I work with stories both at my day job (publishing) and night job (comics), and conversations, thinkpieces, and articles around representation in media are prevalent almost every second of my waking life. We've heard many voices on how Hollywood stifles and whitewashes (Ghost in the Shell, The Great Wall, etc) and how progress in film and television is appallingly slow. It can be a real bummer, and definitely brings to light some glaring social issues that continuously need to be addressed and corrected and held accountable.
But I think that sometimes, we need some levity and inspiration in our lives to remind us to keep fighting when the battle seems tough. And in the war against whitewashing in media, one front that keeps churning out victory after victory: the outstanding, award-winning, NYT-bestselling Asian American authors in the young adult publishing industry.
For those unfamiliar, "Young Adult" (YA) is a marketing term for stories that cater to the (roughly) 13-18 crowd, and has become a huge portion of the children's lit world in the last few years, after the phenomenal success of books like Harry Potter. It spans all genres -- fantasy, sci-fi, slice of life, horror, you name it. I grew up reading a lot of young adult fantasy, and it was actually in those books that I discovered Asian representation for the first time. Authors like Tamora Pierce and JK Rowling, flawed as they are, paved the way for me to see girls like me having magical adventures.
I never really "grew out" of reading YA, even though I'm not a teen anymore. It's a medium I knew the themes of intimately as a lonely teen, and know the craft of as an editorial professional in the publishing industry. It's one of the few places in our media where Asian Americans are thriving as creators, not just as characters. If you've never read a young adult book in your life, if you're ashamed because you associate it with sparkly vampires or angsty angels, cast all your preconceptions aside.
The six authors featured in this roundtable are at all stages in their career. Karuna Riazi and S. Jae-Jones (JJ) are about to debut with their first books in 2017. Sabaa Tahir is an NYT bestselling author. Cindy Pon just finished her second series, with a third series forthcoming. Sona Charaipotra just published the sequel to her first book. Alyssa Wong has won a Nebula Award for one of her short stories, and is working on some of her first longer-length works. They write across genres, from breathaking fantasy to gut-wrenching horror to tension-filled drama, and you are in for a wild ride.
Oh, and in case you were wondering how to break into such a great industry, these lovely folks have offered advice there as well. Read their words. Buy their books. Here's what they have to say:
What draws you to the YA medium over others, and how did you come into the industry?
Karuna: I was initially drawn, and continue to be drawn, to the YA medium because... well, I'm a young adult. I really got involved in the community back around fifteen or sixteen as an actual teen blogger who just reviewed what she was reading and wrote fanfiction and was reassured to be around all her people who were equally nerdy about the characters they shipped and weren't ashamed about it. That is literally how I became part of this industry. It's just been inching myself deeper and deeper into a cocoon of words with every single step forward. I went from being a blogger to suddenly being part of the diversity conversation and finding my voice through that to approach other aspects of the industry. And now, miraculously, incredibly, I write!
JJ: I like to say I never left the YA section of the bookstore. I was an avid reader from a very young age, and in many ways, kidlit expanded with me. I was an English literature major in college, and in between all the works of dead white guys I had to read for class, I was reading YA. I also think the fact that I was writing from a young age shaped the types of stories I like to tell; I was reading and writing about young people ever since I was a young person myself. Aside from a brief, pretentious blip in college when I was trying to write the next Great American Novel, I never strayed far from teen fiction.
I actually came into the industry as an editor. I was already steeped in kidlit; I read middle grade and YA almost exclusively, and was therefore familiar with the market before I got my start in publishing. I liked that teen fiction is full of possibility; there is an inherent optimism or hopefulness in stories for and about young people.
Sabaa: I love the fact that story is so essential in YA. I love adult literary and I love experimental literature. But in the end, I want a story to carry me away, and that's why I love YA -- both reading it and writing it.
Cindy: I stumbled into YA quite by accident. When I began querying for Silver Phoenix, my debut, I had thought I had written an adult fantasy. After all, there are plenty of adult fantasies with teen protagonists. Now, I realize in the current market, my voice and story are decidedly upper YA. I love coming of age tales; I love sexual awakenings.
