Enjoy the tea

Scene : Meizhou Island, Fujian. December. Low season for tourism on the island.

Stinky and I had just gotten off the ferry and made it to the hotel, where we were waiting for someone to pick us up & take us into town so we could eat. It’d been a while since breakfast, and we were feeling a little bit of the low blood sugar. Being pretty much the only guests at the hotel / on the island during low season, the proprietor sat with us & prepared tea. He didn’t talk to us, just kept refilling the gaiwan & pouring into these tiny, tiny cups. It’s like he knew what was coming…

Not that I dislike tea, but we were hungry, and we still had the giant temple complex to go explore before sundown. We went through several rounds of tea before I got up and wandered towards the street, but nobody was there. And I really mean nobody – the place is practically a ghost town in the low season. So I shrugged and went back to the tea.

When I say “tiny, tiny cups,” I mean they were almost too small to be practical, I’m talking 20-30 ml at best. That’s not even a mouthful, and if you’re used to American-style mugs / drinks, it’s basically non-existent. I was used to sipping tea (though not out of cups this small), but the size of the cups and the forced waiting taught me one really important lesson : laying claim to my own time.

Unable to do anything but sit & drink tea, we had little choice but to try and make the most of it. Mind you, it was delicious tea (which is a different story for perhaps another time), and the guy’s setup was pretty intense – he had a stone table which had a canal carved into it for the runoff. He had a pretty large gaiwan, which he’d pour into a fairness pot to distribute between us. Nothing about the setup was gaudy, and it contributed to me sitting back and letting everything else fall away. There was us, and there was the tea.

As for the size of the tea cups, imagine you only have a sip of whatever you’re drinking. When all you have is a sip, you tend to really scrutinize the flavor. Depending on what it is, it could have a lot of really complex flavors you’re normally missing out on. Sure, not every drink is gonna fall into this category, but for those that do, you might discover new things you like or dislike. What’s certain is that if you do this, it’ll likely take longer, or maybe MUCH longer than usual, to drink.

You might be asking, “But who has the time for that?” And in today’s busy world, that’s a valid question. When I first sat down to have tea on the island, I was a little annoyed that lunch was delayed, that our trip to the temple was delayed, that we weren’t in motion towards “the next thing,” etc. Yeah, I get it – we’re all busy, we all have a million other things screaming for our attention, things that need doing, things that need cleaning or making or whatever. Internet arguments need to be won. Sites need to be browsed, memes viewed, laughed at, re-posted. Social media – let everyone know what you’re having for dinner. How much of all this is really *your* time?

This was the universe telling us, “Sit down. Relax. Enjoy the tea. Taste it – like really really taste it. Enjoy its floral aroma. When will you be here again?”

So we did our best. We sipped the tea out of the tiny cups, took in its heavy orchid-like flavor, its floral aroma and the hella green tea leaves, the beating of the ocean against the shore, the emptiness of the island, the lazy Fujianese afternoon, because when would we be there again?

And that, my friends, is the real question you should always ask – not “who has the time for that?” but “when will I be here again?”

Tea time on Meizhou Island was an investment in ourselves, and time spent doing that is ALWAYS “your time.” Once back in the states, we turned tea time into a regular thing, and have expanded our tea collection tenfold, complete with a mismatched set of teaware we picked up in Taiwan (some of which was cheaper because it was deemed “defective” by the crafter – a post for another time). I got us an inexpensive gongfu pot off of Etsy (anyone who says gongfu teapots cost you an arm & a leg hasn’t done their research. Sure, teaware made from real Yixing clay is expensive, but all of this is yet another post for another time) and within a couple weeks we were downing all sorts of pu’erh, weird Taiwanese oolongs, tieguanyins of varying quality, all sorts of stuff. I started to think, “I could get a travel set & take the tea ceremony along when I’m out & about writing.”

Here’s where we take it to the next level : that idea is a bad idea.

You probably didn’t think I was gonna go that direction, did you? If you’re passionate about two things, why not combine them? Well, because in some situations, it’ll diminish your enjoyment of both. I can’t imagine being really sucked-in by writing only to stop and try to savor the tea. Maybe you guys have attention spans that can split in multiple directions in such a way that you devote 100% of your faculties to each, but I don’t, and I’ll wager most people are like me in that regard. What would probably end up happening is I’d either pay almost no attention to the tea, or almost no attention to the writing. In either case, I lose.

