The Business of Writing
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.
Anthologies are the ultimate pupu platter, a delightful cornucopia of unconventional flavors and textures served in bite-sized morsels. Meant to be shared, they are the perfect literary tray from which to sample new writers and new voices, to explore new worlds, to boldly go where no reader has gone before—no, wait a minute; that’s Star Trek. But the principle’s the same.
Like all origin myths, the humble beginnings of the Secret Door Society and the creation of its first anthology, Secrets & Doors, began with a ragtag group of over-caffeinated sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts who saw through the shimmer of a transporter’s beam and the sheen of an elven blade the barest glimmer of a true storyteller’s power to change the world.
Don’t believe me? Consider the impact of the daily news, advertising, history, religion, movies, novels, and art in all its forms. Do you deserve a break today? Notice that backpack unattended on the subway and get a little nervous? What about the homeless man over there lying on the bench or the stranger stranded with a flat tire along the side of the road?
All of these scenarios trigger stories within us, stories about enjoying a burger instead of cooking, the dangers of terrorism, and even what it means to have charity. We internalize these stories until they literally and figuratively shape our perceptions of the world—and perceptions determine behavior.
From our earliest memories it is through stories that we learn to see the world clearly, both the grittiness of reality and a hint of the possible other. In stories our imaginations are engaged, and we begin to dream of a different sort of reality, a reality where space travel is practical, where fairies grant wishes, and people celebrate diversity instead of squashing it.
When enough people hold the same dream, that dream can transform the world. The end of slavery. The right to vote. The right to worship or not worship according to the dictates of one’s heart. The right of a child to be raised in love and not anger. The list is endless, but each begins with a vision of a different future. No wonder John wrote, “In the beginning there was the Word.”
That motley crew of writers meeting at Barnes & Nobles and Starbucks were soon joined by editors, publishers, and illustrators in a clandestine cabal and thus the Secret Door Society was formed. Together they realized that through the power of words not only could people be entertained, but a greater good could be served.
That’s why the proceeds of their first anthology, Secrets & Doors, benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The JDRF is dedicated to eradicating Type 1 Diabetes, a terrible medical condition that currently has no cure. T1D kids face a lifetime of insulin injections and blood test monitoring along with increased health risks that can lead to blindness, amputation, and early death. 100% of the net profits from the sale of Secrets & Doors in both eBook and paperback go toward the fight against juvenile diabetes.
The power of words can change the world.
As Captain Picard says, engage.
The librarian called me a liar.
“There’s no way you read those books! You just took them home yesterday. You’re trying to cheat!”
Now a wiser child would’ve simply said something like, “No, ma’am! I live thousands of miles away, but I’m spending the summer with my grandparents. I don’t know any local kids, and my grandparents are happier if they can’t hear, see, or smell me, so I spend my days perched in the top of an old oak tree with an apple, a bottle of Coke, and a couple of books. I’ve already read every word in their house twice which is why I’m back at the library for more.”
But I all I heard was cheat and that hurt my pride.
“I did too read those books! You don’t want to sign my book log because you’re afraid I’ll win the prize!”
Yesterday the sign was the first thing I saw when I entered the tiny public library. In big, bold letters it announced the annual summer reading program with the prize of a free ticket to the magical land of Lagoon for any kid who read one hundred books. I’d heard of my cousins speak of Lagoon in the hushed tones reserved for church or when Grandpa was napping. “It makes Saratoga Springs look like the dinky Strawberry Days Fair,” they said. Saratoga Springs with its waterslides and rows of skee-ball alleys was the bomb-diggity. Lagoon, I figured, was a ten year old’s version of paradise. If I got a free ticket, my grandparents would have to take me.
But that would never happen if this dried prune of a librarian kept giving me heat, saying I didn’t read the three measly books she let me borrow a whole lifetime and twenty-six hours ago. I crossed my arms and stuck out my bottom lip.
She raised an eyebrow and picked up the top book from the pile, Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott. “So when Kitty married Mac—”
“Kitty never married Mac,” I interrupted. She married Steve. Rose married Mac.”
She sniffed. “You read it before.”
“Nope.” I picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. “I did see this movie, but it was called Willy Wonka. In the movie Charlie and Grandpa Joe find the golden ticket, but in the book only Charlie does. I liked the book better.” The last novel was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I held it up. “I loved this. I want to be Meg and have a brother like Charles Wallace. Do you have any more like this one?”
She narrowed her eyes, but grabbed her rubber stamp and dated my log, scrawling her initials next to each title. The war with the librarian was on.
Almost every day I’d walk the two miles each way from my grandparent’s house to the library, toting the three books she let me borrow in the horrific July heat, stopping to splash in the irrigation ditches and to check if the pawdawadames that grew along the banks were ripe. Each day with the bitter taste of too-sour plums teasing my tongue, I’d get quizzed on the books I returned and watched as the librarian reluctantly stamped my official reading log.
