Finding Hope & Inspiration through Community

Sometimes, when you’re writing you lose sight of things. And sometimes, it’s easy to forget what you’re writing for. I know that I write for myself, for my story, for my heart. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I write so others can read my stories and find something to love too.

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This is when community helps me find my perspective. I love seeing people get excited about stories and books. It’s great to see people that I’ve always respected and cheered for getting book deals and debuting. This year alone, I have multiple friends and CP’s debuting and I am so excited I can barely contain it at times. I think it’s alright to find your happiness where you can. And taking some time away from your own work to be happy for others is not only nice, but I think it’s key to keeping your perspective on the publishing world. If we can’t find like-minded people and form these connections, writing and publishing will feel like a very lonely place. Especially since the writing itself is a solitary activity.

I live for the moments that my CPs share pieces of their work, or an aesthetic collage, or an initial outline of a new idea. These are the times when I can sit back and be in awe of the people I’m lucky  enough to call friends. And I can be inspired by the talent around me. I’ve heard a lot of advice that says when you form a critique group you should find people who are more talented than you, and I’m pretty smug about the fact that I’ve accomplished that.

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My Critique Group is as cool as f(x). Well, I think so at least…

It helps to give us moments of hope when we feel like all we’ve been doing is drafting and revising, drafting and revising. It’s wonderful to see a story that we used to read as CPs go from draft to final MS to sold to book. The thrill of that journey is enough to inspire us to keep going with our own work so one day we can see a book cover made from scratch for the stories we’ve created.

I also think it’s important to still be a fan. Everyone I talk to about their writing journey usually says something along the lines of “I’ve always loved stories and reading.” And I think that’s so key! Being a fan means that we can appreciate the craft and creativity that goes into the field we’ve chosen. We can still be in awe of the beauty and talent that goes into crafting a story. We can have hero authors that (if we’re lucky) we might meet one day (and maybe cry on. NO YOU CRIED ON LAINI TAYLOR).

And, I also believe that writing is not ONLY about the writing. It’s about living a life worth inspiring a story. It’s about reading other stories to get motivation and inspiration. And it’s about knowing what books are out there right now being devoured and loved by the very audiences we’re writing for.

I have this analogy I make about my creativity where I call it a bank. I have a certain amount of words saved up that I’ve collected as I read or watch other stories. And when I write too long without reading I spend all of my words. There are legit moments where I feel so burned out that I cannot form coherent sentences anymore and it feels like I’ve used up all the words in my word bank and I need to fill it again. I hate when these moments happen, but at least I know that I can just go to my TBR and I can be inspired from the very first sentence I read.

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I find joy in almost every part of publishing (reading, writing, revising, meeting other writers). Seeing a CP or friend find success helps because it shows us that good stories can find a home and that talent is appreciated. Taking a moment to bask in the glory of your talented friends can warm some of the cold nights spent revising your MS for the umpteenth time. And it also helps to live vicariously through them as their stories find their audiences. I believe these communities are key to creating a sustainability in this industry so we don’t burn out or lose sight of why we’re doing this all in the first place.

If you stand for nothing, what’ll you fall for?

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Usually at this time of the year, I’d do a year-end blog post about my favorite things that I’ve read and watched and listened to. I might still do one of those, but I can’t ignore that this year wasn’t business as usual for me.

As 2016 draws to a close, it feels like you can’t go anywhere or read anything without politics coming up these days. At first, I was worried that this would be off-putting for many, then I realized that ignoring the problems in our world might be what brought us here. So, I’m facing it. I’m not going to talk about politics with every blog post, but I won’t shy away from it either.

It’s like the line from Hamilton, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”*

After looking into the quote, I think it is meant to ask what you’ll die for, but I always thought it had a bit of another meaning (probably because of the quote it’s based on*). If you don’t stand for anything or have any convictions, will you just be a follower listening to the loudest voice at the time? Will you fall for anything? I don’t want to just follow the crowd to the “safest” place I can find. I want to create safe spaces. I want the whole world to be safe for everyone.

