Category Archives: Writing

Julia speaks – A recipe for choosing POV

Last week I set a goal of deciding on a POV and then posting about it.
As it transpires, that took more humming and hawing than I’d expected.

First, let’s put us all on the same page. What is meant by POV (Point of View)? It is where the narrator is speaking from. I like to imagine it as a camera position, although that analogy doesn’t always hold up.

There are many choices, and there are books that move from one POV to another — sometimes within a paragraph (putting paid to the insistence that there can only be one POV per book which you sometimes hear in writers’ groups and classes; it’s like being told that you should never paint with black paint because black is made up of all the colors, but Manet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin used Ivory Black straight from the tube…) Oops! Yes, POVs. Here are just the main ones, according to James Hynes:

I, me, my: First person. Divided into first person objective, more rarely used, where the narrator reports only on their actions and observations but without interior dialog or direct emotional insight (example: Ishmael in Moby Dick), and first person subjective where you are inside the narrator/protagonist’s head and body. This is a very common POV in contemporary fiction, especially YA as it’s valued for its immediacy. In my analogy, the camera is mounted behind the narrator’s eyes (note that the narrator may not be the main protagonist, as with Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby). The only time we see the narrator’s face, it’s in a mirror.

You: Second person. Believe it or not, it’s been done! It’s used quite frequently in shorter pieces to put the reader directly in the role of the protagonist, and has been successfully sustained for novels. BUT NOT BY ME. This POV went straight into the too-hard basket. “You entered the room and turned on the light…” Imagine sustaining that for 100,000 words!

She, he, it: Third person. Divided into third person omniscient, where the narrator is looking down and has access to all information, including things the characters can’t know, the future and the past, intimate thoughts, etc. — this camera can zoom any place it wants to go; third person close – objective, where the narration follows one character, usually the main protagonist, seeing only what she  can see, but with no access to interior dialog — imagine the camera loosely chained to the protagonist, always where she is, recording; and third person close – subjective, where the narration follows the protagonist but also has access to his inner thoughts and feelings. The camera is usually on the protagonist’s shoulder, seeing what he’s seeing, and has a special mic that can also record his thoughts.

Well, so which way to go now? The only POV that was easily discarded was the second person.  The rest of the process of elimination took ten days and is still not rock solid. I reserve the right to change my mind.

My book is going to be the very personal stories of four women—each story about a dislocation. I need the book to be intimate. Therefore, I disqualified the least intimate of the POVs, the third party omniscient.

First person subjective is arguably the most intimate POV, but in the course of my book, I have four protagonists. To write four first person subjective POVs is possible, but to write them well would be a huge challenge. The first person voice is not only responsible for telling the story. It is also responsible for bringing the character alive, by being individual and specific to the character.  To pull this book off in first person, I would have to create four authentic voices. I’m sweating just thinking about it.

Which leaves us with third person close – objective or subjective.  If I want intimacy, subjective seems the obvious choice. The only problem with this is that I’m by nature more of an objective writer. I put a lot of my energy into trying to find the telling observation. I want my readers to deduce and empathize from what they see. But then again, I’ve only written short stories to this point. I do believe most novels are less subtle. Maybe readers have less patience over a longer haul? Maybe with short stories they like to be provoked. With novels, they want to be satisfied. But I digress.

So, say for now the POV is third person close – subjective.
This allows the entire book to be written in one voice—my voice. Yippee!

Now, what about the tense? Do I try to put back some of the immediacy I lost when deciding against the first person? I could do this by adopting the present tense. Or do I opt for the greater flexibility of the past tense, which can range from the immediate past to the distant past?

I’m still on the fence on this one. I switched my first four paragraphs back and forth between tenses, and couldn’t feel much of a difference. So, I am going to use the past tense for now. It might make more sense, as the book is set in four eras of the past. And, as my excellent writer friend Kara Vernor said, “there’s a reason past is the default tense for novels.” She’s got a point. You don’t even need to know what that reason is. If it’s good enough for Turgenev…

Next week, a little look at how the research is progressing.

Happy writing!





The stock take — or, an intro to MindNode

Most of you are ahead of me. Most of you have started or even finished a novel. But this is my first. How do women face pregnancy and childbirth for the first time, I wonder. That’s something I’ve never attempted either.

