The Big Idea: Cindy Pon
Posted on September 8, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 79 Comments
When Cindy Pon turned in her Big Idea for her novel Serpentine, she had titled it “A Guide to Writing Non-Commercial YA Fantasy,” with the notation “Maybe the titles of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely.” Why would she think that? Read on for the explanation.
When I was pitching my debut novel, Silver Phoenix in 2008, one of the first editors I met at a local conference read twelve pages and said two things that stuck with me. First: This reads like Crouching, Tiger crossed with The Joy Luck Club. Why is it fantasy? Second: Asian fantasy doesn’t sell.
My internal thought to the first was: But doesn’t Crouching, Tiger have fantastical elements? And why is he saying it like this is a bad thing? My thought to the second was: Oh.
I immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when I was six years old, which means I learned English as a second language. I remember vividly my first grade teacher having to write my name onto the chalkboard because I didn’t know the alphabet. I remember staying home to work on my English while I watched the neighborhood kids play outside. So, when sometime in the third grade I began reading–and reading a lot–it seemed as if magical worlds had been opened to me. I had worked so hard to gain access to these story treasures!
I fell in love with books, and fantasy was one of my favorite genres. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I had never seen a character who looked like me in any of the fantasy novels I had read. That’s why I wrote Silver Phoenix.
It was incredibly disheartening to be told by the first professional editor I’d met as a budding writer: Don’t bother. No one wants this.
Well, Silver Phoenix did sell to Greenwillow Books, and it was published in 2009, a difficult time in publishing, and an even more challenging one for debut authors. That year, my novel was the only Asian-inspired YA fantasy released by a major publisher, and now, six years later, I can still count on one hand the number that are released any given year. There have been strides, but not many.
When I began writing Serpentine, which will be published on Sept. 8, I knew it was a risk. I was writing another fantasy set in my fictitious Kingdom of Xia when the sales numbers for my other books had not been strong. But if you know me personally, you know that no one tells me what to or not to do, and I am a stubborn-headed goat. When I do find a story idea, I always write that novel. Serpentine was on submission for two years, with a handful of editors giving very positive feedback, but asking to see something “entirely different” from me instead.
I was ready to self-publish when Serpentine and its sequel were acquired by Month9Books, and it has been a fantastic journey with this amazing small press. But those two years on submission gave me time to realize all the things that made Serpentine “not commercial” by the standards of what is popular in YA fantasy’s current market.
- “Too many Asians”
My novels feature casts that are almost entirely Asian, which is very rarely seen in YA books. I’ve also come to realize that the setting itself, inspired by ancient China, is severely othered by the average Western reader, even those who are enthusiastic fantasy readers. Ancient China is more foreign and seen as less commercial than Mars or the moon.
- “Always the handmaid, never the princess”
I’m very familiar with fantasy’s love for royalty, the princes and princesses who must be smart, brave, and persevere to save their kingdoms. I have read and loved many of these fantasy stories, but have never been drawn to writing them myself. My heroines have always been underdogs, and it is no different in Serpentine. Orphaned at birth, the main character Skybright has been a handmaid and companion to her mistress her entire life. She is pragmatic and hardworking, until one night she wakes to find the lower half of her body has morphed into a long serpentine coil. This changes what she thought she knew about herself and her life forever.
- “Sisters before misters”
I knew from the outset that I wanted a strong female friendship to be the focus of Serpentine. It was something that was lacking in my Phoenix novels, but also, it was a tribute to all the fabulous women friends I have in my own life, who have boosted and encouraged me in my writing career. And although there is a strong romance between Skybright and a boy she meets, I do believe the core of the story is the friendship between Skybright and Zhen Ni.
- “Different but not that different”
I think the true irony is that I always think I am writing to market. Shapeshifters are a popular staple in fantasy, both urban and traditional, and are part of the mythos and lore of many cultures worldwide. But one of my critique readers found the idea of a serpent demon heroine “gross”, and an editor said that despite my beautiful storytelling, a half serpent with a forked tongue would be a “tough sell” to the YA readership. Well, damn. Why can I never just fit nicely in the YA Fantasy Expectations Box? I blame my fascination with the idea of monstrous beauties, as well as the Greek mythology of Medusa, who was a beautiful woman herself before she was changed into a monster.
