Jason Rohan: Five Things I Learned Writing The Sword Of Kuromori
Ancient monsters bite off more than they can chew in this action-packed adventure set in modern Japan.
Kenny Blackwood, aged 15, arrives in Tokyo to spend the summer with his estranged father only to find himself in the middle of a hidden war that is about to explode.
Racing against a near-impossible deadline, Kenny must find Kusanagi, the fabled Sword of Heaven, and use it to prevent the disaster. But a host of terrifying monsters is out to destroy him, and success will come at a price.
With the clever, fearless Kiyomi as his guide, Kenny must negotiate the worlds of modern and mythic Japan to find the lost sword, before it’s too late.
A MILL NEEDS LOTS OF GRIST
Ah, that old chestnut, “plenty of grist for the mill.” It’s a good plan; if you’re going to write, it helps if you live a bit, else what are you going to write about?
At the simplest level, I take this to mean try as many new experiences as you can. Try bungee-jumping – you might have a character fall from a great height. Try learning a new language – you’ll see the limitations of your own as well gain insight into another way of thinking.
Or you can push it to the extreme and snack on hallucinogenic mushrooms or wear a Ku Klux Klan costume to a hip-hop concert. Whatever you’re willing to risk, but the point is the same: try new experiences, because you never know when it will come in useful.
Taking a step back, I also apply this to leaving one’s comfort zones. Watch a movie, read a book, or listen to an album that you’d normally go nowhere near. It’s a good lesson in analysing why the particular piece doesn’t work for you, but also you might get an idea from it, however small, in which case it wasn’t a wasted exercise.
FEAR IS THE PATH TO THE DARK SIDE
Without getting all Freud-dude about this, we all have at least two selves. One passes for normal and is sensible; this is the self that functions in society, wears matching socks and knows how to queue. The other is a headcase; this is the self that wants to walk out of the house naked, to jump in front of a train, to fart in a crowded elevator. That other self is a dick – we know this – and if given control will kill us, which is why we have the Darwin Awards.
But here’s the thing; that other self has its uses and one of those is to make us chase opportunities. Nice Christopher Columbus probably wanted to stay home and play with kittens, but it was Nasty Christopher Columbus who sailed to the New World, caused mass genocide and ultimately gave us the internet which is how you’re able to read this. Sure, we can play it safe, but then we don’t achieve anything.
You have to take risks if you want to get anywhere, whether it’s the grocery store or the Hugo Awards. In my case, I went to Japan, fresh out of college, without speaking a word of Japanese. It was a life-changing decision, the best thing I did, but it wasn’t Mr Safe who made the call.
SKELETONS HAVE THEIR USES
I long ago came to the conclusion, maybe wrongly, that everyone has scars from childhood. I even picture some Mitt Romney-type, silver-spoon-in-the-mouth, trust fund beneficiary sitting in his shrink’s office bemoaning the fact that his life was too sheltered, devoid of any character-forming challenges and he’s an emotional wreck as a result.
We all have scars, skeletons in the closets, bodies under the floorboards. That’s not a bad thing at all.
I have a somewhat unusual background, being born in England to Caribbean immigrants of Indian origin. (Think AMA award-winning Nicki Minaj or Nobel Prize laureate V.S. Naipaul, depending on your cultural proclivities.) Growing up in the Seventies, this meant I experienced racism and prejudice, but that’s life. As a teenager, I had a serious battle with depression after my father died, but again that’s all valuable grist. No experience is ever wasted provided you learn from it and this is where “write what you know” comes into play.
All stories, the ones written by humans at any rate, have characters with feelings and emotions that we all share and understand. The stronger the bond of empathy between character and reader, the more engaged the audience, and one way to do that is to unearth some of those skeletons.
When I came to write this book, I wanted the character arc to include a reconciliation between father and son and the way I approached it was to have that conversation with my own long-deceased father, to say some of the things I should have but never did. Yes, it was uncomfortable, picking at old scabs, but also therapeutic and, I hope, infuses some emotional authenticity.
BEING A STUBBORN S.O.B. ISN’T A BAD THING
Being a writer is a vocation. Like the priesthood, it requires sacrifice, dedication and faith. Unlike the priesthood, there is no promise of reward nor grateful parishioners. You’re on your own, sweetheart, and all you have to keep you going is blind faith in your own abilities.
This is easier to manage if you’re a raging egomaniac but, if not, then stubbornness isn’t a bad back-up trait.
The Sword of Kuromori is the third book I wrote but it’s the first one I sold. Back in 2007, when I started writing seriously again, the first fruit of my labours was a 144,000-word monster which I quickly buried without ever sending off to anyone.
It was too long for a debut novel and needed a lot of rework, but it was finished and I’d learned so much from writing it. For a complete break, I next wrote a fast-paced, action thriller for my kids. It got me an agent but not a publisher. I then wrote Kuromori but it took me a year and a half to find a new agent, during which time I went and wrote a fourth book, to keep me from fretting.
Once I landed my new agent, the book was sold four months later, but it took six years, four books, two agents and 78 rejections to reach that point.
The funny part is that I’d set myself a target of 200 rejections before I quit and moved on to another book, so I came in under the line.
RESEARCH IS GOOD BUT WHEN IT FAILS MAKE STUFF UP
I spent five years in Japan, which is why it was a natural move for me to set the novel there. Having said that, it’s been a while since I left and I’d never studied Japanese myth or folklore so I had a lot of homework to do, both directly for the novel and indirectly to re-familiarise myself with the language, customs and traditions.
Fortunately, thanks to the power of the internet, I could do a lot of that on my PC, such as using Google Street View to tour the back alleys of Tokyo. Nonetheless, it still took over a year of digging to gather the material I needed for the tale, but what do you do when you can’t find that elusive kanji or obscure god you came across in the Kojiki?
For me, that was easy. A fiction writer is by definition a liar. Plato wanted to banish all poets from his idealised Republic because as soon as you say, “There was once a man who had two sons,” you’re making stuff up and lying your ass off.
In this light, it then becomes simple to create the things you need, as long as you play by the rules of your world. For example, I created a system of using magic by writing out Chinese logographs in the air. It seemed to make intuitive sense to me and I later discovered folk tales in which that happened. Similarly, certain types of Japanese monster follow patterns, such as the chimera-style transposing of one type of head on to another body. Knowing that gives me licence to create new beasties if I can’t find one that serves the story’s purpose.
For me, research is still king and will often dig you out of a hole, but don’t become a slave to it. The beauty of writing fantasy is that no-one can really bust your nuts over it, not anyone sane at least. “But a real wizard wouldn’t do that,” isn’t going to carry a lot of weight. So long as you stay true to the spirit of the world you’re working in, you’re free to create anew.
Here’s a final example. I wanted to include a variation on the “five finger death punch” because, hey, it’s a kid’s book with martial arts and it’s really cool, but I couldn’t find any solid references in the literature, so I made it up. Enjoy!
“The remaining oni stopped to size up the frail-looking old man. Genkuro bowed to the creature and then adopted a fighting stance. The monster grunted and smashed at him with its club. Genkuro’s left hand flashed upwards and he parried the blow, blocking the huge metal beam with his bare hand. With his right, he landed a chop on the oni’s wrist.
Kenny winced at the sound of bone snapping and stared as a ripple went up the oni’s arm. The staccato sound of crackling bone continued as the shock wave travelled to the monster’s shoulder, along its rib cage and down its spine. The oni flopped to the ground, its body reduced to a large bag of skin, as its pulverised skeleton could no longer support it.”
Jason Rohan has worked as a staff writer for Marvel Comics in New York and as an English teacher in Japan, where he lived for five years.