Talking Story

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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.”

Mic drop.

Lilinoe’s story.

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.

Sigh.

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.

Ho’omakaukau.

Pā!

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!

I’m offering PUA’S KISS for FREE on Amazon in eBook through 3/29–that’s the longest Amazon would let me. I figured with people staying home, they might like to escape to the beach. This one’s adult, PG-13+, and a quick read.

Jilted at the altar, Justin’s alone on his Hawaiian honeymoon when he discovers Pua asleep on the beach. All Pua wants is an uncomplicated fling. Too bad neither are what they seem.

Hint: Pua’s a shark in human form. Yeah, that PUA and JUSTIN. It’s the backstory to the Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy, but this one’s not for kids.

If you read PUA’S KISS and enjoy it, I’d appreciate a review. Right now the eBook is only available on Amazon. In April, you’ll be able to find it on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and others. Be well! Aloha!

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?

Nope.

 

Public Focus Group Feedback #1

“Too busy.”

“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.)


ROUND 2

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.)


ROUND 3

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

“Meh.”

“I liked it with all the flowers better.”

“Boring.”

“Fonts need work.”

“So much better without all that text.”


ROUND 4

Changed Rell to a more active pose, changed title font styles and location, cropped images differently, other minor changes.

Small Focus Group Feedback 4

“It’s fine.”

“There’s something weird about Pua’s stomach.”

“Mom, I’m busy with finals.”

“Come to bed. It’s 4:30 am.”


ROUND 5

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.

‘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.”

But.

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.

 

Hey, Gang!

I’m fleeing the snowy Utah winter to talk story, teach workshops, and work with some incredible keiki on the Big Island of Hawai’i. So excited! I’ll post some of the students’ work when I get back. (If I come back!)

 

Feb. 22: Kahakai Elementary, Kailua-Kona

Feb. 25 – Mar. 1: The Kamehameha Schools, Kea’au

Feb. 27: Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu, Kea’au

Feb. 27: ‘Ohana Story Night, The Kamehameha Schools, Kea’au, 5 pm

Mar. 1: Ka ʻUmeke Kāʻeo PCS, Hilo

Mar. 2: Basically Books, Hilo, 1 pm Book Signing

Hot off the presses and ready for young readers and those young at heart is R. Keao Nesmith’s Hawaiian translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Full confession: my Hawaiian is nowhere fluent enough to understand the text. But I love speaking the words aloud and picking out the things I do know.

This translation is important because it demonstrates that Hawaiian is a living, breathing language. When kids read modern stories they relate to, doors open in their minds that develop compassion, a wider understanding of the world around them, and a love of learning. More than just the story of a kid with magical powers, the Harry Potter series delves into deeper themes of social activism, class struggles, and group think. Kids see others like them rising up and making a difference and think, “Hey! Maybe me, too!” Pretty powerful stuff.

For those and other reasons, I’m excited to see this new translation. If you’re lucky enough to live near Hilo, Hawaii, you can get a copy at Basically Books. Otherwise, you’ll have to order it from Amazon. While it ships for free with Prime, it can take a few weeks for delivery since it ships from England.

Now if we could just get a few modern stories by Hawaiian authors translated into Hawaiian…

“Maverick” is a short story that was originally published by Griffin Press in Apocalypse Utah, an anthology of horror stories by Utah authors. I’ve had a request to use it in a class at Utah State University, so Makena Press has reprinted it as a Kindle eBook. It’s a quick read–and has nothing to do with Hawaii.

But the main character is certainly badass.

Here’s the blurb:

In post-apocalyptic Heber City, Utah, an 11 year-old girl searches for ChapStick and magazines in an abandoned Mavericks convenience store and runs into two drifters who get more than they bargained for.

You can pick it up on Amazon for 99 cents.

 

I’ve been working a new novella that’s set in imaginary Lauele, Hawaii. It’s going into a boxed set of novellas by the Fairy Tale Ink authors, this one called Fractured Sea, that retells the classic Little Mermaid fairy tale. It seems like a perfect fit for my stories of Niuhi, sharks that can appear as people, right?

Wrong. So wrong.

