Category Archives: Craft

Writing Blind: Taking Risks in Writing About Characters from Another Cultural Background

I attended my first event at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in NYC yesterday evening.  The event was entitled “Evil Winds and a Bad Moon: Bill Cheng’s “Southern Cross The Dog.”  It was a fantastic evening that included vocal artist Imani Uzuri and poet “leadbelly” Tyehimba Jess, truly talented artists that write and sing about “The Blues.”  The conversation asked some serious questions about authenticity and belonging.

Writing “blind” can be risky but also rewarding

I won’t get into too many details or hash out the arguments on either side since Bill Cheng and his Southern Gothic novel have both been covered by many different media outlets and interviews.  Basically the big question boiled down to: can an Asian American writer write convincingly about a culture he was not raised in?  Cheng was inspired to write the book from listening to and being an avid fan of, Blues music.  Cheng, interviewed by Scott Cheshire for The Brooklyn Rail,  stated that it’s axiomatic that writers are told to ‘write what you know,’ but instead he wanted to write about what he wanted to know.  That area of gray, of reaching beyond one’s personal experience can provide a beautiful tension in the make-believe world that is fiction.  Taking that risk certainly takes some writing chops.  More significantly if the writing is solid and persuasive enough, then it begs the question: does the author really need to have come from that area/ region/ background/ history to come across as authentic? What does it mean to take risks when writing, and can you authentically write about a history or background that you never were part of?

Personally, I believe that if the writing and story are compelling enough then it doesn’t really matter where the author “came” from.  On the other hand, having that rich cultural tapestry and background is something that should be respected and acknowledged, if you choose to draw from that experience.  It doesn’t make someone who writes from the outskirts any less of an artist or less authentic, even though some such authors have been accused of ‘ventriloquy.’

I think it’s more progressive to want to take these literary risks however.  That’s what I look for when I sign writers that write fiction or even memoir.  Rainbow Rowell, author of The Attachments and Eleanor & Park specifically addressed the issue of creating characters outside the reach of a writer’s immediate personal experiences.  She astutely stated, in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, “As a writer, I think there needs to be more diversity. Which means that white authors need to write about characters of other races. And that’s really scary. You have good intentions, but at the same time, you’re blind. I probably made mistakes with Park, but I don’t think I’ll regret writing him.”  Let’s take that one step further and say that authors, in general, need to write about characters of other races, while acknowledging their fear and the risk they are taking, writers should push themselves without sacrificing their artistic conscience.

Takings risks when writing doesn’t necessarily equate with artistic recklessness, the degree of authenticity and research required seems sharply divided depending on the genre of the book (non-fiction vs. fiction) and also the art form–for some reason readers seem to demand more authenticity from writers of literature whereas the music and film industries give more play and creative license to the creator.  I can think of many examples in literature where the writer so inhabits the world he or she writes about that, if the reader didn’t know who the writer was, they wouldn’t be any the wiser.  Robert Olen Butler’s short stories in Scent from a Good Mountain come to mind.

That gap between knowledge and imagination, that’s where the beauty, the magic, the alchemy happens…when the writer creates a world that seems so rich and authentic that the persona of who the author is or where he came from is secondary to the story.  That’s when you know, as a writer, that the risk was worth taking.

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Filed under Craft, Musings

The Art and Science of Revision

Way back in college, when I was just a confused freshman, I was, believe it or not, an art major.  Perhaps it was part rebellion from an Asian upbringing where many Asian-American youth are indoctrinated into the infallibility of being a doctor, engineer and maybe, a lawyer, or perhaps I thought I was actually good at it…I have always been interested in fine arts and won some small scholarships here and there for what my freshman art professor lovingly referred to as my “decent ability to render but poor composition” on my midterm art project.  Now that art professor still haunts my vivid daydreams but I think I did learn a thing or two from him, so thanks Professor, wherever you are.

