Category Archives: Musings

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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Shards, Sieves, and Sand

What is the one thing that, no matter how hard we try, we can never get back?

There are a lot of answers to this riddle but the one thing I am thinking of is time.  I find it hard to believe but my daughter is slowly, quickly, imperceptibly, but must be, as marked on the calendar, soon to be two years old.  I already have all my appointments set for this month and am starting to plan for the next month, and what literary conferences I will attend this spring.  I ran through most of my life at a fast, neck-breaking pace. But I took some time off before law school and I was really glad I did it.  For the first time in my life I had unstructured days and I wondered to myself, how I would spend this time.  It turns out that I took classes at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston on book-making, visited museums, read, held down a part-time job in retail.  It was a very therapeutic time for me.

Even now I try to make time for unstructured time.  I guard my time very carefully on weekends and make sure to spend it where it counts: with my family.  In the late evenings after everyone is asleep that is when I get most of my reading accomplished.  Usually two or three solid hours before I call it a night, where I can concentrate and there are no distractions.  During the day I attend to business matters, continue to read manuscripts, work on proposals, set up meetings with clients, editors, and prospective clients, decide what networking events to attend and all the other activities that one engaged in literary life does.  The time often passes very quickly and before you know it, suddenly it’s 6 p.m. and time to go home.  And I make it a point to go home, no matter how much remains to be accomplished because it’s important for me to spend time with my daughter.  She is only two once in her life and I already miss enough of her days.

“Lost time is never found again.
Benjamin Franklin

How do you, as a writer, view time?  Are you structured about how and when you write or does it come to you in spurts? Do you leave unstructured time where you can just relax and do something that you enjoy?

Although we may try to over-schedule down to the hour and grab these shards a time and our calendars give us an illusion of control, life often shows us how sometimes things happen that will shift our time and attention elsewhere, whether it’s someone that needs our care, our own bodies, a pressing urgent matter, or something more trivial.

A good practice is to keep a log of how you spend your time.  Many attorneys will laugh at this suggestion since logging billable hours is something that they do as second-nature, ticking off time in quarter-hour intervals.  But when I say keep a log, I mean not just a record but also take time to reflect on whether your time was well spent and what you can do to improve.  And thank you for spending some of your time with me, on my blog.  Happy reading!

Time is our most valuable resource and the only one we can’t really re-capture.  We are all prone to procrastination in our attention-deprived society.  So take time to prioritize and focus on what is most important based on your goals.  But also have time to relax, have fun, and reconnect with your family and friends.


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New Year, New Inspiration

Hard to believe another new year is here: 2013.  We all make resolutions, mold new hopes, and make wishes at the start of a new year.  Personally, I’m looking forward to 2013.  2012 was a challenging yet rewarding year for me.  I  started Penumbra Literary and met many writers, artists, and other creative people.  It was extremely fulfilling and the culminating event of 2012 was probably my attending The National Book Award Finalist’s Reading, where I heard Katherine Boo, Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers, Domingo Martinez, Louise Erdrich, and many other talented writers and poets, read from their nominated books.  Something about hearing the written word spoken aloud in a room full of other word and story-lovers was very inspiring and moving.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be gearing up for submissions and signing on several more writers.  I approached creating my literary agency with enthusiasm and admittedly, some fear.  Enthusiasm was necessary to even get it off the ground and alternated with the voice of reason/ inner critic (something that all writers understand!).  Critic: What if I fail?  What if I don’t sign enough clients? What if I don’t sell anything?

Now, less than a year later I realize that even though I had that fear and moments of doubt, overall, I’m still glad I did it.  There is something energizing and wonderful about waking everyday with a renewed sense of purpose, of realizing all your life was a kind of preparation for the work you are meant to do. Not everyone finds “it” and not everyone has the luxury to pursue what they love, but given some of the experiences in my life, I realized that if I didn’t at least try, I would regret it.  I don’t want to look back on my life and see wasted opportunities, maybes, and half-baked dreams.  Call me an dreamer, but I wanted to live out my wishes.  And everyday I’m coming closer to my goals and hopefully helping my clients fulfill their hopes and wishes.

I’m also starting to try to get back into music a bit (as a listener)–one sign that you’re aging is that you are no longer ahead of the curve when you discover music (i.e. I liked Death Cab for Cutie in college, before they became big).  Some songs I’ve been listening to lately: “Young Blood” by The Naked and Famous, “Midnight City” by M83, “Marianne” by California Wives, and “First Love Never Die,” by SOKO.  Yes, my secret is out, I like indie music with a shoegaze bent reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine.  Please feel free to send your EP’s my way!

