Monday, January 23, 2017

On the Asian Monolith

If I have to choose between listening and talking, I often choose to listen because I realize that I still have a lot to learn and there are many in the community who are older, wiser, and more articulate than I.

But on this topic, I do have thoughts that I wish to share. I realize that sometimes the dialogue gets heated. People get hurt on both sides, for whatever the issue. And in the heat of it, it's sometimes hard to understand what each person is trying to say. Here, I wish to use my voice primarily to share what I know, in hopes that if you are reading this as a Non-Asian who wishes to learn, you'll be able to get a very broad sense of why Asians reject the idea of the Asian Monolith and why the mere rejection of such can cause tensions between Asian storytellers.

Things to consider:

1. "Asian" is a silencing term.

I don't know about other Asians, but I don't go around introducing myself as "Asian-American," because honestly, that term is so broad that it's the equivalent of going around and introducing myself as "European-American."

For the purposes of this post, I'm going reference the East Asian countries of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and some of the South Asian countries such as Vietnam and Singapore. This is not all of Asia. Asia is much bigger than this, to the point that I can't speak on everyone because I simply am not educated enough. 

2. Historically, we have been divided at times.

If I said that all Europeans can tell all narratives that occurred in European history, would everyone approve of that?

If a person of German descent decided to write a fictional novel set during the WWII from the point of view a Holocaust victim, this author would likely come under heavy scrutiny. In fact, many would argue that such a story should always be written by an #ownvoices author.

"Asians" are not some special exception. We haven't always be united in every point in history--which ethnicity has? We too have narratives that are still fraught with tensions and sensitivities, even in the post-memories of later generations. The difference is that many of our narratives are glossed over in history classes. There are points in "Asian" history that to this day remain very contested. To just list a few: China and Japan (e.g. Nanjing Massacre/Incident--however it is thought of); Japan and Korea (e.g comfort women); China and Taiwan (military threats and sovereignty); China and North Korea and South Korea (I can't even speak on this).

So let's ask the question again, the same one that we did before, but now "Asian-fied": If you were a person of Japanese descent writing from the point of view of a Chinese character during the Manchurian occupation of WWII, or some equivalent event in a made up world with cultural appropriation, is that okay?

Can you write it? Of course. You can write whatever you want. But should you? That is something to ask yourself as a writer, and to be aware of as a reader.

This is not to say that we are always divided. Rather, it is to say that there are specific narratives in specific points of time that should remain told by a particular group of "Asians."

This once again shows the damaging limitations of the term "Asian" when that's the only way you can think of the various countries. It bears repeating that we are all very different. We have different languages. We have different customs. Even for the societies that ostensibly seem to condone the fundamental Confucian values of the patriarchy, filial piety, the importance of roles, etc. no two are exactly the same. 

3. Immigration among Asian countries makes for distinctions within distinctions.

As a Chinese-American, do I feel comfortable writing a Singaporean or Vietnamese narrative? No, I do not. But what about the other way around? In many countries such as Vietnam and Taiwan, there are significant populations that are considered "native" and significant populations that are considered "Chinese immigrants." The latter term is quite elusive, as it doesn't specify when the immigration occurred (sometimes it was during the Qing dynasty. Sometimes it was during the wars, or the rise of the Communist Party). After many generations, it is sometimes up to the family to decide how they wish to identify. Between the natives and non-natives, there are sometimes tensions, especially when a contested issue (such as the China and Taiwan sovereignty debate) flares up, bringing issues of heritage back into the gray. Meanwhile, I know people who are Vietnamese-American who are just as "Chinese" as my parents, and others who are not. To sum, there are large populations of Chinese in many "Asian" countries, but less so the other way around. In whom the storytelling authority resides is consequently blurred. 

4. Multiple those distinctions within distinctions with immigration to the US.

To complicate things further, many Asians you encounter are probably Asian American. Within Asian Americans, there are distinctions of first, second, third etc. generations. Do I, as a second generation Asian American, have the authority to tell the narratives of my first generation parents? This will vary on a case by case, family by family basis. Are my parents more "Asian" than I am? Yes, probably. But what does that mean?

So far, I've mostly aimed to provoke you into thinking and considering questions that many Asians battle with all the time.

