Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Story of the Sausage (Part II): Agent Hunting, Agent Judging, and will “Mr. Fan” please raise your hand?

As I posted in this previous blog piece, I’ve been flirting with sending my manuscript out to a number of literary agents after the fulfilling journey of writing.  I’ve been told this process can be seemingly opaque, difficult, and riddled with punches to the face. The last thing a writer wants to learn is that when all the writing is done, it's time to put on the marketing hat. While I’ve received helpful and interesting feedback from some agents, I recently received the following response:

Dear Mr. Fan,
Many thanks for contacting me about your work. After consideration, I regret to say that your project is not right for my list at this time.
As you know, any reader’s response to a particular book is highly subjective and it is entirely possible that another literary agent might find that your work more closely aligns with their interests.
Please accept my best wishes as you continue your search for representation.
Best regards,

Now, I know my name, “Pan Pan Fan”, is gender-neutral and therefore gender confusing, but being called “Mr. Fan” is what I’d experienced mostly in the business world.  There, during my day (and sometimes weekend) job, I’m often addressed with “Mr.” when I’m first contacted by someone external (who is clearly taking a bet that a Director in Business Development in a tech job in Silicon Valley must safely be a man).  At this, I scoff as the internet age has made these assumptions wholly unacceptable.  A quick search through Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook would lead the searcher of “Pan Pan Fan” to a round-faced, long-haired and (probably) smiling Asian woman.  

What was more irritating, however, in this situation with the agent was that in the whole four paragraphs of my query (pitch, theme, marketing, and bio), I clearly identified myself as a woman.  So this leads me to some assumptions and conclusions based on his assumption:
  • He didn’t bother to read anything,
  • He fired back a quick response after scouring the first sentence for any indication that I brought with me a market of several million blog followers (and found none),
  • He assumed a novel written about famine and mysterious corporate murder using a male protagonist must clearly be written by a man,
  • He has terrible attention to detail, or
  • He just can’t read.

The first time I was addressed as “Mr. Fan” in an email related to work, I was sympathetic.  “Oh dear,” I thought, “our Japanese customers will be so embarrassed when they find out how high my voice is!”  Now, after countless mis-addresses, I just use this as a filter for tossing out resumes (“Dear Mr. Fan, Please find enclosed my resume for the job posting…” - um, delete.) and an assessment on attention to detail.  Maybe Sheryl Sandberg has something witty to reply to my agent email, like, “Lean in to your email, bro, and stop making an a** of yourself and your agency.”
* * * * *

Do you have a story of your own that’s similar?  Post in the comments section below!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine’s Day Special: Dating an Engineer & Dating for Ambitious Women

Part 1: Dating an Engineer

Nearly 3 years ago, I moved from London to the world’s tech center for a job and to escape the rain.  Silicon Valley is everything the stereotypes make of it: start-ups originating from someone’s conversation late one night on the couch, horror stories of failed pitches to venture capitalists, and even crazier stories of companies that had made it.  Of course, one of the most notable features of the Valley is the high ratio of Engineer:Non-Engineer.  The place is seething with engineers.  You can’t escape from it.  Even on 4 hour bike rides that carried me to what would seem like the countryside (say, Half-moon Bay or Pescadero), I often heard conversations like this one at the local coffee shop in a town of 3,000 people:

“A ram access takes 60 nanoseconds, and I don’t have that kind of time!”, or
“I have to load up those ring buffers and flush them…”, or
“Kernel networking is no joke.”

Now, as a woman in my late-twenties, I thought I’d move to the Valley for my career.  Having been romantically unsuccessful in previous cities that have been noted for their plethora of young, single adults  (ahem, London, New York City), the last thing I thought I’d find was a relationship in a place that inspired this movie about a guy who falls in love with his computer.  This is why when I found myself - three weeks after having moved to California - on a date with an eccentric, lovable software engineer and his 3 male friends playing Street Fighter II (he had double-booked seeing me with “video arcade day”), I couldn’t help but appreciate the zany irony life decided to throw at me.

