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Traveling, or how to get even less writing done

A few posts ago, I talked about how summer was going to be a tightrope walk in terms of trying to accomplish some real writing. Then I went on vacation with my daughters, but without my partner and learned what really getting no work done feels like.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets. We saw Wicked and Anastasia (another example of changing a story without lessening either version) on Broadway, sketched in the Egyptian section of the Met, checked out the Bronx Zoo, and they climbed some big boulders in Central Park. There were girl/doll manicures and doll salon appointments at American Girl. They’re big fans of Christina Tosi on Masterchef Junior so we went to her desserterie called Milk Bar. They sulked while I made them take a photo in Times Square (#worstmomever). It was lovely.

New York was followed by a visit home to Boston. Which means seeing friends, catching up over dinners, hanging out with family, and generally having a wonderful time. I took the girls to the Museum of Science (a favorite location of mine and my husband’s), and on a Duck Tour of the city.

While I got zero writing done (even on this blog, apart from the pre-scheduled post), I’ve been left refreshed and ready to go. Apart from the minor inconvenience of surgery on Friday.

Bear with me–once I’m done with surgery, I’m all yours until August.

Wicked—or it’s okay to play with (some) characters

Wicked the Musical is the child of the Oz books by Frank L Baum, the movie, the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire, and is something new altogether. It’s a great example of taking something old and making something new out of it.

There are a lot of derivative works–some of them are based on characters like Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and a thousand other cultural icons. When you sit down to write, if you are inspired to play with those (as long as they’re not under copyright–DON’T DO THAT) go for it. If they’re under copyright, then fanfic is a great way for you to play with those characters, but I caution you not to monetize someone else’s characters.

As someone who has been writing for over thirty years, I’ve done my share of writing fanfic and with messing around with characters not under copyright.

My most recently published story “For Love of Snow White” in Myths Monsters Mutations (edited by Jessica Augustsson) is a take on Snow White. Many years ago, I was inspired to write a story where the “evil queen” was actually not evil at all, but the victim of a smear campaign. When I sat down to polish it for Jessica, she talked to me about what was my story really about. Sure, it was Snow White, but what was really my angle? Sure, the evil queen wasn’t really evil, but then why was she there? Why would she stay? What made my Snow White story different?

I realized what my story was actually about was the idea of beauty as a curse (in the end, a literal one), and the struggle between pagan and Christian traditions. (The “new religion” in the story isn’t ever actually called out as Christianity, but it’s somewhat obvious that that’s who I’m talking about.) It grew organically from there. Yes, it’s a Snow White story, but the bones of the Snow White story are just that–the bones.

The Mists of Avalon is also about paganism and Christianity, but told through the framework of the Arthurian legends.

I collect Cinderella tales, and one of my favorites (for children) is called Cinder Edna, which contrasts the eminently practical Edna, who lives next to Ella. But rather than depend on a fairy godmother for everything, Edna does things for herself. There are also countless YA and adult versions of the Cinderella myth, not to mention all the movies.

I just finished Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai. In some ways it’s another take on the Romeo and Juliet story, but it’s also it’s own thing. Livvy and Nicholas are nothing like the very young Juliet and Romeo.

One of my favorite fanfic stories is Harry Potter and the Eagle of Truthiness, written by an author I knew on Literotica when I was more active there. It places the Stephen Colbert persona from the Colbert Report as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts, and is hilarious.

So don’t worry about being derivative, as long as you’re original.

Which brings me back to Wicked, the musical. (From here on out Wicked is the musical, Wicked is the book). I am seeing it for the fifth or sixth time today, and my youngest daughter is seeing it for the first time. Sure Wicked is the story of Glinda and Elphaba (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) before Dorothy shows up. But it’s also a story of a power hungry government suppressing its citizens and creating scapegoats (gee, how timely it feels today). It’s the story of railing against the system from the outside versus the inside. Sure it’s also a story about a love triangle, but to boil it down to that is to rob it of its complexity.

Wicked is very different from Wicked, which is a far more overtly political book. Personally I found Wicked to be a slog, and was disappointed in how little character development there was outside of politics (IN MY OPINION, DON’T @ ME.) Those of you expecting the book at the musical and vice versa are bound to be upset. Each is its own thing. Which is okay.

I will, however, admit to being a hypocrite, because if we’re talking Ella Enchanted (my favorite intermediate fiction Cinderella story–I’m a former teacher, so I’ve read a lot of children’s literature, and I’m very involved in the books my children read), I adore the book and think every copy of the movie should be burned. Sure the movie is it’s own thing, but I HATE it. Sorry, but even Anne Hathaway can’t save it.

