Here is an excerpt I shared with the YWCA audience:
I have written four novels and am at work on my fifth. My first novel My Old Faithful is a collection of short stories, all of them published in the literary journals, but the book was not published. My second novel, The Good Son, had an agent shopped around for a bit but didn’t land a publisher. My third novel, Paper Cannot Wrap Fire, depicts the rural life in the 1920s China. It became the writing exercise for my fourth novel, Living Treasures, published last year. I am writing a fifth novel, Oasis. I finished the first draft. Now I will use different books to illustrate where I am in the writing process.
So, where do I get my ideas for a story? I am a critical reader and opinionated about the style and content. Some of my favorite authors are 19th century novelists: George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Victor Hugo, to name a few. I like stories that focus on human relationships and depict the society and nature as detailed as characters with emotions. I also love biographies and non-fiction books about history and culture. I admire works by Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver, Ha Jin, and many others. When I pick up a book, I always want to enjoy it and look for things that I like. There are books, fiction or non-fiction, that don’t ring true with me. Instead of being disappointed, I’d like to think: I can do it differently.
I always look for the humanity in my characters, even in my villains. On the other hand, I am keenly aware that good people can do things that leave a negative impact. I’m writing a new novel: Oasis. It tells how people fight the drought and dust storms and try to strike rich, but their actions cause the desertification of their hometown, Minqin, an oasis sandwiched between two deserts in northern China. Ms. Keira falls in love with her childhood sweetheart, Mr. Lou, who once saves her from being drowned in a flash flood. She leaves her hometown to study at a medical school. Although Keira leaves her village, her village has never left her. The love story becomes an oasis in their hearts even as the dust storms ravage the homeland and turn it into a desert.
What do I do with an idea? I begin to research. I read a lot of non-fiction, books on history, agriculture, and biographies, research online and interview people about the environmental issues, food, nature, schools, anything. I once wrote a short story about a dog, and I read over twenty books about dogs: all breeds from Great Dane to Chowchow. In the end I decided on a mutt. Research is a lot of fun. I educate myself and become a subject expert. It gives me solid ground to stand on and fabricate a story.
For example, in Oasis, I wanted to write about an illness that requires a bone marrow transplant. I studied several diseases:
Leukemia is too common, not a good enough metaphor for this story. I also eliminated severe aplastic anemia, lymphomas, immune deficiency disorders, some solid-tumor cancers—for some, the bone marrow transplant doesn’t work too well.
In the end, I chose multiple myeloma. It was rare among women, especially younger women. I asked the questions: why does she get it? How does she cope with it? What could help with the diagnosis and treatments? I felt like a kid in the candy store, grabbing my plot elements.
Research not only adds color and brings authenticity but also expands the horizon of my fictional world. I want to share some quotes about writing, and here’s one that I like:
“Your experience is more than just the facts of your life. It’s everything that your life has prepared you to understand, feel, and imagine. And writing fiction is a way of discovering just how deep and broad your experience truly is.”
Next comes the writing itself. Writing is simple, basic, and austere. Don’t wait for inspirations. The writing will create the mood. And style will take care of itself. Here I want to use “you” to address a writer at work, even though I am such a writer, too. Use your writing muscle and tone it. You will need to keep a schedule. It doesn’t mean you have to write every day, if you can’t manage that. Most people have day jobs, families, health issues, and other obligations. I like to separate writing from my personal life. My writer persona is different from my real-life persona. In daily life, I am very organized, reliable, and conscientious. I multitask, set priorities, and deliver results on time. For example, I have to keep hundreds of computers running properly and cannot be one minute late to pick up my children from school.
My persona changes when I retreat into my writing life. I usually wait for my family to go to bed and then allow myself to unwind, freeing myself from the appointments, obligations and such. Sometimes I overlook the dirty dishes in the sink. I take off my jeans and change into baggy pants, comfy socks and slippers. I manage to eat healthy and exercise, but I won’t set the alarm clock or a tight deadline for my writing. Instead, I cultivate patience and a habit of pushing beyond my limit. I love to do lap swim, my exercise to stay healthy and strong. If my goal is fifty laps, I usually go to fifty one laps or fifty two. This is a reminder that whatever my goal is, I always do a little extra, not something to show off, but a habit, a promise I keep between me and my work, that I can push beyond my physical limit every time I use my body or mind.
