Things I Wrote

On Word Count: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 6 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-5 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Publishers think about the books they’re considering in terms of word count…The average book in today’s market is 80,000 words…If you have a manuscript that’s between 20,000 and 40,000 words, you haven’t written a book. If it’s fiction, you’ve written a novella.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 89.)

The agent, whom I already really liked as a person, and whom I really, really wanted to like me, leaned across her wine glass. “I need you to write 6,000 more words,” she said, all wide eyes and guilelessness.

Four and a half years later, I still admire the way she delivered this news. Calmly, evenly, as if there were nothing to these 6,000 more words. I like to think that I reacted with just as much calm and guilelessness, but on the inside, I am pretty sure I was screaming, to paraphrase a friend, “OH SURE LADY I’LL JUST WRITE THOSE WHILE I’M POOPING, SHALL I?”*

What the agent was trying to do was get my book into saleable condition. See, the thing sat neatly at 55,000 words, which is neither novella nor novel.** She knew this was problematic. I was beginning to know it. What I didn’t know was that adding those 6,000 words, which would stretch into 7,000 (about 25, 28 pages), would change some crucial things about the novel. All I could hear was that without these 6,000 more words, this novel would be a no-go.

I had gone to grad school to fix what I knew was a key flaw in my writing. For the longest time, I couldn’t put a solid finger on conflict, and page-turnability. I learned a lot while I was in classes there, but while you can fix a thing academically, you’ll never really know or understand what the solution looks like until you test it in the real world. My thesis, which was the book I was pitching, had passed muster for graduation purposes, but I had queried a number of agents already, and despite high personal response rates to both query letter and sample chapters, I wasn’t getting the solid bites I wanted.

This agent, though, had actionable advice. And it was time for me to put practice to work and get the book into a form an agent could work with.

How was I going to add 6,000 more words, though? Where would I put it? I knew this wasn’t going to be the kind of change that involved more character descriptions here and there, more little personality quirks or long passages of lyrical description of setting. In the first place, my character isn’t the type to wax lyrical for very long, and since the book is told in diary format, that wasn’t going to fly. Second, the character’s a little self-centered, so she wasn’t going to do anything that involved a whole lot of descriptions of other people.

What I ended up doing was introducing a whole new character, an archetypal bad boy for my character to be distracted by. And even though he started out being a distraction, the introduction of this character, just a little less than halfway into the book, had serious ramifications for the rest of the novel.

Most importantly, the addition of this character added depth to my own main character, my protagonist. She was forced to make some choices that didn’t even exist before, thereby granting her an agency she didn’t have before.

And, of course, the addition of this character allowed me to reach the desired word count.

I no longer remember the book as it was without this addition, and I’m reasonably sure I couldn’t stand to look at it if I dug up an old draft.

I didn’t end up going with this agent, but I will always be grateful for the advice she gave me. It may not seem like much, but I’m sure she knew that asking me to add that many more words and pages would force my character into a situation that would give her more to do.

Takeaway tips:

  • Be open to advice from people whose job it is to sell your book. Assume good intention, always.
  • If you ever do find yourself in a position to need to add words, don’t look to tinker. Look to revise.
  • In my editing for clients, I often see a lack of conflict. If you’re looking for places to ramp up the story, look for places where your character lacks agency or where conflict is lacking.

What’s the biggest revision job you’ve had to do? Tell me about it in the comments below.

The next post in this series will occur at the end of next week, as I’m deployed for ShelterBox USA, a disaster-relief agency, for the rest of this week.

*I really, really wish I remember who gave me this line. Whoever you were, thank you.

**I also wish this could be a post on how frustrating it is that there is this weird no-man’s-land between 40,000 words and 60,000 words, where no one actually knows what to call your book in terms of length. Alas, it has no answers in this regard. Sorry.

1 Comment »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Branding: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 5 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-4 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“A successful brand isn’t a sign of pandering to readers; rather, it evokes and emphasizes the why, or what the publication or publisher stands for.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 74)

I think a lot about branding. It’s part of my day job as a copywriter, after all. But this week, it’s been thrown into full light with Kate Spade’s death.***

I was so moved by the stories people told about their first Kate Spade bags or purchases, in part because Kate Spade has not been a part of the company she founded for over a decade: She sold off a significant portion of it as early as 1999, just six years after it was founded, and stopped designing for them ages ago.

And yet, so many people wrote about how “Kate” made them feel “quick and curious and playful and strong,” and there is a definite sense that, with that passing of Spade herself, that iconography of a “quick, curious, playful and strong” woman–a quote often attributed to Spade herself but which I think actually was born in the brand’s copywriting department–has lost its originator. And this, this wonderful tie between what people feel and what is, even if it’s not exactly right–is the beauty of a strong narrative.

