The original version of my first Wuxia novel, The Legend of Snow Wolf, was not meant to be young adult fiction. I’ve never thought of myself as a YA author, never explored teenage problems or coming of age stories, and certainly never created my characters around the rebelliousness and awakenings of early adulthood. Yet, China Books wanted to target the younger audience. They systematically edited the sex and violence in my story, and replaced some of the language with PG-13 material. At first, I was horrified. A Wuxia novel without graphic violence is like Sichuan food without the spices. Yet, I quickly realized that my story worked just fine without the blood and guts spelled out in large caps, and that the love story does work without the descriptive sex scenes. No spice, but still works.
I just have this ridiculous itch to include a poison user in every novel. There’s something about the use of poison as a primary weapon. It’s not very honorable, certainly not glorious, but it does require planning, foresight, and the complex use of deceit.
I think poison is fundamental to Wuxia fiction. When the power of a character is gauged by his martial arts skills, where one character is clearly more invincible than the next, the one and only threat to a superior martial artist would be poison.
It is the kryptonite against the more powerful characters in the book. But if poison is a common weapon in their world, then various safeguards would already be in place to defend against this weapon. This would give my poison users innovative new ways to use deceit, and fun new ways to reveal human weaknesses.
Poison can enter the bloodstream from ingestion, skin puncture, and inhalation. I’ve seen people use variations of skin exposures as an entry point, including a whiff of poison smoke to the eyes, but the extent of this method is always limited to skin damage, and not death. Inhalation, of course, can be lethal, but it gets boring after awhile. Great martial artists can avoid flying weapons tainted with poison, so it leaves ingestion as the most interesting approach.
I have yet to decide whether the great poison users of the book will be friend or foe to the main character. But at the very least, his love interest should be a poison user. I find nothing more intriguing than a beautiful woman with a deadly poison hidden between her fingers.
I’ve decided that my main character Mu Feng is going to specialize in the long spear. When the story begins, he carries a sword, but he’s not very good at it. Eventually, he will learn tremendous skills so he can be relevant in the story, and capable against the all-powerful enemies. I thought about turning him into a poison user, but that’s not a very honorable weapon, and certainly not suitable for a character destined for greatness. The weapon needs to be lean and easy to carry, and not too unorthodox. I decided that the spear (a special one of course) would be a good fit, even though I don’t know how to use it myself.
I’ve actually pondered this for a while, but hesitated because I wasn’t confident writing about a weapon I have no idea how to use. It’s one of those very common weapons that I never got around to learning, probably because I never had the chance to ride a horse into battle and place myself in a situation where a spear would be useful. Besides, the NYPD would notice me carrying one from a mile away. Nevertheless, it’s no excuse. I should bite the bullet and try to learn this weapon.
The idea of Mu Feng being a spear user is actually exciting. He would need it on the battlefield, and it could still be a “special” weapon in one-on-one fights. But it’s cumbersome to carry and not very sleek, nor innovative. I will need to invent a special spear for him, something he will come across and acquire later in the story. This is at risk of sounding too much like a video game.
One of my struggles when writing my first martial arts epic, Legend of Snow Wolf, is in portraying simple, easy to remember Chinese names in English. Strange how D’Artagnan is so much easier to remember than Wei Bin, even though I’ve had so many problems pronouncing D’Artagnan when I was young.
Now, with another novel and a new cast of characters, I can’t help but worry about the names. People would never confuse Daniel and Danielle, but would have trouble differentiating Tong Wu and Tong Po. This is the dilemma with Chinese names.
Should I involve more martial arts this time? Martial arts in Wuxia fiction is, of course, different from what we know of in real life. Techniques in Wuxia fiction are portrayed with tremendous exaggerations to the point of magical and fantastic. Yet, the world of martial arts epics is so well established, so deeply embedded in Asian literature, that the unbelievable feats and superhuman skills become the norm. Read more
My main character Mu Feng is the son of a great general. In the first couple of incarnations, I created a spoiled brat who lived a privileged life, and when scheisse hits the fan, became lost and frantic. I didn’t like how his character evolved. He became unlikable by page 10, and despite the destined character change by page 200, I could not proceed. In the next incarnation, Mu Feng reacted very differently to the dilemma that appeared in his life. He was violent, ruthless, eager to torture others for information. I realized very quickly that he carried too many traits of a villain, and unless I wanted to explore the moral themes of how the ends justify the means when facing a dangerous enemy, this scary version of Mu Feng has no place in the current novel.
