What Competitive Swimming Taught Me As A Writer

Half my life being in a competitive year-round swim team taught me valuable life lessons that I now apply to writing. Coach mode on.

First and foremost, your mindset and attitude is king (or queen). It rules you. And in a way, YOU rule it. You can tune them to be positive and determined. Or be negative and defeatist. Your choice.

You’re imposing unnecessary hurdles on yourself by doing the latter. Your thoughts and attitude affect your performance, for better or for worse.

To the writers who tell themselves they’re not talented enough, their voices don’t matter, they’re never gonna sell, get an agent, or whatever: cut it out. Stop that kind of talk right now. That’s helping no one and it’s certainly not helping you.

In swim meets, (and in lots of other sports events, really), athletes psych up. When I used to be on the team, before my turn to compete, I’d pump myself up on protein bars, motivational music, and good thoughts. The good thoughts count the most.

A swimmer who’ll perform poorly would be curled up on the bench telling themselves they’re doomed to fail, everyone else is too fast, they can’t beat their own time, etc. Don’t be that swimmer.

So psych yourself up. Pump yourself up on those creative endorphins. Be your own loudest cheerleader.

No, you can’t control if an editor picks your story, or if an agent wants to rep you. But you CAN control how you navigate yourself through adversity and the creative process. (Yes, you have psychic powers)

I think that writing well doesn’t start with your imagination or an idea. It starts with your attitude. 

Validate yourself BEFORE you start working to earn it from other people and places. Not AFTER. How can editors and agents believe in you and your work if you can’t do that yourself first?

Coach mode off. Thanks for coming to my TED talk. Now get out there and tell yourself that your voice DOES matter and your stories WILL kick butt.

Goals vs Milestones, Wants vs Needs

I’ll never forget meeting Ken Liu. He came to Writefest as a GoH in 2017. Before his panel, he sat down with me to have a one-on-one conversation for at least an hour. His generous time and attention with me, a newbie, made him that much more relatable. He gave great advice:

Goals vs milestones. Goals involve numbers and tasks you set for yourself. Milestones are achievements. Goals are within your control. Milestones aren’t. Work on what you have control over, and of course, celebrate the milestones if they happen.

Writing at least 500 words a day is a goal. NaNoWriMo is a goal. Publication is a milestone. Getting an agent is a milestone. Award nomination is a milestone. It helps to know the difference. Don’t get the two mixed up. Don’t mix up milestones for goals, or you’re bound for disappointment, frustration, and despair because you’ll always feel like the odds are too low and your “goals” are beyond you. I don’t want anyone falling into that mindset.

I’ll add to this with wants vs needs. For example: Did I WANT Clarion? Heck yeah. Do I NEED it? Nope. It’s ok to want something like that. Or not. To feel like you NEED it isn’t a healthy feeling. Goal: choose stories suitable for sample to Clarion. Milestone: got into Clarion.

Keeping these distinctions in mind really helps me have a tangible, organized scheme in my mind on what I can reasonably achieve and strive for. This is the mindset that I think helps me, as a writer, stay healthy emotionally and mentally.

Writefest 2017 and The Fellowship of the Pen (or Laptop, or Whatever You Write With)

Here it is: my attempt at articulating the tumult of emotions and thoughts following my first Writefest.

Where can I begin? How? Well, the whole weekend I was there, I just felt this overwhelming joy and peace, the same mix of feelings I get when I’m sitting in an empty cathedral appreciating its architecture and soaking in the sacred atmosphere (one of my favorite pastimes, I must admit). This time the sense of content and belonging came from being among other writers. Living in Houston, growing up, raised, and surrounded by Vietnamese Catholics, I never lacked in being part of the community on an ethnic and spiritual level. My parents saw to it that I got my fair share of cultural association events, Christian retreats, etc. But never before have I been part of a community on a creative level (well, since graduating from High School for Performing and Visual Arts, and I didn’t get into that school for writing, anyway). I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, recently making the transition to original fiction after flexing my creative muscles in fanfiction for a decade. This creative endeavor, while emotionally rewarding, felt quite lonely at times, and I longed for that satisfying feeling that I wasn’t alone.

I found that through Writefest.

Read more

Not quite going as planned

I’ve been held up by a lot of things, school and writer’s block being my chief reasons. Looks like I’m not going to get my stories done and submitted in time for Clarion UCSD’s fee discount, which ends on February 15. Oh well, it’s only a $15 increase from then till closing applications on March 1, so I’m going to take my time. I’ve learned the hard way from previous submissions to never be pressured by a deadline and rush a work into completion (or what I think is completion, when in fact it could do much better with patient, thoughtful revision).