There are very few companies who have been able to pull off this kind of branding. Nike, maybe. Cheerios, or Mr. Clean, or maybe, better yet, Cap’n Crunch. But even those don’t have the immense personality that Kate Spade did. That’s because there’s no person behind those brands. And it’s the reason brands have to hire brand ambassadors.

Kate Spade was her brand. Even more, she memorialized a certain moment in time, I think, a certain New York minute, even as it stretched into two impressive decades. Her brand was hitting her stride the same time I moved to New York, the mid-nineties. Even I, not a fan of bows and ruffles and personal slogans, associate Kate Spade with my New York life, with buildings and walking tall because I was earning a liveable paycheck and going to parties in lofts and establishing my own brand of wit, trying it out on cocktail conversation and failing a lot, at least three times a week. Say “Kate Spade” to me and the words evoke a rush of memories attached to all my senses: pavement under my feet; the wind from Fifty-first Street rushing up Sixth Avenue as I rounded the corner to meet friends in that subway bar; the damp Manhattan summer night; the chatter of a restaurant at lunchtime.

In the end, Kate Spade’s brand succeeded because it knew exactly who it was talking to. It placed aspiration within reach of so many women, whereas other aspirational brands keep their wares just squarely and deliberately out of reach. With a Kate Spade bag, and later, in Kate Spade shoes and dresses and displaying a quirky quote on your notebook, you could be everything you thought Kate Spade hoped for you.**

When I bought a literary magazine with some friends last year, it was one of the best things I could do with my literary life. I had a lot of thoughts already on art, and what role it might play in these fraught times we live in, and being co-owner of a literary magazine that we could use to execute our (thankfully) aligning missions was really, really attractive.

In the light of the quote from Friedman’s book above, and with Kate Spade in mind, I’m thinking about the people behind why we do what we do.

For years, Tahoma Literary Review had been operating on a solid, three-legged platform. Those three legs were:

Transparency. The magazine tells you exactly what it does with every dollar.

Sustainability. We paid our writers first, so as to helps writers to continue their creative lives.

Community. TLR strives to promote, to our best capacity, the work of those who have published in our magazine.

When we took over, nothing really changed, except we made it a priority to even out the pay schematic, so all genres got paid the same, and started paying production crew and editors as well. But it wasn’t until I read Friedman’s words above that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of our mission. (TLR has a mission statement, but I think most mission statements can be made stronger with a firm grip on the why of a thing.)*

This is a slippery thing, see. And it can be uncomfortable. Some explorations of the why you’re driven to do a certain thing end up leaving you cold, because they’ve exposed you to be heartless. Or insecure, or selfish. For instance, how many of us start a literary magazine because we want to boost our own profiles, or volunteer someplace because we want to build our own skillset or meet people who are interested in similar things?

I think, at the end of the day, while we don’t have a specific end user in mind like Kate Spade does, we are similar to her brand narrative in one regard: Ultimately, we are about the reader. We are about the reader-as-consumer-of-words and the reader-as-writer-of-words, and yes, I do mean all those hyphens exactly where they are. We are about making the reading experience great by way of making the writing experience great.

We are about giving writers a leg up towards producing their very best work, and ensuring a great reading experience. We are about paying everyone involved in the production of our magazine, and ensuring sustainability of that great reading experience for years to come. We are about the new-to-short-stories or new-to-poetry or new-to-creative-nonfiction reader, and helping them to understand just what goes into making this reading experience for them.

Readers, in all their variations, are the why of Tahoma Literary Review. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to say so.

Takeaways:

  • Consider your origins when you look at sussing out your whys.
  • Look broadly at the things you admire, the things with great narratives. Don’t think of just literature. Think of the things you have loyalty to.
  • Conversely, look at the things that drive you in your life outside of reading and writing. What are those things?

What’s your“Why?” Do you have an end user in mind? Tell me below. 

*These statements are independent from what our founding editors, Joe Ponepinto and Kelly Davio, may have said. Second, while I’ve talked to my co-editors and co-owners (Ann Beman, Jim Gearhart, and Mare Heron Hake) about this, these statements are largely my own thoughts.

**As I was editing this this morning, the news came through about Anthony Bourdain. He was another whose personality built his brand, and although I only saw his show “No Reservations” once, I have so many friends who admired him, and it’s for their loss of a personal guiding star and point of aspiration that I’m sad, as well.

