Category Archives: Novel

Perseveration and Perseverance and the Novel

Treasure Hunt: morning coffee + milk

I am drowning today. I woke up feeling awful about my novel. Like wondering-why-I’m-even-doing-this awful. And I felt even more hideous knowing that I’d continue to re-write despite my despondence. And yet even more horrific because then of course all this self-doubt was a massive waste of time, keeping me from said novel-rewrite.

On these self-doubting occasions, I feel like my novel is an act of perseveration–of crazy unfulfilling repetition that speaks to the adage, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

That line speaks not to perseverance but to perseveration, which is an actual psychological term describing unhealthy behavior repetition.

There’s a difference between perseveration and perseverance. Perseverance, which is steady persistence (and a novel-writing virtue) towards a goal despite obstacles and discouragement has value in the effort whereas perseveration recreates old, unresolved issues (i.e., like how someone who felt left out in junior high then ends up, in her adult life, trying to connect with people who reject her–or at its simplest, repetition of spoken phrases).

It’s when I fail to see value in the process and effort, that I feel like writing this novel is an act of insanity.

One of the most hurtful things someone has ever said to me (other than the time someone told me, “My husband will not be happy if I get fat–but your husband doesn’t seem to care!”) is “Are you still working on that novel? Finish it already.” That a novel is solely about a finished product is false–that a novel’s value is positioned solely in its finished product is daunting and stomach-turning, at least for someone in the thicket of revision.

And yet, because of this end goal, I push. I push.

And sometimes, it’s the pushing that is the wrong thing to do with my novel-in-progress.

I’ve taken up yoga in the past year or so. After living in yoga-infused-Berkeley for decades and scoffing at the practice, I found a yoga instructor and studio in Tara Stiles and Strala Yoga in NYC that did not make me feel alienated or like I landed on Mars or had me speaking a foreign language in class.

I learned that yoga isn’t about pushing. It’s about being in the moment, and connecting with your breath and going with the ease. That anything is possible. That I can do crow and when I did crow, the moment felt utterly effortless and beautiful and marvelous. That it happened like magic one day. That getting to crow and holding crow meant staying very much in the present moment. That pushing to do crow was the very thing that made me topple.

It is hard to fight self doubt. Maybe it might be better to cave into it and process the feelings that self doubt brings. Either way, I thought that by writing about my self doubt and defining the creature that embodies it in my life today, I’ll know better how to manage it.

That I am pushing to “finish” my novel is what stalls me–that I fail to see value in the process and the present moment of revision is what pushes me to doubt myself.

So I downloaded my yoga class playlist and I’m writing to it this morning, so that what I learn in yoga can infuse me as a writer today. No pushing. Just be. Write the words. Breathe. Listen to my novel. Listen to me. Allow myself to cry. So that I can amaze myself.


Filed under Writing, Novel, Revision, The Personal

Writing is Hard Work and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Different

new camera + new lens

Writers (and I’m talking about creative writing) who in the debate about whether or not writing can be taught say that “writing cannot be taught,” or writers who say they “don’t revise” are engaging in a game of intimidation.

Whether they are accurate or not in their assessment (if you are 140% talentless, I guess writing cannot be taught…and perhaps some brilliant writer out there really doesn’t revise their work), I hate it when writers try to make writing “magical” and solely about “talent.” It’s such an arrogant thread of thought to imply that you either have it or you don’t. Certainly, talent is a crucial part of the pie–but people with talent still need coaching, mentoring, and practice. Tons of practice and hard work.

This bucket of sick giraffe bull reminds me of my high school. I have a lot of wrath toward my high school years, so be forewarned. I went to a super cut-throat competitive high school that happened to be a public high school. The counseling office would actually publish the top 100 GPAs of students in descending order every semester. They didn’t list names, but they did list student ID numbers. Who were they kidding? You think we ultra-competitive students hadn’t memorized each others’ SIDs? We knew exactly where we all stood.

But I guess the counseling office was bored, and needed to generate work. Because I’m sure after those rankings, they’d have to do a lot of counseling. And I’m not talking about the academic kind.

