Cassandra Khaw: Five Things I Learned Writing Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef (A Gods & Monsters Novella)
It’s not unusual to work two jobs in this day and age, but sorcerer and former triad soldier Rupert Wong’s life is more complicated than most. By day, he makes human hors d’oeuvres for a dynasty of ghouls; by night, he pushes pencils for the Ten Chinese Hells. Of course, it never seems to be enough to buy him a new car—or his restless, flesh-eating-ghost girlfriend passage from the reincarnation cycle—until opportunity comes smashing through his window.
In Kuala Lumpur, where deities from a handful of major faiths tip-toe around each other and damned souls number in the millions, it’s important to tread carefully. Now the Dragon King of the South wants to throw Rupert right in it. The ocean god’s daughter and her once-mortal husband have been murdered, leaving a single clue: bloodied feathers from the Greek furies. It’s a clue that could start a war between pantheons, and Rupert’s stuck in the middle. Success promises wealth, power and freedom, and failure… doesn’t.
1. You Don’t Always Have To Listen To People Who Know Better
I almost didn’t write this novella. When Abaddon Books opened their call for submissions, I had a number of people gently suggest that I shouldn’t bother. It sounds malevolent and destructive, I know, but it came from a good place. I’m a pathological workaholic. I spend at least 12 hours a day voluntarily toiling at something. I’ve always worked two jobs, or had too many deadlines stacked over each other — not because I needed the money, but because it was a compulsion. But that’s another story.
So, anyway, these people told me no, and I told myself yes. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. I polished it as much as I could and sent it to even more people, who then replied, “This isn’t very pulpy. Maybe, you should think about this again.”. Rupert Wong is like Rincewind smooshed together with Constantine. He doesn’t want to be heroic. He doesn’t want glory. He’d really, really rather be boring and stable and alive. Rupert’s world — the Gods & Monsters universe that Chuck built — is pulpy, but he’s a side character jammed into the spotlight.
But I liked Rupert. I liked the fact he was a bit player come to the forefront. I liked his neuroses. I liked the fact he was a great cook and a bit of a coward and a loving partner, who valued family more than anything else in the world. So, against everyone’s advice, I sent my entry in.
2. You Should Listen To People Who Know Better
I haven’t really gotten a chance to say this on a public forum anyway, but I credit this debut to Stephen Power. He’s an editor in the publishing industry, a soon-to-be published author under the Simon451 banner, and a great person to talk to about how things work. Before I sent in my final manuscript to Abaddon, I ran over to him and went, “How’s this for a synopsis?”
He said nope.
By then, I’d already spent a week researching how to write synopses. I thought I had an idea about what was going on. But he hit me with critiques: this line was too opaque, that line tried to sell too much, this was pretty but it didn’t sell at all. I took his feedback and scurried back to the writing-web and thought things over. Some of his input, I kept. Others I put aside. But generally speaking? His remarks helped massively. Even if I didn’t follow his suggestions to the letter, I used to the spirit to them to rewrite that synopsis. (Thanks, Stephen. You are the best.)
3. Outlines Are Fucking Amazing (But You Should Know What You’re Doing)
Chuck said it first. Outlines rock. They also suck. They rock at sucking, and suck at rocking and somewhere in between that miasma of possibilities, they come together into something truly spectacular. I generally never, ever write outlines. Not for my nonfiction work, not for my short stories, and certainly not for longer pieces. (This is probably why I’ve never sold anything longer than a novella up till now.)
But Abaddon was very, very clear about wanting an outline. A 2,000-word outline. Specifically. So, reluctantly, I started piecing it together.
This was the first time I’d properly ever worked on a structure like this, ever thought it out with constraints. I’ve written them on-spec before, but no one seemed to mind very much if my outline sprawled into a novelette of its own. 2,000 words. Wow. That was something else. It compelled me to start reading up on narrative structures, which I’d only been vaguely aware of before. Lester Dent’s Pulp Master Fiction Plot eventually formed the bones of what I was pursuing. But I didn’t stop there. I hammered in the eight-point plot, reread all of my favorite old myths to see how they’re composed, then read even more things about plots. By the end of it, I’d gotten my outline to a science. It was beautiful. (In my eyes.)