So you've shown me is that there are differences upon differences upon differences in a group that many people think of as a monolith, you might say. But do you have a final point?

If there must be a point, then let it be this: distinctions are so fine and so complex that at the end of the day, it's up to  the marginalized Asian writers to decide the stories they want to tell. The biggest issue right now is that this complexity is currently lost on much of the western world because we are missing stories. I'm not just talking about historical fiction here. I'm talking about ways of thinking, of seeing the world. There is no single brand of "Asian", but the lack of voices overall seems to perpetuate that misconception.

I may be only speak for myself, but I will say this: as a second generation Chinese American, I did feel marginalized. Maybe not so much as a first-generation, immigrant Chinese, as I didn't experience a language barrier, but I felt it all the same. This marginalization compounded with the constant tussle between preserving my Chinese values and assimilating Western ones has led me to consider my identity quite thoroughly. If I were to put an #ownvoices label on something, I have given it quite a bit of thought. If I decide not to put an #ownvoices label on something, I have also given it a lot of thought. And others likely have too.

Because here's the paradox: Asians are not a monolith, but Asian Americans have all experienced marginalization. We all have wondered just what it means to be us in a world that seems determined to slap one label onto all our different voices.

So please, be kind. Be respectful. And above all, listen with an open heart and an open mind. Because am I "Asian" enough? Yes, some would say. Heck no, my relatives would say (I'm at a middle school literacy rate). Even the issue of whether mainland Chinese "Asian" enough is now debated. Honestly, no one is ever XXX enough when it comes to something as rich and enduring as heritage. The learning never stops, but the learning can never begin if we silence one another.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016: A Year in Review

For many, I know that 2016 was a year of more downs than ups. The reverse may also be true. I can't speak for everyone, only myself. So I'm going to outline my year by focusing on the personal events (as we all know what went down in November :( ).

2016: A Year in Review


  • signed with my super-agent
  • visited Harry Potter World and bought a chocolate frog
  • finished writing my 5th manuscript, THE FINAL BRILLIANCY, which clocked in at 71k
  • registered for my first ever Creative Writing course (!)
  • also registered in a second semester of Chinese Language 
  • caught an extremely bad cold
  • fell down a revision hole
  • still lived in the revision hole
  • climbed out of the revision hole!
  • attacked by a bunch of shiny new story ideas. Saved for later
  • honestly don't know what happened. Passed like a dream. Somehow earned a second semester of straight A's. Remembered to celebrate the academic successes
  • decided to return to Taiwan for a second year of teaching the SATs (never escaping them :') )
  • experienced a lot of heartburn :(
  • still experiencing heartburn
  • broke my phone two weeks into Taiwan (a first, and a last, I hope)
  • still managed to take the MRT in the wrong direction
  • tried to write, and failed
  • ate an unhealthy amount of pizza. Who knew pizza in Taiwan was so good
  • caught ANOTHER extremely bad cold. In fact, pretty sure it was the flu. Everything ached, including my teeth. Did a meet and greet with my students while I could barely breathe
  • still living the phoneless life
  • tried to write, and actually wrote in Starbucks, my true love. 13k.
  • watched my first horror with my students
  • watched Steins;Gate, and the recommendation of a student 
  • consumed more teppanyaki than I'm proud of
  • said goodbye to my students :(
  • returned from Taiwan and made a resolution to stop getting sick as often. Started to work out, aiming 4/7 days a week
  • also made a resolution to eat healthier :')
  • registered for a THIRD semester of Chinese Language
  • registered for my first Chinese History Course
  • mentoring in PW!
  • still working out, and 5/7 days a week
  • tried to buckle down into writing
  • school. ack
  • living with the dream roommates
  • watched my first Korean drama. Don't let me do it again. It's bad for me 
  • still mentoring in PW!
  • STILL working out. Somehow
  • STILL school. ack
  • existential crisis
  • considered grad school
  • tried not to think about grad school
  • remembered that I'm now a junior
  • turned 20; celebrated with friends. Probably my one social event of the semester
  • stayed in the dorms during Fall Break to write
  • more PW mentoring!
  • pinch me but STILL WORKING OUT?!
  • Still school x.x
  • dream roommate gets into study-abroad for spring semester :D D':
  • stayed in the dorms over Thanksgiving break to write (did go home for Thanksgiving dinner)
  • registered for a FOURTH semester of Chinese language
  • Started watching WESTWORLD and holy. Moly. 
  • is this working out thing here to stay???
  • said farewell to the dream roommate
  • straight A semester #3 but school is still ack. 
  • started reading my first Chinese book and basically googletranslating every other word, but PROGRESS
  • STAYING IN THE DORMS TO WRITE OVER WINTER BREAK WOOOO!!! Actually though, it's good for productivity. But creepy. Probably won't do again, but still. 
Highlights: Writing. Teaching in Taiwan. Getting heath...ier. Re-charged the creative well with a lot of amazing shows. 