Sona: I started out writing screenplays -- and what they now call chick lit. But there was always something about YA that drew me. I think it's that the stakes are so very high in YA -- the emotion is always life or death, whether you're saving the planet from sure distraction, or trying to decide between two cute boys at school. But back in the day, I always used to say that I didn't have a book in me -- it was too intimidating. So I decided to get my MFA, and chose the Writing for Children program at the New School, which has graduated YA authors like Jenny Han, Coe Booth and Morgan Matson. I met my BFF Dhonielle Clayton there, and together we collaborated on what became our debut, Tiny Pretty Things and the sequel, Shiny Broken Pieces. We also co-founded CAKE Literary, a boutique book packager with a focus on fun, high concept diverse books.
Alyssa: YA is awesome. It was a huge part of my development as a reader and a writer. Tamora Pierce's books taught me the importance of taking agency into my own hands, Scott Westerfeld's books taught me to love science fiction and dream big, and Holly Black's books taught me the importance of compelling characters and sexy prose.
I think that YA is a really important medium, and the best kind of science fiction/fantasy/horror YA addresses real, difficult to talk about issues that teens are going through, while framing it in a new, fantastical context. YA helps people escape, take hold of their own agency, and think about issues that they're struggling with but might not have anyone to talk to about. And it changes lives.
YA has been one of my favorite mediums for as long as I can remember. After I graduated from university, I attended the Clarion Writers Workshop at UCSD. That's when I decided that if I was going to write, I might as well take it seriously and write the stories I really wanted to write.
What's your writing and revision process like?
Ha ha. Ha.
For my MG debut coming out in 2017, I am blessed to have people to be accountable to and bounce ideas off (namely, Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, my bosses at diverse book packager Cake Literary), as well as a full-fledged outline and synopsis with beats to keep my drafting on track. I'm currently in edits, and all I can say for that at this point is that I need to break the big picture down into manageable bites in order to keep myself moving as efficiently as possible.
In all honesty, a lot of my process right now is finding my process. I know I work better with entirely broken down outlines, and I'm still figuring out just how broken down I need a story to be in order to picture it. The best part of the entire sequence that I can really gush about is just... the dreaming part of it. Even now, being able to sit down and work tangible, beautiful flesh onto the bones that have already been laid out is just wonderful. I dream a lot. I try to think, even when I'm doing something else, about how to best combine solid story with evocative description. I try to think about how best to bring an idea to that point where I am not only seeing it, but others can see it.
The rest is all literally a work in progress.
JJ: Chaos. I wish I could say I were more disciplined about it: that I write 1000 words a day, every day, between 4pm and 6pm, but that's simply not true. I'm a feast or famine writer; I dither about for months on end before I write an entire draft in a furious burst, foregoing things like health, hygiene, and even sleep. My revision process is marginally more organized; after letting the manuscript rest for about a month or so, I pull it out and essentially rewrite it, but properly this time, with an outline (that I retroactively engineer) and everything. At this point, I give myself a schedule, telling myself that I have to work on X number of scenes per day.
Sabaa: I wish that I actually had a process, but it's very unscientific. It involves countless rounds of freewriting and revising, over and over, until I have something close to what I like. I do most of my actual writing in the revision stages though. Sometimes, my first draft will simply have things like "Fight scene here," and I won't fill that part out until the revision process.
Cindy: I am not a write every day kind of writer. When I'm drafting (my least favorite part of the novel writing process), I will set a daily word count goal. Usually it is 1k a day. With WANT, my near-future thriller and first non-fantasy, it was 500 words a day. I try to meet the goal best I can, but I am SUPER easy on myself during this time. Because writing is damned hard. So any words and forward motion I consider a triumph. I believe in rewards and cheering the self on as much as possible. I will usually draft like this for three months, then take a break due to life interruption, then finish the novel with another three months or so of drafting.
Sona: Coming from a screenwriting background, I swear by outlines. I start with the one-liner or short pitch for the story, then expand it out into a three-paragraph synopsis -- beginning, middle, end. Then I break those down into a chapter-by-chapter structure. And I write chronologically every time -- no jumping around for me. I'm a big time procrastinator, so I need deadlines -- preferably set by someone else. When I'm revising, I input the doc chapter by chapter into Scrivener, then put notes for each chapter's revision points into the chapter notecard. I'll do multiple passes then -- big picture, character, line edits.
