The Business of Writing
In mid-June, I gave a three day workshop at University of Hawaii, Manoa, via Zoom about how to take traditional stories—Western fairy tales, Hawaiian mo’oleleo, Asian folktales, whatever—and turn them into something new.
We spent some time talking about simple vs. complex story structures, inner and outer character arcs, and how so many traditional stories are missing key story beats that western audiences expect because traditional stories were created for entirely different purposes.
One of my examples was Snow White, for the selfish reason that I was getting ready to write another novella for Tork Media as part of their Fractured Fairy Tales serials. It was due in completed form by mid-July. By mid-May, I’d done the research and had already pitched a couple ideas to my editor. I had a rough outline for my novella—as much of an outline as a pantster ever does—but I thought hearing a story pitch might be helpful for participants and lead into discussions about how publishers’, editors’, and agents’ ideas can shape a book, and how important it was to meet the audience’s expectations.
I also wanted participants to be fearless in giving and getting critique, so I set myself up as the first victim, pitching two different Snow White stories.
I knew the first example I gave wasn’t an appropriate Snow White story for Tork Media’s target audience. It featured drugs, mental illness, dysfunctional family dynamics, and a main character that wasn’t Disney warm and fuzzy. Once the gang realized I was serious about critique, they had no trouble telling me that.
Whew, I thought. They got it.
The second story I pitched was much closer to Snow White. It involved a young hula dancer named Hua (Snow White), a jealous older dancer, Nini (Wicked Witch), a phony hula ratings app (Mirror), Menehune that helped the young dancer (Dwarfs), a toady male dancer named Renten (the Huntsman), and diabolical sabotages at a high school hula competition where Hua could be crowned with a majorly made-up hula title as the greatest and youngest ever—and the reason Nini was jealous.
This one wasn’t as deep as the drug story, but it better fit the target audience. I was about to turn the pitching session to their stories when somebody said, “I don’t like Hua. I think this should be Lilinoe’s story. We don’t hear much about her in the Niuhi Shark Saga. She disappears, and that’s too bad.”
What they didn’t know was book three of the Niuhi Shark Saga was supposed to be One Dance, No Drum. It was supposed to be Lilinoe’s story, and in many ways, it was supposed to parallel Zader’s. It was a hula story, too, fame vs. love of the dance, and it was how Lili reconnected with her biological mother’s family—they’d come to see her while she was preparing and competing for Miss Aloha Hula at Merrie Monarch. The seeds for this story are all through the Niuhi Shark Saga, particularly early editions before the books got cut from five to three.
Okay. If this is now Lilinoe as Snow White, that makes this Snow White story much higher stakes and a lot more interesting for me to write. But it can’t be Merrie Monarch; Lili’s too young.
Loooong story short, I fell into a deep hole full of research about hula lore and protocols. I started thinking about where this story fit into the Lauele timeline and realized dance, poetry, and music would be the way Lili would deal with her grief and anger over Zader’s death and Jay’s loss of his leg.
Lili’d be torn between wanting to be the dutiful daughter and listening to her newly discovered mother (who’d keep butting in because to her it’s all about winning), listening to Liz (her adopted mother/bio-aunt) and others with more traditional hula views, and Lili’s own heart’s desire to dance as catharsis. Liz would also have a few choice things to say (and do!) about Nancy suddenly wanting to be the mother.
And what would Lilinoe dance? Not something typical. Of course! She and her kumu hula would create new hula—‘auana and kahiko—plus mele and oli centered in Lauele that expressed herself.
Wait. NEW hula, mele, and oli?!!! All about Lauele, Zader, Jay, and ‘ohana? That worked on at least two kaona levels? I think I’m giving myself a heart attack.
We are now so far from Snow White, there’s no going back.
There’s also no time. If I have to write poetry and beg someone to translate at least part of it into proper Hawaiian, there’s no way I’m hitting a mid-July completion for publication date.
This isn’t novella length, either. It feels novel-ish.
But sometimes the muse rides hell for leather. Like an ocean wave, you have to go with the flow. This story is not going to be Snow White. It’s not going to be One Dance, No Drum, either. Guess I need to sit my pants in my chair and let the words flow.
I’m going to be as surprised as anyone to see Lilinoe’s story unfold.
But, really, telling your own story beats reworking a traditional story any day.
I’ve often said that humans are hardwired to learn through story. It’s no surprise then that certain patterns resonate across cultures and geographic boundaries. In the West, we’re thrilled by stories that follow what Joseph Campbell and others describe as the Hero’s Journey or the Monomyth. Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lilo & Stitch, The Lion King, The Hobbit, The Hunger Games–are all based on familiar patterns found in the Hero’s Journey. But there are other stories–Hawaiian mo’olelo, Asian folktales, Pasifika myths and legends, fairy tales, and African folktales for example–that are structurally very different. Those differences can really confuse western readers by upsetting their expectations. In this workshop series, we’re going to break down stories and learn to map them forwards and backwards, molding them into original compositions that breathe new life into well-worn tales. We’re going to talk about the reader’s expectations and including the necessary story beats that meet them. Here’s to taking old stories and making them sparkle for modern readers.
