Starting today I can call myself a Nebula-nominated writer.
That’s freaking UNREAL. I don’t really have the words.
Starting today I can call myself a Nebula-nominated writer.
That’s freaking UNREAL. I don’t really have the words.
Long time no see! I’ve been overwhelmed with life, settling into Cambridge (I LOVE IT HERE), drafting Book Three, and cranking away at revisions of Book Two.
Speaking of Book Two…
The Dragon Republic will be out from Harper in summer 2019! The B&N Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog ran the cover reveal today, as well as the synopsis AND an excerpt of the first chapter. You can read it all at this link.
Meanwhile, here’s the cover!
I absolutely love it. I think it’s so beautiful; the colors are perfect, Rin’s expression is spot-on, and the whole thing SCREAMS symbolism. The cover design process this time around was so smooth and easy. Every time my editorial team showed me what they’d done at each stage in the process I screamed YES, THAT IS WHAT I WANT!!! It really felt like we were all on precisely the same wavelength and had identical visions for the book, and I’m just so grateful I have such an amazing team to work with at Harper Voyager. Credit also due, of course, to the incredibly talented artist JungShan, who has managed yet again to capture exactly what Rin looks like in my mind.
I’m generally not a fan of covers that depict the characters themselves. So often they just go wrong; the characters look awkward, they don’t mesh with how I imagine them, they’re positioned funny, etc. I suspect that danger is why we’re seeing so many more abstract covers, or covers that focus on still objects or symbols, for fantasy releases. I lucked out. I’m biased, obviously, but I think I have the best covers in the world 😛 (Okay, the cover to Rebecca Roanhorse’s upcoming Storm of Locusts looks hecking RAD.)
I’ll try not to say too much about the symbolism because I don’t want to give away any spoilers. For now, let’s just all take some advice from the cover blurb:
There’s an oft-made argument in genre fiction circles that sexual violence shouldn’t be used as a plot point. It’s regressive. It’s demeaning to women. It’s gratuitously violent, grotesque, and unnecessary because we don’t need to see violence against women to know that this was a historical truth, we know it well enough–
Except we don’t.
The Poppy War is centered around the 1937 Rape of Nanjing. This also happens to be what I wrote my thesis on. I have spent over a year reading personal accounts of the bystanders, victims, and perpetrators. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after months of research, it is that the west frankly does not care.
The west has never done a good job of caring about sexual violence done to women who aren’t white.
I’m not interested in writing utopias. I don’t like writing the alternate histories where gender equality is taken for granted. I love reading them–I understand why some like to write them and I understand their importance–we must be able to envision alternate futures for ourselves if we can shift from the present.
But healing comes only after a stark analysis of the past. And as long as these women’s stories are elided, disputed, ignored, mocked–we can’t heal.
Did you know that the Western world would likely never have heard of the Rape of Nanjing if Iris Chang had not published her brave and despairing book in 1997? (I know it’s been contested by historians since, don’t @ me. Those are details. The larger point remains.)
Did you know that still today there are Japanese scholars who say the Rape of Nanjing didn’t happen? The evidence is all fabricated. And if it isn’t, then it’s exaggerated. And if not that, then mayyybe it happened–but it was committed by Chinese soldiers.
The women? Who cares what they said? We shot most of them after we raped them, anyways. Corpses can’t talk.
(I wonder often what they would say if they could.)
I would rather not fade to black. I’d like to depict the acts in bloody, brutal, stark, detail. Stare at it. Let it burn your eyes. Let it carve marks into your skin. Watch until the finish and never forget what you saw here today.
Take care of yourself, readers. If you can’t finish the book–don’t. If you know you shouldn’t pick it up, I’m warning you now. Here are all of your content warnings in one place. This book is about:
The most triggering chapter–the Rape of Nanjing chapter–is Chapter 21. The Unit 731 chapter is Chapter 24. These aren’t the only chapters where the CWs above are discussed but they are the ones that almost every single reviewer has reeled from.
Please, for the love of god, if you cannot handle mentions of these things, then for your own sake don’t pick up the book.
But here is why I wrote it: because silence hurts so much worse.
A few readers have been asking for an image of the map in THE POPPY WAR, since it doesn’t come with the audiobook. So here you go! All resemblances to real countries are totally, completely unintentional.