Two and a half years later, I will share with you all the following tips from what I’ve learned after dating an engineer:
  1. Say exactly what you mean.  Now, I know plenty of male friends who would argue this relates to all men, but I would argue that you need to be especially precise with engineers.  Here’s a joke I often refer to: A wife sends her engineering husband to the store and says, “Get a gallon of milk, and if there are eggs, get six.”  The engineer comes home with 6 gallons of milk to a surprised wife who says, “What have you done?”  He replies, “There were eggs.” 
  2. Context switching can be especially challenging in conversations.  I’ve nearly pushed my boyfriend into panic attacks with conversations when I move from the weather to the car to work to my friend Suzie and back to the weather again. 
  3. Romantic ideas or events - such as dates - will require some additional guidance and clarity.  In my relationship, I’ve learned it’s not because he doesn’t care.  Most times, it’s because he is caught up trying to sort out all the details, and of course, perfecting them.  In addition, if you’re like me and enjoy surprises, you’ll have to get over the fact that you need to be explicit about it (see Tip 1)
  4. Where there's boys’ nights, there will be tech talk.  There’s actually no way to get around this one, so you’re on own here.
  5. Consistency is key.  One of my male friends is constantly confused about the “mixed” messages women he dates give to him.  When I asked him to give some examples he said: “Well, one moment she says she wants to spend more time together, and then next moment she says, ‘It seems like you want more time alone, so it’s up to you!’  Well, what does she want?! Yes or no?” To which I replied, “That’s obviously a trap, and the answer is always ‘It depends’."
  6. Be careful of what you ask, as the answer might be brutal.  Most engineers I’ve met have to be very precise in their professional lives, and that carries into their personal lives.  Luckily, having been together for a long while now, my boyfriend can usually tell when the question is rhetorical and the expected answer is comfort versus a real opinion.  For example, one of our recent conversations: “Have I been high maintenance lately?” I asked one evening after a particularly stressful day at work.  I looked to him, and I noticed he wouldn’t look me in the eyes.  He deliberated for some seconds.  Then, suddenly, he pushed his face close to mine, squinted one eye and stared me down and replied, “It’s a trap!  It’s a trap!”
  7. Behind all the technical discussions, facts, intellectual chat, there’s probably a shy, lovely person who doesn’t quite know how to “shoot the shit”.  Be patient, and you’ll probably be surprised at the fun eccentricities and quirks and, in turn, really learn to love them in your relationship.

Part 2: Dating Experience - from One Ambitious Gal to Another
I grew up in a stereotypical Chinese-American household with a step-cousin and step-sister of similar age to me.  When we were teenagers, none of us were allowed to date because we were expected to focus on our schoolwork and extracurricular activities.  Dating was secondary, and it was also considered a needless distraction from our “priorities”.   We each took our family's advice seriously and put our heads in the sand, worked really hard, and ended up doing fairly well academically.  Then suddenly, when we came back from our respective colleges during a family holiday, we were faced with prying questions of:
"Why no boyfriend?”
“Where is boyfriend?”
“Why you bring female friend home?  Why no boy?  Next year, we want to see boyfriend.”  
Suddenly, after spending 18+ years prioritizing work and education, we were expected to find a boyfriend just like that. To make matters worse, it wasn’t as if the pressures and challenges of remaining a career-driven woman were excused.  So as you can imagine, all three young ladies of the Cheng-Ding household grew up to be fairly independent, highly driven, Type-A ambitious women for whom dating was a slightly nebulous and confusing new territory (and should be saved for later stories).

