Regular readers may remember this week’s Aspiring Voices spotlight writer from her excellent guest fiction post, The Gun’s Fear, earlier this month. I chatted with her about her past life as a dancer, the role of criticism in improving your skill, the nature of success and how one defines “making it” as an author. Plus, she teaches me about Kinetic Fiction.
Paul: What was the first story you remember writing where you finished and thought, “Yeah, there’s something here”?
Alisia: The first story that really changed my view on writing was something I wrote in ninth grade. I had just finished reading On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony and was inspired to write my own short introduction to Thanatos. The piece was only about 500 words, but it was the first time I had finished a story with a sense of accomplishment. I had never had the urge to share any of my previous writings, but I was so proud of this piece that I mustered up the courage to post it on Fictionpress. I didn’t get many views on my story, but one person left me a very flattering comment. She told me my story was the best she’d ever read on the site and she urged me to write more. Sometimes all it takes is a kind word from a stranger for you to realize that not everything you write is complete garbage.
Paul: Have you found that as you’ve continued to write that desire for sort of blanket praise has diminished in favor of a desire for critical analysis or perhaps just targeted, specific praise? I have this sense that when writers take those first baby steps into sharing their work with others they want or maybe need that gushing, non-specific praise. But at some point most writers I think discover they have a lot of work to do to shape their interest in writing into something more like a craft. They start looking for people to at the very least be able to highlight what about their writing is praise-worthy and why, if not, you know, “Pick this apart! Make me bleed!” Does that sound like your experience or do you still get those warm fuzzies from the, “Oh, I love this, you should try to get it published” lines?
Alisia: Yes, definitely. After my initial boost of confidence, I quit Fictionpress and joined a different writing site in hopes of getting feedback for my work. I liked that it was easy for my work to receive views, but quickly realized that any comments left were basically fluff praise with the occasional spelling/grammar correction. I wasn’t learning anything new, and I began to question whether my writing was actually good or if the nice comments were just how people were conditioned to respond. I only stayed on that site for a month or so before searching for another site that could really help me improve the quality of my writing and general storytelling. When I found a site that suited my needs, I found that I looked forward to the criticism more so than when I only received praise. Of course, I still get the warm fuzzies from flattery. And when it all comes down to it, those praises are still pretty important for me to feel like all the work I am putting into my writing is worthwhile. I can try to fix my plot, grammar, characterization, etc. to my heart’s content, but if people just plain don’t like my pieces then I would begin to wonder if maybe I should focus my energy on something else.
Paul: When you say “if people just plain don’t like my pieces” are you referring to negative feedback, or is that more of an indictment of the apathetic response? Do you find pointed criticism less discouraging than a sort of vaguely disinterested dismissal? Or does it depend on what specifically the negative criticism is focused on?
Alisia: I find really critical reviews to be very helpful—not discouraging at all. If a person can back up their criticism with specific examples on what they didn’t like and why they didn’t like it, then I’ll take it into consideration. What would be the most discouraging situation for me is if after all of my efforts I still wasn’t able to generate any sort of readership. That would make me sit back and reflect on whether or not I wanted to continue writing. My self-evaluation and reflection doesn’t mean I’d automatically give up writing completely, but I’d probably be more inclined to expand my energy into other activities as well, instead of devoting all of my time to writing.
Paul: If you weren’t writing, what other kinds of activities would you focus on instead? Do you have other interests that scratch the same sort of itch that writing does?
Alisia: Dancing. As a child, I dabbled in a lot of different activities but ended up quitting nearly all of them. The only activities that have stuck with me are writing (I lump reading with this too) and dancing. I started when I was about 4 years old and mostly trained in classical ballet. I lived in China when I was young and my mother put me in a Chinese dance troupe which happened to be very well-known. I had the opportunity to travel around the country performing, and even performed at the reunification of Macao ceremony in 1999. At the time, I didn’t really understand our fame, but my mother kept every single magazine that featured us and any video recordings from when our performances were televised. We moved back to the States after that.
In high school, I contemplated becoming a professional dancer. I took extra lessons and practiced technique at home but I quickly found that to be very draining, and suddenly the hobby I loved started becoming a chore. I think it was sometime in my third year of high school that I quit trying to go the professional route. I wasn’t top of my class and I didn’t feel the extra effort worth it. I still keep up with dance, though. Without the same pressures as before, I can try new styles that I never had time to explore. Plus it’s probably good for me to get out of the house every so often (right?).
Paul: I’m sure it’s good for writers to step away from the keyboard from time to time. I’m now convinced I don’t do this because I don’t know how to dance. [laughs]
Was it the physical element of dance that made it become a chore after a while? Do you think it’s possible if you were writing for a living that it might become something of a drag after awhile, too?
Alisia: I think it was the demand from my instructor and the craft itself. Even though I was taking lessons three days a week, that wasn’t enough and I needed to spend more time practicing. It came to a point where my life would have to revolve around dance, and that kind of pressure turned dance into something cumbersome. Besides, at the same time, I was taking karate lessons (three days a week as well) and I couldn’t quit until I earned my black belt, so the thought of taking more dance classes was daunting (especially since my dance instructor was breathing down my neck about how karate was ruining my technique).