So when you write, don’t be afraid of putting your own spin on a myth, legend, fairy tale, or story in the public domain. But know that you’ll probably never make everyone happy (hi, Ella Enchanted the movie), and that’s okay, too.

Thoughts on writing stories set in “exotic” Southeast Asian locations

As someone who lived in Asia for seven years and has written stories set in Asia, I have some thoughts about do’s and don’ts about doing so. I think some of this is applicable about writing about any location you are unfamiliar with, but I’m focusing on my former home.

Do’s

  • I hope this is an obvious one, but DO YOUR HOMEWORK. To use an example from the TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale”–in season two June spends some time hiding out in the former headquarters of The Boston Globe. She asks where she is and is told the Back Bay. Three seconds of Googling told me that the headquarters an in the financial district and the printing presses (which are in the story) were in Dorchester (another neighborhood in Boston) but have since been moved to Taunton (another town far away). The show is set somewhere in the mid 2000’s based on the soundclip they used of the Red Sox winning the World Series. This isn’t a detail that would’ve been hard to get right. The Back Bay is a district that is famous for it’s beautiful historic brick townhouses, and would never be knocked down for a building like that. Does them getting that detail wrong affect the story? No, but it’s irritating and could have easily been done correctly. Things like weather make a difference–Singapore is so humid that it feels like a slap across the face everytime you exit a building like a mall which is over air-conditioned.
  • As a follow up to doing homework–bookmark things you will need to refer to again. If your research doesn’t involve physical books (like my research for Plunder), bookmark websites and photos that inspire you. Or create a Pinterest board, if that’s your style. I’m using a mix of physical notes with topics and stars to indicate something that my research has inspired for my revisions. When I wrote Capturing the Moment I referred to not only my guidebooks and art research books (for info about the temples and their carvings) and my memories, I had a file of photos I took that were going to show up in the book whether as actual photos Meg took or just places that she and RJ would visit.
  • Try involve a local character, if you can do so without resorting to stereotypes (more on that later in the don’ts section). Singapore, from the outside, is a rigid country full of laws like no chewing gum (it’s actually more nuanced than that) with the death penalty for drugs (but moreso if you’re poor and not white–white people get deported for the most part, not executed) and is famous for canning Michael Fay in the 90’s for graffiti-ing (again, more nuanced than that). It’s anti-lgbt. BUT I have queer friends, including a drag queen. BUT I have a good friend who is an anti-death penalty activist and independent journalist. BUT there are plenty of parents who worry about the test culture. Make them a well-rounded person. They don’t have to be a main character, but they should be there (see Darany and Saroj in Capturing the Moment).
  • Do slip in some education. Details like Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW’s, more frequently colloquially called maids or helpers) in Singapore are women who are from poorer countries (the Philippines, India, Myanmar, and Indonesia) and often who have children of their own only have the right to go home for a week every two years. If they switch jobs, the clock resets and sometimes they request the money it would cost to send them home instead of actually going so they can send it home to pay for homes or education. These women take care of other people’s children while almost never seeing their own. I mention that temple children can’t afford to go to school for the most part, so the children who are riding their bikes and wave to Meg are the lucky ones in CTM. You can do this without being didactic.
  • Accept that you’ll fuck something up. I’m sure that an expat from Cambodia could rip apart parts of Capturing the Moment, and that a sailor will be able to rip apart parts of Plunder. Doing homework doesn’t mean you’ll get it 100% right. Aim for your mistakes to be smaller ones like the location of the Boston Globe and not a racist stereotype.

 

