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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Q&A with M.L. Wang - the Winner of SPFBO 5

ABOUT M.L.: Hi! I’m M. L. Wang, author, martial artist, and weird recluse currently hiding somewhere in Wisconsin with my maroon-bellied parakeet, Sulu. I enjoy gruesome nature documentaries and long walks in circles around my room.

My published books include The Sword of Kaigen, Theonite: Planet Adyn, and Theonite: Orbit (series discontinued) and my ongoing serials include Gunpowder Magnolia, Seven Forsaken, and Sazuma.

Find M.L. online: Website, Patreon, Amazon, Goodreads, Newsletter

SPFBO 6 has just ended and Justin Lee Anderson won it with his great novel, The Lost War. Before SPFBO 7 starts, we decided to approach last year's SPFBO winner, M.L. Wang, the author of The Sword of Kaigen, about her current projects. Here's what she's up to :)


Hello M.L. and thank you for agreeing to this Q&A. You won SPFBO in 2020. How did you celebrate it? With Bentley, Rolls Royce or Ferrari?

That period of time was such a blur that I have a tough time remembering. I vaguely recall some UK folks (Kitty G? Rob Hayes? People for whom the AM comes ahead of mine) messaging me at the tail-end of an all-nighter I’d just spent recording a pronunciation guide for The Sword of Kaigen audiobook, so I was on the loopy side. Sadly in no condition to drive any of the expensive cars I bought in celebration.

On a more serious note, can you show us the picture of your selfie stick?

The SPFBO stick belongs to my parrot now, like my heart.

Before winning last year’s SPFBO you decided to abandon your Theonite universe. You’ve explained why in newsletters but, perhaps, you could offer a quick recap to our readers?

In that original announcement, I vaguely cited “the size of Theonite’s cast, the breadth of its world, and the complexity of some of its content” as the reasons I couldn’t continue the series. I was too wounded at the time to go deep into the decision but, with distance, I can elaborate…

Theonite is predicated on a thought experiment: what would Earth look like with its historical hierarchies and racial injustices reversed? Also superpowers.

This thought experiment did a lot for me as a young person parsing the world and its injustice. I think it still does something for a portion of my readership. But, as far as my current-day brain is concerned, the premise lacks nuance and has some fundamental flaws that I’m not comfortable carrying into future stories.

One example: hereditary superpowers in a story about race. In our reality, race is a social construct that falsely equates a person’s appearance with qualities like strength and intelligence. How do you attempt a reasonable and responsible exploration of racial prejudice in a universe where peoples’ race isn’t a construct but actually renders them capable of vastly different magical feats? This isn’t to say that hereditary magic systems are inappropriate to all stories; it’s just an awkward choice for a story attempting the themes that Theonite was attempting. This world-building oversight might be understandable for a fourteen-year-old (which is how old I was when I shamelessly ripped the magic system from Avatar) but not something I want to perpetuate as an adult.

The magic system is just one of about a thousand roadblocks, big and small, barring my way forward with that universe. Another major one is that I simply don’t have the range of experience to write some of the storylines I had planned. If I do go back to the world of Theonite, it will be massively rebooted and probably a collaboration with authors of different backgrounds. However, before I even think about roping other creatives into a project of that size, I have to figure out if I’m suited to collaborative storytelling at all, so that’s something I’m going to be exploring this year (more on that below).

You’re working on a new Universe, Altima. Can you tell us more about it? 

Altima refers to the reformed supercontinent (Pangea Ultima but an alternate version, get it? I’ll see myself out) on a distant future Earth. I was considering whether or not explaining the underlying premise of Altima would be a spoiler and decided nah, it’s fine, so here we go:

A terraforming AI has kept Earth’s environment stable for human life and, in fact, ensured that the “human species” (as defined by the late 3rd millennium humans who programmed it) and most of their contemporary flora and fauna have continued to exist for 250 million years on what would have otherwise become an inhospitable planet. 99.99% of the inhabitants of Altima at any given time are unaware of the AI’s nature and origins, conceptualizing it as a force of nature, a god, many gods, or whatever the culture calls for. Under the right circumstances, the AI can be an interactive entity and a powerful energy source, lending itself to many “magic systems” as well as many religious beliefs.

