Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

A(nother) fresh start

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a while since I talked about my work-in-progress, and that’s no accident. I have been tussling with Monsoon Season, aka the Next Book, for ages now. I’m almost ashamed to say how long, but there’s no point in being coy: I first started it about 18 months ago. Then I scrapped what I had, and re-started it. Then I junked the second version and began afresh. And guess what? Uh huh. Monsoon Season 3.0 is now in the dustbin. (That’s an exaggeration, btw – I keep every word of the old stuff until I’m truly happy with a finished manuscript.)

So what happened? I’ll begin by saying that I’ve had doubts, all along, about my ability to pull this one off. The novel is set in Malaya (now Malaysia) during the Pacific War – that is, during the Second World War as it played out in Southeast Asia. It’s a terrible and fascinating few years in history, and one that’s very seldom acknowledged in the West. So part of my uncertainty definitely grows from the heavy responsibility of representation. If I’m going to write a novel about events few have ever heard of, I’d better do a stellar job.

Civilians in Singapore in an air raid shelter, December 1941 (image via wikicommons)

Singaporean civilians in an air raid shelter, December 1941 (image via wikicommons)

The second weight on my conscience is that of family responsibility. My grandparents all lived through the Pacific War and it marked them deeply. I want to pull their experiences into a book. Yet who do I think I am, embroidering upon their trauma? Again, it’s the responsibility of representation – this time on a family-history scale, with all its guilt-making problems of loyalty and love.

Third, and probably the one that makes me wince and flail the most, is the ghost of the Novel of Asian Experience. (Helloooo, Harold Bloom! I do not pretend to be a genius of any sort but I’m still struggling with the Anxiety of Influence.) There’s a great deal of important, well-regarded fiction about the immigrant experience (this list of immigrant fiction is exclusively American in its focus, but a good starting point nonetheless). There are even a few novels about the period I’m interested in: Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists, Madeleine Thien’s Certainty). I find them interesting and highly skilled – Tan’s in particular – but these are not the kinds of book I aspire to write. The problem is very basic: they are profoundly earnest books about profoundly earnest characters in a profoundly earnest culture. And I don’t want to write that. I’m not sure I can write that.

What to do? I was complaining about this to my friend Sarah, who said, “Look. I think you’re a very funny person. I think anything you write is going to turn out funny.” (By the way, it’s such a privilege to have friends who listen to you whine about how hard it is to write a novel and then call you “a very funny person”. I have splendid friends.) The unspoken corollary to Sarah’s observation, I think, is that anything I write that twists itself into the category of Earnest Novel of Asian Experience will be unrecognizable as me.

So here’s my plan: I’m heading off, once more, in a new direction. There’s a comic thread in Monsoon Season 3.0 that I found very enjoyable but had cut out, because it just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book. And I’m going to follow it for a while. See where it goes. It could be a dead end. But it might also take me somewhere new entirely.

What do you think, friends: funny vs. earnest? Is that a false dichotomy?

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Code Name: Verity

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

So, Code Name: Verity. It was first published in 2012. It was shortlisted for both the Printz Award and the Carnegie Medal, so it’s not as though I’m drawing attention to unsung heroines, here. But I finally made time to read Elizabeth Wein’s novel last week and when I’d finally finished sobbing, all I could wonder is why I’d let it languish for two years.

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity

As you may already know, Code Name: Verity is a story of friendship during the Second World War. The first part of the book is a narrative written by “Verity”, aka Julie, a Scottish girl spy who’s been caught by the Gestapo in Nazi France. It’s supposed to be Julie’s confession, her cowardly attempt to abate torture and to extend her life just a little further, by giving up precious wartime secrets: sets of radio code, names of British airfields and army bases, the Allied use of RADAR technology. And yet, this narrative simply cannot be what it claims. That is the tension that drives this book.

Julie’s story is a memoir – a platonic love-letter, even – about a profound friendship between two young women performing extremely dangerous wartime jobs. It’s a terrifying, witty, completely persuasive behind-the-scenes account of British defense activity. It’s beautifully told. But Wein’s brilliant stroke in this book is that Julie must be an unreliable narrator. There’s no way that a young woman of her intelligence and courage (especially as demonstrated in the narrative) could write a straightforwardly treasonous confession. And so I swore, and squirmed in my chair, and shook, and was compelled to read on.

The second narrative is written by Julie’s best friend Maddie, a shot-down pilot, and it picks up after Julie’s arrest. It’s told in much plainer language, as suits Maddie’s character, and it’s a shattered reflection of Julie’s so-called confession. It fills in blanks, it forces you to flip back to re-read parts of Julie’s memoir, it moves the story on swiftly and with an equal sense of valour.