When I strap my laptop to my back & bike out to a coffee shop / deli / designated writing area, my intent is to WRITE. Sure, there’s often food or mediocre iced tea involved, but that’s for sustenance / hydration purposes. Everything is secondary to getting writing done. Likewise, when I sit down to enjoy tea, I’m doing that one thing and devoting myself to it.

But when I’m trying to do two things at once, I’m basically trying to cram those things into the same moment, and that usually means one of them suffers. It’s sort of the same thing as shorting yourself so that you can keep moving towards “the next thing.” Yes, we should keep growing / progressing / etc. but not at the expense of the things we enjoy.

So what this kind of comes down to is laying claim to your own time and spending it how you want, not according to the world’s demands. I’m not saying, “don’t ever multitask,” just don’t expect to multitask two or more things you really enjoy and get maximum enjoyment out of both. Despite what the world says, there’s no shame or laziness in setting everything else aside to focus on something you’re really passionate about, engaging it fully and with no distractions or other serious projects. When will you be here again? Turn off the TV, put away your phone, fire up the laptop and get some writing done, or dive into a book, or enjoy a tiny, tiny cup of tea.

Posted in accidental awesome, Art, China, tea!, travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Choose “fight”

I’ve been waffling on making this post, because by nature it’s gonna be political, and I know a lot of folks have been conditioned to cut people out of their lives if they don’t agree with them politically. I’m not trying to sway anyone’s opinions on politics because a blog post prooooobably won’t do that, so instead I’m just gonna tell it like it is for a person of color (or half).

Caveat 1: I’m a halfie. Two or three hundred years ago I probably would’ve been killed or enslaved at birth, and to this day, halfies are pretty well demonized in some Asian cultures. If for some reason you don’t think halfbreeds count as people of color, you’re free to believe that. In the end, the most any of us can do is to talk about our own experiences and let others reflect on them.

Caveat 2: I’m often (though not always) guilty of “trying too hard to see the other side,” partly because my work often involves a lot of critical thinking and thinking “outside the box.”

November 2016 I decided to jump genres and do a science-fantasy project for NaNoWriMo. Conveniently enough, there was also a contest run by Fiyah Literary Magazine where writers of color would submit their word counts, best lines, and greatest hurdles for the week. Fiyah is a magazine for writers of African heritage, but in the interests of diversity in fiction, they opened the contest up to all people of color. Man, it was sort of a pleasure to type that sentence.

All of October, I prepped characters, world, timeline, plot points, etc. for my NaNoWriMo project. November hit, and I lagged behind schedule, as expected. I think a writer has to “get to know” their own characters, world, story, etc. and the start of any new project is slow because of that, and that’s ok. NaNoWriMo’s schedule isn’t bad once you get going, but I think a lot of people get bogged-down in that starting phase and just give up because they’re so behind schedule. But I digress.

November 8th was the election, and while I saw a lot of disappointment and sadness, I saw a lot of fear in my friends who were not white, or female, or transgender, or disabled, or homosexual, etc. Twitter and Facebook buzzed with the same sentiments from the same types of people. “Give him a shot,” I thought. “Alfred Nobel was a piece of shit until he realized how people were going to remember him, maybe this guy will get it together too.” See caveat 2.

Even I was a little afraid. While Asians get to fly under the racist radar most of the time, I’m still one North Korean nuclear strike away from being shoved into an internment camp like the Japanese were in WWII. “But no,” I think, “that can’t happen here, can it?” Bitch that DID happen here.

On the writing front, I didn’t get a lot done that night, and I don’t think I was alone. The feeling I got from twitter and my friends of color was that all the progress we’ve made towards equality in the past couple decades was about to be undone, possibly in a violent way. Fiyah sent out its contest updates and the numbers were appropriately depressing. Even lagging like I was, I was ahead of the curve. What was the point, right? Would anyone give a shit what we wrote? The country had given an overwhelming amount of representation to white dudes, and in particular, one white dude who said some pretty caustic remarks about minorities during his campaign – why would anyone give a shit about a person of color’s perspective? “He didn’t mean those things,” people said in his defense. Ok, maybe they were right. See caveat 2.