I chose this sci-fi premise because it’s specific enough to hold many stories in the same universe under similar principles while also being loose enough to accommodate the breadth of low fantasy, high fantasy, sci-fi, and dystopian stories I wanted to tell.

Can you tell us about your writing projects available to your patreons?

I launched my Patreon with a Matsuda family chapter of my unpublished draft of Theonite 3 for fans of The Sword of Kaigen and the first chapters of two flintlock fantasy serials, Gunpowder Magnolia and Sazuma, for those interested in following my Altima universe as it takes shape. Since then, I’ve published one chapter of Sazuma every even month and one chapter of Gunpowder every odd month. Patrons also get early access to chapters of my newsletter serial, Seven Forsaken, and, as of right now, one deleted scene that hasn’t been released elsewhere. Not a writing project, but I also post exclusive character artwork and pictures of my parrot, Sulu. Those tend to get the most likes.

How would you describe the plot of your current projects (Seven Forsaken, Sazuma, and Gunpowder Magnolia) if you had to do so in just one or two sentences?

SAZUMA is a spy fantasy set in a matriarchal metropolis magically grown from the roots of a giant tree. Hook: “All secrets in the city of Sazuma move through the Spy Guild, the daggers in the dark. Chaos shakes the state to its roots when the most powerful spies among them turn both secrets and steel against each other.”

GUNPOWDER MAGNOLIA is an f/f flintlock fantasy with a calligraphy-based magic system. Hook: “At the edge of civilization, a battalion that was never supposed to see combat faces a magic that was never supposed to exist.”

SEVEN FORSAKEN is a slow-burn road boat trip fantasy following a shape-shifting priest-turned-mercenary on a quest to kill a monster that doesn’t exist. And for whatever reason, I haven’t been able to move past my original joke tagline for this one: “Snakes don’t eat people. People eat people.”

At the moment, the stories you’re working on are serialized. I wonder if, structurally, you write them as web serials or full-length novels released chapter by chapter?

I can’t say whether this is a good approach but I don’t write serial chapters very differently from one-chunk-release novel chapters. In both cases, my chapters usually run a little long, attempt a self-contained mini-arc, and end on something like a cliffhanger. There are places in a serial where I drop a recap—just a casual “hey, remember where we are, and where we’re going, and why, since it’s been like three months since you had a refresher?”—that I wouldn’t include in a novel.

Do you plan to release them as novels? If yes, what will be your approach to editing and marketing the whole project?

I do plan to release all three as novels at some point, but the approach will depend on the project and I’m still early in the process to be thinking about editing and marketing.

When I adapted The Sword of Kaigen from a newsletter serial to a book, I cut a lot of the serial-friendly recapping I mentioned earlier. In cases where the recap was built into the pacing, I used that space to insert material that added depth to the world instead of retreading the surface. There will be a lot of similarly redundant material I want to cut from Seven Forsaken when I edit it into a book. I might also try to streamline the plot… or I might leave it as a winding, meandering series of small self-discoveries. Snakes gonna slither, right? And Kaigen did okay with an unconventional structure.

Gunpowder Magnolia is single-pov so far. Turning that one into a book may involve adding one or two pov characters with their own subplots, depending on how I want to balance scope with a linear plot. Changes to Sazuma, with its many pov’s and timelines, will most likely have to do with where the story starts and which characters get narrative focus, but again, it’s early in the process to say. 

Also, how on earth do you keep track of what’s happening in three projects you’re working on simultaneously?!