And by all that is holy, pray that we can have lively discussions via Zoom!
With Covid-19 and the world changing in ways unimaginable, most of my spring and summer calendar was tossed out the window. One of the things I had really been looking forward to was spending a month on Oahu from mid-May to mid-June. I was going to research, talk story with lots of people, teach a few workshops, make a few presentations, and recharge my writing batteries. And swim in the ocean. And eat. And dream. Bummed does not begin to describe my feelings when none of that was possible–well, except the eat part. Sometime I wonder if the 19 in Covid really stands for how many pounds you gain during quarantine.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. While some of the events have been pushed to next year, some of them are going forward via Zoom. Remember the old PBS kids’ show Zoom? Like Joey on Friends, I always wanted to be a Zoom kid. Never thought I’d be one at my age!
A good story is one that resonates with its audience.
This afternoon I had a lot of things I had to do. Writing deadlines dangerously due. Horses, cats, and dogs to care for. House to straighten. Plants to water. Chili to make. Did I mention deadlines?
So, of course, instead of putting my nose to the grindstone, I grabbed a book I’d been meaning to read since my college son came home for Christmas and said, “You need to read this.”
“Manga? I don’t read manga,” I said. “I can’t draw to save my life. When I was directing videos, they hired someone to redo my storyboards, they were so bad.”
“But you create stories. You need to read this.”
I thanked him and said I’d get to it. I knew he wouldn’t recommend it if he didn’t think it worthwhile. I stuck it on the credenza in the living room where it sat, staring at me, until today when I plunked down in front of the fireplace for a couple of hours.
Fireplaces and books are the one good thing about a snowy day.
I wasn’t avoiding writing—not really. Sometimes you do have to push through a tough spot, but I’m facing three tough spots in three different works, and I knew staring at the computer wasn’t going to solve any of them.
But maybe a couple of hours reading a book on craft would shake something loose.
Now I’ve read and studied a hundred or more books on writing and editing. I could start my own specialty bookstore with just what’s lying around my office. I’ve taught courses on story structure, and have edited professionally for decades.
But this book reminded me of a few things I haven’t thought of in years.
Manga in Theory and Practice by Hirohiko Araki is map of how he approaches his work as a mangata, an author and illustrator of Japanese manga. His best known work is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, arguably one of the most successful shonen manga ever created. His primary target audience is boys 12 to 20, although the real audience is much wider.
Araki knows how to deliver what his readers (and editors) want, but his dissection of what makes good manga great seems diametrically opposed to what is generally considered good story structure to Western-trained writers. The action always rises. The hero always wins. The hero must act in a positive accordance with society’s values—even a seemingly bad action must be done for a noble reason.
In his book, Araki discusses his four key elements of manga: character, story, setting, and themes. The most important, he feels, is character. He spends a lot of time creating detailed character sheets before he writes one word or draws one line, and often includes things that strike me as uniquely Japanese, like listing a character’s blood type because that reveals important character traits. His approach is to create a cast of contrasting characters, give them motivations, and then turn them loose in settings. The dialogue and action flows organically—an approach also used by western writers like Stephen King.
Araki uses specific story beats to drive his story: ki-sho-ten-ketsu, introduction (ki), development (sho), twist (ten), and resolution (ketsu). While there can be several ten beats in a story, there is never the classic try-fail cycles we see in western literature. The action always rises and the antagonists increase in power as the hero grows. The best way to describe this is to think of an underdog baseball team who rises from backyard ball games to the world championship without ever losing a game.
It kinda boggled my mind.
But when I remembered his audience and why Araki writes, it all made sense.
Araki’s rules are founded on principles defined by his audience’s strong likes and dislikes. Heroes that fail? Boring. Heroes that make poor choices? Why am I wasting my time and money?
These conventions absolutely work for his audience—and that’s the key, I think.
Shonen manga readers identify with the heroes. They want to be entertained. They want to see themselves succeed. When the hero wins, it gives them hope that they, too, can face hard things and win.
I’m not certain if this structure and approach directly translates to western stories. For young readers, certainly. Others, probably not. But I’m going to think about this as I tackle my three stubborn works-in-progress.
There’s much more in Manga in Theory and Practice than what I’ve covered. I loved his focus on the first panel, that it makes or breaks the story if the reader won’t care enough to turn the page, and how he says write the story that speaks to you, put your ideals on the page, or the work won’t sing.
My son was happy to hear I finally read his book. He says he’s got a long list of friends in line to read it. I ordered my own copy of Manga in Theory and Practice to put on my bookshelf next to On Writing, Save the Cat, The Story Grid, and The Anatomy of Story.
