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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How to fly solo without burning the tips of my wings

DiaryExpatWriterI am pleased to welcome back up-and-coming author Shannon Young. This past summer, Shannon announced she’d cut 18 inches off her hair, quit her day job to become a full-time writer, and given herself a pen name for her planned adventure novel series. And, yes, she is an expat, a kind of love refugee, in Hong Kong. Shannon has agreed to chronicle her writing adventure for us. This is her second installment.*

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

As you may recall, last month I gave you some background on my decision to quit my day job and dedicate six months to writing with all my time, all my savings, and all my heart.

I already love the sensation of flying solo. As writing coach Mary Carroll Moore once said:

Books demand more time inside, to think, muse, dream, and design our stories.

But what if I love it so much I end up soaring too high and burning my wings? To continue the aviation metaphor, I mustn’t forget to touch ground and refuel every so often.

Diary, my goal this month is to find the balance between chasing my dreams and relying on much-needed feedback, input and advice from the people within my editing and writing community.

Recently I’ve learned three lessons that I think could be useful to bear in mind:

1: Languish in limbo no longer.

fire-dragons_coverThis month saw the final publication stages for the first book I ever started writing: Year of Fire Dragons. The working title for several years was Hong Kong Limbo, which is a fairly good description of this book’s journey. After writing several drafts, I worked with an excellent critique partner (fellow expat author Jane Cornelius) and asked numerous friends and relatives to beta read before querying literary agents.

To make a long story short, one of the first agents who requested the full manuscript spent two years assuring me she would get to it soon. I don’t know if she ever opened the manuscript, leaving me—and my writing career—hanging in the balance.

At the two-year mark, I withdrew my manuscript from her consideration. By that time, I had begun to believe that this particular book could find just the right home outside the New York publishing world and didn’t want to keep being strung along. I decided to take my career back into my own hands.

Three months later I had signed a book deal with Blacksmith Books, an excellent Hong Kong-based publisher, and my piece on student debt had been accepted into the competitive Kindle Singles program. That piece is now being made into an audiobook as well.

In retrospect I’m grateful for the delay that took place due because of that New York City agent. It gave me time to do some rewriting, and my manuscript was much better by the time I submitted it to Blacksmith Books.

That said, it also taught me an important lesson about taking control of my own career.

In this season as a full-time writer, I hope I’ll continue to learn when to take the initiative and be a better judge of when to rely on other people’s responses.

2: Get by with A LOT of help from your friends.

My full-time writing schedule has allowed plenty of time to work on the little details while preparing for the launch of Year of Fire Dragons—with help and feedback from others, of course!

Here are a few things that happened this month:

1) The publisher sent the final proofreading notes. I combed through the manuscript one final time, knowing that this was my very last chance to catch any errors.

2) We rewrote the blurb (again), simplifying it a bit from the previous version. It needed to be stripped down to the basics of the story. Here it is:

Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong

When a bookish 22-year-old follows her Eurasian boyfriend to Hong Kong, she hopes it’ll be the happy ending to their long distance love story. But a month later, his company sends him to London. Left with a new job and a pile of student debt, she embarks on a wide-eyed newcomer’s journey through Hong Kong—alone. She works as the only foreigner in a local school and explores with other young expats. The city enchants her, forcing her to question her carefully laid plans. Soon she must make a choice between her new life and the love that first brought her to Asia.

(Is your curiosity piqued, Dear Diary?)

3) I practiced talking about the book without being annoying. This is a difficult one for me. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, and it’s a constant struggle to figure out the right balance of things to say. (If you know me in a real life and I talk about my work too much, please tell me to cut it out!)

4) I messed up, but got things sorted out in the nick of time. My publisher arranged to have an excerpt from my book published in a cool local magazine. I got the email about the opportunity shortly before I flew to Taipei for a friend’s wedding. I didn’t read the email closely enough to realize that they needed the excerpt ASAP. Several days later, I found myself in line for the elevator at Taipei 101 (the world’s second tallest building) reading an email asking where my excerpt was and could I send a photo, too? I had left my computer back in Hong Kong. At the top of Taipei 101, I tucked myself into a corner and spent most of our visit frantically trying to download the manuscript on my phone and find an appropriate photo to forward. Thank goodness for free WiFi! When we got back to the hostel I was able to use their computer to download my book and find just the right excerpt for the magazine.

