Thursday, May 29, 2014

How Do You Make Ideas Into A Book?

Every author knows the most-asked question at an event is: "Where do you get your ideas?"

Some people really hate this question. Others joke about it. Some just plain don't have an answer that is really helpful (it's a very hard question to answer). I'm a newbie who doesn't have the money to tour myself much, so I suppose I haven't heard it enough to be tired of it. I still find the question—and its frequency of being asked—really fascinating.

There was a time in my writing life that I believed if I just had the right idea, I could be published. I actually thought that my writing didn't even have to be very good—if I just had that idea that would make everyone fall in love with me regardless of how I put words together.

I have a feeling this way of thinking was not just my own, but many other aspiring writers as well. And our culture in general seems to put a lot of emphasis and wonder on the concept of getting "brilliant ideas," be they inventions, songs, movies, paintings, or books. That strange moment when a human being becomes almost godlike and creates something that touches others or makes their lives easier…it's as if we all wish to have that little piece of magic in our lives.

So I don't begrudge any person who asks me that question, who wants so badly to have their own piece of the wonder that is creativity. It's one of the most fulfilling things in my life.

I wish I could tell you where your Well Of Ideas resides, but today I want to answer the question I think might be even BETTER than the one that's always asked:

How Do You Make Ideas Into A Book?

I think that's what many people are really wanting to ask, but they might not yet have the thought to ask it. Because we get ideas all the time—all people do. Storytellers just train themselves to USE those ideas in a specific way. I'm really hoping I can translate it for you today. I may be wrong, because I can only speak from my experience, but this is my attempt to explain how my brain takes an idea and turns it into a story.

1. Training Your Brain To FIND Ideas
As I said before, I really believe all people have lots of ideas. But maybe not all people know how to use them or even realize they are having them. I remember when I was a teen writer—this idea generating did seem like a tough thing! I didn't know which ideas were good and which were bad (okay I still struggle with that sometimes). I didn't know what to DO when I had an idea I liked, where I was supposed to start.

Two things to train your brain: Study and Imitate

Looking back, I loved stories from an early age. It didn't matter the form for me. I took in story from animation (both American and Japanese), books, comics, movies. This is an essential part of being a storyteller—studying the greats. If you want to write, you've heard it many times before, you need to read.

And then comes imitation. All the stories I first tried to write were loosely based on other stories I loved. One was Sailor Moon-esque. Another had The Giver written all over it. Another was very femme fatale, probably a spawn of my fondness of action movies. Basically, I was imitating what I loved.

Which is a GOOD thing. Writers tend to freak out over imitation, but I truly believe it is a very important part of the creative process. In other creative pursuits, it's super super normal for imitation to take place. A piano player doesn't start out writing their own music—they learn the basics and play the songs of masters first. An artist doesn't start out executing perfect work—they copy styles and learn art history and then they begin to innovate.

Writing is the same. Don't be afraid to imitate (just don't try to publish something you know is an imitation). In imitating something you know is good, you learn. You see new things. You may even get new ideas of your very own.

My bet is you will start to get a lot of ideas, because storytellers definitely love to tell their own stories more than they like to tell others. We're selfish like that. I have always gotten more excited over my own work than that of others. (Which is also why I encourage aspiring writers not to be too afraid of their ideas being stolen—fact is, most writers won't think your ideas are better than their own.)

2. Practicing Curiosity To See MORE In An Idea
I think many people outside of storytelling, or those just dipping their toes in, envision ideas floating down to a writer from the nether fully formed. In reality, it's a lot more like this awesome tumblr graphic I saw a couple weeks ago:

Via BethanyHagen on Tumblr.
I have thought about this image since I saw it, because it is SO TRUE. Getting ideas is much more like getting a series of puzzle pieces and then being tasked with figuring out how they fit together. Sometimes it can take a long time for them all to fit, too. Or you'll get a key piece for a story, but not another for several years—and then suddenly it all clicks just when you thought that story piece was a lost cause.

You gotta turn into a relentless interrogator when it comes to getting a story out of your ideas. Those elementary school questions? Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Yes, those are super useful! I totally go back to that in a way. But then you start to learn even better questions to ask.

If you get an idea for a character: What do they want more than anything and why can't they get it? What are they most afraid of? What would break them in two? What would make them happy? (And then you ruin their life—because stories are ultimately studies in conflict.)

If you get an idea for a world: How is this place different from our world? Who lives there? What do they believe? Fight for? Run from? What would ruin this world? What would make it better?