“But doesn’t that look like–”
“But that’s definitely–”
Back when I was querying agents in 2016, one of the most helpful things I did was read successful query letters by other authors. I’d look at how they introduced their characters, how they raised the stakes, and how they presented themselves as authors. There are a ton of good ones out there, but I thought I’d share mine too. It’s been a few years, and I’ve matured a lot since then (I was nineteen. NINETEEN) but hey–it worked, so I’m proud of it.
For timeframe reference, I started querying in January 2016, and I had an agent by early February. My agent search went very smoothly and quickly, and I attribute that to a) sliding into peoples’ inboxes at a lucky post-holiday time and b) having a decent query letter!
I’ve posted the letter first in its original, unedited text. This is the actual thing that I pitched to Hannah Bowman, the amazing agent I’m with now. (Yes, THE POPPY WAR was called SPEER’S VENGEANCE at the time. Terrible title. I know. And yes, it was only 137,000 words back then. It grew about 18,000 words during six rounds of edits.) I used a nearly identical letter for most of the other agents I queried to–I only tailored a few words to cater to what I’d seen in agents’ wish lists. I ended up getting a ton of partial requests, a lot of full requests, and three final offers. So while I’d change a few things about the letter if I were writing it today, it was still pretty successful.
I’m also including a version with my annotations on which parts I think worked, and why. I’m not an agent or a mind reader so my advice may not apply to everyone. Take it all with a grain of salt, and reject what doesn’t work for you. But I hope this helps a little!
Here’s the original:
How about a female Asian protagonist kicking ass in a world where shamans summon gods by dropping acid? I am seeking representation for SPEER’S VENGEANCE, a completed fantasy novel of 137,000 words.
Twelve-year-old war orphan Runin Fang has zero prospects. Her foster parents, two opium dealers, would like to marry her off to an imports official. But Runin has other plans. Through a series of thefts and bribes, she manages to test into the academy at Sinegard, where martial artists are trained to lead the Nikan Imperial Militia. There, Runin discovers an aptitude for shamanism: the ancient art of calling upon the gods in battle through ingesting psychedelics.
(Read: get high, breathe fire.)
But as Runin grows from clueless orphan to a formidable martial artist, her country readies itself for war. When the Federation of Mugen invades her motherland Nikan, Runin is thrust into the heart of a conflict that has spanned generations. As her shamanic powers grow, she will be forced to make a choice between saving her people and retaining her humanity.
My background: I study international relations theory and modern Chinese history. To study these things is to study suffering. I have long asked myself how the world could have looked away when millions of Chinese perished under horrific conditions of warfare and famine. I have asked how Japan could to this day refuses to acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre, the rapes of tens of thousands of women, and the grotesque experiments conducted by Unit 731. Most of all, I have asked how Mao, the same man revered by millions as a god of liberation, could have become a genocidal dictator in the span of a decade.
This novel is my attempt to answer those questions. It is a fantasy novel, but it’s also a study in collective trauma, genocide denial, military strategy, and the psychology of dictators. I read that you’re looking for military SF, and this might be right up your alley.
Also, because it is about shamans, this book deals extensively with psychotropic drug use. Researching this was fun.
I really appreciate your time and consideration, and I look forward to your response.
Dear Hannah, [People give mixed advice on whether to use agents’ first names or last names. Some agents I’ve talked to say they prefer first names because otherwise things sound horribly formal. They aren’t your schoolteacher. And you are, after all, looking for a business partner. But I don’t think there’s one right way to do this. No one’s going to reject a query based on how you addressed them.]
How about a female Asian protagonist kicking ass in a world where shamans summon gods by dropping acid?[I’m really proud of this first sentence. I think it packs a ton of specific details about the story into a very short lead, and makes it clear it’s a story about marginalized perspectives without spelling it out.] I am seeking representation for SPEER’S VENGEANCE, a completed fantasy novel of 137,000 words. [I’ve read a lot of advice about necessary information to put in the first paragraph, and I think it’s standard. Include title, genre, and word count. Some people do comp titles here too; I didn’t because I’d read a warning about comparing yourself to overly-ambitious comps and I got scared.]
Twelve-year-old war orphan Runin Fang has zero prospects.[Introduce the main character and give us a reason to care about them!] Her foster parents, two opium dealers, would like to marry her off to an imports official. But Runin has other plans. Through a series of thefts and bribes, she manages to test into the academy at Sinegard, where martial artists are trained to lead the Nikan Imperial Militia. There, Runin discovers an aptitude for shamanism: the ancient art of calling upon the gods in battle through ingesting psychedelics. [Look at all that world building! I’m going to use the word “specificity” a lot, but I think it’s wildly important to highlight the details that set your MS apart from others in the genre.]