Honestly, not very well. I have vague notions of one day turning my world-building scribble pad into a proper world bible, but I should probably get on that sooner rather than later if I don’t want to end up with a second super broken universe.

I’ve never had any trouble remembering characters, their traits, their motivations, their relevant relationships, etc. I am worse at remembering settings, and I am the WORST at numbers. This has caused me a lot of grief with Altima’s magic, which leans heavily on numbers. There’s one guy with a multi-piece magical sword that has X segments, a guy with a magic metal arm that has X parts, weapons made of animal spines with X vertebrae, and I forget X every time. I end up counting from concept artwork or the joints in my own hand. 

From my recent serial chapter: “There appeared to be eight people—six adults and three children—and several chickens sharing the tiny space.” And from my proofreader: “Um. Nine? Is [protagonist] bad at math?” No, Levi. It’s me. I am bad at math.

I watched a Quarancon panel you moderated and loved it! Your mention of analyzing the best performing covers during the Quarancon sale piqued my interest. Can you reveal your findings? What color palette and themes make the cover most “clickable” based on this sample of covers?

I’m happy to share with a couple caveats: first, most of the traffic to the page came from r/Fantasy, the SPFBO Facebook page, and participating authors’ social media posts, meaning that the data probably disproportionately favors authors with larger platforms, strong SPFBO prestige, and/or r/Fantasy hype. Second, the cover images on the landing page were slightly bigger than Amazon thumbnails, so the data might not perfectly reflect thumbnail clickability out in the wild Amazon rainforest.

With that out of the way, here are the three salient things I shared with the participating authors:

Blue covers pulled the most clicks, with every cover that was primarily blue falling in the top half of the list. Gray, black, and brown covers did not perform as well, falling mostly in the lower middle of the list, with some outliers. Red, orange, and gold covers fell all over the place (nothing definitive to note here except perhaps that red, orange, and gold are “neutral” cover colors?) Green covers noticeably underperformed all other colors.

Covers that foregrounded human (or humanoid) figures outperformed covers featuring scenes or landscapes, which outperformed more "graphic designey” covers featuring objects or symbols.

Older SPFBO entries that now have new covers performed, on average, much better than those without revamped covers. (High performing cover redesigns included Alec Hutson’s Crimson Queen, Brian O’Sullivan’s Fionn, and Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus)

Note that I did not have this data when I designed the cover of The Sword of Kaigen. I’m just that prescient (read: lucky).

What’s your publishing Schedule for 2021/2022?

I have a standalone novella called Blood Over Bright Haven coming out in late 2021 or early 2022. I’ll decide on a release date when the second draft is finished (right now, I have a very skeletal draft that I’m slowly fleshing out). I’m not sure how hard I want to push this project with readers who loved The Sword of Kaigen, since it’s a very different kind of fantasy. Dark academia vibes, long research scenes, not a sword fight to be found.

Also in 2021 or 2022, I’m looking at serializing a light contemporary fantasy for Kindle Vella with Virginia McClain of SPFBO 5 and QuaranCon fame. This is where we find out if I’m capable of co-writing a story or if my brain comes oozing out my ears.

I may also have short stories coming out in a few anthologies in the next year-ish. I’m not the person in charge of any of these projects, so news on those will come when it comes.

Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

If you read to the end of this interview, I guess I’m just impressed with your patience. If you’re one of my long-time readers, though, seriously, thank you for bearing with me as I crawled into a hole, messed up my writing schedule, and didn’t publish anything for over two years after The Sword of Kaigen. I’m acutely aware of how lucky I am that my readership and the fantasy community at large can be simultaneously so enthusiastic and so forgiving as I take too long to figure out my life. This is not a kind of compassion every author enjoys and I’ll never stop appreciating it.

You can find books from my discontinued universe on Amazon, follow Seven Forsaken for free through my newsletter, get access to Gunpowder Magnolia and Sazuma through my Patreon, and read preview chapters of everything I’ve mentioned on my website. All links below.








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