My crit group was packed the next night, partly because people needed a support group. A lot of them are women, or people of color, or homosexuals, and even the white males among them lean towards a more liberal stance. Even some old-timers we hadn’t seen in a while stopped in to say hi. It was like a great trauma brought people together. Afterwards, in standard fashion, we went out to eat, and there was a moment when I looked around and realized that when the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan was when I would get to see who my friends & allies really were – they were there at the table with me.

The message implied by the election was “you don’t matter,” and I was writing a story about the futuristic version of a half-Korean who was chasing the carrot on a stick of genetic therapy so she could become white. As offensive as that might sound, that’s a real plot line in the story, because in that universe, white folks still control the media and set the standards of beauty. She loses the carrot though – it was how the villain gets her to work for him. The grand federation of humanity and several other races splits because of her actions, and a new “humans-only” club run by white supremacists declares civil war. You can probably guess where my inspiration for all that came.

I kept going, kept writing, and I’m not entirely sure why. Partly because I had a story in me that I wanted to get out, and I’d kinda fallen in love with the protagonists and world. I’m sure the external accountability of the Fiyah contest helped even if only a little. If I’m being honest though, I kind of wondered how much longer I would have a voice for, so I’d better say what I had to say while I had the time.

I think the emotions at the root of that were anger and fear. The only real means of resistance I have are my words and stories, and even if nobody ever reads them, putting them out in the world makes them far more real than leaving them bumping around in my head.

Fiyah numbers came out for the next week and they were still pretty depressing. The Fiyah twitter also posted a lot of “tell us about your story / plot / characters” prompts. Some went unanswered, some had great answers. Writers were still writing. I was too, and I don’t know why. Maybe momentum? Maybe creating art as defiance? Art as eulogy?

Why though? Would anyone give a damn? ScarJo was gonna play Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Game of Thrones doesn’t feature any people of color in leading roles. They’re re-releasing Birth of the Dragon, which is supposed to be about two Asian dudes, but spends a lot of time on some white guy they made up so they could throw him in. Maybe all people really want is the same King Arthur story being re-made into a movie over and over again.

Time rolled on. NaNo rolled on. People invested their hope in things like recounts and allegations of foreign involvement. Fiyah numbers remained low. But there were still numbers.

People of color were still writing.

Why though? I wish I knew. I wish I had one reason I could point to, or a magical and witty snippet of truth which could fill in the blank here. I’m betting everyone had their own answers to that question, but I’m also betting those answers all shared a common root – refusal to simply roll over, give up, and die. Maybe everything comes down to fight or flight reactions, some huge, some microscopic. In my opinion, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you should almost always choose “fight” when art is either your medium or the thing that’s at stake.

At the end of November, more than a few folks finished NaNoWriMo and the Fiyah contest. Some may not have made it to 50k, but they kept slapping those keys and turning in progress reports. For me, finishing was a badge of honor, a personal test, a big middle finger in the face of current events.

Those aliens and non-whites in my story? They band together to defend a planet full of billions of innocent humans, some of which are separatists and would take up arms against them if they could. More than a few white folks stand with the aliens, and everyone gets to see who their allies really are. Differences of anatomy and genetics and sex are set aside for the greater good. Maybe it’s just a dream or a far-fetched fantasy world, but to me it’s an ideal worth writing about, and by “writing about,” I mean “fighting for.”

Posted in culture, diversity, Fiction, NaNoWriMo, Uncategorized, Writing | Leave a comment

Instead of trying to fit in, why don’t you…

So yeah it’s been a while. It’ll take at least another post, maybe two or three, to talk about November, NaNoWriMo, and all the stuff happening with diversity in the face of, well, adversity. BUT, right now what’s on my mind is genre (which sort of segues into diversity).

This last weekend was the DFW Writers’ Conference (dfwcon.org for those of you who are interested in checking out a great conference). I try to attend every year, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made several other posts about it. Sure, part of why I attend is to see other writers & friends I don’t get to see any other time of the year, but there are also great classes, chances to meet new friends, chances to pitch to agents (I’ll get to that), and an all-around sense of re-energizing and re-focusing on writing and the reasons why we write.

Last convention, I had an agent chase me down trying to get a hold of my story. While it didn’t end-up going anywhere (except to reaffirm that there are still problems with it), it did indicate that the times have changed. A couple years prior, I was the one chasing the agents. Also of note, he’d heard of wuxia, so it’s not like it’s something wholly alien. Again, times have changed.

