February 14, 2014

Pursuing the architecture of writing: Designer and Novelist Elaine Chen

Elaine Chen was a former co-worker of mine. A thoughtful art director who, unknown to me until now, is a wordsmith. This is especially marked by the fact that she has finished writing her first novel! It’s called “The Good Brother,” an upcoming a title by ChiZine Publications. Here, Elaine shares her thoughts about designing and taking on one of the most intimidating forms of storytelling:

There’s a strong (and highly welcoming) pattern of designers as writers, not only as bloggers, but as storytellers of fiction and nonfiction. One example is designer Jack Cheng’s debut novel These Days. What do you think about this pattern? How do you think this pattern came about?
That’s very interesting that you’re seeing this pattern. I know a lot of designers who are very literate, but I also know a lot who are uncomfortable with writing, possibly because they still see themselves as that kid in high school who wasn’t good at much else except art. I think the pattern is there, though, because both designers and writers notice things. We notice the little things, and we wonder about them. For example, the other day I was having lunch at a sushi restaurant, and I noticed a man sitting by himself and having a phone conversation via iPhone EarPods while he ate. My first reaction was to shudder at the dangling wires and the man’s chopsticks—surely a recipe for disaster. I assume most people, if they noticed him at all, would feel this way.

Then the UX designer in me kicked in and I wondered, is there a need for a hands-free device that specifically caters to people who want to talk and eat at the same time? Could that headset be designed so that it didn’t pick up the sound of chewing, or the wires get tangled up in one’s food? And how would the calling app work if you wanted to minimize touch so you didn’t get food on your phone?

Why was he having this phone conversation in the first place? He was smiling as he was talking. I assumed it was a personal call. Also, there’s something adorably quaint about a phone conversation to pass the time in the age of smartphones. Who was he talking to? Were they also sitting in a restaurant, eating by themselves? Maybe it was a virtual date. Is there a need to connect lonely office workers during their lunch hour who would otherwise be dining alone?

Granted, it was probably a totally innocuous call. He could have been letting the plumber into his condo. But your brain fires off and comes up with stories to explain what you’ve seen. Both designers and writers wonder about people and their needs and motivations, and we take the time to log our thoughts. (I would say we commit them to paper, but not everyone is analog these days, including myself.) I think designers also understand that writing, like design, is a craft that requires practice and persistence, and bears little resemblance to the myth of the divinely inspired Artist-with-a-Capital-A.

Manuscript of The Good Brother

With designers as novelists in mind, congratulations on your first novel getting published! How did you arrive at deciding to take on such a writing challenge?
Thanks! It wasn’t a matter of decision-making; I always assumed I would write novels one day, because there are stories I want to tell in that format, and also just to see if I can. I also sew a little, and there are things I have made simply to see if I could do it. All designers should be able relate to that.

“The Good Brother,” however, started to germinate in my head when I was in my mid-twenties. I heard anecdotes from friends and coworkers about Chinese classmates who had self-destructed in university. After a sheltered youth, it’s like they began to question the path they were on at their first taste of independence. My boyfriend at the time, who wasn’t Asian, couldn’t understand why these guys had such trouble rebelling against their parents. He didn’t understand even when I tried to explain it, and I realized it was a story that needed to be told.

Are you a designer first, writer second, or vice versa?
I read an interview once with a well-known writer—I think it was Umberto Eco—who said that if he were to be woken up in the middle of the night and asked what he was, he would not answer, “A writer.” If someone were to rouse me in the middle of the night and demand, perhaps with a light shining in my face, “What are you?” I would say, “I’m a web designer!” Writing occupies less than 10% of my time. The rest is work and life.

Were you always writing before working on your novel?
Yes. Like most writers, I was one of those kids who was always reading and writing. (There is half a terrible epic fantasy novel sitting in a box somewhere that I wrote when I was 14.) I don’t think anyone thought of me as a writer though, least of all myself, because I was making other things as well, and I ended up studying fine art in school.

The turning point was when a university housemate lent me a fantasy anthology that had submission guidelines in the back. That blew my mind. Anyone could get published! (This was 1996, before the rise of self-publishing.) I began writing short stories with the intention of submission, and with the explosion of the internet age, it became easier to find submission guidelines for other magazines and anthologies. I submitted stories; I got rejected, of course. Then I finally sold my first story in 2000, and I’ve sold about fifteen more since. I’m not very prolific; like I said, writing takes up less than 10% of my time.

Please describe your path toward publication:
habits, feelings, lessons, mistakes, antidotes, amulets, whatever else comes to mind.
“The Good Brother” is my first novel. There were so many false starts. I must have written and rewritten the beginning about three or four times. After the last time, I forced myself to create an outline; that was something I’d never done much when I wrote short stories. I had to convince myself that outlines were okay, because with an outline, it’s like you’re just filling in the blanks, which to me felt like cheating. Shouldn’t writing be genuine and spontaneous? But I realized that writing is a craft, and I don’t have the time to wait around and see where the plot takes me. Those false starts taught me how to write novels. Or rather, how I write novels. Although, there’s a saying amongst writers that you only ever learn how to write the book you’re currently working on.

As for the path to publication, I was lucky. Sandra Kasturi, the co-founder of ChiZine Publications, is familiar with my work and had asked if I had anything novel-length to submit to them. Having that goal to work toward helped a lot. I gave myself a drop-dead date for finishing and submitting the manuscript. Otherwise, I would have tinkered with it endlessly, instead of pushing it out of the nest and moving on to the next book.

