- No time to write anything substantial on the blog lately. Busy writing the new book!
- On that note – 80k words on the first draft of the “Proud Tyrant“. At this pace, the final count will be well over 120k. And I worried it wouldn’t be long enough!
- Reminder: The Year of the Dragon, 5-8 is now available for sale at all online retailers… as are all the other books in the now-finished series.
- The Italian translation of the “Shadow of Black Wings” – “L’Ombra del Drago Nero” is at long last available on Amazon and in other places, if you’ve been longing to read it in Italian 🙂
- Over and out.
Right, so here’s the second installment of my “writing inspirations” series. This time it’s the podcasts I listen to on my headphones. Continuing last week’s theme, these concern artists and artistry – in particular, once again, comedy and comedians.
The one I’ve discovered first, and probably because of that my favourite, is RHLSTP (RHLSTP!) – catchily-named Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theater Podcast, which originated out of Herring’s Edinburgh Fringe interview podcasts.
People of my generation, of course, remember Richard Herring from his 90’s double-act with Stewart Lee; his further career – and he’ll be the first to admit – had its ups and downs, but at some point he moved on to internet-kickstart-podcast presence, which was a great decision for everyone involved, as it gave us, by now, well over a hundred interviews, plus additional podcasts, sketch shows like AIOTM (*aiotm!*) and more.
If you know Herring, you’ll know the kind of humour to expect at first – but among the questions about a 6-foot dick and hands made of ham, it moves subtly towards discussions about creativity and comedians’ life in general.
The other podcast, despite having “comedy” twice in its title, is much more serious. Stuart Goldsmith’s Comedian’s Comedian tends to be much further on the “sad clown” spectrum. Stuart doesn’t shirk from controversial subjects and guests; the interviews are more serious and heavy. My definite favourite is his conversation with Shappi Khorsandi (who’s one of my favourite people anyway) – touching deeply on such subjects as depression, self-harm, bullying and racism, all painted with a contagious optimism.
The last podcast I have to mention is Sitcom Geeks: a long, ongoing conversation between James Cary and Dave Cohen about the art of writing and editing – sitcoms, in their case, but most of it is applicable to any sort of writing.
As you might otherwise know, I have recently went through an episode of typing faster than any I’ve ever experienced: 100,000 words in less than two months, to finish the first draft of THE LAST DRAGON KING – the final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga.
I don’t like silence when writing, odd as it may seem, even more so when I have to write plenty and fast. A typing marathon like that requires more than just a random radio station (always BBC R4 or R4 extra 🙂 or TV switched on in the background – it requires something that stirs the muse – something that reminds me of what it’s like to do art. I already wrote about the kind of mangas I like to read – this time it’s about shows I watched and listened to.
Comedians and musicians are, to me, the ultimate artists: the contact with the audience, the instant feedback, the improvisation talent. This is as far from writing as it gets, and perhaps this is why I’m so drawn to stories about them lately.
Netflix’s HIBANA is another one of those quirky Japanese stories about the travails of being an artist – not unlike Bakuman, except about comedians rather than mangakas. It tells the story of a manzai duo – the kind of centuries-old Laurel&Hardy double-act that might seem a bit old-fashioned in the West, having died out with the likes of Morecambe & Wise. But the (semi-autobiographical) story of the main hero’s struggle is as contemporary as it gets – and one that I’ve heard told many times by artists of all walks of life. To go the commercial route, or the esoteric? To aim high or low? How long to wait for the break through – and how not to give up when it doesn’t come? All this told in the cool, brilliantly cinematic manner, with the back streets of Tokyo playing a role equal to the three main characters.
Note of caution: as Japanese stories tend to, it gets really weird at the very end. If you skip the final episode, you will still have a decent, contained story of the SPARKS duo. If you continue, you’ll be taken for the kind of ride that only Kamiya-sensei can take you.
The other Netflix series, the GET DOWN, is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum from Hibana: it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s a made-up, hyperbolic fantasy of a story with at least as many downs as it has ups. It wasn’t well received by the critics and the audience – but I enjoyed it for what it was, a musical fairy-tale about finding your inner artist and sticking to it no matter what. I’m not normally a fan of having to turn off your brain while watching something, but the Get Down had enough going for it otherwise for me to watch it all the way to the end, where all the disparate plot threads meet for an uplifting finale.
