Writing is a kind of magic, and Renee Cheung is my new favorite technomancer.
An Interview with Renee
O: So, Renee, from the writing of yours I’ve had the good fortune of reading, I surmise that you seem to enjoy this writing thing. Can you remember the first time that you realized that you enjoy writing? And, if so, could you tell us about that? If not, could you make something up that sounds convincing?
R: It didn’t come easily to me. Language was a struggle for me as a child. I spoke late and I was still learning Chinese when I immigrated to Canada and suddenly had to switch to English. So the whole thing was rather confusing at first. But I always loved stories and my earliest memories were of making them up in my head, dreaming them in my dreams. I have this distinct memory of remembering a fairy tale dream when I was four or five. It was about a prince and a princess and a fox. I remember excitedly telling my parents but baffling them a whole lot instead as kids do to their parents most of the time
I didn’t really get into writing until late high school. I had stumbled on this play-by-email-RPG group and that was when I started writing. The owner of the forum group would control the main setting and each “player” would control one more or more characters, writing for them. It is still to-date, the best collaboration effort in writing I’ve ever been part of and I remember that time fondly. My earliest posts were one-liners. My posts, years later, were pages and pages long. Together, we weaved the richest of stories and many other players I knew back then have now gone on to become published authors. So I guess in short, I can say that the day I stumbled on those forums was probably the day my on-again/off-again love affair with writing started.
O: Pens or pencils? Explain.
R: Neither, much to my regret. My education and career as a computer scientist has ruined me in that regard. I love printing and depend heavily on whiteboards when at work but I can no longer write long prose by hand. I am most comfortable on the computer and these days, it’s usually on my laptop on my lap, my baby in between.
I love stationery though and have a collection of gorgeous notebooks. I just can’t seem to bring myself to use them and even when I tried, it never sticks. I find the idea of writing ideas down in notebooks very romantic and am still hoping one day, I’ll pick up that habit, but for now, it’s all google drive and google docs for me.
O: What, or who, are some influences on your storytelling?
R: The number one biggest influence for me is my favourite author, Charles de Lint. I would say he’s one of the forefathers of urban fantasy, but not as much in the YA vein. Instead, he writes a lot about everyday folks, in particular, folks that are suffering — the abused, the homeless, the mentally-ill and he writes about their struggles, their hopes and their dreams (or sometimes lack of). Then, he mixes in the supernatural, faeries and First Nations mythos. Whenever I talk about de Lint’s writing I have this image in my head of a junkyard with faeries dressed in street clothes, dancing. It’s a very vivid scene in one of his short stories.
As you can probably tell, I strive to write about similar things, except I bring my knowledge of technology more into the picture. A friend of mine says I’m trying to give modernize magic in that sense, but if that’s what I’m doing, it’s only because I am trying to humbly follow in de Lint’s footsteps.
My other influence is in music. This was especially true before the baby was born and I could write with music blaring out loud. My taste spans many genres, from JRock to folk. It’s more about the tone of the music and the imagery, mood or emotions each song brings up. When I was a kid, I thought I would be awesome at directing music videos. Instead I tell stories to the music. I guess that’s close enough.
O: I felt like maybe you were a computer science person, from the stories of yours I’ve seen. I love the angle you take on the marriage of computers and magic. Do you ever feel you have more fantasy leanings in your writing, or more science fiction leanings? Or, maybe this is a better question, is the division between those to arenas blurred for you?
R: I once had a really interesting conversation with some friends about “real” science fiction versus fantasy in the guise of science fiction. For instance, some may think of Doctor Who as science fiction, but what fuels a lot of the Doctor Who lore is so quasi-science and not founded in any fundamental scientific principles. So, the whole show is probably better categorized as fantasy. (After all, it’s all very wibbly wobbily.) In contrast, the Expanse (the show, unfortunately, I haven’t gotten around to reading the books yet), is rooted in plausible science and even their depiction of space is so realistic that it would be firmly categorized as science fiction. Same goes for Star Trek.
As a result, although I have very firm rules for myself on what can and cannot happen in the episodic stories I am writing in at the moment, I am firmly in the fantasy camp. I am very intimidated by scientific explanations and science fiction just doesn’t feed the whimsy in me like fantasy does.
However, I do sometimes muse over how much we as the human race,feel a need to categorize everything. I understand that it helps us make sense of the world around us but sometimes we go to quite the extreme. Just look at the abundance of sorting-fetish in our popular fiction — Harry Potter, Hunger Games, just to name a few. It’s like we feel a need to belong to categories so that we can appropriate those categories to define ourselves. Bringing it all back to the original question, I suppose being a fantasy writer is no different in that sense and it’s what I identify with more strongly.