As for whether or not Asian fantasy sells, I think that it can, if these titles are given the same strong publicity and marketing push as other Western-inspired YA fantasies. I have yet to see this happen, and when there is strong buzz from the big publishers, it has often been for an Asian-inspired fantasy written by a white author.
So I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to talk about Serpentine. And if you decide to take a chance with a non-commercial YA fantasy, reader, I hope you enjoy Serpentine.
Serpentine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s|iTunes
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
When an editor, especially an allegedly professional editor says “Asian fantasy doesn’t sell.” what they actually mean is “I can’t be bothered stepping out of the standard fat trilogy that’s just like everything else on the market”
Asian fantasy does sell, and sell well, despite the best efforts of publishers to sink it over the years. (See Barry Hughart for the prime example of the depths that will be plumbed to achieve these goals.)
I shall definitely have to track down your work to read now. Thanks for the Big Idea post and thanks also to Our Gracious Host for running this awesome feature, despite the constant damage it does to my wallet.
Wow, Serpentine sounds like an amazingly cool read! Something needed for a long time. Can’t wait to read it!
Well, you’ve sold me, this sounds utterly awesome. Also, it’s different from pretty much anything I’ve ever read, and I LIKE different.
Don’t let the racist bullshit get you down, this sounds like an awesome book!
Interesting points about Chinese-influenced YA fiction. Though there is a huge assortment of Japanese or Japanese-influenced YA fiction, in the form of manga. (And there are some Korean and Chinese manga-style comics available as well.) I wonder if the presence of manga has depressed the demand for Asian-influenced YA novels: do the American teenagers who are interested in Asian culture and who would be the natural audience for such novels tend to buy manga instead?
Ditto re what @JayDzed said.
Looking forward to reading this very much. I like different too,
thank you so much for hosting me, john!
@jay agree so much. but i see this repeated over and over again. even as we are asking for more inclusive books within YA and SFF.
@KL @floored @anne, thank you so much! i hope you enjoy Serpentine if you pick it up!
@nepos, you’ve hit on the head the problems and challenges i’ve faced. i write YA fantasy. if i wrote greek inspired or norse or celtic YA fantasy, would you or anyone think the market is too crowded because manga or anime exist? but add to the fact that my fantasies are ASIAN inspired, conclusions are drawn for my books that do not apply to Western influenced fantasy. when at the heart of all my stories, at its core–they are FANTASY reads. i’m proud they are asian inspired, but that makes it a “niche” for many automatically. they are not niche. they are for people who enjoy fantasy.
Agree completely with JayDzed. Kids in that age group have grown up with Avatar (the cartoon), anime, manga and Pokemon ubiquitous in American culture. The idea that Asian-themed fantasy is “weird” or inaccessible to mainstream teenagers is baffling. One has to wonder how much the editors are in fact looking at market figures about what YA books sell, as opposed to white editors thinking “well I didn’t read that as a kid, so no kids today will either”.
ooh! And the Kindle edition is only $4.61 right now – bought and downloaded. :)
Like you, I’ve always loved folkloric monstrous women, and especially have a soft spot for Melusine. So feh on whoever said it was “gross.” I’m very excited to read Asian magic serpent handmaid fantasies!
I, for one, am a huge fan of non-Western settings in novels, YA or otherwise. Surely, I’m not the only one. Lately, I’ve been seeking out those set in Asia or the Middle East, and just finished one that was based on Russian mythology. And while that is technically Western, it was still fascinating to see something from a different perspective. I would love to find something set in Africa. I will definitely be looking for both of your novels.
@mythago i think because publishing is experiencing such flux right now, and after the downturn of the economy, these things make it so taking risks is even less likely. and Asian fantasy is seen as a risk for many publishers.
@anthea YES! :D thank you so much! i hope you enjoy it!!
@bryn you are the raddest. thank you! medusa from Clash of the Titans (the original one) really made her way into this novel. that scene with her and the hissing and rattling tail. LOVED so much as a kid cindy. :D
@sgsax, appreciate your comment. look into nnedi okorafor. i’m such a fan. and of couse, saladin ahmed’s debut! in YA, amber lough and renee adieh are fantastic.