If you get an idea for a scene: Why is it happening? What happened before? What happens after? Who will lose the most in this scene? Who will gain the most? Why does it matter to the story?

The more questions you can ask, the more story you'll start to get. That's where, for me, it gets really exciting. I love trying to solve the puzzle, even though sometimes it can be frustrating it's always interesting and rewarding. This is what keeps me coming back to writing, because there are endless puzzle pieces and they never go together the same way twice.

3. Executing Your Ideas The Way You Envision
Every writer can tell you this is actually the hardest part of writing. You can see these amazing stories in your head, and often your words on the page fall short of them (or almost all the time, alas). Writing is the art of using words to paint a picture, and it takes practice.

So study your craft, be it through reading or taking classes or surfing the net for the best advice you can find. Study, study, study. Never stop trying to execute better. Because the more you focus on how you execute your ideas, the more you will learn that is the true challenge. The ideas are wonderful and magical, but they can't shine without you putting in the work to be a good writer.

The more you learn to execute, the more you will understand how to manipulate your ideas. At that point, ideas will feel endless and you'll never really have to worry about how to get them again. Because you'll discover they were with you all along.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

All Day Q&A!

It's been a long while since I've done a Q&A, but today is the day! You have a question? I HAVE AN ANSWER. I will answer wherever you ask a question—in comments on my blog, on my Facebook page, on Twitter, or even Tumblr.

All questions are welcome, about whatever you want. Life advice, writings, my books, my life, whatever. You may ask MULTIPLE questions. Follow-up questions. Random, slightly awkward questions. Today is YOUR day. I am at your service.

I will answer as soon as I see the question, but it will be today for sure, if not immediately.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Finding The Happy Things & Waxing Nostalgic

I like to keep things real on the blog, but this weekend, as a friend struggled with the difficulties and reality of publishing, I wondered a bit if I sometimes focus too much on the rough road of being an author. Am I turning into a downer? Am I getting overly jaded? Perhaps I've gone from realistic to plain old curmudgeon.

That makes me a little sad.

I want to try and rectify this. Not to say that I can stop being realistic and honest, because that's where I feel comfortable, but I want to find a better balance for myself. I want to point out more good, despite the difficulties. I want to find the happy things.

So today I want to talk about the fact that it's been a YEAR since TRANSPARENT debuted! That's crazy. It's feels both so much longer and shorter than that. Time is a weird thing when you get into publishing. Years become these really short things, when they used to feel like lifetimes.

Signing my very first book contract, in 2011. (Dang, I was skinny
back then! My love of cupcakes has betrayed me.)
I remember the day I got my contract for TRANSPARENT like I remember most other big, good days in my life—I recall more of the feelings than the details. It didn't feel entirely real, signing a few papers that claimed I'd be a published author in 2013 (two years later). After a long time in the query and submission trenches, it's just hard to grasp that you've finally reached that one goal.

You feel a bit afloat, both giddy and terrified because now what? Well, lots of waiting. Of course. But also all the cool things you dreamed of—getting that first edit letter, seeing cover comps, receiving ARCs in the mail, your first advance check, your first trade review. Those parts? They are all as awesome as it seems.

I was always struck, in those two years I waited for TRANSPARENT to be a book, how unreal it all still felt. I kept wanting it to feel real, but now I think the surreal aspect was amazing. It was the dream. I was living a dream. There were all these gritty reality bits, too, but those unreal moments were like pristine vistas along a difficult hike. They were meant to be savored, and I tried to do just that. I think I've learned in these last few years to savor the good bits as much as possible—they carry you through the other stuff.

Debut of TRANSPARENT, May 21, 2013. (Me and my crazy
awesome sisters at my launch party.)
The day TRANSPARENT came out…I remember feeling like I might throw up at any minute. It's part of having anxiety, I suppose, and also because dreams and reality were all crashing together and now I had to actually BE the thing I wanted to be (an author) instead of pretending at it. Here I'd been waiting so long to be this thing, and suddenly it felt like I could never actually be ready for it.

I wasn't.

Debuting is a lot like being a first time mom—you just can't know all the things you need to know. So much of the knowing comes in doing. But at the same time it was wonderful and awesome and I feel like, even four books and a year later, that I'm still growing into my new role. I'm still learning to claim it. But there's one thing I do know:

I'm proud of myself.

Because I'm not the kind of person who likes to toot my own horn, that is hard for me to say in public. But it remains true and I feel like it's just as important to say I AM PROUD OF WHAT I'VE DONE as it is to say that I'm not perfect and that I struggle with stuff. Writers are constantly pushing to improve, but it does make me sad to see writer friends become almost ashamed of their past achievements, as if they weren't good enough. It's my goal to not do that—to be proud of my work even if I also want to improve.

