Cindy Pon, a YA author, writes heroine centered fantasy series set in Ancient China. Her books are known not only for their action packed tales but for their beautiful writing. Silver Phoenix, her debut novel, was named one of the top 10 fantasy novels for youth by Booklist. Cindy is busy writing her second series now, but she took the time to talk to WFTF about what makes good writing, and of course, her college admissions essay. This is part 1 of her interview with Write for the Future Coach Cora Daniels.
Cora Daniels: Do you remember writing your college essay? Did you sink, swim, or soar during the writing process? Any advice?
Cindy Pon: Oh gosh, it's been so long, I honestly do not remember. I would say to be genuine, honest and engaging in your college essay. Let the admissions officer hear your voice, let your personality come through. It is similar to pitching your novel in a single page query, making yourself stand out. We are all unique individuals with unique experiences, thoughts, aspirations, and voice. Let that come through in your essay.
CD: How do you develop an idea for a story?
I'm very organized in most aspects of my life except for writing; I wing most of it. I'm not an outliner (novelists who outline their novel chapter by chapter before they start), but more a pantser (one who writes by the seat of her pants). Having said that, I take my time to research, to daydream, and will usually have at least six random scenes in my head for a novel before I sit down and begin. Then it's just a matter of trying to connect the dots and hoping that it will all come together in the end.
CD: And we don't want to jinx you but...what do you do when you have writer's block?
I'm not sure if I actually believe in the concept of writer's block. Because I don't think I've experienced it myself. For me, it's more a matter of feeling unmotivated, or discouraged, or bored. I would say if you don't know what happens next, to write around the story, skip to a part that you know does happen later on. Or to turn your thoughts to a different project, maybe a short story, a poem, separate from what you're working on.
CD: Your books have a reputation of not only being very well written but for their compelling can't-put-it-down storytelling. Besides plot, are there writing techniques that you suggest to keep readers hooked?
I'm a very intuitive writer, so I wish I could just give you a check off list and say: If you do this, you're good. For me, it's a matter of writing, revising, and seeing if I'm actually bored while rereading passages. If I'm bored while rereading what I've written, then that's an issue. Having said that, it might be I'm revising the passage for the sixth time, so you have to gauge that as well. You can become too familiar and too close to the text to be able to be objective. I rely very much on my critique group, a group of writing friends who have been with me since before I had finished Silver Phoenix. We critique each other's writing honestly so we can improve our stories.
CD: Your books are also known for their fabulous descriptions of food which is something readers may not expect to find in a fantasy series. Why do you take the time with those details? Why do such details matter in writing?
Ai Ling being a total foodie was unexpected and unplanned. Because Silver Phoenix was my first novel, I did rely on some personal traits for my heroine, because that's always the easiest thing to do as a new writer. Ai Ling is a student of Chinese brush like I am, and she also loves to eat, like I do. It seemed natural to me to describe her meals. I mean, fight hard, eat well. It makes sense, right? ha! In addition, without knowing it, I was likely going against the fantasy novels I had grown up on, which were all western inspired, with the usual meat and potatoes, cheese and bread fare. Nothing wrong with that, I loved those books and I still enjoy them. But with the Kingdom of Xia, the variance in food was an accessible way to let readers know they aren't reading a western fantasy novel. Sensory details, beyond taste, is also very important in a novel. It's one of the best ways to give the reader an immersive reading experience.
CD: What's next? What are your working on now? When can we read your next book?
I just sold another duology set in the Kingdom of Xia. The characters and stories are entirely separate from my Phoenix novels, but they are still in the same world. The first novel is titled Serpentine. The story is focused on my heroine, who discovers soon after she turns sixteen that she is half serpent demon, a creature considered to be a temptress from ancient lore. Serpentine will be published by Month9Books in September 2015. I'm so excited to share it with readers!
In Part 2, Cindy Pon talks about her writing life as a teenager. If you like to know more about her books or art check out her website cindypon.com.
Cora Daniels, a Write for the Future coach, is an award winning journalist, author and adjunct professor at NYU. She is author of the forthcoming Impolite Conversations, a collection of essays.