If you’ve read my review of Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon you will know that I loved the combination of world building and story. But it isn’t Mary Fan’s first book. So in my guest post topics, I asked Fan to talk about the process of writing the second book.
Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon
When a powerful viceroy arrives with a fleet of mechanical dragons and stops an attack on Anlei’s village, the villagers see him as a godsend. They agree to give him their sacred, enchanted River Pearl in exchange for permanent protection—if he’ll marry one of the village girls to solidify the alliance. Anlei is appalled when the viceroy selects her as a bride, but with the fate of her people at stake, she sees no choice but to consent. Anlei’s noble plans are sent into a tailspin, however, when a young thief steals the River Pearl for himself.
Knowing the viceroy won’t protect her village without the jewel, she takes matters into her own hands. But once she catches the thief, she discovers he needs the pearl just as much as she does. The two embark on an epic quest across the land and into the Courts of Hell, taking Anlei on a journey that reveals more is at stake than she could have ever imagined.
With incredibly vivid world building and fast-paced storytelling, Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon is great for readers who are looking for something fresh in epic fantasy.
Burning Rage for Fuel: An Origin Story
I often have trouble remembering exactly where exactly the ideas for my stories came from, since it’s usually a mishmash of things, but I recall the genesis of STRONGER THAN A BRONZE DRAGON pretty clearly. It all started in September 2016 (though I didn’t know it was starting then) when I stumbled upon photo series in the online version of The Atlantic showcasing 19th century images of Qing Dynasty China by English photographer Thomas Child: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2016/09/thomas-child-Qing-Dynasty-Peking-photographs/500987/
Something about those images caught me right away. Here was a glimpse at a bygone era in the nation my family’s from. I’d been to China multiple times (also worked there for a year) and seen plenty of historical sites, but it wasn’t the same as actually getting a glimpse into the past – seeing what someone in the 19th century actually saw.
At the time, I was working on a different WIP and was fairly certain what my next one after that would be, so I didn’t think to use the photos as story fuel. They got tucked into the back of my memories, and I dove into the other projects.
2016 was an awful year – for me personally (won’t get into details, but basically it felt like my life was falling apart) and for the USA, which had just elected an unapologetic bigot to the presidency. By the time January 2017 came around, I was really, really angry about a lot of things. No matter how I tried to distract myself or just relax, there was this burning ember of rage in my chest that I felt nonstop.
And it chose the weirdest of times to explode – while I was watching an animated movie. Specifically, Kubo and the Two Strings. The issue of white-washing in American cinema had been on my mind (and roiling me) for a while (Ghost in a Shell was about to hit theaters, Iron Fist was about to hit Netflix, and the subway stations were plastered with posters for The Great Wall). For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that Kubo would be super white-washed as well (I think because George Takei was one of the voice actors and I thought he’d have a key role… nope, he’s little more than a cameo). As I watched the movie, which draws upon Japanese mythology (and to its credit, is visually stunning), something started rubbing me the wrong way. Eventually it hit me – this was a white, Western fantasy with Japanese folklore sprinkled on top for décor. Just to make sure I wasn’t totally off base, I looked up the creators. Whitey McWhiteface all around.
Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on Kubo. It certainly wasn’t the only reason I was so unrelentingly angry that evening. But for whatever reason, that was the night I snapped.
Part of me had always wanted to write a fantasy set in a fictional version of China – like Westeros or Middle Earth are for Western Europe – but I always dismissed it. I’m Chinese American, after all. I don’t have a degree in the study of mythology or folklore. Everything I know came from barely-remembered stories my parents and grandparents told me when I was little and Chinese historical fantasies I watched on TV as a teen. Of course, fantasy writers are allowed (even encouraged) to invent their own myths – sometimes based on existing ones, sometimes not. I was comfortable doing that with Western-style mythology (unicorns, fairies, etc.) because this was the culture I’d grown up in, but I always felt like an extra “authenticity microscope” would be levelled on me if I ever tried to write fantasy inspired by Chinese mythology.
Yet all these white folks clearly had no problem messing around with East Asian lore.
Meanwhile, it felt like women and girls were under attack in the US. The highly qualified woman who should have been president had won the popular vote, but “lost” to an avowed misogynist thanks to an outdated electoral college system. Geek fandom had turned toxic. Women’s behaviour was scrutinized and policed in the media and in real life – woman who yelled was a hysterical shrew, a man who yelled was an admirable tough guy. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, the world seemed to be telling me that women and girls should shut up and smile and, above all, not be angry.
