Rebecca F. Kuang studies modern Chinese history at Georgetown University and will be pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in 2017. Her debut novel The Poppy War is about empire, drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century. It will be published by Harper Voyager in May 2018. She tweets at @kuangrf and blogs at www.rfkuang.com.
You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016. Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep
Before Odyssey, I gave myself just one hard and fast rule: write 2,000 words a day, every day, no matter how bad they are. (To be fair, I was on a work schedule where I could make time to do this, whereas now I count myself lucky if I can squeeze 1,000 words in on a good day.) I’d never taken a creative writing class before, so had absolutely no understanding of craft, plot structure, or world-building before I dove in. I bought some books on writing genre fiction and read them along the way, but it was very much a DIY approach to writing.
How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
The best analogy I can give is from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (which, by the way, is getting a TV adaptation that I’m VERY EXCITED about!). For most of the series, Lyra, the main character, has been using an instrument called the alethiometer by instinct, but something happens and she’s forced to learn to use it the hard way—through a long and tedious training process. But in the end, she becomes much better at it than if she’d just kept trusting her gut. I’d instinctively picked up a lot of good tricks and tools on my own, but Odyssey helped me put a name on those tools and identify their purpose so I could use them to greater effect. I’d also picked up a ton of bad habits on my own, and Jeanne helped me identify those and get rid of them.
Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, The Poppy War, coming out this month from Harper Voyager! The Poppy War is the first in a Chinese-history inspired epic fantasy trilogy. What were some of your challenges when writing this story?
Thank you! I’m really excited for it. I actually had a pretty smooth time writing The Poppy War, largely because I went in with no expectations and was just pleasantly surprised by everything that followed. However, I did suffer from major Second Book Syndrome. The Poppy War was sold as part of a trilogy, and I really struggled with writing Book 2—I kept second-guessing my own writing and wondering how I could possibly replicate what I’d just done. So Odyssey came at precisely the right time for me. I was doubting myself and everything I knew about writing, but Odyssey helped me regain that confidence. I’m really not sure how I could have written the second book without Jeanne.
On your blog, you talk about how you learned that writing by the seat of your pants can work for the first novel in a trilogy, but an outline is necessary for the rest. How did you manage the transition from pantser to outliner? What were some things you learned about outlining along the way?
I could fill up pages and pages with things I’ve learned about outlining from Jeanne Cavelos and Kij Johnson. I think one rule of thumb I always come back to is this: at each bullet point of the outline, make sure your main character is doing something. Each stage must be the direct result of the protagonist’s choice, whether or not they are successful.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?
I do three drafts on my own: a brainstorming draft where I just write down all the scenes I think would be cool, a structural draft where I string those scenes together into some form of coherent order, and a clean-up draft where I make aesthetic edits. The first draft usually takes me the longest, but the second draft is the hardest to do. After I get a semi-clean thing, I send it to my agent, the amazing Hannah Bowman, who sends me back to the writing desk with more structural revisions to make. We’ll do as many rounds of that as necessary, and then it goes to my editor, David Pomerico! Rinse and repeat.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
Honestly, my biggest struggle is finding the time. See question 7. Aside from that, I’d like to one day branch out and try different storytelling techniques—multiple POVs, non-linear narratives, epistolary format, etc. Right now I don’t feel competent doing any of those. The Poppy War is a very standard chronological, close third-person narrative. But that feels like playing it safe. I feel like there’s so much more I could and should do in playing around with the text. I have to learn to write outside my comfort zone!
You’re currently studying Chinese history at Georgetown. How do you manage your time for both school and writing?
Badly. It’s really a struggle, and I’m afraid it’ll just get worse once I head off to graduate school in England. I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I have to finish up this trilogy first. I’m currently about halfway through drafting Book 3. But I had the outline written ages ago and I’m very happy with it, so it’s been pretty smooth sailing. I also have an idea for a new project that I’m REALLY excited about. I don’t want to say too much about the premise yet, but it’ll draw a lot of inspiration from my studies at Cambridge and the period of Sino-British relations in the 1800s. I guess I’ll tease more if it sells!