Saturday, December 4, 2010

#8 Historical Fiction: I, Mulan (BAKER'S DOZEN AGENT AUCTION)

TITLE: I, Mulan
GENRE: Historical Fiction

To save her family from ruin, Mulan breaks law and tradition, disguises herself as a man, and takes her aging father's place in the Chinese Imperial cavalry. When accused of treason by a traitorous friend, she must risk yet another deception to clear her name and prevent a civil war. She prevails, but her actions expose her as a woman and Mulan must stand before the Chinese Emperor, arrested and accused by the general she has secretly grown to love.

I swirled my writing brush in the well and watched the bristles roll through the ebon liquid. The ink flowed perfectly, not too thick, not too thin. When the brush had absorbed just the right amount I drew it from the pigment and reached out to finish the waiting scroll.

Neat characters trickled down the parchment in straight vertical lines, each perfectly balanced to offset the one before. Together they composed a four-line poem, the best I had written in all my nineteen years. I spent months preparing the verse and weeks practicing my calligraphy. Only after hundreds of repetitions did I trust myself to commit the words to fine parchment.

I paused to orient my mind for the final strokes and reached forward to set the pictographs on the scroll, three characters which composed my signature and name, Fa -


My sister shrieked just outside the door. I jumped and dropped the brush. A dark smear spread across the parchment as black droplets spattered my delicate words.

Months of practice and hours of effort, destroyed in a moment.

"Mulan!" Sulan yelled again, bursting through the door with a long stick in her hands. "The matchmaker's here!"

Only the deaf could have missed her words but I failed to comprehend them in my sorrow over the ruined scroll.

"Meimei," I scolded, "you yell like a barbarian. I've ruined Father's gift."

Eight years old and wild as a starling, Sulan had little use for scrolls.


  1. Um...the logline sounds to familiar. Since I know how this plays out, I'm not sure if I would continue reading. Just my 2 cents, feel free to ignore.

  2. I agree with the first comment: isn't this a Disney film? If you are trying to give a different take on the same story (a la Gregory Maguire) you need to show that in your logline. Otherwise, what you have here is a copyright infringement!

    Otherwise, the excerpt is solid and well-written.

  3. Mulan is a historical legend about a woman who may actually have lived in China- it's part of the country's folklore. There should be no copyright infringment there so long as the story differs, which it already appears to.

    I really enjoyed the writing here as there are some excellent word choices.

    Neat characters trickled down the parchment--

    There are a few places you could tighten and the logline didn't necessarily pique my interest as I do know the legend, but the writing was eloquent. I'd read on.

  4. The log line felt more like a synopsis to me. I'm familiar with the legend and it didn't excite me. The writing was beautiful, though. I would read more.

  5. The logline seems to span several major events, and I think it loses impact because of that. I like the writing quite a bit, and would certainly read on.

    As a Western reader unfamiliar with Chinese names, I found it distracting that Mulan and Sulan have rhyming names, but I don't know if that's necessary.

  6. I like the writing but I agree that the logline needs more work. A lot of people are familiar with Disney's Mulan, so you need to focus on what makes your story different.

  7. I swooned over this the first time I read it, and I'm swooning again.

    Though Authoress and I both were aware Mulan is a Chinese legend, we did trot off to YouTube to double check the Disney movie version. Aside from the obvious plot-legend basics, they're nothing alike.

  8. Just to confirm what I'm glad others already understood: yes, this is adult fiction based on the Chinese "Ballad of Mulan," (in the original Chinese) and definitely is not derivative of the Disney film.

  9. I think maybe the problem here is that your reading audience *is* familiar with the Disney version, and it's just figuring out how you will deal with that background in your readers.

    For example, Mulan's last name is often of debate, but Hua Mu Lan is usually the name given to the historical figure. But Fa Mulan is from the Disney film. (it's listed this way at wikipedia too which can work against you)

    Also, I've read the Ballad of Mulan and there's no mention of falling in love with the general, which again happens in the Disney film which you want to stay away from.

    For me, it was that you start with the matchmaker scene after Mulan bumbles something... isn't that how the movie starts as well?

    I hope I'm not being nitpicky.. I just think your writing is lovely and I wouldn't want the content to work against you. Make sure that you can make this stand out as very different from the film!

  10. Aww, I love the Ballad of Mulan, but I have to agree with Amanda above. The love story aspect shows up in pretty much every modern depiction of Mulan these days so I'm kind of "meh" about that to begin with, but what really pings my Disney sensors is the use of "Fa" as her surname and starting with a matchmaker scene.