Rather than stare into the abyss of inexperience, I thought I’d do a little stock take of where I was in this novel-writing gambit. If you are about to start your first novel, this is a good tip. It was really helpful.

First, I got myself a copy of MindNode on the recommendation of my brother. He’s also a writer, and he said it was great for getting down and then organizing a lot of information. It helps you think laterally, because you can ideate first, and organize later.

So, I put down the core structure I mentioned in my last blog. East, South, West, North. I put down a two-line description of each part’s protagonist. I put down everything that I knew about each protagonist in terms of life moments. Then, from each life moment, I budded out all the things that I didn’t know—knowledge I would need to describe that moment well.

This is what it looked like. (This is as fast as the animation will go!)

There wasn’t a lot of random ideation, yet. I was unpacking things that had been gathering in my head, and for the most part, it all came down in chronological order. But I can see how MindNode will be great when I need to throw ideas at the wall later.

One cool thing about MindNode is that it makes it easy to reorganize your thoughts (nodes) by just dragging and dropping them. So, I reorganized the life moments so that they were sequential — a timeline. Well, four timelines.

Then I shook out of my other ear all the scenes that have been rolling around in there — little flashes, brief movie snippets. I aligned those with the timeline.

Scenes I have

You can see quite quickly where I have gaps, where I need to get down to the writer’s first job of imagining. But it’s been very reassuring to me that I have this much at all!

Of course, “Do I have enough to write about” is not the only cause of anxiety. “How do I write this” is at least as terrifying.

I have a crutch for that too! I am going through a fiction course and letting that guide me along. The one I’m using is an audio course by James Hynes (sorry, Michael) from the Great Courses. I love the Great Courses — but don’t buy anything that’s not on sale. If you wait long enough, your course will go on sale and the discount is always significant.

So, seeing as I now know that I have enough of a plot to get started, and that I know my protagonists well enough to at least summon them for a meeting, what next? For me, the first barrier to laying ink down is which tense and which POV?

We’ll see what James has to say about that next week, when Julia speaks.

In the meantime, happy writing!



The story of this story…

January 13th. As promised, the first post in my new “Julie and Julia for Novelists” blog. I’m hoping that these flow-of-process ramblings will be useful to you, or at least entertaining. They will be useful to me. They will be like footholds up the mountain: pauses for respite and added impetus to advance another step. I hope.

OK. Where are we now? We are in Washington State, on the Olympic Peninsula. For more than a decade, this book has been rattling around the back of my head like a dried bean in a gourd. Once, I came up to Seattle to start researching it. But I turned tail and fled. It just seemed too big.

The original germ of the book came from family history. One of my great-great-great grandmothers was a Suquamish woman who married a Chinese man and went back with him to old China. What must that have been like? I am Chinese. I was born outside China, but in an age when China was only a few hours’ flight away; or a good book and a comfortable chair away; or a click to the travel channel away. And yet when I first visited China, I found it such a shock. I felt so foreign. How must she have felt?

Over the last ten years, this skeleton of a book idea, banished to a dungeon, has put on flesh. Other dislocations have attached themselves. From rich to poor. From east to west. From dark to fair. From aware to blind.

You’ll remember that I thought the original book too big. How dare I attempt it now that it has swollen like Mr. Creosote?

Driving one night, my mind kept turning over how the Chinese call out the four points of the compass. Not North-South-East-West (making the sign of the cross), but East-South-West-North (clockwise, starting from the region of “most importance”). I suddenly saw how my book could be a book of four parts, each part following a different protagonist in a movement east (Seattle to China); south (China to Hong Kong); west (Hong Kong to San Francisco); north (San Francisco to Seattle). This rudimentary structure gave the book solidity, anchored it in reality for me; made it attemptable.

So, I’ve committed to the attempt. I’ve cleared my calendar (minus some editing) for the next three months and rented myself a cottage on the Olympic Peninsula where the book starts and ends. I’ve given the Suquamish Museum and the Seattle Public Library notice that I’ll be coming to pester them. I haven’t reached out to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience yet, the one housed in my great-great-great grandfather’s shop front. I think I’ll drop in on them in person.