I was a snivelling wreck when I finished Code Name: Verity, and I mean that in the best way possible. Like nearly everybody else who’s read it, I highly, highly recommend it.

As a writer, I was further struck by two elements that I hope I can learn from. The first is Wein’s use of counterpoint (to borrow the musical term): “the relationship between voices that are interdependent harmonically and yet are independent in rhythm and contour” (that’s from the wikipedia definition). This is something I’m attempting in my current work-in-progress, and reading Code Name: Verity was like getting a tutorial from a more experienced writer. I also took note of Wein’s techniques for introducing humour into a story that is always going to be a tragedy. I won’t be able to borrow directly from her, here, but it was lovely to see it done so well.

It’s both inspiring and daunting, to read a novel that so brilliantly occupies ground that I’m planning to re-tread (my WIP is also set during the Second World War). But these days, I’m finding it more inspiring than anything else, and for that I am grateful.

Have you read Code Name: Verity, friends? What did you think?

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Rivals in the City: the transatlantic edition

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Hello, friends. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Rivals in the City will be published in the UK/World in June 2014. The gorgeous cover, designed by Walker Books, is here. And now I have a pub date for the US/Canadian (Candlewick Press) edition of Rivals in the City: February 2015. I am so thrilled to have a concrete date. I know it’s twelve months away, but I hope you’ll find it worth the wait. I hope to have some cover news to share with you soon, as well.

As for today’s main content, Nafiza of the Book Wars interviewed me recently. She wasted no time in asking the big questions: race, geographical identity, masculinity, Canadian identity, and how much of me goes into the character of Mary Quinn. It was a lovely interview for me, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

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What is a novel?

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Hello, friends. I recently had a long and utterly engaging conversation with three fellow writers: two of them critically acclaimed poets, all of us writers of novels. We were talking about the act of writing. One of us, who is working on her first novel, said that for her, writing it was like posing the question, “What is a novel?” That is, what are the novelistic conventions I value? Is it true that a novel must feature x? Or that it must not do y? For this friend, the novel she writes will be the answer – or perhaps one set of answers – to that question.

I was completely taken with this philosophical approach to writing because I have gone about things so very differently (thus far). When I sat down to write my first novel, the one thing of which I was certain was how very little I knew about writing a novel. I thought that I wanted a Victorian setting, and that I wanted to write about an outsider: a girl who, in strictly realist terms, would have led a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.* I had my two starting points, and then I panicked. I had no idea how to structure a novel. Fortunately, I am a lifelong devotee of mystery novels, so it felt right to use the genre as a kind of coat-hanger, to give the book a conventional and useful shape. I knew what was expected, and I could tinker with the genre in small but meaningful ways.

That first book became A Spy in the House and its siblings: The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel, and Rivals in the City (which I’m revising right now!). And then, a couple of months ago (before the editorial revisions for Rivals boomeranged back to me), I sat down to write something completely different. Once again I leaned back and craned my neck, trying to picture the shape of this new book. Over the course of four novels I had learned a bit about plot and structure, but little that I found immediately useful.

What I did, instead, was start playing with voice. I was inspired by two things: a person I know fairly well, and a photograph from a book. And quite soon, the voice became two voices, and I began thinking of the new book as a point of departure. I was trying to provoke. I was refuting some of my previous experience of storytelling. Essentially, I was trying to write against.

With these as my two existing models of writing a novel (writing for; writing against), it’s no wonder that I was struck by my friend’s quiet, personal, solitary question: What is a novel? It’s a brave question, and a difficult one. It’s one that doesn’t allow you to lean on tradition for comfort, and which reminds you to stop being such a reactive brat. It’s one that draws your focus, again and again, into the work itself. What is a novel? I won’t know until I’ve written the next book. And I hope I’ll be able to answer that question in very different forms, over the course of my career. What do you think? What is a novel, to you?

To answer the question in a different form: a reader from Toronto, Shann, recently sent me a link to Litograph, which offers a playfully literal definition of a novel: posters, t-shirts, and tote bags printed with the entire text of a classic book. The best ones, in my opinion, aren’t necessarily of my personal favourite books; instead, they’re titles for which the artist really captured the spirit of the book: Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Persuasion, Gulliver’s Travels. Thank you, Shann, for making my holiday shopping that much easier!