Some of the rejections I’ve gotten on Righteous Mantis said that stories based on revenge and murder are a bit too “mature” for YA. Stinky & I basically opened our pitches with “we write wuxia, which is basically YA fantasy.” While that statement might be true, it’s also true that wuxia is its own thing, in its own category, and one could argue that wuxia has been around a lot longer than Western YA. So I decided that I was done trying to pretend to fit in with the American / Western / “traditional” categories and to just call it what it is – wuxia, and something magical happened.

Language shapes our thoughts, and when you stop trying to force something to fit and instead set it aside and call it what it is, you start thinking of it differently. Wuxia may have similarities to YA fantasy, but let’s step back and remember that it’s rooted in another culture, and that it’s been its own thing for a very long time, and that simply combining Western ideas of YA and fantasy doesn’t necessarily bridge the gap into wuxia. If it did, why not flip it and say “Hunger Games is a futuristic Western wuxia without Chinese people and Chinese story tropes”?

So this conference, I walked in and pitched to an agent, starting with, “I write wuxia.” Much later in the conversation I mentioned how it could maybe fall into YA fantasy, but it was more like an addendum than the main setup. “I write wuxia. It’s a Chinese genre, some could argue it’s ancient, and its hallmarks are martial arts, adventure, romance, and chivalry. The story is about…”

I’ll admit the agent I pitched to was a bit of a hard sell, and that I worked harder to get a request for pages than ever before, but I got a request for pages. Later I attended another So Close, but So Far” session. If you’re not familiar with my previous post, is a sort of small panel where you talk with a few agents about the kind of rejection letters you’ve been getting. I had great success with it last year, and I’ve found them to be highly insightful because the folks who signed up to petition get so much attention. This time around, there were two agents, neither of which repped anything resembling fantasy or anything I might haphazardly try to fit wuxia into. When I told them about wuxia and my story, their jaws dropped and their eyes nearly burst from their heads. We had a great discussion, and then the entire conference took a dinner break, and I’m pretty sure that’s where the magic happened.

A couple hours later, we returned for the “mixer,” where us plebians get to drink, talk to agents, pitch to them, chit-chat, etc. I walked up to one agent to pitch and didn’t get much further than, “I write wuxia,” when she stopped me and said, “oh, you’re the guy. Yeah at least four other agents have been talking about this. Just send me pages.”

Four other agents. I’d think this was a fluke, but it happened again the next day.

I can only surmise that over dinner, someone asked if wuxia was a real genre or if I was just making something up. Maybe they did research, maybe they didn’t, but the end result was this : twice when I went to pitch, I didn’t even get to talk about the characters or the story. They didn’t want YA fantasy version of a half-Chinese orphan girl who goes on a martial arts adventure across Ming dynasty China to avenge the assassination of her adopted father and teacher. They wanted wuxia.

If it weren’t an already-established and long-standing genre, I’m not sure it would’ve worked. Just making up a name to re-brand something usually takes time and saying it over and over again, but the Chinese did that with wuxia a long time ago (actually the Japanese played a part in that too, but that’s a slightly different story). So this post isn’t a recommendation that you should just re-brand your genre in hopes of getting the same recognition and attention. That may or may not work for you, depending on how different your story actually is, but it might help if it fell into another already-existing genre.

And sure, maybe someday in the future, the publishing industry (or whoever makes decisions on what genre is what) might fit wuxia underneath the YA or fantasy umbrellas, but right now it’s unknown enough in America that it’s not. Also, if that ever happens, Ima write a wuxia that’s totally about older folks and doesn’t involve fantastical martial arts. “Detective wuxias” are a thing that already exists and would probably fall outside both those categories. Just sayin’.  :)

I’m Benjamin Inn, and I write wuxia.

Posted in archetypes, Art, China, collaboration, conferences, culture, diversity, Fiction, How to not suck, martial arts, networking, voice, Writing, wuxia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shootings, WCNV, diversity, & you

So Orlando happened. And immediately people started pointing fingers at all sorts of stuff – gun control, Muslims, political correctness, Christians, etc. Some of this was people tapping into their own rage & pain, some was people being defensive, some was people trying to further their own agenda. Show us the thing or idea or policy we can eliminate to stop this from happening again. Show us the path which will lead us through all the illusions and into safety and harmony.