Alyssa: It takes me a long time to put a story together. I usually start with a single image that I find arresting; for my most recent story, a Weird Western called "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay," the image I started with was a feral Cinderella crouching in the ashes of a fireplace, with reanimated bone birds perched overhead. From there, I move outward, putting together setting and character in a way that allows them to work organically together. I do a lot of fragmented prewriting as well. I also have a lot of false starts; I tend to write stories until I get the image and feeling of the story right. I usually write about four that don't quite work until I get to the one that does.
For fun: any lucky charms you keep with you while writing?
Karuna: I tend to wear my favorite jewelry if I can manage it -- bangles my grandmother's cousin gave me and a ring one of my lovely CPs sent me a few years back. I know the lovely Lydia Kang makes a charm bracelet for every project she works on and wears it while she's undergoing the process of making that project a reality, and I've always meant to do something like that.
(I'm also a big fan of pajamas. Pajamas mean you are at home and there is no school and you are living your best life.)
JJ: Every book I've written has been fueled by Twizzlers and iced coffee.
Sabaa: The only thing I HAVE to have as I write is music! So I guess you could say that my headphones are my lucky charms.
Cindy: Not really! I do collect "writing rings." Rings that are whimsical and pretty that inspire me as I type and write. Ideally, I am also surrounded by #cuteasianboys and good food and drinks are on hand or easily gotten. Ha!
Sona: No lucky charms -- writing is work, no matter what, with good days and bad. But I do have certain elements that form my routine: I need chai and a snack (right now it's shortbread cookies), a comfy space (usually the sofa in our apartment), and a manageable background distraction, like Days of Our Lives or House Hunters. This is so I don't go looking for bigger distractions, since I'm so procrastinatey.
Alyssa: It's not a lucky charm, but my corkboard above my desk has a bunch of stuff pinned to it that I really like: the ticket stubs from the four times I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a handful of Fire Emblem cell phone charms, postcards of art I like, and a chart that outlines story structure. It reminds me of the things I enjoy, and that when I get stuck while writing and get stressed out, it's good to take a step back and refocus on the other things that make me happy.
(Sometimes I do a shot of Malört before awards ceremonies. I don't recommend it. Malört tastes really gross, but I can't resist a good dare.)
Tell me about your up-and-coming books and projects (that you're allowed to talk about, of course)!
Karuna: My MG [middle grade] debut, The Gauntlet, will release on March 28, 2017 from Simon and Schuster's new Muslim-focused imprint, Salaam Reads. It is incredible and surreal and I keep pinching myself to make sure it's not a dream (though all that gets me are some nice little bruises). It is a Middle Eastern Jumanji where twelve-year-old Farah has to go into this dangerous board game with her best friends in order to rescue her younger brother.
Early 2017 is also exciting because I will have an essay published as part of the wonderful Kelly Jensen's nonfiction YA anthology, We Are Here: Feminism in the Real World, releasing from Algonquin Books for Young Readers in February.
Other than that, I do have buds of potential on the YA front that I'm hoping will blossom and be out there for people to read and take joy in, but nothing that I can really talk about at this point.
JJ: At the moment I am working on the sequel to Wintersong. :)
Sabaa: My second book, A Torch Against the Night, is out on August 30.
Cindy: Sacrifice, the sequel to Serpentine, releases September 27th. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and just received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. I feel like my sequels are always stronger books, maybe because I know the world and the characters better? I really love this novel, and I hope that readers do too! Serpentine is actually on sale across platforms (Kobo, Kindle, Nook) for .99! So now is the time to download and read, in time for Sacrifice release! :) Summer 2017, I have my first near-future thriller set in Taipei coming out with Simon Pulse. It's titled WANT and is a cross between Blade Runner and Oceans Eleven with a lot of sexual tension thrown in! I'm super proud of this novel too. It is the first YA set in Taiwan that I know of from a bigger U.S. publisher, and truly challenged me as a writer.