How did you keep your novel’s story arc
or continuity manageable?
Outline, outline, outline. This way you get a high-level view of your story and can see if the plot rises and falls appropriately. In every good plot, things should get worse. Do they get worse? Then does the protagonist eventually overcome these setbacks to make them better? You should be able to see at a glance from an outline.

Granted, this approach doesn’t work for everyone. George R. R. Martin describes the two kinds of writers as gardeners and architects. He himself identifies as a gardener, which is hard (or maybe not) to believe, considering how sprawling the Game of Thrones series is. By writing “The Good Brother,” I discovered that I’m more of an architect.

How would define success for your novel?
Finishing it is already a success. Until I did, I didn’t know if I could actually handle writing a story of that length. Getting it accepted by ChiZine is another huge success; I’ve been a fan of their books since they started publishing. Anything else will be icing on the cake. But I think I will feel truly gratified if readers tell me I managed to capture the second-generation Asian experience, and if non-Asian readers tell me they understand a little bit more of that experience.

What are your writing tools? Do you use notebooks?
For me, mobile is important. I do most of my writing on the subway during my commute to work, and occasionally in coffee shops during my lunch hour. There’s nothing more mobile than a notebook and pen, but like most people these days, my penmanship is lousy and my hands have devolved into mouse-clutching, keyboard-hovering claws. I also fear losing notebooks. There’s no backup for them. If I lose my phone, it’s okay. Thank heavens for the cloud.

For “The Good Brother,” I used WorkFlowy for outlining, because it makes it effortless. You can keep drilling down and adding detail to points. It’s a website, as well as an app, nothing is saved locally, and you can work back and forth between computer and mobile devices.

The first page of my manuscript, opened in Pages for iPhone.

I’m a Mac user, so Pages is my word processor of choice. I wrote the beginning of “The Good Brother” with Pages for iPhone when I was on maternity leave and recovering from a C-section. I spent a lot of time sitting on the couch with my infant son during those first few months. I’d be holding him with one arm and my phone with the other, printouts of notes and early drafts strewn across my lap. (Before anyone judges my mothering skills, at that time, my son was only interested in nursing and sleeping.)

The appeal of Pages for iPhone was that it syncs with iCloud; I could download my document to my laptop when I wanted to work on it there. You can also export your file as an ePub. When I was doing final proofreading, I saved my manuscript as an ePub and opened it in iBooks to highlight words and make notes. I’d be standing in line for the streetcar and switching back and forth between iBooks and Pages on my phone, making edits.

Pages, however, is at the whim of Apple’s changing iOS, and using it directly inside iCloud is slow. These days, I use WriteRoom for iPhone. It’s an app with a nice simple, clean interface that creates text files. You can sync it with Dropbox, so again, I don’t have to worry about losing my phone, and the plain-text format means the files sync quickly.

I used WriteRoom to write most of my interview answers during my commute to and from work.

However, I’ve just discovered Scrivener, and it’s changing my life. I wish I had found it sooner. The workflow is designed especially for writers, whether you’re writing a novel, short story, screenplay or research paper, it’s easy to organize your scenes and notes. At the moment, there is no iOS app, but it will sync with various text editing apps, including WriteRoom. Now I use WriteRoom on my phone or iPad when I’m out and about, and return to Scrivener on my laptop when I’m home.

My current writing project in Scrivener. This is the “corkboard” view. It’s a great way to outline. Also note the character notes in the left.

The same project in WriteRoom, with all the scenes broken down into separate text files. I’m not sure what the numbers mean.

Do you rely on editors?
Yes. As of yet, I haven’t begun working with my editor at ChiZine, but in the past, editors have been invaluable. There have been times when an editor of a magazine or anthology has asked me to do a minor rewrite because they liked the story, but something didn’t quite work for them. I work in a bubble—I don’t have the time for writing groups or workshops—so I’m open to any input. Anyone who can look at your story with an objective, professional perspective, and tell you what you need to do to make it better is priceless.

What kind of writing appeals to you?
Who are your writing influences?
I like writing that is seemingly effortless, that doesn’t get in the way of the story. One of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, is very good at this. He has loads of fans who think he is the most amazing thing since sliced bread, but really, if you look at his prose, there are no big words and dramatic styling. His turns of phrase are clear and elegant, and his stories are filled with simple truths.

Currently, I’ve started reading Alice Munro and trying desperately to absorb her skill through osmosis. I think I might have read some of her work as a teenager, but I was too young to really understand her stories. Again, like Gaiman, she says things that are true, that you’ve always known are true, but have never managed to express eloquently yourself.

How can people find out about your novel and get a copy?
Unfortunately, “The Good Brother” won’t be published until next summer, but [Y]ou can see the anthologies I’ve contributed to on Goodreads and follow me on Twitter and Medium. I also highly recommend checking out ChiZine Publications. They publish some really interesting and genre-defying horror, fantasy and science fiction, and I’m not just saying that because they’re my publisher.

Is there another story you plan to tell?
Yes! I’m currently working on a short story cycle inspired by my job as an art director, called “Open Concept.” It’s mostly inspired by the building I work in though, and not a scathing tell-all about agency life as some might hope. In Toronto many agencies are in converted Art Deco brick-and-beam warehouses in the garment district. There is a lot of history there, and also a lot of quirks, which lends itself nicely to the weird things that will be happening in my stories.

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All images courtesy of Elaine Chen.

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Typeface of quotes is Trixie designed by Erik Van Blokland in 1991. It’s inspired by an old typewriter, which was used to capture the variable quality of typewritten letters.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

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Check out my book → BROKEN: Navigating the ups and downs of the circus called work

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