Honestly, sometimes I’m a little worried that if I turned writing into a career the same thing would happen. I think the difference between writing and dancing is that with dancing you have a limited amount of time to perfect your skills and launch your career, and there’s usually a very early retirement age. Whereas with writing I feel a greater sense of flexibility. I have time to hone my craft at my own pace, and I don’t have to drop everything else in my life to get it done either. Of course, that could all change if (when!) I ever became a published bestseller, but for the moment I’m optimistic that I’d be more successful in pursuing writing than dance.
Paul: Did you earn the black belt? Are you still active in karate? Do you not consider yourself to have been successful at dance because you didn’t become professional? Seems like touring around China and performing could qualify as a measure of success.
Alisia: Yes, I did earn my black belt! But I’m no longer active in karate. When I was in college, I used to teach it to kids ages 4-7 for a little bit. At that age it was more crowd control than anything else, but it was still fun since they were all so cute!
For the most part I am content with my decision, and don’t think of myself as unsuccessful because I didn’t become professional. But, I am friends with some professional dancers, and there are moments when I feel a twinge of “what if”. I think everyone has those moments, though (maybe not necessarily about dance), and I don’t pay much attention to it. I still don’t think about my experience in China as something that’s different from training at any other dance studio. I think it’s because my memories are still seen through an 8 year old’s point of view, and I thought that was normal so I still view it as normal. [laughs] But if I really sit down and think hard about it, then yeah, I’d consider that as being successful!
Paul: I’m kind of thinking of this as a parallel to writing. A lot of aspiring authors I think see the uphill climb to publication as so challenging and difficult, but there are an awful lot of indie and midlist writers out there, even those who are published with a traditional publisher. From the outside, those people are successful but I wonder if they were asked if they might say, “You know, I still have a day job; I still don’t feel like I’m living the dream”—whatever that means—”so I never made it.”
Do you think the labels “professional” or “successful” are restricted to circumstances where the endeavor provides a sole means of income or are there degrees of each?
Alisia: To be honest, I’ve never thought that hard about success or what it means to be a professional in terms of writing, but I don’t view those two words as synonymous. I think the term “successful” itself is very subjective, so I definitely believe in varying degrees of success. Having any of my works published would be a proud accomplishment for me, and I would not hesitate to consider that a success and myself successful. Still, if after publication someone outright says “I don’t think I’ve made it”, I’d be inclined to think of them as unsuccessful. Their outlook suggests that they need more to feel a sense of accomplishment, and until they get that feeling, they probably wouldn’t consider themselves successful. That being said, I do tend to think of “professional” as someone who considers writing their profession—usually that means writing is their primary means of income (if not sole means of income).
Paul: That reminds me a bit of an article I read by Kristine Kathryn Rusch where she talks about the difference between “one-book writers” (her term) and career writers. Essentially she’s saying there are a class of writers who view publication as a bucket list line item and that’s something very distinct from the career writer—someone who has the goal of supporting themselves through their writing. Do you think either of those applies to you? If given the choice would you rather find yourself in five years working as a niche author with a steady but unremarkable writing career or a successful and heralded author of one or two works, still plugging away at a day job?
Alisia: Really interesting points. As for myself, I’d love to make writing a career, even if it’s just an unremarkable one, but I think I like the exploration phase more than anything else—learning how to write and experimenting with multiple genres.
Realistically thinking, turning writing into a career wouldn’t happen for a very long time. I would have to be in a stable enough financial situation to feel comfortable pursuing writing as a source of income, especially since I’m not the most versatile writer. I’m only interested in writing fiction, and the majority of what I love is flash fiction and short stories. I’m not much interested in writing novels, and I’m not going to spend my time doing something I’m uninterested in. I could just stay at my cushy day job for that. [laughs]
I think my goals are a little different than most writers. I started a novella as an experiment with longer projects, and the ambition for that fizzled out pretty quickly. I’ve been content writing short fiction, and still plan to send some of those out for publication. But I was recently introduced to Visual Novels/Kinetic Novels, and while I’m still getting to know the scene, I really like the concept of them. I’ve just begun working on two projects with different developers, and I’m learning a lot about the whole game development process.
Paul: For those of us who aren’t familiar, can you give a quick overview of Visual Novels or Kinetic Novels?
Alisia: It’s more of an interactive fiction or mixed-media novel. The storyline is accompanied by background graphics and (usually) static artwork. The novel is written to have multiple endings or story arcs depending on the genre of the novel, so the player/reader is able to choose his/her own ending. The interaction is minimal as opposed to a role-playing game or adventure game, but I don’t think that takes away from the experience at all. Kind of like some of those dating sims floating around the internet I think, except usually with a larger narrative focus—I haven’t played those sims so am unsure how similar they really are.
Paul: That sounds very interesting. Like Choose Your Own Adventure books for adults.
Alisia: Yeah! It’s similar to Choose Your Own Adventure books but with fewer options and more streamlined storyline.
Paul: Okay, so finally but not forgotten, describe the best book you’ve read recently.
Alisia: Hmm, well my favourite author is a Japanese short story writer Edogawa Rampo. He writes mostly dark fiction, a lot of it falls under the “ero-guro-nonsense” literary movement, or mystery fiction with a reoccurring detective–Kogoro Akechi. I was rereading one of his anthologies Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination a few days ago with my favourite story by him: “The Human Chair”. It’s super creepy but I love it!
Alisia began writing when she was between jobs with too much time on her hands. Now she’s juggling three different writing projects at once. She is primarily a flash fiction writer, partially because it caters to her ever shortening attention span. More of her work can be found at eurasianflavour.com, or follow her on twitter @eurasianflavour.