John, thanks for getting behind this one and giving it a good, hard, push. You’re a mensch.
@trout i’ve found discoverability to be a real challenge. so yes, thank you john for offering this space! any type of signal boosting and word of mouth helps every author.
Cindy, for purely selfish reasons I am so glad you persevered and got your work published — because how am I ever going to get to read anything new and juicy if publishers keep cranking out the same formulaic stuff? I look forward to reading Serpentine.
Are you still reading the comments, Sindy? I hope so because I WANT TO READ YOUR BOOKS. White chick here who has been grinding her teeth since the 1970s because WHY IS ALLLLL THE FANTASY EUROPEAN. The last decade has been SUCH an improvement, but there still isn’t nearly enough Asian style/theme/inspired fantasy!!
Eeek, Please forgive my too-fast typing, Cindy! Cringing at my name typo now.
The excerpt grabbed my imagination right away. Looks like a great read! And B&N has it on sale for Nook as well. Sold!
P.S. John, the Barnes&Noble link brought up a “no results” page for me.
@marion and @beth, thank you! and @beth, no worries! i’ve made much worse typos. ha!
I, for one, am thrilled about this — my YA shelves need a healthy dose of stories and protagonists that are Asian, especially since a large part of my clientele of that age are Asian. Will be on the lookout for it.
Looks interesting I ordered it for my daughter I think this will be right up her alley. Kudos on whoever did the cover.
So glad you persevered, Cindy! We need stories about ALL kinds of worlds & cultures!
I’ve read a couple Asian-inspired fantasy works and I wasn’t always successful. Sometimes it felt like I couldn’t understand the characters’ motivations and communication styles because I lacked previous knowledge of the culture – like the author presumed I would know stuff that I didn’t.. That bummed me out, because I want to understand – I just need an “on-ramp” from my own Midwestern US/European knowledge base so I can grasp any different aspects of the mindset (‘hope that makes sense).
I’ll check out “Serpentine” or another of your works soon!
I’m an old fogey (haven’t been a YA in 50 years) who reads a lot, and I’m tired to death of the same old, same old. So I look for what’s different. I bought Silver Phoenix 2 years ago and loved it and pre-ordered Serpentine (which downloaded to my e-reader at about 1 am this morning and immediately entered my TBR Soon virtual pile). By the way, Crouching Tiger may not have wizards or fairies, but it strikes me as pure fantasy. Unless you think people really can fly.
As the whole Puppies thing illustrated so well, we’ve got a long way to go before fandom is as welcoming to new voices as we like to think. I’m glad you found a publisher*, and I hope they sell a ton of copies of your books. It will teach the old fogey publishers that there’s a market for Asian fiction. (Ken Liu is doing a great job of making this point with his many translations. Maybe the next generation of publishers will finally wake up and smell the lotus. *G*)
* Also, don’t let rejection discourage you. Legend has it that Richard Hooker had his book M*A*S*H rejected by every publisher in New York until one finally chose to risk it, but without being willing to risk an advance, because they thought it would never sell. M*A*S*H went on to become one of the longest-running and most popular TV series ever. The big publishers often show abysmal judgment when it comes to acquiring books by new voices and have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the last century. Smaller, newer publishers are more willing to recognize quality that falls outside the traditional pigeonholes and may already exist in the present century.
Not available for me. Zoning strikes again. :(
Yeah, agents who think Asian is a hindrance to selling have clearly not paid attention to all the manga, anime, Asian computer games and movies that have ingrained themselves in western culture. This year’s Hugo award event went to a Chinese scifi novel.
And last year’s went to a book in which the main character is an actual spaceship. Shapeshifting snake person is really not that weird and agents who think so need to read outside of their comfort zone a bit more.
Anyway, I’m interested at least. Been a while since I read some original YA.
Kids have grown up with women all their lives, but the cartoon industry still decided that Young Justice had too many girls to sell action figures, that there was too much Katana in Beware the Batman, that there was too much Wasp in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and so forth. My daughter will avidly watch anything where women are the action heroes or are in charge, but no, people like her don’t exist and cannot possibly constitute a lucrative market. (I mean anything, not just Gotham Girls or Agent Carter, but things like MST3K’s Angel’s Revenge episode or the Tomb Raider movies.)