Many people are happy 2016 is coming to a close, but I see 2017 as an even bigger battle. I think it’s a worthwhile battle and perhaps 2016 prepared us and pointed us in the right direction. However, now we need to follow through and fight for what we stand for.

And that brings me to another Hamilton quote, “Let’s take a stand with the stamina God has granted us.”

While I’m healthy and able, I want to take a stand for what I believe in.

I believe that my identity is not something to be hidden but something to be proud of now more than ever. I believe that there are more good people in this world than bad. I believe that fear has won for now, but it won’t win forever. I believe that hope is stronger than the fear that has driven us here. I believe in #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #ownvoices. I believe that my story matters even if only to a few. I believe in equality and I believe that in order to build a foundation for equality  we must first look for equity.

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* This line was inspired by the quote, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” It’s often been attributed to Alexander Hamilton, though I’ve found no concrete proof of its origin.

#OwnYourOwn: How I found my #OwnVoice

This week is the start of #OwnYourOwn started by the lovely Kaye (@GildedSpine).

YA Interrobang wrote a wonderful intro article about it HERE. I’ll just blurb part of it to explain the gist of it:

We are going to #OwnYourOwn, with advice, with encouragement, with anecdotes so that you can know just how long we’ve been where you are, and how eagerly we’re waiting for you to take our hands and step forward to where we are. You are not alone on this path. You are not alone in your #ownvoices.

For my post, I wanted to write about how I finally accepted my voice as an #ownvoices in writing. Often times in writing (especially in the beginning) we have a healthy dose of imposter syndrome. This can occur not only with our style of writing but very very much with our voice.

To get to the meat of it, I have to tell you a bit about how I gained, lost, and regained my identity. (warning this gets a bit wordy, so if you just want to skip to the writer part of the journey, skip down a section)

Baby Kat hamming it up in good ol’ Central Florida

A little bit of my personal history
I mostly grew up in Orlando. That’s important to my story because it shaped a lot of my self-identity. It’s not a bad thing growing up in Central Florida. The weather is pretty decent, there are beaches, Disney World is close. However, my neighborhood was largely white. The main minority was hispanic/latinx. There were exactly 2.5 Asians in my class: Me, a Chinese boy, and a half-Malaysian girl (who was my best friend). That meant that to all of the non-Asian kids we were all “Chinese” weirdos. This was both upsetting and a fact of life for me.

My parents did what they thought was best for our family when they moved us to Orlando. However, my parents were raised in a time when they were told to just be American. A time of nationalism and when moving to America meant opportunity. Their Koreanness wasn’t something they spoke of a lot even though both had lived in Korea as children. My mother didn’t learn English until she was nine. My father was the first son of the first son and therefore the future head of our whole extended family still living in Seoul. However, that still wasn’t something that was spoken about and dissected a lot in our house, because we were American.

So, I didn’t get a good handle on my Korean heritage in an obvious way. There were subtle things. I thought that Korean words were just another way to say things and didn’t realize it was a different language until I went to school. There, I was bullied out of ever saying anything Korean. Kids also spoke to me in a mocking way where they would replace all of their L’s with R’s. People still talk to me that way now.

I didn’t realize that other kids didn’t eat kimchee and side-dishes (panchan) with all of their meals. I didn’t think that instant Ramen was a “junk food.” I just thought it was normal. I also didn’t think it was Korean. I just thought it was my family’s thing.

It wasn’t until I went to college, spent a semester in Seoul, and began writing that I fully embraced myself and embraced my heritage (but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Back to young-Kat…)

My Writing Journey Begins
This all matters because when I wrote my first full book (at the age of thirteen), I made the main character half Korean, half white. I did this, because I both wanted a character that looked like me and I knew the character *shouldn’t* look completely like me. Not based on the books I had read as a child. And to top it off, her Korean side was not acknowledged and played no part in developing her character. This was very telling. That at thirteen I couldn’t completely accept a full Korean main character, even though I was full Korean myself. I’m a bit sad for thirteen-year-old me because I know better now. (But what they say is true: hindsight is always 20/20).

