Q&A With Janie Chang
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Q&A With Janie Chang
Today’s Q&A is with bestselling author Janie Chang. Janie is the author of Three Souls, The Library of Legends, Dragon Springs Road (which I read and it is amazing!), and coming out on February 21st The Porcelain Moon: A Novel of France, The Great War and Forbidden Love.
Q: So Janie when did you discover your love of writing and your love of historical fiction?
A: Love of historical fiction came first! When I was about ten years old, a friend’s mother let me borrow her books and she read a lot of historical fiction. I didn’t even know there such a genre, but knew I loved being introduced to the past through stories. You need to read a lot to write well.
As for writing, I’ve always enjoyed it. First in the business world, where I wrote user guides and technical documentation, marketing collateral and press releases; these all hone the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation (because errors come across as unprofessional) and also teach you that the order of presenting information matters. Even when it’s a tech document, you are telling a story. Then when I first tried my hand at a novel, it was pretty obvious that I lacked the skills and craft to go from business writing to 100K of story. That’s what being an avid reader does – you can read your own work and say ‘YUCK! This is not good!’ – and then do something about it. So I took a one-year creative writing class, which accelerated my learning curve by about ten years compared to learning on my own in a hit-and-miss way.
Q: What is your advice to anyone wanting to write great historical fiction? What is your advice to anyone who struggles with writers block?
A: Anyone who wants to write historical fiction has to remember that an author’s first duty is to tell a good story. Yes, you have to be really interested in that time and place, but for a good story you need to make readers care about your characters, their goals and what thwarts them, how events change them or their beliefs. Your second duty is to create an immersive sense of place because readers of historical fiction want to escape into the world of your story. They want to feel the swish of long skirts and smell the musty odour of incense wafting out from a temple. For readers to sympathize with your heroine, you must help them understand the social or political constraints that thwart or endanger her. The challenge is to do this by weaving such details and information into the story and avoid dumping a history lesson into the story.
These days, writer’s block strikes when I need to transition between scenes in order to move the story forward. It could be getting in or out of a flashback. It could be changing from one character’s point of view to another. Whenever I feel stuck, 90% of the time it’s a transitional sentence or paragraph, that sullen gobbet of text that serves little purpose except to slide the reader into the next scene or the character’s next thought, but in the meantime it’s holding things up. So the answer is to just stick a ‘[placeholder for transition]’ in there and start working on the next meaningful scene.
Then there’s writer’s block where the Muse refuses to show up. This is when you write the same thing five times because the words just aren’t right. All I can say is that if you wait for the Muse, you’ll be waiting a long time. I’ve found that the Muse comes once you’ve put in the hard work, enough to earn her attention, enough to make her pause and deign to give you a brief, shining moment when the story writes itself and your characters tell you what they’re really feeling. Those are the delirious moments that keep us authors writing, like junkies waiting for that next fix from our Muse.
When you’re writing to a deadline, and even if you’re not, the best thing to do is just write. Even if it’s crap, just write and get the story down. Because you have opportunities to make it better with revisions and edits. You can always go back and edit crap. You can’t edit a blank page. So write, write, write. You’ll find that like kidney stones, writer’s block will pass.
Q: I remember seeing somewhere that you and Kate Quinn are writing or finished writing a novel together. If so can you tell us a little bit about the novel and what it was like co-writing one with Quinn?
A: THE PHOENIX CROWN is set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The anticipated release date is September 2023. There are two main characters: an opera singer named Gemma who comes to San Francisco hoping to revive her career, and a Chinese seamstress named Suling who is trying to leave San Francisco after suffering loss and disappointment. Kate writes from Gemma’s POV and I write Suling’s.
This all started when Kate called me up with the idea. She pointed out that since she is temporarily living in the Pacific Northwest, this was our best chance to collaborate on a novel. We did meet up four times to work out plot, do research, and discuss revisions, but if and when Kate and I write a blog about success factors for co-authoring a novel, it will include a big section in praise of spreadsheets and Google Docs. Because we outlined THE PHOENIX CROWN chapter by chapter on a spreadsheet, with notes and links to references, and uploaded chapters to Google Drive as we wrote.
Q: What’s your advice to anyone wanting to co-write with someone else?
A: Work with someone whose writing you truly admire, and who has the same work ethic. Agree on process, it matters so much when you’re working remotely. Otherwise, you could be incinerating a friendship. Our writing goal was to come out of this with a book we could be proud of, but our life goal was to come out of this still on speaking terms. Happily, we came out of this with our friendship more than intact.
Q: What is your advice to new writers on how to deal with negative feedback from online trolls, reviews and from family and friends who are unsupportive of their writing goals?
A: From what I can tell, online trolls usually haven’t even bothered to read your work and are there to do just that – troll for a reaction. Ignore, delete, block. Not everyone will love what you write – there have been Booker Prize winners I have not liked and books that haven’t done well in the market which I though should’ve been bestsellers. (But do take constructive criticism from industry professionals. We must remain open to improving our craft).
Read your five-star reviews. A publishing executive once told me “If you sell thousands of books, you become a bestselling author; if you reach and affect one reader, you are a success.”
Unsupportive friends and family – that’s a tough one because these are people you know and love. There can be such a diversity of reasons or situations behind their lack of support, everyone’s case is different and I can’t give a single glib answer to this. All I can say is that when you can’t make people approve of what you do, persist and show them you’re serious; then even if they don’t approve, at least they’ll believe it means a lot to you.
Q: Three years back when I was slowly getting followers for my book blog and the book blogs instagram account, I remember you saying that someone in Hollywood was pitching the novel Dragon Springs Road. Dragon Springs Road is such a wonderful story. Has there been any update on whether a studio has the rights to it or any of your other novels?
A: Thank you for your kind words about Dragon Springs Road. So yes, the Hollywood producer has been busy putting together a team and a pitch deck, which is what they use to sell the concept. Now comes the hard part – funding. Costume dramas are expensive, and unless you’re Downton Abbey or a Regency romance, funding is tough.
There are a lot of obstacles in book-to-film deals. It would be incredible for this team to succeed in bringing DSR to the screen. What I can hang on to is the memory of that first email from the producer. She said that once she read DSR, she cleared all the other projects off her desk and decided this was The One. That was such a huge compliment.