I had a long break over the holidays, happily emptying my head of all things as I visited shrines and temples in Tokyo and caught up with friends over amazing Manila food. When I came back to the US, I found a mysterious package on my desk - and opened it to find a book with my name on the cover.
A book with my name on the cover (!!!), and my sister's illustration on the cover too (!!!)
My reaction was delight - and surprise. I'd written a book? When did that happen? Now, logically, I knew I had been working on Hurricane Heels for ages. I knew that I had eventually finished it, and that my publishers, the Book Smugglers, had mentioned it would be available as a book via print-on-demand. I even knew they would be sending me contributor copies. But somehow I was still kind of dazed when I pulled out the physical copy and flipped through it.
Now - my sense of 'woah really?' might have been caused by the fact that I was only ever expecting an ebook version to come out. And I'd been thinking the whole time of Hurricane Heels primarily as a series, not as a single volume - though I did write them to be read together, and in total they came out to 40,000+ words, which is novella-length. Part of it might have been the holidays, as well - Hurricane Heels came out early December, and I was so busy I couldn't even promote it beyond a few flailing tweets. I was supposed to write this post to accompany its release, but I couldn't even manage that.
Now that I've had a chance to reflect on it, though (and settle properly in 2017, and by that I mean I finally unpacked my travel suitcases today), I've decided to break down the timeline and steps involved. So here it is - my Hurricane Heels story journey notes, along with helpful tips!
August 2014. I'm participating in the Clarion Write-a-thon, desperately trying to hit my wordcount. I create a file called 'epic keyboardsmash,' and start writing snippets from various stories I have floating in my head. At this stage when I'm writing, I only have elements, nothing cohesive - a character, a tone, a place. Of the 30 snippets in this file, two are about a 'bachelorette party in Manhattan.' The second snippet actually makes it into my first draft (and final draft!) almost entirely intact.
October 2014. I'm in Manila, waiting for my UK visa. One of my best friends, a med student, regularly goes to Starbucks to study. I usually accompany her. During the week I work weird hours remotely for my day job. During the weekend, I attempt to write. I review my story scraps from the summer and decide to try expanding the bachelorette party into an actual story - I have most of the opening, and also, it seems like fun - like something I haven't read before. I keep thinking about this line I wrote in my essay, Life Is Not a Shoujo Manga:
I look at my girl friends and they’re complicated and unpredictable, lead characters in their own stories. Alas, they could never slot in perfectly to a chapter or two in a shoujo manga. They’d put their fists through the page first, cackling, saying who needs this shit anyway, we’ve outgrown our uniforms long ago, and look at all this sunlight, look at all we still can do.
I wonder: if I could write a shoujo-esque story except featuring girls like the ones I know, what would that be like? I write the first draft of Hurricane Heels in a frenzy over a weekend, stopping only for occasional breaks in which my friend and I watch Space Dandy. Over the next month, this first draft undergoes 3 more revisions.
Tip 1: trying your story out in different formats can help you catch things you wouldn't notice otherwise. I'll make a post on how I edit at some point, but for Hurricane Heels I did a paper-version edit (printing it out and marking up the manuscript), and then I tried a Kindle edit. I made a .mobi file of the story and read it on my Kindle, which was a different experience and helped me notice new things.
December 2014. The BookSmugglers have an open call for stories of First Contact. I've just moved to London and am slightly crazy, but I'm super excited to give them a try after their Subversive Fairytales run, so I send them Alex's story - it's 5.5k words, a standalone. First Contact might be stretching a bit, but the girls are discovering the goddess for the first time, so it might work. I hold my breath, and try not to spend too many days hoping.
February 2015. I'm walking home in Central London, checking my mail after having just watched a movie. The subject line of one email reads: Re: First Contact Submission.
My heart speeds up. I tap on it. Thank you for submitting "Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing)" to Book Smugglers Publishing. We absolutely, completely loved it. Although we don't feel the story is suitable for our First Contact series for 2015, we'd very much like to talk to you about a possible collaboration for our 2016 line of stories under the theme of Superheroes...
After I am done cheering quietly, I realize that I'm being asked if I want to write a series of interconnected short stories (novelettes, actually, given the 8-10k recommended word count for each). Also, if I say yes, I'll be producing something on contract. It will be the first time I commit to something (and get paid a bit upfront) that I haven't written yet. I also think, man, 2016 seems far away! - and a part of me wonders if maybe there's a chance this story could come out somewhere else, in 2015. Then I think more clearly and realize this opportunity is too good to pass up; this will be a great challenge for myself; and also oh my god my story is getting published - that thrill, still so alien, still so impossible until it happens.
