Monday, October 3, 2016

#My5: My Five Writing Influences

My friend Mike Ripplinger invited me to be a part of K. M. Alexander's #My5 project, and I figured, hey, this could be fun! Most of us started writing because we enjoyed someone else's work so much that we wanted to try our hands at it too.

So... "Where do you get your ideas?" The short answer is all over the place. I don't have a novel like K.M. or Mike, but I have short stories enough, and I've been asked the question more than once. A writer tends to be a combination of their interests and life experiences, and that in turn informs what they chose to write about.

So here are the five biggest influences on my work as a whole:

1) Shin Megami Tensei

This RPG series is a gold mine for mythology buffs, as long as one doesn't mind urban fantasy with varying levels of darkness. I think one of my friends got a little destroyed by what he called a "BS" ending when he got to the end of Shin Megami Tensei IV. The series and its various spin-offs frequently have multiple endings and not all of them as nice, but it's the only series where I've restored the world at the end of the game and wondered if preventing the apocalypse was really the right thing to do.

Depending on the game, the answer could be yes, it could be no. But I like that moral ambiguity. It makes me think harder when my protagonist is forced to make a choice.

And the demons! The demons are demons by East Asian definition, which means, "demon" includes any supernatural creature. This is a series where gods, heroes, and monsters of all mythologies, including extant religions, exist simultaneously, and if you've ever wanted the chance to discover new myths you've never heard of, whether they're Inuit, Sumerian, or what have you, there's a good chance you'll stumble across something new in Shin Megami Tensei.

This series was an influence on my stories: "Unfilial Child" and "The World That You Want"

2) Stage Magic

I've enjoyed magic tricks for as long as I could remember. When I was a kid, I had a book on how to do (really crummy) magic tricks. But for most of my life, I was more of an audience member than a magician. I watched TV specials, lined up to get David Copperfield's autograph (I got to see him live while in middle school), and if I got the chance in Vegas I liked to catch a magic show.

But there are a lot of good things in storytelling to learn from stage magic. The best magicians tell a story while they perform, and the reason for that is they want a certain reaction from the audience, and the story preps them for what the magician is looking for. Patter, the words the magician is saying, may also serve the purpose of misdirecting the audience so they are busy thinking about one thing while the magician is doing something else.

This isn't so different from writing. I know I've read more than enough books where I thought "This was pretty good, so good I'll forgive it for not doing X, Y, or Z," which is an excellent bit of stagecraft.

While the magician's audience might come away knowing that magic didn't actually happen, and they might even have an idea of how it happened, if they enjoyed the performance it won't matter. As an author you're directing the reader where you want them to go and leading their expectations. Writing is just like giving a good performance. If it's well done, everyone walks away satisfied.

And these days, if you catch me at a con and ask nicely, I might have a trick ready to show you. I did go back eventually and learn some real sleight of hand.

Stage magic was most obviously an influence on: "Confidence Game"

3) Erich Maria Remarque

When I was in high school, I was assigned All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque for mandatory reading. This turned out to be a life-changing experience, and he was the first author whose work I tried to emulate. While still in high school I tried recreating All Quiet's under attack while making pancakes scene when writing a space opera.

All Quiet on the Western Front left me with a profound interest in WWI-era Germany and an appreciation for the period language of the time. Remarque was the first author I'd ever been assigned in school whose work I would later pick up on my own. I don't know if it's the manner of All Quiet having been my first or that it's the most notable of Remarque's work, but it's the one I always return to, though I also highly recommend The Way Back, which is a sequel of sorts, following different men of the same company when they return home from the war.

His work was an influence on: "The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart"

4) Being Chinese American

I debated whether to put this down here, but when I thought about it, I realized that being Chinese, specifically American-born Chinese, is directly responsible for a fair portion of my work. While I've written Chinese-themed stories that have nothing to do with my life, there are a three in particular that draw heavily on my experience as a third generation Chinese American and cultural tidbits dropped by my dad.

I dislike the thought of only writing Chinese stories, as goodness knows I don't want to be pigeon-holed into being a Chinese writer, but sometimes I feel motivated to write because Chinese in the United States are often written as immigrants or the children of immigrants.

As a third generation Chinese American whose Chinese vocabulary is limited to single digits once you exclude food items, I'm about as American as my ethnicity is going to get, so much of my contemporary fantasy features Chinese characters who pretty much suck at being Chinese. They know the traditions, they know the food, but they can't speak for beans.

It's a type of character that I don't see often enough, so if I'm writing contemporary fantasy (or near future science fiction) I usually make them a third or fourth generation Chinese American that I can relate to.

Influence on: "Mooncakes," "The Ancestors," and "Unfilial Child"

5) Japanese pop culture

I was exposed to anime while still in elementary school, before I even knew what the word was. All I understood was that these Japanese cartoons were "better" than the majority of American ones. I liked that they had ongoing storylines, and that the characters' actions had consequences. Sometimes, people even died.

Adding icing on the cake, once I got a video game system of my own, I discovered that the vast majority of games I liked also came from Japan. I liked the art style, and I liked the kinds of games they made, which were rarely attempted by western developers. (I was a big JRPG fan.)

This grew into a life-long appreciation for Japanese pop culture. When people ask me "Who would you cast as your main character?" My reply is invariably, "I don't know. Everything looks like an animated movie in my head." Specifically, it looks like an anime in my head.

With the internet these days, it's easier than ever to find Japanese exports. I read translated manga and books, watch translated anime and dramas, listen to J-pop, and I happen to live next to a city with one of the highest Japanese ex-pat populations in the US, which means that great, authentic Japanese food is just a few minutes away.

This was an influence on: Just about everything

If you'd like to check out more writerly influences, you can read the other #My5 posts here:

K. M. Alexander's #My5: The Bell Forging Cycle
Mike Ripplinger's #My5: The Verdant Revival
Eric Lange's #My5: 30 Second Fantasy

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