Anyway–I’m talking about people who front about how easy shit is, just to intimidate other people in a competitive atmosphere. And I was talking about my high school, which was full of students with gray bags under their bloodshot eyes saying they had a full night’s sleep, didn’t study for the test at all, and the test was a cinch. For awhile I believed them. Until my father said, “Are you an idiot? Of course they’re studying. They’re just psyching you out! Now go to your room and study all night until dawn breaks.” My dad is such an Asian Dad. Literally. And figuratively. Okay. I just wrote notes to my friends all night long. Like, twelve page handwritten notes. I was destined to be a writer. But I did study, just not as hard as my father wished I would.

The claim to a well of genius/brilliance without the investment of hard work stems from deep arrogance and/or fear.

You mean to say that Jackson Pollock just threw some paint up on a canvas and that was it? That dude worked long and hard to attain those splashes. There is an entire history of Pollock paintings preceding his “drip canvases” that attest to that. You mean to say that Itzhak Perlman fell out of the womb playing a violin? That Lance Armstrong just rode his bike and rode it to victory from the start? No shit. They all worked hard. There’s the equivalent of about 100,000 bottles (probably more, but I don’t feel like researching the amount of sweat a bicyclist would exude in his/her training) of Gatorade that Armstrong had to suck down to replace the sweat from training exertion. They played until their fingers bled. Or at the least, had whopping callouses.

I know someone who was a concert violinist earlier in his life and even if he did not make it his lifelong career, he has a little hollow in his jawbone; he practiced so often and for so long, the bone grew as if his face were attached to his chinrest. Which it was. Because he practiced for hours and hours as a small child.

At AWP this week (and I’ll be quoting from AWP for awhile to come), Nami Mun at her Works in Progress panel said you can’t succeed solely on talent–that there is the concept of practice, citing Yo-Yo Ma. That the only difference between an average person and a successful person is focused practice; a “willingness to practice, develop your craft, and understand the difference.”

And Margaret Atwood, in her keynote said, “I’m startled by people who say they want to write but don’t like reading. Those people want an audience for them to listen to their sad story and that’s the end of it. They’d be happier on reality TV, because that’s less work. And yes, I said the ‘w’ word: WORK.”


I know that my novel certainly has waited for me to grow and develop as a writer. And that it’s guided me through my own maturity as a human being. I molded the novel into shape, and in recent times, my novel has been the thing to mold and shape me in return, and it has led me into amazing life adventures, calling to me with its needs such as much time spent on wikipedia and google and sometimes twitter for novel research. That I couldn’t write this novel eight years ago didn’t mean I could never write the thing.

It takes practice. It takes hard work. It’s pain. And it’s joy. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes my novel sucks. Whatever. Work more.

I am one of the legions of writers who has been married to a novel-in-progress for more than five long years (and I am not close to being finished). We, the slowest of writers, salute those who write a novel a year (I’m looking at you, Joyce Carol Oates). At AWP, Don Lee said he takes two years to write one novel: the first six months spent on generating ideas, another year to write the draft, and then another six months of revision. I salute you too, Don Lee.

But over cocktails, my tongue freed up by a gin and tonic at the AWP conference headquarters bar (by golly, all ten thousand writers BROKE that bar–it was four people deep, and it took 20 minutes to get a drink order in–it’s a wonder that ANYONE even got tipsy)…I announced that my novel dictates the speed at which it is written. I think at least one person said “Amen” to that. Who knows. I get drunk off half a cocktail. Some stories demand a long time. And some stories demand to be told immediately.

My novel is better than the person I am. And it’s being patient. And asking me to be patient, in turn. And to work my ass off so I can deserve the novel I end up showing the world.

And yes. I revise. Everyday I’m a better writer than the day before. I’m learning to write everyday damn day. I also had eyelid surgery so I could have double eyelids. And I hate bell peppers.


Filed under Writing, Novel, Revision

My Turning Point

board day 3

I wrote about my turning point as a writer on Nova Ren Suma’s blog, Distraction No. 99.

(At this moment, you can also enter to win a copy of Men Undressed which contains an excerpt from my novel-in-progress on Nova’s blog).

My turning point is my stroke at the age of 33. It’s a topic to which I often allude, but do not often write about as a central subject. I find it awkward to talk about my stroke. I don’t want it to define me. Some people are just not interested in hearing about a past ailment. But awkward or not, it is undeniably The Turning Point of My Entire Life.

So when Nova asked me to write about my turning point as a writer, I inevitably found myself writing about recovery from my stroke, as lesson-filled an experience it was.