February 26, 2015. I submit my proposal for the series, with brief outlines (a paragraph each) for the five stories.
April 2015. After hashing out deadlines and questions about story length, rights, and rates, we've reached a signed agreement! My deadline for first drafts is December 2015, leaving me with just over half the year to write four new stories, revise/extend Alex's story (which is the only one I've written at this point), and make sure everything is cohesive.
May 2015. Year of the Superhero is announced! The series gets announced! \o/
May - September 2015. Because the deadline seems reasonably far away, I don't work on the stories in a focused fashion. I spend some weekends thinking through the magic system and greater storyline, combing through the magical girls category on TVTropes, watching the Madoka OVA and Yuki Yuna is a Hero, stopping by Foyle's and Waterstones to read shoujo manga. Chris and Emma show me the first episodes of Buffy, because I want to understand the whole "ordinary people ignore it" trope, outside of superhero movies. During long train rides I write sketches of my characters and their respective story arcs by hand. I start using Scrivener to help me keep track.
One thing I struggle with during this plotting stage is Natalie's ethnicity. From the first draft, she was a black character - but I start to get scared that I won't be able to do her justice. After talking to friends and voicing my concerns, I decide that it's important for Natalie to be on the page as I'd imagined her. It's on me to work extra-hard so that she is written right. (Looking back on it now, I'm so glad I made that choice. I'm grateful to my friends, especially Alyssa Wong, for telling me how important it is to keep Natalie as a a black magical girl.)
October 2015. I start working on drafting Ria's story, and set up a schedule to write the remaining stories. I realize I've been utterly optimistic, and I'm already late. My last few weeks in London catch me off-guard; I'm doing a lot of packing, traveling, and paperwork as I prepare to move back to the US. (Also, it's winter, which tends to be a challenging season for me.) I realize I won't hit my December 1 deadline - at least not with a product I'll be happy with. Feeling like a complete unprofessional, I ask for an extension to the end of January. Thankfully, my editors are able and willing to grant the extension.
Tip 2: if you need something from your editor/publisher/whoever you're working with - ask. This was the first time I'd ever asked for an extension on a professional writing project, and it was scary, but worth it. If you don't think you'll be able to deliver on a stated deadline, the earlier you speak up about it, the better. It was tough for me to ask, especially since I felt I'd been given a lot of time - but I knew it would be worse if I said nothing then didn't hit the date.
November 2015 - January 2016. I set to work on the stories, rampaging through the first drafts. With the deadline looming over me, I batter away at the stories without grace. With Alex's story, I had the luxury of multiple first drafts before I had to show it to anyone. Even Ria's story was written at a slower pace, and I gave myself time to do a full-sentence rewrite. But I simply can't afford that with the last three stories. Between the holidays, family reunions, readjusting to Northern California and a new position at work, I manage to dredge up the last drafts. I don't leave these up to chance - I actually pencil them into my calendar so I know how much time I have to actually do them. Despite my best efforts, and being very close, I end up having to ask for another extension - this time until the end of February.
I'll pause here to stress that I hated the third and fourth stories as I was writing them. Hate is a pretty strong word, but that's how I felt at that time. They weren't good, they weren't up to my standards, this part didn't make sense, that part was just plain ugly. And yet, I needed to get them done, and I clung on to the hope that I would be able to fix everything during revisions.
Tip 3: when working on a bigger project, breaking it down and then slotting pieces into a calendar may be helpful. When I work on a single short story, calendaring seems like overkill. But I don't think HH would have been written if I hadn't set fixed dates for myself. Also, breaking it down into individual stories and knowing how much time I had to work on each made the whole thing less daunting and more well-defined.
February 2016. I finish the last story, Selena's, and thankfully I don't hate it as much as Aiko's and Natalie's. I spend the rest of the month revising, and managing continuity issues. With a 5k or 10k story, I can keep the whole text in my head. Hurricane Heels is 40k words long and uses different perspectives, devices, and timelines, so it's much more complicated. I try my best, but I'm still shaky about things. Still, I turn in all the first drafts at the end of the month, and remind myself - I'll have time to do more edits later on!
