Answers to three questions raised in this summer’s workshops


It’s that time of year again. Labor Day looms, signaling the end of summer. Most of another year has slipped away. And all that summer reading and writing? Still undone.

I learned a few things this summer, though. Mostly from finding answers to difficult questions that were raised in class. If you’ve attended one of my publishing workshops, you’ll know that the first exercise I assign is an introspective one: why do you want to be published? This summer, for the second time since I started asking that question, an answer came back, “I see it as a first step to a movie.”

I can answer a lot of “how to” questions about publishing, but “how to get my book made into a movie” wasn’t one of them. I knew differing cocktails of agents were involved—authors’ agents; subrights agents working for publishers; media talent and IP agents like Creative Artists or Gotham—but the exact process has never been anything I’ve had the good luck to need to know.

But here is a step-by-step from someone who does: How a Book Becomes a Movie. It’s a fascinating read even if you don’t have such hopes for your book, because it shows how both the book and film industries have been so radically changed by Harry Potter, Twilight, et al.

Enlightenment #2 is a sequel to last month’s blog about Outlining (this corner fought by James Patterson) vs. Not Outlining (in this corner, Zadie Smith). I get asked whether or not to outline all the time, and I personally find it freeing to have convincing advocates of such diametrically opposed views. It allows you to do pretty much anything in between—and in between is exactly where my personal process is. But Patterson’s proposed advantages of outlining did not extend to character and voice. So I was intrigued to come across this discussion of How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice. I’m still not sure outlining is mandatory, but the argument for its utility grows and grows.

The last enlightenment is a caution. I give consults to writers; frequently to self-publishers. There is one question I often get asked that I regret having to answer: “I have self-published my book using print-on-demand (POD). How can I generate more sales?” If your book is already published, the invaluable information I have is too late to save you, though I can perhaps help you make the best of a bad situation. I use “save” advisedly because it is with this mode of self-publishing more than any other that authors get burned and disappointed. Please, if you’re thinking of self-publishing, speak to me before you commit to POD. You can attend one of my publishing workshops, or email me to arrange a consult. I charge $100 for an hour, and I guarantee, I can save you from a much more expensive misstep.

So, those were my three big take-outs from this summer. But here is an ongoing opportunity to learn more about publishing and its ancillary skills, for free. Skillfeed is offering 30 days’ free access to its 93,858 video courses.

The neighbor’s BBQ smoke wafts in through my windows. Maybe it’s because I’m writing a novel populated by Native Americans, but I feel as if I’ve gathered a few fat writing berries from this social summer to carry with me into the insular winter, when surely…finally…I will snuggle down and write?

Happy learning and writing!



James Patterson vs. Zadie Smith: How do you teach craft?

I’ve been listening to a lot of “how to”s lately—from authors as disparate as James Patterson and Zadie Smith.  One of Patterson’s commandments is to never start without an outline. The outline, Patterson believes, is critical because it allows you to evaluate the story as a story. It saves you from investing good writing in a story that doesn’t work and that you have to then go back and unpick—or worse, that you are unwilling to unpick because too much has been invested. Once established, the outline gives you a skeleton on which to hang your drafts. Drafts, plural: the first a sketch to get the story told; each subsequent draft a layering of sinew and muscle.

Smith has never used an outline in her life. In her article, That Crafty Feeling, she admits that she starts without having any idea where the story is going. But what the story will become, she believes, is in the tone, in the atmosphere, in the metaphysics of that first line. She will try out first lines until she finds one that has enough soul to birth a story. She labors over every sentence as that story unfolds, until a particular sentence tells her that she’s come to the end, and—that’s it. She lies down with a bottle of sancerre. She is a one-draft writer.

Such opposite views on something as straightforward (you’d think) as whether or not to outline poses a dilemma. How do you teach or learn how to write when nobody can agree on how it should be done?

