll find it’s packed with music and information. You can even exchange stations with friends. It could be a lot of fun and, hopefully, be productive in your writing. Let me know how you make out.

Oh, almost forgot as I’m streaming along here far above time and space, 新年快樂

Xin-nian kuai-le!!! HAPPY NEW YEAR, may your productivity amaze you!


The Innkeeper

Friday, December 7, 2007

Storytelling, Imagination, and a Dash of Paprika

Up here at the Dragon Gate Inn there’s a fine view of the winter woods glistening in their first coat of winter white - nothing like a pristine blue sky against a sparkling white landscape. Yet, perhaps these colors and their physical surroundings are only phantoms of my mind…that if I rushed outside, I would find sand and rolling green waves beaching themselves as palm trees gently sway in the trade winds – don’t I wish!

That reminds me of our old friend Zhuangzi (莊子) and one of his most famous stories – Zhuangzi was also a storyteller, but one of infinitely more profound sensibilities than this humble scribbler – a story that I might have mentioned in a previous Wandering Blades Blog, and those of you familiar with Chinese thought know it – so bear with me for our jianghu brothers and sisters who haven’t heard it before as it actually has something to do with the subject of this blog, an anime review and a look at story outlining technique.

Here’s the story translated by the great Burton Watson (note: “Chuang Chou” is Zhuangzi’s full name using a different Romanization system):

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

Butterflies, especially blue butterflies, dreams and reality, and their transformations abound in the remarkable anime film, Paprika by Japanese director Satoshi Kon. I guess I first came across it through the New York Times movie review by Manohla Dargis (http://movies.nytimes.com/2007/05/25/movies/25papr.html?ref+movies – you can see a film clip here), who wrote:

In “Paprika,” a gorgeous riot of future-shock ideas and brightly animated imagery, the doors of perception never close. A mind-twisting, eye-tickling wonder, this anime from the Japanese director Satoshi Kon bears little relation to the greasy, sticky kid stuff that Hollywood churns out, those fatuous fables with wisecracking woodland creatures selling lessons in how to be a good child so you can grow up to be a good citizen. Model behavior isn’t on the menu in “Paprika,” and neither are dinky songs and visuals. Here, when a woman sprouts a pair of wings, she doesn’t only flit about like Tinker Bell; she’s also pinned captive to a table, a man’s hand slithering under her skin.

I could sit back and try to tell you the plot and describe the characters, but you can get that from the Dargis review and Netflix has the movie. So I’ll leave all that to you. I’d like to first say that I love what Satoshi Kon is trying to do by exploring the boundaries between fantasy (dreams, if you will) and what we think of as reality (perhaps, our normal waking state – though for many, the “normal” waking state is anything but “normal”). I really admire what certain Japanese anime films are doing – they exhibit awe inspiring imaginations. Even more interesting is that Paprika the movie is based upon Paprika the novel! And that’s another fascinating aspect of this movie, the relationship between film and literature in the expression of imagination.

Along with the film, the Paprika DVD also contains a lot of material about the making of the movie and the relationship between the written and filmed versions. There are interviews with Kon and the author of the novel, Yasutaka Tsutsui, on the DVD, but most appealing to me were Kon’s comments on his creative process. Reviews and interviews make it clear that Kon is deeply fascinated by dreams and is using his work to explore ideas about dreams.

In one of the interviews, Kon refers to his interest in and influence from the science fiction novelist, Philip K. Dick and how much he admires Blade Runner; there is even a scene in Paprika that pays homage to that great sci-fi movie. Kon also refers to the great influence that another sci-fi movie had on him, Slaughterhouse 5, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same title. And in the commentary on his film, Kon acknowledges the influence of the great contemporary Japanese fiction writer, Haruki Murakami.