I drove her nuts checking out every book deemed fit for children in her library. I read all the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and The Three Investigators mysteries on the shelves and moved on to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. I escaped into Narnia, Middle-earth, and Pern. Huck Finn, Tom, Becky, and I explored the Mississippi, and once I went to a strange planet where all the aliens were made of mushrooms. To this day, I can’t remember the author or book title, but I remember how the space children had to eat boiled eggs. I detested boiled eggs.
The summer I turned ten should’ve been lonely, but with my book friends and imagination I was never bored. I rode my aunt’s old bike around town, played in tennis tournaments, impressed my land-locked cousins by jumping off the high dive, and peeled mountains of cucumbers for my grandmother’s refrigerator pickles, but mostly I read. I discovered that books didn’t care what you looked like, what you wore, or where you came from. Unlike people, you could put them down and pick them right up where you left off, ready to entertain, amuse, and amaze.
Years later when I was studying how people learn, one of my professors talked about how reading with speed and fluency were the most important things for a child to learn. In fact, from kindergarten to sixth grade, average kids who spent only twenty minutes a day of their free time in silent sustained reading were guaranteed to score in the ninetieth percentile on standardized tests regardless of IQ. Like a basketball player working the free-throw line after practice, it was a matter of building muscle memory and neural pathways. In a year, those daily twenty minutes compounded into more than one million additional words read. During tests this was a huge advantage because more time could be spent figuring out the best answer and less on reading through the questions. Studies showed that any sustained reading—comic books, magazines, newspapers, the backs of cereal boxes—as long as a reader stuck to it for a significant amount of time, it helped improve reading speed and fluency.
I never imagined that while I was reading about flying dragons, I was really preparing for SATs and earning college scholarships.
The take away here for parents is that we should worry less about grade level appropriateness and vocabulary building—just those concepts alone are enough to turn kids off reading—and more about finding stories that keep kids engaged. It’s sad, but true that my son taught himself to read when I finally refused to tell him what each of his Pokémon cards said. Highly motivated, he learned to read. I’ve seen similar things happen when kids discover Amelia Bedelia, Encyclopedia Brown, or Harry Potter. For some kids reading becomes fun when they discover stories about world records, survival tips, or sports heroes. With sustained reading as the goal, the right kinds of books make all the difference. Libraries with their varied offerings are exactly the kind of smorgasbord kids crave.
It was late in the afternoon and I was leaving for my Hawaiian home in the morning when I returned my last borrowed books to the Pleasant Grove Library. “See?” the librarian smirked, “I knew you couldn’t do it.”
A smarter kid would’ve shrugged, knowing there was no time left in the summer for a trip to Lagoon. I went to the baby section and read thirteen picture books. “Here,” I said, dumping them on her desk, “one hundred!”
“Those don’t count!”
“Your sign says books. These are books. I bet you’ve never given a ticket away. You probably don’t even have one. The whole summer reading program is a scam!”
When I walked into my grandmother’s house, I handed my golden ticket to my nine year old cousin. Lagoon, she later wrote in my Christmas card, was glorious.
Summer used to mean trips to the library, at least once a week and usually more often. Books had to be gathered from under beds and behind car seats and children rounded up and loaded into those same seats, wiggling with anticipation over the new stories they’d discover and bring home.
Often we’d get sidetracked and end up grabbing a shave ice from a local teenager sweltering in a temporary shed covered in plastic raffia. I used to keep baby wipes in the car so sticky tiger’s blood wouldn’t dot the new book covers.
But now things are different. Last week my 14 year old daughter asked if I could take her to the library. I turned away from my computer, blinking. It’s the middle of July and I haven’t had a single strawberry shave ice. We’ve driven by the library a zillion times. Why haven’t we stopped in?
Oh, man. Does this mean I’m a terrible mother? My kids are not reading this summer. They are going to fail their SATs and end up addicted to video games and living in my basement until I die, a cold Diet Coke clutched in one hand and a dusty library card in the other.
Quick! How many books do they have to consume in the weeks before school starts to catch up? 10? 20? We’ll give up tv. We’ll give up sleep. We’ll—
“Mom? Did you hear me? Can we go to the library? Or can you at least recommend something from your eBook collection? Since I can’t pick up the books and check the back, I don’t know what’s good.”
Oh, yeah. EBooks. Between gifts, subscription services, and purchases, there are thousands of books in my digital library for the kids to choose from. “Son,” I yelled up the stairs, “what are you reading?”
The 16 year old peeked over the railing. “Last week I read Brandon Sanderson’s newest. Yesterday I finished the entire Sherlock Holmes collection and I’ve started on Terry Pratchett.”
“So you don’t want to go to the library?”
