Five Years Later

Five years ago today, the thing I'd been dreaming of my whole life happened. Five years ago today, my agent, Laura Langlie (who had been representing me for only a couple of months at that time), told me that Little, Brown Books for Young Readers had made an offer on my as-yet-unpublished manuscript, Ash. The book cover for ASH by Malinda Lo, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, showing a girl in a white dress lying curled up on the grassy groundI'd received other offers already, actually, and I was already in an "I can't believe this is happening to me/OMG my dreams are coming true!" daze. But it was the Little, Brown offer, in retrospect, that changed everything, because this is the publisher I chose to publish Ash. This was the first time I really thought: This editor named Kate Sullivan could edit my books.

That's why today I'm marking the five-year anniversary of what I consider to be the beginning of my career as a novelist. Although I was already a published writer, it was fiction that fueled my dreams as a kid. And five years ago today, I realized that my dreams were coming true.

This is a good anniversary. :)

Since February 19, 2008, I've completed four novels, six stories, hundreds of blog posts, and almost 16,000 tweets (eek!). Five years ago, I did not know I'd be writing all these things, although I did have an idea of what my second novel would be about, and I knew that I'd be blogging. But back then, I didn't know much about Twitter; I don't think I was on it yet. I had absolutely no idea that I'd be writing any short stories. And even though my first job out of college was working as an editorial assistant at Random House, I had very little idea of what life would be like to be an author.

One of the most important things I learned was what it was like to work with an editor. Yes, I'd been edited before too, but having a novel edited is incredibly different than having an article or essay edited. I'd gotten some hints of what it might be like when I took writing workshops in college, but in the last five years I've realized that having a good editor is invaluable. And Kate is an excellent editor. She seems to really understand where I'm coming from as a writer, and she pushes me to get there more efficiently and more directly. She somehow manages to convince me to completely transform my books from first to second to third drafts in a way that I had no idea I could do before I began working with her. Working with Kate on four novels has changed me as a writer. I really do think about fiction differently now, and I'm grateful that I've been able to work with her for four books!

Over the last five years, I've also learned how important it is to have a literary agent who understands you and your work, and who knows the business and will explain it to you. I feel really lucky to have had Laura on my side for the past five years, especially because sometimes publishing is a really strange business that makes no logical sense.

It's been eye-opening to see how different publishing is as an author than it was when I was on the inside. I was pretty green when I was an editorial assistant, but I can see now that there was a sense of stability on the publisher side that does not exist on the author side. Publishers are these giant, bureaucratic, old (sometimes very old) corporations that feel like they've been there forever. Things are done a certain way because that's the way things are done. (Obviously, this leads to trouble when, say, technology up-ends traditional publishing models.) Yes, some books are bestsellers and some are flops, but there are so many of them that things sort of even out.

But for authors, things are rarely stable. Each book you write is inextricably linked to your worth as an author. Each book is judged on its own, and each book can fail in multiple ways. You might not last four books at one publisher, much less four books with one editor. There is very little stability as an author, and definitely no financial stability.

I think this instability can be harnessed for creative motivation, but not everyone can handle the same amount of instability. It can be paralyzing for some. I've been extremely fortunate because I've had the same agent, the same editor, and the same publisher for the past five years. On top of that, I've had the same partner, who provides a whole life's worth of emotional and financial security.

That relative stability didn't happen overnight. From the time I graduated college until I was 33 years old, I had unstable relationships, unstable finances (being an editorial assistant doesn't pay much, and graduate school pays even less), unstable insurance (freelance writing doesn't come with benefits), and unstable creativity (depression takes a toll). So, for those eleven years between college and the Little, Brown offer in 2008, I learned how to deal with instability.

After I began my career as a novelist, I tried to apply the lessons I'd learned about dealing with instability to my life as an author, but I've constantly been surprised by the challenges of this job.

For one thing, my dream of becoming a novelist did not encompass lists! Every year, librarians and booksellers and the media put together lists of "best" books. There are tons of lists, and each list can feel like an opportunity for failure, because there's no way your book will get on every one. And then, in addition to those literary lists, there's the New York Times list, which excludes all but a tiny handful of the thousands of titles published every year.

I'm pretty realistic, and I know that my books aren't going to make it onto the vast majority of lists. But I had no idea how destabilizing it would feel to even acknowledge that I had close to no chance of getting on some of them.

This is when it's tempting to think about what kinds of books I could write so that I can get on some of those lists. I think the fact that I write books about queer characters compounds this temptation. I see the books on the various lists and I wonder: If my books had straight main characters, would they have a better chance? Being realistic, I have to admit: Probably.

This is a depressing feeling. After five years in this business, I know for a fact that many publishers do embrace YA with queer main characters — and that's a wonderful fact. But I also believe that right now, heteronormativity is likely to prevent all but the most exceptional exceptions (e.g., if you're David Levithan and/or John Green) from becoming big commercial successes. Additionally, I believe that most consumers of YA (straight women and girls) are more likely to identify with/adore gay boys than gay girls. And I believe that publishers are most likely to put their money behind what they think is a sure thing, and that's not a book about queer girls.

I have no statistics, really, to support this. I hope I'm wrong, wrong, wrong. And I also believe that things are changing — slowly but surely. Still, right now, it can feel a bit depressing.

This is why I've sometimes wondered if I should write a book about straight people. It would probably reach a broader audience. But you know what? I'm really ornery. Whenever I start to feel pressure to do A, I pretty much always want to do B.

So five years into my career as a novelist, I'm more committed than ever to writing books about queer girls and women. I've received so many amazing, heartbreaking and heartfelt emails from readers around the world who have shared how my books affected them. I still think there's a distinct lack of books being published about people like me, and I'm not finished telling stories about us yet.

Five years ago, though, I didn't realize how important the issue of diversity would become to me. I had spent years working in LGBT media writing about the representation of queer women in entertainment, but I'd been surrounded by LGBT folks. There was a comfort there that is absent in my YA author world, where I'm largely surrounded by straight people. They're allies, and I absolutely appreciate them, but I'm a minority in the YA world in a way I wasn't when I worked in LGBT media.

I think that's why I've discovered that advocating for greater diversity in YA is so rewarding to me — not only in regard to sexual orientation, but race as well. I'm Asian American, but because I'm also queer, I've always felt as though I had to choose between one identity and the other. When I was a queer entertainment reporter, the queerness predominated. Over the last five years, I've begun to think much more consciously about race, particularly in terms of how that affects my writing. It's become startlingly clear to me how few Asian American lives are represented in YA fiction. This is also something I want to see change.

But don't get me wrong: The last five years have been truly amazing for me. I've made so many unexpected friends along the way, and one incredible benefit that I never expected was that I now get to meet so many of the authors I admire. I've gotten to drink cocktails with them and eat Thai food with them and go on retreats with them! And along the way we've commiserated about things that have gotten us down, and brainstormed about exciting new ideas, and discussed what makes a novel work and what makes it work better. Overall, it's been a joy, and I'm so happy to have had these experiences.

So, five years in, I'm in a good place. I'm thinking about what comes next, and I do have many ideas about what I want to write. However, I hope that five years from now I'm surprised by what I've created. I hope that five years from now, I've written something that I had no idea I'd write. I'm so thankful and happy that I have this to look forward to.

Last but not least, thank you for reading my writing! Not only my novels and stories, but my blog posts, my tumblr, and those nearly 16,000 tweets. There's more to come!