Sona: Working on several projects for CAKE Literary, and my first fantasy, which is set in the Mughal Raj and very twisty. I'm also continuing to adapt the screenplay I started ten years ago into a book. I pitch it as Bridget Jones meets Bollywood.
Alyssa: I have two pieces coming out soon: "Rabbit Heart," a short story about lost children and the woman who bioengineers their replacements, at Fireside Fiction; and "Natural Skin," a Snow White-esque story about a girl obsessed with plastic surgery and her hunt for a mythical plastic surgeon who can make impossible dreams come true, at Lightspeed Magazine.
I'm also currently working on a science fiction novella, as well as a handful of horror short stories.
Finally, what is the best piece of advice you've ever received on how to make it in this industry, and what advice do you have for aspiring Asian American writers, YA or otherwise?
Karuna: Be ready to wait. This is something I feel that writers of color have down pat even more, because... you know, we work harder in general and we are prepared to toss something out there, wait, toss something else out there and wait some more. You send something out and you wait, and while you wait, you work on something else or prepare for something else to be sent out. If I didn't know that everyone else had to wait too, for querying, for submission, for announcing, I'd probably be tugging my hair out.
I always feel really inadequate when it comes to giving advice because I'm such a baby author myself and so many things are happening that I'm simply amazed and grateful for, but...
Your voice matters. Don't look at another work coming out and assume that the industry has all the voices it needs for this particular aspect of representation. Dig deep, grasp your story and drag it out on the page. Keep your eyes on your own paper and make that paper the most beautiful, worked over piece of paper you can.
Find your people -- of color. Being able to look up to other authors -- Elsie Chapman, for one, and Cindy, and Ellen Oh, and so many others -- has helped me realize what we are up against when we try to put our work out into the community, and that I'm not alone. Writing is an often solitary pastime and you can only put down the words yourself, but that doesn't mean it's solitary as a rule. Find your people and stay with them.
(Also, as an aside, I am totally here for anyone who wants to message me, even if it's in the middle of the night and Imposter Syndrome is breathing down your neck and making it hard to put another word down. I'm seriously here. I keep an open door.)
Finally, embrace all your options. Think about book packaging, for instance. I started out as a Cake Literary intern back in 2014 and now I'm one of their writers and I couldn't be happier. If you feel like you might be open for work-for-hire, look into that. Try short stories. Seize opportunities you're curious about. If you feel a spark of potential and interest, put your best foot forward and don't focus on your inadequacies. Carpe diem your way into this community because it is your community as much as anyone else's. You belong here.
JJ: My position is a little different from other writers in that I knew intimately what the publishing process was like from the editor's side before making a go of it with my own writing. As someone who's seen how the sausage gets made, my advice is: Don't look back, only forward. You can't dwell on rejections, you can't mull over projects that could have been, you can only move forward. Write the next thing. Do better. Be better. Publishing is a business, and it can chew you up and spit you out if you don't have the persistence, drive, and desire to make it.
Sabaa: It's simple advice and it applies to anyone -- don't make excuses for yourself. If you are not making time to write, then ask yourself why. People write in all sorts of situations, in all manner of ways. Make the time, make the commitment and write. And then -- keep writing. Don't give up.
Cindy: It's been long enough that I honestly do not remember good advice I have received. But personally, I would tell aspiring writers that you really have to be thick-skinned and WANT IT to succeed in publishing. Because there will be folk lined up in the longest ass lines to tell you NO. And they will also tell you NOT THIS when you try to be inclusive. But things have really changed since my debut was bought in 2008. The dialogue and conversations about needing more and better representation has grown a lot. And I see more Asian narratives and authors coming into the industry for certain. Still in small numbers, but it is happening. So I am hopeful, but I do think that you still need to work hard, and also find community. I know I would not have made it this far if it weren't for the encouragement of my writing friends through the tough setbacks and journey.
Sona: The biggest thing I've learned is to finish what you start. If you abandon things halfway, when they get difficult or if you just get distracted, you'll never have anything to show for yourself. Each project is a lesson, whether it sells or not, and you get better as you go. And you need the finished project to even start in the business of publishing.
