So we’re kicking off this series with JF! He’s a really supportive friend who is tireless in organising fairs and meetups for writers and artists. It all started when he took the effort to send me an incredibly kind fan mail. It made my day! Since then, we’ve been exchanging emails ranting and raving about the creative process.
Having spoken with him, I can tell that he is genuinely passionate about storytelling, and very generous in sharing everything he has learned along the way. So here’s his story:
JF Koh is a freelance web programmer aspiring to be a full-time writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He is keen on writing in prose and comics. Since 2010, he has been organising the Singapore chapter of the annual 24-Hour Comics Day (similar to the NaNoWriMo challenge), which attracted some 200 participants last year. In 2014, he founded the Panelgraph Showcase comics anthology magazine (www.panelgraph.com), which he edits. In 2016, he started Starving Artist Fair in Singapore (below), a mini Comic-Con that doubles as an incubation programme for comics entrepreneurs.
1. Let’s start from the beginning: what were your childhood aspirations?
I was very timid and shy and didn’t think much about doing anything big, but I’ve had the usual childhood dreams when I thought I wanted to be a fireman, astronaut or scientist.
2. What is one thing many people don’t know about you?
I’m a martial arts fanboy. Six months of Xingyi, a year in Taiji, two years Wing Chun – I’ve dabbled in these arts but have yet to attain a decent level of skill. That’s why I can really identify with Po in Kung Fu Panda. One day – one day! – *awesome pose* I will become the Dragon Warrior … eaurgh, maybe. But it’s not about getting somewhere. It’s about the journey. That’s the awesome part. Most of the benefits have been from the philosophy aspect that has benefited mind and character. I learn it not in order to go and pick fights with mortal enemies, but to gain mastery over the self. It builds self-confidence, and the more I know about martial arts, the more authentically I can write about it.
3. When and how did you realise that you are a writer/artist?
It was in Secondary 2 when I became obsessed with Big Foot after watching a kid’s TV show and reading about the mythological creature. I invested in an exercise book, went to my school library, and tried to write a story about a boy who makes friends with Big Foot and they have all these adventures together.
My Big Foot story didn’t get very far because I didn’t know anything about storytelling at that point, but it was a defining moment for me when I sat there in the library, thinking that this was something I really loved doing, and it was what I wanted to do with my life: writing stories.
I started reading Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction short stories. In his writing, he also shared his thoughts about being a writer, and he deepened my interest in becoming a writer.
4. What and/or who inspires you?
Oh this is a big one. I’ll have to summarise or I’ll go on forever.
Reading both fiction and non-fiction is important to me. Keeping an eye on what’s happening in the world – both the important world-changing stuff as well as the small, uplifting personal stories – feed my thoughts. A surprising amount of story ideas are inspired by reading newspapers.
I always get psyched up by a good book or TV show. George RR Martin (Game of Thrones) and Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) are the more recent successful writers who have shown me how successful you can get with a good story.
My long-time heroes are Neil Gaiman, Brad Bird, JJ Abrams and Rumiko Takahashi, just to name a few.
Brian S. Pratt is not very well-known but is a hardworking author of fantasy e-books. He inspires me with his grit, generosity and willingness to embrace online publishing platforms.
Stories I keep going back to again and again for inspiration include the How to Train Your Dragon franchise; Nickelodeon’s Avatar series, both Aang and Korra; Fringe by JJ Abrams; Dexter, which started life as a novel by Jeff Lindsay; Asimov’s robot stories; among many others.
And then there is this award-winning author by the name of Joyce Chua who was churning out so much writing at a time when I was stuck, that I had to do something to restart my own engine!
5. How do you recharge?
I need to get away from people so that I can breathe and think!
6. Have you experienced anything truly surprising or unexpected, writing-wise, between your first novel and your current book?
Well, I’ve yet to write my first novel, but something unexpected did happen between issues of my Panelgraph Showcase comics anthology magazine. My friend Kelvin Chan did the cover art for the 2016.1 issue – a piece called Crow Maiden (below).
All of a sudden I found myself writing a short story called Daughter of the Crows, about a girl raised by crows and adopted by a human family. Before long, I found that I may have enough story for a novel.