Well, even if we ignore manga and anime, CJ Cherryh’s fantasy ‘The Paladin’, published back in 1988, was set in an unspecified country remarkably similar to China, and featured a young girl as a protagonist; it sold well and I reread it every year or so, since it is one of my favourite books. The editor who told you Asian stuff doesn’t sell presumably overlooked this example.
C J Cherryh has had a pretty spectacular career, and I very much hope you emulate her…
Stevie, thanks for reminding me of The Paladin. I see, to my dismay, that although the original cover accurately showed an Asian-influenced protagonist, the reissue more than a decade later “whitewashed” the protagonist (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paladin). This is progress?
Brings back memories of an ancient filk song bemoaning the fact that despite the book having a clearly black protagonist, the singer bemoaned the fact that the book’s cover showed a white character. (It’s also possible I’m crossing neurons here and this refers to a real artist error by a poorly informed cover artist or a particularly egregious marketing choice by the pubilsher. Memory blurs…)
There’s a reason we need social justice warriors (and I apologize in advance for the clearly politically loaded term). I fly that particular freak flag proudly (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=freak+flag).
> “… an editor said that despite my beautiful storytelling, a half serpent with a forked tongue would be a ‘tough sell’ to the YA readership.”
Really? Because that sounds AWESOME. Sold.
Kindle version bought. Curse You, Big Idea!
Wow! Month9Books is based down the road from me (Raleigh, NC), and has been putting out some high-quality (and a few best-selling!) books for few years now. (Jen McConnel’s Red Magic series, anyone?) I hope this is a great success for all involved.
Just bought the Kindle edition also. Looking forward to reading it. I’m a big fan of stories with a main character who has a sense of other worldliness.
Your book sounds amazing and I will definitely check it out. I love Asian settings in fantasy book and don’t quite get the opinion of this editor. At least you sold me your book.
So tired of the same European fantasy with Tolkien influences. Look forward to picking this up and giving it a go!
Interestingly enough the cover of my copy is different to both of those on Wiki and shows Taizu as definitely Asian, with the scar clearly a scar; I must dig it out and see what edition it was.
I agree that it is infuriating when the publishers decide to ‘whitewash’ leading characters in this way; it’s also immensely disheartening for the author…
Argh! I want this book, but no ebook editions visible from a UK IP address. :-(
Sounds awesome! Added to my TBR wishlist pile (that keeps growing, curse you Big Idea!)
The average Western reader actually has a long-standing appetite for many kinds of Asian fantasy, as several commenters have reminded us. Novels set in ancient China could be the next course on the menu.
thank you all for the encouraging comments. if you pick up Serpentine, i hope you enjoy it. i didn’t mention in the post (book release brain) but the story, despite the underworld opening and demons breaking loose, is very female centric at its core. :) so for all the rad men posting, i double dare you if it’s not what you usually read. hehe
@rooty YAY FOR OLD FOGIES! <33
@kaleissin :( it might be no uk ebook is available? i know you can order a physical copy. but boo!
@montsamu, M9B has been amazing and fabulous to work with. thank you!!
Double dare accepted and book bought. :)
Okay, actually, I regularly read stuff that i supposed to be targeted at a female audience. I just love a good romance story.
Thank you for “sisters before misters”, both the phrase and the plot.
@theyis a man after my own heart. :) hehe!!
@lurkertype i’m ridiculously proud of that one. it is a little sad. HAHA!
Thank you for your lovely thoughts! I for one very much enjoyed your first two books – I’m pretty sure I gave Silver Phoenix to my goddaughter that year. I’m very excited to see you coming out with a new book! And my library already has it on order!
On Asian fantasy in general… I’m still hoping for a great Filipino middle grade epic fantasy series for my son, who has never seen that side of his heritage reflected in his favorite type of books.
A) Lifelong SF and fantasy reader.
B) I’ve fought for representation for Asian/Asian American faces on stage and film for three decades.
Oh, hell, yes, this is up my alley….
I’m very excited to read this. I’ve recommended it to my library (the ebook) and they usually get all of my recommendations.
@katy, thank you! that means so much to me. and you are right. there are so many ways to be more inclusive for certain. i have an author friend who just released a filipino MG, but alas, he is in the philipines!!