For the past few weeks, I’ve sketched the book’s basic outline at different holiday parties. I’ve introduced my four protagonists to my friends. With each telling, the book feels a little more gestated.

In the meantime, I’ve armed myself with Scrivener and Mind Node, programs that I’ve yet to learn to use. I’m carrying a packet of blank index cards around with me. I’ve been noting down the scenes that randomly pop into my head. I’m planning commitments and finances so that I leave huge writing blocks free through this year and the next, just in case I get any traction.

So now that I’ve settled into my writing cottage, what comes next?
I think I will start with a stock take. I want to organize what I have…and what I know I need but don’t have. I’ll share what this looks like with you next week.

Happy writing!

What can I say, tonight, that would be of most use to you?

The thing about writing a blog is that you feel like you have to hold up your end of the bargain. The pact is clear: you follow me, I say something at least half-way useful, at least half the time.

Well, lucky for me — and hopefully for you — some of my work this week has been judging a fiction competition. What better way to share how to please editors (which I claimed in my last blog to at least try to do) than to share an actual rubric that judges are using to evaluate your work.

1. Are you opening with a compelling hook that makes the reader/judge want to continue reading?
This is often interpreted to mean are you opening with a conflict, a crisis, a challenge: high drama? But for me, intrigue can be equally compelling: an authentic voice that makes the protagonist too interesting to walk away from; an atmosphere or setting that I want to dwell in; most effectively, something fresh or unique that signals that what I’m about to get from reading on, I will not get anywhere else.

2. Are the first ten pages an effective introduction?
In other words, is the promise that you’re making to your reader — the carrot that you’re dangling — well established by the time you get to page ten? You’d be surprised how many times that answer is no. In Dostoyevsky’s day, not a problem (although you could argue that his carrot is the beauty of his prose: you want more, you gotta read on). In our age, however, coyness is sadly a no-no. We’re busy. Your readers/judges might not need the plot, but we usually want the premise in the first ten pages.

3. Is the voice distinct and engaging?
I’ll put it this way. If you’re writing a romance, your heroine should not sound like a romantic heroine. Your heroine should sound like an alive, three-dimensional, interesting woman whom I’ll only meet in your pages. If I want to spend time with her, the only option I have is to keep reading. If I want to spend time with a romantic heroine, I can open many other books.

4. Is your manuscript appropriate for its designated category? 
A quick aside to many of my students: MG and YA are considered genre fiction, subject to forms and rules. Know your genre. MG, especially, is a citadel guarded by fierce librarians and protective mothers.

5. Does the conflict arise from the character’s motivations and goals?
Notice the focus is on the conflict arising from within the character and not out of external circumstances. Watch this one! That nuance is easy to miss.

6. When you lump that internal conflict with any external conflict, is there enough to sustain interest?
If in doubt, make it even tougher for your protagonist. Struggle keeps us interested. We prefer five-set to two-set tennis matches.

7. Does each character exhibit a unique voice, and is that voice consistent and appropriate?
This, I think, is often the hardest skill to teach. Some writers are just naturals at this. Others are always in the author’s voice — you’re aware that the character is the author’s puppet, and it’s the author who is speaking.

8. Does the story move forward?
It doesn’t have to progress at a gallop at all times, but it does have to always be taking us somewhere.

9. And the big kahuna: If this landed on my desk, wedged into a pile of manuscripts the sight of which, despite a life-long love for reading, evokes less pleasure than pain; if I don’t know you and feel no kindness towards you; if my eyes are tired; if my main need is to reduce this pile before it has the chance to grow again…would you give me an experience in two pages that would make me want to read more?
Because you can.
Completely unknown and unpublished writers have.

Go ahead and ignore my editorializing (ha ha, love it), but make this an exercise: hold up your writing to these measures. When you judge to a rubric, you see things that your more sentimental self might have missed.

Hope this helps. Happy writing!



Can science teach you how to write?

Earlier this week, a fellow writer sent me a link to A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has. It gave me a lot of trouble.

I was a Bio major and remain a science geek. Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite authors; An Anthropologist on Mars one of my favorite books. I thought I’d be exactly the type to embrace the concept that there are certain ways we learn, and therefore, unsurprisingly, certain ways we enjoy, and therefore certain ways we can predictably elicit enjoyment. If so, you can write to please, and I can teach my students how to write to please — and, after all, that’s what I do, right?