Could be better: Probably too much writing at the cost of a social life (or life in general). My goal in 2017 is to try to spend as much time as a hermit possibly can with friends and loved ones. 

Here's to 2017! I'd love to hear about your year/what you're looking forward to in the coming one!  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Pitchwars 101: The First Chapter

If you're anything like me, you stay on the fence about everything until the very last possible minute. This series of short, last minute posts will hopefully be helpful to anyone still unsure about the contest itself, the query, the first chapter, and the synopsis.

Check out the previous parts of the series:

The First Chapter Checklist:
  • Is your first line the best that it can be?
  • What more, is your first line representative of the rest of the book? Do you establish your style from the start?
  • Are you giving enough description of surroundings to ground your reader?
  • Do you avoid over-describing and overwhelming the reader?
  • Are you avoiding weak descriptors? Do you use cliched words/phrases? Do you use two average words to illustrate something when you could use one, vivid word?
  • Are you introducing too many named/major characters at once? If so, avoid.
  • Are you starting in a place that draws the reader in? 
    • Don't interpret this as you must start with a chase/explosion/fight. This is cliche if it's not suited for your book. If your story is more character driven/quieter, then don't start with an explosion if it doesn't make sense to have an explosion! This is an extreme example, but hopefully you get what I mean.
  • Is the length about the same as the length of your other chapters? If not (significantly longer/shorter), is there a reason for this, or could your first chapter actually be split into two chapters, or is it lacking?
  • Do we get a good initial feel for your character's personality?
    • Is this done through showing and not telling? As in, if your character is brave, have the first chapter involve her doing something brave instead of telling us outright. A lot of times, I find that writers use "voice" to mask straight up telling. Just because your character is hilarious and snarky and has a lot to say doesn't mean you can spoon-feed the reader a lot of disguised telling. We can tell!
  • Is the ending representative? If it ends on a killer cliff-hanger, is that something that reappears throughout your book? If it ends on a more final note, is that the general style of your chapter endings?
As you can tell, I toss out the word "representative" a lot. This is because I've read a lot of first chapters. I've read a lot of first chapters, and then gone on to read more of the book. I've also written a lot of first chapters. And I know every writer is bombarded again and again with the reminder that your first chapter has to hook the reader.

This advice can result in a lot of amazing first chapters, but it results in a lot of "fake" first chapters other times (especially when it comes to contest chapters!). By this I mean that it's very obvious that the first chapter is trying to hook you, but if the first chapter is a promise of some sorts (of what the rest of the book is going to deliver), then the rest of the book must keep that promise. If not, the disappointment is crushing and ruins my enjoyment of the book. 

SO. Write an interesting first chapter, but above all, write a first chapter that is true to your book. 

Hope this was helpful! As always, if you have any questions, you can ask me on twitter. Stay tuned for the final post--the synopsis!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pitchwars 101: The Query

If you're anything like me, you stay on the fence about everything until the very last possible minute. This series of short, last minute posts will hopefully be helpful to anyone still unsure about the contest itself, the query, the first chapter, and the synopsis.