***Racked.com has a wonderful, thorough discussion of Kate Spade’s brand.

2 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On “Content,” and Writer as Artisan: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer._

This is Part 4 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1, 2, and 3, on networking, “Good luck,” and MFAs, respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“The more business-oriented and consumer-facing the publisher, the more likely you’ll hear the word ‘content’ used instead of ‘writing.’…’Content’ can be reshaped, reconfigured, and reimagined for many different people, places, and purposes.
“This, too, can upset writers, who may have a more artisanal outlook on publishing.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 62.)

A long, long time ago, I told someone that I loved writing marketing and corporate copy. He hitched a short laugh, and then double-took. (Is that a thing? Can you past-tense double-take? Anyway.) “Wait,” he said, “are you serious?”

We were having drinks, and I wasn’t sure if he was joking, so I laughed, too, and then I was like…wait a minute. “Yeah,” I said, finally. “I really do.” My friend went on to say that he was surprised, since I’m “literary.”

So then I had to explain to him why I think marketing writing and corporate copy is so great: When it comes to working for small businesses, it’s about helping someone to get their message across, helping to crystallize someone’s brand. When it’s working for large companies, it can be about fighting a tiny battle to keep sloppy, imprecise language from conveying whatever makes a product or a company unique. So yes, I love copy. I love content. I love anything that helps a thing to convey itself.

This idea that content and copy is somehow less than writing of a literary sort–oh, excuse, me, littttrrrraaaaaary–really rankles. And, as Friedman notes in her pages, it’s not unusual to hear someone lamenting marketing work as hack work, or “just to pay the bills.” But there’s something really off about that, and I don’t just mean for its abject snobbery. What I mean is this: Working on content takes just as much skill as working on a novel or a short story or a poem.

(For an idea of what I mean, here’s a post I wrote awhile ago about coming up with a new tagline for the back of my business card, and my editing business.)

Think about the way we talk about writing: We talk about it in terms of  craft. We sometimes refer to it as wordsmithing. We talk about it as something requiring skill, and training. If writing copy, if crafting a message for a brand, isn’t inherently artisanal, I don’t know what is.

Marketing and advertising copy, or content, is also accessible to everyone. It’s made to be. There’s something really beautiful about that concept, that anyone can “get” what you’re trying to say. And it also takes skill. (Have a look at William Zinsser’s wonderful chapter on business writing, in his book On Writing Well, for a refresher.)


If some work is artisanal, is the other work junk?

I won’t get into that whole attractive notion of pay for work (content and marketing copy pays a hell of a lot better than short stories, I can tell you that right now), since that’s a no-brainer. And I utterly refuse to get into an argument about whether or not writing you get paid for is better or worse than writing you toil over, only to get paid nothing or a stipend for. Those are…I mean, it’s not even apples and oranges. It’s apples, and, like, battleships, or something.

(This reminds me of the day I complained to my cousin Otto, who is way smarter than I am, that movies made from books were way worse than the books. Otto blinked, all speed-processing behind a casual slow-lizard exterior, and then said, “Well. They’re two different things. You can’t compare them.” There followed a short silence during which I ate my hat.)

In the end, I think my view is this: Copywriting and content writing is a thing which requires a great amount of skill. Writing short stories and novels and poetry and essays is a thing which also requires a great amount of skill. Some of these skills are shared. Some of them are unique to the job. But more importantly, neither of these is more or less artisanal than the other. They are both equally hard. One of them pays with more regularity than the other. That’s the only thing that should be up for conversation. The rest is just a conversation about whether, in fact, you have the right skillset to do one or the other.

Some tips:

  • Try your hand at all kinds of writing. Don’t be fooled into thinking one is better than the other.
  • Be aware that each kind of writing takes different skill sets. Yes, even the social media stuff.
  • You’re producing all kinds of content, all day, from the comment you posted on a friend’s image to your Instagram caption. Look at those as room to practice. 

What’s your take on content and marketing writing, as opposed to literature? Tell me in the comments below. 

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On MFA Programs: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 3 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1 and 2, on networking and the concept of “Good luck,” respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”Third, it can be worthwhile to enroll in an MFA program based solely on its faculty and networking opportunities…Don’t take it on faith that you’ll love any program or faculty sight unseen–get as much exposure as possible beforehand.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 37)

Up until the moment I got accepted, selecting MFA programs had been easy. I wanted a low-residency program, so I could continue on with my day job and stay near my husband, and I wanted something that felt new. I didn’t much feel like taking graduate school exams, but I wanted something that would allow me to teach at the college level if that’s what I wanted. I wanted a faculty that comprised working writers, and an alumni pool that was also working as writers. I knew, too, what I wanted out of an MFA, so that made things even easier.