Fast-forward a dozen years and I’m writing to actually publish. I wrote a space opera and I made the main characters (MC) white. However, this was just when We Need Diverse Books was gaining traction. It was inspiring and it made me really think about how I decided what story I wanted to tell.  It made me stop and think, “Why did I make my main character white?” The book was set in outer space. There were aliens with wolf-heads in my book. Why can’t my main characters be Korean? So I made my MC Korean. But I named him Eli. I did this because, even though I was trying to come around to the idea of embracing my identity within my writing, I still believed my culture in its entirety (e.g. Korean names) was not palatable for the current market.

That book didn’t gain me an agent. And I wonder if it’s because of my hesitation while writing that book. I didn’t put all of myself into that book both figuratively and literally. And I wonder if that made a difference.

The book that actually got me where I am now is based on Korean mythology, set in Seoul, with fully Korean characters with fully Korean lives and names. And that’s the book everyone was excited about. That was the book that got me an agent. That’s the book I want to sell to publishers.

Getting to that book was hard for me. What I mean by that is that I have not always been as comfortable with my “Koreanness” as I am today. No one actively tried to take my heritage away from me, but micro-aggressions and feeling like my culture was too “other” almost my whole childhood made me tuck it away so no one could see. I went to college and called myself a “twinkie” to appease the very Korean KA students that looked at me with suspicion when I didn’t speak fluently. And when I started to get into my culture more as an adult, some people who’d known me for 20+ years looked at me with doubt. Why now? Why suddenly have interest in my culture? Didn’t that make me “fake”? To be honest, the two main things that drove me forward was losing someone I loved and writing. I learned that I wanted to write about ME and what made me who I was. A huge part of that (whether I chose to acknowledge it before or not) was that I’m Korean. So, I wrote about it and I came up with the book that I eventually got my agent with.

It makes me deliriously happy that the book that’s my full self is the one that got me here. It’s almost like the universe waited until I could accept all of myself before it allowed me to take this momentous next step in my writing career.

So, any young writers reading this blog post, don’t wait over ten years before you write yourself into your stories. Be proud of who you are and who you could be. Write it onto the page. Create stories that are full of your personal journey and your personal heritage. Trust me when I say that there are so many people that want to hear it and support it and champion it.

And if you want to ask me any questions then feel free (you can write in the comments of this post or use the Contact Me tab on this blog).

Happy writing!

The "Right" Kind of Hope

When I wrote about getting my agent and writing my current MS, I spoke a lot about hope.
Almost immediately after, I came across a wonderful post by Kristin Nelson, “What’s Your Magic Number,” about how many books most published authors write before they’re agented or published.
The reason these two things synced up in my mind was because they’re both about hope. But what I’m going to call “The ‘Right’ Kind of Hope.”
In writing and publishing there’s a lot of wishing, a lot of dreaming, and a lot of hoping. However, there is a big difference between hoping for things to just fall into your lap and knowing that hope needs to be mixed with a good amount of hard work and determination.
The wrong kind of hope can make you think that if you have an idea and get it down on paper, then you’re golden. The wrong kind of hope can make you think all of those “I wrote a book in a day and got a six-fig publishing deal” stories are the norm and that’s going to be you. The wrong kind of hope has you finishing your MS and then wondering how much you’ll get for the inevitable movie deal in such a way that distracts from much needed revision and honing.
This kind of hope can be debilitating. Because when you hope for something so grand and possibly misguided (such as writing a full book during NaNoWriMo, then querying in December, and getting a publishing deal in January) then any possible rejection will hurt that much more. It could potentially push you into a dark place that will be hard to climb back out of (and I say this because I experienced this. I wrote an MS for all the wrong reasons and thought I had it in the bag. And I failed miserably!).
As readers, we like to hear about how our favorite authors came up with their idea because they had a crazy dream, or saw a man save a girl from falling down the stairs in the subway, or read about a ghost ships in the harbors of Japan (this is an actual story I’ve read). But those stories gloss over the years it takes to go from idea to actual publishing. And it also never tells about the rejections that happened in between.