Check out my previous post in the Pitchwars 101 Series: An Overview

  • The query at a glance:
    • A simple introduction is fine and actually preferred. Address the person you're querying properly, and then jump right into the body of the query, unless you're personalizing.
    • The body (the part where you talk about the story) of your query should be about 2-4 paragraphs. One giant paragraph is off-putting, and more than four, major paragraphs makes your query look like a synopsis
      • A query and a synopsis are different! The query should read like a back-cover blurb on a book, whereas the synopsis reads more like cliffnotes/a wikipedia page. 
    • After the body, there should be a mini paragraph where you share your word count, your genre + age category, and your comp titles (usually two). 
      • Try to keep at least one of your comp titles as recent as possible
      • Try to avoid using the cliched comp titles (e.g. Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, etc.)
      • Word count should be rounded to the nearest thousandth. 
    • After this mini paragraph comes your bio paragraph. If your bio doesn't have too much of a tie-in with your book (e.g. you're a curator at a museum, and your book is about museums), err on the side of keeping it short.
    • All in all, you really want the body portion to shine, and then just make sure that you have your other components and that all the info is accurate (e.g. don't lie about your word count)
  • The body of the query:
    • Establish your world without being overwhelming or confusing. Drop some specific details that can immedaitely give the reader a flavor of your setting, but don't have too many of these details, or go overboard, and save the more complex elements for the actual book
    • Establish the main arc of your plot, and enrich with a line or two about a subplot. The main arc of your plot should be very visible and be the main driver behind the tension and stakes.
    • TENSION! STAKES! Lack of these two is my most often given crit. But don't kill it with vague, generic statements that are all too common. "She must save the world"/"She must do X, or die" is not enough on its own. Infuse these statements with the flavor of your characters and plot. They're so popular because they do work, but only when they're unique. 
    • The tone of the body should match the tone of your book. Serious book? Try to keep the voice pretty serious. Funny, witty book? Drop hints of that in the query.
Of course, no "query" blogpost would be complete without an example query, so for all the curious ones, here you go, two in fact!

This is the one I sent as part of my pitchwars sub:

Having snored through all her imperial lessons, seventeen-year-old princess Hesperia wouldn’t really know why the Ostian people loathe the seers and the magicians. Neither does she care to learn, not when she’d rather spend time in the imperial gardens, her one and only sanctuary.

Until the day she stumbles upon the king’s body in a bed of nightflowers.

With her father entombed in jade, her mother ill from grief, and her brother called away to tend to an impending war, Hesperia sacrifices her freedom to fill the empty throne. As queen, she vows to uncover the truth behind the death as one last gift to her honest father. But when the healers insist on calling the king’s passing a verdict of the gods, Hesperia realizes that the power of a crown may not be enough. 

Consulting a seer would result in death by a thousand cuts, yet Hesperia risks paying the price to secure an investigation and trial. The court, however manipulates the trial, framing enemies of the Ost as the king’s killer—enemies such as the seers and magicians. Hesperia must stay one step ahead of the schemes or watch the trial spiral into a tangle of prejudice and propaganda. She must protect her own secrets, craft her lies carefully, or lose her life. That is, if the truth behind her father’s death doesn’t destroy her first. 

At 96k, HESPERIA is a YA fantasy inspired by the social issues raised in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and the palace intrigue in THE WINNER'S CRIME. It is set in a world that is a cross between ancient Rome and China.

My family is Chinese and I've grown up knowing the great epics and popular legends of the culture. This had helped me craft the China-influenced setting as accurately as possible. When I am not writing, I am studying Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Thank you for your time and consideration!

And then this is the one I sent in my queries to agents post-PW, after my mentor and I polished it up:

As Princess of the Ost, seventeen-year-old Hesperia should be attending the blood trials with her family, not hiding from her maids in the watersilk ponds. But when she discovers her father’s body in a bed of nightflowers, she’s faced with a trial of her own: uncover the truth behind his death, or watch it go down in the scrolls as the verdict of the gods.

With her mother ill and her brother leading the army, Hesperia risks her life when she consorts with a forbidden seer to secure an investigation as a final gift to her beloved father. The war-hungry court manipulates the trial, however, framing the seers and magicians who have begun to re-emerge centuries after they were purged. With the help of a legendary assassin and her adopted brother and sister, Hesperia struggles to stay one step ahead of the court officials as the trial spirals into a tangle of prejudice and propaganda.

Now, Hesperia faces betrayal at every turn: from a neighboring country that seeks to use the seers and magicians for its own selfish aims, and from the only family she has left. With whispers of revolution simmering in the shadows, she must eradicate the cycle of persecution—or become its next victim. 