And of course, I binged Stranger Things, but then you’ve all seen it by now.
Next week in writing inspirations: Podcasts.
I got all my research material in the post today! Also on my Kindle: some Bernard Cornwell, Hilary Mantel, Manda Scott, Simon Scarrow… Can you tell what my next book is going to be about yet? 😉
The evening breeze carried with it the scent of fresh peat and dew on wet heather.
In this somewhat clumsy way, six years ago, started the first draft of the first volume in what would later become “The Year of the Dragon” saga. Last weekend, I put the last sentence of the first draft of its final volume to the digital purpose – thus, at last, finishing the story.
Six years. Eight volumes. Seven hundred thousand words, give or take a few thousand. It’s been a long journey – the longest I’ve ever undertaken. And now I’m at the final stretch. All that remains is a couple months of editing and redrafting. Some details may change, some bits may be rewritten, but there will not be any major changes to the plot. That means that the history of Bran, Sato and Nagomi is complete. I finally know how it all ends. And in a few months – by Christmas, if nothing unforeseen happens – you will know too.
In the meantime, I’m slowly beginning work on a new project – one that, for the first time in six years, will have nothing to do with dragons…! Stay tuned for more details – and don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter here – I’m hoping to get it a bit more entertaining over the coming months.
Well, here it is. The cover of the final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga.
I went for something special with this one, to commemorate this being the last volume cover in the series: I hired the services of the wonderful Collette J. Ellis of Flying Viper Illustrations. You might recognize the style from the cover of Vol. 1-4 Bundle. I don’t think there’s anyone who draws Asian dragons better, so she was a natural choice for this cover – and you’ll see why as soon as you scroll below.
With the cover, there’s also the reveal of the title of Book Eight: “The Last Dragon King”. I leave it to you to guess who’s on the cover this time – and who’s the Dragon King.
The manuscript is far from finished… This one is big: I’m already at 80,000 words and I expect to add at least a third more. I still aim at a Christmas release, though, so have just a little bit of patience! We’ll get there in the end.
And so, without further ado, here it is – the cover for the grand finale, “The Last Dragon King”.
Big News time!
The Shattering Waves, Book Seven of the Year of the Dragon, is now ready for pre-order on Amazon Kindle!
It is the time of Darkness, as prophesied by the priests and soothsayers. Armies clash, cities burn. The sparks of hope are few and scattered.
The Kiheitai, leaderless and purposeless after the disastrous Battle of Heian, flee to the harbour city of Naniwa. Hiding among them, Bran and Nagomi plot to release Sato from the clutches of the Serpent. In the South, Dylan, Gwen and Edern assist the rebel army marching against the Taikun, just as the Gorllewin dragon riders begin to have second thoughts about their alliance with the Fanged.
The release date is set for May 15th. It will be available on Nook and Kobo around that time as well. Click these links to pre-order your digital copy from Amazon:
This is the penultimate book in the Year of the Dragon saga, with the last volume planned for end of this year.
Yes, you’re right, Volume 7 of The Year of the Dragon is not quite out yet – it’s in final redrafts now, hoping for a May release if all works well. But I’m already writing Volume 8 – the grand finale.
Since this is the last volume of the series, the plot structure departs from my usual “trees with many roots and branches” jumble. I have to wrap things up. Threads are joining together, number of POVs is being reduced as characters fall out of the plot one way or another, all leading to a climactic (hopefully) conclusion.
It’s not going to be too much of a spoiler to say that it looks like I’ll have a distinct three-act structure to this volume, with a pivotal moment in the middle. At least, that’s the plan. How it’s going to pan out in the months to come, remains to be seen.
My ambition is to release Volume 8 before the end of this year, together with a bundle of volumes 5-8. We’re at the end of March now. I have about 20k words of the first draft done, I’m going to need probably a hundred thousand more to fit everything in one book.
This could be an interesting year.
Yes, like George R.R. Martin, I too am still working hard on Volume 6 of my fantasy saga 😉 And just like Winds of Winter, it’s taking me much longer than I had hoped for. I had to do a massive rewrite of the first half of the book, and then life added its own share of delays… But now I have finally finished the new draft, and we seem to be back on track for a release this side of half-year!