Since our early twenties, we’ve each learned quite a bit from our romantic adventures, but this leads me to the next set of advice: Dating for Ambitious Women.
  1. Finding a partner is not like climbing the career ladder, getting a degree, or completing an Ironman.  It just isn’t.  There’s no linear path, and there’s no real way you can control your surroundings. You don’t get to succeed by working really hard at it.  Sorry to say, but dating is uncontrollable, oftentimes irrational, and definitely not a reflection of your success or worth.
  2. Avoid the null set.  I’ve heard friends say the equivalence of the following when describing their ideal partner: “Climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, traveled the world, really successful in his career, wants children, willing to be a stay-at-home dad, wealthy, kind, and romantic.”  I’m really sorry to say, but you’ve just described the null-set to me.  No one like this exists, and finding someone who doesn’t fit all those builds isn’t “settling”, it’s being realistic.  Pick a few top priorities (a few, not half a dozen) and ignore the rest.  
  3. Learn to let go.  This one reminds me a little of (1).  When I was younger, I often achieved things people said were impossible for me by sheer stubbornness.  I applied the same fervor and ambition toward certain relationships that just didn’t work, and one day, I realized that banging my head against a brick wall wasn’t going to move it an inch.  
  4. Smart men like smart women.  Period.  Throughout the past 10 years, I’ve heard countless times (and have even been a perpetrator) that men don’t like smart women.  I simply disagree based on fact alone.  I would say most of my male friends here in the Bay Area are insanely proud that their girlfriends are “smart and successful”.  If your relationship falls apart because of your success, don’t put it on yourself and say, “It was because he was intimidated.”  No, it was more likely he is a moron.
  1. What relaxes you after a hard day?  Find that in a partner.  Before I had more dating experience, I thought I wanted a partner that could keep pace with me.  But the reality is, I needed someone who admires and enjoys my pace of life but could at the same time support me.  This meant slowing things down.  Keeping things calm.  Weathering the stress and not being worked up with it.
  1. Learning to be vulnerable grows relationships.  Vulnerability is hard for everyone.  But, if you’ve gotten to where you are in life from playing the “tough gal” role, being vulnerable can seem like a flaw.  What I’ve learned over time, though, is that you’ve got to ask for help and let other people take care of you.  Otherwise, it’s not a genuine relationship.
  1. Stop looking at the next step, and start enjoying your relationship today.  I’ve always had a hard time getting to point B without trying to figure out where point C will be.  Relationships, however, really test this tendency.  In dating, maybe there is the next step; maybe there isn’t, but if you keep thinking of “what next?” you might miss big clues that are right in front of you.  

Now, go out there and enjoy the beautiful day with friends, family, or your loved one.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Story of the Sausage (Part 1)

Few people want to know how the sausage is made. But for those of us who are crazy enough to get into this business of sausage-making, it’s nice to know that there’s others just as crazy as we are.

To you, I write.
* * * * *

Recipe Step One: Observe and Synthesize; Taste Everything, Spit Nothing Out

As some of you may know, I’ve been slowly chipping away at writing a novel. This past winter, I finally reached a draft that I felt comfortable sharing with others. Since conception to manuscript sharing, exactly 4.5 years have passed, but if you were to ask me how long I’ve really been working at it, I’d say (as so many cliched love stories begin) I’ve been wanting to write this novel for as long as I can remember.

My first attempt of novel writing happened when I was eleven years old. I wanted to write a story about a young girl preparing for a piano competition and reconciling her childhood with her parent’s expectations of her. I wrote the first chapter and then never picked it up again. My second attempt was sometime in college, and all I had were four characters and some vague idea of how those characters’ love lives would intersect with understanding their pasts. It never moved past a few notes scribbled in a notebook. Then, sometime when I was living in New York City as a young professional who hated my job, I wanted to find a way to synthesize and process the information overload that was happening on a daily basis (well explained by this NYTimes article). I came up with this first scene somewhere on 54th Street and 3rd Avenue:

A young man in a large city is waking up on a sunny morning. He lies in bed with his eyes open in his large bedroom apartment surrounded by tall windows, where he’s baked hot from the sun. Then suddenly he pulls open the drawer of his bedside dresser, picks up a loaded gun, and puts it in his mouth. A moment of deliberation passes, and the young man takes the gun from his mouth, puts it back in his dresser, gets dressed and walks out his apartment door.

125,000 words later working off that first image, it’s unclear to me where the idea came from. But, in hindsight I imagine it was looking up at all those tall buildings with big windows and wondering what the people were doing inside. That’s how it began: a simple question which led to a premise, which led to a problem, which led to an entire world that unraveled in my head which I desperately wanted to dump onto paper. All around me, there was so much excitement and life, and I wanted to lose none of it. The conversations I heard snippets of, the love stories, the interaction between human and human, human and surrounding...I stood on the shores of a world of information which crashed onto my eyes and ears, and I could not help but want to describe it all to someone else, to confirm it happened, it’s happening, all around us and everywhere, the world is moving. The world is moving.