But no. The concept didn’t sit well with me at all.

First of all, on closer thought, I don’t attempt to teach my students how to please all identically-hardwired readers. I attempt to teach them how to please editors, and specifically, editors now. In my very short lifetime (she bats her youthful lashes), I’ve seen that change. Reading tastes change, and the publishing industry works hard to keep in step not because those tastes point to great literature, but because that way lies the buck.

So, statements for all time like “the reader [because of genetic hard-wiring] expects that the story will start making a point on page one” elicits a genetically hardwired response in me similar to that of a she-bear guarding her cubs.  Such a statement implies that all readers have always had and will always have this expectation; and all writers who don’t start making their point on page one is missing the mark; and those stupid writers are bad writers.

But how to argue — nay, prove — that this is wrong without getting into researching and understanding brain science? (Something that the author professes to know well, without once giving us a footnote or reference, or her scientific qualifications — yes I know she consults for TV and film, and has written a book.)

And then, right as I was grappling with this, in wafted the dulcet tones of Ira Glass, talking about a man who spent twelve years trying to chase down antelope to test the premise that this was the reason that humans evolved to walk upright. You don’t have to argue the cause, if you can disprove the effect.

Anna Karenina didn’t make its point on page one. It has a wonderful opening line that sets you up to expect an unhappy family, but Anna herself gets first mentioned — and only in passing — on page 33 of my copy. She doesn’t step off the train until page 146, by which time, like the Pony Express, we’ve changed horses and possible “points” at least three times.

The Jungle Book doesn’t make its point on page one either — nor for that matter on page two. All that happens in the first two pages is that Father Wolf stretches from his nap and a jackal comes by wondering if he can snoop around the cave for something to eat. What’s the point?

I’m not claiming to be in this league, but Ruby’s Wish didn’t make its point on page one.  Page one was spent not making a point but creating an atmosphere. It was a very long (and I’d like to think lyrical) “once upon a time, a long, long time ago.”

So, to be frank, I don’t think we’re hardwired to expect anything on page one. I think history has shown that the human brain and our aesthetic expectations are pliable. What we expect and enjoy changes. Remember the reaction to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? The music almost caused a riot. The audience hated it. Nobody understood it. They weren’t hardwired to like it. And now it’s one of the most recorded works in the classical cannon (at least according to Wikipedia).

I have another writer friend who thinks that the meaning of life is not so difficult to deduce. She believes that we are all biologically still cavemen and cavewomen. When the sun is in the sky, we must take the opportunity to gather as much food as we can in relative safety. When the sun goes down, we eat that food. Then, once fed, we sing and dance, and love, and tell stories.

In my imagination — even less scientifically, in my heart that holds art sacred — the storyteller by the fire is not addressing a clientele hardwired to need to know now; he or she is beguiling an audience in the flickering light, a small group of humans huddled together who are sensitive to atmosphere, open to mystery…who can be entranced by many qualities of a first page, sometimes by just the rhythm and cadence of the words.

By this theory, our impatience isn’t hardwired. It’s our culture that’s to blame. It’s not too late to learn how to read slowly!

Happy writing,

Burrs, Obi Wan, and my new fiction press

In June, I began thinking about publishing fiction. I read fiction. I write fiction. I edit fiction. Why wouldn’t I publish it too?

Marketing Me was wary. The problem with publishing fiction is that it is so hard to position yourself against the market. “Publishers of quality fiction.” That tagline could belong to anyone. Whereas it’s been relatively easy to create an identity for Goosebottom Books that gives you a pretty clear idea of what we’re all about.

Still, the idea hung in there. Like a burr. You know the ones. If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a creative person yourself. Those ideas that won’t shake loose, they will change your life if you let them.

That month, I helped one of my students edit a manuscript as an application for a scholarship. The work was so good I felt agitated — as if I’d taken a swig of my sister’s triple-shot coffee. (My sister can metabolize caffeine but not alcohol; I’m the other way around.)
I wanted to publish that book; never mind that only the first few chapters had been written. Those chapters not only delighted me and touched me, they made me think. They brought my mind to something that I’d never thought of much before, and they made me compassionate in my contemplation.