You can check out Kelvin’s cover on my Panelgraph website at https://www.panelgraph.com/
7. Have you changed your mind about any part of the process over the years?
Yes. Early in my life as a writer, my view of writing was that it should be free and without constraints. I didn’t want to follow any established “rules”, but just wanted to write new things in new ways that have never been done before.
I went through an experimental phase in which I valued only the freshness of the form and not its appeal to an audience. I was writing a lot of surreal stuff which I thought was really cool but nobody could understand. Eventually, I realised that I was writing only to please myself, and as a result I had no audience. But the real power of a story is when it can connect with people out there.
After that, I became drawn to genre and devoted myself to the study of craft – the rules which, if you took the time to master, save you the trouble of reinventing the wheel and finding out what works. When you know the conventions, you can use them to open the door to more readers, which adds value to what you write, and allows you to turn it into a living.
8. Have you received any advice along the way that was particularly valuable or pertinent?
Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting exposed me to story structure – a very useful thing to know when you’re writing fiction.
Joseph Campbell‘s theory of the Hero’s Journey in Hero With a Thousand Faces is also about structure as in the physical shape of the story, but also about story’s psychological mirror to the life issues that people face. I’ve gained a lot from this understanding.
More recently, in Wired For Story, Lisa Cron argues that our brains are biologically hard-wired to turn on when we come across a good story, and there is scientific and evolutionary basis for this. People consume stories like they consume gossip – for survival value. Stories help us navigate the world and make sense of it. Her idea is that stories are as essential to survival as the food we eat. Once you get that, you realise people will always have a need for stories, and writers will never be out of a job. This understanding has helped me pursue writing with a greater sense of purpose.
Related to this, there is a free book which you can find on the web, called Dramatica, by Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley. Not an easy read, but the book talks about how a story, specifically the type they call the Grand Argument Story, can be a tool for resolving an issue faced by the human mind. They argue that a story can have a mind of its own (called a Story Mind) which can be structured to consider all the different sides of a problem, in such a way as to help people navigate these angles and make sense of the life issue they are facing. A story doesn’t feel complete until you’ve covered all these angles. If you’re interested to learn more, you can find it here and here.
Earlier this year, I learned something valuable from a storyboard artist called Davis Vu, who teaches a method to generate emotional beats for a story. This ties in nicely with story beats or the beat sheet which many writers work with as part of their process. Because as much as story beats are useful, you can make your stories so much more powerful if you pay more attention to the emotional experience.
9. What do you struggle with the most these days and what do you consider to be your greatest strength as a writer?
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about something which I find very difficult to deal with. Writing is lonely work, so family support becomes all the more important. My family is not supportive of my creative life, and they have even worked together to sabotage my writing efforts. I struggle with this because I’m carrying around a lot of disappointment and sadness when I should be channelling that energy into creative work. I am constantly on my guard because I never know when they are going to pull another stunt on me.
When I see Joseph Schooling achieving gold and acknowledging his parents for their love and support, it’s poignant for me because I’m happy for him but I know I live in another universe and I have to make it on my own.
I share this because I have no doubt there are other writers and artists out there facing similar issues, and I want you to know that you are not alone.
JF with his tribe
Thankfully, I believe I have a couple of cards up my sleeve. I am very clear about what I’m out to achieve. Writing is a marathon which I have been running for years and will continue to run for many more. When I immerse myself in something, I have produced results that surprise even myself. I also have friends who support me – and to me, friends are family by choice.
10. As a fantasy writer, how do you go about building a world?
Research is important, because fact is often stranger than fiction. I mine ideas from reading newspapers and non-fiction. I like to ground my world-building in reality. Even though readers want to be taken to a faraway place which is totally different from their everyday experience, they also want to discover the familiar in this fantastical world.
I like my settings to have a historical or factual basis. For example, a setting I’m working on now was inspired by the history of Australia as a British convict colony. In my setting, this is an alien planet populated by exiles.
In fantasy, there are tropes which readers of the genre generally accept and expect, like magical creatures and shape-shifters. I won’t try to invent a setting which is too crazily different from the expected conventions.
I use the TV Tropes website as a research tool. Wikipedia is another favourite for research.