To celebrate this milestone – and the release of a new Winds of Winter excerpt on GRRM’s site – here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the new draft of “The Withering Flames”.
(minor spoiler warning, naturally)
The noblemen prison wing was packed to the limits. So many Mori Clan’s retainers had been arrested at the Terada-ya, that the guards had to cram them two each into a cell. Only one cell remained, at Koyata’s insistence, occupied by a single inhabitant.
It was to this cell that he was now leading his latest quarry.
“Here you are, Izumi-dono,” he said with a bow, showing the new prisoner in. Maki Izumi grunted and crossed the cell’s threshold.
“This is Miyabe-sama from Kumamoto,” Koyata introduced the cellmates. “I thought a pair of Southerners will get along.” He smiled and backed out. As soon as the grate slid shut, he rushed down the corridor, and up the stairs into another, secret hallway, hidden from view by a sliding wall with the painting of a pensive Butsu-sama, standing on the sea shore and putting a conch to his ear.
He shuffled quietly along the lightless hallway, to a location he had marked earlier. The hallway floor was pierced with small slits, covered with sawed-off bits of floorboards, at measured distances – one per cell; through those slits, Koyata was able to observe and listen in on everything that happened in the rooms below. He lay down and put his ear to the hole.
“…and what were you planning to do with it once you got to Edo?”
That was Master Izumi’s exasperated voice. Koyata smiled to himself – the plan worked perfectly. And he’d made it just in time to hear the juiciest part of the conversation.
“You know full well what our mission is,” Miyabe replied, snidely. “To free the court from the abominations that control it.”
“Fools,” scoffed Izumi. “Now your men will be captured, and the sword will fall into the Taikun’s hands.”
So it’s a sword…
“And I suppose you’d rather we sat quietly in Kumamoto and did nothing,” said Miyabe. “Let your Master do as he pleased.”
“Shimazu-dono is doing what he believes is best for Yamato.”
Koyata heard one of the men pace this way and that across the narrow confines of the cell. He pressed his eye to the slit – it was Miyabe, jumpy and agitated.
“Well I don’t trust anyone who’s dealing with one of them,” he said. “And don’t think I’d forgive him for what he did to Hosokawa-dono.”
“Dōraku is different,” replied Izumi. “We would be nowhere without him. Look, Miyabe-dono.” He put his hands together in an entreating gesture. “In the end, we both want the same. A bright, prosperous future for our country, without the Fanged pulling the strings and without the barbarians ordering us about.”
There’s that word again. The Fanged. Koyata had heard this name spoken, always in secret, a few times already during his stay in Heian, but he couldn’t figure out what it might mean.
“Shimazu just wants the throne for himself,” scoffed Miyabe.
“He may want to rule, but he’s not after the throne. We remain loyal to the Mikado.”
Loyal to the Mikado, huh… Just as Lord Matsudaira had predicted, the letter sent out by His Majesty Kōmei had been stirring up trouble. The daimyo should be loyal to the Taikun; not to whatever puppet occupied the symbolic throne in Heian’s Imperial Palace. Those were the rules – the rules that had been managing to prevent another Civil War for more than two centuries.
“Same difference,” said Miyabe.
Izumi raised his hands and shrugged. “If that’s what it takes… do you have a better candidate?”
“What about Mori?” asked Miyabe. “I heard his men are in town.”
“Chōfu is a lost cause,” said Izumi. “They tried, and they failed. Half of the retainers were brought into this prison tonight with me. Hear them now, wailing and cursing!”
He banged at the wall of his cell. A Chōfu samurai on the other side yelled at him in response – what, Koyata couldn’t hear.
“Yes! That’s right!” shouted Izumi. “Your little revolution is over before it’d begun!”
The man behind the wall yelled again, but Izumi ignored him and sat by the wall opposite. Miyabe lay down on the floor, with the straw pillow under his head.
“Izumi-dono,” he started, looking at the ceiling. Koyata prayed that he wouldn’t notice the slit – it was right above him. “Do you think we still stand a chance?”
“I don’t know, Miyabe-dono. I do know that Takashima-sama managed to destroy one of them in battle, and lived through it. And she’s only a girl, who’s barely come of age. Think of what real men, real warriors could do, with proper planning.”
