MF 383 : Writing series: Irene Wen
Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Novelist Irene Wen joins us to talk about writing in the fantasy genre and two current works-in-progress (WIP). Irene also shares the benefits of pursuing traditional publishing. More www.bemovingforward.com.
Irene has been a friend of mine for over a decade, back from when I lived in Los Angeles. I met Irene while she was a student at Whittier Law, an account I used to work with in my prior career. During this time, Irene applied for a part-time job and impressed me with her creativity and ambition. After graduating from law school, Irene went on to a successful career as an attorney. However, little did I know that law was neither her passion nor destination. Unbeknownst to me, Irene wanted to be a writer. Today, we catch up and talk about her new career focus, how she got there, and two works-in-progress (WIPS) that she’s currently working on.
A smart exit
Irene is a Chinese-American novelist, based in Southern California where she was born and raised. While many writers struggle to balance demanding day jobs with their writing pursuits, Irene took a different approach. She worked hard, saved her money, avoiding the trappings of the lifestyle, and got to the point where she could walk away from it and focus on writing full-time.
Irene’s first project is a young-adult fantasy novel featuring a Chinese-American protagonist. On her 16th birthday she inherits a mysterious ability from her Shaman ancestors while also dealing with the loss of her brother who's run away from home. Irene started writing this novel while she was still practicing law, stealing minutes whenever she could find them during lunch breaks, nights, and weekends.
“This main character has been inside my heart for many years.” -Irene Wen
Irene describes the character as someone who is reminiscent of her own inner child. Moreover, the story encompasses themes that are important to her, including identity and self-discovery.
As the character grew, so did Irene. Much of the story came from Irene’s imagination, taking a life of its own as she continued writing. Irene shares that this particular story led her to do extensive research into Shamans, which provided texture and nuance to the manuscript.
Irene’s other project is an adult fantasy novel about vampires working at an Asian beauty brand. Talk about creative! As with her first novel, Irene spent time doing background research, learning about the beauty industry.
“I got to research a lot about how beauty brands work.” -Irene Wen
For the first book, Irene wanted to address the concept of something frightening from one’s own past history, and how we deal with those fears; all with a Chinese cultural twist. The second book was inspired by Irene’s experience coming across many skin whitening products over the years, finding it both intriguing and odd.
“I definitely thought there was a story in there.” -Irene Wen
When it comes to book ideas, Irene starts by considering important themes such as identity, culture, familial bonds and in the case of the second book, beauty standards. From there, she weaves them into stories with fantastical elements, bringing them to life.
From reader to writer
Until recently, I’ve mostly known Irene for her law-career. In speaking with her on this episode, I discovered a whole new side to her. She has been a writer since her early years. She shares that taught herself to read at a young age before starting school using Disney children’s books and accompanying audio records. Irene would listen to the audio and match the words on the page with the narrator's voice. From there, she fell in love with books to the point where she preferred them to toys.
“I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I’ve loved reading.” -Irene Wen
While nascent, Irene also had the inklings of wanting to be a writer and “bring the same joy to other people” that reading gave her. Irene’s early writings, inspired by those Disney books, were stories about princes, princesses, and animals. During junior high and high school, Irene entered into a new phase of her writing, which she calls her “emo teenager” years. She wrote lots of poems and short stories but wouldn't share them. Instead, she kept them hidden inside a shoe box. (For a discussion of mining your earlier works, see MF 381 with Megan Prikhodko.)
“I had always been writing. It was a big part of my life.” -Irene Wen
Transitioning from writing for self to writing for others
Naturally, I was curious as to when Irene wanted to share her work with the world. As she explains, the shift occurred much later while she was knee deep into her legal career, and it dawned on her that she was not happy. Like many authors I’ve spoken with, Irene felt that there was another reason why she was put on this earth, another direction her life could be going in. This was a tipping point. She allowed herself to question what she was doing but more importantly what could she be doing. Once she pondered these larger career questions, she simultaneously re-awakened her love of writing. With that, came fresh ideas for novels. That’s when it occurred to her that there was another path she could follow instead of practicing law.
“I just made a decision to stay open to what else I could be doing.” -Irene Wen
Irene was at a crossroads. She had an idea for a first book while engaged in an all-consuming career. This is where we explore finding the time to write and making a dream into reality. Irene admits it wasn’t easy. There was a lot of trial and error in trying to fit writing into her busy life. This started with scribbling ideas into the notes app on her phone (for more on this writer's hack, check out MF 375 with Nicola Lowe). From there, Irene got a better handle on how to squeeze in writing during the aforementioned pockets of time. From there, she made a significant mental shift, deciding once and for all that she was serious about writing.