Being someone who both writes and paints, I always find it helpful to think of writing as painting. “How one should paint” is not very valuable. What made many great painters great is that they painted in ways that they should not have. The impressionists and what they did with light and paint surface, we all know. And then came Lautrec, cropping in on his subjects, leaving us with just an elbow or an ear. Or Van Gogh, squeezing the yellow onto his canvas directly from the tube. Think of the fauvists with their unnatural colors that somehow make sense—so much sense that I can no longer see how once they did not and were thought offensive.  Think of every great painter afterwards. We never went back to Ingres, although I love him too.

What is useful to learn when painting is how to choose a brush…how to choose your medium…what different substrates will do for you. Techniques are useful too. If you know what can be achieved by layering, you can decide whether or not to use it. If you learn what is wonderful about painting wet-on-wet…well, you might well fall in love. And there are rules you should know if only to break them: how perspective works; how to evaluate balance; how to vary tone so that the whole thing doesn’t turn into dense mud.

This summer, I’m giving a course of five workshops, each focused on a different craft. Writers’ exercises are invaluable, I think, and something we rarely allow ourselves unless we’re in a group. When was the last time you sat down and wrote to a prompt by yourself? The thinking is, if I’m all alone and I have time to write, I should be working on the real stuff. But think how much comes out of every writing exercise. I’ve been teaching for four years now, and it amazes me every time.

In painting terms, we’ll be creating five different canvases, one a week, each one exploring a few new techniques: Ideation/Breaking the Block; Creating Complex and Compelling Characters; A World of Your Own; The Many Ways of Showing; Great Abs for Your Novel. They’ll be sketches—quick and fun—but I’m sure they’ll result in new brush strokes and color combinations that can be applied to any master piece.

In the mean time, here is the best how-to-write I’ve come across:

I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.
— Vincent Van Gogh

Happy writing!


Summer’s here!


While everybody else looks forward to summer reading, it’s time for us to think about summer writing. Summer, with all its conference offerings, might well be the aspiring author’s busiest season. Here’s what’s on the cards over the coming months:

The Squaw Valley Fiction, Non-fiction, and Memoir Writers’ Workshops are scheduled for July 6-13. Days are made up of morning workshops and individual consults. This is a rigorous conference with an emphasis on craft, held against a breath-taking backdrop.

On July 11, I’m teaching a one-day workshop at the Berkeley Writing Salon, You’ve Finished Your Book: Now What? As the title suggests, we’ll be discussing next steps and the best publishing strategies depending on what you would like to achieve.

The inaugural Book Passage Young Adult & Middle Grade Intensive Writing Weekend is scheduled for July 11-12, in Corte Madera. This is the first year that organizers of Book Passage’s beloved Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference has decided to break it up into two events: one for MG/YA, and another one for picture books scheduled for September. I’ll be teaching on the 12th.

For five Sundays starting on July 19, I will be teaching a series of craft workshops at the San Francisco Writing Salon. Writing for Kids and Young Adults: Improve Your Craft will be chockablock full of exercises and discussion, with a different craft focus each week.

The Napa Valley Writers’ Conference is being held from July 26-31. This conference has a strong emphasis on fiction and poetry. Serious writing. Serious wine. What could go wrong?

My favorite “beginner’s conference,” The Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, is being held this year from August 6-8. I say “beginners” as no slight to its impressive faculty, but because this is the perfect conference on which to cut your teeth. Intimate, supportive, and collegial, the camaraderie here is second to none. It exerts such a strong pull that I’ll be there, although I’m not teaching.

If you’re ready to pitch by the end of the summer, the NY Pitch Conference is the venue for you. Known for its roster of Big Five editors, this conference focuses on the end of the writing process.

So, happy writing! And if you’re indeed happy with what you wrote, don’t forget that Glimmer Train has a few awards over the summer:

Their Very Short Fiction Award is open for submissions in July, and the The Glimmer Train  Short Story Award is open for submissions in August.