5) I received blurbs offering advance praise of my book, the final full spread cover design, and a PDF with typeset pages (248!)—all the bits and pieces that make a book come to life. I’d written the pages, but my publisher had polished them, the designer had created the beautiful artwork for the cover, and the blurb writers had inspired me through their own books and offers of encouragement along the way.

Notably, all of these little victories were the direct result of other people’s input.

3: Expat life can be read as a metaphor for the editing process.

It occurred to me the other day that living in another country can be likened to the writing and editing process. An expat has to be open-minded to the cultures around him—just as a writer must learn when to accept feedback. An expat must also forge her own path—just as a writer must sometimes decide to hold fast to the words she wants to write and the career she wants to pursue.

With the near constant feedback of the other culture, an expat naturally reassesses the way they do things. Sometimes your new country doesn’t offer the same opportunities and you need to adapt, and sometimes you see a better way.

Year of Fire Dragons used to have a lot more words: awkward words, melodramatic words, giddy and petulant and angry words about my first year living as an expat in Hong Kong. The process of writing the book was a maturing process. I had to first learn to describe what I saw on the surface, with assumptions and prejudices and even rose-colored glasses. Then I had to learn to refine my perceptions even as I learned to edit my words. I had to cut to the heart of what was most important, most interesting, and most moving.

My work and my expat life are not so different, it turns out.

Diary, I still struggle with whether I’m making the right decisions. I wonder whether my book will be good enough, or if I should have spent yet another year revising. I even question whether people are just trying to be nice when they say sweet things about my book.

Throughout the next few months, I hope I’ll continue to learn how to take all the lessons offered by the wise folks around me, while still building this new life the way I want it to be.

Thank you again for following along on this journey!


Shannon Young

* * *

Readers, it’s your turn. Have you ever struggled with the writing process, wondering how long you should hunker down before accepting feedback on your work, or if that feedback is genuine? Let us know in the comments!

*Shannon Young has edited an anthology, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (2014), from which she is sharing some excerpts. We’re calling them “chunks” of dragonfruit—they taste delicious!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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CHUNKS OF DRAGONFRUIT: A tale of an Australian expat navigating her own way in Japan

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

Kathryn Hummel and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia is a new anthology edited by columnist Shannon Young. For the benefit of Displaced Nation readers, Shannon has generously carved out a few tasty morsels from the writings of the collection’s 26 female contributors, highlighting their feelings of displacement within Asia. This is the second installment. The first can be read here.

—ML Awanohara

For our October excerpt, I’ve chosen Kathryn Hummel, an accomplished poet whose prose immediately stuck out to me for its lyrical quality. She uses intricate details to make her life as an Australian expat in Japan come alive, and she captures the emotions of displacement beautifully.

Kathryn also uses a unique structure featuring a poem followed by a meditation on the stages of expat life: from arrival to finding community to a mid-life crisis of sorts to acceptance. Kathryn draws the full map of a life abroad.

I hope you’ll enjoy the beginning of Kathryn’s piece, which is titled “Charting Koenji.” (Kōenji, for those unfamiliar with Tokyo’s layout, is a neighborhood on the outer western edges of the city.)

“Charting Koenji,” by Kathryn Hummel

Sometimes there are moments that catch in the flow of the everyday like a taped-up tear in a reel of film. Afterwards, there is an almost imperceptible change in the tension and projection of life, when I feel more than I see that Koenji is not my place. While I am closer than a stranger, I am still at a distance: this I measure from the inside out, since I can’t get far enough away to see it as an onlooker, detached but still interested in how the scene rolls on. For the past two years, the everyday scenes of my life have had Japan as a setting: most of these have been concentrated in the district of Koenji-minami, Suginami Ward, Tokyo. During my first weeks here, I intoned that address so many times it became a mantra, a verbal talisman to guard against losing myself in the city. Although being an expatriate—a collection of syllables I don’t often apply to myself—places me in a position of being both inside and outside, when I hear the wooden heels of my shoes clip the now familiar walkways of my neighbourhood, I am reminded only of this place, my present.