In the same month, I bumped into not one but two ex-students at two separate conferences. Both of them were working on wonderful, altruistic projects. Both projects didn’t scream “money.” But they rumbled, “the Force is strong.”

Then at another conference, I started talking to an author about a project languishing in her drawer. Something in her description caught my attention. “Use the Force” echoed just beyond the range of human hearing.

At this point, part of me cringed. I have a Business Jedi brother, and I could already see the disbelieving shake of his head, the single word laughed, not spoken — “Wh-ut??”

“I want to start an imprint publishing worthy fiction. Fiction with a cause — only it’s fiction that doesn’t read like fiction with a cause. It just reads like great fiction, but it has a cause.”

Follow the “whut” with some expletives.

From where I sit, the big question in independent publishing is how do you do what you love, what is worthy, what you think will be on the side of good, and not go bankrupt?

How, indeed.

Actually, at this point that’s exactly what my two ex-students asked me. And I realized, there may be a way, if we did this together: if we shared the risks that I could no longer afford to assume single-handedly; if I provided the design and marketing skills and the industry knowledge that they were lacking — and access to my rolodex and to national distribution; and if seed funding were provided by other people who also believed that the projects were worthy…

And just as this thought took shape, just as the burr untwined its spines and grew, I came across this story of a publisher combining publishing services with crowd funding. They’ve published 6,000 books this way in the last five years. Maybe I can publish six?

Anyway, now we’re four months along. I’m starting this new month by announcing my new imprint: Gosling Press, four years to the day after we announced Goosebottom Books. It’s called Gosling not because we’re publishing for younger kids (although we still are focused on kids); but because I’m taking these authors under my wing. Gosling Press is a partner publisher — we will share the investment, and share the rewards.

That’s the positioning: A curated list of partner-published, fiction-with-a-cause.

It’s riddled with hyphens, but I’m very excited.
May the Force be with us.



On Labor Day Weekend: A Labor of Love

I was recently in Mendocino—not recently enough, now I think about it. While there I connected with the coast’s wonderful writing community, including the amazing Katy Pye.

Katy is a tremendously hard-working author and self-publisher, and an active conservationist. Her book Elizabeth’s Landing enwraps us in the story of a young girl finding her own power, and highlights the plight of sea turtles. It won the First Place for Fiction, 2013, in the Writers’ Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards.

To celebrate the Labor Day Weekend, here is my interview with Katy about her labor of love.

One note about my choice of music. Unfortunately, what you mostly hear is “I don’t know you but I want you…” which I’m sure spooked Katy out. But the lyrics that made this the song for Katy (and which were subsequently pulled under in the edit so that we could hear her speak—editing is not yet a strong suit, but watch this space) were:

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We’ve still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice
You’ve made it now

Falling slowly sing your melody
I’ll sing along

So that’s why I’m posting about Katy. I’m singing along. I’m all for books that serve a cause—I’ve even set up a new imprint, Gosling Press, which will soon be bringing out books that serve various causes. So yay for causes, and yay for labors of love, and yay for labor in the service of causes!

But I have another reason to be nice to Katy.
She makes the BEST lemon cheesecake EVER!

Shirin Yim Bridges

Decisions, decisions: Self-publishing a children’s book

I was recently asked to write a 500-word guest blog for BiblioCrunch, the self-publishing resources website, on “The Basics of Putting Together a Self-Published Children’s Book.” That’s a lot of information to get into 500 words. I thought the only possible way would be to delineate a decision tree. But even that didn’t work. (I like to think because I’m informative, and not because I’m wordy.) So I decided to post the full-blown version here where I have no restraints on length, and write BiblioCrunch a précis that will link here for full information. How clever is that?

So, if you are wondering what you’d have to do to self-publish a children’s book, here are the decisions, step-by-step:

1. Are you talking about a picture book or about a chapter book or novel? Mostly pictures go to 5 below. Mostly text, keep reading.

a) Do you want to be your own publisher, so that you can call all the shots, knowing that you probably will not get the exposure that a larger publisher can deliver, or is your secret hope that a successful self-published start will leapfrog you over the slush pile and end in a big-publisher contract?

Self-publishers, go to 2. Would love a traditional publishing contract eventually, keep reading.

Continue reading


What happened to the and in fame and fortune?