Then we get two days in a row where black gentlemen were killed by officers of the law. Again, people blamed the media, the KKK, various shadowy conspiracies, conservatives, etc (yes, I actually saw blame laid at the feet of all those and more). Then last night, close by in Dallas, some guys retaliated by shooting law enforcement officers. Once again, blame goes flying everywhere, leaving us with nothing but dead bodies and uncertainty about how we got into this situation, and uncertainty about how to get out, but if we can blame someone or something, then get rid of that someone or something, it’ll fix it all, right?

Amidst this whirlwind of shit and death, I became a finalist in the Writers of Color and Native Voices contest (www.wcnvcontest.com). As the title indicates, it was a writing contest for people of color. There was some interesting fallout in the wake of the contest – discussion as to whether X or Y could be counted as a “person of color.” Race, ethnicity, and hell while we’re at it, gender and sexuality are really really complex things that NEED to be and absolutely SHOULD BE discussed. Discussing those things wasn’t really the aim of this contest – the aim was to showcase people of color as artists who may have been overlooked because of their ethnicity, or because the stories they’re telling don’t fall within the normal “white & Western” perspective.

Have I ever personally been denied or shut down because of my ethnicity? Honestly, how would I know? I submit my novel, if for some reason an agent doesn’t like Asians, they could just say “it wasn’t for me” and I wouldn’t know any better. Is this a thing? I don’t honestly know, but the fact that someone’s doing something about it makes me think that maybe it is. I am reminded of a previous agent who once turned down my previous work, “Rise of the Righteous Mantis,” done in collaboration with a close friend. The agent said there were some “historical inaccuracies.” She didn’t cite anything specific, nor her sources. We on the other hand had a friend who is from China, as in “grew up in China, studied English so she could get out, and moved to the U.S. in the last couple of years” read it, and she said it “read like it was written by a Chinese person.” She made no mention of any such “historical inaccuracies” (other than our obsession with sweet potatoes, which wasn’t really thaaaaat far off).

I thought nothing of it at first – when someone tells me “there’s a problem” but doesn’t offer any specifics, I usually see it as a giant red “bullshit” flag. I’m used to this because I get a lot of it at work. Regardless, a rejection is a rejection, and I started to question my own facts and my own story. “Would it be better if we re-wrote it in some fictional universe which resembles Ming China?” my partner asked.

It was an option we very seriously considered, and that fact should offend you.

Do I think I was shut down because of my ethnicity? No. Do I think I was shut down because a white person thought she knew Asian culture better than I did? Yes. If you’re paying attention, you already see how this all ties together.

So back to the present. For part of my WCNV submission I had to write a statement why #OwnVoices is so important. For those of you who don’t know, #OwnVoices is basically a movement which encourages authors of color to write in their own cultures. And before some asshat comes in claiming whites should be included because they’re writing in their own culture, let me say that the point of all this and WCNV is that we’ve had white males dominating our narratives for the last thousand or so years. People have been complaining about how Hollywood is just re-using old themes and re-making old movies, and it probably has something to do with our living in this cultural vacuum where we tell and re-tell the same stories over and over, then pat ourselves on the back for being awesome. #OwnVoices is part of an effort to expand the number and scope of stories which can be told.

Anyhow, my statement went like this :

“If no one makes an effort to represent minorities in art, we’re doomed to an eternal repeat of things like this year’s Oscars, whitewashing in film, and insulting cultural appropriation. An unrepresented population, a people without a voice, is easy to vilify (as we’ve already seen with Muslims), control, marginalize, or destroy. When we see a people’s art, we see their humanity, and identify with it.”

It’s a pretty simple idea, actually. It could boil down to something as simple as, “Holy shit, that guy also cusses when stubs his toe on the couch.” And yeah, I wrote that before all these shootings happened. Am I some kind of prophet? No, I’m a half-white guy looking in on both white and Asian cultures and seeing how people de-humanize the “other.” Having one foot in each culture effectively makes me neither – I’m used seeing the way people look at me like I’m not “one of them.” I rather enjoy my elusive nowhere status, but that’s a post for another time.

There’s a LOT of diversity among humans. I shouldn’t even have to write that line because you folks already know there’s a lot of diversity within your own race / gender / ethnicity / religion / sexuality / etc. Pick one of the above, look around your immediate vicinity, and analyze how the people there differ from you on that ONE point. Needless to say, while all the possible combinations aren’t quite “limitless,” it does make for a lot of potential for originality.

