Fantasy writer Joyce Chng writes the kind of novels that sweep you along in the immensity of their world-building and adventures–the kind of books responsible for me barely graduating high school because they’re all I read instead of studying.
Chng incorporates elements of Chinese folklore and mythology into her stories along with a healthy dose of action and intrigue (especially in her Starfang series), and we picked her brain about her writing process and how she sees the Southeast Asian publishing landscape.
She has a great Website with quick links to her works (my suggestion is to start with the Rider trilogy and the Dragon Sisters, then slowly explore the rest of her writing from there). If you enjoy her works, she’s also planning a trip to ICFA in 2019 and could use your support.
How did you get started as a writer? Do you remember the first thing you’d ever written?
I read a lot when I was a kid. My first story when I was just 9 or 10 was about a war between two alien races. I just grabbed the nearest paper and wrote it out with pencil.
My first ‘serious’ story was actually a fanfic novella! I loved the Dragonriders of Pern and I wrote a novella. Only that I didn’t know that it was fanfiction then – but the process of writing a novella was long and fun.
If you are really curious, my first ‘real’ story was a werewolf short story in a furry anthology. This was in the late 90s!
You are so incredibly prolific! How do you keep yourself motivated as a writer and do you have any tips?
How do I keep myself motivated? Read often, rest often, be kind to myself often. Observe, people-watch, research. Life is immensely interesting! Likewise, to keep the wall from running dry, I also do other creative things like gardening, cooking and photography. When I am writing, have a tangible goal or reward at the end like an edible treat or a drink.
Your fantasy worlds tend to be grounded in Chinese mythology and folklore. Are there specific elements that appeal to you (for example, we notice a lot of dragon-related stories), and how do you do your world-building with these elements in mind?
I have to confess I love dragons. And phoenixes. So I have many stories revolving around these specific mythological creatures. Also flight is a big theme and motif too. The same goes for transformation(s).
Chinese mythology and folklore is so diverse and vivid that world-building with dragons and phoenixes is an exciting process. The sun dragons in Sun Dragon’s Song are modeled after Chinese dragons. Then I expand the mythology a little: How do the dragons live? What do they eat? How do they fly?
I believe mythology and folklore gives us the space to re-myth or re-tell the story in our own terms.
Can you take us through your writing process? For example, how do you get started, how do you revise, and do you use beta readers?
I am a cross between a planner/outliner and a pantser. I would plan the story out with chapter headings and outlines, only to have the characters take over. Or the story will be written without planning, that I write based on intuition and what I feel is right.
I am often inspired by visuals. Many stories start as an image in mind. As I am a visual thinker, I use a note pad or a sketchbook to jot phrases down or sketch out scenes or characters or objects in the story.
Revising/editing takes place after a couple of days (or weeks) when the story is drafted.
I sometimes use beta readers so that I get an idea if my story is going the right direction or hitting the right notes.
You’ve Tweeted before about a “West is best” mentality that makes books published in Southeast Asia considered less significant than if writers found agents and publishers overseas. This is something that many of us struggle with, and I wonder if you have any ideas about practical steps that we can take to overcome that (with the understanding that colonial mentality is itself a pervasive issue in society)?
If we could magically snap our fingers and colonial mentality automatically disappears…
Nope, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not in my lifetime. Practical steps? Support local writers. Signal boost them. Read and buy their books. Review them. Champion them. Make them visible.
Do not quickly assume books by local writers are ‘bad’ or of a lower quality. At the same time, do not quickly assume books with international awards are good. Awards are often given based on taste and preference. Many good local books fly under the radar simply because they do not appeal to the current taste or preference. Books published by publishers overseas are not automatically good. They are deemed good because of our colonized minds. They are deemed good because people (and marketing departments with budgets) hype them up.
Identify and confront unconscious/conscious assumptions that the West is the best. Have the guts and willingness to question all these assumptions. Look instead at the systemic barriers in the industry and how this perception of West Is Best is one of the major barriers. The challenge now is to decolonize minds and decolonization will take years…
Born in Singapore but a global citizen, Joyce Chng writes mainly science fiction and YA. She likes steampunk and tales of transformation/transfiguration. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing The Future. She can be found at A Wolf’s Tale (awolfstale.wordpress.com).