Sunday 13 May 2018

Indie spotlight: Alexa Kang on Shanghai Story

Indie spotlight focusses on self-published authors and self-publishing. Here, Alexa Kang, a Boston-based, Chinese-American author of World War Two (WWII) historical fiction, discusses Shanghai Story, which publishes through her own house, Lakewood Press, on May 18.

Shanghai Story is set in 1936 Shanghai. It is the first book of a projected trilogy set to chronicle the events in China leading up to WWII, as well as the experience of Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

So, over to Alexa…

In the two years since I started writing WWII fiction, I've become friends with many WWII fiction authors. I'm tuned-in on what WWII books are being published. For books published in English, one thing I noticed is the scarcity of WWII novels set in the East. The few ones I did find are focussed on the characters' private struggles rather than the strategic and political history of the War. The main characters, if Asian, are always women.

I had to wonder, for a war that impacted the whole world, why are there so few novels of WWII set in the East? Are readers simply not interested in WWII fiction set outside of Europe? Is the Far East too foreign for Western readers to relate to? Or maybe, is it finally time to bring the Eastern front to the WWII fiction audience?

As I reflected upon these questions, the idea of writing a story about WWII China began to brew in my head. I like writing big, sweeping epic tales. Wartime China provides a trove of history to enable me to create one. The WWII era is one which people often romanticised. Pre-war Shanghai, with all its glamour and internationalism, would make for an incredible backdrop. I’ve lived in Shanghai for seven years myself. I know the Chinese culture, and I speak and read the language. I have all the tools to make this story happen.

But it wasn't enough. I'm not a writer who can create stories based on an agenda. My creative process is very organic. I cannot plan my writing and methodically devise an outline to serve a point. I can only write a story if a character comes alive in my head. When that happens, I begin the first page, and I let the character take me down the road. Often, I don't know how the story will unfold until I get to the end.

So, I sat on the idea for months until one day, I saw a young Chinese man returning home from college in America. I saw him disembarking a ship at the Bund. His life has only begun. He would not know that in a year's time, his dreams and plans for the future would drastically change when the Japanese invasion sparked China's entry into WWII. This image led me to Shanghai Story. Finally, I could share with readers what happened in China leading up to WWII through the eyes of Clark Yuan, the young man who I saw stepping off that ship.

For Shanghai Story, I want something more than a slice of life and a personal struggle. I want my readers to come away with an overall view of WWII China on the world stage. I want Clark to be directly involved with the Nationalist Party, the foreign powers, the resistance movement, the Japanese, and the secret police. I also want to shed a light on the Jewish refugees who had come to China when the Allied countries that led the war refused to grant them safety. In Shanghai Story, the experience of the Jewish refugees came to me in the form of Eden Levine. In the chaotic world of Shanghai as war loomed and raged, she entered my story as the embodiment of morality, strength, and hope.

As the release date of Shanghai Story approaches, I feel like I'm in the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Jones had to take the leap of faith. For indie-writers, there is a huge pressure to "write to the market." In other words, if you want your book to sell, write what the readers are buying. Don't publish what hasn't already been proven to sell. With Shanghai Story, I'm doing the exact opposite. It is a conscious risk. I'm offering a WWII historical fiction set in Asia and not Europe. The story revolves around an Asian male protagonist, a choice I have not seen in recent English books in this genre, and rare in other genres outside of martial arts fantasy. Put him in a romance subplot with a white female protagonist, and I might have on hand the formula for the publishing equivalent of box office poison.

Nonetheless, Clark and Eden were the ones who spoke to me when I conceived this story. I hope you will get to know them and witness through them what life in Shanghai was like in the not too distant past. I hope you, too, will follow their journey and feel their joy, pains, and dreams, as I have.

Being an indie author today is super challenging. Indie-writing has matured a hundred-fold since its gold rush days six years ago. To succeed, the quality of the work must equal or exceed those released by traditional publishers. Good packaging with professionally-created and genre relevant covers is a given. Beyond that, I believe editing is a must. This is often a point of contention among indie writers. I've worked with a number of editors. Each has helped make my books into the best form they could be. Being open to suggestions and criticisms is important because every draft has its weaknesses, and as authors, we're the last ones to want to see them. If budget is tight, I would even recommend content edit over copy edit if a proofreader is available to clean up grammatical mistakes. Readers will overlook stylistic problems, but unappealing characters, problematic plots and inconsistencies can drive them away.

Having a coherent marketing plan is crucial. Often, new writers publish, post on social media, and wonder why their sales won’t take off. For each book, an author today has to find the target audience, build buzz, make a splash at launch, work the Amazon algorithm for continuous sales, and cultivate a following for future releases. Also, success won’t last with only one book. Each new book will widen the net and your audience.

Finally, join the Facebook group SPF Community. It is the best place for indie writers to learn how to market.

Details: Shanghai Story publishes as an eBook on May 18 You can pre-order from the Amazon US site.