But beneath all those things that make us different (some of which are little more than illusory lines drawn by ourselves), we’re all still human. We have very similar biology to one another. We seek structure and order and build those when we can’t find them naturally (hence civilization, government, and language). No matter the language, we tend to express joy and anger and a host of other emotions in relatively similar ways – for example everyone laughs.

And yet we cling to these artificial lines as if a person on the other side is somehow NOT human. We get into an uncomfortable situation with an unfamiliar person, and fight or flight takes over. We stand on our side of the line and assume we understand the people on the other side, sometimes even if we’re friendly towards them. We see a person of (*insert ethnicity / gender / religion / etc. here*) and our brain loads-up a bunch of stereotypes. We focus on the differences rather than the similarities until we forget the other person is human too.

An example of this can be seen in how many black people are saying, “there’s a problem.” I find the resistance to this odd. They’re effectively telling black Americans, “Your experience is wrong,” as if somehow they’ve stepped into that person’s skin and actually had the experience. I too have had an outsider tell me I was wrong, that there were “historical inaccuracies.”

Amongst the chaos last night, there was a photo of a bunch of people, white and black, forming a human shield around a baby stroller. At the time nobody knew the snipers were after cops, they just knew there were gunshots. These people decided one child’s life was more important than their own, no matter the skin color or other differences at hand. Humans are capable of that kind of magnificence too, but it’s a choice we have to make. I would say it’s our job to look deeper and ask questions – of ourselves, of our stereotypes, and of the people we’re looking at. If we don’t understand someone, instead of disliking, distrusting, or fearing them (or assuming they’re wrong and sending a rejection letter), engage them (in a non-offensive way). Ask them why they wear that thing, what they believe, where they’re from, what’s important to them, what’s the funniest joke they know – remember that everyone laughs. Do they also cuss when they stub their toe on the couch? No? Well they’re better people than I.

In the end you may not like that other person – you don’t have to. But most times at least trying to listen to and understand them turns you both back into humans, at least in each others’ eyes. Is it worth having a five minute or five hour conversation? Only you can be the judge of that, but the real question should be “what’s the price of ignorance?”

Well, we’re seeing that price in the news a lot these days.

Posted in culture, diversity, networking, travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DFW Con 2016

Last year’s DFWcon was kiiiiinda lame, and I don’t mind saying so. It was so lame they didn’t even have the usual comment forms – they knew. This isn’t to say they didn’t try – they had (mostly) great agents, Kevin J Anderson, and that chick who wrote the Sookie Stackhouse books (neither of which were my bag, but they were fun to listen to). I’d even go as far to say that they did the best with what they had.

But I still don’t feel like it was up to par with the conference I expected and was familiar with.

This should be the biggest selling point of DFWcon though : due to it being pretty great in years past, none of the badness of 2015 stopped me from buying a ticket to the 2016 con, and boy was I glad I did, because times have changed. Not to drop an ominous line and leave you hangin’, but I’ll get back to that statement in a bit.

This year they grabbed the Fort Worth convention center, which was a HUGE step up in venue from last year. The food was waaaaaay better, the classes were better, the speakers were better, the agents were an entirely new and different crop, and all in all it seemed a lot more befitting of the big con I’m used to going to.

But the crowning achievement came in the form of a special session I had to sign-up for in advance. It was called “So Close, but So Far,” and the idea was that a panel of industry veterans (basically agents, writers, keynote speakers, etc) would listen to talk about your submission and rejection experiences thus far. It was free to con attendees, but it was geared towards people who were querying and getting rejection letters, NOT newbies. This has been and always will be a thing – people show up in upper-level classes asking “HOW I WRITE BOOK?” While that’s a totally valid question, it’s not appropriate for the context.

Anyhow, I got up, gave my spiel, talked about my query letter and the form rejections I’ve been getting, and got two great revelations out of this :

  1. my query letter is a hot mess. I don’t mean the fun kind of hot mess either, I mean the “magma melting your arm” kind of hot mess.
  2. despite what we’ve been told and read, if the query sucks, agents tend to NOT read the sample pages.

Obviously the second one was the real eye-opener. I get it, and an agent explained it to me – writing a good (or maybe “not terrible) query letter is proof that an author can distill their ideas in a catchy and succinct way. This is an important skill to have when talking about one’s story to agents, editors, fans, etc. I get it, I really do.