    The logline feels a bit long to me. First sentence is fine, but it treads familiar ground. Last two sentences could probably be condensed somehow. I'd like to see the logline show how your take on Mulan is different not only from the Disney version, but from the many various live action depictions of her over the years (most especially the recent Vicki Zhao film, and the upcoming version with Zhang Ziyi...)

    Good writing, though. You've definitely got me intrigued.

  11. Logline:
    I adore the history of Mulan, and taught the original ballad. Given that the source material is so scant, this logline is entirely too similar to the Disney movie.

    Line comments:
    -An interesting opening; I like the focus on calligraphy
    -Is Sulan a name? I know Mulan translates as flower, but is Sulan common? A brief Google tells me that "su" can translate as plain, and "lan" flower...
    -As soon as the matchmaker made an appearance, I was reminded again of the Disney movie

    I just scrolled up to see other's comments on this--because I would LOVE to have a Mulan novel in my hands to read. I'm glad Jodi mentioned that she and Authoress double checked the plot--but I have to say that from the logline (and the matchmaker appearance) my first instinct is that it *sounds* too similar, even if it's not. Your greatest problem, I believe, is going to be to prove that your story is different. If you can show more how unique your story is through the plot and logline, I think you'll be fine. The writing is strong.

  12. Ah--just read the Anonymous comment, which I assume is the author? I think most people's assumption stems from the fact that the original (from my understanding) is the Ballad of Mulan, written in the sixth century, and that original states that Mulan fights for ten years, and doesn't reveal she's a woman until back home. The Disney version injects the love with her commander, the disgraceful reveal of her womanhood, etc.

    While I'm no expert--and as the novelist, I'm sure you researched your subject--from one with a cursory knowledge of the subject, it appears that your logline follows the Disney story more closely than the poetry. I'm sure over the course of the entire novel you have written a much more unique tale--it's just that the short summary implies differently. A different logline that emphasizes those differences in your story will go a long way, I believe.

    And I really would be eager to read such a tale!

  13. Logline - Very nice and clear, but it's longish. I wonder if you could cut it down to two slightly more concise sentences.

    Excerpt - I confess, as a mother of two daughters who were little when this movie came out, my mind initially jumped to the Disney movie. Truthfully, the first thought that came to mind was 'fanfic'. I'm sure I'm not the only one, so that will be a unique hurdle for you to overcome. But this is an interesting historical figure and I'm sure there's real story to tell here (rather than the Disney-fied version), so go for it!

    I enjoyed the excerpt passage. Through the patience of the scripting, you show us some important character details about this young lady. The first two chapters in particular were quite lovely.

    Good luck!

  14. Last comment from me (I'm trying to stay out of the discussion, since yes this is my work) but just to respond:

    Yes, this is a heavily researched piece based on the original ballad (I worked from the Chinese text, not a translation) and set in fifth century China. I really appreciate the comments, because the story itself is very different from the Disney film but my logline obviously did a poor job of showing it. (Incidentally: "Fa" is a Cantonese pronunciation of the same character which is pronounced "Hua" in Mandarin, and the choice was based on most Western readers' inability to properly pronounce "Hua.")

    The romance element is not with Mulan's own commander, but I'll leave the love interest a mystery for now.

    OK, more than enough explanations from me. Sorry for jumping in on the thread. I definitely appreciate the comments, and thank you for the compliments on the prose.

  15. The logline was okay, but did seem a bit long. You might cut "she prevails but" because that kind of suggests an ending, and then you go on to one more event.

    Excerpt - I loved this! Vivid images, great word choices, atmosphere and setting, characterization, and all story. And you did it in first person, which few people manage to do well. We have a narrator who 'shows' us what's happening in her world and who isn't explaining to the reader. Very nicely done!

    Disney - I haven't seen the movie, but Disney is notorious for manipulating history, so if you're following historical facts, you're story is probably a lot different from Disney's. But no matter how good your story is, you will have to deal with the - I saw the movie, I don't have to read it. Or the people who assume it's a Disney ripoff. Your story may not get the chance it deserves.

    You might also do some research into what publishing companies Disney owns. I know Hyperion is theirs. If they're one of these comglomerates that own a bunch of publishing companies, you may not have a market for your book because I can't imagine they'd purchase something that would compete with their own product. But if all they own is Hyperion, or a few others, it wouldn't be an issue.

  16. Hmm, just my two cents re: the naming, but I personally find the mixing of Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations distracting. Especially this early on in the novel, it makes me doubt if I can trust the author, so to speak. (Why not go all the way and call her "Fa Moklan"? That might even be closer to the accurate pronunciation for the time period, and you get to avoid the instant Disney comparisons -- though at the same time I guess you'd not only lose instant name recognition but also have to switch up a bunch of other names, which might be a nightmare!) But seriously, compared to other Chinese names, I don't think Hua is difficult to pronounce. I can't imagine how you decided to deal with other names in your story if you thought Hua would trip people up!