Credit: REUTERS/ David Moir  From: Euro News

Credit: REUTERS/ David Moir    From: Euro News

As the new year starts, what hopes and wishes do you have as a writer?  Were there any books you read in 2012 that were life-changing? What is your greatest fear and how do you think you’ll overcome it?  What is one new thing you’d like to do in 2013 that you’ve never done before?


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YA and The ‘New Adult’ Category

Apologies for the radio silence!  New York was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Sandy and I lost power for about 3 days (my parents fared worse, their electricity returning after nearly two weeks).  There’s nothing quite like mother nature to remind you of how fragile life is.  Nevermind the many ‘first-world’ problems we had such as not being able to charge your cell phone.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Young Adult category.  There’s also been buzz about the “New Adult” category that caters to Generation Y and 20-somethings.  Now that I’m 30, I can successfully say that I survived my 20′s, but I definitely remember the angst, confusion, identity-quest and soul-searching that categorizes 20-something life.  The New Adult category, not to be confused with the Young Adult category (of which there are gradations within such as mature YA, paranormal YA, fantasy YA, sci-fi or futuristic YA, the list goes on), seems to be gathering steam.

YA is still hot and will likely be that way for the foreseeable future, especially given how young readers prefer to receive content on multiple platforms, such as cell-phones, e-readers, etc.  Harper Collins recently announced a new imprint, HarperTeen Impulse, which will solely be a digital imprint that focuses on short stories and novellas.  You can read more about it here.

When you hear the phrase ‘Young Adult’ do you think of this movie starring Charlize Theron?Source: Paramount Pictures

But back to the “New Adult” category, which I’m more intrigued by.  In a recent interview with Dan Weiss, publisher-at-large for St. Martin’s press, and arguably expert of all things YA (he started SparkNotes among other things, don’t tell me those of you born in the 80′s didn’t use SparkNotes or CliffNotes!), Weiss explains that he quickly discovered that Gen Y’s preferred medium is digital.  He opines, “it became clear that digital publishing — multi-platform, multi-format and interactive, plus conventional print — were powerful ways for kids to acquire content.”  He also relates that there’s no ‘New Adult’ shelf and so publishers have to use analytics to find their target audience.

Perhaps part of the reason why there isn’t as much clarification about what books qualify as ‘New Adult’ is that even if the books in terms of content deal with 20-something themes, we are all at some points of our lives 20-something.  The terms quarter-life and mid-life crisis are common now but I think because we are all living longer lives that some of us undergo re-invention at multiple points of our lives, which resonates with 20-something themes.  And since our culture is a culture that is obsessed with youth, 20-something themes will always receive attention and publicity.  See Lena Dunham of “Girls”/ HBO fame.

Sometimes I wonder if these reader distinctions are necessary or helpful.  We all saw how The Hunger Games ripped the box apart in terms of cross-over appeal.  We can say it started with Harry Potter or The Lord of The Rings, or any number of typically thought of as YA type books.  What is so interesting about these categories, other than from an industry and functional standpoint, is that they reveal our reading habits at any particular moment in time.  We like to re-visit our favorite books as the years pass.  When I was a YA you could find me reading R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series or Louis Duncan books (Down a Dark Hall was particularly memorable and chilling).  But I won’t lie and say I haven’t read some books that qualify as YA recently…not to mention the manuscripts I’ve been reading that deal with YA concerns.

What do you think about the YA category?  About the up-and-comig New Adult category?  Do you think having categories or genres is necessary for books?  What do you think about when you think about your 20′s?  And most importantly, can someone tell me what happened to that VH1 show “I Love the 80′s?”

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The Browsing Effect

I was in Bluestockings the other day–an independent book store on the Lower East Side that publishes a lot of provocative titles, including gender and area studies– browsing books.  I didn’t have an agenda in mind in terms of what book I was looking for, just something interesting and fast to read.  Although I am inundated with submissions and queries, I still find it really important to take some time out everyday and read for pleasure.  I think being open to other genres and types of books, sharpens your instincts as a reader.

I came across a book in the YA section called, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron.  I liked the premise of the book.  I liked the title.  I read the blurbs on the back and then turned to a random page in the book.  I didn’t sniff the book but I did read the prose and liked what I saw.  I turned to another page in the book, and continued to like what I was reading.  I decided to take a chance and purchase the book.  I’m about half-way through it now in one-sitting.