One of my friends, while visiting me in the early days of recovery, wisely advised me to look for lessons throughout my recovery; my hunt for lessons learned made what could have seemed like a meaningless random and stupid happening a much more meaningful and valuable experience.

I shared a few of the things I learned about myself as a writer in the wake of my stroke and as I fought to write my novel again. The message of my story is, as quoted from the last paragraph of my post at Distraction No. 99:

“It took years before I could remember this experience as a cohesive narrative. And while most writers don’t have strokes at the age of 33, I don’t think my experience is all too unique, because many of us have been kept from our writing in one way or another in our crazy writing lives. It could be a year away from writing as you raise a new baby, or a year away from writing as you immerse yourself in financially-necessary work, or a year away from writing because your writing just breaks your heart and you just can’t look at it anymore. Maybe you were really sick and couldn’t write. But sometimes, it is that very time away that forms the negative space around your identity and determination and your writing. When you come back, you know who you are, more than ever. And who you are is a writer to the core.”

I hope you check out Nova’s Turning Points series, which includes a number of amazing and inspiring posts about writing.

*The picture above is a picture of the whiteboard in my hospital room where I lived for 10 days following my stroke. The nurses were so nice, and left me uplifting messages!

Leave a comment

Filed under Life, Novel, The Personal, Writing

“How’s your novel coming along?”: talking about my novel-in-progress part 1

“How’s your novel coming along?”

When non-writers people ask me this question, no matter how sincere the intention, I hear it spoken in an impatient or mocking tone, ala Stewie from the Family Guy (so painfully hilarious). [1]

Non-Writers People ask me about my novel a lot these days. Of course they do–I quit my tech job last summer, and I’m on sabbatical from my teaching job (yes, I had two jobs for awhile), and my life is to now write/revise my novel everyday. It’s clearly my passion, and they’ve no idea what else I must be doing.

This question is asked of me every time I’m at a cocktail party. As a conversation opener. And about 30 seconds after I’ve crossed the threshold of my former office (and my husband’s current workplace). They ask about my novel, even before they ask how I’m doing.

“Hey Christine! How’s your novel coming along?”

My non-writer friends, when they hear me whine about this, say, “At least people care.” As in, “It’s a normal question.”

Do you really all care? Will 100% of you really buy my book when it’s published? Do you know what an agonizing query this is? One that makes me feel tired and self-doubting and judged and scared and naked? One that then makes me feel guilty, because I do understand you ask out of good intentions, even though it makes me wince?

Do you know that instead of asking me “How’s your novel coming along?” you could say any of the following things:

  1. “I can’t wait to BUY and read your novel when it’s done!”
  2. “I know your novel will be amazing.”
  3. “I think it’s so exciting that you’re taking a leap and writing your novel.”
  4. “I support you in your novel writing/revision.”
  5. “May I bake you some cookies or raisin walnut bread to eat while you rewrite your novel?”
  6. “I hope your novel revision/rewrite is going well! Would you like some chocolate?”
  7. “When will you be finished writing the novel?” OHWAIT. Don’t ask that, either. I have no idea. I thought I’d be finished by now. My friend, when pregnant with triplets was understandably HUGE by her fifth month of pregnancy. People would ask when she was due, and when she stated a date four months into the future, their eyebrows would raise and they’d say things like, “Oh wow! You’re HUGE.” And another friend, who is pregnant with twins, gets the same things. Needless to say, they HATE the “due date” question. Same here. I think I’m having novel quintuplets, and I’m about four months pregnant with this novel in “novel-time.” Yah, it’s going to take awhile.

My writer friends know that “How’s your novel coming along?” is an agonizing query. It’s like getting asked how your fetus is doing–an intrusive question at best.

So here’s how my novel is coming along…

It gives me heartburn. Sometimes it kicks me from the inside at an inconvenient moment, or perhaps close to my liver and it gives me pain. Other times, the kicks delight me.

I felt my novel quicken and kick me last year, after I finished the first draft.

Now I feel it swirl and dance.

My novel makes me feel bloated.

My novel makes me nauseous.

My novel makes me crave certain foods.

My novel makes me feel alive. My novel has a heartbeat.

I often fear that this novel won’t make it. That somewhere during the creative process, I’ll lose my grasp on it. That it will just wither and die. And that it will all be my fault. And that you’ll all ask me how it’s going, when in fact, it died inside of me.