Good luck, and enjoy your summer!
Hope to see some of you,





Until we meet again…

Apologies for the long pause between posts. It’s summer conference time, which has me juggling presentations and priorities. But here’s a little something to keep you entertained. I’ll be back with tips for writers from my experiences at the AFCC. In the mean time, happy writing!


Portraying character: The importance of a haircut.

If you’ve ever taken one of my classes, or worked with me as an editor, you’ll know that I’m a fan of Coco Chanel: “quality is in the details.”

Often, the details I’m focussed on are word choices. Is this the most evocative verb? Is that the most specific noun? As Mark Twain said, “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” But when it comes to portraying character, those aren’t the details I worry about most.

Don’t get me wrong. You still need the right words and not the almost-right words in any description or dialog. But what portrays character most powerfully, in literature as in life, is what a person does. So I spend a lot of time worrying about what my characters do, and what that says about them. Which gestures, decisions, and actions should I choose to show you, the reader? Which are the gems that will best evoke my characters?

I recently had a brainwave about one of my characters — the one loosely based on my great-great-great grandfather. Let me first explain what “loosely based” means. It means that the character in my novel walks around in my head. I have a feeling for him. I know him on an intimate and nuanced level, although like any human, he may surprise me. I might even be a little in love with him.

I don’t know what kind of man my greatx3 grandfather was. Like any reader, I have to deduce this from his actions. But the man that I’m “reading”from the paper trail I’ve researched is not very much like the corresponding character in my head. No matter. Greatx3 grandpa is only there for inspiration. After all, my novel is fiction.

The other day, I was looking at a photo of Greatx3 Grandpa taken in 1905. Here it is…

CCH 1905

Doesn’t he look like a Mafia don, with his thick, short, centrally parted hair and self-satisfied smirk?

That hair fascinated me. I kept coming back to it like a tongue to a missing tooth. Where was his queue—the long Celestial braid that should have been hanging down his back?

The queue was not a fashion statement. The queue was an imperial edict enforced by law, punishable by death. All Chinese (Han) men had to wear a queue as a sign of their subservience to the Qing, their Manchu overlords. Lose your queue; lose your head.

And yet, here was Greatx3 Grandpa giving his finger to the Emperor. He was involved in a lot of China trade at that time. One year, he shipped east four thousand 100-lb sacks of American flour.  Yet, queue-less, he must have stopped outside the Manchu’s gates—at Macau or Hong Kong, foreign colonies where head-chopping for missing queues was not enforced.

This gesture, this one little hair cut, tells you so much about his character. It tells you that he was nationalistic. It tells you that there was a broad streak of defiance in him. It tells you that he was confident — that he didn’t have to kowtow; he had other options, in America. It tells you that he had his eyes on the future.

Six years after this photo was taken, the Qing Dynasty fell.

My great-great-great grandfather’s early cutting of his queue is what I’d consider a telling action. Although, with all the “show don’t tells” I chirrup, maybe I should call it a showing action. So I’m stealing it for my novel.

My character is softer than I suspect my greatx3 grandfather was. He’s less businessman, more romantic. But they share a boundless optimism, an ability to see the glass half full and on the verge of getting fuller. Both had eyes on far horizons.

In my novel, cutting that braid will cut ties to the past. It will be the declaration of a new man. It will be the exultant embrace of a new world.

So, sometimes you can tell a lot about a man from his haircut.

Happy writing!





Building the platform — with help from my great-great-great-grandfather

CCHAP Postcard Front

Greatx3 Grandpa

At every writers’ conference I’ve attended in the last three years, much time and angst has been spent over “the writers’ platform.” Having one improves your chances of sales, and because of that, your chances of getting published. Logically, this means you should have a platform in place before you pitch your book. Here’s where the angst comes in: how does one do that?!

First of all, what is “a writer’s platform”? In advertising speak, it’s your reach. A workable layman’s term would be your fame…although that word has been ruined by the Kim Kardashians of this world. Notoriety won’t cut it. Not for most books, anyway.