March - August 2016. The stories are now with the editors, and I am caught up in a fresh bout of non-writing-things that require a lot of my attention. I also go on a writing semi-hiatus - I don't really want to, but it's what I need at the moment, so I let it be.
August/September 2016. I learn that Denise Yap will be illustrating the cover. I shared her portfolio with the Book Smugglers along with several other artist recommendations, and I'm happy to be able to collaborate with her. I am hands-off for most of the subsequent discussions, only stepping in once in a while to clarify character details (their weapons, etc).
September 15 2016. I receive the edits and have a month to work on them. A lot of the revisions are minor line-edits, but there are a handful of larger story elements that require work - the device in Aiko's story, for example, which manifests in the last draft as script formatting. With some back-and-forth, we come to an agreement on the larger story edits. However, I find that I'm still not happy with Aiko and Natalie's stories, and ask for the chance to do a full sentence rewrite on those two.
September - October 2016. I try to edit on weekdays after work, and this is fine for Alex's and Ria's stories, but as expected, I need more concentration for the final three. I realize the best way to achieve that is to stick to my normal writing method - find a cafe, plant butt in chair, get to work. I get to the cafe at noon, have lunch, and then spend the rest of the day working through the editing puzzles, stopping only once in a while for internet or food breaks. It's hard at first, and I feel kind of sad missing out on the sunshine or the occasional outing - but writing is my choice, and this is what it entails.
October 15, 2016. In my diary, I write:
I spent my day so far sleeping, eating leftover fried rice, drinking two cups of coffee, and reading internet things. There's a pimple brewing on my nose. I have my stories to revise, and when I think about them clearly it's kinda - idk, uplifting and amazing. That I can write these stories. They're actually fun. And folks want to read my words.
But. I actually feel like I can't do it.
Because I'm tired, today. Really tired. I went to sleep - early, for me. And I slept 12 hours, sweatily, and woke up and I genuinely didn't feel like doing anything. I just want to read and eat food and sleep some more. I know I can write, and I have that case study to send to the client for work, and today that's completely beyond me, but on a pure TIME LEVEL I need to get these stories done...
October 24, 2016. Despite feeling like I can't do it at every step, I manage to finish my revisions. I turn them in.
Tip 4: you can do it. This isn't a tip so much as a reminder. It is almost never going to feel easy or doable. But you will surprise yourself with how much you can achieve, as long as you press on.
October 28, 2016. I receive additional feedback on my revisions from the editors.
November 6, 2016. I send back a final (final!) pass of the stories.
November 27, 2016. I receive proofs for the ebook version, which serve as my copy-edit file. We find still more edits in this next round of back-and-forth (and having skimmed some of the published version, I know we still didn't catch all...).
December 2, 2016. Final (final) copy-edit pass - and it's off to retailers!
December 6, 2016. Alex's story goes live on the Book Smugglers' website, the same day the ebook (with all five stories) becomes available! (You can get it on Amazon and Smashwords.) Finally, almost two years after I first sent the stories off to be considered, Hurricane Heels is out in the wild!
December 19, 2016. The print version of Hurricane Heels becomes available on Amazon. I leave for travels before I'm able to get my own copy, but because social media is awesome, I start to get notified of people receiving their copies (amazing!).
January 9, 2017. I come home and find a mysterious package on my desk, and open it to find a book with my name on the cover.
So - that's the long and detailed story of how Hurricane Heels came to be. Like a friend recently told me, when I said it had finally been published: it's crazy to now be on the other end of it. In fact, if we were to be scientific about all this, the seeds of the story were sown way back in 2012, when my cousin had her bachelorette party in Manhattan...
I poured a lot of myself into these stories. They're about a lot of things, including quarter-life crisis and weaponized friendship, falling in love, trauma, family (and found families!), despair. They're also funny, I hope - there's singing loudly to JT in bars, Dairy Queen Blizzards, and drunken shenanigans with high school friends. If any of those things sound like fun, I hope you give these stories a try. :) For awards season: as a whole it can be nominated for the Novel category (total wordcount is 42,915). The five individual stories are in the 8k range and count as novelettes.
I'm very grateful to everyone who has already read the stories, especially those who have let me know that it works for them! Thank you so much. I'm especially proud that it was awarded the "I'd Ship That" Big Sip for Excellent Relationships in Short SFF by Charles Payseur over at Big Sip Reviews. :D <3 Thank you for reading - and I hope the next long project will be worth it, again!