This blog was featured on 09/25/2019
Vanessa Hua on Setting and Sensibility
Written by
She Writes
September 2019
Written by
She Writes
September 2019

This semester of She Writes University we are so excited to introduce another round of incredible instructors. From New York Times bestsellers to National Book Award Finalists, this lineup has something for everyone hoping to growing their career as an author. 

She Writes got the chance to chat with Vanessa Hua about her career, her writing routine and her She Writes University course: Setting and Sensibility

About the Class

Setting is more than a backdrop. It connects readers to your characters and to your narrative. It beckons the reader into the world you’re asking them to enter into. In this class, we’ll look to examples from novels, short stories, memoirs, and more to examine setting, to show how it is key to characterization, and how it can provide external conflicts and stakes. Vanessa Hua teaches strategies for how to add depth to your setting through research and revision, and an in-class exercises supports students add layers to any setting.

Get to Know Vanessa

SW: Briefly set the scene for your writing habits: Where do you write? How do you write? What's your routine? 

I write in my home office east of San Francisco, overlooking oak-studded hills busy with deer, wild turkey, and raccoons, or from the Writers Grotto, a workspace in San Francisco, whose community I deeply cherish. But I’ll also write when I’m on the go, trying to make use of interstitial time, jotting notes into my phone.

I always advise people to figure out when they are at their most inspired and productive — early or late morning? After 10 p.m.? — and spend those hours of power working on the projects that matter to them most. When I’m feeling less than inspired — say, late on a Friday afternoon — I deal with administrative tasks, such as sending and following up on pitches and submissions, or taking care of paperwork.

As the mother of twin boys, juggling a career as an author and freelance journalist with a weekly column at the San Francisco Chronicle, I try to make the most of the time I have, in between dropoff and pickup and spare moments on the weekend. If I’m commuting or going for a run, I use a PDF-to-voice app to immerse myself in my work-in-progress and to listen for clunky or confusing sentences.

I try to go for a swim, walk, or a run each day. Feeling off-kilter physically can diminish your motivation. That time away from your computer, with your body in motion, can be important to the creative process. Often, a narrative dilemma resolves itself when you’re not actively thinking about it. 

SW: What is the first thing you can remember writing?

In the second grade, the teacher read aloud our short stories and the class voted on the best one. Mine won, but I overheard my classmate tell her friend, ‘I only voted fpr hers because it was the longest one.’ The first time I won a writing contest, and my first snarky review! I persisted and bought a notebook with my favorite cartoon character, Garfield, to fill with my stories. I was already fascinated by the material aspect of books: the cover illustration, the title page, the dedication, the header on each page. I was a latchkey kid who watched a lot of reruns after school, which may account for the darker elements of my story (kidnapping! police corruption!).

SW: Describe a moment when your own writing scared you or surprised you.

I love that moment when a story comes together, and in a way that’s surprising yet inevitable. When I’m grappling with a first draft, wondering how it will all end, my subconscious offers up the solution; I joke that the “call is coming from inside the house.” The answer has been there all along, and I love that almost spooky, a-ha feeling when I discover it.

SW: At what point did you begin to truly feel like a “writer”?

My childhood heroes were Jo March from Little Women, Anne of the Green Gables books, and Laura Ingalls from the Little House series — feisty girls who wrote their own futures. I wrote with fervently and freely through high school.

In college, though, I came to believe if I wanted to be considered a real author, all my characters had to be white— as if those were the only worthy stories. Because that’s what I had grown up with, what I’d studied in school. Eventually, though, I started gaining more to exposure diverse authors, like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz, and I realized I want to tell stories shaped by my unique worldview, by my experiences, and by my interests, even if they fell outside the canon.

It’s been amazing to see Deceit and Other Possibilities and A River of Stars out in the world, in shops and in libraries, and to talk to readers who tell me that the stories make them feel visible and less alone. I’m so grateful. Although I’ve now written two books and I’m working on my third, there are times when I still feel like an imposter—the self-doubt that plagues every author at every stage until you can shut out those voices and let your characters and your world take shape.

SW: What’s one of the lessons in your She Writes University class that you really wish YOU had learned earlier in your writing career?

Setting is not just a backdrop, but a reflection of character.  In your setting, you can build powerful stakes and conflict.

SW: Why do you feel it’s important to offer a writing class to other women writers through She Writes University?

Ambitious and driven as women are, often we feel compelled to perform emotional labor, to take care of others over ourselves. Such classes center women and our experiences, and I’m eager to help women writers invest in themselves and their craft.

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