The Business of Writing
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!
I’m five years old, laying on the carpet in our living room in Kahului, Maui. Evening trade winds tiptoe through the lanai door, bathing the house with the scent of Mom’s gardenia and naupaka bushes. On top the tv, an animated Santa Claus dances with a big red sack, singing about ashes and soot. My eyes dart to the flimsy cardboard cutout of a fireplace and chimney taped to the wall next to the Christmas tree. Panic bubbles. I can’t breathe.
He doesn’t even look up from the Honolulu Star Bulletin. “What?”
“How does Santa Claus come into the house?”
“Down da chimney, lolo. You deaf or wot? Jes’ listen to da song.” He turns a page.
I bite my lip. I have to know. “But Dad, Mom bought our chimney at Long’s. It doesn’t connect to the roof. Plus we no more snow! How da reindeer gonna land da sleigh on top da roof if no get snow?”
He flicks the edge of the newspaper down and peers at me. He shakes his head. “Moemoe time, Lehua. You need your rest.”
Tears well. No Santa. No presents. So unfair. Mainland kids get all the good stuffs. I try again. “Dad, fo’reals. Is Santa going skip us?”
Dad presses his lips tight and gives me small kine stink eye. He clears his throat and looks around the room. When he spocks the lanai door, his eyes light up. “You ever seen a house in Hawaii with no more sliding door?”
He nods. “Maika‘i. Every house get sliding doors. Das because in Hawai‘i, Santa comes through the lani door instead of down the chimney. In Hawai‘i we invite our guests into our homes like civilized people. We no make dem sneak in like one thief.”
I tip my head to the side, thinking. “But what about da reindeer?”
Dad clicks his tongue. “Da buggahs magic, yeah? They no need land. They just hover in the backyard and wait for Santa fo’ come back. Mebbe snack on da banana trees. Now go to bed!”
It’s not the first time I have to perform mental gymnastics to bridge what I see in movies, tv, and books with my oh, so different reality, but it’s one of the most memorable. At school the teachers try to prep us for mandatory standardized testing, tests we island kids consistently score lower on than our mainland peers.
“Class, what does it mean if the trees have no leaves?” Ms. Yamaguchi asks. “Lehua?”
“Uh, da trees stay make die dead?” I say. “Dey nevah get enough water?”
“No! It means it’s winter! The correct answer is winter! Coodesh! Pay attention. You kids trying fo’ fail?”
It would be many years later, when I am in college in Utah and walking through a virgin snowfall along a wooded path that I finally understand the imagery and symbolism in Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in ways more profound than no leaves equals cold equals winter.
Which brings me, finally, to my point.
We need diversity in literature. Kids need access to stories that resonate with their experiences, that are full of people they know and love, that show themselves—their fully authentic selves—as powerful, valued, and real. We need Pacific voices raised in song, dance, print, film, tv—all forms of media, some not even invented yet.
I remember the profound impact of hearing Andy Bumatai, Frank Delima, and Rap Reiplinger on the radio. Hawaiian music, for sure, all the time, but spoken words, Pidgin words, so fast and funny, just like Steve Martin and Bill Cosby! To this day, my old fut classmates and I can still recite all the words to “Room Service” and “Fate Yanagi.”
And finally, I find them. Words on paper, in libraries, in books. Stories by Graham Salisbury, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Darrell H. Y. Lum, Kiana Davenport, and Lee Tonouchi open my eyes to the possibility of using my history and experiences, my voice, to tell stories to an audience that didn’t need long explanations about why whistling in the dark is not a good thing, that a honi from Tutu was a given, or that wearing shoes in the house is the ultimate outsider insult.
I could write stories where the burden to bridge is on the mainland, not the islands. I could write stories for kids in Waimanalo, Kona, Hana, Lihue.
But there’s a catch. The reality is that there are many more readers outside of Hawai‘i nei than in it. Books for niche audiences are a tough sell for traditional publishers who are driven by the bottom line. And while self-publishing or small press publishing is viable for genres like romance, thrillers, and sci-fi, it’s next to impossible for middle grade and young adult books who need the vast marketing channels of a traditional publisher to reach schools and libraries.
I try not to let that matter.
On the mainland, I tell people my books are not for everyone. If you don’t know the difference between mauka and makai, you’re probably going to struggle a bit with the language. You’ll miss a lot of the in-jokes and clues as to what’s really going on with the characters and plot. You’ll have to work a lot harder.
