During WW2, the Japanese enslaved thousands of women to serve as prostitutes. I recently had the opportunity to interview author William Andrews about his experience writing his recent novel, Daughters of the Dragon: A Comfort Woman’s Story. Last week, I published the first part of the interview and below I publish the second portion. If you have not read the first portion, it is a good idea to do so before reading the text below.
DL: You changed narrator in this book. You went from a third person to a first-person narrator. You went from a middle-aged man to a young woman. Can you talk to us about why you did that? What were some of the challenges you had?
BA: Yes, both of these changes—from third person to first; from father to granddaughter—really helped the book. Let me start with the second—changing the character. I first wrote the frame of the book (the book is written in a framed narrative or a story within a story) with the father of the adopted daughter as the narrator. Why? Because I was him. It was easy for me. Then I realized that the granddaughter had the most at stake in the story. By giving her the narrative, the frame had much more power, more emotion. It was more direct, more raw, more dramatic. It wasn’t nearly as easy to write, but it was way better.
As for switching from third to first person, that was a result of needing to give the narrative a better voice. Writers and agents and publishers and coaches talk about “voice” all the time, but it isn’t always clear what it is. Well, to me, it’s a simple concept, but not easy to do. Voice is the personality of the narrator. Think about it. If you could have your comedy told by either a boring person, or by Robin Williams, who would you choose? Then again, you might not want Robin Williams to narrate your romance since the personality or voice of the narration must match the story. To get the voices right in Daughters of the Dragon, I changed the narration to first person. Once I did, the personality HAD to come through. The 20-year-old granddaughter said things like, “awesome” and “seriously?” and such. The 80-year-old Korean grandmother’s voice had to be deliberate and precise to match her personality. Structurally, it wasn’t all that hard to change, but really forced me to think about voice.
DL: Is there anything in particular that you would say that was the most difficult thing to do in this book? Was it research, plotting, point of view?
BA: A couple of things were challenging. First, the plotting. Note I use the word “plotting” broadly to mean the action, pacing, character development, and theme development all together. There are 5 “acts” in this book—the three historical acts make up 80% of the book and needed to be about the same length; the two present-day acts need to be subservient to the historical acts. Plus, I had many themes, several characters to develop, plot twists, etc. So, how did I do it? With a step sheet. Frankly, I couldn’t have done this book without one.
What’s a step sheet you ask?
DL: Oh, did I ask?
BA: It’s a spreadsheet with the chapters down the side and 12 columns across the top. The columns are: 1-chapter number; 2-date and time; 3-place; 4-POV character; 5-major action that happens; 6 through 9-major theme developments; 10+11-major character developments; 12-anything else I need to keep track of. I spent over 6 weeks on the step sheet alone before I began writing. It is the ONLY way I could control all these elements. And, of course, the step sheet is a living, breathing document. It changed nearly every day. But by having the discipline to work this way, the plotting, pace and developments really came together. I could see it in one look. I’ve been told by readers that the plotting and pacing in Daughters of the Dragon is excellent. I have the step sheet to thank for that.
Another difficulty was the research. I just had to do it. Remember that class you took your junior year in high school? It’s like that. Read, make notes, organize your thoughts, go to your writing, go back to the research when you need to, make notes, write—you get it.
Finally, I had a tough time with the brutality of the story. For example, I tried to write the rape scene in real time (inside the narrative), but it was just too hard on me and on the reader. I decided to pull it out to the frame and, while still hard, it was less brutal. You need to respect the reader and not beat them up too much. You can’t be gratuitous or insensitive. Yet, I wanted to tell the real story. A senior editor at Simon and Schuster rejected the book because he thought it was too graphic. I told my agent I could rewrite it. She asked me how the comfort woman who’s telling the story would describe what happened to her. I decided to keep it the way it was.
DL: I know that you worked with many different people in the writing of this book. For one you started with me, and I have to say that it was a great pleasure to work with you. You and I had some very good conversations. You were a very good listener, and you’re also a very good challenger. You didn’t accept everything I told you, but you did accept the necessity of interacting with everything—even if it meant that you would dismiss something that I told you. That was something that I respected very much in you and something that made our working together a pleasure. I know that you also worked with some other agents. Can you tell us about this experience of working with other people. What is it that you would tell readers of this blog about how they can help themselves if they work with an editor or agent.
BA: Working with coaches and agents and publishers is a little like that dream you have when you see everyone in your world, but they aren’t where you are. It is one of the strangest states I’ve ever been in (since college anyway). Here I am, doing the hours of work, I have the passion, I have the insights to these characters and this story. But if you’re an AUTHOR and not just a writer, you’re writing for someone else. Let me restate: If you want to sell your work, you are writing for someone else. That being said, remember that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. You gotta keep the horse picture in focus. But if someone – especially a professional – says it isn’t working, they’re probably right. And this strange state is amplified by the fact that you don’t know how good you are. It’s the eternal question someone trying to get published has. Am I good enough? Well, you’re probably not as good as you think you are after you knock off that awesome chapter, (go back and read some of the stuff you wrote years earlier that you thought was so great) and you’re certainly not as good as you spouse says you are. You might be better than that hack who just sold 5 million copies (who, by the way, is a best selling AUTHOR, not just a writer), so you just gotta balance it all and keep everything in perspective. The pros will give you good insight to your writing, but they aren’t always right. And they agents are far too busy to help you. All I can say is, listen to them, keep working, but most importantly, keep learning. That’s the ticket. KEEP LEARNING!
DL: Now that you have completed Daughters of the Dragon and it is published, can you tell us what your future plans are?
BA: Starting this fall, I’ll be working on the loose sequel to Daughters of the Dragon about the life of Empress Myeongseong. First, I need to find research in English!!
Visit Bill’s website: williamandrewsbooks.com