This has been the most difficult piece I’ve ever written. The story has fought me at every turn, refusing to fit into the mold of a Western fairy tale. I’ve struggled, writing and rewriting, and eventually throwing out 90% of what was in my original manuscript. I’ve wanted to quit and then feared I’d have to because for the first time in my life I COULDN’T DELIVER.

But then, finally, at 2 am Monday morning, it clicked. I stopped trying to write the story I thought I needed to tell and started listening to the story that wanted to be spoken. I’m behind, desperately behind, but I think I see the way through and that’s more than half the battle.

While there are elements that can be mapped to the Little Mermaid, it’s much more a story about ocean ecology, colonialism, tourism, personal sacrifice, and how a wise ocean god plans for his people’s future. There are analogies and metaphors that I hope will lead readers to think more deeply about the relationships they have with both the mundane and the supernatural.

I know it’s a little ambitious and probably ridiculous to cram all of this in a story that readers are expecting to be a fluffy romance about unrequited love, but apparently these are the kinds of mo’olelo–of stories–that resonate with me.

And I can only write the words I’m given. The stories are always a gift.

Today I ran across a TedxManoa talk given by Brandy McDougall back in 2012. (Click to view her talk.) I wish I’d seen it sooner. It speaks to the need of writing stories, our stories, as a political and cultural narrative.

The stories are always a gift.

Note: Tales From Pasifika is a website dedicated to reviewing stories that explore Polynesian and Oceanic cultures and themes. If you’re looking for a good book that fits into the Pacific-Lit category, this is the place. The following is an excerpt from their review of Nani’s Kiss, one of the five novellas in the Fractured Beauty boxed set. To see the full review, click here.

Tales From Pasifika Review

Summary

Nani has always known that one day she will marry Arjun. Even though she doesn’t know him very well, even though she is not sure she really loves him, she understands this is her destiny. Their parents arranged it a long time ago and Nani must fulfill their wishes. If only it was so simple. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Arjun is dying. Since he collapsed, he has been locked in stasis in a medi-mod. What if he doesn’t survive? What will happen to their future? Risking everything, Nani is desperate to bring her fiancé back to life.

Review

Is it possible to write a futuristic story anchored in traditional cultures? You have to admit, it is no mean feat. Lehua Parker dared try to do just that. And I think it’s safe to say she has succeeded.

‘Nani’s Kiss’ is a sci-fiction version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (only the beast is not who you expect it is), which takes from Hawaiian and Indian cultures. It’s a rather unusual mix and one that can be easily ruined. But Lehua Parker managed to keep the right proportions of all the elements, thanks to which the novella makes an interesting read.

The storyline engages the reader right from the beginning, and as it evolves you become more and more curious as to what will happen next. The unforeseen twists and turns keep you riveted and don’t let you get bored even for a short while. However, they also require your undivided attention.

I have to warn you that this novella is not the easiest to read. If you want to follow the plot, you really have to concentrate on the words. There are a lot of fictional names of characters and places you may simply have trouble keeping in mind. They make the story slightly confusing, which for some readers may be a minor put off.

The characters themselves are incredibly well-built for such a short tale. They are believable, and we must remember that the novella takes place in the future, and easy to relate to. With their hopes, dreams, and fears, they are like ordinary human beings. And despite the fact that their backgrounds are not as clearly shown as we would all want, you get the feeling that you know their past quite well.

Now, although the story isn’t set in Hawaii, the local customs and practices are very noticeable. Especially the tradition of tattooing. But forget about permanent drawings here. In the world the author has created, nano-bot tattoos appear and then dissolve, only to reappear on a different part of a person’s body. The images they form reveal the intimate secrets of one’s heart and soul, and for a novice are impossible to hide.

The idea – a brilliant idea – of giving a futuristic twist to one of the oldest Polynesian traditions shows how the past can connect with the future. It also reminds us that some things in life should never be forgotten.

‘Nani’s Kiss’ is without a doubt a very interesting novella. The concept is truly fascinating, so I am positive you won’t feel let down when you give it a try. I definitely recommend it!

Mahalo nui nui, Tales From Pasifika! You can find Nani’s Kiss in Fractured Beauty on Amazon. More in the Fractured Series by Fairy Tale Ink coming soon.

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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.