Takashima! Koyata put a hand to his mouth to stop himself from gasping.
“How did she do that?” asked Miyabe.
“I did not get a chance to ask her, before those Aizu thugs took me away,” said Izumi. “I hope they got away safe.”
I’ve heard enough, Koyata decided. He covered the slit with the wooden plank, and headed back to the ground floor.
Koyata held his head in both hands, and rubbed his temples. “This is all giving me a headache,” he said, and took a chunk from the brown powder tablet he carried in a bamboo box at his waist. He had been ordering the medicine from Kiyō – it helped alleviate the stresses of his new job.
“So let me get this straight,” he said, after he finished chewing the medicine. “There’s a conspiracy of demons, living dead, who control the Taikun’s court and want to rule all of Yamato – and one of them was responsible for the abduction of Takashima Shūhan and Tokojiro Namikoshi from Kiyō?”
Tokojiro did mention some monstrous man in a red robe, torturing him… remembered Koyata. He had always assumed it must have been just another Rangakusha, corrupted and maddened by power…
Miyabe and Izumi exchanged glances and nodded. “I don’t know the other name, but if you’d speak to Takashima Satō-sama,” said Izumi, “she would confirm everything I told you.”
“And this… Dōraku, did you say? What is his role? Is he some other kind of demon?”
“No, no,” said Izumi. “He’s like the others, but – on our side. They call him the Renegade.”
“Or so he says,” added Miyabe, scowling. “All I know is that he used to be Mori-dono’s confidant, and then he betrayed him for Shimazu. I wouldn’t trust him with a blunt chopstick.”
Koyata swiped his hand across his face. “Do you have any proof of this?”
Izumi laughed, Miyabe rolled his eyes. “If we had, we wouldn’t be here,” said Izumi. “You think Shimazu-dono would just sit on a secret like this?”
“I do,” said Miyabe. “The old fox knows far more than he’s letting on.”
It was now Izumi’s turn to roll eyes. “That may be, but in this case we’re all just following hearsay. The only two Fanged anybody’s ever seen, and lived to tell the tale, are Dōraku-sama and the Crimson Robe. One of them is dead – the other in hiding.”
This was almost too much to take in. Koyata’s mind raced, as he struggled to connect the many pieces of puzzle he’d been gathering ever since the first incident in Kiyō. All the rumours, all the random bits of investigation, all the strange events he’d been hearing about… if a conspiracy of demons was the true explanation for everything, it certainly wasn’t the most far-fetched he’d ever come up with.
One thing he couldn’t still figure out.
“Why Heian?” he asked. “How does His Majesty fit into this?”
Miyabe looked at Izumi mockingly. “Yes, Izumi-dono, how does the Divine Mikado fit into Shimazu-dono’s plans?”
Izumi’s eyes darted to the sides, and to the ceiling. He knew, realized Koyata.
“Don’t worry, I made sure we are not being spied on.” He had the two noblemen moved to a separated cell, at the far end of the prison wing, and had checked twice that nobody would be able to use the floor slit without his permission. He hoped it was enough – though in Heian, everyone spied on everyone else.
“Let me preface this by saying that Nariakira-dono has the best Scryers in Yamato at his service. Even you’d agree on this, wouldn’t you, Miyabe-dono?” asked Izumi.
“I don’t know about best, but I’ve heard they are good,” agreed Miyabe.
“And those Scryers are all clear on one thing: the Mikado must be protected, at all costs. His life is in danger.”
Koyata scratched his head. “I know His Majesty and His Excellency are at loggerheads over the barbarian question… but that’s a bit much. The Taikun would never strike at the Imperial Capital. That would be attacking a God!”
Izumi raised his eye. “Do you forget your history? It happened before, and it will happen again. The Taikun’s army is heading for the city – and, for all we know, so do the barbarians. The Aizu are already in control. I fear the Chōfu forces were our last chance at securing the palace.”
Koyata stood up and turned their back at the samurai. He needed to think clearly, and their mocking, annoyed looks were getting on his nerves.
“Is there anything that can yet be done?” he asked.
“You… you would help us?” said Izumi.