I. Arrival

Arrival is not signified by
the unburdening of suitcases
but the mechanics of realisation.
This is where I am, will be:
I have come now to the place
where before I was going.

Being present in a place means you inevitably paint yourself in the picture, draw the map around you. Slip outside these bounds and you are lost, or so I once thought. In 2004 I had stopped in Japan on my way from China to Australia and was delighted by my weeklong visit. I knew that living and working in Japan would be harder than traveling through, when my only responsibility had been to find the best way to be happy before my set departure date. Still, I had friends in Japan and their phone numbers to call; a Japanese language certificate and alphabet flashcards; a few tatami mats’ worth of rented space and a position, courtesy of an arts-exchange program, to write words for an intimate Koenji gallery wanting to commune with the English-speaking art world. If the present was a leafy bough, my future (as well as my literary imagery) would be heavy with the fruit of my Japanese incarnation.

I arrived in Osaka and rested for a few days at the home of Quentin, a university friend who had spent the last three years of his life traveling back to Japan to teach English, a compulsion he would spend another three years satisfying. At Quentin’s suggestion, I made my way to Tokyo on a journey of acclimatisation and language practice. I took a slow train to Hamamatsu to go on a gyoza (dumpling) hunt and traveled on to Yaizu, where, walking to the beach to see the distant Fuji-san bathed in the light of sunset, I met and later made love to a fish-factory worker from Peru. Yet even this encounter had the day-seizing quality of one made on a transient journey only.

When I reached Tokyo, the city was so miserably wet I thought it would never dry out. As arranged, I was met at Koenji station by my landlord, whose easy graciousness flickered warmth over my arrival, and accompanied to the building where my first studio apartment was waiting. After giving me a tour, which consisted of opening the bathroom door and indicating to the rest of the open-plan space, diminished by a folded futon and my wet bags, my landlord retreated with a bow. I was not delighted by Tokyo so far but wanted to be, so I gave my wool scarf a tighter wind, armed myself with an umbrella and ventured out. During my walk, I found that the compass on my Bleu Bleuet watch was only for show—an incidental discovery, since instinct is the direction I rely on above all. At that particular moment, I had none, and the rain didn’t help clarify my position. It leaked somehow through my umbrella and under my collar, where it remained without guiding me. As it usually happens when I walk the streets of a new place, I got lost.

The houses lost me. Or I lost myself in them. Every grey, dun, or cream-colored structure fit together in a maze of reinforced concrete. Some homes were irregularly shaped to sit correctly on their blocks; others had strange additions that seemed the architectural equivalent to tusks and antlers; oddly shaped, overgrown bonsai sprouting various thicknesses of branch and colors of foliage mingled with low electrical wires; antennas, rubbish bins, sometimes just inexplicable but neatly arranged collections of junk, assembled to give the impression that it was still of use, awaited their purpose. There was an element of seediness that did not feature in my memory of Japan: paint peeled from wooden walls and bald light globes had been left burning after midday. In the alleys behind restaurants, I was met with cardboard boxes, broken brooms and wooden pallets, rusty machinery and empty cans of cooking oil. The rain blurred the scenes without actually softening them, making greyer what was already dismal.

I told myself not to try to make sense of the maze. Tomorrow I would find my way to the gallery where I would be working and meet Kenzo-san, its owner, and all would be well if I believed all would be well. At the same time I thought, with naïveté or impatience, that I had to have a plan, that aimlessness would prevent me connecting to Koenji.

Before I left Osaka, Quentin studied my face as if trying to read its meaning. “You should have a Japanese name,” he told me. “Kat-san isn’t so easy to say.”

To me it didn’t seem as difficult as “Kassorin-san,” but I already had thought of a name that sounded appropriately Japanese. “What about Katsu?” I asked. “It’s a mixture of my first and second names: Kathryn Susannah.”

Quentin shook his head. “No. It will make people think of tonkatsu (deep-fried pork). They’ll think it’s strange. Why not choose something that represents you—a tree, or an animal?”