The other thing I think is really important -- especially for writers from underrepresented communities -- is to find your tribe. YA is a small, close knit community, and honestly, sometimes it can feel like high school. Not everyone will be your friend, and not everyone will be rooting for you. Find the people you can trust, and keep them close. Share successes -- and failures -- together. Publishing can be a wild, sometimes rough ride, and it's important to have people you can rely on by your side.
Alyssa: Write what you want to write. Don't write what you think other people want you to write -- that's a one way ticket to dissatisfaction and frustration. There will always be external pressure, from family, from friends, from people's perceptions of the industry, to focus on certain things: writing nice stories, writing safe stories. The best thing you can do is be fearless in your writing and write what you're most passionate about. That's a scary thing to do! But it will pay off, because your readers will be able to feel your passion and commitment to your work, and they'll respect you for it.
Write what you want to write, and tell the stories that burn inside you, the ones that demand to be told.
Don't be afraid. I feel it too.
Karuna Riazi: Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. Besides pursuing a BA in English literature, she is an online diversity advocate, blogger, and publishing intern. Karuna is fond of tea, Korean dramas, writing about tough girls forging their own paths toward their destinies, and baking new delectable treats for friends and family to relish. Twitter: @KarunaRiazi
S. Jae-Jones: S. Jae-Jones, called JJ, is a voracious and indiscriminate reader, an avid traveller, and something of an adrenaline junkie. Born and raised in sunny Los Angeles, she lived in New York City for 10 years before relocating down to Dixie, where she is comfortably growing fat on grits and barbecue. When not writing, she can be find rock-climbing, skydiving, taking photographs, drawing pictures, and dragging her dog on ridiculously long hikes. Twitter: @sjaejones
Sabaa Tahir: Sabaa Tahir is the New York Times bestselling author of the young adult fantasy An Ember in the Ashes. She grew up in California's Mojave Desert at her family's 18-room motel. There, she spent her time devouring fantasy novels, raiding her brother's comic book stash and playing guitar badly. She began writing An Ember in the Ashes while working nights as a newspaper editor. She likes thunderous indie rock, garish socks and all things nerd. Sabaa currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. Twitter: @sabaatahir
Cindy Pon: I'm addicted to Twitter and bad reality television. And some good ones too, like Project Runway. Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix, my two young adult fantasies from Greenwillow Books are available now! My first published short story, "Blue Skies," is also available in the Diverse Energies anthology (Tu Books). Serpentine, the first book of my second Xia duology was released September 2015, published by Month9Books. Sacrifice, the sequel, is out September 2016. WANT, my near-future thriller set in Taipei will be released by Simon Pulse Summer 2017! A children's picture book with my chinese brush art is also in the works! I'm represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt & Hochman. When I'm not writing or painting, I like to read, daydream, travel, eat and watch films in the theatre. I am a new hobbyist in reef keeping and have an 8g saltwater tank that I spend much time on and adore. I love pastries, americanos and Taiwanese food! =D Twitter: @cindypon
Sona Charaipotra: Sona Charaipotra is a journalist and author who's written for everyone from the New York Times to Teen Vogue. the co-founder of Cake Literary, a boutique book packaging company with a decidedly diverse bent, she spends much of her time poking plot holes in shows like Pretty Little Liars -- for work, of course! she's the co-author of the dance drama Tiny Pretty Things and its sequel Shiny Broken Pieces. She's proud to serve as the VP of content for We Need Diverse Books. Find her on Twitter @sona_c, Facebook, or Instagram, where she mostly posts pics of her family and her chai, pretty much the two most important things in her life, besides her book-filled iPad.
Alyssa Wong: Alyssa Wong studies fiction in Raleigh, NC. Her story, "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers," won the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and her fiction has been shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize, the Bram Stoker Award, the Locus Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. Her work has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, and Tor.com, among others. She can be found online at crashwong.net and on Twitter as @crashwong.
Wendy Xu: Wendy Xu is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and comics artist who works in the publishing industry by day. She is co-creator of and currently draws the webcomic Mooncakes. Her work has been featured in Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology and as part of the New York Historical Society's Chinese in America exhibit. She likes cats and pigeons. You can find her on Twitter @angrygirLcomics