From a publisher’s perspective, a writer’s platform is the author’s ability to convince the publisher that s/he has access to an audience already interested in the author, the subject, or best of all, the book in particular. Writers often think of publishers as gougers who give them some crummy percentage when they (the writers) do “all” of the work. But it is edifying to think of them as the people who are the first to pay and the last to be paid. In that context it makes sense that they’d really like to maximize their very slim chances of getting their money back.

Now, at the risk of eliciting some “that’s easy for you to say”s, here’s an example of a writer’s platform being built in advance. Before you read any further, make sure you’ve read my last post about how I’m living in the Twilight Zone. It will give you necessary context.

I came to Washington to conduct research on a novel whose germ was the story of my great-great-great-grandmother. She was a Native American woman who married a Chinese merchant and eventually moved to China. The man she married, who has a small part in my novel, happened to be the first Chinese resident of Seattle.


Greatx3 Grandma

A friendly Seattle Public librarian introduced me to her friends, and those librarians to other librarian friends, until in ever-expanding circles, my research came to the notice of the very warm and lovely curator of the Seattle Room. Turns out, the Seattle Public Library partners with the Museum of History and Industry to host a program called History Café, a monthly soirée for people interested in Seattle history. Would I like to speak to them about my great-great-great-grandfather?

Here’s a tip. This may look like an obvious decision, but I’ve seen many people turn down opportunities like this — because public speaking is not their forte, because they don’t have time, because they are working on a novel about one thing and being asked to speak about another. But my attitude is that life is short, and experiences are to be collected. At the end of life, it’s not the one with the most toys who wins, but the one with the best photo album.

So, anyway, I said yes, and worked on drafting the presentation and conducting much deeper research to fill the many holes. I started spending considerable chunks of time in the Wing Luke Museum. Then, weirdly, I began sensing some discord in the ether. I felt as if I was being pulled in two directions by jealous ancestral spirits. Time spent on the presentation (Greatx3 Grandpa) was time I didn’t have to work on the novel (Greatx3 Grandma), and my time in Washington was running out.

So, goofy as it sounds, I sat down and made peace between them. I promised Greatx3 Grandma that I would finish the research I needed to do for the novel, but pointed out that even if I didn’t get it done in this one pass, all those resources would be here another day. The opportunity that Greatx3 Grandpa had so graciously thrust in my lap, however, was evanescent. I also pointed out that the research I was doing on him was giving me great context for her: scales were falling from my eyes. I could see her world with increasing granularity. So for now, I was going to prioritize the presentation. And listen, Greatx3 Grandma, I concluded, it will be the first plank of my platform: it will help your story get disseminated one day.

I think Greatx3 Grandpa decided to reward my faith. The Chinese Services Librarian of Seattle Public asked me when I would be speaking. I told her, and told her it would be at the MOHAI. “Oh no!” she said. “I mean, that’s good, but we really need to have you speaking here. Maybe we can partner with the Wing Luke to sponsor another presentation in our auditorium. Ask them.” So I did…the parties will meet to discuss on March 10th. “And when your book is finally published,” the Genealogy Librarian said, “We’d love to do something here to help launch it.”

So, without the guiding hand of a 19th century ancestral spirit, how to you start building your writer’s platform? Consider what your book (and the good research you’re conducting for it) makes you an authority on:

— An individual
— A demographic group
— A historical period
— A geographical area
— Some aspect of lifestyle or culture
— An environmental or political concern
— The process of research
— The process of writing

And then ask yourself who would be interested in this information, and how you can put yourself before them. It doesn’t always have to be public speaking, although that certainly helps. You can write articles for special interest magazines, you can give interviews on local radio stations, you can offer your insight to writers’ groups, and you can even — yes — blog.

Happy writing!



[Insert Twilight Zone music here]

When I first decided to come to Washington to research my novel, I looked for a place on Bainbridge Island in order to be half way between the Suquamish Museum and the Seattle Central Library. My great-great-great-grandmother was reputed to have been Suquamish. And my great-great-great-grandfather was  the founder of the Wa Chong Company, the first Chinese business registered in Seattle. Their story is the germ from which my novel sprouts.