I also write science fiction, which I find a lot more challenging if I want my setting to be scientifically plausible. You can’t just make things up like you can with fantasy.
11. Tell us about your creative process.
I start with extensive research, which is hard work I cannot run away from. I write a lot of notes during this phase. If a story comes to me easily, it just means that I’ve already done enough past research relevant to this story, and I’m just dredging things up which have been cooking for a while.
After research, I try to draw the broad strokes, which include the ending which to me is the most important part. I have to know the ending and also what the story means for me (a.k.a. the theme). Knowing the story’s meaning, and whether it resonates deeply with me, motivates me to write it.
I develop the broad strokes further into a beat sheet followed by a step outline. This is the thinking and plotting part, which I find more useful to keep separate from the actual writing part. I write tons of notes throughout the research and thinking stages. My notes are usually pretty messy, but they help me clarify the story to myself.
When I feel that I know the story well enough, then I start writing. If I did the work well in the research and planning stages, the writing becomes a breeze.
This is a method which works well for me. If I ever get stuck, I can usually get unstuck when I’m in the bathroom. I call these my bathroom moments, when ideas visit me when I least expect them. But this works only if I’ve done the research.
My friend Raymus Chang says that when he gets stuck, it’s because he hasn’t planned enough, and he will go back and work some more on his outline, then he can continue writing again. I’ve found this works for me, too.
12. Who are your favourite writers, artists, musicians, or books?
Writers: I love Isaac Asimov (robots!), Angela Carter (dark fairy tales), Neil Gaiman (the short stories especially), Jorge Luis Borges (magic realism), Jeanette Winterson (magical realist moody settings), Kurt Busiek (Superman: Secret Identity), Frank Miller (Batman: Year One), Brian K Vaughan (Saga), Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), George RR Martin (Game of Thrones), JJ Abrams (Fringe, Lost, Super 8), Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles), Pete Doctor (Up), Hayao Miyazaki (you know, I know, I don’t need to say), Rumiko Takahashi (Inuyasha), Laini Taylor (fantasy), Paro Anand (a recent find: an amazing writer of hard-hitting stories), Robert Aickman (subtle ghost stories, maybe a little too subtle for most readers), Roald Dahl (British wit) – speaking of whom, a recent discovery is a dead British ghost story writer by the name of A. M. Burrage … just to name a few.
Writers of books about writing and creativity: Robert McKee (Story), Larry Brooks (Story Engineering), Steven Pressfield (The War of Art), Jack Foster (How to Get Ideas), Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics and its sequels).
Artists, mostly working in comics: Andrew Loomis, Alex Ross, Milton Caniff, James Jean, David Mazzucchelli, Stuart Immonen, Fiona Staples, Dave McKean, Junji Ito, Rumiko Takahashi and Hayao Miyazaki again.
Musicians: I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks, so: John Barry, Danny Elfman, Joe Hisaishi, Kenji Kawai, and John Williams. And a ton of other stuff, like jazz, blues, electronica, trip hop, pop – too many to name. The music often contributes to the stories.
13. Where can people buy your works?
Ha ha, I don’t have anything out yet that people can buy, but Amazon when I have something 🙂
14. What’s in the pipeline for you?
I am adapting a short story, Lions of Stone, for comics. It’s an award-winning horror piece by my friend Grey Yuen. The artist is Chris de Joya. We’re doing this mainly as a learning experience.
I have an ongoing comics collaboration with the artist Kelvin Chan (below, at work), working on a series called Kaiju Girl. It’s fun and cheesy science fiction.
Kaiju Girl by Kelvin Chan
Prose-wise, I’m working on a series of science fiction stories about robotic infiltration units (RIU). I’ve written a fantasy short story called Daughter of the Crows which I hope to expand into a novel.
I’m working towards commercial book projects which I want to get on Amazon to start selling and building a fan base. We live in interesting times now with social media, Kindles and e-books – lots of tech disruption which opens up opportunities for the enterprising writer.
Thanks for the interview, Joyce!
If you have any questions for JF, drop them in the Comments section below! Feel free to get in touch too, if you’d like to share YOUR story here (contact details in bio on the right).