We're excited and honoured to be joined by ML Wang, winner of SPFBO5 with 'The Sword of Kaigen' for our latest interview. If you're not familiar, the Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off is an annual competition where 300 independent authors submit their novel. There are 10 judging panels who recommend their finalist and then all 10 panels read and recommend their winner. It's a grueling and rigorous process. To come out on top is an amazing achievement, for previous winners it has lead to further achievements, such as contracts, agents and global recognition.
1. Welcome! We’re so glad to meet the winner of SPFBO5. Tell us how you reacted to the news.
Thanks for having me on the blog! I was actually at the tail end of an all-nighter when the SPFBO chat started buzzing me with the news. Initially, I didn’t even pick up my phone because I was getting a pronunciation guide ready for The Sword of Kaigen audiobook and wanted to have it finished before I slept. Needless to say, I did not get to sleep when it was finished.
2. Tell us something about M.L. Wang. Who is she? For instance, in QuaranCon2020 you said you’d never entered a competition before. What’s happened in between you starting to write and now?
I started writing in the Theonite universe when I was twelve, worked on it straight through middle school and high school, and structured most of my college education around researching for it. It took me until this year (well, December 2019) to figure out that I wanted to change gears to a different universe. This may come as a shock but twelve-year-old writers don’t always make the best world-building decisions and trying to work within those decade-old decisions as an adult writer is a frustrating experience.
3. What was the inspiration behind The Sword of Kaigen?
Oh, so many things. Too many things, probably. Japanese mythology, anime, my own family’s experience of World War II. It’s a pretty mixed bag.
4. Quite often we can encounter characters in our work which prove elusive or refuse to fit in to the restrictions we have for them. Did you have any characters who presented any difficulties for you? Conversely, which character is your favourite?
My favorite characters are usually the ones I have the most difficulty writing because, when I reach that point of breakthrough with them, it’s truly rewarding. It feels like we’ve been on a journey together. In The Sword of Kaigen, those characters were protagonist, Misaki, and her husband, Takeru. Both were originally written to be minor characters in my YA series whose lives we didn’t really need to understand for the purposes of the story, but you can’t dodge motive and development like that with main characters. In coming to understand their baked-in character trajectories, I had to push my understanding of myself, my own life, and the people in it.
5. Let’s talk fight sequences now. The Sword of Kaigen has received a lot of praise in this regard. Our readers might want to hear you talk about this more on YouTube in the QuaranCon2020 panel here. What challenges do fight sequences pose as far as you’re concerned? What experience do you bring to them?
I’m a traditional karate and taekwondo instructor. The fight scenes in The Sword of Kaigen were written with dramatic spectacle and emotional punch in mind more than realism, but the martial arts background was certainly a fun springboard for a lot of the choreography.
Especially in long action sequences, I think it can be difficult to avoid monotony. I try to remedy this by treating action beats like lines of dialogue. Each strike, tackle, and stumble should justify its place in the story by either moving the plot forward or telling us something about the world or characters.
6. Tell us about your writing routines. How and when do you write? What things get in the way? How disciplined are you?
I’m easily distracted. I write on a broken laptop with no internet connection, which prevents me from compulsively checking email or social media during writing time. I keep a word-count tracking spreadsheet open beside my word processor and, whenever my fingers itch to go check something, I plug my new word count into the spreadsheet, thereby satisfying my urge to click a thing and see a number.
7. One of the best things to come out of this year’s SPFBO has been the increased number of women writers who reached the final 10 as well as the strong female roles in many of the novels. These roles extend beyond the conventional ‘kick-ass’ tropes too, thank goodness! Do you feel any responsibility for blazing a trail for women authors? Should we not make a big deal out of this? What’s your reaction?
I’m pretty firmly in the not-make-a-big-deal-out-of-it camp. Women have been writing great literature literally since the advent of the novel (okay, I’m not a big fan of The Tale of Genji, but greatness in art is always subjective; do you, Lady Murasaki) but modern authors aren’t doing anything special by writing while female.
That said, I’m all for breaking, bending, or spicing up tired tropes in fantasy and of course, varied voices in publishing can be instrumental in making that happen. I’m honored to have fought this one out with Angela Boord and Alicia Wanstall-Burke not because they’re women but because their books are among the highest-rated in the history of the competition. All the finalists were doing new and interesting things within the fantasy genre and that’s what’s really important to me.