As writers, we need to know that “overnight success” stories are not the norm, they’re just the magical outliers that we love to talk about because they’re so interesting and induce a WOW reaction in us.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have hope. I believe in it so deeply that it brought me out of times where I felt like my writing and my life were going nowhere. I believe that it is important in any life, not just a creative one. It was actually very hard for me to even think of the title for this post because I don’t think I always know what the “right” kind of hope is (and isn’t it a bit presumptuous to believe I can say what’s right and wrong?). I was going to call it the “good” kind of hope and my critique partner said,”Isn’t all hope good?” I couldn’t necessarily say “No” to that because I believe that hope is a good thing.

I’ve read countless posts about how the thing that got most people published is an unwillingness to give up. THAT’s the kind of hope writers need. Because the thing that drives you forward even as you get dozens of rejections is the hope that someone will love your work.
ALMOST EVERY agent that requested material this time around rejected me when I queried them with my previous MS. It took me years to get an MS that was query-able and then even more time to get it in shape for sending it out to agents.

So, what I’m saying is that everyone should have hope, but have the right kind of hope.

The hope that tells you that the work you’re doing is good.

The hope that says that your late nights or early mornings putting in writing hours to hone your craft are worth it.

The hope that says that if you can keep working and dreaming, then you’ll find the perfect person to champion your work.

I hope for that for everyone.
Now here’s a GIF of J-Hope from BTS:

How I got my agent: A tale of writing, woe, and wishing

I present to you my story of how I got my agent
(Warning: This post is LONG and full of GIFs):

I started my professional writing journey when I had a weird dream (yea, I know, one of those people). I told my cousin about it because she’s a writer and I said, “Do you think that could be a book you would write?”

She said, “No, but you could write it.”

And I felt like that was a ridiculous idea. So I wrote it.

It was the worst book ever. But it rekindled a love of writing that I had in middle school and high school where I would fill spiral notebooks with chapter books that I would write all day and night long. One story was a fanfic retelling of Brian Jacques’ Redwall. I had one series about horse racing and muuurder!

Anyway, after writing that first book, which I still adore in a way I can’t explain even though I don’t want anyone to read it ever, I realized that writing had never stopped being my dream. I had just taken some detours along the path of my life.

So, I sat down to write a story based on one of the dozens of ideas I had come up with while writing that first story. And I thought I was being very business savvy to choose the book that felt more “marketable.” Yup, I did that. I was a dumb-dumb, thinking I could control my fate.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t love the story I decided to write. I truly did, but it was a story I wrote for all the wrong reasons even though I loved it at the time. I wrote it to be current and that is a number one big no-no I’ve heard. I think it showed in the MS.

But, I did get that book all polished and spiffy and I went to my first ever writing conference with it. I got great feedback from agents and editors and I got two requests for pages from pitches I recited from a memorized script I’d taken weeks to write.

It all seemed to be a very good next step. And it really was. I learned a lot from that experience and I am a better writer and person because of it.

So, I dove into the query trenches with my head held high.

I queried about 40 agents with that book and I got rejected. Like hardcore rejected. I think I got a couple requests for partials. And then all rejections. Some came quickly, some trickled in 9 months to a year later. They were all very professional, some even personalized a bit. The agents I’d met at the conference were the kindest you could ever imagine even as they told me the story wasn’t for them.

Suffice it to say, I was distraught. And I did the stupid thing and let myself wallow a bit too long. I got deep into writer’s block and couldn’t dig myself out of it for months.