This week, I was on the cover of Publishers Weekly. (Their lack of punctuation, not mine.) The whole industry buzzes about the importance of a writer’s platform. Being on the cover of PW should add a big plank to one of those, surely? Book sales should soar. Telephones should ring. Fortune should follow fame. Did it? Well, no.

I’m in the unusual position, being also a publisher, of being able to track my book sales. Most authors go out into the world and line up their store readings, and their school visits, their advertising and promotion (if they’re rich), and their pubic relations and media coverage (if they’re lucky), and have no way of telling what’s making the blindest bit of difference. I, on the other hand, can log into my distributor’s amazing database and see, in real time, how many copies of each title were ordered and shipped, by whom, and exactly when.

So, I’m sorry to have to report that I have found no direct correlation between being on the cover of Publishers Weekly and the following week’s book sales. Similarly no correlation between being on NPR and book sales. Or in the San Francisco Chronicle and book sales. Or being well reviewed and book sales. Or winning awards and book sales.

What I have found, though, is that my brand image has changed. I’ve received an increasing number of invitations to read, and to speak, and to teach. When I take up those invitations, I find that more and more people know of Goosebottom Books, and they have a very gratifying perception of our success. Opportunities that I once had to chase now come my way—being on the cover of PW not least among them. And the phone does ring. Every week more people seek out and are willing to pay for my help as a self-publishing consultant and children’s book editor.

So maybe fortune will follow fame? Maybe it’s just a long and, like the here in “hhhhhere’s Johnny!”?

I like to think of it as skipping a stone across a pond (something I’m horrendous at, by the way). Just because your stone’s not across the pond yet doesn’t mean it isn’t in the middle of a skip that’s necessary to get it there. Just because each plank hasn’t seemed to make much difference doesn’t mean they won’t eventually hammer up into a stage.

And if not—because let’s face it, the reality could be not—if not, then well, better fame and no fortune than no fame and no fortune, right?

Enjoy the writing life. As grandpa said in my book, Ruby’s Wish: enjoy it while you can.

Shirin Yim Bridges




When what you find is that it shouldn’t be found.

So, if you’ve been following our goose tracks, Kathryn and I have been in the Red Center looking for clues as to the identity of the pod in her coming book, Peter Dobb and the Wondrous Pod. We had a hunch that it had something to do with the Aboriginal dream time, and for that reason we booked ourselves on back-to-back cultural tours and headed for a big red rock in the middle of a big red desert.

If you know me, you’ll know that I’m well traveled and have lived on four continents. I like to think of myself as culturally sensitive. But in retrospect, I rode into that red desert as prejudiced as any colonialist. All I was missing was the pith helmet.

My prejudice was that if you have a story, you will want to share it. I’m an author. That’s my world. My colleagues, my clients, my friends, my family, we are all story tellers who want our stories to be heard. So it was quite a revelation to me that there is a fundamentally different way of thinking about story: that you can treasure a story as a secret; that you can nurture a story in order not to share it.

What I learnt, following a guide around who was so passionate that he literally frothed at the mouth (correct use of literally), is that nobody is supposed to know the entire dream time story. Even within small family groups, what the men are allowed to know is different from what the women are allowed to know. Neither must search for or even inadvertently discover the story that belongs to the other. Hence the community’s wariness of photography, because it puts images out there of things that should be seen only by owners of a certain part of the dreaming.

As a story teller I’m fascinated by this concept of story—by having a great, intricate cloth, to which you hold only one thread. You know where your thread intersects others…threads coming from other family members, other families, other tribes. You also know that you’ll never see, are not meant to see, the whole picture. So you treasure and nurture this thread in trust, with faith that it has its place and its meaning, and that meaning you will never fully know.

In the red rock canyons, having let the others walk ahead so that I had everything under a blue bowl sky to myself, this thought is what resonated with me—that sometimes it’s OK not to know. You can hold something precious without knowing really how it relates to the rest of your life or the world. You can just have faith that it does. That it is sacred and necessary.

Sounds simple, but it goes so much against our cultural grain.

And where does that land us with the pod? We have more cultural sleuthing ahead, but at the very least we’ve learnt how delicate this dream time fabric is. How delicate and how very lovely.

Shirin Yim Bridges