As I trolled through rentals on VRBO and Airbnb, I found and fell in love with the cottage that I’m ensconced in now. I noticed belatedly that it wasn’t actually a Bainbridge listing. Instead, the cottage is located in Port Orchard. Port Who? I’d never heard of it before, and on investigation it was further away from both the museum and the library. But, the heart wants what the heart wants, so I accepted the longer commutes.

On my first visit to the library, I made an appointment for a consult with their genealogy librarian. Chun Ching Hock, my great-great-great-grandfather I wrote, under Who are you researching? on the application form. When I showed up for my appointment, the librarian was welcoming.
“I’m also interested in Chun Ching Hock,” he said. He was researching a cemetery that CCH had some role in establishing.
“Have you seen this?” and he handed me a postcard.
“Oh yes,” I replied. “I wrote it.”
It was a card that I’d helped a distant cousin to create, when she’d wanted to encapsulate CCH’s role as an American pioneer. That was neat, I thought. It’s not often that someone hands you something you wrote.
“Look at this,” the librarian continued. “They had three sons, born in Port Orchard. Looks like they were living there.”
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

Another thing we found that afternoon was a reference to my great-great-great-grandmother being Duwamish, not Suquamish. Well, I thought, I guess I’ll have to go introduce myself to the Duwamish.
That evening friends asked if I’d have dinner with them “and a friend.”
“Who?” I said suspiciously.
“Oh, he’s a great guy. Intelligent. Blah. Blah. Blah. We used to race motorcross together, but I haven’t seen him much in the last two years.”
“He’s very involved with his tribe.”
“Which tribe?”
My friend sent a text.
Duwamish came the answer.
And, as it turns out, not only Duwamish but on their Council and willing to introduce me to the rest of its members!
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

Next stop was the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. They are housed (in part) in what used to be CCH’s store. I spoke with the librarian, who kindly showed me around and arranged to gather items from their archives for me to peruse on another day. As I left, I turned around to look at my great-great-great-grandfather’s storefront again. And there in the window was my book, Ruby’s Wish.
“I’m sorry we’re in such a mess! We’re setting up for Chinese New Year,” the sales assistant said.
“That book in your window. I wrote it!”
“Oh,” she said, taken aback by my excitement.
“And this used to be my great-great-great-grandfather’s store!”
“Oh,” she repeated. Then, “Would you like to sign them for us? I have a bunch.” She cleared a spot for me to sign, and I noticed that the stack of books she was moving to make room were my sister’s.
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

Ruby and Goldiluck

I touched base with that distant cousin, to tell her about the Duwamish lead. As we were chatting I mentioned how my character was going to live in the store itself, whether that had happened in life or not.
“Do you know that my grandfather inherited that store,” she said.
“No!” I answered. (If you think this strange, bear in mind that CCH had 11 wives and many children, including a son who had 44 kids of his own. It’s hard to keep track.)
“My mom and uncle grew up there. Uncle Joe is still in Seattle. He can tell you what that would have been like.”
I’m having lunch with Uncle Joe on Friday.
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

Yesterday, I had lunch with two friendly, supportive, WONDERFUL Seattle Central librarians. They’d introduced me to a friend of theirs who gave me access to the SPLC’s Writers’ Room. (Take a look at my new office…)


In the middle of lunch, one says to the other, “I should introduce you to Peter Baccho. I went to school with him.”
She looks at me strangely. “Yes, he’s a local journalist.”
“He wrote the article that said my great-great-great-grandmother was Seattle’s daughter. I have none of his references. I’d love to know how he came to that conclusion!”
An hour later, I had an email saying he’d be happy to chat.
[Insert Twilight Zone music here.]

“Don’t ignore coincidences,” my new Duwamish friend said. “Someone wants you to write this book.”


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!

Shirin Yim Bridges' journeys in writing and publishing