I want this novel to be amazing. I am putting all my hopes and dreams into this novel.

I fear this novel won’t be amazing to anyone but me. That I will send it out into the world, and no one will like it.

If no one likes this novel, I will have to put it in my closet, where it will live to the end of its days, visited by no one but me.

I project all my fears onto my novel.

I project all my hope onto my novel.

My novel is getting heavy.

My novel gets bigger every month.

My novel’s features are beginning to sharpen.

My novel looks a little like me, but not really like me, either.

My novel takes everything I have.

That’s how my novel is doing. It’s not done. It will be done. It cannot, at this point, live without me as a host. The only people who get to “see it,” are people who can read a rough draft manuscript, which is the “ultrasound-equivalent” of writing. I love my novel. I hope you will love, it too.

The second question is “What’s your novel about?” And I”ll talk about that in a subsequent post.

[1] Stewie’s monologue on “How’s that novel coming along?” used to be my cellphone ringer.


Filed under Novel, Revision, Writing


Cat added to Mission sidewalk graffiti

Exigency: “Live everyday as if it were your last.”

My friend left a comment on my last post about my 2011 in review, to which I replied, “It has been an amazing year, one in which I decided to try to live everyday as if it were my last day on earth (and the fact that I really don’t know when my days in NYC will end helped lend to that scenario).”

I was given the gift of limited time last year–not limited days of my life, but limited days in my setting of NYC–a microcosm of urgent ground, in which I woke up every morning wondering what I could squeeze out of that day. That energy came with me even as I spent half the year in California outside of NYC.

And it has made all the difference.

I wonder what would happen if I gave myself the impression of limited days in which I could write? Something more than a deadline–? And in what way could I create that exigency?

Also–I am more than aware that 2011 was an agonizing and horrifying and awful year for many of you. For me, the “worst year of my life by a mile” was 2007. It ousted any of the years previous I’d spent depressed or dismayed or discouraged or broke.

But every year since then, I/we know that statistically speaking, nothing can be as bad as 2007. And that too, has made all the difference–to know where your bottom is, and to know you’ve survived that bottom (whether graciously or not, because in the end all that matter is that you survived), to have been broken and healed, and to know you’ve learned lessons, and to know you can make it through anything, go forward.

So for those of you who have had an awful 2011, I give you that hope. And now it’s 2012–and I hope 2011, now in the past, leaves you in the present with valuable lessons and knowledge and resilience.

And come to think of it, my awful year gave me urgency, too. There’s nothing like a bad year to tell you what it is you really really want out of life. And you’ll spend subsequent years reaching for it.

I hope in 2012 you reach for it–and get it.


Filed under Writing, Novel, Life, Revision, The Personal

We create worlds, we create characters like sexy, male, literary characters…of color


We create worlds when we write our novels. My hope is that our readers’ worlds expand when reading our worlds. We do this by adding our unique stories and previously unwitnessed details to the existing historical tapestry of stories.

Sometimes we respond to something specific in the canon, like Jean Rhys who wrote an amazing prequel in Wide Sargasso Sea to Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. But we needn’t be overt though we should always be conscious of how we enrich the world experience.

I’m in the midst of revising my novel, and this revision is one that has me tearing my novel back down to the studs and posts as I investigate the stories (on and off the page) of each character and add new characters. It’s a lot of work. And I’m going to say this is more like a rewrite than a revision, more like a rebuild than an incremental remodel.

In this hubbub, I participated in a “sex interview” with Gina Frangello in The Nervous Breakdown about my piece in Men Undressed. One of the six questions asked me who I thought was the sexiest literary male character.

And here I was a little stumped and perturbed, because in perusing my reading history (and I was an English major and Asian American Studies minor who took her fair share of Chicano/a and African American literary courses), there was a major lack of sexy literary male characters of color.

Why, did I ask myself, are the majority of male literary characters of color emasculated, violent, ineffectual, and/or lack physicality? (Okay, maybe those things turn you on? They don’t me). The potential answers depressed me.

I remember the 1980s and 1990s when Asian American literature revolved mostly around particular themes: immigration, assimilation, family/tradition. The canonical works of the day (The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee for starters) all of whom featured men who were violent or ineffectual or so cerebral they lacked physicality.