Something inside me reached a boiling point, and things bubbled up fast. It usually takes me weeks before thinking of an idea and starting to actually work on it. Or I’ll have a thought for a book churning around the back of my head for months while I work on other things before I settle down to develop it into a plot and characters and stuff.
STRONGER THAN A BRONZE DRAGON popped up almost literally overnight. I still have the iTunes email receipt showing that I rented Kubo on Saturday, January 7, 2017. On Monday, January 9, I went to my usual choir evening rehearsal and, during the pauses when the director was rehearsing other sections, scribbled brainstorming notes into the margins of my score (which I also still have!). The ideas were scattered pieces of myths and legends whose origins and authenticity I wasn’t sure of – they were just things I wanted to play around with in my fantasy. Lunar spirits. Shadow demons. Godlike dragons.
And steampunk. Simply because I liked steampunk. Besides, the brass-and-gears look of steampunk art and cosplay seemed like it would fit right into those 19th century photos, which I abruptly remembered and dug up.
The main character, Anlei, seemed to arrive fully formed in my head. I gave her all my anger, and I let her rage. After the heroine of my first book, Artificial Absolutes, was critiqued by some as being “too much” for her impulsiveness and her willingness to be not nice, I’d tried to rein in the boldness and the sometimes explosive rage in subsequent books (to varying degrees of success).
Not anymore. And maybe it was because I’d felt burned by the publishing industry after seeing a book die in submissions and then having three consecutive manuscripts rejected by my then-agent, but I didn’t care if Anlei’s anger made her “unlikable” or “unsympathetic” and therefore less “marketable.” I didn’t care if professionals “wouldn’t connect with her voice” because it was louder and angrier than girls were supposed to be. For the first time in years, I was writing only for me. And maybe because of that, the book seemed to want to write itself. I was clocking around 4,000 words a night on weekdays after work and twice as many on weekends – and I was doing this consistently almost every day (I’m usually a feast-or-famine writer who will write a ton of words one night and then do absolutely nothing for a week after).
As for the plot – that came from an idea I’d had tucked away for a while. I don’t recall exactly where it came from, but I had this thought about writing an unhappy Cinderella story – a working-class girl who’s happy with her working-class life, but is chosen by a powerful man to become royalty. Instead of this being her happy ending, it’s her nightmare. Prince Charming is a controlling jerk, and the palace is a gilded cage. Of course, STRONGER THAN A BRONZE DRAGON wanders far from the realm of fairy tale retellings. The Cinderella idea was just the start — figuring out why this powerful man would choose a working-class girl and why she’d agree to the marriage if she was against it. Everything after, I made up as I went along. (I have zero recollection of where the character of Tai came from… I knew I needed a thief character as an impetus to Anlei’s adventure, but he seemed to pop up spontaneously with his personality and quirks. Looking back, I can definitely see the influences of Disney’s Aladdin, so maybe my subconscious brought that to life).
I’ve always loved epic fantasy adventures full of danger and journeys into the unknown, and so I knew Anlei wasn’t going to stay in the palace for long (royal court dramas are fun, but that wasn’t where my head was at). I’m usually a meticulous plotter, with outlines for days, but I “pantsed” most of STRONGER THAN A BRONZE DRAGON (writing by the seat of your pants, not knowing what will happen in the next chapter). A lot would eventually change in the editing and revisions process, but the structure of that initial draft remains.
At the time, I was also working on co-editing an anthology (Brave New Girls), and so while I had the first 40,000 words or so done by the end of January, I didn’t finish the manuscript until the end of May (I was alternating months – one month for STRONGER THAN A BRONZE DRAGON, one month for the anthology). And the pace definitely slowed down after those first few fevered weeks. But when I look back at those writing days, I recall a story that wanted to happen so badly, I abandoned two other works-in-progress to fulfill that need. And I remember burning rage for fuel – and I had a seemingly endless supply.
About the Author
Mary Fan is a hopeless dreamer, whose mind insists on spinning tales of “what if.” As a music major in college, she told those stories through compositions. Now, she tells them through books—a habit she began as soon as she could pick up a pencil.
Mary lives in New Jersey and has a B.A. from Princeton University. When she’s not scheming to create new worlds, she enjoys kickboxing, opera singing, and blogging about everything having to do with books.
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