Don’ts

  • Try to refrain from the word “exotic.” It’s a word with a lot of loaded meaning and is offensive to many people. It defines the world as white and western, often American=normal, and everything else as foreign and something to gawk at. As an example, it is often applied to my elder daughter who is too dark to pass as white and not dark enough for people to accurately pinpoint the other side of her heritage as Indian. (Which in and of itself is a stereotype. She’s darker than my father-in-law who isn’t half white, and Indian can range from white-passing to people who in the US would get classified as black). It is hurtful when I hear her called that, because it is dehumanizing. Food is exotic when it’s not what you’re used to, but it’s plain old everyday food to the people who live there. Same with the weather, the flora and fauna, and facets. You can describe how alien the environment is to your MC without using the word “exotic.” Do better.
  • Do not use stereotypes about countries. When talking about Singapore, it’s cheap to just say gum is banned. Note that having the trains run on time is key in a city that largely depends on public transit (cars are six figures plus another six figures in taxes), and that when people kept putting gum over the sensors, the doors weren’t closing properly and the trains got all fucked up. The easiest solution was to prohibit public consumption of gum–you can bring gum into the country from abroad (and abroad is a 30 minute drive into Malaysia, for example), and you can purchase smoking cessation gum with a prescription, but you can’t chew it in public. Talk instead about how complex the city state is–there are giant parks to protect the natural flora and hence fauna, there are sky scrapers, there are wet markets where you can buy live frogs/halal meat/fresh fruit/etc, there are diverse neighborhoods, and vast economic disparities. Even books like Crazy Rich Asians, which portrays life in Singapore is rife with its own problems–like ignoring non-Chinese characters–Singapore is incredibly ethnically diverse, but only Chinese people figure in CRA. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
  • Do not use racial or language cues as shorthand. Darany in Capturing the Moment does not speak perfect English. But his English isn’t broken either. This is a bit of a departure from real life as my drivers’ English was not as solid as Darany’s, but using broken English to show that someone isn’t a native speaker is cheap and disrespectful. Keep in mind that due to class or history, some people in Southeast Asia *are* native English speakers. English is the main language in Singapore. Parsis in India speak English as a first language. Wealthy families throughout SE Asia may speak English as a first language, or speak it fluently enough to pass for a native speaker. Darany is from a lower class, so his English is not perfect, and doesn’t include idioms that he wouldn’t know, but it’s not broken either.
  • Don’t forget that there is significant history in SE Asia. Colonizers like the British left their mark (especially see places like India/Pakistan, and Singapore/Malaysia) and is why English plays a bit part in the lives of SE Asians. The Japanese occupied a lot of SE Asia and the oldest generations remember what it was like to live through that occupation. When Lee Kuan Yew died, the entire country went into mourning because he was the founder of Singapore–the country is only just over 50 years old but at the same time, some institutions and history predate the independence by hundreds of years. History will play an important part of your story. I mention the civil war in Cambodia briefly because there are places like Artisans Angkor which uses the funds generated by the sale of handicrafts to train young people in the art forms that were almost lost because of the civil war. So even the existence of a store can mean some within it’s historic context.

None of this is meant to discourage you from writing about Southeast Asia. It is a wonderful part of the world in which to set a story. You don’t have to visit it to write about it. But you do need to do your homework and stay respectful.

Summer

Tomorrow my baby graduates from kindergarten and the school year ends. This is a time of year that I am quite conflicted about. On one hand summer means that we don’t have to adhere to a tight schedule, and I don’t have to police homework or bedtimes. On the other hand, it is about to become immensely more difficult to get writing done.

June is actually almost a complete disaster, writing-wise. I’m going away with the girls on my own for two weeks to the East Coast, and then when we get back I’m having surgery. Nothing serious, per se, but I’ll still be out of commission for a week.

On the up side (?) my research for Plunder is coming along.

I’m on my fourth research book. I’ve read about ships, pirate myths vs reality, the history of rum, and now another book on pirates. I’ve had to go and correct an embarrassing number of things already, and it’s only the start. An example is that pirates did not wear boots. I have multiple books on race and slavery in the Caribbean, and I’m trying to think of a way to include those important details without either creating a white savior or ignoring them altogether.

As long as I can read and take notes, which I will be able to do, then hopefully I’ll be making some forward progress.

But the balance between family and work is going to go out of balance, and I’ll need to find a way to move forward. I get cranky and antsy when I’m not writing.

With the holiday, I’m only posting Tues and Thurs this week, and I hope to go back to Mon/Wed/Fri next week.

Rejection

I had submitted an updated version of Love is a Virus to an anthology. I’ve been trying to get accepted by a specific editor for a long time now, and I had yet to succeed. I was hoping Love is a Virus would be a good fit, but alas it was not.

Rejection always stings, but sometimes it stings a little more when it’s someone you really want to work with as opposed to anthology you think might work out. But, having said that, it’s also part of #writerlife and it’s especially part of trying to get into popular anthologies.

The most common response a writer gets is “no.”

It stings, it can ding your confidence, but you can’t get so in your head that you can’t move past–that way lies madness.

My solution for dealing with submissions is to assume a no and hope for a yes. It’s perhaps a bit reflective of my approach to life–I’m a prepare for the worst, hope for the best woman when it comes to most things. But it doesn’t protect from that sting.

