How a Story is Born
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
June 2019
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
June 2019

This guest post is by our guest editor Roselle Lim, author of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune. Roselle Lim is a Filipino-Chinese writer living on the north shore of Lake Erie. She loves to write about food and magic. When she isn't writing, she is sewing, sketching, or pursuing the next craft project.

Seeds of stories appear as I daydream.

But writing is hard. Each word is wrung from me. It’s frustrating, infuriating, and tear-inducing. English isn’t my first or even second language, and I don’t feel at ease expressing myself. I spend most of my time angry that I can’t translate what I see in my head to the page. I’m also a perfectionist, so my frustration levels bubble over often. I consent to this torture because I have a story to tell and I’m too damned stubborn to quit because it’s hard.

The germ for Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune began with the voice of an erhu. During a Chinese dance performance, a soloist took the stage. Silence saturated the hall. Drawing her bow with slow and deliberate motion, she told a tale of sorrow and longing. I was enthralled and inspired to create a character that played the same haunting instrument.

The impression from the erhu marinated for weeks as it buried itself in the rich soil of my dreams. It needed to grow, watered by my imagination. Sprouting little leaves for characters, setting, and plot, I knew it was time to write.

Before I commit to writing a novel, I play with sentence structure and word choice to establish a voice. Doing this exercise helps me discover how I want the novel to sound. I can experiment with various styles of prose and get to know my main character.

Sentence One

I start drafting at the beginning: with the opening line. I can’t move on until I know I’ve nailed it. The first line is critical because it sets the tone for the novel. It isn’t uncommon for me to spend two weeks revising and replacing this one sentence!

My debut began in limited third person before I changed it to first person to close the narrative distance. I wrestled with my first attempt at writing from this point of view. Like a method actor’s study, I had to embody Natalie Tan and see the world through her eyes and experience her thoughts, but with words instead of dramatization.

Living as Natalie, a chef with a dramatic and poetic personality, was exciting. Every person has a unique voice and crafting hers was a joy. Natalie speaks in metaphors and sees the world in such a distinct way. To convey her perspective, I wrote cinematically. As writers, we do not have the luxury of the painter’s canvas nor the photographer’s lens to create our images. We rely on language and its power to manifest. I often sat at the keyboard for hours in search of the perfect metaphor or imagery.

Including Culture

Because I was writing about my culture, rich in superstition and folklore, magic had to be present. Unlike the grand, ostentatious magic of high fantasy, I sought subtle magic: how emotions affect your environment, and how food can change and affect people in physical ways. To me, magic exists in the everyday and the ordinary.

Paired with magic, Chinese culture contains sumptuous cuisine. My goal was to make meals an unseen yet palpable character in the novel. The dishes in the book had to come to life—in its tastes, textures, and aromas. The reader should salivate while reading the way I do while writing.

Revisions

The manuscript underwent massive revisions. The story changed and morphed: the plot was streamlined and made more cohesive, the main character’s motivations and character arc were refined, and the emotions amped up. The original claustrophobia mutated into a more accessible and expansive atmosphere.

Surviving revisions requires courage and confidence. Courage to tackle the enormous task in front of you. The most daunting part of editing was starting, but once I began, the momentum pushed me forward. Seeing all the flaws of the story can be disheartening, but once identified, fixing the issues becomes easier. This is when confidence kicks in: to do the work that must be done with the constant overhanging fear that I might make it worse. It’s easy to screw up the story with a bad edit. I remind myself that, first and foremost, this is my story to tell. I know how the novel should feel, what its underlying themes are, and how it should affect the reader.

How a story changes during edits is amazing to watch. Like renovating a house, the process can be as massive as a complete rebuild from the foundation, or as minor as changing the wallpaper or furniture inside. The ultimate goal is to have something solid and remarkable—something that takes the breath away.

Making it Personal

I wrote many manuscripts in the past, but this is my most personal.

I have anxiety and depression like Natalie’s mother, Miranda, so I described mental illness and its stigma in my culture.

I am an immigrant like her grandmother, Qiao, but I matured in an environment unlike my parents’. When a culture is transplanted, what expectations from the old world are kept, and what are forgotten? Natalie, like me, struggles to honor her past while being true to herself.

As a daughter and a mother, I share the perspectives of all three generations. The relationships between mothers and daughters is complicated and something I grapple with daily.

The Story Only You Can Write

While I couldn’t know this novel would become my debut, I did know it was a story only I could write—as arduous and wrenching as it was. My life and my experiences infuse every page.

The journey from idea to page is precarious. It is easy to give up, to take the comfortable path. Why did I put myself through the frustration, the infuriation, and the tears? It was all for that one reader who sees themselves in my novel and grasps that they are not alone.

I write for the childhood me who felt alone. I write to reconnect with her and let her know that she’s seen. Nothing compares to the sheer happiness and pride of having her read my story and smile.

That’s why I write.

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