8. Do you find worldbuilding easy or difficult? What issues does it create for you?
I’m a compulsive world-builder, folders full of clothing and architecture sketches, shelves full of research books, spreadsheets dedicated to constructed languages. As I bemoaned above, the main issue with a lot of the world-building in the Theonite universe is that I did it between the ages of twelve and twenty, leaving me with a thematically fractured universe that I ultimately decided to set aside.
Something I want to improve in my new books is the way I work world-building into the story. Every story has moments of exposition but I’d like to learn to integrate mine more seamlessly than I have in previous books. I’m hoping that writing the story itself and fleshing out the world simultaneously will make this easier. It’s an experiment. We’ll see.
9. What’s next? And with the success of The Sword of Kaigen, do you feel any added pressure now?
As I mentioned above, I’ve shifted to a new universe. This one is a less constrictive flintlock fantasy universe that should accommodate the full range of sci-fi and fantasy stories I want to tell. The pressure following The Sword of Kaigen has definitely affected me. The nice thing about being an indie author is that you get to build your readership slowly, in relative obscurity, making your mistakes without a large audience, learning as you go. In retrospect, I wasn’t ready for the way The Sword of Kaigen took off. I hadn’t learned enough about social media, about the way I absorbed other peoples’ reactions to my work.
The whole experience shook me and threw me way off my plans but now, a year later, I think I’m back on track. At least, I’m enjoying writing again and that’s a start.
10. What do you do to relax? How much of your time is spent writing? Are you an author that finds writing a means to relaxation or do you need to escape it occasionally?
I wouldn’t ever want to ‘escape’ writing except that my brain gets tired after a few hours, and the quality of the writing takes a nosedive into unusable territory. In normal times, I do martial arts for fun. Since that’s out, I’ve been planting lots of basil and tomatoes. Hasn’t kept me in shape, but I do like watching my little buddies grow.
11. Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m a pantser by nature but a plotter out of necessity. My outline and my story are uneasy co-workers, periodically checking in with each other only because it’s in the job description.
12. In a game of Dungeons and Dragons, what role are you? Why?
I’m pretty new to D&D. So far, I’ve only ever played as a Rogue because learning spells seemed hard.
13. What books have you enjoyed reading lately?
Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames and Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. These days, the stories I’ve needed are the ones that delve into the terrifying—death, monsters, human cruelty—with heart and humour. Those two books really hit that note for me.
Also, now that SPFBO 5 is over, I can read my fellow finalists’ books without their quality giving me anxiety. Right now, I’m in the middle of Spark City by Rob Power and really enjoying it.
14. Here in the British and Irish Writing Community we have members who are just starting out on their writing careers. What advice can you offer them?
A lot of us (including Yours Truly) confine ourselves to an early idea of what we want our work to be like and can’t let it go, even though we might be far happier and more prolific writing something else. Don’t limit yourself to your untested preconceptions of your own writing—i.e. “I’m terrible at writing romance,” “I don’t write horror,” “I only work on my One True Idea” etc. If a weird idea strikes you, give it a try. It’s hard to tell which train will take you somewhere great and I’d hate for you to miss yours.
15. Following on from that question, many of these writers are looking for representation to get published via traditional routes. What made you decide to self-publish? Your success in SPFBO may well bring offers in the traditional market. Would you move into that market if the option opened up now?
I decided to self-publish because I wanted full creative control over my work and, as I mentioned above, to learn all the facets of the business myself before making any further decisions. It’s hard to lay down concrete publishing plans at the moment, with every entertainment industry in this state of stress and flux, but two things I can say:
1) Even if one of my books lands a traditional deal at some point, I like the creative control of self-publishing too much to go full traditional. Unless my preferences change drastically in the future, I’ll be a hybrid author or full indie for the rest of my career.
2) I won’t be re-releasing The Sword of Kaigen—on my own or with any publishing house. I’ve discussed this decision with people I trust in both traditional and indie publishing and concluded that it doesn’t make sense to re-release a standalone from a now-discontinued universe. And even if it did make financial sense, I would personally rather put my energy into new projects.
As for the new projects… well, by the time I’m done with those, it’s possible that the whole book market will look very different, so who knows?
Thank you for talking to us M.L. We wish you every possible success with your writing in the future!
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