I started two new books with the idea that I would push myself out of the rut. I was lucky enough to have gained a critique group from that conference and they were great at cheering me on, telling me that my WiPs sounded awesome, reading pages.

But, I just couldn’t get into my writing again. I did an online writing conference (Write On Con) and it helped boost me a bit. I did NaNoWriMo and that helped me get perspective on my writer’s block.

And finally, I decided to write a book that I was terrified to write. Partly because I didn’t think I was ready and partly because I loved it too much already. What if I mess it up? What if it was a big flop?

The moment I knew I was writing the right book was when I was told not to write it and I did it anyway. To be fair, the person who told me not to write it wasn’t saying I *couldn’t* write it, but just saying that I was stepping into a place that was untried and potentially full of places to trip up and fall. I was writing a book set in Korea based on Korean mythology about gumihos and I very creatively called it GUMIHO.

I am forever grateful that I approached this project with hope instead of fear. I had the hope that people would see the merit in my work, in my story and in my culture. I had the hope that I could give life to a land that I truly love with all of my heart. And I had hope that people would support my dream even as they feared for my feelings being trampled again.

In the end, I went with my heart and that made all the difference. The response to this project was a complete 180 from my last “thought out and targeted” MS. Where I had written to trend before, I wrote for myself this time.

I first experienced positive feedback when I went to a conference, Romantic Times Convention (RT Con). It was my first time pitching at such a huge event. And I was overwhelmed not only by the many agents and editors, but by the presence of some of my idol authors. It was actually perfect for me because I was distracted from my own nerves until the moment I was supposed to go pitch. And I didn’t have time to get stuck in my own head.

I also did a thing where I didn’t memorize a pitch that I’d prewritten. Instead, I made a list of three main points that I knew I had to hit when I pitched and I acted like myself. I wanted the heart of my story to get across, not just the plot.

I’m going to copy paste from a post I wrote for my other blog about what I learned from my RT experience:

1) Just do it. You can’t hold in your work forever if publishing is your end goal.

2) Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. I met a lot of great authors who were more than willing to let me pitch practice on them.

3) Accept it if your story isn’t for everyone. Some agents loved my pitch, some didn’t. It’s the fact of a subjective industry and you just have to keep trucking.

4) DO NOT try to fit your whole story into your pitch. Just tell the main gist and the main character. If you go ham, the agent will just go to their happy place and not follow your thread. I literally pitched my book as a concept instead of a full plot and I got requests. It was epic 🙂

Some advice given to me by Agents who requested:

1) Take your time! Do not send the MS right away if it is not squeaky shiny! It’s hard not to just flood all of the agents that request, but it’s kind of like being considerate that they want your best because you’d want their best if they were your agent.

2) Be excited! This is happy times! You got requests! At one point I couldn’t stop smiling as I spoke to an agent and I apologized about my face (yes, you’re allowed to laugh at me). She said it was fine, that she was happy for me too. (Agents are super nice y’all).

After RT Con, I went home with a glow. I was so happy that I got requests and made some new writer friends.
http://www.bethphelan.com/dvpit

Then #DVPit happened. I told myself not to be greedy, said that I had opened a very nice door for myself with RT Con. And then, of course, I had to just dip my toe in. Partly because DVPit was so INSPIRATIONAL! There were amazing stories pitched and wonderful #ownvoices. And the support of the community was unprecedented.

This is what I learned during #DVPit:

(Again, copy pasting from my old post about my lessons learned)

1) Be simple with your Twitter Pitch. If you were simple with your conference pitch, do that times TEN for twitter. You only have 140 characters!

2) community is everything! Signal boost your favorite pitches. Many participants were paying it forward and it was magical to see. Seriously, I love my writer community!

3) It’s full of hope! To see these unagented/unpublished authors right now and to KNOW that their books will be published in due time. It just makes you happy warm inside.