It came down to two low-res programs. One was much more established, and I knew people who had graduated from it. The other was new. Scrappy. So scrappy that it had sprung from a writer’s organization, and wasn’t affiliated with a college or university. Its facility boasted a live otter cam, and it was based out of a place I’d never really visited. The facility it hosted its classes out of boasted a live otter cam.

(not that kind of ottercam, you guys.)

They each had things to recommend them. Program B’s faculty looked as if they were all steadily working writers, and they said they only ever wanted to produce working writers. Program A, the more established one, had some faculty I had heard of, and they were renowned for their work in the young adult genre, a field I was pretty sure I wanted to work in. But in the end, it came down to the student body. Program A had both graduates I knew and had heard of. Program B had neither of these things.

But program B offered to put me in touch with their students. Program A took a few days to get back to me. I was very clear about who I wanted to talk to: I wanted to talk to working writers who were in the fiction genre. Writers who were working on long fiction, preferably. Within a few minutes of my sending a query to the program director, the e-mails from students and alumni of program B started rolling in. Four…five…six…seven and more students all had things to say, and all were willing to talk to me. All were working in fiction; all were able to address my specific questions and concerns, and if they didn’t know the answer, they pointed me to another student.

By contrast, program A sent me to a playwright, a guy who was in jail, and a graduate who said she wasn’t quite sure why Program A still had her on the list of people to talk to about their experience at Program A, since she was still doing the exact same thing she was doing before her degree and didn’t see a future in writing. I did not get to talk to the guy in jail, but the playwright was interesting, and completely not useful.

Friedman’s right: you should get to know the faculty. And I’ll never know what it’s like to have gone to that other institution. But, as I’ve previously mentioned, I leaned and still lean so heavily on my co-hort from my MFA and the huge number of guest faculty that I met while I was in school there. I think a good set of peers is at least as important, for many reasons, and maybe even more important, for another set of reasons.

I also want to point out the following, which has been thrown into sharp light now that I’m running a writer’s retreat of my own: the best faculty members are not necessarily those who are the biggest and brightest stars of literature. In fact, we had a few guest faculty lecturers at program B who were bigger names and who were, frankly, terrible instructors. Finding people who are talented, giving, generous educators and great writers isn’t always the obvious equation you think it’ll be.

Nope, for me, I’m happy I chose my MFA program based on the students who were there and who had graduated from the program.

Some takeaways:

  • Always ask to speak to students at whatever MFA program you’re considering.
  • Be intentional about why you want to get an MFA.
  • Be open: Although I wasn’t interested in making friends when I enrolled in my MFA, it happened despite me, and now those friends are colleagues, and I couldn’t be happier.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. It’ll save time on both ends.
  • Have a look at the faculty member’s teaching resumes, or look for information about their teaching backgrounds otherwise.

 

2 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On “Good Luck”: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 2 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Part 1, on networking, is here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Finally, it’s useful to remember the famous line from Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Writers tend to get increasingly lucky the more work they produce (preparation) and the more work they submit (opportunity).” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 23)

Have you ever noticed how often people sign off with the phrase, “Good luck!”? It’s meant to impart support, well wishes. It sounds nice. It rolls off the tongue easily, so tightly woven is it into our vernacular. We say it a lot, for lots of reasons: When people are about to start a race, say. When they’re about to go into interviews. When they’re going in for major surgery.

The thing is, only the last of these things can really even be remotely said to involve any element of luck. (The doctor could find something else while he’s rooting around in your leg, say.) But for the most part, when we say “Good luck,” we’re usually referring to stuff that can be prepared for, stuff that the subject of “good luck” has worked a really long time towards. Take the marathon, for instance. A runner doesn’t need good luck to cross the finish line; a runner who has signed up for a marathon has probably spent the past few months of his or her life working up to the marathon, building mileage. And the person who’s going into an interview doesn’t need luck to ace it; that person needs to have laid the groundwork to get to the interview in the first place, thereby securing the opportunity to interview; then he or she needs to have prepared for the interview.

Any other situation (going into a marathon badly trained, say, or not researching the potential job ahead of time) will warrant a “Good luck” of a different variety, the one whereby you roll your eyes and adopt sarcastic font and go, “Um, yeah. Good luck with that.”