So what do I do?

I acknowledge the sting. I pout a little.

Then I get back to work.

Writing a historical book and research

In preparation for writing the full version of Plunder, I did some research. I read a few books and thought I had “enough” to write.

After reading a lot of historical romance by Beverly Jenkins specifically and others more generally and reading an unrelated comment about anachronisms like desks when they didn’t exist, I realized that what I thought I knew and how much I needed to know were two very different things.

I may have overcompensated by buying 15 non-fiction titles on pirates, the history of rum in the Caribbean, racial politics, ships, and so forth.

I am still making a conscious choice to ignore some of the less desirable traits of piracy (the rape, the violence, the fact women pirates were super rare–we only know of two during the “golden age” of piracy in the Caribbean) but I want to get other things right. I want to get the ships right. I don’t want William to win Puerto Seguro via poker when it would have been cribbage (side note, I learned cribbage last weekend). I don’t want them wearing boots when no one wore boots in that era unless they were riding horses. Things like that.

To some extent, I’m sort of doing a Titanic story–the details are mostly correct (in the movie the details of things like china are painstakingly correct) but the actual love story is implausible.

If you write historical fiction, how much research do you do?

 

I got to talk to Beverly Jenkins!

About a month or so ago I saw on Twitter that The Pixel Project (an organization dedicated to stopping violence against women worldwide) was raising money and that a number of romance authors had donated things to help do so. Alisha Rai tweeted that one of the rewards was a half hour Skype session with Beverly Jenkins. I immediately donated.

On Friday I got to speak with Beverly and I’m still a bit in awe. We talked about process, agents, writing as the mom of two small children, and advice she wished white authors would heed when writing POC characters.

image from Beverly Jenkins’ website

I’m not going to rehash the whole conversation, but some of what we talked about that I think other writers would be interested in hearing include

Everyone has imposter syndrome. Everyone.

As someone who struggles with imposter syndrome all the time, it’s a relief to hear that even established writers feel it sometimes. You’re not alone. But you have to believe in yourself and your work.

Don’t compare yourself to other writers/do what works for you.

I probably spend too much time worrying about how fast I’m writing relative to how fast other writers produce work. Long time readers know that Plunder has been a project for almost two years. I sometimes freak out and wonder how authors like Seanan McGuire and Nora Roberts can put out five or six books a year and if I’ll ever be able to produce like that–and what it means about my commitment to my craft that I can’t work faster.

Beverly told me there was a point where she put out two novels and three novellas a year and that almost killed her, so she cut back to two novels a year. Hearing that someone whose work I admire as much as I do Beverly’s hit a point of “too much” and that she gave herself permission to cut back to what worked for her helped unknot that insecurity. (At least for today–I’ll need to come back and re-read this entry on days I get stressed).

We also talked about process. She’s a pantser, just like me! I feel like I read about “serious” authors who are plotters so often that I also have insecurity about being a pantser (that it somehow marks me as more of an amateur). She talked about how the first book in her Blessings series wrote itself (if you aren’t reading Blessings, you’re not living your best life, by the way), but that another book of hers just wasn’t ready to be written and had to go sit on her hard drive until the time was right. She gave me permission to go with my instinct and be a pantser and let the work flow.

She also told me about how one of her characters just decided to do something out of left field. That reminded me of an event late in Plunder, after which I metaphorically looked at Bree and William and was like “since when was that supposed to happen?”

Along with that, we talked about writing as the mom (or parent) of small children. Beverly talked about giving one of her children crayons and telling them to write their own story while she was writing hers, and editing in the five minutes before a band concert started. She also told them pretty much the same thing I’ve told my children–unless there’s blood or fire, let me work.

Being white and writing POC–write people, not stereotypes

While I have non-white friends, I never want to put someone in the position of speaking on behalf of their race. And while I’m lucky that some of these friends beta read for me, I should have done the work so that they don’t have to police me. I don’t want to be an author who writes all white books because our world isn’t all white. But I also don’t want to write a racially insensitive character or dodge a cultural issue. (And if I’m telling the truth I’m also a bit nervous about getting dragged on Twitter, and rightfully so, if I do fuck up.)

Her advice to me as a white author was to write people and not stereotypes. To remember that not all black people can dance, for an example. That some black people are shy, and that others are dermatologists.

While this may seem like straightforward advice, you’d be surprised how frequently people don’t take it.

What resources did she recommend to me

Beverly was kind and gracious, and I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.