At 88k, HESPERIA is a YA fantasy inspired by the social issues raised in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and the palace intrigue in THE WINNER'S CRIME. It is set in a world that is a cross between ancient Rome and China.

As a Chinese American, I've grown up with many of the great Chinese epics and popular legends, which helped inspire the setting for HESPERIA. In addition to writing, drawing, and baking, I am a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Psychology. I am a 2015 Pitch Wars finalist mentored by Mara Rutherford. 

So there you have it! Hopefully this before and after is helpful in giving you a sense of the quality of query that sparked interest among mentors and got me several requests for more materials, but as you can tell, there was room for changes and improvement! So don't fret too much about every single word of your query - it needs to demonstrate strong writing and do your story justice, but it's likely to change once you have a mentor.

Stay tuned for the next post on the first chapter!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Pitchwars 101: An Overview

If you're anything like me, you stay on the fence about everything until the very last possible minute. This series of short, last minute posts will hopefully be helpful to anyone still unsure about the contest itself, the query, the first chapter, and the synopsis. 

  • Everyone's experience is different. I know people who worked with their mentors to rewrite their book in the two month period. I know people who only had to line-edit. There really is a spectrum for everything--the amount of revision, your closeness with your mentor, etc. For example, Mara and I were close (and we remained friends and CP's long after the contest) but I'm sure there were other mentees and mentors who were "closer" in the sense that they emailed each other every single day, gif-warred on twitter, etc. It worked out that I tend to retreat when I write and revise, so Mara and I mostly checked in every week or so. I turned in my materials on time, and Mara read them and gave comments promptly. So if you enter Pitchwars, just remember that no mentee-mentor relationship is exactly the same. That's part of the magic--the experience is really what you and your mentor decide to make it.
  • I've been in some other contests before, and I have to say that the Pitchwars community is unparalleled. Maybe it's because it's less of a contest and more of a process, and you're in it for 2+ months, but your fellow mentees will become your people even if you are the most introverted, awkward, shy person ever (Exhibit A: me).
  • The two months will pass really quickly. I was in school while revision round was happening, and before I knew it, August had become the end of October, and Agent Round was just around the corner. For some, these two months will be utterly crazy. I mostly was editing to up the tension and pacing in the first 50 or so pages, so it wasn't overly intense, but juggling assignments and exams was still a pain. Buy yourself a planner if you don't have one already--it will become your best friend.
  • The agent round is stressful for everyone, whether you're in the tons-of-requests club, the Zero-Request-Club, or somewhere in between. There's really no way to get around the stress, so make sure you fill up your day with positive things, people, and activities.
  • After the contest, people's paths will start to diverge. Some will get immediate offers of representation out of the Agent round, which will lead into immediate book deals. Some will get immediate offers, but fail to get that immediate book deal. Some will land great agents at great agencies months after the contest. And some will ultimately move on and write another book, and try the whole process all over again. Some, like me, will be in the middle (I got my agent about 2 months after the end of the contest, right around the holiday season, and...I am currently rewriting my PW book). There really are infinite permutations of where your writing road might turn post-PW, and as long as you keep that in mind, it won't feel like you're being left behind.
  • If you don't get into the contest, just remember this: there are two main factors involved in whether or not someone gets picked: quality and luck. Quality means the quality of your submission materials. If you've had multiple eyes on your first chapter, query, and synopsis, and you know that objectively they are as good as you could have gotten them, then it boils down to luck. Did you submit to the "right" mentors? Did your mentors get a lot of submissions in your genre, or few? Did you not submit to the "right" mentors, but did that kind person pass you on to someone he/she thought would be a better fit? I was a case where I had not submitted to Mara, and some super amazing mentor whom I had submitted to passed me along because Mara wanted some more fantasy subs. So all the pieces aligned for me, luckily. But constantly, I imagine if I hadn't been passed onto to Mara. There's a very likely chance I wouldn't have made it into Pitchwars. Or maybe I would have. No one knows. 

So there we have it, very brief overview of what PW is like, based on my experiences from last year. If you have any questions, comment below, or find me on twitter. Stay tuned for a brief post on the query portion of your submission!