And the funny thing about that is, despite the fact I’d made very specific decisions as to what I wanted to do with the outline, I changed about half of it by the time I started writing. Outlines only seem rigid, but I think they’re more sanity checks than anything else. You can still go wild. They just give you something to cling onto when you’ve realized you’ve digested too much writer acid.
(P.S: I still hate outlines.)
4. You Write What You Know
A tangential revelation that, in retrospect, should have been more obvious: you write what you know, and who you know.
Almost every character in RUPERT WONG, CANNIBAL CHEF is a person of color. There are only two individuals who are not and they’re side characters who exist in their situations because of their ethnicity. If you guessed they were white, you’re right.
Despite the recent push for diversity, I didn’t actually set out to be diverse, strange as that might be to say. Coming from Malaysia, people of color are the status quo. We’re Indian, Chinese, Malay, Kadazan, Dusun, Iban — the list goes on. White people, on the other hand, different. And that kind of bled through. I wrote what I knew: a metropolis where ghosts were almost real, a place where cultures intermingled, where pirated DVDs still abound. I borrowed from our myths and our urban legends. I borrowed from my ethnic culture. (I’m ethnically Chinese, but am a Malaysian citizen.) I borrowed from our ideas of the Western World, who they represented, and what they were.
Not once did I consider having a white main character because, you know, that isn’t how my world view works. In a weird way, it explained to me why the video game industry, for one, is absolutely saturated with white men. People automatically default to what is familiar, to what they recognize when they look around them. That which surrounds you defines your perspective of normal. Consequently, writing my little novella make me a little kinder towards all those people I might have held in suspicion before. Not everyone who writes a stubbled hero is a tunnel-visioned prat.
But at the same time, this doesn’t mean that people can’t and shouldn’t go out of their comfort zones. Video games, genre fiction, and all forms of entertainment can, and always will, benefit from having more voices, more experience. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot if we take the easy route and stick to the narrow scope of what we know. The world is vast, so vast that it’s almost crippling to consider, and if we can expand the breadth of ‘what we know’ to include even a tiny percentage of that enormity — who knows where we can go? I’m doing my damn best to learn from the cultures I encounter in my travels, and I totally recommend you join me in this experiment of mine. I promise you, it won’t suck.
6. Leaving Your Chair Is Good
I don’t know how Chuck does it. I mean, the sheer amount of words he writes in a seating. Jesus Christ. Every time I think about it, I get a bit woozy. The same could be same about any number of writers. (Brandon Sanderson, sir, how the respectful hell do you do it?) It’s genuinely intimidating as to how much people can write.
When I started writing RUPERT WONG, CANNIBAL CHEF, I tried to hold myself to similar standards. It didn’t work. I fizzled out really early, and ended up being burnt-out for a few weeks. I was absolutely crippled by my inability to do as well as the greats. But you know what I learned? You don’t really have to write every day. Not everyone has that capacity. And the moment I realized that, things worked better for me.
I started bolting from the proverbial chair whenever my brain grew sticky with bad prose. I walked away. I played a video game. I went for Muay Thai. I did other things. And that distance, even though it seemed unproductive at first, proved fantastic for me. I wrote more with breaks than without. I wrote more when I started forgiving myself for those hours when I could not. It shouldn’t seem like a revelation, but it was.
So, you. Get out of your chair if you’re having a block. Come back later. Eat a salad. Kiss a person you find attractive. Do something else. It is totally okay.
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Cassandra Khaw is a London-based writer who still has her roots buried deep in Southeast Asia where there are sometimes more ghosts than people. Her work tends to revolve around intersectional cultures, mythological mash-ups, and bizarre urban architecture. When not embroiled in fiction, she writes about technology and video games for a variety of places including RockPaperShotgun and Ars Technica UK. Offerings of fluffy things are always welcomed.