So today, a year after my nerve wracking debut, I'm going to be proud. I did what I set out to do. Maybe it didn't all go according to plan and I'm not some massive bestseller, but I have four books out in the world. When I first signed my contract, I thought I'd only have two out after a year. Having twice as many is pretty awesome.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

In Defense Of "Younger" YA

We've all seen/heard phrases along the lines of "I liked that book, but it read younger YA than I wanted." Or perhaps "It wasn't really my thing—it read so young." Or maybe even the slightly harsher-toned "That book was way too juvenile, ugh."

As you can probably guess, these phrases rub me the wrong way. Mostly because, yeah, I DO write what might be termed as "younger" YA. I know many other authors who do, and they are great authors with tons of talent and a passion for their books and the audience they write them for.

Right now in YA, more so than in the past (at least over the 7 years I've been in the loop), there is an especially big emphasis on "older" YA. The genre used to be opposite, in fact. I remember when I first started querying, I had friends getting turned down because their novels read too OLD. The characters were too OLD. Everyone acted too OLD. The genre was looking for "younger" YA that had a mass appeal. Now "old" is in and "young" seems to be the kiss of death. Funny how things turn around like that.

But I'm gonna stand up here and say—please, please have respect for "younger" YA.

It's cool if it's not your thing. We all have our things, and respecting other things while having your things is nice. And of course it's totally fine to point out that a book might be for a younger audience—but using that as a point of criticism isn't helpful. All audiences, no matter the age/genre/style/etc., deserve respect.

I can't speak for all the authors who write "younger" YA, but I can tell you why I write it and why I think it's important. And of course I'm gonna tell you because it's my blog and that's what I do: I spout my own nonsense here. So let's get on with it.

When I sit down to write, when I picture the person I'm writing for, I imagine a kid who is in 7th or 8th grade. This kid? They want to be more grown up than they are sometimes, and at other moments they wish they were still a kid who doesn't have to grow up. Junior high is a rough time, you know? Hanging on to childhood with one hand and grasping for adulthood with the other.

It's a time when a lot of kids stop reading.

Why? Because middle grade books are becoming "baby" books (also why I believe upper MG is essential but sadly often discounted), and yet some YA is still just "too old" for a 13 or 14-year-old kid. I'm not saying that as a parent, but as a person who has worked with a lot of 12 to 14-year-old kids. Yes, some are ready to grow up and are  mature beyond their years. There are others who still love a good fart joke and are uncomfortable with the fact that they are now experiencing sexual attraction. Those junior high school kids are as various in their maturity as they are in their interests, how they handle tough situations, and what they want from a story.

As I write a story, I picture the girl or boy who doesn't quite love reading. Like, it's OKAY, but they wouldn't do it if their teacher didn't make them. Because, to be honest, I was that kid. I'm not the writer who grew up in love with reading—I grew up never quite being able to find a book I liked enough to read the whole way through. So in a way, I suppose I'm writing for the junior high school version of me, who could have used a "younger" YA story that had some kissing but didn't get into that whole gross sex thing in detail. I could have used a book that was cool and not "baby" but still young enough for me to handle.

Those kids deserve stories as much as the super-enlightened 16-year-old and the already-cynical 18-year-old. The thing I love most about YA is that it has given stories to an age group that didn't have so many before. I just hope we don't forget that there IS a big difference between a 13-year-old and a 19-year-old. YA fills a wide range of needs, and all of them should be respected.

So the next time you read a "younger" YA book, maybe instead of saying it read "too young" you could say "this book is perfect for a junior high school audience" or "this book would be great for a reluctant reader" or "this book meets the needs of a younger teen." Because that's not a BAD thing. It's actually a GOOD thing.

Obviously, I'm very proud to write for the audience I write for. I love them. I care about them. And I get probably a bit too defensive when people treat them like they are lesser just because they're on the younger side of the YA spectrum. So I'll try and control my mama bear tendencies, but I just felt like we all needed a good reminder about this audience. Because in the end, those young YA readers are kids we hope will KEEP reading, we hope they will love books so much they'll still pick them up when they are older teens, when they're in college, and for the rest of their lives.

At least that's my dream, as an author who writes for the reluctant 14-year-old reader, to keep a kid reading, to create lifelong readers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Relax…The Ninjas Are Here!

