Ages ago, I submitted the first ten pages of my “Japanese Cinderella” story, Hai, for a critique by the Literary Work-in-Progress podcast. I recently found out my piece was selected for Episode 10: Tropes with Karen McManus of One of Us Is Lying. You can listen to the episode on iTunes here.
I am now agented (yay!), and Hai is about to go on submission, but it was still a lot of fun to listen to both the positive feedback and the critique! I was relieved to hear that 99 percent of the questions Caitlin, Kristen, and Cameron raised go on to be addressed in Chapter Two, which they noted might be the case. But I promise I also got the chance while editing my manuscript to fix other issues they raised, like my ultra-long sentences… /(><)\
I also appreciated getting their take on the balance of description, voice, and stakes in this opening chapter, along with their recommendations on how to make sure readers know early enough what the stakes are so readers know what’s worth their energy. For example, even though I know that my protagonist Hai’s glasses are extremely important to the story, readers only come to discover that little by little, so the careful description of them in Chapter One might seem unnecessary on a first read.
One member of the podcast (Caitlin, I think?), raised some cultural questions about the story, so I thought I’d elaborate a bit on that, for fun and interest’s sake. The stepfamily in my novel is pretending at being quite upper-class and yet their fascination with France is outmoded among Japanese elites, who by 1900 had moved on from emulating Napoleonic styles and were beginning to prefer Prussian fashion and civic codes. Of course, everyday Japanese people were oblivious to a lot of what the elites were up to, because the changes would have no relevance (yet) in their lives for decades. A great nonfiction book about the way Japanese fashion changed before, during, and after the Meiji era is Toby Slade’s Japanese Fashion: A Cultural History (Berg, 2009).
At the beginning of the Literary WIP podcast, Caitlin, Karen, and Cameron address tropes — when to use them, how to make sure they work effectively. As you can imagine, when I set out to write a Cinderella story set in a non-European, non-Western culture, I had to tackle all kind of problems around the usual Cinderella tropes!
For example, it’s one thing to insert a rotten and goofy stepfamily into a novel, but I had to be careful not to avoid common Western stereotypes of Japanese people while I was at it. I opted early on to make them over-the-top obsessed with Western fashions, but I also wanted to distinguish them from the earnest, well-intentioned work of other characters who grapple with industrialization and foreign intrusions into Japanese ways of life. So I also opted for the stepfamily to be too dedicated to their Western tastes, not unlike the Shinkawa family in Yukio Mishima’s Runaway Horses. And that was just one of several problems I encountered when I attempted to cast Japanese characters into their Cinderella roles in unique but historically plausible ways.
I’ll stop there, to avoid spoilers, but I want to thank everybody again at Literary WIP for reading the opening chapter of my novel and hosting such a lively discussion!