So, in round 3, I decided on a more two dimensional hero. He’s very left brained, highly analytical and strategic, is quick thinking and draws on a wealth of knowledge and education. I wanted to work a prominent weakness into his character, but to this day, I couldn’t decide on what to do. The enemy is so much more powerful, with such a head start in the game, which any additional weakness built into my main character would make it impossible for him to survive. By taking so many pages to create a halfway believable world, I’ve neglected the halfway believable character.
Maybe I can still work on a minor flaw, such as some sort of obsession toward understanding and resolving the events that ruined his life and turned it upside down.
Now I’m restarting for the fourth time. It’s not so much my dislike of the characters, but the plot was moving way too slow.
The haze that I tried to write about in the beginning of the book was just fiction to me. Lingering sandstorms from the Gobi Desert, just north of the Great Wall, are normally contained outside China. But in recent years, deforestation and lack of regulation has permitted such sandstorms to travel al the way into Beijing.
I wrote about this yellow haze enveloping the border fortress the main character lives in, known as the City of Stones, to not only establish a blurry, dreamy atmosphere, but to also make it difficult for non locals to find their way around in the beginning of the story.
What I didn’t expect was to encounter this very same sandstorm in Beijing a few weeks ago. I was out there shooting interviews for my documentary on hand made teas, and out of nowhere, I felt a sting in both eyes and something irritating my airway. I was engulfed in a light fog, but the fog was yellow. It was not thick, and it hardly inhibited my vision, despite the irritation, but the haze was real and I was in the middle of it.
My friends in Beijing complained about it for the rest of the day, and shortly afterwards, the streets were full of people wearing surgical masks, reminiscent of the SARS days.
Much later, I wondered about the sandstorm in the context of my story. It wasn’t thick enough to prevent daytime travel, and certainly failed to limit visibility with any significance. In the City of Stones, the haze made it impossible to travel. That means I’m writing about a much bigger sandstorm. But none of my characters are coughing and tearing in this much bigger sandstorm. How do I address this dilemma?
I’m about to start, or shall I say restart, my second martial arts epic. This one is planned for four volumes. My first one, The Legend of Snow Wolf, was just under 200,000 words when I initially wrote it, and no publisher would come near it at that length. I ended up splitting it into two volumes before getting it published. The split created an unnatural break in the middle of the story, and fine details, presented in book one but only useful in book two, could easily be forgotten. Nevertheless, I didn’t learn my lesson when it came to writing long stories, and now I’m planning an even longer one.
So this time, I will write the 4 books in a series, instead of 4 volumes of a single story, to allow for natural beginnings and endings for each book. I’ve planned out the storyline for the first three books, hoping to finish each volume at under a hundred thousand words, and last year, I started to write. I will title this one “The Tenacity Crest”. It’ll be another wuxia novel, again taking place in ancient China, where conflicts with neighboring nations form a backdrop to the storyline. More sword-wielding warriors stuck in impossible situations, more obscure martial artists living like beggars or hermits, complete with siege warfare and wholesale slaughter.
Clearly, I have not gotten beyond the beginning last year. A series of misfires, poor character construction, led to a few rewrites of the first chapter.
This is the fourth opening I have written, and with each one, the main character Mu Feng became simpler and more two dimensional. Somehow, a plot driven novel had no place for a tortured soul, or a procrastinating brat, or a dark, cunning warrior refined in the art of deceit. This time, I may have to settle for the typical hero, complete with compassion and emotional resilience. Bummer.
The Legend of Snow Wolf, Book 1: Reincarnation is set for release on June 15. It is my first martial arts (wuxia) novel.