So I decided awhile ago to stop wishing people good luck. I don’t do it anymore because I want to give people credit for the work they’ve inevitably done in getting to the start line, the interview room, the point where their novel is waiting to be submitted or is deep in progress. (Seriously, the last time someone wished me “good luck” on my novel I almost busted a gasket. I wanted to tell them it has nothing to do with luck; that it’s hard work and my own procrastination; that they could take their luck and shove it right … oh, sorry.)

Right around the time I stopped wishing people good luck, I started to notice my own response to when people would compliment me on the coolness of my job as a writer or editor. “How awesome is that?” they’d say, and I’d return, inevitably and with great enthusiasm, “Mmmhmmm! It is! I got lucky.”

But an older friend was not fooled, nor was she taken by what I now realize was a repeated lame attempt at modesty. “Nope. Nope. Not luck. Work. Dedication,” she said.

Well…yeah. And passion, maybe. A little bit of recklessness. But she was right: Not luck.

Since I’ve stopped looking at events in my life as lucky, and stopped wishing people good luck, I’ve been able to appreciate more deeply the work that goes into the various elements of our lives. I’m so grateful for this tiny shift of perspective. It changes things, when you realize how much “luck” you’ve been sowing your own life with, just by dint of good preparation and creating opportunities for yourself. I think it behooves us to recognize the same preparation in others.

You don’t have to stop wishing people good luck. But I do have a few parting thoughts for you:

  • Assess the good things currently in your life: What work went into making them happen? Jot these down somewhere.
  • When you want to wish someone “Good luck,” ask yourself what you’re really hoping will happen for them that day.
  • Consider the people in your life who have helped you to get where you are. You might consider yourself lucky to have them in your life, but I’m betting it wasn’t luck that brought you together.

Now, instead of wishing people “good luck,” I wish them all the very best. What phrases do you use besides “good luck”? Tell me in the comments below.

 

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Obituary for My Aunt (Of Obituaries and Passing Regrets, Part II)

Shu Chuang Wang, my mother’s elder sister, passed away April 8, 2017. She is the first adult to have been there for so much of my own life to die. She is the person we relied on when we moved to the United States. We lived in Kansas, near her family, for our first few months here, and those first few months seemed unreasonably happy, an approximation of our life in Taiwan, where our relatives lived just one door over.

 

We were one town over, and I do not have concrete memories of those months. But I know my cousins Ken and Charles, and Ah Yi and Ah Diun, my uncle, were nearby. Later, we’d meet Edward, the youngest, and with Bor, my younger brother, our playing was nearly always a noisy mess, one or two or maybe all of us getting into trouble.

I know we visited Kansas after our move to Pennsylvania, after our move to California. I know Ah Yi brought her family to come visit us, no matter where we were. I know we took crazy American-family road trips together, all nine of us crammed into one station wagon. We kids were small enough to sit in the footwells. I remember being crammed up again Ah Yi’s leg, as she rocked it back and forth to exercise, keeping herself from getting bored on the long, long drives.

I do not remember Ah Yi in trousers, ever. Ah Yi was a perpetual lady. Long after high collars went out of style, and floral prints, she wore them, and made them look like they belonged. She was the great beauty of the family, see, and she decorated her home accordingly. Bouquets of flowers; portraits of her family everywhere.

She loved them like I’ve never seen anyone love before. Her three boys, my cousins, were–I don’t know–people to admire, people who could do whatever. Love does that to someone. Love elevates you to believe you can do, and my cousins can do. Anything. Whatever they want. Nothing is too far out of reach, or beyond you, if you’re loved.

My aunt is big on personal style. Over the years, she’d say to me, “I don’t have a little girl, so I will buy pretty things for you.” And, from Kansas, boxes sometimes arrived, always in time for Christmas, with pretty things in them, or, better yet, accompanied by Edward and Ah Yi, and sometimes Charles and Ken.

Usually, for me, they were sweaters. I have kept nearly every Ah Yi sweater that still fits. My oldest is a good decade old. I got it while I was living in Chicago, and it looks to me like a roll of Life Savers. it is cheery and fun and I love it. I love it even more because my Dad refers to it as my Lobster Sweater. He thinks its striations look like the belly bands on a lobster.

This made my aunt laugh.

The sweaters are always on-point. I picture her, holding one up to the light in a department store, turning it this way and that…”Can I see her in this? Maybe not. Maybe this one. It’s cute. It’s a little trendy. I think she would like this.” I like this imagery, so I keep the sweaters my aunt got me, and I imagine that image, that thought process, every time I wear one, every time I wrap myself in one, every time I pull some lint off one.

