Ever enter a time warp? Sometimes it’s a good thing, like when you’re on a long plane ride and you fall asleep and 10 minutes later you’re landing halfway around the world. Score!
Other times you turn around and it’s been SIX MONTHS since you wrote a blog post. Or wrote anything longer than an article, essay, or short story. Six months that felt like a decade, the worst kind of time warp where you stand in line or get on a plane and months later discover you’re still right where you started.
I know I was busy, so busy I didn’t have time to do anything except put out the fire right in front of me and beat out the new flames arising from all sides.
2020 sucked, folks. For everybody.
But although I don’t have a new novel or play to feel good about, I did do some writerly stuff. I did some developmental editing on a few titles ranging from middle grade speculative fiction to adult non-fiction; wrote and sold a few short stories and essays; taught a few classes; mentored a few burgeoning writers and editors who didn’t listen when I said writing is hard, go to med school instead; did the layouts for a few books; did some copyediting; and spoke at a few virtual conferences. I accepted a position as the Personal Voices Editor at Dialogue magazine and found lots of nicer ways to say, “Yes, you do have multiple PhDs from Ivy League schools–well done! Regardless, your manuscript is not a personal essay. It is a diatribe. Thanks for submitting. P.S.–It’s ZZzzzzzz.” I also got to tell some new writers that I loved their personal essays and, “Yes!” In November I started working with Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR) in Utah as their Literary Coordinator and rebooted a women’s writing group and an adult book club, plus planned a kids’ literacy initiative and book club for 2021 with Pacific Heritage Academy.
Lots of work, but not a lot of new, creative words.
Like many, I had lots of personal drama and trauma in 2020. Adult kids moved back home to continue university classes online, and my husband stopped traveling for business and began working worldwide via Zoom from his home office. Everything we were looking forward to was canceled. We all stayed home, the longest I haven’t traveled since childhood. Kupuna died suddenly from heart attacks or had cancer or strokes, leading to new assisted living situations which ended up feeling like Covid jail when we could only visit through glass. It’s hard to hug through a window pane. But as hard as social isolation is, losing people is much, much harder. From mid-summer on, every week, then every few days, someone I knew from writer-world, ‘ohana, or my neighborhood died. I stopped counting at 18.
No wonder that for most of the year, I wasn’t able to write or edit my own words. I just couldn’t.
But life has to go on. I’ve realized that I need to write my words and tell my stories for my own sanity. When you can’t control anything in the real world, you can control your story.
Well, until your characters mount a rebellion and hijack the narrative. But that’s the fun part.
Coming up in 2021–more published short fiction in anthologies, a newly designed website (fingers crossed), AUDIO BOOKS for the Niuhi Shark Saga, the long-anticipated Hawaiians-in-space novella, a new horror series for kids, and new weekly Lauele Shorts on the blog–quick snapshot stories about favorite characters in the Lauele Universe. (Because when you’re leading a weekly writing group you have to–ahem–write.) As part of the literacy initiative, I’m going to write some new reader’s theater plays with Pacific Islander characters and themes for kids. There’re also three novel-length books I hope to draft in 2021, two set in Lauele and one not set in Hawaii at all.
Next to my computer are stacks of sugar-free gum and a new pink micro-fridge stocked with six Diet Cokes. (Thanks, Santa!) Writing is happening.
Thanks for hanging in there with me. Here’s to a brighter 2021: I wish all a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!
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!
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?
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.
‘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.
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.