He waved his smart phone at me. “Whatever for?”
My daughter said, “Well, I want to read The Fault in Our Stars.”
“Mom’s got it,” he replied. “Check her Amazon account.”
“I also wanted dystopian.”
“Mom’s got the Legends series.”
“I want books.”
I get where she’s coming from. There’s something about holding a book, measuring your progress through it, trying to slow down when you know the end is coming up and you war with yourself over wanting to prolong the journey as much as you want to find out what happens.
I also know that eBooks are immediately available and infinitely more portable.
At the library, I wasn’t surprised that when my daughter borrowed Legend by Marie Lu she had to put her name down on the wait-list for the next books in the series, Prodigy and Champion. It’s popular and there were four or five kids ahead of her. I also wasn’t surprised when she came to me at 11 pm asking how to download the final two books.
The desire to know what happens next crushed the book purist in her.
And now I fear I’ll have to find new excuses to make summer shave ice runs. But the kids are reading. Won’t have to finish the basement after all.
Had a blast yesterday at BYU with the Kid Authors Camp kids. An amazingly smart, talented, and fearless group of writers. They asked all the tough questions about how contracts work, movie rights, and how they can publish their work when they’re ready, like in maybe another hour or so when they finish their last chapter. These kids are going places!
If a writer gets an idea, she’ll need an icy Diet Coke before she can sit down and write. When she goes to get a can from the fridge, she’ll notice the salad dressing next to it is expired.
If she notices the date is two months past, she’ll wonder what else is old.
If she opens the produce drawers, she’ll see wilted lettuce, wizened carrots, and squishy avocados. Looking harder, she’ll notice past its prime sour cream, yogurt, and a lack of milk and orange juice. Digging deeper, she’ll find suspicious things in containers that may or may not be alive. Disgusted, she’ll drag the trash can over and start dumping.
After filling two trash bags, she will realize that the shelves are cruddy.
If she thinks the shelves are cruddy, she will empty out the entire fridge to clean it. When she goes to get a dish rag, she will discover the towel drawer is empty. Running upstairs into the laundry room will send her into a major freak out over what her daughter has (hasn’t) done with the towels. She will fling open doors to kids’ bedrooms and bathrooms and freak out more.
Going back downstairs she will open the pantry for paper towels and hyperventilate when she sees spilled cocoa and sugar all over the floor. Calming down, she will sweep, scrub the fridge, take out the trash, and discover that Mother Hubbard’s cupboards are bare.
Hopping into the car, she’ll realize that a run to the grocery store isn’t going to cut it, so it’s down the canyon to Costco. While sixty miles from home, she’ll think of more errands to run and will stop in a luxury department store to buy make-up on sale and get distracted by all the new handbags.
Until she checks the price, it will take all her will-power to leave her favorite bag there.
Six hours later, she’ll return home, restock the fridge, and tell everybody to clean their rooms and make their own dinner from Costco roast chicken, Caesar salad mix, and sour dough bread.
Finally, she will sit down to write the awesome what comes next, stare blankly at the computer screen, research the best online price for the handbag, and write a blog post instead.
On Feb. 28, 2014 authors Christine Haggerty, Angela Hartley, and I held two creative writing workshops at Uintah High School in Vernal, UT. I talked about being an author and building craft skills and Angela gave a presentation about the power of synesthesia in writing. Synesthesia mixes the experiences of senses in powerful ways like tasting green or hearing chocolate. Angela then showed the students this image and asked them to write about it. Below are a few excerpts. For more examples, please see Christine or Angela‘s blog.
The fog descended through the trees tasting like soapy water. ~ Nichole
It was early morning and Samantha was already out running through the woods. ~Jeff
I bit my lips. They tasted sweet like the blossoms of the bush next to the road. ~Brianne
The sounds of a car and dogs behind him. Chester ran faster. He could almost feel the yelling coming from the ranch director. He was not going back to that place. ~Dalton
It had been weeks since Kasanalea had seen another person. ~Aspynn
Just as she began to feel the suffocating effects of the fog closing in, salvation came. ~ Jesse
As the sun finally began to rise, Kim breathed a sigh of relief. ~ Harmony
“I thought you said we would be safe here,” she accused. ~ Stacia
I was standing in the fog. Dark. Cold. I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear something. I shouldn’t be out this late. ~ Trestyn
Out of breath, my muscles aching. I sucked in the crisp morning air as I ran faster into the light. ~ Jaeley
Leaves scattered out of the way as we sped down the pavement. ~ Paige
On Thursday, February 27, 2014 authors Angela Hartley, Christine Haggerty, and I held two drama workshops at Union High School in Roosevelt, UT. I gave a short presentation about how writing is really for the dogs and then we workshopped five original scenes. The students’ performances were amazing. For more about our adventures, check out Christine and Angela’s blogs.