@gwangung, keep on keep on! thank you!!
@tamar, yasssssss! i ove libraries! thank you so much! i hope you enjoy the read.
Well, no. Hell, there isn’t enough anime over here in the US. It’s absurdly hard to find a dub of Gurren Lagann that doesn’t sound terrible, after all.
Frankly, we need more Asian stuff over here. It took me a ridiculously long time to find a decent translation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and I don’t appreciate the crappy plot alterations that the execs made to the English dub of Cardcaptor Sakura.
…and now that I think about it, half of my favorite books are focused on primarily non-European settings. Huh. Maybe these publishers should get their heads out of their asses and give us more protagonists like Skybright, because she sounds fully awesome.
also, I want a sequel to “Throne of the Crescent Moon” like, yesterday, but that’s sort of beside the point.
@FLOORED me too on ahmed’s sequel! i asked on twitter and he said hopefully in 2016. FINGERS CROSSED. :) and thank you! i grew up reading Western fantasies myself and loved them! i still do. but writing now what calls to my heart.
2016? TEN THOUSAND UNNECESSARILY MELODRAMATIC CURSES!
I need a fix…my buddy has an unexpurgated edition of the Thousand and One Nights, that oughta keep me going for a little while.
Ooh, and Mom sent me a decent translation of Sundiata, I should get into that; so hard to get a good version of African epics.
@cindy, if you ever want to try your hand at theatre, send a script my way (cause if I can’t handle it, I know of other theatres who could try).
@gwangung thank you!! i’ve never attempted a screenplay. but ironically, only just watched a wonderful performance of Lady White Snake at the Old Globe here in SD. it was so amazing and lovely to watch. and had mainly asian actors even! bravo! (i love your little chun li. i dressed as her at my first comic con. ha!)
Whadda they mean, Asian fantasy doesn’t sell? Have these people never even heard of Laurence Yep (who last I heard was quite a successful author, of fantasy among much else)? Do we have to reinvent the wheel again?
And now I want to read this book. Because an almost entirely Asian cast is awesome and exciting!
Entrenched pre-conceptions in the publishing industry are depressing. best of luck
As an aside, your post did remind me of a sweet children’s book (was my Mum’s) from 1952, So-Hi and the White Horse of Fu by Cynon Beaton-Jones.
I’ve been waiting for Serpentine! I loved the Silver Phoenix books and have had Serpentine on my TBR list for ages.
@helen, yes!! it seems there was a real dearth after him for certain. much of the authors mentioned here released in the 80s 90s or much earlier. and even then, can count on one hand like now.
@morgan that means a lot. thank you so much! <3
This is the sort of thing that drives me crazy. Teachers are begging for books like this, teens and tweens want them and yes, are totally familiar with Asian material from cartoons, anime, games and manga, not to mention the small sliver of Asian-themed fantasy out there. It’s the booksellers who are doing it, because they’ve decided that the audience only wants white kids, with no actual data to back it up, and because they simply don’t want to be bothered. They pressure the publishers, and instead of the publishers going, no, let’s have a diverse list and market it to maximum effect, the publishers just pass on the same racist crap.
Consequently, after the rapid expansion of YA in the oughts, sales are starting to brake. They aren’t offering enough variety. This story sounds terrific. So I hope it does well for you and that people do word of mouth.
This is one reason I love John’s blog. I’ve read so many great books due to the Big Idea posts. This book sounds amazing, and there’s even a Kindle sale. Yay – just purchased!
@edem, please do! in Serpentine, the entire cast is asian. :)
@kat, all that and more! the problem is systemic, and there’s no one easy solution. but i keep writing what i write and hope that my books finds their way to interested readers. thank you!
@linda, yay! i do hope you enjoy!! cheers!
I love the “Dragonkeeper” series by Carole Wilkinson.
I’m so DONE with generic white protagonists. The stereotypical Star Wars “young white farm boy gets cool powers and learns to believe in himself” plot has been done to death.
Why can’t it be a bisexual African-American girl learning to believe in herself? How about a genderless Hopi? Or a middle-aged Palestinian who’s lost all hope of a better future? Why can’t THEY have fantastic adventures and learn to believe in themselves? They kind of need it more than the generic white guy!