Quentin’s advice may have worked admirably for him in his various Japanese incarnations, but has never yielded the same results for me. I was then, and remain, “Kassorin-san,” a woman who navigates her own way. On that first afternoon in Koenji, I continued to walk until I at last saw something that indicated my flat was not far off: a secondhand bookshop I never have learned the name of, though I did eventually begin to buy books there that I hope to read, one day, with ease. The bookshop is recognisable during the day by its awning of green-and-white stripes, at night, by its security doors. Each of the three doors is painted with a face: one with running mascara and a Clara Bow hairdo, one with a sweat-beaded forehead and a guilty laugh, the last with an angry eye and an imperious-looking nose.

These faces, which remain guarding the bookshop until 11:00 am each day, signal more than my location—they are signposts for my mood. Depending on whether my mind is full or empty as I walk past on my way to the gallery or language lessons or the house of a friend, I either ignore or sympathize with whatever I can read in their expressions: their moods always change. It seems charmingly whimsical to write that these faces were my first friends, though when I realised this, I knew it was time to stop observing and start finding my community in Koenji.

* * *

Poems From Here KHummelReaders, if you enjoyed that morsel, I hope you will consider downloading a sample of the Dragonfruit anthology from Amazon. (The e-book and paperback of are available at all major online retailers.)

And if this excerpt has made you curious to learn more about Kathryn Hummel, her new collection of poetry called Poems from Here has recently been published by Walleah Press. You can also find out more about Kathryn at her author site:

I look forward to sharing more excerpts from the Dragonfruit anthology over the next couple of months.

* * *

Thank you so much, Shannon! Displaced Nationers, any comments on what Kathryn had to say in this passage? Having lived in Tokyo myself, I found her description of the city captivating. I was also impressed by her determination to “navigate her own way” in a city that makes many of us Westerners feel we’ve stepped through the looking glass.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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CHUNKS OF DRAGONFRUIT: A tale by a Chinese American expat woman in China

Dorcas and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit cubes by

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia is a new anthology edited by our latest columnist, Shannon Young. For the sake of the Displaced Nation audience, Shannon has generously agreed to carve out a few tasty morsels from the writings of the 26 female writers within the collection that highlight their feelings of displacement within Asia. Take it away, Shannon!

—ML Awanohara

Thanks, ML. I’m excited to be doing this. The very first excerpt comes from a piece by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, called “The Weight of Beauty,” which covers the insecurities she experienced as a Chinese American woman living in China. Dorcas worries that her command of the language doesn’t match her Asian face and her average American weight is considered fat in China (she knows because strangers tell her!). Despite the difficulties, she finds an unexpected connection with her slim, beautiful, bilingual Mandarin teacher.

Here is the beginning of her story:

“The Weight of Beauty,” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

“If you went running every day, you could lose some weight.” A maintenance worker with a receding hairline squinted at me as the elevator in our apartment building rose far too slowly. This was the first time I had ever interacted with this man. Unfortunately, he was speaking Cantonese, which meant that I understood him perfectly.

“Mmm…” I responded, avoiding his eyes.

“Really. If you ran every day, you could lose some weight,” he repeated, concerned that I had not given him a proper reply.

I flashed him a tight smile, but I did not trust myself to say anything else before he stepped out of the elevator. As I watched his stooped, retreating back, I tried to remember how I was considered “petite” and “tiny” by my American friends. But the US was, literally, half a world away.

When my husband and I moved to China in the summer of 2008, my body’s relative mass seemed to triple during the time it took us to cross the Pacific Ocean. From my first day living in the industrial city of Shenzhen, my weight was a favorite conversation topic of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances alike. “You’re rather fat,” I would often hear. Or, “Did you gain weight? You look fatter.” If I stepped into a shop, sales clerks would rush forward, stopping my progress with wild gesticulations communicating that they had no merchandise remotely close to my size.

