The Business of Writing
“How did you dare?”
After talking with students at Kealakehe Intermediate over the internet for a bit, I read chapter one from ONE BOY, NO WATER, and looked up. Most of the kids seemed stunned. “I’ve never heard anyone read a story that had Pidgin in it before,” one student said.
Another raised his hand. “How did you dare? How did you know you could do that?” Lots of kids nodded. They wanted to know this, too.
I blinked hard. “I just did,” I said. “And if I did, you can too. Don’t be scared. Just do it.”
I’ve been thinking about this exchange a lot this afternoon. It’s why real representation in literature is so important. All kids deserve–need–to see themselves as the center of stories that affirm their lived experiences. Sometimes all it takes is someone telling them it’s okay; they can do this; permission granted.
It was maybe eight years ago that I noticed a lot more awareness, more buzz, about the startling lack of diversity in middle grade and young adult literature. In the USA, it started with recognizing we were a multicultural nation that woefully underrepresented the crazy quilt reality of our society. The lack of diverse representation was being talked about in ways and in circles that I hadn’t heard before.
It was the very existence of the conversations that was new, not the concepts. Growing up, I was surrounded by misrepresentation, appropriation, and outright fabrication of my Native Hawaiian—kanaka maoli—culture in media. All islanders were hula dancers, bartenders, or crook, with the occasional beach bum thrown in. Books, television, and films never reflected my reality of doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, teachers, musicians, comedians, philanthropists, homemakers, and yeah, houseless people struggling in makeshift camps.
With awareness and conversation came movements like #weneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices. Traditional publishers created new imprints and solicited manuscripts from writers of all backgrounds, experiences, and frames of reference. There was a lot of hope.
Then reality set in and things started to get weird.
One of the biggest challenges is that with new perspectives, the stake holders and kingmakers—the acquisition editors and marketing teams—generally do not have the background to accurately assess whether or not a manuscript authentically represents what it purports to. In today’s cancel culture, few are willing to risk being wrong.
Authors are also eyeing the swing of public opinion’s guillotine. Over the last few years, I’ve talked with many established authors who want to write stories about characters who aren’t like themselves—ethnically, neurotypically, sexually orientated, physically abled, faith-believing or disbelieving, from different socioeconomic communities—the whole spectrum of humanity. These authors’ genres and target audiences range widely, from picture books to adult high fantasy, romance, and horror. These are exactly the kinds of stories that will reach under severed readers and bring more threads to our literary tapestry. But they’re scared. They’re convinced writing outside of their perceived and approved wheelhouse is career suicide.
And these stories aren’t being written.
Some authors have pivoted to writing about animals instead of children. Some write fantasy, where it’s easier to blend cultures into something familiar, but new. Others have doubled down and do not describe the physical characteristics of their characters at all. I was part of a panel of authors at an event where a White college student called out a well-known (and really wonderful) White male author of middle grade books. She publicly chastised him for only writing White characters in his series. He gently asked her where that was in the text—and of course, it wasn’t. He had been very careful to only use generic physical descriptions like tall, athletic, old, young, or wearing a blue shirt. The college student had brought her own biases with her.
We all do.
The pendulum’s backlash is twice as hard as its front swing.
I believe it’s important to recognize that not all stories are ours to tell. But rather than #ownvoices, I think we should be focusing on authentic representation, what I’ve coined as #RealRep (because ain’t nobody got time to spell #AuthenticRepresentation).
#RealRep allows authors the freedom to write all kinds of stories. Writers can easily imagine how it feels to be different or alone or special or even ordinary. Most stories have underlying themes like love, family, courage, perseverance, or adventure and are told through emotions and experiences that are universal to the human condition. Where we are vary is in the specifics, constraints, opportunities, and pressures.
My advice to authors who want to tell stories about people, places, and experiences out of their own wheelhouse is to pause for a second to consider what’s sparking the story. What draws to you this story; why do you want to tell it; what are you hoping your audience will take away from it; how will you do your best to avoid harmful stereotypes, characterizations, and tokenisms; and how would you feel if you were portrayed this way?