During the work week I live a normal life, have a day job, take care of my family, and get enough exercise and sleep so I stay healthy and sane. On the weekend I close my door, if I can, stay up late and live with my fictional family. In my mind, I always put writing first. I try to read like a writer, think like a writer, and budget my time like a writer. My children hate to watch a movie with me at home, because I start to comment on the story structure. I taught them the basic story structure before they started the first grade, something I didn’t learn until I turned thirty. I think about my book all the time. Even when I cannot get to the computer to type it, I let the ideas germinate and saturate my mind.
I usually write a very rough first draft within a few months to a year, just to see what the story is. After I had children, I wrote more slowly, and the first draft was more formed. It took me several years to write the first draft of Oasis, in three parts. In the second draft, I will drop the third part and rewrite the second part, to keep the integrity of the story rather than drag on and start a new book. It was difficult to kill my darling, but there was a moral, that I didn’t write to satisfy my ego, but to perfect my craft and polish the vision of a world that I created.
Revision is a daunting task but very enjoyable, to a point. I wrote Living Treasures in a writer’s workshop. After one revision, I left my friends and showed it to the strangers. I started by querying the agents. I worked with three agents before I published Living Treasures. I worked with two professional editors. They were very helpful but also expensive. I wouldn’t advise you to go directly to an editor, unless by a referral.
You want some professional opinions about where your book should get published. A good agent could give you a vision about where your story will fit. If you agree with it, you can take those critiques to an editor and work with her. It needs to be a collaborative process, as the editor will help you achieve your goal. You need to persevere. A friend of mine revised her novella twenty-nine times, before it was published. She told me: you have to do it, or you’ll never get published. If you feel that you hit a wall, wait patiently, or work on something else for a while, take care of your daily life, before coming back to the project. You may gain a fresh perspective.
More than the flat-out rejections, years of waiting to be read, waiting in endless lines to be acknowledged is demoralizing. Even after you’re published, you’re just one of the many authors out there. How to reconcile all this hard work with little reward? Here is a quote I like:
“The years of rejections most writers experience serve a purpose, which is to temper the unbounded narcissism which drives people to write. The purpose of techniques is to free the unconscious that is true creativity.”
My second novel The Good Son generated some interest among the agents but hasn’t found a publisher. Instead of waiting for the validation, I took the knowledge and experience from this book and started all over again to write the third novel. The common wisdom is that every writer needs to write an autobiography, that is usually the first book, to get it out of your system. The first book is like a gift, you don’t know how to go about it. You dabble, try this and that, and finally it works to an extent. You write a second book, with more confidence and skill. By the third or fourth book, you know how to tell a story. You may have found your form. But are you getting better with each book?
Anton Chekov wrote about his own growth as a writer:
“One wants to be mature—that is one thing; and for another the feeling of personal freedom is essential, and that feeling has only recently begun to develop in me. I used not to have it before; its place was successfully filled by my frivolity, carelessness, and lack of respect for my work."
Listen carefully. This is an honest confession by one of the greatest short story writers in history.
"Write a story of how a young man . . . who has served in a shop, sung in a choir, been at a high school and a university, who has been brought up to respect everyone of higher rank and position, to kiss priests’ hands, to reverence other people’s ideas . . . who has liked dining with his rich relations, and been hypocritical before God and men from the mere consciousness of his own insignificance—write how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and how waking one beautiful morning he feels that he has no longer a slave’s blood in his veins but a real man’s.”
This realization gives me chills, that writing is to squeeze the slave out of my blood, drop by drop. Writing is simple, basic, and austere. Being a working mother and a woman writer, I think of writing as a fight in an otherwise calm life. It begins with the urge to express my authentic self. Through hard work and relentless introspection, I shed my polite mask, tear off the layers of complacency, prejudice, and hypocrisy, to reach deep inside and feel the beating of my own heart, discover who I am and what I believe in, and then pour my soul into the characters and their stories.
Literature is different from life. Life is one thing happening after another, endless and messy. Literature is not religion, either. Religion has a structure and gives life meanings. Literature falls somewhere between life and religion. There is no right or wrong anywhere on the spectrum. Earlier I said I began writing because other books didn’t express my worldviews, not because they aren’t good, a lot of them are amazing, but they are in different spots on the spectrum, which gives me the opportunity to express my unique perspective. And I’m not the only one—other writers have shared my views, and they may or may not be my contemporaries.
Writing is a craft, if used well, it helps me express my authenticity by spinning a web of lies, that I cannot do in life or in religion, because I cannot risk turning the world upside down. In fact I cannot be one minute late to pick up my children from school. But in writing, I’m free to tear down the world, and then use my imagination and craft to build a new world, alive and rich with meanings, insights, and hope for future.