“I must not be connected to this,” Koyata replied. “And you would have to stay here, to avoid suspicion.”
“That – that might work,” said Miyabe. “All we’d need is some sort of contact with the outside world.”
“I will let you know.” Koyata opened the grated door. “Tomorrow is the first day of Obon – I’ll be busy. But I will come back as soon as I can.” He stepped outside and shut the door. “I was not here. I heard nothing.”
The two noblemen nodded in unison.
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Draft Two of “The Withering Flame” is now happily done, and I finally have a little time to rest and write the blog.
There was a point earlier this year where things didn’t seem going in that direction at all. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I had a hard time starting with this book, struggling through a long and arduous writer’s block all through the summer and autumn.
Out of several things I tried to break through it, there was one that helped the most, and it’s something I hadn’t tried in years – watching some anime. I used to be a serious anime and manga fan a long time ago – not quite otaku level, but I did watch a lot. It’s been quite a while since I watched a full new series; I lost track of what was going on; after a few years of binge watching, like any pop-culture genre, it all got a bit samey.
But then, while mindlessly browsing YouTube for “inspiration”, I stumbled upon two new series that got me hooked – and, eventually, helped me break out of the stupor. Their subjects were similar: slice of life shows about struggling artists. Even the titles sound almost the same – Barakamon and Bakuman.
Barakamon is a fantastic series; a true gem of an anime, calm, with all the whimsical, summery lightness of Yotsuba&! It’s a tale of a calligrapher overcoming an artist’s block – so obviously, a story close to my heart. Barakamon is, quite rightly, widely praised for its characters, art and smooth pacing. It’s a short series – only twelve episodes; as such, it doesn’t suffer from the common anime problems, like fillers and over-the-top plot complications. It’s a simple, straightforward story: the main character moves to a remote southern island, to find inspiration far away from the big city crowds – but the true inspiration comes to him not from self-imposed solitude, but from interactions with the local villagers.
The series relies on child characters, so it was easy to make it either too sweet, or too annoying, but the writers manage to steer clear of either of the obstacles. The script is an exercise in life-like moderation. There are teenagers here, but no angst. There are good friendships, but they are not overbearing. Even the ending nears perfection, breaking through the common cliches and expectations.
Twelve episodes is a quick watch, and it’s all on YouTube, so do yourselves a favour and try it out.
I actually ended up reading the manga, rather than watching the anime of Bakuman. It seemed fitting: after all, this is a manga about writing a manga.
If this sounds a bit meta, that’s not even the start of it. Bakuman is a shonen battle manga about writing shonen battle mangas, written by the masters of the genre – the authors behind Death Note and Hikaru no Go; so when they set out to show what it takes to create a #1 series, you can take their word for it – these guys know what they’re talking about.
I did say that it’s a battle manga… The battle element comes from the publishing system used by manga magazines like Shonen Jump: weekly rankings and ratings are the key to having your series continued or cancelled. Every issue of Jump is a new battle, every new mangaka is a potential enemy.
This is all fairly interesting, but it’s not what makes Bakuman the perfect series for breaking out of a writer’s block. It’s the passion all the characters show for their work. The mangaka’s life is, by all possible measures, a terrible one. No sleep, no holidays, pushing the deadlines, constant need to be on the top of one’s game… in a faint hope that you’ll be the one guy or girl out of the struggling hundreds to make the big time. A failure is unforgivable – and, often, irreversible. And yet, they keep doing it, just for the sake of creating art and telling stories.
The manga is not without its flaws. Unlike Barakamon, Bakuman is a long and winding series, and it tends to get rambling at times. The cast of characters is mind-bogglingly vast, the plot arcs at times get ridiculously complex and unrealistic. The romance plot is far too romantic and sugary for my liking – although, to their credit, the authors don’t stray from showing the sexism prevalent in the entertainment industry. But all that is insignificant compared to the sheer force of inspiration emanating from the pages, a force that makes you want to drop everything and start drawing/writing/composing that long forgotten piece of art you had lost all hope for.
There are 176 chapters of the manga available as scanlations, and three seasons of anime. Even if you stick to manga, you will want to watch at least bits of the anime, to see how the “shows within the shows” are brought to life – the fake openings are better than most real ones I’ve seen lately 🙂