If you’re comfortable with your answers, then research, research, research. Google, YouTube, and the library are your friends. Most importantly, connect with this community. Find people who have first-hand knowledge and experience with the cultures, issues, locations, and worldviews you want to explore. Get the nuances and details right before publication, but don’t let fear of getting them wrong stop you from starting. Refinement often comes after the first drafts when you engage beta and sensitivity readers. And it is readers. There is no “authority” that blesses any one point of view or lived experience. You’ll need a variety of responses to see the middle.
Remember, the goal is authenticity, not wide-eyed Pollyanna optimism. It’s okay if some readers are uncomfortable. Just make sure the discomfort is calculated and coming from the things you intend.
To publishers, remember that none of us are fully aware of our biases. We always think we know more than we do. Recognize you don’t always have the staff or experience to identify authenticity in manuscripts, particularly ones that defy expectations. If the story is compelling, engage your own experts to assess if it rings true–and it will take experts because no human experience is a monolith.
If we want to create a more inclusive world, we must teach compassion to children. One of the best ways to do this is to provide them books that allow them to walk in others’ shoes. To teachers and librarians, you are the frontline. Use your budgets to curate collections that serve your entire community.
To those in the corps calling for diversity in literature, keep beating those drums and encouraging people to write their own stories in their own voices.
Writing is an art, but publishing is a business, and like all businesses, it’s profit driven. Buy books you like and want to see more of and leave positive reviews. Create grassroots buzz. It’s that simple.
Authentic representation. #RealRep. Spread the word.
I’m working on an introduction to short story I wrote that’s going to be in an anthology of retold fairy and other traditional tales published by University of Hawaii. My into is waaaaaay overdue. I’m working on the fourth completely new version–I didn’t like my previous attempts. Hoping fourth time’s the charm.
But as I’ve been thinking about fairy tales and what makes a story Hawaiian vs Islander vs Malihini vs Outsider, I remembered the first time I heard a western fairy tale told through an islander lens. It was a record called Pidgin English Children’s Stories. I heard it in the “listening center” at Kahului or maybe Kihei elementary school, a corner of a large classroom that had a record player and a couple of big can headphones that connected into the player with giant phone jacks. The headphones were so big–or our heads were so small–we had to hold them onto our heads with both hands. When I close my eyes, I can still smell the dusty wood smell of the cabinet where the records were kept and even feel the wobbly cardboard cover. We had two records in our listening center–this one and “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones. Not kidding. Life really is weirder than fiction.
It’s also true that everything is on the internet. Originally recorded in 1961, I found one of the stories from the album–Cinderella–on YouTube. Listening to it again, here’s a lot I didn’t understand as a kid. But maybe the best stories are that way–they grow with us. If you’re interested, here’s the link. And now to get back to that intro I’m writing! (Sorry! It’s coming today, promise!)
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States (AAPI Month). Through out May, I’m going to be posting about books written by Pacific Islanders that celebrate island culture front and center. Up first:
There’s a wide range of what’s considered middle grade, with the sweet spot as a story that’s on at least a 5th grade reading level with a complex story structure centered around themes and characters that reflect the interests and lived experiences of 5th through about 9th graders. Crushes are perfect. Anger, loss, or awareness of a bigger world and the challenges it brings are also appropriate, as are wonder, joy, fear, and humor. Like kids developmentally this age, characters are often exploring away from adult safety nets, but there’s an underlying sense that while things may be different in the end, it’s going to be okay. Stories that deal with more mature themes–things that go beyond first kisses or delve into abuse–are generally considered Young Adult rather than Middle Grade.
And yes, those things happen to middle graders, too. However, most booksellers and librarians try to keep these imaginary boundaries drawn on their bookshelves, which is why Middle Grade is usually in the Children’s section and Young Adult is in the nomad-land of Teen Fiction, more commonly shelved by genre.
Without further ado, here are Pacific Islander Middle Grade titles you need to read. Click on the image to see it on Amazon.
In the story, 12 year old Kino and her mother move to Hawaii to live with her maternal grandparents in Kalihi, Oahu. With her grandfather ill and her family facing eviction from their home, Kino discovers that she has an ancient destiny to save both Hawaii and her grandfather by going back in time to 1825. There she meets the young Kamehameha III just prior to his ascension to the throne. After meeting with a kahuna at a heiau, it becomes clear that in order to return to her own time, Kino must go on a quest for four objects gathered from various parts of Oahu—and of course the young prince is going to come along.