And in years later, to look back and when the memory is impossible to draw upon, to look at the hints of little words on paper and say, “Yes, I remember when the world moved that way.”

It was in that way of having the ideas swirling and mixing - without my control - bursting over and prying into other activities that I could not help but begin the story. It’s not clear who the master is: the writer or the story. I’ve heard accounts of both happening to people, but in my case, it was a constant battle of self-control; teasing those images into words; placing the words into a coherent story; and finally, putting the eyes onto the dragon (so they say), to try and bring it to life.

* * * * *
Recipe Step Two: Put in a Pot and Boil; Strain; Find New Ingredients if Necessary

A good friend once asked me why I was so determined to finish this story. It was cutting into all my weekends and empty hours late at night before sleep. I was giving up other hobbies and time with friends to work on this thing with no clear outcome, and worst of all, it was borderline narcissistic (“Sorry guys, gotta spend the weekend alone.”; “Can’t make it out this time, have stuff to do.”; “Do you think this works in the story, does that, what are your impressions?”). At the time, I couldn’t find a rational reason to give her, so I used the following analogy which still stands: for me, finishing this novel was kind of like an overdue pregnancy (I imagine). It was getting uncomfortable, and I needed to get it out.

The reason was that simple.

But the process was not.

It’s one thing for observation and the story to take on a life of its own, but it’s another for the process to as well. In hindsight, I had very little control over the process other than making sure I sat at my desk 2 hours a night, working on it regardless of what my state of mind was. There were good days of productive storytelling when I felt elated and satisfied. I felt powerful and in control of my own narrative. There were other days it felt as if the whole thing were a waste, that nothing had a clear purpose and I was recklessly throwing hours down the drain (“I could have done this instead, done that, seen her, talked to him”).

What I learned was that observation and synthesis had been the easier part of the two. To observe, you just have to stay quiet, find the stillness, and allow the experiences to dive into and out of you like pouring water into a sponge and then squeezing it out. On the other hand, writing, making the connection between the senses and the brain and painting it onto paper through a finite number of words that could be arranged in a finite number of ways to describe all of those indescribable things is impossible to do perfectly. So ironically as a writer, you live constantly with the nagging feeling of being inarticulate, of missing just that many words from your vocabulary, of never quite reaching the height of the real experience. If someone hasn’t said it yet, I’ll say it now: writing a novel is a Sisyphean task.

And yet...and yet...

I wrote the first draft of the manuscript in 2012 in about 5 months. It was the first real window of time I had, and I sat down painstakingly and did it without shame or a care of who might read it. I just wrote everything that came to mind; wrote it without reading it the next day, plunging the plot forward without looking back, jumped recklessly into the pages about Henry’s Smith’s life like I had nothing else to lose and I was being chased at the same time. 120,000 words later, it was all out there, and I wanted nothing else but to keep it hidden. I was even too embarrassed to read it through when I was done. I remember that moment exactly, sitting in my parent’s house in Connecticut, putting the final sentence on the page, and then running up to my old childhood bedroom and sitting there for a long time on the carpet whispering: “It’s finished.” I said, “It’s finished.” Then I walked back downstairs, told my parents of my new career plans (“I’d like to go back to London and then to California”), and it was like that, anticlimactic, forgotten, moved on.

But it came back. I tried opening it in 2013 but was discouraged at how poorly I felt it was written and could not face myself. Oh, the cliches! The poor characterization! The over-dramatization...and something was missing. Something was missing, and the smell that permeated from the pages was fear.

The past is sometimes an ugly thing, even if the past happened before you were born. I had always known that the past lives on through generations for we inherit time that’s not reconciled. “Of course,” I realized, “I was meant to make this about something that I had not wanted to write about directly.” Where is this land that you come from, try to understand, connect the pieces of the distant stories?

China. China was the missing piece.

I had convinced myself that I could write a story that captured my present observations by ignoring the past which clung to me in the same way the empty fear clung to the pages of the first manuscript draft. And so, it was time to revisit it again. Made stronger by the knowledge the first draft could be done, I began writing again. 