Not all stories are western stories. It’s good to remember that.
Manga in Theory and Practice by Hirohiko Araki is available from Amazon in hardback and eBook.
This week I’ve been in graphic design hell as I’ve been trying to create new covers for the first of three stories based on re-imagined western fairy tales with a Hawaiian twist. The books have been ready for quite awhile–it’s the eBook, paperback, and hardback covers that have been holding up publication.
The whole thing has been driving me crazy.
Once I have a solid concept, I turn the designs in progress to different focus groups. They’re told that the books are standalone serials that are only loosely linked through recurring characters and settings from other books I write and that they there are sci-fi or magical realism with romance elements. People looked at them and then submitted their feedback in writing. I took their feedback and refined the designs, eventually showing a new iteration to more focus groups until I thought I had the best cover possible given my limitations of time and money. The finer details got refined by a trusted handful of people.
Here’s where I started about a week ago.
I liked that flowers and borders framed the series as a set. The title fonts and center images gave clues about the genre for each story. The additional text explained that these were riffs on traditional fairy tales. Winner, winner, chicken dinner, right?
Public Focus Group Feedback #1
“Too much text.”
“These don’t look like they go together. Use the same fonts.”
“Fonts need work.”
“You can’t sell romances set in the same world with different genres. Are you stupid?”
“Everything is wrong. You need to hire me to create proper covers. You’re going to fail at this.”
(I looked up this person’s portfolio. Once I stopped laughing, I took everything they said with an ocean of salt.)
I dropped the floral border, change font colors and the bar/band textures, and other minor changes.
Public Focus Group Feedback #2
“Too much text.”
“Body parts are horrible on romance covers.”
“These look like different genres. One looks sci-fi, one looks chick-lit, and the other is just terrible.”
“Use the same font on all the titles.”
“The quality of the artwork with the flowers was better.”
“Unless you’re Stephen King, nobody cares what else you’ve written, and if you’re Stephen King, you don’t have to brag.”
“Rell is whiter than the others. Was this intentional?”
“Pua looks like she has mutton chops.”
“Unless Nani doesn’t have arms in the story, her truncated limbs are freaking me out.”
“You’re going to get sued for calling these Fractured Folktales. It’s too close to Fractured Fairytales.”
(Nope. No copyright issues. But thanks for the warning.)
“Fonts need work.”
“You’re hiding the beautiful artwork behind too much text. Let the art tell the story.”
“Hire me. These suck.”
(Also reviewed this person’s portfolio. Hard pass.)
Changed Rell from an ‘okole shot to a whole person, realigned all the images, used the same font for the titles, dropped top bar, and other small changes.
Public Focus Group Feedback #3
“I liked it with all the flowers better.”
“Fonts need work.”
“So much better without all that text.”
Changed Rell to a more active pose, changed title font styles and location, cropped images differently, other minor changes.
Small Focus Group Feedback 4
“There’s something weird about Pua’s stomach.”
“Mom, I’m busy with finals.”
“Come to bed. It’s 4:30 am.”
I think this where they will end up–or something very similar. The font snaps and can be read at thumbnail size for eBooks. I like that the women are strong and beautiful on the covers. We’ll test market them a little in eBook before committing to paperback and maybe hardback options. What do think?
And now to start on the backs and spines–and blurbs and meta data. Send chocolate. It’s going to be another long week.
“Gamble” is a new short story I wrote that’s coming out in an anthology called Grifty Shades of Fey, published by Fiction Vortex.
It’s a noir story, kinda like a something from the 1950s in tone. “Gamble” is about a mortal named Jace, the goddess of Chance, a kidnapped woman about to be whisked away to another dimension by some serious baddies, and a pair of dice that reveal whether a venture will be successful–or not. There’s nothing particularly Hawaiian in this one, but it was a lot of fun to write.
Grifty Shades of Fey features stories about fairies, brownies, and other creatures that go bump in the night by best-selling fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction authors. It’s only available for a short time in hardback, paperback, and eBook. Click on the link below to order your copies in time for Christmas.
Under the Bed was the first story I wrote when I was thinking about writing fiction again. Back in 2009, my sister Soozy challenged me to enter a local newspaper’s Halloween short story contest. She said write something that’s true, but nobody believes. Called Sniff, it was about a mainland boy who has something under his bed, a something with an overdeveloped sense of smell that likes sweet things and hates stinky things. It was for an adult audience, and the underlying theme was about how busy parents miss important things going on with their kids, and if they aren’t careful, Bad Things Happen.
Sniff won a nice steak dinner for me and my husband and reminded me that I like telling stories. It led to me reaching out to the local writing community and eventually writing and publishing fiction again.
