Talking Story

The Business of Writing

I’ve been working off and on a middle grade children’s series set in Hawaii for several years. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy writing it—I did—and it wasn’t that I kept running out of ideas—if anything, I had too many. The problem was a much bigger question.

What was I going to do with it when it was done?

There are as many reasons to write as there are writers, some of them noble and pure of purpose and others more, ahem, monetary in nature. The “what to do with it” question was compounded by the fact that my kolohe characters kept insisting on talking in pidgin. Hawaiian Pidgin English, as in Not Standard English which is what most middle grade kids are learning to read in America. No publisher in his right mind would want to tackle a problem like this and the dearth of Hawaiian writers on the national stage publishing works with pidgin seemed to back up this theory, Lois Ann Yamanka and Graham Salisbury being the few exceptions that prove the rule.

So the series lurked in the background of my mind and computer, rising to the surface when no other productive use of my time could be found to avoid housework. What can I say? Laundry has to get done and dishes washed, but like death and taxes I try to avoid them as long as possible. “Working on the series” sounded like a great excuse to me.

A couple of months ago, bored and looking for “a project,” I attended a workshop on the emerging field of self-publishing. Books and publishing—the act of getting the stories into the hands and minds of readers—are undergoing a revolution not seen since Gutenburg showed off his fancy new press. Ebook readers and new distribution channels have created unparalleled opportunities for authors to reach highly targeted audiences and to achieve that basest reason of all for writing: a paycheck.

I would have shouted eureka, but that would have been a little cliché.

Now that I knew what I was going to do with it, I set about writing again and putting all of the building blocks in place to self-publish. Author website and store, check. Blog, check. Fan Facebook page, check. Research best practices, check. Someone to do cover art, check.

And then a little voice said, “Why are you doing all of this?”

“’Cause I have to do something with all these words and stories,” I replied. “No one else will.”

“How do you know?” the voice chided. “Did you ever give anyone the chance to say yes?”

Huh. All of this work was based on the assumption that no mainland publisher would be interested in a middle grade series with pidgin dialogue.

And I was wrong.

Through a series of events that no one would believe if I told them, I got the series in front of a real live traditional mainland book publisher who is seriously considering the books for publication on the national level in a five book, five year deal that doesn’t seem real. The details are still being worked out and nothing is final until the ink is dried on the contract, but wow lau-lau, apparently there is a Santa Claus, Virginia, and for Lehua, a mainland publisher who thinks there’s a market for middle grade fiction with pidgin dialogue.

Here’s to the new year!

birdOne of the big stumbling blocks to writing Hawaiian fiction in the “bird,” as I recently heard someone call Pidgin, is finding the audience. Native Hawaiian Pidgin English speakers like to talk story and certainly sing story; read story maybe not so much. At least that’s the argument Hawaiian writers have heard for decades, along with it’s too low-brow, too stylized, and since Pidgin spelling isn’t officially standardized, just too much work for the reader, who, the naysayers claim, would rather be surfing or talking story or doing the laundry–anything–instead of reading or buying books.

Having spent a lot of time over many years trying to find other authors publishing in Pidgin and finding something resembling a desert atoll,  I think it’s less about whether or not Pidgin speakers are book readers, but about traditional publishing models. The Hawaiian writers are there with the stories, and I think the readers are too, but not on the scale that attracts the big print boys. What Pidgin literature exists is generally sanitized and stripped of most of the rhythm and flow of Pidgin and really just tosses in a phrase or two for flavor–trying to hit the largest audience possible and unfortunately missing the heart of Hawaii.

Traditional publishing models believe there is no significant market for this kind of literature and therefore have found it too risky to promote. But eBooks are changing the way books are published and marketed. Niche markets take time to develop, and eBooks have virtually no expiration date–literally. EBooks allow authors to build audiences and demand over time without the immediate need for high returns to pay back the large investments traditional publishers make upfront in printing and promoting a book.

So maybe with eBooks, we’ll all read a little more da kine. Nice, yeah?

Originally from Hawaii and a Kamehameha Schools graduate, Lehua writes fiction set in the imaginary town of Lauele, Oahu. Her newest book, One Boy, No Water, Book 1 of The Niuhi Shark Saga, is scheduled for hardback and eBook publication on Sept. 22, 2012 by Jolly Fish Press.

The Niuhi Shark Saga books are written in American English with lots of dialogue in Hawaiian Pidgin. Hawaiian Pidgin, or just Pidgin as it is called in Hawaii, is a polyglot language with its roots in Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, English, and Filipino. Hawaiian Pidgin developed as people from all over the world came to Hawaii in the 1800s looking for a better life. Over time, Pidgin has evolved into a heavily English-based language while retaining its original syntax, grammar, and lilt. While almost everyone in Hawaii today speaks, reads, and writes standard American English, true communication, the kind that speaks from the heart is in Pidgin.

This blog is dedicated to all Pidgin speakers and the stories we tell.

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When you’re allergic to water,
growing up in Hawaii
isn’t always paradise.

With Niuhi sharks,
even out of the water,
you’re not safe.

Everything you thought you knew
about Zader is a  lie.