*Aside: I read a novel this past summer that offers a fiery but ultimately realist history for a girl like Mary Quinn: Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue. It’s terrific and vivid and utterly oppressive because you know from the first page that its protagonist, Mary Saunders, cannot possibly have a happy ending.

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Persistence

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Hello, friends. I’ve been thinking this week about life’s important, meaningful, and really unglamorous lessons. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about that Thomas Edison quotation: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Or, as John Ruskin put it nearly fifty years earlier, “I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.”

This all came to mind because at Kingston’s WritersFest this coming Sunday, I’ll be hosting a writing workshop given by Tim Wynne-Jones. Part of the hosting gig involves writing an introduction, and so I began reading a little more about Wynne-Jones. I don’t normally research authors; I’m more interested in their work. But maybe I should change my ways!

What struck me most forcefully is Wynne-Jones’s sheer output: by my count, he’s written 3 novels for adults, 17 picture books, 3 collections of short stories, and 9 novels for young people. (And that’s just the fiction. Wynne-Jones engages in critical writing, too!) If you think about how much practice he’s had in shaping a compelling story, it’s no wonder that he’s such an accomplished storyteller. He didn’t just have a gift for words or a particularly inventive mind: he took those talents and never stopped using them.

His is the kind of energy and dedication that might seem daunting, some days. Today, I find it deeply inspiring. I’m early in my career, a relative novice. So: persistence and practice. Those are my by-words this week.

How about you? What are you learning this week? What other unglamorous lessons should we think twice about?

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Ahem

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Hello there, friends. I’m sorry for my lapse last week. I had an outrageously slow internet connection (now partly fixed – it’s only somewhat slow) that made even a simple email check a struggle. Today, I thought I’d show you what I’ve been up to.

We went a bit crazy with the tomatoes, this year. It was our first year starting them from seeds and we planted a lot, thinking that only about one in three would make it. Ahem. We have about 30 tomato plants producing right now. I’m not sure what we’ll do with them all: we’ll either learn to can, or take to leaving them on neighbours’ doorsteps in the dead of night, I guess. Anyway, the tomato bed was a million-tentacled green monster, and it took me most of a day’s work to prune and stake them. I hope that doesn’t sound like a complaint: it’s a strangely addictive job, and it pains me to admit that there are two sad, drooping, crawling plants I haven’t yet found the time to attend to.

Here’s another gratuitous tomato shot:

Isn’t it exciting? We’ve had a few cherry tomatoes already and they’re lovely: sweet and complex, and all the more delicious for being the (literal) fruit of our labours.

And then there’s the garlic: 50-odd cloves planted last autumn, which we harvested last week. They’re currently drying out and I think the effect is like oddball musical notation.

Apart from frantically trying to reclaim the garden, I’ve also begun work on The Next Book. Here are the 3 novels I’ve ordered from the public library to read next:

Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain

Tan’s sequel to The Gift of Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists (2012)

Madeleine Thien’s Certainty (2006)

If you didn’t already know (or perhaps if you did), can you guess what I’m working on next?

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Writing Rivals in the City

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Hello, friends. This is the week in which I come clean and try to explain why it took me so very long to write The Agency: Rivals in the City. This is going to be a difficult post to write. I hate thinking about how many times I missed my deadline, and the (literally) hundreds of hours I spent tearing my hair out in front of the computer. But I think it’s useful to analyze failures, and figure out what worked in the end. And with any luck, someone else might find my experience instructive. Perhaps we can think of it as a how-not-to guide to writing a novel!

January 2011

My original plan for writing Rivals coalesced in January 2011. I expected to give birth to my second child in May 2011 and knew that I wanted a six-month maternity leave after her birth. (This sounds like an exquisite luxury to you American readers, right? In Canada, most women are entitled to 12 months of paid maternity leave.) So I negotiated a deadline of May 2012. My plan was to write a significant portion of the book while pregnant, take 6 months completely off, and still have six months to finish the book in early 2012.

Optimistic outlook: I knew Mary Quinn’s world so well. I would be starting at an advantage because I didn’t have as much research to do at the outset. This was the fourth and last book in the series, and hopefully that momentum would carry me through.

Problems: I am a slow writer under the best of conditions, and I did not have the best of conditions: I was exhausted throughout the pregnancy and unable to work effectively. The new baby and I had an ongoing (not immediately life-threatening but distressing) medical problem during her first few months of life. By spring 2012, I was only just beginning to get my head together.

Solution: I requested a deadline extension, to October 2012.