I am very happy to announce that RELAX, I'M A NINJA is officially available for purchase! It's been such a great learning experience, doing all the things for this book on my own. I'm really proud of the result, and I hope this book can find the people who will love it.

Some quick links for purchase, if you feel so inclined:

Amazon (If you purchase a hard copy, your Kindle copy will only cost 99 cents!)
Barnes & Noble
Book Depository
Kobo (Should be coming soon!)

NOTE: If you are a librarian or bookseller, RELAX, I'M A NINJA should also be available for order through the Ingram catalog. If you really want to order the novel and don't find it there, please let me know so that I can get in contact with Lightning Source personnel.


With this book's release, I thought I'd just take a moment to talk about where RELAX, I'M A NINJA came from. I'll break it into parts:

Growing up in the Bay Area. When I got the idea to write about a Clan of ninjas, I knew I wanted to set the book in a city. San Francisco, with its fog and history and varying architecture felt like that natural fit. Probably because I grew up across the bay in Fremont. I remember going into the city to see museums or the Golden Gate Park. We would take field trips there in school. San Francisco has always been the city I love most.

Being a nerd. I've always been the weird one. I was bullied when I was younger, and often felt like I didn't belong anywhere. At the same time, I had this belief that if people could just see the real me—just look past the outside stereotype—that they'd like me. I think I took a lot of that sentiment into RELAX, I'M A NINJA, and I made a world where the "people aren't what they seem" was taken to the extreme. I also made a world where nerds are also badass ninjas. Wish fulfillment? Maybe a little bit, but I think everyone has a right to imagine themselves as something great.

Anime. The first anime I ever saw was My Neighbor Totoro when I was maybe nine or ten years old. My mom happened upon the VHS tape long before Disney took to the Studio Ghilbli hype. She bought Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, probably in a desperate attempt to distract her three young children for a few hours while she got some work done. I was in love from the second I watched. When Cartoon Network started showing a few anime, like Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z, I ate those up, too. It was hard to get a hold of anime back in the 90s, but I found my way to things like Evangelion, Utena, Fushigi Yuugi, Escaflowne, Tenchi Muyo, etc. This love has had a huge impact on my writing, and I would say RELAX, I'M A NINJA is the most influenced by anime.

Video Games. I grew up playing Nintendo with my younger brother, games like Street Fighter, Ninja Turtles, and Mario Kart were staples of my childhood. But it wasn't until I found RPGs that my enjoyment morphed into love. The likes of Chrono Trigger, Secret Of Mana, Earthbound (one of my all time favorites and totally hilarious/random) were like reading books for me. Final Fantasy VII was a mind-blowing experience, and I've played every single one save the latest. I played the more obscure Saga Frontier through every character story, adored the entire concept of interweaving narratives. Basically, if you like RPGs, you'll probably see that inspiration in RELAX as well. (Especially in a certain scene, if you've played FF VII you will be able to envision it better than people who haven't played. Just so you know.)

I guess I'm saying this book really displays a collage of things I love, of things that made me who I am today. I suppose all books are like that—like funhouse mirrors that show a writer in many different ways.

So if you like any of these things above, there's a decent chance you might like RELAX, I'M A NINJA, too. It's been a long time coming, since I wrote this book like five years ago, but I'm so glad I can share this story with everyone now.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

To The Debut Authors

My debut, and therefore a book that will
always mean the world to me.
I've been thinking a lot about debuting lately, probably because we're getting close to a whole year since my first novel came out (May 21st! Crazy!). It's hard to believe it's only year, while it's also hard to believe it hasn't been longer.

So I want to talk to you about this thing called debut. I don't know if I should call this advice or not. Maybe more of a word hug?

Because, look, debuting is hard. You can plan and imagine and do all the things you're told to do, but it's still something you can't quite understand until you go through it. Which is frustrating and exciting and All The Things. It's truly a life event. It changes so much but also not a lot. There's so many things to navigate after that you never expected to deal with. And no one can really tell you how YOUR journey will go.

But I can tell you it's a journey. Debuting isn't arriving, it's getting to the next trail. It's realizing the trek actually never ends. It's deciding what to do when you're tired and things seem like they'll never get there. Wherever "there" is.

When the reality of numbers and expectations and meeting them or not comes, it might feel like you put in a crap ton of work and it didn't pay off the way you thought it would. You might hit some low points—and you maybe thought the low points were hit before you got that book deal! You might feel like you're screaming into the void and no one is listening. You might feel like…you failed.

Why yes, I am telling you this because I have felt ALL of those things myself. I know many other published authors who have. It seems counterintuitive, to have reached that big goal of Becoming A Published Author and still feel like that, but it happens.