Of the women in my mother’s family, my aunt is the most touchable, the least prickly. I don’t know if this comes from a lifetime of living with boys or what, but she never balked at holding your hand, or patting you, or saying hello with a squeeze. I love this about her.

I went to visit her yesterday for Mother’s Day, with Jim. We sat and talked to her and put some flowers in the little vase-thing and clipped a balloon to them, and then we sat on the grass and looked over the view, and when we left, we waved and said, “Bye, Ah Yi.”

She was like that, you see. You could always go talk to her, and leave, and then come back, whenever you liked. This was the feeling she gave you.

 

1 Comment »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

HELLO THERE I KNOW I HAVE BEEN GONE A LONGGGG TIME

Hello!

I have missed you guys. Well. I have not really been gone. I have been dutifully sending out a monthly newsletter. You can see a sample and sign up to get it here.

But I actually do have something NEW to tell you. Some of you may know that I volunteer for ShelterBox USA, a disaster-relief agency. Last October, I went on my 10th deployment for them, and I made something to commemorate it. It is this tiny little book:

IMG_6198

It is a book of 10 short stories, one for each of my deployments, and they are accompanied by hand-drawn maps, like so:

IMG_6199

They are meant to be a fundraiser for ShelterBox USA. More importantly, they are meant to be a front-row seat to what it’s like to be in a disaster zone. It tells stories of the people we meet there, of what it’s like to be a witness, of the ways this experience has changed me.

So many of you have played a part in supporting our work at ShelterBox. This book, I hope, will help you to tell our story to others. In some ways, it’s meant to be a way for you to share your commitment to being a humanitarian.

The books are $15 each. Shipping and handling is $5 extra. ShelterBox USA gets $7.50 for each book sold. So far I’ve printed 100 copies, but there may be more if demand, uh, demands it. Write to me directly: yishun(at)thegooddirt(dot)org to arrange for a book of your own. And then share these stories, which are yours, too, because you have helped to make this, and the work we do, happen.

Thanks very much.

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What “Being On Book Tour” Means

Well.

Hi there. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? Sorry about that. Things have been a little cockadoodle, as they say in the dark hinterlands of my brain.

I have had an amazing few months. But that also means I have been neglecting this blog, which is really sad, because I really like this blog, this talking to you. Sure, I keep a diary. But somehow, work feels different when you know it’s being read by others, doesn’t it? Also, a lot has happened, and while none of it has changed much in my status quo, it is still worthy stuff to be sharing.

I have been on Book Tour. Many people have been asking How That Feels. Here is how it feels:

  • Before you go: “I have to leave the house again? For how long, this time? OH OK FINE.
  • During the events: This [reading/workshop/panel/event] is the best thing ever! I want to do this forever!
  • After the events: …What just happened?

Yeah. That’s pretty much what it feels like. But here’s what it really is:

  • Staying with friends, in their spaces. Taking that in; feeling the pieces of the puzzles–click, clack, flippity–that are your friends fall together, because you have been where they live, walked where they walked, had tea and coffee from their kitchen appliances.
  • Passing on all the knowledge you’ve amassed up until now; watching folks get excited about their own projects.
  • Exploring towns and cities you’ve always wanted to spend more time in, even if it’s freakishly fast-moving time.
  • Seeing friends you might not otherwise get to see, even those you haven’t seen in a decade or more.
  • Seeing friends you only, until now, knew online. Realizing the pleasant fizzzzz that is an online friendship gelling into something tangible–a hug! a shared interest in good liquor and food!
  • Meeting new writers you never heard of; discovering work from writers you never knew; hearing them read from their own works and walking away feeling ever so much wealthier for it.
  • Meeting booksellers. Getting to thank them in person for the work they do to forward literature.

So yeah. That’s what being on book tour is like. And that’s why I’ve been gone. But I’ll be back here more frequently, I promise. I have missed you guys. So here are some photos, as a thank you for sticking with me, along with some links. And you can sign up for my brand-spanking-new newsletter here. It’ll go out once a month and cover what I’ve been reading, some things I saw that you might be interested in, and maybe even some embarrassing photos of my drawings. 🙂 (More likely it’ll have some writerly tips and tricks, and some other brain flotsam like upcoming events and locations.)

Okay! The photos!

IMG_4835

Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu now lives at the Lopez Bookshop. I was invited to appear there in conversation with my good friend Iris Graville.

IMG_4831

Signing books! So much fun when surrounded by an amazingly curated selection like they have at Lopez Bookshop!

