The fear and thrill of writing #ownvoices

I want to write an honest post about something that has always worried me and probably will always worry me as I keep writing about my heritage. It’s a special kind of imposter syndrome, the fear that I am appropriating my own culture for my art.

 

There are so many conversations about #ownvoices and #ownyourown. There are so many people saying meaningful and important things. Sometimes I try to chime in, but I always feel like others say it better, so signal boosting has been my main activity.

The way I see the world is a bit of a hybrid. I’ve spoken to many POC Americans who admit to feeling like they live in-between. Between the world of their parents/ancestors and the world they were born into. We are American but we have a qualifier in front. We are Something(-)American.

But, I chose to write a book about my culture as a Korean girl. And I also chose to write a book ONLY about being Korean (aka, not about being Korean American). So, I had to accept a few things about myself and my book.

1) I am Korean but I was not raised there, so I still see my heritage through a version of an American POV.

2) My parents picked what Korean ideals to raise us with so I lived their version of Korean culture.

3) I learned new things about my roots as an adult, but those aren’t as deeply ingrained in me as what I was raised with.

How I try to keep learning in my writing and in my identity

I am Korean 100% by genetics and blood, but I am a Korean American by upbringing. That means that I need to own what I know and fill in what I don’t with diligent research (just like any other writer).

The book I wrote is my heritage and my culture. But I knew being a Korean girl and being a person of color does not give me carte blanche to write whatever I want. I went to a semester abroad in Korea and visited many times as a child, but that doesn’t mean I instinctively know what I’m talking about when I write a contemporary Korean story. So, I went to Korea (multiple times) and I asked Korean people to clarify things as I wrote it. I asked Korean beta readers to read it. I asked my grandmother questions, my aunts, my cousin, my Korean language teacher. I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t just coasting on my bloodline to assume that I was getting it right.

I believe that we need to own our heritage in our writing. I also think we need to know our limitations and be sure that when we present our stories we are always doing due diligence.

I am proud and excited about this book I’ve created. But I am always learning and that excites me. I never want to stop learning. When we stop learning life can get pretty boring. And I refuse to live a boring life.
That’s why I’m a writer.

As a final note, someone recently shared THIS ARTICLE called “The Year in Hyphenates.” It’s a very honest and insightful article about what it’s like to be raised Asian American/Canadian and the in-between identity that is often created. I gotta be honest, I actually teared up reading it because it resonated so deeply with my own struggles as an Asian American. Often times I felt not Korean enough and not American enough at the same time. And I know that these struggles have bled over into my creative identity. I want to say this to any POC/Native/marginalized creators of #ownvoices reading this post. You are NOT responsible for representing your whole community. You can only tell YOUR story fully and honestly. As long as you love your story and feel like you’re representing YOUR experience well in your #ownvoices, then I’m sure you’re doing a wonderful job.

Keep dreaming! Keep creating!

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#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!

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!