The above writers are pioneers to whom I/we owe a great debt. And they too have been able to forge new paths due to their initial pioneering works. But there’s still lots of work for us to do.

When I was the fiction editor at Kartika Review, an Asian American literary magazine, I was happy to now see pieces that went beyond these experiences in the slushpile, because the Asian American experience is more complex and expansive than these immigration or assimilation.

And I was very aware that I was a gatekeeper, albeit a small one in the world, for our readers and for what would represent literature.

It’s up to me and to us to change the landscape. We need to write worlds. And we need to read worlds.

Meanwhile, I was obsessed with the tv show Mad Men. I came late to the Mad Men party, and this summer, my husband and I watched four seasons of the shows in a span of a few weeks.[1]

Don Draper–what a sexy hunk. I felt guilty about spending all this time watching a television series, but then I decided realized it was novel research. Mad Men is set in the same era as my characters who happen to be Koreans who arrive in early 1970s America occupied by Don and Betty Draper, Roger Sterling, and the gang, characters who for all their faults and strengths never interact with Asian Americans. And I cringe at how they would treat Asian Americans if they did. That Mad Men could illuminate my characters’ setting was amazing.

But back to Don Draper–what a sexy hunk. And I thought, why can’t my characters be that sexy? Why not?

And so I decided that in exchange for all the suffering I have inflicted upon my protagonist, I would make him sexy. And I would make him my kind of sexy: smart, tortured, and rugged. It makes me want to spend more time with my novel-writing, that’s for sure.

We have, as writers, the opportunity to expand worlds. And we have, as readers, the opportunity to expand our own worlds. What choices do you make to do so?

[1] I kind of had a flashback to my parents watching Korean dramas on VHS tapes all night and emerging in the morning demanding a neck rub from me. We had become my parents. Except we have no children from which to demand neck rubs in the morning.


Filed under Writing, Novel

Novel: First draft, Second draft revision…

scenes on post-its

(above are post-it notes detailing my novel plot–yes, the colors are coded!)

It’s November 1 November 2, the second day of NaNoWriMo (aka National Novel Writing Month, in which writers synchronously set out to write a novel within a month).

I participated in NaNoWriMo exactly once, and what it did was pretty much highlight that writing a novel draft inside of a month is NOT my process. My one and only participation produced in me the most ginormous months-long writer’s bloc I’ve ever experienced.

But I still give NaNoWriMo lots of kudos, because it *is* the process for so many writers. And regardless of whether or not I engage, NaNoWriMo is inspiring to me.

One of the things that helps me most as a writer is knowing that I’m not the only one embarking on this crazy journey and that is why I love to blog and tweet and bond with all my fellow writers; we’re all on our solo treks of course, but to know that in November, we’re all doing it alone, yet together, is such a boost to me as a writer. That I don’t finish a novel on November 30 is no big deal. That we’re all writing is a huge deal to me.

That said–I’m making a concerted effort to get a big chunk of my novel revision done this month (again no concrete goals for November 30). I’ve cleared my schedule. I’ve foregone travel with my husband and made the choice to be on a “mini-residency” at home alone.

My “mini-residency” is off to a weird start; I’ve come down with some vicious stomach ailment. Maybe it’s food poisoning. Or I’ve got an alien growing inside me. I can’t seem to keep anything inside my body. Except for rice and saltine crackers. Which is getting a bit boring. So I’ve ordered some jello, so I can make this rainbow jello concoction. Because I’m sick of eating things that are the color of copier paper, whether it be 92 bright white paper (rice), or vellum (applesauce, saltines) or parchment (toast, ginger ale). All paper. Papery.

Anyway, as I embark on this month of diligent revision, I’ve been thinking about what I did to get to this point in the novel, a hard-earned completed first draft.

I started out years ago by writing the novel in first person, for no better reason than the fact that everything I wrote then was in first person. And yet, my protagonist (and narrator) was someone who wasn’t a very active, self-revealing character. Think of Don Draper (a man who doesn’t like to expose himself for various reasons). Think of him as a first person narrator of his own life. Yahhhhh. Not.

It goes without saying that I struggled with writing the novel in first person. There were scenes that worked. But overall, it was like extruding brick-hard room temperature chocolate through a pasta maker. (Again, think of Don Draper narrating his innermost thoughts). Not happening.

Continue reading


Filed under Writing, Novel, Revision