(Read: get high, breathe fire.) [I like this sentence because it shows my writing voice and sense of humor. It’s a nice, curt summary of the world’s magic system. And it’s forking funny!]
But as Runin grows from clueless orphan to a formidable martial artist, her country readies itself for war.[Once I introduced a character for us to care about, I panned outward and outlined the stakes.] When the Federation of Mugen invades her motherland Nikan, Runin is thrust into the heart of a conflict that has spanned generations. As her shamanic powers grow, she will be forced to make a choice between saving her people and retaining her humanity. [I think this last sentence was meh, but it does the job. It outlines the central conflict and makes the reader intrigued in how things play out, without spelling out the ending. The important thing is that we have someone to care about, a goal they are trying to achieve, and the impediments to that goal.]
[I think this next paragraph is optional. Some people include information about their writing background and previous publications. I didn’t have any, so I didn’t. But I did have academic background relevant to the story, so I used this space to describe a) why I wrote this story and b) why I was the best person to write the story.]
My background: I study international relations theory and modern Chinese history. To study these things is to study suffering. I have long asked myself how the world could have looked away when millions of Chinese perished under horrific conditions of warfare and famine. I have asked how Japan could to this day refuses to acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre, the rapes of tens of thousands of women, and the grotesque experiments conducted by Unit 731. Most of all, I have asked how Mao, the same man revered by millions as a god of liberation, could have become a genocidal dictator in the span of a decade. [More hints at what will be in the book without spelling out the plot. Also, specific details and historical allusions make it clear I know what I’m talking about!]
This novel is my attempt to answer those questions. It is a fantasy novel, but it’s also a study in collective trauma, genocide denial, military strategy, and the psychology of dictators.[I like to just laundry list a bunch of themes my book touches on. I think it’s a quick and easy way to describe what you’r about.] I read that you’re looking for military SF, and this might be right up your alley. [Make it clear that you’re querying this particular agent for a reason! Some people do this part in the first paragraph. I don’t think it matters where you do it, as long as you do.]
Also, because it is about shamans, this book deals extensively with psychotropic drug use. Researching this was fun. [Again, voice and humor. Long paragraphs become a slog to read, so I tend to break them up with short punchy sentences to give the reader a break.]
I really appreciate your time and consideration, and I look forward to your response. [Common courtesy!]
Obviously, there are some cringe-worthy moments in there. The more you grow as a writer, the more often you become ashamed of your younger self. But this query letter worked–and I don’t think it’s a bad one. Take what is helpful and laugh at what isn’t. And good luck on your agent search!
What’s good, friends?
To everyone who’s been asking when they can read an excerpt of THE POPPY WAR: the answer is NOW! The Barnes & Noble SFF blog ran the first chapter today. They’re calling it the “buzziest fantasy debut of 2018.” That’s right, motherforkers. I am an infernal horde of BEES.
Go check it out, and I hope you like it! (And if you do, won’t you consider pre-ordering? ❤ )
PS! If you dig the prose and still can’t wait for May 1, Tor.com is running an excerpt of Chapter 17 later this month! It strikes an entirely different tone from the opening and it’s gruesomely creepy. I can’t wait for you to read it.
Hey, friends. What’s new with you?
I haven’t blogged much lately, which I attribute mostly to being a second-semester senior and having a thesis to worry about (not to mention committing myself to hammering out at least 1500 words a day in Book 3! slow and steady!). But I have some writing updates, small and large, so here’s a messy accumulation of just about everything that’s been going on with me.
I’ve had some non-fiction essays come out the last time I posted here!
“The Racial Rubber Stamp” came out on the SFWA blog back in January, and it’s a lengthy tirade on some of the micro-aggressions non-white writers often face in mostly white writing spaces.
“How to Talk to Ghosts” dropped on the Uncanny Magazine website today. It’s about historical and intergenerational trauma, bare family trees, and white appropriation of diasporic pain.
I recently committed myself to reading War and Peace, all the way through, without breaks. This ended up being awful idea, but I keep my commitments. (Angry Natasha botched her engagement to Prince Andrey like that, but excited to see where Natasha+Pierre is headed. Also, pretty certain things are not going to end well for Sonya and Nikolay, but a girl can hope.)