The nice thing about bookstores is that you don’t lose the browsing effect.  Because you can see the books in a physical space, it is easier to chance upon a book you wouldn’t have noticed while browsing for instance.  True, different review services, blogs, book clubs, writer’s groups all serve similar purposes in terms of exposing us to new books.  But sometimes there is nothing more satisfying than going to a bookstore and plucking one book out among thousands just based on the back cover copy, the writing on one random page, or even the title.

How do you browse for books online versus in a bookstore?  Does the cover matter?  What about the title, have you bought a book based solely on an interesting title?  What makes you take a chance on a book you’ve never heard of?

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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?


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Do Editors Gravitate Toward Certain Hairstyles?

Warning: This will be a more frivolous-than-newsworthy post, but I thought I would lighten the mood since it’s still summer and the fall colors haven’t quite crept in yet.  I managed to squeeze in a much-needed haircut today–my hair was getting a bit long and unruly and I wanted to shorten it.  I also noticed, while lunching with editors, and within the publishing world in general, that a lot of female editors have short to medium-length hair.  Is this because editors are overworked and need a quick and simple hair and makeup routine so they can spend more time where it really matters, on reading manuscripts and editing the next best-seller?  I’ve seen variations on the famous Anna Wintour power-bob that women in publishing seem so fond of, on several high-power executives.  Do high-powered women or executives have to have short hair to be taken seriously?

Channeling Anna Wintour, anyone?

I’ve also noticed that a lot of moms tend to have shorter hairstyles.  When you have a baby that hardly sleeps, beauty routines can sometimes go by the wayside.  Also the more practical moms realize that a shorter ‘do equals less time blow-drying or just drying in general.  I’ve yet to see many new moms go bald (except maybe in a show of solidarity for breast cancer survivors).  I think it could become a new thing though for those fashion-forward or courageous women.  When babies come into the world, many are bald or have very little hair, so let’s show our support of their situation by adopting a similar hairline!

All kidding aside, a hairstyle is a projection of an image and personality.  I tried a pixie cut once, shortly after college and realized with my large head, that it was not flattering.  That was the end of that experiment.  Do you think writers gravitate toward a certain hairstyle or look?  I find that writers, as creative individuals, can be very expressive with their hair, sometimes dying or coloring it extreme or non-natural colors, experimenting with length (or tending toward the other extreme of neglect, i.e. the mousy tousled I could care less about my hair look that is actually difficult to achieve). In crafting an image and memorable identity, I’ve also seen very stylized hair, a la Betty Page or a throw-back to retro ’50′s styles, replete with bangs and soft curls.  NB: This post may not apply to men as much (and I’m making gross generalizations here), especially those that suffer from hair loss or baldness.

A simple bob or hairstyle can be a powerful expression of who you are.  Just like the clothes you wear, the car you drive (or don’t drive, if you bike), expressing our appearance through clothes, fashion, etc. are all projections of our personality and how we see ourselves.  How do you express yourself outwardly and do you think that there is any correlation with what you do and what you wear (other than the obvious answer of uniforms for certain professions?).  How do you feel about Anna Wintour’s power-bob?  Did Anna Wintour make the bob seem more powerful because of the confidence she exudes, or does the bob make her seem more professional?  What would Anna Wintour look like with knee-length hair, would the editorial world have taken her as seriously if she had such a hairstyle?

Yes, this is what I thought about while I sat in the chair today while getting my hair cut.  I opted for a safe medium-length look, with subtle layers, slightly below my shoulders.  I’m not channeling Anna Wintour in terms of hair but I have to envy her impeccable taste and editing prowess.  Until then, I will have to settle with wearing my black hipster glasses when I’m feeling particularly literary.


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Start Something, Start Anything

One of the more inspirational books I’ve read this summer is Blake Mycoskie’s book, Start Something That Matters. The book essentially tells Blake’s story of traveling to Argentina, where he saw many shoe-less children. In a moment of compassion and true insight, Blake decided to start his own shoe company.  It was based on the philosophy that for every shoe that someone bought from his company, Toms, he would donate a shoe to another person or child in need.  Tom’s motto is “one for one.”  Although Blake was filled with uncertainty about making this shoe-string shoe company work, he produced some prototypes, held an informal consumer panel made up of female friend shoe aficionados, and hired some dedicated interns to pretend there were multiple departments of the company while passing the phone around.  Within a year, he had an account at Nordstrom’s and simple word of mouth rocketed Toms into a success story.  I have to say, I felt pretty good buying a pair for myself recently, knowing that behind the shoe was a philanthropic cause.  So many other companies have taken a cue from Toms.  For instance, Jef Holm, of Bachelorette fame, is part of a company called People Water that donates the same amount of clean water for every water product bought–their motto: drop for drop.