IMG_4845

In Seattle, I got to read at the incredible Looseleaf Reading Series, along with four other really talented writers and the amazing musician Ramona Shore. Here, my talented friend, Whidbey Island MFA classmate, and Looseleaf co-founder Samantha Updegrave introduces us, along with Looseleaf co-founder Suzanne Warren. (A tremendous shout-out here to my friend Roz, without whom I am reasonably sure only a fraction of this PNW traveling would have been possible.)

IMG_4778

This is Iris’ dog Buddy. <3.

IMG_4768

Writers leave notes for each other.

IMG_4737

Sunrise, from the front window of the house we rent while on Whidbey Island.

IMG_4714

The Kenton Library, in Portland, OR, where I hosted a workshop on memoir smack-dab in the middle of the day, and then followed with drinks with a friend I’d only ever known on the Interweb. What a treat! My friend Haley Isleib, a children’s/young adult writer and screenwriter, invited me to teach here. Friends are awesome.

IMG_4706

Mt. Hood, Oregon–from the Fruit Loop. Fruit Loop! Not a breakfast cereal. Hosted by my friend Jo, from HIGH SCHOOL! Eeee!

IMG_4700

Llama llama ding dong, on the Fruit Loop. (Not just fruit, obviously.)

13731036_1183133555050585_7763430232527816189_o

In New York, I was honored to appear alongside Jen Baker (creator and moderator of Minorities in Publishing), Hasanthika Sirisena, and Leland Cheuk in a panel at the amazing Word Up Community Bookstore in Washington Heights. Y’all, you need to go to this incredible space. Tremendous thanks to Hasanthinka for setting this event up!

IMG_4548

In Chicago, I was in conversation with Alexandra Salomon, producer for WBEZ’s WorldView at Chicago’s wonderful Women and Children First Bookstore. I’m privileged to call her my friend and proud to count her among my peeps.

IMG_4541

And these people. These people saw my novel in its very first draft. They are Tabitha Olsen and Nancy Stevenson, members of my Chicago critique group and talented writers themselves. You can buy Nancy’s book for middle-graders, about a code-cracking, plucky heroine, here. It’s called “Capitol Code,” and it is every page worth a read.

IMG_4546

I miss you, Chicago.

 

IMG_4530

In wonderful Decatur, Michigan, I was hosted by my fast-talking, speedy-thinking friend, Ami Hendrickson. If you’re in need of a writing coach, Ami can help. We had amazing conversations and have wonderful synergy, and I was so happy to visit her and learn from her. Here she is, teaching her class on narrative.

IMG_4534

St. Joseph’s, Michigan, where I visited with Listen to Your Mother host Kim Jorgenson Gane, was a wonderful town to hang out in. I will visit again, St. Joe’s. Get ready.

IMG_4524And the whole shebang kicked off with a trip to Skokie, Illinois, to teach a workshop on memoir at the Skokie Public Library. Folks, public libraries are IT. Go. Visit. Support.

Okay. That’s it. More soon. I promise. In the meantime, don’t forget: The Newsletter!

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

How I landed my publisher

…Or, I obsess over my spreadsheets.

I’m sure every writer writes a post like this. But every writer’s experience is different, and every writer’s publishing experience might be different, so I wanted to add my voice to the mix. Plus, this Friday I am teaching a workshop on publishing at my alma mater, so this is a good lead-in.

Oh, hey there, final product of years of work, or something!

Oh, hey there, final product of years of work, or something!

Here is my road to official pub date (May 6!), by the numbers:

  • Months spent querying, in total: 21
  • Agents queried: 85
  • Agents who didn’t reply at all: 20
  • Eventual offers of representation: 1
  • Small/indie presses queried: 21
  • Offers of publication (2.5; one wanted a rewrite that would have sucked the life out of the thing, in my opinion)
  • Heavy revisions: 2
  • Folks involved in the final, pre-offer, big revision (includes one top-notch agent; one publisher; one acquisitions editor): 7
  • Months between final revision and offer of publication: 4.5
  • Months between offer of publication (contract signed) and actual publication: 11

Here is my road to official pub date by mistakes I made/things I did:

When I started querying I felt I had worked so hard on this manuscript that I decided I was going to be bull-nosed about it. Much of the constructive feedback I received from agents I binned, for no good reason. A lot of this was stuff I couldn’t do anything about, like “I didn’t connect with the voice,” or “I’m not a fan of epistolary novels.” But some of it was very concrete, actionable stuff. Lesson learned: Keep every personal rejection. You will use what you learned, what they said, later in your writing career.