August 2012

My new deadline was rapidly approaching. I had committed to a particular setting and given my editor a detailed description (so the designer could start work on the cover). I thought I had made a grave error in my choice. I also felt entirely remote from the early research and plotting I had done on the book, over a year ago. It was stale.

Every time I sat down to work on the book, I felt completely paralyzed. I had lost my grip on Mary Quinn (how would she react, in a given situation? What was her emotional state, when confronted by another character?). I didn’t know what to do with the newly humbled James Easton. This was classic writer’s block: I wasn’t frittering away my life on Pinterest and Facebook, but each time I sat down to write, I came away more panicked and lost than the last time. Every time I thought about the book, I felt sick and cold and fraudulent.

Optimistic outlook: I couldn’t think of one. But I’m a very private person, so I talked about this only with my husband and a dear friend. I didn’t say anything to my editor or my agent, and simply hoped desperately that I could work through this.

Solution: I admitted that I was never going to write even a hideously rough draft of Rivals in the City in just two months. I begged for a further deadline extension, to March 2013. I hoped that by then, I would know whether I could write the blasted book or whether I would have to return my publisher’s advance.

February 2013

For the past six months, I had been working, steadily and grimly, with various degrees of despair and faint optimism, on the book. I tried writing Mary in different scenes, from different angles. I re-wrote scenes at several different emotional pitches, trying to figure out which one rang true. I wrote one scene in which Mary doubted her vocation as a detective, and soon after realized that I was writing about my own fears as a stalled novelist. I despised my own weakness and equivocation. I found no pleasure or satisfaction in the act of writing. Worst of all, I still had only the beginning of a book – nothing that remotely resembled an ending – and the book was due the following month.

Optimistic outlook: One day, as I contemplated the mess I’d made of this book, and possibly my writing career, I had two painful and extremely useful realizations.

1. I failed to put writing first. As a person, I was busier than ever, and I wasn’t enjoying writing. So I spent too much time on other stuff: volunteer work, domestic labour, things I call “life admin”. I was spending the best hours of my day doing things other than writing, and in doing so, I was cheating myself.

2. My Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) had returned. For the past four years, I’d simply been too frantically busy to notice the winter darkness; I was sprinting just to stay in place. But now that things were calmer – I had enough childcare, and time in which to write – I was, quite simply, low.

Solutions: I negotiated the very last deadline extension – June 2013. I started using a SAD lamp, religiously. And I began putting the book first. I ignored the dozens of other things pulling at me, and wrote using the best hours of my day and the best part of my brain.

June 2013

I wrote over 100,000 words in four months. I re-established my grip on Mary’s voice and character. I figured out what to do about that pesky James Easton. I remembered why I love writing. And on June 30, after eighteen months of fear, frustration, gritted teeth, and plain, unglamorous slogging, I sent the full manuscript of Rivals in the City to my editor, Mara Bergman at Walker Books.

I am so relieved. And I know myself to be extremely well loved and supported. My husband, Nick, was an uncomplaining single parent for each weekend of the spring, and he stayed up long and late critiquing my drafts. (He also said, pointedly, “Have you used the SAD lamp? I really think you should try the SAD lamp again.”) My parents came to stay for the last two weeks of June, taking over the housework and playing with the children so I could focus fully on the book. And my editor, the extraordinarily patient and generous Mara Bergman, said yes and yes and yes again to my wild requests for more time.

I am far luckier than I deserve. And I can only hope the book I wrote is worthwhile.

 

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Café Cliché

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Hello, friends. For the past 2 weeks, I have resumed working in a coffee shop. I do the morning routine, shedding kids along the way, and turn up at my favourite old-new café (it moved). I order a drink, admire the pastries, say hello to the regulars, and sit down with my battered, cracked old laptop and time-travel to Victorian London. It’s excellent. In fact, it’s my favourite way to work. While I spent quite a long time trying to persuade myself that I could work just as effectively from home, I think it’s time to concede the truth: CoffeEco, you are the answer.

I love coffee shops because they create a focused window in which to work. I don’t idle all day, holding meetings and checking Facebook. I’m there for about 90 minutes, max, and in that time I give all my attention to my work-in-progress. I don’t worry about laundry piling up, what to make for dinner, or all the unread email clogging my inbox. When my time is up, I pack up and move on. I’ll write again after lunch, but that first 90 minutes sets the tone for the rest of my day. If I’m disciplined and productive in that first writing session, my whole day goes better. Conversely, if I use that time to run errands and do admin, I never seem to catch up in a satisfactory way.

So far, I sound like a smug little model of efficiency, don’t I? Ha. Confession time.