Over the years, I’ve dusted this story off and rewritten it multiple times, changing the location to Hawaii and adding more story. I even submitted a version to Bamboo Ridge a couple of years ago, but no dice.
Last June, I found it again. I had the idea to write some island-style books for kids 9-14 or so, quick reads that had elements of Hawaiian-kine ghost stories and adventures similar to Goosebumps, but with more bite. I figured I’d call the series Lauele Chicken Skin Stories and set them in my imaginary area of ‘Oahu called Lauele. I had a bunch of scary stories that I’d written and published years ago and now had the publishing rights back. In my head, it wouldn’t be too hard to create new versions of these stories and roll them out pretty quickly.
The first one was going to be Under the Bed. It has a great cover. It should have gone to print in early September and been in readers’ hands by now, just in time for Halloween.
I have an editor I work with. He’s a genius who knows more about story structure than most editors twice his age. And he really hated Under the Bed. He wasn’t shy about telling me why. He said the ending sucked, that I broke the promises I made with the reader in the beginning and the payoff isn’t there. He said it also hit all his hot buttons—a kid neglected by his parents who dies in the end. The more I explained, the more he just rolled his eyes and said, “Who is your audience?”
To prove him wrong, I sent it out to a few beta readers. They really liked it. Then I gave it away in ebook form at different conventions and tracked follow-on sales and comments.
There were no sales that went from Under the Bed to any of my other works that I could track.
Bummahs to the max.
Stupid genius editor was right. The story doesn’t work. I took off my author’s hat and put on my own editor’s hat and started reworking the story, trying to figure out what was missing.
Halting publication of Under the Bed derailed my entire schedule for the rest of the year, but it had to be done. If your first impression sucks, no way a reader is going to pick up any other book in your series.
I was stewing about what to do when I attended Utah Valley University’s Book Academy last week. I’d given a presentation about establishing resonance with your audience through the story’s setting and then hung around for some of the other presentations. Lisa Mangum, a powerhouse of an editor and conference speaker, gave a presentation, Endings That Don’t Suck.
A light bulb went off.
The people who liked Under the Bed were all adults. They were also probably more excited about the Pidgin and other local aspects than the actual story.
But the new intended target was kids, and they were going to hate it. Kona needs to be the hero, not the victim. Kids already know that adults are clueless. They need to see a kid overcome adversity—and win. I needed to completely gut the story and start over. The only things that could stay were the monster under the bed and the desire Kona has to protect his family.
I don’t know when this work is going to be ready for publication. I have to leave Under the Bed for a while to write other works under contract.
But never fear, Constant Reader. New works are coming. In addition to the Lauele Chicken Skin Stories, I have three reimagined Western fairy tales that are almost ready to publish under Lauele Fractured Folktales. And audio books of the Niuhi Shark Saga are in the works, too.
It’s just taking a lot longer than I planned.
But I think you’ll find the wait was worth it.
‘Aumakua whisper in my ear.
I want to ride the lightning.
In the shower this morning, an entire story burst into my head. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale set in Hawaii and told from the perspective of a young local girl who learns to survive through traditional Hawaiian ways as taught by her grandfather. She’ll have to be very, very clever.
I think it’s partially Mauna Kea on my mind.
Before we can create the world we want to live in, we have to first imagine it, and then believe it’s possible. That’s the power of story. It seeps into subconscious cracks. Without saying it baldly, a story like this says, “Of course, Hawaiians thrive in the future, and their culture flourishes. Duh! A return to internalizing traditional values can help heal the world.”
There is always a but.
So much else to do today. Deadlines are looming on other projects. I just…can’t.
But I see you, little one, standing in the shadows, with your puka shirt and “Wot? I owe you money?” look in your eye. You have a lot to tell me.
I want to listen and talk story with you.
Soon, titah. Promise.
It happens to all of us. You have a great idea for a story. You sharpen pencils. You plot. You get excited. And then…
I think in my case it’s a trifecta of summer, life changes, and I just don’t wanna.
But I gotta.
So for all of us in the same boat who really need to paddle, but would just rather drift, here’s a clip from the musical Starkid Firebringer. Sing it, sister.
And now back to the grind.
I got a deadline and this story won’t write itself.
The 19th Biennial Conference on Literature and Hawai’i’s Children takes place June 7-9 at Chaminade University in Honolulu, Hawaii. I’ll be hosting two workshops–one specifically for teens–all about writing fiction in authentic Pacifica voices and answering questions about traditional and self publishing.
On Thursday, June 7 at 7 pm, the Honolulu Theater for Youth will be performing excerpts from works by Lee Cataluna, Patrick Ching, and Lehua Parker. The performances are also FREE, but you need tickets. (Link below)
The conference is FREE for all attendees, but you have to register. Teens will need parental/guardian permission to participate. (Link below)
Hope to see you there! Be sure to come by and talk story with me!