Friday, February 3, 2012

Ellen Oh Talks the Truth

I was all set to do a food related dare about showing you guys how to cook a Korean meal that was featured in my book, but then this question showed up from Wendy and I really felt that I had to take a stab at it. Her question is:
You guys are obviously all hard workers, dedicated to craft. But there are so many good writers today. Is there one special moment, something you did or an epiphany you had that you can share with us, that stands out to you as the reason for your success in today's market.
I think this is a fabulous question and one that I challenge all of the Thirteeners to answer because I believe you will get a different answer from all of us. But since I'm up right now, I get to answer it first. So is there a special moment or an epiphany that I had that I can attribute my getting a book deal to? Why yes, in fact, for me, there were several moments but there is one that sticks out. My apologies because I'll be a little long winded.

I have many wonderful stories about the wonderful positive encouragement I received from my family and friends. But sometimes, you have to thank the naysayers.

I'd become fascinated with Ancient Asian history after reading a biography on Genghis Khan back in the year 2000. It led to years of obsessive research that led to a kernel of an idea -- an idea that I could write a fantasy novel using a mix of history, mythology and legend. And then it happened. One morning, while stuck in horrible gnarly traffic on the Washington, DC beltway heading to work, the idea blossomed into a story that just came tumbling out of my head. Since traffic was either at a stop or crawling along, I grabbed every single scrap of paper out of my purse and began scribbling the story down of a young prince who is supposed to be the hero of legend, but then it turns out that the hero is really his cousin, who’s a girl. And that was the idea that ultimately turned into Prophecy.

The difficulty was that I had a demanding legal job (and at the time 3 small children) which made finding time to write very challenging. Then there was a major corporate restructuring and all the senior management that I reported to and respected, left my company. The day job was even more demanding, but now not as fulfilling. I was turning more and more to my writing for satisfaction. My husband, who has always been a great support and has always believed in me, said, “Why don’t you quit and give the writing a go?”

Ok, to be honest, it really wasn’t an easy decision for me. I had enjoyed my legal career. I wasn’t sure I was ready to give it up to try something that might never pan out. But I really loved my new book. I believed in it. There were two failed manuscripts in my drawer that would never see the light of day, but I just knew this one was it. That was the epiphany. A feeling of knowing that a book idea you have is good enough to be published, but not knowing if you were good enough to write it. But I knew, no matter what, I had to try.

At the time I had a close work colleague who couldn't understand why I was quitting. In a moment of rash and stupid honesty, and because we were friends, I told him in a very bashful, slightly embarrassed manner, that I was working on a book and my dream was to see it published and maybe make a career out of it. I had never shared this dream with anyone outside of my husband at that point. My friend laughed. Loudly and derisively. And then he said, "Yeah, right. Keep dreaming.” He even made that pftttthhh sound. You know the one you make when you think someone is full of shit? Yep, that one.

It's funny. I've had many more negative comments thrown at me before and after that statement, and yet it is this one derogatory comment, made by a close work colleague, that I can absolutely point to as the turning point. It was at that moment that I decided I would prove him wrong. No matter how long it took, no matter how many books I wrote, no matter how bloodied and broken my hands were (hey that happened, I actually worked on a very tight deadline with a broken hand!) I would prove him wrong. 

This fired me through countless rejections, difficult criticisms, and 75 redrafts of my manuscript. My book underwent more plastic surgery than Joan Rivers. I was merciless because I had something to prove. I tore that manuscript apart to its bare bones and built it back up again so many times and in so many different ways. And yet I never got sick of it. Quite frankly, I don't know if it's because it's that good or because my intense fury would just never die away. Either way, I actually owe my old friend a debt of gratitude. He gave me the kick in the butt I needed to chase after my dream. He made me determined to prove him wrong. He made me so freaking mad!

One day I'll have to give him a call and buy him dinner and tell him "Dude, a long time ago, you were a real asshole to me and I have to thank you for that." He probably doesn't even remember what he said that long ago day, but it changed my life and for that I am grateful.

So here's to all the naysayers in our lives that make us burn with vengeance to prove them wrong. May we all channel that fury into book deals! 

Thanks Wendy for your fabulous question! Since this is my first Truth or Dare, you get to choose a prize - a $13 gift card to Barnes and Nobles or Amazon or a 13 page critique. Thanks again for playing Truth or Dare!
Posted by: Ellen Oh Writer, lawyer, college instructor, donut-slayer, chocolate lover. Addicted to diet coke. Likes to quote extensively from the Princess Bride, Monty Python and Godfather movies. Never leaves home without her iphone, chapstick, a book and her American Express card. Her debut, PROPHECY, comes out in Winter 2013 by HarperCollins Childrens.


  1. Ellen, I love your honesty. So are you going to send him a signed copy of your book, or what?

  2. What an awesome answer! I find myself thinking often about my own naysayers, and I actually give them a lot of credit for kicking me into gear. I once had a writing teacher tell me that there was nothing worthwhile in writing fantasy and science fiction--and he graded me down for writing it. HAH! While I think it's nicer to talk about the positive influences--of which there are always so many--sometimes it's good to admit that there are driving forces stemming from the desire to prove people wrong. ;)

    1. Oh my gosh, that teacher! How cruel! And close-minded. I think you're right though -- sometimes a naysayer gives you that extra drive to prove them wrong :)

    2. I love teachers (have many of them in my family), but you do get one once in a while that makes you wonder...I had one ask me if I grew up in China because my grammar was so incredibly off.

    3. Ugh I can relate to mean teachers. I had some doozies in college. But the worst was when a publishing industry professional asked me if English was my second language based on a freaking typo!!

    4. I had a college professor make a girl in my writing class sob--he told her the same thing, Meagan--that fantasy was full of cliches and completely worthless. After that, I refused to write anything but. For the rest of the class.

  3. 75 revisions? Ugh. Way to stick to your guns.

  4. You rock, Ellen. Way to prove that naysayer wrong.

  5. Love that story, Ellen. And way to prove him wrong. :)

  6. Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting! I know the warm and fuzzy stories are the ones people really want to hear about, but sometimes you gotta just admit the truth and put the spite and the hate out there. It can be cathartic! ;o)

  7. Okay, I'm late, but I loved your story of perseverance, Ellen. :) Naysayers are sometimes that kick in the butt that writers need.

  8. Thank you everyone for your awesome comments! i do think we take our inspiration from whereever we can get it, even if it is negative!