I just don’t agree with it. Query letters are sort of a different skill set from writing a novel, meaning someone could write an incredible novel, but without that query letter to market it, nobody will ever see it. Self-publishing has changed that somewhat, but not much, and not enough.

Rant aside, the revelation was supremely good info to have, but even it wasn’t as awesome as what happened next. I was leaving and had made it about halfway to the door when  someone in the audience stopped me and said, “Hey, your story sound really cool, I can’t wait to read it.”

And that’s when an agent came running up to me, card in hand, to request the full manuscript.

I’ll put it another way : the agent chased me down, not the other way around. Let that sink in.

Times have changed, and this is a sign of that, because usually it was it me, the writer, chasing an agent (literally and figuratively), hoping to be heard above the noise. Having the tables turned on me was not only a pleasant surprise, it was a huge morale boost and a sign that if I can get past the query letter and get people to pay attention to the story, I’ve got a solid chance.

Now, granted I knew going into this class that there would be agents present, and part of my intent was to use it as an icebreaker so that later I could approach said agents and pitch to them, but I never dreamed they’d come running after me like this.

Anyhow, it doesn’t end there. My story had apparently made the rounds with other agents, and when I tried to pitch to one of them, they said, “Oh YOU’RE that guy! Send me the whole thing!”

Times have changed.

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Artifacts of an older era

A while back I made a post about going to China & Taiwan, and a little of the history of the two countries. I might’ve been able to skip that post and just jump to this one, but that one provides the context of where I’m going now : artifacts of that history.

China has a very rich history going back thousands of years, through the dynastic period into the ancient period (before there were dynasties), but where are all those temples and statues and artifacts?

Well, mostly destroyed.

Or in Taiwan.

Back in the 60’s, China went through a cultural revolution, during which they destroyed a lot of things representing the previous eras. This kind of behavior is a pretty common and healthy behavior with fledgling regimes –  getting rid of the old to make way for the new, not only physically, but more importantly mentally. Mind you, I’m not exonerating this behavior, only saying that it’s common and healthy for new regimes. Temples, books, various works of art, even cemeteries – nothing was safe. While the destruction was widespread, it was far from complete, because when you have thousands of years of history, it takes a while to get rid of it all.

On top of this, monks, priests, and basically any version of clergy in the country were either killed, sent to prison, or fled. Religion was seen as “superstition,” and one of the pillars of the old world which had to be purged. This is obviously an extreme version of religious persecution, and as a side note, I’d like to point out that doomsayers in our own country claiming that the government is trying to destroy Christianity or infringe on their religious rights, etc. have FAR more in the way of religious rights than they think. /soapbox

Why did all this happen? Well it likely had a lot to do with my previous post – the last few centuries were full of war and occupation and conquest by foreign powers and they didn’t ever want that kind of thing to happen again. They blamed the old ways, and by association, religion and all that history they’d come out of. Before anyone goes condemning them for all this, consider that we would likely do the same if it happened to us.

There’s actually a vigorous academic discussion about this whole phenomenon that continues to this day. Like China itself, it’s large and complex and can’t really be summed-up in a single blog post (lol).

Taiwan is / was a different matter. There were indigenous people living there, and when the Ming (often seen as the last dynasty of “Han” Chinese) retreated there, they forged a lot of alliances with those people. When Chiang Kai-Shek fled the mainland, lots of his folks looted artifacts and brought them to Taiwan, and when they heard about what was going on in the mainland, they enacted policies to preserve whatever heritage they had brought with them and what already remained on the island. Sure, the Qing eventually destroyed the last vestiges of the Ming, but the point is there was already an alliance with and tolerance of native cultures in place.

Fast forward to now. The Chinese realize the error of the regime at the time and have begun movements to rebuild and preserve what they have left. Still, people idolize Mao Zedong despite his hand in the cultural revolution – there was a lot of Mao memorabilia, from hats to shirts to miniature statues, etc. This is all to illustrate it’s STILL a complex thing. China has a LOT fewer temples and historic sites than it used to, and a lot of them have been turned into tourist traps. For example, we saw a 1,000 year-old banyan tree at a park. We had to pay to get in, which is totally fair, but there were all manner of boat rides, pony rides, and other touristy things happening in the same park, mere yards away from said banyan.