Here are my words for when those feelings sneak up on you: KEEP GOING.

If you can't sell another novel for a long time after that first deal, keep trying.

If it feels like your marketing efforts are useless, keep trying to be seen.

If you hit the bestseller list and feel like you'll never top your first novel, try anyway.

If your publisher lets you go, find another publisher or try your own thing.

If you don't get great showings at your signings, don't stop having them.

If reviews hurt and paralyze you, turn it off and keep writing.

Keep writing. KEEP WRITING. I think one of the most surprising things to me since debuting is how easy it feels to just…give up. So often I don't want to keep trying because it feels like a futile effort when there is so much talent out there and I question my own merit. So often it feels like, if you don't have a marketing monolith backing you, that no one will ever see your words.

But the thing is, if you give up trying, then yeah that will be true. I know this is the advice we've all heard from the beginning—I suppose I've been surprised by how relevant it still is.

Yes, it's hard to sit at that signing table and sign two books, when the author next to you has a line an hour long. It's hard to be the noob with one book when the panelists next to you have been publishing for decades. It's hard to act like you're a Big Deal when you feel anything but. As tiny as you feel, as futile as your effort may seem, it does add up.

Book by book. Event by event. Review by review. Blog posts. Tweets. Whatever.

It. Adds. Up.

Most days, I feel like I'm one person with a toothbrush trying to scrub every floor in the world. I will never make a difference. The impact I can make is so small. And yet if you scrub everyday…eventually you clean a few floors. Then a few more.

That's a pretty lame metaphor. Maybe another try? Think about drafting a novel. It's a HUGE undertaking, but it happens one word at a time, one page, one chapter until you have a book in front of you.

I may not be a big shot. I am only a year into this whole published author thing. But looking back at it all, I have made some progress. I've signed and presented and shared and written my ass off. I'm about to publish my 4th novel. In a year.

Because I decided to keep going. Even when it felt like no one wanted me to. I can't promise you bestsellerdom or quitting your day job, my dear debut authors, but I can promise that if you keep going things will add up. Step by step, word by word, you'll find your way down the endless publishing road.

So keep going.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

We Need Diverse Books Campaign

More than ever, people come from mixed backgrounds—
you can't assume that what you see is what you get.
Today kicks off a really cool campaign called #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It's pretty self-explanatory, and it's also pretty obvious that I would be on board with this. Not only am I a white-passing Maori, but I have long been passionate about including diversity in my own books.

I've talked in detail before about what it was like to grow up not looking as much like the rest of my family, not really looking Polynesian save in my body figure and not skin or hair color. Also, how much I actually wished I had black hair and dark skin as a child, which is odd but very true because I wanted to look like my family and ancestors. (You can read about that here and here.)

The bottom line is, we need more books that reflect our diverse world and all the people that live in it. For a long time I thought this was an obvious fact and one that everyone agreed with and was striving for. But unfortunately I've learned, through trying to publish diverse novels, that's not exactly the case. A campaign like this is needed. Desperately.

Race is a weird thing in the US. Even the rest of the world often seems bewildered by how fixated on it we remain. I'm not sure of all the reasons, but the more I learn from my international family the more I tend to agree.

Me and my littlest sister—my only sibling still here in America
and not in New Zealand.
For example, in the US we tend to focus on how people appear and how much "percent" they are of a certain race. Like, you hear people giving their ancestry like a pie chart: "I'm 25% Polish, 16% Maori, 2% Choctaw, 10% German-maybe-Austrian, 8% Scottish…" It's so silly and yet that probably sounds familiar to every American.

But did you know it doesn't work like that in some countries? I was so surprised when my brother went down to New Zealand for med school, and the way they determined Maori scholarships was not on percentage (many Native American tribes have a cut off like 1/8th to 1/16th and the like), but based on LINEAGE. If you had genealogical proof that you are descended from a Maori tribe (we're Nga Puhi), then you qualified to apply for a "Maori scholarship."

That might seem like a subtle thing, but to someone like me, a white-passer, that one concept—basing race on lineage—was a huge and heart-warming concept. I so very rarely feel included in my culture, but the moment I heard that, I DID. I felt entirely included because I could have walked in there and given my lineage no problem, and it wouldn't have mattered what I looked like.

The awesome ladies of my family, before my sister (in the pink)
left the US to go live with her husband in New Zealand.
Everyone should feel like that—like they are included and that they belong. That's what #weneeddiversebooks is all about.

So join the campaign!

No matter who you are, YOU are welcome.