The second draft is really a beginning, and if you asked me, the second draft is the most painful: you see the mistakes you made, come to terms with the shortcomings of your own writing, and own those problems with the dreadful understanding you must improve. I went in with a meat cleaver, and having had the distance from it, I was happy to carve out the little bit that was still useful and begin all over again, slowly, painstakingly, patiently. What kept me going was that I knew I was getting better, and the writing was one small step closer to representing what I had wanted it to be - that ethereal moment when the idea comes (wordlessly) as the representation of experience.

It took 8 months of painful self-criticism and honesty. But like anything else, we can’t improve without accepting our weaknesses. We’ve all got to start from some place, and starting from a place that needs improvement isn’t a bad idea.

In hindsight, for me, the only good part of second draft is that it led to the third draft where the fun begins. I won’t give too much away for those who haven’t had this experience yet, but I’ll just say this: if there’s no place to have a little fun, to read back on your words and smile at the gymnastics and artistry, no one would ever finish this damn journey. The third draft is where the people stop being ideas and become real people, where the characters direct themselves (she would never say that; scratch that out...he’d act this way, of course), and where the lines for cutting are more clearly marked (nix that, erase it, get rid of the extra). Enjoy it. Once you’ve gotten this far, you deserve to be proud. 

Then, of course, what next?
* * * * *

Recipe Part Three: Garnish, Tasters, and Sharing. Re-Cook if Necessary.

In my time meeting other ambitious novelist to-be’s, I’ve found a few different, non-exclusive types that care about publication:
  1. The Narcissistic Writer: Believes one’s words are the high words from above and so the masses must read it.
  2. The Wayward Writer: Really doesn’t want to have a normal job and thinks writing novels is a sweet gig because the writer can write whatever he/she wants. To be honest, since moving to the Bay Area, the Wayward Writer has been replaced by The Wayward Start-up.
  3. The Economically Deluded Writer: There’s a lot of money to be made in this vocation made clear by the likes of Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey and that silly novel about a lady traveling to different countries to deal with her failed marriage.
  4. The Sharer: Really wants to talk about one’s own experience to everyone for no other reason than getting self-gratification (kind of like therapy but in front of crowds).
  5. The Idealistic Artist: There’s something to be experienced in the writing that enriches not only the writer but those who read it. Categorized by one of my favorite quotes, “Art should disturb the undisturbed and comfort the disturbed”. It may be the truth; it may not be the truth. Who cares, as long as it reaches out to people.
If I could categorize myself, I’d *like* to put my own writing at 70% (5), 20% (4), 5% (1), 3% (2) and 2% (3). But this is only the author’s side of the equation - this is what I’d like to put out there, the reasons I want to put it out there. What about the other side of the equation, the reader’s? Why should any reader read this?

It leads to the following tricky questions as publication is really a big market-matching problem: who reads novels anymore when we’ve got social media, click bait, instagram, flickr, 5 minute news? What do people want to read? How do readers find the the right writer for them if they have to navigate through a diluted self-publishing market or eat what the opaque publishing industry force feeds them? How have readers changed? And how will writing have to change to address this (or should it)?

As I have completed the first two parts of my journey - observation followed by writing - I’m beginning the third part of the journey, publication. I hope to take you, those who are interested, along with me (for perhaps you’re also a writer wanting to connect to another on this whole crazy business).

So here’s where I am. In the past two weeks, I have applied to roughly 15 literary agencies and have received disappointing but interesting feedback: “Your writing is sophisticated, the story sounds interesting, but it’s dense.” Or, “This is just not mainstream enough for us to represent.” In many ways, this feedback has opened up more questions than it’s answered and ultimately leads to the quandary many writers face today: To beg at the doors of publishing houses and literary agents (to find what they think is marketable/profitable) or to face the challenges of self-publication through ebooks? I call this the “new problem”. The next quandary is: To change one’s writing so that it can be read by a wider audience, or to keep it with the original form and accept that it’ll be a highly truthful, but personal experience? I call this the “age-old problem” as every artist will have to answer for herself at some point, and even harder, will have to distinguish between being artistically truthful and plain-old confusing.
* * * * *

This is the first installment of “The Story of the Sausage” (which perhaps should be named instead, “The Hair of the Dog”). I’m writing again after a few weeks off to hunt for publication opportunities. Of course, perhaps more importantly, I’m seeing this - in itself - as a journey and a story worth telling.