O: I love music and writing to music myself. What music has been getting your mind buzzing recently? Any suggestions for particularly image-generating music?
R: Well, besides the lullabies I have to write to these days (there are only so many renditions of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star one can tolerate before one goes a little batty!), I have been on a Blackmore’s Night kick lately. Many of their songs paint just the right imagery. My particular favourite is Castle and Dreams and the last lines of the chorus have been haunting me. “It always seems those castles and dreams / Fade with the morning light”
I also highly recommend music by Thomas Bergersen. He writes and produces epic music and his music gets used in trailers I believe. If ever you need to write a tense moment or, well…an epic moment in your story, that’s the music for it. Speaking of epic music, my husband just sent me an Epic Celtic Music mix on YouTube this morning so that will probably be the writing soundtrack for at least this week.
O: From your email RPG days…I’ve always felt like email-RPGs would be excellent places to hone story and character development skills, and especially skills in clear, quick writing. Would you concur?
R: It definitely is a great place to do so! The trick though is that very often you are not the one in control of the story, just your character’s actions and reactions so it’s probably better for character development. It’s also a great exercise in pantsing (I just learned that word recently!). There are no plot points (unless maybe if you are the game master) and other characters will react in ways you didn’t expect, just like in real life. So it teaches you to have to be adaptable too.
I once took a screenplay writing course and my biggest takeaway was “learn to kill your babies”. It’s a horrible phrase, given I just had my first baby but that is probably why it stuck with me. It means the more you are proud of something in your story, the more likely it is the thing that needs cutting the most. Writing in those RPGs meant you couldn’t be precious with anything from the get-go because the chances of steering a story in that direction are slim. If you managed to do so, it probably meant you are a bad player and have railroaded something. I think many people who have played any form of RPGs may have experienced this.
O: Follow up to the last question: Have you ever thought up any innovations or improvements on the email-RPG storytelling format?
R: Not for email-based RPGs specifically, but I actually tinkered with an idea to help writers write RPG-like stories as part of my final project for my Masters degree. One day, if I go on to do a PhD, I plan for it to be my thesis. My supervising advisor, my grad school partner and I were convinced that we could break stories into fundamental blocks and if left vague enough, can be used to dynamically generate stories. This means that say, when you start up a game, the story of the game is generated by the computer on-the-fly and so no two games would ever tell the same story. It is a fundamental flaw in video game storytelling right now. One day I’ll write a follow-up post on this but the general premise was that if we track the states of different characters (treating the world itself as a character) and we assign pre- and post-conditions to each story fragment, we can tell the computer to randomly pick story fragments as long as they don’t violate any states. Given a sufficiently large enough set of story fragments, the stories generated will be varied enough but will all still make sense.
We actually programmed this and tried it out with a very simple story about a boy running errands and it seemed to work. But there’s lots of work to be done still on it before it could be proved out as a viable storytelling. Imagine if writers can write story fragments and players can participate in those stories by having some agency in how the story goes? I think it would be a happy in-between traditional fiction and video games today.
O: I’ll be making a note of the musics and things. So, last couple questions. Where can the readers at home keep their eye and their ear on the unfoldings of your creative output?
R: As I am just starting out, I am currently posting mainly in Medium and you can find a collection of my writings in my summary article.
Other than that, I will eventually be revamping my website to reflect a bit more of what I am currently up to and readers can also visit there eventually.
O: Final question: If you had a captive audience of writers and readers and you had been asked by somebody to “Give ’em a talk that’ll make the next generation of books amazing!” then what would the title of your talk be and, roughly, what would it be about?
R: That is a very interesting question! I think rather than the next generation of books, I would focus more on the next generation of storytelling. And with that being the case, it would be “Transmedia: Evolution of Storytelling”. I think we live in really exciting times where there are now multiple ways to tell story via video, writing, gaming, etc., and many of the mediums are accessible to the individual. (Just look at all the independent single video game developers out there.) The talk would speak to challenges and opportunities around telling stories across mediums. There’s a few TV shows that have tried to do cross-overs with video games (for example, Defiance), and there are tonnes of video game-related books out there. But I would say we are far from being able to tell a cohesive story or stories across different mediums. And I don’t mean just retelling the same story in different mediums either. To me, that would be the most interesting challenge to tackle next.
There. Now you know a little more about my new favorite technomancer.
That was a fun experience. It’s pleasant to get to know people better. And it was immensely pleasant to learn more about Renee Cheung.
Go check out her writing and her website. She’s got a fit website. Enjoyed poking around it a great deal.
And her writing’s the winning. Pixies who are also computer programs. Just that phrase sounds fun.
Look her up on the Tweeterbirdz too. Keep up with a voice from your future.