4) Take this opportunity to cultivate new relationships. Tweet at people if you like their pitch. Say thank you when they like yours back. And be respectful ALWAYS of the time put into a huge event like this! (Seriously #DVPit trended nationwide, that’s epic).

5) Also, know that agents and editors are still professionals, don’t ask them weird personal stuff. And when you query keep it as professional as if it was a cold, slush-pile query.

#DVPit gave me so much support. Not only from the agents and editors, but from the community. It was a coming together of people who love stories and love what DVPit represented and held each other up. After that day, I was a ball of emotion, but good emotion.

And then, I felt immediately like I was unprepared for life and I freaked out (for a few weeks).

So I did “research” and looked into EVERY agent who requested in detail. I took way too much time preparing myself for what I was sure would be a rocky query ride.
It was actually good that I did a lot of research because it is smart to know who you are querying. And it gave me a chance to settle down after the great adrenaline rush that was RT Con and DVPit.

So, I sent out ONE query and I had a HUGE case of imposter syndrome IMMEDIATELY.

The problem was that my last querying round had been so abysmal. Little to no excitement over my concept or story. So the fact that GUMIHO had gotten such a positive reception really concerned me. That maybe I’d bit off more than I could chew. That maybe I’d send my MS and then they’d KNOW that I don’t belong!

It’s so hard to put yourself out there. I had many moments where I felt like I was flailing in the wind. This is where your friends, family, and critique partners (CPs) come in handy.

ESPECIALLY my CPs. They knew my struggle. They understood the industry and what I was experiencing. Talking to them was like talking to someone who was running a marathon beside me. They were the rock that held me to the ground when my body wanted to just get up and fly away and be like, “Nope, I can’t exist in this world any longer.”

But, despite all my craziness, that first query came back with a request for a full.
I did my happy dance, said a thank you to the heavens and sent out the MS.
Then I sent out more queries. After sending out requested material, I tried to take advice and step back from the computer (this was ridiculously difficult). So, I made plans to distract myself. Namely, I decided to go to Book Con 2016.

Well, fate had a funny way of taking my plans and turning them all topsy turvy, because the Thursday before Book Con I got an email from an agent to ask for a call. I was so flustered that I set up the call for the next day. And then I cried. My coworkers were quite concerned by my sudden outburst, but I’m lucky to work with very understanding people. They gave me supporting hugs and pats even as they didn’t fully understand why I was a hot mess.

I spent the next 24 hours convincing myself that it wasn’t THE call. My CPs were more confident than me, they said an agent doesn’t call out of the blue for an Revise & Resubmit. I was trying to temper my expectations (I was a fool to think I could do that!)

Well, my CPs were right (as they usually are). It was thrilling and surreal to talk about my book with an industry professional who liked it enough to want to represent it.

My hands were shaking by the time I got off the phone.

So, I went off to Book Con and I was a wreck. I cried a lot that weekend (but happy tears).

I gave other agents with my full, partial or query two weeks to get back to me with their thoughts on my MS. And now I was in territory I had never stepped into. I had queried before, I had gotten requests before, I had gotten rejected (many times) before. But I had never been in a place where I knew there was happiness at the end of the rainbow.

As you can imagine, I was pretty much in a fugue state for a full two weeks.
I went through phases during that time where I was like, “I got this. I can pull this around and be fabulous even though I look a hot mess.”

My CPs definitely got an ear-full when I was in those moments, because I had to talk out my reasons for why I was totally cool as a cucumber EVEN THOUGH I OBVIOUSLY WASN’T!

Finally D-Day came (not fast enough if you ask me. I’m pretty sure I found a break in the time-space continuum and it’s the two weeks after you get an initial agent offer).

In the end, I found an agent who loved my book and understood me as a writer.

I feel so lucky to be able to say that I’ve signed with the amazing Beth Phelan of The Bent Agency and I couldn’t be happier!