But it will be worth it.
A couple of months ago, Adrienne Monson, author of the vampire series The Blood Inheritance Trilogy, came to me with an intriguing idea. Would I be interested in joining four other authors in creating a series of reimagined fairy tales to be published as boxed sets? Each of us would tell the same fractured fairy tale in a different genre. The first challenge was Beauty and the Beast.
It sounded like fun, and a 20,000 word novella was something that fit into my writing schedule. The other authors had selected their genres, and someone was already writing an under the ocean-based tale. Off the top of my head, I offered to tackle something sci-fi based.
But now I had a problem: over the next two years, I’d be investing a significant amount of writing time to creating five novellas based on traditional Western fairy tales, something that might not interest the main audience I’m trying to connect with — people with a passion for Hawaiian history and island culture. Fragmenting my audience didn’t seem like a good idea.
And that’s when it hit me.
So often, when it comes to Polynesian culture, our focus is on preserving and interpreting the past in ways that enrich the present. What about the future? What would some of the world’s greatest explorers and ocean voyageurs do with the universe as their ocean and planets as their islands? How do traditional Hawaiian values and ways of communal living translate to all the practical challenges of living on a space station?
Why not Hawaiians in space? Beauty as Nani, from the planet of Hawaiki. But the Beast will blow your mind.
Futuristic Polynesian twists on Western fairy tales. It’s going to be a thing.
The Fairy Tale Five present: Fractured Beauty, available June 1, 2017, and published by Tork Media. Stay tuned.
I’ve been slacking on the blog, I know. Big life changing events have been going on and that’s caused me to really think about where I want to go on this journey, who I want hiking next to me, and the mountains I want to climb versus the quicksand I’m bypassing. Here are some of the highlights.
- Without health, you’ve got nothing. My mother’s recent brain surgery, my cardiac event, and my daughter’s bout with mono have made that crystal clear.
- I’m focusing more on writing and publishing new works. I’m taking charge of my author career again. No more listening to well-meaning, but inexperienced “experts” simply because they intern for one of my publishers. And I don’t care what your title is, if you’re not paid for your work, you’re an intern.
- I’m going back to business and training consulting to earn real money to put behind my author business. It’s easier to take writing seriously when I’m using my skills in other arenas to make a positive contribution to the family coffers instead of spend, spend, spending on everything from books to give away at libraries, schools, and bookstores, on posters and signage, or gas and meals at events. Remember, I’ll feel better. My family is awesomely supportive of anything I choose to do—as long as it doesn’t involve cooking with mushrooms.
- I’m launching a new SAAS business that has the potential to revolutionize how conferences and symposiums find speakers. More on that in another post.
- I’m leveraging the works I’ve published and releasing them as audio books.
- I’m working with a small group of trusted published authors, a tribe of people who understand how to play well with others and how to get things done. Lots of very cool things in the works. More on all those things in another blog post.
- No more throwing pearls before swine. Most people do not value or appreciate “free.” The Takers of this world simply expect others to give, give, give, and get annoyed when you set boundaries. I find it hilarious that big corporations pay for my expertise, but Joe Wannabee author still insists that his 320,000 word novel is already perfect. He knows it’s fantastic, you see, because his mother told him it was the greatest thing she ever read, so don’t bother him with developmental or even copy editing notes. When he asked me to beta-read it for free, it was just so I could tell the world how awesome he is. There are mind-numbing masses of Joes out there.
- I’m cutting ties with people too important in their own minds. Massive egos are exhausting. They’re emotional vampires who suck all the life and fun out of everything. We need more fun and joy in life. Kicking all the dementors to the curb and stocking up on chocolate and Diet Coke.
- I’m pushing myself waaaay out of my comfort zone and reconnecting with my Hawaiian roots. Next week I start Hawaiian language lessons. The better I speak Hawaiian, the closer I can get to understanding the real histories and cultural identities of a particular branch on my family tree. Right now everything I’ve learned has been through someone’s English filter. Time to cut out the middle man.
- I can write commercial works, and I will. But I think my real purpose is to write works that speak to a smaller audience, an audience that seldom has a voice in popular culture. I’m going to spend more time figuring out how to let those voices be heard.
That’s it. Thanks for sloughing through the mires with me. We’re on bedrock now and heading up the trail.