As the adventure quest plot unfolds, Jen deftly weaves in aspects of Hawaiian culture and history. Islanders will recognize kapu customs, protocol, and Hawaiian legends such as night marchers, Pele, Kamapua‘a, sacred waterfalls, ‘aumakua, choking ghosts, and magic gourds and calabashes.
‘Ewa Which Way by Tyler Miranda peels back the bandage of what adults think adolescence is like to expose the raw, oozing strawberry of reality. I loved this book for its ability to show all the complicated rules, expectations, and entanglements of being a 12-year-old boy trying to make sense out of adult behavior. Set in ‘Ewa Beach, Hawaii in 1982, Landon DeSilva and his brother Luke know that lickins can fall from the sky like lightning, that a certain side-eye from a parent means a storm’s coming, and that sometimes no matter how long you hold your breath you can’t escape, but have to endure the wave to the end.
For Landon, things are bad at home, but not bad enough. Not enough for child protective services to swoop in and spirit Landon and Luke to a new home, not enough for the cops to do more than show up when his parents’ fights wake the neighbors, and not enough for his mother to realize her marriage is over. Throughout the novel Landon tries to figure out what he’s supposed to do when there’s really nothing he can. His parents’ troubles are deep—there’s guilt, prejudices of class and race, loss, alcohol abuse and valium popping coping mechanisms, unfulfilled expectations, and sheer dysfunction. Landon sees it all with the clarity of a twelve-year-old and his reactions and understandings are heartbreaking and true. Adult readers will read not only the story, but all the words and character motivations between the lines. It’s powerful, immediate, and like a bloody scrapped knee, painfully evocative of the transition between childhood and adulthood.
Find it on Amazon.
Other books to consider:
The Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy by Lehua Parker
ONE BOY, NO WATER
ONE SHARK, NO SWIM
ONE TRUTH, NO LIE
and upcoming Lauele Chicken Skin Story
UNDER KONA’S BED
When the college kids first moved back home, device chargers and cables started disappearing. I stomped around the house, ticked that I suddenly couldn’t plug in my phone or tablet while on the couch or in the kitchen or at any place I was used to.
There was much grumbling and stink-eye flying on my part and some non-committal shrugging from the rest of the adults in the house.
After a couple weeks of this, I didn’t have to look anymore. Great, I thought, people are leaving my stuff alone.
Nope. I found out this weekend that my husband has a hidden stash of chargers and cables. He’s been secretly replacing the ones that go missing before I realize they’re gone. For a YEAR. 🤣
#truelove #don’ttouchmystuff #HomeU #keepMomhappy
Writing is like deep-sea diving. You spend a lot of time preparing and planning. There’s specialized gear and uncommon knowledge to acquire, some kiddie pool practice before venturing out into the open ocean, and a lot of effort to travel to new and unexplored dive sites.
Immersed in an alien macrocosm, time’s suddenly up, and you have to leave long before you’re ready. Before transitioning to surface world, you must decompress–otherwise Very Bad Things can happen.
On even the most routine dives, there’s always something unexpected, be it creature, human, weather, or something technically challenging. When you’re not diving, you’re dreaming about it and planning the next trip.
Yeah, writing is like diving to me. Which writing analogies resonate with you?
#amwriting #divingdeep #hawaiiansinspace #timeforadivetrip
While I try to trick myself into outlining, at my core I’m really a discovery writer flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve been working on what I call my “Hawaiians in Space” story for a few years now.
An early version was published in a fractured fairy tales collection, but honestly, that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell and not surprisingly, it wiffed on hitting the publisher’s target audience of Hallmark-loving romance readers. I tend to take traditional tales too far out of expectations for readers who love the predictability of those kinds of stories. I don’t like to color in the lines.
In rewrites I’ve untethered the story from it’s fairy tale roots, but it’s still not working.
Today I’ve rolled up my editing sleeves and am doing a full breakdown–character analysis, story beats, conflicts–the whole space enchilada that I never thought I had to do because–hello–it’s my story and I have it all in my head.
Yeah. Problem. That’s not what’s on the page. 🙄 Finding holes, plugging leaks, and hoping the third time’s the charm.
#amWriting #HawaiiansinSpace #ItsGoingToBeAThing
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.