I also adore working in coffee shops because of all the conversations buzzing around me. I don’t participate (I’m busy staring at my screen, right?) but rest assured, I am most certainly “earwigging”, as my mother-in-law calls it. (Isn’t that a great word?) It’s a great way to check in with the rest of the world. It’s also interesting to observe how consistent certain types of conversations can be. For example, in the last five interactions I’ve heard between youngish men and youngish women, the men have spent most of the conversation talking about themselves. At length. While the women nod along enthusiastically and says things like, “That’s amazing!” Now, I have nothing against talking about oneself as part of a balanced conversation; after all, it’s what I do in this space, every Wednesday. But this is something I’m going to keep an eye on

I’ve also noticed that when people ask mothers of young children how they’re doing, they always say something like, “Oh, we’re great. Zoe’s in soccer camp and Carson’s just cut his first tooth!” Did you catch that? The mother IS her children; the spouse is missing. I am 100% guilty of this, by the way, and from now on I’m going to make a point of including every member of the family in my response.

And that’s where I’m at today. Are you an earwigger, too? What patterns have you noticed, in recent conversations around you?

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On nosiness

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Hello, friends. I’m very sorry I forgot to blog last week! There was definitely something missing from my week and I couldn’t figure out what it was, but when I logged in to WordPress this morning, it hit me. I’m a dolt. A dolt without an excuse. But I’m here now, and I want to talk to you about being nosy.

My name is Y. S. Lee and I am a Nosy Parker. This pure, unadulterated nosiness was one of the many things my mother used to scold me for, as a kid (I wonder what she word she was substituting when she said “Parker”? Probably something quite different.) And I haven’t really changed.

I want to know everything. I want to know how much money supply teachers at my son’s school are paid, what an acquaintance’s surgery (discussed by 2 people as I passed by) was for, how many people are involved in digging up the main intersections downtown, why the man in front of me at the grocery store bought 60 chocolate bars (I counted: KitKats, Mars Bars, and Coffee Crisps. Twenty each), what that couple in the car parked outside my house is arguing about (it’s intense), how much it actually costs the City of Kingston to issue a parking ticket (which costs something like $16, so what do they actually make after all the admin?), and a couple of dozen other things. And that’s in the time it took me to drop off my kids at school/daycare, buy some vegetables, and come home.

It’s exhausting, being this nosy. Socially inhibiting, too: I live in fear of the day that my internal sensor/censor starts to fail on a regular basis and I begin asking entirely inappropriate questions of better-mannered strangers. I’m going to be That Crazy Lady, the one who makes everyone cringe when she walks into a room.

Put another way, I’m going to turn into a four-year-old. My son entered his “why?” phase on the day he turned two, pretty much, and it’s never actually let up. Every day, he barrages us with hundreds of questions about people, animals, the natural world, social conventions, and anything else that skips through his brain. A friend of ours came over one day, I left the room for a few minutes, and when I came back, this friend’s eyes were bulging out of his head. And really, the only difference between my son and me is that I’ve learned to repress my instincts.

The main side effect of unbridled nosiness? I think it’s why I’m a writer. I’d love to hammer out this theory with you, please: if you’re a writer, are you impossibly nosy? And if you’re a fellow Nosy Parker and not a writer, how does your nosiness work itself out?

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From A to B

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Hello, friends! The lake is frozen, it’s snowing like crazy, and I’m dreaming of this Galangal and Coconut Milk Soup. (Don’t heed the blogger’s advice to substitute ginger for galangal. Go galangal, or go home!) I’m also thinking about my chaotic, haphazard, impulsive version of the writing process.

Digression: I am moderately interested in cars. I am married to someone with an obsessive interest in cars. Together, we have made children who are deeply, excessively, hypernormally interested in cars (also trucks, fire engines, buses, construction vehicles, etc). We have a small collection of bashed-up English car magazines dating back to 2005 that, appropriately deployed, can hypnotize both of the children for at least 15 minutes. They are a precious commodity in a house without a tv. Anyway, what I’m saying is that cars are high in the Top 5 subjects discussed in our house. I can confidently state that none of us has ever used the phrase, “So long as it gets me from A to B…” with even a fleck of sincerity.

But “getting from A to B” is one of the things I enjoy most about writing. I love to sit down, create a starting point, and then wonder, “Now, how will I get this character to where I need her? What should happen next? Does that ring true? What if something else happened? What if…” And I’m off. It’s almost always surprising, startling, satisfying. The vehicle matters.

What are your favourite parts about the writing process?

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