I think the hardest part, at least for me, is conceiving the ideas.  I know every writer is different and for some the writing part comes more easily, and for others, the organization is less challenging and the ideas just flow.  So once you’ve done the hard work of finishing your masterpiece what do you do?

Step One: Let it Rest. First, put it down, put it away, just let it rest for a bit, even though I know you want to shout it from the rooftops. You should definitely celebrate a little but don’t lose your momentum because you’ll need to save up some energy to revise, revise, and revise some more.

Step Two: Find Some Good Readers.  When you feel ready and have summoned up the courage, ask your closest writer friends–notice I said writer friends and not your neighbor, significant other, favorite phone a friend, to critique.  Sometimes a bit of emotional distance is good and that way you won’t damage a friendship if someone close to you tells them they absolutely hate it (exception: you are lucky enough to be like Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, real-life married husband-wife-readers).  Beta readers, whether in the form of an in-person writing group, a virtual writing group, loosely assorted group of friends you met at a writer’s retreat or residency, whoever this motley crew is, find them and ask them to be brutal.  Find them and then…

Step Three: Trust Your Readers’ Comments.  Now, take those lovely comments and ingest some salt.  Not literally. Take the time to listen and understand what your readers are confused about or what they would like to see more or less of.  Be open to what others have to say.  Then the most important and perhaps most difficult step…


Step Four:  Trust Yourself and Your Artistic Vision.  Use your artistic instinct and intuition to decide which editorial comments make sense in the context of your narrative.  Sit on it.  Think about it.  Mull it over.  Consolidate the most important points and find the comments that seem to garner more gravity from multiple readers.  Those tend to be the most salient.

Step Five: Revise, Revise, Revise.  Now, pen back to paper.  Ask yourself if the words, the sentence, the paragraph, the scene, serve a purpose and push the plot forward.  No one likes superfluity in writing, not editors, not readers.  But if it adds to the narrative, keep it.  Remember the difference between revising and editing.  Revision is largely for structure, the bigger picture and content/ character/ plot development issues.  Editing deals with grammar, mechanics, etc.  I think editing should come after revision but if you find a typo along the way, why not fix it?

I like to think that revising is both an art and a science.  The science aspect is merely testing it with readers, and fielding comments.  The art aspect is knowing what to incorporate and what to toss out.  It’s very akin to painting a painting or drawing a drawing.  When do you know when to stop and when a work of art is finished?  Hopefully you’ll reach a point when you’ll feel it’s finished, at least for now.  Then you can stand back and admire your work of art.

What do you find most challenging about the revision process?  Is it hard to incorporate comments from people that may not seem to “get” your story?  When do you know ‘it’s ready’ for the world?


Filed under Craft

Good Writing vs. Good Storytelling Abilities

Agents are often asked what exactly they are looking for and writers often receive a nebulous response from them.  We’ve all heard agents say that they are looking to ‘fall in love’ with the story.  That’s a given.  If an agent cannot emotionally respond to a story and feel passion for it, then it makes complete sense that the agent wouldn’t want to use his or her valuable time and resources to represent the writer.

To me, the most important thing is the story.  Without a story worth telling, something someone hasn’t said before or maybe something that has always been said but not in this particular way, most people probably wouldn’t be interested in reading it.  There are so many fine writers out there but sometimes I wonder, where the story and why should I be interested?  Some people are natural storytellers and highly entertaining in person.  The question is if that translates on the page.

I believe that writing can be taught and honed but there are individuals out there who have more talent than others.  However, if you don’t nurture that talent by writing, critiquing and generally engaging in the process of writing on a consistent basis, it’s going to be harder to reach your goals.

At a bare minimum, both good writing and good storytelling ability is critical to developing a manuscript that will be attractive to editors.  Forget the other hurdles of platform, sales, comparable titles.  The marketplace can wait until you, dear writer, have polished and finally made your manuscript ‘ready’ for other eyes to pore over.

What do you think is harder to master, good writing or good storytelling?


Filed under Craft, Musings