While not every new company always has such lofty goals, I think the story behind these inspirations is that you should start something, anything, as long as it matters to you.  As writers, that sometimes means overcoming your fear of writing and just doing it.  Or ‘finishing your manuscript.’  Or having others read your work despite fears of rejection or criticism.  No matter how afraid you are, just take the first step, which is sometimes the hardest.  And don’t give up.  It is hard but as I have heard on many occasions from editors, agents and writers alike, that those writers that ultimately succeed are those who persevere and believe in themselves.

Due to rapid changes in technology, the playing field is a bit more event and new authors may be able to take advantage of channels that were previously closed to them, such as self-publishing.  As my friend Jamey Stegmaier’s stated in his excellent blog post: “The only gatekeeper left is YOU. That may seem like a good thing–it is–but it’s also a lot of pressure. Now there is literally nothing holding you back from living your dream except yourself.”  I completely agree.  Jamey’s blog post was in part inspired by Nathan Bransford’s post on there being no more gatekeepers but rather ‘influencers’ in the world.

In college, I once started a club with a friend to raise cultural awareness of Asian Pacific American issues but also larger racial issues within the campus and St. Louis community.  We had an amazing turn-out at an event discussing affirmative action, but after that, our events completely bombed.  There was free pizza!  Why didn’t anyone come? Although the club didn’t take off I don’t count is as a failure but rather a learning experience, one of the lessons being ‘know your audience.’

When I started my literary agency this past spring, I’m not going to lie, I was nervous.  The older you get the more you might feel more risk-averse.  But I also realized that if I didn’t try, I was going to regret it.   A wise person once told me that his goal in life was to live with as little regrets as possible.  Most people regret things they didn’t do rather than things they did.  So even though I was nervous and I acknowledged this self-doubt, ultimately my excitement spurred me on.  I haven’t looked back and I haven’t regretted a bit.  Plus, I enjoy a challenge and this is certainly a challenging market full of opportunities!

Life is truly too short to sit around and wonder ‘what if.’ So start something, anything, as long as it matters to you and it’s something you truly want from deep down inside.

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Muse and Marketplace 2012–The Author Needs Love

This past weekend I attended the Muse and Marketplace 2012 Writer’s Conference and what a revelation.  It was my first time attending the Muse Conference, but hopefully not the last.  Every panel was extremely informative and well-presented (I attended two panels on the craft of writing a memoir, by Nahid Rachlin and Trisha Ryan, respectively, and the non-fiction panel which featured editors and agents that acquire non-fiction titles).

The highlight however was Saturday’s keynote address given by Richard Nash, visionary publisher and upstart, if you can call him that.  He gave a broad but optimistic speech about the future of publishing.  He stated that the 20th century was about sorting out supply and the 21st century will be about sorting out demand.   The key point he made however is that authors don’t just want to be published (that’s not the ultimate goal per se), but they want to be loved.  It does no good to the author to merely see his or her words in print and not have any books sell.  How do authors get love?  By engaging in a continual cultural process of reading and writing.  Nash stated succintly “the reader completes the text.”  That is, the process of reading is really part of the entire cultural context of being readers and writers.  The writer needs a reader to ‘complete’ and add to the text, their own understanding.

Where does technology come into the process of acquiring love through the written word?  Technology can provide a context from which to understand the text and help authors obtain more love by being more closely engaged in the conversations between writers and readers.  One audience member characterized technology as cold and un-thinking but if you think about it, technology is only a tool that one can choose to use or not use.  It doesn’t have any characteristics, in and of itself, but rather how technology is used imbues it with its moral characteristics.

So the take-away is this: don’t be afraid of technology, embrace it, because it may help writers obtain more love.  If you don’t feel comfortable with technology, learn it or find someone that can help you set up an online platform.  Something as simple as a blog has great impact.

Looks like publishing is playing catch-up compared to some other industries.  For fear of being too literal, I will just say that there is no harm in using online dating to find your mate.   Literally using technology to find love.  It’s been done before and there’s nothing wrong with it so dive headfirst into the internet space, you’ll likely find some love waiting for you!

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