Other than that, here’s a list of recent reads that I enjoyed very much:
I’m open for suggestions for what to tackle after I’m FINALLY done with Tolstoy. I really want to get my hands on Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, but that’s not out from Saga until June. Let me know what you’ve enjoyed recently! Just preferably something not Russian, please >.>
ICYMI, I had my first reading last Friday with the Washington Science Fiction Association and it was tons of fun! Here’s a photo courtesy of the lovely Elly Ha. (Thanks again #TeamThao for coming out to support me <3)
I’m next reading with the Baltimore Science Fiction Society on April 14 (time and location to come) so stay on the lookout if you’re in the Maryland area.
Slowly and surely my summer con schedule is coming together. I’ll be at ICFA in two weeks to receive my Dell finalist award, WisCon in May (fingers crossed I get on some cool panels), and likely BookCon. Then–who knows? Anyone have the lowdown on fun cons in the UK? ^_^
Still coming out in May. Still available for pre-order, if you’d like to help boost my sales rankings 😉 It’s also been getting some pretty nice reviews, which is exciting! Publisher’s Weekly called it an “ambitious fantasy reimagining” that is a “strong and dramatic” launch to my career. It made Amazon’s list of 10 Highly Anticipated New SF&F Books, and it’s been chosen as a main selection for the Science Fiction Book Club! Lotta buzz for a debut book that won’t be out for months. And I’m told Goodreads has been very kind to it too (I have a policy of not looking, but my friends flag the nice reviews for me!).
That’s all for now on my end. More updates to come as we get closer to publication date…get excited!
The cover art for THE POPPY WAR is finally here!
I can’t even express how much I love this. (I may have shed a single tear when I saw the art for the first time.) The title font, the smoke, the brushwork, the colors, Rin’s clothes, Rin’s bow, Rin’s expression, everything.
It is very, very strange to see an illustrated depiction of a character that until now has only lived inside your head. Even stranger to see an illustration that matches exactly your mental image. I mean, look at her. Look at my baby. Look at her hair. IS SHE NOT GORGEOUS?
There was a lot that went on behind the scenes with the cover design and I couldn’t be happier with what we ended up with. I have to thank my editor and the entire team at Harper Voyager for listening carefully to my cultural feedback and making sure the cover aligned with my vision for the story.
THE POPPY WAR is out in May this year. The cover was designed by Dominic Forbes with art by Jung Shan Chang. You can read more about the cover design process over here at the Barnes & Noble SFF blog.
I probably shouldn’t be writing this. I’m procrastinating on doing a final cleanup of Book 2 before I send it to my editor, so of course my brain wanted to do a 2017 writing retrospective post instead. But I think that it’s easy for writers to get caught up in the weeds and lose sight of how much we’ve actually accomplished, so I’m stepping back to take stock of my year.
Things I did this in 2017:
Things I learned in 2017:
It was a difficult year, but a good year. I’m proud of what I’ve done, even though sometimes bringing myself to write felt like pulling teeth. I’m starting to feel like I’m getting the hang of being a career writer now, not just a one-shot wonder. The difference now, I think, is that I write. Every day, according to schedule, until I meet word count, no matter how much I don’t want to. I write.
[WARNING: Many spoilers to follow. Save yourself.]
[Edit: My website is still getting crazy traffic from this post, and I assume a lot of it comes from what has been happening to KMT. As I made clear in my essay, KMT is amazing. She represents so much to Asian girls and women like me, and none of my criticism of TLJ was leveled at her, but rather at how the writers treated her character. I won’t tolerate KMT bashing or trolling on this blog, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you may kindly exit.]
As a Chinese-American girl who’s been watching Star Wars since before she could speak English, I’ve been waiting my entire life to see someone like Rose Tico in the Star Wars universe. I got some kicks in last year with Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, but Rose is a girl. Rose looks like me.
So her shoddy treatment by The Last Jedi stung all the more.
To be clear, I loved this movie. I cheered, laughed, and cried. The visuals are gorgeous; every performance is flawless. But we have to talk about Rose.
There’s a lot to like about her. Kelly Marie Tran is both a fantastic actor and a spunky, adorable beam of light who plays Rose with the same enthusiasm and open-heartedness that characterize Daisy Ridley and John Boyega’s performances. The opening scenes with Rose’s sister Paige made me tear up (I too have a younger sister.) Rose’s grief only makes her braver and more determined; she stops Finn from deserting and she inspires him to go on that ill-fated mission to Canto Bight. In all fairness, Rose had far more nuance and complexity than I expected she would get.