“I had to just tell myself, 'You know what, you’re a writer deep down inside and you’re going to prioritize the writer in you.'” -Irene Wen
Irene made choices that aligned with her goal. Finding time to write ultimately meant getting up earlier or pushing through after an exhausting day at work. She prioritized herself and by association, her writing.
All of Irene’s efforts started translating her story idea into chapters and as she wrote more chapters, an amorphous itch to tell this story turned into a clearly defined goal to write a novel. Up until that point, Irene’s fictional writing consisted mostly of short stories so this was a significant step forward.
I’ve spoken to a few novelists on this series, and have discovered that some are planners while others let their characters and ideas lead the writing without a clearly defined outline. I was curious as to where Irene fell on this spectrum. As she shares, she is somewhere in between. Irene plans out the story beats but explains that she can be a little too caught up in her outlines (a lawyer's habit). Thus, she allows herself the flexibility to let the story unfold even if it doesn’t follow the exact steps of her outline. The reason is that she can get so caught up in outlining that it takes away from the actual writing.
“For me it’s a combination of both. I do need a bit of an outline to get started but I also have to hold myself back.” -Irene Wen
Irene adds “I’m a virgo!” For her first book, it took three years to finish the first draft; starting the process while she was working. As for deadlines, Irene skews outside most of the writers I’ve spoken to in that she does not use hard deadlines. The reason is that making the decision to transition into writing was hard enough and she didn’t want to add more pressure by putting strict deadlines on getting the first draft done.
The first draft
With insight into her process, I asked Irene what that first draft looked like.
"A mess. A hot mess.” -Irene Wen
Irene likens a first draft to a “big pen” with a lot of “animals running around.” She used a combination of a traditional keyboard and screen with sketching ideas on pen and paper. For the young adult novel, Irene created an entire fantasy land and drew out a map much like JRR Tolkien did for The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. She did this to help visualize location and key elements like the weather pattern, which played a part in the story. Writing fantasy doesn’t just involve creating the characters and story, but the world that they inhabit.
For the second book, Irene is nearly finished and is working on a “splashy ending.” She explains that the second book was easier to write, finishing most of it within a year, as she had left full-time practice to focus on writing. While querying the first manuscript to agents and editors, she started the second one to keep herself busy since the wait can be long. Moreover, she already had another story idea in mind.
Irene is focused on traditional publishing. She has put a lot of time and effort into the querying process, sending out letters and being engaged on Twitter where a lot of agents, editors, and publishers spend time looking for prospects. She notes that her main reason for going the traditional route is that her focus and desire is to write rather than learn the ins and outs of publishing and marketing. That said, Irene adds that she has made many friends who have done very well with self-publishing and doesn’t think one is necessarily better than the other. When it comes down to it, Irene knew her strengths and chose the option that aligned best with her and her goals.
Irene shares two challenges that are common to most writers starting out. With respect to the first book, it was finding time to write. As to the second, the challenge was internal. Irene started having doubts about her ability to be a full-time writer while she was querying the first book. Waiting and rejection are a big part of the process and it can take a toll. Writing the second book enabled her to keep busy doing what she loves, but it was also a challenge not letting her doubts inhibit her.
“That’s a constant challenge that I’m still working with.” -Irene Wen
Self-doubt comes with being a writer. To deal with this, Irene recommends take breaks from your writing. Don’t see yourself as a “worker bee.” There will be days when you don’t like writing, when your brain will resist. Rather than fight it or struggle against it, listen to that voice. Give yourself the space to be more than a writer and eventually you’ll come back to it when you’re more relaxed and refreshed. Irene also does a check-in with herself. Some days she's busy getting her taxes done or replying back to friends over text, querying, or other tasks. She does a check-in to make sure she’s in the right headspace, describing it as a “meeting with yourself.” Finally, Irene shares a key mindset when it comes to being a writer. Treat it as a business, see yourself as your employer but also your most valued employee. Invest in your work, respect yourself, and your needs; both in and outside of work. Finally, treat yourself as you would if you were working for an “ideal boss.”
“The best advice I can give is to see yourself, see your writing career as a small business.” -Irene Wen
To learn more about “splashy endings,” Irene recommends the Save the Cat book series, which covers how to create a "five-point finale."
Connect with Irene:
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Check out the Moving Forward mini-series collection
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