My figure was not the only thing wrong with me in the Middle Kingdom. I had grown up speaking Cantonese in the United States, but I knew barely any Mandarin. And judging by the reaction of the locals, my lack of language skills was by far my greater sin. Restaurant waitresses turned up their noses at me; grocery store cashiers clucked their tongues at me; taxi drivers quizzed me endlessly about my deficiency in Mandarin. My life in China at times felt like a series of one-act plays in which characters emerged with the sole purpose of telling me how stupid, fat, and just plain wrong I was.

“Ignore them,” my husband Ned, whose Turkish and Jewish roots had combined to make him look generically Caucasian, urged me.

“How can I?” I protested. “They’re everywhere.”

“But their opinions don’t matter. They don’t know you.”

That was the problem: they thought they knew me. I was a Chinese woman living in urban China, so knowing how to speak Mandarin was the minimum criterion for proving my sentience. It was equal to a blonde, blue-eyed woman in a cowboy hat and boots in rural Texas barely comprehending a word of English. It just wasn’t supposed to happen.

In exasperating contrast, the locals regarded Ned like a creature with magical properties. They were entranced by his height and broad shoulders, his light hair and green eyes, and they immediately set the bar for cultural competence at zero. All he had to do was say, “Ni hao,” and the same individuals who had been glaring at me as if I had insulted their ancestors as far back as the Tang Dynasty would glow with beatific smiles and tell Ned how amazing his Mandarin was. Ni hao was Ned’s universal password to obtain what would forever be denied to me: respect, attentive service, automatic entry into heavily guarded buildings, and a mysterious fount of Chinese joy and happiness that seemed to emerge only at the white man’s touch.

“He’s so handsome,” Chinese women would tell me, glancing at him through fluttering eyelashes. “Is he your boyfriend?”

“He’s my husband” was a Mandarin phrase I quickly learned to say.

Under the daily barrage of insults and sneers, my former life in the United States as an independent, competent, well-adjusted young woman began to recede from memory. It was as if that old version of me had never existed, as if I had always been the overweight, bumbling idiot that 1.3 billion people seemed to think I was.

I learned to wear an I-don’t-care-what-you-think expression on my face, but in reality, my defenses were only shadows of battlements. I felt as if I was constantly under siege; even the most innocuous encounter could become a surprise assault.

One day I greeted a deliveryman at the door of the office where Ned and I worked. I had done this several times before, and the routine was easy. All I had to do was say “Ni hao,” take the package, and sign for it.

But this time, when I handed the clipboard back to the deliveryman, he scrutinized my signature before eyeing me suspiciously. “Why don’t you have a Chinese signature?” he asked in Mandarin, a stony expression on his face.

“I’m American. I only have an English name.” I spoke slowly and gave him a small, apologetic smile.

“Why don’t you have a Chinese signature?” he repeated stubbornly, red blotches blooming across his forehead.

“I was born in the US I only have an English name,” I repeated just as stubbornly, all traces of the smile gone.

I didn’t understand any of the words he spat at me after that; he was speaking too fast and I was too shocked at his venomous tone. Knowing that I had just been deeply insulted, I refused to give him a response. We faced off in silence for a few tense moments before he turned on his heel, continuing to mutter vitriol under his breath as he walked away.

At that moment, learning Mandarin became my top priority. I contacted a company called New Concept Mandarin, which focused on teaching conversational survival Mandarin. They promptly responded, offering to send a company representative to my office the following day. When I told Ned about it, he asked to join in on the meeting to see if the classes were right for him as well.

The next afternoon, when I heard a knock at the office door, I jumped up from my desk. “I’ll get it,” I announced to the office in general.

Easing the door open, I called a cheery “Ni hao” into the dimly lit hallway. Then I froze.

“Ni hao,” responded the supermodel standing in the doorway.

I couldn’t stop the thought from entering my mind: If this woman isn’t from New Concept Mandarin, she must be a high-class prostitute. My eyes locked first on her dress, a body-hugging, black-and-white-striped mini that revealed every impeccable curve on her petite form. The shine of her straight, long black hair, which she casually tossed behind one shoulder, mesmerized me; her wide almond-shaped brown eyes, her thin upturned nose, and her closed-lip smile left me in awe.