First Shot at Clarion

This will be my first year applying to the Clarion writing workshops (West and UCSD). On January 1 I submitted my application for Clarion West, which lets me choose just one story to send. I chose to submit a near-future science fiction set in Russia. UCSD allows for submitting two short stories, so I think it’d be good to show my range of interests and styles by sending one near-future hard science fiction and one secondary world fantasy, rather than two stories that are similar in genre and themes. I want to get these two stories done before the extra charge on the submission fee (February 15), but am currently grappling with a bad combination of anxiety, self-doubt and writer’s block. Hopefully I’ll pull through and get ’em done.

Writing a Story Based on a Dream

I’ve had a disturbing, unsettling dream that I was the victim of a mass shooting.

It didn’t take place anywhere in particular, nor did I recognize anyone around me. All I knew was that I was hiding with a huddle of people and the shooter, in police uniform for some reason, comes in spraying bullets. I avoid them the first time, then the shooter comes back to pick us off one by one. I distinctly remember the shooter meeting my eyes, then the strange rush of being shot in the head. I guess the closest feeling would be blacking out during a really bad menstrual cramp. I’ve never been in this kind of situation in my life, but the fear and panic felt so real that I woke up wondering, for a moment, if I was dead or alive. I was relieved, of course, that it was just a dream. It left me so rattled that I can’t get it out of my head. I decided to turn it into a story idea and write about it. Here’s to hoping I can capture the emotional power I felt on paper.

(In case this story ever gets finished and/or published, I’ll have this post to turn to if I ever have to talk about the inspiration behind it.)

“Pokemon Short Story” Prompt Spree

In an attempt to spur more productivity and kick writer’s block to the curb, I’m going to write a bunch of short stories using Pokemon battle moves as the titles and thematic framework. Because I’m still in love with the Pokemon games and will probably never outgrow them. I enjoy writing stories based on prompts, because they’re springboards that could take me anywhere. I love seeing where it may lead and end. These will be original stories, not about Pokemon itself (which would make that fanfiction). Pokemon is merely the inspiration. A few words can sprout off into a bunch of tangents and endless possibilities. It’s just a matter of choosing which path to take. An issue I’d like to work on is tightening and trimming my narrative, because I tend to make my stories quite long. I aim to pack in as much as I can in a few words.

Read more

A New Hands-On Approach

One of the greatest joys of being a writer is reading the first time for pleasure, then reading a second time to study the craft. For the longest time I’ve been adamant and pretty diligent about keeping copies of my favorite books pristine and spotless, free of those dreaded dog-eared flaps, pen/pencil marks, and spine creases. Now I’ve decided to adapt a new method in my journey to become a better reader and writer. I’m going to start annotating my books, highlighting/underlining words, phrases, or entire passages that strike me, and scribble on the margin why I think it works within or throughout the narrative. I find that the best way to get inspiration, and the best way to achieve strong writing, is to allow the influence of your favorite writers and books. So that’s what I’ll try to do. I can’t wait to revisit my shelves and get started.

Starting on The Iron Who Cried Wolf

So I’ve taken on the challenge of tackling a new novel. Whoo! It’ll push me beyond my comfort zone, into unfamiliar territory. THE IRON WHO CRIED WOLF is contemporary survival literary fiction, set in Russia, with a female Chinese-Russian prison guard named Temur and a male Ukrainian convict named Mikhail stranded in Siberia.

No science fiction or fantasy. Just straight-up drama. A deviation from my usual interests.

What’s with the title, you ask? You might be thinking I’ve made a typo, or lost my grasp of the basics of the English language. THE IRON WHO CRIED WOLF? Shouldn’t it be THE IRON THAT CRIED WOLF? Why is the iron crying wolf? This makes no sense slkdjfdsfl. Shh, it’s ok. Let me explain you a thing. The story revolves around the belief of seeing danger that’s not there, or raising a false alarm. Or as Aesop’s fable puts it, “cry wolf.” The phrase sums up Temur’s struggle to overcome her wariness and mistrust towards Mikhail, who becomes more of her friend than an enemy despite his past crimes. Temur is a name derived from the Turkic-Mongolic word meaning “iron.” She is the iron referred to in the title, the one who cries wolf. That’s why the preposition “who” and not “that” is used. Hence, THE IRON WHO CRIED WOLF. (There’s reason to this madness, y’all.)

Read more

Coming Close With Guardian Lion

Guardian Lion cover

(Art is my own)

It’s been a year since I had started my YA Asian fantasy novel GUARDIAN LION. I started writing in June and finished it in December, roughly half a year. Still can’t believe I had finished it at 141,000 words (and later cut it down, with much effort, to 116,000 words). Naturally, after revising the manuscript to the best of my ability, I was itching to query it and hope it’d get a few grabs.

(For the sake of anonymity and avoiding any chance of identification, I will refer to the agent as “they/their/them.”)

Read more