While in Guangzhou, we visited three temples, all of which were mostly empty of people, though not in disrepair. Except for the sounds of the city, I thought it was rather appropriate and peaceful, and found it easy to “step back in time” and see how it might’ve been 500 years ago. Two of the three charged an entrance fee. There were cameras all over and there was a large banner praising the country, not the Buddha. What got me though, wasn’t that sign – it was the one explaining how to burn incense offerings without burning down the temple. 

Because that means it’s a thing, or was at one point. They’d lost so much of that tradition that a sign was needed to explain it again.

Meanwhile, it was a vastly different story in Taiwan. Longshan temple was literally packed with people, some singing, some praying or making offerings, etc. The incense burners spewed smoke and sometimes gouts of flame because they were loaded with so many sticks of incense. It was very much a “living” temple. Guandu temple was a lot less populated, but we went in the middle of the day when it was raining AND under renovation, so there’s that. However, what got me was the sheer number of temples and more than that, tiny shrines everywhere. People would carve out whole rooms from their living or working areas or even just a few feet of space to put in a shrine, and many were open to the public – none of these charged entrance fees.

Likewise, the National Palace Museum in Taiwan housed a lot of “stolen” artifacts. It was packed with people and too large for us to hit the whole place in a single visit. Chinese tourists were hurried by the greatest masterpieces so the next group could see them. We sort of had to see them from afar. This isn’t to say China had no museums, or that they sucked, just that many of the great treasures were in Taiwan.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of interest in restoring and preserving historical and religious sites in China. We visited a few places that had benefited from this, and I think they did a pretty good job with most of them. Others, like the giant Guanyin statue just outside Sanya, are new constructions and are little more than expensive tourist traps.

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“China is here, Mr. Burton”

Yeah it’s been a while. Yeah I’m a terrible blogger. Where have I been? Well for one, China.

Stinky and I got visas and took a big long 3 week trip, hitting Taiwan, Guangzhou, Guilin, Yangshuo, and Sanya. Lots to learn and see. And eat. And eat. And eeeeeat.

Before I go any further, lemme drop some history, because you’d be surprised at how many folks don’t know this bit, and it’s really important.

So the Qing Dynasty took over in 1644-ish. The Qing weren’t “ethnic Han,” (which is a sort of complex term I won’t go into) – they were Manchus from the north. For roughly 300 years, people had a lot of remorse for their non-Chinese rulers.

During the Qing, stuff like the Opium Wars happened, where various Western powers came in and basically used military might to exploit the economy. The replies were things like the Boxer Rebellion, where people basically wanted to kick out the foreigners. They also had various rebellions, like the Taiping Rebellion, against the Qing rulers, but of course all this stuff failed and it remained status quo – China was still weak and carved-up by foreigners. This all goes on until The Xinhai Revolution in 1911.

Various uprisings end-up displacing the thousands of years old dynastic rule and replacing it with the Republic of China, led by the dude we know as Sun Yat-Sen (or Sun Zhongshan as he’s more commonly known as in China – he’s soooort of like our George Washington). Chiang Kai-Shek took over when Sun Yat-Sen died, and he duked it out with the growing communist party in the north.

That didn’t last too long because in 1937, the Japanese invaded. The nationalists and communists worked (mostly) together to fight the Japanese, and when WWII ended and the Japanese left China, the communists (led by Mao Zedong) and Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists went back to fighting. The nationalists made some strategic blunders and eventually had to leave mainland China, taking up residence on the island of Taiwan.

The point of all this is 1 ) that Taiwan isn’t officially part of China. The Chinese government tends to SAY it is, but they’re smart about not treating it like that. People I talk to about this trip tend to think Taiwan is just another part of China, but it’s totally not. Case and point : we needed visas to get into China. To get into Taiwan, all we needed was a passport. Also 2 ) the Chinese have basically been everyone’s imperial exploitation bitch for a couple centuries now, and before (and during) that, they were directly controlled by what people saw as outsiders (the Qing were Manchus and later the Japanese occupation). Right now they have a lot of interest in never letting that happen again, and rightfully so (we’d do the same thing if it happened to us). Whether or not that justifies their current regime is irrelevant – they’ve got centuries of history to overcome.

So you’re probably thinking, “why the history lesson?” Well, because it colors our visit. I’ll go into detail in later posts, but this is the historical lens I went into this with.

What does all this have to do with writing? Well, as wuxia primarily takes place in China, and I wanted to see some of the places and architecture. I’ll get to that though!

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