It’s clear that all of these literary and movie influences and Mr. Kon’s own work are concerned with probing the boundaries between dreams/fantasy and reality, as was Zhuangzi. And what further amazed me in working on this blog was that AFTER I had written the introduction, I found more interviews with Mr. Kon. In the one by Bill Aguiar for TokyoPop there is this very relevant exchange:

Aguiar: At the Smithsonian there is a famous picture of a philosopher looking at a butterfly after he awakes after dreaming of a butterfly, wondering if he was dreaming of the butterfly or was the butterfly dreaming of him. Considering that there are many butterflies in the film, was it an influence?

Kon: I like the meaning of that art. It is that wondering about the self that influences my work.

Of course, the painting is of Zhuangzi’s story. But besides the obvious connection across the millenniums between our Chinese philosopher friend and Paprika, the other aspect that I found worthy of commenting was something Mr. Kon said in the DVD interviews that relates to the writer’s use of imagination in probing imagination. Kon described his creative process for the screenwriting and plotting of the film version. Of course, he had the novel as a basic guideline, but as he and the author, Mr. Tsutsui, agree there are aspects of the novel that don’t transfer into the film medium and vise versa.

So Mr. Kon had to do his own version of the story, the movie version. In plotting that out, he said that he never knew what the ending would be until he got there. That he worked in such a way that each step was a surprise to him, that he didn’t want to be bound to a set ending for he felt that would make the movie too predictable for the audience and thus not compelling. Interestingly enough, the music composer, Mr. Susumu Hirasawa, seems to work the same way. He noted in the movie commentary that he saw this project as a way to watch his subconscious work. No wonder the movie turned out to be such a wonderful combination of sight and sound!

But what I find so fascinating is their way of working, their creative approach, if you will, as I’m now reading a book on storytelling – The Anatomy of Story by John Truby - that advocates exactly the opposite approach – set your ending FIRST and then work your story toward it. The author here is advocating the safe way of creating a story. He denies that this approach kills the spontaneity that Kon and Hirasawa so cherish. Truby argues that when you know your ending, you can do whatever you want in the story on the way to it and if you happen to take a wrong turn, a dead-end, you can easily get back on track because you know where you are going.

I find this all very interesting because in creative writing there seems to be two basic opposing approaches to plotting: outline or no outline. Writers seem inevitably to fall on either side and just as inevitably give the same pro and con arguments for doing so. Basically, they are similar to Truby and Kon’s positions. Even more remarkable is the fact that Truby is the screenplay writer for Shrek. I’m not getting into a comparison between that movie and Paprika – it wouldn’t be fair, as it should be clear where my “prejudices” fall. Rather, I’d like to comment on how I do it.

I take a middle path approach to plotting, as one writer described it, like a car driving along a country road at night. The headlights of the car can only shine so far ahead, but as you move forward new sections of the road are revealed. So the headlights are my outlining. I outline my plot up to a point, say the next chapter, then write and see how things go. After completing the chapter, a new field of vision is revealed. If I’m not where I expected to be, then I make compensations for that in the next outline. I use my gut feeling as to where I should go next and have some idea of what’s ahead. So I don’t create an ironclad outline, yet, I do have an idea of what the ending will be – at least, the general area that I’m heading toward. This way, I like to think, I’m combining the best of these two basic approaches, preserving the “safety net” of the outline, yet allowing for the spontaneity of the explorer.

However, I always taught my creative writing students to choose for themselves. It is most important that the writer feel comfortable with the methods they use to write. Try both methods; see which one makes the writing flow. If neither works, then try combining them. There’s that famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” “Do what works,” I said that.

And if you get a chance see Paprika. When you watch it take the director’s advice, just sit back and let the images wash over you, let go and let your subconscious take you away. Then the next time you watch it you can try and figure it out, logically. In the end, just enjoy it! The same for your writing. Who knows, maybe you’ll get to the point where Zhuangzi was - you’re not sure who’s writing the story, you or your characters! Let me know what you think.

Satoshi Kon interview references:





The Innkeeper