    This is really just nitpicking though, from someone who's enthusiastic about Chinese history. Other readers' mileage may vary. And Fa or Hua or whatever you decide to go with, if you ever get this published (and I hope you do), I'll probably be one of the first people in line to buy it. :D

  17. Enough commenters have pointed out the whole Disney thing, so I just wanted to add a unique spin on this. Yes, you're following a historical legend and I'm sure that this story is much different from the Disney version, BUT do you absolutely need to name her Mulan? If so, do you absolutely need that in the title? It's that title that's bringing everyone to connect this with the movie, along with your logline. Even a unique title would set this apart. This is your story. You can write it based on the legend with different characters, or at least rename it to something more evocative. Lastly, doesn't the movie start with the matchmaker showing up? Are you sure you want to parallel that in your unique text?

  18. I agree with all the Disney comments. This story might not be similar later on, but the beginning is eerily familiar.

    Also, a nitpicky note - would Sulan, the younger sister, call Mulan by her given name? From my studies of Chinese language I thought that older sisters were called "jiejie," much like younger sisters are called "meimei." (This is pretty common in Asian cultures.)

  19. Despite all of the Disney chatter, I thought the writing was excellent. I'll bid 10 pages.

  20. I really like this one. I'll up it to 50 pages!

  21. ditto lana's comment above. if mulan's calling her sis meimei, the other should be calling her jehjeh (or however you want to transliterate older sis). i'm ethnically Cantonese, and on my very traditional dad's side, everyone refers to one another by relational terms. for example, 4th paternal aunt instead of aunt sally. to this day, i have no idea what most my paternal relatives' given names are...


  23. I'm mildly hooked. If I were looking at this as a submission, I'd want to know in the synopsis or cover letter how this significantly stands out as different from the Disney version. (And if it did so, I'd request a full.) It's not enough that this ms follows the ballad from the Chinese: Disney has a problem with people treading on ground they've already traveled, even when the source material is not Disney. Too many plot point similarities and they get tetchy.

    This prompted me to get out my copy of the Disney DVD--which I haven't seen in a while--to make sure, and yep, we start with her doing calligraphy (though on her arm) and being sent off to the matchmaker, where the ink gets botched. I predict she then decides she doesn't want to be match-made (which introduces the feminist "problem" in historical fiction, where the main character is always more feminist than most girls of that time period ought to be). I might be wrong, but it's become a convention in historical fiction. (I'd be much more intrigued if she really WANTED to be married but was disappointed and so THEN went off to be a warrior and discovered talents she never thought she'd like--a twist.)

    What it comes down to is that when you're doing a historical fairy tale/ballad retelling, your story needs to have an original twist to it, especially when there's a memorable, high-profile comparison that EVERYONE in your audience will make. Showcase that difference for your audience (in this case, agents and editors). If it doesn't stand out enough, you need to make changes so that it does, even if it doesn't strictly adhere to the source material (as long as it's true to the culture depicted).

    If a version where these differences were highlighted were to come to me as a submission and those differences stood out to me, I'd be hooked because it's a fascinating story of a girl defying the patriarchal conventions of her culture in a time period when that just wasn't done. But I'd also be cautious, because Mulan has been told so many times, and I'd want to discover something less well-known that gives us another voice from Chinese culture. Consider the dangers of a single story (google that--it's a TED talk that everyone should watch) and consider for your next book, perhaps, showcasing a Chinese tale that the whole world hasn't been introduced to through Disney.

  24. Now that the auction is over, I can come out just enough to say:

    - This matchmaker scene provides the inciting incident for a traditionally-raised woman to want to take her father's place (something a real woman would otherwise never do). The matchmaker hasn't come to offer a match for Mulan here. The scene goes in another direction entirely.

    - Also: I (the author) am an intellectual property attorney in my day job and have a degree in Asian Studies. This isn't derivative. In fact, it ties to real historical events and was an attempt to tell the story by looking at what kind of real woman's life might have prompted the legend of Mulan. In other words: legend-to-reality fiction. The logline didn't show that well, but the manuscript and synopsis do.

    Once again, great thanks to everyone who commented, I am taking the critiques very seriously and appreciate you taking the time to give your comments and opinions.

  25. One other comment: actually, what this Mulan wanted more than anything else WAS to get married. She takes the other road...well, I'll leave that inciting incident to the first ten pages of the manuscript.

    That was exactly the spin I took, because I, too, thought it was more interesting than taking the story in the traditional direction.

  26. Well, that's the challenge of such a short read! So, as I said, the best thing to make sure to do is differentiate yours from the Disney version in your query/cover letter.