As I stared at her, I remembered how I had barely brushed my hair that morning; how I had a grease stain on my blouse from lunch; how I had an angry zit on my forehead that was probably doubling in size at that very moment.

“Are you from New Concept Mandarin?” I asked in a squeaky voice.

“Yes,” the vision said confidently, with only a trace of a Chinese accent. “My name is Joanna.” She held out a tiny hand adorned by a French manicure.

Feeling oafish, I extended my sweaty, un-manicured hand and awkwardly shook hers. “Please come in.”

I shuffled to the conference table in the middle of the office, conscious that five pairs of eyes followed our progress. The room suddenly felt too open, too public. I didn’t want all my colleagues—and certainly not my husband—seeing what I saw: this epitome of Chinese beauty in juxtaposition with the ungainly, unkempt Chinese American who actually liked to eat.

I invited Joanna to sit in a black swivel chair. She descended gracefully into the seat and crossed her slender legs. I attempted to imitate her movements, but instead I had to steady myself on the armrests when I nearly missed my seat. Clearing my throat to hide my embarrassment, I asked Ned to join us.

* * *

Readers, I hope you enjoyed that morsel! Want to read more of Dorcas’s story? It’s the second in the book, so you’ll be able to finish it if you download the free sample on Amazon. (The e-book and paperback of Dragonfruit are available at all major online retailers.)

And if you’re curious to find out more about Dorcas Cheng-Tozun and her writing, she can be found at

I look forward to sharing more excerpts from the Dragonfruit anthology over the next few months.

* * *

Thank you so much, Shannon! Displaced Nationers, any comments on what Dorcas had to say in this passage? Have you ever had the experience of having people look at you but not believe you were (or weren’t) speaking their language? I speak of the phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance…which can make one feel very displaced. Tell us about it, or any other responses you’ve had to this excerpt, in the comments!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s announcement of the September Alice Awards.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: Testing one, two, three…Can anybody hear me?

DiaryExpatWriterToday we welcome a brand new columnist, the up-and-coming author Shannon Young. This past summer, Shannon announced she’d cut 18 inches off her hair, quit her day job to become a full-time writer, and given herself a pen name for her new series of adventure novels. And, yes, she is an expat, a kind of love refugee, living in Hong Kong. She has generously agreed to chronicle her writing adventure for us.

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

In this column, I’ll be recording my experiences as a full-time expatriate writer. Officially, this is only a test.

Let’s start with a bit of background: I have been an expat, an American in Hong Kong, for four years and one month. For the past four years, I taught English in a local primary school while harboring a desire to work in book publishing.

Originally, I wanted to be an editor, to find talented writers and help them get their work into the world. I didn’t think I had stories of my own. Then, I moved to Hong Kong. In my new expatriate life, I found stories: personal dramas, bewildering worlds, opportunities for stimulating observations, and even ideas for fiction.

So, I started writing…

I discovered I love the process: mulling over half-formed ideas, stealing character descriptions from people I saw on the street, scribbling outlines on everything, and sitting down in coffee shops for hours at a time to actually do the work.

Four years later, I’ve completed a number of projects composed of bytes and bits of code, of pages and ink, of words and stories. Each project has taught me to look closer at the world around me. Each project has challenged me to be more diligent and to look for opportunities to write something that will matter.

One of those projects, a Kindle single called Pay Off, discusses how my teaching job in Hong Kong enabled me to pay off my large student loans from a US university. I’ve been debt free since December 2013 so have been able look seriously at other occupations.

I want to keep writing…

My teaching contract ended in July 2014. By that time I had accrued some savings, some complete or nearly complete books, and a husband with permanent residency. Instead of continuing to teach, I realized that now was the time to try to make it as a writer.

This is only a test. If I am not bringing in enough money from my writing (or worse, not enjoying the work) around Chinese New Year, I will start looking for a new job.

For now, I’m jumping in with both feet, seeing if this dream is feasible.

Like becoming an expat all over again…

Quitting a day job to write full-time is a lot like moving to a new country. You might know a bit about what to expect and what to pack. You do your homework; you find stories of people who’ve done it successfully, who love their new lives. You also find stories of people who’ve failed, who didn’t gel with the new place for any number of reasons. Most expats fall somewhere in between, learning to live with the difficulties while also enjoying many good moments.