@Floored. Totally agree.. I want those books too.
@floored and @anne, here’s to more being published as we continue forward. :)
It sounds like a pretty cool book. And actually, the Asian part makes it more attractive (for me, at least, because I like to go into other lands, culture and all in books!)
Bridge of Birds and Initiate Brother are two of my favorite series. Definitely picking up Serpentine.
@vanished @involunteer thank you!!!
Congrats Ms. Pon on the release of Serpentine. I am going to buy it as soon as I finish posting this. We exchanged emails after I read Silver Phoenix, and you had shared your discouragement over the lack of interest in YA Asian Fantasy. I hope you can blaze a trail for me and others who write in the genre!
@kangzhuang that means so much. thank you! and thank you for commenting so many years later here.
Cindy, I am glad you have persisted despite all the obstacles in your path.
@cindy, Thanks for the tip on Nnedi Okorafor. I checked out “Who Fears Death” that same day and am absolutely loving it. My library also has a copy of “Serpentine” on order and I look forward to reading it. I did read Ahmed’s book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I guess you could say it got me started on this quest.
@mike, thank you. i am a bit of a subborn headed goat. :)
@sgsax, i LOVE Who Fears Death. i hope you enjoy it as much as i did. and i also always love hearing about my books getting into libraries. thank you!!
Although I rately read YA, you’ve sold me on this.
No one has yet mentioned Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, a book not not only set in Chinese Malaysia but recognizably different from the way most American stories play out because of the cultural perspective of the heroine. The odd thing is that even though it is clearly YA (both in the age of its heroine and its style) it was not marketed as such. Maybe another case of not finding a publisher who would trust teens to “get” something off the beaten path.
@vasha, that is no my list!! i had not heard it skewed YA? interesting!
I am also baffled why publishers think asian fantasy doesn’t sell given the sucess of spirited away and the whole studio ghibli line of films, all the asian inspired fantasy games since final fantasy and the anime and manga that are such a big part of geek culture that is becoming so mainstream. As for books i have Alison Goodman, Lian Hearn, Alma Alexander, Daniel fox and Barry Hughart on my shelves and GG Kay has taken a foray into asia in his last two books, so it clearly does sell for these writers.
I am glad you persevered past that BS attitude to get your books published because i have just bought copies of all three. They are exactly what i am always looking for, new and different from run of the mill fantasy.
I have realised overnight that all the authors i listed and all others examples are westerners that have been fascinated with asian culture enough to put it in their books. Which is other discussion by itself.
But still if those books were successful (Lian Hearns books in particular are still in print despite being 10 years old) why wouldn’t publishers want more like them? Maybe joannas 6th rule of how to suppress womes writing, repurposed and in this context, its asian …but it was an anomaly, which explains how people can dismiss evidence that does not fit received wisdom, even when that wisdom is contraindicated.
@muse, yes, the best known YA asian fantasies published today are still written by white authors. and all examples of previous are predominantly white as well. i think when you can list a “success” and it is the one in a few decades–it speaks of the dearth. and some thought i was a success. i wasn’t by publishing standards. there is no way of telling the true story. but if you never read anything else by that author, or if they switch to a different series–that alone is telling.
As many others have already said in the comments, Thank you Cindy for continuing to write these important books and also thank you for sharing your journey. It is very encouraging for those of us struggling to be heard. I cannot tell you the number of ties I have been asked why I don’t try to get published in India. It is exhausting trying to get across to people that just because a story is based on Indian mythology it does not mean only Indian people will want to read it. I’ve had bookstore owners tell me that they wouldn’t carry my books because they don’t get a lot of Indian customers. Apparently they get a lot of vampires, werewolves and hobbits because their YA section were full of books featuring those. I must say though, I’ve had quite a positive reaction from schools. I’ve been invited to a bunch of schools to talk about my book and about writing and I found that this age group is very receptive to books featuring a diverse cast of characters. It’s very encouraging to see kids so enthusiastic and curious to learn more about different cultures. I’m really excited to read your book Cindy.
@sabina, thank you so much for your comment and support. keep on writing and even better, visiting the schools! your stories and voice matter! i hope you enjoy Serpentine.