When I got a form rejection from an agent who had shown great personal connection in a previous correspondence, I followed up. It had been sent by accident and he had constructive, useful things to say. Lesson, with caveat: If you feel very strongly about something, I think it’s okay to follow up. But be smart about this. Don’t rant, obviously. And really ask yourself if it’s the right thing to do. 

I didn’t pay attention to conventional wisdom about novel length. Mine was too short by about 6,000 words. I joke about the day a top agent asked me to add 6,000 words (“Oh, sure, I’ll do that while I’m pooping”), but it is an agent’s job to sell books, and your job to write them. It was my great privilege to have had this feedback. And it made my work way, way stronger. Lesson learned: Some conventional stuff you can ignore–“Oh! Everyone’s writing YA now! You should write that!”–but some stuff you should be paying attention to. 

I didn’t make this my full-time job. I know for most of us, this is an impossibility. But I could have easily spent at least two hours a day querying, or at least working on my connections in the industry. And I didn’t. Sometimes, whole weeks went by where I didn’t query. Lesson learned: If you really want to make this a part of your life, get on it. 

I did my research. And I leveraged the crap out of my community. Every single guest lecturer I met at the MFA program I graduated from (the ones that made sense, anyway); every single friend I’d ever talked words with–they all played a critical part in the making of this book, from introductions to agents to how to Make Things Better. I’d have never been able to do this if I existed in a vacuum. Lesson learned: Literary community isn’t a buzzphrase. It’s a living, breathing, thing, and you should contribute to it and then gain from it. 

I included the fact that my manuscript was on offer in my bio. Every time I wrote something for someone, I asked them to mention it. This led me to experience one of the greatest possible moments in a writer’s life, ever, even including publication: Some random bigwig agent wrote to me to say she’d read my essay and loved it, and needed to see my novel. Lesson learned: Er. Sometimes pipe dreams actually happen? Yes? Yes. 

There is so much more I could say about this. But I don’t want to give up the bulk of our lecture on Friday. 🙂

And P.S. You can buy my book here and here. And visit my awesome publisher here.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Cheez-Its, Springtime, and Book Publishing

Or, Stray Memories.

I think my predilection for orange food (see Cheez-Its; Cheetos [the caveman-club-shaped kind, not the poufy kind]; Annie’s Extra-Cheddary Bunnies; Goldfish; Clementines; carrots with their skin on) may have been encouraged by one Pat Crow, the first editor really to take me under his wing. He, too, had a weakness for nuclear-colored foodstuffs, and I met him at a most impressionable age.

This is Pat, with my friend Julia.

This is Pat, ca. 1998? 99? with my friend Julia.

I didn’t meet Pat until he was done with his New Yorker tenure. He used to take me to lunch, and our cubes at Audubon magazine were right across from each other. He used to buy me copies of books if he went to book signings, and notebooks from Kinokuniya when he went. He was, it’s safe to say, my very first mentor. He edited a short story I’d written, showed me where I went wrong; gave me advice on totally unrelated things: “Stop twirling your hair. You look like a twit.” (Which, by the way, is something my mother was trying to get me to stop doing for, like, ever, but I only stopped doing it when Pat told me to knock it off.)

I think, all in all, our lives only intersected for less than a year. We lost touch after that, and Pat passed away in 2011. (Read: I didn’t work hard enough to keep in touch, and he had enough young writers, I’m sure, vying for his attention beyond me.)

But in a copy of the only novel he ever wrote, Pat wrote this:

For Yi Shun —

My mentor at Audubon, my friend and colleague, who has more promise than springtime itself. 

With affection, 

Patrick Crow

And when I read it, I knew I would carry that phrase around with me–“more promise than springtime itself”–in my mouth, saying it to myself sometimes; in my heart; in my deepest of hopes and sometimes, through the query rejections that followed. If I could have it tattooed on me, massage the copy into a phrase that made sense to everyone who saw it, I might just do it, maybe in Pat’s distinct handwriting, because even if the man who edited John McPhee; who probably shepherded more young writers than I ever will; who probably passed on the name of his favorite tailor to everyone he could; who probably even told many a young office worker to stop twirling her hair, lest she look like a twit, penned that sentiment in a temporary fit of, well, sentimentality, it meant the world to me and my young career.

I wish Pat were here to see May, 2016, which is when my novel, NOT A SELF-HELP BOOK: THE MISADVENTURES OF MARTY WU, comes out from Shade Mountain Press.

It’s a big promise to fulfill, that of springtime itself, and it sure is nice to know that someone thought I could.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point, I guess, is that we might all go around saying nice things to people we feel deserve it. Something you say might provide them a little talisman of sorts, to carry around, a star to orient oneself by.

 

 

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.