Some people say it isn’t possible to make a living as a writer. They cite the successes and insist such people are outliers: exceptionally good or exceptionally lucky. As with moving to a new country, I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. All I can do is take the leap and see if I can make it work.

But, just as I wouldn’t move to a new country without a suitcase, I am not starting this writing journey with a blank Word document and “Once upon a time…”

I have a strategy!

Here’s what I’m “packing” for my full-time writing life:

1) A portfolio of published works—comprising not just the student debt Kindle single but also the anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit: True Stories of Expat Women in Asia, which I edited for a small Hong Kong publisher. It came out earlier this year.* Neither of these works is a huge moneymaker, but sales can add up slowly. More importantly, these two publications have given me valuable publishing experience.

2) A book deal. My memoir of my first year in Hong Kong, Year of Fire Dragons, is being published by Blacksmith Books, an independent Hong Kong publisher, at the end of October. Hong Kong is a small market and even healthy sales won’t pay my rent, but at least I have a book to launch and a tangible opportunity to build my career.

3) A genre series in the works. This is the essential part of my strategy, the heavy winter coat, if you will, that I’m packing as you never quite know, once you become an expat, where you might end up. (I’m in Hong Kong now, but as I never could have predicted that, shouldn’t I be prepared for the day when I move to, say, Finland?) Since late 2012 I have had the wild pleasure of working on a series of post-apocalyptic adventure novels set at sea called The Seabound Chronicles (under the pen name Jordan Rivet). I’ve planned for a four-book series and written drafts of three of the titles. Book One, Seabound, is currently with the copy editor and should be ready to launch in November. I plan to self-publish this series as e-books and POD paperbacks and, frankly, hope to make some money.

4) Last but not least, reasonable expectations. While I am hopeful that the combination of my publishing experience so far, my existing works, and a highly commercial series will enable me to continue doing what I love, I am also realistic. I don’t expect to get rich. The goal here is to build up an audience—and a long tail of sales—that will eventually enable me to pay my rent and buy the occasional plane ticket home to see my family. But my primary expectation is that I will work hard, produce the best books I can, and try to learn as I go.

“If you want a pearl, you must dive for it.”—Chinese proverb

I realize I’m taking a risk by forgoing a steady income and living on savings in order to give myself more time to write. But taking risks is second nature to expats. We leave behind everything we know, and there are never any guarantees about how things will turn out.

My own jump into expat life occurred when I followed the man I loved to his home country. At the time, I didn’t even know if we would get along when we finally lived in the same country. At first, it looked like everything would fall to pieces because a month after I arrived in Hong Kong my boyfriend’s company sent him to London. I had a year on my own in Asia, fearing that my risk had been in vain.

That story has a happy ending: that boyfriend is now my husband—and I love Hong Kong. It was a risk that paid off, but it could have gone very wrong. Now, I hope the risk I’m taking will turn out at least half as well.

And can I tell you a secret, diary? Since I stopped working and started focusing on writing full time, I’ve been deliriously happy. I love having hours to myself each day to sit down and work on my own creative projects. I love reading about the publishing industry and studying other people’s books and careers. I’m trying hard not to become an obnoxious friend who only talks about their own work because it’s all I think about these days.

Yes, I know this honeymoon period won’t last forever, but at least allow me to say: it’s been wonderful so far!

And yes, I sometimes struggle with prioritizing, but that’s because there are so many things I want to do! But I’m gradually getting used to my new routines and performing triage on my to-do lists. I’m developing the daily habits of a writer. I want to use this period well.

Each month, I’ll share a bit more with you about where this journey is taking me. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Thanks for reading!


Shannon Young

*From now until the end of the year, Shannon will be sharing excerpts from Dragon Fruit. Stay tuned!

* * *

Readers, it’s your turn. What is a risk you’ve taken in order to follow a dream? Was it becoming an expat or something even more daring, like becoming a full-time writer? What are some difficulties you faced along the way? Let me know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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