The problem isn’t that Rose was a poorly conceived character. It’s that after those poignant opening scenes, The Last Jedi gives her nearly nothing to do.
Plenty of other pieces have already criticized the unnecessary distraction of the Canto Bight storyline. You could feel the energy sap out of the theater every time the action cut away from Rey arguing with Luke or Poe being Poe. The city isn’t the strikingly cool galactic gambling center we were led to expect; it’s just a Vegas substitute where some actors are wearing masks. The phrase “master code-breaker” sounds so juvenile I’m shocked it made it into the script. The betrayal doesn’t land because we don’t know much about DJ in the first place, we don’t care, and he and Finn/Rose don’t go way back like Lando/Han did. (Really, it was kind of dumb for Finn and Rose to trust him as much as they did.) The constant references to the military industrial complex (Canto Bight’s elite are rich on the weapons industry, but they sell to both good guys and bad) were initially fascinating, but promptly dropped and never mentioned again.
Otherwise, all the Canto Bight arc does is give Poe a reason to stir up some drama on the main rebel ship and make us think for much of the movie that Holdo is a baddie.
But my biggest frustration is that Rose is the most irrelevant part of an already irrelevant arc.
See, Rose does almost nothing of importance after she’s introduced. She just kind of tags along. She’s an engineer who’s handy with a taser, but uses neither of those skill sets on Canto Bight or the First Order ship. She wrings her hands uselessly after she’s thrown in jail. She follows nervously behind Finn on the First Order ship. We’re proud of her when she gives up her necklace to DJ as payment, but she gets it back twenty minutes later. Sure, she utters some nice soundbites about growing up on a mining world decimated by the First Order, and she reminds us what the human impact of of a galactic dictatorship really is. But otherwise, you could have completely cut Rose out of the second half of the movie and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
Perhaps the most frustrating Rose scene was during the battle on Crait, when she rams into Finn’s ship to stop him from sacrificing himself to destroy a the “Battering Ram Cannon” (or whatever it was called.) Finn didn’t know that Luke or Rey were coming. Finn thought, justifiably so, that he had to die to buy the Resistance valuable minutes.
And Rose is just like nah.
(“What the hell, Rose,” muttered someone in the audience.)
“Why did you do that?” Finn demands.
“You don’t fight to destroy what you hate. You fight to save what you love,” Rose says, or something to that effect. Then she kisses him. Then she promptly passes out.
First, uh, saving what he loved was precisely what what Finn was trying to do. It’s not like Finn just hates battering ram cannons.
Second, Rose’s most defining motivation this entire time has been the death of her sister. She’s willing to sacrifice her necklace, her life, anything for the cause she believes in. So this about-face maneuver, while maybe philosophically interesting, is odd given that nothing has happened to her during the Canto Bight arc to make her change her mind. It’s like this movie passed the Mako Mori test by cheating. It’s character development from nowhere.
Rose could have made so many different choices–choices of importance–that would have demonstrated real growth. But instead, her character feels like a handout. Rose, like many of the offhand references to the military industrial complex and environmentalism, felt like a well-intentioned gesture towards diversity and social awareness that fell flat because there was no follow-through. Rose reads like a diversity set piece. I’m scared she’s a token.
Rose deserved so much better. But I’ll be back to watch Episode IX, because I expect–and hope–that she and Kelly Marie Tran will be given more to do.
P.S. Rose’s budding romance with Finn irks me. I’m not opposed to their getting together in general, but their kiss felt strange and seriously out of left-field. We’ve seen Rose and Finn develop a good friendship, but we haven’t seen any previous signs of romantic attraction between them. There’s no chemistry. And a small part of me is still raging at the fact that Finn and Poe didn’t kiss.
P.P.S. The racial dynamics of the scene where Phasma calls Finn “scum” were amazing. The tall, blonde white woman fighting for the Nazi army calls the black man a slur. He sends her spiraling into a fiery explosion of death with a smirk on his face. “Rebel scum” is right.
P.P.P.S. The Last Jedi is weirdly environmentalist. There’s a nice pro-vegetarianism scene with Chewie and the porgs. There’s a not-so-subtle criticism of the horse-racing industry when the Fathiers get freed. I’m not sure what the message is with the crystal critters, but they’re pretty.
P.P.P.P.S. I want a stuffed porg for Christmas.